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February 27

Winter in Her Eyes

By Marsh Chapel

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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

February 20

With Malice Towards None

By Marsh Chapel

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Matthew 5:38-48

What a beautiful morning!Crisp. Clean. Blue. True. What a beautiful day!

One bright morning moment, one day within the great and everlasting day of divine love, one pause to remember and hope in the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ, in whom, as the Apostle pronounced, it is not ‘yes and no’, but in him it is always Yes (2 Cor. 1). We might summarize Matthew 5: 39 in words from 150 years ago:

With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in.

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

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

Before you go off to dinner or the hot tub, I propose a further little visit. Out behind the ski lift, a long way from the road and not overly well marked, there is a gravesite. Trudge a few paces into the snow and take a look. There, if you brush back the powder, you can make out the name and dates. Under mountain shadows, hidden in the ice box of the north, covered at least half the year with a beautiful white blanket of snow, there lies the body of John Brown, 1800-1859, whose flint like personality, bent to violence, and fiery rhetoric helped ignite the civil war, which began 150 years ago. His is a fitting rough grave lost in the outback of the Empire State. He lies just about as far from the Mason Dixon line as one go, and still stay within the country.

Gardner Taylor once said that we have not allowed the greatest tragedy of our history as a people, the Civil War, to teach us as much as it might. 600,000 men lost their lives in four years, 150 years ago.

150 years is not that long ago. I can remember very sharply the events and remembrances of the 100th anniversary of the Civil War in the early and middle1960’s, a third of the way back. We have a shared history, from well before and after 1861. It is out of that long history that we pause for a moment this morning to listen to the Gospel of Matthew 5:39. While there are easier sentences which might tempt us here in this reading, we shall listen to the hardest for interpreters, ‘Do not resist one who is evil’.

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

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

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

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

So how shall hear this verse?

Especially, how shall we hear this verse in relation to the brief span of human history given to our keeping?

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

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

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

Prayerfully, we each and we all will want to consider our own understanding, our own ethic, our own choice and choices between these two basic alternatives. But the careful listener this February of 2011 will want a thought or two about how, together, how as those who influence culture together, we might positively and proactively sing the four part chorus of love, and live out Matthew 5:38ff. We could use some help here. At least I could…

We will pause now to welcome a visitor to our service. Welcome. You will find him to my right, and down the west aisle of the chapel. He is standing alone, and has been with us before. Actually, his worship attendance has been perfect for 60 years, a far better record than he had in life. For he is enshrined in one of our Connick stained glass windows, one of the many novel choices the fourth President of Boston University, Daniel Marsh, made in designing our chapel. Lincoln may be able to offer us some assistance today, on President’s weekend.

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

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

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

We may also be entering an Epoch of Spiritual Discipline Against Resentment. Here I simply refer to a great American and a greater historian, Christopher Lasch:

The only way to break the ‘endless cycle’ of injustice, Niebuhr argued, was nonviolent coercion, with its spiritual discipline against resentment. In order to undermine an oppressor’s claims to moral superiority, (one) has to avoid such claims on their own behalf.

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

What is this discipline? What does it look like? How is one to find its power? Truly I see no other source than a confessional reliance on the Christ of Calvary, and no better reading than the one we heard a moment ago.

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

March 4, 1865 (in passim)

At this second appearing to take the oath of the Presidential office there is less occasion for an extended address than there was at the first…
On the occasion corresponding to this four years ago all thoughts were anxiously directed to an impending civil war. All dreaded it, all sought to avert it…Both parties deprecated war, but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive, and the other would accept war rather than let it perish, and the war came…
Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with or even before the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God's assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat o f other men's faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.
~The Reverend Dr. Robert Allan Hill,
Dean of Marsh Chapel

February 13

Love Song

By Marsh Chapel

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Matthew 5:21-26

Three things are too wonderful for me, four I cannot understand…

Some years ago an undergraduate student asked to talk. She was part of a large religion class at a small religious college. We sat and got acquainted. Then she began to cry. Some people have very little experience in crying and you can tell because they are so surprised at the physical sensation of it. The more she tried to stop the harder the tears came. The more she apologized (she needn’t have of course, what are tears for if not to be shared?), the harder they came. The more she protested, ‘this never happens to me’, the more the torrent fell. She had been an independent, very strong, very successful person, student, friend, and worker. When her boyfriend decided to ‘start seeing other people’, she took it in stride. Or thought she had. Yet several weeks later, she found herself mired in melancholy, and seeking out the counsel of a teacher she hardly knew.

Boxes of Kleenex later, she left with a smile, a bit of gentle and wise self-mockery to undergird her wonder and vulnerability, and her feet underneath her again. She would be OK. But as she said, those weeks taught her something. Love is real, and hurts. If you love, you may get hurt. Hearts break. There is something overwhelmingly potent in the actual, lived experience, particularly when we are young, of loving someone. Love is real and can really hurt.

Most churches have prayer request cards and boxes. Sometimes a prayer will come through that more than most makes you stop in your tracks. (The BU ‘post-secret’ project, now in its second year, is a kind of prayer request box, or at least an anonymous and therapeutic confessional. ) In one community we received a written prayer request in these words: ‘Why is marriage so difficult? Does it get easier? Please say a prayer for us to help us get through our differences. Help me find forgiveness.’ Love hurts. Love means having to say you are sorry.

Last autumn our choir and choir spouses and groupies went out after practice for some refreshment. The evening went along pretty well, until someone in the alto section raised the question of the greatest movie ever made. Someone in another section said, ‘Love Story’. This produced mayhem, most present not having ever seen the film, and most who had decrying its quality. A few hardy, courageous and insightful souls stood in the breech and defended the movie, or at least Allie McGraw. But even these marines of the spirit could not finally defend the movie’s proverb: ‘love means never having to say you are sorry’. Love is all about sorry, and more sorry, as we know.

Human Love:

*One Solomon song sings of human love. And how it sings! So loud it sings and so dearly and strong that the sages in Jamnia nearly excluded it from the canon!

You will have your choicest choices. Here are two:

Arise my love, my fair one,
And come away;
For lo the winter is past,
The rain is over and gone.
The flowers appear on the earth,
The time of singing has come,
And the voice of the turtledove
Is heard in our land.
(Song of Songs 2: 10-12)

Behold you are beautiful, my love
Behold you are beautiful!
Your eyes are doves
Behind your veil
Your hair is like a flock of goat
Moving down the slopes of Gilead.
Your teeth are like a flock of shorn ewes.
Your lips are like a scarlet thread
Your cheeks are like halves of a pomegranate…
You are all fair my love;
There is no flaw in you.
(Song of Songs 4: 1-8)

*Collected in the Canticles are love poems, erotic poems, poems of praise for human love. One of our members asked a year ago whether any sermons are ever preached on the Song. The implication was there that the verses are simply too hot to handle! Last week another member related that in childhood, advised to read the Bible, she had stumbled into these verses. I believe she said, Wow!

Saddled with other challenges for a few decades, the historic church may have lost of some of our voice about love, human love, sexuality, human sexuality, and the ardent themes of the Song of Songs, the meta-song of the Hebrew Scripture. While our own straitened conditions in the church, and our inwardly turned attention to the details of liturgy may constrain us, all about us the culture calls out for the good news of these chapters. It is still the same old story.

The verses of this book may have arisen as wedding songs. They celebrate love leading toward marriage and love established in marriage, without a great deal of distinction between the two. They acknowledge the power of love. They drape their music in the imagery of the natural world. They shout for joy for the joyful shout of love, human love. As a pastor, father, friend, now minister to a University community, I might have wished a little more didactic material had found its way into the Canticle. A little admonition about commitment. A little recognition of selfishness. A little sober admission of imperfection. A little paternal warning about regret and regrets. Well, we shall have to find these in other pages of the Scripture, for these songs are flying to other places. They reflect the human experience of the ages. They delight in delight. They delight in delight!

