Archive for the ‘The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill, Dean of Marsh Chapel’ Category

Sunday
November 27

Ready and Steady

By Marsh Chapel

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Matthew 24:36-44

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The gist of today’s gospel is clear enough.  We cannot see or know the future.  We ought to live on the qui vive.  Health there is, to be sure, and succor in a full acceptance and recognition of such a humble epistemology and such a rigorous ethic.  Let us admit to the bone our cloud of unknowing about the days and hours to come.  Let us live every day and every hour of every day as if it were our last.  Song and Scripture, sermon and prayer, they will guide us along this very path come Sunday morning, come this very morning. 

What is less clear is the meaning of the coming of the Son of Man.  What is the nature of this coming?  Who is the person so named?  What difference, existential difference, everlasting difference does any of this make?  What did Jesus actually say here?  On what score did the primitive Christian community remember and rehearse his teaching?  Did Matthew have a dog in this fight?  How has the church, age to age, interpreted the passage?  We shall pose these four questions to verses 36 to 44 in the 24th chapter of the Gospel bearing the name of Matthew, and then apply the verses to ourselves. 

Jesus.  Jesus may have used this phrase, though most judge that it is a later church appellation. It may have been both. This phrase, coming out of Daniel chapter 7 (did Jesus hear this read and hold it in memory?) and the stock Jewish apocalyptic of Jesus’ day, was as much a part of his environment as the sandals on his feet, the donkey which he rode, the Aramaic which he spoke, the Palestinian countryside which he loved, and the end of time which he expected, in the contemporary generation.  Did he understand himself to be that figure?  We cannot see and we cannot say, though I think it unlikely.  That is, Jesus used the phrase, most probably, but not of himself, most probably. It is Mark and the author Enoch who have given us the ‘Son of Man’ in its full sense, and it is Matthew alone among the Gospel writers who uses the ‘coming’ in a technical sense (so Dr. Perrin, IBDS 834, and others).  The soprano voice of Jesus is far lighter in the gospel choruses than we would expect, than we would *think or like. 

Church.  Mark, Luke and Matthew carry forward these standard-end-of-the-world predictions.  Our lectionary clips out the mistaken acclamation of 24: 34, just two verses ahead of our reading, but we should hear it:  Truly I tell you this generation will not pass away until all these things take place.  Like the waiting figures in the Glass Menagerie, the earlier church has hung onto these blown glass elements while awaiting a never returning person, like that telephone operator, ‘who had fallen in love with long distances’.  They preserve the menagerie in fine glass of hopes deferred that maketh the heart sick.  That generation and seventy others have passed away before any of this has taken place.  We do not expect, literally expect, these portents any longer.  Nor should we.  They are part of the apocalyptic language and imagery which was the mother of the New Testament and all Christian theology since, a beloved mother long dead.  The Son of Man was the favorite hope child of that mother.  A long low alto aria this.  Yet we should, and do, hear these apocalyptic passages.  They are a part of our shared, family history. 

Matthew.  To his credit and to our benefit Matthew makes his editorial, redactorial moves, to accommodate what he has taken from Mark 13.  The point of apocalyptic eschatology is ethical persuasion, here and in the sibling synoptic passages.  Watch.  Be ready.  Live with your teeth set. Ready and steady, ready and steady. Let the servants, the leaders of Matthew’s day, be found faithful.   After 37 excoriating verses directed against the Pharisees in chapter 23, white washed tombs which outwardly appear beautiful but within full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness—the hard truth about religion at our worst–and after 43 further verses in chapter 24 of standard end time language, Matthew pulls up.  He stands and delivers his sermon.  You must be ready.  Steady and ready, steady and ready. The figure of the future is coming at an hour you do not expect.  Hail the Matthew tenor. 

Tradition.  Immediately the church scrambled to reinvent and reinterpret.  Basso profundo. One example, found early in the passage, will suffice.  Of that day no one knows, not even the Son.  Except that some texts take out ‘even the Son’, in deference to Jesus’ later and higher Person.  It is, finally, and except for occasional oddball readings, like that of the Montanists in the second century and the fundamentalists in the twenty first, the church’s view that apocalyptic language and imagery convey the future as unknowable and the present as unrepeatable. The future as unknowable and the present as unrepeatable… 

To sum up: As soon, here at Advent 1, the edge of the church’s new year, as we reach out to grasp the future, it has slipped past us, already flying down the road to the rear, into the past.  The present itself is no better, because its portions of past and future are tangled permanently together.  We do have the past, neither dead nor past…or do we?  Memory and memoir spill into each other with the greatest of ease.  One agnostic admitted that music, performed, was his closest approximation of God, the presence of God, the proof of God.  Gabby Gifford showed her history of healing this past week, crowned in music, music that resurrects memory and empowers speech.  Somehow, she persevered.  In week with 6 dead in a Walmart in Virginia, 5 in a gay night club in Colorado, 4 on campus in Idaho, and 3 on a team bus in Virginia, all far more preventable than we have yet found the national will to make them, we think on those so maimed and those so lost.  We need music to carry us, to carry us toward the true and the good and the beautiful.  And to keep us steady and ready, waiting for an opening, a moment when something can be voted, passed, done.  Music can carry our deep memory, including in worship.  The ordered public worship of Almighty God on the Lord’s day is not a matter of indifference.  It carries the models of saving intervening words and soulful intervening notes that may just see us through.  We shall listen in a moment to a beautiful anthem, with rapt attention.  One trusted Christian—it may have been you—sensed grace and grace in the grace of worship, unlike any other. Every moment is a veritable mystery.  Music is a veritable mystery.  So next week, we shall hear:  My body and My blood, these are veritable mysteries, so named mystery, sacramentum, to this day.  How shall we respond? 

Sleepers awake!  There is not an infinite amount of unforeseen future in which to come awake and to become alive!  There does come a time when it is too late, allowing the valence of ‘it’ to be as broad as the ocean and as wide as life.  You do not have forever to invest yourself in deep rivers of Holy Scripture, whatever they may be for you.  It takes time to allow the Holy to make you whole.  Begin.  You do not have forever to seek in the back roads of some tradition, whatever it may be for you, the corresponding hearts and minds which and who will give you back your own-most self.  It takes time to uncover others who have had the same quirky interests and fears you do.  Begin.  You do not have forever to sift and think through what you think about what lasts and matters and counts and works.  Honestly, who could complain about young people seeking careers, jobs, employment, work?  Do so.  But work alone will not make you human, nor allow you to become a real human being.  Life is about vocation and avocation, not merely about employment and unemployment.  You are being sold a bill of goods, here.  Be watchful.  It takes time to self-interpret that deceptively crushing verse, ‘let your light so shine before others’.  Begin.  You do not have forever to experience Presence.  It is presence, spirit, good for which we long, for which, nay for Whom, we are made.  It takes time to find authentic habits of being—what makes the heart sing, the soul pray, the spirit preach.  Your heart, not someone else’s, your soul, not someone else’s, your spirit, not someone else’s.  Begin. 

You must be ready.  For the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect. 

For example.  How do you deal with hurt that comes from a person you deeply love, a relationship you truly enjoy, an institution you firmly affirm, or a friendship you lastingly cherish? Was yours a contentious Thanksgiving feast?  It is one thing to think about pain, permanent or passing, that comes in collision with others whom we do not know well or care for.  These traffic accidents are perhaps to be expected in the rush hours of relational experience.  When we do not know one another, or not well, we can miss cues and generate miscues that those more familiar would avoid. Not knowing you I did not know and would never have expected that you are an avid Yankees fan, and if I had I would never have said what I did, directly, about the Yankees.  Well, I probably wouldn’t have done.  But what about the church you deeply love, when disappointment comes from the pulpit? What about that lifetime friend who says something unpleasant and hurtful?  What about that employer, whom you revere and admire, to whom you give both creativity and loyalty?  What about that community group whose organizational needs you have selflessly met, that then makes a statement or takes a decision that causes you pain? Or, what about the country you love, when its voice, its choice, deeply disappoint?  In short, what happens when those you love hurt you?  How do you deal with that? 

You must be ready.  For the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect. 

Perhaps you will irrupt in the moment, lash out in reaction, without any due process of reflection, because the moment needs it, and you have or feel you have no choice.  Let your yea be yea and your nay be nay.  Be angry, and let not the sun go down on your anger.  This may cause more problems than it solves, of course, but you may have had no choice.   

Or, you may sense that you just want to put some distance between yourself and your source of pain, institutional, relational, or personal.  A little time, a little distance, a little pause, a little absence.   Thence a cooling off, it may be, not a squaring off.  In some measure that may suit you and the challenge.  You did not start it.  You do not need to take responsibility for it.  Shake the dust from your feet.  Let the day’s own trouble be sufficient for the day. (You see how tough it can be even, especially when you know the Bible, to pick out the right Bible verse!)  The trouble is still there, though it may just dissipate on its own.  Not all battles have to be fought.   

Or maybe you want to just listen. You know, like animals do, they just curl up and become a log or a part of the scenery.   Let life go along, and let the conversation play out.  You do not need to oppose.  You do not need to repose.  You can just pose in silence.  You can offer the silent treatment—present but quiet.  This could work, though there is a quality of falsehood about it.  It may depend on just how substantial the fender-bender was, how hurtful the collision, how extreme the traffic accident.   Silence alone has limits to its beneficence.  Still, as the man said, ‘I would rather remain silent and be thought a fool than to open my mouth and remove all doubt’.  Sometimes it is better just to keep your own counsel, and play dead. 

You must be ready.  For the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect. 

On the first Sunday of Advent, you are reminded, you have though at least one other option.  Fight, flight, play dead if need be.  Yet you might also, well, wait.  We are approaching Advent, are we not?  Wait upon the Lord.  That is, you might think through what happened, both putting the best and worst lights upon it.  You might pray about it.  Hold it in prayerful thought.  You might think out a couple of sentences that you would caringly use, should the institution, relationship, or person provide an opening for that.  And then you would have to ‘hurry up and wait’.  Be kind to one another, tender hearted, forgiving one another as God in Christ has forgiven you.  “You know, I have had that interchange in mind since it happened.  Honestly, for whatever reason, it did hurt.  But given the love, joy, happiness, meaning and help you give me over so much time, it is just one brief solar eclipse that comes once a decade, when all else is sunshine. Thanks for mentioning it.” 

Call it an Advent Gospel, an advent admonition:  

You must be ready.  Steady and ready.  For the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect. 

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

Sunday
November 20

The Bach Experience- November 20, 2022

By Marsh Chapel

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Luke 23:33–43

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SAJ: In September, we opened our Bach Experience series with Cantata 147. Along with with Cantata 10, and of course Bach’s magnificent Magnificat setting, the first chapter of Luke has provided centuries of musical creativity and inspiration. The parables of Jesus as recounted in the Gospels are the departure point for many cantatas, but Luke’s voice is prominent in the liturgical schedule of readings for Bach. Of the cantatas Bach wrote in 1723 for the 26 Sundays after Trinity, nearly two-thirds are based on lessons from Luke --  the Sermon on the Mount, Zechariah’s benedictus, the parables of the unjust steward, the good Samaritan, the pharisee and the publican, prophesies of the great tribulation, and Jesus’ raising from the dead the young man from Nain. 

And once more, we interweave the power of Scripture with the glory of music, the word spoken with the word sung. Bach and Luke meet today in Cantata 70 Wachet Betet Betet Wachet, as Jesus foretells the second coming. Before Bach, help us regard St Luke. His voice has guided our Sunday by Sunday experience this past year. On this final Sunday of the liturgical calendar, Dean Hill, help us look forward by looking back to a year wherein we have heard the voice of St. Luke, Sunday by Sunday?  

