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

Sunday
March 20

Lenten Series 2022: The Faith of Dorothy Day

By Marsh Chapel

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Luke 13:1-9

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Ah the fig tree. From the fig tree learn its lesson. You know what it means to be a fig tree in the New Testament. It is like being a turkey in late November, or like being a green beer on St. Patrick’s day. You know you are going down.

People step aside when they hear that the story is about a fig tree. They step back ten feet, because they know what is coming.

Sure enough, at least at the outset, doom descends. In stomps the owner. Stomp, stomp, stomp. Fee fie foe fum. Yes, we know what is coming. I have seen this lousy, lazy, no good, flee bitten moth eaten, barren, fruitless, faithless, heartless, ruthless fig tree for three years, and nothing. Where is the fruit? Where is the beef? Show me the money! Yes, we have a sinking feeling about the old fig tree, having heard a sermon or three. Is there not fruit? And here it comes… Cut it down, throw it in the fire, off with their heads.

And in the other Gospels, that is that. One dead fig tree, and let it be a warning to you. I came not to bring peace but a sword. Not a jot or a tittle will pass away. Woe to you…

Which is, of course, what makes today’s lesson so interesting. Guess what? It’s not over, at least according to Jesus in Luke 13. No, it’s not over, yet. This is the Gospel according to Yogi Berra. “It ain’t over ’til it’s over”. With a little cunning and creativity, a little psalmist and saint in him, this lowly vinedresser says, “Well, hang on a minute…” There is something there. He sees something. Something alive, something at work, just beyond our comprehension.

Hope, stubborn and maybe even unreasonable, is what the vinedresser in our parable displays. He has a certain confidence, perhaps a confidence born of obedience to a great and loving Lord, yet still a confidence that where there is a will there is a way, no matter what the immediate cornstubble evidence suggests.

One struggles to intuit why this altered fig tree parable was so important for Luke and Luke’s struggling church. As we saw last week, all these chapters 10 to 20 Luke has added to Mark’s asperity. They must have had singular meaning for Luke’s church fifty years after Jesus’ death and resurrection. Perhaps, perhaps, the parable is meant to give trusting patience to those who are waiting out what scholars call the “delay of the parousia”, or the expected but not actualized return of Christ on the clouds of heaven (1 Thess. 4-5). “Give me just a little more time…” sings the gardener.

Let it be, he says. Let it be.

His is not a naïve view, stubborn, maybe, unreasonable, perhaps, but not naïve. No, he recognizes that there comes a time when it is too late in every venture. He recognizes that the power to kill and give life is not his own. He recognizes that human labor and human investment is required for any progress. He recognizes the messiness of manure and dailyness of water, the messiness of history and the dailyness of grace. He recognizes that hope for the future is confidence, finally, not in human wisdom, but in divine grace. He recognizes the rigid limits of nature and history. He is a realist.

But he trusts, senses, hopes that there is something there, something alive, something not quite phenomenal, something just beyond our comprehension.

You could compare his sense, his hope, to a March day when it is still winter. Yet, there is a sense, a feeling. There are geese flying past, v by v. There is a blueish tint in the evergreens. There is more light and better light. There is wind, but not with quite the bite. One can fairly taste the maple syrup brewing miles away. Spring is coming.

Give me just a little more time, he asks. Do you have the feeling that he will ask the same a year from now, if things are no different? Well, yes. He harbors an inexplicable but crucial sense of trust that things will work out.  Our Uncle David used to say, with a grin, ‘It will all work out.  Or else it won’t’.

Here in Luke, not judgment, but grace is affirmed, not death but life, not authority or force, but growth and change.  In Luke 13, the question of ‘Why?’ is set aside in favor of the challenge to repent.  Governmental terrorism, in the hands of Pilate, and natural accident, in the case of a Tower in Siloam, are simply admitted to be what they are—utterly random in impact.

In the parable, the gardener points away from past performance and points toward future potential.  Time.  Time is given.  A time of reprieve, a time of reckoning, a time of recollection, a time of restoration.  Time heals.  There is impending judgment, but there is time for change.  This is Luke’s own material.  This is Luke’s own toddler, budding attempt to deal with what John, alone, later, in full adult fashion, addressed, the church’s abject disappointment that the expected return of Jesus, on the clouds of heaven, ‘before this generation passes away’ (Luke 21:32) has not happened.  The first century is ending and Jesus has not returned.  In the main, Luke simply continues to hold out hope, soon and very soon, of the traditional expectation.  Not here in the parable of the fig tree.  Here he finds, channeling his inner Fourth Gospel Spirit, the possibility that more time may be a good thing.  We would all say so, 20 centuries later, since more time has become our time!  The Greeks taught us that life is long.  Give it just a little more time.  Not: Especially, and perilously, too authoritarian and too inflexible, and too inerrant, a view of the Holy Scripture.  Scripture entirely alone, not Scripture in tradition by reason with experience.  No, says Luke, change, over time, can come and can become lasting goodness.

We who wrestle to support leaders who balance resistance with restraint, resistance to naked and brutal warfare of choice with restraint to retard such from becoming global conflagration, we need some measure of such hope. Hope is one gift of today’s gospel.

Dorothy Day

Hope is one gift of today’s gospel. The other is faith.  Hope and faith, the gifts of grace today.

Our Lent 2022 conversation partner is Dorothy Day.  Our guide to her life, faith and work is Dorothy Day: Dissenting Voice of the American Century. John Loughery and Blythe Randolph.  New York:  Simon and Schuster, 2020.  The citations in these sermons are from this recent, excellent biograpy. As we saw las week, Dorothy grew up in a non-practicing Protestant home. But when her daughter was born she determined to locate herself in faith, and in the Roman Catholic faith tradition. She found faith, and was found by faith. She did so in a remarkable but typical way:  she approached a nun whom she saw crossing the street in Staten Island.  Sister Alyosia.  The sister  provided reading material, catechisms, an interview with a priest. Tamar was baptized the next year, 1927 (Lughery and Randolph, 111).  Dorothy herself was baptized six months later.

‘Faith in God and Christ as the Redeemer, a belief in Transubstantiation and the life to come, the veneration of Mary and the saints, delight in saying the Joyful Mysteries and the Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary, a willingness to be guided by a confessor and to accept the role of confession and absolution in a redeemed life, respect for the papacy and a two-thousand-year-old tradition: indeed, it wasn’t ‘a little’.  It was everything. (116)…Religion was the necessary corrective to the ‘narrow hermitage of the self’ that characterized modern life with its imprisoning walls of egotism and alienation.  A fellowship of faith spared one the desolation of aloneness. (Loughery and Randolph, 120)

            Yet the major influence in the composition of Dorothy’s faith, over time, came from an eccentric philosopher and activist, Peter Maurin.  A word on Maurin: What Peter wanted to talk about was the Church, Catholicism, the state of the world, the salvation of souls, the extent of the compassion Christ asked of us, the intellectuals he had known in France, American’s attitudes toward poverty and the impoverished, his plans for a Catholic newspaper, Dorothy’s evident potential as a writer and leader, and the need for more discussion and debate about what a Christian life looked like—the ‘clarification of thought’ was his favorite phrase (133).

            Both Maurin and Day were greatly influenced by the work of Jacques Maritain.  Maritain deserves more attention even today.  By whatever combination of lasting influences, Maurin and Day came at last to create the lasting publication, The Catholic Worker, published first in 1933 in the depths of the depression, and which still exists and still sells for a penny.  At its height it had 100,000 subscribers (Loughery and Randolph, 141).  One of its first extended interests was the coverage of the Scottsboro Boys case, one of whose primary exponents and supporters was Allan Knight Chalmers, who became a BUSTH professor of homiletics, and from whom today’s preacher received his middle name.

            In sum, the very basic, rudimentary aspects of Christian faith lived out in the Catholic tradition were crucial for her.  Daily, weekly mass.  Prayer.  The Rosary. All.  Her biography put it this way:   During times of stress, Dorothy found solace in the rosary and her attendance on daily mass, of course, and from conversations with her confessor and with those people…who understood her point of view (276)…For more than thirty years she read biographies of those whose lives she found instructive about different paths to holiness, the saintly and the venerable—e.g. Augustine, Francis of Assisi, Teresa of Avila, Ignatius of Loyola, Philip Neri, Francis de Slas, Vincent de Paul, Cardinal Newman, Rose, Hawthorne Lathrop, Theresa of Lisieux (Loughery and Randolp, 289).

Faith.  Hope.  Hope and faith, the gifts of grace today.

Wrote Dorothy Day:  “What we would like to do is change the world…by crying out unceasingly for the rights of the workers, of the poor, of the destitute. We can throw our pebble in the pond and be confident that its ever widening circle will reach around the world.” 

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

Sunday
March 13

Lenten Series 2022: The Life of Dorothy Day

By Marsh Chapel

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Luke 13:31-35

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Bring to our troubled minds

Uncertain and afraid

The quiet of a steadfast faith

Calm of a call obeyed

Sometimes an encounter with a radically committed person, one like Dorothy Day, can free up a part of a person in soul and spirit in a way that frees up the rest of him or her.  One wonders whether that might happen for some, for some of us, this Lent?  These three weeks we converse with Day, her life and her faith and her work, even as we listen for the Gospel in Luke.

No other Lukan passage, nor any in the Gospels together, so firmly as ours today fixes Jesus and his Word, the church and its Gospel, in the waves, swells, eddies and swirls of politics.  Amid much happier parables, chapters 8-18, blessed and beautiful and exclusive to Luke—Samaritan, good; Son, prodigal; Steward, dishonest yet somehow noble—Jesus accosts us and upbraids us today in full cultural mien.  The governmental power of the day is Herod, whom Jesus dresses down, insults even, as ‘that fox’.  The warning about power and its move against truth comes, perhaps with a strange motive, but cast by Luke in the affirmative, comes from Jesus’ opponents, the Pharisees.  Jesus is fearless, here, though not so such in the garden of Gethsemane later.  He places Himself, or rather, Luke places himself placing himself, in the centuries’ long tradition of the Hebrew Prophets, a tradition pristine, golden, unlike any other in religious history, four the greater and twelve the lesser.  All found their way, or their voice, or both in Jerusalem, the religious and political center.  Jerusalem whom Jesus loves, loves so much, loves like a mother hen, loves like a momma, like a hen gathering her chicks.  A striking, feminine image of the divine, strong and true.  The Gospel is social through and through, as Luke here today reminds us.  Read the Bible and Luke and Luke 13:  Jerusalem! Jerusalem!  Or for us today:  Pollution! Pandemic! Politics! Prejudice! Pocketbook! Peril!  Jerusalem! Jerusalem! There is no holiness save social holiness, taught Mr. Wesley.  None. No other Lukan passage, nor any in the Gospels together, so firmly as ours today fixes Jesus and his Word, the church and its Gospel, in the swells, eddies and swirls of politics.

What do we find in Luke?

Luke was written nearly a generation later than Mark, by most estimates, Mark in or near 70, Luke in or near 85 or 90 of the common era (in fact, possibly much later).  Traditionally ascribed to Luke the physician, its author and that of its sequel, the Acts of the Apostles, is finally unknown to us.  We know him only through the writing itself.

Luke is made up of a mixture of ingredients.  First, Luke uses most of Mark.  An example is the memory of a part of our passage today, Luke 13: 34ff.  Like Matthew, Luke knew and repeated most of the earlier gospel of Mark.  But he made changes along the way, or construed the gospel according to his own desires and emphases.  This is hopeful for us, in that it is an encouragement for us to take the gospel in hand, and interpret it according to our time, location, understanding, and need.  In fact, we are summoned and ordered to do so, and not free not to do so.  Second, Luke uses a collection of teachings, called Q, as does Matthew.  An example is our Lord’s Prayer, later in the service.  Luke’s version is slightly different from that in Matthew, as is his version of the beatitudes and other teachings, found in the ‘sermon on the plain’, rather than the ‘sermon on the mount’.  Third, Luke makes ample use of material that is all his own, not found in Mark or elsewhere.  The long chapters from Luke 8 or so through Luke 18 or so, where we find ourselves this morning, are all his.   Luke brings us a unique mixture of materials, and makes his own particular use of them.  And what does Luke say?  Ah, this will take us the rest of the year and more fully to unravel, including our work this Lent.