Yes, I could interpret and amend these passages to make sure that we include partnership and friendship as well as covenant and marriage. Yes, we could dwell for a moment on the difference between the literature here and that in the rest of the Bible: ’there is no overt religious content corresponding to the other books of the Bible’ (IBD op cit). Yes, I could remember the sectarian Jewish warning that the book should only be opened and read after age thirty. We use when we should love and vice versa. Thus, though, I would miss the point. The Song of Solomon sings of blessing!

Human love is blessed.

Love Divine

But there are two Songs of Solomon, one of heart and one of soul, one of flesh and one of spirit, one of earth and one of heaven, one of human love and one of love divine.

Another Solomon song sings of love divine.
The allegorical, cultic, dramatic and other non-literal readings of the Song of Solomon have less influence today. In any case, they fall fairly quickly in the face of the ardent, strong sensuality of the collection. The rabbis early allegorized the Song to refer to Yahweh and Israel. The church early followed suit, and allegorized the Song to refer to Christ and the Church, or to God and the soul. Hosea had already used the allegory, in his beautiful chapters, the 11th being perhaps the loveliest in Scripture. But he done so forthrightly, intending and intoning the allegory directly. ‘When Israel was a child I loved him.’ As a reading of the text, it must be said today, that the allegory superimposes something not apparent or present.

What is dethroned from Scripture, however, experience re-crowns. It is not without wisdom that this bit of wisdom literature has been taken to refer, in a Lenten fashion, to the love of the soul for God, to the love of God for the soul, to the love the church for Christ, to the love of Christ for the church. After all, how are we ever going to picture, to propose the relationship of the human being to God?

Here is today’s gospel message:

What can prepare us for intimacy with the divine, if not human intimacy?

What can prepare us for covenant with the divine, if not human covenant?

What can prepare us for fellowship with the divine, if not human fellowship?

What can prepare us for love of the divine, if not human love?

Where else are we going to learn the rhythms of relationship that prepare a community and its individuals, an individual and his communities, for ultimate relationship?

No wonder Plato wrote so tenderly and toughly about friendship. No wonder John the Evangelist epitomized discipleship in the portrait of one ‘beloved’. No wonder Bernard of Clairvaux wrote 86 sermons on the Song of Songs and never got past the second chapter! No wonder that John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila took Italian love poetry and formed their religious poetry on their models. No wonder that even today there is a returning interest in ‘nuptial mysticism’, a recognition that love, friendship, partnership, marriage shape a soulful habit of living. It is in the relationship of lover and beloved that we plumb the depths of experience.

In the mountains northwest of Madrid, you will find nestled the little old Castilian village of Segovia. I spent only a year there. I walked its cobbled streets during the evening paseo. I was befriended by its teenagers. Adios Roberto. Adios Marie Carmen. Adios Celia. Adios Eduardo. I gazed out at the mountain range that had inspired Hemingway. I ate the baked lamb and drank the red wine of that region. I admired its aqueduct. I photographed its castle. I learned the language, the humor, the humors, the history, the heart, the soul of a noble people. I walked in the dark late night rain and greeted the town crier and constable: ‘Adios’. Someday I hope to return. I find that Segovia appears with more regularity in my dreams now than it has for thirty years past.

I visited there the resting place of St. John of the Cross. I read and remembered his poetry: en una noche oscura, con ansias en amores inflamadas, o dichosa ventura!, sali sin ser notada, estando ya mi casa sosegada.

Our hearts are restless, restless, until they find their rest in the divine, the second song of Solomon. Such a word of longing! Is there anything, any theme more perennial than that of longing!?!

Set me as a seal upon your heart
As a seal upon your arm;
For love is strong as death,
Jealousy is cruel as the grave.
Its flashes are flashes of fire,
A most vehement flame.
Many waters cannot quench love,
Neither can floods drown it.
If a man offered for love
All the wealth of his house
It would be utterly scorned.

*Human love is blessed—by God.


*There are two Songs of Solomon…

In earshot of the two Songs of Solomon, love divine and human both, let me invite you to a better life.

Let me invite you to cherish friendship, and to bathe friendship, like a lover, in the warm baths of time and attention. Let me invite you to honor partnership, and to bathe partnership, like a lover, in the warm baths of time and attention. Let me invite you to enjoy affection, and to bathe affection, like a lover, in warm baths of time and attention. Let me invite you to revere marriage, and to bathe marriage, like a lover, in the warm baths of time and attention.

For such friendship may frame your soul in communion with the divine. Such partnership may prepare your soul for commerce with the divine. Such affection may prepare your psyche for intimacy with the divine. Such marriage may open you…to God.

“Love is strong as death and hard as hell.” (SOS 8:6)

~ The Reverend Dr. Robert Allan Hill, Dean of Marsh Chapel
Dr. Scott Allen Jarrett, Director of Music

February 6

Word and Table: Grace

By Marsh Chapel

There is no sermon text for this week.

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

January 30

A New Life

By Marsh Chapel

Click here to hear the sermon only.

Matthew 5:1-12

Harken to a voice like that overheard by Proust: “A voice sure of being heard, and musical, because it was the command not only of authority to obedience, but of wisdom to happiness”. Happiness. Blessedness. Here is the voice of the Risen Jesus Christ, carrying the promises of the New Life, naming the citizens of the New Life, describing the landscape of the New Life.

Harken to Blessing: The keynote of the New Age, the call to a New Life. As the Cantata sings: “Let Your Word for us, that bright light, burn for us cleanly and purely”. To some degree our Gospel challenges us with a rigorously heavenly demand, in the heart of our very earthly condition. To some degree Gospel brings us humility, because we realize we can never achieve its height. To some degree the Gospel reminds us of the call of Jesus to his own age, and the earliest church to their own, as instruction in the interim, their shared expectation of the imminent End of the Age.

Think of a set of Russian dolls, eight dolls held one inside the other. As John Wesley advised: “every sentence is closely connected with what precedes and what follows it”.

The outside largest carries drawn cheeks, the sign of despondency, acedia, depression. Remarkably, here is blessing. There are none so thin as those who will not eat, and none so loved by God’s Christ as those who carry the weight of emptiness. The poor in spirit. Perhaps Luke, who simply says ‘fortunate are the poor’, means to caution us, as does all Christian tradition, against the temptations in abundance of possessions, or positions for that matter. The call of wisdom to happiness.

The next biggest doll, just inside the outside one, has tears. Tears require love, first. A young woman or man, suddenly ousted from a friendship or love, may be overcome by tears, and shocked that he or she could be so overcome. Love is like that, especially when it leaves the room. When there is a tear in the garment of self-control, self-sufficiency—mercy!—tears flow, but one knows by the measure of pain the power of love. You do not know what you have until it is gone. But the verse attends more directly to our shared condition, to the mourning that we feel when see the world as it is, and contrast that sight to the vision of the reign of God. So those who mourn by spirit do so in part over the hurtful waywardness of the world. We ever keep before us the 20% of children in our land awaking in poverty, the 10% of people hunting for work, the vast and unnecessary indebtedness of students and others, the cries of the needy from far and near. Wisdom beckoning to the real, the present, the future happiness.

Open the next one. Those who mourn know emptiness, and prepare the way for the meek. Meek like Moses. Doll three has bright eyes, blue they are and bright. Good things come to bright eyed dolls who can wait a little. Those alive to what is given, what is offered, what is provided, those with empty hands, may just inherit something. Wisdom is the herald of happiness.

Inside patience one finds hunger, a desire for what cannot be had on the cheap. So look at this fourth doll, whose lips are pursed. If faith is worthless, where is worth? If the church is useless, where is hope? If the ministry if outdated, where is meaning? If preaching is not worth doing, can you tell me what is? Tight lipped hunger for what is right, in the long run, brings the just, out of a love of love itself, and the withered long suffering to await it. The wisdom of Micah calls to the happiness of Matthew.

Mercy is the water of spiritual life, the hydration required for existence beyond the animal kingdom. See the fifth doll here, who smiles. All of us are better when we are loved, and all of us are made right when we are forgiven. Wisdom brings happiness.

