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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?…you 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

December 12

Bach and Advent

By Marsh Chapel

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Matthew 11: 2-11


Much of our life is consumed by what can quickly and readily be said. Or texted. We do need to apply for jobs, pay bills, find information, reply, reply all, and reply all’yall (a form of computer speech limited to southern regions). Sometimes, as the sermon three weeks ago addressed, the gospel in which we stand may cause us to stand apart from new and untested forms of communication. Sometimes, as the newspaper reported this week, we as a University community are challenged to find our way forward through new and untested forms of internet communication, which may bruise, harm or hurt our neighbor. Email in broad use is less than 15 years old. Facebook in broad use is less than 5 years old. Twitter is a tiny tot. Text an infant. We need not fear the future, as long as with honesty, on an hourly basis, we squarely face the future.

Which brings us to the sermon for today, lifted up and out of Our Bach Experience. In worship and life at Marsh Chapel we engage all the newest forms of communication (see today our website), and we desire to do so with a cloud of witnesses, with the wisdom of the ages, with the faith once delivered to the saints, with words and songs and prayers that last, through the ages. The high Gothic nave here is meant to affirm what lasts. The beautiful windows here are meant to enshrine what lasts. The historic enchanting liturgy of the service is meant to spell out what lasts. The deliberate preparation and pacing of the sermon are meant to announce what lasts. We have about 8000 Sundays in a lifetime, 8000 moments in word and music to experience God. We dare not waste one or one minute of one in pandering, in entertaining, in minimizing, in doodling. In this 59 minute poem of worship each week, the 16 musical moments and the 11 spoken moments are offered in the praise of God. Remember your mortality. Remember your fragility. Remember your imperfection. Remember who you are. And so remember that you are happily a child of the living God.

John Wesley, chiseled in stone above our Marsh Chapel portico, taught Greek, evangelized Native Americans, rose daily at 4am to preach at 6am and throughout the day, changed the course of English and American history, and founded Methodism which itself gave birth to Boston University. He claimed to be a man one book, ‘homo unius libri’. For all this we do rightly honor him. We cherish him. We revere him. But, truth to tell, it is brother Charles, the musician, the hymnist, whom we love, especially as we come toward the caroling hour. Martin Luther, enshrined in stained glass near and far, splintered the church on the anvil of truth, recalled us to salvation by faith alone, withstood physical ailments, mental trials, political clashes, and religious hatreds. He founded a movement that became the Lutheran church, and gave us the Protestant Principle of the necessary rigorous self criticism of all religion. We honor him. We cherish him. We revere him. But, truth to tell, it is his musical great grand child, J S Bach, whom we love, especially as we ready ourselves to hear an Advent cantata.

We need both the words and the music. But music lasts even when words fail. That tune you heard on the radio that took you forty years back in time. That hymn whose melody was lifted in a high or hard moment, a wedding or funeral. That new experience—as Bach is for many young adults and others today—that took you by the hand and led you out into the ineffable, the serene, the beautiful, the heavenly, the high and holy. One of you found yourself here on a Saturday in November, listening to the BU chorus sing R Thompson’s Frostiana, and you were glad to be in the balcony, alone with heavy tears and light heart and soul filled with the radiance of the words made lasting by the music. We need both words and music, but the music sometimes finds an opening in the heart, a little crevice into which to maneuver, which would be too small and too angular for the word alone. “I come mainly to sing the hymns”: one of you might have said that. I think one of you did.

Our words and music today are folded around several expectant themes:

Our readings are Isaiah 35 and Matthew 11:2-11. The themes therein include expectation, prophecy, the coming reign of God, times and seasons, and the emerging recognition of Jesus as Messiah, all good Advent fare. *Expectation puts us on his shoulder when experience lays us low. Our undergraduates teach us this, for even when they are brought down by one or another standard young adult trial, and as hard as they fall, they just as strongly get back up, dust off, come to church, and live to write another day. *Prophecy has kept the darker ranges of apocalyptic and Gnostic fears at bay, or at least has kept them company in the Bible. Isaiah week by week has been singing you a song your mother taught you as well. Where there is hope there is life. *Jesus means more to us now then when we first believed. In that evolution we have company in the ancient writings and the saints of the primitive church. We are more aware as we grow, or grow older, that we are in good hands and so we can risk a bit to bear one another’s burdens. *So this season of Advent surrounds us with expectation and prophecy and trust. In a wee moment we will hear this Advent gospel sung.


This morning’s cantata, ‘Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland,’ brings music for our words. *Here is expectation, in the text of the fifth movement:

We honor this glory
and approach Your manger now
and praise with joyful lips
what You have prepared for us;
the darkness does not confuse us
and we see Your eternal light.

* Here too is prophecy, the pregnant promise foretold of old, which itself, as promise does, holds us up and holds us steady: Hear the text of the third movement.

The hero out of Judah breaks forth
to run His course with joy
and to purchase us fallen ones.
O brilliant radiance, o wonderful light of blessing!

*Here too is a new wonder, a fuller grace, from Him from Whom we receive grace upon grace: The words of the cantata’s second movement:

Marvel, o humanity, at this great mystery:
the Supreme Ruler appears to the world.
Here the treasures of heaven are uncovered,
here a divine manna is presented to us

Today if we listen with care to Bach’s musical sermon, our own expectation and prophecy and trust may be further enhanced. In the first movement listen to the way in which Bach balances the joyful exuberance of the Messiah’s coming with the gravity of the great mystery – the word made flesh. This is the music of the refiner’s fire. Written for the first Sunday in Adve
nt in 1724, Bach must have been aware that Luther penned his famous chorale exactly 200 hundred years before in 1524. We will sing together Hymn 214 in just a moment, deepening our morning’s connection to Luther, Bach, and the centuries of Advent celebration and observance. The opening movement of the cantata brims with jubilant, if a little anxious expectation. And from the third measure of the cantata, we hear Luther’s famous tune. Moreover, Luther’s text is quoted directly in the outer movements and is freely adapted in movements two through five. The cantata is full of happy dissonances – darkness to light in the fifth movement, joyful exuberance checked by gravitas in the first, the sweet babe in the manger who will route the foe and forge the new way, a Virgin unspotted – die Keuschheit nicht beflekket. Advent is a season of penitence and preparation, renewal and redemption. Luther by way of Bach seems to say, “Sit up, Christian! The Bride-groom comes! Make your house ready! Prepare a room for him in your heart!”


May the rigors of Advent continue to prod and challenge us. May this not be an easy season. May this season unfold with moments in which we are brought up short, put on notice, called to account, and changed.

You are a people of faith, so that you are also a people of expectation. You do not drop your chin at the first mention of bad news. You do not fold your tents at the first sign of giants in the land. You stand your ground, singing the music of expectation.

You are a people of faith, so that you are also a people of Prophecy. You do not lie down and weep, only awaiting an unknown and unseen future. You accept the unforeseen as part of the future, and you take up arms against a sea of troubles, hoping to end them. You let the day’s own trouble be sufficient for the day, remembering ‘sufficient to the day is the evil thereof’. You live your eyes, singing the music of prophecy.

You are a people of faith, so that you are also a people of Trust. You know that for anything to get done, trust is the coin of the realm. You have learned in your experience that the good future requires us not only to work hard but also to work together.

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

December 5

Down by the River

By Marsh Chapel

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Matthew 3: 1-12

Cold River

To get to Bethlehem, each year, we have to walk at least once down by the river Jordan. It is cold outside, down here along the banks of the roiling river of life. It is uncomfortable outside, down here along the banks of the rushing river of truth. It is dark outside, down here along the existential river of soul, of salvation, of all that is sacred. And there is more.

A river, especially the Jordan, is a symbol of the edge, the end, the last things, the purpose of life, the end of time. Says Ecclesiastes, ‘All rivers run to the sea, but the sea is not full’. My beloved Antonio Machado, whose verse strangely comes back to me after years of my own wandering, says the same: “Nuestras vidas son los rios que van a dar a la mar” (Campos de Castilla).

For down by the river, we hear John the Baptist. To get to Bethlehem, each year, we have to walk down by the river Jordan. Here, lurking and skulking and sliding about in the dark recesses of the heart, here is a voice, crying in the wilderness. It is the voice of conscience. The voice of him who crieth in the wilderness, ‘Prepare ye the way of the Lord. Make straight in the desert a highway for our God.’ Down, down, down by the river.

John rankles and offends, because he challenges us to start over. He is dressed in camel’s hair, the smelliest of clothes. He eats locusts, and wild honey. Here is a voice. Not pretty image, not contrived appearance, not considered attire—but voice. Not face, but voice. John in the dark, cowering along the caves of the riverbed, crying. His is the voice of conscience, by which we are brought outside of ourselves and made to hear what we may not want to hear. And there is more. His voice reverberates today, down by the river. Let’s go outside, let’s go down and listen to him, on our way to Bethlehem.

Speaking through our conscience the Baptist illumines our minds, strengthens our hands and warms our hearts.


Before we lay our gifts at the manger altar, we will want the chill challenge of a thoughtful, thinking faith. In the long run what is not true cannot be good though it may be news. John the Baptist comes around at least once a year to remind us so.

We can be thankful for those laboring at night in the lonely libraries and cubicles and offices nearby, to stretch our understanding that it might embrace our faith which is seeking that same understanding. Theology matters.

Many this autumn had the fun and the privilege to listen at a faculty retreat to some of the newest, youngest adventures in thoughtful reflection on faith. Words from the wise, words to the wise.

One young biblical scholar reminded us: The Christian Bible…has never been stable; each book and collection has undergone a long process of transmission and reception that continues to this day…The Bible remains a living document preserving not only a diverse body of texts but also the priorities of those who have transmitted it.

One young psychologist of religion reminded us: We are disposed to misunderstand. We live in a pluriverse, a conversation across the boundaries of different lands. We witness the inevitable but not necessary collapse of ambiguity into certainty. Sometimes, especially when we are trying truly distinguish cruelty from care, we need a sense of ambiguity. We may need to return again and again to Nicholas of Cusa and the ‘doctrine of learned ignorance’.

One young historian reminded us of the central role women have played in global missions: empathy is like oxygen. When you feel somebody experience you deeply, it is like air, like oxygen.

One young philosophical theologian reminded us: as we look at
religious experience we have to hold ourselves accountable to empirical research.

An older, wiser teacher, reminded this academic circle of an
academic peril: We sometimes mistakenly think that if you can get it down on paper you don’t have to live it.

Some of you will have had the benefit of those who showed by example how to think about faith, how faithfully to think. We want to live in our own version of the memory Tony Judt had of Manhattan decades ago: “Manhattan in those decades was the crossroads where original minds lingered”. (NYT 11/8/10) I hear his sentence as ecclesiology. So too the church: a crossroads where original minds linger.


Your hands are touching and helping others.

