Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

February 5

February Communion Meditation

By Marsh Chapel

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Matthew 5:13-20

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


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

December 25

A Boston Christmas

By Marsh Chapel

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John 1:1–14

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Merry Christmas!

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

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

May 22


By Marsh Chapel

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Boston University's 2011 Baccalaureate speaker was Nobel Prize Winner Dr. Ahmed Zewail. Later in the day, Dr. Zewail was awarded an honorary Doctor of Science degree at BU’s 138th Commencement. For more information about Dr. Zewail, please read BU Today's article.

There will be no sermon text posted for this Baccalaureate address.

May 8

Journeying On

By Marsh Chapel

Allow me this morning to publicly express my gratitude to Dean Hill for giving me my very own preaching series. Yes, indeed, you have arrived at Marsh Chapel, whether in person, or by radio waves or by internet signals, for the first offering in Br. Larry’s 2011 secular holiday preaching series. We begin today, Mother’s Day, and will pick up again at the end of May with Memorial Day. The series concludes on July 4, Independence Day. I consider it the highest honor to have been invited to participate in the life of Marsh Chapel in this way, although I would encourage you to note that Dean Hill reserved for himself that pinnacle of secular holidays. Yes, the very one you are remembering just now from back in February, Groundhog Day. I can only pray that some day I will attain to such a stature in preaching as to aspire to be invited on so noble an occasion. Speaking of prayer.

The Lord be with you.

And also with you.

Let us pray.

Holy and Gracious God, we gather this morning of Mother’s Day and we celebrate the mothers here with us and the mothers, for some of us, who dwell far away. Keep our hearts and minds, this day and all days, in the mothering presence of your most Holy Spirit, that the thoughts of minds and the meditations of our hearts might be acceptable in your sight, O God, our rock and our redeemer. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Surely you have had the experience of being a passenger in a car traversing the streets of Boston. You are riding along on your way to an afternoon at the Museum of Fine Arts. You know where you are going. Your driver knows where she is going. You sit smiling as you gaze out the windows. Then, your driver takes a turn. “Hmmm…” you think, “this must be a shortcut. I should pay attention for the next time when I am the one driving.” Another turn. “Really. Interesting. I never would have thought to go this way,” your minds voice utters. A third turn. Now it is impossible for you to contain your words any longer. “Um, where are you going?” “Well,” your companion replies, “I am going to the MFA. Where did you think I was going?” “Yes, I thought we were going to the MFA, too, but the MFA is over there,” you reply, pointing back through the rear windshield. “Yes, dear,” says your companion, soothingly. “But this is Boston. Sometimes it is necessary to circumnavigate the entire city just to get next door.”

Amen? Amen.

“Where are you going?” There are actually two questions bound up in this one verbal ejaculation, but let us begin by taking the question at face value. It is certainly a legitimate question to ask as we consider the journey of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus. There is another question that we might wish to ask along with Cleopas of his companion, namely, who are you? That line of questioning, however, at least at this stage, is not terribly likely to arrive at positive results. On the other hand, it is not entirely clear that our “Where are you going?” question will lead to positive results, either given that there is no clear evidence of a village called Emmaus two stadia, which is about fifty miles, from Jerusalem. This is to say that we do not know precisely where Cleopas and his friend were going, but the question remains relevant for us.

“Where are you going?” This question may be a constant, and perhaps somewhat grating, refrain for many of our graduating students here at Boston University. Family, faculty, friends, chaplains: all want to know where our graduates will be going next. Bound up in the question are clearly many other questions. “Do you have a job?” “Are you going to graduate school in the fall?” “Are you staying in Boston or moving back home or somewhere else entirely?” There are broader implications of the question as well, not merely about the immediate future but about the long term. “Do you have a plan?” “Are you career minded?” “What are you going to be, now that you are grown up?” And the questions have implications beyond merely the trajectory of career and work. “Are you going to get married?” “Are you going to have children?” “Are you going to be able to put your life together in such a way that you will both be fulfilled and able to pay the rent?”

“Where are you going?” In a time of global economic and political uncertainty, it can be especially challenging to even acknowledge the question. “Do you have a job?” “No, but not for lack of trying.” “Are you going to graduate school?” “Well, yes, but only because I cannot find a job, and by the way, I have no idea how I am going to pay for it, either now, or in the long term.” “Are you going to stay in Boston or move home?” “Well, I would like to stay in Boston, but Boston is expensive, and although I really do not want to be the graduate who spends the next two to three years living in my parents basement, I really do not see that I have any better options at this point.” Sorry, dear friends, but here at Marsh Chapel we do not preach a prosperity gospel but a Gospel of responsible Christian liberalism, which is to say that we abide in a realistic spirit with great hope for the possibilities of the future. It is in the spirit of realism that we must confess that the prospects are not what we might have hoped when we began four years ago. And it is in hope that we journey on.

It is a funny thing, returning for a moment to our pair of companions seeking to find their way to the MFA, that the question posed by the passenger to the driver, “Where are you going?” is not really a question as to the destination, but as to the route. This is to say that passenger and driver are both clear on where it is they intend to go. They are both aiming toward the MFA. It is just that the real route of the driver does not quite align with the ideal route of the passenger. Indeed, the real question the passenger is asking when verbalizing, “Where are you going?” is, “How are you going to get there?” This too is a question we may wish to bring to Cleopas and his companion on the way to Emmaus. After all, it is a neat trick not only to arrive but merely to set out toward a village of which there is no evidence of existence. How do you get to somewhere that isn’t?

It is my great hope that there is a primacy of the “How are you going to get there?” question in the “Where are you going?” inquisition that our graduates are racked upon by family, friends, faculty, and yes, chaplains. Indeed, of the two, it is the more profound. “Where are you going?” is simply to inquire of a single point, and the final point in the series, at that. “How are you going to get there?” inquires as to all of the infinitesimal points in between here and wherever it is you may be going. Furthermore, it is not so much a quantitative question about the points themselves, but a qualitative and relational question directed more toward the person for whom those points will be constitutive of their life. This is to say that the “How are you going to get there?” question is really a question of “Who are you, and how will you be in the world?” It is not a question of doing but of being, not that the two are ever more than theoretically distinguishable. It is a question of what sort of
person you are and what manner of being you will endeavor to live into.

“How are you going to get there?” The reason that I hope that this question is the primary question implied in the “Where are you going?” inquisition is that this is the question that a university education should prepare you to answer, even if it does not prepare you to answer the “Where are you going?” question on its face. If nothing else, I pray that our graduates have uncovered something about themselves in their experience at Boston University, whether in the classroom, in the dorms, on the athletic fields and courts, in the dining halls, while studying abroad, while participating in community service, or just walking up and down Bay State Road. This is to say what Howard Thurman said much more eloquently: “Do not ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive and go and do that, because what the world needs is people who come alive.” In the final analysis it is a sense of concrete, embodied purpose, which only comes by moving through the spiritual process of self-discovery and actualization that empowers those who change the world. To transform others, be ye first transformed, and journey on.

Now that we have winched tight the inquisitor’s rack on Cleopas and his companion, perhaps we should stop for a moment and ponder the fact that the two questions that spring immediate to mind for us, “Where are you going?” and “How are you going to get there?” are actually not the question that Jesus poses. Jesus does not ask where these two disciples are going. It would have made sense if he had. After all, we hear throughout the Gospels of how the disciples are constantly misunderstanding what they are to do, where they are to go, and most importantly, why they are to do what they have been given to do. It would make sense that Jesus would be concerned that these disciples have once again wandered off, and as the good shepherd, that he would seek to bring them back to the fold.

