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

Sunday
July 4

A Sermon on the Mound

By Marsh Chapel

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Mark 6: 1-13

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So they went out and proclaimed that all should repent. Mk 6: 12

Winthrop

Out on the Massachusetts Bay, in the autumn of 1630, Governor Jonathan Winthrop spoke to frightened pilgrims, half of whom would be dead and gone before spring. One can try to imagine the rolling of the frigate in the surf, out on the Atlantic. One can feel the salt breeze, the water wind of the sea.  Not too very far from the nave of Marsh Chapel. The Governor is brief, in his sermon for the day: “We must consider that we shall be a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us, so that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause Him to withdraw His present help from us, we shall be made a story and a byword through the world”. A remarkable, truly remarkable warning, to our country, at the moment of its inception.

Lincoln

It is a cold day in early March, 1865. Four score and eight years after Independence, the nation has indeed become, as Winthrop prophesied in his Boston sermon, “a story and byword through the world”. 600,000 men will have died by the time Lee and Grant meet at Appomattox–approximately one death for every 10 slaves forcibly brought to the New World. This day in March, Mr. Lincoln delivers his own sermon, to the gathered and, we may assume, for once a chastened congress. It is Lincoln’s Second Inaugural:

“The Almighty has His own purposes…Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said, ‘The judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether’.

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

Into the next decade the state of Mississippi will spend 20% of its annual budget, each year, for artificial limbs. Lincoln himself will die within weeks of the inaugural.

A remarkable warning, a Presidential warning, a sermonic warning.

King

Now we witness another gathering, and we hear another sermon. A hundred more years have passed.  It is August 28, 1963, a sweltering day in the nation’s capital. Thousands of women and men have gathered within earshot of Lincoln’s memorial, and within earshot of his Second Inaugural.  By some measure they have gathered too within the reverberated cautions given by Winthrop out in our Boston Bay. They have come—maybe some of you were there—with firmness in the right as God gives to see the right, to strive to finish the work. A Baptist preacher captures the moment in ringing oratory: “I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down at the table of brotherhood.”

Remarkable, truly remarkable words.

Winthrop. Lincoln. King. 1630. 1865. 1963. These are three of the greatest sermons ever preached in our country’s history. Do we notice that not one of them was delivered in a church? Yet they all interpret the church’s Gospel.  They all apply the Gospel of Christ, and its ringing command in Mark 6, to the land of the free and the home of the brave. Winthrop. Lincoln. King. They believed in God’s presence. They trusted, through times of what can only be called terror, in God’s favor. And mostly, they thought  and felt and thoughtfelt and feltthought that persons, even they themselves, had roles to play in the divine human drama. They spoke in harmony with Jesus’ challenge:  So they went out and proclaimed that all should repent. They spoke in a way that awakened the hearer.

All three knew tragedy, as we have again this year with 600,000 souls gone to glory, as we have again this winter with mendacity and violence used to usurp electoral outcomes, as we have again this week, with another tower like that of the biblical Siloam coming down in Miami Beach, for whose victims and families we truly do grieve.  They warned of tragedy, they endured tragedy, they honestly acknowledged tragedy. What Winthrop prophesied, and what Lincoln witnessed, and what King addressed is to some degree our national tragedy still. Though there has been progress, we still judge, far too much, by the color of skin and not by the content of character. As my predecessor Dr Robert Cummings Neville well said, from this pulpit one Sunday years ago:  Probably the deepest issue in our society is racism, a poisonous stain that mixes evil into the very best of our inventive history of democracy and our love of freedom.

A Sermon on the Mound

But God has not left us, nor does God abandon God’s children. God works through human hearts, to bind up the nation’s wounds. It is the preaching of the Gospel of Jesus Christ which can bring peace. The church has nothing better to do, nothing other to do, nothing more important to do, nothing else to do than to preach. So they went out and proclaimed that all should repent.

And some of the best preaching happens beyond church. Some is spoken and some is lived. Said Benjamin Franklin, teaching the two values he thought important—industry and frugality: “none preaches better than the ant, and he says nothing”.

Here is one saving story from which, over time, we may gain strength and insight for our common story, poetry and preaching. For what Walt Whitman said about poetry is doubly true for the Gospel itself: “The United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem…Here at last is something in the doings of man that corresponds with the broadcast doings of the day and the night…Really great poetry is always the result of a national spirit, and not the privilege of a polished and select few…the strongest and sweetest songs yet remain to be sung.” The strongest and sweetest songs yet remain to be sung.

Looking back forty years to Jesus’ ministry, our writer has in stylized memory recalled a powerful teaching moment. All the Gospels, including our text, were formed, formed in the white heat of early church life, when the hand of death threatened a frightened church, perhaps in Rome, perhaps in the year 70ce.

This is the meaning of a sermon, to wake us up from a death-like sleep, to take us out of the arms of Morpheus. With Mark’s frightened early church, we may again hear good news. Sometimes what seems like death—think of the Gospel last Sunday–is merely napping. For example, this holiday weekend, we may want to remember…

Branch Rickey

Next year we shall pass the 75th anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s entrance into major league baseball.  Decades ago, the armed forces were still legally segregated. So were public schools. So, America in 1947, when a tee-totaling, Bible quoting, Republican, Methodist layman from Ohio, Mr. Branch Rickey, brought racial integration to major league baseball. Who remembers today this lone ranger type who spent much of a lifetime working for one transformation? Rickey was taught the Gospel in a church where there was to be no separation between a deep personal faith and an active social involvement. He was formed at a small Methodist school, Ohio Wesleyan, one of whose Presidents, Bishop James Bashford, peers down on us today from the beautiful stained glass of Marsh Chapel.  Rickey was one of those people who just never heard that “it can’t be done”. For thirty years, slowly, painstakingly, he maneuvered and strategized and planned—on the basis of an early trauma he witnessed coaching his college baseball team–and brought about the greatest change in the history of our national pastime. IT CAN BE DONE. Go to Cooperstown this summer and see the story unfold. It is well worth the three-hour drive. There is a sermon on the mound, not just on the mount but on the mound, preached in life, brought to voice through one lone Methodist, in one lone lifetime, in one lone sport, in one lone generation. Things can change for the better. IT CAN BE DONE. But you need a preacher, like Rickey: “I prefer the errors of enthusiasm to the reticence of wisdom”. “I prefer the errors of enthusiasm to the reticence of wisdom”.

Where is the Branch Rickey of American political culture?  Where is the Branch Rickey of honesty about January 6, of preparation for the next pandemic, of the continuing struggle with racism, of the challenge of climate? Where is the Branch Rickey of Wall Street? Where is the Branch Rickey to waken the church, including his own beloved Methodism and mine? Where is the Branch Rickey of the urban public schools? Where is the Branch Rickey of your neighborhood? Where is that secular saint who doesn’t realize it can’t be done? Where is the preacher of the next sermon on the mound? And where are the actual preachers of the next generation who will remember and hope, as he did, in grace and freedom?

Maybe one is listening today. Maybe you are she. Things can change for the better, when sleepers awake.

Twenty years ago I heard William ‘Bobby’ McClain, of blessed memory, a dear friend, a preacher of the first water, from this school and this city, an African American pastor, tell about growing up in Tuskegee Alabama. He grew up listening by radio to the team Branch Rickey fielded in Brooklyn.  He said, “When Jackie stood at the plate, we stood with him. When he struck out we did too. When he hit the ball we jumped and cheered. When he slid home, we dusted off our own pants. When he stole a base, he stole for us. When he hit a home run, we were the victors. And when he was spiked we felt it, a long way away, down south. He gave us hope. He gave us hope.”

Don’t let people tell you things can’t change for the better. They can. This country can work. We just need a few more Branch Rickeys.

And a few more sermons on the mound… And a few more sermons on the mound…

So, dear friends, travel then with a little imagination…Imagine Eucharist at Marsh Chapel.  Stand to sing… Pause to reflect… Step out into the aisle… Look at and look past Abraham Lincoln and Francis Willard…Receive cup and bread, bread and cup… Kneel at the altar to pray… Stand in communion with the communion of saints…Here is the bread and cup of friendship…Imagine, a congregation reciting together a creed, a psalm, a hymn, a poem.  Imagine, if you are willing, a congregation currently in diaspora, but just now, by the word spoken and heard, a gathered and thus addressable community, you and I and all together, able to prepare for the challenges, the harvests of the future, able to imagine and preach and live a kind of sermon on the mound.

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

Sunday
June 6

Preparing for Mark

By Marsh Chapel

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Mark 4: 26-34

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Growth

Some big measures of the ice of contagion and the snow of infection and the wind of COVID have diminished.  For this we are thankful, and mindful, too of the actual and metaphorical powers of masks, of vaccinations, of protocols for distance.  The national pause for Memorial Day last week, including many memorials near and far, brought a sign of such diminution, if not the entire absence of cold and wind and the lingering feelings of ice and snow.

At our doorstep now the mystery of natural growth awaits us.  Some of faith and preaching is about the nature of ministry and some is about the ministry of nature and some is about both.  We are on the threshold of a new season, a season of natural growth.  Growth is a mystery.  All manner of growth is a mystery.  Ministry in and through this natural mystery is its own kind of mystery.

Somehow, together, we have weathered a hard and bitter fifteen months. Somehow, together, we have done something hard, together.   How shall we think of this?  What may we most want to remember, or not to forget, about this shared drama and trauma?  What has this hard, cold, shattering, shared experience taught us?  When someone stops you on the street, or over a meal, or on the church door step and asks, ‘What is your COVID story?’, how will you start off, and what will you say?  What is the first thing that comes to mind, and how will you put it?  I invite you to tell someone, sometime, or offer it in a meditative prayer, sometime, or write it down in poem, sometime.  Te invito.

Jesus taught in parables, teaching not without such, according to our Holy Scripture this Lord’s Day.  Some were parables of the mystery of growth, growth of the ministry of nature alongside the nature of ministry.  We are close today to the very voice of Jesus of Nazareth, in the parable served by St. Mark.  One example to stand for a dozen: so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.  Birds…of the air.  But…what other kinds of birds are there?  This is a Semitism, a sign of the Aramaic substrata of the passage, the closeness to the voice of Jesus, 2000 years later.  A mystery, too, this a mystery too.   Around us this coming month nature performs her ministry to our succor.  May this ministry of nature nudge us toward a fuller enjoyment of our own—in whatever walk of life—nature of ministry.  And the seed should sprout, he knows not how…

How shall we understand these holy words, ancient and potent?  We shall need to prepare for the work, for the work on these words, high and lifted up, in our Lord’s parable in St. Mark.  To get up high, we need a reliable scaffold.

Mark

Before you work high you build a scaffold to get yourself up there.  Over the past years, one of the most interesting church related figures, town by town, was the ‘steeple jack’, a person hired to go up high and fix things.

Steeple Jacks, famously and normally, do not use a scaffold. They use rope and pulleys, and they rightly earn a good salary. As one joked to me, sort of quoting Scripture, and speaking of the dangers of height, “Jesus said, ‘Lo(w) I am with you”. Meaning, he continued, ‘up high you are on your own’.

Our smaller churches hired Steeple Jacks for the minor tiling, shingling, painting and other repairs required of small church steeples on small steeple churches. One was squat enough (the church not the Jack) that he could go up by ladder.  Later churches had taller steeples. The trustees sometimes tried to get by with a Steeple Jack, every time repairs were needed, but most times, no, they needed to spend more. Once a section of copper plate fell off the steeple onto a University neighborhood street. Exposure, liability, act of God, randomness—these words appeared in sermons later that month.  Thankfully no one was hurt. Scaffolding went up the next week, and stayed up for several expensive days.

Both the interior and exterior spaces of churches require endless attention. As with care of the human body after a certain age, the motto for such care must be ‘maintenance, maintenance, maintenance’. Interior like exterior scaffolding also comes at a price.  (There are as you sense other sermons right here in the wings, as it were, which we will leave aside.  For now.)  Sure you prefer to change light bulbs and paint ceilings with a huge step ladder and a fearless Trustee or hired painter. Sure. But the higher the nave, the, well, I refer you to adage above. “Lo(w) I am with you”. Not high.   Even before any paint is spilled, and even before any long-lasting bulbs are replaced, there is work, there is cost, there is meaningful preparation.

