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

March 19

Augustine: Pelagius

By Marsh Chapel

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John 9:1-41

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*Due to the length of the worship service, the original text of this sermon was condensed. Therefore, the recorded sermon will differ from the text below. 

John 9 is about dislocation.  It is about the expulsion of a small group of Jewish Christians from a traditional synagogue.  One word, 9:22, holds the whole gospel of the day, ‘out of the synagogue’. They were cast out of the synagogue, dislocated, a fearsome hurt now known by many directly, in illness, in separation, in isolation, in loneliness and dislocation.  And known better, if we have eyes to see and ears to hear, by those of us who may just acquire a little more sympathy, a little more compassion, a little more care, for those in need, as we swirl through this season of need.

‘The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes, and said to me, ‘Go to Siloam and wash’.  Then I went and washed and received my sight.’

John 9 describes the healing of a man born blind, and the communal controversy surrounding that healing.  Like the rest of the Gospel, this passage reports two layers of healing, of blindness, of community, and of controversy.   On one hand, the passage remembers, perhaps by the aid of a source or as part of a source, a moment in the ministry of Jesus (30ce), in which a man is given sight.  On the other hand, the passage announces the spiritual unshackling of a hero in the community (90ce), who bears witness to what Jesus has done for him, no matter the repercussions from others, from parents, from family, from community.

The preacher in the Johannine community of the late first century is telling the story of the Son of Man.  To do so, he celebrates the courageous witness to healing, and the courageous endurance of expulsion, of a man born blind.  Here, he says, is what I mean by faith.  The story he uses comes, through un-trackable oral and written traditions, from 30ce.  The story he tells comes from 90ce.  Every character in the story has two roles.  Jesus is both earthly rabbi and heavenly redeemer.  The blind man is both historic patient and current hero.  The family is from both Palestinian memory and diaspora synagogue.  The opponents are both the contemporaries of Jesus and the nearby inhabitants of the synagogue, the Johannine community’s former home.   When Jesus gives sight, Christ gives freedom.  When the blind one is cured, the congregation sees truth.  When the man is cast out of his synagogue, the community of the beloved disciple recognizes their own most recent expulsion.  When others criticize Jesus, the synagogue is criticizing the church.  When the healing story ends, the life of faith begins.  His voice both addresses you and emanates from you.  Not your voice, his is nonetheless…your voice.

John 9 illumines the central struggle of the community, their bitter spiritual itinerancy from the familiar confines of Christian Judaism, out into the unknown wilderness of Jewish Christianity.  History and the history of religions bear manifold witness to this kind of crisis in communal identity, and the long hard trail of travel from primary to secondary identity.  In retrospect, as a community gathers itself in its new setting (think of the pilgrims in Boston, the Mormons in Utah, the Cherokee in Oklahoma, and every entering class each autumn at Boston University) the story of the tearful trail itself becomes the heart of communal memory and imagination.

What is here unearthed in John 9 can also and readily be applied to the rest of the Gospel of John as well:  to the wedding at Cana, to Nicodemus, to the woman at the well, to the healing on the water, to the feeding of the thousands, to the controversies with the Jews, to the raising of Lazarus, to the farewell discourse, to the trial and passion.  All of these reflect the experience in dramatic interaction between the synagogue and John’s church. This includes, later, the mysterious figure of the Paraclete, the Spirit, who functions as Jesus’ eternal presence in the world, Jesus, God ‘striding on earth’ (Kasemann).  In this way, the Paraclete himself creates the two level drama.  Where the world is mono focal, and can see only the historical level of Jesus in history or only the theological level of Jesus in the witness of the Christian community, the Paraclete binds the two together.  The Word dwelling among us, and our beholding his glory, are not past events only.  They transpire in a two-level drama.  They transpire both on the historical and contemporary levels, OR NOT AT ALL.  Their transpiration on both levels is itself the good news, an overture to the rapturous discoveries of freedom in disappointment, grace in dislocation, and love in departure.  Especially, in John 9, through dislocation. Tell me sometime about your worst lived dislocation.

    Into our existential dislocations today strides this year’s Lenten conversation partner, Augustine of Hippo, in and through his own momentous conflict with Pelagius, a conflict let us say between Pelagius and the freedom of the will, and Augustine and freeing of the will, freedom vs. freeing.  Our teacher Professor David Lotz, UTS 1976, guided us skillfully through Augustine’s conflict with Pelagius.  One readily remembers the thrill of the lectures, the skill of the lecturer, and the chill of a new and challenging claim to truth.  With gratitude I rely today on the abiding memory of his classes, and the scrawled penciled notes of his presentations.  Take heart, BU teachers, lectures, well honed, live for decades, as do Dr. Lotz’s today

    Pelagius’s biography is scarce.  He was apparently a monk of either British or Irish origin, who appeared in Rome near the year 400ce, lecturing as a moral theologian.  Pelagius was shocked by the overly pessimistic views of the human capacity for good, which he found prevalent in Rome at the time.  Rather, he judged that human beings could know and do God’s will.  His refrain was, Give what you command, Lord, and command what you will.

    Pelagius insisted on human responsibility and moral choice.  Such responsibility and such moral choice, inevitably entailed unconditional free will.  Without freedom of the will, there can be no truly human responsibility, nor any serious moral choice.  If sin is inevitable, he reasoned, then the nerve of moral responsibility is severed.  Furthermore, both the Old and New Testaments (the Ten Commandments, the Sermon on the Mount, Moses, Jesus) expect and command…perfection.  So far, he sounds like a pretty good Methodist to me.  And therein lies the problem.

    Pelagius argued with vehemence that commands, and commandments, would not have been given, if they were not able to be followed, if they were not followable.  That would be cruel and unusual.  He further argued, here one could say like Immanuel Kant, that an ‘ought’ entails a ‘can’.  If you ought to do it, then you can do it.  Again, anything other would be cruel and unusual.  The human being has the freedom to obey or to disobey the divine command(s). Posse peccare, posse non peccare, the ability to sin and not to sin (Augustine will later counter that this was true of Adam, but no longer true, not true of you and me).  Even further, Pelagius rejects the idea that the human will has ‘an intrinsic bias toward wrong-doing…after the fall’.  He, Pelagius, is thus a ‘creationist’, believing that the soul is immediately created by God at birth.  He does admit that with the human creature there has come along, has come down over time, a ‘habit of disobedience’.  There is no congenital evil, there is no congenital sin, in the child.  Hence, for Pelagius, and now we come to the crux of the matter, the heart of the argument, the sacrament of baptism was a sanctification, but not a means of grace, not a means of regeneration.

    We might jump in here to say that in the Empire wide argument that followed, Pelagius lost the day.  He lost to…your friend and mine for Lent 2023, Augustine of Hippo.  Why did Pelagius lose and Augustine win?  The answer in part is that Augustine took to heart, took seriously, and made heartfelt and serious sense of…baptism.  And to some further extent of…the virgin birth. Augustine made sense of the church’s practice, the church’s cultus.

    Now Pelagius did not assert human autonomy.  The argument between Pelagius and Augustine, at least to this human sermonic interpreter, with whom, saints preserve us, you are stuck for the moment, for these 22 minutes,  their argument was far more nuanced than sometimes it is made out to be.  For Pelagius, grace is necessary…to achieve perfection. And this is the crux of the disagreement.  For Pelagius, the ability not to sin, posse non peccare, comes straight from nature, from the ‘necessity of nature’, which is…get ready for it…implanted by God the Creator as a GIFT. Whoever disparages nature disparages God, because God is the Creator, the maker of heaven and earth, of nature itself.   For Pelagius, in addition, grace is also the revelation through reason of God’s law, which is instructive in holiness.  Like a good Renaissance philosopher, like a good modern liberal, like, well, let us admit it, like a good Methodist of any stripe, Pelagius sees God in all creatures great and small, in the words of  James Herriott.  Further, he finds in the human reason, in human rationality, evidence of man as God’s image.  For Pelagius, grace works in a limited way, as forms of external aids (Moses and Jesus), to the human will.  The human being is good and free, free and good, but can always use a little help from friends.  Going further, Pelagius’s understands predestination (what will later become for Augustine even double predestination, and an entirely different matter) as (simply, merely) foreknowledge of merit.

    The bottom line: One can if one will, one can if one will, observe God’s commandments without sinning.  You can if you think you can.  (Here we notice a hint or echo of that powerful positive thinker Methodist and graduate of BUSTH, Norman Vincent Peale: You can if you think you can…of whom, remember, Adlai Stevenson said, ‘I find Paul appealing…and Peale appalling’). Sinlessness can gradually and progressively be attained by…strenuous efforts of the will.  Sinlessness remains a possibility, especially as it is infused by an intense awareness of God’s majesty.  Go and sin no more.  Should you need an example, you have before you Jesus Christ.  Christ sets the norm of holy living.  You will have to admit that on this rendering, Pelagius makes a pretty good case for what many of us, much of the time, mostly believe.  We believe in and celebrate the freedom of the will.

    Pelagius writings were distributed and widely read between 380ce and 410ce.  His supporters included Celestius, and, one of Augustine’s most formidable opponents, Julian the Bishop of Eclanum.

      Enter Augustine of Hippo, 354-430ce.  Augustine’s own thought had been worked out long before the Pelagian controversy.  The fight with Pelagius merely allowed him to fill out the implications.  That is, Augustine thought that Adam, Adam was created perfect, and Adam’s will, Adam’s will was in conjunction with God. Vita ordinate…an orderly life, an ordered life.  The body is ordered by the soul and the soul is ordered by God.  Adam, Adam possessed the ability not to sin.  God had granted Adam a grace of perseverance.  And grace was already and fully operative in paradise.  Otherwise, Adam would soon have sinned, early rather than late.  Adam’s only weakness, his only malady or imperfection or shortcoming was his creatureliness.  This was an ontological weakness.  So how could Adam fall, sin, fall short? Because he is a creature, his nature is that of a creature, he is imbued with creatureliness: Adam is contingent, mutable, ex nihilo, made out of nothing.  So, in that fateful moment of weakness, and on the prompting of his own pride, on the prompting of his own pride chose to turn away from God.  And that curse has now passed to the whole of humanity.  The human being, man is massa damnata, ‘a condemned crowd’. 

      The essence of Adam’s sin, according to Augustine, is that we all participate in sin and guilt, we all participate in sin and guilt.  In that we are all actually one with Adam.  Augustine does not explain actually how sin is passed on, whether by ‘the seed’ (‘traducianism’) or otherwise, expect to say that the soul is handed down ‘by parental conception’. As Romans 5: 12 says, ‘in whom all have sinned’.  (Except that the Greek text reads, ‘because all have sinned’ (here at least Augustine’ argument is based on a mistranslation.)

      For Augustine, though, creation is not evil.  Creation is good.  Creation is not evil but good.  Yet creation is sullied by Adam’s fall.  Adam’s accident, let us say.  Sin is lack, sin is non-being.  Nature has been scarred but nature is not depraved.  Yet as a result of the fall, as a consequence of Adam’s sin, we have lost our freedom.  We have lost the ability not to sin.  We are not able not to sin.  We have lost our liberty (libertum), but not our ‘liberum arbitrium’.  We continue to choose.  We know this from our experience.  But…free will always and inevitably on its own chooses the evil, due to its perverse nature.  Hence…grace is an utter necessity, an absolute necessity, without grace we are absolutely lost. Grace is the divinely given power to avoid and conquer sin.  Not freedom, but grace.  Not creation, but re-creation, then, is what we need, not creation but redemption.  Not the freedom of the will, but the freeing of the will. And this can come about only through God’s grace.  For grace prevents us from doing evil (gratia praevenia), prepares us to do good, and helps us in the actual doing of good (gratia cooperans, gratia sonneans (healing grace). After all, remember Romans 7: ‘the good I want I do not, but evil I do not want, that is what I do’.