 For our Lenten Sermon Series, beginning today, will engage in conversation with Dorothy Day, a Lukan Christian if ever there was one.  In this Marsh Chapel pulpit, from 2007-2016, Lent by Lent, we identified a theological conversation partner for the Lenten sermons, broadly speaking, out of the Calvinist tradition, so important to the first 200 years in New England.  In the next decade, we have turned to the Catholic tradition, so important in the last 200 years in New England.  With Calvin we encountered the chief resource for others we engaged over ten years—voices like those of Jonathan Edwards (2015), John Calvin (2014), Marilyn Robinson (2013), Jacques Ellul (2012), Dietrich Bonhoeffer (a Lutheran cousin)(2011), Karl Barth (2010), and Gabriel Vahanian (2007), and themes like Atonement (2009) and Decision (2008), summarized with the help of Paul of Tarsus (2016).  Then in this decade, beginning with Lent 2017, the Marsh pulpit, a traditionally Methodist one, turned left, not right, toward Rome not Geneva, and we have preached with, and learned from the Roman Catholic tradition, and some of its great divines including Henri Nouwen (2017) Thomas Merton (2018) John of the Cross (2019), Teresa of Avila (2020), and St Patrick (2021).  In future years, it may be Ignatius of Loyola, Erasmus, Hans Kung, Karl Rahner, or others, one per year.  Perhaps you will suggest a name or two, not from Geneva, but from Rome?  For those who recall, even if dimly, the vigor and excitement of Vatican II, there may well be other names to add to the list.  Yet something about this past year and its hurts, something about Covid life in Boston it may be, something about the events and outcomes of late autumn, something about immersion in the home of the bean and the cod for several years, something, a connection say with our many Roman Catholic friends, listeners, correspondents, partners in the fellowship of the Gospel, brought her forward.  Day was viscerally engaged in the political struggles of her era, out of her hard won understanding the rudiments of Christianity.  Hers may be a very timely voice for us in late Covid, winter, 2022.  Today we mark two years of Covid, costly, costly years.  Right now, we are viscerally engaged in our own struggles.  We are seeking to support, for instance, what is right and best in Ukraine, with measures both of resistance and restraint, resistance to merciless brutality, and restraint before the prospect of nuclear conflagration.  One pastoral word, among others, might be today to keep us focused on our own circles of influence, the places where we can actually make a difference, over against the global and endless circles of concern which we carry. (One such is the United Methodist Committee on Relief, UMCOR.)

 Today, perhaps, we can begin to converse with Day, in connection to her sense of spirit throughout the course of her long, troubled, and difficult life.

In Covid autumn, 2020, our son gave as a birthday present a book,

(Dorothy Day: Dissenting Voice of the American Century. John Loughery and Blythe Randolph.  New York:  Simon and Schuster, 2020.).  Initially, it lay unread, but still at hand.  Books have a way of staying around, of quietly reaching out to us.  Its first chapters, about her raucous wayward early life, were at the first off-putting, even as much as they were news or unknown, so again, it moved back in the pack.  Somehow, though, the tome came on and proposed, even insisted, to be read.  Read it was.  And what a gift, one of the quiet Covid gifts that kept us going through two years, marked this day, two years of rot, of loss, of diminishment, of worry, of hurt, of anxiety, depression, loneliness and deadly wreckage, especially for the least, the last and the lost. We have miles to go in recovery before we sleep. And what better document to peruse in Covid?  It became read because it demanded to be read and should have been read.  And was.

Born in 1897, Dorothy was raised in vaguely Episcopalian home, with two brothers, a philandering father, and a devoted mother.  What is striking to the average revisitation of her early life is just how chaotic, tempestuous, conflicted and hard it was. (It seems, at least to this observer, that she spent much of the rest of her life trying to escape her youth—its emptiness, its infidelities, its spiritual sterility, its abandonment of faith and church and God.)   She was raised for a time in Chicago, went to college in Champagne Urbana on her own steam and dime, and for some decades lived a bohemian life.  She drank heavily, loved widely, moved frequently, and befriended generously.   Most of us know her, if at all, through the lens of The Catholic Worker, which is fair enough.  But prior to the advent of that publication, she had already developed an experienced writing life, largely in New York City, which included community, consort and conversation with some of the leading cultural, theatrical, musical and political leaders of the time.

Dorothy was a convert to Catholicism, drawn heavily, as are so many seminarians today, to the biblical and historical Christian commitment to justice, and for the poor.  Wrote her biographers Loughery and Randolph: The belief that material comfort—and, in particular, wealth—might actually be dangerous, putting a distance between God and one’s fundamental humanity, wasn’t a notion Americans were or are comfortable with.  She came to believe that the true objects of devotion in Western culture—security, affluence, national pride, an enthrallment to innovation and technology—were the sources of our undoing as a moral society, and she was impatient with anyone who made religions seem reassuring rather than demanding and transcendent.  The New Testament called on all believers to fight racism, war and poverty, or it meant nothing at all.  Faith was less about solace than a call to action and disruption.  Piety and conformity to social norms had little to do with each other. (2).

 Following her younger years in the mid-west, Dorothy Day primarily lived in New York City, in and near the Bowery.  She wrote a semi-autobiographical novel, The Eleventh Virgin, which had some critical success and modest sales.  The reading and re-revisitation of her younger adult years is simply harrowing.  She embraced a series of, frankly, violent men, who after a time each left her, one leaving her pregnant which led to an abortion.  The homes were harrowing, the circumstances harrowing, the labor required harrowing.  One Greenwich Village apartment engulfed her in a gas leak, leaving her unconscious, and almost leaving her dead.  Yet she read widely and knew many of the great writers of the age—Maugham, Wolfe, Lawrence, Wharton, James, Merton, Anderson, Auden, O’Neill (one of her consorts), London, Dell, Fitzgerald, Monroe, Merton, Berrigan, Crane, Porter, Chesterton, Maritain, Sanger, all--and wrote for various radical publications:  The Call, the Masses, The Liberator, others.  In 1926 she gave birth to her daughter, Tamar, (Hebrew for Palm Tree) (106).

One of the ways, it seems, that over time Dorothy Day could handle and withstand the kind of stress and difficulty of her activist life, had to do with the regular use of retreats.  How else would she be able steadily to speak out, as she did in a letter in Commonweal in 1948:  Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his life for his brothers…and the Russians are our brothers, the Negro is our brother, the Japanese are our brothers, the Germans, the Mexicans, the Filipinos, the Jews and Arabs.  (235).  In the same issue, the editors of Commonweal wrote a strong critique of Day and her letter.

Dorothy Day’s life, work and faith are described in her best-known book The Long Loneliness, 1952.  Asked her biographers:  How much of Christ’s message were Christians really willing to accept? (256) (She was) committed to building a new society within the shell of the old (258).  A new society within the shell of the old.  Hm. It is striking just how faithfully, consistently, sacrificially and fully Day combined a dual allegiance:  both to her progressive ideals, and to the Roman Catholic Church, though she acquired many critics from both communities.

She was buried on December 2, 1980, following a funeral service at the Church of the Nativity on Second Avenue.  The readings in the service included Isaiah 58: 6-12, 1 John 4: 11-18, Matthew 5: 1-12.  The recessional hymn was ‘A Mighty Fortress.  Her eulogy included her own motto, or statement, or credo: All my life I have been haunted by God. (369)

Sometimes an encounter with a radically committed person, one like Dorothy Day, can free up a part of a person in soul and spirit in a way that frees up the rest of him or her.  One wonders whether that might happen for some, for some of us, this Lent?  One in one such moment prayed, Lord make me common as sagebrush, then set me on fire for the Gospel.  She and others point us to the living Christ, who promises today, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord’.

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

Sunday
March 6

Communion Meditation- March 6, 2022

By Marsh Chapel

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Luke 4:1-13

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Jesus meets us today in the fullness of His humanity, in communion with the communion of saints, all the saints including those who from their labors rest.  The levels of temptations our Lord endures, as rendered by Saint Luke, begin with the physical (bread), continue to the cultural (power) and conclude with the spiritual (religion).  Hunger, avarice, and pride beset us still, in temptations near and far.  Our communion meditation this Lord’s Day, for the beginning of Lent, places us in the presence of the humanity of Jesus, in remembrance of His pain within that humanity, and in a grateful if bittersweet thanksgiving for that utter, cruciform, dominical humanity.

Our communion meditation stretches out and back for millenia.  We are heartened to recall the refrain, even hymn, of Deuteronomy ‘mighty hand, outstretched arm, display of power, signs and wonders’ …’mighty hand, outstretched arm, display of power, signs and wonders’.  Others too have faced in some measure ranges of unsolved troubles as we face ours today in planet, pandemic, politics, prejudice, pocketbook and peril.   The gift of freedom, the price of freedom, the protection of freedom have ever been at the heart of faith.  We are reminded of this in our experience right now, March 2022.  A wandering Aramean was my father, writes the Deuteronomist.  We are not the first generation to be faced with peril and price of freedom, and that itself can be a measure of reassurance.

Our communion meditation settles us in faith, the faith which St. Paul can name with precision, located in baptism and belief, in baptism and belief.  These are sentences worthy of memorization. "The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart" (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); because if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved. The scripture says, "No one who believes in him will be put to shame." For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. For, "Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved."  Confession with the lips and belief in the heart, and we move forward into an open, uncertain, free future, with all its dangers, costs and joys.

From here it is a short step to the song, the psalm of the day, the singing of faith.  After 18 months without the chance to sing the hymns of faith together, March 2020 through August 2021, we will not likely ever again take such a simple grace for granted.  The psalm brings a communion in meditation on God in whom we trust, God in whom we trust.  My refuge, my fortress, my refuge, my fortress.  We sang in this sanctuary in hard days past:  Fallujah in 2007 and the nadir of a war that was contrary to Christian teaching both pacifist and just war, a Syrian red line held and then not in 2013, the election in 2016 and a prior president’s praise of Putin, and insurrection, insurrection in 2021. Words have lasting meaning and votes have lasting meaning.  There are times when you sing songs in the night, with Job. Songs, hymns, are written still, in the moment.  For fifteen years we sat in a mid-week service behind a professor, now retired and moved, Cheryl Boots, who writes hymns, and sent one this week.  Its third verse:

Spirit who rejects the violence

That your warring children spawn.

You behold the pure and wicked.

When hate strikes what can be done?

Lover of Justice flow down like waterfalls,

put out the fires of sick, human greed.

Do not tolerate the power-mad.

Teach us Love that meets all our needs.

And a friend sent another, earlier this same week, written as pandemic began, by Carolyn Gillette.  Its third verse:

May we cherish those around us as we never have before.
May we think much less of profit; may we learn what matters more.
May we hear our neighbors' suffering; may we see our neighbors' pain.
May we learn new ways of offering life and health and hope again.

Maybe you could write a three verse hymn this week. You don’t have to be a Methodist to rely on singing, the art form available to the poor, and particularly prized by the poor, but it doesn’t hurt.  Even the poor can sing.  Everybody can sing, and so, the Psalms. May we learn new ways of offering life and health and hope again, of singing life and health and hope again.

Our communion meditation upon the complete humanity of Jesus our Lord embraces us in the Gospel of Luke, the gospel of humanity, compassion, justice, and love.  It is the season of Lent, and again, come this first Sunday in Lent, we meet Jesus in the wilderness.  There He resists.  In the time-honored tradition of a three-part story, we are given a lesson about making and keeping human life—human.  God is at work in the world to make and keep human life human.  God is at work in the world to make and keep human life human. Here, as in our other gospels, the Lord faces and masters the various temptations which we also know.  They include a kind of will to power, and a sort of pride, and a type of avarice.  We come to church with some experience of temptation and resistance.  As the song writer says, ‘good experience comes from seasoned judgment–which comes from bad experience’.

