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

February 11

Transfigured Life

By Marsh Chapel

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Of a sudden our lessons from St. Mark, for some weeks about the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, are interrupted, even upended, by the unexpected insertion of today’s gospel, the account of the high mountain, the wild and windy mount of the Transfiguration. We are taken up higher, we are guided to a promontory, to a peak, to a place of vision, of vista, of mystery, of presence, elusive but nonetheless powerful presence.  This is our seasonal way, one would say, of keeping perspective, of allowing the high calling in faith, with hope, for love, not to be clouded or overshadowed by lower lights.   And this is why, come Sunday, we come to church.  For you, for us, the ordered public worship of Almighty God upon the Lord’s Day is not a matter of indifference.  It is a matter of attention to the meaning of life, the high calling of living a transfigured life, a transfigured life.  Frost…

It asks of us a certain height,
So when at times the mob is swayed
To carry praise or blame too far,
We may choose something like a star
To stay our minds on and be staid.

For the month of February, broadly across American culture, there has come to be a healthy attention to Black History, a shared if quite variously engaged cultural project, a good thing. Especially it is a good thing within a time that has found media generated ways to normalize the abnormal, in politics but also in other things, to normalize forms of rhetoric and behavior, in national leadership, that prior 2016 were adjudged abhorrent and immoral, not normal.  There is of course a media financial incentive.  With humility and pride both, let us recall, we have at Marsh Chapel our owned lived history.  My dad graduated from BUSTH in 1956, preceded a year by Martin Luther King, become Dr. King 1955.

Martin, first and last, was a preacher.  Martin Luther King’s own favorite sermon, “The Dimensions of a Complete Life”, as Gary Dorrien reminded us (157, The Making of American Liberal Theology), was itself based on a sermon from Boston’s own Phillips Brooks.  King preached the sermon in 1954, to candidate at Dexter Avenue, and again at Perdue in 1958 before a national UCC convention, and again in 1964 in Westminster Abbey to accept the Nobel Peace Prize.  As you learn, guest preaching on the circuit, what is good the first time, can often be better preached, three times or more.  The opposite also may be true.  King, following Brooks, compared life to a cube, possessing the three dimensions of length, breadth and height.  The good life flourishes when all three interact in something like a great triangle.  “At one angle stands the individual person, at the other angle stand other persons, and at the top stands the Supreme Infinite Person, God”.  Length means achieving personal goals, breadth comprises the concern for the well being of others, and height signifies the desire for an upward moving longing for God.

         Today’s text is about the third dimension, about height, and personally asks you whether your life exhibits this, King’s third dimension.  Height.  Hast Thou Height?  Granted your personal achievements.  Given your communal engagements.  Have you a known, or been known by, ‘a mountain view’?  In Boston, during this winter of 2024, in the speaking and hearing of Mark 9, there could hardly be a more personal, pertinent question.  On it hang hope and health, yours and mine. The dimension of height, today acclaimed in the transfigured life of Jesus, is one of the gifts which the religious communities may offer to support our common hope across the globe. To survive, personally and communally, the next year and more, we shall need this height. 

         Today we hear of the Transfiguration.  Originally a resurrection appearance account, this legend eventually was placed, by Mark, in the year 70ce, back into the life of Jesus, as a confirmation of his Messiahship, a portent of Easter, and an affirmation of Peter’s earlier confession.  Our lectionary places this passage, given symbolical and other similarities, adjacent to other Old and New Testament readings.  But the truth is that there are as many reasons to disjoin as to conjoin texts, and it is generally better to avoid more than absorb the inherited usurpation by the Newer Testament of the Older, when and if at all possible. 

Mark has brought the trumpets of universals to the occasion.  All life longs for height!  Hear the resurrection gospel!  Light. Shining. Cloud. God. Tradition. Prayer. Silence. Presence.  White…white as snow…white as no fuller on earth could bleach…white as light…dazzling white.  What arrives to Mark is a Mountain View, an announcement of God.  This is my beloved…listen…to Him…

         Mark has brought you something profoundly hopeful and healthy.  Good life has height, as well as length and breadth.  Good life has height that is a part of human experience.     For Mark, the Transfiguration is not only about divine but also about human experience, not only about a divine voice but also about human ears. Mark’s passage is about heightened human experience.  We need this view today, a day when we recall that for all the rigors and excellence of sports, there was $115B in sports gambling in the USA 2023, and 25M million more people participated in 2023 than in 2018.

         It is striking that Mark, facing similar fright as do we, witness to the destruction of the Temple, wrote otherwise, here.  (May his courage, and the courage of the other biblical writers, ever infect us.) As if to say, there is more than one witness, the cost of discipleship, Mark’s unflinching honesty about the dark, itself, strangely heightens human experience, making even transfiguration fully human, making our life open to height.

         At least ask yourself, whether your life has height?  Human height?  Has it?

         Height allows an appreciation of multiple interests, the unspoken presence in every gathering. Reason recognizes multiple interests without demonizing the interests or the interested.

         Josiah Royce: Now I submit to you that this meaning of the word reason is perfectly familiar to all of you.  Reason, from this point of view, is the power to see widely and steadily and connectedly.  Its true opponent is not intuition, but whatever makes us narrow in outlook, and consequently prey to our own caprices.  The unreasonable person is the person who can see but one thing at a time, when he ought to see two or many things together; who can grasp but one idea, when a synthesis of ideas is required.  The reasonable man is capable of synopsis, of viewing both or many sides of a question, of comparing various motives, of taking interest in a totality rather than in a scattered multiplicity. (87).

         The tradition of responsible Christian liberalism, advocated at Marsh Chapel, understands and honors Mark 9.  Now those of us who initially studied theology forty years ago, heard very little of this.  We heard Neo-Orthodoxy, on the one hand.  We heard Liberation, on the other.  Both the liberationists and the Barthians are correctives to the larger liberal tradition, needed at times and good at times, but both espousing not only a responsible authority, but also a kind of authoritarianism, and both imbued with a lasting anger, which the transfiguration does not justify, as appealing as both are to the nighttime all around us. 

         The gospel offers another message.  Your life, in its struggle up the mountain, may open up, at points, to a humanly accessible mountain view, a saving human height!

Take a breath.  Up here, the air is rarified.  Up here, you may have a moment of clarity.  A transfigured life brings us to the altar of loyalty. We are in the thin air that requires a use of archaic words—loyalty, duty, chivalry.  Beware though the sense that loyalty is a matter of sullen obedience.  On the contrary!  Loyalty is the red flame lit in the heart’s chancel, lit with the admixture of personal need and social concern, illumined by the reason and ignited by the will.  Loyalty combines the conservative concern for morality with the liberal hunger for justice.  Loyalty is life, but life with a purpose. Real clarity, can come with a brush up with loyalty.  Tell me what you give to, and I will tell you who you are.  Tell me what you sacrifice for, and I will tell you who you are.  Tell me what altar you face, and I will tell you who you are. Dime con quien andas, y te dire quien eres


And real loyalty is magnanimous.  Real loyalty is bighearted enough to honor an opponent’s loyalty.  At the summit, there can be a reverent respect for another’s loyalty, truly lived, even when it clashes with our own.  Maybe especially then.  US Grant felt this at Appomatox as he took the sword from RE Lee.  My close friend, Jon Clinch’s new historical novel, The General and Julia, about Grant’s last few months of life, is a kind of homage to chivalry.  It is chivalry, this honoring of loyal opposition.  People of faith were once known for this kind of chivalry, an appreciation of multiple interests, a reverent respect for divergent loyalties, as long as they did not eclipse the one great loyalty.   A football player, a burly bearded lineman, explained a defeat saying, “They played better than we did.”  Our granddaughter is a Swifty, a fan of Taylor Swift, who last week in receiving an award said, ‘the work, the work is the real reward.’  Yes.

Such a memory could help our political conversations, reminding us that at depth loyalties converge out of difference.  Surface difference can occlude deeper agreements.  Loyalty has a magnanimous height that honors others’ divergent loyalties, best perhaps known in vibrant local communities, what Alistair Macintyre (Dean at CAS next door in 1972) called ‘the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained’ (LRB, 2/8/24, 17). Maybe he worshipped then at Marsh Chapel?

         In fact, if life does not retain a height dimension, life becomes a kind of death.  Without the mountain presence, the absence of the valley becomes the valley of death. I may ask you, a question.  Does your life have height?  Is the spiritual ceiling in your weekly house of sufficient stature?  How high is heaven, day to day?  Is there any place for a cloud, for brilliance, for presence, for the numinous?  Is there a room with a view?  Is there a place for special experience, even ‘special revelation’? A pastor asked a harried housewife what would make her life better, and she replied, ‘a window over the kitchen sink’.


Sometimes, as Karl Jaspers taught us, the third dimension of life, its height, may be opened to us in liminal moments:  change, loss, death, birth, relocation, illness, healing.  Let us remember Jaspers this Lent.

         Sometimes, as John Wesley taught us, the third dimension of life, its height, may be provided for us by means of grace:  a regular mealtime prayer (do you know one?), a memorized set of verses (do you have them?), a favorite hymn or two (do you hum one?), a pattern of worship (do you claim one?), a church family to love and a church home to enjoy (do you attend one?).   Personal goals, life’s length, do not come without effort.  Communal changes, life’s breadth, to not come from wishes.  Why should we think that a mountain view, a certain height, will come our way without attentive effort?  Let us remember Wesley this Lent.

Sometimes, as Ralph Harper taught us some years ago, we need the height of presence:  When I am moved by a painting or by music, by clouds

passing in a clear nigh sky, by the soughing of pines in the early spring, I

feel the distance between me and art and nature dissolve to some degree,

and I feel at ease.  I feel that what I know makes me more myself than I

knew before. This is how the saints felt about God, and I see in my own

experience elements that I share with the saints and prophets, the

philosophers and priests.”  (On Presence, 6) Let us remember presence this


Sometimes, we need to remember that you cannot cook on a cold stove.  What bakes bread is not only yeast but heat!  Let me hear you whistle!  Let me feel your body in the pew!  Let me notice you humming a hymn! Let me eat at your table and see your photographs!  Let me know your name!  Then there may come the chance for a certain height.  Let us remember this, this Lent.


