Archive for the ‘The Rev. Dr. Soren Hessler’ Category

Sunday
May 9

‘This I Believe’ Meditations

By Marsh Chapel

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John 15:917

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Sunday
June 17

I Looked Over Jordan

By Marsh Chapel

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2 Kings 2:1-12

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The text for this Sunday’s sermon is unavailable. Please enjoy this service’s Community Announcements and Prayers of the People by the wonderful Reverend Doctor Jennifer Quigley and Reverend Soren Hessler.

Community Announcements

Good morning, and welcome to Marsh Chapel at Boston University. On this Father’s Day, we are glad that you are joining us for a moment of pause, rest, and worship, either here in the nave at 735 Commonwealth Avenue, listening via radio or internet waves at 90.9 WBUR or wbur.org, or later via the podcast. As we strive to be a service in the service of the city – Boston – and a heart in the heart of the city, know that you are welcome here – immigrant, refugee, or 8thgeneration New Englander, black, brown, white, gay, straight, bi, trans, something else, or simply not sure. You are welcome here. Democrat, Republican, Libertarian, Green Party, Independent, you are welcome here. If you are new to Marsh Chapel, we hope you may identify yourself to one of the chapel’s staff after the service so that we can introduce you better to this vibrant and diverse Christian community or add your name and contact info to the red pads at the end of each pew. If listening from afar, check out our website: www.bu.edu/chapel or send us an email at chapel@bu.edu. We are delighted to get you better connected.

While academic year chapel activities remain suspended for the summer, the chapel offices remain open on weekdays and Sunday mornings. We continue to be here for worship at 11am every Sunday and coffee hour following the service. We hope you might join us downstairs following the service today.

Next Sunday, June 24, following the morning worship service, join the Dean and Jan Hill for a Vacation Bible School experience beginning at noon complete with pizza, bible verses, music, and fellowship. For more information, contact chapel@bu.eduor speak with the Dean.

The following Sunday, July 1, the chapel’s annual Independence Day cookout will happen following the morning service. You are welcome to bring a dish to share.

Finally, on a more personal note, I am pleased to share that the Rev. Dr. Jennifer Quigley has accepted a two-year post-doctoral fellowship with the Louisville Institute and will be placed at Drew University Theological School as Assistant Professor of New Testament and Early Christian Studies. Jen and I will be moving to Madison, New Jersey, August 1. I will continue as Associate Director of the Miller Center for Interreligious Learning & Leadership at Hebrew College, working primarily remotely from Madison. We are both grateful for a decade of shared ministry with the community at Marsh Chapel, the last nine of which have been as members of the chapel staff.  We are deeply indebted to the Marsh Chapel community, our colleagues on the staff, and especially the Dean and Jan. This community has formed us and transformed us and will continue to shape who we are and how we serve as we shift into new venues for ministry. Thank you for the warm wishes and glad tidings that were extended before the service today. We anticipate continuing to worship at the chapel through the end of July and hope to greet many of you individually before we move.

A complete list of chapel activities and worship opportunities is available on the chapel website www.bu.edu/chapel where there is also the opportunity for online giving to support the mission and ministry of Marsh Chapel. As the choir continues to lead us in worship and prayerful meditation, please remember it is a gift and a discipline to be a giver.

Prayers of the People

As we come to a time in our service where lift our hearts, our minds, and our spirits to God in prayer, I invite you to find a posture that will help you be in a spirit of prayer, by remaining seated, coming to the communion rail to kneel, or standing as the choir leads us in the call to prayer: lead me Lord.

Loving God, we come before you this morning as your children. Our brother Jesus taught that unless we change and become like little children, we will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Loving God, we ask that we may be transformed by your grace to become more childlike so that we might enter the kingdom of heaven.

Transform our hearts this morning. When our cynicism has gotten the best of us, when we are weighed down by the burdens of this world, when we are too numb to feel, give us the hearts of children who weep when others are weeping, but who find ways to laugh infectiously when no one else can crack a smile. Open us to unbridled joy and delight in simple things and the gratitude of one for whom all of creation can still be new.

Transform our minds this morning. Give us a constant hunger for learning, so that we might commit ourselves to studying scripture. Give us the eagerness for the story, to read the next verse, the next chapter, and the next book, so that we might not prooftext to justify whatever position we might already hold, but so that we might be open to the whole story of your persistent grace and your redeeming love. Give us the humility to learn from our mistakes, to acknowledge when we and our sisters and brothers who have gone before have read poorly and have harmed others with our interpretations of scripture. Give us the persistent curiosity to ask why. Give us a childlike sensitivity to inequality and injustice and let us ask why? Give us the energy to ask why over and over again when we see children harmed and families separated.

And transform our spirits this morning. When we feel deadened to the world around us, enliven us with a childlike sense of wonder. Inspire in us awe at the beauty of creation, from the vast blues of the ocean, to the green of tiny blades of grass, to the shimmer of bird’s wings. Give us a childlike tireless energy for life, and the peace to sleep soundly at the end of each day. And give us the childlike ability to be assured in hope and confident even in unseen things; give us faith.

And on this Father’s day, we pray for all those who are fathers, who serve as father-figures, for those who are single parents. We also pray for those for whom this day is difficult, for those who have lost their fathers, for those who have lost children, for those who are estranged from, have been harmed by, or do not know a father. No matter how we relate to one another as human families, we are grateful for the parental love that you unconditionally offer us, God, and that you allow us to call you by many names so that we might have better relationship with you. And we conclude our prayer this morning by calling on you in one of the names that our brother Jesus taught us.

Our Father…

-The Reverend Doctor Robert Allan Hill, The Reverend Soren Hessler, and The Reverend Doctor Jennifer Quigley

Sunday
January 7

By Water and the Spirit

By Marsh Chapel

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Mark 1:4-11

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Good morning friends,

It is indeed a good morning, even if a particularly cold, sub-zero one here on the banks of the Charles River today. Streets are mostly cleared, the T is running on a normal schedule, and even if the sidewalks are more like tunnels and valleys through snowy mountain peaks, we are slowly returning to going about our normal business. The bombcyclone has passed, the Snow Days are over, and the city has returned to winter normalcy. For many of us in greater Boston, we observed a snow day (or two) this week, a brief moment of pause, an interruption in our normal rhythms, a time to observe, to take stock of where we are, to wonder, and to think. In the liturgical calendar, today is also something of a snow day. Yes, the wise ones have returned to their homes in the east. (Yesterday was Epiphany, that day in our calendar when we remember the adoration of the Christ-child by learned ones from afar, bearing gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.) But as we move into a season of ordinary time, there is also a pause in the calendar (today) to remember Jesus’ baptism that provides us with the opportunity to remember our own baptism and reflect on our relationship with the divine.

Baptisms are often amusing events for a family and a whole church community.  A wily aunt takes guesses from a host of cousins about whether their new baby cousin will squeal when the pastor pours water on her head.  A congregation quietly wonders if the new pastor has the touch to hold a squirmy child and pour water at the same time.  When the pastor’s off-balance attempt to take the baby turns the squirming to a wail, congregants smile and whisper to one another that the young pastor will improve when he has children himself someday.  And for that young pastor, the terror of attempting to hold a squirming infant, recite a prayer, and sprinkle water all at the same time soon gives way to shared smiles with the child’s family when the fantastic juggling act is over.  The sight of a child’s baptism is sure to bring a smile or two, if only for the odd spectacle of the occasion.

Do you remember your baptism?  Do you remember being thrust underwater in an inflatable pool behind Marsh Chapel on a frosty Easter’s Eve?  Maybe you had water sprinkled on your head in the warmth of the church you grew up in?  Perhaps all you remember is water.  But that occasion was about a whole lot more than water.  The place may or may not have been familiar, but certainly the people surrounding you on that special occasion were: a parent, god-parents, an aunt, a grandparent, close friends.

However, for many of us, our memories of baptism are not our own.  We were baptized as infants.  Our parents or other special people in our lives made a commitment to God and to the church to nurture us.  They promised that through their teaching and example in our lives we might be guided to accept God’s grace for ourselves and profess our own faith openly.

Perhaps the words of commitment in baptism are familiar to you as you shared in the joy of the baptism of a loved one.  Your memories of baptism may come from hearing a crying infant alarmed by the surprising sprinkling of water on the forehead or through seeing a partner renew her baptismal vows on the nearly always balmy banks of the Jordan just a few miles north of the Dead Sea.  Perhaps you, yourself, have committed to nurture a child in the church so that by your teaching and example they may be guided to accept God’s grace for themselves and to profess their faith openly.

Or perhaps you are able to recall your own baptism:  You freely elected to accept a special relationship with God and the church universal.  You entered into a covenant.  Your baptism marked not only your commitment to God and to a community but also that community’s commitment of thoughtful support and nurturing care to you. You were submerged fully, in a swimming pool or a lake, and you confidently recited your own baptismal promises for yourself.

Churches come in all shapes and sizes, and they have different ways of doing baptism. Chances are (if you are listening to this sermon) that you will encounter or be joined to a handful or more of Christian communities in your life.  No matter what your experience or expectations about baptism, I know Marsh Chapel to be one of those places of thoughtful support and nurturing care.  While the chapel is a community of support for a university community, we understand ourselves to be in relationship with the wider community and to anyone who is seeking authentic Christian community.  I say this by way of invitation, especially to those listening on the radio or via the internet; we, at Marsh Chapel, are delighted to be in relationship with you. Whether you entered into the sacrament as an infant, a young person, or an adult, baptism binds you to God in love through mutual commitment. We here at Marsh Chapel affirm that relationship and seek to support your spiritual journey. And for those who wish to learn more about the sacrament and further cultivate their relationship with God, we are a community of support and love. If baptism is something you are interested in exploring, please speak with one of our staff after the service today or contact the chapel office by email at chapel@bu.edu or give us a call at 617-353-3560. The next regular opportunity for adult baptism will be at the Easter Vigil service.

In the liturgical calendar, much like the gospel of Mark, we fast forward through Jesus’ childhood, adolescence, young adulthood, and find him standing at the edge of the river Jordan about to begin a season of ministry teaching and healing.

Jesus’ childhood is largely absent from the Gospel accounts.  We know very little about Jesus’ first thirty years of life, and we know even less about the community which supported Jesus during those thirty years.  But we know there were people who surrounded him, shared happy occasions with him, and who grieved with him.  He was formed by a community, Mary, Joseph, and many, many others.  And it was that community of support which helped prepare him to head to the Jordan.  We too need a community of support to prepare us and form us for the journey of life.

In Mark’s account, John the Baptist serves as herald for Jesus, his ministry, and the great gift he offers humanity.  John the Baptist, the wild man living in the desert, wearing animal skin and eating locusts, was proclaiming Good News to all of Israel, inviting them to repentance of sins and foretelling of the gift of God’s real presence with us in the Holy Spirit.  Mark writes of John the Baptist’s description of Jesus: “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals.”  But soon the one about whom John was proclaiming appeared on the river’s edge to greet John and to be baptized.

This powerful prophet, divine healer, the one about whom John had been preaching was coming to John to be baptized.  Jesus did not have any need to repent of anything and be baptized.  Rather, he asked for baptism for the sake of others.  Jesus took part in John’s baptism by water to be united with all people who earnestly seek to be in relationship with God.

In Jesus’ baptism, God acted in a very powerful, very visible way.  Mark tells us that the heavens were torn apart and the Spirit of God descended like a dove and rested on Jesus.  This visible sign of the Spirit’s presence with Jesus in his baptism is part of God’s promise of the Spirit’s presence with us in baptism.  In the sacrament of baptism, we remember Jesus’ own baptism.  We are baptized by water for repentance of sins and baptized by the spirit in covenant relationship with God.  In trust of God’s continued covenant with all baptized persons we baptize in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, acknowledging in the sacrament that the individual being baptized accepts a special relationship with the divine and desires God’s already present grace.  This joins us with Christians all over the world and welcomes us into God’s family; we are not only children of God but we are adopted into a global family of sisters and brothers in Christ. While we may not see the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending in baptism, we know and trust that God is fully present in the sacrament and in the lives of all people. Baptism, like communion, is “an outward sign of inward grace, and a means whereby we receive the same.” God pursues us for relationship relentlessly, and God loves us unceasingly.