Poor in spirit, then those who mourn, then the meek, then the hungry for justice, and then the merciful. Like an oyster bearing a pearl, they shape the hard jewel of the purity of the heart, which Kierkegaard said was to will one thing. Philosophers seek purity of heart. Intellectuals seek purity of heart. Scholars seek purity of heart. Academics sometimes seek purity of heart. Love of wisdom evokes happiness of heart.

Now the dolls are smaller, harder to see, harder to hold. The peacemaker stands with arms open, spread abroad, and ready to embrace. Our cantata balances a New Year prayer for New Life, not only for the individual but also for the community, for both person and country, ourselves and our land. We desire an expression of faith that is amenable to culture, and we desire a culture which is acceptable to faith. The disciplines of non-violence, well beyond the spiritual strength of most of us most of the time, demand the denial of self-protection. Could there be blessing here? Remarkably, the gospel of truth says ‘yes’. Here too wisdom commands happiness.

Our last Russian doll is so tiny. Narrow gate, straight way. There is no expression we can see, no posture, no gesture. For the sake of the New Age, some have suffered persecution. To be reviled in a good cause, to be libeled in a just struggle, to be harmed in a righteous conflict, somehow, it is hard to see how, but somehow is to receive a blessing. May those who are preaching across the country, and who with courage and counting the cost, enter the pulpit to announce freedom and grace, facing the challenges of this age, may they receive blessing, the blessing that comes with costly truth spoken. Here the persecution surrounding and threatening the primitive church may have made a later Matthean incursion into an inherited sermon: a tenor solo following a contralto aria, evangelist overtaking oral tradition.

Dr. Jarrett, as we listen to our cantata today, what notes of blessing and phrases of fortunate and sounds of grace shall we expect?

Scott speaks on Cantata:

Written for the Sunday of New Years, when the church celebrates the naming of Christ in the temple, this cantata numbers among the many observances associated with the celebration of Christ’s birth.

The message of today’s cantata is direct and simple:
In the New Year, we need but call on the name – the name – of Jesus in each step of our lives, from beginning to end. And when we pray, it is through the name of Jesus that our petition approaches the throne of grace.

From the first movement, we sing a hymn – or fugue, in this case – in praise of God’s name. And as if we’re joining the celebration in the middle, there is no introduction. The fugue begins directly with the tenors’ statement of the subject. This corporate hymn of praise takes on personal, individual expression in the tenor arias that follows. The aria is bursting with assurance and bravado both from the tenor soloists and the two violinists whose bows never stop moving in the whole movement.

The central movement of the cantata is given to the alto, who forms a New Years Resolution of sorts about how and when to call on the name of Jesus.

The second aria captures the omni-presence of Christ in our lives – if we but call on his name. This soprano aria embodies the beauty of a life of faith and trust in his holy name.

The baritone then explains to us the ways in which we are taught to invoke the name of Christ, specifically when we pray. The smallest voice can reach the highest heaven through Christ redemptive power, a power available to all who but call on his name.

Our cantata draws to conclusion with a final chorale, here in festival form. The trumpe
ts and timpani return from the first movement, and the chorus of the church comes to life in a dance-like middle section.

The music is confident, assured, and bold from beginning to end. A mirror of the boldness and assurance offered through life in and through Christ Jesus. Here Bach gives musical voice to our New Year, and an exhortation to bear the name of Jesus each day throughout the year and through our earthly lives.

“Turn your blessing upon us. Give peace to every outcome.” The Cantata looks forward both to personal sanctification and to social holiness, blessings both individual and collective.

Hence, we have a ‘short summary of the teaching of Christ’. Harken to a voice of blessing:

“A voice sure of being heard, and musical, because it was the command not only of authority to obedience, but of wisdom to happiness”.

~ The Reverend Dr. Robert Allan Hill, Dean of Marsh Chapel
Dr. Scott Allen Jarrett, Director of Music

January 23

Snow Day

By Marsh Chapel

Click here to hear the sermon only.

Matthew 4:12-23

It is perhaps unfortunate that over time we in the frozen north have not allowed a powerfully central feature of our existence to teach us, more, about God. We have shoveled snow. We have groveled before storms. We have muffled our pleas for warmth. We have stifled our spouse’s prayer, “take me to San Diego”. We have trifled with the gruesome details of the weather channel. Shovel, grovel, muffle, stifle, trifle as we may, however, we have not fully considered the gracious presence of snow, and it is high time we did, thank you very much. James Sanders, OT teacher in Rochester and NYC, taught us to theologize first, then moralize. So before in moral indignation we lift another shovel, let us reason together about the gracious presence of snow.

I have only one category A complaint about Boston. There are not enough snow days here. The schools rarely close, and the city rarely stops its commerce. There is a strength in this abstinence from snow days, but there also is a weakness.

On the eastern end of Lake Ontario, whence cometh some wisdom, there is more snow and there are more snow days, in Watertown and Pulaski and Syracuse. Sandy Creek took on 54 inches of snow a few weeks ago, that town on Route 11, which we call “a little bit of heaven on Route 11”.

Grace Prevenient

That was a snow day, on the Tug Hill plateau. And a snow day is one day within in the Day of God on which all our strivings cease. A day that takes from our souls strain and stress and lets our ordered lives confess the beauty of God’s peace. A day of preventive interruption, a day of personal reckoning, a day of cleansing health—a day of grace, within the one Day of God.

Amazing Grace! How sweet the sound…of downy flakes…

At 5am on a snow day, teachers pray for a day with family. Children implore the ivory goddess to wait upon their needs. Dads look forward to canceling class (though never church), calling in for messages, unbundling the toboggan, digging out that old ‘tuke’, and living, for once, in the interrupted preventive grace of God that says, flake by flake: you are not God.

One of the great anticipated moments of life in our home, a home of teachers and students over some generations, has been the rapt 5am televiewing of school closings, for which all fervently pray, as, in other places, people light votive candles or clutch rosary beads or place prayer slips in temple walls. Please, oh please, please let this be a SNOW DAY. A Snow Day is a day of grace.

At judgment day you will not regret having spent a little time away from the office..

Come Sunday, Come Sundown, you will forget the many ordinary days, but the Snow day—the day of Dad’s chili bean soup, the day of igloos cut with precision, the day of chipping the ice together from the roof, the day of grace—this you will take with you into God’s presence, as a foretaste of heaven.

God knows, we need prevenient interruption. Otherwise, we think too much of our own doing, and too little of God.

What counts in life is the love of God.
What matters in existence is the grace of God.
What needs doing most, God has already done.
What costs most, God has given.
What we can trust, God has offered.

So, says St Paul, we do not preach ourselves—what we might do, what we might be, what we might accomplish—we preach Jesus Christ, and him crucified. Listen again to 1 Cor.11…

If we are not careful, if we do not accept the Snow Day, the day of prevenient grace, then we end up demanding Godly things of our spouse, expecting Godly achievement of ourselves, requiring Godly performance of our church, worshipping the creature and not the Creator, sculpting golden calves, and doing what most humans most of the time do—practicing idolatry.

There is one God and you are not God, nor is your husband, nor is your pastor, nor is your boss, nor is your parent, nor is your friend. Camus said, rightly, that culture is meant mainly as a setting wherein we remind each other that none of us is God. “They shall understand how they correct one another, and that a limit, under the sun, shall curb them. Each tells the other that he is not God.” Says Dorothy Day to Wall Street, “You are not God.” Says Julian Bond to white America, “You are not God.” Says Betty Friedan to the old boy network, “You are not God.” Says the Republican congress to the Democratic President, “You are not God.” And what does the President say? And in the new millenium, John Doe will remind women that they are not God either, and Jane Smith will remind children that they are not God either, and, if we can muster a little humility, we will all get by together, singing, “I am not God and you are not God, and we are not God together.”

But it takes a Snow Day, the interrupting, preventing grace of God.