‘Reality takes shape only in memory’, said Proust. In my junior year, spent abroad in Segovia, I had the good fortune to meet a friend.  We climbed the mountains of Castile together, though we never saw each other in church.  Then the week before Lent in 1975, the last year of Franco’s reign, we met each other in the plaza.  My friend was carrying, in good Castilian fashion, the Ejercicios Espiritualesof Ignatius of Loyola.  Surprised, I inquired about this reading for Lent, and participation in the visionary exercise of Loyola.  “Siempre se saca algo bueno de estas cosas” said the confirmed agnostic: “ah, one always gets something good from these things” said the passionate climber of mountains.  Another kind of mountain view…Hear the gospel: the gospel of height, the gospel of a high mountain view, the gospel of a transfigured life…and this gospel awaits you, too.

It asks of us a certain height,
So when at times the mob is swayed
To carry praise or blame too far,
We may choose something like a star
To stay our minds on and be staid.

February 4

Communion Meditation

By Marsh Chapel

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The text of this sermon is not available at this time. We apologize for any inconvenience.

January 28

A New Voice

By Marsh Chapel

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Jesus greets us today in a divine, heavenly voice, which we hear…in our own experience.  His, this voice, arises in the Gospel According to St. Mark, in three modes.   We shall trace their emergence in our hearing, and attempt to apply them to our spiritual benefit.  To our salvation, that is.


First, notice the lingering power of tradition.  Not traditionalism, but the forms of inherited tradition.  The new, the dominical voice whistles through the willow branches of tradition. Strangely, paradoxically, mysteriously Jesus’ voice, utterly new, addresses us out of the old.   Said J Pelikan, ‘tradition is the living faith of dead people, but traditionalism is the dead faith of living people’.

Jesus speaks.

When does he speak?  On the Sabbath.

Where does he speak?  In the synagogue.

How does he speak?  As a teacher.

All three of these aspects of his speaking are named for us, though we might have inferred two of the three from just the mention of one, or another.  They go together—holy time, holy space, holy words.  Holy time, Holy space, Holy words. The gospel means to emphasize by repetition.

There is, at the outset, a regard, a lingering respect for what has been, for what one inherits.  For tradition, though not traditionalism.  The Sabbath is the occasion.  The synagogue is the setting.  The role of teacher frames the message.

A time of rest and refreshment, Sabbath, here receives Jesus’ blessing, at least in the manner of his recognition and participation.   Sunday can be a time of Sabbath rest.  A time for sleep, for recovery, for reading, for gathering.   We are a sleep deprived people, somnambulant in a sleep deprived culture.  So, a traditional occasion, a time for retreat and renewal can feed us, if we let it.  There are none so weary as those who will not sleep…Following my sermons, some arise inspired and some awake refreshed.  Both are good outcomes.

Likewise, synagogue, a coming together, is a traditional form.  It means, a gathering together.  Blessed are the hosts, for they shall be called the cooks of God.   When you have had a hand in gathering together a gathering together, you have brushed close to something good, something godly.

The other Sunday, a cold one, I made the mistake of walking to worship without a hat.  Brr!  I put my hands over my ears.  I hurried on to come here, eager to see who would be with us in church, eager to hear a response from the listening congregation, eager to be nourished by the ministers of music, eager to be gathered into a warm, inviting, loving, embracing community.  When it is cold enough, you can really appreciate a heated church home.  

But—and you guess here the coming homiletical turn I know—there is more than one kind of cold.  Some is meteorological.  Some is theological. When it is relationally cold enough, you can really appreciate a gathering together.  When someone finds a church family to love and a church home to enjoy—when the gathering together holds—there is a holy moment.

So, too, the role of the teacher, the preacher, the rabbi.  A familiar role, a familiar social location.  It is not in some exotic form that Jesus greets his hearers today.  The form is familiar, the teacher.  We may sometimes look too far, too wide for what we most want and need, when nearby, familiarly so, our health awaits.

Sabbath, synagogue, rabbi.  Tradition.  Here Jesus is more than willing to don the raiment of inheritance, to be harnessed by the yoke of tradition.  Jeremiah recommended the old paths.  Matthew prized every jot and tittle.  We hunger for those voices that will help us translate the tradition into insights for effective living.

Some memories of college years, here, will be connected to the particular sound of our choir.  Some recollections of exams passed or nearly passed, will be held in earshot of a meal or a trip or a talk, here.  Some remembrances of things past, even of hard moments of loss or regret or disappointment, will have about them a shaft of light through stained glass, an echo of truth through scripture read, an admission of prayer needed and offered.

Our gospel today, which announces Jesus’ novel, new voice, a voice like no other notices the lingering power of tradition.

It is in the midst of this house, this lineage, this inheritance that Jesus speaks, not absent it.

His hearers are astonished.  He is not confused in their hearing with their hearing of the scribes, his usual opponents in the flow of this gospel.  They know a different voice, a new voice, when they hear it.  

But we are not told bluntly what exactly made the voice so novel.  This awaits our own hearing, in our own living.

Like last week, in the calling of the disciples, the two sets of brothers.  We are told nothing, there, about what made them move, what caused their decision, what set them free.  And this week, in the voice of teaching, we are told nothing about what made the sermon so good.  Only that it was.  Good and new.

Over time, we all finally decide what such novelty sounds like. 

Jesus new voice greets us today.

Three aspects of his voice are announced today, in the Gospel According to St. Mark.   We shall trace their emergence in our hearing, and attempt to apply them to our spiritual benefit.  So, first, tradition.


Second, notice, and how can you help it, the centrality of confrontation.  Here there is an unclean spirit loose, loose amid the holy time and place and role.  The dominical voice calls out its nemesis.  We are straightway here in the realm of apocalyptic, cosmic apocalyptic, battle.

Our worldview is not cosmic apocalyptic confrontation.  We do not see a convulsive as one demon, of an unclean sort, challenging another Jesus demon of an authoritative sort.  We are late modern people, women and men who do not cry out in public, unless we are at a sporting event, drinking heavily, or about to call the police into a domestic dispute.  Maybe, in compensation, that is why sports and drinking and all become so central to us.

Voice sometimes involves confrontation, not just pleasant courtesies of disagreement, but genuine squaring off.  To your roommate you finally say: ‘One of us is wrong and I think it is you.’  To your boss you finally say:  ‘Look, do you want to do my work or will you let me do it?’  To your political economy (known by the way for good reason as ‘capitalism’ not ‘laborism’, because capital rules labor in capitalism) you finally say:  ‘One way or another my son needs a job.’  To your good friend, gently, you say: ‘I am sorry you feel that way.  Goodbye’.  To your spouse you say: ‘You can have me or him but not both at the same time’.  Or, ‘you need to leave that job—you can stay, or you can stay married, you pick’ To your warring world you finally shout:  ‘My son is not your cannon fodder’.

One thing I truly admired about my dad was how he easy he was around confrontation.  A man would stand up and shout and carry on at a church meeting, walk out of worship the next Sunday, or send a blistering hand written hate note to the pastor, and my dad would shrug and smile and say, ‘I like to see him get worked up.  It is worth the price of admission just to see him so angry.’  Less naturally and more slowly, I too have learned to honor and receive anger.  The Jesus of Mark 1, accosting the demonic, would understand.

Here Mark is starting his gospel, with a confrontation!  The verb here rendered ‘be silent’ (so polite) means ‘to muzzle’.  Be muzzled.  Shut your trap. (so J Marcus, Anchor Bible Commentary, loc. Cit.).  Matthew begins his public gospel with the Sermon on the Mount.  Luke begins his public gospel with the sermon in Nazareth.  John begins his public gospel with the wedding in Cana (again, Marcus).  But Mark?  He begins with demons and confrontation.

When we get angry, we get in touch with something deep inside, something not necessarily at all related to what we think we are angry about.  We are not so very far from the ‘unclean spirit’ of Mark 1.  We are complicated creatures. Blessedly complicated creatures.

You see and hear this again in the recent film ‘Freud’s Last Session’, based on the earlier Broadway play.  It includes an imagined conversation between Sigmund Freud, the great psychologist, and C. S. Lewis, the great apologist.  Bombs are falling on London.  Freud is suffering with mouth cancer.  Lewis is struggling with his young man’s sexuality. And through it all—the question of God.  Freud and Lewis confront each other. They lock horns for 90 minutes of verbal combat.  Each memorizes and delivers the equivalent of two Sunday sermons.  They square off and argue.  Good.

Lewis: ‘in pleasure God whispers, in pain God shouts’.  Freud:  ‘just why are you living with your best friend’s mother?’  Lewis:  ‘I got on my cycle an atheist, and got off a believer, all one day’.  Freud:  ‘you might want to see somebody about that’.  Lewis: ‘faith is most reasonable thing on earth’.  Freud: ‘yes, such a good God—bombs, death, disease, pain’.  Lewis: ‘I will pray for you’.  Freud:  ‘you do that’.

Yet at the very end, though Freud has turned the radio off to mute the music it carries for much of the story, and of course Lewis, for once in good Freudian fashion, has asked why the good Dr. Freud cannot listen to the music, and has given his spirited and spiritual analysis, still and yet, at the end and alone, dying and in pain, the great psychoanalyst slowly turns up the music, and Mozart rings out.

There is no resolution—how could there be in 90 minutes?  But there is confrontation that evokes something new, a new voice.

Jesus greets us today in such a voice.

Three aspects of his authority are announced today, in the Gospel According to St. Mark.   We shall trace their emergence in our hearing, and attempt to apply them to our spiritual benefit. So, Second, confrontation.  It takes the exorcising power, the new voice, finally, of love, to move us.


Third, response.  Notice the response.  ‘With authority…a new teaching…he commands…even the demons obey…his fame spread throughout the north country’.   It works.  Whatever he said, whatever he taught, it helped somebody.  We wish we knew what it was!  What verse, what chapter, what story?

Yet, there is a quieter wisdom in the silence of Scripture here, about the content of Jesus’ sermon.  If we knew, we would be tempted just to repeat rather than to rehearse.  We need to have the tradition, in the moment of confrontation, translated into insights for effective living which, in response, we can use.  That is authentic authority in the full.  If we knew that he used the 100th Psalm, we would repeat it every Sunday.  If we knew he preached on Jeremiah, we would invariably do so.  If we knew he taught specific proverbs, we would ignore the rest.  No, there is freedom in the silence of the gospel, here, a freedom to live and love in newness of life. To respond.

Freud finally turned on the music.

And you?

Perhaps you are a Christian because the best people, leading the best lives, in your experience, have been so.  I know I respond to the freedom and love I see in other people of faith, now 65 generations after the exorcism in Capernaum, and the response all across Galilee.  In other lives we have seen glimpses of what we could be and do, if only we would only straighten up and fly right.  Some of those lives are in this room.  Some are in memory.  Some are out there waiting to be introduced.  Don’t kid yourself.   Your example counts, matters, lasts, works.