We are in worship this morning to attest to something, as human and as fallible and as frail as we are.  Faith is the power to withstand what we cannot understand.  Worship is the practice of faith by which we learn to withstand what we cannot understand.  God is the presence, force, truth, and love Who alone deserves worship, and worship is the practice of the faith by which we learn to withstand what we cannot understand.  Worship prepares us to resist.  So, just so, we see Jesus again in the wilderness.  To resist all that makes human life inhuman.  So here you are, come lent, come Sunday, come 11am, today again to walk in the wild, in the wilderness.

But Saint Luke brings a different look.  Luke is our gospel guide this year.  He asks us, at virtually every turn, to find our way into a meditative communion, communion in Christ with God and with neighbor.  So, today in the shadow of our Lord’s temptation, we are invited to a prayerful resistance to the blandishments of wealth, power and fame.

Perhaps you are not ready to resist blandishments.  Maybe though, say at age 19, or at age 79, we may be ready, for different reasons, to observe the limitations, the fairly severe limitations, truth to tell, of wealth, power and fame.  If nothing else, a worship service, on a sleepy University Campus, in spring break long before spring, in the frozen month of March, as all year, is meant to ring this bell, sing this song, tell this tale, recall in meditative communion that we are utterly mortal and lastingly fragile.

One shall not live by bread alone.  You shall worship the Lord your God and Him only shall you serve.  You shall not tempt the Lord your God.

You have noticed that here, as is his duty and custom, Luke has amplified the story of Jesus he inherited from Mark, in accord to some degree we trust with the condition and need of his community.  The preaching of Gospel attempts to do the same each Sunday.  Luke’s predecessor Mark has only a couple of lines about wilderness, temptation, wild beasts, Satan and Angels.  But Matthew and Luke have both added in another story within the story, a spiritual temptation to accompany the physical deprivation.  Jesus cites here Deuteronomy 6 and 8.  Jesus models spiritual dimensions of spiritual temptation and struggle.  He models humanity for humanity as a human among humans. Not bread, alone.  Not power, alone.  Not glory, alone.  Not the blandishments of wealth, power, and fame.  But the struggles, the spiritual struggles, the tragedy that lines its way through life.  The tragedy that so impersonally and unfathomably upends life, as our globe now sees and feels in Ukraine, with its citizens the victims of warfare that is preemptive, unilateral, imperial, unforeseeable, immoral, post Judeo Christian and wrong.  Would that we as a nation had never failed in the same way.  But in our past, say Iraq 2003, we have, and we should continue to learn from our past, with both humility and compassion (as David Brooks has argued).

Even as we live in safety in a secure college community, we bear in mind other young women and men, like those now in Ukraine, who defend their homes, land, and families, at great and sometimes ultimate cost. They bear the hard hurt and cost of learning, virtue and piety: learning, to distinguish truth from falsehood; virtue, to distinguish good from evil; piety, to distinguish life from death. We again face the bitter truth Dr. King named: injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. As President Zelensky said last week, ‘our weapon is truth’.  For many of us, our thought, feeling and thought-feeling, is that there is more we can and should have done. May we be mindful, at least, of all those near and far, young and old, known and unknown, who face falsehood, evil and death, and all those as well who yet lack shelter, raiment, safety and nourishment. Indeed, and in full, our minds and hearts dwell this day on the children, women and men immersed in the tragic warfare that has been brutally and needlessly unleashed in and on Ukraine. We pray for them and for President Biden and other world leaders working to restore peace and justice. In particular we hold close to our hearts those Boston University students and staff with homes and families in these regions. Utterly realistic about the tragedy and harm now unfolding, we yet hold onto a distant hope for a better day to come, one day.  Each one of us has some responsibility and some freedom to bring to bear upon today and tomorrow.  And that thought and spirit are around us.  Communion meditation includes this call.  Love means taking responsibility.

There is a stirring near and far, to reach out and help, somehow.

We had a call one day this week asking whether Marsh Chapel could support a Plaza Vigil on behalf of Ukraine.  Our staff made space, found candles, welcomed students, and supported what will not be the last vigil in the face of the lawless brutality, the needless carnage, the carnage and slaughter executed by Putin’s Russia.

There is a stirring near and far, to reach out and help, somehow.

Later in the week, while many and others traveled away for Spring Break, one fraternity set up shop outside the student union.  The brothers of Theta Chi distributed information and simply but clearly asked, ‘who you like to make a donation on behalf of those suffering in Ukraine’?  It was the best invitation of the semester.  ‘Yes, I would.  Thanks for giving me the chance.’

There is a stirring near and far, to reach out and help, somehow.

The Questrom School of Business, in the business of business but shepherded by wise leaders who have not forgotten learning, virtue and piety, called together a strategy meeting on Ukraine.  They rightly called our University Chaplain for International Students.  We have that fine role here, thanks to your support, to bring spiritual advocacy and ministerial support for the 25% of our students who come from overseas, including some from Ukraine.  As was preached on Ash Wednesday, liberating others, we liberate ourselves.

There is a stirring near and far, to reach out and help, somehow.

There is an intensity, an earnest interest right around here, an interest in faithful application of good faith, one way or another.   Many years ago, right here, as the war in Iraq continued on, we invested ourselves in Refugee support.  A young man, even younger then, a chorister become Episcopal priest, David Romanik spent a year between college and seminary working in part on behalf of refugees, through Marsh Chapel.  We may need to conjure a way to return to that work, now on behalf of Ukraine. We may need to conjure a way to return to that work, now on behalf of Ukraine.

There is a stirring near and far, to reach out and help, somehow.

There is a stirring near and far, to reach out and help, somehow.

There is a stirring near and far, to reach out and help, somehow.

Jesus meets us today in the fullness of His humanity, in communion with the communion of saints, all the saints including those who from their labors rest.  The levels of temptations our Lord endures, as rendered by Saint Luke, begin with the physical (bread), continue to the cultural (power) and conclude with the spiritual (religion).  Hunger, avarice, and pride beset us still, in temptations near and far.  Our communion meditation this Lord’s Day, for the beginning of Lent, places us in the presence of the humanity of Jesus, in remembrance of His pain within that humanity, and in a grateful if bittersweet thanksgiving for that utter, cruciform, dominical humanity.

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

Sunday
February 27

Luminous Eye

By Marsh Chapel

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Luke 9: 28-36

Click here to hear just the sermon

Today is Transfiguration Sunday.  On the mountain, the baffled disciples tried to bear true witness—word, tent, accolade, mystery. What did you see? I saw…

Our passage from Luke 9  is an account developed after Easter, as a way of trying to symbolize Jesus Christ as risen Lord. It has no biographical or earthly valence, nor does it need any, nor does it claim any. It is about seeing, and being transfigured by what one sees.  The disciples see, truly saw, Jesus. “During his lifetime a few of his followers were permitted a glimpse of what he was to become” (IBD, loc cit, 173).

Our witness arrives after a word and before a deed. Transfiguration precedes healing for the shrieking, convulsing foaming at the mouth demoniac, a case that stumped all disciples. (9:37) Transfiguration follows the word of the cross, ‘if anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow’. (9:23)

A moment of witness follows a word and forecasts a deed.

You are good and sturdy gospel listeners so you know without elaboration that Moses embodies the law and Elijah the prophets. You know the revelation of wisdom from Moses, the Decalogue. Recite it by memory... You know the audition of love from Elijah. Remember the still, small voice. (… the Lord was not in the wind, earthquake, fire… and after the fire a sound of sheer silence (1 Kings 19)…), Sinai and Horeb, the Law and the Prophets.

Here, it is as if the Gospel of John has spilled ink upon the page of St. Luke. Notice the little things: law and prophets, Moses and Elijah; a prophecy of the cross, called by the term ‘departure’ (did John write this?!?) (the Greek word is ‘exodos’); Andrew absent; Peter confused.

But what of his confusion? The confusion itself is confusing. ‘Not knowing what he said..’ What does that mean? Jesus confuses Peter. Peter confuses Luke. Luke confuses the preacher of the day. The preacher confuses you. There is an opacity here, a stymied utterance. To which, oddly but honestly, Peter bears witness.

There is a cloud here, a cloud of unknowing.  There is a mountain here, a mountain of unknowing.  There is a voice here, a voice of unknowing.There is a countenance here, a face of unknowing. There is a white robe here, a robe of unknowing.  There is a silence here.  This is worship. Enchantment. Not entertainment.  Enchantment not entertainment.  Bear witness.

   Poetry may illumine theology.  Theology can ascend to poetry.

Ours is a scientific not a poetic age.  We follow the science not the poem.  Yet, as Jaspers once remarked, perhaps we need continuously to seek out those who contradict us (NYT 1/9/22).

Our maladies are many.  Planet overheating.  Pandemic marching. Politics infuriating.  Prejudice remaining.  Pockebook straining.  Putin attacking.

And through all: Systems straining.  Inequality increasing. Culture languishing.  Doubts multiplying.  Faith receding.  Our maladies are many.

Yet in and through the long history of the communities of faith, there are, there remain, springs of living water, there remain, pools of quiet calm, there remain, underground currents of life and hope and love.  We for sure and first need all that we can muster to provide physical wellness:  vaccine, booster, testing, tracing, masking, distancing, all.  We do.  But physical wellness alone will not see us through, will not carry us through, will not bring us through.  In tandem with physical wellness, for a future worthy of its name, we shall also and more so it may be need spiritual gladness.  Physical wellness that then leans toward, reaches up for, finds a path toward spiritual gladness.  Wellness alone will not save.  Gladness too, that which makes the heart sing and the mind dance, gladness, a luminous inner eye of spiritual gladness we shall need to cool climate, deter pandemic, heal politics, sustain systems, dampen inflation, encourage culture, doubt our doubts, and find faith.  Worship brings spiritual gladness.  What brings you spiritual gladness?  What gladness does this coming week promise?  Where will you find such?  How will you know it when you see it?  What brings you spiritual gladness?

Two years ago, a week into pandemic, which we then thought might abate by Easter you may recall, my oh my, a friend and member of the Marsh Chapel worshipping community, gave me a book.  This is Dr. Ute Possekel of Harvard, who teaches Syriac there.  She meant it I believe as a symbol of light, a little bit of light, as we then entered COVID dark.  Who would have thought we would be still shadowed so, 24 months later, with more to come?  I am grateful for her faithfulness and her gift, her gift of faith and her faith in the goodness of gifts.  Today’s sermon is simply a reflection on this marvelous gem of a book, a homiletical book report, you might say.

Her gift is The Luminous Eye: The Spiritual World Vision of Saint Ephrem the Syrian, by Sebastian Brock (Rome: Cistercian Publications, 1985).  Brock sums up Ephrem thus:  Ephrem is a theologian who employs poetry as the principal vehicle of his theology.  Because of the way in which the study of theology has grown up in the West, we have all too often forgotten that poetry can prove to be an excellent medium for creative theological writing…(as in) “It is not at the clothing of the words that one should gaze, but at the power hidden in the words”…The Syriac poetic medium through which Ephrem works has the added advantage of being completely free from the somewhat deadening literary conventions of the Graeco-Latin rhetorical tradition of late antiquity, conventions that can often seem tiresome to the modern reader. (TLE, 160, 161).

            Some will remember Kathleen Norris’s memoir of twenty years ago, Dakota:  A Spiritual Geography (2001).  She intentionally centered her work on the seemingly contrary terms, spiritual and geography, stayed centered on that mashup, and brought many, a generation ago, to a renewed sense of faith, of depth, of meaning, of grace and of love—all delivered with more than a pinch of humor.  Ephrem does something of the same, throughout a whole lifetime of prayer, study and writing.  Because he wrote in Syriac and focused on poetry, he is not well known especially compared to his fourth century contemporaries (Basil, the Gregories, Athanasius) (13).  He died in 373ce, was raised in a Christian home, and lived on today’s Turkey\Syrian border in the Roman outpost of Nisibis, before moving late in life to Edessa.  He spent much of his life and ministry in organizing relief for the poor, and led ‘some sort of consecrated life’ short of full monasticism.  As you already perceive, there are many similarities here to the lives of John and Charles Wesley.  Ephrem was heir to three major traditions:  ancient Mesopotamian tradition, Jewish tradition, and Greek tradition.  Hence, he is an ideal meeting point between East and West (21). Do we not need more such today, even in this very hour?  With Athanasius, he battled the Arian ‘heresy’ throughout his lifetime.  In the course of his work and writing, both in poetry and prose, several magnificent insights arise, as guides for our own lives.