RAH:  Yes, Dr. Jarrett, we indeed have spent the year with St. Luke, and conclude our conversation with him this morning.  There are some outstanding features of the Lukan biblical theology, which we may simply name as we set sail for other shores. On this Sunday which honors the reign of Christ, especially, this is most fitting. First, Luke displays a commitment to and interest in history, and orderly history at that.  Both Luke and Acts are cast in a distinctive historical mode. In fact, Luke has his own schemata for sacred history, in three parts: Israel, Jesus, Church: the time of Israel, concluding with John the Baptist; the time of Jesus, concluding with the Ascension; the time of the church, concluding with the parousia, the coming of the Lord on the clouds of heaven, at the end of time.  Second, Luke employs and deploys his own theology, or theological perspective, including this emphasis upon history and the divine purpose in history.   Third, Luke highlights the humanity and compassion of Jesus in a remarkable way. The Christ of St. Luke is the Christ of magnificent compassion, embodied in the humility of a birth among shepherds.  The poor, women, the stranger, the injured, those in dire need all stand out in Luke, as the recipients and subjects of Jesus’ love, mercy, grace and compassion. Fourth, Luke carries an abiding interest in the church.   History, theology, compassion, and church are hallmarks of Lukan biblical theology, and signs of the reign of Christ, and emphasize the promise of what God has done, in the indicative mood, over what we can do, in the imperative mood. 

SAJ: Indicative and imperative. Pluperfect. Subjunctive. Declension, conjugation. I can almost smell a pencil sharpener nearby, and I bet if we’d diagram a sentence or two, we might even recall the smell of the mimeograph machine!   

But back to our grammarly moods – indicative and imperative – In the eleven movements of today’s cantata, I count 23 imperative verbs: Rejoice greatly, Celebrate with the Angels, Triumph eternally, Lift up your heads, Be of good cherr, Tremble, o sinner, Sound the last trumpet!, Flourish in Eden. Serve God eternally. Lead me to the gates of heaven. Lead me to promised rest, lead me to everlasting joy. Cantata 70’s title has is entirely imperative verbs – Wachet betet betet wachet. Watch pray, pray watch.  

Bach and his librettist are creating a musical sermon, a theology of which is likely downstream of the great Lutheran preachers and teachers, all of whom are downstream of Luther himself, continuing all the way to the Ursprung – the evangelist’s record of the life and teaching of Christ.  

Is this river cruise similar to a pure science flowing downstream to its related applied disciplines? Philosophical or practical? Ideal or pragmatic? Visionary or realistic? 

RAH:  Just so, Dr Jarrett.  That is, indicative precedes imperative.  Indicative precedes imperative, in history, theology, compassion and church. The gospel is about what God has done, first, not about what we might do, a distant second, if that.  JS Bach, a good Lutheran, would heartily agree.  What God has done outlasts, outshines, overshadows, outranks, outdoes what we might do, or not.  That is what makes the gospel good news, rather than just news. What God has done! And let us hold most closely the divine compassion in Luke.  At every turn, there is a return to the least, the last, the lost; those at the dawn of life, those at the twilight of life, those in the shadows of life.  

Further, Dr. Jarrett, over 16 years we have endeavored to render the good news in a bi-lingual manner, on these Bach Sundays, Scripture and Cantata together, juntos, conjoined.  For those of us today, especially, who are listening from afar, who hear but do not see, what are two of the themes of this particular Cantata to which we should caringly attend, in the dialogue of the soulful song and sacred page? That is, first, what in the music should most listen for?   

 SAJ: Today’s images are exciting and dramatic, and Bach manages to cover all the ways in which one can be excited and dramatic. The second coming, in many ways, represents the ultimate test of faith. If we acknowledge that faith is that fuzzy intersection of doubt and certainty, here, the believer (also a sinner) is at once terrified of the day of judgement, then finds a deep breath an enough confidence to sustain their faith a longer. Repeatedly, at macro- and micro-levels, Bach meets us in a crisis of faith, neutralizes our fear through Christ’s love, giving the needed strength and confidence to match Christ loving embrace for eternal pardon and peace. The arias take this tri-partite journey individually and cumulatively.  

 Two extraordinary moments from the baritone bring us to the edge, a terrifying foretaste of the final destruction of heaven and earth. But the second instance might just model how each of us could meet that moment when it comes.  

RAH: And then, second, what in the word, in the words sung, is most telling for us this morning, listening to Bach?  

SAJ:  The signal of the last day, the day of judgement is the trumpet. “Behold I tell you a mystery, we shall be changed in a moment in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. Bach features the trumpet throughout the cantata, in chorale tunes and in the triumphant arpeggio that is the motto heard in the first measure of the piece. Geoff Shamu is out trumpeter today – Geoff will you play the motto for us??  

SAJ: So, Dean Hill, in conclusion this morning, how shall we think about what he have heard, and shall hear? 

RAH:  Well, it may be, Dr. Jarrett, that our living of these days, and our life in Christ this day, carry both a dimension of practice and promise.  

In practice, our envisioned mission of Marsh Chapel is be a heart in the heart of the city, and a service in the service of the city.  Our use of President Merlin’s epigram means city as the global city, and service as worship and work.   Our foci guiding this envisioned mission are voice, vocation, and volume.  One aspect of this today is the work of sermon and cantata. 

Twice a term, you engage our collegium, choir, community and listenership in a full morning of teaching about JS Bach, and enjoyment of a Bach Cantata in worship.  This Bach Experience, lecture, gathering, brunch, worship, and sermon, are novel and experimental advancements, in learning and performance, a part of our practice of faith. 

SAJ:  And regarding promise? 

In promise, we turn to Holy Scripture. Our conclusion in the reading of St. Luke comes today with Jesus upon the cross.  Every benediction in ending for a service of worship, including this morning, carries a sense of an ending at hand.  Our own mortality, our own full physical limitation, our own death, at some unforeseen point, is both shadowed and overshadowed, just here in Luke 23, just now on Calvary.  Perhaps more than anything else, our own mortality, our limited humanity, dust art thou and to dust thou shalt return, call us to faith, and awakens us to faith.  Our Christ and his final consort address us, with a promise, a promise that in life and in death and in life beyond death, God is with us, we are not alone, thanks be to God.  Jesus even promises paradise in that hour, in that liminal moment.  The reign of Christ, somehow, says our Gospel, and somehow, sings our Cantata, continues and conquers, though how and how so who can say?  It may be that the single purpose of Sunday worship, every seventh day, every Lord’s Day, is a clinging to the ringing of this dominical promise, our own everlasting hope.  The Lukan Jesus has the last word, and offers that word a lasting promise, a last word in lasting promise…today you will be with me in paradise. 

We are given and receive in faith the divine promise: He keeps them in His hands, and places them in a heavenly Eden.  May it be so! 

RAH: We are given and receive in faith the divine promise: You shall flourish in Eden, serving God eternally. May it be so! 

-Dr. Scott Allen Jarrett, Director of Music

 

Sunday
November 6

A Communion Meditation for All Saints

By Marsh Chapel

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Luke 6:20-31

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My goodness, you certainly have come to know some colorful characters, some new friends, this autumn.  

One of these folks said to Jesus, ‘I will follow you wherever you go’.  But Jesus warned him, ‘foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head’.  I wonder whether he followed or not, don’t you? 

Then there was the man going down from Jerusalem to Jericho.  He fell among robbers who stripped him and beat him and left him half-dead.  You remember that neither the priest nor the Levite stopped to help, but a foreigner, a Samaritan did, and brought him to an inn and paid for his expenses.  I wonder whether they became friends, wounded and healer, don’t you? 

Martha and Mary, worker and prayer, both, met you as they meet their Lord, in the pages of Holy Writ.  One thing is needful they learned.  I wonder whether that one thing is faith, don’t you? 

Then there was that woman who had been sick for 18 years, whom Jesus healed—on the sabbath—with a flick of the wrist.  I wish we had heard more about her, don’t you? 

Remember later that man who had two sons, and one went off to a foreign land and failed?  He came back having to climb the hill of defeat and seek help again, where ‘when you have to go there they have to take you in’, that is--home.  A best robe, a ring on his finger, a calf killed and cooked, and an older brother stewing out in the field.  Did they ever reconcile, don’t you wonder whether they did? 

And that fellow, that dishonest steward, he was a character for sure.  Yet he had something we can use too, a way to manage risk, a capacity not only to generalize and not only to specialize but also—to improvise.  How did he come up with that, I wonder? 

Then you met up with a rich man dressed in purple whose name was hidden, a poor man with sores and hunger, who had the name Lazarus.  There was a misty haze of judgment in the air, wasn’t there?  There was a recognition that there does come a time when it is too late, wasn’t there? 

Later you came into another place and found a persistent woman battling with an unjust Judge, who feared neither God nor man.  She wore him out, wore him out, with a blessed endurance.  Where did that long suffering come from, don’t you wonder? 

Or that tax collector, who said only one thing, and all around him could hear his cry, ‘God…be merciful to me, a sinner!’  A spirited kind of humility he had did he not? 

Then there is the wee little man sitting in the Sycamore tree—you remember him, I know, from just a few days ago.  He came down a notch or two.  What was that all about, don’t you wonder? 

My goodness, you certainly have come to know some colorful characters, some new friends, this autumn and this year.  You have Luke to thank.  Luke has assembled this chorus of life-long friends for you and me.   

Dime con quien andas, y te dire quien eres, say the Spaniards:  tell me with whom you walk, and I will tell you who you are.  The saints of God include all of the church visible and invisible.  But then there are those close saints who have formed you.  Luke in his remembrance of Jesus teaching has given us these.  What a gift.  A particular, personal gift.  Your summer preachers brought others of these home to you last July and August.  Read through some of those homilies again when you have a chance.  I am so thankful for the new Lukan friends you have made together this autumn.  They are saints of God, Scriptural saints of God. 

What would your new Lukan friends say to you, to interpret these beatitudes?  

Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.  

Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. 

 Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. 

 Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man.  

Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven. 

 For that is what their ancestors did to the prophets. 

 

Would they say to all, would they say a single word like, well, VOTE!! 

Would they say to all, a challenging word whether you have thought about what you did and sought a kind of contrition, compunction, lament for what those choices in retrospect have come to mean.  What you meant is not what it has come to mean, is it?  What you meant is not what it means. 

Would they say to all to watch for the failures and errors of our own perspective, like false equivalences, like the churchly willingness to supplant the great with the good, like the foolishness of some slogans? 

Would they say to all, what on earth are leaving on earth in respect of a healthy hopeful country, a healthy hopeful democracy, for your grandchildren? 

Vote, lament, critique, hope.  Seek the good.  What was good yesterday is good today, by the main. 

That is one of the hard things about making new friends.  They draw you out in new ways, which is truly wonderful but can be challenging.  Let them teach you, speak to you, converse, converse, converse with you. 

Luke teaches us by example, does he not?   

He is showing us, in his own biblical way, that we have every right and much reason to canonize our own guiding lights, our own formative figures, our own saints, come All Saints Sunday. 

So, let me ask you:  Who is the patron Saint of your life?  Who are the saints of God whom you would like to emulate, to be one too?  We have patron saints of entire countries, patron saints of schools and movements, patron saints of days and holidays.  Perhaps we should begin to add the patron saints of the faithful, of you and your neighbor and your sister and your brother.  What saints led the way, for you? 

In a jarring, jolting way, this question settled in during the past week.  A preacher of renown, of the first water, a little older but not much, who hallowed the halls of Union Theological Seminary in the 1970’s and then the crowded streets of New York City for the next fifty years as the Senior Minister of Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem—the pulpit of Adam Clayton Powell junior and senior before—died at age 73.  His voice carries still, carries us forward, one of the great, leading African American preachers and teachers of our era, the Rev. Dr. Calvin Butts.  He was also, at the same time, for decades, the President of a NYC College, SUNY College of Old Westbury on Long Island.  That is, he was an academic preacher, a University pastor, a person committed to unite the pair so long disjoined, knowledge and vital piety.  Our fellow classmate sent an early morning email to let me know.  He showed many of us the way, the way of University ministry.  In mourning Dr. Butts, and then in thinking about All Saints Sunday, an avalanche of a world of memory, and maybe even understanding cascaded down. 