Our students have now each year for four years engaged a citywide CROP walk to combat world hunger. Our Methodist fellowship has worked this autumn at the Cooper Mission in Roxbury. Our partnership with the University and with Habitat for Humanity has just recently completed the $50,000 initial fund raising needed so that a house will soon start to be built. You have continued to prayerfully support Refugee Immigration Ministries. The student ‘servant team’ continues to provide service both among students, and in leading students to service. Some of you will be heading off for a week of Alternative Spring Break service next year. As a congregation you continue to support the BMC food pantry. In short, ‘hands on’ forms of service continue to thrive here at Marsh Chapel, thanks to the lay leadership offered in these many areas.

Real change is real hard, but change can come. Dr Alonso in three years as Superintendent of the Baltimore City schools is seeing improvement (NYT, 12/2/10). He has closed failing schools (26 out of 198), fired 75% of the principals, cut suspensions by 50%, fired up community participation, balanced responsibility with authority, instituted performance based teacher compensation, and taught his staff to refer to students as ‘scholars’. Where there is a will there is a way.

What we love, we should love ardently. Service helps us ground our faith in action, and thereby protects us from betraying the life into which we have been called. Tragedy is to betray the life into which you have been called, or the profession into which you have been called, or the calling into which you have been called.

Our current generation of students excels at participatory service ministry, and teaches its value by example.


In the winter we learn to stay warm. At night our eyes are sharpened to see shapes in the shadows. When we experience diminishment we also hold more closely those things which mean most to us. With age comes wisdom.

Most of ministry, these years, has been in snow. In smaller assignments, the snow fell often on afternoons given over to sharing the gospel, one by one. At the kitchen table. Over coffee. In a parking lot. Within a small office. At the hospital. At school. With lunch. In a nursing home. In the barn, at dusk, milking time. In the sugar house. On a tractor.

I am told of a pastoral visit, of the following sort.

Snow swirled that day, as the Nursing Home hove into view. Gladys deserved a call, on the line between life and death, and the preacher came prepared, or so he thought.

Would you like me to pray with you? Oh, it is not necessary. Of course I love all the prayers of the great church, particularly, now that I see little, those I carry in memory from our old liturgy. But I am fine.

Perhaps you would like to hear the Psa
lms? My grandmother appreciated them read as she, uh… You mean as she lay dying?...Yes. Oh, it is not necessary. I mean I do love the Psalms, and was lucky to have them taught rote to me at church camp so that they rest on my memory, like goodness and mercy, all the days of my life. But I am fine.

I know that you sang in our choir. Would you like some of the hymns recited for you? Oh that is not necessary. I do so love music! I can sing the hymns from memory to myself at night! I found my faith singing, you know. It just seemed so real when we would sing, when we were younger, around the piano, around the campfire, around the church. I knew in my heart, I knew Whom I could trust. But I am fine.

I brought communion for you in this old traveling kit. Oh, that is not necessary. We can have communion if you like. It is so meaningful to me. I can feel my husband right at my side, knee to knee. After he died, I could not hear anything that was said in your fine sermons for so long, my heart hurt so loudly. But I still could get grace in communion. But I am fine.

So the snow was falling, as it does in all ministry in our region. (You will say, surely not in the summer. I take the summer off, for that reason!). Snow on snow…flake on flake…Just like a preacher, nothing to offer, but to stand and wait and wring the hands…

Gladys, is there anything that I could bring you today? As a matter of fact, there is…Tell me about our church…I have been out of worship for so long… How is the church doing this Christmas?...Are the children coming and being taught to give their money to others? And what of the youth? Are they in church and skating and sledding and hayriding and falling in love? Tell me about the UMW and their mission goal. Did they make it? A dollar means so little to us and so much in Honduras and China. And tell me about the building… Are the Trustees preparing for another generation? It is so easy to defer maintenance…What about the choir—are they singing from faith to faith?...Tell me about your preaching, and the DS, and our Bishop…What is going to happen with our little church …Tell me, please, tell me about our church…It is where I find meaning and depth and love…That is what you can bring me today.

As Howard Thurman 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.

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

November 28

Walk in the Light

By Marsh Chapel

Click here to hear the sermon only.

Isaiah 2: Romans 13; Matthew 24

You may be trying to find your spiritual footing.

Other than the emergence of language itself, the stumbling child’s movements in learning to walk are perhaps the most tender in memory. Adults learn to walk in various ways too. I watched my father, nearly killed by an infection, and bed-bound for months, learn to walk again. While I can see his first steps, baby steps at age 80, I would not be fully able to convey the power of those steps.

You too may be trying to get your balance, to find your religious footing. As with so many things, the decision to try is the main thing.

On Ground Hog Day each year I set aside an hour to skate with students on the Frog Pond. Some of those from South Carolina and Korea are just learning to skate. They have the most fun.

About ten days ago the wind was swirling on Bay State Road, catching up the leaves in little multi colored cyclones, and twirling them around. It was raining red an orange, yellow and brown, whipping the leaves to the cheek. Then coming toward me a young woman, seeing the swirl, herself dropped her books, made a pirouette, and twirled in tandem with the leaves. One loop, two loops, three… I judge it was the right response to the wind.

In an age and setting that demeans and diminishes mystery and history, she danced. She found her footing, along our street.

Yes, it is important to take it slow as you begin. On the open path among leaves no step has yet trodden black, it makes sense to takes things slow. A sermon about taking such primordial steps, should take a slow pace. Don’t you think?

I believe many women and men who do not regularly darken doors of churches are nonetheless trying to find spiritual footing. I believe that a Sunday sermon, of all things, can bring the balance needed for the walk of faith. In fact, if the sermon cannot, what can? Like the bullfighter with the cape waving, like the boxer circling to find that one opening, like the private detective waving the flashlight in the cellar, here we are, everything at stake.

Will somebody please lend a hand? Someone is trying to learn to walk. I have been humbled to see people to learn to walk, especially in the imagination. As a matter of fact, I think I saw some of you there.

If you are going to walk, you will need light to see your way. It is dark in December, dark in Advent, dark as the readings shift from sunny Luke to dark Matthew, dark as the church begins another liturgical year, dark as finals befall, dark, dark, outside it is dark.

So let us look for light in which to walk.

Look up. Light falls to illumine the path, THE WAY, ahead. Look. Let us walk in the light of the Lord. How many times this week have you touched something nearly 3000 years old? Isaiah’s words are that old. There shall be a mountain. The highest of mountains. Upon the mountain the house of Lord shall sit. To its beauty and goodness and truth the nations shall flow (how lovely). Swords into plowshares, spears into pruning hooks. Neither shall they learn war anymore.

Year by year as I hear again read these Isaian prophecies, they seem annually ever farther off. They just seem so improbable. I give you North Korea, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Palestine. Nation shall not lift up sword against nation…

Isaiah is not exclusively full of promise, though promise is the heart of today’s reading. Isaiah predicts doom for the people of God. Isaiah is like Amos and Hosea and Micah, in whom the whole of our reading today is also found. These were old and popular verses, to which both Isaiah and Micah repaired. The oracles of judgment upon the people of God, which both precede and follow our lesson today, underscore one particular ailment within the body of God’s people. This is a lesson we may do well to keep steadily before us. The primary impediment to relationship with God is injustice. Repeatedly all of these early prophets return to this single theme. The relationship between God and people is torn, rent asunder, by mistreatment of the poor. We will want to hear this as clearly as possible, as we find our footing, along the walk of faith. It is not only true that justice is desirable. Justice itself is marker along our path, a way of walking in the light. But it is not an end in itself. It absence is not desirable, but for a fuller reason. Injustice impedes our walk in the light. Injustice interferes with our relationship with God. As bad as injustice is in its own right, its damage to our relationship with God is far worse.

I believe this is why the pulpit of Marsh Chapel has resounded for so many decades in attention to the weight matters of justice: Littell and the holocaust, Thurman and race, Hamill and war, Thornburg and cults, Neville and identity, Hill and peace. My predecessors knew well that you have to look up in hope, look up in dream, look up in desire, look up in expectation. To find our footing going forward we need the light that comes from a sense of possibility, a sense of promise.

And they beat their swords into….

Along comes Isaiah to remind us:

There will come a day when the swords of terror are beaten into the plowshares of learning, the swords of conflict into the plowshares of cooperation, the swords of division into the plowshares of communion, the swords of despair into the plowshares of promise. That is, in Isaiah, judgment is not the last word. Without a sense of a final horizon of hope, without a sense of the love of God, without a sense of the prospect of lasting meaning hidden somehow in history, without a word to guide us about the latter days, no matter how far off, the muscle for the daily struggle deteriorates. You’ve got to have a dream. If you don’t have a dream, how are you going to have a dream come true?

Look up in hope, in promise.

Look down. Look down every now and then, too. In the quiet of late autumn, in the dusk of early Advent, we will want to look down at ourselves, not on ourselves but at ourselves. We are listening to three ancient lessons, trusting that in their interpretation, we may find some light for the path ahead.

In the last third of his great letter to the Romans the Apostle Paul offers his wisdom for living, to a church he has yet to visit. As in Isaiah, the words are meant as advice for groups, for the chosen people of God and for the called people of God, for Israel and the church. (Is this the original meaning of that obscure saying, ‘Many are called (church), few are chosen (Israel)?’) The Apostle’s advice is very earthly. It causes us to look at our shoes, our actual manner of walking. In fact, the advice sounds like it had been written as a challenge not only to culture at large but also to student culture. The verses form a cautionary tale about student life. I think that almost every week there is a student here or listening from afar who may be ready to hear Paul’s challenge (Rom 13:13). In fact, Marsh Chapel and places like it may simply stand as silent witnesses to the hope that students may emerge from their studies without undue regret, without too many regrets. We all carry regrets, but if we love one another we will want them to be fewer rather than more. Paul warns about the regrets embedded in drunkenness, debauchery and quarrelling.

What warning would we add today?

For thos
e of us working nearby young adults in this era, the manner and meaning of instrumental communication is a serious issue, or set of issues. We are the grownups on the lot, and yet we are largely immigrants to a land far more native to our students. In some cases, we are still back in the old country. How are we going to bring to bear the wisdom of the ages, in the twitter age? Are we attentive, curious, honest, straight, kind? Or do we hang back, and let things take their own course? I pose this not as a question for sudden answer, yours or mine, but as a lingering, daily, annual point of meditation. How much blackberry and how much blackberry pie? How much Facebook and how much face time?

For St Paul, salvation is close at hand (13:11-12). He still feels the heat of the apocalyptic end, coming he expects in his lifetime. Yet note for the all specificity of his warnings (drunkenness, debauchery, quarrelling) just how open, how free is his advice: ‘put on Christ’. And what, we may ask, does that look like? He has no need to say, for he has said so just prior to our reading; ‘love your neighbor as yourself. Love does no wrong to the neighbor, therefore love is the fulfilling of the law’ (13: 10).

Look down. Polish your shoes. Watch your step. A walk in the light requires a careful step, as responsible stewardship.

And look out. Look out! Isaiah lifts our gaze. Paul lowers our gaze. Matthew lengthens our gaze.