Instead of asking, “Where are you going?” Jesus asks, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” Jesus is interested neither in the destination nor in the route but in the relationships built along the journey. If Jesus had been in the car making its way through the streets of Boston toward the MFA, or at least intending to be moving toward the MFA, the driver and passenger would not have been riding along silently such that the first audible sound is the inquisitor’s whip, “Where are you going?” Had Jesus been in the car, he would have wanted to know why the pair was going to the MFA. “Well, there is a new Art of the America’s wing that has just opened, and we have heard so much about it.” “Is American art important to you?” “Yes, we are particularly captivated by the expansive landscapes of the Hudson River School.” “What captivates you so?” “Well, I think it has to do with the way the artists work with light, so that parts of the painting are illuminated while others fall into shadow. In so many ways it is more real than the actual view of which the painting is purportedly a record could ever express.” “Is not this the point of art?” “Yes, seeing the world in an artistic lens tells us more about who we are than we could ever otherwise come to know.”

Of course, the conversation with the disciples fails to actualize the potential for such a conversation. After all, these are the same dumb disciples who have been misunderstanding Jesus and his purpose and ministry since the get go. They are entirely bound up in trying to reconcile themselves to the crucifixion, and now also to the reports that Jesus is resurrected. And so Jesus must turn to admonishment. “‘Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?’ Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.” Once again, Jesus is left trying to bring the disciples up to speed. It is clear that the disciples have a ways yet to go as they journey on.

Speaking of journeying on, it seems that this is just what Jesus is intent to do, and what Jesus would have done had the disciples not intervened to invite him to Emmaus with them for dinner. Now, it is important to remember that these two disciples did not yet recognize that this was Jesus. Is this not often our experience as well, that we fail to recognize Christ in our midst. Often as not, Christ comes to us in the figure of others, the very same family, friends, faculty, and the occasional chaplain who winch us tight on the inquisitor’s rack. St. Francis said, “You may be the only vision of Jesus Christ someone will ever see.” A dear friend of mine said it even more boldly: “You may be the only Jesus Christ the world will ever see.” It is indeed a great responsibility.

It is significant that, even though they did not recognize Jesus, the disciples invited him into their home for dinner. The saying goes that you should always extend hospitality to strangers because you never know when you might play host to angels. Well, apparently you may also end up playing host to Christ. Jesus becomes known to the disciples in the breaking of the bread. Of course, the disciples later recognize that they had in fact felt the presence of Jesus as they journeyed together along the road, in the familiar sense in which Jesus had always made their hearts burn. Perhaps, not realizing that the feeling signaled the presence of Jesus, they even took an antacid. That is what you do for heartburn, isn’t it? Anyway, they had not recognized him, which is to say, the familiar sense of hearts aflame had not risen to the level of conscious awareness, but now they were aware of the connection between what they felt on the road and what they had felt as they accompanied Jesus throughout his ministry.

This is to say that as you journey on, I would encourage you to extend and receive hospitality. In the end it is neither the goal nor even the path that is truly important. It does not really matter whether or not you ever make it to the MFA. What matters is the relationships you cultivate along the way. This is the good news of Jesus Christ for us today: resurrection and salvation by relationship. I leave you today with the prayer of my order, of the Lindisfarne Community: that we may be as Christ to those we meet, and that we might find Christ within them.
And in all things, make your mother proud. Amen.

~Br. Lawrence A. Whitney, LC+
University Chaplain for Community Life

May 1

Spring in London

By Marsh Chapel

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John 20:19-31

1. Love Divine

Love Divine all loves excelling
Joy of heaven to earth come down
Fix in us thy humble dwelling
All thy faithful mercies crown
Jesus thou art all compassion
Pure unbounded love thou art
Visit us with thy salvation
Enter every trembling heart

2. Deeds That Speak

We hear today the ringing conclusion of the Gospel of John, the courageous Fourth Gospel, the gospel of love divine.

Notice the unique appearance of Thomas, so unlike anything else in any other gospel. Notice the power and irony that he who mistakes the gospel of believing for the truth of seeing, nonetheless announces the full gospel’s full truth: My Lord and my God! Notice the gospel writer who forever reminds us that signs and wonders are deeds that speak (Bultmann, TFG, 698). Notice the ardent proclamation of a personal faith that is not a conviction that is present once and for all but must perpetually make sure of itself anew, and therefore must continually hear the word anew (ibid, 699)…The recounted events have become symbolic pictures for the fellowship which the Lord, who has ascended to the Father, holds with his own (696). Seeing is not believing: believing is seeing. Touching Thomas tells the truth.

3. All Weddings Are Royal

Deeds that speak include weddings, royal and common.

The spring London fog lifted Friday and the spring London rain waited and we enjoyed a royal wedding, 2 Billion of us. The hymns, prayers, liturgy, vows, and spirit of the service are closely similar to the dozens of weddings we will solemnize here at Marsh Chapel this year. As the minister said, all weddings are royal and every bride and groom is a king and queen. For a moment the fog of three questionable wars, a warming environment, a cooling economy, and 400 tornado taken in the south lifted and the rain of anxiety waited and there was a dress, a ring, a carriage, a kiss, a party and a convertible. 60 million Britons had a holiday, and you got up early to watch. Why did we watch?

I hope we heard the sermon. A good word about a generous God who evokes generosity in us. A good word about a new century in which the discoveries of the past century we will need to control and manage: the emphasis on science in the 20th century may be giving way to an emphasis on religion in the 21st, a shift from discovery to community, from creation to redemption. A good word which quoted a personal prayer. A good word about seeds of devotion growing into eternal life, of which the Gospel of John eternally speaks. I hope we applied the sermon to ourselves, along with the beautifully read verses from Romans 12.

But I doubt that is why we watched. In fact, only one observer to my ear so far, among the 2 billion, has come closer to the deeper reason for our attention. Those of us listening to Bonhoeffer this spring will not be surprised.

4. Freedland

“The power of the young Elizabeth’s brief scenes in the King’s Speech is not solely chronological. It is not only that she was around a long time ago; it is that she was around then, during what Churchill predicted would be known thereafter as Britain’s finest hour. She is the last living connection to an episode—the island race standing up to Hitler—that has become the foundation story, almost the creation myth, of modern Britain…Britain alone, Churchill, 1940, the Blitz—this is the tale of unalloyed heroism that the country likes to tell and retell itself. And as long as Elizabeth sits on the throne, Britons remain tied to those events directly” Jonathan Freedlander, New York Review of Books, 4/28/2011, 30.

5. Their Finest Hour

We used to remember that. It is the courage in history of a real love of freedom, that has preserved our way of life, and that has us speaking English today, and not German. Wesley said he knew how to prize “the liberty of an Englishman”. That fierce, pugnacious, relentless, John Bull, bulldog, dog with a bone love of freedom. At the right moment, one momentous Spring in London, 1940, Winston Churchill faced down the more polished, better heeled, more popular and more experienced old Britons of his newly formed war cabinet, and steadily led his country away from their desire to compromise with Adolf Hitler. With Belgium defeated, Churchill clung to a love of freedom. With France cut in two, Churchill clung to a love of freedom. With 400,000 men stranded at Dunkirk and escape virtually impossible, Churchill clung to a love of freedom. With the whole German airforce poised to incinerate England’s green and pleasant land, Churchill clung to a love of freedom. With Lord Halifax ready to seek terms and Lord Chamberlain ready to let him Churchill clung to a love of freedom. Read this summer John Lukacs’ Five Days in London, May 1940. He concludes: “Churchill and Britain could not have won the Second World War. In the end, America and Russia did. But in May 1940 Churchill (alone) was the one who did not lose it.” Churchill’s mother grew up south of Syracuse in Pompey. One wonders if some of his paternal love of freedom came from the winds of the Allegheny plateau. Authority is about love of freedom.