You are sitting alongside one of the historic, leading University pulpits anywhere, with six deans since its dedication in 1950.  How does one end up here?  Saints preserve us and prepare us, who toiled and fought and lived and died the whole of their good lives long.  You see it if you see it at all in hindsight, over long time.  By age 6, the Sunday morning preacher at Colgate University—Adam Clayton Powell’s alma mater—the gruff and growling Robert V. Smith was a known shadow presence in our Hamilton NY home.  He hosted Julian Bond, a young African American vice-presidential candidate in 1968, to preach in the Colgate pulpit, where many of us heard him for the first time.  By age 16, the Sunday morning preacher at Hendricks Chapel in Syracuse NY, the Rev. Dr. John Knight, who brought the first Mosque to SU and the city itself, was known shadow presence in our Syracuse home.  By age 21, the weekly preacher at Gray Chapel, Ohio Wesleyan University, the Rev. Dr. James Leslie, whose own father taught my father Old Testament here at BU, was a campus presence, and when asked where one should go to Seminary, replied in a quiet wise voice, ‘Yale, Union, or BU’.  The long time anti-war preacher on Sunday mornings from Bechtel Chapel at Yale, the Rev. William Sloane Coffin, shepherded us from the high pulpit of Riverside Church in the heart of the Columbia University campus through age 25.  His successor, an academic preacher with a Pentecostal flair, and our own homiletics professor, the Rev. Dr. James A. Forbes, guided us by precept and example from afar for 20 years.  Rev. Dr. N. T Wright filled the Henry Birks Chapel at McGill University over many years, including the 10—yes 10!—years, to age 45, of our doctoral study there.  Peter Gomes and Will Willimon, Harvard and Duke, drew us on, close competitors and rivals to the voice of Marsh Chapel, before and during our time here, who gave choral echo, retort and compliment to the deans of this Chapel, Franklin Littell, Howard Thurman, Robert Hamill, Robert Thornburg, Robert Neville, and Robert Hill.  Rev. Barbara Brown Taylor left church—see her book of that title—for the campus nearby, preaching all the while and everywhere and all the time.  Who could see, whether at Colgate in 1968, or coming to Marsh Chapel in 2006, who could see the weaving and interweaving of all these voices, Calvin Butts included, what somehow subliminally, in holy, ghostly way, prepared the way for the present work, the current and ongoing work, in his pulpit?  

In chorus, on this first Sunday of November, they would say especially to young adults, present this morning and listening, a single word:  Vote.  Lament. Critique. Hope. 

But two saints unnamed yet, a father and father in law, Irving Hill and Robert Pennock, who both and equally both loved both the church and the college, and showed it and lived it, along with but more personally than the others, could nudge and affirm and smile to say, when the chips were down, ‘yes, a University pulpit, the pulpit of Marsh Chapel would be a great place for ministry’.  You see?  We don’t see until we see in retrospect.  So all that was going on, wrote Thornton Wilder in Our Town, and we hardly noticed. 

Asked Carlyle Marney, ‘who told you who you was?’  When the chips were down?Who are the patron saints not of Ireland or Scotland or Boston or Boston University, but the patron saints of your life, your living, your calling, your vocation, your self, your soul, your very soul?  The pattern may not yet have formed for you, or may not have been visible, until this very hour.  

Luke had his.  We have ours.  You have yours.  Sing a song today, a song of the saints of God! 

For all the saints, who from their labors rest 

Who Thee by faith before the world confessed 

Thy name O Jesus be forever blessed! 

Alleluia!  Alleluia! 

 

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

Sunday
October 30

Climbing Down

By Marsh Chapel

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Luke 19:1–10

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It is hard for me to tell, from this angle, which tree you are in.  Given the troubles of this autumn, it is hard for me to tell which tree I am in myself, day to day.  Has life chased you up the tree of doubt?  Or are you treed in the branches of idolatry—idol-a-tree? Or are we shaking or shaking in the money tree? Or stuck without faith in the religion tree?   Jesus calls us today, to come down out of the tree forts of our own making, and accept a loving relationship with Him.  May we measure all with a measure of love.

 Perhaps the presence of unexplained wrong provokes you to doubt the benevolence in life or the goodness in God.   To doubt that ‘God is at work in the world to make and to keep human life human’ (John Bennett).  Randomness may have treed you.  And that is a natural, real thing. 

For no one can explain why terrible things happen, as they do.  But if we will come down a limb or two from our philosophical tree of doubt, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, we may hear faith.  God can bring good out of evil, and make bad things work to good. This is not a theological declamation, and certainly not a paean to providence.  It is just something we can notice together, as throughout the Scripture does. 

Joseph was thrown into a pit, and sold into slavery.  He had to find his way, as a Jew, in the service of the mighty Pharaoh.  He did so with skill, and rose to a position of influence, even with Potiphar’s wife chasing him around in his underwear.   Then, a full generation later, a great famine came upon those brothers who had earlier sold Joseph down the river.  They went to Pharaoh, looking for food.  And who met them, as they came to plead?  There was Joseph.  He so memorably said, as written in Genesis 50: “You meant this for evil, but God meant it for good, that many might be saved.”  Sometimes it happens that a bad thing in one generation prevents starvation in the next. 

So, in Jericho, as Jesus found the wee little man sitting in the Sycamore tree, his fellows grumbled (vs. 8).  Why would he take time with such a greedy, selfish person who makes his living off the sweat of others’ brows?  We miss the power of the parable if we do not see this.  This is Jesus taking up with those who have wished others ill, who have used the church for their own very well intended but nonetheless self-centered reasons.  This is Jesus consorting with sinners.  But sometimes a bad thing in the little brings a good thing in the large.  Zacchaeus changes, and in so doing provides great wealth for others’ benefit. 

Come down from this one tree, doubting Zacchaeus.  We know that bad things happen to good people, that not all rain falls on someone else’s lawn. Sometimes, though, sometimes—not always, just sometimes--a bad thing early averts a really bad thing late.  I have seen it, and you have too.  It is enough to give someone up the doubting tree a reason to come down at least a branch.  Think of it as existential vaccination.  Think of it as masking, a masking that protects, that causes hiding and sight both, but that may in the long run bring healing. 

It is the labor of faith to trust that where sin abounds, grace over-abounds.  Even in this autumn of acute anxiety and depression. But one of the redeeming possibilities in this season of cultural turmoil is the chance that as a result, enough of us, now, will become enough committed to the realization of a just, participatory and sustainable world, that these darker days will move us toward a fuller light. Our troubles may just catalyze some of us to get religion, to get disciplined about living toward a common hope, as we said in the sermon October 16. Sometimes a bad thing in one part of history protects us from a worse thing in another part.          

Let us not lose sight of the horizons of biblical hope, as improbable as they can seem.  The lion and the lamb.  No crying or thirst.  The crooked straight.  All flesh. 

 The divine delight comes still from saving the lost, including the forgotten, seeking the outcast, retrieving the wayward sons and daughters of Abraham.  God wants your salvation.  Your salvation “has personal, domestic, social, and economic consequences” (Craddock). 

 So come down Zacchaeus, come down from your perch in that comfortable sycamore tree, that comfortable pew, that skeptical reserve, that doubt.  Come down Zacchaeus!  And let’s all together get to work. The Lord Jesus Christ has need of your household and your money, and He responds to your doubt.    

Come down Zacchaeus, down from your overly zealous leanings, hanging out on the branch of life.  Idolatry comes when we make one or more of the lesser, though significant, loyalties in life to become a shadow of the one great loyalty, that which the heart owes alone to God.  Zacchaeus had governmental responsibility, community status, a welcoming home, a fine family, and we can suspect he was loyal in these regards.  Curious as he was, up on his branch, he had no relationship with the divine.  Into this relationship, Jesus invites him.  More precisely, Jesus invites himself into relationship with a man up a tree.  He is invited into a whole new life, a new world of loving and faithful relationships, that stem from the one great loyalty.   

We need to be careful about lesser loyalties this fall.  Watch your balances of integrity and humility.  Humility requires us to consider due process, to consider past practice, say, near elections, to consider the advice of others, and to consider the nuances of the situation and your conscience.  Integrity, alone, bulldozes blazes and blasts past all these.  Harm is done.  Integrity without humility is the worst of the seven deadly sins—pride.  We recognize the peril of integrity alone, the great steed of integrity, without the bit and bridle and saddle of humility. We hope to keep our righteous integrity in check with a steady, a sober, a non-apathetic willingness to continue on, a blessed endurance…even when in the short run what we hope for does not emerge.  The concession speeches after a contest are often far more moving, more meaningful than the shouts of victory by the victor.  Bless those willing to run and risk loss, and still stay committed to the lastingly right things.  

Yet all of this involves a lesser loyalty than the one owed to God.   We can forget whose water we were baptized into, if we are not careful.  Rather, let us remember the student of Paul who wrote 2 Thessalonians: your faith is growing abundantly, and the love of every one of you for one another is increasing (2 Thess. 1: 4). 

 Do you see the danger?  Come down Zacchaeus, come down, before it is too late.    Make sure your lesser loyalties—to government, family, home, all---do not cover over, do not shadow the one great loyalty, that all of your daily tasks do not eclipse a living memory of a common dream, a truly shared dream. 

 A common dream, a dream that our decisions in life about our callings, how we are to use our time and spend our money, how we make a life not just a living, will be illumined by grace and generosity. 

 A common dream, a dream that women—our grandmothers, mothers, sisters, daughters, granddaughters, all—granted suffrage only about 100 years ago, will be spared any and all forms of harassment and abuse, verbal or physical, on college campuses, in homes and families, in offices and bars, in life and work, and long having suffered and now having suffrage, will in our time rise up to be honored, revered, and compensated, without reserve, but with justice and mercy, and be accorded freedom, especially freedom and protection of their own bodies, their own selves. 

 A common dream, finally a dream not of this world, but of this world as a field of formation for another, not just creation but new creation, not just life but eternal life, not just health but salvation, not just heart but soul, not just earth, but heaven.  

 Come down Zacchaeus, come down, at last.  Impediments to faith come through doubt and idolatry and resentment and religion, but none of these holds a candle to the harm that wealth can bring.  In global terms and in historical terms, every one of us is wealthy.  Ours are first world problems.  Luke’s entire gospel, especially its central chapters, 9-19, is aimed at this point.  For Luke’s community, the remembered teachings of Jesus about wealth were most important.  That tells me that the Lukan church had money, and so do we.  This is what makes the account of Zacchaeus, “one who lined his own pockets at other people’s expense”, so dramatic for Luke, and so Luke concludes his travel narrative with this clarion call:  come down.  The Gospel of Luke is winding down, right here, this morning, with the wee little man in the Sycamore.  Be careful not to trip over wealth, power or health.  We lose them all, give them all away, over time.  They are impermanences.  They go.  Better that we see so early.  Time flies—ah no.  Time stays—we go. 

Wouldn’t you love to know what Jesus said to Zacchaeus that caused him to give away half of what he had?  I would.   

Come down Zacchaeus, and feel the hurt of others.  And:  Soon we will all be dead.  Maybe we could find ways to use whatever power we have now to honor God, love our neighbor, reflect our mortality, and affirm the powerless.  Come down Zacchaeus, come down!  

Before we left seminary in NYC, on the day after Thanksgiving in 1978, an odd event befell us.  I worked nights as a security guard in those years and would come home to sleep at 7am.  Jan had the day off, and left to shop, but left the door to our little apartment ajar, by accident.  About noon a street woman found her way into the building and up into our floor, and then into our room.  I woke up to see a very poor, deranged woman, fingering rosary beads, and mumbling just over my head.  Boy did I shout.  She ran into the next room and I stumbled downstairs to call the police.  By the time three of New York’s finest and I returned to the apartment, the poor lady was in the bathtub, singing and washing.  They took her away.  Jan came back at 3 and asked how I had slept.  The moment has stayed in the memory, though, as an omen.  Our wealth is meant for the healing of the poor of the earth.  Perhaps the Lord wanted me to remember that, to remember the poor in ministry, so I have tried to.  Come down Zacchaeus, and use your wealth for the poor, as did Mr. Wesley and his followers.   

Let’s talk for a moment about religion, shall we?  Come down Zacchaeus, come down!  No amount of religious apparatus can ever substitute for what Jesus is offering today, and that is loving relationship.  No amount of theological astuteness can ever substitute for loving relationship.  No amount of righteous indignation can ever substitute for loving relationship.  No amount of formal religion can ever substitute for the power of loving relationship.  Jesus invites us into loving relationship with him, and so with each other.  That is salvation.  Are we lovers anymore? 