Somethings similar is afoot in preaching. The preacher either swings in the breeze like a Steeple Jack, if the matters of interpretation are low fences, but, if the height is greater, scaffolding is needed.  What you see when the work is done, is the steeple repaired, the roof replaced, the paint (both coats) applied, the bulbs changed. But before all that there has been scaffolding up, so that the work could be done.  Today that is our work, to prepare for Mark.

 Scaffolds

We come this morning to the interpretation of Mark 4. Mark requires scaffolding. We cannot begin to work until we have someplace to stand. No light bulbs will be changed until we can reach the fixtures.  Come and help me a little with the scaffolding this morning.

As Mr. Cordts so ably reminded us last week, we know not who wrote Mark, only his name. He wrote for a particular community, whose location and name are also unknown. He even mentions by name members of his church, Alexander and Rufus (15:21). The book is meant to help a community of Christians. It is written to support and encourage people who already have been embraced by faith. While it purports to report on events long ago, in the ministry of Jesus, its main thrust is toward its own hearers and readers forty years later. So, it is not an evangelistic tract and it is not a diary and it is emphatically not a history.

You will want to know what we can say, then, about Mark’s community. If the community gave birth to the gospel, and if the community is the primary focus of the gospel, and if the community is the gospel’s intended audience, you would like to know something about them.

For one thing, the community is persecuted, or is dreading persecution, or both. Jesus suffered and so do, or so will, you. This is what Mark says. This gospel prepares its hearers for persecution. For another thing, the church may have been in or around Rome, or possibly somewhere in Syria. It is likely that Mark was written between 69 and 73 ce. For yet another thing, Mark’s fellow congregants, fellow Christians, are Gentiles, in the main, not Jews. He is writing to this largely Gentile group. He writes for them neither a timeless philosophical tract nor an ethereal piece of poetry. His is rather a ‘message on target’. Further, Mark’s composition, editing, comparisons, saying combinations, style and Christology all point to Mark as the earliest gospel (see, inter alia, J Marcus).

Pause over the word gospel. You have heard the word many times, and know that it means ‘good news’. It is an old term. You could compare it to ‘ghost’. Gospel is to good news as ghost is to spirit, you might say. Mark calls his writing a ‘gospel’. He creates something new. Mark is a writing unlike any other to precede it.  Any other.  Mark is not a history, not a biography, not a novel, not an apocalypse, not an essay, not a treatise, not an epistle. Examples of all these were to hand for him. Mark might have written one of any one of them. He did not. He wrote something else and so in form, in genre, gave us something new. A gospel. His is the first, but not the last.  That is the mystery of growth.  Seed scattered on the ground…the earth produces of itself…when it is sown it grows…

Mark is not great literature. It is not Homer, not Plato, not Cicero, not Shakespeare. Nor is the Greek of the gospel a finely tuned instrument. It is harsh, coarse and common. The gospel was formed, formed in the life of a community, as described earlier. Its passages and messages were announced as memories meant to offer hope. Its account of Jesus, in healing and preaching and teaching, all the way to the cross and beyond, is offered to a very human group of humans who are trying to make their way along His way.

That is, the Gospel is a record of the preaching of the gospel. To miss this, or to mistake this, is to miss the main point of the Gospel, and of the gospel. It is in preaching that the gospel arrives, enters, feasts, embraces, loves, and leaves. It is in preaching that you may hear—that you may hear today– something that makes life meaningful, makes life loving, makes life real. It is in preaching that the Gospel of Mark came to be, as a community, over time, heard and reheard, remembered and rehearsed, as the story of Jesus crucified (his past) and risen (his presence). We should not expect narrative linearity, historical accuracy, or re-collective precision here. And in fact, we find very little. Let us put it another way around. Most of the NT documents are, in one way or another, attempts to remember, accurately, the nature and meaning of baptism. Well, Mark fits that description. What does it mean, here and now, to be a person of faith?

Two Marks

Let us put it this way.  Let us put up our scaffolding this way. Ours is a tale of two Marks. Is Mark a moderate critic or is Mark a critical moderate? How you answer will both depend on and indicate where you stand on the scaffold. Moderate critic, critical moderate? That is, across the length of his Gospel, is Mark actively criticizing others or is he carefully moderating, coaching if you will, the approach of others? Is the tone of the gospel polemic or irenic?  Granted there is both, when the chips are down, as they are today, which scaffold matters most?

Mark is clearly an apocalyptic writing, although clarity about this has only fully emerged in the last few generations. Mark expects the end of all things in his own time, and so the Markan Jesus so instructs his followers. In fact, Mark expects the culmination of all things, soon and very soon. To this coming dawn, Mr. Cordts so  poetically referred a week ago.  In this regard, and in regard to his understanding of the cross, Mark has some congruence with the letters of Paul. Given this apocalyptic perspective, is Mark a critic or a coach? Critic or coach?

The first option, Mark the moderate critic, was most piercingly presented almost forty years ago. First let me give you the outline of the planking in this part of the scaffold, and then let me tell you about the carpenter.

On this view, Mark combats, combats a view of Jesus that will not accept his suffering, his crucifixion. Long after the events of Calvary and Golgotha, spirited and strong people, singing a happy song, have caused the earliest church to forget their baptism, or its meaning. They expect ease, spirit, joy, and, soon, a conquering victory over all that plagues and persecutes them. To this, Mark says: ‘no’. To say no Mark remembers in delicate detail the story of Jesus’ passion, relying on a source, a document he has inherited. To say no, Mark pointedly shows the ignorance and cowardice of Peter, at Caesarea Philippi and in Jerusalem. To say no, Mark criticizes, diminishes the miracles of Jesus, letting them wind away to nothing as the Gospel progresses. To say no, Mark describes the disciples as dunces. They didn’t understand it and neither do you, he says. Mark stays within the fold of the inherited story of Jesus, the gospel of teaching and passion, of Galilee and Jerusalem, including our parable today.  But he does so as a moderate critic of those who are unrealistic about the suffering that continues, from which the gospel does not deliver, any more than Jesus had been delivered from the cross. Saved, yes, delivered, no. On this view, at the heart of Mark there is a bitter dispute in earliest Christianity about what constitutes discipleship, baptism, and Mark is out to prove his opponents wrong. As with the alternative, there is plenty of evidence to support this sort of scaffold.

One person who most powerfully presented this view is a dear friend. In fact, he was our immediate predecessor in our Rochester church.  Our eleven years in that pulpit immediately followed his seventeen. He is a Methodist minister who did his doctoral work at Claremont. It has taken some decades for the force and power of his argument to stand up and stand out in comparison to the work of others. Ted Weeden wrote: ‘Jesus serves as a surrogate for Mark, and the disciples serve as surrogates for Mark’s opponents…The disciples (in Mark) are reprobates’. (op cit, 163).

The second option, another scaffold, Mark the critical moderate, has in a way been present for a longer time, and, one could say, is still the more dominant, the majoritarian position. The culminating presentation of this position is in a two volume Anchor Bible Commentary.  The author was (once) on the faculty of Boston University School of Theology, Joel Marcus, now at Duke. On this view, things in Mark’s community are not so much at daggers drawn. There are differences to be sure, but the disagreements are differences among friends. The Markan coaching does not face strong spirit people, committed to an idea of the ‘divine man’. Mark is not so negative about miracles. The disciples are mistaken but not malevolent. The titles for Jesus are not so telling or convincing. The real trouble is not so much in the community itself (perish the thought), but outside, among the potential deceivers of the church. Hence, on this scaffold, Mark has the job of more gently reminding his hearers of the cross, of suffering, of discipline, of the cruciform character of Christianity, as a moderate, a critical moderate, but a moderate, a coach, more than a critic, a critical moderate.

We have a hard time imaging that our faith tradition was born out of serious conflict. It is like family stories. We really don’t like to imagine that our family tree is littered with broken branches, dead limbs, crooked roots, and Dutch elm disease. We like the picture of the Palm Tree, majestic and free. The second option appeals to our sense of pride in our Christian heritage. It is a more pleasing view. But the former, Weeden’s Mark, is over time the stronger scaffold, and what we need from a scaffold is not presentation but reliability, not beauty but strength.

Here is where my feet come down. Marcus appeals to my heart, what I wish were true or truer. But my mind trusts Weeden. Our passage today is a case in point.

From the vantage point of this scaffolding, the key verse this morning is 4:29: when the grain is ripe, at once he puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come.  That is, there comes a time of completion, of testing, requiring not just coaching but also and more so warning.  Warning.  Listen this summer for the warning in Mark, more than the encouragement.  Listen for the critic not just the coach. The ministry of nature is meant to prepare us for the nature of ministry.  The parables of seed and growth are meant to prepare us for those challenging moments of growth that still lie ahead.  As individuals, and as communities, we prepare and need to prepare for the challenges, the harvests, of the future.  And, friends, there are serious challenges ahead.  There are riveting, sobering, critical challenges ahead of us in the country, around this globe, and in our churches, this year to come.  Challenges.  Challenges for you, your community, your nation, its constitution and its bedrock foundation of truth and freedom.  Listen for the warnings this summer in Mark.

Coda

And hear good news, in the ministry of nature and the nature of ministry.  The church is alive! The future is open! Love waits to fill the heart! The seed sprouts, we know not how.  Foretastes, all, of heaven. If the heavenly banquet has this menu, perhaps we need over these few earthly years to acquire a certain taste for certain things, faith and hope and love.  Just a little critical warning…

So, dear friends, then travel with a little imagination…Imagine Eucharist at Marsh Chapel.  Stand to sing… Pause to reflect… Step out into the aisle… Look at and look past Abraham Lincoln and Francis Willard…Receive cup and bread, bread and cup… Kneel at the altar to pray… Stand in communion with the communion of saints…Here is the bread and cup of friendship…Imagine, a congregation reciting together a creed, a psalm, a hymn, a poem.  Imagine, if you are willing, a congregation currently in diaspora, but just now, by the word spoken and heard, a gathered and thus addressable community, you and I and all together, able to prepare for the challenges, the harvests of the future, able to prepare for Mark.

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

Sunday
May 23

Spirit Days

By Marsh Chapel

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John 16: 4-15

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When the Spirit of Truth comes, he will guide you into all the Truth.

Spirit Days at Commencement

Pentecost, today, is the day of the Spirit.  Yet they are all spirit days are they not?  All our days, all, are spirit days. Especially, listening caringly to the Gospel of John, we are empowered and emboldened to proclaim that all days, each day, every day, they are all spirit days.  The Bible tells us so, as does Shakespeare, Scripture and the Bard being the two best sources for learning in college, and out of college:

All the world’s a stage,

And all the men and women merely players:

They have their exits and their entrances;

And one man in his time plays many parts,

His acts being seven ages.

On arrival in Boston, some years ago, we had no grandchildren. Then they came, one by beautiful, blessed one, beginning at the end of our first year.  As she grew, she spoke, one of her first words, beneath the great CITGO logo, was, ‘sign’.  Then she walked, and walked up and down every outside staircase on Bay State Road, one by one, counting the steps.  Looking for her grandfather, off at work, she later asked, ‘Where is…somebody?  Is…somebody…coming home?’  For once, her granddad was really ‘somebody’.  Now she is 13.  You will hear from her in a spirited moment, as so fully we did hear the spirit through Commencement at Boston University this last week.

One Club launched a free laundry demonstration, on a recent Friday noon, on Marsh Plaza.  Our staff made playful comments about…a rising tide lifts all boats…whisk them away…what do they have to gain by it …Yes, it was Ajax…a whole laundry list…Reap the bounty…We were going a little stir crazy, fifty four weeks later…but at the table next to them the Sojourners Campus Ministry was writing thank you notes to social workers, and encouraging others to do the same.

Spirit Days.

Maria Erb now leads a new department at Boston University, named the Newbury Center, which is devoted to supporting first generation students, those who are first in their families to attend college.  It is a center so in keeping with the heart, spirit, tradition, history and soul of BU.  She said a few days ago:  This is my vocation, my work with first generation students.  This is my calling.  This is my ministry.  I view it as a form and type of ministry, whereby I live out my faith.  Could someone say ‘amen’ to that?