I believe that many people, perhaps you among them, are looking for ways to find their spiritual footing. You may nod a quiet affirmation, with Isaiah, to the need for promise. You may whisper a quiet agreement, with Paul, for the need for discipline. But our third lesson, our Gospel, may at first seem less helpful. It may in fact be less helpful.

You may wonder why a church, or this chapel, would have read such odd passages about the days of Noah, about sudden disappearance in field and mill, about thieves in the night, about the coming of the Son of Man. Why do these ancient, foreign, strange chapters from the history of our religious families still occupy our attention? After all, the fervent first century hope that the end would come before the first generation had passed away was disappointed. Why listen any longer to these predictions?

The meal is over, and we are left with leftovers.

But you know, sometimes the leftovers from the feast prove distinctly savory, nourishing, healthy, and good. In fact, Matthew himself seems to recognize that he is cooking in the aftermath of another meal. So the roast becomes a sandwich and the carcass becomes a soup. The apocalyptic language and imagery which appear here and in Luke, and may have simply been taken over from contemporary Judaism, are made to serve, in this Gospel, another purpose than in their original serving. Eschatology becomes ethics. Expectation about the end is made to serve a moral point: be ready; watch. In our funeral service we repeat in our prayers, ‘we know not what a day may bring, but only that the hour for serving thee is always present’.

Just as the meal is gone and we are left with the leftovers, so too now the family has gone, and we are left with the memories.

But you know, sometimes the memories from the gathering can prove distinctly encouraging, powerful, healing, and good, even better than the gathering itself. Like an ornery uncle or disapproving great aunt, these apocalyptic passages, which were the ancestors of the language of our whole New Testament, can prove hard to have around, but they also have stories to tell, and wisdom to share.

Like a strange uncle, they can remind us of how unexpectedly things can change. “I lost everything I had in the depression”. Like a feisty aunt, they can challenge us to be ready, “I never thought that day that I would meet my husband on a train to St Louis”. Like a cousin we seldom see, they can jolt us because they look like us and sound like us when they say, “If I had known then what I know now I would have acted more quickly”.

You need the family memories and tasty leftovers as much as you need the turkey and company. Look out! Be watchful and mindful and careful.

You just never know what a day will bring.

One year ago we were unexpectedly invaded by a hatemongering pseudo- religious group from Kansas. Do you remember that rather sudden, even apocalyptic, invasion of our community life here, and that utterly regrettable vilification of one of our sister ministries here at BU? After that worship service, last year, I said:

The presence near our campus of an ostensibly ‘Christian’ organization devoted to the hatred of gay people, to the hatred of people of other religions, and to the hatred of Christians of non-protestant denominations, is a sorry, tragic, affront to our University, to its history, to its stated mission, to its motto, to its ethos and practice, to its various communities, and to its religious life leadership, chaplains, and groups. It is difficult to find words strong and true enough to convey the shared disdain of our community for this most unwelcome intrusion. Particularly for those of Christian orientation, the reminder of the lasting vitality in our time of bigotry and anti-Semitism, cloaked in the garb of religion, brings measures of pain and shame. We recognize the right of free speech on city streets, but we unequivocally deplore what is said by this group.
But we had to address that without much preparation. It was not enough to generalize or specialize. We had to improvise. You will probably need to ‘look out’ and improvise a bit too, now and then.

You may be trying to find your spiritual footing. It is in fact hard to get started, in anything, and really hard in anything that really matters.

Walk in the light of promise.

Walk in the light of discipline.

Walk in the light of readiness.

If we walk in the light as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another.

Today’s sermon is a sermon for those of us who are trying to find our spiritual footing.

Sometimes the people who say or think they have the least faith in fact have the most. I am not interested in how many psalms you can recite, though I implore you to learn some. I am not interested in how many hymns you know by heart, though when you are ill or alone they could be saving companions. I am not interested in how many religious books you have read, though learning and piety are meant to live together. I am not interested in how many church services you have attended, though there is no better way to grow in faith.

But I am interested in this. Are you putting one foot ahead of the other? Are you trying? Are you concerned about it? Are you walking? Are you walking in the light? Are you letting some of the sunlight of promise fall on your shoulder? Are you letting some of the inner light of discipline carry your feet along? Are you watching for that unexpected ray of inspiration, burst of imagination or challenge to investigation?

Not: are you running? Not: are you winning? Not: are you starring? Not: are you succeeding? Not: are you finishing?

Just this:

Are you walking in the light?

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

November 21

A Thanksgiving Feast

By Marsh Chapel

Pilgrims they were, and not merely immigrants, who ate the first Thanksgiving meal in 1621.

William Bradford: “They knew they were pilgrims”.

Pilgrims journey. Pilgrims travel in a certain direction. Pilgrims hear within their earthly travels the echoes, faint but real, of lasting meaning. Are you pilgrims?

Thanksgiving at least allows us to pause and consider whether or not we are going anywhere. And so, even this holiday can become an opportunity for the power of God to change hearts. As Ernest Tittle well wrote, “It is not required of us to save the world. It is required of us to say what the world must do to be saved. The event is in the hands of God.”

In Plymouth, Massachusetts, anno domini 1621, that is in the second year of that community’s life, Governor William Bradford declared December 13, 1621 to be set aside for feasting and prayer. He meant for the pilgrims to look back a year, to give thanks, and to pray. Have you lived through a trying year? So had Bradford’s pilgrims.

During the winter before, 1620-1621, ONE HALF of all the original travelers had died.

William Bradford: “The living were scarcely able to bury the dead”.

Somehow, the rest survived. After a full year of struggle with nature and history and providence, on Bradford’s order they sat down for feasting and prayer, to look back a year and to give thanks and to pray. They gathered at table with their Native American neighbors—hosts, saviors, fellow pilgrims—and paused.

In 1621, the people of that little struggling pilgrim community paused, for feasting and prayer. The women of the community baked for days. The children turned roasted wild pigs on spits atop blazing open fires. The Native peoples brought wild turkey and venison. The pilgrims brought ducks and fish and geese—the provision of an abundant if harsh environment. Together they ate the meat with journey cake, cornmeal bread with nuts. For dessert there was pumpkin stewed in maple sap. They spent three days singing, and eating, and praying. And then they went back to work.

William Bradford’s Plymouth Rock pilgrims knew better than we do how unforgiving the world can be. Nature and History both. The snows of 1620 and the squabbles of 1621 ravaged their community, starved their children, infected their loved ones and nearly extinguished the candle of hope with which they had come to the New World. For the pilgrims had hoped to find a place, however rude and poor, in which freely to worship God. They very nearly did not survive. Yet they found, in that first Thanksgiving, a reason to be thankful, a feast fit for pilgrims such as they and such as we. And just what spiritual feast, what Thanksgiving Feast, did they celebrate on December 13, 1621 on the shores of the Massachusetts Bay?


Perhaps, in part, they simply celebrated safety. In their feasting they gave thanks for a measure of physical safety and security. Governor Bradford himself had reason thus to be thankful. He grew up on a farm in England, but was touched by the Spirit of God and began to seek religious freedom. First he fled to Holland, but then he finally sailed to the New World, at last to be safe from religious persecution. Yes, the pilgrims gave thanks for safety, though they knew it to be a passing blessing, an uncertain commodity.

You will not always be safe. The forces of nature and the iron necessities of history continue, random and raging and relentless. You cannot absolutely control what may happen on an airliner. Nor can you determine when and how the earth will quake. Nor can you predict or preclude, this coming Thursday, what your mother in law may say, as she passes the oyster dressing. Security is a great blessing, even our great blessing today, but not all in the world are so blessed, and not always are those now blessed ever so blessed.

William Bradford: “Our fathers were Englishmen which came over this great ocean, and were ready to perish in this wilderness.”

As Y B Yeats wrote, some people are bred to harder things than Triumph. As we know, some best people, are bred to truer things than success or even safety. No, a measure of temporary security alone did not create the first Thanksgiving feast.


Perhaps they also gave thanks for community. It is one thing to have troubles, and another to have troubles together.

In class this week, as we studied the Gospel of John, I asked my students where they think faith comes from. Then one asked the same of me. After 35 years of ministry, I gave a quick answer, and I believe a true one. Faith? “Faith comes from trouble. If you ask most people how they came to faith they will tell you a story about trouble. Faith comes from trouble.”

Perhaps our ancestors were thankful for company in misery, for community in trouble. Pilgrims share a common purpose, and so a community along the earthly road. Always this is reason for joy. Here is an odd definition: A solution is a problem that has been shared. And in the life span of every problem there is a point at which it is large enough to see and small enough to solve. Savor those moments! A problem is a solution waiting for a comrade. Harry Truman found two times of real joy in his earlier life, one in the army, and the other in the Senate, both because of the very real comradeship, the very real community of those groups. I have found in the covenant of the clergy, in the brotherhood of the clergy, when and where it has actually existed, a true, profound, unique companionship (a word by the way that has its root in the sharing of bread). We take our churches so much for granted, and yet, as the cultural sun of post-Christian America continues to set, and the twilight of the full 21st century approaches, these little lights along the shore stand out, every more precious. What a precious event it is when someone finds a church home to enjoy, and church family to love, a church community for which to give thanks.

William Bradford: “As one small candle may light a thousand, so the light here kindled has shone unto many.” Beware a word or a deed, every so slight, that damages real community. Be glad for every real opportunity for an experience of shared experience.

It is ironic that Northern cities in which pilgrim virtues are regularly honored, are still so racially divided. Particularly our systems of education, in which we all participate one way or another, bear witness against us. We are sowing the present wind, to reap a future whirlwind, as segregation feeds prejudice and prejudice, hatred and hatred, violence and violence, death. Not one of us is innocent, nor can be, until a real community emerges, visible first in shared, not de facto segregated, schools.

Community, as all pilgrims know, comes with sacrifice.

For those aged 10 to 30, the sacrifice involves attention, the willingness to set aside singular forms of communication in favor of the singular beauty of communion. It involves the sacrifice of the blackberry for the beauty of the blackberry pie. It involves the sacrifice of the Facebook for the beauty of the breathing human face.

For those aged 30 to 50, the sacrifice involves time, that rarest commodity for young families. Time. Time in church and time in school, but time—in advocacy, tutoring, conversation, consideration of the common good. The generation of parental influence needs to invest time.

For those aged 50-
70, the sacrifice involves authority. Also a precious feature of life. Your generation is still profoundly ambivalent about authority, and will need to learn to sacrifice some freedom for the sake of order. Those of us of this generation especially need to grow into a realization that there is a place for authentic authority in order to build community. I challenge you, now that you are the generation of political influence, to recognize and accept the real role of authority in the development of any community. Once we accept the legitimate authority of others, we then are free to take on our own legitimate authority. The generation of political influence needs to invest authority.

