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October 3


By Marsh Chapel


Eucharist means thanksgiving. Our Sacrament of Remembrance (the sermon from September 5), our Sacrament of Presence (the sermon coming for November 7), is also a Sacrament of Thanksgiving, a mode and moment of gratitude, of giving thanks (today’s sermon forWorld Communion Sunday). He took the bread, and gave thanks. He took the cup, and gave thanks.

Are you a grateful person?

Does your day begin with some kind of quiet whisper, in gratitude for the gift of being alive? Do your meals begin with some gesture or silence or utterance by which to acknowledge the gifts of nourishment? Does your evening end, as the covers are turned back, with a twilight thanks for this another day? Does your week start with a word of gracious, honest thanks for what we have been given? Can you pause midweek, when the occasion occasions it, to say a word or send a note of thanks? Does your work conclude with a sane recognition in gratitude of what others and The Other have given?

A young student this week said with innocent conviction, ‘I try to be a grateful person’. Such a beautiful sentence in American English. ‘I try to be a grateful person’.

And you?


Thanksgiving requires a living community, and a particular language, and a personal experience.

You have entered, in this hour, a community formed for gratitude. The Bible tells us so. Our lesson (2 Tim.) promotes a communal structure for thanksgiving. Our psalm (100) sings the most glorious of thanksgiving hymns. Our gospel uncovers the very depth of faith, religion, the inward journey, the spiritual life—your prey in the hunt of coming to church: the marrow is thanksgiving.

Our parable today, in the heart of Luke’s own collection of personal materials, recollections, sources, sayings—in a way a kind of separate Gospel all its own from chapter 9 to 19—tells us that our field work is not a substitute for our interior duties. For those who may have missed a phrase or two in the reading, the Gospel tells of daylong servant work, after which the servant come inside and serves again. Does the master give thanks? No. It is the servant who is meant to be thankful, to be thankful for both the outward and inward journeys. Our fieldwork is not a substitute for our domestic duties. Our professional work, our day job, is no substitute for the matters of the heart. Wednesday does not replace Sunday. Achievement is not a substitute for grace. Pick and shovel do not compensate for a lack of table manners, nor does the furrow plowed cover the lack of table grace. To be human means to work outside and inside both. And the marrow of the inward journey is thanksgiving. Your soul life starts with a deep feeling of gratitude.

A restless heart, finally resting in God, said Augustine.

A cold heart, finally and strangely warmed, wrote Wesley.

A powerful feeling of absolute dependence on the grace of another, opined Schleiermacher.

A capacity to accept our own acceptance, preached Tillich.

A sense of timelessness, wrote Thurman.

Warmth is what Miguel de Unamuno called it: ‘Warmth, warmth, warmth! We are dying of cold, not of darkness. It is not the night that kills, it is the frost.”

Academic communities particularly need his caution about night and frost, about the difference between understanding and overcoming. It is not the night of unknowing but the frost of unloving that kills. We sometimes presume that if we can write it down, then we don’t have to live it through. If you can get it down on paper, then you don’t have to live it. Not true. Le couer a sais raisons

Joan Chittester, writing with of Rowan Williams, in their book UNCOMMON GRATITUDE, records a conversation between them: “Finally I asked him directly, ‘what really interests you most about the spiritual life?’ He paused a moment. ‘I find myself coming back again and again to the meaning of ‘alleluia’’, he said. (viii). A hymnic life, a daily alleluia, is the ultimate expression of thanksgiving, she concludes (ix). But to enter the kingdom of thanksgiving, one needs a community of grateful people to show the way. We depend upon the exhortation and example of others.


Culture is built on language. A culture can either magnify or diminish thanksgiving. Most do a bit of both. At its worst, student life and culture across the country can be a seething stew of all things degenerate, foul, graceless, and cruel. One incident (Rutgers, GW Bridge) last week bore lasting testimony to this hard truth. We here have a responsibility to do what we can, in our place and in our time, to extend the reach and influence of a culture, the church’s culture, a culture of grateful kindness. Four buses, two catholic and two evangelical, took students on retreat this weekend, and two buses took Protestants and others apple picking last Saturday. Thanksgiving at word and table. Jonathan Franzen’s new novel FREEDOM carries this startling statement: “all the real things, the authentic things, the honest things are dying off…(we have) a trillion little bits of distorted noise”. Students entering college find sometimes that they must summon an inner courage to face off, square off against a graceless ingratitude. You may need to find a way to say to your roommate, “One of us is wrong, and I think it is you.” That is, you may need to create some physical and emotional distance between yourself and others who carry themselves in a different way. And you will need a community, whether this one or another, in which to be nurtured by gratitude.

Sometimes people ask whether they should introduce their children to religion. Should we go to church? This is a serious social question today, especially in a region like ours where no such expectation is the cultural norm. We may rightly honor many and different responses. But children do not grow up naturally grateful. They need to see thanksgiving in the lives of others, preferably not of their own kin, their own household. They need to run into others who will impress them with worn proverbs like, ‘If you see a turtle on a fence post, you know he did not get there by himself’. They need the language of thanksgiving. Gratitude leads to generosity and generosity to grace.

The prayers of the church begin and end in thanks. The psalms of the church, if not laments, are full blown thanksgivings. The hymns of the church, in music and in poetry, exude thanksgiving. The teaching of the church adorns thanksgiving. The central sacrament of the church is thanksgiving, Eucharist.

But a community alone will not produce gratitude. A grateful attitude develops like a language develops. One learns to ‘speak’ faith, by trial and error, by practice, by listening and learning, by patient instruction. George Lindbeck’s The Nature of Doctrine taught us this some years ago. We learn the language of music. We learn the language of faith. We learn the language of thanksgiving.

An article this week catalogued the linguistic difficulties we Americans have in knowing religious language. Where was Jesus born? Who received the Ten Commandments? What leader created the Protestant refo
rmation? As it happens, most people do not know the answers to these questions. Atheists and agnostics, Jews and Mormons, do, but not the average person of faith.

It takes time and practice, much time and much practice, to grow in faith. It takes time and practice, much time and much practice, to become adept at being a grateful person. We learn to be grateful by seeing gratitude conferred on us, ‘spoken’ to us through the gracious, grateful lives of others.

You have learned and taught the language of thanksgiving over this last decade: y2k, dangling chad, nineleven, shock and awe, collateral damage, housing bubble, credit default swap, leveraged speculation, bursting bubble, hope and change, great recession, jobless recovery… Through it all you have kept alleluia alive, kept thanksgiving alive, kept gratitude alive.


But language alone, community alone, cannot confer thanksgiving. We must at the end of the day enter the house. We will want to go inside, set the table, prepare the meal, serve the dinner, and clean the dishes.

Your fieldwork is not a substitute for your homework.

You cannot claim the successes of profession or business as substitutes for the work of the inward journey, the path toward wholeness, health, and happiness involves becoming a grateful person.

“I try to be a grateful person”. A beautiful sentence.

Our need for thanksgiving is met in the service of thanksgiving, the Eucharist. We are servants of an eternal master who does not discount the invisible, interior, indoor work of the inward journey.

Some years ago, in the course of a capital campaign, my friend and I visited lovely new homes, bought before the housing bubble burst, purchased by young people who had enough to pay the mortgage, but in many cases nothing left over to furnish the interior. Looking back, I wonder now how many went into foreclosure. I wonder if some of our lives are not too often too similar to those fine homes, whose exteriors shine, but whose interiors are unfurnished, or at least under furnished. I wonder how many of us are on the brink of a kind of spiritual foreclosure?

I wonder about students whose parents have saved to support an expensive education, and who so enjoy a subsidized freedom. How do they learn heartfelt gratitude?

I wonder about young parents both at work who enjoy the blessings of employment and activity, whose fieldwork consumes them and leaves little space for the inward journey. How do they learn a heartfelt gratitude?

I wonder about middle age men who have had the benefit of preparation and education and experience, perhaps with few collapses. How do they learn a heartfelt gratitude?

I wonder about those at the heights of life who have the blessings that accrue to place and position. How do they learn a heartfelt gratitude?

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 thanksgiving may prompt me to give your work back to you. 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 first, best step in the journey of faith comes with thanksgiving.


The pragmatists and Methodists among you will want something more specific, so here it is. You best know thanksgiving when giving. If you have no other access to gratitude, to a grateful heart, you always have this route forward: give something with thanks to somebody, something real and costly and spot on. The heart follows the hand. You will be grateful when you have shown gratitude, by giving something to somebody.

This summer my wife attended worship in a church that had dispensed with the offering, and the offering plates, and the offertory. I have no idea why. But she was deeply incensed, and not only because of her Scottish ancestry. I think it had to do with the deep sense that gratitude, giving, thanksgiving is the marrow of the spiritual life, the inward journey.

Your fieldwork is no substitute for your domestic duties, nor can the outward journey replace the inward. As you come to receive the Eucharist (the word means thanksgiving) determine today to open or deepen your sense of thanksgiving by receiving bread and cup and by imagining a gift you may give to another.

O Give Thanks
O Give Thanks
O Give Thanks
Unto the Lord
For He is Gracious and His Mercy

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

September 26

Cantata and Covenant

By Marsh Chapel

Click here to hear the sermon only.

Luke 16: 19-31

The Chapel’s gothic nave, built to lift the spirit, welcomes you.

The Chapel’s sixty year history, at the heart of Boston University, welcomes you.

The Chapel’s regard for persons and personality, both in its Connick stained glass windows and in its current ministry, welcomes you.

The Chapel’s familiar love of music, weekday and Sunday, welcomes you.

The Chapel’s congregation of caring, loving souls, in this sanctuary, welcomes you in spirit.

Welcome today as we enhance our endowment.

We celebrate the endowment we already have. It is a rich and treasure. It is an endowment vocal not visible, audible not audited, psychic not physical, moral not material. Listen for its echoes…listen…

All the good you can…

The two so long disjoined…

Heart of the city, service of the city…

Learning, virtue, piety…

Good friends all…

Hope of the world…

Are ye able, still the Master, whispers down eternity…

Common ground…

Content of character…

Congregation and community, you come too.