One Snow Day, fifteen years ago, when I was dyingly anxious to finish my PhD, resurrect Methodism, become financially independent, and win “father of the year” awards—all by the close of business that Tuesday--ASAP, I happened to stop, in the late afternoon, for a pastoral call, another important interruptive. An elderly botany professor, known for her guided tours of nature and popular courses at Syracuse University, and once seen in her mid-seventies, swinging from the limb of a sycamore tree which she partly climbed in order to make some now forgotten scholarly point, recited this little charmer to me on a brilliantly snowy day, as we drank tea in the later afternoon. Cold it was that day, and snowy, a day for limericks, and laughter and love:

There once was a parson named Fiddle
Who refused to accept a degree
For he said, “’Tis enough to be Fiddle
“Without being Fiddle, DD”

She included the poem, in a card, a few years later, at graduation, to make sure I did not miss the point. Do you get it?

Says the Snow to you and me, “Fiddle de de, Fiddle DD”

Grace Liberative

When St Augustine in the fourth century was asked to teach his people about the Triune God, he offered this analogy: God the Father is like the Sun in the sky which lights and illumines and warms and gives life; God the Son is like the ray of sunlight that carries life and light and illumination and love to us; God the Spirit is like the touch of that sunray upon our cheek, which sustains and helps us, and which personally we feel.

But Augustine in sun and sand, like the young Camus. He preached with an African swing in his rhetoric: “bona bona, dona dona”—good gifts, good gifts. Had Augustine lived in Boston, and not along the sunny beaches of North Africa, had he lived in the cold Northern climate, and not amid blue sky and ocean view and warmth in February—I mean, hello?, what kind of life is that?—had he your perspective on reality, he might rather have offered this analogy: God the Father is like a great cumulonimbus cloud moving over the earth, ready to cover and cleanse and beautify; God the Son is like snow, lovely snow, falling upon us to cover and cleanse and beautify; God the Spirit is like the touch of each unique flake upon our tongues and cheeks as we skate on the Frog Pond (especially on Ground Hog Day at 1pm), and feel personally a power that does cover and cleanse and beautify.

Think how the Scripture would be different if it had co
me from New England, and not the warm climate of Palestine…

And God separated the snow banks from the snow banks, those from under the firmament, from those over the firmament, and God called the firmament heaven. And there was evening and morning, a second day.

And Abraham took his huskies to drink by the frozen lake, and there met Rebecca, who came to break the ice and draw water. And he said, “Pray, put down your pick ax and let me drink from the icy flow”.

And Pharaoh’s daughter saw a sled come by downhill, in which there was wrapped in a snowsuit, a little boy, named Moses. Pharaoh’s daughter took him home, and warmed him by the fire.

After the children of Israel had skated across the frozen Blue Sea, and Pharaoh’s army was in close pursuit, the Lord God sent a heat wave that melted the ice and Pharaoh, and his chariots and his army plunged down into the briney deep.

By the icicles of Babylon we sat down and wept as our tormentors said to us, sing to us one of the songs of Zion.

Save me O God! For the avalanche has cascaded upon me…I have fallen into deep drifts and the snow sweeps over me.

Many snow drifts cannot bury love, neither can blizzards smother it.

Let Justice roll down like an avalanche, and righteousness as an unending blizzard.

I baptize you with snow, but One is coming who will baptize you with fire

Except a man be born of snow and the spirit, he will not enter the kingdom of heaven.

God sends his snow upon the just and the unjust alike

The wise man built his house upon the rock. The snow fell, and the blizzard came and the lake effect wind blew and beat upon that house, but it did not fall, because it was built upon the rock.

In the winter of 1966 there fell a tremendous snow. Our little village, 1100 feet above sea level on the northern edge of the Allegheny plateau, received a sudden interruption. Schools closed. Programs were cancelled. Trips were postponed. For two weeks the town just stopped in its tracks. After a while, the supplies of milk and bread were running low. Danehy’s market sported bare shelves and empty aisles.

There was a gracious and liberating pause. Looking back, I can see the stresses of that year—all of them resounding around the little Colgate campus—racial attacks by town kids, the first 13 undergraduate women living in the Colgate Inn, Carson Veache’s father teaching English and burning draft cards and losing his job for it. Down came the snow, freeing us, freeing us from the role of Almighty God, and liberating our souls for an open future in the one Day of God.

That week, someone in Hamilton probably sat by the fire and read Josiah Royce: “Our world is the object of an all-inclusive and divine insight, which is thus the supreme reality.” Or Unamuno: “Cuidate solo de la idea que de ti Dios tenga”

Grace is not something you do, it is something that happens to you. Love is not something you own, it is something you receive and return. And sin is not taking what is offered.

I thought about this again, reading the Boston Globe on Thursday. I love to read the Globe. I love the occasional stories from the seacoast about fishing and scrimshaw and seafaring and lighthouses. I also love the long, detailed, personal obituaries, like the one beautifully written for Rev. Wells Grogan, formerly of First Church Cambridge. There was grace upon grace:

I have my greatest sense of well being while flying, he said.

His friends and parishioners remembered his preaching (‘When the sermon was about to start I settled in with great anticipation’), they remembered his courage (‘he showed us how to examine ourselves and to be honest, brutally honest’), they remembered his pastoral conversation (‘he knew how to have you over to the house and pour a glass of sherry and relax and have informal conversations’).

But it was the conclusion of the obituary that stood out: ‘One story he told was about his time as a prisoner of war, when the bread of life was more than metaphorical. ‘He was elected by the other prisoners to slice the bread; they had a half a loaf for 50 men. They trusted him to be fair. And when we went to his home he would slice the bread and tell us the story of when he was a prisoner, when he sliced so evenly that every slice was the same thickness as the others’.

When the 10 commandments proved not enough on their own—true and utterly on point as they are--God came to us, human to human, to free us from idolatry and settle a Snow Day on all our pride.

Grace Cleansing

Snow interrupts. Snow invades and liberates. Snow falls from on high, heaven sent. Snow falls as friendly presence, freeing its recipients of study, of work, of routine, and allowing, even forcing, a moment of conviviality, and community, and time and space for family and exercise and unexpected pause. Snow is unpredictable, uncontrollable, varied, dangerous, seasonal, cleansing, soothing, quieting and disquieting, cool, comforting, friendly and free. Snow falls upon us like grace, or grace falls upon us like snow.

Here is a trusting voice, like one joyfully remembered in the Boston Globe this past week:

Our Scripture today, a declaration of Grace, puts all this very simply, all this about grace preventive and grace liberative and grace cleansing: he cured many.

This is personal! I had my own first snow day Friday! Our dean heard and preached the gospel:

“Luxuriate in the beauty…” she wrote. Yes!

I wonder about you this week. Will you accept a Snow Day if it is offered? Can you accept the white blanket of grace falling around your shoulders? Could you relax a bit a rely a bit on the Grace of God?


Would you accept the grace that gave you life?
That is Baptism.

Would you accept the grace that gives you the faith of
Jesus Christ?
That is Confirmation.

Would you accept the grace that gives you salvation?
That is Holy Communion.

Would you accept the grace that gives you
That is Marriage.

Would you accept the grace that gives you forgiveness?
That is prayer and counsel.

Would you accept the grace that gives you a calling?
That is ordination.

Would you accept the grace that calls you home?
That is blessing in the extreme and at the last.

So we will recite with Paul,

It is no longer I who live
But Christ who lives in me
And the life I now live in the flesh
I live by the faith of the Son of God
Who loved me and gave himself up for me.

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

January 16

What Are You Seeking?

By Marsh Chapel

Click here to hear the sermon only.

John 1: 29-42

I recently read a column in the Opinion Pages of the New York Times titled, “Climate of Hate.” In light of the recent shootings in Arizona, which resulted in the deaths of six people, and the critical injury of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, columnist Paul Krugman offered his thoughts on some of the causes of this horrific act of violence. His concern over the attitudes and rhetoric between opposing parties is valid; the differences of the American people are only making a greater divide instead of making us stronger. He said: “The point is that there’s room in a democracy for people who ridicule and denounce those who disagree with them; there isn’t any place for eliminationist rhetoric, for suggestions that those on the other side of a debate must be removed from that debate by whatever means necessary.” (1) And on this day before a holiday commemorating Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday, life and legacy, I wonder how far we’ve really come in the last fifty years.