      Here Augustine finishes the case.  We experience healing grace throughout the course of our lives…in the church’s sacraments.  It is grace therefore which equips us to do the good.  Perfection is never wholly attained (here Wesley goes out the window).  The disease of being human, of being alive is never completely cured.  Justification is progressive sanctification.  Through Scripture!  Through Apostolic Tradition! Through Faith!  Through Personal Experience!  Here Augustine, a most autobiographical theologian, faces God by facing himself, and sees without a shadow of doubt that as he looked back on his life he could not explain the shape it took…without recourse to grace.  ‘Let me be chaste…but not yet’.  Augustine, in this sense, is the supreme Methodist, an utterly autobiographical theologian.  Not his own freedom, but God’s freeing love, saved him.  With Augustine, though we may not entirely see things his way, at a minimum this Lent, let us cherish God’s freeing love, God who is loving us into love and freeing us into freedom. God who is loving us into love and freeing us into freedom.

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

      March 12

      Augustine: Take and Read

      By Marsh Chapel

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      John 4:5-42

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      Take and read, take and read.  To live the gospel, to love the gospel, to hear and receive the good news, the gospel, means to read, to take, to take and read.  May your reading life in faith, your faithful life in reading, be rekindled today, forever fixed today, made happy and whole today.  You are what and how you read. 

      John 4, as we read it today, may be the loveliest, finest narrative in the Fourth Gospel. The woman at the well, the Samaritan woman, meets Jesus and meets us in conversation. She is the quintessential conversationalist.  And she is a woman of power, to be reckoned with, a strong contralto voice daring to challenge, willing to differ with, honest by courage and hard experience, a right true voice not only for Women’s History Month in 2023, but also, and staggeringly more so for her presence and prominence in the Gospel of John, written in 90ce. 

      And what a wonder is there in the faintest conversation, let alone this dominical discussion! Ours today, from John 4, is holy, telling conversation, full of the unexpected, full of surprise, full of the utterly personal, full of revelation, full of boundary breaking courage, full of what is saving, healthy, lasting, meaningful, real, and good. Conversation thrives when you know your content, your work, and your audience. There is a mystery lurking under the disarming surface of the simplest conversation. My friend says her favorite two words are ‘awe’ and ‘conversation’. We could add that the two are not very far removed, or apart from each other. 

      It may have been that the community which gave birth to the Gospel of John included some Samaritans. This would explain the prominence of this long, intricate passage, devoted to the conversation of Jesus with a Samaritan woman. The Samaritans were outsiders. Here, one of their own takes center--stage. In our time when those outside—immigrants, refugees, the poor, the different, the other—are steadily subjected to heightened measures of exclusion, we benefit from reminders, like this from John 4, that we are called as people of faith, called as Christian people, to care, succor, attention and protection of the ‘least’ among us. The larger question, and it is very much an open question, is whether the humiliation spreading out right now through civil society and culture–wherein inherited, precious forms of civil society are daily shredded with a gratuitous cruelty–coming now to us over the next decade, will chasten us, will humble us, will in that way strengthen us by the faithfulness of Jesus Christ. He it is, today, who announces His own presence, and Lordship, in the course of a meandering conversation: I am He, the One who is speaking to you…A spring of water gushing up to eternal life.  

      Close reading is crucial to health. 

      One day, we visited a dear saint in her home. It was a Christmas morning, following the morning service, with a light snow, and 10 degrees on the Fahrenheit scale. She had been in hospital that week, and sat recuperating in her parlor. Her family was with her. And she had a story to tell.  It is a story to commend and recommend close reading, reading every word, reading as the zenith and apex of spiritual life, even in our age wherein since 2012, at our beloved school (and many others) majors in the humanities have dropped by 50%. 

      Earlier that week, on that Tuesday, she had prepared to be taken, by ambulance, from one hospital to another, for a particular procedure. She was a fine, older Methodist lady, so she prepared herself for the trip with what dignity one can muster in a hospital bed, robed in a hospital gown, and alone in the corridor of life. A little makeup, a comb and brush, some careful adjustments of remaining raiment, glasses perched, smile shining.  

      She could see the elevator door open, and her stretcher moving out. Then the attendants clearly mentioned her name as they signed the paper work at the desk. The nurse motioned across the hall in the general direction of her room. She poised herself, prepared to be a good, courteous patient. Down the hall the men came, and she waved. They returned the gesture. To her door they rolled—and then, remarkably, rolled on by! They passed to the next room, 129 not 128—such a small difference, a difference for which one needs close reading, a room inhabited alone by a frail, kindly woman who was deaf as a post. Her name was not Smith. “Mrs. Smith?” “YES” she replied, her volume in inverse proportion to her accuracy. Into the stretcher went the wrong woman, and down the hall they moved. My dear parishioner called out, used her buzzer, flailed her arms like a gypsy at the campfire. But in a New York minute they were gone, carrying away the wrong person. On the way home, following the procedure, someone apparently had the presence of mind to look at the stretchered woman’s wrist band, name tag. I wonder how the reader felt not to see the name Smith. A rare moment of revelation. In this case, little lasting harm occurred. Our hospitals, in fact, to my eye, given their hourly commitment to excellence and attention to detail, put other institutions to shame. In this and many ways, the physicians out do the metaphysicians, in the main. 

      Yet metaphysical distinctions matter, really matter, as well. There is a crucial difference between sacrifice and misery. There is a crucial difference between holiness and compassion. There is a crucial difference between law and love. There is crucial difference between representation and redemption. There is a crucial difference between incantation and incarnation. There is a crucial difference between innocence and integrity. There is a crucial difference between independence and interdependence.  

      These are crucial distinctions. How are we ever going to make them, and learn consistently to make them well, to…read closely. 

      You go and read.  Our conversation partner this Lent, Augustine of Hippo, did so, to his saving benefit.  Augustine was saved by reading, neither the first so redeemed, nor the last. Take, and read.  Augustine is best known for a moment in reading, in a garden. 

      You may especially want to read those who have lived through other times of ruin. Reading frees you from the 21st century. Reading cuts you loose from your own time and place. Others too have taught and preached in the ruins of the church.  We imagine we are only generation to live, preach, tithe and die during the withering away of the church.  Not so.  You can, with some reading, read about it. 

      You may acquire a love of reading this Lent. I picture a bright late winter day. You are walking the emerald necklace, with lunch and a bag full of books.  You are taking a walk, Boston such a magnificent pedestrian city. 

      *You start out a Charlesgate, thinking about reading today…. 

      In our time, ‘literacy’ has a new meaning, referring not to those who can read, but to those who do read.  

      *You sit beside the lawn at Emmanuel College, to pray… 

      In prayer, we can trust the unseen God to give confidence, faith, and your lived capacity to withstand what you cannot understand. Sometimes that is all you have, the faith to withstand what you cannot understand. We are on the edge of eternity in every moment of life. You, teacher, you preacher, you pastor, are living testimony to the Eternal Now.  The one number, the one digital reference you need, at all is this one:  three score and ten, or if by reason of strength, four score. 

      *You find a quiet corner along the river and think about the impact of careful reading, and its absence… 

      Read now. You remember a history lecture from another year. Robert Kennedy did not have the freedom to do a research paper on Aeschylus the night Martin Luther King was killed, April 4 1968. He either had read or he hadn’t. He had. His 3 minutes in the Indianapolis rain were his greatest words, as George Eliot would have said, ingenious, pithy and without book, because he had read. There is but little left of the historic Protestant church in the Northeast. What there is clings for life to…words, to the words, to the Word. 

      *In the glade you wonder about the nature of reading itself… 

      And what relationship shall the reader have to the read? Who among us does anywhere near enough to deconstruct our own various contexts? Is the text to have the sole divining voice, or is the reader king? What of the relationship between the unsaid and the uttered? In reading, how do ranges of power dance with colors of truth? Is the truth of Scripture the sole truth—the truth, the whole truth, nothing but the truth? Or one truth among many? Or primus inter pares? Or an anachronism altogether? How then do you read? 

      Be careful how you read, for how read is how you think, and how you think is how you act, and how you act is who you are. 

      *You may circle the pond at Jamaica Plain, eat lunch, and read especially from those who have read and preached in various conditions of difficulty, of trouble, of troubles. 

      Here is an early spring Saturday in the sun. Take, Read.  

      From another generation, I have loved Frank McCourt, for McCourt in his Angela’s Ashes is really giving you a hymn to language. He sits by the hospital bed of his eleven year old girlfriend.  She teaches him a poem, “The Highwayman”…the highway man came riding… and yes,…she dies. He is so hungry that he finds a soiled newspaper, with the remains of fish and chips, and licks the grease…and the words…off the paper. That is, McCourt’s lovely bildungsroman, Angela’s Ashes, ends with the young boy escaping his past, escaping his family of origin, escaping the biology that threatens always to become full destiny, and feeding himself. He is so hungry that he finds trashed newspapers in which the daily fish and chips have been wrapped, and he licks the papers clean of scraps and bits and crumbs and oil, until the words on the paper fill his mouth. His whole book is about his deliverance, how he learned to live…by reading, how he learned to love…through words.  

      *At last, as the afternoon is fading, you had back to BU, you pause for a minute on the way home, to read this last passage from Augustine’s Confessions… 

      I was saying these things and weeping in the most bitter contrition of my heart, when suddenly I heard the voice of a boy or a girl I know not which–coming from the neighboring house, chanting over and over again, “Pick it up, read it; pick it up, read it.” [”tolle lege, tolle lege”] Immediately I ceased weeping and began most earnestly to think whether it was usual for children in some kind of game to sing such a song, but I could not remember ever having heard the like. So, damming the torrent of my tears, I got to my feet, for I could not but think that this was a divine command to open the Bible and read the first passage I should light upon. For I had heard how Anthony, accidentally coming into church while the gospel was being read, received the admonition as if what was read had been addressed to him: “Go and sell what you have and give it to the poor, and you shall have treasure in heaven; and come and follow me.” By such an oracle he was forthwith converted to thee. 

      So, I quickly returned to the bench where Alypius was sitting, for there I had put down the apostle’s book when I had left there. I snatched it up, opened it, and in silence read the paragraph on which my eyes first fell: “Not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying, but put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh to fulfill the lusts thereof.” I wanted to read no further, nor did I need to. For instantly, as the sentence ended, there was infused in my heart something like the light of full certainty and all the gloom of doubt vanished away. (Outler translation, Book V111) 

      At dinner someone may ask what the most recent Lenten Sunday sermon was about. You would say, well, it mentioned Augustine.  And, I think he was singing a song of love for reading; I think he was raising a hymn of praise for reading; I think he was lining out a psalm of affirmation for reading… 

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

      March 5

      Lenten Communion Meditation

      By Marsh Chapel

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      John 3:1-17

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      Great art Thou O Lord and greatly to be praised.  Great is thy power and thy wisdom is infinite.  Thee would we praise without ceasing.  For our hearts are restless until they find their rest in Thee. 

      Scripture and tradition depend on reason and experience.  Spirit involves reason and experience.  A question for you, day by day as mortality approaches, is whether you can find the courage to trust your own experience and whether you can find the capacity to rely on your own reason.  Opportunities to subcontract both are amply available.  But in order to live a life that is yours not almost yours, Spirit is needed. 

      The fourth gospel, with stories like of Nicodemus today, bears down on those who are almost people of faith.  Like Nicodemus, who have some but not the depth of the gift of faith, and later the Samaritan woman, and later the man born blind, and later Lazarus, and, in full and truth, later, the disciples themselves, who do not hear the gospel until after the cross.  We, many of us, are like that, are we not, especially in different seasons, when we slip on the ice, the ice of anxiety and depression, of alienation and disconnection.  John holds out for us for the fullness of faith, for a fervent love, like that of St. Augustine, our conversation partner, this Lent. 

      John had the courage to face the awful disappointment behind the New Testament:  Jesus did not return, not on schedule, not as expected, not soon and very soon, not maranatha, not yet.  But John looked at his own experience, and in biblical measure, with traditional tools, reasoned.   In place of apocalypse, he celebrated the artistry of the everyday, and in place of the speculation about the end, he celebrated the Spirit of truth, and in place of parousia, the coming of the Lord, he nominated Paraclete, the presence of the Lord.  He sang: You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.   One way to solve problems is to face them, to name them, to admit them.  No parousia.  Paraclete. Spirit! 