Earthly assembly and heavenly chorus, you come too.

We’re going out to clean the pasture spring.

John Donne once sharply evoked, in a 17th century sermon, the power of divine covenant. Our cantata today coes the same, sharply evoking the power of covenant embrace, of the human, by the divine. Today’s cantata grew up out of a wedding cantata. And weddings are symbols of covenant, human and divine.

Donne preached long ago in London at a May wedding. Rather than reflecting in the abstract about the nature of marriage, or about the understanding of the church as the bride of Christ, or about divine love in general for the human being in general, Donne imagined himself in the bride’s place. He envisioned himself walking publicly down the aisle, to meet the Lamb, the bridegroom. He pictured the procession, his walk toward the Lamb, the bridegroom. He imagined truthfully what the townspeople would whisper about him as he walked forward: “Look at Donne. Do you remember what he did, all that he said, where he failed, all his faults?” How could he possibly be worthy?” Donne had probably seen many seen as many weddings as we do, summer by summer, with their processions, their thresholds of new creation, their sacramental covenants.

Peter Hawkins, our dear friend and teacher, summarize the moment this way: “The Son of God as bridegroom does not care a whit that his intended’s sins once were scarlet. All the bride has to do is lose her scruples, proceed and join in the feast to follow…with complete confidence in the bridegroom’s choice of her. Even if everyone else thinks the union is a mistake, ‘The lamb shall marry me” says Donne the preacher, “and marry me in aeternum, forever”.

It is this kind of covenant joy which the cantata today evokes.

Heavenly Flames

Heavenly Flames: To Be Your Temple

Souls pleasing to you in faith

You chosen souls whom as chosen as his dwelling

Who could choose a greater bliss

Who can count the throng of blessings

So will the site of sacrament be rewarded

Peace Over Israel, Psalm 128

Celebratory, rather than condemnatory



Give thanks, God has considered you.

I don’t know how I could live without Bach.

Today’s music - written by those great musical preachers of the Baroque Bach and Schütz – amplifies the central Christian message of salvation for all who believe by faith, and enter into covenant with God in Christ.

Let’s start with our offertory anthem, ‘Viel werden kommen’ by Heinrich Schütz. You can read the translation in your bulletin. He draws on a small portion of the text from Matthew Chapter 8 about Jesus’s encounter with the centurion. If you recall the passage, the Centurion, presumably a gentile, comes to Jesus asking him to heal a sick servant. Jesus is moved by the Centurion’s demonstration of faith, and after the miracle – true to form – Jesus finds in this the act a teachable moment. Here comes our text for the anthem. Despite the gnashing of teeth imagery, the scripture in full context ,means that access to Salvation, communion or covenant with God, is available to all, even the most unlikely – think of the woman at the well. He goes a little further here to indicate that, moreover, those who make assumptions about their Salvation may find themselves in the hot seat – just as Rich man Divies in today’s lesson from Luke.

We can’t be certain about biblical interpretations during Schütz’s day, but the set of pieces from which our motet is drawn was published at the end of the Thirty Years War, that awful period which pitted brother against brother, and confession against confession. In the Matthew lesson, Jesus clearly meant that the Centurion, a gentile, shared an equal chance at Salvation. Perhaps Schütz, in the 17th Century, was making a similar statement about Catholic versus Protestant. No great of logic is required to define which divisions plague today’s global community. Regardless, when we meet Schütz at the heavenly banquet with Abraham, Isaac, und Jakob, we can be sure to ask him!

Now to our Cantata for the day. Bach celebrates this communion with Christ, this holy wedding where Christ is bride-groom and we, the Church, his bride, in truly spectacular ways. Originally written for a wedding in 1724, Bach recasts his cantata for a Pentecost Sunday in the early 1740s. More than fifteen years later, he recognized the superior quality of his earlier effort, and found in it a text that suited the celebration of covenant, not just between two people who profess love and devotion for one another, but that this relationship mirrors the believer’s life in Christ, a devotion – a love – fanned by the flame of the Holy Spirit.

Music of the high Baroque is much like a Swiss clock - there is extraordinary beauty in the clock itself – face and casing - but that beauty is deepened by the wonder, precision, and complexities of the moving parts beneath the surface. As an aural guide for Cantata 34, listen for how Bach sets the word Ewiges – or eternal, and at the same time the flickering, darting line sing for the word Feuer – or fire. Notice how Bach sets the word for ‘ignite’ – entzünde – you can almost feel the music spark each time the choir sings it. The trumpet signals the arrival of Christ, as bride-groom, of this most royal of weddings.

The central movement of the cantata, focuses on the rapture of the individual whose body becomes Christ’s Holy Temple. There is a perfection and naturalness of beauty here – directly from the sublimity of Eden’s garden.

The cantata ends in thanks and praise, but not without significant emphasis on Christ’s pronouncement, ‘Peace upon Israel.’

Today we observe two masters whose musical settings give voice to Christ’s wedding invitation. An invitation to all, without amendment or exclusion.

We prepare ourselves for cantata and covenant, in wonder and vulnerability and self-awareness…


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…There are humans…who become blind to goodness, to truth and beauty, who drink wine without pausing to cherish it, who pluck flowers without pausing to give thanks, who accept joy and grief as all in a day’s work, to be enjoyed or managed, without ever seeing the presence of eternity in them. But that is not the point. What is crucial is that humans, whether they do so or not, are capable of encountering a moment not simply as a transition between a before and an after but as the miracle of eternity ingressing intot time. That, rather than the ability to fashion tools, stands out as the distinctive human calling.

Erazim Kohak


Nothing can make up for the absence of someone whom we love and it would be wrong to try to find a substitute: we must simply hold out and see it through. That sounds very hard at first, but at the same time it is a great consolation; for the gap, as long as it remains unfilled, preserves the bond between us. It is nonsense to say that God fills the gap: He does not fill it, but on the contrary, He keeps it empty, and so helps us to keep alive our former communion with each other, even at the cost of pain.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Self Awareness

Words—I often imagine this—are little houses, each with its cellar and garret. Common sense lives on the ground floor, always ready to engage in ‘foreign commerce’, on the same level as the others, as the passers-by, who are never dreamers. To go upstairs in the word house, is to withdraw, step by step; while to go down to the cellar is to dream, it is losing oneself in the distant corridors of an obscure etymology, looking for treasures that cannot be found in words. To mount and descend in the words themselves—this is the poet’s life…Yet listen well. Not to my words, but to the tumult that rages in your body when you listen to yourself…And why should the actions of the imagination not be as real as those of the perception?

Gaston Bachelard

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

September 19

Faith Handles Change

By Marsh Chapel

Click here to hear the sermon only.

Luke 16: 1-13


Before us today stands Jesus Christ, robed in mystery and announced in a strange parable. There is no easy interpretation for this parable. Why is its hero, my favorite accountant, commended for dishonesty which is a breach of the ninth commandment? We do not know. Why is his master happy to be cheated? We cannot say. Why is an accountant’s swindle upheld, in this parable here attributed to Jesus, as a preparation, somehow, for heaven? No one can tell. What, please, does verse 9, as tangled in the Greek as it is in your bulletin, intend? We do not see. What possible connection is there between the story, and the four trailing proverbs? Little at all, except that they all deal with money. How did this collection make it into Luke’s travel narrative? It is not clear. Is this dishonest manager our role model, in the church, as we try to “manage wealth in the direction of justice?” (Ringe)


Let us recall the mystery of Christ, the Stranger in our midst. Today is voice, so equable and magnanimous and serene, can just barely be heard above the cadence of the traditional (rabbinic?) story here told. Today his voice is like a whispering soprano descant. We can announce his presence today, again today. He is among us: dealing with issues we dismiss…speaking with people whom we dislike…considering options we disdain…selecting vocations that do not yet fully exist…expanding spaces that we constrict…accepting lifestyles that we reject…attending to possibilities that we ignore…approaching horizons that we avoid…healing wounds that we disguise…questioning assumptions that we enjoy...protecting persons whom we mistreat…making allowances that we distrust. So, strangely, is He among us.

For the mystery of Jesus Christ falls upon us, approaches us, and enchants us, when and where we least expect Him. In the strange world of the Bible. In the midst of the community of strangers that is the Church. Hidden in the odd estrangements of our personal life. Here, behold, the Lord Christ Jesus, the Stranger.

Contrary to much preaching, televised and popular today, his presence is neither simple, nor surface, nor easy, nor fundamental, nor shallow, nor ideological, nor one dimensional, nor ahistorical, nor primarily political. He draws us, lures us, and enchants us. So he sets us free.

For St. Luke has captured a collage of portraits of Jesus, “On the Road”. We are on a journey, as Luke reminds the church. We are making a trip to the promised land. We are headed in a certain direction. With our spiritual forebears, we are traveling, on a journey. Israel left Canaan to go to Egypt to find bread. There they became the slaves of Pharaoh. But Moses led them out, parted the Red Sea, and guided them through the wilderness. He brought them the ten commandments. At last, he sent them forth, with Joshua, to inhabit the land flowing with milk and honey. In such a glorious land, they hunted and farmed. They even built a temple, and chose a King. Samuel, Saul, David, and Solomon reigned, but were followed by others less wise and less strong. Although the prophets did warn them, the children of Israel left their covenant and their covenant God, and at last suffered the greatest of defeats, the destruction of Jerusalem and the return to slavery in Babylon, 587bc. Like Israel marching in chains to Babylon, and then trudging home again two generations later, we people of faith are on a journey, from slavery to freedom.