 Like Zacchaeus in the tree, religion can presume to dwell above Jesus, high and aloof.  Is it good to be above Jesus? It is not good to put myself above Jesus, not good at all. 

 It was the German monk Martin Luther who, in 1517, went alone and nailed his 95 theses to the door in Wittenberg, and thereby splintered inherited religion to bits.  The words of this same Luther were read, as interpretation of Romans 8, on the rainy night in London, 1738, along Aldersgate Street, as John Wesley’s heart, at long last, was strangely warmed, and he came down from the tree of religion, to sit at table with the Faith of Christ.  We remember Luther this Reformation Sunday every year.  We pointedly remember that we are saved by faith, by faith alone, by grace we are saved by faith, and not by any or all the works of the law. 

 Luther recalls us down from the religion tree, to sit at the table of faith:   

 I must remove the law from my sight and act as one who receives; I will acknowledge that I am justified, and desire to receive the righteousness of grace, of the forgiveness of sins, of mercy, of the Holy Spirit and of Christ, which he (God) gives, while we receive it and let it happen to us. 

 The earth receives the rain in this way.  It does not create it through any work, and cannot obtain water through any work of its own, but it receives the rain.  As much as the rain is the earth’s own, Christian righteousness is our own…God grant that we may appreciate this distinction just a little (cited in G Ebeling, LUTHER, p. 123) 

 Jesus calls us today, to come down out of the tree forts of our own making, and accept a loving relationship with Him.  May we measure all with a measure of love. 

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

Sunday
October 23

A New Opening

By Marsh Chapel

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Luke 18:9–14 

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One Friday on the walk into the office a dear friend caught up and came alongside to walk along with me.  As friends do.  Coming alongside that is, walking with us that is.  The luxurious, languid autumn of New England sometimes allows more outdoor conversation.  Conversation is a means of grace.  Conversation is a new opening to grace. The river to the right, the buildings old and new to the left, with students and faculty kicking up some leaves along the way.

We had not seen each other to talk since Covid.  We talked about exercise and failing knees, about what we done or not in the pandemic.  Outdoors, no distance, no mask, no immediate existential worry.  Just two friends, a while apart and now again together again.  What a simple joy, an authentic moment in the midst of various forms of work, life and service.  He like many at this good University gave humble service, over many years.

He then told me that in Covid he would come alone to the Chapel, now and then.  You have heard me say already and many times that the very best thing we do at Marsh is--nothing:  we do nothing, we unlock and open the doors and invite people come in, bask in the beauty of the nave, sit, relax, snooze, meditate, pray.  Yes, he said.  I know he said.  One day, he continued, I was getting up to leave and decided I would take a video on my phone of—nothing.  A video of the empty church.  A video of the quiet nave.  A video of stone and glass and wood and all.  He said, I timed it to one minute.  So that, every day, when I wanted to, though I was miles away from BU and Marsh, I could return, return to the simple, the authentic, the quiet.  Thank you, he said.  It was nothing, I responded, truly nothing, I replied.  It was nothing.  And that is the best thing we do.  Nothing.

Carrying some quiet then from Covid, we meet Jesus this morning on the hinges of the third Gospel, as the flow of the Gospel continues to swing from Lord to apostles. In the announcement of this good news is included a measure of empowerment for each one of us. This is the kind of day on which, for once, for the first time, or for once in a long time, we may be seized by, embraced by,  a sense of divine nearness. The kingdom of heaven is at hand. ‘All who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted’.  (This is the second time Luke has placed this epigram on Jesus’ lips). When that sentence makes a home in a heart, or in the heart of a community, a different kind of life ensues.  There might be a new opening, even today, for some, maybe for you.

Now faith may come like a blinding light on the Road to Damascus.  It may.  But most of the time it rather comes one stumble, one step, one stop at a time, one walking conversation at a time.  One step.  One step on the walk of faith, wherein it helps to have a friend alongside.  As a person of faith.  Take a step a day, a step a week.  Health, healing, salvation, salvus, wellness, wellbeing come in small doses, occasional, discreet, bit by bit. Some of us like Paul are blinded by a moment on the road to Damascus. Most of us though are seized in faith, brought to healing, in a gradual way, over time, as our teacher of blessed memory Fr. Raymond Brown was used to say. Not lightening but enlightening, being enlightened, day by day. Sermon by sermon we could say. One step at a time. The Gospels tell us so.  Faith comes one step at a time.  This week can you take a step in faith? The step this week may just be toward simple, authentic service, akin to that of the Lord Christ, our Savior and Lord?

One step in faith comes in service, like the service my friend and conversation partner has modeled.  Now let us be frank, a sermon on humility runs the danger of the preacher whose title was ‘Humility and How I Achieved It’, with the subsequent sequel, ‘The World’s Greatest Sermon on Humility’. But the parable  today, that of the Pharisee and the Publican, tells us that authentic relationship, real responsibility are a matter of the heart:   In conversation, there abides, or lurks, the lasting possibility of heart to heart communication, heart by heart communion.  That potential seizes you, not the other way around.   There is a saving power, a saving grace in conversation. What are your models for this?  Do they include at least a little simplicity, a little steady service?  Can you take one step, a step this week, a step of faith, in some manner of service?  Perhaps in offering yourself in listening and conversation to another?

The Lukan gospel lessons about living are set in the humble reaches of the lake country of Galilee. There must have been some comfort, some folkloric encouragement for Luke’s community in these polished memories of Jesus teaching along the shores of Galilee. There is beauty along a lake. There is calm along a lake. There is peace along a lake. There is serenity along a lake. Along the lake there is space and time to sift, reminisce, remember, sort. Still waters still restore the soul to stillness.   Perhaps the regatta today, right now, outside our Chapel, at the head of the Charles, in its pristine beauty and vigorous discipline, can bring that kind of peace, too.

For Luke is determined to show that there is no real greatness, there is no service worthy of the name, without some humility, none without some anxiety, some struggle, none without a measure of discomfort, none without patience, the patience of Job (who today hears the crushing voice of the Lord from the whirlwind?) none without a caring heart for those who experience the consequences of decisions which others make.  If, in your work, you have seen humility, known struggle, felt discomfort, summoned patience, found empathy—for all the cost, take heart.  You have taken a step, one step, a step in faith.  Good.

There is a true kind of encouragement here, in Luke 18 for us, as we take one step in faith, toward a new opening.  My teacher Sharon Ringe: The tax collector’s prayer suggests that he acknowledges with anguish (the divine) assessment of himself—and simply entrusts himself to God’s mercy, simply entrusts himself to God’s mercy. (Ringe, Westminster, 225). Our Gospel reflects the misunderstandings of the disciples, and their reluctance quickly or easily to comprehend in full the nature of faith.  It takes them time.  That should reassure us.  It took them time.  And it takes us time.  It takes one step at a time.  It takes one conversation at a time. Yet that one step, that one conversation, can bring an opening to faith.

You may come to a morning hour, even this one, in which you sense a new opening, a desire to live a life that makes you smile, that makes others smile. To be more loving, in my heart… Step by step it may be, you may become kinder, happier, more generous, more forgiving. This is the purpose of being alive, to speak and act and be in a way that brings a smile to others, perhaps even to the divine countenance.  In your own life of service, of work, even of leadership, there may emerge, may be wrought, a fuller, a more authentic, a simpler way.  Even a humbler way.

Think of the Shaker community. Drive a couple of hours west on Route 90 and see their former home in New Lebanon. Think of their humility.  In their work, their dress, their furniture, their devotion, their relations, the Shakers lived simply. The heart of their simplicity, and ours at our best, is the desire to “lead a life worthy of the calling to which we have been called”. Every renewal in Christian history has had this feature: Paul mending tents, Augustine chaste again, Luther and Erasmus cleansing Rome, Wesley and his coal miners and class meetings, the Civil Rights movement with its various and contending interpretations today, the Latin American base communities, and every spiritual nudging in our own very human community of faith.

There is an authority that is visible in every person who has found the freedom of vocation, the freedom to live with abandon.  Look around at the windows in this charming Chapel, following worship, and you will see the faces of women and men who found an authentic simplicity, a way to live with abandon, to take oneself lightly and so fly, like the angels.  They learned, over time, to model a daily heartfelt affirmation of the shared good, the common good, the communal good.

Luke 18 is one of the spots in the third gospel at which the emerging institutional needs of the church are visible.  And Christianity wrestled with institutional, formational questions in the first century:  For whom is the gospel? What are the definitive texts? And especially, who shall hold authority?  What, How, Where. And Who?  That should reassure us too.  They struggled, sometimes with success and sometimes not, to make things go right in shared, communal, institutional life.  And so do we.  You resist triangles.  You reach for I and Thou relationships.  You give the benefit of the doubt.  Community requires all that and more.

That is, as this passage shows, from the outset it has been difficult for the Christian church to maintain its own authentic forms vested in humility over against the lesser models abroad in every age. “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up,” said Paul.  Love, Joel would remind, gives the possibility for dreaming dreams and seeing visions, in real time.

In a time like ours, the very real fears of pollution, Putin, pandemic, politics, pistols, prejudice and pain tend to shove us toward a fearful taste for authoritarianism, here and around the globe.  The fears of the day and night can make us afraid of freedom, our birthright, as Eric Fromm showed us, and inclined to align with authoritarianism at all levels, including at the highest ones.  Be careful here.

A few years ago, my friend Charles Rice spoke of humility.  His story lodges in the memory. He told about an Easter when he was in Greece. He sat in the Orthodox Church and watched the faithful in devotions. There was a great glassed icon of Christ, to which, following prayers, women and men would move, then kneel.  Then as they rose, they kissed the glassed icon and moved on.

Every so often a woman dressed in black would emerge from the shadows with some cleanser, or windex, and a cloth and –psh, psh—would clean the image—psh, psh--making it clear again.  A humble servant of the servants of God, washing away the accumulated piety before her.  Maybe that is part of what we hope for come Sunday, a gentle washing away of accumulated piety, to make room for what is real and what is authentic and what is not simplistic but bright and simple and humble and good.

My friend Charles had a revelation about self-effacing service.  As he watched the woman in black cleaning the icon, he realized that this was what ministry was meant to be: a humble daily washing away from the face of Christ of all that obscured, all that distorted, all that blocked others from seeing truth, goodness and beauty. Including, well, a lot of piety.  Including pretense and presumption and position.  And such service, service that lasts, is both deliberate and also deliberative, it is steady, one step at a time.

Think of someone you have known who provided heartfelt humble service to others, maybe to you.  Steady, sincere, even struggling service.  Think of someone who helped you once when you needed, really needed, help.  And offer a prayer of thanks.

Every one of us has some influence.  If you have a pen, a telephone, a computer, email, a tongue, a household, a family, a job, a community, a church—then you have some influence. The question, one that provokes a response and that then allows us to take a step forward is just this:  how will you use, render, apply, shape and offer to life what you have?

Our gospel today suggests a response.  A humble passion for the common good.

For the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many. May there be a new opening, for you and me, even today! Sursum Corda!  Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved!

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

Sunday
October 16

Blessed Endurance

By Marsh Chapel

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Luke 18: 1-8 

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‘Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart’

A conversation starts, somehow.  A conversation travels, somewhere.  A conversation ends, sometime.  After three years of screen, of zoom, of facetime, of text, of email, of distance, of attention to quasi-spaces, electronic spaces--to which nuance, humor, personality, humanity, and connection go to die--we have been returned to the land of conversation.  Here you are. Praise God from whom all blessings flow.  There is a robust magic in conversation, whereby John Wesley named conversation a means of grace, alongside prayer, Scripture, sacraments, and fasting. There is a saving power, a saving grace in conversation.  It costs nothing to listen, except time and risk.  And it costs nothing to speak, except time and voice.  And that is all our importune has today, time and voice.

In conversation, there abides, or lurks, the lasting possibility of heart-to-heart communication, heart by heart communion.  That potential seizes you, not the other way around.   You are longways into a talk with an old dear friend, and of a sudden, you realize, you intuit, just how much that friendship means, a friendship planted and grown in conversation.  Conversation is a means of grace.