6. Hell’s Destruction

When I tread the verge of Jordan
Bid mine anxious fears subside
Death of death and hell’s destruction
Land me safe on Canaan’s Side
Strong Deliverer, Strong Deliverer
Be Thou Still My Strength and Shield
Be Thou Still My Strength and Shield

7. Aldersgate Street

The freedom and love in today’s Scripture lesson provide an alternative. Authenticity, finally, is at the heart of any godly authority.

We once remembered that. It is the experience of freeing love, that ignited our church. At midlife, one enchanting night in the English Spring of 1738, John Wesley heard something said in church that warmed his heart for good. He had been on Aldersgate street that Sunday evening, going to chapel service more from duty than from passion, when he heard a preacher read Romans 8 and also Martin Luther’s commentary on that passage. There is something so fragrant and so full about damp London in the springtime. As he left church, Wesley felt something new, a freeing love in the heart, which is the creation and work of the Holy Spirit, which blows where it wills and you hear the sound of it. Authority is about freeing love. If you missed Easter Vigil, you missed a part of this story.

8. Resurrection Changes Us

“So let us listen to the stories of Jesus and his miraculous birth, his calling of disciples and teachings of friendship, his sharp knocks at hypocrisy and love of childlike innocence, his proclamation that the last will be first and the first last, his miracles of healing and his struggles with fickle crowds, his interpretations of history and parables of the Kingdom, his gospel of love and demands for justice, his institution of sacraments and founding of a beloved community, his bitter betrayal and corrupt trial, his bloody suffering and desolate crucifixion, his harrowing of Hell and glorious resurrection, his blessing of our maturity and gift of the Spirit, his ascension into Heaven and mythic transformation into the atonement for all sins, into the Cosmic Christ, into the Second Person of the Trinity, into the divine founder of the Christian movement, into an ever-loving friend personally available to each of us, into a reality that is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. All of these things are part of the deep truth that works in us when we celebrate them. Better yet, let’s sing them, because music moves the soul faster than words alone. What changes with resurrection? We do. What is that change? A closer connection with God. What is that connection? An entry into the divine life whose wildness is embraced with Easter joy. “And can it be that I should gain an interest in the Savior’s blood?” You bet!! “Bold I approach the eternal throne, and claim the crown, through Christ my own.” Amen.” (Robert Cummings Neville, April 23, 2011)

9. Moral Lessons

Just how shall we live changed lives? I have studied, preached, taught and interpreted the fourth Gospel for 33 years, but I never tire of wonder and amazement at what John does not say. He says nothing to us about how we are to live. There is not a single ethical sentence in the gospel—not a proverb, not a moral, not a parable, not a wisdom saying, not a command, not one, no not one. For John trusts—John believes—that once the heart has changed, once our own devotion, decision and discussion are strangely warmed, then we will figure out the rest for ourselves. We shall to build Jerusalem, and then we shall do so.

Let us make a start today. Let us take communion with the promise to live the communion. Let us keep faith with our partners and spouses. Let us tithe, give away 10% of what we earn—at least 10%. Let us worship—an hour a week of careful liturgy, prepared preaching, vibrant music, real fellowship. You can do this. You can. I know you can. We should get ourselves into our own Westminster Abbeys more than once every thirty years.

10. Jerusalem

And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon England’s mountains green?
And was the holy Lamb of God
On England’s pleasant pastures seen?

And did the Countenance Divine
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here
Among these dark Satanic Mills?

Bring me my Bow of burning Gold:
Bring me my arrows of desire:
Bring me my Spear: O Clouds unfold!
Bring me my Chariot of fire.

I will not cease from Mental Fight
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England’s green and pleasant land.

~ The Reverend Dr. Robert Allan Hill,
Dean of Marsh Chapel.

April 24

In the Garden

By Marsh Chapel


In the garden, resurrection is utterly personal.

Mary supposes she sees the gardener. Mary points to resurrection, in the garden, which is utterly personal and calls out our devotion, decision and discussion.

In the garden, resurrection is utterly personal.

When we think garden we think Eden and Gethsemane, creation and crucifixion, birth and death.

My dentist, a raconteur of the first water, told me a story. (I have little chance to respond to his stories, given the instrumentation filling my jaw. It is one of the few times a preacher, who makes his living by the sweat of his jaw, is necessarily silent .) The story is about a man visiting a troubled part of the world. He finds a native and asks him what he sees. ‘Tell me in a word, how are things?’

‘Ah, in a word, good’. In a word, things are good.

Unsatisfied the traveler asks again. ‘OK, could you expand a bit. ‘Tell me, maybe in two words this time, how are things?’

‘Ah, in two words, not good’.

In a word, things are good. In two words, things are not good. Eden and Gethsemane, good and not good. Which brings us to the garden and gardener of John 20:15, and to Mary of the utterly personal resurrection.

1. Devotion

Mary announces: “I do not know (where they have laid him)” she says.

Mary has waited in the garden.

Such a lush image, such a powerful setting, a garden. In one word we have evoked Eden and points east, creation and fall, good and not good. Garden. In a word we have evoked Gethsemane and Empty Tomb, cross and resurrection, death and life. In the garden. We treasure our gardens: one of the loveliest common spaces anywhere is our Boston Public Garden; and of course we hope our Celtics will find victory in one garden or another. In the garden. There Mary has been waiting and weeping.

‘They have taken my Lord and I do not know where they have laid him.’ Other than the cry of Psalm 22, Jesus’ last word in the other gospels, there is hardly a more pathetic, sorrowful sentence in the Bible, or in history. The cross uncovers the marrow of our hurt, burrowing more deeply into our very loss and death, grief and guilt, than we ever could on our own. For us men and for our salvation: the resurrection follows but does not replace the cross. In the garden.

Earlier with the frantic run of the mysterious beloved disciple, and later with the ample doubt of the doubting Thomas, the gospel has fixed before us a discreet interaction. The same happens here. Mary and Gardener meet. Mary mistakes what she sees. She at first thinks she sees. She thinks she sees a gardener.

Mary sees the gardener, what one would expect in a garden. Such a lush image, such a powerful figure. The world of work, evoked here. The world of struggle, evoked here. The world of birth and decay, living and dying, evoked here. In the garden, a gardener.

In the Fourth Gospel resurrection is emotional, relational, and verbal: utterly personal. In the garden, resurrection is utterly personal, like devotion and decision and discussion. In the garden, resurrection includes tears. In the garden, resurrection ask for choices. In the garden, resurrection evokes speech. Why are you weeping? Emotion. Whom do you seek? Relation. I have seen the Lord. Word. In the Fourth Gospel resurrection is emotional, relational, and verbal: utterly personal.

In the garden, resurrection, so utterly personal, is meant to change the heart. “A sermon begins with a lump in the throat.”

Our families moved regularly in the adventurous rhythms of the itinerant Methodist ministry. I came home from college once to a reasonable assemblage of old belongings removed to a new space, including a box of prized baseball cards by then 10 years old. I looked through the camping gear, the scouting badges, the photos and high school letters. I took a quick look through the cards. There was Roberto Clemente and Willie Mays, just where I expected them.

Later my mother said:

‘Your little brother wanted some of your old cards. I told him I knew you wouldn’t mind. He traded some of them with his new friends. They seemed pleased. I knew you wouldn’t mind’.

With some anxiety I inquired: ‘oh, which ones did he trade?’

‘Oh, I don’t remember. One was something like Roy Rodgers’

‘You mean Rodger…Maris?’

“Yes! Good for you! What a great memory you have. College has been good for you!’