One of Ephrem’s primary insights is the steady reliance on the primacy of faith: ‘I believe in order that I may understand’.  A second involves his celebration of human free will (‘the nature of our free will is the same in everyone’) (35).  A third, strikingly modern abiding insight is the ‘value of the body’.  In fact, Ephrem repeatedly uses imagery of clothing in his poetry.  This may be related to his abiding dual reliance on Scripture and nature both. ‘God’s two witnesses’ (41).  But all of this pales in comparison to the rhythmic beauty of his theo-poetics:

Your fountain, Lord, is hidden

From the person who does not thirst for You;

Your treasury seems empty to the person who rejects You;

Love is the treasurer

of your heavenly treasure store.

Truth and love are wings that cannot be separated,

For Truth without Love is unable to fly

so too Love without Truth is unable to soar up:

Their yoke is one of harmony.

Most strikingly, Ephrem takes his poetic ‘eye’ into the rendering of meaning in Holy Scripture.  Scripture opens itself to the ‘eye of faith’, and is open to multiple meanings.  God depicted His word with many beauties, so that each of those who learn from it can examine that aspect of it which he likes (50)….So brethren, let prying dry up and let us multiply prayers, for though He is not related to us, He is as though of our race, and though he is utterly separate, yet He is over all in all. (65).

            At the heart of Ephrem’s teaching there lies a beautiful border land, like the border areas in Tillich’s existentialist theology as well. Listen to the poetic spirit: Lord, You bent down and put on humanity’s types so that humanity might grow through your self-abasement (54). A sense of wonder gives rise to faith. (69).  Blessed is the person who has acquired a luminous eye, with which he will see how much the angels stand in awe of You, Lord, and how audacious is man (73).  So that, for Ephrem, life becomes a pattern of listening, obedience and faith.  Give ear to his magnificent poetry, so utterly fit for Transfiguration Sunday:

Luminous Eye

Illumine with Your teaching

The voice of the speaker

And the ear of the hearer:

Like the pupil of the eye

Let the ears be illumined;

For the voice provides the rays of light.

Praise to You, O Light.

It is through the eye

That the body, with its members,

Is light in its different parts,

Is fair in all its conduct

Is adorned in all its senses

Is glorious in its various limbs.

Praise to You, O Light.

It is clear that Mary

Is the ‘land’ that receives the Source of light;

Through her it was illumined

The whole world, with its inhabitants,

Which had grown dark through Eve,

The source of all evils.

Praise to You, O Light.

Mary and Eve in their symbols

Resemble a body, one of whose eyes

Is blind and darkened

While the other is clear and bright

Providing light for the whole

Praise to You, O Light.

The world, you see, has

Two eyes fixed in it:

Eve was its left eye,

Blind,

While the right eye,

Bright, is Mary.

Praise to You, O Light.

Through the eye that was darkened

The whole world has darkened

And people groped

And thought that every stone

They stumbled upon was a god,

Calling falsehood truth

Praise to You, O Light

But when it was illumined by the other eye,

And the heavenly Light

That resided in its midst,

Humanity became reconciled once again

Realizing that what they had stumbled on

Was destroying their very life.

 Praise to You, O Light.

Our poet theologian of the fourth century has carefully preceded us, cutting a trail forward, in our reading of Scripture.  For him, Scripture is a mirror, an ancient mirror, a distant mirror, but the crucial mirror, a figure of the holy preaching of the outward Gospel…There the kingdom is depicted, visible to those who have a luminous eye (77).  The reading of Scripture, including its public recitation in worship at Marsh Chapel for instance, is meant to further a spiritual awareness, a reciprocation, no less, of divine love…each individual’s openness to the sense of wonder, and his or her possession of the luminous inner eye of faith (96).

            Ephrem celebrates the medicine of life, the coal of fire, the pearl of great price, the incarnation, the bridal chamber of the heart, the church as bride, all leading toward what this preacher would call a ‘modified’ (Hill) ascetic ideal:  the ideal of wakefulness, characteristic both of the angels and of the wise virgins, together with that of singleness, would thus seem to be among the most important motivating factors that lay behind the ascetic vision and orientation of early Syriac Christianity (141).  We have in our time the term ‘woke’, but that sense of wakefulness was early and fully expressed ALREADY in the fourth century.

Sebastian Brock, our guide to and through the work of St. Ephrem, challenges us with theological poetry today. He is the Rick Steves of the land of Ephrem. Ephrem represents a genuinely Asian form of Christianity, a great gift especially for those of us largely shaped by, saturated by the European traditions.  Ephrem employs poetry as the principal vehicle of his theology.  While not inclined to eschew the historical, scientific, ethical and moral demands of Scripture, Ephrem nonetheless steadily avers that the interpretation of Scripture comes within the context of faith.  Further, in a most contemporary way, Ephrem’s ecological vision, and his emphasis on the role of the feminine in faith, are for us added gifts in our time.  We are not the first to honor the earth or to celebrate the strength of woman in faith and life.

Coming from the time of the undivided church, Ephrem belongs to the heritage of all Christian traditions.  He speaks to the unlearned and learned alike, to both lay and religious…precisely because his thought and imagery are so deeply rooted in the Bible, his poetry is thereby enabled to participate in something of the perennial freshness of the biblical text itself…the perennial freshness of the biblical text itself. (172). 

May that perennial freshness kindle in us a spiritual gladness this and every Lord’s Day!

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

Sunday
February 20

A Certain Height

By Marsh Chapel

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Luke 6: 27-38

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As Robert Frost wrote of the star:

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

 

In our first years here In Boston, perhaps 2006 or 2007, my sister brought her youth group from Oneida to see Boston, and to check up on her wayward brother.  A gregarious kind-hearted soul from Marsh took them up to the top of the LAW school, next door, to see what they could see.  To take a long, the long view.  It asks of us a certain height…

One of our colleagues did work for some years next door, at the College of Arts and Sciences.  He encouraged students, you, and faculty, me, to come over on Wednesday nights, next door, and go out on the roof to use the telescope.  As a parishioner a long time ago said, speaking of an elderly neighbor with whom monthly he would meet with a telescope, ‘to listen to the stars’. To take a long, the long view.  It asks of us a certain height, so when at times the mob is swayed…

Right now, or after worship, if you are at home, you can go on our website and see the Chapel from the roof of PHOTONICS across the street, right nearby, next door.  We had a parishioner who waved every Sunday morning at 10:55 entering the Chapel so her daughter in Oregon would know she was alive and well.  By video camera, you can lift a prayer, see a friend walk across the plaza, be reminded of BU, Marsh, King, Thurman and LEARNING VIRTUE AND PIETY.  To take a long, the long view. It asks of us a certain height, so when at times the mob is swayed, to carry praise or blame too far

My wife will sometimes say, as I return, and am reading the newspaper in the evening:  Do you notice anything different around here?  I am not a very visual person.  I then do notice—a flower vase, a painting replaced, a seasonal decoration.   Four times a day now I pass a new building going up in our neighborhood.  And I notice. I look at the new building going up at BU and I am mesmerized, inspired, astounded, by the design, by the craft, by the height.  It is a riveting, impressive edifice. Tuesday, there, I ran into an artist friend, on a 10 degree but bright light day, and we gazed, talked and looked up and thought and observed.  We adjusted our view, to take a long, the long view.


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

Luke 6: 37, the Gospel of forgiveness, asks of us a certain height, which is a saving grace.  Forgiveness is a view, a long view, the long view, that asks of us, a certain height. Forgive.  Forgive and you will be forgiven (Luke 6: 37)

Relationship depends on the capacity to forgive. There comes a moment in most relationships, when a future of any kind requires forgiveness.

Which is easier, to heal the body or the soul? Which? The wounds of the flesh do often give way to some steady healing. Not always. Yet even antiquity knew the power of healing. And thou? The soul? It is a hard question, a devilish one.

Did you ever see the film Citizen Kane? The depiction of a life, a grand life, rippling for eight decades around the cavernous hurt of childhood. Rosebud. Which is easier, to heal the body or the soul?

Gabriel Vahanian, a strange yet remarkable man, when interviewed in his office by a graduate student 40 years ago, opined, all human activity is a cry for forgiveness.

We can speak pretty fast about forgiveness. But the real thing, the shoreline of the real thing, hovers into view when you are pretty sure that there is no way to attain it. The thing about relationship that leads straight to forgiveness is that relationship means disappointment. When you love, you hope. But no single human is able to bear full, perfect hope, because we are so human. We fail. So, when betrayal, real or perceived, occurs, the loss is great. If your best friend is your spouse and there is infidelity, you know both the need and the extreme difficulty of forgiveness. If your best friend is your neighbor, and there is gossip…If your best friend is your work partner, and there is phony accounting…If your best friend is your colleague, and there is disloyalty…If your best friend is your co- worker and there is betrayal…We can speak pretty fast about forgiveness. But the real thing, the enormity of the real thing, hovers into view only when, on our own, we could not manage it.  They say that leadership is the art of disappointing people at a rate they can handle.  Well, real relationship inevitably and invariably involves disappointment.

For the Gospel of Luke, the star that fixes our gaze, calling out a certain height in us, day by day, is forgiveness. Luke has placed this matter of forgiveness here because the church wanted and needed to trace back to Jesus its own need as well as power to forgive. Every community, every church, soon finds the need of forgiveness, a grace that cannot be engineered, for it is not of human origin. To forgive is…divine.  Pope:  to err is human, to forgive divine.  We have to await its arrival, pray its blessing, hope for its timely intervention.

As the globe sails into the heart of the 21st century, the profound need for the Forgiving Jesus appears devastatingly paramount. It is a verse like Luke 6: 37 that carries the full panorama, the view, of forgiveness that the future will require. If we forever mount up with strength to defend as crusaders the details of our holiness traditions, and will brook no breach of them, our world future is dark indeed. Crusades do not work. ‘A man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still’.  Which is easier, to heal the body or the soul?

Reinhold Niebuhr well expressed the historical, political anatomy of forgiveness. If social cohesion is impossible without coercion, and coercion is impossible without the creation of social injustice, and the destruction of injustice is impossible without the use of further coercion, are we not in an endless cycle of social conflict? Niebuhr, unlike other so-called realists, did not stop there. He did see a way forward. It is the way of forgiveness, on a grand scale. One can mitigate the cruelties of conflict. One can remember Garrison, and Ghandi. One can recognize that the evil in the foe is also in the self. One can avoid claims of spiritual superiority. One can work daily to develop a spiritual discipline against resentment. You hear it in Lincoln. You hear it in King. You hear it, every so often, in some unlikely world leader. Some years ago, yet as memorable as yesterday, I heard it in the voice of Michele Bachelete, then president of Chile.  She is a physician. She spoke about healing of body and soul. The way is still there, somewhere out near the truth and the life: Bachelet is a pediatrician by profession. She was, along with her mother, a political prisoner, arrested and assaulted during Pinochet's rule. Her father, an air force general, died in prison after being tortured: "You know I have not had an easy life, but then who has? Violence destroyed what I loved. Because I was the victim of hate, I have consecrated my life to converting that hate into understanding, into tolerance, and why not say it, love."

Before we die, may we feel forgiveness. Before we die, may we feel the fullness of forgiveness.  Even if we feel it by virtue of its absence, a great homesickness for a land of love, still, may we feel it. Even if it is ‘the reality of the vessel as the shape of the void’ within (Lao-Ste).  And if we are so blessed, so graced, so to feel pardon, may we by grace so offer pardon to others.