King lived through a climate of hate. No stranger to “eliminationist rhetoric”, he fought back against those opposed to his message not with violence, but with peaceful protests. His words proved to be a valuable asset and mighty weapon. But his actions also spoke volumes, or perhaps those actions he chose not to resort to. Let’s not mistake that King was an ordinary man. I mean ordinary in the sense that he lived and breathed as a human being, conversed with friends, worked, studied, and had a family. In that regard, he lived like many of us do today. What made King extraordinary were the choices he made, not for the benefit of himself, but for the well-being of others. He recognized his role as leader, teacher, and motivator, and he followed his calling, seeking out justice by whatever loving means necessary.

Our reading from Isaiah today reflects a tumultuous time for the Israelites in which they were exiles in a foreign land in need of consolation and revitalization. A thematic element to this portion of what is referred to as Second Isaiah includes a new Exodus out of exile, reminiscent of the early Israelites under the leadership of Moses. In Isaiah, the Israelites once again find themselves in need of a leader, one called by God to encourage them to rise up, remember their Creator, and reach out to those in need. The prophet offered a message of hope and revival to a downtrodden and scattered nation. What we read today is a beautiful example of what it means to be called by God to live as proof that there’s more to this captive and oppressive life. Isaiah outlines three tenants to being called by God: first, recognition that we are indeed all called to be sons and daughters of God, diversely created and equally valued; second, the restoration of those communities and individuals around us that have trouble seeing and knowing their worth in the midst of chaos and hatred; and third, revelation, meaning we are all messengers of the Gospel through our actions and our words so much so that the revelation of God’s love and justice is evident in us and shines forth brightly from us through the darkness to the ends of the earth. The Israelites needed a wake up call – someone to help them recognize their worth and potential so they could rise up as people loved and called by God and ultimately shift their focus from inward to outward to help and lift up others.

Working at the University I have the opportunity to watch students move up and down Commonwealth Avenue, converse over dinner in the GSU, bask in the sun on Marsh Plaza, and rehash the lessons from their classes at Espresso Royale Café across the street. There is an excitement present that I recognize from my own past. Just starting out on their own, expanding their minds and experiencing new things, they see their lives as full of possibilities. Questions arise like, “Who am I?” and “What am I looking for?” The options are endless. They could take on the world, make real changes, and beat the odds. I felt this way when I was in college, and I still catch glimpses of it from time to time. An example of this today, at Boston University, can be found in BU Today’s story on this year’s MLK celebrations, in which a student asked, “How can we be great?” (2) What an honest and inviting question, spurring creativity and action.

Some call this naïve – the belief that dreams do come true and visions for the betterment of human life can be lived out. I call this wonderful, but often too short lived. Cold hard reality eventually sets in. Reality that change is hard, revival is difficult, and revelation is often an empty promise or offered only for a select few. Living out our true passions and calling takes a back seat to the daily demands of routine life. And that youthful enthusiasm buries itself deep inside of us, just waiting to be woken up once again.

When asked, “What are you looking for?” or better phrased “What are you seeking?” our Gospel reading today states the disciples, as clueless as ever, answered Jesus’ question with a question, “Teacher, where are you staying?” In true comedic fashion, when alerted to the fact by John the Baptist that they were standing in the midst of the Lamb of God, they chose not to bow or grovel; instead they seem to only ask for Jesus’ mailing address. I think at first glance it’s easy to interpret our reading this way. The disciples have a reputation for not always catching on to what Jesus said or meant during his human life on earth. The underlying message of the parables was usually lost to the disciples, and they always asked questions that warranted a simple answer. But there’s more to be said about the disciples’ response. From their question, “where are you staying,” the translation of the word “stay” from the Greek word “menow” may be better phrased as to abide, remain, or continue, the same word John the Baptist used earlier in our reading to describe the Spirit from heaven remaining on Jesus after his baptism. It hinges on the notion of permanence or constancy. It implies an inner dwelling, a more eternal home instead of a transitory living place.

Perhaps the disciples answered Jesus’ question the most beautiful and brilliant way of all. They weren’t looking for Jesus address on a map. No, they desired the presence of Jesus, the eternal life and love to be ever alive with them and through them. With self abandon and eager anticipation to change the world, they understood their calling from Jesus to “come and see” where to find the true meaning of the gospel and how to live it out. In the same model of Isaiah, the disciples shift from recognition to restoration and even further towards making the great revelation known to all people. Inward to outward. From ourselves to helping those around us. From Jesus as human to the eternal loving presence of Christ within each one of us.

Martin Luther King Jr. could have never known the impact he would have on the country and its history. What was he seeking? He was seeking ways to improve the well-being of all the U.S. citizens, regardless of race. He was seeking God’s presence in the midst of chaos and hatred. He was seeking the meaning of the Gospel in every day life for African Americans. And he was seeking the words and actions to bring justice to a very unjust country and society. He wanted nothing more than to take others with him, to walk along the road together, to find the place where Jesus lived and breathed, ate and slept. And he did exactly that – because Jesus was a part of him, deep inside. Jesus could be found in King’s presence.

In this climate of hate, we have the choice to be ex
tremists, as King once noted – extremists of hate or love. King said, “Perhaps the South, the nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists.” (3) Modeling Jesus’ extremists actions and words full of love, goodness and truth, we all have the potential to seek these aspects creatively, in ways relevant to the needs of our own society in 2011, if we’re willing to heed the call. One of the most prevalent needs, across the political divides and religious arrays, reaching beyond the borders of our country throughout the entire world, is the acceptance and full inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender folk as human beings, deserving the same dignity and respect as others. As Secretary of State Hilary Clinton recently said and has stated in the past, “Gay rights are human rights.” (4)

I was recently asked by a BU Today journalist, “Is King’s message still relevant today?” I didn’t hesitate to answer, Absolutely. He modeled how we should be living each and every day, messengers of the Gospel, seekers of justice, reminders of beauty and love. If we feel that King’s message is losing relevance, then it’s our own fault. The biblical message of righteousness, love and freedom for all people is not time or culturally specific. Discrimination and oppression run rampant and they must be stopped. As King noted, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” (5) We have a lot of work to do. We celebrate days like King’s birthday because we too easily forget the injustices of the past and the ways to overcome them.

We are forgetful people. The purpose of days like today are to remember, to wake us up and call us into consciousness. Because too often we sleep walk through life, not fully aware of our true potential or the beauty in those who surround us each and every day.

We forget our worth and our capabilities. We forget what we’re seeking and where to find it. Like the Israelites in Isaiah, we too need to be reminded of our calling, our abilities to change the world for good, and our need to seek justice. We can learn from the students surrounding us, from their hopes and aspirations, from their work with various causes for goodness. The students I work with each week are daily reminders of the importance of following a calling and seeking out the love of Jesus. They strive for the inclusion of LGBT people in all aspects of life, and I know they won’t stop until changes are made and hatred is overcome. And these students face discrimination and hatred in ways that many of us can’t begin to comprehend. Jokes are made, punches are thrown, and doors are closed simply because of an aspect to the intricate and complex weavings of their inmost being.

I know this message too well. Growing up, all I ever wanted to do was work for God. As a child, my mother called me the “little evangelist” because of my excitement and love for God that I felt necessary to share with my friends. A little older, and I started to realize that fire inside for the gospel might mean something. And when I shared my thoughts to those in authority over me, I was pushed aside because of my gender. Women can’t be ministers; it says so in the Bible. Not swayed, I left that tradition in search of a place I could express my desire to serve God as a woman. I was then pushed aside again – this time because of my sexual orientation. I started to doubt myself and my calling and sought out other avenues of work. But nothing could satisfy my thirst like the ministry. After being told I was wrong for so long, I started to believe it, though. And I started to forget what truly made me feel alive.