“Yeah. Right.”

“Oh, and another one, something like one of the Walt Disney characters. You know Minnie or Mickey”

“You mean Mickey…Mantle?”

“Yes! Good for you! What a great memory you have for names. College has been good for you”.

“Yeah. Right”

The last boy, Mickey Mantle, led a desperate life, unlike the one suggested by his smiling countenance on the card I once owned. He chased Roger Maris all the way to the edge of a record number of home runs in a year. But he also chased drink and women. My friend George Mitrovich recently reminded me though of his devotional experience, late in life. I thought about him again, watching the Red Sox over in our shared mystery garden of Fenway Park last Saturday. Speaking of gardens. I remembered the conclusion of his life.

Toward the end of his life he fell ill. After a full life and a great career, his hard living and drinking and carousing caught up with him. But something remarkable happened, at the end. After a life of success, pressure, stress, performance, a driven life, after a driven life with some predictable habitual consequences, the last boy found himself quiet, open and empty. Some Texan friends visited him, and over time, won the trust that allows one to pray with others. And they prayed with him and for him. Somehow, in those moments of simple devotion, the last boy saw more than the gardener. I only will quote his way of putting it because it so gospel and so true: “In their prayers, somehow, I saw that I did not need to perform in order to be loved.”

That is grace, prevenient grace. That is the gospel, the love of God. That is resurrection, in the garden, utterly personal.

Faith is a gift meant for reception. It comes when we have some openness. When I go to Fenway, to our neighborhood garden, a garden of history and mystery, I enjoy a reminder of the distance from performance to love, from garden to glory, from gardener to teacher, from anxiety to wisdom, from death to life.

Such a recognition, like the recognition of the Lord in gardener apparel, can happen in very ordinary ways, even in a crowded Easter service, with communion on the way, and the sermon rounding first base. Just now, for instance.

Such a lush image, garden! The garden of Eden, our image of creation. The garden of Gethesemane, our image of crucifixion. The garden of the empty tomb, our image of salvation.

2. Decision

The Gospel of John is throughout a call to decision. ‘This things are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, and that believing you may have life in his name”. All manner of other dualisms—heaven, earth; light, dark; life, death, present, future—take a back seat in John to the dualism of decision, the decision in faith, for faith, with faith. Easter may roll around just in time each year to put first things first, to let the main thing be the main thing.

We have the capacity to deceive ourselves about what matters most. In the academic world we pretend that if we can write it down we need not live it through. We perceive accordingly. In academic settings we can sometimes presume that if we write it down we do not have to live it through. Not so, not so. The percentage of stellar academics—students, faculty and staff—who age, who stumble, who die is remarkable similar to the percentage of plumbers, farmers and custodians who age, stumble and die (☺).

A long time ago we were asked, in a psychology class, to identify cards as they were lifted. 2 of hearts, Jack of clubs, 8 of spades. Or so we thought. But the 8 was an 8 of hearts, only the heart was black, so we all saw in spades. We ‘saw’ within a legitimate range of what legitimately we expected to see. Hearts and diamonds are red. Clubs and spades are black. A red spade or a black diamond we do not expect to see, and so we do not see them. We saw the gardener, not the Lord.

Our moral and spiritual linguistic universe, in 2011, is something like this. We see cards in four suits, when in the garden—whether Eden or Gethsemane or Easter—the imaginative categories are different. It can require an apocalypse for us to see.

The Gospel of John, in the whole course of this 20th chapter, has a lesson for us about resurrection. “Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet believe.’ (Jn 20: 29). For John, all that is necessary has been accomplished since 1: 14, ‘The word became flesh and dwelt among us’. God has loved the world in his Son. Crucifixion adds nothing essential to this saving incarnation, for John. Resurrection adds nothing essential to this ancillary crucifixion, and so nothing to Incarnation, for John. All four separate (if not in fact different) endings to the Gospel, as found here in chapter 20, folkloric as Hansel and Gretel (the race won by the beloved disciple to the empty tomb, Mary and the gardener, the disciples cowering behind closed doors, touching (or doubting) Thomas), themselves are additional—even superfluous—to a needless resurrection, a needless crucifixion and a sublime, saving Incarnation. The Gospel of John is all over in the first chapter.

So. Why is all this here?

Because they are part of the story, and John has chosen to write a Gospel, not a psalm, not a sermon, not a letter, not an apocalypse (though this comes closest). So he tells the stories—tomb, garden, closed room, touching hands—and, it may be, believes them. But they are not the point. The point is in a way the opposite. Seeing is not believing for John. Believing is seeing for John.

These things are written that you may believe…

After an evening program one spring, in the verdant garden of a campground retreat, an older man and I walked at dusk. Here is a Christian gentleman: steady in worship, regular in tithing, committed in faithfulness, devoted to faith and able to discuss this gift with others. In the garden, resurrection is utterly personal. He said:

‘Now that you are my pastor, I guess I better tell you why I am the way I am. In 1944 I was hiding in a garden, along a fence like this one we are walking along, near a field like this one by us. All about me unfriendly fire was raining down, a kind of horrible death rain I had never known in 19 years growing up on a Nebraska farm. To survive I had to pass through the garden and then run, without cover, through a clearing, fully exposed. So, I ran through the garden. Before I crossed, I knelt and said a prayer: ‘If I survive this my life is yours’. I survived. So, my family and I make our decisions in the light of that decision in a garden in France a long time ago. We try to be attentive to small things. We try to put our faith first. We try to be salt and light that others can see’.

Utterly personal. Justifying faith, call it health or salvation or happiness or grace, is not so much about the freedom of the will as it is about the freeing of the will (this Augustine not just Hill). One kneels in a garden. One prays: ‘let his cup pass from me…as thou wilt’.


John teaches us about a sanctifying grace, known in the daily discussions, the daily voices which remind us of the resurrection radiance, the real presence, in Word and Sacrament.

In the garden, resurrection is utterly personal. Sometimes it takes the death of a close friend, or mentor, to remind us. The ancient refers to this in the petition about those whom we love but no longer see. No wonder Gov. Patrick eulogized Rev Prof Gomes by saying ‘he was the freest person I ever knew’.

There is a difference between seeing things as they are and dreaming of things that never were. 43 years ago this month on the tarmac runway in Indianapolis, Robert F Kennedy said something because he saw something. He was able to recall Aeschylus because he had placed his eye on a resurrection horizon. He was able to counsel courage and patience because he placed his gaze on a resurrection horizon. He was able to mention his brother’s death, without wincing, because he placed his gaze on a resurrection horizon. He was able to meet the gaze of a rightly angry hour by lifting his gaze, lifting his chin, lifting the sight lines of a crushed people in a frightful hour. There was a transfiguring transcendence in his manner of discussion.

1 O LORD, thou hast searched me and known me! 2 Thou knowest when I sit down and when I rise up; thou discernest my thoughts from afar. 3 Thou searchest out my path and my lying down, and art acquainted with all my ways. 4 Even before a word is on my tongue, lo, O LORD, thou knowest it altogether. 5 Thou dost beset me behind and before, and layest thy hand upon me. 6 Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high, I cannot attain it. 7 Whither shall I go from thy Spirit? Or whither shall I flee from thy presence? 8 If I ascend to heaven, thou art there! If I make my bed in Sheol, thou art there! 9 If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, 10 even there thy hand shall lead me, and thy right hand shall hold me. 11 If I say, "Let only darkness cover me, and the light about me be night," 12 even the darkness is not dark to thee, the night is bright as the day; for darkness is as light with thee. 23 Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! 24 And see if there be any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting!

Resurrection is verbal, vocal.