Especially on Sunday however and moreover, grace is a means of conversation.  Worship is the hour when we most open ourselves not only to the idea of the holy, the mysterium tremendum, but to the grace of the holy, what matters, lasts, counts, to what is real.

Covid collapsed conversation.  Are we attentively, persistently striving to regain it, to return it?  Worship is the exemplary though not only hour when most we are in conversation with the holy, with the presence, with the freedom, with the experience of the holy.  In silence, in word, in song, in psalm, in chorus, in instrument, in communion, in prayer.  You and I are open to the holy, are opened to the holy—right now.  How we need all that is holy right now.

For right now we live in a perilously difficult time and season.

Hourly we are reminded of forms of cultural demise all around us, to the shame of us all, bullying, demagoguery, vulgarity, sexism, buffoonery, megalomania, and our helplessness—willingness?—to have to have our children and grandchildren so surrounded in a culture at its worst seemingly careening into a nihilistic abyss.

The seven not deadly sins but daily 2022 maladies may have brought their own reminders: Pollution, pandemic, Putin, politics, pistols, prejudice, pain—which breed anxiety and depression, in some measure, to one and all.

Institutions are far more fragile than we sometimes think, especially the bigger ones.  They all require trust, commitment, integrity, self-sacrifice, and humility on the part of their leaders, or over time they disintegrate, as one Congresswoman stated last week.  It is not just the processes, the systems, the organizations and structures that matter, it is the people.  No amount of systemic adjustment can ever replace the fundamental need, across a culture, for good people. No wise process has any chance against unwise people. Do not assume that institutions that have been healthy will always be so. Do not presume that free speech in newspapers, that due process in political parties, that honest regard for electoral results simply exist.  They do or they don’t.  It depends on the people who inhabit, support, and lead them.  Beware a time like ours when the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity (Yeats).

Giving ultimate loyalty to penultimate reality is sin at its depth.  To support an organization at the cost of honor, of integrity, of honesty is to give ultimate loyalty to penultimate reality.  That is, to support a political party at the cost of honor, integrity and honesty is to give ultimate loyalty to penultimate reality.  This is sin at its depth.  That is, to support a denomination at the cost of honor, integrity and honesty is to give ultimate loyalty to penultimate reality.  In the hour of judgment, the organization—party or church or other—depends on the courage and integrity of individuals to resist idolatrous loyalty to penultimate reality and to respond with courage and integrity to ultimate authority.  You cannot serve God and Mammon. Giving ultimate loyalty to penultimate reality is sin at its depth.  Not everything is for sale, nor should it be. Jeremiah told us so.

In 1980 with 12 Cornell students, and for a full year, we studied Jeremiah.  Two of those then young graduate students are now teaching at Brown University, and are part of the extended Marsh Chapel family.  They reminded me recently that the group had asked to study Jeremiah, high above Cayuga’s waters, and I had wondered ‘whether they were ready for him’.  They said they were, and they were.  In all these intervening years, with student and campus groups from Cornell, McGill, North Country Community, Syracuse, Lemoyne, Colgate Rochester, the University of Rochester, United Seminary and, now, in worship at Boston University, we have returned in to Jeremiah. (A student at BU who attends worship every Sunday for three years will hear the whole range of all Scripture in the weekly readings.  Not every verse of Leviticus, but every high and holy point, including Jeremiah today) Never, though, have I been more grateful for Jeremiah’s evocation of the stark suffering divine love of God, for Jeremiah’s unswerving realism, than this fall.  In this autumn of anxiety and difficulty, I kneel and kiss the ground, thankful for Jeremiah and his divine human realism.

I am eternally thankful for Jeremiah’s realism about what horrors can befall people and a people when they forget their identity.

I am eternally thankful for Jeremiah’s realism about what happens to a people when some of whose leaders have and live values diametrically opposed to the nation’s own values. Exemplum docet, beloved, example teaches.

I am eternally thankful, painful as it is to hear the words, for Jeremiah’s realism about how naïve in selfishness a people can become, and how earth shattering that foolishness can be.

I am eternally thankful for Jeremiah’s realism about the crucial importance of diplomacy rather than violence, and about what happens when megalomaniacal leaders mock diplomacy.

I am eternally thankful, if such can be said, for Jeremiah’s own wretched suffering as he watched his beloved country exchange their birthright of holiness for a mess of material pottage. Not everything that matters is for sale.

I am eternally thankful for the clarity, not confusion, for the courage, not timidity, of his voice ringing out across 25 centuries to say to you in a way you cannot avoid:  if you follow leadership that is immoral, unjust, unloving, unwise, you will get what you deserve, and the desserts will be disastrous.  In real time.

I am even eternally thankful for Jeremiah’s pitiless reproach for people whose own religion bluntly teaches them to tell truth, honor others, seek justice, protect the poor, who then are tempted to select leaders who say they have done and will do the opposite, and then are proven to have done.  We have been warned.

I am eternally thankful for Jeremiah’s realism which—did you hear?—includes at the end, encompasses at twilight, for all the suffering the divine love endures, including Jeremiah’s own slave death and unmarked grave in Egypt, a grace note, a ringing bell, a song sung, a word spoken, a hope, that one day ‘says the Lord,  I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah… No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord…

So we arrive today in the anxiety and perplexity of our time, at the town court of Nazareth, the honorable UnJ Judge presiding.   Hear ye, hear ye.  Hizzoner awaits. He of the powers that be, who fear neither God nor man. And Behold the Lord Jesus Christ dressed today in the apparel of a poor woman.  For those who, rightly, feel anxiety or despair or depression at the rampant sexism now latent and palpable, including somehow an amnesia regarding the fact that women’s bodies are first and foremost women’s bodies, and revealed by the events of this year and autumn across our decaying culture, take heart:  behold the Lord Jesus Christ dressed today in the raiment of an importunate, a persistent poor widow. A figure of blessed endurance.

Yes, in our autumn of anxiety, we can readily appreciate the Scripture’s utter realism.    Luke too needed to remember that Jesus told them about “losing heart”.  This phrase communicates, in a time like ours. Greater souls in easier times have felt such ennui.  So we are not surprised today to hear reports of increased therapy, medication and consumption of comfort food.  We can feel the depression.

Jesus pointed to the Town Court of Nazareth and therein to the simple figure of a persistent woman.  See her at the bench.  Watch her in the aisle.  Listen to her steady voice.  Feel her stolid forbearance.  Says she:  “Grant me justice.”

My beloved teacher Sharon Ringe reminds us: ‘The widow’s untiring pursuit of justice is translated into the ‘faith’ that should mark the church’s welcome of the awaited Son of Man’ (Ringe, LUKE, loc.cit.)

In Nazareth town court, all rise hear ye hear ye the honorable U J Judge presiding, a woman who exemplifies the Greek word ‘upomone’, endurance, employs time and voice.  You have time and you have voice. You have time and you have voice. Like Christ himself, she implores the implacable world to grant justice.  Like Christ himself, she comes on a donkey of tongue and patience.  Like Christ himself, she continues to plead, to intercede.  Like Christ himself, she importunes the enduring injustice of this world.  Like Christ himself she prays without ceasing.  Like Christ himself she…endures.  She is an example to us of how we should use whatever time we have and whatever breath remains–to pray, to attend to the holy, in conversation therewith, and so to work for good.  It is prayer that is the most realistic and wisest repose of the anxious of this autumn of exasperation.  By prayer we mean formal prayer, yes (more here another week). But by prayer we mean, too, the steady daily leaning toward justice, the continuous pressure in history from the voice of the voiceless and the time of the time bound.

Notice, waiting with us, this poor widow.  She lacks power, authority, status, position, wealth.  She has her voice and all the time in the world.  Like Jesus Christ, whose faith comes by hearing and hearing by the preaching of the word.

If we are not to lose heart, in the seemingly unending search for justice, we shall need to pray always, to “relax into the truth”, and to give ourselves over to the divine presence in our midst.  To give ourselves over to a real, common hope, and to be clear, not confused, courageous not timid about our hope:

In Jeremiah and in Luke there is a strange, eerie, abiding sense, one that we also feel, through it all, through it all, that we aspire for something better, we long and hunger for something better, a shared common hope.  In conversation with all that is holy, we find, know, trust this.

We await a common hope, a hope that our warming globe, caught in climate change, will be cooled by cooler heads and calmer hearts and careful minds.

We await a common hope, a hope that our dangerous world, armed to the teeth with nuclear proliferation, even now teetering on the brink of their use, will find peace through deft leadership toward global nuclear détente.

We await a common hope, a hope that our culture, awash in part in hooliganism, will find again the language and the song and the spirit of the better angels of our nature.

We await a common hope, a hope that our country, fractured by massive inequality between rich children and poor children, will rise up and make excellent education and health care available to all children, poor and rich.

We await a common hope, a hope that our schools, colleges and universities, will balance a love of learning with a sense of meaning, a pride in knowledge with a respect for goodness, a drive for discovery with a regard for recovery.

We await a common hope, a hope that our families, torn apart by abuse and distrust and anger and jealousy and unkindness, will sit at a long Thanksgiving table, this autumn, and share the turkey and pass the potatoes, and slice the pie, and, if grudgingly, show kindness and pity to one another.

We await a common hope, a hope that our decisions in life about our callings, how we are to use our time and spend our money, how we make a life not just a living, will be illumined by grace and generosity.

We await a common hope, a hope that our grandfathers and mothers, in their age and infirmity, will receive care and kindness that accords with the warning to honor father and mother that you own days be long upon the earth.

We await a common hope, finally a hope not of this world, but of this world as a field of formation for another, not just creation but new creation, not just life but eternal life, not just health but salvation, not just heart but soul, not just earth, but heaven.

 We hear the call to endure today.  It is a daily practice, a daily discipline.

An example of endurance, in the figure of an importunate widow.

‘Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart’

Blessed Endurance

Jesus Is Thine

O What A Foretaste

Of Glory Divine

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

Sunday
October 2

A Communion Meditation for World Communion Sunday

By Marsh Chapel

Click here to hear the full service

Luke 17: 1-10 

Click here to hear just the sermon

Our field work is no substitute for our domestic duties. 

Your outside, outdoor application of mind and body, in profession or employment or work, is not a replacement for the hearth, the home, the heart, the power of the dinner table, the beloved, the family—kinder, kuche, kirche, as Luther might have put it. 

 You cannot claim reference to bank account, degrees and honorifics, achievements and merit badges, when faced with a required response to the dominical claim upon relational duties.  It will not help me in the long run when I affirm a full bank account or a long list of peer reviewed articles or a world championship of whatever sort, if they are meant to cover over what matters, counts, lasts and has meaning, if they are meant to avoid grace, care, kindness and…well…love. 

My dear one, your field work is no substitute for your domestic duties. 

Says our Lord Jesus Christ, both to an ancient struggling church, and to you and me on World Communion Sunday: Who among you would say to your slave who has just come in from ploughing or tending sheep in the field, “Come here at once and take your place at the table”? Would you not rather say to him, “Prepare supper for me, put on your apron and serve me while I eat and drink; later you may eat and drink”? Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded? So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, “We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!”  

The dinner table and all its conversations and claims make no allowance for a borrowing from the day’s own trouble.  A prayer is said, the dishes are passed, a conversation—glorious, golden, rhythmic, improvisational, personal, intimate, perilous, demanding, real, and so utterly human—a conversation emerges.  Something is said.  Something is heard.  The table has its own realm and kingdom, its own royalty and citizenry, its own claim and call.  Call it the power of the dinner table.  

Three years on into the twilight—perhaps—of Covid, we have missed a step or two, lost or forgotten our dinner table habits.  We have grown cold to the clink and charm of fork and glass.  We have become rusty, out of shape, flabby both in the form of host and of guest—so interesting in older English, the two are almost the same word.  We have been rightly busy with our field work, ploughing and shepherding, works and day jobs and zoom screens and all.  So, we have not been prepared to…be prepared.  To be ready to…prepare supper…put on our apron…serve the service of eating and drinking.  After all, we still try to assert, in the teeth of the hurricane gale—an image we have in mind as in prayer we remember those suffering now in Florida-- of this deceptively minimal saying of the Lord, that, well, we had a good day at the screen—didn’t we?, on the zoom—didn’t we? by the click click-ometer of the internet—didn’t we?, in our day job—didn’t we? Didn’t we? 