Luke’s mysterious Christ meets us today, hidden in the calamity of unexpected change and economic crisis. On the road, the journey of faith, Luke has most to say, and Jesus most regularly addresses the issue of money. Remember how Luke traces the Gospel. Mary in the Magnificat honors the poor. John the Baptist preaches justice, in the great, unique tradition of the Hebrew prophets, from Amos forward. Isaiah’s words and hopes are affirmed. Jesus blesses the poor, not just the poor in spirit, in his ‘sermon on the plain’. Remember the parable of the ‘rich fool’, “tonight is your soul required of you, and these riches, whose shall they be?” Luke sets Christian discipleship at odds with, in contest with, anxiety about possessions. And in conclusion, meet Lazarus and Dives. Jesus Christ calls us to manage our possessions toward justice, both as a church and as individuals.


Keep this portrait of the shrewd manager in your wallet, especially for the days your wallet is empty. He meets the report of his mismanagement, itself possibly false, with calm. He does not try to change the world, or this news. He raises the basic question with courage: “what shall I do?” He thinks creatively, acts with enterprise, communicates astutely, relates cleverly, strategizes shrewdly...and lands on his feet. When the cheese moves, he does too. He moves quickly. Here we overhear in a contralto solo the alto voice of an earlier period in the life of the church, earlier than Luke that is.

Before we understand the parable of the crafty steward against a moderate, modest background of proverbial wisdom, as does Luke, we might sing alto for a minute. Before we recall ‘wise as serpents, innocent as doves’, we might want to hear the parable of the clever steward against a sterner, more rugged background of judgment: ‘the Lord himself will descend with a cry of command…Some there are who are standing here who will not taste death until they see the Son of Man…The kingdom of heaven…the good seed bears fruit, 30 and 60 and 100 fold. Quick. The contralto voice of the church before Luke may have heard it just so. Seize the day. Now is the acceptable time. Today is the day of salvation. Quick. It’s later than you think. Quick. Someday you may need to make a hard, sudden decision. Keep this parable in mind. Quick. You have been shrewd, clever and prudent in the decisions of this age, this world—houses and jobs and moves:

There is a tide in the affairs of men,
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries

And what of the lasting things? Matters of heart, of soul, of friendship, of love? Have you been as assiduous with the things of God as you have been with things? Quick.


But you may wonder whether this parable speaks to you, especially if you are in financial calamity. Along Luke’s Jerusalem road, Jesus has a healing word to say about possessions, money, wealth. At least, in a tenor voice, this is what look says. He reads the parable remembering other teachings: before you build a tower, count the cost; before you wage war, study the enemy; be clever, shrewd and prudent; one man sharpens another like iron sharpens iron. The lord affirms not dishonesty but prudence. So at least our gospel writer sings out in his firm tenor voice.

To me it is clear that the chief communal issue before Luke’s (Antioch?) congregation was the management of wealth. This means that they had money. This also means that they did not immediately throw it away. This further means that they reasoned that the apocalypse of the end was not so very near that no financial planning was necessary. This additionally means, as Luke’s writing shows, that they were trying to lear
n to become prudent, astute, imaginative, shrewd, clever, insightful, accountable, enterprising managers. So they are reminded, in argument from less to more: “Keep faith in the little things, to be ready for the big ones.” An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. “Be faithful with money, which belongs to God, so that you will become faithful in soul, which belongs to you.” A stitch in time saves nine. “Do your pre-season training with possessions, so that you will be ready for the regular gridiron season of the spirit.” Look before you leap. Be penny wise, not pound foolish.

In other words, “use possessions so as to gain, not to lose, your future” (Craddock). Be creative. “For all the dangers of possessions, it is possible to manage goods in ways appropriate to life in the Kingdom of God” (Ringe). Remember that you are a manager of someone else’s accounts, an absentee landlord who has a claim. And go ahead, be clever. Be creative and loyal, but if you have to choose—be creative.


The deeper truth in this passage, though, is simply that faith handles change. And this is the bass line, the deep voice of the community of faith, which has lived with this odd parable for 2000 years. Faith carries the power to master the vicissitudes of change. Ultimately, this parable cannot be interpreted along moral, or economic, or even political lines. So read, it makes no real sense. Luke has gone ahead to read the parable so, in part, by appending the four parables about fiduciary fidelity. We have honored his teaching. But the parable itself says something else. Like the mystery of Christ itself, the story is not moral but mystical, not theoretical but theological, not law but grace. It is good news.

The good news is that faith handles change. A man gets the pink slip, and leaves under suspicion, with the sheriff on the way. He is looking at doing time. He is on the lamb. He is headed for jail, prison, the lockup, the pokey, hoosegow, calaboose, the slammer, the joint, the tank, in stir, goin’ up the river, doin’ time, in the brig, the gray bar hotel, the big house, the can. (Isn’t language wonderful? As the steel magnolias said, “accessorize—it’s the only thing that separates us from the animal kingdom”. I would add speech.) He is not a moral exemplar. But just as his ingenuity handles the sudden change in his circumstance, so the powerful grace of faith, the faith of Jesus Christ, handles the constant change of life. Faith manages change, masters change. So Paul can shout, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me and the life I live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God who loved me and gave himself up for me.” (Gal. 2:20). The faith of Jesus Christ, working heteronomously through life, handles change. Faith is nimble, not flatfooted; agile not stolid; creative not loyal; shrewd not complacent; quick not quiescent; fast not slow.

A couple of Sundays ago I came home in the early evening to settle in and read the papers. On the front page of the (NYT) book review I was surprised and delighted to find a report on THE WARMTH OF OTHER SUNS. Over dinner, last year, I had come to know the author, BU professor Isabel Wilkerson. As sometime marvelously happens, at table, she had captured my imagination about the book was finishing. She enthralled me with accounts of three people, on three trains, in three generations, headed north. Hers is the story of the epic migration of African Americans from the south to the north, on three train lines: one along the east coast, one up the Mississippi, and one across Texas to California. “What linked them together was their heroic determination to roll the dice for a better future.” Of course I found the account mesmerizing, told as it was in such fine detail, with such realism and hope: “a hopeful search for something better, any place but where they were. They did what human beings looking for freedom throughout history have long done. They left.” And of course I found it such a quintessential BU story, of freedom wrestled for, freedom won, against the tides of prejudice and poverty. What troubles have we seen, what mighty conflicts past? Fightings without and fears within since we assembled last.

Faith handles change.

Then, nearly setting the paper aside, I leafed quickly to the last book review page, and there again, a similar account, a fine book, a BU friend and author. Andrew Bacevich, a military man and a conservative, whose voice is one of the truest of our time in its search for the things that make for peace. His latest book, WASHINGTON RULES, calls to us to look hard at what we are doing around the world. He criticizes our condition of permanent national security crisis. He criticizes our tendency to ignore those doing the actual fighting on our behalf. He praises Eisenhower’s warning against the ‘military industrial complex’. ‘Bacevich in his own populist way sees himself as updating a tradition—from George Washington and John Quincy Adams to J William Fulbright and Martin Luther King, Jr.—that calls on America to exemplify freedom but not actively to spread it…the country is lucky to have a fierce, smart peacemonger like Bacevich’. And so is this community, this city, this University.

Faith handles change.

Days earlier, reading another day’s paper, I came upon the account of the Mt Nebo Bible Baptist Church in New Orleans’ 9th ward. Katrina wrecked the church and parsonage. Over five years, the pastor rebuilt his home, and conducts services there, now, every Sunday. The long story of wreckage and rebuilding was well told in the article. But it was the ending that stuck with and struck me:

When Mr. Duplessis first inspected the wreckage of Mount Nebo's building - pews tossed aside like toothpicks, chunks gone from the roof, there a wall knocked loose - he also learned that several boats had been tiedto the steeple. With 20 feet of water around, the second floor of Mount Nebo was, in more ways than one, a sanctuary. And so he has persevered in his living room. On this particular Sunday, the faithful finally did arrive, a dozen by 10:15 a.m., nearly 25 by 10:35. Mr.Duplessis preached from the Book of Joshua, all about determination. He conducted a baby blessing. And he joined his people in singing lyrics that were almost unbearably freighted with double meaning:

Storm clouds may rise
Storm clouds may blow
But I’ll tell the world
Wherever I go
That I have found the Savior
And he’s sweet I know

Are we ready to apply this gospel to our own lives and to affirm in the ways we live that faith handles change?

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

September 12

Johannine Inspiration

By Marsh Chapel

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1 John 4: 7-12

Beloved let us love one another.

Was there ever a time, a season, a year, week or month more hungry than ours now for this inspiration? Was there ever a more timely word?

Beloved let us love one another. For love is of God and one who loves is born of God and knows God.

This is the Johannine inspiration that comes from the Gospel and Letters of John, including our reading from 1 John today. In a strange way, the same spirit emanates from the center of the Gospel of Luke, in chapter 15. We hear today of the loss and return of a coin and a sheep, and on another day of the loss and return of a prodigal son. These beautiful parables, like the Johannine inspiration, come shorn of overwrought doctrine or tradition. They place us in the moment of loss and return, of coming home.

Beloved let us love one another for love is of God and one who loves is born of God and knows God. One who does not love does not know God. For God is love.

Words sublime. The high peak of Johannine inspiration. We crave the hearing and trusting of such words today, amid the cacophony of so much language, religious language included, that is less inspiring.

In this is love that God sent the Son that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that God loved us.

And yet. Those who have read through the letters of John and the Gospel itself, will have a question or two. Across the river at Harvard three autumns ago, after an evening presentation, a wise and kind man clearly said: “I have trouble reading the Johannine literature. I really have a hard time reading John”.

We can surmise what he probably meant. Our lovely lesson read earlier comes after, and as a by product of, a long, pained history of religious conflict. The community of John had good reason to state: one who does love does not know God. One feels that they had been on several sides of that locution over many years. It takes one to know one. We are not the first generation to know the scalding of religious conflict. The question is whether we can emerge from it with inspiration.

Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God. But we love one another God’s love abides in us and is made whole in us.

These words of light were born in darkness.