Spirit Days.

After a stirring peroration offered to Seniors, of the best ways to live and thrive into the future, a fine faculty member added, as a post script, with humor:  And also…get a cat.  At that same Senior Breakfast, our friend and colleague Dean Elmore said, ‘My mentor, George Houston Bass, in “Breer Rabbit Whole” had this closing thought that has stayed with me:

May joy, beauty and kindness be with you,

Day after day. Night after night.

May joy walk beside you,

Let kindness guide you,

May beauty surround you,

May you always want to say,

To friends, kinfolk and strangers you meet along life’s way,

May God bless and keep you each and every day.

Spirit Days.

Graduate Soren Hessler, in his fine remarks for THIS I BELIEVE, said… I believe that the modern American research university, so often built upon the educational foundation of training Christian clergy, does well to remember its roots in cultivating personal character and equipping graduates to care for the needs of the world. I believe a quality professional education, regardless of discipline must “Unite the pair so long disjoined, knowledge and vital piety: learning and holiness combined.”  Graduate Afsha Kasham, said, … Being a woman has taught me a lot. But it’s mostly taught me to speak up, even if my voice shakes. Maybe they won’t believe you, but at least you’ll know that you tried.

Spirit Days.

And for Sunday’s Commencement itself:   our pioneering neighbor, the creator of the Moderna vaccine, urging us to be comfortable being uncomfortable; to learn to weather rejection; and to stay curious, always thinking ‘what if?; the head of the Boston Food Bank bluntly asking us, ‘what are you willing to really work for?’; a congresswoman bringing back to this University the voice, the voice both in content and in calling, of Coretta Scott King.

Then Monday, to hear first with the Army near Faneuil Hall, then with Navy on The USS Constitution—to be so located for commissioning!…it is like being ordained a priest at the Vatican or a preacher on John Wesley’s porch—the repeated solemn vow, taken by such young courageous women and men—to support and defend the constitution of the United States against all enemies foreign and domestic.  Can you hear that America, in May of 2021? To support and defend the constitution of the United States against all enemies foreign and domestic.

Spirit Days in John

These are spirited voices, Johannine voices.  And John is so different, so radically inspired, so different and new and spirited.  Spirit abounds especially, even perhaps in full measure, only in John.  Only John places Jesus in Jerusalem thrice.  Only in John does Jesus raise the dead at mid Gospel—“Lazarus, come out!”  Only in John does Jesus preach for five chapters on the last evening, washing feet rather than celebrating mass.  Only in John does Jesus make the Jerusalem road fully and only a road of glory, from Palm Sunday to Easter.  Only in John does Jesus say, “In my Father’s House there are many rooms…”  He is going home, home.  And somehow, again strangely, we know the way where he is going.  For it is our way, too.  Only in John does Jesus walk serenely to Golgotha.  Only in John does Jesus walk to death like God striding upon the earth.  Only in John does Jesus pronounce GLORY from the jaws of death.  Remember his dying word.  Not “eli, eli” as in Matthew and Mark.  Not “Father forgive them” as in Luke.  Simply, serenely, powerful, triumphantly, yes, gloriously, he says, in John, “It is finished.”  It is done, completed, perfected—finished.  He dies to rise, and go home, making a place a space for the whole human race.  Spirit fully flourishes only in John

‘(Those who composed John) had a burning conviction that they had been given the truth (led into all truth) and that through this truth they would come to enjoy a freedom that would release them from the constraints to which they were subjected: ‘the truth will set you free’’(John Ashton, 95)

Conscious as they were of the continuing presence in their midst of the Glorified One, no wonder the community, or rather the evangelist who was its chief spokesman, smoothed out the rough edges of the traditions of the historical Jesus…(They) realized that the truth that they prized as the source of their new life was to be identified not with the Jesus of history but with the risen and glorious Christ, and that this was a Christ free from all human weakness.  The claims they made for him were at the heart of the new religion that soon came to be called Christianity. (199)  The difference between John’s portrait of Christ and that of (the other gospels) is best accounted for by the experience of the glorious Christ constantly present to him and his community (204)

The stark strangeness, the utter difference of John from the rest of the Bible we have yet fully to admit.  But when we get to the summit, John 14 and following, we see chiseled there in ice and covered fully with wind snow, an enigmatic, mysterious riddle:  Spirit, sweet Spirit, Paraclete.  The endless enemy of conformity.  The lasting foe of the nearly lived life.  The champion of the quixotic.  The standard bearer of liberty.  The one true spirit of spirited truth.  Yet we cannot even give the history of the term, nor fully define its meaning, nor aptly place it in context, nor finally determine its translation.  Paraclete eludes us.  Paraclete evades us.  Paraclete outpaces us.  Paraclete escapes us.

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

Spirit Days in Life

Now the granddaughter, with whom we began at the first of life’s stages is 13 and crossing into another, and mid-Covid her local news media picked up her spirit, as she honored a retiring crossing guard:

I am writing to you because my friend…and I learned that the Crossing Guard on Monroe, Vicky, by CVS is retiring soon and this Tuesday… is her last day. Vicky has been the crossing guard for 40 years here at Brighton. She was there on our first day of sixth grade and she has always been so kind to us.

Every morning, she greets by name on our walk to school and asks us if we have anything exciting happening. She wishes us good luck on any tests that we have, and gives us advice about school and life. When we come home, she asks us about our tests, or wishes us a happy weekend. She is almost a grandmother to all of the kids she keeps safe each and every day. Vicky has been the most amazing crossing guard to us, and we will be very sad to see her go.

You will take your nourishment as you find it, day by day.  As that quintessential romantic Alexander Herzen wrote, “Art and the summer lightning of individual happiness—these are the real goods”.

Spirit Days.  Spirit Days.  Spirit Days!

Speaking of art and of the summer lightening of individual happiness, we close with a little song.  Our own daughter, a generation ago, afforded us on stage the tune, the lyrics, and the inspiration.  Our children teach us, as she has taught us, on stage.  She has taught us the power of the spoken, live spoken word, to intervene, and alter, and make new.  It takes a while to raise parents right, but over time, we sometimes learn, learning that all days of life in every one of the seven stages are spirit days.  No one says such lightly, after the last fourteen months.  After more than a year of loss, we may be able to hear something of spirit from those who have known loss too.  After this last year, those who have suffered loss, those of us who have suffered the loss of loved ones, may yet await spirit days to come.

This week I remembered our daughter’s stage voice and presence, from some years ago, in a play about love and marriage and death and spirit.  After a lifetime of loss and disappointment, and the recent deaths of their spouses, two very elderly folks fall in love at the end of musical (I Love You.  You’re Perfect.  Now Change.)  Where is life there is hope, and where there is hope there is life and where there is spirit there is life and hope together. In the song, SHE SPEAKS first, and he answers second:

I’VE GOT SOME PROBLEMS, MY HEALTH’S NOT GOOD.

Well at our age that’s understood

I’VE GOT ARTHRITS

Flairs up in June

I’VE GOT BRONCHITIS

I’ll get that soon.  No matter.   I can live with that.

I’VE HAD A BYPASS

Well I’ve had two

I DIE MY HAIR

It looks nice blue

MY WAYS ARE SET

Well, people change.  I find you sexy

I FIND YOU STRANGE

No matter.  I can live with that.

I OFTEN THINK OF THOSE I MISS

Sometimes I have to reminisce

FRIENDS KEEP DYING BUT I’M STILL STRONG

It still does hurt, but not as long

MY KIDS DON’T VISIT

Mine never leave

I MAKE A MEATLOAF YOU WON’T BELIEVE

I tell tall tales

I TELL THE TRUTH

I drink skim milk

I DRINK VERMOUTH

No matter.  I can live with that.

I LIKE THINGS CLEAN.  I SCRUB AND WASH

I’ve got a garden, I grow some squash

I KEEP IN SHAPE I MOW THE LAWN

I wake up late

I’M UP AT DAWN

No matter.  I can live with that.

I WILL BE BURIED AT MY JIM’S RIGHT.

Next to my Sue is my gravesite

BUT I’M STILL HERE WITH MUCH TO GIVE

Someday I’ll die

FOR NOW I’LL LIVE

I’ll ALWAYS LOVE JIM

And I my Sue

I JUST DON’T KNOW

You think I do?

(Together): No matter. I can live with you. No matter. I can live with you.

All the world’s a stage,

And all the men and women merely players:

They have their exits and their entrances;

And one man in his time plays many parts,

His acts being seven ages.

Pentecost, today, is the day of the Spirit.  Yet they are all spirit days are they not?  All our days, all, are spirit days. Hear good news: When the Spirit of Truth comes, he will guide you into all the Truth.

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

Sunday
May 9

‘This I Believe’ Meditations

By Marsh Chapel

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John 15:917

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Sunday
May 2

Responding to Easter

By Marsh Chapel

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John 15: 1-8

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May we respond to Easter in worship, in history and in life

Responding in Worship

Let us respond to Easter in worship.

For here we are, just for a moment, in worship.  Hearing the hymns of Easter.  Hearing the Easter word.  We yearn for the day, may it be soon, when we can sing with each other, greet each other face to face, offer each other a Methodist handshake.  For now, we rely on daily prayer; we gather outside for morning prayer; we especially listen together, drawn in from around the globe, come Sunday at 11am.  Right now.

Others too have known the yearning of and for worship.  The beloved community which gave birth to our Gospel today did so. For a moment, move by the imagination to a borrowed upper room, say in Ephesus, maybe in the year 90ad.  Candles burn.  A meal has been offered and received.  There is among the fifty, say, there present, a gradual settling, a quiet.  It may be a long quiet, starting from that late first century numinous circle and ending—hic et nunc, here, now.   Acute pain abides in this circle, the pain of the loss of a beloved leader, the pain of the loss of a venerable religious lineage, the pain of the loss of a prized eschatological hope—love, faith, and hope, lost.  Our global radio circle today bears too a shared pain, the global trauma of global pandemic.

Yet as the circle settles, a prayer and reading and a further silence and a long hymn sung, THE ONE who has held them…SPEAKS.  Imagine the early church, small and struggling, in worship, in a borrowed upper room.  In the silence and in the singing and in then the antiphonal, mournful and joyful, worship antiphon.  Were these Gospel words first sung?

I am…light, life, resurrection, way, truth, Good Shepherd, door, bread, water.

I am…the true vine. You shall know…’the truth’.  That they may know Thee the only ‘true’ God.

Every heart has secret sorrows, especially now, by Covid time.  Every land has cavernous grief, especially now, by Covid time.  Back then, for the antiphonal, ancient singers of our scripture, the hurts were dislocation, disappointment and departure.  And they named them.  Can you name yours?  Have you named your hurt?

Hear the Easter antiphon: ‘Abide in me…As I abide in you’.  Stay. Remain.  Settle.  Dig in. Locate.  Vines take a long time to grow.  But so?

John’s portrait of Jesus arose from his constant awareness, which he shared with members of his community, that they were living in the presence of the Glorified One.  So dazzling was this glory, (repeat) that any memory of a less-than-glorious Christ was altogether eclipsed. (J. Ashton) (The Gospel of John and Christian Origins).

With the ancient beloved community, can you lift a muted alleluia?  Every hymn, for all its joy, carries a guttural memory of acute hurt.  In worship, today, can you pray with joy without forgetting the brokenness out of which that alleluia comes?  Let Charles Wesley, let Charles Tindley, let the poor of your own ancestral family’s older past guide you.

Let us respond to Easter in worship.

Responding in History

Let us respond to Easter in history.

What about our place in history, our communal responsibility in real time?  A surface glide across Holy Scripture will not allow, cannot provide gospel insight.  You want to sift the Scriptures.  You want to know them inside and out, upside and down, through and through and through, and then, it may be, by happenstance or grace or the clumsy luck of a very human preacher, you may hear a steadying, saving word.  Look back an Easter month. Not activism alone, but engagement matters most in history.