But be careful. We need to be careful. As with all real height, one must tread carefully here on the precipice of the long view.  Last autumn, mid-pandemic, one sermon addressed the biblical, personal theme of forgiveness in a traditional three-point manner:  God forgives, others forgive, forgive yourself.  The design employed an imaginary trip up into the attic of memory.  Forgiveness is crucial, central, basic, and inalienable to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, who, by one account, that in our very gospel of Luke, died on a cross praying, ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do’ (Luke 23: 34).

There were many responses to the sermon from the virtual congregation.  One though, more than several others, lingered in the mind and stayed present in the heart through the year past.  A listener and friend took the time to correspond with the preacher, first to offer thanks for the sermon and to bear witness to its truth, meaning, and lasting importance, but second to raise a question as to whether, at some points and in some situations, forgiveness is not a always a good thing, not even close to a good thing, and should be avoided.  My friend recognized that the sermon was moving in the opposite direction, toward the reception not the bequest of forgiveness. God forgives, others forgive, we can forgive ourselves.  But she took the next step, and also addressed a related quandary, not that of receiving but that of offering forgiveness.  And within that, there lies a serious problem.  Sometimes people should be encouraged not to forgive.  Sometimes people should be warned off from forgiveness.  Sometimes, like the kindness that kills, there is a forgiveness that fails, a forgiveness that falters, a forgiveness that frustrates the gospel witness to health, to healing, to wellness, to love.  Rev. Dr. Anne Marie Hunter wrote:

I'd love to "nuance" the issue of forgiveness to suggest that there are times when forgiveness can be a trap or a barrier to safety. For example, when someone who is abusive says (after an abusive incident), "honey, I'm sorry, please forgive me." And when the person being abused thinks, "I'm supposed to forgive 7 x 700, so I will forgive you." And then the whole abusive incident happens all over again. It may be worse this time. It could even be fatal.

Perhaps we need to have as many words for "forgiveness" as (legend has it) Eskimos have for snow. One meaning could be, "I forgive you, but I'm leaving this relationship because it's not safe." Another could be, "I don't see the need to forgive you because you haven't repented and changed your behavior, and repentance needs to precede forgiveness."

In any case, for survivors of abuse the term "forgiveness" is loaded, and often used to heap guilt and shame on their shoulders. They turn to their faith for guidance about what to do. How can faith leaders and faith communities meet their needs?

My friend was cautioning us to be careful, way up high.  That is, there are times and seasons when all we can do…is pray. That is, there are times and seasons when all we can do…is pray. There are times when the content of forgiveness is limited…to prayer. ‘Love your enemies…pray for those who persecute you’.  And that is all.  Pray, not give in.  Pray, not coddle. Pray, not cave.  Pray, not collude.  When hateful words or acts continue unabated, when personal attacks stand without apology, then your work in forgiveness is fulfilled, only and entirely, in prayer.  ‘Love your enemies…pray for those who persecute you’.  And after that, shake the dust from your feet and move on.

Now, in a week of stories about borders and truckers, let us be honest that we are all equally in the dark as we truck on toward ultimate borders.  Forgiveness is a border crossing of existential freight and might. May we open our lives to its height. Furthermore, the language of forgiveness is a foreign tongue. May we by practice learn its right pronunciation, its grammar and syntax and spelling.

For some years—happy years they—we worked among farmers and truckers and tradesfolk.  I traveled across the northern border of our nation almost every week day, driving down into Canada to study Coptic texts at McGill in Montreal. I never lost completely a sense of anticipation and even dread at the border. One very cold morning, near 5am, down in the dark beyond Huntingdon Quebec, I stopped in the snow alongside a lost trucker. I lowered the window to catch his question “Ou est le frontiere?”. When I had finally translated to myself  the simple sentence, “where is the border”, I leaned back and haltingly replied in French, but before I could say much he caught my accent, or maybe it was my abysmal grammar. Sensing a common soul, and jumping for joy he said, “Buddy, you speak English!  You must be American.” And I could say, ‘you are not far, not far at all from the border’. There is a surprising joyful anticipation, in faith, as we approach the border. At the border, the same language we have used for a lifetime is in use, the language of grace. We cross the same border with every confession of sin and every acceptance of pardon. We cross the same border with every awareness of idolatry and every word of forgiveness. We have crossed over before in the daylight, so that when night falls, we need not fear. We know what the Psalmist meant, “Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning.”  As Frost wrote,

O Star (the fairest one in sight),
We grant your loftiness the right
To some obscurity of cloud—
It will not do to say of night,
Since dark is what brings out your light.
Some mystery becomes the proud.
But to be wholly taciturn
In your reserve is not allowed.
Say something to us we can learn
By heart and when alone repeat.
Say something! And it says, ‘I burn.’
But say with what degree of heat.
Talk Fahrenheit, talk Centigrade.
Use language we can comprehend.
Tell us what elements you blend.
It gives us strangely little aid,
But does tell something in the end.
And steadfast as Keats’ Eremite,
Not even stooping from its sphere,
It asks a little of us here.
It asks of us a certain height,
So when at times the mob is swayed
To carry praise or blame too far,
We may choose something like a star
To stay our minds on and be staid.

(Robert Frost)

 

 

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

Sunday
February 13

An Invitation to Faith

By Marsh Chapel

Click here to hear the full service

Luke 6: 17-26

Romans 12:1-13

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Might we hear a call, an invitation, to faith this morning?  Following the sense of the numinous, the moments, moments of transcendence throughout this Epiphany, a season of light and revelation, might there follow, for one or another, a straightforward invitation to faith, spoken and heard and heeded?

For we are nigh on to two years of COVID: two years of days with limitations and with fears laced into the very simplest of moments—a trip to the store, a decision to meet a friend, a first meal outside or inside, a worried report of a colleague ill.  And other strains have come alongside as well:  planet, pandemic, politics, prejudice, pocketbook.  Our planet will need our attention, our care, well into the future.  The pandemic may become endemic but will not by a moment disappear.  Our raging political discourse, downstream from the losses in culture just when we needed them over these 24 months—gathering, symphony, travel, family, tertulia, worship and assembly and prayer together—will require attentive, disciplined, curative investment of time and mind, not just a quick vote on a November morning.  Our lasting measures of racial prejudice, much on our minds especially this month, continue and cost.  And speaking of cost, gasoline is up 40%.  With all this about us, we may be ready for, and ready to hear in full this Lord’s Day, a robust call to faith, an invitation to faith.  Ours may be a profoundly preachable moment.

Here we may rely on our Epistle, speaking of such moments.  St. Paul leaves speculative, less practical theology and jarringly tells us how to live, in Romans 12.  He outlines a call to faith.  He describes what a life of faith might look like, for you, and for me.

You might not expect such from the author of the rest of the Epistle to the Romans, the one who traced our condition (our sin) from creation through conscience in Romans 1 and 2. Impractical theology there, though most treasured and precious.  You would not expect such from the Apostle who poured out the great watershed (our salvation) from Christ to Cross in Romans 3-5.  Impractical theology there, though pearls great in price, field hidden.  Nor would you expect the 13 lightning bolts of 12: 9 and following from the elliptical, emotional, tent-making, bachelor, spit-fire—what a friend we have in Paul!—who unveiled Spirit, Holy Spirit, in freedom and grace, in Romans 6-8,  who wept and conjured and pleaded about his own extended religious family in Romans 9-11.  Impractical theology, there and there, though the high-water mark of all his writing, a Spirit interceding for weakness, speaking of love and need.  Imagine our shock.  Not sin, not salvation, not Spirit, not synagogue come Romans 12: 9.  Rather, some utterly practical, pastoral, applicable theology.  Say, an Epiphany call to faith, especially for those who may be just a bit ragged, just now.

Romans 12: 9ff, the ‘Pauline 13’ may be your best threshold, liminal line, front door response to the question, ‘Can you help me get going on this?  What does it mean to hear a call to faith?  I mean I would like to think about faith, and the gift of faith, and growth in faith. But how am I to do so?’  We ask:  what does it mean to hear a call to faith?  And the Holy Scripture, in the voice of the Apostle to the Gentiles, responds.

What does it mean to hear a call to faith?  It means to let love be genuine.  All these verses, note well, are plural imperatives, communal commands.   The command in Genesis ‘be fruitful, multiply, fill the whole earth’ is not an individual demand.  Your family doesn’t need to do so alone, though Samuel and Susanna Wesley certainly did their best.  It is communal.  You all.  All you all.  In fact, given our ‘limitations’ (being kind here), there is no way for us individually to accomplish such commands.  Not all love is genuine.  Not all is from the heart, nor true, nor durable, nor real.  But it is our call, together, to be lovers in a post-agape world, and to make that love genuine.

What does it mean to hear a call to faith?  It means to hate what is evil.  Notice the firmness in Paul’s flexibility, the vagueness in his certainty.  In sin, salvation, Spirit, and synagogue he has now confidence that—for our own time, we shall know the place of hatred and the outline of evil.  Implied here:  new occasions teach new duties, as James Russell Lowell wrote, and this month in repetition we note.  Not all of life is good and clean.  Some is, some is not.  We are free, nay called, to hate evil.  You overhear Amos: ‘I hate I despise your feasts’ (5:23). When someone says or does something you hate, something that is wrong, hurtful, damaging, and lasting, not something mild or minor but something real and permanent, then the door closes on that event or act or word, and you are left with disappointment and anger, disappointment that does not dissipate and anger that does not abate.  It is a permanent wound, a lasting, permanent scar, perhaps by grace forgivable and forgiven over long time and disciplined prayer, but not forgettable or forgotten.  It is as if that deed or word or word\deed or deed\word is now locked behind a great oak door, an oak door with heavy iron hinges and a great lock, locked without a key.  You may howl at the door.  Please do.  You may pound on the door until your fingers bleed.  Have at it.  You may knock your nose and forehead against the door until you bleed with profusion.  Go ahead.  It will do you nothing of good.  It is done.  It is said.  It is awful and it is irremediable.  It has only one true first cousin in life and that cousin is death.  Here, just here, right here, is where you need faith.

What does it mean to hear a call to faith?  It means to hold fast to what is good.  Hold fast to what is good! Notice again the firmness in Paul’s flexibility, the vagueness in his certainty.   Of one odd Scriptural admonition, Krister Stendahl said, ‘I believe it is the Word of God, but not the Word of God…for me.’  Time makes ancient good uncouth—again, Lowell.

What does it mean to hear a call to faith?  It means to love one another with mutual affection, brotherly affection, a bond that is fraternal, sororial, militant if not military, visceral and reciprocal.  Real affection is mutual.  Affection wherein one party has all the say and the other does all the work is not affectionate.  It is affectionless, affected, not effective.

What does it mean to hear a call to faith?  It means to outdo one another in showing honor.  Creative generosity, happy hospitality, courage in counting others better, here is our way.  Forebear one another in love.  Light, salt, sheep:  people need to see you giving honor, taste the spice of your commendation and expect willingness to honor to be shorn, clean cut, readily recognizable—not just an afterthought.

What does it mean to hear a call to faith?  It means not to lag in zeal, to be ardent in spirit, and to serve the Lord.  These three dicta largely place before you the directive to get out of bed, into some comfortable clothes, into a prayerfully cleansed mindset, and seated by the radio dial, come Sunday, or to get yourself out of bed, into some clean clothes, over to Marsh Chapel, and be seated in a pew, come Sunday.  A walk in the country or on the beach is good.   Yet the public worship of Almighty God is not a matter of indifference.  Hear a call to faith, and come to worship!  Your sister, here, needs the encouraging support of your zealous presence.  Your brother, here, needs the example of your ardent spirit.  God’s service is perfect freedom, and this worship service is just one hour.  We can become so lackadaisical about worship:  and I am not only speaking of us academics (J).  In a lifetime, you have 4,000 Sundays, 1,000 haircuts, 60 income tax returns.  And 525,600 minutes a year.  Zeal, spirit, service, Sunday:  prize your time now you have it!