For in John and John 1 we find various troubling, troublesome, troublous passages. We read repeatedly the phrase, ‘the Jews’, for example. We come upon Jesus saying harsh things, fore and aft. We turn the page to find ‘gentle Jesus meek and mild’ bluntly assaulting his countrymen, his fellows in religiosity, his co-inheritors of law, prophets, writings, of Moses, Amos, and Job, with the following exercise in humility: ‘all who came before me are thieves and robbers’. We find that far more than the already heated anti-semitism of Mark has been baked into the account of the crucifixion.

An historical, a diachronic reading of John it is, one that looks at its place and time, its community of origin, or life setting, which frees, and which alone can give a measure of the promise of 8:31, ‘you shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free’. We know about overheated religious rhetoric. We know of this from the current wrongheaded, heated, unfortunate rhetoric with reference to our Muslim sisters and brothers. We also find it here in our own Bible, in the Johannine literature. It is not be understood literally or literarily. It is to be understood historically and theologically as a particularly dark moment in the shameful Christian tradition of anti-semitism. We need to know this first, and more.
John’s Jesus makes several remarkable claims, given Philippians 2 and Matthew 5. Are many of them historically reliable? Some are, but many are not. They reflect a changed understanding of the Christ, hard won and hard earned. The titles for Christ—Messiah, Son of God, Son of Man—come from different points it the community’s journey, history, and theology. We need to know this first, and more.

John’s community has suffered trauma that has caused change. Trauma brings change. They have suffered the trauma of disappointment. The end of the world which they expected did not come, disappointingly enough. They found the courage to admit it, and change. That is, in disappointment they discovered freedom. They also have suffered the trauma of dislocation. They have been thrown out of their religious home, de-synagogued if you will, and are wandering out in the street when they write. They lost their mother tongue, motherland, mother tradition, which is huge dislocation. They found the courage to face it, and change. That is, in dislocation they discovered grace. Paul, who did not write or know John, might well have said, see, I told you, ‘when I am weak, then I am strong’. We need to know this first, and more.

We come here to the stunning heart, the surprising marrow of inspiration, Johannine inspiration. Out of the forged iron, as from a refiner’s fire, of all this deep disappointment and dark dislocation, there emerged a document (perhaps best printed in poetic form), which has been the height of inspiration for almost 2,000 years. John has been the spiritual and sublime gospel, the poets’ gospel. Out of all this hurt there somewhere emerged our morning’s ‘epistle’ lesson.

For four years I have along side me as teaching assistant in the Gospel of John a most brilliant, funny, young mother, Episcopal priest. She is a literary critic. She practices rhetorical criticism. She loves poetry. Twice a term I ask her to bring her potent medicines, the alchemic mixtures of literary criticism to bear on our text.

The Rev. Ms. Regina Walton every term shows our students three poems which grow out of the Johannine literature and illumine its meaning. For today’s sermon, I determined to have you hear them as well. They are light, joy, truth, power, meaning, and love. Gospel. They are beautiful. They are rhetorically beautiful religious language. What other than such beauty, epitomized by our lesson from 1 John, will drive out the demons of hateful religious rhetoric?

More: could it be that years from now, in some way unforeseen and unforeseeable, as if forged in a refiner’s fire, the deep disappointments and dark dislocations of our current religious culture might drive us up, out and back to holy beauty, as happened over millennia with John? Listen in our time for the poets emerging to recall us to our rightful minds.

George Herbert lived from 1593 to 1633. The English Civil War occurred soon after his death, leading to ‘disestablishment’. Herbert was an ‘orator’ at Cambridge, and sickly. From a young age he knew that he was called to write devotional poetry. He knew John Donne, who was a friend of his mother’s. He employs both trochaic and iambic meters. He writes, among other things, of the soul’s call to God, and of the claim the believer has on God. That is, in his work there is a Johannine courage. Love made me welcome, but my soul drew back…You must sit down and taste my meat…Herbert wrote of love. Here is a poem that draws directly on John 14:17, John 6:6, and John 16:22:

The Call

Come, my Way, my Truth, my Life:
Such a Way, as gives us breath:
Such a Truth as ends all strife:
And such a life as killeth death.

Come, my Light, my Feast, my Strength:
Such a Light as shows a feast:
Such a Feast as mends in length:
Such a strength as makes his guest.

Come my Joy, my Love, my Heart:
Such a Joy as none can move:
Such a Love as none can part:
Such a Heart as joyes in love.

Henry Vaughn lived from 1622 to 1695. He fought on the Royalist side during the great war. Vaughn is known as one of the best followers and imitators of Herbert. In 1649, Charles I executed Oliver Cromwell. The Church of England was disestablished and the Book of Common Prayer was outlawed. The King was understood to be anointed by God. Incidentally, his brother was an alchemist. Vaughn lived during a dark time, and his poetry evokes his time. He recalls the great Pseudo-Dionysus and the Cloud of Unknowing. He celebrates night and the darkness of God, in way that I believe connects truly to our time as well. It is no accident that he bases this poem on Nicodemus at night, John 3:2ff, portions of which we now hear:

The Night

Through that pure Virgin Shrine
That sacred veil drawn o’er thy glorious noon
That men might look and live as glow-worms shine
And face the moon:
Wise Nicodemus saw such light
As made him know his God by night.

Most blest believer he!
Who in that land of darkness and blind eyes
Thy long expected healing wings could see,
When thou didst rise,
And what can nevermore be done,
Did at mid-night speak with the Sun!

Dear night! This world’s defeat;
The stop to busy fools; care’s check and curb;
The day of Spirits; my soul’s calm retreat
Which none disturb!
Christ’s progress and his prayer time;
The hours to which high Heaven doth chime.

There is in God (some say)
A deep but dazzling darkness; as men here
Say it is late and dusky, because they
See not all clear;
O for that night! Where I in him
Might live invisible and dim.

You will not be surprised, many of you, by the choice for our third poet. T.S. Eliot was born in America, yet lived most of his life in England until his death in 1965. He was the greatest poet of his age, and one of the greatest of any age. While our generation does not cling to him as did an earlier one, and this itself is a pity, nonetheless he touches us too. To him we owe the rediscovery of the metaphysical poets. Eliot found God’s presence in God’s absence. Like Herbert’s mature claim upon God, like Vaughn’s love of night, Eliot’s presence in absence seems strikingly close to the spirit of our own age. I dedicate this reading to my dear colleague and deceased friend Sam Davis. The following poem owes much to John 1:1 ff:

If the lost word is lost, if the spent word is spent
If the unheard, unspoken
Word is unspoken, unheard;
Still is the unspoken word, the Word, unheard,
The Word without a word, the Word within
The world and for the world;
And the light shone in the darkness and
Against the Word the unstilled world still whirled
About the centre of the silent Word.

O my people, what have I done unto thee.

Where shall the word be found, where will the word
Resound? Not here, there is not enough silence
Not on the sea or on the islands, not
On the mainland, in the desert or the rain land,
For those who walk in darkness
Both in the day time and in the night time
The right time and the right place are not here
No place of grace for those who avoid the face
No time to rejoice for those who walk among noise and
Deny the voice

Here are three poems, three moments of Johannine inspiration. One for those in need. One for those at night. One for those troubled by absence. Amen. Amen. Amen.

Words sublime. Is there a time that more needed the power of their beauty?

The poets have something, and have something in common. We leave you with their Johannine inspiration today. In fact, we address and challenge you with that inspiration today.

The poets have a sense of something. They have a premonition, an awareness of a looming Presence. Their words, and the words of Scripture, point us toward this premonition, this awareness, this inspiration.

A looming Presence, in way and truth and life. A looming Presence in night and dark and light. A looming Presence in word and speech and silence.

In a reality beyond our inescapable reality, they tell us, we are ever in the presence of One brooding over the fracas of history, brooding over the chaos of nature, brooding over the conflicts in religion, and brooding over our struggles in faith and life. A looming Presence whose nature and name is love.

- The Reverend Dr. Robert Allan Hill
Dean of Marsh Chapel

September 5


By Marsh Chapel

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Luke 14: 25-33


In the morning mist, out along the lake, you hear, as you run, the crowing of the rooster from across the road. The earlier you pass, the more frequent his morning call to life, call to prayer, call to devotion. The cock crowing has a haunting, a lastingly haunting sound.

The mind turns over. Rooster. Our son for many years had stuffed animal, which was a Raccoon, whose name was given as ‘Rooster’. ‘Rooster Raccoon’. Rooster twice was burned, being placed too near the stove. Big patches of used cloth held him together. One limb he had lost in a tussle with the Labrador. And an ear. He lived with us a decade, until he came apart at the seams. But to recall his name is to remember, in the morning mist, a beloved bygone epoch.

The mind carries your memory as the feet carry your body out along the lake, with the Rooster calling, such a distinctive, troubling sound. Once long ago the crowing somehow seemed a marker—a note was sent to a colleague to this effect—a marker of what the church had been and could yet be.

The seven greatest gifts of my life have come directly by grace through the church: name in baptism, faith in confirmation, community in eucharist, work in ordination, friendship in marriage, freedom in forgiveness, and eternal hope in unction. So, of course, the reminder, the remembrance has strict power: ‘before the cock crows twice you will have betrayed me thrice’. It is the work, the labor, of grace to lift us up after betrayal.


Speaking of labor. Do you see how the mind curls around itself, in remembrance? Labor omnia vincit. Even with all of Twain’s mocking of work in Huckleberry Finn—one sees again the whitewashed fence—we know in the marrow the saving worth of work. People need work, work to do, meaningful work. 80% of a family’s health comes with a decent job. So it is striking that we do not remember, better, those most of us with work, what it is like to lack work. The 90% will want to remember the 10%, because we all once were the 10%.

Sometimes students and others do genograms. These are helpful exercises. You might ask your parents about their grandparents, your great grandparents, about what they learned in the 1930’s. Most families have some lasting hurts, bruises. Sometimes the stories are muted. Listen for them. Your mother’s grandfather might have been traveling the country, a hobo, jumping onto and off of trains. This is Labor Day weekend. The mind connects us to what we have known long ago. Brings it to remembrance. Another generation could list the four freedoms, including freedom from want.