Tradition and confrontation evoke a response.  The unclean spirit leaves.  The congregation murmurs.  The report goes forth.

Someone taught you.  A High School band director?  A Latin teacher in college (Agricola, agricolae…)?  A chemistry professor who lingered with you in the lab?  Who?

Nancy responded to her Latin teacher.  Bill responded to his science teacher.  Jane responded to her history teacher.  Jill responded to her family matriarch.  John responded to his theology professor.  As Carlyle Marney put it:  “Who told you who you was?”

Somehow, with four growing children and a preacher’s meager salary, my parents managed to give us all piano lessons.  My teacher was a farm wife, twenty years younger than her husband.  The distance from the barn to the house, from the manger to the piano, was very short, in both geographic and physical senses.  I feel the warmth of both those spaces, and of that tutelage today, even though those precious parsonage dollars were almost entirely wasted on me, to my regret.  I can’t play a scale, after years of lessons.  I can though appreciate the difficulty of what others do.  And there was something more, somewhere between Lewis and Freud, in those afternoon lessons, which usually began with an honest question: “Did you practice?” and a less than fully honest response: “Some”.

You know, looking back to those growing up years, that was one of the few places and times, week by week, when I was in the sole presence of a non-parental adult: honest, trustworthy, kind, caring.  Now where the farm was there is an auto dealer and a pizza parlor.  But the hay, the barn, the milking, the home, the warmth, the music, the teaching, the—may I call it friendship?-- live on.  In her forties she died of cancer, three fine children, one great marriage, several years of crops and evenings and mornings of milking, and some less than stellar piano students later.  At her funeral the minister, a BU graduate, preached this sermon: ‘You Are Song That God Is Singing’.  That itself is many years ago, but I remember it in full.  ‘You Are Song That God Is Singing’.  You are too.  And so are you.  And so are you.

The music is playing all around us, all through us, in our triumph and in our tragedy.  We just need to respond.  To lean over, and turn the dial, and set the music free.

The Gospel According to St. Mark starts off with a new voice. When you are listening for a new voice, for a sense of reliable, authority, then hunt around a healthy bit of lost tradition,and for a courageous and cleansing moment of confrontation, and for a real and personal, public response.

January 21

Lighten Our Darkness

By Marsh Chapel

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He comes to us as One unknown, without a name, as of old, by the lakeside. He came to those men who knew him not. He speaks to us the same word: "Follow thou me!" and sets us to the tasks which he has to fulfill for our time. He commands. And to those who obey Him, whether they be wise or simple, He will reveal Himself in the toils, the conflicts, the sufferings which they shall pass through in his fellowship, and as an ineffable mystery, they shall learn in their own experience who He is. (A Schweitzer)


Speaking of Jesus, here He is this morning, midway from Christmas to Easter, from manger to cross, from nativity to passion.  Along the shoreline he strides, one foot in sea and one on shore.  He makes two invitations.  As Howard Thurman said, ‘Christmas happens every time there is a birth, a mother, a child, a birth, new life’.  We need to give as much attention, extended attention, to Christmas, here at Marsh Chapel, as we do, here, to Lent, Holy Week, Triduum and Easter.  Our health, our salvus, our salvation, is in part in keeping that balance, of birth and of death.

He meets two brothers at dawn, and they meet him, He who is 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 with their own means of production.  They are small business men, boat owners, fishermen.  Neither the amhaaretz (the poor of the land) nor the gentry, they.  Not poor, not rich.  Working stiffs.  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…or…Sinks like a Rock…You sense that these brothers play in the surf a little, kick up the sand 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 of Galilee, 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 sunrise.  Jesus invites, and they accept.  Follow me…

Meanwhile, back on the beach, Jesus heads south, cove by cove, with Andrew and Peter frolicking in tow.  They had already left home.  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 andpepperino.  Yes, they will follow!  But Jesus is about to make a second invitation.  Not to the defiant, but to the compliant.  Not to the independent, but to the dependent.  Not to the strong, but to the weak.  Not to the secular, but to the religious.

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.  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 covered with the ancient equivalents of chap stick and Coppertone.  And, more to the point, they are trapped under the glaring gaze of Zebedee, whose thunderous voice has so filled their home that their own voices have not 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 yet?  No.  Are they sailing?  No.  They are mending.  Mending.  Knit one, pearl two… Their dad has got them into that conservation, protection, preservation mode. That worst side of churchgoing mode.  Mending.  At sunrise!  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.  And there they sit, sober souls, looking for a bad time if a bad time can be had, mending.  Both sets of brothers are invited, welcomed, called, as you are today, to follow, even amid the ‘certain normal predicaments of human divinity (James Agee).  Called in the struggles of life, to find new life, following Jesus, and so in his church.  This is the start of the church.


My teacher Douglass John Hall wrote a book once, Lighten Darkness: ‘Darkness entered into, darkness realized, is the point of departure for all profound expressions of Christian hope. 'Meaningless darkness' becomes 'revelatory darkness' when it is confronted by the courage of a thoughtfulness and hope that is born of faith's quest for truth. (DJHall) The church shall need this word in 2024, through all of 2024.


Speaking of church, On Dec. 31, my United Methodist Church officially completed itsrecent realignment. Up to a quarter of American Methodist congregations may have left the denomination. While the percentage of churches and percentage of congregants is not the same — it may be a smaller percentage of actual members who split off — this schism has changed the shape of Methodism, and has made a way forward for the vast majority of members to affirm and love its gay members, family members of gay people, and friends and neighbors of gay people.

Like other Protestant denominations (for example, Episcopal, Presbyterian and Lutheran), the United Methodist Church has faced decades of conflict, largely over the full humanity of gay people. Also, like other denominations, after years of national and other meetings, the denomination has at long last come to a conclusive point.


This division is by no means a surprise, and in fact has been fully present since at least 1970. Over the past 50 years, it has been debated, avoided, postponed, and dreaded since before I entered the ministry in 1979. The determinations of the General Conference (the governing body of the UMC) have placed this time frame, with the stipulation that individual churches could leave the denomination at this time, over the gay issue.


Politics has played a clear role, as it has in church decisions for the more than 200-year history of Methodism. The United Methodist Church has always been the most national, most representative Protestant denomination, with at least one local church in every county of the 50 United States.

Notably, gay rights are not the only wedge issue dividing the denomination. Our current Book of Discipline affirms a moderate pro-choice position on abortion, as do I, one of things many of those leaving the denomination oppose.  Methodism has a long track record of advocacy for the rights of women, including the right to ordination, which some of those leaving the denomination oppose. Even broader cultural issues related to lifestyle, parenting and schooling have percolated not only through the body politic of the country, but also through the community and communities of faith.

That is, there is a direct relation and correlation between the denominational debates and national political currents. Some of that is simply the presence of John and Mary at the school board on Tuesday evening and then in worship together on Sunday morning. Some more of it is lodged in different perspectives on local vs. national authority, and state vs. federal authority.

Having had the privilege of preaching from 10 different pulpits, it has been quite impressive to me just how localized and culturally distinctive each congregation becomes, in matters great and not so great.


But while our faith communities, like our country, have become polarized across a wide range of issues, differing stances on gay rights have contributed most directly to the current denominational move forward. This is an issue that is biblically misunderstood. There are, in all 66 books of the Bible, both Hebrew Scriptures and New Testament, some 30,000 verses. Exactly six of those — six out of 30,000 —arguably have anything directly to say about same-gender relationships. It was not exactly a central theme for the biblical writers.

But what makes this matter so devilish for modern Methodism is not the utter paucity of any biblical material related to this theme, but rather the very clear, centrally admonished teaching otherwise, for instance in Galatians 3: 28, Paul (often a favorite for conservatives by the way) writes:  “In Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female. “ Martin Luther called Galatians “the Magna Carta of Christian liberty.” In it Paul very clearly sets aside religious, economic and sexual distinctions, on the power of the unity of faith, of baptism and the Gospel of Christ. ‘There is no male and female’, but rather the unity of faith, hope and love in the person of Christ, crucified and risen. (See J.L. Martyn’s magisterial Anchor Bible Commentary on Galatians for more detail).

Thus, many of those now leaving the denomination, purportedly on biblical grounds, have apparently not read all of the Bible, or at least have not read some parts of it carefully, faithfully, and fully, especially Galatians 3:28 and similar passages within the full and fully liberating arc of biblical theology.


Nevertheless, the separation is happening. And for the future, that means hard work for Methodism. It means the ongoing struggle to support urban ministry with poor and underprivileged people, the struggle to support growing churches in Africa and Asia, the struggle to support summer camping ministries, campus ministries, elder care ministries, and many other forms of service that our connectional system has effectively and efficiently provided over decades, will have to go on with fewer people, churches, and far less money. We will have to cut in all these mission-driven areas and of course in many other administrative ones (number of Bishops, superintendents and other).


Politics is downstream from economics, which is downstream from culture, which is downstream from religion (and I here mean religion very broadly construed).   What happens in religion really matters and both conditions and reflects the broader American landscape, for good or ill or very ill.  Our divisions flow downstream into others.

The work of the church will get more difficult. But 2024 also brings a new day, a chance for creative repositioning, a moment for younger clergy coming of age to find their voice and influence, and the kind of freedom that comes with change.


Speaking of change, and of the church, two hundred years ago Friederich Schleiermacher set out a new theology, in the service of the church, and in the wake of the Enlightenment.  Fides quarens intellectum’—faith seeking understanding—guided his effort.  He founded all his great, long work, THE CHRISTIAN FAITH, upon a single insight, ‘the feeling of absolute dependence’.   Our faith, the faith once delivered to the saints, the faith of Jesus Christ, born in Bethlehem, at Christmas, he grounded in our experience of dependence.  By feeling he did not mean emotion or sensation, though these were of course included.  By feeling he meant experience, and preeminently the unfathomable but palpable, unutterable but unmistakable sensation of absolute dependence.  Where did all, all this, come from? Whence life, breath, freedom, existence?  Why something, not nothing?  By some miracle grace, here we are, dependent, absolutely dependent on the unseen for the seen, on the unknown for the known, on the dark for the light.  


Jesus enters our culture, jostled left and right to be sure by other and stronger prevailing winds, from Christmas into Epiphany, to leave a lasting impression upon us of our absolute dependence, of a feeling of absolute dependence: The essence of religion consists in the feeling of an absolute dependence.