Howard Thurman was and still is not only the past Dean of Marsh Chapel, but the Dean of Black preaching, teaching and devotion, 100 years ahead of his time 50 years ago.  My friend Phil Amerson remembers Thurman’s words:  “I say that creeds, dogmas, and theologies are inventions of the mind. It is the nature of the mind to make sense out of experience, to reduce the conglomerates of experience to units of comprehension which we call principles, or ideologies, or concepts. Religious experience is dynamic, fluid, effervescent, yeasty. But the mind can't handle these, so it has to imprison religious experience in some way, get it bottled up. Then, when the experience quiets down, the mind draws a bead on it and extracts concepts, notions, dogmas, so that religious experience can make sense to the mind. Meanwhile, religious experience goes on experiencing, so that by the time I get my dogma stated so that I can think about it, the religious experience becomes an object of thought. (From “An Interview with Howard Thurman and Ronald Eyre, Theology Today, Volume 38, Issue 2 (July 1981)). ”)” Deeper and Wider: Beyond the Two Revivals, Philip Amerson, February 2022 p. 8

To hear a call to faith, and to heed, is to ride the waves, in community, of shared hope and pain and prayer.  Hope carries us beyond pain through prayer.  Pain drives us hard back onto hope in prayer.  Prayer brings us up, out, forward, and through whether in hope or in pain.  When we have hope, we celebrate, as a community.  When we have pain, we endure, as a community.  Be constant, steady, regular, punctual, reliable, disciplined, in prayer.  This is an old saw, but a true one.  A man on Fifth Avenue is asked, How do you get to Carnegie Hall?  The right response:  Practice, practice, practice. And that requires community, a common ground, social holiness as well as personal, and habits:  a prayer a day, a worship service a week, Holy Communion once a month.

(Again Phil Amerson reminds me): “Speaking of the suggestion that individual mysticism was the highest good, John Wesley wrote (in contradiction): Solitary religion is not to be found there. “Holy Solitaries” is a phrase no more consistent with the gospel than Holy Adulterers. The gospel of Christ knows of no religion, but social; no holiness but social holiness. Faith working by love, is the length and breadth and depth and height of Christian perfection. "(John Wesley, Hymns and Sacred Poems (1739), Preface, page viii.)" (“A Call for Social Holiness | The United Church of Canada”)” Deeper and Wider: Beyond the Two Revivals Philip Amerson, February 2022 p. 8

And sometimes for those trying to live out that social holiness there is high cost.  I keep a quotation from former Republican Senator Jeff Flake in my desk, from almost five years ago, November 2017:  ‘I will no longer be complicit or silent in the face of the president’s reckless, outrageous, undignified behavior…I deplore the casual undermining of our democratic ideals, the personal attacks, the threats against principles, freedom and institutions, the flagrant disregard for truth and decency…We must stop pretending that the conduct of some in our executive branch are normal.  They are not normal.  Reckless, outrageous and undignified behavior has become excused and countenanced as telling it like it is when it is actually just reckless, outrageous and undignified.  And when such behavior emanates from the top of our government, it is something else.  It is dangerous to a democracy…It is often said that children are watching.  Well, they are.  And what are we going to do about that?  When the next generation asks us, why didn’t you do something?  Why didn’t you speak up?  What are we going to say?...There are times when we must risk our careers in favor of our principles.  Now is such a time.’ (NYT, 10/24/17).  That is, better to lose your job than your soul.

What does it mean to hear a call to faith? The Apostle reserves the two toughest communal challenges for last, one about money and one about time.  Time and money, money and time.  On money:  Rightly, you will take one tithing Christian for every 10 of the born-again variety.  Rightly, you will take one tithing Christian who remembers the ministry of the church in her will for every stadium full of political praying Christians.  You want to see less hat and more cattle.  A Christian vision along our southern border, and we do need borders, say, will include a recollection of the Monroe Doctrine teaching us to care especially for our hemispheric neighbors, a recollection of the Marshall Plan, and what can be done to the benefit of all to reconstitute fragmented nations and communities, a recollection of the love poem of Emma Lazarus at our front door. Contribute to the needs, not the irresponsibility but the needs, of the holy community, near and far.  On time:  Hospitality is to time what generosity is to money.  Hospitality is how you spend your time (such an odd but choice phrase in American English).  Hospitality:  the making of the bed of friendship, the cooking of the meal of companionship, the pouring of the bath of empathy, the cleaning of the linens of suffering, the embrace of the journey through life:  welcome home, how was the trip?,  let’s see your photographs.   Hospitality is to time what generosity is to money.    Practice. Practice!  You will get better at both with time. I would put money on it.  Practice. Practice!  You will get better at both with time. I would put money on it (J).

Here is your Epiphany call to faith, offered with a Methodist handshake.  If this were a Wesleyan revival, we would line this out like a hymn for us to sing.  If this were a Pentecostal church we would call you to response in call and response.  If this were Fenway Park, we would start the wave or sing Sweet Caroline.  But this is Marsh Chapel, so we will just ask you, encouraging your memory, to remember together, entering 2022:  Romans 12: 9-13.

Let love be genuine

Hate what is evil

Hold fast to what is good

Love one another with mutual affection

Outdo one another in showing honor

Never lag in zeal

Be ardent in spirit

Serve the Lord

Rejoice in your hope

Be patient in tribulation

Be constant in prayer

Contribute to the needs of the saints

Practice hospitality

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

Sunday
February 6

Communion Meditation

By Marsh Chapel

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Luke 5: 1-11

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Our meditation upon Holy Communion this Lord’s Day centers on the Holy.

A place can inspire the idea of the Holy….

This place
Come Sunday, every Sunday, here at Marsh Chapel:
The Chapel’s gothic nave, built to lift the spirit, welcomes you
The Chapel’s sixty year history, at the heart of Boston University, welcomes you
The Chapel’s regard for persons and personality, both in its Connick stained glass windows and in its current ministry, welcomes you
The Chapel’s familiar love of music, weekday and Sunday, welcomes you
The Chapel’s congregation of caring, loving souls, in this sanctuary, welcomes you in spirit.
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.

A song can inspire the idea of the Holy…

Together we can sing. Those in the balcony, our regular closer to heaven balcony crew, can sing.

Those along the back wall, in the last pew, the AMEN corner, can sing.

Those from the east, who regularly sit to the east, who lean left, and those from the west, who regularly sit to the west, who lean right, can sing.

Those in the chancel whom we do not want to cancel, can sing, choir or clergy or other or all.

Those at home, following the bulletin, humming the tunes, imagining a day when they will again be among us in the nave, can sing.

They shall sing of the ways of the Lord

Even in grim reminder of grim remainder of abiding injustice, prejudice, racism, embedded in systems, as the shooting and death of Amin Locke in Minneapolis reminds us. At least we are present, alive, together come Sunday and can recall and remind and name in the moment, not waiting for the taping of the sermon a week later.

Grim reminders. The possible need for shunning in days ahead, of those who would overturn elections, of those who would incite insurrection. We have a hard time seeing, and admitting, just how grim things can become.

A promise can inspire the idea of the Holy…

So Paul teaches us in 1 Corinthians

We are led in faith to the open, and ever new frontiers of what is true, honorable, just, lovely, excellent, of good report. New occasions teach new duties, time makes ancient good uncouth, one must upward still and onward, who would keep abreast of truth. Those who live to the utmost for God’s highest praise are capable of being fearless before change, before newness, before adventure, before truth. This, to my mind, is the lasting meaning of a willingness to try new things. New music, new forms of transport, new technologies (well, at least a few of them), new places, new jobs, new homes, new ways. Truth is itinerant. And such a willingness is a virtue, like all virtues, formed by habit. To quote the Dean of Marsh Chapel, the public worship of Almighty God is not a matter of indifference. Aristotle, Aquinas and Wesley all emphasized: virtues are formed by habit, daily ritual, weekly routine, virtues are formed by habit, as the spirit is nourished by reading a Psalm a day. The past precedes but does not prescribe the future. Biology precedes but does not prescribe destiny. Family of origin precedes but does not prescribe identity. Home, hearth, culture, cult, church, school, town—they precede but they do not prescribe vocation. May we hear this as a word of faith? The past does not determine the future. There is always the open possibility of healing for past hurt. There is always the open possibility of forgiveness for past wrong. There is always the open possibility of liberation from past entrapment. This is what we mean by Christ. “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation, the old has passed away and the new has come.” In the lasting and large, this is truly what we mean by resurrection. The resurrection of Christ is the new truth of faith made eternal and everlasting across the threshold of death. The resurrection is the power of love transcending the sting of death. Love outlasts death. One day I passed by a boy climbing into a school bus. I saw his parents’ wave. I remember that the bus door closed, a closure to the past and a way to the future. It takes faith to climb on and it takes more faith to wave goodbye, across all our separations and thresholds, all our liminal moments, especially at the River Jordan. I saw the bus driver put her strong hand on the boy’s shoulder. Pause for a moment and sense a Hand on your shoulder too.

A surprise can inspire the idea of the Holy…

So our gospel, of unexpected catch, used by analogy to recall our call to share, call to care, call to offer others love that we have known

Holy, Holy Holy: Presence, Thanksgiving, Remembrance

Frost Star

Psalm 121

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

Sunday
January 30

The Bach Experience

By Marsh Chapel

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Luke 4: 21-30

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Consider us with Your love, enclose us within Your mercy!

So, in word and song, we bow before God this morning.

 

In word, this year, the word as given through the Gospel According to St. Luke.

What meets us in St. Luke this year?

Luke was written nearly a generation later than Mark, by most estimates, Mark in or near 70, Luke in or near 90 of the common era.  Traditionally ascribed to Luke the physician, its author and that of its sequel, the Acts of the Apostles, is finally unknown to us.  We know him only through the writing itself.

What do we find?  Or what shall we find in prayerful conversation with Luke across the next year, and beginning today amid Cantata and Liturgy?

Luke is made up of a mixture of ingredients.  First, Luke uses most of Mark. An example is our passage today, the depiction of Jesus rejection by his own home town.  Like Matthew, Luke knew and repeated most of the earlier gospel of Mark. But he made changes along the way, or construed the gospel according to his own desires and emphases.  This is hopeful for us, in that it is an encouragement for us to take the gospel in hand, and interpret it according to our time, location, understanding, and need. Second, Luke uses a collection of teachings, called Q, as does Matthew.  An example is our Lord’s Prayer.  Luke’s version is slightly different from that in Matthew, as is his version of the beatitudes and other teachings, found in the ‘sermon on the plain’, rather than the ‘sermon on the mount’.  Third, Luke makes ample use of material that is all his own, not found in Mark or elsewhere. The long chapters from Luke 8 or so through Luke 18 or so, are all his. Examples include some of your favorite parables, like the Good Samaritan, and like the lost sheep, and like the Prodigal Son, and like the Dishonest Steward.  We have Luke to thank for the remembrance of these great stories. Luke brings us a unique mixture of materials, and makes his own particular use of them.

But regarding Word, what does Luke say, and how does he say it?

This will take us the year and more to unravel.  We shall do so, one step at a time, one Sunday at a time, one parable, teaching, exhortation, miracle, or, as today, one narrative at a time.  Still, there are some outstanding features of the Lukan horizon, which we may simply name as we set forth, a sort of map for the journey ahead. First, Luke displays a commitment to and interest in history, and orderly history at that.  Both Luke and Acts are cast in a distinctive historical mode. In fact, Luke has his own schemata for sacred history, in three parts: Israel, Jesus, Church: the time of Israel, concluding with John the Baptist; the time of Jesus, concluding with the Ascension; the time of the church, concluding with the parousia, the coming of the Lord on the clouds of heaven, at the end of time.  Second, Luke employs and deploys his own theology, or theological perspective, including this emphasis upon history and the divine purpose in history.   Third, Luke highlights the humanity and compassion of Jesus in a remarkable way. The Christ of St. Luke is the Christ of magnificent compassion, embodied in the humility of a birth among shepherds.  The Lukan Christ bring this word:  a passion for compassion. The poor, women, the stranger, the injured, those in dire need all stand out in Luke, as the recipients and subjects of Jesus’ love, mercy, grace and compassion. Fourth, Luke carries an abiding interest in the church.  Ephesians says that ‘through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the principles and powers’. That catches the spirit of the author or the third gospel and of the Acts to follow.