John Wesley taught that in baptism a person was cleansed of the guilt of original sin, initiated in to the covenant with God, admitted into the church, made an heir of the divine kingdom, and spiritually born anew.  A lot is going on in the few moments of baptism.  Sometimes we don’t realize the full wonder and mystery of the moment.  Perhaps that has been our own experience of baptism.  Have we felt the full wonder of the miracle of the sacrament?  Have we felt cleansed? Initiated into covenant with God?  Received into the church?  Made an heir of the divine kingdom?  Born anew?

Sometimes as we go through life, we don’t always recognize the gravity and magnitude of the events unfolding around us until after they have happened.  For many, a college graduation may be one of those moments that we didn’t fully comprehend as it unfolded. The Commencement ceremony might rush by in a blur – red robe, black hat, forgettable speeches, and then a 20 foot walk across a stage and a small piece of paper in hand. A small 20 foot walk doesn’t take very long, but it means something, even if we don’t recognize it in the moment.  Receiving a diploma in May but not starting the new job until August 1st might mean we don’t fully appreciate days of sleeping until 10:30 for class until we are up at 5:30 each day to beat the morning commuter rush to arrive on-time to the job we had longed for.

Now baptism is certainly a more deeply transformational experience than a college graduation, but perhaps you are still contemplating its meaning in your life, whether you were baptized last Easter or decades ago as an infant.  Baptism is more than our pledge and dedication to God and to the church; it is our acceptance of God’s grace – the opportunity to be in communion with the divine, to experience forgiveness and reconciliation, to fellowship in and with the Holy Spirit.

Through baptism we come to know the assurance of pardon offered in the gift of Christ’s life.  Here at Marsh we include in the liturgy an assurance of pardon as a reminder of the gift God freely gives and which we accepted in baptism.  Most weeks, you hear a member of the ministry staff share this good news saying: “If we confess our sins, God who is faithful and just will forgive our sins, and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” On Sundays when communion is celebrated we are reminded: “Hear the Good News: Christ died for us while we were yet sinners, that proves God’s love for us.  In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven!”  This is meant to be an ongoing reminder of the gift we receive through Jesus Christ.  Indeed if we earnestly repent and accept God, we are forgiven.

Accepting God’s gift of love is at the heart of our passage from Acts today.  The disciples that Paul encounters in Ephesus had repented of their sins but had not accepted the gift of the Spirit.  Their baptism was incomplete because it was the baptism of repentance of John.  They had not heard the totality of the Good News of Christ’s baptism.  Through it they could join in fellowship with the divine, be born anew, given a fresh start.  And in the sacrament of baptism, we are joined in this fellowship, born anew, and given a fresh start.

During the Christmas season, the hustle and bustle, the traveling, the visiting relatives, the special gift of God to us – that is forgiveness and fellowship – may not have been at the forefront of our minds.  Perhaps we did not think of it at all.   Perhaps in quiet and lonesome moments, we longed for fellowship and did not experience what we had hoped for.  I think that very often when we are journeying through advent in expectation of the celebration of the birth of the infant, we lose sight of the gift that the infant brings.  In Christ’s birth, life, and ministry, God does come to dwell among us to be with us.

So often during the Christmas season we hear about Emanuel – “God with us” – God born into the world as a babe in a stable and laid in a manger.  Indeed, God was made flesh in Jesus and dwelt among us.  And God continues to be with us through the Holy Spirit.  In baptism, we invite God to be with us in a very special way.  We commit ourselves to God and know that God will be with us during all of life’s trials and toils.  We trust that in the Spirit, whose presence we accept in baptism, God will be our constant companion and supporter.  God does not abandon God’s covenant with us, even if we wander from it.  The Spirit remains steadfast, chasing after us as a tireless friend even when we turn away. Today is a moment in the life of the church in which we are invited to be reminded of God’s real presence with us.

In a moment this morning, we will observe an order of reaffirmation of the baptismal covenant. For those who have received baptism and who wish to renew their relationship with God, you will be invited to renew the promises made at your baptism, touch the water, and remember that you are a beloved child of God in covenant relationship with God and the church. As you renew your baptismal vows today, I invite you to recommit yourself to God and to accept the presence of the Spirit in your life anew. Amen.

-The Reverend Soren Hessler, Chapel Associate for Leadership Development

Sunday
February 26

Christian Particularity and Engaging a Pluralistic World

By Marsh Chapel

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Exodus 24:12-18

2 Peter 1:16-21

Psalm 99

Matthew 17: 1-9

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Good morning. It is a wonder and a joy to be part of this community, and I am especially grateful to Dean Hill for the invitation to join you in the pulpit today.

As your bulletin notes, today is the last Sunday after Epiphany – Transfiguration Sunday. It is that time in the Christian year when we recognize the real presence of God incarnate in Jesus. This theological claim grounds our preparation in Lent (which begins on Wednesday) for the celebration of the miracle of Easter and resurrection. My sermon title plays on the claim that is made in Matthew’s description of Jesus on the mountain. Particularity, this theological concept that God’s incarnation happened through Jesus as a particular person at a particular time and place – about two millennia ago in the region near the Sea of Galilee, is front and center in our gospel today.

Christian particularity, what makes us unique and distinct as a religious body, is grounded in this idea that Jesus is God. Within religious communities we often do a pretty good job of telling our own folk why we are unique and special, what makes us different from everybody else, but that does not always lend itself to thoughtfully engaging folks outside of the community.

Thankfully for the preacher, this is a well-trod topic. (Although for the PhD candidate in me, I wonder how I am ever supposed to contribute to a two-millennia-old conversation.) Twenty years ago, Mary Elizabeth Moore, wrote an article for the British Journal of Religious Education titled, “Teaching Christian particularity in a pluralistic world.” In the article she writes, “Christianity itself lives in the tension between formation and freedom, particularity and pluralism, and that tension is represented in Jesus Christ himself. Although Christians vary greatly in what they believe about Jesus and his teaching, a common heritage of Christians is an affirmation of God as revealed in Jesus Christ. This heritage has sometimes been used as a wedge to divide Christians from people of other faiths, drawing upon such biblical texts as ‘No one comes to the Father except through me.’ (John 14:6b, NRSV) … this very heritage can instead be the source of basic impulses to embrace the pluralistic world, and … the heritage can be discovered most fully when we practise education by conversation – seeking to know ourselves and others by engaging with the diverse traditions of Christianity and with the diverse traditions of other religious communities” (BJRE 17:2, pp. 71-72).

After all, isn’t the collegiate experience all about education by conversation? We come to know the other through conversation with the other and also grow to more fully understand ourselves.

I was sitting in the College of General Studies building lobby on Friday afternoon – 70 degrees, sunny, and gorgeous outside. Classes were letting out a little after 2pm, and nearly everyone was headed for a place outside. A young woman sat down at a table near me in the lobby, jean jacket, stylish shades, and venti Very Berry Hibiscus Starbucks refresher in hand. She looked the part of a person ready to enjoy a beautiful early spring day. However, she busied herself on her phone, waiting for something or someone. A few minutes later a young man also looks for a place to sit. He recognizes the young woman, she looks up from her phone, and he walks to her table. “We’re in class together?” He stammers the question. She smiles warmly, “Yeah.” A hand extended, a name offered, he introduces himself. They begin to chat. Eventually she invites him to sit. “Are you rushing? Everybody in class seems to be rushing.” “Um, no,” he replies, clearly hoping that was the right answer. “I didn’t know that was such a big thing here.” “I’m not rushing either,” she says. A sigh of relief. He concedes, “I’m just not into that.” Conversation continues. Eventually she shares that several women in her family went to BU and that it was always part of her awareness applying to schools. She speaks passionately about the institution’s history and commitment to social justice and accessibility for the common working person in Boston. An aunt got a degree while working full-time. She continues that she only applied to schools in New England. He applied to 15 schools across the country, BU and BC – got into both. “Oh, I didn’t apply to BC,” she says. He stops again. Perhaps, he said the wrong thing. But she continues and talks about the character of an institution. She didn’t have anything against BC, BU just represented the kind of institution she wanted to be a part of, a place which values diversity, a place where you can find a place to belong, and a place where anyone can improve their future. “That’s why I’m here.” They continue to chat.

I think to myself, “Wow, she’d make a great campus tour guide.” Their conversation continues, he learns more about BU, and she is at least entertained by his curiosity. Eventually he says, “I don’t think I have your number. We should hang out.” “I’d like that,” she responds as she types some digits in his phone.

Conversation is a constant part of college life. You meet new people. You learn new things; you learn about yourself, and sometimes you make a friend.

When we engage with the unfamiliar or the uncomfortable we learn a little bit more about ourselves. That’s why I left all of the lectionary readings in the liturgy this week. For some, one text or another is uncomfortable, awkward, or jarring. Psalm 99 has an abundance of masculine lordship language, itself at odds with the feminist commitments espoused by many members of the staff and regular folks in the pews, but it is interlaced with profound truths fundamental to the commitments of this community: “lover of justice, you have established equity” and “you were a forgiving God to them.” But that line is immediately followed with “[you are] an avenger of their wrongdoings.” What? Do we worship a God of wrath and judgement? (Plenty of Christians do.) What do we believe and why do we believe it? How do today’s readings trouble your notions of the divine? Is God a devouring fire? Is the Holy Spirit spoken by God? The images from the lessons today all ground the language and ingrained imagery of our tradition. We may find some useful, others not, but they are part of the tradition. Together the texts contribute to our collective Christian particularity and inform your own theological particularity.

Like many Methodists, I learned my theology through song. The sermon hymn today, which Justin Blackwell, our organist and Associate Director of Music, tells me is the most popular of the four or so Transfiguration hymns in the United Methodist Hymnal, frames the uniqueness of Jesus and Jesus’ relationship with God. It also provides a glimpse of what the Western Church has taught about the transfiguration for centuries:

From age to age the tale declares

how with the three disciples there

where Moses and Elijah meet,

the Lord holds converse high and sweet.

The law and prophets there have place,

two chosen witnesses of grace.

These lines from the Sarum Breviary, the variant of the Roman rite commonly used in the Diocese of Salisbury in England from the 11th to 16th centuries, allude to the principle teaching of the early church that this encounter among Moses, Elijah, and Jesus, signals that the Law, the Prophets, and the Gospels ought to be received and read in conversation with one another.

John Mason Neale, the 19th century Anglican priest and hymnwriter best known for his carol “Good King Wenceslas,” translated the disused Use of Salisbury and a number of other Latin, Greek, Russian, and Syrian liturgical texts into English. Much of the ancient liturgy we now sing in English is thanks to Rev. Neale. His translation continues:

With shining face and bright array,

Christ deigns to manifest that day

what glory shall be theirs above

who joy in God with perfect love.

These Sarum lines connect our future Heavenly glory-bodies of which Paul writes in Corinthians with Jesus’ appearance on the mountain. It is in his appearance we see the promise of resurrection.

The last line of the gospel pericope also more clearly reinforces the resurrection connection: “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.” That line is also a truth claim in our Gospel today.

How do we navigate these Christian truth claims in a pluralistic world? Perhaps we scrutinize them in our encounter with the other. In conversation, we bring reason, tradition, and experience to bear on scripture, and we come to own what is good, real, and true in our texts.

Marsh Chapel is a lectionary-based liturgical experience. Week by week, we read through a three-year cycle of scriptural texts. However, the preacher may elect (and the dean often does) to include only a portion of the texts appointed for the day. Usually the lectionary includes a Hebrew Bible lesson, a selection from a New Testament epistle (or Acts), a Psalm (or portion of one), and a Gospel lesson. To explicate four, at best, loosely related, texts in about 20 minutes is a practical challenge. Often the dean’s 22.5 minutes is not even enough time to fully engage with one text let alone four. Your preacher today decided it better to invite you into conversation with each text – although truth be told, today’s lectionary lists two Psalms – Psalm 99 is the alternate text, the less common one – even if a full treatment of each text may escape his ability today.