What strikes the reader following him anew today is how very quickly Schleiermacher moves from the feeling of absolute dependence to the experience of fellowship in the communion of saints.  Straightway, after a few paragraphs, he moves from dependence to church.  The feeling of absolute dependence immediately propels one into the gathering of others of such feeling.  So, an experience of hope drives one to a common, a community of hope.  An experience of peace prods one to find out, seek out, a fellowship in peace.  A moment of joy kindles a delight in the shared evocation of joy.  And a longing for love places one in the midst of a group of others who have the same longing.  Are we lovers anymore?  I know we know a lot, especially in a University setting.  Good.  But are we lovers?  Do we love a lot? ‘The religious self-consciousness, like every essential element in human nature, leads necessarily in its development to fellowship or communion; a communion which, on the one hand, is variable and fluid, and, on the other hand, has definite limits, i.e., is a Church”.  In other words, the gift of faith may lead each one of us more strongly, regularly and personally to unwrap that gift, week by week, in church, in worship, in gathering, in assembly, on Sunday morning at 11am.  Come and worship!  Come and pray, come early, come and learn someone’s name, come and sign up to receive the newsletter, come and linger for coffee, come and warmly welcome a student.  Come and worship!

He comes to us as One unknown, without a name, as of old, by the lakeside. He came to those men who knew him not. He speaks to us the same word: "Follow thou me!" and sets us to the tasks which he has to fulfill for our time. He commands. And to those who obey Him, whether they be wise or simple, He will reveal Himself in the toils, the conflicts, the sufferings which they shall pass through in his fellowship, and as an ineffable mystery, they shall learn in their own experience who He is. (A Schweitzer)

December 31

Ecumenical Resolution

By Marsh Chapel

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Luke 2:22–40

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Like other births, Jesus’ own occurs in the midst of trouble.   He is hardly born before another dream befalls Joseph, the poor fellow, a man drenched in dreams, and commands the Holy Family to flee to Egypt.   So the prophet had predicted.

Like most growth, Jesus’ own develops amid controversy.   Herod fulfills another prophesy by slaying the children of Bethlehem, who then as now are in peril every hour.  So, the prophet had predicted.

Like much childhood, Jesus’ own transpires amid governmental wrangling, religious strife, and existential uncertainty.  His family comes to make their home in Nazareth, down at the north end of the lake, and Jesus becomes a Nazorean.  So, the prophet had predicted:  Jesus is immersed in our full life.

The Christmas Gospel is this:  God has taken human form, entered our condition, become flesh.  For our present congregation, and especially come Christmas for our faithful virtual congregants, viewing and listening from afar, we gladly announce this good news!

He came that we might have life and live it abundantly.   In the next century after his birth, Irenaeus was to say, in summarizing his salvation: “the glory of God is a human being fully alive.”

The birth of Jesus penetrates all of the seasons of life.

Even dear, dour Ecclesiastes, who found so little to celebrate in life, at least made space, in his otherwise saturnine perspective, to honor time, the passage of time, the flow of time, and the regular return of times and seasons: 

For everything there is a season

And a time for every purpose under heaven

As we pause between Christmas and the New Year (and so between past and future, youth and age, life and death, heaven and earth, this age and the age to come), perhaps we too can incarnationally celebrate the seasons of life.  Look with me out at 2024, from a theological, liturgical, and religious perspective.  Listen from to the ecumenical voice of Marsh Chapel, wherein all the families of Christendom, and of the earth itself, find a real home.  Our time sorely needs a New Year’s ecumenical resolution.  On this date, 12/31/23, the day on which my own beloved United Methodist formally and finally splits, we may especially want to raise the possibility of a long-term ecumenical resolution, where, say, six churches on a village green become one. Marsh Chapel, you are a harbinger of things to come. For to every denomination there is a season, and a time for every perspective under heaven!  Here is what I mean.  Every theological insight is here, for you, liturgically on site. 

You may not think much about the Presbyterians.  They can be cold people, I suppose.  ‘God’s frozen people’, said one.   You may never have wanted to wade in the dark, icy water of Calvinist despair.  You may not see yourself through the lens of a Bergman film.  But there is a time and a season.  When Ash Wednesday arrives in a couple months, February 14, 2024 we are all Presbyterians.  Yes, if at no other point, on this day we do well to read Calvin.  For we are dust, and to dust we do return, as both the Bible and Ignatius of Loyola taught (more on him in a moment).  We do all sin, and do all fall short of the glory of God.  We are fully mortal and utterly prone to harm others.  In Calvin’s favorite, winning phrase, a personal delight of my own as well, we are, simply, “totally depraved”.  Yikes! His follower, Jonathan Edwards, described us as sinners in the hands of an angry God, held like filthy spiders over the pits of hellfire, and spared only by God’s strong wrist, who in holding us to save us, nonetheless averts his eyes from the hideous sight.  Yikes!  That is serious Ash Wednesday stuff! Really to sense this, you need the mind of John Calvin, the voice of Jonathan Edwards, and the heart of John of Patmos.   I admit, it is not a happy creed, but it is a sober one.   As my Scottish Presbyterian relatives from my mother in law’s side might say: “Bob, you are so often, so wrong!.” Marsh Chapel embraces Presbyterians, especially on Ash Wednesday.  Buy a Presbyterian lunch early in Lent, and appreciate the gifts of their season.

Speaking of Lent, you may be thinking about the Jesuits.  Perhaps you attended a Jesuit college, or teach in one. (I have, at Lemoyne College, to my great benefit). Maybe you have wondered about Ignatius of Loyola, born in Pamplona, a Spaniard and a warrior, who was converted through illness to a beatific vision of Jesus, the Christ, Lord and Savior.  Believe me, in Lent we are all Jesuits.  In the season of Lenten discipline and preparation, you know, March of ice and snow and cold, we rely on some form of Jesuitical discipline.  You may not precisely use his “Spiritual Exercises”, his daily devotion of silence and prayer and vision of Jesus.  You may be sorry that he set loose the Inquisition and Index as tools of the Counter Reformation.  You may feel he carried too much eye and too much military into a faith that is primarily auditory and irenic.  In that, you would be a Lutheran, you Lutheran you.  But in Lent, we are all soldiers in the Society of Jesus, ready to drill and train and prepare and exercise and submit.  As Teresa of Avila put it, “even when we are thrown from the mud-cart of life, God is with us.” Marsh Chapel embraces Jesuits, whether in the Vatican or on the street, especially in Lent.  Everyone is a Jesuit, come Lent. 

Since, though, you brought up Luther, we must also give credit where credit is due.  Come Good Friday, when we survey the wondrous cross, on which the Prince of Glory died, our greatest gain we count but loss, and pour contempt on all our pride.  I know that the ground at the foot of the cross is pretty level, but the view of the cross that is best is found from the perspective of the Lutherans, who stoutly recall, with Luther, crux sola nostra teologia.  Lutherans!  We love you at Marsh Chapel! The Cross alone, come Good Friday, is our teaching. We need to remember, especially on Good Friday, that all of our best intentions fall short.  Especially when we think we have it just right, whatever it is, we invariably have it just wrong.  It was Katie von Bora, a former nun, who in marrying Luther reminded him of his humanity and “brought out the most winsome traits” of the Reformer’s character. All our symbols, personal and familial and national and denominational, lie prostrate before the cross, all need right interpretation to avoid idolatry.  (Read again Dean Neville’s magisterial book, The Truth of Broken Symbols). Even the cross, our own central symbol, needs that interpretation, which is why we consent to a 20 minute sermon every week, even though the Baptists would rather shout and pray.  Did we in our own strength confide, our winning would be losing!   When it comes to the Cross, “nobody does it better” than Luther.

I have just mentioned the Baptists.   This, you worry, brings the camel’s nose under the tent. They are always threatening to become the sideshow that ate up the circus, you say.   You give them an inch, they will take a mile, you say.  Speaking of miles, they can seem a mile wide and an inch deep, you say. They give anarchy a bad name, you say.  But we must recognize that there is a season for everybody.  Especially the Baptists.  For in June, or late May, when the world is young again, we will celebrate Pentecost, the day of Spirit.   Every week I know you try to invite one person to join you in the joy of Marsh Chapel.  Baptists are embraced here. After 50 days after 40 days, that is 90 days from Calvin’s ashes, we pause again to remember that God is with us.  Wesley died saying, “the best of all is, God is with us!”  (Relax, I will get to the Methodists, in due time.)  Beware your caution about Baptists.  The Baptists are not all canoe and no paddle, not all axe-murder and no sheriff, not all fire and no hose, not all hat and no cattle, God love ‘em.   Not All Spirit, whatever the Trinitarian Orthodox say.   The Baptists may seem almost Unitarians of the Third Person of the Trinity!  I tell you though, come Pentecost, that’s the day, Lord, dear Lord above, God Almighty, God of love, please look down and see my people through.   When that wind of God is blowing (I do not refer to your preacher sermonizing), then you need some Baptists around to shake things up a little.  Yes, you do.  As one said, ‘Christians are always in a little bit of trouble’.    Isabella Van Wagener (Sojourner Truth) said, “That man says women can’t have as much rights as man, cause Christ wasn’t a woman.  Where did your Christ come from?  From God and a woman.  Man had nothing to do with him!”  See what I mean?! You need to shout when the Spirit says shout!

The Orthodox do not do a lot of shouting on Sunday.  Or on Monday.  They happily used to meet in Marsh Chapel every Monday evening, and there was very little hollering.  They’re not big shouters, except during their summer festivals, which happen to come, properly I think, about the time of Trinity Sunday.  The more liturgical churches, Orthodox and Episcopalian and Catholic, remember this Sunday, Trinity Sunday, better than others.  We love the Orthodox at Marsh, especially come Trinity Sunday.  This is the season when we remember that God is more than Almighty Creator (no matter what the Muslims say) and that God is more than Lordly Savior (no matter what the Holy Rollers say) and that God is more than Mysterious Spirit (no matter what the Californians say).  God is three, three, three Faces in one.  Leave it to the Orthodox to remind us.  Their wedding services last three hours.  One for each Person of the Trinity, perhaps.  When you come to June 15, go to a Greek festival and dance to the Triune God.  Go ahead.  Hug a Trinitarian in June!   A few blocks down Commonwealth, at Arlington Street, the ghost of William Ellery Channing may be angry about it, but you go ahead and love your Trinitarian neighbor as your own self.   As Constantine’s mother, Helena, may have said on her many 4th century pilgrimages to Jerusalem,  “let us remember well those who have revered God before us.”