For those aged 70 and up, another sacrifice is specifically though not exclusively required. Tithing begins for all on the front porch of faith. You learn faith by giving, by tithing. Community requires money. Now I know the objections. Any community will waste some money. But it is a question of whether it is money well wasted. Community is not a given. It has to be built and maintained, brick and mortar, and in the age of cyberspace, click and mortar. The generation of financial influence needs to invest in the future, in the community, in the pilgrim project by investing resources.

Along the wooden benches in Plymouth, 1621, the thanksgiving feast may have celebrated the power of community, but community alone did not create the first Thanksgiving.


Perhaps the pilgrims also gave thanks for life.

William Bradford: “Being thus arrived in a good harbor, and brought safe to land, they fell upon their knees and blessed the God of heaven, who had brought them over the vast and furious ocean.”

Yes, they gave thanks for life. As my grandmother used to say daily, “It is a great life and I am so glad to be living it!”

Yet, we know how contingent life is. We are so dependent, so fragile. Every benediction every Sunday is meant as a provisional, final word of blessing. We view ourselves as ‘temporarily immortal’. And then we are reminded. Often by an unbidden and unwelcome phone call in the wee hours of the morning. The day of the Lord comes like a thief in the night—unexpected, dreadful, and painful. So, yes, we give thanks for life, but life is contingent, dependent, fragile. Life alone did not evoke the prayer and feasting of the first Thanksgiving. Pilgrims they were, and not merely immigrants, who celebrated the first feast.

Bread of Life

Pilgrims give thanks, not only for security and community and life, but also for Another Reality, what our Gospel calls the food that endures for eternal life, bread from heaven, the true bread from heaven, the bread of life. “Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty”. In fact, none of these others would matter—safety, community, life-- were it not for the Bread of Life.

People hunt for God in such varied and tragic ways. In temples and great buildings. In nature mysticism and love of grass and water. In wild activity—even on MTV one overhears a faint high pitched longing—GODGODGOD. In influence, position, intelligence. So men and women root around for God, usually under the guise of more culturally affirmed habits.

But in hearing of the Word today, we are accosted by The Bread of Life, and the news that God meets us, in person, to heal us.

The One who is The Bread of Life is taking us and translating us, out of our mother tongue of fear, and into the new idiom of ready forgiveness. You know it. When someone has really hurt you, not lightly but deeply. And hurt moves to anger moves to hatred—and then, by grace you find you can fully accept your opponent, and know that an adversary is not necessarily an enemy. That is spiritual translation at work, and The Son of Man is the translator. Pilgrims are thankful for the bread of life which nourishes spiritual translation.

The One who is the Bread of Life is investing in the whole dimly lit world, to show us God. This investment, to which we respond in a moment by presenting our gifts, our tithes and offerings, this is all we can know of God, for God is invisible both to our eye and to our mind. A true Thanksgiving Feast, the very Bread of Life comes to invest in us, to work beside us. Work is good. That is spiritual investment at work. Let us be thankful for such investment.

The One who is the Bread of Life is guiding us and uniting us, one to another. Once real companionship takes hold in your life, there is no going back. Another kind of thanksgiving feast today is calling us to maintain the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace. That is spiritual unification at work. Let us be thankful for such communal unification.

The One who is the Bread of Life, against serious odds, is forming a body. Apart from what you may hope and I may think, the bread of God comes down from heaven and is forming a new creation, clean and shiny and happy and good. Life is a smorgasbord for those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. The Thanksgiving feast guarantees it. Let us be thankful for the former and founder of faith.

The One who is the Bread of Life is leading pilgrims on, through defeat and bitterness and fear, through illness and discord and exclusion, through killing and conflict, leading pilgrims, like us, to resurrection. Let us be thankful for the one in whom we shall not hunger, the one in whom we shall never thirst.

The One who is the Bread of Life is reconciling to himself all things. All things. This is the peace wrought for us finally upon the cross, work done for us not by us. This is spiritual reconciliation at work. Let us be thankful for this Thanksgiving Feast of Spiritual Reconciliation. You too can develop a spiritual discipline against resentment.

Here is the Son of Man, the Bread of Life, our true Thanksgiving Feast: a voice of a divine presence, resident among us, a voice so equable and serene and assured; a voice among us as a lingering essence, a persistent and distinctive aroma—and nothing more; the voice of a Lord, to whom those at the original feast also gave thanks, who makes of us pilgrims, and of our wanderings a real journey. Who makes of all our wanderings a real journey….

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

November 14

Apocalypse as Opportunity

By Marsh Chapel

Click here to hear the sermon only.

Isaiah 65:17-25, Psalm 98, Luke 21: 5-19

“I believe it is the word of God. I do not believe it is the word of God for me.” Lutheran pastor, gifted preacher, noted Biblical scholar, Dean and professor of Harvard Divinity School, and Bishop of the Church of Sweden, when he said those words Krister Stendahl did not advocate the picking and choosing of only the Scriptures we like or feel comfortable with as the basis for our life of faith. Neither did he advocate the summary dismissal of any text that seems to us culturally strange or politically incorrect. Rather he called us to examine closely both the Scripture and our own lives, to see clearly the differences as well as the similarities between them, so we could see and hear more clearly the call of God to us, not two thousand years ago, but here and now, in our own place and time.

Our Gospel reading this morning is the “little apocalypse” of Luke. “Apocalypse” means “revelation” or “unveiling”, and here Luke portrays Jesus as the one who reveals or unveils to his disciples not only the fate of the Temple and the world, but their fate as well. Certainly there are similarities between the lives of those disciples and our own. Luke is writing to a community which realizes that the Second Coming of Jesus is delayed, so that “the end will not follow immediately”. They, like we, are in a time of waiting. We, like them, know that “nations rise against nation”, that false gods are numerous, that there are indeed famines and plagues and portents -- although whether these are “great signs from heaven” or part of our own human folly is not entirely clear.

But there are two major differences between our place and time and the place and time of the Lucan community. The first difference is that while our brothers and sisters in other parts of the world are indeed under persecution, at least at this time in this place, we here are not. The second difference is that as we are connected to a major research university in whatever capacity, it is our work, even our calling, precisely to “prepare our defense in advance”: to study, to learn, to examine, to theorize and present theses, to argue, to debate, to prove, to conclude, to receive and also to develop our own words and wisdom that none will be able to contradict; all this in the interests of our careers, our lives, even our faith as we understand ourselves called to this place by God.

It may be that these differences are related. It may be that even with all our preparation in advance, we are not worth persecution. For the words and wisdom we are given and develop in this place are increasingly seen as irrelevant. Not just our theology and faith, but also our scientific knowledge and understanding, our honest emotion, our rational argument. For what are theology and faith, what are science and emotion and rationality, where there is money to be made, where there is fear to be cosseted or manipulated, where there is power over others to be gained. Let us be realistic.

Ours is a more insidious age and place than the first-century Mediterranean. The challenge to our faith is not persecution but seduction. An average of 30,000 advertisements a day tell us that we are not and do not have enough; that only more consumption will make us rich, thin, forever young, and successful. Alcohol, drugs, sex, or gaming promise us relief from our pain and our loneliness. Violence, technology, and empire offer us quick fixes and easy redemption.

The title of this sermon is “Apocalypse as opportunity”. Barry Neil Kaufman of the Option Institute invites the participants in his programs to use the hardest and most challenging events of their lives as means of transformation, with the phrase, “What an opportunity!” What an opportunity to live out our deepest and highest ideals, to live out the choices we most truly want for ourselves and for those around us. As he puts it, “Happiness is a choice, and misery is always an option.” Our apocalypse, the revelation or unveiling of our reality, offers us that same kind of opportunity, not to be seduced by expediency or fear, but to live out the word of God that is for us, in this place and time. Just as for the Lucan community in a different kind of apocalypse, so our apocalypse gives us the opportunity to testify to the good news of God.

Now we all know that pr
eachers love words. Academics love words too, just as much as preachers or maybe even more, depending on the day. People who hang out or tune in with preachers and academics love words too; they have to, or they’d go crazy. I am both preacher and academic, and I love words, in more than one language. So I am a bit leery to suggest the preaching and academic heresy that for our apocalypse, words may not be enough for the testimony we are called to give. Still, I suggest it any way. Phrases like “Actions speak louder than words.”, and “Your behavior speaks so loudly I can’t hear what you’re saying.”, are truisms in both our language and our experience. It is the living out, not just the speaking out, of the good news of God that is our testimony, our testimony that our “opponents will not be able to withstand or contradict”.

Last week the class for which I am a teaching assistant had the privilege and honor of a visit from the Reverend R. Edwin King. He was in town as one of the recipients of the School of Theology’s Distinguished Alumni Award, in recognition of his own work and his work with Martin Luther King, Jr. in the movement for racial justice. He talked with us about the class theme for the day of “negotiating power”, and he talked with us about his testimony to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s vision of the “Beloved Community”. In order to make that vision into a reality, he said, he and his colleagues committed themselves to continue to work toward it, even if they might not fully realize it; they committed themselves to live it even as they struggled for it; they committed to try not to betray it as they worked for it.

As a white United Methodist pastor in the Deep South of the time, for Ed King his testimony included marches, rejection by his religious colleagues, beatings, imprisonment, hard labor, torture, military surveillance, a place on the President of the United States’ “Enemies List”, and strategic compromise and back-room dealing on a local and national level. And, as he says, while there is still a ways to go, he is amazed at how far the vision has come, how much it has become reality. Ed King says, “We are not alone.”

Now it is a different time, and we too are not alone, in any sense of the word. For us in a globalized world, this morning Isaiah proclaims a globalized vision: an entirely new creation, of this world, in this life, so new that former things will not be remembered or even come to mind. Jerusalem, that holy city now such a center of conflict and pain, Jerusalem will be re-created a joy. There will be no more mourning, there will be no sickness and all will live to a ripe old age, there will be enough for all to live with stability and pleasure, and those who work and create will enjoy the fruits of their labor themselves. There will be perfect communion with God. There will be a “Beloved Community”, if you will, in which all of creation will be fulfilled in harmony, justice, and peace.

For us to realize this the vision we are given, there may not be marches and prison. But there is the equally, and perhaps even more, challenging work: to claim our relative freedom and stability, and in that freedom and stability to stand with our sisters and brothers who undergo persecution, to stand with them not just in spiritual ways but in political and material ways as well, so that they too know that they are not alone or forgotten. For us to realize this the vision we are given, there may not be beatings and torture. But there is the equally, and perhaps even more, challenging need: for what Saints Jane de Chantal and Francis de Sales called “the little virtues”: friendship, generosity, cordiality, hospitality, kindness, patience, and the like; those practices that sound so simple and obvious in words and are often so difficult actually to do, especially with those we see -- or are increasingly told to see -- as “them”: the person of another faith or another skin color or another body weight, the competition in the next library carrel, the immigrant, the differently gender-preferencing, the stranger or newcomer, those who have lost their jobs or their homes or both. For us to realize the vision we are given in our time, there may not be backroom dealings and rejection from our religious colleagues. But there is the equally, and perhaps even more, challenging invitation: for us to consider, as individuals and as members of communities, our own behavior; to consider how and where and on what we spend our money, our life energy, our time; to consider what and who we let into our minds and our bodies and our emotions; to consider whether what we do as well as what we say is just more capitulation to seduction, or is it behavior to answer the call of God and help bring in the vision for our place and time.