By engaging with the diverse texts and traditions of Christianity and with the diverse traditions of other religious communities we come to know ourselves.

In 2 Peter 1:21, “First of all you must understand this, that no prophesy of scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, because no prophesy ever came by human will, but men and women moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God,” we are reminded of the campaign of our United Church of Christ friends, “God is still speaking.” Are we listening for the movement of the Spirit and recognizing God’s continuing movement in the world?

This chapel was constructed with the expectation that God was still speaking. A regular worshipper or listener knows the saints whose images adorn the clerestory windows of this sacred space: Abraham, Moses, Elijah, Isaiah, John the Baptist, Peter, Paul, John the Evangelist, Athanasius, Augustine, Francis of Assisi, Martin Luther, John Wesley, Francis Asbury, Abraham Lincoln, and Frances Willard. Yes, Daniel Marsh even believed that God was speaking through a woman! It would take his denomination (my own) almost another two decades to get on board that women could and should have equal place with men in the church. But Frances Willard, like so many heroes is a complicated person, temperance leader, suffragette, and in Marsh’s day, the only woman to have a statue in the Capitol rotunda. However, she also tacitly encouraged racism and bigotry in the temperance and suffrage pamphlets and fliers her organizations produced. At a time when other leaders, women and men, worked for greater racial inclusion, she did very little to further that cause. She prophesied a land of inclusion and equality for women (but was that vision only for white women?). Part of her message was on point, part of it not. How does the reality her life and work square with our verse from 2 Peter today? Our conversation partners help us make sense of our scripture and the tradition we inherit.

Perhaps our particularity, our personal Christian theological particularity, changes over time, educated by conversation.

When I teach United Methodist polity, that is the organization, structure, and law of the denomination (contained in the Book of Discipline), I encounter a number of cradle United Methodist students preparing for a lifetime of (usually) itinerant service to the denomination. Many have been swaddled in the rhythms of church life and denominational jargon, but they often refer to themselves as “Methodist,” not “United Methodist.” When asked, “Why Methodist? Why not United Methodist?” The usual answer goes something like this, “Oh, it sounds so formal. It refers to the official body of the denomination. ‘Methodist’ is more generic, more general, more personal.” I often then ask if they have an affinity for John Wesley, founder of the Methodist movement. Responses are often mixed. “Well, how about Phillip William Otterbein.” “Phillip who?” The name does not usually register unless they are from Ohio or Pennsylvania (or they have taken a United Methodist history class). Phillip William Otterbein, founder of the United Brethren in Christ, lifelong friend of Francis Asbury, the early American Methodist bishop. Otterbein, the German-speaking, university-educated immigrant minister who together with Martin Boehm, a German-speaking farmer-turned-minister, organized religious communities for the German immigrants of Pennsylvania and Ohio in the early 19th century. The same Otterbein, who with Boehm and Asbury, appears in the list of bishops of the United Methodist Church. When the Methodist Church merged with the Evangelical United Brethren Church in 1968, the lists of episcopal leaders merged, and Otterbein and Boehm found a place alongside Asbury, Thomas Coke, Richard Whatcoat, and Jacob Albright as founding episcopal leaders of our denomination. The tiny communities which dot the farmlands of Pennsylvania and Ohio still often have two United Methodist Churches, one historically Methodist Episcopal and one EUB. There are plenty of United Methodists who aren’t Wesleyans, in fact they don’t see themselves as Methodists. They are United Methodists, the product of a merged church, a big tent, where competing theological views are welcome, and where for almost 50 years we have agreed to disagree on many things. I share with students that I describe myself as “United Methodist” because I believe in a big tent church. Yes, I am personally “Methodist” in theology and practice but I have come to value and learn from the conversation partners I find within my own denomination – especially the non-Wesleyan ones.

A good conversation partner is someone with whom you can be honest about your particularity, whether that’s BU, BC, United Methodist, Lutheran, Christian, Jewish, or Muslim.

Last week, I had the responsibility of communicating the morning announcements. I began in the usual fashion, “Good morning and welcome to Marsh Chapel. Whether you join us here in the nave at 735 Commonwealth Avenue by radio airwaves @ 90.9 WBUR or via the podcast, we are glad you are with us for a moment of pause, rest, and worship.” As I continued, I simply made that welcome a bit more specific: “As we strive to be a service in the service of the city – Boston – and a heart in the heart of the city, know that you are welcome here – immigrant, refugee, or 8th generation New Englander, black, brown, white, gay, straight, bi, trans, something else, or simply not sure. You are welcome here. Democrat, Republican, Libertarian, Green Party, Independent, you are welcome here.”

Anyone who listens regularly to the Sunday morning service knows that the Dean has worked over these last several years to cultivate a culture of genuine welcome and hospitality in the Marsh Chapel community. We are a multigenerational, multiethnic, politically and theologically diverse worshipping community, but sometimes we are not always explicit that “a welcome to all” means “all.”

We hope that you find the chapel to be a place where you can be honest about your particularity, find a receptive conversation partner, learn about their particularity, and also reflect on your own. Coffee hour after the service is an excellent opportunity for education by conversation – so is Monday night dinner, Create Space on Tuesdays, Wednesday School of Theology worship here in the nave, and Common Ground Communion on Thursdays out on Marsh Plaza. Find a good conversation partner here at Marsh Chapel, in one of your classes, at the AA meeting, in your candlepin league, or at your yoga class.

How are we to engage a pluralistic world?

Be honest about your own particularity and get an education by conversation about yourself and about the other.

Amen.

-The Reverend Soren Hessler, Chapel Associate for Leadership Development

Sunday
October 11

Praying for and with the Religious Other

By Marsh Chapel

Click here to listen to the full service

Mark 10:17-31

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Good morning.

It is always good to be in this space, and I am especially grateful to Bob Hill for the opportunity to stand in the pulpit today. This fall, as Jen and I continue work on our dissertations, we enter our seventh year on the staff here at Marsh Chapel. In these years, Marsh has been our spiritual home, and the Sunday morning liturgy has been the service grounding the rhythm of our weekly lives.

In October of last year, I accepted a position as the administrator for the Center for Inter-Religious and Communal Leadership Education – CIRCLE – the interreligious initiative of Hebrew College and Andover Newton Theological School which brings together rabbinical students and seminarians along with Muslim community leaders to cultivate authentic relationships across lines of difference and to live into caring for the world together. At its core, CIRCLE facilitates real relationships across religious and theological divides and seeks to transform religious education and religious leadership in the 21st century through this mutual encounter. The basis of the work is both eloquently simple and extraordinarily bold – take students from two neighboring educational institutions; create intentional opportunities for those students to interact, learn, and explore together throughout their studies; and ultimately change the culture of both institutions, and perhaps the trajectory of graduate theological education itself.

My work at Marsh Chapel had already helped me encounter the power in working across intra-religious difference. The Christian staff here over the last several years has included folks from more than a dozen Christian denominations and communities, and in that time I have grown to be a better United Methodist because I have learned about personal piety from Roman Catholic colleagues, the depth and importance of liturgy from my Anglican and Episcopalian friends, and the importance of speaking truth to power from a Southern Baptist minister-to-be.

In 2013, the World Council of Churches General Assembly invited young people from around the globe to gather to think about what formation in religious leadership can and should look like in the 21st century. As we learned the stories of one another, an Arab man living in war-torn Gaza, a Korean woman seeking a voice and place in South Korea, a Kenyan woman struggling to find the means to feed the orphaned children of her neighborhood, we discussed how religious leadership in the new millennium must move beyond cultivating community within one’s own tradition to loving and working across lines of religious difference for the sake of the world’s least and lost, poor and marginalized.

Our gospel passage today contains one of the most difficult passages of the New Testament: “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” As a university chapel community, largely-well-educated, attached to a premier research university, and benefiting from its education and social location, we ought rightly to wrestle with the consequences of these words of Jesus recounted in the Marcan text today. As a recent home-owner, I ponder that verse regularly (and I should); however, its full exegesis on a Sunday morning waits for another day.

My interest this morning is in Mark 10:29-30:

Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life.

We still hear in this passage that following Jesus is hard, and that in following Jesus we give up and lose things along the way, sometimes even family, but the good news of this text is that in following Jesus we find new family. While the church understands itself to be a family, and in baptism we are reminded that we are incorporated into a Christian family that transcends space and time, the new family we find in following the will of God through Jesus is not limited to followers of Jesus. “For God all things are possible:” When we do the work of God, as we seek to love God and neighbor, we encounter new sisters and brothers, mothers and children who are also on that same journey of doing the work of God. In following Jesus, our new family may come to include those whom we would least expect.

As a United Methodist, experience plays an essential role in interpreting and navigating Scripture. Were it not for my work at CIRCLE and the relationships forged there, I would have trouble knowing or sharing the Good News I now hear in Mark 3:32-35 – “A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, ‘Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside asking for you.’ And he replied, ‘Who are my mother and my brothers?’ And looking at those who sat around him, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.’” – and again in today’s text, Mark 10:29-30, we are reminded that through following Jesus we find family not just in the future eschatological promise of resurrection, not just within the four walls of our chapel nave, but in “whoever does the will of God.”

I want to share a story I was introduced to by my colleague Rabbi Or Rose, just a few days after I started my job at CIRCLE. He and Celene Ibrahim, two of CIRCLE’s co-directors, were presenting on a panel about multifaith college chaplaincy at Memorial Church in Harvard Yard as part of the annual meeting of the Association for College and University Religious Affairs. Or related a reflection of Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi – better known as Reb Zalman – about his time at Boston University, and I immediately knew I had a lot to learn about being a good and “trustworthy” Christian from from this Rabbi.

I relate these words from Reb Zalman’s 2012 memoir, My Life in Jewish Renewal [pages 88-92]:

In the spring of 1955, I was finally ready to embark on educational training to become a B’nai B’rith Hillel rabbi. Ever since Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach and I visited Boston University in our first campus outreach for Chabad in the late forties, I had yearned to work in this capacity. It seemed to offer its staff wonderful, creative Jewish opportunities in an intellectual milieu. From Hillel’s national headquarters in Washington, D.C., I learned that my smicha (rabbinic ordination) plus a master’s degree would be my entry ticket for a campus position. So I enrolled in Boston University’s pastoral counseling program. Its starting date lay a few months ahead in September, but I needed to complete several preparatory psychology courses during the summer. If all went well, I might eventually be able to earn my doctorate: that was my dream.

Boston University had an excellent academic reputation, but it certainly wasn’t nearby: it was two hours each way from my home in New Bedford. Leaving that first day at 5 a.m., I arrived with enough time to daven morning prayers as I had planned. But where? At that hour, everything on the Charles River campus was closed, except Marsh Chapel at 735 Commonwealth Avenue…

I went inside expectantly, but the ornate main chapel featured wooden statues of Jesus and the four Evangelists. I didn’t feel comfortable even thinking about davening there, so I headed downstairs to the smaller chapel. A cross was prominently displayed above the pulpit – again, not the place for me. Walking over to a small side room, the Daniel Marsh memorabilia room, I put on my tallit and t’fillin; facing east toward Jerusalem, I recited morning prayers and then I took my breakfast. Right after, at 8 a.m., I went to the first of my classes and drove back in the afternoon to New Bedford to teach Hebrew school.

I repeated this routine for several days, when one morning a middle-aged black man peeked inside the downstairs side room where I was davening. “Is there a reason why you don’t pray in the chapel?” I mumbled something about the symbols. To my surprise, the man warmly replied, “When you come back tomorrow, see if you don’t feel more comfortable,” and smiled enigmatically.