      The stark strangeness, the utter difference of John from the rest of the Bible we have yet fully to admit.  My beloved advisor, perhaps the greatest John scholar of our era, Fr. Raymond Brown, got only as far as saying that John is best understood as ‘an embraceable variant’, emphasis on embraceable less emphasis on variant.  But when we get to John 3, we see chiseled there in ice and covered fully with wind and snow, an enigmatic, mysterious riddle:  Spirit, sweet Spirit, Paraclete.  The endless enemy of conformity.  The lasting foe of the nearly lived life.  The champion of the quixotic.  The standard bearer of liberty.  The one true spirit of spirited truth.  Yet we cannot even give the history of the term, nor fully define its meaning, nor aptly place it in context, nor finally determine its translation.  Paraclete eludes us.  Paraclete evades us.  Paraclete outpaces us.  Paraclete escapes us. 

      Notice that in John, starting with Nicodemus, the Spirit is given to all, not just to a few or to the twelve, definitely not.  Notice that it is Spirit not structure on which John relies.  Notice it is Spirit not memory which we shall trust (good news for those whose memory may slip a little).  Notice that Spirit stands over against what John calls ‘world’ –another dark mystery in meaning.  Notice that the community around John’s Jesus is amply conveyed a powerful trust in Spirit. 

      Other parts of the New Testament take another trail.  The Book of Acts offers confidence by way of hagiographical memories of Peter and Paul, and of false but loving assertions of the utter agreement of Peter and Paul.  Trust your memory and when you cannot create a new memory.  The Pastoral Epistles—and to some degree 1 John in opposition to his gospel namesake—rely not on memory or memories and not on Spirit, but on structure:  presbyters, faith once delivered to saints, deacons, codes of conduct, stylized memories of orderly transmission of tradition.   We need memory.  We need structure.  Neither can hold a candle though to Spirit.  That is, for John, what Moses, the Law, the historical Jesus, the Sacraments or anything else cannot ever fully offer, Paraclete SPIRIT provides.  By Spirit we hear the word God.  God reveals by Spirit.  God self-reveals by Spirit.  Here the stakes are very high. 

      Again, Raymond Brown:  This is the ultimate self-revelation of how the word of God gets translated as God.  To a community living in time and space, the Spirit of Jesus is proving the world wrong.  People who live by the spirit is the only way others will be convinced of the victory of Jesus (Hill, Courageous, 82). 

      The world does not lack for wonders but only for a sense of wonder (Chesterton).  Your life does not lack for mystery but only for a sense of mystery.  Your week does not lack for worth but only for an hour of worship.  “I love the silent church, before there is any speaking” (Emerson).  Pause just a moment in prayer. 

      When you come to worship you place yourself in prayerful sight of beauty.  When you come to worship you stand and sit in the company of real courage, heroines and heroes of old.  When you come to worship you at last find a way—language, imagery, symbol, all—to express an ultimate concern for ultimate reality. When you come to worship you see the whole horizon, the whole ocean, from birth through love to death…and beyond.  When you come to worship you place all the rest of your life in the loving embrace of Love, capital L.  When you come to worship you are reminded that you are a child of God, no matter what else or other your boss, co-workers, neighbors, family, friends or roommates have said or intimated.  When you come to worship you enter the space of Grace.  People have such ragged reasons for skipping worship.  Make it your plan, as you walk along, to find a church family to love and church home to enjoy and a church service to attend at least one hour a week.  In prayer, at least now, at least here, at least here and now. 

      Yet sometimes worship goes wrong.  When it does, for you, say so, to whomever.  If it does so regularly or spectacularly, go elsewhere, pronto.  Life is short.  We need make no excuses for prizing our time. 

      This Lent 2023 our Catholic theological conversation partner is St. Augustine.  In 1991, having at long length and at last completed the PhD, I went down the street to a young Jesuit College, Lemoyne 1946, in our neighborhood, and whence some of our student members had come over the years, to see about teaching.   A very loving and very knowledgeable (her adage, ‘as humans we are lovers and knowers’) former religious Dr. Nancy Ring, greeted me.  I explained my visit.  To which she responded…’So…you…you want to teach?’  She seemed, rightly, dubious.  Yet the next semester began a relationship of 25 years, teaching part time the mostly first-generation college students there, and the full discovery of a second spiritual home, in no small part due to Dr. Ring, whose own academic work focused on Paul Tillich.  She would happy to know that some students at Merrimack College nearby, on the encouragement of their professor, STH graduate Dr. Maria Teresa Davila, are joining us by radio for worship this Lent.  The Professor wrote:  As an Augustinian school, I believe that the Religious and Theological Studies department at Merrimack College would greatly benefit from incorporating this into our classes either as extra credit or further formation for our students and faculty…can you forward me any schedule or description you might have? 

      For St. Augustine of Hippo at long last found himself, his soul, and his true vocation, by finding a personal relationship to God. Yes, Augustine entered the ministry. He became priest and bishop in North Africa. In an age, like yours, of intercultural conflict, Augustine made sense of faith’s highest vision…the city of God. In a culture, like yours, that wore the nametag of Christianity without fully understanding its meaning, Augustine celebrated…the grace of God. In a political climate, like ours, that honored highly individualized freedom and the power to choose, Augustine praised God’s freedom to choose, and acclaimed…the freedom of God. In a highly sexualized age, like ours, Augustine colorfully confessed his own wandering, his own mistakes, which, he attested, did test but did not exhaust the …patience of God. In a religious climate, like ours, which buffeted a truly biblical belief, Augustine praised his maker, and so reminded the church of the proper…praise of God. His Confessions—perhaps part of your summer reading—his great autobiography, is a prayer—for the city of God, by the grace of God, in the freedom of God, to the patience of God, as the praise of God. Augustine found a relationship with God and was ordained. And vice versa.  

      A long time ago, Augustine of Hippo started into pastoral work, in North Africa. He had many troubles. He fought fundamentalism, for instance, as we do in our time, shouting, ‘love understanding wholeheartedly’. He also argued and wrestled with the Donatists, an ancient, spirited and disciplined form of Christianity. One side of the spat was the question of the extent of the church.  

       How much real estate is church and how much is not? How much humanity is church, or potentially so, and how much is not? Should the church focus on quality or quantity? Are only those baptized by good Bishops baptized well, or at all? What makes the hotentot so hot? What puts the ape in apricot? Is the church, as the Donatists argued, a select remnant, a pure priesthood, a leaven in the lump, a company of resident aliens, a band of holy Methodists fleeing from the wrath to come? If so, then church is always and ever separated from, alienated from the culture in which it exists. Christ against culture.

      Or is the church, as Augustine argued, and as I do today, itself a mixture of wheat and tares, saints and sinners, holy and not yet holy, yet all and objectively founded upon and protected within spirit, divine grace, a set of networks and invisible relationships in the world to redeem the whole world, to transform culture, and the society from which culture comes, and the language that is the very root of that society? Christ transforming culture.

      Is church us in worship or does it include unemployed men, whether in worship or not? Is the church the circled wagons of resident aliens? Or is the church found in all humanity, ‘nothing human foreign to us’? How you answer, on this Lenten Sunday will determine whether you think Christ and his church have anything in common with men without work. 

       Our friend and colleague at the Howard Thurman Center, Mr. Nick Bates, gave recently a summary of where and when and from whom he learned about love.  He spoke about ‘A Love Ethic’.  His guides and sources included names familiar, central and sacred to us here at Marsh Chapel:  hooks, King, Thurman.  His exemplars, his guides, especially Howard Thurman, gave him a way to reflect on love and to reflect love, both.  Love is commitment.  Love is growth.  Love is suffering.  Love is prayer.  Love is reconciliation.  Commitment, growth, suffering, prayer, reconciliation.  That is the what of love, one could say.  And the how?  A mixture of desire, imagination and---what for it—leisure.  Desire, imagination, leisure. 

       Augustine of Hippo exchanges his very earthy and earthly passions in love…for a love of God.  Here is a phrase we use—love God, love neighbor—but without always a personal, or true, or real sense of the loving in that love.  If you say to your spouse, ‘I love you with all my heart and soul and mind and strength’, you can feel that verse becoming a universe.  You feel it because you see him or her, as you hold your lover in the arms.  Or you feel it because the memory is so piercing, maybe now because the love is in heaven, but the love you feel is still on earth.  In a way it should not surprise us that Augustine (‘Lord please make me chaste…but not just yet’) can turn to now the Love of God and the Love in God and the Love to God, with a fierce and physical, poetry of love.  Do we think when we allow ourselves the thought of the love of God, of our love for God, that such a love and its expression should be every bit as fierce, as our best earthly love, best human love?  As fierce, as physical, as muscled, as sensual, as jealous, as eager, as personal?  You say you love God…you have a pretty tame way of showing it!  I say I love God…I have a pretty tame way of showing it.  Here enters Augustine of Hippo, a passionate lover if there ever was one.  His invitation, the Gospel invitation, the sacramental invitation before you this morning, along the center aisle saw-dust trail, is as personal and as fresh and as real as can be: will you love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength, and your neighbor as yourself? 

      Great art Thou O Lord and greatly to be praised.  Great is thy power and thy wisdom is infinite.  Thee would we praise without ceasing.  For our hearts are restless until they find their rest in Thee. 

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

      February 26

      Lift Every Voice

      By Marsh Chapel

      Click here to hear the full service

      Matthew 4:1-11

      Click here to hear just the sermon

      Great art Thou O Lord and greatly to be praised.  Great is thy power and thy wisdom is infinite.  Thee would we praise without ceasing.  For our hearts are restless until they find their rest in Thee.

      Every journey begins with a single step.  Our Lenten journey 2023 begins with such a reminder, and a step forward, in the reading of the Gospel According to St. Matthew.

      We could not begin at a better Scriptural doorway than with the Matthean account of the Temptation. As one has said, ‘The accounts illustrate Jesus’ habitual refusal to allow his sense of mission to be influenced by concern for his safety or for merely practical interests’ (OAE, 1174). Jesus fasts for forty days in the wilderness, according to this legend which Matthew and Luke share. The passages from Hebrew Scripture remind us that the Messiahship of Jesus is set in the history of God’s chosen people, Israel, and the sort of disputation read today was quite common among the rabbis of old. The temptations Jesus faces have been perennial temptations for the community of faith, and for the children of Israel. The devil appears here, in good apocalyptic fashion, and in a way similar to his roles in other texts of the time. Jesus resists the charms of wealth, power and fame. Rather, he says, quoting scripture: One does not live by bread alone. You shall not tempt the Lord your God. Serve God alone. (repeat). Let us read, mark, learn and inwardly digest…We shall pass by the long consideration we might give these dominical sayings as they arise in our time, culture and setting, which are not at all foreign to interests in wealth, power and fame.  We are not unfamiliar with, even connected in some measure to earthly, even worldly wealth, power and fame. We may aspire to learning, virtue and piety, but we also know the influence of wealth, power and fame.  And in truth we need to, have to become bilingual, able to speak both languages, along the road of life…without forgetting which is our mother tongue, and without letting the penultimate eclipse the ultimate.

      That is, come the forty days of preparation, come this season, come Lent, In our tradition, we begin our spiritual discipline with a long hard climb, up a high mountain, straight into the headwind of temptation. There is a cost in discipleship. There is discipline in discipleship.  James Weldon Johnson sang it best, a hymn with so much else and other that is a gift to all out of the history of our African American siblings, but which, in depth, speaks for and to all, bringing a durable unity to our natural diversity.

      Stony the road we trod,
      Bitter the chastening rod,
      Felt in the days when hope unborn had died;
      Yet with a steady beat,
      Have not our weary feet
      Come to the place for which our fathers sighed?
      We have come over a way that with tears has been watered,
      We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered,
      Out from the gloomy past,
      ‘Til now we stand at last
      Where the white gleam of our bright star is cast.