Hold most closely the compassion in Luke.  At every turn, there is a return to the least, the last, the lost; those at the dawn of life, those at the twilight of life, those in the shadows of life.  Those who decry preaching that engages life, culture, politics, economy and the cry of need about us have not read Luke, not even a bit.

Notice, record, the way Luke puts it, beginning, middle and end:   He has put down the mighty from their thrones, and exalted those of low degree, he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent empty away…The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor…Blessed are the poor, for yours is the kingdom of God…What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits himself?…Sell your possessions and give alms; provide yourselves with purses that do not grow old…When you give a feast, invite the poor, the maimed, the lame and the blind…You will be repaid at the resurrection of the just…Said Zacchaeus, ‘behold Lord the half of my goods I give to the poor’…They contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty…

Dr Jarrett, what grace, and sung beauty does our Cantata bring us today, alongside the compassion of St. Luke?

 

Dr. Jarrett's response text is unavailable at this time.

 

 Dean Hill:

What shall bring to application of Scripture and Cantata?

First, forbearance.  “Let your forbearance be known by all men.”  Forbearance is a patient power to bear with others and their needs.  To help others get things right.  To guide by presence and voice.  Forbearance is a kind of prevenient forgiveness, a gift ahead of time.  We look for and lean on people who bear one another’s burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ, like mothers bear children and fathers bear with children.  Institutions depend upon forbearance, and discern their leadership there.  It is this grace to bear with that helps us in tight places, helps us through tense meetings, helps us manage tough interviews.  It takes faith to show forbearance, and it takes something else, too.  It takes a peace, like a river, down deep in the soul, a freedom from anxiety.  “Have no anxiety about anything, but in all things through prayer and supplication with thanksgiving bring your entreaties to God”.  It makes me anxious to read the sentence, because I can scarcely live it, in full, for a whole day.  Yet as we grow in faith we find, over time, the peace to be forbearing, to be present but not anxious.  We affirm forbearance in Cantata and in Scripture.

Second, joy.  Our passage is best known, perhaps, for its triumphant affirmation of faithful joy.  “Rejoice in the Lord, always, again I say, Rejoice!”  It is startling for us to hear this sincere word, written in prison.  It is one thing to be joyful in the summer, another in the winter.  One thing in the meadow, another behind bars.  Joy is more than happiness.  Joy is bone happiness, or happiness put to music.  Sometimes it is expressed in humor.  One winter in our church there was a high moment, when our youth performed Godspell.  It makes us older people very happy to see a stage full of handsome, talented 17 year olds.  Since his grandson played Jesus, and very well, I said to the three generations:  “Son and Father I understand in the Trinity, along with Spirit, so Daniel and Al, my theology can comprehend you two, but Albert I have no way to comprehend the role of the Grandfather of Jesus”.   Joy also a playful musing (musing is a crucial spiritual term), and he carried the thought along.    We affirm faithful joy in Scripture and Cantata.

Consider us with Your love, enclose us within Your mercy!

So, in word and song, we bow before God this morning.

-Dr. Scott Allen Jarrett, Director of Music

Sunday
January 23

Insurrection or Resurrection?

By Marsh Chapel

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Luke 4: 14-21

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Hear the gospel.  Our gift and task as people of faith is to live out the resurrection in this hour of insurrection.  Resurrection amid insurrection.

Resurrection

Our gospel this year is that of St. Luke, about more which other Sundays. Today Jesus meets us, for once, in the pulpit. He has chosen his text from Isaiah. He has read and spoken.

Jesus reads and interprets, in the stylized memory of Luke 4. He meets us in the garb of interpretation. Interpretation is a very delicate art. Communication is a delicate art. Interpretation is communication squared.

A vote tally is communication. Interpretation begins when the question is raised about what the tally meant. The announcement of the new evening programming is communication. Interpretation begins when the question is raised about what the change says, portends, about, say, generational communication. The body count is communication. Interpretation begins when the question is raised about what we are to make of horrendous loss.

Jesus reads from the beauty of later Isaiah. Then he interprets the meaning, meaning, now, the reading is fulfilled.

No other gospel records this reading from Isaiah, nor the remarkable interpretation which follows.. Mark does not record it in his writing from 70ce, nor Matthew from 85ce, nor John from 90ce. Only Luke includes Isaiah 61, only Luke has Jesus in the synagogue pulpit, only Luke devises the account of the scroll and its attendant, only Luke announces fulfillment in a dramatic conclusion. That is communication. Interpretation begins when we ask, ‘why’?

By so doing, Luke announces Jesus as bearer of the word, a resurrection word. There is a word, a passage and its meaning.

Luke has expanded and redesigned an account of Jesus’ hometown preaching, also recorded in Matthew 13 and Mark 6. You will find those two passages largely unlike what we heard a moment ago. Luke places Jesus, as apocalyptic preacher, announcing the advent of the kingdom, right in the beginning of the gospel. Moreover, this preachment is about the jubilee year, a prophetic hope that once in a lifetime, once every fifty years, all debts would be forgiven, all indentured servants freed, and all land returned to its ancient owners. ‘Once in a lifetime the entire economy would be given a fresh start’ (Ringe, 69). We have no historical evidence that the Jubilee ever occurred, but we have Isaiah 61 to show the presence of such an imaginative hope.

Edward Schillebeex, a Roman Catholic Vatican II theologian from Holland, died about ten years ago. His ninety years were spent in interpretation. He was criticized for focusing the meaning of resurrection on what it means in people’s lives. He came from that school of thought that emphasized the preaching of the gospel as the experience of resurrection. Hearing in faith of the resurrection, and believing in obedient living, is the resurrection of the faith of Christ. Well, he and his form of Roman Catholic theological interpretation, are no longer the norm, in our sister church, if they ever were. But his insight lives on, raised, if you will, from the dead.

‘Truth happens’, as William James taught. Truth is spoken and heard. When in the course of human events, when in the ordinary run of one’s few earthly days, one hears and heeds a renewing truth, a good word, there is resurrection. Such a moment is not less than Easter morning, and is not a substitute for Easter morning, and is not apart from Easter morning. It is saving truth, grounded and rooted in the cross of Christ, heard and lived.  May we discover faith in God and faith in ourselves

A religious community that will honor, as Jesus is remembered here to have honored, the word, will live.

A traveling elder, in the tradition of our second hymn, is sent to preach. She is sent to preach the gospel of the resurrection. Renewal by word. We have many pulpits and an older pattern, which we may want to dust off, of sending the traveling preachers pulpit to pulpit. By the fourth time you preach a sermon, it can be pretty good. We are better off with one good sermon preached four times, than with four not so good, once each. Traditional liturgy is renewal in thought. Traveling elders are renewal in word.

Would that all God’s people were preachers and prophets! Or, as we did sing, ‘O for a thousand tongues…’

Word brings renewal to culture, religion, denomination, ministry and life.  Word brings resurrection.  That, there, here, now is good news, a resurrection word, resurrection amid insurrection.

Insurrection

But there are particular weeks and months when we most need to hear and re-hear the gospel. There are some weeks and months when good news seems hard to come by.  November 1963.  August 1968.  December 1988. September 2001.  April 2013.  November 2016.  January 2021. Yet these serial reminders of dark days, weeks and months past are meant, as you rightly surmise, to recall that we did make it through them, and we will get through this, too.  We did make it through them, and we will get through this, too. Not unscathed, and hopefully not unchanged, but together, we will make it through.  Some weeks, like that of January 6, one year ago.

At some preconscious level, somewhere down in the declivities of the country’s psyche, we had a sense that this was coming.  We did not want to admit it.  We hoped against hope to be wrong in that premonition.  We hoped to whistle past the graveyard for another few days.  Yet we remembered, dimly, our upbringing, ‘don’t play with fire if you don’t want to get burned’.

I pray for my own people, my own congregation, our University, our listenership, you and your loved ones, near or far or very far away.  It must be admitted, that there are some weeks when good news seems pretty hard to come by.  This is one.  A week in a month that includes the affrontery, the remembered predatory mendacity of a year and fortnight ago, January 6, 2021.

Today, following Jesus’ example in Luke 4, we announce the gospel in interpretation of and accord with the Scriptures. Scripture gives us the chance for the long view.  Scripture gives us a deep grounding, with heaven a little higher and earth a little wider. Thank goodness we have the Holy Scripture to which to turn, from which to  learn, with which to listen, pray and prepare.

Resurrection Amid Insurrection

Listen.  The Gospel of Luke was written for listening.  It emerged over long time, with the earliest Christians reciting and recalling their Lord, his love, and their shared shaping by that love, in faith, beginning in baptism.  They listened, morning and evening, Sunday by Sunday, and over time, in direct response to weeks both empty and full, they began to write down for future generations what they had heard.  Today we have such a lesson, the hearing of a voice.  Today we start again into an unknown future.  For all our failure, for all manner of sin and death and meaninglessness, for all that is wrong, and there is much, especially just now, there is a voice, ringing out and calling to us.  Especially in weeks when good news is scarce.  And in our time, into dimensions of common ground that may cause us work and make us uncertain, we will want to learn to listen, and listen again. Voices from this past week reverberate.  On MKL Sunday, after worship, and following our memorial service for Ed Mann, echoes of voices from this weekend in years past came along to encourage.  Dale Andrews, Walter Fluker, Peter Paris, Gil Caldwell, Liz Douglass, Lawrence Carter, Jennifer Quigley, Karen Coleman, Christopher Edwards, Cornell William Brooks, Deval Patrick. Particularly in these years on MLK Sunday, a resurrection word has been spoken and heard, here, for which we are grateful, lastingly so.  Then, through this week, the reverberations resounded.  Tuesday, Cornell William Brooks engaged an 11 day hunger strike this last week, he who spoke here on April 4, 2018.  Resurrection voice.  Wednesday, Governor Deval Patrick implored us, we need an unrest of the heart, not unrest in the streets, but in the heart, unrest of the heart, he who spoke here on April 8, 2018.  Resurrection voice. Senator Rafael Warnock, student of Lawrence Carter who also preached here in 2018, spoke bluntly:  Some people don’t want some people to vote. Resurrection voice. Listen.  Listen.  Listen.

Pray.  What a tremendous spiritual gift is our Psalter.  Remember Samuel Terrien teaching us: :  Here are 700 years of psalms, 1000-400bce.  For the psalmists, Yahweh’s presence was not only made manifest in Zion.  It reached men and women over the entire earth.  The sense of Yahweh’s presence survived the annihilation of the temple and the fall of the state 587bc.  Elusive but real, it feared no geographical uprooting and no historical disruption.  Having faced the void in history and in their personal lives, they knew the absence of God even within the temple.  The inwardness of their spirituality, bred by the temple, rendered the temple superfluous. (279)  In other words, they knew how to live through and out through godless weeks.  Our psalm today, Psalm 19, ancient and redolent with glory, recalls for us how to pray.  From your youth you have known.  Adoration, confession, thanksgiving, supplication.  The ACTS forms of prayer.  Adoration, confession, thanksgiving, supplication.  Pray.  Pray.  Pray.

Prepare.  The whole of Scripture begins with the divine preparation, in creation, and in speech.  ‘Let there be…’  And what might that be, let there be?  Light.  Watch for the rays of light in the dark.  Watch for the rays of light in the darkWeeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning, he was reminded.  Yes, but that’s the thing about the morning, he responded, it begins in the full dark, it begins at dawn, before daybreak.  Light.  Watch for the coming rays of light.  Nor does light shine only in the heart, but also, even moreso, in the heart of the community.  Individuals need to prepare, but so do communities.  That’s the thing about the morning.  It begins in the dark, in preparation, awaiting the word… LET THERE BE LIGHT.  So, friend, you have the task and gift to face the time we are in.  To choose a way to support leadership you affirm, check by  check.  To influence the health of culture, meeting by meeting.  To live your franchise, vote by vote.  Give, go, vote. Prepare.  Prepare.  Prepare.