As many of you know, my Dad died this year, and nearly died in September of 2008. We had two extra years with him. In November of 2008, as he recuperated, I saw him one morning learning to walk all over again, with my mother ever present and loving alongside. It was a miraculous sight, as was the rest of his healing. He told us in those days about a vision or dream he had had, in the coma. I share it with you to close, not as evidence of eternity, for resurrection neither needs nor admits of evidence from us, but rather as evidence of a lo
nging for eternity, and so a comfort and an encouragement. He said that in the hours near death he saw a kind of light, shining through what he described as a lattice work. “Behind and around me I could hear voices”, he said.


In the garden, resurrection is utterly personal.

We are in no position, ever, to say what God can and cannot do. If God is the God of the ordinary, then God is the God of the extraordinary, too, of the plain and the mysterious, of the known and the unknown.

As Huston Smith (no stranger to Marsh Chapel) reminds us: ‘we are in good hands and so it behooves us to bear one another’s burdens’.

John has chosen to write a Gospel, not a psalm, not a sermon, not a letter, not an apocalypse (though this comes closest). So he tells the stories—tomb, garden, closed room, touching hands—and, it may be, believes them. But they are not the point. The point is in a way the opposite. Seeing is not believing for John. Believing is seeing for John.

Utterly personal, in emotion of devotion, in the relationship of decision, in the voices of discussion: so resurrection, in the garden.

The point is prevenient grace: “I learned that I did not need to perform in order to be loved”. The point is saving grace: “I will make this vow: if I survive, my life is yours”. The point is sanctifying grace: “he was the freest person I have ever known”.

Why can’t we let a story be a story? These things are written not that you may see, but that you may believe.

I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven
 and earth.

I believe in Jesus Christ, his only
 Son, our Lord. He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary.
 He suffered under Pontius Pilate,
 was crucified, died, and
 was buried. He descended to the dead.
 On the third day he rose again.
 He ascended into heaven,
 and is seated at the right hand
 of the Father.
 He will come again to judge
 the living and the dead.

I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy Catholic Church,
 the communion of saints,
 the forgiveness of sins,
 the resurrection of the body,
 and the life everlasting.

~ The Reverend Dr. Robert Allan Hill,
Dean of Marsh Chapel.

April 23

What Changes with Resurrection?

By Marsh Chapel

Exodus 14: 10-31
Matthew 28: 1-10

The Easter Vigil is a peculiar service, marking as it does the transition from the desolation of Holy Saturday to the joy of Easter. Given that the Jewish day begins at sundown we are already into Easter Day, although still holding vigil for the resurrection to happen. What is peculiar about the service is that it is part of the repetitive liturgical year: we pretend to be waiting but we know the outcome already because we have held the vigil for years. We the Church have held it for centuries. Since we’ve been over this before, it is time to ask what difference resurrection makes. What changes with resurrection, that we pretend to wait for it each year? As if it hadn’t happened?

A standard answer is that the resurrection was an historical event that happened almost two thousand years ago and that our Easter Vigil is only a service of remembrance, not a vigil at all. But then, what changed with that one and only historical resurrection, assuming for the moment that’s what happened? Filled with belief in Jesus’ resurrection, his followers assembled a community of people convinced that Jesus was inaugurating a new divine Kingdom, about to appear, that would culminate in their own resurrection, perhaps the resurrection of everyone. The Kingdom did not appear, of course, and the result was that instead of the Kingdom we got the Church. Now the Church is not bad, at least not very bad. Our Orthodox brothers and sisters believe the Church is a foretaste of the end-of-time resurrection of all of us to feast with Christ in Heaven. But as for what happened after Jesus’ time until now, the whole history is compatible with Jesus’ resurrection changing nothing, just as it is compatible with the claim that Jesus was not raised at all, that his body was stolen away by his disciples who made up the story of his resurrection appearances, which is what most people in the world think about that story.

So we need to look again at what resurrection means. This is the Holy Saturday part of my sermon where all otherwise presupposed certainties are thrown into question. Literally, resurrection means coming to life again after having been dead. The Bible has many resurrection stories. Both Elijah and Elisha raised people from the dead, as did Jesus, the most notable of whom was his friend Lazarus. Matthew said that when Jesus died, many tombs were opened and people rose from the dead; after Jesus’ resurrection, that is, after the Sabbath, these newly resurrected individuals came into the city where many people saw them. Matthew did not say what these resurrected people did when they went about the city, but surely they must have been looking for lawyers to reverse the probating of their estates. Imagine the consternation that would have been caused by a large group of newly resurrected people whose goods had been passed on to their heirs who now needed to get their lives in order again! That we don’t hear about this consternation suggests a bit of myth-making in Matthew’s account. But the point is that resurrection in these cases only means returning to and continuing the lives that had been lived before. Resurrection itself had little religious significance beyond signifying the power or mysterium tremendum in the persons or occasions that caused the resurrection.

The literal meaning of resurrection is not religiously interesting. So those of you who worry about whether you should believe in a literal resurrection that you find hard to believe can stop worrying. Even if resurrection is literally true, that is not religiously interesting. What did Jesus do after the resurrection? Taking the resurrection appearances at face value, he made sudden appearances and disappearances, talked with his disciples, and cooked, all of which he had done in ordinary life. The astonishing transformation of the disciples and growth of the Christian community came from a deeper meaning of resurrection, not a literal one.

What then could the deeper meaning be? Is resurrection a metaphor for something else that is like resurrection? In these late modern times we know how much the mind and its expression in soul are so closely linked with the biology of the brain that bodily death is hard to square with reanimation. So preachers often say that resurrection is a metaphor for something like it, such as renewal of nature in the spring, starting over without being bound to the past, signs of vitality, fresh starts, hope for the Red Sox. Resurrection is a powerful metaphor for things such as these. The metaphor of resurrection gives zing to things like renewal; but renewal and the vernal equinox are sad come-downs from the dramatic power of resurrection in the life of Jesus. What should we think about metaphors in religion?

Step back, if you will, from the loaded metaphor of resurrection in the Easter Vigil and think about the 23rd Psalm. The King James translation is one of the cornerstones of English-speaking culture and its words resonate in our souls with a thousand associations. Say with me, if you know it:

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies; thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.

The Psalm literally says that God is a shepherd and that the singer, that is, we, are sheep. Now surely, no one past the age of ten ever has believed that literally. This would be idolatrous in reference to God and overly humiliating in reference to us—sheep are stupider than the dimmest human. A literal interpretation is nonsense.

The age-old tradition of interpretation is metaphorical. Like a shepherd who cares for his sheep, God supplies what we need, life in pleasant places, peace, tonics for the soul, a righteous life, no evil even in death, comfort, gloating repasts in the face of enemies, anointing oils, overflowing cups, a life attended by goodness and mercy lived in the constant presence of God. Each of these divine beneficences is itself a metaphor for thousands of other benefits from the benevolent God. The 23rd Psalm is such a classic because everyone understands this metaphoric meaning and is in love with the vision it sings.

But it is false! Life is full of trouble and grief, want and desolation, humiliation and defeat, and always death. To think God is like a provident shepherd is just perverse in the face of life’s realities. Sure, life has many good things, including occasional triumphs and the comforts of the overflowing cup—but all these things pass, and many people get none of them. The ancient Israelites knew this as well as anyone. The Psalm traditionally has been attributed to King David, who was anything but a docile follower of the divine shepherd. Remember how he lusted after a married woman, impregnated her, and had her husband killed. Then to punish David, God killed their newborn baby, according to the text. That text of David’s grief and resignation was read at the funeral of our daughter who died at four months. Life is trouble, not green pastures and still waters, save on rare vacations. And everyone knows this.