The next day, I entered Marsh Chapel and was quite curious about what I would find. In the downstairs chapel, a large white candle was burning, and the Bible on the lectern was open to Psalm 139:7, which says, “Whither shall I flee from thy Presence?” The large cross was no longer where it was the day before but rested on its side against a wall. Feeling very grateful to the janitor, I did my davening right there. When I finished, I replaced the cross in its regular position and turned the Bible to Psalm 100, the thanksgiving psalm – “Enter His gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise! Give thanks to Him, bless His name!” And so, the downstairs chapel became my prayer place from that morning onward…

Soon it was time for me to plan my spring course schedule. A catalogue course titled “Spiritual Disciplines and Resources” caught my eye. Ever since my teenage years in Antwerp, I had been fascinated by the subject of inner growth and studied it avidly with my Hasidic mentors in Brooklyn. However, this time the instructor would be no Hasidic rabbi but Minister Howard Thurman, dean of Marsh Chapel. Although the topic certainly intrigued me, the catalogue indicated that the course would involve “labs,” experimental class activities.

Deep down in my guts I felt anxious about entrusting my soul to a “Christian” – knowing that they all want to convert Jews. Was he open enough to allow me to learn spiritual disciplines and resources to make me a better Jew? AS a pulpit rabbi for several years, I had learned enough to know that such methods require ample trust to be effective, and to do that I wanted to make sure that Minister Thurman was trustworthy – that is, that he wouldn’t try to convert me to Christianity.

At the time, his name meant nothing to me, though he was already famous as a leading theologian and descent of southern slaves…

After making an appointment through Dean Thurman’s secretary, I appeared at his office and knocked on the door. To my amazement, Minister Thurman was none other than the kindly black man whom I had misperceived as the building’s janitor!

Talking over coffee with the dean, I explained that I really wanted to take his course and learn from his experiential methods. But I also confessed that “I’m not sure if my anchor chains are long enough” to relinquish self-control and allow him (a non-Jew) to guide me spiritually. With a pensive expression, he put down his coffee mug. His graceful hands went back and forth, as though mirroring my dilemma. Finally, Howard Thurman looked right at me and said, “Don’t you trust Ruach Hakodesh [holy spirit]?

To hear a non-Jew speak these Hebrew words so eloquently shattered my composure. As though yanked on an invisible chain, I immediately stood up and hurried out of the dean’s office without offering even a word of thanks or good-bye.

It was a profound challenge: Am I a Jew because God wants me to be Jew, or am I a Jew without reference to God? I agonized over my decision for three weeks, and committing myself to be led by God, I registered for Dean Thurman’s course.

“Spiritual Disciplines and Resources” was a tremendous learning experience for me… Under Howard Thurman’s able tutelage, we experimented with a variety of spiritual techniques, including guided meditation. In one memorable exercise, our class was instructed to translate an experience of one sense into another: for example, we would read a biblical psalm several times and then listen to a beautiful meditative Bach composition – in order to “hear” the psalm’s meaning in the sounds of music. In this way, we refined our senses and became better able to experience the divine around us. Beginning the first lab with the reading of Psalm 139, we reflected on it to Bach’s melody. When afterward Thurman played a recording of Max Bruch’s orchestral composition of the ancient Kol Nidre prayer sung on Yom Kippur, I allowed myself to relax. During the course I visited Thurman frequently during office hours to discuss my practice.

Several years passed, and when one of my sons was close to bar mitzvah, I introduced him to Dean Thurman and asked the minister to bless us both. For an instant he seemed surprised, then wordlessly prayed while placing a hand on our shoulders. This profound experience has stayed with me intensely for over fifty years. Decades later, I was moved to learn that Thurman long remembered this soulful encounter between us. In an unpublished part of his autobiography titled With Head and Heart, he wrote, “I’d never been in a position like that before, where the fact of being in the instrumentality of a blessing was so personal and intimate and exclusive. It was not like saying a blessing with a group at a moment of some sort of celebration, but here was the celebration of a common religious experience and a friendship and an affection that existed between two men, each of whom came from a radically different tradition but had met in that zone in which there is no name or label. And standing there I bowed and I prayed. I do not recall any words that were said, but what I do recall is the intensity of the religious experience in that moment, and the transcendent and yet penetrating look in his face when I opened my eyes and found that he from his kneeling position was looking up in my face.”

Now Thurman’s writings had been a vital part of my seminary experience, and he was even required reading in preparation for my own ordination this past summer, but I realized I didn’t really know Thurman or appreciate what his legacy meant to me or Marsh Chapel until I encountered a rabbi who loved Thurman.

So about a month ago, Bob Hill and I were sitting on a park bench behind the College of Arts and Sciences building chatting about the consequences of taking seriously three significant creeds spoken at the chapel regularly: 1) We believe that the Sunday morning liturgy is the heart and heartbeat of a Christian religious community. 2) We believe that we communicate the core values of our faith through liturgy. 3) We believe that we are called by the gospel to be in authentic community with the religious other. That conversation became the genesis of this morning’s liturgy.

Two years ago, Marsh Chapel took the bold move of hiring the first full-time university chaplain for international students in the country. Through that position my friend, the Rev. Brittany Longsdorf, became the university’s de facto multifaith chaplain, at least for the international student community. Her hire was a one way of living into the chapel’s commitment to “be on a journey with students no matter where they come from or where they are going.” Brittany reacquainted the chapel community with practices of hospitality as we extended a warm hand of welcome to students from a variety of religious traditions at various activities through each week of the academic year. Brittany cultivated communities of intentional interaction across cultural and religious differences, and that work continues.

Celene Ibrahim, one of CIRCLE’s co-directors and the Muslim Chaplain at Tufts University, noted this week with enthusiasm that her job is to get people of different faiths “to bump into each other.” We cannot find new sisters and brothers, parents and children if we don’t really, truly engage them. How do we then “bump into the religious other” on a Sunday morning?

At Marsh Chapel, our theme for the year is prayer. You’ll notice that the title of the sermon today references this theme. How are we to pray for or with the religious other? Experience and Thurman both tell me we cannot pray for and we especially cannot pray with the “other” if we don’t know the other, and in coming to know the other, we may find that they are not really the “other” at all, they are in fact our sister or our brother, or a mother or a daughter on the journey of faith.

Bob Hill is fond of reminding us that Thurman was one hundred years ahead of his time 50 years ago. Thurman didn’t use words to pray with his Jewish brothers, and I am not here to suggest a way to find those words today, but I do want invite you to meaningfully “bump into” a new brother or sister in your life this week and learn something new.

Over the course of our many months working together, I’ve “bumped into” Celene a lot. We share office space both that Andover Newton and at Hebrew College, and I’ve learned she prays, a lot. In fact, she probably prays more each day than I do in a week. I didn’t really know about personal piety until I got to know a Muslim who took her faith seriously.

So, as a way to begin this process of bumping into new brothers and sisters on the journey, I have invited two colleagues to share wisdom from their traditions in the language of their traditions as we close today: Benjamin Barer, the Editorial Director of State of Formation, CIRCLE’s online platform for connecting emerging religious and ethical leaders, and a rabbinical student at Hebrew College reminds us of the wisdom in Psalm 90 today and my colleague Shehla Zakaullah, the coordinator of the CIRCLE residential community and alumna of Boston University, offers a reading from the Quran [Q. 49:10-13].

When we hear a sister share from the Quran’s teaching on family, how do we hear the Gospel lesson from Mark differently? When we hear a Jewish brother meditate on the words of the Psalm in light of the pain and suffering of a faith community over hundreds and thousands of years, how do we hear the words from Mark differently?

Psalm 90 in Hebrew

Quran 49:10-13 in Arabic and then in English:

The believers are siblings; so make peace between your siblings, and revere God, such that you receive mercy. / O you who believe! Let not one people deride another; it may be that they are better than them. Let not women deride other women; it may be that they are better than them.  And do not defame yourselves or insult one another with nicknames; how evil is the iniquitous name after [your] having believed! And whosoever does not repent they are the wrongdoers.  / O you who believe!  Shun much conjecture. Indeed, so conjecture is a sin.  And do not spy upon one another, nor backbite one another. Would any of you desire to eat the flesh of a sibling?  You would abhor it.  And revere God. Truly God is Relenting, Merciful.  /  O humankind! Truly We created you from a male and a female, and We made you peoples and tribes that you may come to know one another.  Surely the most noble of you before God are the most reverent of you.  Truly God is Knowing Aware.[1]

As Christians, we are not alone in seeking new sisters and brothers in faith, nor are we alone in our commitment to caring for the lost and the least. Our reasons for seeking one another out as friends and “new family” in God are different and complex, but a similar call resonates throughout our traditions.

Think about inviting the neighbor who observes dietary restrictions you don’t to dinner sometime soon. Learn why their food practices are important and meaningful to them. Have a real conversation about how to provide genuine hospitality. Come to know one another by learning of each other’s deep love of God, and in the encounter find the family you are promised in the gospel lesson today.

As we experience the beauty of each other’s traditions, may we know one another as sisters and brothers, sibling believers who seek to do the will of God, and as the Psalmist writes:

Let the favour of the Lord our God be upon us,
and prosper for us the work of our hands—
O prosper the work of our hands!

Amen.

[1] Adapted by Celene Ibrahim from The Study Quran: A New Translation and Commentary, to be released by Harper Collins Publishers in November 2015.

 

-The Rev. Soren Hessler, Chapel Associate for Leadership and Development

For more information about Marsh Chapel at Boston University, click here.

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Sunday
November 30

Waiting for Christmas

By Marsh Chapel

Click here to listen to the full service

Luke 2:22-40

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Good morning.

Would you pray with me?

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be pleasing and acceptable to you this day, O provident God, our strength and our redeemer.

Let me first begin by thanking Bob Hill for the opportunity to be with you as your preacher today. If you have read the chapel’s term book, printed this summer, you may know that Dean Hill was scheduled to be preaching today. More on that in a moment.

When talking with people about where I work, I often refer to Marsh Chapel as a “teaching church,” fulfilling that role of providing hands-on training for the next generation of clergy, in much the same way that so many of our local hospitals, as “teaching hospitals” prepare a new generation of medical doctors. At the chapel, we employ undergraduate students in a paid internship as they discern vocation and explore the practices of ministry and leadership. As a contextual education field placement site, the chapel hosts seminarians in their second and third years of study, as they hone the skills necessary for both for local church ministry and for leadership in nonprofit settings and the academy. Finally, the chapel retains a few “emerging” church leaders, each with advanced theological training, as members of the university’s part-time chaplaincy staff, usually charged with the management of one or another of the chapel’s specialized ministries. My wife and I are fortunate enough to be part of this third group. Like several of our Chapel Associate colleagues, we are entering the final stages of the process toward ordination in our respective denominations.

Each of our categories of part-time staff, our Marsh, Ministry, and Chapel Associates, are on a learning journey. Yes, our time here at Marsh is spent in service to the chapel community and the university more broadly, but we are also preparing for other kinds of leadership and service in the world. It is the same work of preparation taking place across the university day by day, week by week in laboratories, classrooms, and lecture halls. Being part of a university community predisposes people to being in a mode of expectation – whether for the completion of a hard-earned degree, the beginning of a new job or new career, or simply the publication of an article. Students, doctoral students especially, are accustomed to waiting a long time, but when the happy, long-expected moment comes, our joy is also the joy of the community around us. Here at Marsh we have celebrated one of those long-expected joys in the ordination to Christian ministry through the United Church of Christ of our friend and colleague Liz Douglass earlier this term.

Over the past several weeks, Jen and I have had the blessed task of completing 17 final requirements to be eligible to interview for ordination in the West Ohio Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church. Among those tasks is the need to preach a sermon based on a set of texts selected by the conference board of ordained ministry. With the Dean’s blessing, I have the honor of standing before you today, working with those texts, in a final examination of sorts.

If, as you heard the scripture lessons this morning, you thought to yourself, these passages don’t sound much like the reading for the first Sunday in advent, you would be right. The prophesy from Isaiah declaring that “God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations” is traditionally read alongside today’s gospel lesson which recounts Jesus’ presentation at the temple and subsequent identification as the Messiah first by Simeon and then by Anna. Depending upon your tradition, these texts are read either on the Feast of the Presentation of Jesus at the Temple, or for most Protestants, on the Sunday following Christmas during certain years of the lectionary cycle. The gospel lesson is most definitely not a traditional advent story; it is one of only a few stories about Jesus’ childhood. This is the same gospel text you will hear again at Marsh Chapel on December 28, when my wife satisfies her conference requirement with a better version of this sermon.