Speaking of freedom. Do you see how the mind curls around itself in remembrance? We are together in Boston. The cradle of liberty. We walk the freedom trail. And others come from around the globe to do so. Have we forgotten what kind of freedom was sought here? Along the Massachusetts Bay? It was a longing for space, for place, for space and place for…for what? For freedom. But the particular freedom in our DNA, our real remembrance which we sometimes forget, is freedom to come before life, to worship God, in our own way, freely, without governmental constraint. The Tea Party in Boston was the outgrowth of a surge toward freedom—of religion. For minority, displaced, outcast, Puritan, religion, on the low side of the old world. We were born, now that you remember it, out of a desire to make space and place for worship. The big old center city Methodist church in Utica NY opened last week, newly rebuilt as a mosque to serve the large immigrant population there. The city is understandably proud. Sometimes you have to go a bit out into the periphery of life to encounter real remembrance.


Speaking of periphery. The mind still curls around… Our summer series of preachers this year brought voices from across the country, from out on the periphery, to acclaim the gospel of grace and freedom, and to reflect with us upon renewal. They merit our remembrance. The voices of Rev.’s Carter, Lightner and Amerson acclaimed the good news of divine grace, the good news of human freedom. We want to remember their wisdom. Do we? We want to remember Rev. Carter’s citation of the Haitian proverb, ‘God gives but he does not share’. God’s benevolence is all around us. It is our work to manage a just distribution. We want to remember Rev. Lightner’s ode to the joy of reading. Good news can come in unexpected packages. Do not judge a book by its cover. Read and read widely and you will be blessed. We want to remember Rev. Amerson’s account of the history of Boston University, and particularly of John Dempster from 1839. Faith can come, at last, through struggle, he affirmed, remembering a struggling friend who offered a wise malapropism in a healing service: ‘I pray that my strength may be faithened’. Exactly. We can give up a little expectation and take on a little expectancy. Sermons are not only for hearing but also for remembering. For remembrance.


Speaking of remembrance. In a way, all of Scripture is a sacrament like our table prepared this morning. Through bread and cup, and the words of tradition, we reach a sixty generation long arm back to Jesus. Through reading and interpretation, we reach a sixty generation long arm back to Jesus. We remember Him. His remembrance is our strength. St. Luke is careful to remember his stern teaching, amid the joys of feasts and prodigals. Count the cost. Nothing worth having ever came easy. Labor omnia vincit. Renounce all. Do not let the many lesser loyalties obscure the one great loyalty. Remember thy creator in the days of thy youth. Remember your mortality. Remember your capacity to harm others. Dust art thou, to dust shalt thou return. This year, and particularly in Lent as we remember Bonhoeffer, we shall have ample further time to consider the cost of discipleship.


Last spring term we celebrated the completion of forty years in ministry here of our Rabbi, Joe Polak, Director of the Hillel Center. A thoughtful student leader had arranged a special evening, a surprise party of sorts, by which to mark the occasion. The room was packed and joyous, full of singing and testimony. To have a place at the feast was itself a sheer privilege. As planned, a series of speakers offered remembrance. Each one was itself a gem. At a concluding point, the student leader who had arranged the affair offered her own statement. Her words linger in the mind. “We are grateful for the Rabbi’s ministry among us. His teaching and counsel have helped us. His voice and advocacy have supported us. He has provided for us an example, an example of how to live and how to lead.” Then she provided this telling insight: “Those of us who have been active here these years have been privileged. We have decided to practice our faith, during our years as students. We have done so in order that our memories of these years will not be held apart from our religious faith, our faith tradition. Our memories of college will be joined to, connected with our faith and our tradition.”

And you? Wi
th what manner of depth and meaning will you later connect the remembrance of these few years?

One of the three primary modes of eucharist and meanings of communion is remembrance. ‘This do in remembrance of me’. In the simple, plain grace of the sacrament we receive what we have been given:

‘for I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread and when he had given thanks he broke it and said, ‘This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me’.

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

August 29

A Simple Peace

By Marsh Chapel

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Luke 14: 1, 7-14


Over the summer we had a chance to take our granddaughter out for lunch. The little place we chose has a long history of children and summer, of burgers and ice cream. It sits nestled into a long, lovely valley, an actively agricultural valley of corn fields and dairy barns. We were not quite alone in the small dining room, though that designation itself seems overwrought. The room simply provided space for a collection of tables and chairs. An older woman sat, back to door, enjoying her luncheon hot dog and potatoes. After lunch, as a reward for eating all of lunch, our granddaughter had an ice cream cone. I want to try to interrupt all the twittering texting emailing rushing half listening cacophony of our current life with the dripping joy of one three year old and one small vanilla cone. Our older friend peered over her hot dog and potatoes and with eyes bright pronounced a silent blessing. Everything about an ice cream cone in the summer brims with what is good. The cold clean taste. The texture soft and grainy. The drip drip of melted cream falling on lips, then chin, then tiny hand, then shirt, then floor. The dive nose first down in for more. Sheer happy joy, for the moment, attends such a child on such a day with such a treat. A simple peace.

Guest and Host in Luke

In that hour, she, holding the ice cream cone, was the guest, and we, bursting with a simple peace, were the hosts. Jesus meets us today within the pageant of religious teaching about guests and hosts. Our passage is a loner in the gospels, simply and beautifully so. Luke alone possesses this material, and bestows it all upon us by a garden tool means. He simply links up stories that have to do with meals, or feasts. My friend said he preached ‘clothes-line’ sermons: “I put out a line and pin up whatever comes to mind”. On his line, Luke pins up wisdom for hosts and guests: wisdom though that has an eternal reward. The guest is reminded and remanded to practice the humility of a simple peace. Sit low, down the table. The host is reminded and remanded to practice the benevolence of a simple peace. Look low, down to the needy. The guest represents the inner journey, our daily hunt for an inner peace. The host represents the outward journey, our lifelong hunt for the reign of peace. One a state of mind. The other a state of affairs. And allowing Augustine’s rule sway today, we shall form the sermon in the form of the scripture. One clothes line crossing the other.

A state of mind can change a state of affairs. We are hoping that is so for those poor Chilean miners, trapped beneath the ground. A state of mind can improve a state of affairs. We are hoping that will be so for those who begin their studies here, in this secular, northern, urban, cold, large University. A state of mind can transform a state of affairs. We are hoping that will be so for those near and far making space, in public place, for houses of worship for all religions. A state of mind can transform a state of affairs. We are hoping that will be so for you, in your private thoughts, in your family negotiations, in your toughest choices. Hold to a simple peace. That of the guest and the inward journey: humility. That of the host and the outward journey: generosity.

Some of the old, good things about life well before and well beyond college age can bring their refreshment, a powerful refreshment, into communities of twenty year olds. I notice the way our students respond to children when, occasionally, there are little people on campus. You can see the minds moving: this once was me; one day I will have children. Guest, inward journey. Host, outward journey. An education frees you from the confines of the early twenty first century by immersing you in Plato and Shakespeare and Galileo and the Russian Revolution. In the same way, just a glimpse of the child and cone free you from the confines of life at twenty.

Guest and Host: Humility (H) and Generosity (G)

(H). The simple peace of humility in religious discourse. No one religious tradition corners the market of a simple peace. Like the Buddha, we need to come down from heaven, down from our very worthy, but limiting intelligences. Like the Buddha, we need to celebrate any birth, with Siddhartha’s birth. Like the Buddha we need to explore the world outside the palace, to explore other spaces and times. Like the Buddha we need to find our own forms of Siddhartha’s famous renunciation. Like the Buddha we can benefit from the simplicity enjoined in any and every ascetic practice. Like the Buddha, we face the challenge of Mara’s temptations, of life’s temptations. Like the Buddha, who preached his first sermon, we find our true voice by finding our earlier voice. Like the Buddha, we seek peace, a kind of nirvana. Such a simple peace allows us to move, to grow, to change. “What’s won is done, the joy is in the doing”, wrote Shakespeare. That is the spirit of the cadets who graduated to the motto ‘live free, serve free, die free’, even as their teachers honored their tactical intuition and acknowledged their youth (‘we expect Second Lieutenants to make mistakes’). Here is the experience, rendered with peaceful simplicity, of a Palestinian poet:

We travel like other people, but we return to nowhere. As if traveling is the way of the clouds. We have buried our loved ones in the darkness of the clouds, between the roots of the trees. And we said to our wives: go on giving birth to people like us for hundreds of years so we can complete this journey. To the hour of a country, to the meter of the impossible. We travel in the carriages of the psalms, sleep in the tent of the prophets and come out of the speech of the gypsies. We measure space with a hoopoe’s beak or sing to while away the distance and cleanse the light of the moon. Your path is long so dream of seven women to bear this long path on your shoulders. Shake for them palm trees so as to know their names and who’ll be the mother of the boy of Galilee. We have a country of words. Speak speak so I can put my road on the stone of a stone. We have a country of words. Speak speak so we may know the end of this travel. (‘Victims of a Map’).

(G.) The simple peace of generosity in Matriculation. One good way to start the year, in a simple peace, is by giving something to others. I remember volunteering to lead a scout troop during my freshman year. We camped in the rain. I remember others who visited nursing homes. They listened when they could not understand. You will find something healing and revelatory if you sign on as a big brother or sister. Sometimes, like children, in simplicity, we need to re-enter the kingdom of God. Even in the freshman year.