How then do we understand the extraordinary moving power of the 23rd Psalm when it is literally
nonsense and metaphorically false? Both literal and metaphorical intentions are claims that God and life are like what the Psalm says, in different but related senses of like. The deeper meaning of the Psalm, which everyone gets, does not have to do with likeness at all. It has to do with becoming connected. If we shape our souls with the images of the Psalm, even though it is literally nonsense and metaphorically false, we become connected with God and our own lives so as to be transformed into gratitude and peace that passes understanding, a truth far more profound than satisfaction with the good things of life. In fact, it is because life is filled trouble and grief, want and desolation, humiliation and defeat, and always death, that we move beyond the historical to the depth dimension of our relation with God. Because we know that the life of a happy sheep is a lie (remember why shepherds keep sheep), we come to realize that the genuine comforts of God are not like that. But letting the 23rd Psalm work in us to shape our soul causes us to connect with God beyond that superficial metaphor, and to take overwhelming comfort in the Abyss out of which the maelstrom of life arises. The depth meaning of the Psalm is not in its likeness to anything: it is not an icon. The depth meaning is in its transformative pointing and connection: it is an index, like a pointing finger whose direction we follow until we connect with something otherwise inaccessible. That transformative depth meaning has worked for centuries with astonishing indexical power regardless of people’s literal or metaphorical thoughts in the matter.

Come back to the resurrection of Jesus as we work our way out of Holy Saturday into Easter Sunday. The depth meaning of Easter resurrection lies neither in the literal meaning of coming back to life nor in the metaphorical meaning of springtime renewal and fresh starts. So whatever you believe about these iconic or “likeness” meanings of Jesus’ resurrection does not matter much for religious purposes because the depth meaning of resurrection does not lie there. Rather it lies in what the fulsome celebration of the resurrection stories does to transform our souls so as to connect us with God the Creator in deep ways. With those deep connections that grow from the Easter stories we can embrace the goodness of creation even when we are not so good, the wholeness of creation even when we are not so whole, the loveliness of the world even when we are halting lovers, and the meaning of life even when our own achievements are middling. Most of all we can embrace with gratitude and profound love the gratuitous and shocking creation of this wild world filled with troubles, ecstasies, desolations, satisfactions, and death because those stories of Jesus, when lived with, raise us up into that glorious creation. Those resurrection stories are not what the world and God are like. They are pointers causing us to be raised into life’s most profound ecstatic connection with the Abyss whence we come. This is the Easter triumph: not a life in which everything is new and fine but a life that transforms all the metaphoric content of crucifixion and death into the joyous glory of God’s creation itself.

The transformative work of the Easter celebration does not happen all at once. Perhaps it takes a lifetime--Good Friday, Easter Vigil, Easter Day every year. The resurrection stories of Jesus cannot be separated from all his other stories, his teachings, his historical roles, the birth narratives, and all the mythologizings of the Church that changed a rural Galilean into the Second Person of the Trinity. All these stories interweave, not as literally or metaphorically true but as indicatively true, causally true, transformatively true. So do not worry about either literal or metaphorical truth, however interesting those questions might be on their own. Do not worry about the credibility of the virgin birth, or the sagacity of the Wise Men, or the reliability of the accounts of the Transfiguration, or what really happened when people thought they saw Jesus alive after Good Friday. They are not religiously important in the long run. Worry rather about how to make those stories about Jesus and his resurrection transformative elements in our souls. Enjoy them all. Delight in the crowds of newly raised people swarming into Jerusalem after the thunderous breaking open of their tombs! Perhaps none of these stories is true as a likeness or icon of what happened. But all of them have been true for at least some people in transforming them into New Beings, as Paul put it, lovers of God: and they can be true for us.

Most Christians believe those stories with naïve innocence and are transformed by them. But it is not the likeness kind of truth that is important, however much they might believe it is. Rather it is the causal consequence of dwelling in those stories that is spiritually and theologically important. Some people these days find the stories incredible if construed to interpret reality as being like what those stories say. Sadly, such people often go on to conclude that the stories therefore simply are not true, which is a mistake. The depth meaning and truth of the stories is not in their iconic likeness to anything but in their indicative transformative powers that bring us into connection with the source of all things, with gratitude, joy, and peace that passes understanding. This is how it has always worked, even when people believed that salvation comes because the stories are literally or metaphorically true. That was naïve of them even when they actually were transformed. We need not be naïve like that. What would be naïve of us would be to think we can do without the stories and their celebrations in our souls. To proclaim the resurrection is not to assert it but to lead in the celebration of it.

So let us listen to the stories of Jesus and his miraculous birth, his calling of disciples and teachings of friendship, his sharp knocks at hypocrisy and love of childlike innocence, his proclamation that the last will be first and the first last, his miracles of healing and his struggles with fickle crowds, his interpretations of history and parables of the Kingdom, his gospel of love and demands for justice, his institution of sacraments and founding of a beloved community, his bitter betrayal and corrupt trial, his bloody suffering and desolate crucifixion, his harrowing of Hell and glorious resurrection, his blessing of our maturity and gift of the Spirit, his ascension into Heaven and mythic transformation into the atonement for all sins, into the Cosmic Christ, into the Second Person of the Trinity, into the divine founder of the Christian movement, into an ever-loving friend personally available to each of us, into a reality that is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. All of these things are part of the deep truth that works in us when we celebrate them. Better yet, let’s sing them, because music moves the soul faster than words alone. What changes with resurrection? We do. What is that change? A closer connection with God. What is that connection? An entry into the divine life whose wildness is embraced with Easter joy. “And can it be that I should gain an interest in the Savior’s blood?” You bet!! “Bold I approach the eternal throne, and claim the crown, through Christ my own.” Amen.

~Rev. Dr. Robert Cummings Neville,
Easter Vigil, April 23, 2011

April 17

A Meditation on the Palms and a Meditation on the Passion

By Marsh Chapel

Matthew 21:1-11
Matthew 26:14 - 27:66

A Meditation on the Palms
Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill
Seeing with the Heart: Meditations from Marsh Chapel, 2010

The Dean: If we believe that life has meaning and purpose
People: And we do
The Dean: If we believe that the Giver of Life loves us
People: And we do
The Dean: If we believe that divine love lasts
People: And we do
The Dean: If we believe that justice, mercy, and humility endure
People: And we do
The Dean: If we believe that God so loved the world to give God’s only Son
People: And we do

The Dean: If we believe that Jesus is the transcript in time of God in eternity
People: And we do
The Dean: If we believe that all God’s children are precious in God’s sight
People: And we do
The Dean: If we believe grace and forgiveness are the heart of the universe
People: And we do
The Dean: If we believe that God has loved us personally
People: And we do
The Dean: If we believe in God
People: And we do

The Dean: Then we shall trust God over the valley of the shadow of death
People: And we shall
The Dean: Then we shall trust that love is stronger than death
People: And we shall
The Dean: Then we shall trust the mysterious promise of resurrection
People: And we shall
The Dean: Then we shall trust the faith of Christ, relying on faith alone
People: And we shall
The Dean: Then we shall trust the enduring worth of personality
People: And we shall
The Dean: Then we shall trust that just deeds, merciful words are never vain
People: And we shall
The Dean: Then we shall trust the Giver of Life to give eternal life
People: And we shall
The Dean: Then we shall trust the source of love to love eternally
People: And we shall
The Dean: Then we shall trust that we rest protected in God’s embrace
People: And we shall
The Dean: Then we shall trust in God
People: And we shall.