While the Gospel lesson is not traditionally a text for the advent season – it undergirds the contemporary observance of advent as a time of waiting for Christ to enter into the world. Our gospel narrative tells us that Simeon had waited with patience and prepared for Christ’s arrival. Similarly, our story implies that Anna had been waiting, preparing perhaps for decades for Christ’s arrival. What does this period of waiting and preparation look like?

Often in America today we experience the civic holiday of Thanksgiving as the beginning of “the Christmas season,” or at least that is what many retailers would have us experience. A variety of large department stores and other retailers opened on Thanksgiving Day this year to provide opportunity for shoppers to get “great deals” on their Christmas gift lists. For many, Thanksgiving has long been a time to spend with family – giving thanks for the important people in your life and the rich blessings we have. But as the commercialization of the Christmas season expands, those “once-a-year deals” come at a cost – an especially high cost for those at the margins of our economic system. For thousands of hourly employees, many making not more than minimum wage, they have little option but to work on Thanksgiving Day if they hope to keep their jobs.  I enjoyed much of Thursday visiting with my wife’s parents, grandmother, and extended family, but one of my wife’s cousins left the multigenerational family get-together quite early because she works at a retailer which was going to be open Thanksgiving evening all through the night and into the evening on Friday. Do we really live into the season of advent by shopping for deals on Thanksgiving Day? If we are to live into the righteousness foretold in the Isaiah text today, perhaps we, as a nation, ought rethink our practices of preparation for Christmas.

What ought we do to prepare for the celebration of Christ’s incarnation on earth? What does it mean to be waiting for Christmas? Last year, Marsh Chapel, through the leadership of my colleague, Chapel Associate Jessica Chicka, initiated the Sustainable Advent Project – an alternative to the consumerism run rampant during this time of year. You are able to sign up on the chapel website – bu.edu/chapel – for a daily email devotional which includes a sustainable practice you can enact to support the stewardship of God’s creation.

Perhaps you participated in Small Business Saturday yesterday. Yes, the annual event which encourages shoppers to patron small and local businesses is a trademarked shopping event presented by American Express, but the sentiment behind it – that we should be (and can easily be) more economically and ecologically responsible consumers – is a good one. If you haven’t finished your shopping lists yet – and still intend to do so – perhaps you can think about how you can use your dollars to support your local economy and workers at a fair wage while also reducing your carbon footprint.

Rev. Brittany Longsdorf and her husband Carson Dockum celebrate the advent season with an “advent tree.” They commit to writing notes to one another each day and leaving them for one another in numbered envelopes tied to the branches of the Christmas tree set up in the corner of their living room. Jen and I were so inspired by this that we skipped purchasing an advent calendar this year and have a wall of numbered envelopes in our apartment – approximating Brittany and Carson’s tradition. There is no single best way to prepare for Christ’s coming, but how will you walk closer with God as you wait for Christmas this season?

Simeon proclaims Jesus as a light for the world. In this season of waiting, can we also be reflections of Christ’s light in the world?

For many, the period of waiting in advent also coincides with a period of waiting for justice. The tragic shooting death of Michael Brown has rocked the nation.  Public demonstrations, many of which have been participated in by my own students at the School of Theology, are seeking to foster legitimate public discourse about continuing racial inequality in America. “Black Lives Matter” is more than just a hash tag. Yes, it is does appear regularly in my newsfeed, recently affixed to a portrait of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, here on BU’s campus, but it is so much more. It communicates the frustration felt by so many about the contemporary status quo in much of America. One theology student has flown to Missouri multiple times in the last several months to help organize and be part of the awareness-raising efforts there. To hear her speak with such conviction about the importance of using one’s body as a prophetic device is inspiring. Undoubtedly, she is a reflection of Christ’s light in the world. Her path is not an easy one to walk. But there are other things we are all able to do. We can start by having open and honest conversations with our neighbors about the variety of experiences we each have had with police, with employers, with mortgage brokers as we, as a country, seek to walk closer to God on a path toward justice for all. The reality is that I have not had the life experience of so many of my African American and Latino/Latina colleagues, but I need to know their stories if I am to be a helpful companion on the journey for justice.

How do we hear and learn each other’s stories? We need to be involved in the neighborhoods in which we live. My friend and colleague, Rev. Jay Williams, is the lead pastor of historic Union United Methodist Church in Boston’s South End and a doctoral colleague of my wife’s at Harvard Divinity School. Jay is leading Union with intentionality in developing neighborhood partnerships. In recent months, Union has been awarded several significant grants to further its ministry with and among Boston’s poor and at-risk communities. In 2015, the church expects to launch a new feeding ministry with a community partner out of the soon-to-be renovated community kitchen in the historic building. Many of you listening on the radio are part of religious communities with deep ties to your local communities through soup kitchens, free stores, and Freedom Schools. You can celebrate Christ’s incarnation into the world when you participate in these social justice ministries day by day and week by week, really becoming neighbors with those whom you serve and serve among.

A powerful instance of this work of dialogue – itself proclaiming the goodness of God’s love – was captured in a striking image on Friday. A photo, now captioned by several news outlets as “The hug shared around the world,” shows a 12-year-old African American, Devonte Hart, tearfully embracing a white police sergeant, Bret Barnum, at a demonstration in Portland, Oregon on Friday. Devonte was holding a sign reading “Free Hugs” as protestors gathered and milled about with police in Portland. In an act of radical hospitality, Devonte encountered complete strangers in conversation and offered a hug. As others had done, the police officer, Bret Barnum, also engaged Devonte in casual conversation but then, according to the Oregonian Newspaper, “He asked Devonte why he was crying. [Devonte’s] response about his concerns regarding the level of police brutality towards young black kids was met with an unexpected . . . ‘Yes. [A] *sigh* [and] I know. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.’ The officer then asked if he could have one of [Devonte’s] hugs.”[1]

This radical hospitality is practiced each week by students in the group I Embrace You each holding “Free Hugs” placards on the plaza outside Marsh Chapel. Sid Efromovich, an undergraduate classmate of mine, founded the student group a number of years ago while participating in a United Nations youth think tank committed to finding radical, creative solutions for peace. The “Free Hugs” campaign is certainly not exclusive to BU; the simple gesture and conversation which ensues is practiced around the world in a variety of settings, and it has real, tangible results. If you feel drawn to this practice during advent, I Embrace You will give you on-site training to become a hugger yourself.

The act of kindness and finding common ground captured in the photo of Devonte and Bret’s embrace is exactly what Howard Thurman identified as part of the “the path of courageous, creative integrity.”[2] Devonte and Bret both refused to give into “fear, hypocrisy, and hatred,” what Thurman calls, “the three hounds of hell that track the trail of the disinherited.”[3] Together they wait actively for justice and their genuine act of dialogue announces the truth of Christ’s incarnation in this season.

As we seek to grow in righteousness this advent season, to walk the path of courageous, creative integrity with Thurman, may we, as Isaiah writes, not keep silent. May we have the strength of Devonte and Bret to actively wait for Christmas and to proclaim the Good News of the coming of the Messiah through courageous and creative words and deeds. Amen.


[1] See http://www.oregonlive.com/portland/index.ssf/2014/11/post_495.html

[2] Vincent Harding’s forward to Thurman’s Jesus and the Disinherited.

[3] Ibid.

– Rev. Soren Hessler, Chapel Associate for Leadership Development

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Sunday
January 5

Wisdom and the Incarnate

By Marsh Chapel

Click here to hear the full service.

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Good morning. Merry Christmas! Happy New Year!

 

It is always a great honor and privilege to be invited to greet you from this pulpit. Jen and I have been a part of this community at Marsh Chapel for more than five years now, and I am continually delighted and awed by the work and ministry of this place. I am truly grateful to Dean Hill for the opportunity to be with you this morning and for seeing fit to continue both Jen and I on the staff these past several years.

 

Part of the attraction for me to Marsh Chapel over these years has been its truly ecumenical approach to chaplaincy and religious life. Of course we are rooted in the Methodist tradition which gave birth to the university, and both Jen and I, like the dean, are United Methodist clergy, but the ministry staff represents a broad spectrum of denominations and communities: American Baptist, Community of Christ, Episcopal, Lindisfarne, Lutheran, Roman Catholic, Southern Baptist, United Church of Christ, Unitarian Universalist. We each come from different religious communities but we are united in our purpose of journeying with students as they explore faith, grow in knowledge, and commit to service in the greater community. Certainly we don’t always agree on the finer details of theology and doctrine (that’s why we have both wine and grape juice at Communion today and each week it is celebrated here in the nave), but the spirit of ecumenical cooperation for a greater good pervades the work of this place.

 

This intentional ecumenism is made manifest in a variety of ways. This morning, the wine and grape juice are perhaps the most tangible of examples, but every week you will notice that the bulletin welcomes you to an “interdenominational service of worship.” The liturgy itself is a blend of traditions. For example, it is not a United Methodist service, nor is it an Episcopal service, but you will find elements of both traditions in the rhythms of the service. Few other places would you hear the Agnus Dei along side a United Methodist setting of the Great Thanksgiving for Communion. Marsh Chapel is both a religious community and a teaching community. It lifts up the best things that our various traditions have to offer, both in liturgy and music, and offers them in regular service to the university community. Hospitality to all, regardless of faith-tradition, sexual orientation, economic status, physical ability, or political view becomes both an important expression of the ecumenical cooperation of the chapel and a constant reminder of how we are to work together in ministry in support of students (and all people) on life’s journey.

 

Hospitality comes in many forms. For many people, a regular rhythm of worship, including a lesson from the Hebrew Bible and/or a New Testament epistle, a Psalm, and a Gospel lesson makes the liturgy accessible – folks know what to expect from week to week. Well, I might have turned that regular rhythm on its ear this just a bit this morning, but I think I had a good reason to do so. I noticed more than one puzzled face in the nave this morning as we were reading the lessons. Sirach? Wisdom of Solomon? Where is the Psalm? Isn’t today Epiphany? Where is the wise men narrative?

 

For many years, Marsh Chapel has followed the Revised Common Lectionary. It is the standard set of Bible readings used by a vast majority of mainline Protestants here in North America, the UK, and Australia. In the 1980s, representatives from a variety of liturgically-minded denominations gathered to formulate a lectionary, a cycle of readings, based on the three-year lectionary developed by the Second Vatican Council for the Roman Catholic Church. That “Common Lectionary” was revised in 1993, and has since been adopted for use by more than 30 denominations. While its use in local contexts is optional in many of these denominations, as it is in my own United Methodist Church, it is one way in which a local religious community may be united with others around the world each week, reading the same scriptures and reflecting on similar themes. At Marsh Chapel its use is again an expression of our ecumenical spirit.

 

The RCL recognizes today as the Second Sunday after Christmas, a liturgical Sunday, which only exists in the calendar year when Christmas falls on particular days of the week. December 25, 2013, happened to be a Wednesday, so we are in luck in 2014. Last year we had no second Sunday after Christmas! Unique liturgical Sundays which do not always occur in a particular year, like today’s Second Sunday after Christmas, play host to a variety of more obscure, sometimes Apocryphal or deuterocanonical, readings. Often, these readings never enter the Sunday morning liturgy, for one of several reasons. Some churches, especially Protestant communities in which Luther’s canon is exclusively used in worship simply elect never to use the Apocryphal and deuterocanonical texts which are always listed as “alternate” or supplemental readings. Or, as is more often the case, local communities will celebrate holidays which generally fall on a weekday on the nearest Sunday, effectively eliminating liturgical days like today. Most United Methodist Churches designate the first Sunday in January as Epiphany Sunday because there are no regular weekday services.