      That is, our Lenten Sermon Series, beginning today, will engage in conversation with St. Augustine, a passionate Christian if ever there was one.  Let us recall where we have been, whence we have come, come Lent. In this Marsh Chapel pulpit, from 2007-2016, Lent by Lent, we identified a theological conversation partner for the Lenten sermons, broadly speaking, out of the Calvinist tradition, so important to the first 200 years in New England.  With Calvin we encountered the chief resource for others we engaged over ten years—voices like those of Jonathan Edwards (2015), John Calvin himself, (2014), Marilyn Robinson (2013) (whom with gladness we shall greet in the flesh here at Boston University April 11, please come), Jacques Ellul (2012), Dietrich Bonhoeffer (a Lutheran cousin) (2011), Karl Barth (2010), and Gabriel Vahanian (2007), and themes like Atonement (2009) and Decision (2008), summarized with the help of Paul of Tarsus (2016).

      For the next decade, we have turned to the Catholic tradition, so important in the last 200 years in New England.  That is, in this decade, beginning with Lent 2017, the Marsh pulpit, a traditionally Methodist one, turned left, not right, toward Rome not Geneva, and we have preached with, and learned from the Roman Catholic tradition, and some of its great divines including Henri Nouwen (2017) Thomas Merton (2018) John of the Cross (2019), Teresa of Avila (2020),  St Patrick (2021), and Dorothy Day (2022). In future years, it may be Ignatius of Loyola, Erasmus, Hans Kung, Karl Rahner, or others, one per year.  Perhaps you will suggest a name or two, not from Geneva, but from Rome?  For those who recall, even if dimly, the vigor and excitement of Vatican II, there may well be other names to add to the list.

      Yet something about these past three years and their hurts, something about Covid life in Boston and around the globe, it may be, something about the events and outcomes of this winter, something about immersion in the home of the bean and the cod for several years, something, a connection say with our many Roman Catholic friends, listeners, correspondents, partners in the fellowship of the Gospel, this year brought Augustine of Hippo onward.  His may be a very timely voice for us, in winter, 2023.  For this Lent we mark three years of Covid, costly, costly years.  Our physically present Sunday congregation has slowly and gradually come back near to the levels of 2019, though the very, actual people present are some 70% different people from three years ago.  One has yet to see, to read a piercingly full analysis of just what has happened, by Covid, to patterns of gathering, to habits of assembly, to rhythms of worship, to life.  One undergraduate described her two high school Covid years in a single word, ‘disconnected’.  It is that disconnection, shared disconnection, that we have yet fully to understand.

      Yet life abounds.  Yesterday, on route to Coach Jones’ BU basketball contest with Lehigh on West Campus—Senior Day by the way, and attended by among others the Boys and Girls Club of Dorchester, with the Associate Dean of the Dental School passing out tooth brushes and tooth paste, for whatever reason—we paused to photograph our Marsh Chapel choir ascending their bus to New York City, outside Nickerson Field, headed to sing this afternoon, 3pm in…yes, Carnegie Hall, for listeners present and live streamed.  We are very proud of them.  But, you ask, how is it that we also and still have a robust, excellent choir here today—I tell you in full measure, I have absolutely no idea, but I am delighted, and well you are too not to have the preacher singing a solo: it is musical magic conjured by Ms. Weckworth, Dr. Jarrett and Mr. Blackwell.  After the game, Coach Jones victorious, The Pharos Quartet offered a full afternoon program in Marsh Chapel, and then the ROTC annual formal party and dance, all present dressed in tuxedos, uniforms and gowns, dressed ‘to the nines’, filled out the evening with prayers, speeches, and nourishment. Yet life abounds.

      As part of that life, right now, we are viscerally engaged in our own struggles.  We are seeking to support, for instance, what is right and best in Ukraine, with measures both of resistance and restraint, resistance to merciless brutality, and restraint before the prospect of expanded conflict. Further, right now, we are seeking to be engaged in healing for the victims of an horrific earthquake. One pastoral word, among others, might be today to keep us focused on our own circles of influence, the places where we can actually make a difference, over against the global and endless circles of concern which we carry. (One such point of influence, of leverage, is the United Methodist Committee on Relief, UMCOR.).  Amid such struggles, our guide, our interlocutor for Lent 2023, will be Augustine of Hippo, born in 354ce, taught rhetoric reading Cicero 375ce, become Professor of said discipline in 383ce, in Milan, where fatefully he heard the preaching of St. Ambrose, baptized in 387, then ordained priest (and later Bishop), who subsequently wrote 113 books, 500 sermons and 200 letters before his death at age 76 in 430ce.  We have no time, ability or need to offer a comprehensive comprehension of him, in our wrestling with the Gospel.  Rather we pause, along the trail, in earshot of his mind and heart, to listen, to listen, to listen, and to learn.  As a great theologian once said of the purpose of preaching…’to teach, to delight and to persuade’.  Said Augustine.

      That is the sermon teaches us to sing out for what yet may be, what yet can be:

      My Lord, what a morning

      My Lord, what a morning

      Oh, my Lord, what a morning

      When the stars begin to fall

      To begin, quintessentially for Augustine, we begin with Holy Scripture, and within Scripture with the Apostle Paul.  Augustine loved Scripture, taught and preached it, plumbed its very depths, and famously was utterly converted to allegiance to Jesus Christ in the reading of a passage from Romans.  But we are getting ahead of ourselves.  To begin, for today, let us offer an attempt at an Augustinian rendering of this morning’s epistle.

      Romans 5:12-19

      It befits Augustine that our Lenten Epistle readings start with Paul, and within Paul Romans 5, the ‘great watershed of the New Testament’.  Romans 5 takes some cooking, some preparation prior to consumption.

      It befits Augustine that here Paul explains sin, explains death, explains, sin and death, explains the world, explains the law

      As sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, and so death spread to all because all have sinned...

      Meaning that existence, our existence, is troubled existence from the very start, from Adam.  Life is troubled life, beginning with Adam.  Troubled by sin, that is distance from, estrangement from God, the good, the good life.  At a gathering earlier this month someone asked, ‘How do you deal every Sunday with something else—Tyrie Nichols, Michigan State, Ukraine, Earthquake, Train wreck’.  We might add and name tragedies closer to home and to our own homes.  How indeed?  Sin may be out of our lexicons but is surely not or our lives.  Sin is the gone wrongness in life, present to us every day.  It is cosmic, far more than personal.  It is our condition.  Sin and death.

      It befits Augustine that here Paul explains Adam and Christ, freedom and trespass, grace and gift:

      But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if the many died through the one man's trespass, much more surely have the grace of God and the free gift in the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, abounded for the many.

      Meaning that our religion, our religious existence, is troubled existence from the very start, from Adam.  Religion is troubled, beginning with Adam and the garden variety search for truth.  We tend to prefer to search in height and breadth, in what we can see and what we can count.  Give us the visible and the measurable, not history and not mystery.  Visibility and countability, not invisibility and accountability.  So, we miss the hidden, we miss the subterranean, we miss the dusky dim, we miss the haunted, we miss the elusive, we miss the darkened, we miss the mysterious, we miss the mysterium tremendum, we miss the aural and vocal, we miss the divine, we miss…God.   How do you measure a full heart?  How do you measure love?

      It befits Augustine that here Paul explains Adam and Christ, trespass and righteousness, grace and gift, condemnation and justification, the one and the many:

      Therefore, just as one man's trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man's act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all. For just as by the one man's disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man's obedience the many will be made righteous.

      Romans 5 on Adam and Christ is challenging reading, but not that endlessly challenging.  It is readily explained.  It is hard but not that hard to render.  Life is trouble, beginning to end, trouble, cradle to grave, trouble, first tooth in to last tooth out, trouble, much to our dismay and dislike, but evident to our experience and suffering: God enters trouble in love, God enters life in Christ.  Religion is trouble, beginning to end, much to our dismay and dislike, but evident to our experience and suffering:  the grace of God reforms even religion in the power of love, God restores religion in Christ, whose gospel, as Bonhoeffer told us, can even be summarized, sung and loved as ‘religionless Christianity’.  Faith, the love of God, begins with a hard look at our actual condition.  That is why the hymns of faith, like those of James Weldon Johnson, grab us so:

      God of our weary years, God of our silent tears

      Thou who hast brought us thus far along the way

      Thou who has by thy might led us into the light

      Keep us forever in the path we pray

      Lest our feet stray from the places our God where we met thee

      Lest our hearts drunk with the wine of the world we forget thee

      Shadowed beneath thy hand, may we forever stand

      True to our God, true to our native land

      The Sunday common lectionary readings, if nothing else, are utterly, thoroughly and painfully realistic.  Their trenchant realism is their ticket of entry into your heart, soul, mind and strength.  You and I may not always understand, or agree with, or enjoy them, but there is no doubting their existential and religious honesty and accuracy.  That is their claim to and for your trust.  As Ray Hart once said, apropos of I forget what: you have to give them something to trust.

      In other words, if you want understanding of and explanation of the Holy Scripture, well…look around you.  A part of our lack in depth of understanding of our condition, in life and religion, is a mirror image of our lack in depth of understanding of our condition, in Scripture and tradition.  In that sense, the old spiritual is right, it’s all been written in the book…

      Sometimes, a good, hard, honest look at our actual condition is the first, a first Augustinian step in faith.  From such utter realism, as we shall see in the coming weeks, St. Augustine found his way to God.  We can too.  We can too.  We too, at long last, can find a way to sing, to pray as Augustine did:

      Great art Thou O Lord and greatly to be praised.  Great is thy power and thy wisdom is infinite.  Thee would we praise without ceasing.  For our hearts are restless until they find their rest in Thee.

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

      February 12

      With Malice Toward None

      By Marsh Chapel

      Click here to hear the full service

      Matthew 5:38-48

      Click here to hear just the sermon

      We are given one day at a time.  This is one.  One day within the great and everlasting day of divine love, one pause to remember and hope in the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ, in whom, as the Apostle pronounced, it is not ‘yes and no’, but in him it is always Yes (2 Cor. 1).   One day in which to hear and consider perhaps the most challenging passage in all of Holy Scripture.

                We might summarize Matthew 5: 39 in words from 158 years ago: With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in.

                  If the roads are clear, this season is a fine time to travel in the mountains, north and west, and all the way over and into Lake Placid NY.   Near there you find a most exotically named preaching assignment, a four-point charge:  Owls Head, Chasm Falls, Mountainview, and Wolf Pond.  I have preached in three of the four. You might pass through the strangely frightening prison town of Dannemora.  We remember visiting near there the hunting lodge of a friend.  He stood snow splattered in his meadow watching and listening to Nature in her farthest reach and said, “It’s so wild up here”.

                  Lake Placid, like Mount Washington, itself seems like the top of the world, especially in the winter.  Winter is usually our most visually beautiful season here in the north.  We are in fact ice people, no bad thing.  The world needs both fire and ice.  Here is Mirror Lake.  Here is the Olympic Pavilion.  Here is the ski lift from which to view the grandeur of the mountains, the poverty of the north country, the stark serenity of Old Man Winter, usually acolossus striding upon the earth.  You are on top of the world, or at least as far up as we get around here.

                  Before you go off to dinner or the hot tub, here is a further little visit.  Out behind the ski lift, a long way from the road and not overly well marked, there is a gravesite.  Trudge a few paces into the snow and take a look.  There, if you brush back the powder, you can make out the name and dates.  Under mountain shadows, hidden in the ice box of the north, usually covered at least half the year with a beautiful white blanket of snow, there lies the body of John Brown, 1800-1859, whose flint like personality, bent to violence, and fiery rhetoric helped ignite the civil war, which began 162 years ago.  His is a fitting rough grave lost in the outback of the Empire State.

                  Gardner Taylor once said that we have not allowed the greatest tragedy of our history as a people, the Civil War, to teach us as much as it might.  600,000 men lost their lives in four years,  beginning 162 years ago.

                 162 years is not that long ago.  Some of us can remember very sharply the events and remembrances of the 100th anniversary of the Civil War in the early and middle 1960’s, a third of the way back.  We have a shared history, in this country from well before and after 1861. In February, we tend to think a bit about that history.  It is out of that long history that we pause for a moment this morning to listen to the Gospel of Matthew 5:39.  While there are easier sentences which might tempt us here in this reading, we shall listen to the hardest for interpreters, ‘Do not resist one who is evil’.