Apocalypse, the revelation, the unveiling, is opportunity: opportunity not just to see the world in our place and time as it is, but to see it as it might be. It is opportunity to testify to the creativity of God at work in the world through our behavior, behaviors that help to manifest the globalized vision of a new world of justice and peace right here, right now. There will be a certain amount of working toward it, even if we might not fully realize it; a certain amount of living it even as we struggle for it; a certain commitment to try not to betray it as we work for it. So there is with any vision. But the vision itself will sustain us, if we keep our focus on that prize, and not on the seductions that surround us. When we claim those aspects of
the vision that already exist in our own lives, it becomes easier to resist the seductions and to live out the vision even more fully. The writer Sarah Ban Breathnach reminds us: “Both abundance and lack exist simultaneously in our lives, as parallel realities. It is always our conscious choice which secret garden we shall tend. … When we choose not to focus on what is missing from our lives but on the abundance that’s present – love, health, family, friends, work, and personal pursuits that bring us pleasure – the wasteland falls away and we experience joy in the real lives we live each day.”

We are not alone. The God who calls to us out of the Apocalypse, the revelation, the

unveiling, that is the God who goes before us into the places where the vision is not yet realized, who goes with creativity and love to prepare those places for us and to meet us there with power and grace. And we have each other, both right around us and further away, even in virtual reality, people of like mind and purpose. We can work together not just in spite of our differences but because of them, as our differences make a whole of our talents and of our results. The organizational consultant Margaret J. Wheatley writes, "There is no power for change greater than a community discovering what it cares about.". Both in the Church and in the Academy we can discover whole networks of individuals and communities that care with passion about what we care about, networks that invite us to join with them or who will accept our invitation, the invitation to do something practical, to bring that shared vision into being.

Apocalypse as opportunity. “For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind. But be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating.”, says God. Amen.

~The Reverend Victoria Hart Gaskell, OSL
Chapel Associate for Methodist Students

November 7


By Marsh Chapel

Click here to hear the sermon only.

Luke 20: 24-37

To begin September we meditated together on the first meaning of the Eucharist, the Lord’s supper, which again we celebrate today: remembrance. ‘This do in remembrance of me’. To begin October we meditated together on the second meaning of the Eucharist, the Lord’s supper, which we celebrate again today: thanksgiving. Eucharist means thanksgiving. Now to begin November we shall complete the triad as we meditate together on the third meaning of the Eucharist, which holds for us not only remembrance, and not only thanksgiving, but also presence. We trust here in the real presence of Christ. Presence. Presence. ‘Wherever two or three are gathered together in my name, there I am in the midst of them’.

A friend reminded me that Charlie Brown once sat and talked with Linus about spiritual matters. I suppose they may have been speaking together between Halloween and Christmas. Linus was still awaiting the arrival of the Great Pumpkin. Charlie Brown was still telling him not to expect the Great Pumpkin because the Great Pumpkin was not real. This of course disappointed Linus, who sat gazing at the starry, starry night. Finally Linus burst out, “you may not think the Great Pumpkin is real, but he is a lot more real than that heavy set, bearded, old man dressed in red and riding behind reindeer who you wait for every winter”. Now it is Charlie Brown’s turn to look up at the starry, starry night for a few frames, which he does. Sigh. After which he says, ‘The world is full of theological differences”.

In this autumn we are mightily aware of differences, deep and lasting differences among us as a people. Some of these are social and political. But many lasting differences finally find their root in religious disagreement. And our view of resurrection, heaven, the last day, ultimate reality makes every manner of difference today. My once teacher and now colleague Christopher Morse’s new book, The Difference Heaven Makes, makes just this case.

As if we needed any further reminder of a world full of theological, we might even say eschatological, differences, we are met with today’s two readings. In different ways, they record the gospel as it is announced across serious differences. The writer of 2 Thessalonians, probably a student of St Paul honoring his teacher by writing in his name 50 years after Paul’s death, argues for a traditional day of the Lord to come. As 2 Peter will say another 50 years later, we should not doubt the fullness of divine promise, and should not doubt that the day of the Lord will come, even though our days and God’s days don’t seem to be the same the length of days. The writer even asserts that St Paul himself had written of various apocalyptic themes, when he was still with the church. The exact interpretation of this features and figures lies still beyond us, many years later. In fact, our writer himself does not seem to use easily or grasp clearly the intent and content of the terms he dusts off for use from the fairly distant past.

Clearly, someone in the church is arguing for a new teaching, or a different teaching, and our letter writer wants to hold onto the traditions that once were taught. Now we do not easily think in these apocalyptic terms today, so our hearing is challenged. But we do know about differences. We may take heart to hear that in the earliest church there were varieties of differences. The author of the 2 Thessalonians describes a contention about the day of the Lord as a backdrop for a larger announcement. We shall to listen with care for that larger announcement.

Then the Lukan portion of the Gospel of Luke (chapters 9-19) trails off and we return to familiar territory in chapter 20, including this account of marriage and resurrection which you have already heard in both Matthew and Mark. Here too we meet up with strange, unfamiliar arguments about marriage in heaven. Not marriage made in heaven, but marriage made on earth, in heaven. Whose wife will she be? Luke has taken Mark’s account of the question concerning resurrection, and reshaped it. In Mark Jesus harshly rebukes his interlocutors: ‘Is not this why you are wrong, that you know neither the scriptures nor the power of God?’ He concludes, ‘You are quite wrong’. But in Luke the dialogue is Socratic and the love Platonic and the tone irenic. No criticism, no rebuke. And his contestants respond, ‘Teacher you have spoken well”. The older debates about Levirate marriage, between the resurrectional Pharisees and the non resurrectional Sadd-u-cees, recalled by Luke as if from a far off and exotic land, are presented as background, contentious background, for a larger Lukan pronouncement. We shall want to listen with care for that larger pronouncement.

To do so, however, we shall need honestly to acknowledge foreground dissonance. We meet difference every hour. Some may be transposed into lasting harmony. But some abides. Some things do not work out. Some relationships end. Some of these which end, end badly. That is why they end. That is, in their unhappy denoument we see clearly why the ending came. The manner of the ending is the ending itself. Some businesses, some partnerships, some relationships do not succeed. I do not say this lightly, especially with regard to the holiest of companionships in friendship and marriage. But sometimes, for the sake of friendship, a friendship ends. And sometimes, for the sake of marriage, a marriage ends. To get close to home: sometimes people need to find another church home. Life is too short to spend a high percentage of the 4,000 Sundays we have on earth in a relationship that should end. Sometimes you just need to ‘slip out the back, jack’. And find someplace your soul can breathe. Now you know I do not say that lightly. I say it though as a gift of freedom for you. Every human being both needs and deserves a community of faith, a congregation to love and a church to enjoy. As much as humanly possible, I want this community of faith to become yours, a church family to love and a church home to enjoy.

Our lessons make their way to a large announcement about presence.

Our two Scripture lessons provide us horizontal and vertical dimensions by which to name presence. In the teaching about the day of the Lord, the last day, there is a sweeping promise that ‘out that long way far further than you see beyond the last horizon and beyond that too’, there abides the God who chose you from the beginning, to be saved, to be sanctified, to be inspired, to be true. In the teaching about the resurrection there is a sweeping promise that ‘up beyond a long way up farther than you see beyond the highest hill and farthest star a way up beyond that too’ there abides the God who is the God of the living, and all live in him whether living or dying. The presence of the Lord, from the last day until today, and from the highest heaven down to this humble chancel, is known to us in the promises of God, the God of the living.

Let us put it this way, when it comes to resurrection and heaven and people. As C S Lewis once meditated, when you see another human being, you are seeing a being fit for heaven, now a little lower than the angels, but one day, one fine day, angelic too. Such a thought may make us a bit careful, a bit cautious about how we treat each other.

For those listening from afar, along the highway or in the kitchen or at the desk, you may want to settle your imagination close to where we are right now. You are with us here. Presence has no limit, no zip code, no curb, no boundary. Behind me is a lovely, laden altar. To the left, to my left, and to the right, to my right, are beautiful stained glass windows, which represent the traditions of the church, from Augustine of Hippo to Lincoln of Springfield. Before me is gathered a singing congregation, lead by a beautifully singing choir. Stone, glass, and wood meet flesh, bone and voice. Along the Avenue a trolley carries us a little tintinnabulation as a grace note. Then, around, the whole universe, robed in silence.

Elie Wiesel told a story this week, about a precocious young rabbi to be. Someone said, ‘I will give you a gold coin if you will tell me where God is’. The boy replied, ‘I will give you five if you tell me where He is not’.

Ours is an open table. We trust at this table that real remembrance of the Lord will prevail. We trust that at this table a full sense of thanksgiving will endure. We trust that at this table we stand in the real presence of the Living God. Over thirty and more years of gathering for communion, this presence has been my lived experience. I do not presume or pretend to have a novel theory of presence, real presence, at the table of the Lord. But I bear witness to such presence. I take the words of the 16th Psalm: The Lord is my chosen portion and my cup; though holdest my lot. The lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; yea, I have a goodly heritage…Thou dost show me the path of life; in thy presence there is fullness of joy, in thy right hand are pleasures for evermore.’

Jan and I began together at Eucharist in the pews of Riverside Church, as William Sloane Coffin began his ministry there. He squeezed his ample Presbyterian self into the simple Baptist liturgy for communion, as Frederick Swann accompanied the choir. The bells of that great tower still ring in the mind and memory. His voice is as real today as it was 35 years ago: There is more mercy in God than there is sin in us. Guilt is the last refuge of pride. I’m not OK and you’re not OK, but that’s OK. The separation of church and state is not the separation of a Christian from his politics. In tragedy God’s heart is the first to break.

Real Presence in 1977.

An illness took us to Ithaca and Cornell. The sacrament was administered then (I had no orders yet) by a retired preacher, Roy Smyres, who had known Pearl Buck when her husband served that little church, who had served it himself in the 1920’s, just following John R Mott, and who had walked across Africa. I see today his worn shoes.

Real Presence in 1981.

Then outside Montreal, an hour or so south, we once had communion on Maundy Thursday in the town where Almonzo Wilder lived and where Laura set her book Farmer Boy. Except that the oil furnace did not fire. So 70 of us went into the parsonage, many you could sense just out of the barn a bit earlier, and had communion around the piano, and through the house, and up the stairs and in the kitchen.

Real Presence in 1984.

In Syracuse, later, one Christmas Eve, a dozen new students from around globe joined us at midnight. Some were holding their hymnals upside down, in the dark. All enjoyed the candles, as the wax touched our palms . I spoke about Ernie Davis and tragedy and faith.

Real Presence in 1990.