 

And Epiphany is most certainly important. It heralds the kingship of Christ and recognizes God’s manifestation among us as a human being. On Epiphany, we hear from the Gospel of Matthew of wise men coming from the east asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?” They had come to pay him homage and sought Herod’s guidance in finding the child. Eventually, they found Jesus with Mary and they knelt down and paid him homage, opened their treasure chests and offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. When I was a child I always liked playing the role of one of the kings in the Christmas play, not really because I got to wear a funny outfit and a really cool crown but because those playing the role of the kings often got to reprise the role for a brief reenactment of the visit of the magi on Epiphany Sunday two weeks after Christmas. As eager as I was for the annual reenactment, I must confess that I never really understood the importance of the wise men’s visit, and I also wondered why there were no wise women.

 

Not until seminary did I realize that for centuries, the church recognized those travelers from the East as the first to recognize Jesus’s power and authority on Earth, and the role I had played several times as a child was one of remembering this first recognition by people of God’s presence with us on Earth in human flesh. I didn’t see that in the annual retelling of the Christmas story, and I wonder how many others have missed this too. Maybe we are too focused on whether the 6-year old draped in purple sheets is going to trip on his merry journey to visit the baby Jesus, or maybe the theological consequences of a patriarchal authority structure assumed in the words of the Matthew narrative overshadow the specialness of the recognition of Christ as God with us.

 

Recognizing this theological problem, the editors of Women’s Uncommon Prayers, have imagined an alternative narrative for the magi story entitled “Three Wise Women”:

 

“If there had been three wise women, would the Epiphany story have been different? You bet it would! They would have asked for directions, arrived early, delivered the baby, cleaned the table, cooked the dinner, and brought practical gifts. God bless wise women!”

 

Today’s Scripture lessons from the Wisdom tradition provide an alternate vision and language for God made flesh. Our Gospel lesson recognizes the incarnation of God among us and the power vested in Christ. In this first chapter of John, Christ is named as Word, Light, the one through whom all things came into being, full of grace and truth. John concretizes the abstract in the form of Jesus, God incarnate, Word made flesh. There is a certain fondness for John’s gospel at the Chapel; its poetry enchants us; its mystery envelops us. It echoes the beauty of the wisdom literature of the Hebrew Scriptures and the multitude of ways in which God’s Word is encountered. But discussions of God’s Word and Wisdom are not limited to the wisdom literature.

 

Throughout the Hebrew Scripture, God’s Word is God’s creative, immanent, acting force in the world. In the first chapter of Genesis, God speaks creation into being. “God said, ‘Let there be light.’ And there was light.” “God said, ‘Let the earth bring forth living creatures of every kind: cattle and creeping things and wild animals of the earth of every kind.’ And it was so.” The Psalms praise God’s creative Word: “By the word of the Lord the heavens were made, and all their host by the breath of his mouth” (Psalm 33:6).  Isaiah writes of God’s Word, “For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it” (Isaiah 55:10-11).

 

The Hebrew canon also observes God’s Word as wisdom, especially contained in the sapiential books of Job, the Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, Wisdom of Solomon, and Sirach. The wisdom tradition found in these texts teaches about God and virtue. God’s Word, or wisdom, is often found in the abstract in these texts. In the Song of Songs, we encounter God as lover of our souls, in the discourse of a prince and his bride. In Proverbs, we encounter maxims and admonitions interspersed with metaphor, truth conveyed in the abstract.

 

The reading appointed for today from Sirach is no different. Wisdom itself is personified as a woman dwelling among the Hebrew people and ministering to them, an acknowledgement that God’s Word works through and among the people. The reading from the Wisdom of Solomon again extols the deeds of God’s Wisdom, personified as woman, working through the Hebrew people over time.

 

In John’s gospel we have God’s Word, God’s presence, in each of these many encounters of God retold throughout Scripture bound into the being of Christ: from creation to the crossing of the Red Sea, from a lover’s description of hair like a flock of goats and cheeks like halves of a pomegranate to the proverb that “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.”

 

Wisdom, God’s Wisdom, God’s creating Word is beautiful beyond description. It works outside patriarchal structures, pervades relationships, inspires literature, and is in relationship to us through Jesus Christ. In John’s Gospel, we encounter Christ as the incarnate Word, the Word of Wisdom.

 

We may be more familiar with the theological metaphor that Jesus is Word, but the theological metaphor that God is Wisdom, Sophia, wise-woman is just as scriptural and deeply true.

 

Without incorporating the knowledge of God’s Word and Wisdom found throughout scripture, but especially in the wisdom literature of today’s lectionary reading, Epiphany only announces a king with great power, not also God as patient teacher, passionate friend, and eternal companion. The lectionary brings to the fore the fullness of Scripture. This Second Sunday after Christmas is meant to prepare us to hear the story of the magi. We encounter God’s Word as divine Wisdom. She dwells among us, befriends us, inspires us. That same Word and Wisdom is the Divine born into the world on Christmas day. It is the same Word the magi pay homage to, and it is the same Word we know in relationship with Jesus Christ. It is the same Word wise women such as Renita Weems, Mary Daley, Emilie Towns, Elizabeth Johnson, Sallie McFague, Katie Cannon, Dolores Williams, and Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza have been bringing to us for decades.

 

What does it mean that God’s Word, which has covered the earth like a mist, dwelt in the highest heavens, and been seated in the pillar of cloud, walks among us in Jesus of Nazareth? Yes, in Jesus is awe, power, and glory. But we also know that God’s patient wisdom, passionate fire, and gentle teaching are also who Jesus is. So often Epiphany and the story of the visit of the magi are used to herald Jesus’s kingship and future rule over all things. But perhaps, the magi were also there celebrating God’s Wisdom, God’s creating Word, encountered directly in an individual human being. That same Word which steadied Moses’s hands as the Red Sea parted was now a child, a child worthy of gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

 

We do not often think of God’s Word guiding the Israelites across the Red Sea, far less do we envision a Woman steadying Moses’s hands as the sea begins to part. But our texts today challenge us to encounter God’s Word in Christ in new ways. The visit of the wise men to Jesus was an acknowledgement that something truly extraordinary was happening in the world through Jesus.

 

Today is a communion Sunday for us here at Marsh. We celebrate the Lord’s Supper each first Sunday of the month. We remember Jesus dining with friends, giving thanks over bread and cup, and offering the bread and cup as tangible signs of participation in the new covenant. Just as something truly extraordinary happened in Christ’s incarnation, we recognize something extraordinary happens in the Eucharist. Christ is present in the fellowship of sharing the bread and the cup. God is incarnate in the sacrament.

 

Each time Communion is celebrated at Marsh Chapel anyone who seeks to be in closer relationship with Christ is invited to receive the sacrament, to encounter Christ. Yes, the sacraments are just as mysterious as the best of Hebrew wisdom literature, but just as the abstraction of the literature points to something very real and true, so do the sacraments convey a very real encounter with God. Perhaps today you may not see the hand which steadied Moses over the Red Sea, but perhaps you may feel Christ’s passion to be in relationship with you, just as a lover longs for her mate. God is working in the Sacrament, in ways beyond our Words.

 

The question of just how and where God acts in Communion has become a significant issue in recent months, even being featured in the Wall Street Journal. This summer, I was invited to participate in a consultation convened by The United Methodist Church on the subject of online communion. While no one would limit God’s ability to work in any circumstance, it has been the historic position of the church that communion is an incarnational act occurring in a specific place and time where we invite God to be present with us as a gathered community. The chapel continues to affirm this position and gladly offers to extend the celebration of the sacrament into the homes of those who are unable to participate in the liturgy in the chapel nave this day through the presence of our staff (or our clergy partners) throughout the upcoming week. Should you be listening and desire to receive and cannot attend the chapel service, or your local church, please contact us at chapel@bu.edu or via the various other methods on our website, and we will be sure that the sacrament is made available to you.

 

Much of the Wisdom guiding the conversation regarding the sacrament and the eventual decision by our council of bishops to place a temporary moratorium on all online sacramental practice came from ecumenical partners outside The United Methodist Church. While the ecumenical movement often challenges us to see God and the church in new ways, ecumenical partners can also serve the role of the gentle teacher of Proverbs, admonishing us in our errors.

 

As we celebrate today the Wisdom of God incarnate in Christ and Christ incarnate in communion, I also give thanks for divine Wisdom which pervades the work of ecumenical cooperation.

 

I had the privilege of being present for the 10th Assembly of the World Council of Churches in Busan, Korea, two months ago. God’s Wisdom still pervades the lumbering bureaucratic giant, which is the WCC. No, the Council has not realized equal representation among women and men at the assembly. Neither has it realized a proportionate percentage of Christians from the global South on its Central Committee, but God’s Word is heard and experienced in daily Bible study as church leaders from across the globe gather to share reflections on Scripture from their own traditions. God’s Word is manifest in the gathering of 150 young scholars, clergy and laity, gathered to share Wisdom with one another about the intentional formation of the next generation of church leaders, attune to the increasing need for ecumenical cooperation in living the mission of the church “To find the lost, heal the broken, feed the hungry, release the prisoner, rebuild the nations, and bring peace among peoples.”

 

But ecumenical cooperation really happens at the local level, when we partner with those from other traditions to bring out the best in one another. This morning in Dubuque, Iowa, St. Luke’s Singers from the local United Methodist Church have been invited to reprise Bethlehem’s Child Cantata at First Congregational United Church of Christ. The Wisdom of invitation energizes both communities and fosters further opportunities for cooperation. In this new year, I challenge you to see the Word incarnate in Christ and to search out ways to affirm God’s divine Word moving in your midst. Volunteer in an ecumenical or interfaith homeless initiative, like the Huntington New York Interfaith Homeless Initiative, where churches and synagogues open their doors providing shelter and care for those without a roof in these bitterly cold months. Invite the church down the street to join you for your spring bazaar and make it a “real” neighborhood block party. Or journey with one of the several interns here at Marsh Chapel as they seek ways to build community across denominational lines which can divide us.

 

As we move from this season of Christmas into the new year, may you experience the Word incarnate in Christ, receive Christ in the sacrament today, and participate in the work of God’s Word around you today and everyday. Amen.

 

~Rev. Soren Hessler, Chapel A

Sunday
January 13

By Water and the Spirit

By Marsh Chapel

Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

Click here to hear the full service.

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Good morning.

 

Let me first begin by thanking Bob Hill for the opportunity to be with you today as your preacher.  The dean is away this week, and I pray for traveling mercies as he returns for the first Sunday of the new academic term next week.

 

Today, in Luke’s gospel we hear the story of Jesus’ baptism in the river Jordan by his cousin John, and we are called to remember our own baptism.  Like Jesus, we are baptized by water and the Spirit.  The ordinariness of the water is an outward sign of the extraordinary inward working of God in each of our lives.  In hearing and recalling Christ’s baptism, we recall our own baptism and seek renewed relationship with God.

 

Students, staff, and especially faculty are well aware that this week marks the beginning of the Spring term of the academic calendar here at Boston University.  To all of you, welcome back from break and welcome back to school.  However, you may not be aware that tomorrow also marks the beginning of a new season of the church’s liturgical calendar: “ordinary time.”  Rarely do the rhythms of academic life and liturgical life align, but today we celebrate Jesus’ baptism and with it comes the end of the church’s celebration of the Christmas season.  To those still recovering from Christmas, welcome back to ordinary time.  We celebrated Jesus’ birth less than three weeks ago, and tomorrow the church returns to “ordinary time” to focus on Jesus’ life in ministry.  Reflection on Jesus’ first thirty years is condensed to just three short weeks in the church calendar.  Jesus’ birth, the visitation by the magi, and his baptism as an adult, which we celebrate today, are all part of the Christmas season.  Next week, our weekly lectionary gospel texts return to attestations of the signs and miracles of Jesus’ ministry.  Soon, we will remember Jesus turning water into wine at a wedding feast in Cana at the behest of his mother.  However, this month-long period of remembering the signs of Jesus’ ministry is just a brief interlude before the beginning of Lent on Ash Wednesday, in mid-February, or in academic lingo, mid-terms, followed by an all-too quick lead up to finals.