                   As today’s reading reminds us, we are from a deep, though intricately varied ethical tradition that enshrines selfless love, christocentric love, cruciform love as the cherished ideal of human behavior.  “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.  But I say to you, Love your enemies’.

                  We have here in Marsh Chapel over some years tried to hear the beautiful chorus, the four-part harmony of the Scripture in the Gospels.  So today.  The flickering soprano melody, the voice of Jesus of Nazareth, teaching us to love, to love others, to love all, to love with malice toward none, yes, to love our enemies.  The contralto struggles of the primitive church, waiting and waiting for the promised, expected, proximate return of the Lord, and developing a missionary tract, found here and in Luke 6, for use in teaching. The tenor, Matthew, our gospel writer, who has collected and composed, and waits too, waits long, substituting ‘you must be perfect (whole, complete, true)’ for Luke’s ‘be ye merciful’. And the bass, stretching from the Mediterranean community of the first century, to this Charles River gathering of Marsh Chapel, anno domini 2023.  Jesus. Church. Writer. Legacy.  Soprano. Alto. Tenor. Bass.

                  If anyone smite thee on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.  Coat, cloak.  One mile, two.  If you love those who love you, what reward have you?

                  Again, we might with these verses stay with the heavy emphasis they clearly have on personal relationships, where the ice is thicker and we are safer.  For an individual, alone and with no responsibilities to others, there are many options for self-less self-sacrifice.  But the hard question, and the spot on the pond where the ice gets thin, or at least thinner, is ‘how far the principle can be applied to groups, and especially political life’ (IB loc cit).  Our recognition that the dominant alto\tenor voices of the early church and evangelist, expecting the very soon return of Christ, and hence shading this ethic as an interim ethic, helps but does not mute the soprano melody, ‘resist not’.  Hear is a ringing question placed against the ethic of retaliation that dates to Hammurabi, to Roman Law, to Aeschylus, and is epitomized in the lex talionis, eye and tooth.  Resist not, says 5: 39.

                  So how shall hear this verse?

                  Especially, how shall we hear this verse in relation to the brief span of human history given to our keeping?  Including, say, at this very hour, a war in Ukraine.

                  Over 20 centuries, and speaking with unforgivable conciseness as one must in a twenty-two minute sermon, two basic understandings of war and peace have emerged in Christian thought.  As you know, these roughly can be called the so-called pacifist and just war understandings.

                  Pacifism preceded its sibling, and infinitely extends to all times the interim ethic of the New Testament (which even here in Matthew, a late writing, expects that the coming of Christ will soon make moot our ethical dilemmas, and so tends to err on the side of quietism, or, in the case of arms, pacifism): “to him who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also”.  Many utterly saintly Christian women and men have and do honor this understanding with their selfless commitment, including many in this congregation today.  My own pulpit hero, Ernest Fremont Tittle, the best Methodist preacher of the 20th century, did so from his Chicago pulpit through the whole Second World War.  Think about that for a minute.  I did for more than a minute when I preached from that very pulpit some years ago. While personally I have not been able, to this date anyway, to agree with him, I never compose a sermon on this topic without wondering, and to some degree fearing, what his judgment might be.  Likewise, Allan Knight Chalmers, the BU professor of preaching in the 1950’s, for whom I was named, sided with Tittle.

                  The multiple theories of just war, or war as the least of all evil alternatives, have developed since the Fourth Century and the writing of St. Augustine, whom we shall preach about this Lent 2023.  Here the command to “be merciful, even as God is merciful” is understood tragically to include times when mercy for the lamb means armed opposition to the wolf… tragically to include times when mercy for the lamb means armed opposition to the wolf. The New Testament apocalyptic frame and its interim ethic are honored, to be sure, but supplemented with the historic experience of the church through the ages.   Many utterly saintly Christian men and women have honored this understanding with their selfless commitment, including some present here today, and some who are not present because they gave their lives that others might live.   Just war thought includes several serious caveats.  We together need to know and recall these, rehearse and remember them, in five forms:  a just cause in response to serious evil, a just intention for restoration of peace with justice, an absence of self-enrichment or desire for devastation, a use as an utterly last resort, a claim of legitimate authority, and a reasonable hope of success, given the constraints of “discrimination” and “proportionality” (usually understood as protection of non-combatants).  Response.  Restoration.  Restraint.  Last resort.  Common authority.

                  Prayerfully, we each and we all will want to consider our own understanding, our own ethic, our own choice and choices between these two basic alternatives.  But the careful listener this February of 2023 will want a thought or two about how, together, how as those who influence culture together, we might positively and proactively sing the four part chorus of love, and live out Matthew 5:38ff.  We could use some help here.  Couldn’t we?

                  We will pause now to welcome a visitor to our service.  Welcome.  You will find him to my right, and down the west aisle of the chapel.  He is standing alone, and has been with us before.  Actually, his worship attendance has been perfect for 73 years, a far better record than he had in life.  For he is enshrined in one of our Connick stained-glass windows, one of the many novel choices the fourth President of Boston University, Daniel Marsh, made in designing our chapel.  Lincoln may be able to offer us some assistance today, on his birthday, February 12.  Happy Birthday, Mr. Lincoln.

                  A year before John Brown entered his post retirement home in Lake Placid, in the fall of 1858, two men as different as life and death stood beside each other on debate platforms in Illinois.  To the right was the carefully groomed, smooth speaking, dapperly dressed Senator Stephen Douglas.  To his left, looking like a bumpkin, stood a gangly, homely man, overly tall and saddled with a high pitched, irritating voice.  They debated for the heart of the country, and Lincoln lost.  In his career he lost and lost and lost.  In 1858 he lost, even though virtually every point he made in his speeches proved true.  A house divided against itself cannot stand.  Accustomed to trample on the rights of others you have lost the genius of your own independence.  Those who deny freedom to others deserve it not for themselves.  True, true, true.  He won in 1860, but in 1862 his party was thrashed (he said, ‘I am too big to cry and too badly hurt to laugh’), in 1863 the horror of Gettysburg quickened his finest address, in 1864, challenged by his own subordinate, he barely won, and in 1865, on Good Friday, he too was dead.  Lincoln spoke of his beloved country, our beloved land, in a soaring phrase, ‘the last, best hope’.

                              I believe that we as a people can, in some measure, live out Lincoln’s majestic hope, of this land as a ‘last, best hope’.  I offer, I believe in continuity with the Scripture as read today, two promissory notes.  Our culture languishes in the doldrums of a pervasive post-Covid malaise.  But a quickened excitement for the power of forbearance and the peace of a discipline against resentment can help us live out a faith engaged with culture, and help us build a culture amenable to faith.  Forbearance.  A spiritual discipline against resentment.

                              We may be entering an Epoch of Forbearance.  You will remember something of forbearance, patient restraint, a great power for doing good.  Sometimes it is better to have patience than brains.  If we can restrain ourselves, in the future, from making scapegoats of some in order furiously to retaliate against other hidden foes, that is, if we can forbear, we shall find that the community of peoples will see in us a last best hope.  We may model, as a people, a path forward into a time of freedom, pluralism, toleration, compromise, and peace.  Here Lincoln holds a key for us, a dream and hope of ‘malice toward none’.

                              We may also be entering an Epoch of Spiritual Discipline Against Resentment.  Here I simply refer to a great American and a greater historian, Christopher Lasch: "The only way to break the ‘endless cycle’ of injustice, Niebuhr argued, was nonviolent coercion, with its spiritual discipline against resentment.  In order to undermine an oppressor’s claims to moral superiority, (one) has to avoid such claims on their own behalf."

                        Again, in the confines of a sermon, I can only sketch. Lasch’s essay distilled this theme, a spiritual discipline against resentment, from the lives and writings of Reinhold Niebuhr, Martin Luther King, the Boston Personalists, and many others.   He saw, as we too may see in the Matthean passage earlier read, the necessity of holding at bay those deeply human sentiments that easily, and tragically, attach themselves to us when we are fearful, attacked, and violated.  For a future to emerge that is more than simply a repetition of the patterns of the past, a people must develop a ‘spiritual discipline against resentment’.  If we can model as a people this discipline, others around the globe will find cause to agree with Lincoln’s assessment of this land as a last, best hope.  Here Lincoln holds a key for us, a dream and a hope of ‘malice toward none’.

                  What is this discipline?  What does it look like? How is one to find its power?  Truly I see no other source than a confessional reliance on the Christ of Calvary, and no better sentences than those uttered by Lincoln long ago.

                              An Epoch of Forbearance.  A Spiritual Discipline against Resentment.  I am not at all sure that I can define these for you, but I can give you an example, in life and speech.  It was the genius of Lincoln, which best bespoke this twin hope, especially in his second inaugural.  Within two months of writing and offering these words, he was dead.  Yet listen to his wise admonition to forbearance and discipline against resentment:

      March 4, 1865 (in passim)

      At this second appearing to take the oath of the Presidential office there is less occasion for an extended address than there was at the first…

      On the occasion corresponding to this four years ago all thoughts were anxiously directed to an impending civil war. All dreaded it, all sought to avert it…Both parties deprecated war, but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive, and the other would accept war rather than let it perish, and the war came…

      Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with or even before the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God's assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men's faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes…

       With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.


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

      January 29

      The Bach Experience- January 29, 2023

      By Marsh Chapel

      Click here to hear the full service

      Matthew 5:1-12

      Click here to hear just the sermon and cantata


      For the text and translation of the cantata, please open the January 29, 2023 bulletin in a new tab. A portion of the sermon is available below.


      Dean Hill:

      By grace, with the encouragement of truth in Scripture, of goodness in the women and men of this faithful congregation, and of beauty in the highest reaches of musical splendor in Bach this morning, we are gathered and addressed.  There is much about us that occludes, that shadows, the lastingly true, the sturdily good, and the elegantly beautiful.  Our culture is awash, sometimes overcome, with these shadows.  We see photos of young widows in Ukraine.  We watch reports of gruesome gun violence in California.  We mourn a racist, heedless, needless death in Memphis.  Sometimes it threatens to become enough to take away our confidence, our courage, our willingness to lift another foot, to take another step forward.

      So, Sunday. Sunday comes to bring encouragement, including this morning.  Matthew adorns our shared life with beatitudes, inverted blessings, which invert the expected blessings, finding makarios, happiness, blessing, on the underside, weakened, distaff side of life. So, worship of God on the Lord’s day is not a matter of indifference, not at all.

      For we have left St. Luke, now to follow the trail of Jesus’ life, death and destiny, this year, 2023, in the Gospel of Matthew.   Matthew relies on Mark, and then also on a teaching document called Q, along with Matthew’s own particular material, of which our reading today is an example.  He has divided his Gospel into five sequential parts, a careful pedagogical rendering, befitting his traditional role as teacher, in contrast to Luke ‘the physician’, whose interest was history.   We have moved from history to religion, from narrative to doctrine.  Matthew is ordering the meaning of the history of the Gospel, while Luke is ordering the history of the meaning of the Gospel.  You have moved from the History Department to the Religion Department.  Matthew has his own perspective.

      Every word is meant for a particular time, but not for all time.  For all time, and for our time, we have the staggering responsibility to fit the teaching to a new era, another epoch.  Whether or not ethics is situational, it is certainly epochal.  Our response and resistance to a megalomaniacal regime can be guided by but not directed by these precious verses of Holy Scripture.  Their application is, to use a marvelous American idiom, ‘up to you’.   And this will be inevitably be difficult.  Experience, freedom, presence—the invisible divine in life—are demanding and difficult.

      Matthew has his own perspective.  Remember: ‘A literary work or a fragment of tradition is a primary source for the historical situation out of which it arose, and is only a secondary source for the historical details for which it gives information’ (45).  (Wellhausen.)

      Some of that perspective involves a developing and developed Christology, an understanding of Christ.  Matthew is apparently fighting on two fronts, both against the fundamental conservatives to the right, and against the spiritual radicals to the left.  In Matthew, Gospel continues to trump tradition, as in Paul, but tradition itself is a bulwark to defend the Gospel, as in Timothy.  Matthew is trying to guide his part of the early church, between the Scylla of the tightly tethered and the Charybdis of the tether-less. Our forebears taught us so.  That is, with Matthew, they wanted to order the meaning of the history of the gospel.  They aspired to do so by opposition to indecency and indifference.  They attempted to do so by attention both to conscience and to compassion.  That is, they lived daily with a yearning to transform the culture around them in the spirit and into the form and face of Jesus Christ.