A Meditation on the Passion
Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill
Deliver Us From Evil, 2005

The Dean: To the question of evil let us live our answer by choosing the cruciform path of faith.
People: Let us meet evil with honesty, grief with grace, failure with faith, and death with dignity.
The Dean: Let us carry ourselves in belief.
People: Let us affirm the faith of Christ which empowers to withstand what we cannot understand.
The Dean: Let us remember that it is not the passion of Christ that defines the Person of Christ, but the Person that defines the passion.
People: Let us remember that it is not suffering that bears meaning, but a sense of meaning that bears up under suffering.
The Dean: Let us remember that it is not the cross that carries the love but the love that carries the cross.
People: Let us remember that it is not crucifixion that encompasses salvation, but salvation that encompasses even the tragedy of crucifixion.
The Dean: Let us remember and that it is not the long sentence of Holy week, with all its phrases, dependent clauses and semi-colons that completes the gospel, but it is the punctuation to come in seven days, the last mark of the week to come in 168 hours, whether it be the exclamation point of Peter, the full stop period of Paul or the question mark of Mary—Easter defines Holy Week, and not the other way around. The resurrection follows but does not replace the cross. The cross precedes but does not overshadow the resurrection. It is Life that has the last word and there is a God to whom we may pray, in the assurance of being heard: “Deliver us from evil”

~The Reverend Dr. Robert Allan Hill,
Dean of Marsh Chapel

March 6

Word and Table: Mercy

By Marsh Chapel

Click here to hear Sermon only

Matthew 17:1-9

One Step Up: Global Change

Come Sunday we gather from near and far. Driving an hour from the west, a couple finds close parking and happily enters the nave. Rubbing two eyes awake, an undergraduate slips on a coat and hustles across the street. In Rhode Island a regular listener turns up the volume, and pours coffee. A woman makes her way from the T stop, stepping past a bit of ice and a pool of water. For an hour we are gathered before Word and Table.

Peter and James and John his brother have preceded us. It is comforting to hear and know their names. Ahead of us they have climbed the seven storey mountain, the mountain of change, the mount of Transfiguration. They have been led up, as have we. Lead on O Lord, and lead up. A most beautiful phrase.

These winter weeks have brought news of unpredicted and seismic change, across the Middle East. There is more thin ice around in history and politics than we might have thought. We are a part of these events, in some immeasurable but real ways, well apart from what we might see or hear on the news. We hope for the gift of freedom and for the security of order, and wonder how we can expect both.

One step up, climbing the mountain. Lead up, lead up.

Two Steps Up: Personal Loss

The week carries us here. When we come to hear and see, for voice and light, to Word and Table, we come with our clothes on. This is a good thing. Our experience hangs on our shoulders and covers our backs and guards our steps.

Our losses bring us up. We say, ‘that brought me up short’. Our losses put us on notice, as we climb, as we ascend.

We lost a dear friend, in our sister pulpit across the river, this week. Rev. Gomes pitch perfect humor and personal courage, carried on the waves of his unique voice, we shall truly miss. A late sermon began with a conversation with a Harvard Freshwoman, who said to him, ‘I have been here a month, I expected to meet great people and have great discussions, but I have met no one interesting, no one of great fame, no one of stature, no one who has interested me’, to which he replied, ‘Well, my dear, I mean you have met me, and I am not a celebrity but I am institution’. As my friend remembers his saying at her Williams College baccalaureate, ‘I make my living by the sweat of my jaw’. Yet it is personal courage, in naming his identity as a gay man and a Republican to boot, as ‘A Christian who happens to be gay’, and more so his loving but critical interpretation of our Good Book, which we shall cherish. More: love lasts, and we have known love in our friend. But the loss hurts.

We know the stature of our friends most truly when we must bid them adieux. A second step up, lead up, lead up.

Three Steps Up: Discord and Division

A community, including academic communities, involves difference and division. A dollar can be spent only once. A chair filled by one is not filled by another. Decisions are made about who speaks and who publishes and who influences. Debates with religious overtones and undertones reveal serious disagreements: liberty for Israel and justice for Palestinians are both worthy goals, but not just everyone liberally agrees on how best to get to both places at once. In fact, if our experience right here is any indication, there is a high mountain still to climb. Step by step.

A third step up, lead up, lead up.


Now we pause, in Word at Table. Wherever you are: be there. Here we are. We are in worship. In this hour we step up to the worthy from the worthless. In this hour we step up from entertainment to enchantment. In this hour we step up from distraction to presence. In this hour we step from the quasi to the fully human. Together.

Light and voice, photo and phono. Law and prophets, past and future, Moses and Elijah. The bright cloud and the beloved. This is my Son, my beloved, with whom I am well pleased.


Peter rightly says, ‘it is good that we are here’. But then he misinterprets his own truth. It is good, to be here. But not to be doing here. Here is a place, Word and Table, for being, not for doing. Here we are human beings not human doings. Peter things he brings something to do here. But in the face of wonder, in the fury of awe, what is there to do? Our academic community struggles with history and mystery. Yet here they are, and nothing to do about it. “Good it is we are here”: to listen, to watch, to hear, to observe, to receive, to accept, to take. Sin is not taking what is offered.

Rise and have no fear. But do not stay here.

Down, down, down the mountain we go.

One Step Down: Security for Peace

We are given mercy to share and more than enough in Word and Table. We shall need some extra, and some to share, if the endless contention and intractable difference of the conflicts of this age are to give way to the peace of the age to come.

Matthew has added the sun, the bright clouds, the well pleased and the falling to knees, in order to teach us something about the power of mercy, the power of the beloved. One moment of attempted dialogue across difference offers mercy. One resistance to the tempting use of hateful speech offers mercy. One honest recognition of difference without recourse to violence brings mercy. We try to recall, to imagine what we ourselves would want, and how we would wish to be treated. Do unto others as you would have them to do unto you.

Lasting peace requires both liberty and justice, both security and fairness. We know this from our own experience.

One step down, down the mountain we go.

Two Steps Down: Ode to Friendship

Peter, James and John do not stay on the heights. They come down, step by step, awaiting resurrection as do we.

You know, when we lose close friends, when we lose loved ones, we rely heavily on our faith, our faith that the future will meet us with needed and unforeseeable mercy. Faith is a walk in the dark, said Luther. Loss is a walk in the dark, say we. Climbing down again into life as we know it, we may want to let our experience of loss give us a lift for living.

Keep your friendships in good repair, said Dr Johnston. Friendship requires investment. Invitation. Acceptance. Time. Time wasted. Conversation. Care. Obliged commitment. The long view. As with grandparenthood, every trite thing said about the mercy of friendship is true. A friend in need is a friend indeed. A true friend risks the friendship for the sake of the friend. We may down into age with the hand of a friend or two.

A second step down, down the mountain we go.

Three Steps Down: A Little Discipline

2 Peter remembers our mountain, and that ‘the voice was borne to him by Majestic Glory’.

There is a lingering effect in the community of faith to the experience of mercy. We shall depart as we have gathered: Driving an hour back west, a couple finds happily leaves the nave. Rubbing two eyes awake, an undergraduate again slips
on a coat and hustles back across the street. In Rhode Island a regular listener turns down the volume, and pours more coffee. A woman makes her way to the T stop, stepping past a bit of ice and a pool of water. For an hour we have gathered before Word and Table.

We are transfigured, changed in the presence of mercy, of love.

We are little more able to stand up and walk forward. We are little more inclined to listen, to learn, to love. We are little more inspired to tithe, to pray, to keep faith. We may even be ready for Lent to come, with its call to discipline. We may be willing to keep a green Lent this year.

A green Lent? One opposed to pollution. What are some of the great pollutants of our day? Personal and public debt. Carbon emission. Needless email. So: save your money, park your car, and do not ‘reply all’. Or find your own green Lent variant.