Now is the time.  In the halcyon, bucolic spring of high school senior year, a few years ago, Mrs. Bartels confronted your preacher.  Mr. Hill, you are failing my typing class.  You will get an F.  (But, why an F, I asked?)  Because she said it is the lowest grade I have on offer.  If I had a lower one I would give you that.  You do not want an F on your final grade sheet.  I see you talking to that talented pianist who accompanies the choir.  She got a typing A three years ago.  Maybe she could help you.

In fact, that talented pianist and typist did, and I came through with a C-, a gentleman’s C-.  But this sermonic spoonful of sugar is told to help the fateful medicine go down.  For Mrs. Bartels began each class, if memory serves, having us type the following sentence:  Now is the time for all good men to come to the aid of their country.  Now is the time for all good folk to come to the aid of their country.  Now.  Not later, now.  Without a functioning democracy we will never be able to address climate change, face race, outrun pandemic, keep peace on the globe, work for a just, participatory and sustainable culture, or live with hope.  So now is the time.  Send a check, attend a meeting, go and vote, especially younger folks, hear that last: vote, vote, vote.  It’s later than you think.

People of God.  Listen!  Pray!  Prepare!  And hear again the gospel, that of resurrection not of insurrection.

We conclude with a poem from the Lone Star State, and our theopoetical radio congregant, Milton Jordan.

Coda:  Creating Community

after Howard Thurman *

When the song of the marchers is silent

and annual memory of the Dream reshelved,

When Senators turn back to obstruction

and justice hard won is reversed,

When despair seems to cloud every vision

then the work of the people begins.

To call forth our shared hopes

and reclaim shattered trust

To bind up the broken

let the prisoner be free

To leave no neighbor hungry

nor any people at war,

To recreate community

and join all creation in song.

  • Following Thurman’s poem

“When the Song of the Angels Is Stilled. ”

This Week is a now and then poem from Milton Jordan on an item in the news.

Hear the gospel.  Our gift and task as people of faith is to live out the resurrection in this hour of insurrection.  Resurrection amid insurrection.

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

Sunday
January 16

A Famine of the Word?

By Marsh Chapel

Click here to hear the full service

Amos 8: 7-12

Click here to hear just the sermon

Introduction

One shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God. (2 Kings 1:8, Matt. 4:4).  You shall not live by bread alone.

Not by bread, alone, but by the word…

We do not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.

A long time ago, now, an Irishman wrote his first best seller. Frank McCourt’s lovely bildungsroman, his coming of age novel, Angela’s Ashes, ends with the young boy escaping his past, escaping his family of origin, escaping the biology that threatens always to become full destiny, and feeding himself.  He is so hungry that he finds trashed newspapers in which the daily fish and chips have been wrapped, and he licks the papers clean of scraps and bits and crumbs and oil, until the words on the paper fill his mouth.  His whole book is about his deliverance, how he learned to live by reading, how he learned to love through words… how he learned to live by reading, how he learned to love through words.

Not by bread alone…

The ancients knew this.  An education is in part the freedom to travel beyond the confines of the 21st century.  Our Holy Scripture, read Sunday by Sunday at Marsh Chapel, is a part of that liberation, that freedom, that freeing of the mind.  The books of the prophets, from Hosea to Malachi, and from Isaiah to Daniel, are part of the spiritual road map, the religious diet for the long journey of, toward, in, by and through faith.  Amos fiercely predicts that all manner of calamity will befall his 8th century BC countrymen.  He saves the most horrific for last.  There will come a time, he forecasts, given human wayward habits, given that so many so often are willing to live a lie (this is sin, living a lie), even A BIG LIE, when there will be…no word.  After which, as Jesus so often said, it is too late. There does come a time sometimes in time when it is too late. Famine was the great scourge of antiquity, feared as today we fear nuclear holocaust.  Said Amos, famine is terrible, but…there is something worse.  A holocaust of the word, a famine of the word.  When there is no word, no truth, no communication, no consort, no connection.

Are we living in such a time?  Today?  Has a famine of the word befallen us?  A fit question for the memory of Martin Luther King, is it not?

A Time of Famine Today?

Has a famine of the word overtaken us?   A few hours spent exploring the cyber space might make you think so.  And yet, it must be added, there are treasures too there too.

Has a famine of the word overtaken us?  The great hopes with which television writing began, in the 1950’s, has given way to waste, a beautifully bedazzling wasteland.  And yet, there are exceptions, children of Rod Serling we might say, still found in the magic box.  You enter a new dimension, not of sight or of sound, but of mind and imagination.

Has a famine of the word overtaken us?  Look out at the internet, a sprawling universe of chat, governed by e-mail, and its second cousins.  E-mail:  immediate, global, indelible, irretrievable, reactive.  One medium of choice today.  And yet there are exceptions.  A carefully composed, thoughtful e-letter, kind and honest, personal and self-disclosive, sent over the waves after attentive editing.  A joyful e-note from Europe or Texas or Canada.  Or Dublin.

Has a famine of the word overtaken us?  I found cleaning out my wallet the other day that my public library card was still there. The human being, to be human, needs space and time for being.  Otherwise, we become human doings, not human beings.  For this reason, God made deep winter.  For this reason, of the making of books there is no end.

Has a famine of the word overtaken us?  Listen to our political and cultural discourse.  Twenty years ago, nearly, we were led to war on the argument that prudence dictated immediate action.  So, we could act preemptively--though this was not our custom, unilaterally—though this was not our desire, imperially—though this was not our heritage, unforeseeably--though this was not our preference.  A Christian country could be led to prosecute a post-Christian war, in 2003.  This, because of the fear of weapons of mass destruction.  But…where were they?  People know about mistakes, and thus about contrition, compunction, apology, learning. But correction takes compunction. He now of blessed memory, Bishop Desmond Tutu, could teach us about truth and about reconciliation. But truth needs saying, doesn’t it?  Or are we beyond telling the truth?

Has a famine of the word overtaken us?  Someone should right a diary of our daily talk, like Victor Klemperer did in Germany from 1933—1945.  What would such a diary record?  What is the character of our daily conversation, to the extent we have time for it?  How well do we listen?  How carefully do we remember?  How insightfully do we respond?  How lovingly do we visit?  Do we visit?

Has a famine of the word, that prospect in Holy Writ, in ancient Scripture, in the dusty book of the prophet, has it come upon us? Think back one year and one week.

There are some weeks when good news seems hard to come by, and (that) week (was) one such. 

Coming into (that) week already we faced challenges aplenty.  A climate reeling out of control.  A pandemic claiming (at that time) 350,000 lives.  A political culture, a culture cooked politics, for politics is ever downstream from culture, putting people at daggers drawn.  A community of communities seeing, in full, for the first full time it may be, the ravages and damages of racial bias, hatred, and prejudice.  And pain, the pain of every day.  And then, January 6, 2021. Insurrection with presidential incitement.

For the rest of history, for the rest of our lives, we shall have to live with, and attempt by faith to live down, both to live with and to live down, such utter calumny, such tragic, needless, heedless yet revelatory disaster.  It (was) an apocalyptic—a revelatory—moment, hundreds wrecking the capitol…One said, ‘this is like 9/11, except we did this to ourselves’.

(RAH, 1/7/21, (slightly amended)).  More on this another week.

Listening for A Prophetic Word Today

Amos spoke 800 years before the birth of Christ.  He mourned the bitter loss of an only son, before that phrase would trigger theological reflection, as it does for us.  He foretold a darkness at noon before that phrase titled an account of Stalin’s purge.  He spoke of songs becoming laments before the poetry of Robert Pinsky subsequent to 9/11.  Amos like John the Baptist comes before Jesus the Christ.  Amos’s prophecy about a famine of the word may fit most or some of our current experience.  I wager it fits more than we care readily to admit.  But this is not the last word.

We trust our life and future to Jesus Christ (repeat).  It is his word, finally, that carries us, and his role as Prophet that means most for us.  In him, the voice of the prophet continues, even in a word famine, to speak to us.

The other cold day I noticed the temperature.  –2 degrees Fahrenheit.  Here is a strange reality.  There are great gulfs crossed between gas to liquid and liquid to solid.  But those gulfs are numerically unheralded.  They are not know by great numbers like 100 degrees or 0 degrees.  No, they are found out on the arithmetical periphery, in forgotten minor numbers like 32 and 212.  Celsius is so much more orderly.  But Fahrenheit is like prophecy.  You find the word spoken in forgotten places (repeat).  With Amos, in a little hamlet of Tekoa.  With Jesus, up on the lakeshore.  With Wesley, in coal mines.  With King, in the black church.

The prophet gives voice to silent agony.  This is what Amos did, however unsuccessfully, for his people, smitten by a word famine.

The prophet gives voice to silent agony.  Reinhold Niebuhr did so over a long life-time of restrained, earnest engagement with life. This paragraph of Niebuhr’s abides in memory: “Nothing worth doing can be achieved in a lifetime; therefore, we must be saved by hope.  Nothing that is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore, we must be saved by faith.  Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore, we must be saved by love.” (Sifton 349)

The prophet gives voice to silent agony.  So said Abraham Heschel, as he and Niebuhr, then older men, walked their dogs together on Riverside Drive.  Heschel preached Niebuhr’s funeral. Wouldn’t you have loved to overhear their banter? Listen to Heschel’s voice: “The demand in biblical religion is to be alert, and to be open to what is happening…Awe enables us to sense in the small things the beginnings of infinite significance, to sense the ultimate in the common and simple.”

The prophet gives voice to silent agony.  The generations deep hurt of people of color in these United States finally found fullest voice in the well tempered homiletics of Martin Luther King.  In Christ, the divine voice has taken full throated residence in the heart of hurt.  A voice to be heard needs loving connection with an addressable community.  The prophet does not stand above or apart from his people.  He abides, dwells, tabernacles among them. Among us.

The prophet gives voice to silent agony.  During WW II Paul Tillich took the NYC subway downtown once a week to speak over Radio Free Europe, to speak to his German relatives.  Listen to Tillich’s radio voice:  Listen to his radio voice regarding the National Socialists: “They know all about tragedy, for their creed educates for tragic heroism, it educates for death, but this is all Nazism knows, whereas democracy, socialism, Christianity all have something that stands beyond tragedy, a hope for the human race.” (Sifton 265).

Honoring Prophetic Speech

Up then and let us wait for the Word, waiting without idols, waiting without substitutes.  And as we wait, let us honor the prophetic speech of Amos, of Jesus, of Wesley, and, especially today, of King.  And let us act so in particular.

Let us prize the days in winter, the gifts of winter snow days, to read, to read ourselves, to read to our grandchildren, to invest in the joy and the spiritual grace of reflection that comes from reading.  A literate person today is not one who can read, but one who does read.

Let us protect and preserve the possibility of a divine Word, heard as spoken, by listening with intense presence and presence of mind, come Sunday, and responding both in affirmation and in critique.  People have such remarkable, and shabby reasons not to worship.  Not you, not we.  Listen…for the word of God.

Let us then speak ourselves, as we have spirit.  At least in prayer.  By visiting with one another (and that more than a broadcast e-mail).  By writing down our views:  in a journal, for a letter, as a letter to the editor.  Numbers 11:29: “Would that all God’s people were prophets”.

Our job is not to remember and recite, but to live and speak!

Our job is not just to remember that King said, “The great stumbling block is the white moderate more devoted to order than justice”.

Our job is to be alert to the weighty matters of justice and mercy and love—of jobs and money and life.

Our job is not just to remember that King said “if a man hasn’t discovered something that he will die for, he isn’t fit to live”. Our job is to find that something.

Our job is not just to remember that King said “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character”.             Our job is to re-build that nation, even, in the deep shadow of January 6.

Our job is not just to remember that King said “let freedom ring” Our job is to make it ring, in our time, in the face of the fears of this time.

Our job is not just to remember that King said, “I just want to do God’s will…we as a people will get to the promised land”. Our job is to get walking.

For one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.

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