Now that we are knee deep in liturgy, let us honor the Roman Catholics.  Every third member of our Marsh community today comes out of a Roman Catholic background.  Our history, liturgy, nave, location and personality as a congregation have regularly made this move accessible to women and men of many different interests and backgrounds.  On World Communion Sunday 2024 we will all be Catholic! And when we look back with joy on Vatican II, and its explosion of aggiornamento—renewal.  Aggiornamento:  I love the chance to say a word in Italian. With the universal church we here celebrate the Presence of Christ in the Eucharist.  With the universal church we here acknowledge one Lord, one Faith, one Baptism.  With the universal church we here recognize the global character of the Christian communion.   It has been the Roman Catholic church, more steadily than most, that has defended the poor in our time.  It has been the Catholic church that has regularly regarded those of low estate.  It has been the Catholic church that has kept the long history of Christendom before us.  Our liturgical ties to the universal church should not be loosened by the very real doctrinal differences we have with Rome.  John Wesley preached a whole sermon on extending an olive branch, a sign of peace, to the Romans.  From our Anglican heritage, we are a moderate people.  We know the value of an olive branch.  On World Communion Sunday, come October, we shall affirm here at Marsh, one holy, catholic and apostolic church.  You remember, among so many others, Mother Teresa of Calcutta, whose simple deeds of service to the poorest spoke volumes to her time, and of her tradition.

 Now, I just mentioned the Anglicans.  Did you notice how the Anglican or Episcopal tradition found its way, on little cat feet, into our seasonal review?  Typical.  You will usually find an Anglican sidling up alongside you in discussion, listening and careful in discourse.  To the Episcopalian, a smile comes before a frown, a “quite so” before a “not so”.  Anglicans are like everybody else—only moreso.  They revere the variety and diversity of the communion of saints.  They agree to disagree, agreeably.  They are peaceable people, nearly Quaker in character.  Not for them the starch of Lutheran polemics, nor the bitter herbs of Calvinist dogma.  A little sherry in the afternoon, a little Handel, a little wooly conversation—jolly good!  Tallyho!  Pip-pip! Cheerio!   It is reason, rather than revelation alone, that has guided the Church of England, reason and a stiff dose of liturgy, including the veneration of Saints.  One a soldier, one a priest, one slain by a fierce wild beast.  On All Saints Day, we are all Anglicans.  (And on Halloween, too!!!).  Marsh Chapel loves Episcopalians.  They are princes of peace, these sons and daughters of George III.  They are optimistic people!  Said Queen Victoria, “we are not interested in the possibilities of defeat”.

Real peace, the waiting and quiet of peace in the heart, however, is ultimately the province of our Pennsylvanian neighbors.  In Advent, you are a Quaker through and through.  Oh, you worship God.  You know that in heaven we will be greeted by St Peter, not by Benjamin Franklin; that we will walk the golden streets, not Market Street in Philadelphia; that we will hear the angelic choir not the Liberty Bell; that we are disciples first and citizens second.  Still, the city of brotherly love, only a few hours south, the American home of the spiritual descendents of George Fox, that Quaking Englishman, is the home of a radical quest for peace, a waiting for peace, a longing for peace, a season of quiet that is utterly Quaker in nature.  “I have called you Friends”, said our Lord.  I tell you, when you have truly felt the power of the Society of Friends, you will be as ready for the peace of Advent as you were prepared for the discipline of Lent by the Society of Jesus.  It is enough to make you sing like a Methodist!  The Quakers may not have been always as militarily committed as others may have liked.  In faith, they may have stepped aside when others had to step forward.  Still, it was to them that Ben Franklin turned at the end of his life, in 1792, to implore the young nation to jettison slavery, and they alone, prescient and right, stood by him.  In Advent, we all are Philadelphia Quakers, eating Cheesesteaks and twinkies and sculling on the Scuykill River.  We all await peace.  We remember Mother Ann Lee and the shaking Quakers singing, “in truth simplicity is gain, to bow and to bend we shan’t be ashamed; to turn, turn will be our delight, til by turning, turning, we come round right.”

Do you suspect that we have saved the best for last?  For come December 2024 it will be Christmastide, again.  Sing we now of Christmas, Noel, Noel!  A song greets the dawn.  It is the singing of the birds before daybreak that heralds a new morning, and it is the singing of the church of Christ, in season and out, that heralds a new creation.  You are here to invite somebody to come to worship with you in 2024.  So, you will ring the bell, sing the song, tell the tale of Christmas.  Christmas means invitation.  The birds sing while it is still dark, and the church sings while sin remains.  People do change, for the better, even when we are reluctant to notice. Emerson:  the human being is convertible. To come to Christmas, truly to come to Christmas, you must come singing.  In church, in the shower, at prayer meeting, in the choir, caroling, at youth group, by yourself.  To sing is to be a Methodist.  A singing Methodist, as our common speech declares.  All sing, but none so sweetly.  All sing, but none so vibrantly.  All sing, but none with a list of rules about how to do so pasted in the front of a hymnal, whose reproduction every generation is the church equivalent of World War III.  All sing, but none with the theological bearing of singing with the Wesley brothers. To sing the Wesley hymns is to plant one’s standard upon the field of battle and roar:  let the games begin! And what shall we sing?  Carols of course.  And which carols.  Those of the English tradition of course.  And which of these? There is but one of the first rank.    It is the doctrine of the Incarnation, more than those others from Crucifixion to Resurrection, which so marks the people called Methodist.  The primitive church told two stories of Jesus, that of his death (Holy Week and Easter) and that of his birth (Advent and Christmas).  You must sing both, not just one, or the other.  So the Wesley’s adored the Gospel of John, and “the word became flesh and dwelt among us”.  So, they hoped for a new creation, finished, pure and spotless.  (I love my church with all my heart, even in the teeth of all our difficulties.) So, they built churches, great and beautiful, but just for appetizers to the real meal---orphanages, mission societies, colleges, universities, medical schools, hospitals, including 128 US schools and colleges, with Boston University leading the parade. So, Susanna Wesley bore 20 children, 17 of whom survived, one of whom, John, died saying, “the best of all is—God is with us!”, another of whom, Charles, gave us the gospel at Christmas:

Born to raise the us from the earth

Born to give us second birth

Hark the herald angels sing!

Glory to the Newborn King!

 Can you hear this?  It begs a hearing.  If you do, I challenge you, call you, to a resolution, an ecumenical resolution.  Somehow find for yourself a church in 2024!  Worship God once a week next year!  Join us here at Marsh Chapel, in all its ecumenical resolution. And bring a friend with you! Or two!

December 24

Christmas Eve Communion Meditation

By Marsh Chapel

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Luke 2:1–20

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Merry Christmas! The text of this sermon is not available at this time. We apologize for any inconvenience.


December 17

River’s Edge

By Marsh Chapel

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John 1:6-8, 19-28

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Here we are, again, at the River’s Edge, a few yards beyond the south bank of the Charles.  On the edge, at the edge, along the river’s edge. 

One winter night our car would not start so I called AAA. Triple A remains one of life’s great good deals. I could think of it as an almost universally useful last minute Christmas gift. Just a thought. It is highly effective, dependable, crucially necessary, and cheap. You know, it is what we can do together, when we eliminate the crushing need for greed. From each according to his automotive ability, to each according to his automotive need. All for $50.00 a year. Think of it. You can insure your driving support, nationwide, for almost nothing.  

After 20 minutes the AAA truck arrived. Out tumbled a heavy-set middle-aged man, in a stubbled white beard and crimson work shirt. His truck was full of packages, piled in the dark. He reminded me of the Santa Claus we had seen the night before. In fact, I wondered if he had two jobs. We walked to the car, lifted the hood, poked around, fiddled, fussed, and started the car. He did his job—automotive medical care. I did mine. So, I asked, “How are you?”  

“Terrible. I hurt all over. I am really sick. And my tooth hurts bad. I have a bad toothache. I have no insurance. So I can’t see the doctor.”  

But yet, I heard him declare, as he drove out of sight: Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night.  

Over the next few days, I found it troubling that this little scene would not leave my mind. We are all aware of the level of pain present at the holidays. Sometimes a particular incident will illumine the whole landscape; a toothache will illumine a whole world of hurt. And we are, in the world right now, near and far, in a world of hurt. 

But the trouble with the moment did lie deeper. You have already guessed it. It took me longer, though. Here was a jolly happy elf, in the employ of one of the last truly communal agencies, bringing help in the moment on the cheap, who walked and is probably still walking, in dental pain. The one representing automotive insurance had no medical insurance. We insure our vehicles, efficiently and frugally. But not always the human body. We have limits. There are limits to what we find that we can do.  It really matters where and how we set limits. We set our limits, and then, in tragedy or in triumph, se live with the consequences. Which brings us, by the direction of the lectionary, for the second week to John the Baptist. The lectionary is a set of regularly used readings, collected in a three-year cycle. One year is based on Luke and another on Matthew. The third is left for Mark, with interruptions from John.  So, last week, (we did not hear it because it was our Lessons and Carols Sunday) the Baptist is portrayed by Mark in his usual mode, rough and clothed in camel’s hair, down by the river Jordan.  Today John takes the older material, similar to that in Mark, and, like a jazz musician, plays a brighter, newer tune. He adds his own riffs. Today’s is a word on limits.  

For the Fourth Gospel, John the Baptist is the master representative of limits. Like a river needs banks to be a river, life needs limits to be life.  

In the Gospel of John there is no single way of talking about God’s personal truth, that alone sets us free. The salvation which John preached called for many words, different words, a variety of ways of acknowledging the Lordship of Christ. Maybe John sensed idolatry in ways of thinking that limited people to just one set, and thus deadening, confession. No. There is more than one way to skin a cat. And if what is pointed out is nothing short of a truth fit for salvation, can we blame him for pulling out all the stops on his organ? Bread of Life! Word of God! Good Shepherd! Light of the World! Lamb of God! Messiah! Son of God! Son of Man! John dares to try them all. He has to be daring. He is trying to offer those who hear his voice (and now, from this moment on, that includes you) a reason for living, and a way of living with limits, a way of living at the river’s edge.  

I take it that “growing up”, if it means anything, at least means learning how to do some things, perhaps even how to do some things well. You are a baker. He is a builder. She is a musician. I am not a good hockey player because I am not a good skater. I guess I’ll play basketball. John the Baptist has a voice that rings with maturity and truth, partly because he is assessing what he cannot do, who he is not. “I am not the Christ…nor Elijah…nor the Prophet…” This too is maturity: learning one’s limits. A river with no banks is a very shallow river. But John’s life has banks to flow through. He knows what and who he is not.  