People often approach me ask, “After all you’ve been through and seen in the Church, why do you bother to stay? Why not leave the church altogether?” I look at them with a puzzled glance and say, “How could I leave?” There have certainly been times where I’ve wanted to walk away, forget it all, and turn my back on people who disregard so much of the Gospel message. But in those times, I don’t get very far before a tug at my heart starts. Many of you know to what I’m referring. It starts out in a small quiet way, doesn’t it? A gentle nudge, or a quick tinge. Then it becomes a little stronger. By the end, there’s no question someone is trying to get your attention. You have two options in that moment: turn around and accept the difficulty and challenges of being chosen by God, or to keep walking - pushing aside the feelings until you’re numb and you forget who you are and what is was you were seeking.

Church leaders in King’s time claimed the social concerns of the day, such as segregation and deeply embedded racism did not concern the gospel. Some today would say the same of LGBT social issues. But, I completely disagree. The gospel is not boxed in, hidden in a corner, and turned to only for seemingly religious issues. When Jesus encouraged the disciples to “come and see” his invitation didn’t stop with those two men in the beginning of John. It expanded and grew to all people throughout all of time. When social concerns reflect oppression of people and groups of people and neglect human rights, the gospel must be concerned. We must be concerned, if we call ourselves followers of Christ and bearers of the Good News. Righteousness must always be sought out and acted upon. It’s time to rise up. Move past our differences and put forth our creative energy towards the well-being of all people instead of arguing over who’s allowed the freedom of the Gospel and who’s not.

There is no good found in eliminationist rhetoric. This kind of speech is hate-filled instead of love-filled. The bullying and suicides of young lesbian and gay children and teens are quickly becoming an epidemic – and we must find a cure. And through it all, we must remember how far we’ve come – because progress has been made. We remember Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man to be elected to public office who also lost his life due to extremists of hate, those seeking violence instead of the loving and inclusive example of Jesus. Diversity should be celebrated – after all, aren’t we all living and breathing because of the same Creator? Dean Hill uses the phrase, “the expansion of the circle of human freedom.” King helped this expansion, and I hope today we all work to expand the circle until it encompasses all people.

Living a life worthy of the gospel is risky business. History proves that to us. It’s often easier to blend in than to stand out. It’s easier to keep quiet than cause a commotion. But life through Christ isn’t about keeping quiet. Like Isaiah, we are called to speak up. And like Jesus once said in the Gospel of Matthew, “You are the light of the world. Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to God in heaven.” The time is ripe, my friends, to let that light shine brightly.

Let us remember the triumphs and the mistakes from the past so that we may celebrate progress and learn to not fall back on actions that inhibit freedom and equality. Let us humble ourselves amongst one another as we recognize the eternal presence of Jesus throughout all of creation and humanity. Let us each bring our own gifts and passions to the table so that we may learn how to creatively work through our differences instead of resorting to hateful actions and words. Let us be open to the quiet yet firm voice of God nudging us to follow our calling as justice seekers and messengers of hope and the Good News.

Perhaps King described living out the Gospel and seeking justice best when he said, “I choose to identify with the underprivileged. I choose to identify with the poor. I choose to give my life for the hungry. I choose to give my life for those who have been left out of the sunlight of opportunity. I choose to live for those who find themselves seeing life as a long and desolate corridor wi
th no exit sign. This is the way I'm going. If it means suffering a little bit, I'm going that way. If it means sacrificing, I'm going that way. If it means dying for them, I'm going that way, because I heard a voice saying, `Do something for others.'" (6) Amen.

Love and serve each other in the name of the faithful God who calls us to be God’s people. May God’s Holy Spirit lead you, may God’s strength protect you. May God’s peace be with you. Amen.

1. Krugman, Paul, “Climate of Hate,” The New York Times, January 9, 2011. Found at:
2. Cornuelle, Kimberly, “University to Celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr. Day,” BU Today, January 14, 2010. Found at:
3. King, Martin Luther King, Jr., “Letter From a Birmingham Jail,” April 16, 1963.
4. Eleveld, Kerry, “The Advocate: Issue #1045,” January 2011.
5. King, Martin Luther King, Jr., “Letter From a Birmingham Jail,” April 16, 1963.
6. From The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr., ed. by Clayborne Carson (New York: Time Warner Co.,1998). Found at:

~ Liz Douglass,
Chapel Associate for LGBTQ & UCC Ministry

January 9

A Voice from Heaven

By Marsh Chapel

Click here to hear the sermon only.

Matthew 3: 13-17


Ted Williams made a re-appearance this week, though not within the confines of Fenway Park. A roving reporter in Columbus, Ohio heard and recorded the voice of a homeless man so named, a voice from heaven, or at least from beyond the normal ranges of human speech. What a voice!

Is there anything quite as personal as one’s voice?

A fingerprint, a birth date, a manner of laughter, all these are quite personal, but not quite as personal as one’s voice.

I have a friend, a colleague in ministry, who has endured a stroke. His voice, his pulpit voice is so precious and so personally his, so central and so meaningful to so many, that I feared greatly it might have gone. But I am told his voice perseveres. What a voice!

Is there anything quite as personal as one’s voice?

As we age we do notice other unique features of our being, ways peculiarly are own. Our manner of grieving is one of those. We all ride the same waves in grief, the waves of denial and anger and acceptance, and the waves of remembrance and thanksgiving and affirmation. But we surf the waves in our own very particular way, with our own voice. What a voice!

Is there anything quite as personal as a voice?

Will you permit me to say something very personal, speaking of the personal character of one’s voice? As we age we take notice of quite unique features of our being, ways of being particularly our own. Our manner of dying is one of those. It is a signature, our signature, our very signature. The early Methodists (read David Hempton) placed great store and stock in the manner of dying, holy living yes, but holy dying too. They offered no recipe. To the contrary: They saw and knew the utterly personal voice, like the silver swan’s, which resounds, like a steeple bell, in the personal way we die. Such a voice…

Is there anything more tellingly personal?

Hear the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the good news offered us today: the voice of heaven is known in Jesus, a voice of one loved, of one who loves, of one who teaches love, of one whose self offering is love.

This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.

Here is the divine signature, the divine fingerprint, the divine birth date, the divine manner of laughter, the divine voice, the voice from heaven which rings out today: my beloved Son.

Here too is the divine signature, the divine way of grieving, the divine way of dying, the divine voice, the voice from heaven which rings out today: my beloved Son.

Is there anything more personal than a voice?

St. Matthew implores us to hear in the way he rewrites the story. Matthew write in 85ce, updating and changing and developing what Mark wrote in 70ce. There is such a power and beauty in watching the faithful creative courage by which the New Testament writers adjust the preaching of the Gospel each to their own time and place. In our reading today, John the Baptist is clearly demoted, lowered but retained to fulfill all righteousness. Jesus is the actor in the drama, whose movement up out of the water is immediate. We are forcefully told that the dove like Spirit is unmistakably the Spirit of God. The voice from heaven speaks to us: This is! This is my beloved. Mark and Luke, Matthew’s verses imply, may have the words right, but they lack volume and verve: my beloved Son!

May we hear the voice from heaven, rippling in the river waters of the Jordan, and in the mystery of creation. May we hear the voice of heaven, carried along in the career of Christ, resounding in the heart and the conscience, and in the history of the community of faith. Creation and mystery, conscience and history. Creation and mystery, conscience and history. Are you searching for faith, longing for faith, growing in faith? Hear a voice from heaven, in creation and conscience.


The psalmist says, the heavens are telling the glory of God and the firmament proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night declares knowledge. There is no speech nor are there words. Their voice is not heard. Yet their voice goes out to all the world and their words to the end of the earth.

Listen to the mystery of creation.

13 Billion years ago, SOMETHING HAPPENED. An infinitesimal nothing exploded into an immeasurable something. 13 billion years ago.

Since then the Universe has continued to expand and cool down. Like many a middle aged fellow, our world is getting bigger and a little slower.

The farther out in space we look, the farther back in time we see: think quasar, think red shift, think black hole. The universe has neither a center nor an edge.

4.6 Billion years ago, our neighborhood solar system came to be, with carbon, oxygen, silicon and iron. Gravity had something to do with it, pulling together gas and dust. Nuclear reactions too had something to do with it.

3.8 Billion years ago, our beloved Mother Earth, within the aforementioned solar system, cooled enough, just enough, so that a single cell of life emerged.