Then in Rochester, from under a pulpit like that from which Coffin taught us, ‘fifteen feet above contradiction’, and in graveshot from those about whom he taught us (Douglass, Stanton, Anthony, Rauschenbush)to close the circle, in a simple service of the Lord’s Supper a friend’s face from 40 years earlier, unexpected and unconnected, looked up and partook, with a smile and a tear.

Real Presence in 2001.

And this morning, in range of Cape Cod and Portsmouth, of Worcester and Nashua, and otherwise around the globe, here we are. Alongside Daniel Marsh and William Bashford and Earl Marlatt. And you, and you, and you.

Real Presence in 2010.

Spirit Consoling let us find

Thy hand when sorrows leave us blind

In the gray valley let us hear

Thy silent voice “Lo, I am near”

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

October 31

In Memoriam

By Marsh Chapel

Click here to hear the sermon only.

Luke 6: 20-31

My study of theology began in 1976 at Broadway and 120th street in New York, a fine avenue, if not quite Commonwealth Avenue. There walked in those days on those streets the ghosts and memories of saints past, like Reinhold Niebuhr and Abraham Heschel, one from the Union Theological Seminary and one from the Jewish Theological Seminary. In fact, the story or myth or legend was that on fall afternoons and evenings, Niebuhr and Heschel could be found walking, and talking, in the 1950’s, as they circled Grant’s Tomb, and strolled along Riverside Drive, and lingered in the shadows of Riverside Church. It is just that kind of refreshing and leisurely stroll I would like, metaphorically speaking, to take with you this morning. I would like to remember two saints, and to imagine their conversations.

You probably know Niebuhr, or at least his serenity prayer about patience, courage and wisdom. You may remember too that Heschel was the greatest voice of his generation, and century, to interpret the Hebrew prophets. Micah 6. Amos 5. Isaiah 55. Hosea 11. He said, ‘the higher goal of spiritual living is not to amass a wealth of information, but to face sacred moments’ (repeat). With humble confidence and confident humility, in books and lectures and articles, Heschel taught a generation the unique, sui generis, power of the prophetic tradition. I like to think of Reinhold and Abraham, of an afternoon, celebrating difference, honoring diversity. They probably would not have used that phrase. But their conversation, and others like it, holds a part of our future. In thinking about All Saints, Heschel and Neibuhr came to mind. In Memoriam. With you I meditate upon them today.


I wonder if they discussed difference, considered diversity in the past? If they did, they would have recognized that diversity often precedes unity. E pluribus unum, says our dollar bill. Out of many…one. Diversity comes first in history, and in religious history. Huston Smith and Stephen Prothero could help us to remember this. Their books, a generation apart, are nonetheless equally contemporary. Smith is a perennialist, Prothero is not. Meaning Smith highlights the similarities among religions, but Prothero emphasizes the differences between them.

Yet what sometimes escapes careful notice emerges at the intersection of diversity and history. In religious history, diversity regularly precedes unity. In earliest Christianity, to take one example, diversity preceded unity. Before there was one canon of Scripture, there were many books. Before there was one central authority, there were many city congregations. Before there was one unity of doctrine, there were many and various expressions of faith. I think often of my teacher Cyril Richardson, who brought this understanding to bear on his students. The 27 books of the New Testament show startling diversity. Four gospels, all distinct, especially the most radically different, John. 14 letters somehow connected to Paul (including Hebrews here), all very different, especially the 7 authentically Pauline. Throughout the collection, a range of expression of resurrection, which Valentinus (for someone and something completely different), in his Treatise on Resurrection, called ‘a revelation, a transformation, and a transition into newness’.

Diversity came first. So, difference does not surprise, astound, alarm, or confound us. Difference does not frighten us. Hold that thought. Difference does not shake us. We expect it. It is in our history, after all.


I wonder if Heschel and Niebuhr talked about diversity in our time, in this the late modern period? If they did, on those autumn and spring late afternoon ‘paseos’, along the Hudson, they might have brought up Howard Thurman. Thurman preached and taught in the 1950’s. He did so here in Boston, right here in Marsh Chapel. I tell my students about Thurman, my predecessor at Marsh Chapel, by saying that he was ‘100 years ahead of his time 50 years ago, which puts him still 50 years ahead of us’. In those years, people would go one Sunday to Trinity Church to hear Theodore Ferris, and the next Sunday to Marsh Chapel to hear Howard Thurman, and the third Sunday to Harvard Memorial Church to hear George Buttrick. And the fourth Sunday they stayed home, I guess.

My father graduated from Boston University School of Theology in 1953. I wonder if they were the voices of Buttrick, Thurman and Ferris which echoed in his memory as he wrote the poem ten years ago, titled Preaching:

Preaching is not Bible study, but
It does require Biblical understanding

Preaching is not theology, but
There must be theology in it.

Preaching is not biography, but
It does require an understanding of people.

Preaching is not teaching, but
It is instructional.

Preaching is not social ethics, but
It must point to social responsibility.

Preaching is one vehicle God has chosen
That can grow life.

Preaching is humbling,
And Rewarding!

In all cases and places, those hearing Ferris, Thurman and Buttrick would have heard echoes of a recognition that diversity includes the poor. ‘Those at the dawn of life, those in the twilight of life, those in the shadows of life’. The disinherited. This morning, we might especially recall those displaced from their homeland, at various points in history. Those who wandered. Those who became strangers. Those who were refugees. Those who became immigrants. You too once were so. Remember. In memoriam.

Thurman spoke about ‘common ground’. John Dewey spoke about ‘common faith’. Today at Marsh we talk about ‘common hope’. But Thurman wrote a book and scores of sermons on ‘The Search for Common Ground’. He hunted for those places of connection. “People, all people, belong to one another”, he taught. For this Thurman is well remembered. But Thurman also emphasized the distinctive, the particular, and the individual. He especially highlighted the plight of those ‘whose backs are against the wall’. Long before the slogan about ‘God’s preferential option for the poor’, Thurman was probing the need and experience of the poor. His best book is ‘Jesus and the Disinherited’, in which one finds a consideration of present diversity, including those whose backs are against the wall.

Our present understanding of difference, of diversity, which we offer in memoriam, provides an ample space for the emerging claims, the just claims, of those most in need.


I wonder if Rabbi Abraham and Pastor Reinhold took time, in their wandering ‘tertullias’, for some imagination about diversity and difference in the future?

A sense of diversity into the future provokes an attitude of prayer. One thing about a walk, either along the Hudson or the Charles, is that it keeps your feet on the ground. You are not free to see the world from 30,000 feet in the air. You see things up close.

In 2003 this country trag
ically entered into a war that for the first time in our history placed us outside of the bounds of inherited understandings of just war. Religious traditions have made space for pacifism, on the one hand, and just war theory, on the other. The latter, particularly in Judeo Christian tradition, has emphasized war as a last resort, as an international or communal imperative, as a response to unjust incursion, and with attention to proportionality and reciprocity. This was our heritage as a people, as well. But in 2003 we entered a campaign that was pre-emptive, unilateral, imperial, unforeseeable, reckless, immoral, post Judeo-Christian, and wrong. So, some seven years later, now we find ourselves in standing in the need of prayer.

The world’s great religious traditions have everything to offer to us. Here are the treasure troves of the languages of lament, hymns of compunction, psalms of contrition, poems of regret, and prayers of confession that we shall need again to fulfill our human being, our being human. Dealing directly, on the ground, feet on the ground, with diversity provokes prayer.

One aspect of this prayer, provoked by tragic mistake, is the outworking of prayer in action. Here is on example. Refugee Immigration Ministries, under the leadership of the Rev. Ruth Bersin, is offering us water to slake our thirst for compunction, the bread of life to feed our deep need for confession and pardon. For this reason, we at Marsh Chapel have strongly and happily partnered with her since 2007.

Prayers are deeds. And deeds are prayers. Diversity provokes prayer as we enter an unforeseeable future. As Heschel wrote, ‘when I was young I admired clever people. Now that I am old I admire kind people’.

With Huston Smith, I tend to the see the similarities, the perennial, lasting common ground. Maybe you do too. There is a spirit of wholeness, one expression of which is our judeo-christian tradition.

We are all more human and more alike than we regularly affirm, all of us on this great globe. We all survive the birth canal, and so have a native survivors’ guilt. All six billion. We all need daily two things, bread and a name. (One does not live by bread alone). All six billion. We all grow to a point of separation, a leaving home, a second identity. All six billion. We all love our families, love our children, love our homes, love our grandchildren. All six billion. We all age, and after forty, its maintenance, maintenance, maintenance. All six billion. We all shuffle off this mortal coil en route to that undiscovered country from whose bourne no traveler returns. All six billion.


I remember sitting in chapel, at McGill University, in the autumn of 1981. The preacher was my teacher, for whom I was teaching assistant, until very recently the Bishop of Durham, NT Wright. He stunned us by saying that just before service his wife had telephoned. Anwar Sadat had been killed.

Sometime read again the way prison changed Sadat. Time in prison changed so many in the course of history, from Paul to Martin Luther King. Sadat wrote eloquently about the quiet and inner peace that he found, which led to his courageous leadership, which led to his death. He wrote, ‘I should like them to write on my tomb: he has lived for peace and he has died for principles’ (repeat).

May we live for peace, and give ourselves to lasting principles, including these: diversity precedes unity; diversity includes the poor; diversity provokes prayer. May we live with clear memories of those who have given us saintly versions of living.

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

October 24

Young Man Jesus

By Marsh Chapel


Once when our son was ten years old, he accompanied me during a visit with two parishioners. Mary and Bill had married just after the Second World War. They raised four daughters, who all had become vibrant, creative, caring adults. In addition they found time to prepare the Altar for Sunday, to sit through various Worship Committee meetings, to take an interest in local politics, to read and learn and grow in change, as faith intersected with life.

During the October that Bill was dying, our son Ben went with me once to see him. On an earlier visit, Bill had told me about his experience in the war. At age 20 Bill had become a pilot, and had flown 30 missions from England into and over Germany. His plane had been shot down once. He had survived, though not all of his crew had survived. He had carried responsibility for an airplane, a crew, many missions, and to some small but human degree, the outcome of the war itself. He was honored and decorated when the war ended. 30 missions later, several deaths later, many hours of anxious service later, many buildings and bridges destroyed later, after three years in command in England in the air in the war, he came home. He was 22. Bill was 22 years old, when the war ended, and he came home.

I cannot remember how this happened, but our son either asked to see or was offered to see Bill’s flight jacket. It was a heavy, worn, brown leather flight jacket, waist long with an old center zipper. At age 10, and I do not remember how this happened, whether he asked or was offered, Ben donned the jacket. He was small in it, but Bill himself was somewhat small, and the jacket fit, if poorly. Here was a moment when Mary, soon to be a widow, and Bill, soon to be dead, and Ben, soon to be 11, and I, soon to conduct a funeral, were fully quiet together. With that jacket Bill came home, 30 missions later, a war won, at 22 years of age. 22. A young man. Bill worked the next 40 years as a public relations writer for a small manufacturing company, a quiet life of backroom pencil sharpening, phoning, rewriting, and mailing.