Through this Easter season, Easter tide, you have perhaps noticed, noted, or winced to hear the letter of John, 1 John, amending, redacting, muting and amplifying the gospel of John.  You are keen listeners, practiced and adroit, so you will have wondered a bit about this. Why does 1 John nip at the heels of John?

The two ‘books’, John and 1 John, were written by different authors, in different decades, in different circumstances, with different motives.  The Gospel acclaims Spirit.  The Letter adds in work, ethics, morals, community, tradition, leadership and judgment from on high, rather than judgment by belief and by believer.  We may just have, it is important to say, the Gospel as part of the New Testament, with all its radicality, due to its brother named letter, vouching as it were for the sanity of the Gospel.  The letter, like James Morrison Witherby George Dupree, takes good care of its Gospel mother, the very cat’s mother, you see.

On April 11, the Gospel in chapter 20 revealed the Spirit, elsewhere called Paraclete or Advocate, come upon us, received and with it received the forgiveness of sins.  But at the heels, nipping, comes along 1 John in chapter 2, which names the Paraclete or Advocate not as Spirit but as Jesus Christ—the righteous—whose commandments all are to keep, on pain of disobedience become lying, and truth taken flight.  Both read on the same Sunday, within minutes of each other, even as they face each other, in loving disagreement.

On April 18, the Gospel Alleluia still lingering with the Lord and God risen, the letter in Chapter 3, on the qui vive and on the attack, spells out again in no uncertain terms that the righteous do the right, handsome is as handsome does. Both read on the same Sunday, within minutes of each other, even as they face each other in loving disagreement.

On April 25, the Gospel in chapter 10 acclaimed the pastoral image of the Good Shepherd, whose one glorification on the cross is meant to obliterate the need of any other such, even as the Letter, worried, worried out in chapter 3, a long and sorry recollection of Cain—Abel’s one-time brother—and the demands of love from one who laid down his life, and with whom and for whom we are then meant to do something of the same.  ‘Let us not love in word and speech but in deed and in truth’, says 1 John 3, when the whole of the Gospel says simply ‘love’, says that words outlast deeds, and that speech, that of the glorious Risen, ever routs works. Both read on the same Sunday, within minutes of each other, even as they face each other in loving disagreement.

And now today, May 2, when and where our one Great Gospel, the Spiritual Gospel, counsels ‘abide’ and ‘remain’ in chapter 15, just here the letter of 1 John in chapter 4, fearing antinomial abandon, appends to his own most beautiful love poem, the charge again of lying, of lack of love of brother, of schism that surely created this letter, 1 John, as the spiritualists and the traditionalists, the Gnostics and the ethicists, parted company, one toward the free land of Montanus and Marcion, the other toward Rome and the emerging church, victorious, against which the Gospel was born, bred, written and preached. Both read on the same Sunday, within minutes of each other, even as they face each other in loving disagreement.

Of course, both are right.  Or we would not still need or read them, let alone together.  But you are right, too, to feel some neck pain, some whiplash, as Gospel soars and Letter deflates.  It is as if the Song of Solomon were being sung by Obadiah.

The blessed Scripture bears incontrovertible, conflicted witness.  Easter is a conflicted, and so a muted, Alleluia, and was so already 20 centuries ago, as the resurrection cross of Jesus was raised up, in mournful joy, in a real joy made real by its honesty about sorrow.  Real joy becomes real by its honesty about sorrow. For us to move out of Covid time and on into joy, we shall need honesty about what we have lost.  And whom. (repeat). The Scripture, read hard and deep, can help us.  For history is endless contention and intractable difference, including religious history, perhaps especially including religious history.  To respond to Easter in history, for you, will mean bearing the cross of endless contention and intractable difference, the daily labor of history and community, where ‘the best of intentions run afoul of circumstance or chance’.

And more: there may well come a discreet time, for you, as a person of faith, to say something or do something, a time when some somewhat risky and uncomfortable mode of social involvement, or existential engagement, will beckon you.

Let us respond to Easter in history.

Responding in Life

Let us respond to Easter in life.

The Gospel prepares us for the lifelong work of responding to Easter.  The Gospel tells about resurrection largely on the basis of experience.  Experience and troubles, troubles that provoked lasting question.

The Gospels and Letters respond in life to Easter, in a muted alleluia, in a sober acclamation.

An Empty Tomb

The church is alive they acclaim.

Especially when we come to celebrate the life of a dear sister or brother in faith, we have a powerful experience of the church alive across the river of death. The church is the body of Christ. We affirm a bodily, physical resurrection, tasted for a time in church. I give you Emily Dickinson:

This World is not Conclusion.
A Species stands beyond—
Invisible as music—

But positive, as Sound—
It beckons and it baffles—
Philosophy—don’t know—
And through a Riddle, at the last—
Sagacity must go (E Dickinson)

Or, as one of our wise beyond years undergraduates said this spring, ‘I will be careful with any kind of hope that I have’.

A Trumpet Blast

The future is open they acclaim.

There is, that is, a spiritual resurrection in your future.

Once, we met a psychiatrist who said his work was to offer the possibility that stories might have a different ending. You know that story of your life at its worst, the one that seems to have the same ending no matter how you live and how you tell it? That story can have a different ending, another conclusion. It can.

Your repeated narrative of inherited addiction can be overcome in sobriety.

Your national adolescence in forgetting the limits of power can be overcome in a more collegial, humbler, more mature foreign policy.

Your usurpation can give way to response. Your isolation can give way to community. Your imperialism can give way to justice. We can learn lessons from our experience.

Your religious amnesia about what is fun in faith—giving and inviting—can be lifted like a fog at dawn, and you can sing out your soul.

Things can, and will in Christ, be better for you and for us. That repeated tale of employment and unemployment, love and loss, relationship and rejection can change. The cycle can be broken, when what is in place is invaded by what is taking place.

An Existential Awakening

Love is real they acclaim. In this way, at least for once, the letter surpasses the Gospel, the child outdoes the parent:

Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. 10 In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. 11 Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. 12 No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.

Who would or could or should say more?

Let us respond to Easter in life.

Coda

The church is alive. The future is open. Love fills the heart. Foretastes of heaven. If the heavenly banquet has this menu, perhaps we need over these few earthly years to acquire a certain taste for certain things, faith and hope and love.

May we respond to Easter in worship, in history, and in life?  It is an Easter call to the altar.  It is your Easter altar call.

So, dear friends, then travel with a little imagination…Imagine Eucharist at Marsh Chapel.  Stand to sing… Pause to reflect… Step out into the aisle… Look at and look past Abraham Lincoln and Francis Willard…Receive cup and bread, bread and cup… Kneel at the altar to pray… Stand in communion with the communion of saints…Here is the bread and cup of friendship…Imagine, a congregation reciting together a creed, a psalm, a hymn, a poem.  Imagine, if you are willing, a congregation currently in diaspora, but just now, by the word spoken and heard, a gathered and thus addressable community, you and I and all together, able to respond to Easter.

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

Sunday
April 25

The Bach Experience

By Marsh Chapel

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1 John 3:1624

John 10:1118

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

Personal Faith

The Christian life is a daily combination of personal faith and social involvement (repeat).  Deep personal faith and active social involvement.

While personal faith is not merely individual faith, nonetheless, it is in persons, like you, that faith is received, and known, and nourished.   There is no hiding here, no hiding behind an unconsidered ignorance, nor behind a well-tempered philosophy, nor behind a mountainous and real hurt, nor behind sloth.  Your faith is yours, especially when it is about all you have left to go on.

So, you will continue, brightened by Easter, to develop and practice your faith.  We are not meant to live in Lent.   We are meant to live in Easter.  The difference Easter makes comes in part by way of a full body embrace of your own personal faith.  Let us in Easter spirit embrace the faith we have been given.

We know God to be a pardoning God.  We hope to be made whole in this lifetime.

Knowing pardon, seeking wholeness, holiness, can you creatively and even at some risk, work with another whom you think needs your pardon, I beg your pardon, but who may himself think you need his?  Just how sharp is your faith in its faithful practice of what we pray, Come Sunday, ‘forgive…as we forgive’?

Longing for wholeness, can you creatively and even at some risk, take up work that you have long left behind, but you know is part of personal faith development—reading, prayer, giving, serving, listening?  Pardon?  Wholeness?  It is up to you.

Here the faithful Lutheran, JS Bach, can indeed help us, by means of his own example in faith.  His own Bible, we have recently been further taught, was laden with notes in the margin, questions, renderings, and ruminations.

Personal faith may quicken with personal practices, of a new post-Covid sort.  In this past year, we may have discovered some new measures of resilience, grace, creativity and love.

One may choose to play the piano again.  Another may take a language study.  One may find a daily devotional reader, which sits on a bureau so one can read it while tying a tie.  Another may sit in the quiet of the sanctuary for a while before worship, as did Emerson, who said, I love the silent church before there is any speaking.  One may wander, saunter, flaner dans le rue, walking for a bit every day.  Exercise is so spiritually central and important. Another may start to journal, to record dreams, and to record insights, and to record angers and to record escapes.  Teaching and learning are spiritual adventures in pursuit of invisibles and intangibles (W. Arrowsmith).  Or, if nothing else, you can hardly do better than a conversation, in loving care, with another person of faith, say, over the phone.  One may look hard at her life, her actual activity, to see whether it becomes the gospel, and whether it approximates the very general guidance in the wisdom saying, in singleness integrity, in partnership fidelity.  At least one, it may be, will choose to listen with weekly discipline to the Marsh Chapel recorded and broadcast service, Come Sunday.  At least one, it may be, will choose to receive as a spiritual practice, the beauty of choral music, Come This and Other Bach Sundays.

Personal faith may quicken with disciplined personal practices, perhaps of a new post-Covid sort, inspired and empowered by the presence of the Good Shepherd, who knows his own and his own know him.

Dr. Jarrett:  in terms of today’s music, and text, what witness do you sense Bach brings us, of personal faith, within the setting of this lovely cantata?

Dr. Scott Allen Jarrett, Director of Music:

Bach

Today’s cantata, is, indeed, a lesson in faith, assurance, and the promise of God’s goodness in our lives. Cantata 69a – “Praise the Lord, o My Soul” was first performed on August 15, 1723, during Bach’s first three months as Cantor in Leipzig. We have seen in these cantatas not just a remarkable display of compositional craftsmanship, but also an authoritative theological understanding through both the compilation of the libretto and the setting of those texts. Cantata 69a features from beginning to end an exuberant and joyful hymn of praise of God and the good works that enable a life of faith. Opening with full festival forces with trumpets and timpani, Bach sets the words of Psalm 103, vs 2 in a marvelous double fugue. The music is absolutely radiant, brilliant, and brimming with the praise of all God’s faithful. With this rich texture, we can well imagine the sound of Wesley’s thousand tongues to sing the great Redeemer’s praise.

For Bach, the Gospel lesson of the day was from Mark 7, the account of Jesus healing the deaf man at the Sea of Galilee. As the cantata turns from corporate to personal praise, the soprano and tenor soloists join the voices that witnessed Jesus’s miracle proclaiming the goodness of his deeds, and the glory of God. The cheerful tenor aria is delightfully score for recorder and Oboe da caccia. Listen for the extended line that Bach writes for the word erzähle or “declare”, and like the man whose tongue Jesus loosed, the tenor promises a “Gott gefällig Singen durch die frohe Lippen” or a “God pleasing singing though joyful lips.”

With the following alto recit, we turn inward to remember our human frailty and shortcomings. With further reminder of the Gospel lesson, the alto calls on God to utter his mighty ‘Ephphata’ just as Jesus did in Mark 7:34. From the singing of that Aramaic word meaning “Be opened”, the otherwise syllabic recitative opens to a lovely melody on the words, “so wird mein Mund voll Dankens sein!” “ Then my mouth will be full of thanks!”

The bass aria which follows affirms God as Redeemer and Protector. The believer, here the voice of the bass, pens himself to Christ’s Cross and Passion, pledging to praise at all times. In the same way that Christ gladly took up the cross, thereby exalting his Passion, we, too, will rejoice and sing praise in our own Cross-bearing and suffering. Note the stark contrast of the lines for Kreuz und Leiden (Cross and Suffering) with “singt mein Mund mit Freuden” (My mouth sings with joy).