 Not so fast, Jesus says, not so fast.  

 Not so fast, says Mr. Wesley, not so fast. 

 Not so fast, says our own true and hard experience, not so fast. 

 Not so fast says life, presence, freedom, experience.   

 Not so fast, says God, not so fast. 

 Do what is commanded, says Jesus.  Conversation is a means of grace, says John Wesley (as real and powerful as sacrament, as prayer, as Scripture, as fasting)—a conveyance of grace.  Our late Covid experience is a hunger and thirst for--what satisfies hunger and slakes thirst.  The real hunger.  One does not live by bread alone, but by every word… 

There is an orb of reality, a realm of being, a place unto itself, around the common table, after the day’s own trouble, the power of the table, that will not be supplanted, outsourced, erased, minimized, or disregarded. 

And here we are.  At table, a table as big as all outdoors, and a table that spans the globe, and a table that serves a World Communion, a world communion.  And here we are.  Morning has come, the board is spread, thanks be to God who gives us bread, thank God for bread.  And the power of the table, the dining table, is just here—conversation--a saving, intervening power, especially for us, we who are coming in from the field work of 3 Covid years, without it.  And here we are.  Conversation is where imagination and memory dance.  Conversation is where one feels and says ‘I love you’.  Conversation is where the strict arts of listening are raised from the dead.  Conversation on the street, at home, along the park bench, before church, after church, outside church.  There is nothing more human, nor more healthy, nor more saving than a good conversation, which by nature begins in the unexpected and ends in the unforeseen and trails along in the mind for days to come. 

 A conversation starts, somehow.  A conversation travels, somewhere.  A conversation ends, sometime.  After three years of screen, of zoom, of facetime, of text, of email, of distance, of attention to quasi-spaces, electronic spaces--to which nuance, humor, personality, humanity, and connection go to die--we have been returned to the land of conversation.  Praise God from whom all blessings flow.  There is a robust magic in conversation, whereby John Wesley named conversation a means of grace, alongside prayer, Scripture, sacraments, and fasting. 

 In conversation, there abides, or lurks, the lasting possibility of heart to heart communication, heart by heart communion.  That potential seizes you, not the other way around.   You are longways into a talk with an old dear friend, and of a sudden, you realize, you intuit, just how much that friendship means, a friendship planted and grown in conversation.  You are gathered before dinner, and the children, coaxed, begin to sing the songs of memory, of history, of Zion, of nation, of upgrowing.  The folksongs, the hymns, the partner songs, the spirituals, the camp fire rounds, multiple rounds, give off an invisible glow, a kind of verbal hearth.  You sit with two colleagues who are also combatants.  There is an opening, and a joust, and of a sudden—unplanned, unexpected, unforeseen—one shatters the other with a truth spoken and heard.  The shattering is not in the end a mendable one.  Some things, like some malignancies, you can never cure, but you can manage.  They are manageable but not curable.  They can be managed, managed to ground, even though, unseen, the malignancy remains.  In conversation, in the magic of conversation, such hard and dark and difficult truth can surface.  Be careful with the shattering, in the moment and in the meantime and in the memory and in the future.  You realize afterward, that one loved one, in one seemingly innocuous conversation, was trying to say something, something like, I am worried about this medical procedure, and I think I may, well, I think I may not make it...  But the clues and hues and dues and schmooze are too indirect, too subtle, and you miss the marrow and meaning of the talk, only to recall it, only to get it, later, much later, too late.  You are in a meeting, and all of sudden the temperature shifts, and sunlight and warmth become cave darks, stalactites and stalagmites.  And the conversation flickers, withers, and dies.  Something is in there.  It would be utterly invisible and inaudible by zoom.  But in conversation, in presence, with embodied silence, and incarnate body language, you see and hear:   She is really hurting.  He is really angry.  I am really in over my head.  They want something they really can never have. 

 There is a saving power, a saving grace in conversation.  It costs nothing to listen, except time and risk.  And it costs nothing to speak, except time and risk.  Could you say that in another way?  What I hear you to have said is just this.  Do you really mean that, or do you mean half or double that?  It sounds to me like you are wandering around Robin Hood’s barn, and that makes me wonder why you are wandering like that.  When you say that, who do you have in mind?  Why do I have the feeling that you have a feeling about this?  Let’s talk about this again someday. There is a healing power, a healing grace in conversation.  Most people can in time solve their own problems, if they just have someone to talk to about them, who will really listen to them ( said Dr. John Hertel, Cornell University, 1979). 

 Pastoral ministry, cut to the chase, is the pursuit of an excellent 20-minute sermon a week, a twenty-hour task, alongside 25 genuine conversations a week.  The rest, all other ground, is sinking sand.  Most current schools of theology have still some faculty left who know pastoral conversation in person.  They are not ordained.  They have no ministerial experience to speak of.  They have not invested the time in listening to become adept at listening because their work and future depend on speaking and writing.  (They are largely introverts, usually extreme introverts, for whom human presence and engagement are profoundly enervating and exhausting.  Far better the buffers of libraries, books, papers, lectures, classes and grades, than the direct encounter with another heart.  I and Thou.) But through it all, they remember the grace of conversation, the saving intervening grace of conversation.  Likewise, most denominations and churches have at least some leadership left, a few circles of ministerial wisdom shared in conversation about…conversation.  Seward Hiltner, Homer Jerdigan, Henri Nouwen, Ann Belford Ulanov are not with us any longer, and not with us to remind us that the most the important things in ministry are the one on one things (said Bishop Joseph Yeakel, 1982).  Pastoral ministry is visiting and preaching.  Ministry is preaching. (It’s easy, as a generation ago Mike Royko said of his job to write a weekly newspaper column, ‘it’s easy, just sit down at the typewriter--and slit your wrists’.)  Pastoral ministry is conversation.  Ministry is conversation.  (It’s easy, just sit down and listen until the cows come home.) 

 The minister, the baptized Christian, for ministry is born in every baptism, and is emphatically not confined to ordination, the minister is part bull fighter, part heavy weight boxer, part private detective, part spy.  At stake, for all, is lasting health, personal salvation, individual growth, spiritual integrity, and the chance, the fleeting chance, to experience being alive before we die.  The cape ripples and the saber rattles.  The prize fighter dodges, weaves, ducks, swings, retreats, advances.  The PI looks through the back window, checks the mail in the mail box, notices the water still dripping from the faucet, puts two and two together.  The one disguised behind enemy lines smiles, demurs, nods, remembers, and then will try to bring home a truth, the truth in hand, without getting caught.  But these arts are practiced, sharpened, conveyed, by one pastor and another…in conversation. 

 Every hour spent on a machine is an hour spent apart from conversation, and so apart from full real life itself.  Your field work is no substitute for your domestic duties. Walk with a friend.  Sit for intercessory prayer.  Call somebody on the phone.  Set a lunch date.  Offer a coffee.  Receive with happiness the unannounced visitor to your office.  Steer the conversation, when you can, away from doing and out onto the broad meadow of being.  Keep a journal.  Write a sermon.  Craft a poem.  Design and experiment.  Take on some painting, some gardening, some creative craft, a piano lesson, beginning French or Swahili. 

 My grandmother grew up on a dairy farm near Cooperstown. Some of you have heard me mention her before. She graduated from Smith College in 1914.  She taught school and married later in life, raising three daughters.  She spent her later life in a modest Syracuse home, surrounded by piles of books, mounds of newspapers, and letters written or to be written and received, often long ago.  She and her college roommate wrote each other a letter once a week from graduation until death.  She feared no conversation, and celebrated all conversation, no matter how middling or shallow or tiresome.  Famously, she was thrilled, overjoyed, to have the Jehovah Witnesses come into her Methodist living room, on their mission.  She loved to talk with them about the intricacies of Leviticus.  She always wanted them to stay longer than they could stand to stay.  They left worn out, bedraggled, dog tired, exhausted, and utterly defeated.  

People do not always know what they think and feel until they say it, until they say it to someone they know is listening, someone who really cares. People do not always know what they think and feel until they say it, until they say it to someone they know is listening, someone who really cares.  This is not psychiatry, not psychotherapy, not formal counseling, nor any other of the—very wonderful and endlessly helpful and so much needed—forms of care.  This is conversation, a means of grace. 

 A conversation starts, somehow.  A conversation travels, somewhere.  A conversation ends, sometime.  After a year or three of screen, of zoom, of facetime, of text, of email, of distance, of attention to spaces, electronic spaces to which much goes to die---nuance, humor, personality, humanity, and connection go to die--we have been returned to the land of conversation.  It is World Communion Sunday!  Praise God from whom all blessings flow!  There is a robust magic in conversation, a means of grace, alongside prayer, Scripture, sacraments, and fasting. 

Who among you would say to your slave who has just come in from ploughing or tending sheep in the field, “Come here at once and take your place at the table”? Would you not rather say to him, “Prepare supper for me, put on your apron and serve me while I eat and drink; later you may eat and drink”? Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded? So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, “We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!”  

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

Sunday
September 25

The Bach Experience- September 2022

By Marsh Chapel

Click here to hear the full service

Luke 16:19–31

Click here to hear the sermon and cantata

 

Dean Hill:

Especially throughout the COVID summers, we came to rely on the radio, its classical music and occasional weather and news, for our summer technological engagement with the wider world, out in the woods of Empire State.  Alone in the earlier mornings, when the fitful restlessness of work life gradually abates, as it can over time if we give it time, sometimes there is momentous moment. 

 The announcer said something about Debussy, whom I remember from required (back in the days of required courses) college introduction to music.  Therein we sat on a carpet and listened and were tested later on baroque, classical, romantic, impressionist and modern music.  The French name made a mark.   

Then onto the radio waves came a light, flowing harp beauty.  It was a shimmering beauty, light and alluring, quiet, gentle, unlike really anything I could remember hearing before.  The host named the piece as an Arabesque, perhaps the second such from Debussy, though I may have mistaken that.  The lake breeze lifted the notes, and there was throughout the room for a few fine minutes a shimmering beauty.  For two summers and more we could not sing together, or perform together, or worship together, in COVID. We will never any longer take the thrill of congregational and choral singing of the hymns of faith for granted.  These are beautiful moments. 

Like its cousins, truth and goodness, such a beauty leaves a mark, makes a lasting mark, a beauty mark you could say.  Time stops.  Imagination awakens.  Troubles recede.  You are caught up in something larger than yourself, as sometimes happens in religious experience too. 

In this radio carried music, it seemed to this untrained ear, there rose and fell a kind of oriental melody, a lightness, a veiled impression.  And it seemed to me that the better person to listen was the kind of person listening in this moment, who has no formal musical education, other than that incurred through spouse, family, and various church organists and choir masters.   

 It is the ear, often, rather than the eye, voice rather than face, the audible invisible, that carries an uncanny power.  The triumph of the invisible over the visible.   

 It happens that my mentor Bishop Joseph Yeakel died in this same summer time week.  He taught us: you can only preach what you know…the one on one work is the most important ministry…your staff need to be creative and loyal both…people remember what you do more than what you teach...most of us need more reminder than instruction 

His contemporary, a long-retired minister, had a dream the night before, before he knew of Joe’s death, that he had been asked to preach at the memorial, but had not prepared a sermon.  Dreams are such strange things.  Invisible, shimmering, beautiful, too. 

 Across the radio waves again, Dr. Jarrett, we assemble our listenership.  With joy and peace in believing, with joy and peace in the true, good and beautiful.  For what, this Lord’s Day, shall we most listen? 

 

Dr Jarrett's section is not available.

 

Dean Hill:

In these weeks we listen also to, and soberly remember, Jeremiah. 

The prophet Jeremiah excoriated his people, hoping against hope to keep them in faith along. For four decades he challenged, criticized, and vilified his beloved country, and its leadership, and its people.  They heeded him not.  