(H). The simple peace of humility in devotion. A simple peace can be a Sunday gift. A church service like this one reminds you of such a simple peace. You are a child of God. Howard Thurman famously concluded his masterpiece, Jesus and the Disinherited, with just this thought. To allow such kingdom sensibility to live, though, requires all the heavy thought and truth telling we can muster. J Mang: ‘it is likely that nothing will match the reassurance of a Sunday morning spent in church. But for an ever growing number of Americans, the conviction that the church is built on shaky philosophical grounds is more powerful than
the longing for unconditional comfort’. The two cannot finally be disjoined. The gospel of truth, to be gospel and truth must be both gospel and truth. Nor can the religious longing ever easily be written out of human life: ‘whatever introduces genuine perspective is religious’ (Dewey). We face mystery. We realize that more than understanding, more than knowledge, is demanded by life. To understand is good. To overcome is great. One journalist remarked on the survivors of a tragedy fifty years ago; “They have been called upon to face up to mystery, actually the most terrible mystery of all, and facing mystery is something that everyone must do for himself. In the face of such a disaster one must fall back on faith or find only bitter meaninglessness in the universe. To my mind this is the greatest challenge faith offers—to believe that the hand of God has not been withdrawn from the world when such things happen’. Said of those who lost children in the 1958 Chicago fire, this could be said of us all. One frame for such a perspective is that of Paul Tillich: ‘God does not exist. He is being-itself beyond essence and existence. Therefore to argue that God exists is to deny him’ (ST 1, 205). Strangely, the most truly academic discourse is the one set against a horizon that outstretches academia. The only truly academic dean is the dean of the chapel(!).

(G). The simple peace of generosity in correction. A simple peace can be prophetic. Jeremiah warned his people: you have left aside the springs of water of inner peace; you have built for yourselves broken cisterns which will hold no outward generosity. A woman at Riverside Church saw ahead around the corner: ‘My concern is that (our new pastor) in his writings, has taken an Afrocentrist view that is not necessarily consistent with the universal, embracing tradition of our church’ (C Guice-Mills, NYT 9/08). Yet that same simple peace can be redemptive. The great recession of these two years has reminded us of what children know best. M Atwood: ‘Children begin saying ‘That’s not fair’ long before they start figuring out money…Debt, who owes what to whom, or to what, and how that debt gets paid, is a subject much larger than money. It has to do with our basic sense of fairness, a sense that is embedded in all our exchanges with our fellow human beings’. (NYT 10/08). Sometimes the simple voice of conscience will rise up and touch us: ‘I felt like I was betraying myself, like this isn’t really what I like to do, this isn’t who I am, this isn’t the experience I want to be having.’

(H). The simple peace of humility in attention. I notice how much detail my granddaughter sees that I miss. The dog in the water. The bird behind the tree branch. The rabbit peeking out from under the berry bush. The sound of the water running into the culvert. Perhaps it is this simplicity of direction observation, dulled over decades that causes us to misstep. So, the inward journey toward a simple peace, self-critical self-awareness, can be lucrative, if honored. In 1988 on GM executive in all simplicity wrote: ‘we have vastly underestimated how deeply ingrained are the organizational and cultural rigidities that hamper our ability to execute’. I could have said, most nearly did say, the same about the UM church in 1988. We too developed structures that repelled top talent. We too evaded a relentless quality focus. A simple peace can be beautiful. Real beauty is simple, as simplicity itself is beautiful. Proust wrote, ‘Beauty. That beauty of which we are sometimes tempted to ask ourselves whether it is, in this world, anything more than the complementary part that is added to a fragmentary and fugitive stranger by our imagination over stimulated by regret’. At the Kennedy museum, you can watch and hear President Kennedy say, ‘we shall not fear beauty’. A good word, in simple peace, for our time too.

(G). The simple peace of generosity in healing. The outward journey toward a simple peace, benevolence in behavior, can be healing. Medical care could benefit from a focus on simplicity, a childlike attention to the simple things. Medicare no longer reimburses hospitals for ten conditions, simply preventable, when developed by patients in their care. In 2007, 193,000 people suffered falls, 30,000 were infected during catheterizations, 15,000 lost blood sugar control, 12,000 suffered urinary tract infection. Pay attention, stay clean: ‘tis a gift to be simple’. The same is true at the intersection—here—of scholarship and religion. We all need to ‘foster public virtue through moral instruction and official ritual without coercing dissenters. The 21st century has begun with seemingly unbridgeable chasms between secularism and believers. One step in averting such a parlous situation is to recover the notion of an Enlightenment spectrum that, by including the religious Enlightenment, complicates our understanding of belief’s critical and abiding role in modern culture’. (D Sorokin)


Would you not love to master the simple art of care, the ‘quiet habit of efficacious compassion’?

Everyone who humbles himself will be exalted, and everyone who exalts himself will be humble.

The last shall be first, and the first shall be last.

We will close with EB White, though it is a story from the season of shiver, not that of thirst, of winter not of summer. (A gentle reminder of life 180 days from now?)

One of my favorite Boston vignettes is set in the public Garden. EB White liked to take his step-son skating on the Frog Pond, when they visited relatives in Beacon Hill. Both step Father and Son loved Boston, and its charming garden. One day they hiked down from their relatives apartment, took off their shoes, stuffed them under a bench, donned their skates and skated until the sun set. This was in the depths of the depression. When they returned to the bench, their shoes were gone. ‘Someone needed them more than we did’ was all White would say. Then the two hiked up Beacon Hill together. Still in their skates. That image of the great writer, enjoying the winter, loving the garden, enthralled with ice, kind to the needy, and hiking up Beacon Hill on the tips of his skates—that image stays with me.

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

August 22

Water on the Sabbath

By Marsh Chapel

Click here to hear the sermon only.

Luke 13: 10-17


The eye of the Lord today rests for a moment upon a genuine generosity. If we follow his gaze our eyes too may rest for a moment upon genuine generosity. We too by the lenses of the Scripture may for a moment see what Jesus sees, imagine what he imagines, today. His vision may shape our own. Then in his light we may see light. Follow in the mind’s eye for a moment the angle of vision, the dominical angle of vision, now registered for us and all time in St. Luke’s generous gospel, Chapter 13. Hum the tune, some months before Christmastide: Do you see what he sees? In water on the Sabbath, simple refreshment of those who emerge from the manger, he sees and honors genuine generosity. Can we do otherwise? The next time you are tempted, as you consider a generous act, to think that no one sees, that no one shares, that no fruit falls, remember today’s gospel of water on the Sabbath. Follow the eye of the Lord, resting for a moment today on generosity. He teaches us about visible generosity. He delights us with religious generosity. He persuades us of the power of generosity.

Visible Generosity


In the Lukan recollection, Jesus spots a magnanimous, quotidian loosening of regulations. The Sabbath is to be kept. But there is a visible generosity, a leniency, a magnanimity, a forbearance, an embracing acceptance. In short, a generosity visible to all. The cattle lowing, the ox and ass, named early in the manger and now emerging, thirsty, will be watered. Water on the Sabbath. There will be water on the Sabbath and a way to slake an unavoidable thirst.

Isn’t ‘slake’ a marvelous verb? We do not suffer thirst much. But when we do, we know its unavoidable pain. Last spring, here in the Back Bay, and at BU, we had a day or so without potable water. It was a bracing reminder. Come summer, today, with heat and sun, we can wake up to a sharp thirst. We pass over some of the threshold spiritualities too quickly. I remember a glorious WS Coffin sermon, arguing, contra JB Phillips, ‘Your God is Too Large’. The text: Jn 19:28: (Greek: DIPSO), ‘I thirst’. Maybe the spiritual message of winter is the divine intimacy known in the small spirituality: ‘I shiver’. Maybe then the spiritual message of summer is the divine intimacy known in the God who is not too large for the phrase, ‘I thirst’. Hope has two beautiful daughters: anger and courage. (So, St Augustine). Anger to shake off a shiver. Courage to slake a thirst.

The summer is meant for the slaking of thirst. To slake the thirst for rest, we vacation. To slake the thirst for fitness, we exercise. To slake the thirst for meaning, we read. To slake the thirst for adventure, we travel. To slake the thirst for God, we pray. To slake the thirst, the DIPSO, the longing, for heaven, we listen, listen, listen….for the word. For denizens of the northeast, especially, the summer spiritualities MUST be honored, for the rest of the year to unfold.

The eye of the Lord, in Luke today, rests upon generosity. On the Sabbath, of all days, a generous fountain of water is poured out to slake a natural, quotidian, inevitable thirst. Water they need, water they shall have. Follow the way his eye, his mind, point. Follow his gaze. He invites you to look out to where he points. No magic, no mystery, no sacrament, no spiritual insight is required here. For those who will take a moment to look, generosity is visible. Plain as the nose on your face. Plainer still. Plain as the nose on my face. ‘A face made for radio’, as one said. We know, we see, generosity IN OUR OWN EXPERIENCE. The Lord simply points it out.

Luke steps away from the mounting vehemence—utterly regrettable—with which the observant are treated in Paul, then Mark, then later Matthew, and especially in John. Luke (as he does from chapter 9 to chapter 18) tells his own story. But Mark (2) and Matthew (12) and John (5) and so many other NT passages carry the same contrast of Sabbath vs. Water, Water vs. Sabbath. Speaking of thirst slaked: I found myself smiling this summer to read our former colleague Paula Frederiksen’s sharp treatment of this (FROM JESUS TO CHRIST) of some years ago. There is very little balance, no fairness, in the NT portraits of Pharisees and Sabbath. These are set pieces. ‘Why is this night different from every other?’ has become ‘Why is this teacher different from every other?’ And then the set pieces in response about Water and Sabbath.

Which makes our reading so wonderful, so exceptional, itself so generous!

Not for Luke, ‘brood of vipers’ language here. Not for Luke ‘white sepulchers’ language here. Not for Luke ‘before me thieves and robbers’ language here.

Rather Jesus sees generosity.

All across the other 26 books largely we find the requisite contrast. Water vs. Sabbath. The living water vs. the dead letter. The end of the law vs. the law. Grace vs. Law. The requisite combat: Healing Jesus vs. Sabbath Observance.

But in Luke 13 we find a reasonable, a generous voice, pointing to generosity visible among the observant. Here is the closing argument: ‘Now look. Why grumble about whether I may have straightened up and out a spiritual infirmity or two on the Sabbath? Let us reason together. We are not so different, you and I. When necessary, you provide water on the Sabbath. Generous of you, very generous. I see it. See: it is visible in your own experience. Water on the Sabbath. When necessary I provide that water too.’ Not water or Sabbath, but Water on Sabbath.