Sometimes others point this out to us, occasionally with wit.  A young priest was sent to Pittsburgh, and the town leaders said:  Father you have arrived at that majestic spot where two mighty rivers, the Monongahela and the Allegheny come to a great confluence to form the Ohio River.  To which the priest replied, with a twinkle in the eye, Well, I am just a poor, young man from Boston, a modest place where two mighty rivers, the Mystic and Charles come to a great confluence to form…The Atlantic Ocean. It was a John the Baptist voiced warning, cajolement, reminder of limitation, at the river’s edge. 

The Baptist is a man who knows who he is not. And while you cannot build a life on whom you are not, you can start there. Part of living is living with limits.  

Over time, one begins slowly to hear the rare rhythm of meaning in the Gospel of John. His is a strange cadence, repetitive, and complex. Again and again, in these 21 chapters, the various authorial hands at work in this ancient compilation will return to repeat their various themes. In this text, the theme is limits. And John the Baptist is the representative of the limits of life.  

He stands at the edge of the raging Jordan.  

He speaks at the end of the long tradition of Hebrew prophecy.  

He inhabits the outer edge of the wilderness.  

He comes up on the shadow of divinity.  

John the Baptist is out there.  

But unlike the other Gospels, this one has an extra interpretative point to make: make no mistake, John is not Jesus. A long time ago there was a vice Presidential debate in which one young candidate compared himself to John Kennedy.  To which his older competitor replied, if memory serves:  I worked with John Kennedy, I knew John Kennedy, I was a friend of John Kennedy, and you are no John Kennedy.  

Perhaps because of early religious competition, either between Christians and Jews, or between Christians and followers of the Baptist, this passage hammers away at what John is not. It celebrates his limits. Maybe it is because he truly knew his context.  Three college Presidents spoke endlessly about context this week, but the tragic irony, a full blown irony, was that they ignored the very context in which they were speaking—a global, national, congressional, address in the context of rising antisemitism.  Lectures about context…with no sense of context…. 

John was not the light. He bore witness to the light, but he was not the light. He came to testify to the light, but he was not the light. He was self-limiting, self-aware, circumspect. 

He said: “I am not the Messiah”. He confessed it. He did not deny it. He confessed it. Do you see what I mean by repetition?  

There is a lot more that John also is not. Is he Elijah? No he is not. Is he this figure the mysterious prophet? No he is not.  

So, they asked him: You are neither Messiah, nor Elijah, nor Prophet. So why are you here? Why do you baptize.  

One has the very distinct feeling that the traditional answer (water\spirit, not worthy to untie thong) falls flat for John.  

Do you see the way that the fourth Gospel has jazzed up the story of John the Baptist? This is like Louis Armstrong playing his trumpet and singing with syncopated menace some very old hymn or tune, “America” or “Rugged Cross”. It is like what Frank Lloyd Wright did to houses, for good or ill. Or long ago like our own Doug Flutie changing the role of the quarterback. It is like the black church in worship, singing "Marching to Zion," but not in Isaac Watt’s 4/4 time.  

I think this is why the lectionary reads us Mark, on the voice of one crying in the wilderness, and then John, on the voice of one crying in the wilderness. John gives us soul.  

We get our soul from our limits. The limit line of death makes life frightfully precious and deeply meaningful. The limit line of evening makes the day frightfully precious and deeply meaningful. The limit line of failure makes daily struggle frightfully precious and deeply meaningful. The limit line of winter makes our annual journey frightfully precious and deeply meaningful.  

Humility is giving credit where credit is due. But humility is also facing your limits. Have you faced them? John the Baptist seems to have done so. And you? Life has limits, spaces and places where you have to repeat to yourself: I didn’t cause it.  I can’t control it.  I can’t cure it. Here are some.  

  • You cannot choose your family or genetic inheritance.  
  • You cannot reselect another epoch in history in which to live.  
  • You cannot add a cubit to your span of days.  
  • You cannot force other people to behave the way you would.  
  • You cannot determine your children’s lives.  
  • You cannot control what the preacher will say next. Or how long he will rattle on. 
  • You cannot single handedly erase a recession.  
  • You cannot make it stop snowing.  
  • You cannot become a gorgeous blonde or $700M baseball player by wishing it so.  
  • You cannot choose your choices. You can choose but you often can’t choose your choices. 

But there is a bit of good news here, too. You can live with limits, by naming them and admitting them and accepting them and accounting for them.  

I wonder if this Advent period is meant for a survey of limits in life. I believe there is a limit to the number of gifts we want to give to our children. But is there is a limit to the number of people we should keep on health care roles, or kinds of care that people, particularly women may receive in need? I believe there is a limit to what we can do, unprovoked, as a military power.  Again, Andrew Bacevich last month in BU Today (November 3, 2023) warned us about this, about the hubris of the phrase, ‘the indispensable nation’.  It was a warning worthy of John Baptist at the river’s edge. I believe that sadly there is a sometimes a limit to what finally we can do for one another. I did what I could for you. You know who I am. You had your chance. And crossing any of these and multitudes of other limits frequently means idolatry—trying to play God. And we frequently do.  

Here is where John the Baptist, in the Johannine version, is so helpful. He says: here is what I am not.  

Most of us here today are not trained musicians. Once a season we live out this limit by sitting still before a group of people who are musicians. They remind us, with their beautiful voices, of what we are not capable of doing. And we do our part by saying quietly, “Thank you, God, for able musicians such as they, for I am not one.”   

Most of us today are not trained Spanish poets.  But in the season of light we live out this limit by reading quietly the poetry of Calderon de Barca, of Antonio Machado, of St. Theresa of Avila, who place limits, at the river’s edge.  As one wrote, ‘while others strive vainly for impermanent authority, let me lie underneath the shade of a tree singing’.  And another, Caminante No Hay Camino: 

Traveler, your footprints 

are the only road, nothing else. 

Traveler, there is no road; 

you make your own path as you walk. 

As you walk, you make your own road, 

and when you look back 

you see the path 

you will never travel again. 

Traveler, there is no road; 

only a ship's wake on the sea. 

Most of us today are not prophets, ancient or modern.  But in this Advent season, we live out this limit by remembering the Baptist: 

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.  

This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, “I am not the Messiah.” And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the prophet?” He answered, “No.” Then they said to him, “Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” He said, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’”.  

Here we are, again, at the River’s Edge, a few yards beyond the south bank of the Charles.  On the edge, at the edge, along the river’s edge. 

December 3

Communion Meditation- December 2023

By Marsh Chapel

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Mark 13:24-37

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Come, thou long expected Jesus

Born to set thy people free

From our fears and sins release us

Let us find our rest in thee

Israel’s strength and consolation

Hope of all the earth thou art

Dear desire of every nation

Joy of every longing heart


Our gospel guides us forward this first Sunday in Advent, regarding ancient persecution, conflicts today, and apocalyptic attentiveness.

 Keep alert, for you do not know when the time will come.

The earliest church was born in persecution, was born under the burden of persecution.

After that tribulation…the sun will be darkened…the stars of heaven shall fall

Those hearing, reading and writing and hearing, Mark 13 in its inception, could nod their heads, could feel the force of the words.  They were coming to faith, and coming of age, in and through persecution at the hands of the Roman Empire, and at the hands of the Roman Emperor Domitian.  So, hence, the power of these lines was, for the first hearers, a validation of their predicament.  So hence, the power of these lines was, for the first hearers, a deliverance from their predicament.  The darker things got—Peter to the lions, Paul to the lions, others to the lions, the edict to choose between Caesar and God, the edict to say that either Caesar was Lord or Christ was Lord, and to live with the consequences—the darker things got, the direr the need for the fig tree promise that summer is near, hang on.

Largely without exception our life in the community of faith is free of persecution, at least of the final, ultimate sort.  So, the apocalyptic language and imagery of these words aside, the force of the Gospel, come Advent each year, is alien to us, or largely so.  We can come to worship, receive communion, hear the music and words, and return to our routines, without the threat or burden of persecution, of empire wide persecution of those who would not bend the knee to Caesar, for whom Christ not Caesar was worshipped, Christ not Caesar was God.

But our existence, if not our faith community, our physical life, if not our religious life, our bodily life, if not our confessional life, we yet know, is fragile, and ultimately frail, and finally mortal, finally to be extinguished.   Here, it may be, the Advent gospel touches us.  With and when there is a quickened sense of our mortality, our own undatable but unavoidable death, then…He is near.  At the very gates.  Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.  So. Mortal. Watch.  So. Mortal.  Watch.  Those who had staked their faith and their lives on Jesus, at the possible cost of persecution, at the possible cost of the lions’ den, could hear these words.  They are likely not the words of Jesus.  But they are surely words about Jesus that carried power for those who were his people, given as Jesus’ words to save Jesus’ people, in extremity.

It is mightily humbling to recall, to realize, that the faith we share was, at first, in the first century, lived out and so preserved but many who suffered for righteousness’ sake.  So, the saying, ‘the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the faith’.  A great dear treasure, our own basis for meaning and belonging and empowerment, the faith once delivered to the saints, and through them to us, was galvanized in the heart of persecution.  In the dark of December, it brings a ray of light.  Others have known, and in far sharper relief and detail, something of what in our own corners of life we also know, the cost of discipleship.

The earliest church was born in persecution, was born under the burden of persecution.

Keep alert, for you do not know when the time will come.

Through this autumn, in the preaching and hearing of the Gospel, we have had in mind, tried to keep in mind,  the tragic conflicts today around the globe, and particularly in the middle east.  We listen with care for the word of truth, some word of truth, in earshot of harm, of warfare, of death, of forms of persecution.  We take a step, one step, then another.  Week by week.

October 15: Elie Wiesel over four decades here at Boston University did so much (for us, saying): “The opposite of love is not hate, it's indifference. The opposite of art is not ugliness, it's indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it's indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, it is indifference.” 

October 22: For those more on the left, a question today, and be careful how you answer, will be, first, and last, do you believe and affirm that Israel (in the Middle East, as a Jewish democracy) has and must have a right to exist? For those more on the right, the question, and be careful how you answer, will be first, and last, do you believe God is Lord of all life, all human life, not narrowly divine only to one perspective, one tradition, one religion, one sacred book? 

October 31: Those hunting for a sermon on Christian teaching regarding pacifism and just war both, are referred to the sermon from this pulpit February 12, of this year, “With Malice Toward None”.

November 5: Our culture languishes in the doldrums of a pervasive malaise, not unrelated to our fear of freedom, and its demands, and its rigors, and its openness to human flourishing. 