Jeremiah exclaimed: False prophets deceive people with their optimism.  The temple has no efficacy in and of itself.  The true circumcision is not of body, but of mind and heart.  Even the Bible can lead astray: Even the Torah may become a snare and a delusion through the false pen of the scribes. 

Notice some of the themes from the sixth century bce:  Deportation, false optimism, betrayal of heritage, forgetfulness of history, ineffective leadership, personal failings which damage the nation, turning of a deaf ear toward the voice of God. “For my people are foolish, they do not know me; they are stupid children, they have no understanding. They are skilled in doing evil, but do not know how to do good.” 

Jeremiah, whom we have heard in the background of our worship and preaching for some weeks, speaks to us again. today.  He warns us, he warns us, week by week he has warned.  And then, remarkably, in today’s reading, he stakes his life on hope, an unseen hope, a powerful hope of what may yet be. May his memory, just here, truly help us. 

The beauty of the music this morning is itself a sort of baptism of hope.  We sometimes long to take a spiritual shower, to bathe ourselves in the living waters of grace, faith, hope, life, and love.   Especially, it might be stressed, on any college campus today, the need for spiritual cleansing is continual.  We need both judgment and mercy, both honesty and kindness, both prophetic upbraid and parabolic uplift.  And we get them, thanks be to God, in Jeremiah and in Luke.  But look!  They come upside down.  In a stunning reversal, kindness and gentle hope are the hallmarks of our passage from Jeremiah, while wrath and hellfire explode out of Luke. 

Listen again to the voice of the prophet, one of the great, strange voices in all of history and life, one of the great, strange voices, in all of Holy Writ.  Jeremiah.  All is lost, in Judah, as Jeremiah addresses Zedekiah the King.  You will be a slave in Babylon, King Zedekiah.  You will be given into the hand of your sworn, mortal enemy, and so too will be the fate of your city, your temple, your people, and your country, King Zedekiah.  But. Nonetheless.  Nevertheless.  And yet. These are resurrection words. But. Nonetheless.  Nevertheless.  Still. Even And Jeremiah put his money where his mouth is.  Or was. 

With his beloved country in ruins, Jeremiah does something great, something remarkable and hopeful and great.  Jeremiah buys a plot of land.  One day, a long time from now, he muses and prays, there will be some manner of restoration: ‘I cannot see it.  I cannot hear it.  I cannot prove it.  Sometimes I cannot believe it.  But, hoping against hope, I will buy some land, and someday, somebody, somehow will use it’.  This is faith:  to plant trees under which you will not sleep, to build churches in which you will not worship, to create schools in which you will not study, to teach students whose futures you will not know—and to buy land which you will not till.  But someone will.  Or at least, that is your hope.  You have done some things this fall.  You offered a morning prayer.  You attended to worship. Good for you.  You sent a check to support something or someone.  Good for you.  You went and volunteered to make contacts and calls. Good for you.  You spoke up and spoke out, regardless of the fan mail, family disdain, and other costs.  You did something.  Will it make a difference?  Who can say?  But it does make a difference, for you, if for no one else.   

Go.  Go.  Go and buy your little plot of land. 

-Dr. Scott Allen Jarrett, Director of Music

Sunday
September 11

Finding the Lost

By Marsh Chapel

Click here to hear the full service

Luke 15:1-10

Click here to hear just the sermon

 

“Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents."

Perhaps it is fitting that this week’s lesson presents Jesus, in his primary colors, not as teacher of righteousness, but as savior of sinners. One whose joy comes in finding the lost.

We long for, hunger for, good news, in a time of loss. Come September 11, a nation remembers 3,000 dead 21 years ago, a time of loss. Come Thursday afternoon past, the globe remembers the decades of selfless life and service of a Queen, and now grieves the death of a global Queen, a time of loss. Institutions near and far experience transition in leadership, with a sense of loss. A denomination reels from the shocks of sudden and coming division, and there is loss. A freshman, class of 2026, away from home for the first time, feels loss. You can feel lost in a time of loss. As Queen Elizabeth said in 1997: We have all been trying to cope in our different ways. It is not easy to express a sense of loss, since the initial shock is often succeeded by a mixture of other feelings: disbelief, incomprehension, anger and concern for those who remain (NYT, 9/9/22). Entering the autumn of 2022, together, for all our losses, we are intent on sewing together again, knitting together again, the fabric of our common life. Jesus’ parables tend to remind us, through thick and thin, of what matters, lasts and counts. As today. Those who follow and heed him, as we are trying to do, can rejoice in that: joy in the presence of the angels of God.

This Sunday, this year, ‘September 11’ we remember both in the opening prayers and in the sermon for today. Our bulletin for the day, as in other years, lists the names of those BU men and women lost on that tragic day, 9/11/01. In 2011, we telephoned the families of those who died that day, to express our continued remembrance of them, and our shared sense of ongoing mourning and grief. They were some of the most memorable pastoral conversations of my time here at BU thus far. Boston University memorial services have been held every five years at Marsh Chapel and on Marsh Plaza (2006, 2011, 2016, 2021). The service for 2011, held on the Plaza, included in leadership President Robert A. Brown, Robert Pinsky

(former Poet Laureate of the USA and current BU faculty), the University Chaplains, and the Marsh Chapel choir.

In addition, throughout this past week we have joined with others in welcoming a new class of students, the class of 2026. Throughout this past week on campus there has been a palpable, shared, expressed desire to connect, to know, to invite, to welcome. You make it evident right now in our service of worship. You all have more than done your own part in this: an opening brunch, a chaplains’ meeting, a Marsh Chapel matriculation service, the University Matriculation, a first class day breakfast, a greening of the dorms, a midweek worship service, a co-curricular programs fair, a religious life fair, a garden party, choir practices and auditions, staff gatherings, a completed term book, a reception for theological students, a big Saturday SPLASH, barbecue luncheon today following worship, and many individual greetings, conversations and prayers. All this in aid of helping, supporting, and guiding 18-year-olds toward places, spaces, and gatherings wherein they will be ‘found’, wherein they will find themselves at least in part, wherein there will be a shared joy, a heavenly joy, an angelic joy, joy in the presence of the angels of God.

St. Luke encourages us with a word about finding the lost. It is notable that here, in this congregation and listenership, the numinous oddities of language in Luke 15 you do understand and use. We hear you use these great words, and use them well. One says to his son, in the pew, as the Scripture is read, “I remember—a parable is a story with a message, and I remember that Jesus always taught using parables. He taught by telling stories. These parables were set in the countryside, and were about people and about justice. Jesus taught adults with simple stories.” You understand ‘parable’. Someone else, driving home today, interprets the word ‘joy’ for her rider: “Joy is God’s delight, given us by God’s spirit. Joy is one of the footprints, hallmarks, earmarks, landmarks, benchmarks of the Holy Spirit. What pleasure is to the body, joy is to the soul.” I might have thought that ‘repentance’ would throw you, but no. In the choir, disrobing, an alto tells a bass, “Repentance means to turn around, to head home, to dust off and try again, like that story about the son and the pigs.” And angel, you might add, means messenger, and presence means joy, and heaven means the message of the presence of joy. Then, at Monday evening community dinner, talking to a theological student, an engineering student might ask the definition of sin. The response: Well, it literally means to miss the mark, but it has two parts. First is the personal part, ‘lust, gluttony, avarice, sloth, anger, envy, pride’. Or as Howard Thurman would say, ‘cutting against the grain of

your own wood…listen for the sound of the genuine, listen for the sound of the genuine…you are the only person like you, just like you, that the world has ever seen…listen for the genuine inside you’. Second is the pervasive part, the gone-wrongness in life. Sin is the power of death, throughout life. Sin is the condition of life under which treachery takes place. Sin is the absence of God. Sin is an orb of confusion in the world. Personal, pervasive. Well said!

We could add, sin is personal like that expressed in our epistle, 1 Timothy. Jesus comes for others, as 1 Timothy said, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the foremost”. When one is lost, as here and also in the later account of the Welcoming Father, one can become anxious, depressed, dislocated, and alone. Someone found is the cause of inexpressible delight, joy. Including the lonely, discovering the dislocated, reconnecting with the disappeared—these moments provide a heavenly joy, (vs. 7), a consequence of the discovery of the lost we are intent on sewing together again, knitting together again, the fabric of our common life.

We could add, sin is pervasive, like that expressed in our reading from Jeremiah. Sin has a corporate, expansive, even institutional reality. We mistake its power, if we see it only, say, in personal life. That of course is real, and true. Sin is like the advance or retreat of a great thunderstorm, a frontal advance, though theological not meteorological. Sin is like a city blacked out, a power far beyond any individual lamp turned down, any individual light switch hit. Sin is a shadow, the one great shadow. Whatever is not of faith, is sin. And that is quite a lot in this world. Sin is all that mutes the voice. Do we blame sheep—hardly by the way a comprehensively intelligent beast--for getting lost? It is his nature. Do we blame the coin—inanimate, hardly noticeable—for getting lost? It is Isaac Newton’s gravity at work. But we only see sin clearly when we are ready to see it, by revelation, and often only once we have left its borders behind. Like all lasting reality, we know it in retrospect.

Sin is what Jeremiah, in all the autumn readings of 2016, was warning us about, what we could and would not see in the coming religious, cultural, social and ultimately political condition of our country. It is hard but saving to have Jeremiah with us again all fall this year. Sin is what Jeremiah was warning us about in all the autumn readings of 2019, what we could not see in a coming pandemic, and an unprepared infrastructure and a mendacious national leadership, and ultimately, touching home right in these pews, the

deaths of a million just in our own land. It is hard but saving to have Jeremiah with us again all fall this year, and to hear his harsh warning again today.

That is, the power of sin vastly surpasses any individual, human attempt at cure. Individuals may behave morally or immorally, usually some of both. But corporate, pervasive sin lives on, as R Niebuhr taught so long ago: “Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible, but man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary”. Sin is that ‘inclination’. And, “if social cohesion is impossible without coercion, and coercion is impossible without the creation of social injustice, and the destruction of injustice is impossible without the use of further coercion, are we not in an endless cycle of social conflict?” Sin is that ‘impossible’.

As Wesley said, “sin remains even when it does not reign.”

We have much to do to wrestle with pervasive sin, with the global challenges of pollution, Putin, pandemic, prices, prejudice, politics, and pain. Jane Addams said it of our nation, but her insight now fits our world: “The blessings which we associate with a life of refinement and cultivation must be made universal if they are to be permanent. The good we secure for ourselves is precarious and uncertain, is floating in midair, until it is secured for all of us and incorporated into our common life”.

Jesus’ parables tend to remind us, through thick and thin, of what matters, lasts and counts. We smile to recall Queen Elizabeth saying and repeating, as was remembered this week, ‘our determination to do the right thing will stand the test of time’. As today. Those who follow and heed Jesus, as you are trying to do, can rejoice in that. Daniel Marsh was one such. Boston University has had ten presidents since 1869, and the chartering of our school. Five were Methodist Ministers—Warren, Huntingdon, Murlin, MARSH, Case. The other five—Christ-Janer, Silber, Westling, Chobanian and Brown—were a lawyer, a philosopher, an historian, a physician, and a chemical engineer. Daniel Marsh came in 1926 from the Smithfield Avenue Methodist Church pulpit in Pittsburgh, and retired in 1951. In 1968 with his second wife, Arline, he was interred here in the chancel of Marsh Chapel, a long time by the way before cremation and columbaria were widely practiced. He built the buildings to the left and right of us, and he built the chapel later named for him. But he did so through thick and thin. A lack funds. A great depression. The second world war. Post war inflation. But he persevered. He wanted this great university to have at its spiritual, geographical, historical, architectural and

religious center, a chapel, devoted to gathering the lonely, healing the broken, comforting the afflicted, afflicting the comfortable, and especially, especially, finding the lost. He wanted the partnership of the gospel—the fellowship, sharing, commonwealth, partnership of the gospel to be spoken and lived, that those lost might be found, that those enmeshed in sin and death and the threat of meaninglessness, might be discovered, embraced and loved. Until her passing in autumn 2019, his daughter, Nancy Marsh Hartman, was in church in the front pew every Sunday—that is every Sunday, teaching others by example how to sing, sing lustily, the hymns of faith in the Methodist tradition. She could tell you about pursuing what matters, lasts and counts, through thick and thin. You know she must smile from on high, to see her chapel filling up in the autumn of the year. She would remind those in, or entering, ministry, that the minister is present for those who are not yet present. She would ask, without speaking, who is not here, not yet here who yet could be? She would whole heartedly share the sentiment of Queen Elizabeth, Christmas 1957, I cannot lead you into battle, I do not give you laws or administer justice, but I can do something else, I can give you my heart (NYT 9/9/22)

You beloved come from a long line of warm-hearted people. In the spring of 1973 at Ohio Wesleyan University, a small Methodist college for small Methodists, the telephone rang in the hallway of the TKE fraternity. You know that the telephone was invented in a Boston University laboratory by Alexander Graham Bell about 1880, a beautiful, human, vocal mode of discovery and communication. No one answered because, well, it was early morning. The phone was across the hall though and without voice mail to interrupt, it continued. Bleary eyed, I woke and answered. Is that you Bob? This is Professor Freiburg. Your biology final exam began 10 minutes ago. WHERE ARE YOU? The next ten minutes witnessed the fastest bicycle ride on Sandusky Street in recorded history, and the taking of the one empty seat and the taking of a last test in a great course by a beloved teacher, one who cared enough to find the lost. God is at work in the world to make and keep human life human, but good in history never comes without humans at work on it, without a faithful people of warm heart.