      For example:  we today hear a reading and rendering of the Sermon on the Mount, perhaps the most beloved and best remembered of Jesus’ teachings.   At the outset, we face a raging river to cross.  For when were these teachings meant?  For all time, for Jesus’ time, for Matthew’s time, for our time—for the time being?

      Let us let the beauty of the moment bathe us for a moment.  How today Dr. Jarrett shall we hear Bach?


      Dr. Scott Jarrett's portion is not available at this time.


      Dean Hill:

      Gracious God, loving and holy and just,

      We lift our hearts in thanks and praise this morning.

      We come to this sanctuary ready again to live as glad hearted women and men.

      With glad hearts, curious minds, and eager spirits we offer ourselves in worship.  Bless us, we pray, by thy presence, which we invoke in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord.

      Are we as ready to receive the gifts of grace as we should be?

      Have we been prepared, in these days, to notice the bountiful goodness by which Divine Love has touched us?

      Do we need to confess a little slowness, a little occasional lack of perception, shortness of spiritual breath, a slight or not so slight disregard for what we have been given?

      O Lord, as a people of glad heart, we confess that we have not always been fully a people of open hands.  Open us in these moments of silence, to a new rebirth of wonder.

      Great art thou, O Lord our God, and fully to be praised, morning by morning.

      We pray for thy blessing in this hour, thy gifts of confidence, certainty and sureness for the days to come.

      Help us to receive, with confidence, the many surprising gifts embedded in our personal lives.  Help us to notice the unexpected possibility, the new friend, the unusual word, the strange connection.  Help us to see more than we plan to see, to receive more than we expect to receive, with the confidence born of obedience.

      Teach us to claim some certainty in the midst of uncertainty, as a church and and as a congregation.  Teach us we pray the path we best should trod into the unforeseeable future.  Teach us rightly to connect yesterday with tomorrow, in the light of thy certain love.

      Shower with cool saving rain and moist power the leaders of this world, with sureness to seek justice and peace.  Help those in the torn out conflicts of our day to continue daily, surely, to seek the promise of the Prince of peace.  Kindle daily in the hearts of great leaders an even greater desire for peace, with a sense that surely goodness and mercy shall follow.

      Through Jesus Christ our Lord,  Amen.


      -Dr. Scott Allen Jarrett, Director of Music



      January 22

      On the Beach

      By Marsh Chapel

      Click here to hear the full service

      Matthew 4:12-23

      Click here to hear just the sermon


      Today we see Jesus walking the shore of his beloved Sea of Galilee.  He sets out at dawn, as the fishermen begin, casting and mending.  This stylized memory from the mind of Matthew kindles our own memory and hope, too.

      That first light of the day, daybreak, carries a power unlike any other hour’s hue.  The excitement of beginning.  The promise of another start.  The crisp, cold opening of the year in January.  Like the skier, mits and poles at the ready, we adjust our goggles, and we lean, and…

      Here is Jesus, midway from Christmas to Easter, from manger to cross, from nativity to passion.  Along the beach, along the shoreline he strides, one foot in sea and one on shore.

      He meets two brothers at first light, and they meet him, God’s First Light, the light that shines in the darkness.  Notice how Simon, called Peter, and Andrew, his brother, are sketched.  There is little to nothing of history here, but what there is says so much!  There is no parental shadow lying on their fishing nets.  One hears no maternal imperative, no paternal dictate.  These boys are on their own.  They have left home already, maybe leaving the city to the south to find a meager middle-class existence farther north, with their own means of production.  They are small business men, boat owners, fishermen.  Neither the amhaaretz nor the gentry, they.  Not poor, not rich.  Working folks.  Young, young men.  Simon already has a nick-name.  A sign of joviality, of conviviality, of gregarious playful fun.  Peter, the Rock.  Is this for his steady faithfulness or his failure to float?  On this rock…Sinks like a Rock…You sense that these brothers play in the surf a little, kick up the sand a little, flirt with the Palestinianas a little, take time to take life as it comes.  Brown are their forearms, and burnished their brows.  They love the lake and life, and have made already their entrance into adult life.  For they have left home.  One envies their youth and freedom.  They have taken to the little inland sea, and with joy they meet each dawn, like this one, at first light, as they see Light.

      You can feel the sand under their feet as they take a moment to play and laugh.  You can feel the chill of the water as they swim, while breakfast cooks over the fire.  You can feel their feeling of vitality and joy as they greet another day at first light.

      I wonder whether we allow ourselves to drift a little too far from that sense of presence and gladness, that first light feeling.  Those nearly pure dawn moments of almost rapturous illumination.  Those moments of connection.

      The day your BU acceptance letter came.

      The afternoon of BU Commencement, four fast years later, 25,000 in attendance.

      The evening you came out to your parents.

      Your first child, tiny, red, crinkled, fists waving, crying and then asleep, literally in your hand.

      Your daughter, or son, taking the vows of confirmed faith, in the church’s chancel.  Yes, there was some part child and another part adult in what was said.  But they were there, in tie and dress.  They were there, in public and in church.  They murmured, and they murmured piously.  And how did that feel Dad? Mom?

      Your day of matrimony.  Down the aisle they come, or you come, father and daughter.  Do you? Do you?  I do. I do. They do.  My, my. And what was once a simpler world, now has further complexity and creative power.  A new creation.

      Your retirement party.

      There must have been some moment, sometime, when you felt an intimacy with the universe, a closeness, a sense of purpose.  That too is a kind of daybreak, dawn, first light.  That is an inkling of gladness, of presence.

      A simple trust, like theirs who heard beside the Syrian sea, the gracious calling of the Lord, let us like them without a word rise up and follow thee…

      Our denomination once had a thriving ministry in China.  When we forced out of China in the 1940’s, something vital left our church.  But you can still feel the first light of mission in the halls and rooms at Scarritt College in Nashville.  Oriental ornaments, paintings, sculpture, gifts, symbols of connection and love.  We grew up with the family of Tracy Jones, in Syracuse, who himself had been raised as missionary child in China.  As had Huston Smith, who taught across the river at MIT. Our first parsonage, in Ithaca, had once housed Pearl Buck while she and her husband were back on furlough, from China.  Have we begun with the Spirit to end with the flesh?  Have we forgotten the love we had at first?  Have we stayed close enough to that dawn light, and those first light experiences, to stay fresh?  Have we an inkling of, of…the gladness of faith, the presence of God?

      Our malaise, our ennui, should we have such, our “acedia”—spiritual sloth or indifference, literally, our “not-caring”—so often is due to our turning away from the dawn, daybreak, that elemental experience of love that energizes everything else.  Said the saint, ‘love…and do what you will.’

      Peter and Andrew, of course, are casting, casting nets.  They have no furrowed brows, no endless worries, no pessimism, no angst.  They probably have left unattended some holes in their nets, these two happy brothers.  They are not perfect and not perfectible. They are willing to accept that their casting will be imperfect, as all work, all life, all evangelism is imperfect.  But that imperfection will not keep them from enjoying the labor of casting.  To miss the dawn, the first light, is to miss the fun of faith!

      Invite that neighbor, the one across the street whose porch light is always on, to come along to worship with you.  Do you enjoy, benefit from, appreciate worship here, come Sunday?  Then, of course, you will want to share that enjoyment, benefit and appreciation, by inviting someone to come too.  Here at dawn…those first stirrings, first longings, first intimations of something new and good….

      Meanwhile, back on the beach, Jesus heads south, cove by cove, with Andrew and Peter frolicking in tow.  They had already left home.  So, maybe they are ready to take a flier on some new trek, not fully sure how it will work out.  It is a miracle that they are remembered, perhaps with a little hagiography, as having responded “immediately”.  Still, every little scrap of memory of these two brothers tends in the same direction—full of vim, vigor, vitality and pepperino.  Yes, they will follow!

      But down the shoreline a little, there rests another boat.  A different story, a different set of brothers altogether.  James and John.  Known as the sons of Zebedee.  Simon has already earned his own name and nick-name.  But these two are known by their father’s name.  They haven’t left home.  They have not yet acquired that second identity.  When you won’t leave, won’t move, you won’t find, you won’t grow:  you’ll miss, you’ll miss the experience of really being alive. Here they are, as usual at dawn, stuck in the back of the boat.  All these years they have watched the Peter and Andrew show.  All these years they have envied the fun and frolic down the beach.  The late night parties.  The bonfires.  The singing.  The swimming.  And here they sit strapped to the old boat of old Zebedee.  They are lathered, covered with the ancient equivalents of chap stick and Coppertone.  And they are trapped.  Under the glaring gaze of Zebedee, whose thunderous voice has so filled their home that their own voices have not even emerged.  Every day, in the back of the boat.  And what are they doing?  Why you could have guessed it, even if the text had not made it plain.  Are they casting?  No.  Are they fishing?  No.  Are they sailing?  No.  They are mending.  Mending.  Knit one, pearl two… Their dad has got them into that conservation, protection, preservation mode.  Mending.  At dawn!  Of course, nets need mending, but the nets and the mending are meant in a greater service!  The fun is in the fishing!  The joy is in the casting.  The happiness is in the evangelism.  And there they sit, sober Calvinist souls, mending.  Deedle deedle dumpling, my son John…

      Today we are mid-way between Christmas and Easter.  This passage has a little passion (the Baptist) and a little nativity (Nazareth). The two stories of Jesus, of his birth and of his death, are meant to complement and interpret each other.

      Here is a pronouncement of a broad peace, on earth.  On earth.  With Gandhi along the Ganges.  Beside Tutu on the southern cape.  Along the path of the Dalai Lama in farthest Tibet.  In Tegucigalpa, back when, with our missionary friends Mark and Lynn Baker. This is no predestinarian quietism, which has taken over parts of American Christianity, from its seedbeds in the Orthodox Presbyterian and Anabaptist communions:  cold, careful, efficient, first mile, changeless, fearsome, depressed grace.  No, this is Christmas:  warm, open, effective, second mile, free, growing, angry, and hopeful!  Augustine:  Hope has two beautiful daughters:  anger and courage.

      The early church told two stories about Jesus.  The first about his death.  The second about his life.  The first, about the cross, is the oldest and most fundamental.  The second, about the manger, is the key to the meaning of the first, the eyeglasses which open full sight, the code to decipher the first.  Without Christmas you can’t see Easter right.  Jesus died on a cross for our sin according to the Scripture.  That is the first story.  But who was Jesus?  What life did his death complete?  How does his word heal our hurt?  And how does all this accord with Scripture? One leads to the other.

      This second, second level story begins at Christmas, and continues in Epiphany, and is told among us to interpret the first.  Christmas\Epiphany is meant to make sure that the divine love is not left only to the cross, or only to heaven.  Epiphany is meant to open out a whole range of Jesus, as brother, teacher, healer, young man, all.  Christmas is meant to provide the mid-course correction that might be needed if all we had was Holy Week.  And the Christmas\Epiphany images are the worker bees in this theological hive.  Easter may announce the power of peace, but Christmas names the place of peace.  Jesus died the way he did because he lived the way he did.  Jesus lived the way he did, and so died the way he did.  That is, it is not only the Passion of Christ, but the Peace of Christ, too, which Christians like you affirm.  What lovely news for us at the start of a new year.  The passion too of Christ.  Theologically, globally, politically, militarily, ecclesiastically —we have seen passion this year.  Now comes dawn, the light, Epiphany, Christmas\Epiphany again to announce that there is more to Jesus than the passion.  There is the matter of peace as well.

      The real miracles of this account lie in the second invitation to the second set of brothers.  It is a miracle that Jesus stopped and invited them, so somber are they.  I wonder if he took in the timbre of Zebedee’s voice, and saw them quaking in the back of the boat.  Perhaps his heart went out to James and John.  No, I am sure Jesus’ heart went out to James and John, as it does now to so many 20 year-olds.  So, he stops, Jesus stops, and he asks, Jesus asks.