3 Billion years ago, the process of photosynthesis, and hence an increase in earth’s oxygen, developed.

2 Billion years ago, a billion years of photosynthesis in motion later, the earth was full of the glory of oxygen.

½ Billion years ago, 500 million years ago that is (actually, to be precise, 540 million years ago), there occurred the so-called Cambrian explosion, a veritable plethora, cornucopia, flood tide and pleroma of life forms, including a personal favorite, trilobites.

¼ Billion years ago, or to be exact about 240 million years ago, great dinosaurs populated the earth.

1/20 Billion years ago (or, more exactly, 65 million years ago), these self same dinosaurs, kings of the earth, were summarily and totally extinguished, perhaps by a comet hitting earth. But the disappearance of the dinosaurs made space for the appearance of other life forms.

4.5 million years ago, just yesterday in a way, your first ancestor appeared, a hominid.
100,000 years ago, just a few minutes ago, homo sapiens appeared on earth.

30,000 years ago, forms of cultural life, including art and creativity and agriculture and weaponry, began slowly to develop.

2,500 years ago, the Bible began to be composed and collected.

See: The Big Bang, at the NYC Museum of Natural History.

One day you may look down at your left hand, at two fingers there, and you may again, childlike, awake just to this, something not nothing. Creation. The mystery of something not nothing.

A poetic New England voice said this more simply. We thank Thornton Wilder for his brevity.

We are in New England so we shall lift up a New England memory. You remember the letter Jane Crofut got from her minister when she was sick. On envelope it said: To Jane Crofut; The Crofut Farm; Grover’s Corners; Sutton County; New Hampshire; United States of America; Continent of North America; Western Hemisphere; Earth; Solar System; the Universe
; the Mind of God…and the postman brought it just the same.

Creation. Mystery.


Our psalmist today says: The voice of the Lord is over the waters. The voice of the Lord is powerful. The voice of the Lord causes the oaks to whirl, and strips the forest bare; and in his temple, all say ‘Glory’.

Listen to the history of conscience. We are not the first to find ourselves awestruck, singing ‘Glory’. Our hearts are restless, until they find their rest…

You are part of a history of conscience, a long train of witnesses. In fact, we can carry the memory of Christian reflection in the model of a single day. A brief history of Christian thought carries us from to dusk.

Conscience. History.

Dawn: Jesus is Crucified and Risen. His Gospel is preached by Paul. The Synoptic Gospels are written to preach the same Gospel, with the aid of His story, teachings, deeds. Other letters are written to apply the Gospel to the growth of the church.

Morning: In response to the small Bible (Luke and the Letters of Paul) of Marcion, a Roman Gnostic, the Christian Bible (66 books) is assembled. John translates the preaching of the Gospel into the idiom of neo-platonic, gnostic thought.

Late Morning: Augustine of Hippo, converted from Manicheaism (an eastern Gnosticism), develops a full theological system, relying largely on Paul, in conflict with the British Monk Pelagius. Both Reformers and Counter Reformers rely later on him.

Noon: Thomas Aquinas in the 12th century constructs a medieval theological system, blending the basics of Aristotelian philosophy with the Scripture and tradition of the church.

Afternoon: The medieval synthesis begins to unravel under the influence of the early renaissance and pre-reformation.

Late Afternoon: The great reformers of Germany (Luther), France (Calvin) and England (H8 and later Wesley) shatter the Roman medieval synthesis on the basis of faith alone, Scripture alone, and a return to Augustine and Paul.

Evening: Post-Enlightenment modern theology reaches its zenith in the 19th\mid 20th century work of liberals (Schleiermacher), neo-orthodox thinkers (Barth) and culminates in the last full systematic theology to date (Tillich).

Dusk: Post-modern Christian theology, skeptical of universal systems, and indebted to particular, autobiographical witnesses, accentuates the varieties of religious experience and theological perspective (Black: Cone, Latino: Guttierez, Asian: Koyama, Feminist: Ruether, Canadian: Hall, other).

See: Robert Allan Hill, Meditations from Marsh Chapel

You know, children know, the voice of conscience. To bring humility. To scorn laziness. To admit failure, mistake, accident. To stand apart from religion, its pride and sloth and falsehood, its superstition and idolatry and hypocrisy.

A poetic New England voice said this more simply. We thank Amos Wilder, Thornton’s brother, for his brevity.

One said of him: His wartime experience recorded in his early poetry opened him up to the catastrophic depths of humanity, while his vision of hope, derived from his biblical story, allowed him to press beyond the negative limits of his time. His poetic eye enabled him to see connections between the Bible and literature, the Kingdom of God and modern ethics, religious experience and contemporary symbols. (AW, W, 2).

Conscience. History.

The voice from heaven, in mystery and history. The voice from heaven, in creation and conscience.

By this voice we are set upon a path that will set us apart. It is a path of love, joy and peace. It is a path of deep personal faith and active social involvement. It is a path of believing, belonging and behaving. It is a path that moves from the self -centered to the centered self. It is a path of costly discipleship not of cheap grace, a path of living for others through a religion-less Christianity. It is a path of commitment, delight, and wonder. It is a path of salvation. The need is salvation and the way is faith.

We apply the Gospel to ourselves, this morning, as a people again confronted by the tragedy of violence. Our prayerful thoughts go out to those hurt and worse in Tucson. For our part, we shall try again this week to learn and speak the language of love. We shall commit and commend ourselves to mimic the voice of heaven, however lispingly we shall do so. Let our words be those of encouragement, of contrition, of honest kindness and kind honesty, in public and in private.


The voice from whom we come and to whom our spirits shall return. Blessed by God, loved by God, held by God, known by God, meant for God, baptized for God. What a voice!

A voice from heaven, in creation and conscience, given for the healing of the earth, all of the earth.

The voice from heaven is spread through the earth. In season and out. In church and out. In religion and out. In the city and in the country. On the dry land of experience and out in the river Jordan of faith.

What a voice!

Six years ago, a friend and I stopped at a country book sale. He bought a volume or two of English history. I bought a 1934 edition of Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past. I read in it every now and then. Six years later, this past week, I came upon page 768, and here is what I read: “A voice sure of being heard, and musical, because it was the command not only of authority to obedience, but of wisdom to happiness”.

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

January 2

Strength to Start

By Marsh Chapel

Click here to hear the sermon only.

Matthew 2: 1-12


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

Shakespeare knew the beauty and terror of the dawn:

The grey eyed morn smiles on the frowning night
Chequering the eastern clouds with streaks of light
And flecked darkness like a drunkard reels
Form forth days path and Titan’s fiery wheels
Now ere the sun advance his burning eye
The day to cheer and night’s dank dew to dry

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

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

Strength in Christ

In the first place, we may plainly affirm that together we find strength in Christ.

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

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

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

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

Saints together
In Christ
God is faithful

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

For you, all of you, have been found in a new situation. You are “in Christ”.

Start the day strong—much will befall to challenge by dusk.
Start life strong in childhood—much comes later to unsettle.
Start with laughter and play in summer—much in autumn proves more difficult.
Start this New Year with strength, and like a skier carried along by gravity, you will pass by and over and around the bumps.
Start this week and each week with the hearing of the Holy Word—much that is less than holy will greet you later.

Strength in Time of Need

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

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

For the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to the people of skill, but time and chance happen to them all.

Life is not fair, not by a country mile.

Not fair to those who suffer untimely loss
Not fair to those stricken with unexpected illness
Not fair to those whose limbs are taken and torn
Not fair to those who should have been chosen
Not fair to you

Time and chance happen to all.

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

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

Start with that trust and strength.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Strength in the Hope of the Future

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

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

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

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


Strength to start.
Strength to start in Christ
Strength to start in times of trial
Strength to start with hope for the end

Put on the whole clothing of Christ!

As you stand at the dawn of the rest of life…
We will put it in terms familiar…

Put on the whole wardrobe of Christ

Put on the sweater of grace
Put on the boots of peace
Put on the mittens of thanksgiving
Put on the tuke of fellowship
Put on the scarf of faithfulness
Put on the snowsuit of sanctification
Pick up the shovel of salvation
And the ice-pick of hope
And the salt of happiness

For in Christ, at New Year’s, you are given a strength to start.