November 19:  Faith does not exclude us from calamity, but faith prepares us to fight it.  Faith does not give us the capacity to understand, but it does give us the courage to withstand.   Faith is not an answer to every question, but it is a living daily question of ultimate concern.  Faith in God is faith in God, not in another creaturely being.  Faith does not protect us from calamity, though it does weave us together into the shared human experience and history of loss. 

November 26:  Any manner of bigotry deserves to be met by condemnation, contempt and resistance.  We have plenty of work to do, and let us not grow weary in doing it.  We will want to sharpen our understanding of the requirement in just war theory of proportionality, of response that is proportionate to the provocation, proportionate to the needed defense, proportionate to the given situation, and those, especially women and children, potentially harmed therein.

Keep alert, for you do not know when the time will come.

Apocalyptic theology in the New Testament, like our Holy Gospel from Mark 13 today, is a language of hope lifted in the face of death, a language of hope lifted in the face of death.  Apocalyptic followed the prophetic hope for justice on earth, and preceded the late platonic hope for life in heaven, building on the former and preparing the way for the latter.  We need them all, to some degree.  The prophets hoped for a righteous earth.  The Gnostics hoped for a glorious heaven.  In between, the apocalyptic hope in the face of death is hope ‘on earth as it is in heaven’, a hope for the apocalypse of heaven on earth.  As Paul wrote, ‘Hope that is seen is not hope.  Who hopes for what he sees?  But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience’. (Rom.8)

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

One wrote recently: The lament is as old as education itself: The students aren’t paying attention. But today, the problem of flighty or fragmented attention has reached truly catastrophic proportions. High school and college teachers overwhelmingly report that students’ capacity for sustained, or deep attention has sharply decreased, significantly impeding the forms of study — reading, looking at art, round-table discussions — once deemed central to the liberal arts. (D.G. Burnett, et. al., NYTimes Op Ed 11/24/23)

Love, faith and hope all include.  Let us be attentive.

Most of us need more reminder than instruction.  Let us be attentive.

Wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ.  Let us be attentive.

Do not remember our iniquity forever.  Let us be attentive.

Restore us O Lord God of Hosts.  Let us be attentive.

Be careful, nostalgia, said Dr. Walton, can eclipse curiosity.  Let us be attentive.

The prerogative of care is love.  Let us be attentive.

Our students are becoming not just intelligent people, but also people who will make the world a better place.  Let us be attentive.

Yet our cyber world and devices are driving addictive behavior.  Let us be attentive.

Covid, Dean Galea just wrote this week, taught three lessons:  the marvelous power of vaccines, the pervasive inequality of and in public health, and, now, the broad pervasive and tragic distrust of institutions.  Let us be attentive.

Look north in New England and see gun violence in Lewiston and Burlington.  Let us be attentive.

We shall meet violence with patient justice, one leader once said.  Let us be attentive.

Born thy people to deliver

Born a child and yet a king

Born to reign in us forever

Now thy gracious kingdom bring

By thine own eternal spirit

Rule in all our hearts alone

By thine all sufficient merit

Raise us to thy glorious throne

November 26

Thoughts at Thanksgiving

By Marsh Chapel

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Matthew 25:31-46

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Let us be thoughtful this Thanksgiving week.

Let us be mindful of the goodness of God, as sung in the Psalm this morning.  Let us be mindful of the blessings of God.

The measure of faith is the meeting of need.  The measure of faith is the meeting of need.

The goodness of God knows no limit, no single season, no particular admixture of victory and defeat.   Our friends, the seasons themselves, and the prayerful practice of remembrance, tell us this again.

Let us be mindful of friendship.  The friendship of Marsh Chapel is offered each Lord’s Day, and each week day in the Lord, first and foremost to those most in need.   The physical safety of our students, in all times and in all seasons, stands as our highest priority in friendship.  If you are a sophomore, say, and sense you are in some need or peril, our chaplains and staff welcome you in friendship.  Now in a season when, given the events of this past autumn of discontent on campus, some sense possible peril, we stand with you, on a daily basis, on the ground level, in a protective posture.

Let us be mindful of friendship, as was our friend, of blessed memory, Max Coots, longtime Unitarian minister along the St Lawrence river:

"Let us give thanks for a bounty of people:

For children who are our second planting, and though they grow like weeds and the wind too soon blows them away, may they forgive us our cultivation and fondly remember where their roots are....

For generous friends with hearts and smiles as bright as their blossoms;

For feisty friends as tart as apples;

For continuous friends, who, like scallions and cucumbers, keep reminding us that we've had them;

For crotchety friends, as sour as rhubarb and as indestructible;

For handsome friends, who are as gorgeous as eggplants and as elegant as a row of corn, and the other, plain as potatoes and as good for you;

For funny friends, who are as silly as Brussels Sprouts and as amusing as Jerusalem Artichokes, and serious friends, as complex as cauliflowers and as intricate as onions;

For friends as unpretentious as cabbages, as subtle as summer squash, as persistent as parsley, as delightful as dill, as endless as zucchini, and who, like parsnips, can be counted on to see you through the winter;

For old friends, nodding like sunflowers in the evening-time, and young friends coming on as fast as radishes;

For loving friends, who wind around us like tendrils and hold us, despite our blights, wilts and witherings;

And finally, for those friends now gone, like gardens past that have been harvested, and who fed us in their times that we might have life thereafter;

For all these we give thanks."

Let us be mindful of friendship.  And let us be mindful of the seasons.

Last week, most sat before a carved turkey.  For many years, Marsh Chapel provided such a meal right here.  Now the University itself has taken up that meal, and provides it for students who are here over break, along now with open housing.  Your ministry, Marsh Chapel, has been such an incubator over time, for service that then becomes University wide.  A Marsh Chapel Martin Luther King observance, becomes a University wide observance.  A Marsh Chapel community service program, becomes a University wide service.  A gospel group becomes a University-wide Inner Strength Gospel choir, Marsh Chapel hosted.  A Marsh Chapel Howard Thurman room and listening center becomes a University Howard Thurman Center.  A Marsh Chapel commitment to pastoral care over seven decades becomes further embodied in behavioral health, and SARP, and the office of the Ombuds, and others.  Your work in incubation continues. You plant seeds, and they grow, and grow up and on and out.  Season by season.  Who knows what seed planted now will grow into a great oak tree in the seasons to come? So last week, you will have been at your table, somewhere.

It may be that the rhythms of nature in harvest will help us, in this dark time of calamity and warfare, help us to see and serve the hungry, tthirsty, stranger, naked, sick, imprisoned, as the parable implores us.  It may be that the season itself, redolent and rich with meaning, may support us.  It may be that the hymns of Thanksgiving, hummed or remembered, may help us.  You could also sing them, of course, even if you are not Methodists.  It may be that prayers, like those used year by year here at Marsh, and used today, may help us.

Yes, our lessons from ancient Scripture regularly surround us with a thanksgiving conversation.  Today, Ezekiel in hope, the Psalmist in praise, the Epistle in encouragement, and the Gospel in loving service. Even those of us dwelling mostly in an urban setting can from this autumn—warm, mostly; dry, mostly; pleasant, mostly—receive such a sense of blessing and so a sense of gratitude.  Seed-time gives way to harvest, as tears give way to shouts and joy. The long months of hidden growth, of change and development under the earth, are a firm reminder that the future will look different from the past, and from the present.  Every autumn, every harvest season, we are offered such a reminder.

Let us be mindful of the good earth, of the fruits of harvest, of the fruits of years of labor and love, as one remembered in the figure of her friend.  One lay woman wrote a poem prayer, about a friend, some years ago.  It is set in Wisconsin, on a family farm.

Sitting by my window—looking out at the field

This chair has been such a comfort for so many years


All the children were comforted in this chair

All grown and gone now

Babies—growing year after year

‘Til they could go to the field to help

The fields—so green in the spring

Then the plough broke it up into beautiful brown earth

Worked over and over

Until the seeds had a wonderful bed in which to grow

Week after week growing

And then harvest.

We all went to the field for the harvest.

Sunrise to sunset

Day after day

Finished at last

Ready for winter

Now looking across the field at beautiful virgin snow

Like watching a baby sleep.  So peaceful.

Happy for the quiet.

Anxious for the awakening

Start again

Sitting by my window

Rocking Rocking

Her rocking, the rhythm of her remembrance, along the brown earth, seems a world away from our world today, for we have been this past autumn through a very difficult patch. Nature may aid culture here.  Nature may refresh culture here.

We will want to be somber and sober to remember that God gives the human being a rooted, daily freedom, but does not then suddenly intervene to erase that freedom, does not ‘root it out’however perversely, however violently, however mistakenly that freedom is used.

We will want to remember this when the worry birds are flying, filling the late autumn darkening sky.  And they are in flight, the worry birds. Planet warming.  Ukraine reeling. Israel bleeding.  Gaza flaming. Trump leading. Lakes greening.  Loved ones moving.  BU changing.  Age advancing.  Winter coming.  We will want to remember the divine gift of freedom, when the worry birds are flying, filling the late autumn darkening sky. For freedom Christ has set us free, stand fast therefore and do not be enslaved again.

We will want to stand up, sit up, and take notice that liberty is only of any value within the constraints of security to enjoy it; and that security is only of any value as a basis for the enjoyment of liberty itself.

As people of faith, we cannot in sloth afford to be naïve, refusing the dominical wisdom of serpents to hide underneath a false innocence of doves, when facing hatred, religious terrorism, and nihilistic venom.   Protection for the lamb requires resistance to the wolf, before either determines to lie down with the other.  Any manner of bigotry deserves to be met by condemnation, contempt and resistance.  We have plenty of work to do, and let us not grow weary in doing it.  We will want to sharpen our understanding of the requirement in just war theory of proportionality, of response that is proportionate to the provocation, proportionate to the needed defense, proportionate to the given situation, and those, especially women and children, potentially harmed therein.

We do not want to pray, preach, sing or proffer a kind of cheap grace. The utter realism of the Bible, on the one hand, and our brutal experience across many centuries, on the other hand, forbid it.  Read again Victor Klemperer’s two volume diary, I Will Bear Witness, or the exemplary biography of Bonhoeffer, Strange Glory. Or Jon Clinch’s new memoir of Ulysses S Grant, The General and Julia.  Or any one of the novels of Marilynne Robinson.

In helping one another, and speaking to our children, in Thanksgiving conversation, we can at least remind them that ‘they are safe, and it is OK to feel sad about what has happened to others’, and we can continue to support and protect our neighbors and friends of all manner of different traditions, religious and secular alike.