 

As we transition from the Christmas season into ordinary time, we change our vestments from the white and gold of the Christmas celebration to the more plain, green vestments.  Certainly there is nothing commonplace about the miracles recounted in the gospels, but the church recognizes that there is something especially special about the miracle of Jesus’ baptism, which we mark today.

 

Just as the church keeps the celebratory vestments of the Christmas season out for this Sunday which celebrates Jesus’ baptism, we are called to remember that our own baptism is significant and special.  Sometimes, however, the church does not do a good job of communicating the specialness of the sacrament, the fact that we are baptized by both water and the Spirit.

 

This past week my wife and I had the opportunity to vacation in Puerto Rico, and spent most of the week in Old San Juan.  The walled city is 500 years old, and has a particular affinity for the Epiphany, the visitation of the magi to the young Jesus, perhaps in part because the city was spared an English invasion on that feast day more than 200 years ago.  By January 1st, US retailers remove their Christmas regalia and Christmas music disappears from the airwaves.  The Christmas season is over, as far as the American retailer is concerned.  But in the church calendar it is still Christmastide, and in San Juan, Christmas is still in full swing.  Christmas lights are everywhere, and the Spanish-English radio stations favored by our taxi drivers are still delivering a variety of Christmas music.  Instead of milk and cookies, children leave grass for the pack animals of the magi in hopes of receiving presents from the three kings on Epiphany.  The familiar, bearded Santa Claus who poses for pictures with children is replaced by three bearded men in royal attire.  This Christmas season fervor culminates on the Epiphany last Sunday with an island-wide party; many businesses are closed, and the Monday following is a state holiday.  Yes, it seems that another religious holiday is commercialized in Puerto Rico, but in Puerto Rico, this special emphasis on the Epiphany makes it readily apparent that we, and the church, remain in the spirit of the Christmas feast through this week.  Your tree might have dried out weeks ago and you might have put it out for pick up on December 26, but how can we as the church here in the US mark the fullness of the Christmas season and mark the transition back into ordinary time on this feast of the baptism of our Lord?

 

While my wife reads four languages, Spanish is not one of them.  I took a Spanish course or two, or three, in college, but together we still sometimes had a difficult time navigating a menu or navigating the city.  Nevertheless, we managed to visit each of the historic churches in the old city, all but three are Roman Catholic.  The others are Pentecostal, Presbyterian, and Methodist.  As a United Methodist clergy couple, it was delightful to see the vibrancy of the Iglesia Metodista as the cross and flame greeted us on the side of many churches as we traveled throughout mainland Puerto Rico and the island of Culebra.  In one church in the old city, whose denominational affiliation shall remain nameless, just inside the entrance was a large, stone baptismal font.  Its mouth was over a meter wide, and it was covered in centuries-old elaborate carvings.  But inside, the font was not brimming with water but contained what appeared to be a small brown doggie dish with just a bit of water.  The grandness of the font, which was designed to remind the viewer of the importance of baptism and the presence of the Spirit, was dwarfed by the lowliness and ordinariness of what it contained.  The doggie dish did not call to mind the life-changing nature of baptism.  The majesty of the font seemed to be reduced to a few ordinary drops of water in a very ordinary container.  Now, I am not trying to enter the debate about the amount of water necessary for baptism, sprinkling or full immersion, marble font or backyard swimming pool.  This is simply to say that baptism sometimes seems to be just ordinary, just another part of ordinary time, not a part of the Christmas season.

 

And unfortunately the importance of baptism seems to be lost in many of our churches today.  This last Sunday of the Christmas season ought be a special time to remember the sacrament, an opportunity to reaffirm the vows of our baptism or the opportunity to explore receiving the sacrament for the first time.  Baptism marks a transition in the liturgical season because it is a sacrament which equips us to live our day-to-day, “ordinary” lives as Christians.  Today, I encourage you to renew your commitment to walk with God or to think about making a new commitment to living a renewed life through Jesus.

 

In Jesus’ time, there were many people preaching forgiveness of sins and baptizing people, or at least using water for ritual purification purposes, which is one possible explanation of the practices of the Qumran community.  John, himself an ordinary man, baptized a great number of ordinary, observant Jews, but in Jesus’ own baptism, as our gospel author recounts, something extraordinary happened: “the Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus” and Jesus was recognized as God’s Son.  Jesus’ baptism is about much more than water and welcome into a community of faith; it is about God’s promise of the divine presence in our lives through the Holy Spirit.

 

Now I have been to a great many baptisms in my life and I have yet to see the heavens opened and a dove descend on the individual being baptized, but we, as a Christian community, have faith that in the outward sign of baptism, namely water, we are affirming God’s love for the individual and each and every one of us, and God’s promise to be with us.  John Wesley, the 18th century reformer of the Anglican Church, upon whose teachings the Methodist Church would later be founded, affirmed the Anglican sentiment that baptism, like communion, is “an outward sign of inward grace, and a means whereby we receive the same.”  John Wesley’s theological heritage lives on in countless churches and institutions in America and abroad, including here, Marsh Chapel and Boston University.  We believe that in every baptism, no matter how ordinary it seems, something extraordinary happens.  We may not see it, but we believe that the Holy Spirit is fully present with everyone baptized in the name of Jesus and that in baptism an individual is recognized as a beloved child of God.

 

In baptism, we recognize all three modes of God’s grace.  We need not see a dove descend on an infant whose head is sprinkled with water because we affirm God’s love for us and desire to be in relationship with us even before we recognize God or seek to be in relationship.  This prevenient grace is God’s presence with us, through the Holy Spirit, from our birth to our death.  Baptism itself is a means of justifying grace, a sign of new life in Christ.  It is an expression of our desire to be in relationship with God and God’s continued commitment to be in relationship with us.  Finally, baptism also invites the community of faith in which an individual is baptized to be in intentional relationship with the person as he or she is perfected in faith and perfected in love for God and one another.  Sanctifying grace is God’s transformative gift to us through which we become better people.  Baptism marks an individual’s initiation into a life-long process of sanctification, upheld by the prayers and presence of a community of believers, like this chapter community here at Marsh Chapel.   Baptism equips us for the life of faith.

 

The last several decades have seen a revival of the sacraments and of a sacramental life among Protestants.  Here at Marsh Chapel in recent years, especially under the leadership of Dean Hill, there has been a renewal of devotion to sacramental life as well.  Baptisms have become more regular, and for several years, communion has been offered weekly while academic classes are in session.  Among the opportunities to receive communion is a 7-minute liturgy, Common Ground Communion, on Thursday afternoons at 12:20 on Marsh Plaza, which will resume this coming Thursday.  It offers an opportunity for students to receive the sacrament and tangibly experience the presence of God and God’s grace between afternoon classes.  But the opportunity is not limited to students.  The communion table here at Marsh Chapel is open to all: students, staff, faculty, people unaffiliated with the university, straight and gay, United Methodist, Presbyterian, Christian-curious, and un-churched alike.  The opportunity to experience God’s presence and grace through the sacrament of communion is always available at Marsh Chapel.  Should you wish to receive, and there is not a communion service planned, contact a chaplain or a member of the ministry staff, and we will be more than happy to provide the opportunity to receive the sacrament.

 

Unlike the sacrament of communion, which the church urges us to seek regularly, if not constantly, baptism is a one-time only occurrence.  It marks, as I said, a change in our lives, a commitment to be in relationship with God and a commitment from a faith community to be in relationship with us.  It marks a turning point in our life-journey.  For many this is a conscious decision we make as youths or adults, but for many others, baptism was a commitment made by loved ones that we would be nurtured in the church and guided to accept God’s grace for ourselves.

 

In either case, we are asked to earnestly repent of our sins and seek God’s forgiveness and the forgiveness of our neighbors.  Moreover, in baptism we commit to seek better patterns of life, that we might be closer to God and neighbor.

 

We seek a baptism by water which washes us clean of sins, a baptism by the Holy Spirit in which we commit ourselves to God and recognize God’s relationship with us, and a baptism by the fiery passion of God’s grace which frees us to new life through Jesus Christ.

 

John Wesley taught that in baptism a person was cleansed of the guilt of original sin, initiated in to the covenant with God, admitted into the church, made an heir of the divine kingdom, and spiritually born anew.  A lot is going on in the few moments of baptism.  We receive absolution from sin while also committing ourselves to new relationship with God and neighbor.  Moreover, we only need to do it once.  Certainly we need to reaffirm the relationship with God we recognize in baptism, but that relationship never leaves us.

 

Sometimes we don’t realize the full wonder and mystery of the sacrament.  Sometimes we need the visual cues of the church to help us identify the importance of our actions and the stories of the scripture.  Like the etched-stone, baptismal font I encountered this week in Puerto Rico, sometimes it helps us to have a visual or tactile sign of the mystery of the sacrament.  Sometimes it helps us to identify the specialness of the sacrament and to remember the moment of our baptism to touch water or remember being enveloped in water.  This week, if you are sitting in the nave of Marsh Chapel, you see a large clear bowl filled with water sitting on small wooden table at the front of the nave.  I encourage you during our prayer time following the sermon or during the offertory to come forward and touch the water and remember your baptism.  Or perhaps you are sitting on the cape, sipping your coffee.  Later this afternoon, take a stroll on the beach, and run your hands in the water.   Perhaps you are driving home from your own Sunday morning service: I encourage you to recall the wonder of water, perhaps a beautiful beach or a wondrous waterfall.  I think of La Mina waterfall near El Yunque in Puerto Rico, where my wife and I swam in the cool mountain water as the thirty-foot, strong falls washed over us or Playa Flamenco, a horse-shoe white-sands beach with warm, gentle waves.  Remember a time when you were immersed in the wonder of water and remember that you are similarly wrapped in God’s glory and clothed in the Holy Spirit.

 

We trust that in the Spirit, whose presence we accept in baptism, God will be our constant companion and supporter.  God does not abandon God’s covenant with us, even if we wander from it.  The Spirit remains steadfast, chasing after us as a tireless friend even when we turn away.  The church provides opportunities for us to remember our own special relationship with God.  While I was preparing this sermon this week, my wife quipped in the Dunkin Donuts-desolate land of Old San Juan, that “American runs on Dunkin, and the Church runs on dunkin munchkins.”  Now, of course her remark was a bit tongue-in-cheek, but at the heart of the mission of the church is telling the story of Christ and offering opportunity for women and men of all ages to develop deeper relationship with God.

 

Perhaps you wish to renew that relationship with the God today.  Perhaps you wish to think more about accepting the gift of relationship with God for the first time.  If you have not received the sacrament of baptism and feel moved to closer relationship with God through Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit and seek to experience God’s grace through the sacrament, I encourage you to speak with me or another member of the chapel staff following the service or to call or email the chapel office this week and ask to speak with a member of the ministry staff about receiving the sacrament.

 

For those who have received baptism and who wish to renew their relationship with God, I invite you to renew your baptismal vows now and to come and touch the water during our prayers of the people. I invite you to recommit yourself to God and to accept the presence of the Spirit in your life anew.  If you have a United Methodist Hymnal in front of you, you may wish to turn to page 34 to read the vows of baptism.

 

Brothers and sisters in Christ:

Through the Sacrament of Baptism

We are initiated into Christ’s holy Church.

We are incorporated into God’s mighty acts of salvation

And given new birth through water and the Spirit.

All this is God’s gift, offered to us without price.

 

Through the reaffirmation of our faith

We renew the covenant declared at our baptism,

Acknowledge what God is doing for us,

And affirm our commitment to Christ’s holy Church.

 

On behalf of the whole Church, I ask you:

Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness,

Reject the evil powers of this world,

And repent of your sin?

 

If so, please respond, “I do.”

 

Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you

To resist evil, injustice, and oppression

In whatever forms they present themselves?

 

If so, please respond, “I do.”

 

Do you confess Jesus Christ as your Savior,

Put your whole trust in his grace,

And promise to serve him as your Lord,

In union with the Church which Christ has opened

To people of all ages, nations, and races?

 

If so, please respond, “I do.”

 

According to the grace given to you,

Will you remain a faithful member of Christ’s holy Church

And serve as Christ’s representative in the world?

 

If so, please respond, “I will.”