      That is the great thing about an invitation.  All you can do is ask.  Do ask.  Ye have not because ye ask not.  And for the first time in their lives, James and John are invited to live, to live and to leave…and so to live. Too many people live half asleep.  Too often we don’t live life, life lives us.  Like these two knitting in the back of the boat.  Half asleep.  Then dawn comes, and day breaks, and that first light shines!  And a voice like no other, so equanimous and so serene, casts its spell upon them.  Maybe upon you, this morning.  Do you hear Jesus’ voice this morning? Watch.  It is a first light moment.  See James, see John.  First one, then the other, stands and moves.  Under the shadow of that paternal presence, under the sound of that maternal imperative of home.  They rise.  And they move toward First Light.  They are about to grow up.  AND THEY LEAVE HOME! Wonderful!  And what do they leave behind?  You would have known even if the Scripture had not laid it right out.  They leave behind the boat…and their father.  We best honor the adults in our lives when we become adults ourselves. (repeat)

      Will this world grow up? Will we find a way to live together, all eight plus billion of us, and to drink from the same cup? This text, strangely like the Gospel of John, claims for Jesus that Jesus is light.  Not color, now.  Light.  Color is great, and good.  But we all want finally to be able to drink from the same water fountain, we want our children in one school, we want to sit at one table, we want to drink from one goblet.  It is light that we will need into the 21st century.  We finally all drink from the same cup.

      I am told of a man who stopped in his new neighborhood to buy lemonade from a freckle faced 7 year old girl and a mahogany skinned 6 year old boy.  He paid his dime and drank his beverage and stayed to talk.  After a while the girl asked if there was anything else he wanted.  No, he said, why?

      Well sir, we are running a business here, and we have had a busy morning, and we hope for a busy afternoon, but that cup you are holding is the only one we have, we only have one cup, so if you don’t mind, we’d like it back.

      We all finally drink from the same cup. The more funerals you attend, the more clearly you will remember.  We forget it at our worldly peril.  If we walk in the light as He is in the light we have fellowship with one another.  We have more in common, as climate change, nuclear danger, European warfare, governmental malfunction, denominational turmoil, and personal angst remind us, all around the globe, than we do in difference. We have far more in common, in unity, than we do in difference, in diversity.  Give us light.  Give us light.  Give us light. Dear God, give us light.

      Have you faith?  You are going to need some this coming year, 2023.

      At first light, at dawn, we may with happiness remember this.  The protagonist of M Robinson’s Gilead, (we will have Robinson here to speak April 11) an old pastor in the Iowa town of this name, spends Sunday mornings, at dawn, praying alone in his church.  He loves the morning hour.  He waits with baited breath for the church to begin to fill up, to fill in.  He basks in the first light of day.

      He knows, you do too, that we are going to need some faith.  Some faith, some faith, some faith… this year.  Others will, too.  How will they find faith in Christ without a church family to love them, without a church home to nurture them:  without you taking a moment to say, ‘I will be at Marsh Chapel on Sunday at 11am—why not meet me there?’

      That is the dawn, Peter and Andrew, that is the real joy of faith:  sharing it.  That is the dawn, James and John, that is the real joy of faith:  sharing it.  Would you like to have some fun this week?  Look around for dawn breaking out, on the beach, and kick up some sand.

      Sursum Corda!  Lift up your hearts!

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


      January 1

      Christmas Strength

      By Marsh Chapel

      Click here to hear the full service

      Matthew 2:13–23

      Click here to hear just the sermon

      The dawn is breaking, slowly, over the snow-blanketed city.  You have assembled yourself for the morning, with your coat and hat and mittens.  You stand like a medieval knight with his standard, you with your broom or shovel in hand, and dawn is breaking slowly, say in upstate NY, say in Buffalo, a week after the great snowfall.

      Shakespeare knew the beauty and terror of the dawn:

      The grey eyed morn smiles on the frowning night

                        Chequering the eastern clouds with streaks of light

                        And flecked darkness like a drunkard reels

                        Form forth days path and Titan’s fiery wheels

                        Now ere the sun advance his burning eye

                        The day to cheer and night’s dank dew to dry

      The great poet and playwright knew, as was said of our Lord in his earthly ministry, knew the heart of man.  He knew the complexity of moral judgment.  He knew the ambiguity of corporate and governmental life.  He knew the strange subterranean interplay of spirituality and sexuality.  He knew the elusive mobility of truth, which, to be spoken, requires a lifetime of rapt attention, and sometimes years of isolated pain and imprisonment. What this country may need to start a new year is neither a chicken in every pot nor a good 5 cent cigar nor a plain, new, fair, or square deal, but, a rivetingly taught course or two in Shakespeare!  Or Paul of Tarsus.

      As you start, at whatever dawn you face, ponder this Good News:  Christmas gives strength to start.  A new year?  Strength to start.  A new path?  Strength to start.  A new relationship?  Strength to start.  A new diagnosis?  Strength to start.  A new commitment?  Strength to start.  A new situation? Strength to start.  Christmas offers strength to start.

      In the first place, we may plainly affirm that together we find a shared strength at Christmas.

      We listen to the words of St Matthew, the story of the Magi, and we hear them as God’s Word.  The words of Scripture are “holy” in that they stand over against us, they take the measure of our self-deception, they outlast our passions and defeats and very lives.  These verses will live longer than we, and rightly so. They will still be heard when we will not be. They will be heard when YOU will not be. So,  they have the power to help us to begin the service, the day, the week, the year, looking out in Christmastide at a new year.

      The words of Scripture start with the whole of life in view and with the end of life in view.

      We too must make our various beginnings, and so we are not displeased to find here an inspired manner of entry.  By example the Kings assert strength to start.

      The passage opens the year with joy, and leads us into a new vocabulary of love and delight. Words of wisdom, that the Kings celebrate, and which will adorn the Gospel as the gospel unfolds.  These words are meant to become our living vocabulary, dictionary, glossary.  We are to learn them again as the New Year unfolds:




      Saints together




      In Christ

      God is faithful

      Oh, that we would bathe ourselves at the outset of each day in such a shower of strength!

      For you, all of you, have been found in a new situation.  You are “in Christ”. You have been seized, at least for a worship hour, and so maybe for a lifetime, by the confession of faith that is the confession of the church.

      Start the day strong—much will befall to challenge by dusk.

      Start life strong in childhood—much comes later to unsettle.

      Start with laughter and play in summer—much in autumn proves more difficult.

      Start this New Year with strength, and like a skier carried along by gravity, you will pass by and over and around the bumps.

      Start this week and each week with the hearing of the Holy Word—much that is less than holy will greet you later.  Go to church on Sunday.

      In the second place, we may plainly affirm that the gifts of Christmas are reliable in time of need, are firm in the face of danger.  They make us confident when we need to be and inwardly secure when we have to be.

      Whether we are young or mature or old, whether we are babes in Christ or approved in Christ or wise in Christ—we make our starts with strength, recognizing that, as one author began one famous book, ‘life is hard and life is a struggle’.

      For the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to the people of skill, but time and chance happen to them all.  I once said to my father, a graduate of Boston University in 1953:  ‘this is not fair’.  He replied as you would have done:  ‘whoever told you life is fair?’

      Life is not fair, not by a country mile.

      Not fair to those who suffer untimely loss

      Not fair to those stricken with unexpected illness

      Not fair to those whose limbs are taken and torn

      Not fair to those who should have been chosen

      Not fair to you

      Time and chance happen to all.

      Not fair to those of whom our south Texas weekly internet congregant, and theological poet, Rev. Milton Jordan, writes:

      Imagine Joseph’s difficult decision. He and Mary have a child less than two weeks old. They do not have any documents to prove they are married. Visitors who have heard rumors of this new heir in David’s line have come to see for themselves, and they report that Herod has also heard these rumors. Joseph knows what this means, and he knows how few options he has.

      With few resources, perhaps a gift or three from some of the visitors, Joseph takes Mary and their newborn child and strikes out across the country looking for safety in another land. Imagine them now, their few resources long spent, at a crowded border crossing asking for asylum in this foreign land.  

      Is this not fairly the heart of the simple gifts we shall share in a moment at the Lord’s Table, and at the Lord’s behest?  It was a borrowed upper room, not a paid for condo, in which the meal was shared.  It was a circle tinged with betrayal, not a safe protected team, within which he washed feet and lifted cup.  It was an evening before defeat, not a twilight of victory past, during which wine and bread were given.  It was lack that gave way at last to hope, treachery that was the doorway to a later hope, suffering, the suffering of the cross, that made way for the hope in which we now stand.  It was Jesus giving himself to us in sacrificial love, in a week when we may have known disrespect, betrayal, and insult.

      Whatever harsh word you now have reason to hear and overhear, hold on.  It is not the last word.

      Start with that trust and strength.

      Paul suffered shipwreck and lash and hunger and despond.  Yet he could still sing with confidence:

       If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation…

                         He who has begun a good work in you will complete it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ…

                         Have you begun with the Spirit to end with the flesh?…

                         It is the God who said ‘Let light shine out of darkness’ who has shown in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ…

                         He is the beginning, the first born from the dead that in everything he might be pre eminent…

                         For the Son of God, Jesus Christ, whom we preached among you, was not Yes and No, but in him it is always Yes.  For all the promises of God find their Yes in him…

      Resolve to choose and memorize one of these verses of hope wrought in struggle, in 2023.

      Whatever silence and despair now accompany you, hold on.  Your lasting friendship is in Christ.

      Martin Luther recounted his many attempts to find peace with God through self-discipline, through religious duty, through acts of contrition, through his own works, until at last he collapsed.

      At last, he found his way out from the harsh word of command from authority to obedience, and out into the meadow of hope in a calling word from wisdom to happiness, from the Kings to the Christ.

      “But this availed me nothing; nor did it free me from a fearful and dreadful conscience…This is God’s Word… this one thing God asks of you, that you honor him by accepting comfort; believe and know that he forgives your transgressions and has no wrath against you.”

      We learn late or early that without explanation rain falls on the just and unjust alike. In time of trial, though, you may start again with strength.  You have the love of God, the Gospel of Christ, the Grace of the Lord, the baptism of the church, the prayers of the church, the Lord’s prayer, the ten commandments, the sacrament of communion, the word of absolution, and the decision of faith.  Use them, rely on them, let them buoy you up, in time of trial.  What more do you need?

      In the third place, we may plainly affirm the strength that comes from beginning with the end in view.  Though they found him an infant, one who does not speak, they saw him a King, One whose voice rings out to all the world.

      This Christmas Sunday reminds us that the Lord Christ is both Alpha and Omega.  When at last we set down our various tools and trades, when at last we have lost our eyes and ears, when at last our final paycheck has come, when at last the various dawns have given way to dusk and dusk and dusk—here too we are in Christ and nowhere else, of Christ and no one else.  Somehow all the little subplots and sufferings of this present time are going to find their full place and point in a greater story, the day of God, the life-span of Jesus Christ.  Today is God’s, and tomorrow is God’s, too.  Earth is God’s, and heaven is too. Somehow, somehow, somehow…

      So, we need and want to be together, with and for each other, come Sunday, right here, right now.  To know one another, to love one another, and then, at last, to remember one another. As our Haines, Alaska internet listener, and obituary composer, State Writer Laureate Heather Lende put it:

      Writing about the dead helps me celebrate the living, my neighbors, friends, husband and five children, and this place, which some would say is on the edge of nowhere, but for me is the center of everywhere (If You Lived Here I’d Know Your Name , p, 9)

      Only such a hope can sustain travelers like us, who seek wisdom and who seek love, even as that hope has sustained the church for sixty some generations. Such a hope strengthens the Magi:  unsung saints and heroines, and those whose names recall a sure Christmas strength.  Some are enshrined in Scripture:  Matthew, Paul, Mary, John. Some are known in Tradition: Ghandi, Heschel, Sadat, Teresa.  Some are from closer experience: John Dempster, Frances Willard, Daniel Marsh, Lawrence Carter. And one, more sung than unsung now, greets us on this plaza every morning, with birds in flight, emblematic of a real Christmas strength. Only such a hope could have strengthened Martin Luther King on August 28 1963 in Washington and all the long bitter way to April 3 1968, his last earthly night: “I just want to do God’s will.  And he has allowed me to go to the mountain.  And I’ve looked over, and I’ve seen the promised land…So I’m happy tonight, I’m not worried about anything.  I’m not fearing any man.”