A third step down, down the mountain we go.

Rise up and have no fear.

~ The Reverend Dr. Robert Allan Hill,
Dean of Marsh Chapel

February 27

Winter in Her Eyes

By Marsh Chapel

Click here to hear Sermon only

Luke 13:1-9

1. A Pasture View
A friend told me a story one winter. It is not a Ground Hog Day story, nor a Valentine’s Day story, nor a Presidents’ Day story, but simply a winter story.

He has friends who live on a farm in Michigan. This is a multi-generational family farm. If you were to visit this week, you would find three generations working together. The grandfather died a few years ago, but his sons, grandsons and great grandsons still plow and harvest, milk and feed.

The matriarch of the family is now older and weaker. She was a typical farm wife of her generation, working alongside her children and husband. When plowing time came in the spring she would fix lunches for all hands, and deliver them into the fields. She delivered the meal, and while they ate, she would take over and plow. The same kinds of routines held for other seasons. The rhythms of seed and harvest, birth and decay set the beat for her life.

Now she is alone much of the time, in the old farm house. Her kids feed her breakfast in the morning and dinner at night. But every day, after breakfast, they settle her into a comfortable easy chair that rocks in front of an open bay window, from which she can look out onto the fields and forests and pastures of her home. Every day she watches, breakfast to dinner.

Now this is not an active scene. The barn and equipment are not in view. Most winter days there are no people to observe. A car on the road every half-hour is a lot of traffic. And snow lying on corn stubble looks about as exciting as it did one hundred years ago. Yet, she watches and looks. She seems to be deeply contented, as the late winter snow falls. She is eased and settled and comforted, looking out on a frosty field. There is something in that utterly ordinary scene that seizes her.

She has a sense, I think, of presence. Maybe she is weak and maybe she even has some mild dementia and maybe she doses every now and then, rocking in front of the window. But this ordinary winter story captivates me, because I think she is enthralled by something not quite visible to the naked eye, yet present. There is something there, something alive, something at work, just beyond our comprehension. She rocks and stays alert to presence. She has a hard won trust in Presence, a kind of trust for which life is meant and for which with all our hearts we do passionately long and hunger.

2. A Vineyard View

The Gospel lesson for today tells of another view, not a pasture view but a vineyard view, not from Michigan but from Palestine, not of wheat but of grapes, not in winter but in harvest. This is one of the parables of the fig tree.

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
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 us. 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, who I read is in attendance at spring training this week. “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.

3. A Pasture View

Meanwhile, down on the Michigan farm…

It is this same trust that keeps the woman at the farm house window, keeps her there and alive and attentive.

Picture her, this week, if you need and want reassurance. She has seen life from both sides. Hail and blizzard. Silo accident and depression. Birth and death. Happiness in youth and tragedy in age. She has seen her husband grow up and grow old and die, as most wives do. She has cleaned out the barn, stretched a budget to fit over many children, and kept the Sabbath in the process. And now she just watches. Today there is a light snow falling to dust the corn stubble, and the wind is strong.

I mean this. Whether or not she knows about heaven, she certainly knows about hell. She knows about regret and anxiety. John Paul Sartre said that hell is other people, a continental dyspepsia that I have never understood. Two shorter, better definitions of hell are regret and anxiety. Our rocking farm wife has known them, too. How could she not? Regret when the son leaves the farm for dental school. Anxiety over the crop planted but not harvested. Regret at trips to Florida never taken when grandpa was well. Anxiety over aging and care and dependence. Regret over misdeeds in youth and mistakes in speech. Anxiety about all that is yet to be, on earth as it is in heaven. Regret is hell in the past tense. Anxiety is hell in the future tense.

Nevertheless (a sermon in a single word), Nevertheless, she rocks and watches and is comforted by what she sees. To you and me, what she sees is Andrew Wyeth on a bad day. But she sees something else. There is something there. There is something alive, at work, just below the edge of our comprehension. Maybe it helps the vision to have a mild dementia. What heals regret and what tempers anxiety is what we are given--in trust.

4. A Vineyard View

Meanwhile, back in Palestine…

Trust 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 corn stubble evidence suggests.

I struggle to intuit why this altered fig tree parable was so important for Luke and Luke’s struggling church. They must have had singular meaning for Luke’s church seventy 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 i
s not a naïve view. 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. He recognizes that trust for the future is trust, not in human wisdom, but in divine grace. He recognizes the rigid limits of nature and history. He is a realist.

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

I could compare his sense, his trust to a late February or early 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. A light snow, maybe, like this morning. 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? I do. He harbors an inexplicable but crucial sense of trust that things will work out.

As a Methodist Christian, I want that trust in my heart as I see the left and right fight. Some of us talk from the left, and yet live from the right. Others talk from the right and live from the left. We talk a good social liberal game, but support all manner of segregation and injustice in where we live, how we live, as we live. We talk a good moral conservative game, but support all manner of waywardness when our own rights are at stake. If I read Amos right, social justice and personal morality go together, and where you lack one over time you lack the other. It looks like snow on cornstalks, an ugly sameness. I want to shout: “Give me just a little more time! Another generation, some manure and water, that is a few good preachers and a few more dollars, and you just watch the figs fall, too many to count!” I want that trust that there is something there, alive, incomprehensible, that may change the equation. I want that trust that there is something alive, incomprehensible, that may open up a different conversation, a new way that honestly respects both the plumb line of justice and the plumb line of righteousness, as well as the historical, organizational, relational and other peculiarities of life.

As a minister, I want to be able to offer a sense of trust to you. Right now. Realistically, yes, but personally and truly. In place of your heartfelt regret, carried like a millstone for months or years. In place of your frightful and human anxiety, carried like a millstone for months and years. The anxieties of youth and the regrets of age. May they be gone. I want that trust that there is something close to your heart, alive, maybe not quite comprehensible, that whispers…let it be…give it another year…maybe a little manure and water…let it be.

And as person, a human being, stuck somewhere between regret and anxiety, I want that trust, that simple trust like those who heard beside the Syrian sea, the gracious calling of the Lord, let us like them without a word rise up and follow thee.

5. A Pasture View

Meanwhile, down on the farm…

Think about her this week, alone and content, looking out onto a gray pasture.

What keeps her going? What helps her see? What makes her happy? What brings her comfort and peace?

Is it that trust, that human response to the faith of Jesus Christ, that loving trust that “bears all things believes all things hopes all things and endures all things”? (1 Corinthians 13)

One early follower of Jesus said, “one thing I do, forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus?” (Paul of Tarsus).

An Irish man, Patrick, a killer of snakes and a lover of souls pronounced the same blessing, of “Christ before me Christ beneath?” (St. Patrick’s breastplate)

Listen to that medieval convent maiden’s prayer, “and all will be well and all will be well?” (Julian of Norwich).

As they sing at Taize, “ubi caritas, deus ibi est”?

There is something, Someone, there. Alive and untamed. Creating trust, trust, trust, deep in the heart.

Paul Lehmann taught us, “God is at work in the world to make and keep human life human.”

Ralph Harper learned, “Presence suggests an alternate way of thinking about time and space”.

In an early pastoral visit, I heard a homebound octogenarian, eyes gleaming, affirm: “I know whom I can trust.”

David sang in the Psalms, “the Lord is my light and my salvation, whom shall I fear?”

And together, in fine four part harmony, we shall sing together this morning:

The soul that on Jesus still leans for repose
I will not, I will not desert to its foes
That soul though all hell should endeavor to shake
I will never, no never, no never forsake.

~The Reverend Dr. Robert Allan Hill,
Dean of Marsh Chapel