The final Chorale echoes the close of Mark 7 proclaiming “He hath done all things well!” “Was Gott tut, das ist wohlgetan, darbei will ich verbleiben.” Because God holds me in a fatherly embrace in his arms, I will let him alone govern me. Confidence, assurance, affirmation, and ultimately, faith to live in freedom, and freedom to live by faith.

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

Social Involvement

The Christian life is a daily combination of personal faith and social involvement (repeat).  Of deep personal faith, and active social involvement.

The community of the Gospel of John knew the necessity of nimble engagement of current experience, and the saving capacity to change, in the face of new circumstances.   The community of this Gospel could do so because they had experienced the Shepherd, present, ‘here’, hic et nunc.  In distress, we hold onto divine presence, on word, the Shepherd– here.

On the front porch of our beloved Marsh Chapel stands John Wesley, posed in preaching, who reminds us that there is no holiness save social holiness (repeat).  In the tradition which gave birth to Boston University and to Marsh Chapel and so to our worship on this and every Sunday, personal faith and social involvement go together, and, in truth, are not found, except hand in hand.

As all of our 55 weeks and Sundays of worship, teaching, fellowship and remembrance, throughout these 385 days of contagion, masking and vaccine, have evinced among us, pistis and polis, faith and culture go together.   Here Bach may help us, if especially in the surge of beauty his music showers on us a sense of grace, and in so doing gathers us as one.  The older Lutheran preference for the two kingdoms, Christ and Culture in paradox, is at some lesser closeness to the transformational aspiration in Wesley’s social holiness.  Yet Bach’s very vocational choice to embed himself in congregational musical life is itself a harbinger of transformation.  More, the universal regard for the beauty of Bach itself places on the edge of a way forward, as a global village.

As women and men of faith, we are not free to celebrate faith apart from life, to affirm faith in ignorance of the polis, the city, the culture, the political.  The Bible itself is a 66-book declamation of social justice, at every turn, by every writer, with every chapter, at every point.   Moses, Amos, Micah, Matthew, Luke, Paul, All.  Try and read the Bible without being confronted, accosted, seized and shaken by its fierce acclamation of the hope of justice.  Real religion is never very far from justice, even though justice alone, a crucial part of the Gospel, alone is not the heart of the Gospel.  The Gospel is love, which is more than justice—though not less.

You then, in real time, read the newspaper as well as the Bible.  You have reason and obligation to be concerned about what you read.  You have reason and obligation to be concerned about the persons and personalities driving cultural and political formation. You also have reason and obligation to be concerned about the policies, speaking of polis, which emanate from those personalities and persons, those forms of rhetoric and language and behavior. You have full reason and obligation to be concerned about public good, about the polis, about the forms of culture and civil society across our land, painstakingly built up over 250 years, that are not government and not politics, but are more fundamental and more fragile than both.  You have reason and obligation to be concerned about the use of force of any kind, as we have been this past week. For example, our own BU President, Dr. Robert A. Brown faithfully wrote this week:

It’s my hope that this trial, and the activism and awareness which resulted from Mr. Floyd’s death, will bring us closer to that elusive equality, certainly as it relates to policing and the threat posed by law enforcement practices in communities of color. I also hope his legacy—and the legacy of the many other Black people who have lost their lives to police violence—helps to illuminate and redress the many other racial injustices which continue to afflict our society. These tragic deaths cast a bright and honest light on every form of racial antipathy, and I hope this energy carries into the fight we are having today to secure voting rights for people of color, and to stand up against every other manifestation of racism around the world.

Let us run the race set before us. So, as a runner, say, you have reason and obligation to be concerned about the route itself.  Run with joy the race set, but neglect not to engage by precept and example the social support, the cultural forms required for the race.  Like our beloved Marathon, which we have not celebrated now for two years, but we may honor in imagination today:   The route.  The roads cleared.  The police.  The first responders.  The supporting cheerers.  The rules and traditions.  The many, thousands, standing by you, and standing with you, and standing for you.  Personal holiness is the run.  Social holiness is the route (repeat). They go together.

The Christian life is a daily combination of personal faith and social involvement (repeat).  So, our song this Lord’s day, is just this:

Ah, would that I had a thousand tongues!

 Ah, would that my mouth were

Empty of idle words!Ah, would that I said nothing other

Than what was geared to God’s praise!

Then I would proclaim the Highest’s goodness,

For all my life he has done so much for me

 That I cannot thank Him in all eternity.

-Dr. Scott Allen Jarrett, Director of Music

Sunday
April 11

Easter Basket

By Marsh Chapel

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John 20:1931

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Memory

In our spiritual Easter basket this morning we find gracious gifts of memory and mind, of story and song.

Just before Easter some years ago, a dear mentor died, the Rev. William Sloane Coffin who had been our pastor at Riverside Church in New York.  He comes to memory at Easter, as did this Easter.  His example and service were a beacon and guide for us, as was his preaching, at Yale and then in New York.  At Easter his memory arises, partly because he had gift for epigrams.  In the joy of Easter there is in the seasonal basket the particular joy of his capacity to put things simply and say things briefly.  He was a stellar epigrammatist, as in his own way, was the author of our fourth Gospel, read a moment ago.  Here are a few from Coffin:

There is more mercy in God than sin in us.

To age is grow from passion to compassion.

When my son died God’s heart broke first.

The separation of church and state is not the separation of a Christian from her politics.

Lent is the time to get rid of your guilt.

I’m not OK, and you’re not OK. But that’s OK.

Courage is the most important virtue because it makes all the others possible.

Rules are signposts not hitching posts.

The woman most in need of liberation is the woman in every man.

Hell is truth seen too late.

The trick in life is to die young as late as possible.

The longest, most arduous trip in the world is the journey from the head to the heart.

It is often said that religion is a crutch. What makes you think you don’t limp?

Good preaching is never at people, it’s for people.

To me it is hard to believe a loving God would create loving creatures that aspire to be yet more loving, and then finish them off before their aspirations are complete. There must be something more….

Mind

In our spiritual Easter basket this morning we find gracious gifts of memory and mind, of story and song.

In a class on pastoral leadership this past week, we read Parker Palmer’s classic The Courage to Teach.  In it he explores the relationship of the teacher’s inner life to the craft of teaching.  Those truest to and closest to their own best selves invariably become the most mindful teachers, of whose insights we are most often reminded.  Take Dr. Christopher Morse, who taught us to think about things.  Like heaven for instance.

How are we to think about heaven?

One way to think about something is to think about its opposite.

Our Bible uses the word heaven in opposition to the word earth. Heaven is up there. Earth is down here. ‘Heaven and earth are full of thy glory’. ‘As the heavens are high above the earth’. ‘Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.’ Heaven represents the ultimate or penultimate reality of the physical world in the Bible, as it does in the ancient philosophers.

But we are today reluctant to think that heaven is up there. For we know that ‘Up There’ is the moon, the Milky Way, and the expanding, even infinite, universe.

Our Bible also speaks of heaven in contrast to hell. Now the comparison is not between up and down, as much as it is between lasting good and lasting bad. Heaven is good. Hell is bad. But we also have some question about these inherited, mythological accounts of hell, as well as similar accounts of this Heaven. Harps, wings, clouds…fire, forks, tails…Good we acknowledge. Evil we acknowledge. Hell as the absence of God, or of good, we acknowledge. But hell as eternal torment, administered in punitive ways by a divinity of somewhat unpleasant temperament, this hell we question.

Here is a third contrast. Not heaven and earth, nor heaven and hell, but heaven and hurt. It is at the heart John and the marrow of the Easter gospel that ‘something happened’. Not up and down, nor good and bad, but now and then. This contrast is built on time, rather than on space or on morals. Heaven is then, earth is now. A belief in heaven, then, is a trust in what is ‘taking place’ over against a knowledge of what is ‘in place’. What is taking place, contrasted with what is in place. What is at hand as contrasted to what is in hand. (I am indebted here to the work of my teacher, Dr. Christopher Morse). Now we see in a mirror dimly, then face to face. Now we see in mirror dimly.  Then face to face.

Easter reminds, brings to mind. Heaven is both near and different, utterly close at hand, yet completely different from anything in hand. ‘The kingdom of God is at hand.’ ‘The reign of God has come near to you.’ ‘You are not far from the kingdom of God’. ‘The Lord is at hand…’And yet…there is nothing in our hands like what God hands us. The resurrection is Christ’s victory over death, when no other victory avails.

Story

In our spiritual Easter basket this morning we find gracious gifts of memory and mind, of story and song.

The Holy Scripture brings the story of Easter, nestled into our Easter basket this Eastertide.

Last week we heard from 1 Corinthians 15, wherein Paul writes to address an argument in the church about resurrection. (This is utterly fascinating in itself, since it shows that not 30 years after Jesus’ crucifixion there was already church disagreement about resurrection!  Imagine that.)

It is a pastoral letter, a pastoral word.  Paul sits at the bedside, as it were.  He takes your hand and remembers your experience in receiving an inherited tradition: dead, buried, and raised on the third day. He mentions to you, hand on shoulder, the centrality of resurrection to the whole of Christian preaching. He pauses to place this account of resurrection into an apocalyptic frame, which he brought with him from Judaism, but notices your flagging interest in the history of religions. So, as he did with circumcision in Galatians, and as we are perhaps inclined to think he often did in polemic, Paul lets the whole Gospel ride on this one point, at this point. He recites names of people you also have heard of—Peter, James, others. With you, perhaps asking in Hemingway fashion for your experience too (what is your actual experience of life, death, love, the numinous?), he recounts experiences of others, who have known an appearance, apostles, individuals, and groups, even himself. (This is our one and only primary source reference to a personal experience of the Risen Christ, by the way). He points to popular religious practices (the experience, apparently known in the Corinthian church, of baptizing in the name of the dead). There is a lengthy pause. Then he dramatically asserts his own experience of suffering, and risks of death, as sure evidence of the power of resurrection. He pointedly equates denial of resurrection with license to do as we please. Paul even takes up, less intelligibly, and more mystically, the further question of how resurrection happens. He then more philosophically, and lengthily, assesses our experiences of the glories of nature, the created order, the firmament, the physical body. The passage is based on experience. While he starts with his own experience, he leans heavily on yours.

Then his conclusion. Listen for what is not said, too. Paul also, for all the experiential assurance of the chapter, clearly announces that he tells of a…mystery. Not a fact. A mystery. Not a miracle. A mystery. Not a wonder. A mystery. Not evidence or verdict. A mystery. Behold, I tell you a mystery…

To announce this mystery, the New Testament in general, and Paul in 1 Corinthians 15, convey three different accounts of resurrection. Peter (representing the first three gospels) emphasizes a physical resurrection, an empty tomb, more than resuscitation, to be sure, but physical nonetheless. Paul emphasizes a spiritual resurrection, known in revelation. John announces an existential resurrection, one that fills all of life and creation, that was presaged by the raising of Lazarus, one that makes the cross itself a glorification, a completion. Peter shows us an empty tomb. Paul blows the trumpet of heaven. John acclaims a full heart. All three emphases, perhaps providentially provided to reach the varied hearts and minds of various women and men, all the spots on the personality map, affirm that something happened. Something for dreamers, doubters and doers. Something for engineers, philosophers, and politicians. You may ask if they are all on the same page.

We reply, “They are singing out of the same hymnal: Sings Peter, ‘ours the cross, the grave, the skies’; sings Paul, ‘my chains fell off, my heart was free’; sings John, ‘he walks with me and he talks with me’.”

What the church has tried to name, over the centuries, in the weeks of Easter, is that something happened. Something physical, something spiritual, something experiential. There is room for your particular temperament here. To some measure, they must all be true. For the physical resurrection, the resurrection of the body, at the least is attested in the ongoing life of the church. And the spiritual resurrection is at least attested in the preaching of the faith. And the existential resurrection is at least attested in unexpected, undeserved, real love. Something happened. The church is alive. The future is open. Love is real.  The Lord is risen indeed!

Song

In our spiritual Easter basket this morning we find gracious gifts of memory and mind, of story and song.