      At Christmas, you start with confidence about the end. You are strengthened to start in the hope of Jesus Christ.

      Christmas strength.

      Strength in Christ.

      Strength in times of trial.

      Strength with hope for the end.

      Put on the whole clothing of Christ!

      As you stand at the dawn of the rest of life…

      We will put it in terms familiar…

      Put on the whole wardrobe of Christ, as you seize your shovel:

      Put on the sweater of grace

      Put on the boots of peace

      Put on the mittens of thanksgiving

      Put on the tuke of fellowship

      Put on the scarf of faithfulness

      Put on the snowsuit of sanctification

      Pick up the shovel of salvation

      And the ice-pick of hope

      And the salt of happiness

      For today, by grace, you are given a Christmas strength.

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

      December 25

      A Boston Christmas

      By Marsh Chapel

      Click here to hear the full service

      John 1:1–14

      Click here to hear just the sermon

      Merry Christmas!

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

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

      December 18

      The Beginning of the Gospel

      By Marsh Chapel

      Click here to hear the full service

      Matthew 1:18-25

      Click here to hear just the sermon

      You may be trying to find your spiritual footing. 

      Other than the emergence of language itself, the stumbling child’s movements in learning to walk are perhaps the most tender in memory.    Adults learn to walk in various ways too.  I watched my father, nearly killed by an infection, and bed-bound for months, learn to walk again.  While I can see his first steps, baby steps at age 80, I would not be fully able to convey the power of those steps.  

      You too may be trying to get your balance, to find your religious footing.  As with so many things, the decision to try is the main thing.  We learn to walk at different ages.  

      On Ground Hog Day each year I set aside an hour to skate with students on the Frog Pond, though this year at the rink at 41 Park.  Some of those from South Carolina and Texas are just learning to skate.  They have the most fun.  

      One day this late autumn the wind was swirling on Bay State Road, catching up the leaves in little multi colored cyclones, and twirling them around.   It was raining red an orange, yellow and brown, whipping the leaves to the cheek.  Then coming toward me a young woman, seeing the swirl, herself dropped her books, made a pirouette, and twirled in tandem with the leaves.  One loop, two loops, three…  I judge it was the right response to the wind. 

      In an age and setting that demeans and diminishes mystery and history, she danced.  She found her footing, along our street.  She was learning to walk, in the spirit. 

       Yes, it is important to take it slow as you begin.  On the open path among leaves no step has yet trodden black, it makes sense to takes things slow.  A sermon about taking such primordial steps, should take a slow pace.  Don’t you think?  A sermon about, say, the beginning of the Gospel. 

      Many women and men who do not regularly darken doors of churches are nonetheless trying to find spiritual footing.  I believe that a Sunday sermon, of all things, can bring the balance needed for the walk of faith.  In fact, if the sermon cannot, what can?  Like the bullfighter with the cape waving, like the boxer circling to find that one opening, like the private detective waving the flashlight in the cellar, here we are, everything at stake.  As Paul sang, To all God's beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. 

      Will somebody please lend a hand?  Someone is trying to learn to walk.  I have been humbled to see people to learn to walk, especially in the imagination.  As a matter of fact, I think I saw some of you there. 

       If you are going to walk, you will need light to see your way.  It is dark in December, dark in Advent, dark as the readings shift from sunny Luke to dark Matthew, dark as the church begins another liturgical year, dark as finals befall, dark, dark, outside it is dark.  Dark as when Joseph slept, and an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream. 

       So let us look for light in which to walk. 

       Look up.  Light falls to illumine the path, THE WAY, ahead.  Look.  Let us walk in the light of the Lord.  How many times this week have you touched something nearly 3000 years old?  Well, Isaiah’s words are that old, or nearly so.  Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel 

       Year by year as I hear again read these Isaian prophecies, they seem annually ever farther off.  They just seem so improbable.  I give you pollution, pandemic, Putin, prejudice, pistols, politics and pain.  And yet, the aspiration remains, the promise and prophecy endure: Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel 

       Isaiah is not exclusively full of promise, though promise is the heart of today’s reading.  Isaiah predicts doom for the people of God.  Isaiah is like Amos and Hosea and Micah.  These were old and popular verses, to which both Isaiah and Micah repaired.  The oracles of judgment upon the people of God, which both precede and follow our lesson today, underscore one particular ailment within the body of God’s people.  This is a lesson we may do well to keep steadily before us.  One primary impediment to relationship with God is injustice.   Repeatedly all of these early prophets return to this single theme.  The relationship between God and people is torn, rent asunder, by mistreatment of the poor.  We will want to hear this as clearly as possible, as we find our footing, along the walk of faith.  It is not only true that justice is desirable.  Justice itself is marker along our path, a way of walking in the light.  But it is not an end in itself.  It absence is not desirable, but for a fuller reason.  Injustice impedes our walk in the light.  Injustice interferes with our relationship with God.  Doing justly is meaningful because…it leads to God. As bad as injustice is in its own right, its damage to our relationship with God is far worse. 

      I believe this is why the pulpit of Marsh Chapel has resounded for so many decades in attention to the weight matters of justice:  Littell and the holocaust, Thurman and race, Hamill and war, Thornburg and cults, Neville and creation, Hill and a common hope.  My predecessors knew well that you have to look up in hope, look up in dream, look up in desire, look up in expectation.  To find our footing going forward we need the light that comes from a sense of possibility, a sense of promise.   Along comes Isaiah to remind us: 

      There will come a day when the swords of terror are beaten into the plowshares of learning, the swords of conflict into the plowshares of cooperation, the swords of division into the plowshares of communion, the swords of despair into the plowshares of promise.  That is, in Isaiah, judgment is not the last word.  Without a sense of a final horizon of hope, without a sense of the love of God, without a sense of the prospect of lasting meaning hidden somehow in history, without a word to guide us about the latter days, no matter how far off, the muscle for the daily struggle deteriorates.  You’ve got to have a dream.  If you don’t have a dream, how are you going to have a dream come true? 

       Look up in hope, in promise. 

       Look down.  Look down every now and then, too.  In the quiet of late autumn, in the dusk of late Advent, we will want to look down at ourselves, not on ourselves but at ourselves.  We are listening to three ancient lessons, trusting that in their interpretation, we may find some light for the path ahead. 

       In his great letter to the Romans, whose greeting lines we hear today, the Apostle Paul offers his wisdom for living, to a church he has yet to visit.  As in Isaiah, the words are meant as advice for groups, for the chosen people of God and for the called people of God, for Israel and the church.  The Apostle’s advice is very earthly.  It causes us to look at our shoes, our actual manner of walking.  In fact, the advice sounds like it had been written as a challenge not only to culture at large but also to college culture.  The verses form a cautionary tale.  I think that almost every week there is someone here or listening from afar who may be ready to hear Paul’s greeting.  In fact, Marsh Chapel and places like it may simply stand as silent witnesses to the hope that students may emerge from their studies, and professors from their teaching, without undue regret, without too many regrets.  We all carry regrets.  None of us is perfect.  Including you.  And me. But if we love one another we will want them to be fewer rather than more.  Paul warns in his greatest letter, about regrets. 

      What warning would we add today? 

      For those of us working nearby young adults in this era, the manner and meaning of instrumental communication is a serious issue, or set of issues.  We are the grownups on the lot, and yet we are largely immigrants to a land far more native to our students.  In some cases, we are still back in the old country.  How are we going to bring to bear the wisdom of the ages, in the twitter age?  Are we attentive, curious, honest, straight, kind?  Or do we hang back, and let things take their own course?  I pose this not as a question for sudden answer, yours or mine, but as a lingering, daily, annual point of meditation.  How much blackberry and how much blackberry pie?  How much Facebook and how much face time?  

       For St Paul, learning to walk, to find faith, a personal faith, the walk of faith, for him salvation is close at hand.  He still feels the heat of the apocalyptic end, coming he expects in his lifetime.  Yet note for the all specificity of his warnings in the letter later (drunkenness, debauchery, quarreling) just how open, how free is his advice:  ‘put on Christ’.  And what, we may ask, does that look like?  He has no need to say, for he has said so just prior to our reading; ‘love your neighbor as yourself.  Love does no wrong to the neighbor, therefore love is the fulfilling of the law’ (13: 10) 

      Look down.  Polish your shoes.  Watch your step.  A walk in the light requires a careful step, as responsible stewardship. 

      And look out.  Look out!  Isaiah lifts our gaze.  Paul lowers our gaze.  Matthew lengthens our gaze. 

      I believe that many people, perhaps you among them, are looking for ways to find their spiritual footing.  You may nod a quiet affirmation, with Isaiah, to the need for promise.  You may whisper a quiet agreement, with Paul, for the need for discipline.  But our third lesson, our Gospel, may at first seem less helpful.  It may in fact be less helpful. 

       You may wonder why a church, or this chapel, would have read such odd passages during the month of Advent, in these last few weeks, about the days of Noah, about sudden disappearance in field and mill, about thieves in the night, about the coming of the Son of Man.  Why do these ancient, foreign, strange chapters from the history of our religious families still occupy our attention?  After all, the fervent first century hope that the end would come before the first generation had passed away was disappointed.  Why listen any longer to these predictions?   

       The meal is over, and we are left with leftovers. 

       The apocalyptic language and imagery which appear here in Matthew and in Luke, and may have simply been taken over from contemporary Judaism, are made to serve, in this Gospel, another purpose than in their original serving.   Eschatology becomes ethics.  Expectation about the end is made to serve a moral point:  be ready; watch.   In our funeral service we repeat in our prayers, ‘we know not what a day may bring, but only that the hour for serving thee is always present’.   

      Like Christmas dinner with an ornery uncle or disapproving great aunt, these Advent passages, which were the ancestors of the language of our whole New Testament, can prove hard to have around, but they also have stories to tell, and wisdom to share.   

       Like a strange uncle, they can remind us of how unexpectedly things can change.  “I lost everything I had in the depression”.  Like a feisty aunt, they can challenge us to be ready, “I never thought that day that I would meet my husband on a train to St Louis”.  Like a cousin we seldom see, they can jolt us because they look like us and sound like us when they say, “If I had known then what I know now I would have acted more quickly”. 

       You need those family memories, those familial warnings.  Look out!  Be watchful and mindful and careful. 

       You just never know what a day will bring. 

       It is not enough to generalize or specialize. We have to improvise.  You will probably need to ‘look out’ and improvise a bit too, now and then. 

       You may be trying to find your spiritual footing.  It is in fact hard to get started, in anything, and really hard in anything that really matters.   

       Walk in the light of promise.   

       Walk in the light of discipline. 

       Walk in the light of readiness. 

       If we walk in the light as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another. 

       Today’s sermon is a sermon for those of us who are trying to find our spiritual footing, to get started, to learn the walk of faith. 

       Sometimes the people who say or think they have the least faith in fact have the most.  I am not most interested in how many psalms you can recite, though I implore you to learn some.  I am not most interested in how many hymns you know by heart, though when you are ill or alone they could be saving companions.  I am not most interested in how many religious books you have read, though learning and piety are meant to live together.  I am not most interested in how many church services you have attended, though there is no better way to grow in faith, no better way to learn to walk, none.   

       But I am interested in this.  Are you putting one foot ahead of the other?  Are you trying?  Are you concerned about it?  Are you walking?  Are you walking in the light?  Are you letting some of the sunlight of promise fall on your shoulder?  Are you letting some of the inner light of discipline carry your feet along?  Are you watching for that unexpected ray of inspiration, burst of imagination or challenge to investigation? 

       Not:  are you running?  Not: are you winning?  Not:  are you starring?  Not:  are you succeeding?  Not:  are you finishing?  Just this:  Are you walking in the light? 

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