Can you see, in the mind’s eye, one generosity, genuine generosity? If you follow the Lord’s lead and outlook, you cannot help but see one, somewhere. Somehow it is refreshing, on a Sunday, or on any day, to see again, to LEARN again, to remember the visible generosities.

Religious Generosity


Even in religion, one can stumble across genuine generosity. Even in religion.

In the Lukan recollection, Jesus spots a loosening of religious regulation. In its broadest interpretation, this passage delights us with the remarkable, to our eyes, assertion that religion, even religion, even our own religion, admits of real generosity.

We are rightly reticent to follow Jesus’ gaze here. We have an authentic, gut sense—good sense that is—that we should be more careful, cautious, and critical than we are, normally, about religion. Perhaps this is a modern dilemma. Somehow I doubt that, though. Over time, we come to realize that regarding religion we are not ever as negative, honestly critical, truly and historically candid about religious malevolence as we should be. We forget, pass over, eclipse, offer special pleading.

For robes, stoles, temples, steeples and rituals of all kinds readily and regularly do human harm. A lot of bad can hide in church. And does. Any general applause for religion in general is, in the first instance, highly suspect. So, this winter, when thirst gives way to shiver, we shall brace ourselves in the wind of honesty about religion by remembering Dietrich Bonhoeffer, come Lent. Life Together. Religionless Christianity. Cheap Grace. The Cost of Discipleship.

We have every right, every reason to hold up, to pause here, along the sight line offered. Hum a little of the old spiritual, ‘Have you got good religion? Or bad?’

Yet, even here, SURSUM CORDA, to follow the divine sight line is to see moments—and they are a sheer delight—even in religion. Water on the Sabbath. Water EVEN on the Sabbath.

Before coming to Boston we had the privilege of helping to build a largest new building. (A building by the way is in some ways the quintessential spiritual, not material project, as Daniel Marsh well knew. Another sermon for another day.) The work took almost ten years, from warmup to extra innings. It both occasioned and required multiple, manifold generosities. One of sweetest, hardest, and truest, though, came from left field. I hope you can see the generosity, how delightful it was. It was a religious generosity.

During one piloting session, a young woman said: ‘I think some of us will pay a heavy price for this, which you do not see. We will want to give, truly want to. We see the need, love the Lord, support the church, affirm the direction. We are with you Bob. But we no money. We have no means. So we shall have to support in other ways, and we shall have to bit our lip, when we would LOVE to be able to do what others can, but just cannot. We will need to carry the burden of an unrequited love, a yearning—true, honest, loving, fierce—a longing to do more. (A thirst?). And that will be in some ways our biggest gift’. And she was right. And she did.

I feared for years that our biggest challenge would be people who had means but no desire to be generous (and there was some of that); but what I saw, along a delightful sight line, was the opposite: people who had bountiful desire, but limited means. We had to find a way to do the building without letting a single brick of spiritual disappointment fall on, hurt, genuine—yes, religious—generosity.

Somehow it is refreshing on a Sunday, or any day, to be delighted by real, religious generosity.

Potent Generosity


I recall a Russian poet, jailed for years, who said, when asked how he survived: “I remembered the generosities, the kindnesses I had known”.

In the Lukan recollection, Jesus spots a kind of generosity, simple and real like the watering of livestock, which has the power to influence others. Generosity begets generosity. Just as the greatest cause of war is war, so too with genuine generosity. You remember these simple acts when you see them. They make you more generous yourself. They bear fruit. They are Water on the Sabbath.

I miss preaching, when I am away in the summer. So, often the early fall homilies quickly grow out of all proportion, take off lickety split, and become like the peace of God, passing all understanding and enduring forever. Like zucchini. As this sermon came to life, a past particular Sabbath generosity, utterly humble, knocked at the door. I refused to open, for a time, for it is so humble, dressed in sandals and shorts, not really fit for Sunday worship. But sometimes an illustration tells you it is coming into the sermon, no matter what you think.

One Sunday some years ago Jan and I and our then teenage son were flying home from a wedding on the beach near Pensacola. I think this summer of the glorious ivory sand and shimmering emerald water before which I witnessed the vows that summer. Going home, we had a chance to be ‘bumped’, to pick up an extra later flight by taking a flight later that day. We agreed to do so, but left our son to make his own choice. Whether to stay five or six more hours with his parents, or to fly home to his friends, having spent already three days with mom and dad. He declined to be bumped. His friends were waiting at home. He knew his parents pretty well already, and they were, well, his parents. He wanted to go home. So he told the attendant. I remember what I saw that day.

A beleaguered airline worker, with dozens of people clamoring for his attention, with heat of all kinds mounting, with a plane to fill, seats to assign, simply stopped. He took our son by the arm, and walked a few paces with him. He tried to show him what he was giving up—a few hours now, a trip anywhere later. The fellow had no need to do so—there were umpteen other volunteer. He had many reasons not to do so—tempus fugit. But the two of them talked, laughed, talked. Of course I could see that an avuncular voice is far better than a parental one, in such a moment. Our son smiled. He was, and should have been, honored by the gift of the man’s concern, interest, and engagement. It was water on the Sabbath, a moment of generosity, which reverberates ten years later. It bears fruit, and I think of it when I am tempted to move quickly, or too quickly, from an avuncular conversation myself.

Of course, the son ditched his parents anyway. It was only natural, and in its own way, only right. He quickly got on board his duly ticketed, regularly scheduled flight. But the potent generosity of the moment remains radiantly visible. It is refreshing, on a Sunday—or any day—to see again, to be PERSUADED by the power of generosity.


The eye of the Lord today rests for a moment upon a genuine generosity. If we follow his gaze our eyes too may rest for a moment upon genuine generosity. The next time you are tempted, as you consider a generous act, to think that no one sees, that no one shares, that no fruit falls, remember today’s gospel of water on the Sabbath. Follow the eye of the Lord, resting for a moment today on generosity. He teaches us about visible generosity. He delights us with religious generosity. He persuades us of the power of generosity.

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

August 15

Reality Check

By Marsh Chapel

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Luke 12: 49-56

Not exactly “Gentle Jesus, meek and mild” here, is he? If he ever was.

Jesus has no illusions about the controversy inherent in his mission, and he does not want his disciples to have any illusions either. He comes to bring fire, a sign of judgment. Here on the road to Jerusalem he is already at odds with the religious authorities. He speaks about the baptism of his death, the likely consequence of his preaching and teaching. He speaks of the stress he feels until his work is done. Jesus is not a false prophet like those described by Jeremiah. He does not speak dreams or lies or deceit. As one who has the word of God he speaks it faithfully, and God’s word is like fire, like a hammer breaking rock. As in the Psalm, such a word as judgment brings justice to the poor and vulnerable, rights to the lower classes, and deliverance to the oppressed. Conflict is inevitable.

For the crowds, conflict is inherent in their own hypocrisy. The interpretation of the present time is as obvious as the weather signs that everyone knows, but the crowds persist in denial and take refuge in ignorance. But for the disciples, the ones closest to Jesus, the ones who say they are serious about following Jesus on his path, there is no such escape. Conflict is inevitable, and it will not just be the relatively easy and expected conflict with strangers or authority figures. To choose to follow Jesus, to accept the controversy of his teaching and preaching, is to bring conflict into one’s very household, with one’s nearest and dearest.

Now this idea may not have come as as big a shock as we might think to the disciples. The men are of at least breadwinning age. They are culturally and religiously supposed to marry, settle down, have children, and enter the family business or do even better. The women have even more cultural and religious expectations for their behavior than the men. They are to move from father’s house to husband’s house to son’s house with the welfare of the family their only concern. Yet here they all are, women and men, gallivanting around the countryside with some itinerant preacher, the men walking away from their families and leaving their businesses, the women walking away from their families and using the their resources to support themselves and this very motley crew, all of them calling scandal and attention to themselves with their involvement with miracles, the preaching of the good news of the Kingdom of God -- whatever that is -- and getting into trouble with the arbiters of the faith. We can only imagine the letters from home.

And truth to tell, the idea of inevitable conflict, even within our families, does not come as such a great shock to us, either. We can relate. My friend Lucy’s mother did not speak to her for two solid days when Lucy revealed that she was not going to vote for Richard Nixon, the Republican candidate, as her family had always voted for the Republican candidate. Instead Lucy was going to vote for a Roman Catholic, Irish Democrat named John F. Kennedy. Lucy’s mother did finally end up talking to her, but she held a grudge for years. Many of us know families of active pacifists whose children join the military, and families with generations of military academy graduates whose children join peace movements. There is nothing more disconcerting to us as children to learn that Mom and Dad have either spent the bulk of the family fortune on exotic vacations, or have left the bulk of the family fortune to the whales or the trees. And in academic circles, the first Thanksgiving break is almost a cliché: the newly convinced vegetarian or carnivore goes home to be confronted with the sacred foods of the family Thanksgiving feast; the newly convicted free market capitalist or fair trade organizer goes home to undergo the opinions of their direct opposite in Aunt Sally or Uncle Joe; upon return to the dorm the pictures of the high school sweetheart are taken down and put away, or even thrown out.

For the folks in Jesus’ time, and for us in ours, conviction of whatever sort invariably leads to conflict. How much more so for disciples of Jesus, then and now, who are called to follow a path that has controversy built into it, a path that confronts not just systemic injustice and oppression, but the shadowy recesses of the human heart and its complicated relationships? Someone once said that human beings fear change more than death, and the path of Jesus is all about change: change in the world as we resist those vested in fear, violence, power, and greed through our proclamation of the kindom of God; change within ourselves as our proclamation of the kindom of God and our own formation into disciples of Jesus as we act out that kindom go hand in hand. Many of us who undertake the process of discipleship can acknowledge the truth of Jesus’ words: the most inevitable, the most painful, conflict is indeed with those who love us, who want to protect us, and who cannot bear to see us change in their fear they will be left behind, or will have to change themselves..