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

December 26


By Marsh Chapel

Click here to hear the sermon only.

Matthew 2: 13-23

At the Nativity, God makes space for forgiveness. The Christmas peace is a peace of pardon, grace and forgiveness.

Our lesson from Holy Scripture emphasizes two basic Christmas teachings. The first is the reminder of life as a journey and of faith as spiritual itinerancy. Joseph dispatches the Magi, who themselves go home by another way, and then flees for a time to Egypt, only later to return Nazareth. The birth of Jesus occasions a journey of faith.

The second reminder to us is of the God who keeps promises. Three separate events are said to transpire (flight to Egypt, slaughter of children, return to Nazareth), all in fulfillment of prophecy. While Hosea spoke of Israel, Matthew claims his words for Jesus. While Jeremiah spoke of exile to Babylon, Matthew claims his words for Herod. While Isaiah speaks of a messianic King, Matthew claims his words for the son of Mary. The birth of Jesus marks the protection of a divine promise.

We may want to pause just for a moment to reflect upon the glad tidings of great joy.

To do so, we need to clear away the straw and brush of some stress.

As the pastor responded, when asked by his civic club to speak about the miracle of Christmas, and the mystery of the Nativity, “Why certainly. It would be my pressure…I mean pleasure”.

There is much pleasure coming to this Nativity. But there is pressure as well.

You may consider the strange chaos of this season, for a moment of limited peace this morning. You may wonder about the stress of the holidays. Why so stressful? Their mixture of high expectation and low experience? Their year end blizzard of financial and social obligations? Their sudden reconfluence of families and generations? Their odd rhythms and paces? The rude manger? The journey to Egypt? Whence the stress?

Our ancient Scriptures suggest another source of our anxiety, at Nativity, if we have such on this very day of peace. It is this. Christmas places us unmistakably before the presence of the Holy, of all that is Holy, at Nativity. The pressing of this moment, our stress, comes from our vague premonition of the divine, of our sense of the Holy. It is an awesome and startling moment to find yourself in the presence of all that is Holy. Joseph can tell us, as he races toward Egypt. Do you feel today the presence of the Holy One?

The ancient Israelites would understand, and recall our need to love the Lord our God with all our heart and soul and mind and strength.

The prophet Isaiah would understand, and recite again his vision of the temple, “Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord of hosts, heaven and earth are full of God’s glory”.

The virgin Mary would understand, singing, “My soul does magnify the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior”.

The apostle Paul would understand and record, “It is the God who said ‘Let light shine out of darkness’ who has shown in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.”

The evangelist John would understand, and teach, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the word was God.”

Every mystic and part-mystic from Dionysius the Aereopagite, to Amoun of Nitria, to Santa Teresa of Avila, to Howard Thurman would understand, and affirm, “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom”.

Rudolph Otto said it for his generation, “the mysterium tremendum et fascinans”. The sudden sense of God, present.

And you? And me? And we?

To be alive at Christmas, in life’s journey and under the promises of God, is to reckon with the Holy. Hence our stress.

Before all that is Holy, then, a question, a question of soul inevitably arises. Hence our stress.

How am I living?

Have I asked too little of myself or too much of myself? Or have I asked too much for myself or too little for myself? The awesome wonder of Nativity provokes a mortal question: “Have you asked enough of yourself, and have you asked enough for yourself?”

In the presence of all that is Holy, we can come clean… Thou before whom no secrets are hidden, cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of thy Holy Spirit that we may more fully love thee and more worthily magnify thy Holy name…

Some of us ask too much of ourselves. We work 80 hours when 60 would be better, wrap 10 gifts when 4 would suffice, do 100% of our relational work and 30% of every one else’s. You ask too much of yourself.

Some of us ask too little of ourselves. We pass through life unaware of the bruising our narcissism inflicts on others. We do not pray in the morning, or worship on Sunday. We have not climbed the front step of faith which is tithing, nor knocked on the front door of faith which is giving away annually 10% of what we earn, nor entered the front room of faith which is discovering the joy of a tenth given. We do not keep full faith with our partners, spouses, friends. You ask too little of yourself.

Some of us ask too much for ourselves. So we create a world that is post-Christian . A world of pervasive materialism, preemptive war, limited literacy, flat spirituality, inherited entitlement, shallow sexuality, Machiavellian leadership, computerized e-buse, and disrespect for elders. We crowd the malls at 7am on the day after Christmas, hungry for a sacrament in consumption that merely consumes the consumer. You ask too much for yourself.

Some of us ask too little for ourselves. The Christmas vision of peace gets dim. The reality of love is blurred. The singing moments of joy are lost in the shuffle. We forget who we are meant to be. Are we lovers anymore? You ask too little for yourself.

How will any of us ever get this balance right? Before all that is Holy?

You know, we will never get it right.

Not fully.

A person who lives in isolation, neither giving nor receiving, may ask too little of himself.

A young woman struggling with issues of identity and behavior may ask too little for herself.

A young man raised in a morally heightened atmosphere, where expectations are very high, may ask too much of himself.

A woman at midlife, who has enjoyed much, too much pleasantry, may ask too little of herself.

A man, who has worked hard, and also was well placed in life, may ask too little of himself.

It is the conscience, of course, at Nativity, that place us, creation and conscience, before the Holy.

Nor is there one, even one, among us who has fully balanced, rightly balanced, the question of what we ask of ourselves with what we ask for ourselves.

Some of us this morning need to lean back and ask a little less of ourselves. Some of us this morning need to lean forward and ask a little more of ourselves.

While we do, though, while we engage again the balances of spirit, perhaps we could remember the good news of the Nativity. This news of glad tidings and great joy is a matter of full health and salvation for you, and trusting this gospel with life, your life, is a matter of life and death.

You see, if there were no pardon or peace in the universe, then we would have to get everything exactly right, or we would be doomed. If grace were like Newton’s gravity, and once you fell you kept on falling without pardon or peace, we would be doomed. If grace were like Marx’s history, and “moved with iron necessity toward inevitable results”, we would be doomed. If there were never any forgiveness available, before all that is Holy, we w
ould never be able to be at peace, or to act with grace, or to live any other than fear ridden, guilt obsessed, self centered lives. Hell. What a life that would be.

This is why John Wesley asked his one question. Do you know God to be a pardoning God? Not, do you believe, only, or hope, only, or feel, only, but do you know…

He breaks the power of canceled sin, he sets the prisoner free.

At Nativity, at Christmas, before the Holy, we are set free from…well? name it…that regret for… that word unfitly spoken, that event not foreseen and not forestalled, that deed you wish you could revisit, that memory from an autumn morning, or a midnight dream—they all engulf, and overwhelm, unless…


Dearest friend, the Holy Child of Bethlehem is God’s own pardon, God’s own peace, God’s own love to embrace you whether you lean backward or forward or both. As Howard Thurman, a some time mystic wrote,

When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and the princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flocks,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among brothers,
To make music in the heart.

We should not let the beauty of Thurman’s poetry obscure the wisdom of this theology. His great poem is about Nativity not morality. The work, here, is God’s. The work of finding, healing, feeding, releasing, rebuilding, bringing peace and music to the heart…this is the work of Grace, born in Bethelem of Judea in the days of Herod the King. The work is work done in Jesus the Christ. Oh, we may help, like at Christmas the 3 year old helps his mother to set the table. He drops the fork, and breaks the cup, and spills the water. She is grateful for his help, and help he should. But she it is who has the meal in hand. The feast is prepared, the table is spread. A word of grace is said. Kitchen, and dining room, and table are all prepared.

Sursum Corda. Lift up your hearts. Hear the gospel:

You are forgiven. You are accepted. You are healed. You are loved.

Mild he lays his glory by
Born that we no more may die
Born to raise us from the earth
Born to give us second birth
Hark! The herald angels sing
Glory to the newborn king.


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