It has been just over a year since our last wedding at Marsh Chapel.  So, to converse last week with a couple to be married up the coast this fall, the first since March of 2020, brought an unexpected wave of emotion.  Joy! A song of joy of its own.  After the conversation, the words and rhythms and gladness of weddings flooded in, in full.  Especially the song of St. Paul, not always used in weddings, and when used not always rightly used, but still used often, an Easter song of love:

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.

And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.

If I give away all I have, and if I deliver my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.

Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful;

It is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful;

It does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right.

Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

Love never ends; as for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away.

For our knowledge is imperfect and our prophecy is imperfect;

But when the perfect comes, the imperfect will pass away.

When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became a man, I gave up childish ways.

For now* we see in a mirror dimly, but then* face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall understand fully, even as I have been fully understood.

So, faith, hope, love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.

Memory and mind, story and song:  Made like him, like him we rise
Ours the cross, the grave, the skies
…Alleluia!

The Lord is risen!  He is risen indeed!

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

Sunday
April 4

Love and Truth

By Marsh Chapel

Click here to hear the full service

John 20: 1-18

Click here to hear just the sermon

Preface

Truth and Love are resurrection words.  Synonyms of resurrection.

Charles Wesley sang them:  Unite the pair so long disjoined, knowledge and vital piety, learning and holiness combine, truth and love let all men see.

Notice how our Boston University seal is here embedded:  learning, virtue, piety.  Truth and love, for all to see.

The Lord is risen!  He is risen indeed.

This year, on the heels of twelve months of hibernation, loneliness, worry, and death, may we hear the Easter good news, at is clearest, at its fullest, at its…simplest.

Truth and Love are resurrection words.  Synonyms of resurrection.

More so:  may we, may you, decide, from this day forward, to walk in resurrection light, to look for truth and to lean toward love.   The Easter sermon comes with a stark, personal call to you, a challenge for you, to walk in the light as He is in the light, to walk in truth and love.

Truth

I share with you a sentence of my own.  The wording is my own, though of course as with all and all, it draws on centuries and Scripture and others.

Here it is:  There is a self-correcting spirit of truth loose in the universe.  There is a self-correcting spirit of truth loose in the universe.

This truth, this spirit of truth, is the power of resurrection in daily life.  Truth is what Easter means.

In 1995 we were sent to serve a wonderful church, in a new city, one more corporate and less academic, more formal and less familiar, richer but less communal than our own home city.  What a privilege.  What a privilege it is to be in ministry, in any case, to be present as the baby is born, to be present as the vows are taken, to be present as the losses and gains and defeats and victories of life cascade, to be present in the final hours and at the grave, reciting, Jesus said I am the resurrection and the life.

That Christmas one of the nine Sunday school classes in that church, each with up to 150 members, hosted a downtown black-tie Christmas party, in the lights and splendor of that then muscular urban setting, to hale the season, but also formally to welcome the new minister and his wife.  What an honor.  An older couple, a retired guidance counselor and lovely wife, came, as you would, to provide the newcomers a ride.  It was a little grace inside in their case of a lifetime of grace.  Some years later, as we saw our own children through high school, and drawing on forty years of experience, he said, speaking of teenagers, Yes, they will take you for a ride.  It would be good to have another lifetime to try to become as true and loving a couple as were David and Joan Closson.   After the dinner and dancing and festivities, we were again driven back, deposited at home, by grace.

This winter, January 20, 2021, I had a note from their daughter.  The apple and the tree, as so often, not being very far apart.  Here is what she wrote:

Hi Dr. Hill. My name is Judy Cama. My parents were Dave and Joan Closson, faithful members of Asbury for so many years.  I even knew your wife when she was the music director at Onondaga Valley Presbyterian Church, as I lived in Syracuse for 8 years and we were members there.

I remember attending church services with my parents at Asbury during your Village Green series, I believe you called it. One sermon really resonated with me when you talked about the “self-correcting power of truth loose in the universe.” I really believe that and I remember taking copious notes in church that day.  Since then I have related those words to many instances in my life and life in general and have shared the quote with many others.  I have always wanted to let you know how impactful your words were.

Today as I watched Joe Biden become our new president your words resonated the loudest and prompted this email.  I just wanted you to know that that particular sermon had tremendous staying power and I thank you for it.  I hope you and your family members are doing well.”

You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.  Before we get too far down the road into Eastertide and summer, and too tripped up in detail and complexity and variety and vagary, let us announce and trust the Easter gospel. Before we get too wrapped up in the petty narcissism of small religious differences, and the petty narcissisms of acute philosophical details, let us announce and trust the Easter gospel.  Truth is stronger than death.   Now most of the people and family who modeled us the gospel are dead, including Dave and Joan and ten thousand others.  But their truth, the truth in which they lived, and more so still the truth in which and for which they died lives on.  Soon you and I will also be dead, resting in God’s presence.  That is the point, the existential reminder of Holy Week, as if we needed it in April of 2021.  But truth lives on.

I am a perennialist.  That means that I see and hear truth across many differences including and especially religious ones.  That means I am more inclined to unity than sometimes seems popular today, more inclined to mutuality than sometimes seems politic today, more inclined to liberality than sometimes seems prevalent today, more inclined to judge that education is about what is old rather than what is new than sometimes makes the grade today, more inclined to that old perennialist creed:  new occasions teach new duties, times makes ancient good uncouth, one must upward still and onward, who would keep abreast of truth.

Here is a hard-edged question for you.  Will you live in truth?  Will you?

On the third day he rose again.  Truth is the resurrection of the dead.

Love

I share with you another sentence of my own.  As with first, you have heard me say it before.  The wording is my own, though of course as with all and all, it draws on centuries and Scripture and others.

Here it is:  There is a self-revealing presence of love loose in the universe.  There is a self-revealing presence of love loose in the universe.

This love, this spirit of love, is the power of resurrection in daily life.  Love is what Easter means.

In 1981 we were sent and posted to two little churches on the Canadian border.  Our daughter Emily at age 3 could see the St. Lawrence river, down north in Canada, from her bedroom window.  We were sent to serve two rural churches, graced by gracious, loving women and men, who had less education and more wisdom, less money and more sense, than all the other churches combined.  This appointment allowed the initiation, and later the completion, of a PhD in Montreal.  What a privilege.  What a privilege it is to be in ministry, in any case, to be present as the baby is born, to be present as the vows are taken, to be present as the losses and gains and defeats and victories of life cascade, to be present in the final hours and at the grave, reciting,  Jesus said I am the resurrection and the life.

A few days earlier, soon to be on the way north to that border town, and now with two little children under two, and a rented moving van soon to be packed, I drove from Ithaca to Syracuse to be interviewed for ordination.  I stood outside a classroom at the University, wherein 300 or so clergy from the area were gathered, awaiting my time of questioning.  Outside was the SU quadrangle where we had relaxed as high school students in the neighborhood some years earlier, and outside too were the steps of Hendricks Chapel where I would be ordained later that spring, if the clergy approved.  In the church, you are who you ordain.  In the faculty, you are who you tenure.  In the University, you are what you endow (more on that at another time).  So, yes, I was nervous, my stipend, housing, education and future depending on the next hour or so.

Many of the clergy I knew, having been the life guard at their summer camp the years before.  They were bright, committed, adventurous, and a bit wild.  On the whole, as a group, they were, their example was, what commended the ministry to me.  They were alive in ways that others were not.  Others of the clergy I knew through family and upbringing.  These were both mixed blessings, as some did not appreciate the life guard’s whistle and some did not appreciate the candidate’s family.  So, I was on edge.  After a while I also was alone, at which point an older fellow, perhaps a professor, shorter, bearded and bespectacled, wearing jeans and sandals, came over to me.  He asked who I was.  He inquired about my presence.  He sensed and asked after my anxiety.  He nodded and smiled.  Then—I realized then he was going into the meeting—he took my shoulder and said, Bob, you are going to do fine.  I just know you will.  And you have my vote for sure.  A clean breeze blew through me.  As he departed, I thought belatedly to ask, What is your name?  He replied, Smith.  Huston Smith.  Oh my.  Oh… my goodness!  HUSTON SMITH! But I read your book, THE RELIGIONS OF MAN, I fumblingly responded.  He smiled, and off he went, to join his fellow clergy.

I am perennialist.  And I am personalist, too.  That means that I see and hear the divine in the human person, in accord with a fine, long tradition at Boston University.  While the philosophical underpinnings of that tradition have long been withered, the heart of the matter, the heart of personal experience of love remains, as in that perennialist professor’s kindness, overlooking a college campus, the friendly help of Huston Smith.  We are a generation of women and men who have not yet fully heard the difference between knowing about someone and knowing someone.  You can know about somebody by zoom.  But to know somebody takes presence, takes voice, takes body, takes talk, takes personhood, take…love.  Love is stronger than death. We are long way down the trail of I and It, and only at the trailhead of I and Thou.  So, in one sense, I am still a personalist, a bit more inclined to conversation than is currently fashionable, to visitation than is currently ministerial, to presence than is currently possible.

Here is a hard-edged question for you.  Will you live in love, lean toward love?  Will you?

On the third day he rose again.  Love is the resurrection of the dead.

Coda

Truth and Love are resurrection words.  Synonyms of resurrection.

Charles Wesley sang them:  Unite the pair so long disjoined, knowledge and vital piety, learning and holiness combine, truth and love let all men see.

Notice how our Boston University seal is here embedded:  learning, virtue, piety.

Truth and love, for all to see.

The Lord is risen!  He is risen indeed.

This year, on the heels of twelve months of death, hibernation, loneliness and worry, may we hear the Easter good news, at is clearest, at its fullest, at its…simplest.

Truth and Love are resurrection words.  Synonyms of resurrection.

More so:  may we, may you, decide, from this day forward, to walk in resurrection light, to look for truth and to lean toward love.   The Easter sermon comes with a stark, personal call to you, a challenge for you, to walk in the light as He is in the light, to walk in truth and love.

In a moment we will hear again the ancient liturgy for eucharist.  We are not together to receive together the bread and cup.  But we are together in relationship, by memory, in hope, through prayer.  And with a little imagination, with eyes closed and hearts open, we might allow the familiar, ancient prayers of communion, to bring us into communion.

So, travel with a little imagination…Imagine Eucharist at Marsh Chapel.  Stand to sing… Pause to reflect… Step out into the aisle… Look at and look past Abraham Lincoln and Francis Willard…Receive cup and bread, bread and cup… Kneel at the altar to pray… Stand in communion with the communion of saints…Here is the bread and cup of friendship…Imagine, if you are willing, a baptism, a wedding, a funeral, say right here, and a congregation reciting together a creed, a psalm, a hymn, a poem.  Imagine, if you are willing, a congregation currently in diaspora, but just now, by the word spoken, a gathered and thus addressable community, you and I and all together.

Sursum Corda!  Lift up your hearts…

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

Sunday
March 28

Green Light on Top

By Marsh Chapel

Click here to hear the full service

Mark 11: 1-11

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Said St. Patrick, “I arise today through a mighty strength”.

Letter

It is not so long ago that we greeting Jesus at his nativity, humming carols at home and lighting candles of hope in winter windows.  It is not so long ago that we witnessed his growth in wisdom and stature, in the knowledge and love of God, while as a teenager he taught in the temple.  It is not so long ago that this mighty young man Jesus stooped, fully human, for baptism in the surging river Jordan, the river of death and life.  It is not so long ago that we saw him take up his ministry among us, preaching and teaching and healing.  It is not so long ago that with Peter and James and John we saw him ascend the Mountain of the Transfiguration.  With him, up through the mountains have we climbed this Lent, step by step.

We are delivered from captivity, from the power of fear, in the announcement of the Gospel. It is the word of faith that delivers from enslavement to fear. From separation anxiety, survival anxiety, performance anxiety, anxiety about anxiety. The good news carries us home, to the far side of fear.

Say, to profiles in courage.  One day you may be coming home to Boston.  You may fly into Logan Airport.  You may deplane and walk toward the exit. And there you will find a greeting from the past.  A visitor today to the cradle of liberty, the home of the bean and the cod, coming by air will walk underneath a bright portico at the Airport, adorned with the countenance of a familiar President, whose term of office was tragically foreshortened.   He is pictured pointing out a rocket on the launch pad.