 

We remember our baptism and are thankful.

 

May the Holy Spirit work within us,

That having been born through water and the Spirit,

We may live as faithful disciples of Jesus Christ

And be assured of God’s love for all people.

Amen.

 

 

~Soren Hessler, Chapel Associate for Leadership Development

Sunday
January 8

By Water and The Spirit

By Marsh Chapel

Click here to hear the full service.
Click here to hear the sermon only.
Mark 1: 4-11

Good morning.

It is a wonderful honor to address you from this pulpit.  I share my sincere thanks to Dean Hill for the opportunity.

Baptisms are often amusing events for a family and a whole church community.  A wily uncle takes guesses from a host of cousins about whether their baby cousin will squeal when the pastor pours water on her head.  A congregation quietly wonders if the new pastor has the touch to hold a squirmy child and pour water at the same time.  When the pastor’s less than motherly touch turns the squirming to a whimper, congregants smile and whisper to one another that the young pastor will improve when he has children himself someday.  And for that young pastor, the terror of attempting to hold a squirming infant, recite a prayer, and sprinkle water all at the same time soon gives way to shared smiles with the child’s family when the fantastic juggling act is over.  The sight of a child’s baptism is sure to bring a smile or two, if only for the odd spectacle of the occasion.

Do you remember your baptism?  Do you remember being thrust underwater in a baptismal font, a community pool, maybe a local river or lake?  Maybe you had water sprinkled on your head?  Perhaps all you remember is water.  But that occasion was about a whole lot more than water.  The place may or may not have been familiar, but certainly the people surrounding you on that special occasion were: a parent, god-parents, an aunt, a grandparent, close friends.

However, for many of us, our memories of baptism are not our own.  We were baptized as infants.  Our parents or other special people in our lives made a commitment to God and to the church to nurture us.  They promised that through their teaching and example in our lives we might be guided to accept God’s grace for ourselves and profess our own faith openly.

Perhaps these words of commitment are familiar to you as you shared in the joy of the baptism of a loved one.  Your memories of baptism may come from hearing a crying infant alarmed by the surprising sprinkling of water on the forehead or through seeing a young person emerge astonished from the water of a family swimming pool.  Perhaps you, yourself, have committed to nurture a child in the church so that by your teaching and example they may be guided to accept God’s grace for themselves and to profess their faith openly.

Or perhaps you are able to recall your own baptism:  You freely elected to accept a special relationship with God and the church universal.  You entered into a covenant.  You assented to a series of questions that sounded something like these:

“Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness,
Reject the evil powers of this world,
And repent of your sin?”

“I do.”

“Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you
To resist evil, injustice, and oppression
In whatever forms they present themselves?”

“I do.”

“Do you confess Jesus Christ as your savior,
Put your whole trust in his grace,
And promise to serve him as your Lord,
In union with the church which Christ has opened
to people of all ages, nations, and races?”

“I do.”

“According to the grace given to you,
Will you remain a faithful member of Christ’s holy Church
And serve as Christ’s representative in the world?”

“I will.”

But you were likely not the only one asked a question by the officiant.  The community gathered around was probably asked a question or two:

“Do you, as Christ’s body, the Church,
Reaffirm both your rejection of sin
And your commitment to Christ?”

And they responded, “We do.”

“Will you nurture one another in the Christian faith and life
And include this person now before you in your care
And surround this person with a community of love and forgiveness?”

And they responded, “We will.”

Your baptism marked not only your commitment to God and to the church community but also that community’s commitment to you.   Churches come in all shapes and sizes, and chances are that you will encounter and be joined to a handful or more in your life.  I know Marsh Chapel to be one of those places.  Marsh Chapel sees itself as a particular community of support for a particular demographic of persons (students) but also offers it support to the wider community and to anyone who is seeking authentic Christian community.  I say this by way of invitation, especially to those listening on the radio or via the internet; we, at Marsh Chapel, are delighted to be in relationship with you by phone or email or in physical presence as the Spirit allows. Whether you entered into the sacrament as an infant, a young person, or an adult, baptism binds you to God in love through mutual commitment.  We here at Marsh Chapel affirm that relationship and seek to support your spiritual journey.  And for those who wish to learn more about the sacrament and a relationship with God, we are a community of support and love.

Baptism is more than a simple dedication of one’s life to God; in baptism God offers the gift of God’s unfailing grace for us to accept.

This first Sunday following the Epiphany has historically been used by the church to reflect upon the great gift of grace we received in Christ’s birth.  The angels of our gospel lessons only two weeks ago have return to their heavenly abode.  The shepherds have returned to the fields to tend their sheep.  The wise men have presented their gifts, mounted their animals and begun the long sojourn back East.  And now the liturgical calendar condenses Jesus’ first thirty years of life into a week.  Jesus’ childhood is largely absent from the Gospel accounts.  In the gospel of Mark, we fast forward through Jesus’ childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood and find him standing at the edge of the river Jordan.

We know very little about Jesus’ first thirty years of life, and we know even less about the community which supported Jesus during those thirty years.  But we know there were people who surrounded him, shared happy occasions with him, and who grieved with him.  He was formed by a community, Mary, Joseph, and many, many others.  And it was that community of support which helped prepare him to head to the Jordan.  We too need a community of support to prepare us and form us for the journey of life.

In Mark’s account, John the Baptist serves as herald for Jesus, his ministry, and the great gift he offers humanity.  John the Baptist, the wild man living in the desert, wearing animal skin and eating locusts, was proclaiming Good News to all of Israel, inviting them to repentance of sins and foretelling of the gift of God’s real presence with us in the Holy Spirit.  Mark writes of John the Baptist’s description of Jesus: “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals.”  But soon the one about whom John was proclaiming appeared on the river’s edge to greet John and to be baptized.

This powerful prophet, divine healer, the one about whom John had been preaching was coming to John to be baptized.  The perfect, most-powerful son of God did not have any need to repent of anything and be baptized.  Rather, he asked for baptism for the sake of others.  Jesus took part in John’s baptism by water to be united with all people who earnestly seek to be in relationship with God.

In Jesus’ baptism, God acted in a very powerful, very visible way.  The heavens were torn apart and the Spirit of God descended like a dove and rested on Jesus.  This visible sign of the Spirit’s presence with Jesus in his baptism is part of God’s promise of the Spirit’s presence with us in baptism.  In the sacrament of baptism, we remember Jesus’ own baptism.  We are baptized by water for repentance of sins and baptized by the spirit in covenant relationship with God.  In trust of God’s continued covenant with all baptized persons we baptize in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, acknowledging in the sacrament that the individual being baptized accepts a special relationship with the divine and desires God’s already present grace.  While we may not see the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending in baptism, we know and trust that God is fully present in the sacrament and in the lives of all people.

John Wesley taught that in baptism a person was cleansed of the guilt of original sin, initiated in to the covenant with God, admitted into the church, made an heir of the divine kingdom, and spiritually born anew.  A lot is going on in the few moments of baptism.  Sometimes we don’t realize the full wonder and mystery of the moment.  Perhaps that has been our own experience of baptism.  Have we felt the full wonder of the miracle of the sacrament?  Have we felt cleansed? Initiated into covenant with God?  Received into the church?  Made heirs of the kingdom?  Born anew?

Sometimes as we go through life, we don’t always recognize the gravity and magnitude of the events unfolding around us until after they have happened.  For many in this nave college graduation might be one of those moments that we didn’t fully comprehend as it unfolded.  A young man received a diploma last May.  But it wasn’t until August 1st and a new job that he fully appreciated days of sleeping until 10:30 for class.

Now baptism is certainly a more deeply transformational experience than a college graduation, but perhaps you are still contemplating its meaning in your life, whether you were baptized last Easter or decades ago as an infant.  Baptism is more than our pledge and dedication to God and to the church, it is our acceptance of God’s grace – the opportunity to be in communion with the divine, to experience forgiveness and reconciliation, to fellowship in and with the Holy Spirit.

Through baptism we come to know the assurance of pardon offered in the gift of Christ’s life.  Here at Marsh we include in the liturgy an assurance of pardon as a reminder of the gift God freely gives and which we accepted in baptism.  Each week, during the service you hear a member of the ministry staff share this good news saying either: “If we confess our sins, God who is faithful and just will forgive our sins, and cleanse us from all unrighteousness” or on Sundays when communion is celebrated we hear: “Hear the Good News: Christ died for us while we were yet sinners, that proves God’s love for us.  In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven!”  This is meant to be an ongoing reminder of the gift we receive through Jesus Christ.  Indeed if we earnestly repent and accept God, we are forgiven.

Accepting God’s gift of love is at the heart of our passage from Acts today.  The disciples that Paul encounters in Ephesus had repented of their sins but had not accepted the gift of the Spirit.  Their baptism was incomplete.  They had not heard the totality of the Good News of Christ’s baptism.  Through it they could join in fellowship with the divine, be born anew, given a fresh start.  And in the sacrament of baptism, we are joined in this fellowship, born anew, and given a fresh start.

During the Christmas season, the hustle and bustle, the traveling, the visiting relatives, the special gift of God to us – that is forgiveness and fellowship – may not have been at the forefront of our minds.  Perhaps we did not think of it at all.   Perhaps in quiet and lonesome moments, we longed for fellowship and did not experience what we had hoped for.  I think that very often when we are journeying through advent in expectation of the celebration of the birth of the infant, we lose sight of the gift that the infant brings.  In Christ’s birth, life, and ministry, God does come to dwell among us to be with us.  Is God’s presence with us the gift we seek during Christmas?  I challenge you that as we begin a new liturgical season and as we begin a new year, that the gift we ought to seek is God’s true and real presence with us.

So often during the Christmas season we hear about Emanuel – “God with us” – God born into the world as a babe in a stable and laid in a manger.  Indeed, God was made flesh in Jesus and dwelt among us.  And God continues to be with us through the Holy Spirit.  In baptism, we invite God to be with us in a very special way.  We commit ourselves to God and know that God will be with us during all of life’s trials and toils.  We trust that in the Spirit, whose presence we accept in baptism, God will be our constant companion and supporter.  God does not abandon God’s covenant with us, even if we wander from it.  The Spirit remains steadfast, chasing after us as a tireless friend even when we turn away.

Perhaps you wish to renew that relationship with the Spirit today.  Perhaps you wish to think more about accepting that gift of relationship with God for the first time.  If you have not received the sacrament of baptism and feel moved to closer relationship with God through Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit and seek to experience God’s grace through the sacrament, I encourage you to speak with me or another member of the chapel staff following the service or to call or email the chapel office this week and ask to speak with a member of the ministry staff about receiving the sacrament.

For those who have received baptism and who wish to renew their relationship with God, I invite you to renew your baptismal vows now, to recommit yourself to God, and to accept the presence of the Spirit in your life anew:

Brothers and sisters in Christ:
Through the Sacrament of Baptism
We are initiated into Christ’s holy Church.
We are incorporated into God’s mighty acts of salvation
And given new birth through water and the Spirit.
All this is God’s gift, offered to us without price.

Through the reaffirmation of our faith
We renew the covenant declared at our baptism,
Acknowledge what God is doing for us,
And affirm our commitment to Christ’s holy Church.

On behalf of the whole Church, I ask you:
Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness,
Reject the evil powers of this world,
And repent of your sin?

If so, please respond, “I do.”

Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you
To resist evil, injustice, and oppression
In whatever forms they present themselves?

If so, please respond, “I do.”

Do you confess Jesus Christ as your Savior,
Put your whole trust in his grace,
And promise to serve him as your Lord,
In union with the Church which Christ has opened
To people of all ages, nations, and races?

If so, please respond, “I do.”

According to the grace given to you,
Will you remain a faithful member of Christ’s holy Church
And serve as Christ’s representative in the world?

If so, please respond, “I will.”

We remember our baptism and are thankful.

May the Holy Spirit work within us,
That having been born through water and the Spirit,
We may live as faithful disciples of Jesus Christ
And be assured of God’s love for all people.
Amen.

~Mr. Soren Hessler
Chapel Associate for Undergraduate Ministry