Some moments stand frozen in time. Our son in Bill’s jacket is one. Bill’s primary work, his main adult life, as he reflected on all of his life, was completed by age 22. Which leads to a question: Where did we ever get the idea that young people are not capable of great things?

Sometimes a culture’s generalized apperception of something or someone needs to change, to be changed. A culture which values one group of people as only 3/5 human, needs to change, or, by force of arms, to be changed. A culture which covers over, literally or figuratively, the humanity of one gender, or another, needs to change, or to be changed. A culture which will not see patent, enduring, difference, between children who grow with one innate attraction and children who grow up with another, needs to change, or to be changed. Sometimes a culture or sub-culture just needs to change, in order to accommodate lived experience, stubborn facts, lasting substantial truths.

Perhaps that is what Paul saw in Timothy.

Timothy was a youthful associate of Paul and Silas. The NT letters written by later teachers, were written in his name and in his honor, even as his name honors God, meaning ‘one who honors God’ (1 Thess.1:1). Paul trusted Timothy with the gospel. Associate, servant, brother, emissary. The Corinthians wanted someone older, less bashful, more confident, less diffident. They wanted the head man, not the assistant. (As one School Principal asked me after my appointment to a formerly strong city church at 29, ‘Brother Hill? You the head man up there?’) Timothy failed in 1 Cor. Titus succeeded in 2 Cor. All the Pauline letters mention him: a faithful companion, a guide to the Gentile churches, a son to a father: ‘my true child in the faith’. His mother was a Jewish Christian, his father a gentile. “Do not be discouraged by your youthfulness” (1 Tim. 4:12).

When he was alive, my Dad used to say, ‘I love to come over to Boston to be reminded that there are so fine many young people in the world’.


Jesus meets us today in the Word. He greets us. He greets us a real human being, fully human.

How shall we say this, today?

You know, for a long time, people have been trying to say the right thing, in the right way, at the right time, about Jesus.

To an unruly church, Matthew said: “Hold it. Jesus was a teacher.”

To a suffering church, Mark said: “Remember. Jesus was crucified. He suffered too.”

To a settled, more comfortable church, Luke said: “Wait a minute. Jesus loved the poor, those outside”.

To a philosophical church, John said: “Stop. God’s word became flesh and dwelt among us.”

You know, for a long time, groups of people have been trying to say the right thing, in the right way, at the right time, about Jesus.

In 1848, over in Seneca Falls, Jesus was well remembered as an advocate for, a friend of women.

In 1862, in the autumn, as Lincoln pondered the Emancipation Proclamation, Jesus would have been remembered as a person of color, semitic, dark, today we would say black.

In 1933, the only worth saying in Berlin and Tubingen about Jesus was that he was a Jew. In fact, Dietrich Bonhoeffer said then that the Christian church in Germany either would be found standing next to for and up for the Jewish community or it did not exist at all.

And today?

Humans have always had problems with Jesus’ humanity. The rude manger, innocent and innocuous, we can accept. The empty tomb, divine power and victory, we can accept. It is what lies between Christmas and Easter that is harder for us.

On October 24, 2010, at Boston University Marsh Chapel, amid 4400 freshmen and women, and 40,000 people in a community of learning, what shall we say about the humanity of Jesus?

Just this: He lived and died a young man. So he is, as a classmate once wrote, ‘perpetually ripe’. Our Bible is not written to record the history of Jesus but to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ. All of the details of his life are enmeshed in the great, larger project of the New Testament, the announcement of divine love. Still, our Gospels carry the understanding that Jesus was 33 years old at the time of his death (4bce to 29ce, on the most common understanding).

His relative youth may seem strange to us, as youth often does seem, new and strange to each new generation. The joy of faith lies in crossing boundaries and bridges into formerly strange territory. Today the very technology of communication, that meant to bridge one to another, can become the very boundary meant to be bridged.

I once watched a man on the subway find and open a used church newsletter. Like almost all church newsletters it had one to two standard titles: the Visitor or the Carillon. He read through the pages, with some interest. He is my own favorite interlocutor: someone outside, not on the mailing lis
t, not regularly in attendance, not unmindful of the church nor unmindful of the church’s failings, still ready to listen. The stranger, the secularist, the singular—I have loved working with these far more than with others. So, here I am in Boston. In the heart of a post-Christian, utterly secular culture. In the belly of the University whale where for single students, the younger among us, 11am is the very middle of the night come Sunday. In the hearing of those afar, a radio congregation, a phrase that is an oxymoron, like jumbo shrimp or United Methodist. You should be careful what you pray for.

His relative youth includes his singleness. Do we reflect at all on this? We repeat often enough that at Cana of Galilee Jesus’ blessed the married state, the partnered condition. But he meets us in all the youthfulness of single life. He never married. He blessed the state of single adults by taking this path himself in his tabernacle days. This I take to be excellent news for the many young and not so young single folks listening this morning. The true light that enlightens every single person came into the world. He lived by himself. He went up the mountain alone. He rebuked Peter solo. He prayed without help in Gethsemane. He died deserted on Golgotha. Cradle to cross he entered, wore and blessed the single life, as do many young adults. His communion creates fellowship, real friendship, apart from family ties.

His relative youth includes his worldliness, his secularity. Youth in all its strange, single, secular power. Harvey Cox wrote a long time ago about the Secular City of the modern age. His great forebears, predecessors might have writing about the Secular Christ. They knew their Calvin: “Christ now lives his glorious life in our flesh”. They knew their Wesley: “By a most amazing condescension he was made flesh and united himself to our miserable nature”. Jesus has not forgotten the secular city. In fact, he may be more alive there than in the church.

My daughter once asked me if Jesus went to church. You can pick up the undertone, overtone and inclination of the question. Well, He did. In Luke 4 he went, and there was a riot. In John 2 he went with a cat of nine tails and there was further trouble. He walked into the great holy feast of Passover, Mark12 and all, and, a week later, it cost him his life. So, yes, he went to church. He knew religion. But he loved the world. You will not find his youthful countenance neither in sacrament alone nor in Scripture alone. He is risen, he is not there. You will find him loving the world.

This summer, driving, I heard a radio advertisement for a Sunday morning radio program. The communication listed the many things one might be involved with on Sunday morning: waking, walking, talking, swimming, hours on the beach, hikes in the woods, family gatherings, picnics, sports, meals. Of course, you know what I expected or waited to hear on the list. But it did not come. With no particular polemical edge, with no venom or spite or even irony, the advertisement spoke happily and sunnily about Sunday morning, utterly free of religion. Whether or not the theological movement so-named has any ongoing verve, ours truly is a Secular City.

Forever young, he advances toward us. Will you love this Stranger Messiah? Will you love this Single Lord? Will you love this Secular Redeemer?


Jesus lived and died a young man. Most scholars he may been thirty or a bit older on the day of his passion. He too knew the rhythms of youth, of young life. He was single. He was secular. He was a stranger. I wonder how regularly those of us who discuss the incarnation pause to notice, let alone announce the incarnate Young Man Jesus?

We need not be naïve. Youth culture can often be a narcissistic age and place. Christopher Lasch, now dead, put it best: “American youth culture is not a medium that initiates young people into adult life, nor even prepares them for it, but is a quasi-autonomous culture organized around the pursuit of fun and thrills.”

But neither need we lack hope. John Denver once sang this song: ‘What can one man do?’ ‘What one man can do dream. What one man can do is love. What one man can do is take the world and make it young again.’ We can harbor hopes, dreams, excitement and expectation. I am told that in 1990 18% of 20 year olds wanted to do something to make the world a better place, and today 50% do. In the four years we have been at Boston University, having raised three children of our own now in their late 20’s, I believe I can say a positive word to parents: you can be confident, you can have faith that your son or daughter will be well, will be capable of doing good, even great, things, will be fine. You can let go. Good news: in the tradition of the Young Man Jesus, you are free to embrace a little less and expect a little more.

We can and should expect young adults to achieve a high level of personal morality. We can and should expect young adults to use time wisely and frugally, beginning with public worship on the Lord’s Day. We can and should expect young adults not to use or abuse another’s body, particularly with regard to sexual activity: the body is the temple of the Lord. We can and should expect young adults to know the value of a dollar: to earn all they can; to save all they can; to give all they can, especially to avoid debt, to avoid debt like the plague that it is. The notion that young men and women can perhaps be persuaded to fan idealism with occasional forays into justice related projects, but cannot be expected to be continent, sober, and frugal is a false notion. Young adults can. They are no more sinful than their parents. They just have less practice.

We can and should expect young adults to develop keen social consciences. We can and should expect young adults to develop the capacity to imagine the pain of others, particularly those who are well below them in income. We can and should expect young adults to develop an awareness of the power of forgiveness, to let loose their inner socialist before their later, inner Tory arrives. We can and should expect young adults to think in multi-generational frames of mind, especially with regard to irreplaceable gifts of the earth and sea and sky. The notion that young men and women can perhaps gain some minimal individual discipline, but cannot be expected to do justice, love mercy, and walk the earth humbly is a false notion. Young adults can. They are no more selfish than their parents. They just have less money.

Our publican, the picaresque favorite in today’s Gospel, enters formal religion with only one feeling: ‘god be merciful to me’. He goes home justified.

One early Saturday morning, I jogged down toward Massachusetts Avenue. Beacon street comes west above a pond, along the river, beside the school, beneath many layers of concrete overpass. They are a tangled collection of roads, as viewed from underneath, on Beacon Street sidewalk, at the intersection of Charlesgate. I must confess that before this particular Saturday AM, I had not found much of anything to celebrate in the gruff Charlesgate sub-bridge aesthetic. To my surprise that sunny Saturday, right in the darkest reach of the underpass, there stood a painter, easel to the west, eye to the river, hand held with brush pointed. He even wore a painter’s smock and beret, though I did not see any gotee. Out through all the concrete slashes between his easel and the river, when you followed his sight line, you could see the beauty of blue, dozens of shades of blue, in water, on river, in sky, in air. He could see the power and beauty of the carved up blue, and he was setting out to paint it. I wonder what we see amid all the crisscrossing, countervailing, perspective carving
chaos between us and younger people? Do we see the blue? The height? The depth? The breadth? The beauty?

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat”(TR).

Ghosts visit me in this nave today. They are people who in youth lived their dependence upon God and their gratitude to the mercy of God. Mark Baker at age 20 setting of alone for mission work in Honduras. My wife Jan following me at age 25 to the very frozen Canadian border. John Dempster planting Boston University in 1839. My dad bicycling with the Youth Hostel movement through Europe in 1946. And others, and others, and others…And you?

“Even if the world should end tomorrow, I shall plant my seed today” (attributed to Martin Luther King by Greg Morgenthau, 9/24/10).

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

October 17

A Faithful Persistence

By Marsh Chapel

Click here to hear the sermon only.