You cannot help but pause. John F Kennedy.  Boston Airport.  A new frontier.  A profile in courage.   An entrance into a new place.  A homecoming lit up in green.  A New England place.  Like the Gospel itself, a new space, a newness of life. The familiar Presidential Boston voice simply says: ‘We do not choose to go to the moon because it is easy to do so.  We choose to go to the moon because it is hard.’ (He recalls O.W. Holmes: Through our great good fortune, in our youth our hearts were touched with fire. It was given to us to learn at the outset that life is a profound and passionate thing. While we are permitted to scorn nothing but indifference…). Not because it is easy, but because it is hard.  For the same reason some choose the ministry, not because it is easy.   He evokes St. Patrick:  I arise today through a mighty strength.

Paul needed this strength.  Today Paul writes, alone in prison. His own missionary work, as we can overhear from chapter 1 of Philippians, is under revision and redirection by others who claim he has failed in certain key areas. His own personal future is more than cloudy, including the possibility of death, and again, his ruminations in the first chapter of Philippians bear this out. He acclaims deliverance for the captives, you and me, a saving drumbeat along the river of life. He has a sight line to the far side of fear.

Ane, he is unafraid, this Apostle to the Gentiles, to quote his opponents. His Gnostic opponents sang hymns, like that in the Poimandres. In these hymns they celebrated a great mind in the universe. They acclaimed the forms of God. They spoke of emptying and filling. They especially and repeatedly compared human life to enslavement in these writings and hymns. To be human is to be ensnared by the elemental spirits of the universe, to be at the mercy of the cosmic, that is historical and natural, forces all around us. To be human is to be humbled by death, even ignominious death. They sang the praise of a Redeemer, who was once preexistent in the form of God, who came to earth in human guise, and who returned to the father’s house, preparing rooms for his followers, and being the most highly exalted. The name beyond all names, the light beyond all lights, before Whom all bow…

Sound familiar? It sounds like Philippians 2.

Philippians 2 sounds like a Gnostic hymn. Paul may have lifted and used it, because his hearers know it and because it suits his message. It is a plundering of the Egyptians, a use of the cultural language of the day to convey great tidings of good news. You need not fear. You need not fear. God has broken in upon our fear, and invaded this life with liberation to live fully and lastingly! God’s beachhead is the cross. The cross is the presence of God in suffering. The cross is the love of God in suffering. The cross is the power of God in suffering, to free the captives—to free every human being—from fear.

I wonder if we can recapture, by the imagination, Paul’s decision to recite for himself and for his correspondents, a hymn to the faithful love of God that carries us over, to the far side of fear. Here is Paul.  Here is the outspoken leader of a religious movement charged with atheism, with rejecting the gods of the empire. Here he is alone in prison. Here he affirms what can only be affirmed by faith, the victory of the visible over the invisible, of God beyond the many gods, of Christ the failed messiah over the cross of his failure. He does so in measured, nearly serene tones.

His attention is captured by the servant Christ, here so like the figure in Isaiah. To be a human being, for Paul, is to be captive under the control of malignant powers, to live in a world in which the human being has too often fallen prey to powers that are aligned and arranged against what is truly human.  In days, like today, following the racist slayings in Atlanta, and following the senseless slayings in Boulder, and clouded by our abject unwillingness as a people to confront gun violence, and guns, and violence, we can readily, fully, even without sermonic amplification, hear Paul in Philippians.

Yet, as one himself immersed in fear, Paul, seized by Christ, is set to singing in his prison cell. Maybe today, given our fears, we may hear something of his happy news.  I arise today through a mighty strength. Meditate this Palm Sunday on what in the past has brought you strength, what brings you home.

The west side of Syracuse New York includes Tipperary Hill, the only neighborhood in America where the green light is on top of the red light in the stoplight.  The green light is on top, just so you know.  Especially coming home that light guides and illumines.  The streets on Tipperary Hill are named for poets.  Tennyson, Bryant, Milton, Coleridge, and Whittier, Whittier the street where my dad grew up.  He said he was the only Protestant on Tipperary Hill.  That was an exaggeration. He said he had to fight his way to and from school every day. That was an exaggeration.  He said all his classmates grew up to be priests or policemen.  That was an exaggeration.  He said the streets of Tipperary Hill were the birthplace of great leaders.  That was not an exaggeration.  I give you Theodore Hesburg, born on Tipperary Hill, for 35 years the President of Notre Dame. I look forward to coming home again, someday, say this summer, to a place of poetic memory, a poetic topography.  Speaking of Whittier:

I know not what the future hath of marvel or surprise

Assured alone that life and death God’s mercy underlies

And so, beside the silent sea

I wait the muffled oar

No harm from Him can come to me

On ocean or on shore

I know not where His islands lift

Their fronded palms in air

I only know I cannot drift

Beyond His love and care

Gospel

And now the passion.  And now it is time to come down from the mountain, to take the full measure of this Man, the Son of Man, and to have the courage to let Him take our full measure, too.  The crisp air and vistas of the mountain pass have fed our souls.  But now it is time to head home, and turn our face to Jerusalem.  It is not so long ago that with Peter and James and John we saw him ascend the Mount of the Transfiguration.  With him, up through the mountains have we climbed this Lent, step by step.  And now the passion.

The road down the Mount of Olives, or down any mountain, can tax the traveler.  It reminds us all of earlier homecomings.

Odysseus walking the last few miles to Thebes.  Socrates walking to the center of Athens and the cup of hemlock.  Richard the Lionhearted sailing the English Channel, heading home.  A prodigal son, scuffling up the last mile of country road toward a dreaded homecoming.  You, returning at last to whatever you have long avoided, wandering as you have in the Galilee of the rest of life.  At last, there is an Emerald City, and the road home.

Today, we raise a question.  What was Jesus’ state of mind, what was on his mind and heart, as he entered the Holy City?

It is perilous, even arrogant, at this late date and from this great distance, to try to imagine Jesus’ state of mind as he descends the Mountain and enters the City.

Albert Schweitzer, before he went of to heal the jungle sick, showed convincingly how inevitably errant are all such attempts.  More recent attempts, like those of NT Wright and Marcus Borg, only confirm Schweitzer’s thesis.  We paint our own inner lives into the life of Jesus, when so we try to see what cannot be seen in Scripture.  That is, against some more popular work of recent years, I still fully agree with Schweitzer.  And yet, particularly at this point in his journey, on Palm Sunday, at the entrance into the Holy City, and on the threshold of his own death,  we are haunted—are we not?—by the desire to see what Jesus saw and feel what he felt and sense what he did sense, coming home.

Now Jesus is walking down into the city, down off the mountain, and down into the heart of his destiny.  He is going to his grave.

Some of the Gospel today, as Jesus heads home, is too true to be good.  For He is not at home, not at home, in a world of injustice, abuse, violence, and death.  For him, in such a benighted world, there is really no place like home.

Jesus is heading home. As are we all, though, it seems sometimes to be a conspiratorially well-kept secret.  We all are walking down the Lenten mountain and into our lasting, our last future.  Every one of us is going to die.  We are going home.

Here are two possible sentiments in Jesus’ heart and mind as he descends the Mount of Olives.

First.  He looks back upon his ministry and feels that he is homeless. He has found no lasting nest on earth, no lasting crib, no lasting domicile.   He has found opposition and rejection.  He has encountered misunderstanding and criticism.  To a harsh world he has brought a gentle manner.  To a wolfish world he has brought the labor of love.  To a selfish community he has brought the summons to service.  To an inconsistent dozen disciples, he has brought the steady presence of peace.   He has not found a home, no home for Jesus, descending the Mount of Olives.   He has even said of himself, “foxes have their holes, and birds of the air their nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.”

Some of greatest sentences ever written in English are devoted, in Hamlet’s soliloquy to a similar ennui, a similar existential vagrancy.

And those of us who have been shot out of the saddle, riding for a righteous cause, as we dust ourselves off and bind our wounds, we do so in the best of company, in the company of the crucified, for whom, on this green earth, as yet, there is no place like home.   Today you may feel shot out of the saddle.  But let me ask you something.  What other saddle would have rather ridden?  Some losing causes are worth support even in defeat.  I would rather be shot out of the right saddle than to canter comfortably all the live long day in the wrong one.  So, dust off, bind the wound, and get ready to ride again.  It is a warning.  This last 52 weeks has been one long warning.  Just because we were alive last year is no guarantee that we will be next year.  We have not a person, dollar, idea, day or dream to spare.  Not one.  And it is, let us confess it, an uphill pull.

Second.  There is something else alive in this homeless homecoming.  Frederick Buechner compares the feeling of faith to the feeling homesickness, that longing for the feeling of home.  Faith is a heartfelt longing for the comforts of home.

Jesus looks forward to his passion and feels that he is going home.  He is not yet home, but going home. He has come and now he must go.  He tarries for a while, but he is going home.  Only the greatest of the Gospels, that of John, fully and resoundingly displays this sentiment.  But it is present, muted, in Mark as well.  Jesus must endure the cross, just as we inevitably must endure tragedy, accident, betrayal, injustice, failure and death.    We have the finest of company, the Lord Jesus Christ himself, when we endure life’s damaging darkness.  Some have lost loved ones to death, this past year.  Some of lost beloved institutions to death, this past year.  Some have lost beloved dreams to death, this past year.  Jesus walks beside you.  Jesus walks beside you. In fact, this is his peculiarly chosen path, his way, his way of the cross.  All of the passion, all of the passion music of Lent, all of it, all the way to the cross itself, acclaims, in passion, the compassion of God in Christ our Lord.  God has a passion for compassion.  God has a passion for compassion.   So Jesus looks forward—does he not?—to the completion of his mission, to the last word in the soliloquy, to the transition to glory.  Again, only John has fully held this diamond.  Only he sees the cross as glory, without remainder.  Only he has Jesus say, on the cross, as we remembered last week, “it is completed”.  But Mark too senses Jesus homesickness at his homeless homecoming.  His longing for God.  And we sense it too, because we feel it, too.

Some of the Gospel today, as Jesus heads home, seems too good to be true.  This greatest of passionate tragedies, the cross of Christ our Lord, is the passageway, strangely, wonderfully, to our heavenly home.  He dies as we die.  And we die with Him.  We all die.  We are not even temporarily immortal.  Yet, attendant upon this road down the mountain and into the city, there resounds, softly at first, a carol of grace, a carol of love, a carol for all, like we, who are going home.   And we are.  Going home.

This homesickness, this spirited sense that home is over the next street, up the winding trail to the cross, this hunger for home, this is what Paul meant elsewhere:  this slight momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison…this slight momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison. 

You know, we came far closer on January 6 to a final moment in the American experiment of democracy than, on the whole, we have yet fully to internalize, than, thus far, we are willing to admit.  We just do not want to face it.  We will, over time.  Yet coming home, as a country, in the weeks following, perhaps it helped to awaken us to hear, coming home, reminders of a green light on top, reminders of a mighty strength:  not the example of our power but the power of example…history, faith and reason will show us the way…we are defined by our common loves (Augustine)…there is a cry for racial justice 400 years in the making…and…especially…and hope and history rhyme (Heaney).

One way or another, are you coming home today?  If so take with you the breastplate of St. Patrick.  Said he:  I arise today through a mighty strength. Said St. Patrick, “I arise today through a mighty strength”. Said St. Patrick, “I arise today through a mighty strength”.

Sursum Corda:  Lift up your hearts!

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

Sunday
March 21

Green Meadows

By Marsh Chapel

Click here to hear the full service

John 12: 20-33

Click here to hear just the sermon

John

Now Jesus stands before us at the feast, talking with Greeks as a reminder in John that Jesus came for us, the non-Jews, so that the boundaries of Israel might be expanded, and a branch might be grafted onto the tree of life. Today Jesus stands before us in all his youth. He stands before us as a young man facing certain death. He is a grain of wheat that is cast into the earth and that then brings forth much fruit. His is a life of servant love, given over against so many others who clutch at life, and tragically lose it. Selfishness kills. Generosity saves. Selfishness kills. Generosity saves.