Hear Good News: Entering the autumn of 2022, together, for all our losses, we are intent on sewing together again, knitting together again, the fabric of our common life. With confidence. Our 10th President Robert A. Brown used that word, confidence, Latin con fide, ‘with faith’ this week: “I think we’re just a very different University today, not just for students, but for faculty and staff, too,” Brown says. “We’re much more mature. We’re

much more confident… I think the best is yet to come.” Jesus’ parables tend to remind us, through thick and thin, of what matters, lasts and counts. As today. Those who follow and heed him, as we are trying to do, can rejoice in that: joy, joy, joy.. in the presence of the angels of God.

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

Sunday
September 4

Listen To Your Life (Matriculation, 2022)

By Marsh Chapel

Click here to hear the full service

Luke 14:25–33

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Gracious God, 
In this holy moment, a day of new beginnings: 
We summon the better angels of our nature to sit quietly before you in gratitude. 
For the gift of your love to inspire us in our freshman year, to quicken us to try, to join, to sign up, to get out, we are peacefully thankful. 
For the gift of your presence to sustain us in our sophomore year, to strengthen us to continue, to persevere, to stay up, to move on, we are simply thankful. 
For the gift or your power to embolden us in our junior year, to encourage us to achieve, to give, to change, to travel, to grow, we are spiritually thankful. 
For the gift of your peace to illumine us in our senior year, to steady us to plan, to finish, to complete, to leave, we are personally thankful. 
Help us to love what is lovely, to be present to what is real, to find strength in what lasts, and to know peace in what honors, but surpasses, understanding. Help us to listen to our lives, to learn deeply from our own experience. 
Inspired by your love, sustained by your presence, encouraged by your power, confirmed by your peace, day by day our life before you flows on in endless song. 
Empower us we pray to listen to our lives, with keen care to listen to our lives 
For the privilege of these coming few days, these fast four years, we are thankful. Amen. 

 

Beloved children of God, hear the Gospel, so befitting Matriculation, the Gospel According to St. Luke in the fourteenth chapter and the 25th verse. 

Count the cost.  Ahead of time, count the cost.  By way of illustration:  in business, and in war.  And in everything in between.  Count the cost.  How could we not think this morning of those suffering the terror of warfare in Ukraine?  How could we not think this morning of those—so regularly the least, the last and the lost—suffering the jolts and tides of inflation and coming recession? 

Do the arithmetic, study the detail, count. 

You, careful listener, you recognize that Luke 14: 25-33 is not Jesus talking, but Luke writing.  You realize that Jesus left no written record, like Socrates in that.  You recognize that he spoke Aramaic, not Greek, and whether or not he was literate.  You recall the arithmetic of his life, death and destiny, the years 4bce to 33ce, and the distance of those from our reading, Luke 14, in 85ce, at the earliest (some would date Luke much later).  What we hear this morning is, in the first instance, not the voice of Jesus but the composition of Luke.   Of course, and granted, there will be traces of Jesus’ voice, along the way, particularly in Luke 9-19, especially, and especially there in the parables, his own mode of teaching, without which nothing.  In all, though, and on the bigger whole, this is not Jesus’ voice but Luke’s writing.  This makes all the arithmetical difference in the world, these 50 years and 2 opposed forms of rhetoric. 

Now, it may be, gazing again at the bulletin, or ruminating on the remembered reading of the Gospel, the high-water mark of our worship each Sunday, you begin to wonder, to ponder, to question.  Good.  We learn most from the questions we ask, and most of us most of the time need more reminder than instruction. Sitting in the balcony, seated with your family, pondering whether to join the choir, or whether to return to Chapel for dinner or study.  Perhaps these are your questions, or some of them. 

Why this discussion of hatred, when the Gospel in other clothing is centrally about love?  Why this denigration of family, when the family is one of the protected entities in the Decalogue, the ten commandments:  protection of truth, of communication, of speech, of worship, of family, of life, of property, of marriage, of law, and of commerce?  Therein, whence the rejection of life itself, when otherwise the Gospel acclaims life, having life, and having life in abundance?   There seems to be some counting and accounting needed. 

More so:  What is the mention here of the cross?  Jesus in this narrative, in these chapters, is preaching, teaching, healing, going about in Galilee and Judea a free itinerant prophet.  All of a sudden, here comes a word from much later, ‘cross’.  Was Jesus making a prediction that only he could see and understand?  Or is this a clue to the fountain and origin of this passage, the church’ struggles and the mind of Luke?  Cross?  Cross?  I thought we were sharing parables and blessing children and rounding up disciples.  Moreso, the cross is ‘one’s own cross’.  The writer seems to assume that all will get the reference, including you, and me, to the cross.  How all this talk about the cross when Jesus just now in Luke is teaching in parables and healing the sick, a long way from Jerusalem and ‘the cross’? 

Even more so:  How is it that all of a sudden, everyone around Jesus is expected to be a monk?  Ridding oneself of all, all, not most, not much, but all possessions?  All.  That’s at a lot, even in an era of tunics, ephods, camels, donkeys, sandals, fishing, shepherding and travel by foot.  All?  What is transpiring here? 

Nor does this seem metaphorical, in a way that some current preaching would likely choose.   Hatred—well, you know, not exactly hatred but mature self-differentiation.  Life—well, you know, not exactly life in the sense of breath and nourishment, but in the sense of deep meaning.  Cross—well, you know, not exactly crucifixion in the bloody and excruciating physical sense, but self-discipline, more in the sense of yoga.  Possessions—well, you know, not in exactly the form of car, home, bank account and pension, but in the sense of a general materiality, of not letting your possessions possess you.  No, actually Luke 14 does not seem or sound metaphorical at all, regarding hatred, life, cross, or possessions.  It sounds literal, actual, straightforward enough. 

To faithfully interpret these kinds of verses we shall need in the next generation—your generation—a full and fulsome liberal biblical theology.  Maybe one or three of you will invest in such work. 

Forgive what is only an interpretative guess, even less than that, yet after many decades of hearing these harsh words, even in Luke–the Gospel of peace, the Gospel of love, the Gospel of church, the Gospel of freedom—these are phrases that sound like the esoteric, ascetic, anti-worldliness of the emerging gnostic movement.  It is as if here, in Luke and Matthew, by way of Q, some measure of the enthusiastic pessimism, the bodily asceticism, the turning away from the world which we know in full in full Gnosticism, has grown up alongside the gospel, wheat and tares together sown.    There are strong parallels, almost identical, in the Gospel of Thomas, a gnosticizing document of about the same time as Luke. And there are strong parallels in Poimandres, a fully gnostic document of about the same time as Luke (Fitzmeier, Anchor, 1064). 

Uncompromising demands regarding self, regarding family, and regarding possessions may well be part of the life of faith, warns Luke out of the gnostic shadows of his sources.  He warns us as we come to faith.  He reminds us of the gift of faith. Like all serious engagements, this spiritual one is not be entered into lightly, but reverently, discreetly and in the fear of God.  ‘Jesus counsels his followers not to decide on discipleship without advance, mature self-probing’.   It is as if Jesus is saying, ‘come along, I want to make this for you the hardest decision of your life’. 

So.  This may mean that the struggles under this passage of Holy Scripture, our sufficient rule of faith and practice, are from 85ad, not 30ad.  That there is in the emerging church a set of conflicts that require some arithmetic, some counting and accounting.  How much home, how much away?  How much kindness, how much honesty?  How much self-affirmation and how much self-abnegation?  How much materiality and how much spirituality?  Before you set out, to go to college or to take a job or to move in together or to get married or to sell the farm or to go to war or to build a tower, well, you might want to…do the math. 

 

St. Luke wrestled with formational questions in the first century: For whom is the gospel? What are the definitive texts? And especially, who shall hold authority?  What, How, Where. And Who? Here Luke wrestles with these costs and their accounting.  “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up,” said Paul.  

Aristotle taught us to attend to the true, the good, the beautiful. In the late fourth century there emerged a good, great leader of the church, Ambrose of Milan. In just eight days he went from unbaptized layman to Bishop. His rhetorical skill, musicianship, diplomatic agility and attention to the preparations for Baptism provided the power behind his lasting influence in Northern Italy.  

The greatest teacher of the earlier church, Augustine of Hippo, came to Milan a non-Christian. From the influence of Ambrose, he left baptized and believing and worked a generation to set the foundations for the church over a thousand years to come.  

Ambrose inspired Augustine.  A quiet, humble, modest, reserved, shy, gracious, mild-mannered, self-effacing, understated person, a plow horse not a show horse.  A plow horse not a show horse. A lot of progress can be made when we do not linger too long over who gets the credit.  

Some years ago, we went to a church meeting near Canada on a very cold night. It was led by our Bishop. For some reason I was not in a very happy mood, nor was I very charitable in my internal review of his remarks that evening. I do not recall his topic or theme. I remember clearly seeing him help to move hymnals, borrowed from other churches for the large crowd, so they could be returned. Snow, dark, long arms carrying a dozen hymnals into the tundra.  

Think of someone you have known who  properly counted costs, who lived with heartfelt passion for the common good, who lived in selfless ways, a ‘person for others’, to cite Bonhoeffer.   

 

Every one of us has some influence. If you have a pen, a smart phone, a computer, email, a tongue, a household, a family, a job, a community—then you have some influence.  

Who taught you, by precept and example, how to use it? How much of what you picked up needs keeping and how much needs to be put out on the curb?  

A simple passion for the common good of the servants of God is at the heart of faithful living.  What is new?  Here is what I need you to do for me.  What should I pray for you?  This is what we learn when we listen to our lives.   

This was the phrase Frederick Buechner, an exemplary chaplain of another era, who died last week, tried to summarize his hundreds of sermons and 95 years of life:  listen to your life.

Gerson wrote: When the late Frederick Buechner — novelist, preacher, Christian apologist — was asked to summarize the single essential insight of his prolific writing and speaking career, he would respond, “Listen to your life”.

“If indeed there is a God,” he explained, “which most of the time I believe there is, and if indeed he is concerned with the world, which the Christian faith is saying … one of the ways he speaks to us, and maybe one of the most powerful ways, is through what happens to us.”… “Pay attention to moments,” he said, when “unexpected tears come to your eyes and what may trigger them.” He was talking about those sudden upwellings of emotion we get from the sublimity of nature or art, when we see a whale breaching, or are emotionally ambushed by a line in a film or poem. We are led toward truth and beauty by a lump in the throat.  (M Gerson, WAPO, 8/22/22). 

May what Paul wrote of Philemon be said of us: When I remember you in my prayers, I always thank my God because I hear of your love for all the saints and your faith toward the Lord Jesus. 

 

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