Luke 18: 1-8

1. The Lord

There has seldom been a better week in which to meditate upon the saving power of a faithful persistence.

From one half mile beneath the surface of the earth, by dint of prayerful persistence which did not lose heart, by dint of persistent effort which did not give in, 33 Chilean miners emerged from the cave of death and out into the world of life. You may have seen the older leader who emerged, hugged, sang and waved. Then he fell on his knees, arms dangling to the side, chinned bowed. He personified a faithful persistence.

We are taught in the gospel that we, as disciples, should always pray and not lose heart.

The first person to meet us in today’s reading is the Lord Jesus himself, this morning in his role as teacher. You should pray and not lose heart, we are taught. It appears that the very act of praying, events coming and going as they do, itself contests the loss of heart. We should pray and so not lose heart. By the practice of intercessory prayer, weekday and Sunday, we do not presume to try to direct. We are not Babe Ruth pointing to the upper deck, showing the way the ball will go. We pray in order to hearten the heart, regardless of where the ball may go. Intercessory prayer is not only a matter of doxology, and not only a matter of therapy, but is a discipline that affects the heart. Its practice involves a faithful persistence.

Surrounded as we are by the effects of quasi-human communication, in all its technologically potent and existentially unproven forms, we deeply need the nourishment of prayer, including Sunday ordered worship with beauty its in music and homily and liturgy: enchantment not entertainment.

Erazim Kohak who once taught here once wrote:

The ageless boulders of the long abandoned dam, the maple and the great birch by twilight, the chipmunk in the busyness of his days and of his dying, even I, making my dwelling place among them, are not only right in our season. We also have our value in eternity, as witnesses to the audacious miracle of being rather than nothing. Ultimately, that is the moral sense of nature, infinitely to be cherished: that there is something. That is the eternal wonder articulated in the rightness and rhythm of time which humans honor in their commandments, the wonder of being…

Jesus meets us today in an exhortation to the faithful persistence of prayer. Those within earshot have some practice in such practice. But how much love have you shown to a neighbor whom you have not yet invited to pray with you, to join you? To whom you have yet to say: I will be at Marsh Chapel on Sunday. We could have a coffee afterward.

2. The Unjust Judge

It is our fortune that the Gospel has told us the meaning of the parable in advance. Pray so as not to lose heart. For the parable itself careens wildly away from such an easy reading. For the second person we meet is an unjust Judge, who cares nothing for God nor man. His temperment and outlook make him an unlikely God figure, even though it is to him that the parable’s entreaties are presented.

With his growling grumpiness, he is yet a person among other people. His carelessness is not foreign to us. The revelation that decisions are being made behind closed doors, or doors at least closed to us, on less than virtuous grounds, is not news to us either. The humanity of the unjust Judge at least puts the Gospel right in the soil, down in the gritty dirt of life, a secret hidden in the dirt itself. The gospel is about and for people, after all.

Say what you will about the third Gospel, Luke has colorful characters. An outcast Samaritan, who is the savior. Mary and Martha in eternal dialogue about human beings and human doings. An importunate friend, who like the unjust Judge gives in because he is bothered. A Rich Fool with big barns and sudden death. A woman long infirm, touched and healed. A great banquet sent out to the least, last, lost. A man building a tower who ought to count his shekels. A king off to war, who ought to count his troops. A woman hunting a coin, a shepherd finding a sheep, and three prodigals—a son, a brother and a father. A dishonest steward—my favorite accountant. Lazarus teaching Dives. A slave whose master has him work day and night, inside and out. Ten Lepers healed, one thankful. Say what you will, the Gospel is memorably populated, and heavily populated. You feel like they would all make memorable dinner guests. ‘God bless the enemies of your enemies’ they would say as grace for the meal.

Our judge does not well represent law or theology. He represents enlightened self-interest, before the phrase was around. Maybe not so enlightened. Just self-interest. Scoundrels appear with regularity in Luke. There is no expectation that they represent morality or amorality. But they are present. They are part of the human condition, the existential given, that abiding anxiety, alienation, accident that is such a part of our experience. And sometimes to deal with power unattached to love requires us to give voice to love unattached to power. Sometimes that is all we have.

Within our little village of Boston University on the Charles River, two and one half miles long by a half -mile wide, we hear voices raised in love over against seemingly immutable power.

Professor Tariq Ramadan emphasized at our Law School this week that all religions need to practice a mixed measure of humility and consistency and respect “amid modernity’s porous pluralism and the pluralized ethical horizons of our age”. He challenged our young adults , first, to religious self knowledge: “when you don’t know who you are, you are scared by who you are not”. His cure for injustice? “Education, especially in history, philosophy, religions, and the arts”.

Dr. Karl Kaiser spoke to us this week in the International Relations school, regarding the labor involved in the reunification of Germany some twenty years ago. In a fascinating aside, he made reference to the involvement of theological students and theological studies in building part of the community and commitment needed to move two parts of the country together.

Sometimes the route forward involves a faithful persistence, which even the least just judge judges justly.

The stark contrast between powerless widow and powerful judge could not be clearer. A faithful persistence may face down such impediments to justice, when and where nothing else can. Luke back at the examples given in the Gospel thus far this fall: A faithful persistence that handles change. A faithful persistence both inward and outward. A faithful persistence that expresses thanksgiving. A faithful persistence that pursues justice. A faithful persistence that seeks and finds the lost. Luke is hanging portraits of faith along the dusty hallways of our memories, so that when we most need them we may draw on timely examples in timely ways. We talk at Marsh Chapel a fair amount about justice. But just how much justice have we directly done, recently, in our spending, in our voting, in our speaking, in our choosing?

3. The Bothersome Widow

Our Gospel next introduces us to a third person, a bothersome widow, who has gone to court against an adversary. It is not clear just how this story applies to prayer, as the introduction said it was. Her prayer life seems to be one long
legal deposition, and maybe that carries a truth. We are told elsewhere in the Scripture that we are to pray without ceasing (1 Thess. 5). Such instruction suggests that every word and every whisper involves prayer. We do well to prize our time, now we have it, the Scripture also reminds us (Hebrews 11).

Tonight our Muslim community will celebrate the somewhat recent completion of Ramadan with an Eid feast from 7 to 10pm, which many of us will attend. Our decisions about where to place ourselves on the map, each week, are part of our prayer life, too. In fact our forms of social location have everything to do and much to say about who, in faith, we are choosing to be, day by day.

Now and then, the Gospel testifies, we may want and need to place ourselves alongside the powerless but vocal widow. We may need to learn about speech from the underside.

From this pulpit our colleague (S Hassinger) recently encouraged us to ‘follow, lead and get out of the way’. By ‘follow’, she meant learn, or re-learn, for some learning means unlearning what has been learned. By ‘lead’, she meant discover how to lead from the second chair, not the first chair, for few of us end up in the first chair. By ‘get out of the way’, she meant give people back their own work to do.

The entitled materialism of the last decade may require you to unlearn some things about what matters counts and lasts. Your place in the second row may inspire you to learn the beauty of the viola, in contrast to that to the violin. A sermon on persistence may prompt me to give your work back to you. Remember: your fieldwork is not a substitute for your domestic duties. Pick, shovel, tractor, computer, i-phone, blackberry and calendar are not a replacement for setting the table of the heart and hearth, for sitting inside the house of peace, for preparing a meal of spiritual nourishment. The journey of faith falls along a route of persistent faithfulness.

A highlight of our fall each year at Boston University is the University Lecture, offered this week by Professor Jeremy Yudkin. He showed the discipline, the persistent concision of the music of Beethoven, Miles Davis, and Paul McCartney. A faithful persistence is something the great musicians, including these three, all share. Davis chose his notes carefully, and played only a few of them. Yudkin reminded us of his motto: “You don’t have to play all the notes”, he once said, “you just have to play the pretty ones”.

Researchers say that excellent proficiency in a skill requires 10,000 hours of practice, of actual experience in kicking the ball, playing the sonata, performing the operation, landing the plane, teaching the seminar, chairing the meeting, preaching the sermon. How honest, how realistic are we with ourselves about persistence? We had an old song we used to sing, ‘if you can’t bear the cross then you can’t wear the crown’. Why should we be discouraged about less than perfect performance with less than adequate practice? Practice, practice, practice. Outdated pedagogy? Not according to today’s gospel, and not according to one particularly importunate, especially bothersome, utterly unyielding widow.

4. The Son of Man

We are met by only one other person, one final, fourth figure today. Jesus teaches. The judge vindicates. The widow importunes. Then the account that began in prayer, and continued in virtue, now concludes with a reference to judgment, apocalypse, the end of time. The community’s concern about the delay of the return of Christ is turned on its head. The question, says Luke, should not be ‘when?’ Soon enough, soon enough. The question should be one of preparedness. When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith?

The figure of the Son of Man would have been well known to Jesus of Nazareth. Whether or not Jesus attributed the title to himself we do not know. Here, the Lord’s question makes it seem anyway like he sees the Son of Man coming, but does not identify himself with that figure.

In general, in the Gospel’s, apocalyptic sayings and teachings are forged again in the white heat of the church’s instruction about how to live. That is, because it is later than you think, you will want to make the most of the time you have. It is this sensibility that one notices in the air and along the hallways of a great University, about this time in the fall, that is, about the time midterms are administered.

If you have a list of two things that truly matter to you in life, whatever they be, and you steadily attend to them, faithfully, persistently, assiduously, then you will see results, you will see progress. It will take longer than you want, but the results will come. It will take longer than you think it should, but the results will come. It will take longer than it would have with another judge in the chair, but the results will come.

Maybe there is a deeper reason why this combination of verses ends with a salute to the last judgment. It may be a warning to us, that is to us all, that is to you, that is to those of you who are already fairly faithful, and fairly persistent. Not everything is worth your persistence. There are other competing, rebalancing texts and sermons for other days: when you find yourself in a hole, stop digging; the definition of insanity is doing the same thing again and again and expecting different results; better defeat for the right than victory for the wrong. Misdirected, misinvested, our persistence can do harm. Not just persistence, but faithful persistence is the announced good news from this late Lukan chapter. To what will you attend, in full, this month, this year? Our gospel challenges you to place faith at the heart of your persistent attention. Attend to the things of faith. Prayer, in word and song. Scripture, by morning and on Sunday. Compassion, in deed and word. A space for faith, a space for Christ in the hotel of your heart. Our friend Wendell Luke put it well in a poem:

Softly, almost unnoticed,
the spirit of Christ enters and becomes;
no hysteric act displays his coming unto us.
A man lived with us and Christ was everywhere
that we might search ourselves
and give him lodging;
The soul, the body is but a Bethlehem manger
where Christ will come seeking birth;
lay carefully your straw of life
and bid him come,
bid him enter there,
bid him come;
in the soft splendor of evening fires he will come;
build your Evening fire
and bid him come;
a fire not tended dies and is no more;
a fire not tended dies.
Set no extravagant nor pompous feast;
a silent evening fire and gentle manger straw
And Jesus comes.
Jesus enters softly.

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