But now the hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.

For John and his church, this meant that the hour has come for faith. The hour has come to see past and see through the physical reality of death to its true significance.

The hour has come to see past and see through the shameful and painful reality of crucifixion to its true significance. The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. This fourth gospel trims out of the story of Jesus’ death almost all the harsher detail, all the spitting, all the degradation, all the abject humiliation, all the brutality-they are gone. Peter’s denial and the crown of thorns alone remain. And this is because for John the cross of Jesus Christ is not crucifixion alone, nor departure alone, nor exaltation alone. This hour is first of all the hour of glory.  So, Matthew may end his gospel with a cry: Eli Eli lamasabacthani. Luke may conclude his gospel with a prayer: Father forgive them for they know not what they do. But John ends with a single word-tetelestai-it is finished. What the world sees as defeat is really a triumph and what the world sees as the end of Jesus’ hopes and aspirations is really the beginning of his ascent to glory. (Blessed Ashton). The heart of life is found in love and death, and today we are right at the heart of life. Love and death, these are our existential space and our daily time.  We are told today to find our life by losing it, to drop our grain that fruit we may gain, we are taught again to love our neighbor as if she were our very self.

In these verses, John 12:20-33, there lingers an essence, a fragrance that eludes description. Why did Dostoevsky choose these verses as frontispiece to his greatest novel, Crime and Punishment? John seems to have distilled a potent nectar, more potent than that found elsewhere, from his knowledge of loss. Why are these verses so haunting?

I believe they astound us so, because they reflect a double death. I believe the sense of glory found in the cross here comes from the hard lesson of loss, in a little church, somewhere in Turkey, turned out of the synagogue, and losing or about to lose, long after the death of Jesus, their last link with the primitive church. In the cross, in their loss, they saw both the death of Jesus, and the death of their beloved disciple, their beloved preacher, their pastor, John. The fourth Gospel is so strange and so startling because it operates at two levels, first that of Jesus and second that of John. After decades of pastoral care, guiding them through change, leading them out of the synagogue, protecting them from their own worst selves, reminding them of Christ the Lord, and showing them how to walk in the light, the towering figure of their beloved preacher was overtaken by death.

First, they lost Jesus, then they lost John. Both losses hurt with unspeakable pain. But here is what they learned: love carries us through loss. Love carries us through loss. Love outlasts loss. In fact, only self-opening love can bring any meaning through loss!

Patrick

Our Lenten conversation partner St. Patrick deeply and fully shared this Johannine sense of loss and love, of loss in love.  The brooding, the longing, the poetry he and his followers, over many centuries, gave to life is located, met, at the intersection of loss and love, a spot we have known keenly in the last 12 months, as we recalled last week.

Near the year 400, a boy named Patrick was kidnapped in Britain and taken as a slave to Ireland.  For six long years he lived poor and alone, a shepherd slave, out in the cold green meadows and mountains.  He lived poor and alone, and as we mostly do, found his faith in trouble.  He turned to the Creator God of his parents, and found a magnificent source of strength.  Out of poverty, out of silence, out of fear, out of hunger grew the life changing faith of St. Patrick, who spent thirty years among the people of Ireland, bringing faith outside the Roman Empire. I wonder where we might find Patrick today.   For out beyond the bounds of what remains of Christian culture today there live many for whom the Gospel is pure news, not just good news, but news.  Our mission is blocks away as well as time zones away.  A friend who normally sits in the balcony when there is seating and seating in the balcony reminded me this winter of Thomas Cahill’s short book, his essay from some years ago, one with a jaunty title and a graceful lyrical composition, How the Irish Saved Civilization.  He tells about St. Patrick, and about his successors the Green Martyrs, and a country of green meadows.  Since our fifteenth Lenten conversation partner, here at Marsh Chapel 2021, is St. Patrick, it seemed time to blow the dust off the volume.

Patrick inspired a host of others to follow him and to follow his Christ.  He embodied a love of nature, a sense of confidence, and a capacity for vision which were wrought in the dark days of his poverty.  Out in the shepherd fields he found his love of nature.  His natural world was forever teaching him, forever succoring him, forever saving him.  Most of us are too far from nature.  We take too few walks, and attend too few funerals.  From this first love, he then found a confidence in God.  A confidence that gave him ease, real peace, in the face of difference, in the need for confession, and, centuries early on, as a champion of the place of women.  Faith is contagious, when it is confident, as Patrick was confident.   Somehow, this poor shepherd, this lover of nature, this confident happy fellow, found a capacity to envision, the power to envision, daily, a better world.  Nature, confidence, vision—these gifts are ours today as well.

For in Patrick’s wake there arose, in the fifth and sixth centuries, an Irish movement called the Green Martyrs.  They took to heart his love of nature, his sense of confidence, and his capacity for vision.  Their country, almost alone had received Christian faith without bloodshed—they had no “red martyrs”.  They knew though that the blood of the martyr is the seed of the faith.  So, they endeavored to offer themselves as Green Martyrs.  And off they went to live as hermits and monks, each in his little cell, copying books, providing hospitality to strangers, living out of doors, keeping a memory of past beauty and glory alive through the dark ages. *

They knew the bright side of Christ.   So, they went off into the green woods or the green mountains or the green islands of their native land—there to be faithful, to pray, to read, to love, to commune.  They went to draw nearer to God.

Nature

One follower of St Patrick in the sixth century wrote:

Grant me sweet Christ the grace to find—

Son of the living God

A small hut in a lonesome spot

To make it my abode

A little pool but very clear

To stand beside the place

Where all men’s sins are washed away

By sanctifying grace

A pleasant woodland all about

To shield it from the wind

And make a home for singing birds

Before it and behind. *

There is a holiness to the creation itself that we do not always well articulate.  One of our leading feminist theologians and teachers, Elizabeth Johnson, has in her work and teaching clearly reminded us of this.  Nature sings, teaches, helps, saves.  Bless those past and present Green Martyrs who by their example help us to live in easy communion with Nature, to walk lightly upon the earth.  Bless those past and present Green Martyrs who by their example notice the sacred groves in which we dwell.

An early Irish poet sang:

I am an estuary into the sea

I am a wave of the ocean

I am the sound of the sea

I am a powerful ox

I am a hawk on a cliff

I am a dewdrop in the sun

I am a plant of beauty

I am a boar for valor

I am a salmon in a pool

I am a lake in a plain

I am the strength of art*

Confidence

From this easy communion with nature, there arose in Patrick and in his Green Martyrs a kind of confidence.  What an inspiring quality is confidence!  Confidence before potential conflict.  Confidence in the face of uncertainty.  Confidence, which the poor must have as the Scripture continually reminds us, in front of random hurt.  Confidence to offer hospitality (will they like my home? will they receive my friendship? will they accept my meal? will they reciprocate?).  Confidence to accept difference.  Confidence of women among men and men among women.  As Thomas Cahill says, it is confidence that builds a nation, a civilization, a culture, a people.  And it is confidence that is lost when a civilization grows weary and small.  Think of your own heroes, your own role models.  Were they not inspiringly confident?  Not arrogant, or pushy, or aggressive, or domineering.  Confident.

There is a connection between being at home in nature and being confident in life. There is confidence that comes from reading, from learning something every day. In 1843, just a visitor to the Irish city of Kerry noticed a poor farmer, alone at midday, and reading an old manuscript.  The visitor was startled to find, in the gnarled hands of this poor man, an old manuscript.  Written in the Irish language, in Celtic character.  Containing poems, stories, histories, philosophy.  Handed down from grandfather to father.   A poor man holding a priceless book. *

Sometimes gifts come from unexpected sources. Here is one.  Confidence.  Confidence that God is a God of love—no small affirmation.  Joseph Plunkett wrote:

I see his blood upon the rose

And in the stars the glory of his eyes

His body gleams amid eternal snows

His tears fall from the skies

I see his face in every flower

The thunder and the singing of the birds

Are but his voice—and carven by his power

Rocks are his written words

All pathways by his feet are worn

His strong heart stirs the ever-beating sea

His crown of thorns is twined with every thorn

His cross is every tree. *

Vision

Over a lifetime, one lived in communion with nature, and one filled with a sense of confidence, it may be that a capacity for vision emerges.  It was true for Patrick.  It was true for the Green Martyrs.  In their little huts, through the Dark Ages, fully at peace, furiously copying, making books, making books.  Living beyond heartache, into God’s future.  Learning to love words.  Recognizing that the one sacrifice needed, Christ crucified, has been made, by God.  Ritual sacrifices are no longer needed.  We may seek together God’s purpose.  This is good news for leaders, today.  I love the Bishop Cyprian, himself a lover of the city, whose motto still is central to leadership: “From the beginning, I made up my mind to do nothing on my own private opinion, without your advice and without the consent of the people”. *  That is, what will last is what we have the courage to share.  It may be that in our time, this very year, say, we are learning again to savor a biblical vision.

You know, the cities across upstate New York, my home, came to life 170 years ago, along the path of the Erie Canal.  In their, in our, spiritual constitution, lie buried, though not long dead, memories of what poverty can mean.  Today, we are fast becoming two nations, separate and unequal.  Our public institutions, protectors of the non-rich, are today imperiled.  Our public health.  Our public schools.  Our public parks and places.  Our public churches—I mean churches that have not yet succumbed to the temptation to return to sectarian life, those who will yet dare to be both residents and aliens, not merely resident aliens, willing to see in Christ the vision of a culture transformed, a culture and country to be shared. We need to remember the poor, this Lent.

For it is the poor, the outcast, who at depth know the endless contention of time, and of our time, caught as they are in its undertow.  We in our churches have forgotten our own poverty, our days not long past, of want.  Once, we were poor.  Your family, too, if you go back far enough or long enough.  Not that long ago.  Because we have forgotten, or hidden, our own hurt, not long past, we miss Jesus among the poor, Jesus who meets us amid the endless contention of life.

Here is a vision, a green country vision. We are a church universal, a church catholic.  We are not to leave the poor behind.

Will you acquire an easy communion with nature and nature’s God?

Will you seek a sense of confidence?

Will you develop a capacity for vision?

By the side of the road, from your little garden, will you share a love of nature, a sense of confidence, a capacity for vision?

Will the riches of the poor—nature, confidence, vision—be yours and ours to share?  Today?  As our spiritual worship?

Coda

Here is a challenge written this winter by Leigh Stein (the author most recently of the novel ‘Self Care’, a satire of the wellness industry and influencer culture) (NYT 2/21):  There is a chasm between the vast scope of our needs and what influencers can provide.  We’re looking for guidance in the wrong places.  Instead of helping us to engage with our most important questions, our screens might be distracting us from them.  Maybe we actually need to go to something like church? Contrary to what you might have seen on Instagram, our purpose is not to optimize our one wild and precious life. It’s time to search for meaning beyond the electric church that keeps us addicted to our phones and alienated from our closest kin. 

So, dear ones, walk the meadows and open landscapes of a spirited green country.  Watch this week for worship in life, the green country of lasting life, the places where Sunday and weekday join hands and dance.  If what you are saying and doing has some place in the liturgy on Sunday, then you may have found fruitful life:

Does it glorify God?

Does it meet and greet the neighbor?

Does it provoke honest confession?

Does it provide for children, for the poor?

Does it include silence?

Does it allow a listening for truth?

Does it further learning and teaching?

Does it involve a commitment, a decision?

Does it build, broadly understood, the Body of Christ?

May our daily grace be the blessing of Brigid’s hospitable monastery, St. Brigid of Kildare:

I should like a great lake of finest ale

For the King of kings

I should like a table of the choicest food

For the family of heaven

Let the ale be made from the fruits of faith

And the food be forgiving love

I should welcome the poor to my feast

For they are God’s children

I should welcome the sick to my feast

For they are God’s joy

Let the poor sit with Jesus at the highest place

And the sick dance with the angels

God bless the poor

God bless the sick

And bless your human race

God bless our food

God bless our drink

All homes, O God, embrace. *

*Drawn from Thomas Cahill’s excellent essay:  How the Irish Saved Civilization (NY: Doubleday, 1995).

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