 So let us be mindful of the seasons this Thanksgiving.  And let us be mindful of remembrance. You know, we honor with regularity four different calendars, here in worship, Sunday by Sunday.  One is our University Calendar, including Matriculation and Baccalaureate and Commencement and all.  One is the Marsh Chapel calendar, including Summer Preaching Series and July picnic and Lessons and Carols coming next week.  One is our Christian liturgical calendar, including Christ the King Sunday this morning, and the beginning of Advent next week.  One is our national calendar, with recognition of the Fourth of July and Martin Luther King Sunday and Labor Day and, this week, Thanksgiving, that quintessentially American holiday.  All of them our former dean Howard Thurman honored with a regular attention to varieties of and in life.

Howard Thurman, who was a hundred years ahead of his time fifty years ago, was so nationally, religiously, locally and collegiately mindful.  Underneath it all he was attentive to all that dehumanizes life—to anxiety, to depression, to loneliness, to disconnection, to all that unbalances the person. He would remind us, come this Sunday, that there is much in life that you didn’t cause, that you cannot control and that you may be able to change.  I didn’t cause it.  I can’t control it, and I cannot change it. See, hear him, and know he is here with and for you.  Thurman’s poem, in part:

Today, I make my Sacrament of Thanksgiving.

I begin with the simple things of my days:

Fresh air to breathe,

Cool water to drink,

The taste of food,

The protection of houses and clothes,

The comforts of home.

For all these I make an act of Thanksgiving this day! 

I bring to mind all the warmth of humankind that I have known:

My mother’s arms,

The strength of my father

The playmates of my childhood,

The wonderful stories brought to me from the lives

Of many who talked of days gone by when fairies

And giants and all kinds of magic held sway;

The tears I have shed, the tears I have seen;

The excitement of laughter and the twinkle in the

Eye with its reminder that life is good.

For all these I make an act of Thanksgiving this day

To conclude, a story, an analogy—full well knowing that all analogies stumble.  The point of the parable is that there is still a future, remarkable, different, and good—we just do not know what the future holds.

You watch and wait.  We left Cornell and Ithaca in 1981 for pastoral visits along the St. Lawrence, in the far north, in the bitter cold, in the barns at milking; for ministry among farmers and truck drivers in the fire department; for an immersion in non-urban poverty, poverty without electricity and without a subway, along a frozen river; and later for counseling with engineers let go by a failing Carrier Corporation; prayer with factory workers dis-employed by Oneida Silver and Smith Corona; tearful farewells to executives leaving Kodak; in short, the disappearance of both farming and manufacturing, as the drums of globalization beat along the Mohawk.  (Why do we wonder that people dis-employed in the non-coastal regions are angry and express that anger politically?) In one sense our real theological education began, in earnest, in 1981.  Martin Luther taught us: “One becomes a theologian by living, by dying, and by being damned, not by understanding, reading, and speculation.” You watch and wait.  You have faith, you have hope, and you have each other.  And you have plenty of work to do, awaiting the day when ‘the wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox; and dust shall be the serpent’s food.  They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain says the Lord.’

 Many years ago, I asked my mother, of blessed memory, who worked 1951-1953 next door at then CLA now CAS, why the churches were so full in the 1950’s.  Born in 1929, she thought for a moment, for a good while, and then said, well, I guess we were just very grateful:  we had lived through the long very hard years of the depression, and survived that; we had seen the war come, the second world war, and take away many of our own neighbors and friends, and had survived that; we had seen losses and unexpected defeats, but had survived them.  We had made it through, and I guess we were all just very grateful, very grateful, very grateful. So we came to church, to say so, and sing so and pray so, and live so.  Every week was a kind of thanksgiving.

 Maybe our own days, week by week, should be an ongoing Thanksgiving as well.

The measure of faith is the meeting of need.  The measure of faith is the meeting of need.

Maybe our thoughts at Thanksgiving, on friends, and seasons and remembrance, should carry through, and carry us through, the whole year too.


November 19

The Bach Experience- November 2023

By Marsh Chapel

Click here to hear the full service

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Matthew 25:14–30

Click here to hear just the sermon & the cantata


The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill:

Ponder Jesus’ parable of the talents. (One still hears the mystical reverberation of it from William Sloane Coffin, in his very first sermon at Riverside Church, autumn 1977, who preached magnificently then on it, and concluded by singing ‘This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine”.) Life is a gift which inspires continuous giving, says the Lord. Talents are meant to be shared, says the Lord. What we have and who we are we are meant for us to invest in the future, says the Lord. This means risk. There is risk, always there is risk, in investment. The risk is real, and should be reasonable, and can be managed. But it is risk still. All walks of life, including yours and mine, involve real, reasonable, manageable risk. Let us apply the lesson, you and I, to our own lives and work. As Oliver Wendell Holmes said of a sermon he once heard: ‘I applied it to myself’. This morning, in particular, let us think about those faithful people who preceded us at Marsh Chapel, now glistening as angels in the heavenly church triumphant, to whom the Lord may have said: “Well done thou good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little. We will set you over much. Enter into the joy of the master”. 

As now Bishop Ken Carter said about this parable, as our guest in this pulpit, a dozen years ago: “We hear themes of patience and trust in the Gospel from Matthew today. The Master, who can be interpreted either as God or as Christ, gives the generous gift of a “talent” or large sum of money to each of his slaves. Now, we could just take the “talent” at face value as a story about sound financial investment, but instead, let us consider Jesus as the Master and the talent as the good news of Jesus Christ entrusted to Christians after Jesus’ death, but before his promised return. The lesson we learn from the third slave is that what is given to us from God or even through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, what is entrusted to us, is not meant to be hidden away as some sort of secret, but rather is meant to be shared with others…we are meant to share the good news of Christ with others’’.  Or as our colleague Rev. Dr. Chicka said once, preaching upon this parable, ‘God entrusts us with this message and we, in turn, place our trust back in God.”

Dr. Jarrett, the gospel rings out to us in Matthew, but also in Bach’s own chosen text for today’s beautiful cantata, Psalm 130, de profundis, out of the depths.  For what shall we listen upon this majestic, mystical Lord’s day?


Dr. Scott A. Jarrett, Director of Music:

One of Bach’s earliest vocal works, Cantata 131 draws almost exclusively on Psalm 130 for its text. There are two chorale verse layered within the two solo movements of the cantata, but otherwise Bach sets each line of text with its own motivic and melodic properties. Even at a young age and with little to no experience composing in the genre, Bach reveals his considerable skills in musical form, structure, symmetry, and contrapuntal textures. Of the roughly five sections, the first, third, and fifth movements feature the full vocal and instrumental ensemble. And each of these three movements contains two sections, the first more syllabic and homophonic moving to a second section characterized by polyphony, fugues, melismas, and other hallmarks of contrapuntal maturity. The second and fourth movements feature solo baritone and tenor, respectively. the most interesting feature of these movements is the elegant layering of a chorale tune sung by sopranos in the baritone aria, and then by altos in the tenor aria. The musical effect is similar to hearing a chorale prelude on the organ, with newly composed material ostensibly in the foreground, and the chorale tune on a solo stop entering variously over the course of the piece. Because both soloists and the chorale singers employ texts, the layering takes on a theological, even mystical, purpose. One hears the chorale tune almost as an after-thought, a hazy aural image, whose presence is more subliminal than obvious – is it evocative, sentimental, nostalgic, clarifying, troubling?

And here is the wonder of Cantata 131 – from the hands of a 22year old Johann Sebastian Bach, the music colludes with the Psalmist phrase by phrase finding each us in our own depths, our own melancholy or despair; and phrase by phrase, our faith is renewed, restored, revived, as we wait upon the Lord assured of his mercy and plenteous redemption. You’ll identify with the sincerity, doubt, or dolor of the fourth movement – I know I’m supposed to wait, but how long? How long until God’s mercy and redemption flow like a river? Just how long until justice rolls down like water?

And like a splash of cold water, Bach answers with three marble columns in the three opening measures, each calling Is-ra-el, Is-ra-el, Is-ra-el. Worried frenzy interrupted, and the posture of devotion resumed, hope in the Lord! For in the Lord there is mercy, and with him is plenteous redemption. The final verse surges off the pages, the promise of redemption as the refiner’s fire in ascending chromatic tones, or the well-spring of the Holy Spirit in sixteenth-note melismas for the word “Erlösen” or Redeem.

However deep, however low, the assurance of pardon, mercy, redemption, a new day, a second chance – this is the hope of the word. The word made flesh. The word of the Lord endureth forever. Longer and outlasting those that wait and hope in the Lord.



 Faith does not exclude us from calamity, but faith prepares us to fight it.  Faith does not give us the capacity to understand, but it does give us the courage to withstand.   Faith is not an answer to every question, but it is a living daily question of ultimate concern.  Faith in God is faith in God, not in another creaturely being.  Our faith in God is cruciform, faith in the crucified God, who has chosen to make our vulnerable condition his own. I know the early church rejected patripassianism (the teaching that in the suffering of Jesus on the cross God the Father also suffered).  But barely. But barely.  And developing the capacity to meditate on profoundly unanswerable questions of human suffering is why three times a fall 1000 of us used to go and listen to Elie Wiesel. Faith does not protect us from calamity, though it does weave us together into the shared human experience and history of loss.

Hence the dire need for salvation, offered us in musical mystique, Scriptural grace, the quiet of the Sunday liturgy, a restoration it may be of our rightly minds.

For, as citizens of both country and globe, we weep, weep in this autumn of conflict and tragedy, and so mightily benefit to hear the truth, goodness and beauty of this morning’s word and music, Scripture and song.  It may be that the dark struggles of this year, this autumn, over time, may make us both more human and more humane.  Let us pray so.  One of my students this fall grew up in Stockbridge, MA.  She remembers seeing Reinhold and Ursula Niebuhr there, when he, at the end, was convalescing following a stroke.  Her mother made sure she knew who he was, he who wrote ‘The Irony of American History’.  When he died in 1970, and was buried out of that village congregational church, his eulogy—do you remember who gave it?—was delivered by Rabbi Abraham Heschel, he who wrote one of finest theological sentences ever to emerge in American English.  The sentence begins with the word ‘different’ and ends with the word ‘same’, and its musical balance and cadence recalls us to our rightful humanity, our rightful mind:  Different are the languages of prayer, but the tears are all the same.  Different are the languages of prayer, but the tears are all the same.  Different are the languages of prayer, but the tears are all the same.

-Dr. Scott Allen Jarrett, Director of Music