So if conflict is inevitable, how do we engage it with grace? While Jesus does say that conflict is inevitable, he does not say that we are to be belligerent, argumentative, hostile, or self-righteous. How then are we to engage others with grace in the very real issues of stewardship, justice, and peace that are part of our discipleship? How are we to engage our family as well as those we encounter in the wider world with grace?

Part of the answer lies with how we view conflict itself. If we see conflict as something to be avoided at all costs, as something that “nice people” or “good Christians” do not engage in, we too will be in denial, of both the reality of our world and the inevitability of conflict in our lives as Jesus’ followers. In fact, conflict does have its more positive side. Ron Kraybill, in his book Peace Skills: Manual for Community Mediators, defines “conflict” as that which is “the result of differences that produce tension”. So conflict can be a valuable source of information about the state of our relationships on a personal or communal level. As such, it can be seen as something to be managed or resolved, but Kraybill asserts that conflict can also be seen as something to be transformed, in a process that “does not just end or prevent something but also begins something new and good.”

This process of conflict transformation into something new and good has many entry points for grace. I would lift up three of them in particular for our consideration this morning.

The first is picked conflicts. The hard-earned wisdom of our faith tradition, of parents, adult children, and mediators of every kind attests to the fact that not everything is a matter of life and death. Respect for one’s Other in conflict recognizes that their truths and convictions are held with as much integrity and passion as one’s own. And there is only so much energy, time, and resource to go around. So we have to decide. What in our discipleship are we truly called to uphold in our proclamation and life, and where and with whom are we called to uphold it? What are the marks of the kindom of God, and what is only culture and conditioning? Do we really need to engage in conflict over a particular issue, or can we drop it, agree to disagree, focus instead on areas of common interest, or agree just not to engage that issue? As many of us have come to learn, progressives and conservatives, vegetarians and carnivores, Christians and atheists can live in the same house, as long as there is a commitment to love one another and to serve the common good. Some of these shared interests can a
lso involve issues important to disciples of Jesus. Again my friend Lucy, a practicing Christian. With her son, who is an atheist, she shares a deep commitment to the welfare of disadvantaged children. There is indeed sometimes conflict between them due to certain decisions each makes out of his or her beliefs. But their commitment to mutual respect for one another in love, and this shared concern for children, help them to support one another in all their common concerns, even as they continue to find increased areas of agreement.

This first entry point for grace of picked conflicts is closely related to the second entry point. We have to decide how important it is for us to be right. Especially we have to decide how important it is to be right in comparison with other values in our discipleship. If we insist on being right, we may indeed “win” on a particular issue, but we may cut off the possibility of further conversation or even break the relationship, to the detriment of any future good. Instead of being right all the time, it may be that sometimes it is up to us to refuse to call it, to postpone or even give up our being right in order to keep the conversation going until the transformation of conflict for everyone is possible. Many of us remember, during the Viet Nam police action, when so many fathers and sons were in such deep conflict over the question of military service, that it was mothers/wives, daughters/sisters, who stood in the breach, who refused to take sides (although they certainly had their own opinions), who kept the lines of communications open between their loved ones, until the wounds had had time to heal, and the conflict could be transformed into deeper understanding and compassion. Jesus himself had strong words to say to those who were in conflict with him, even to his own family, and he certainly thought he was right on a great many things, but he was not afraid to change his mind, and he was not afraid to keep the conversation going.

The third entry point for grace is the use of example rather than rhetoric. An odd thing to say for a preacher, but true nonetheless. If we are called to practice our discipleship in ways that conflict with family or other tradition, we may want to go the extra mile to make that practice more convenient for family or for others. To take on some of the research and action of shopping and cooking toward a more thoughtful and just use of resources, to begin to give a portion of our tithe of our own money to mutually important causes, to pare down our own excess consumption perhaps in part through meaningful gifts to family members, or just not to be so quick to argue or to critique: these examples go a long way to prove both our own commitment to our discipleship as well to open conversations about that commitment with those near to us who might otherwise be frightened or angry about our priorities.

It is true that sometimes we do have to leave, that the situation is so intractable, so fraught, that for our own spiritual or physical safety and integrity, or that of others, we have to go. Or, while it does not seem likely for us in the United States at this present time, it may be that we, like many of our brothers and sisters around the world, are called to witness to the proclamation of God’s kindom to the extent of martyrdom. The work “martyr” means “witness”, and certainly the consequences of Jesus’ witness to the good news of the kindom of God led to his death. But there are also many kinds of witness that may feel like death in ourselves by what we are called to do. To oppose or resist our family and friends for the sake of justice or peace or a different way of being in the world very often feels like something is dying inside us, and our grief can be very real. Or it may be that our discipleship does call us from home for many years, or away from cherished practices and beliefs. But even if the situation or other people involved are intractable, and we have to leave, we can still allow the possibility, the possibility, of the conflict’s transformation, through the grace within us, into the beginning of something new and good.

Our attitude toward conflict is what in large measure determines if it transforms us or if we transform it. If we are aware of conflict’s inevitability – especially if we can become aware of conflict early on -- and if we see conflict as a source of information useful to us that can be transformed into something new and better, then we can see and open not just these three entry points for grace, of picked conflicts, the decision about being right, and the use of example: we will be able to open many more entry points of grace into conflict as well.

Conflict is inevitable, Jesus taught, even to conflict with our nearest and dearest. But as he also taught, our discipleship can also be a source of peace and transformation of conflict for ourselves and for those around us. Thanks be to God. Amen.

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

August 8

Beyond the Unexpected Hour

By Marsh Chapel

Click here to hear the sermon only.

Luke 12: 32-40

It is good to be with you today. Let me express my appreciation to Dr. Hill for this invitation and to Ray Bouchard for his kind hospitality. As I was leaving Chicago, Elaine and I rode for several miles along Dempster Avenue on our way to the airport. Named for John Dempster this major traffic artery stretches from the lakeshore west to distant cornfields. John Dempster was, of course, the leader of a fledgling Methodist school that later became the B.U. School of Theology. And, that very same John Dempster became Garrett Seminary’s first president in 1854. Our two schools share the same ancestry and, I suspect, much of the same theological DNA. So, it is good to come and visit the “mother ship” today. I bring greetings from the wild, wild frontier of Chicago.

Creator of life, remind us anew of your invitation to live boldly through the mystery of the present and into your promised future. Forgive our presumptions when we despair by setting limits on our actions and your grace. Renew us in hope and free our strength to your purposes. Amen.

I. The Question

“How can it be to our advantage that Christ has left this earth?” Dr. George Buttrick asked this question at the beginning of a sermon preached a short distance from here over fifty years ago. It is a good question – one that pushes theologians to consider matters of deity and the future, or in “theo-talk” it is Christology and Eschatology. This question is quite apt for our scripture lessons for today. How do we behave in the middle of an unfinished story? How might God surprise us yet again… and, how are things changed after being surprised by grace?

My son occasionally sends me questions he finds amusing. We share a sense of humor that is slightly “out of plumb.” For instance he recently sent this query: “Dad,” he wrote, “what if there are no hypothetical questions?” You have to think about it. Others he has sent include: “What was the best thing before sliced bread?” and this one I like, “If you try to fail, but succeed, which have you done?”

Recently I came across examples of questions used in the admission process as the Oxbridge schools. Among them was: “How would you organize a successful revolution?” (This seemed like a good question for me to ask in Boston.) And there was this one “given the present political climate, why not let the managers of Ikea run the country instead of the politicians?”

Other questions asked of applicants to various schools at Oxford or Cambridge were:
• Would you rather be a novel or a poem? (English, Oxford)

• How many monkeys would you use in an experiment? (Experimental psychology, Oxford)

• Should we have laws for the use of light bulbs? (Law, Cambridge)

• If I were a grapefruit would I rather be seedless or non-seedless? (Medicine, Cambridge)

I appreciated Dr. Buttrick’s question when I came across it a few weeks back: “How can it be to our advantage that Christ has left this earth?” Luke’s gospel lesson for today provides a subset of questions from this larger one. Questions like, “What are you doing waiting here?” “Where is your treasure, anyway?” “And, are you prepared for the unexpected hour?”

My friend Faye asked me a similar, although more piercing question, when she asked, “Where the hell is God in all of this?” I will get to Fay’s story later.

II. Great Expectations and Living with Expectancy

John Dempster headed west. He was home on leave from work in Argentina in the early 1840s. He was preparing to return when he was asked to head a theology school in New England. He was surprised to be asked to be a leader for Methodist theological education in America. You see, father died while he was young and growing up as an orphan, Dempster had little formal education. The invitation came unexpectedly. At first, he declined --- yet somehow he discovered a new vocation, a new treasure, beyond the unexpected. In terms of Luke’s gospel, his lamp was trimmed and he was prepared. He served as president of Methodist General Biblical Institute the antecedent to the BU School of Theology for six years. Then, again, the unexpected request and he headed west.

He headed to Illinois (Newbury Seminary in Vermont 1834 [high school] and Methodist General Biblical Institute in Concord, NH 1847). In my mind’s eye I see him moving along with the flinty eyed “free soilers” who were part of the radical abolitionist movement – they eager to claim the land and farm but more eager vote to make or keep a state a free state. Dempster was pressing forward with his call for an educated clergy.

Dempster’s deep piety was matched by a commitment to justice. In 1862, one day before the Emancipation Proclamation was signed, Dempster met with President Lincoln and urged him to sign such a document. Dempster kept moving and in 1863 he left Illinois and headed west again, with the expectation he would start other seminaries in the Rockies and in California. Sadly he died an untimely death on that journey, but his dream of establishing other seminaries was soon enough accomplished by his apprentices.

During these same years, as the American Civil war was gruesomely unfolding, a writer named Charles Dickens decided to save his magazine, All the Year Round by writing a novel in weekly serial form. That story was called Great Expectations. What Dickens wrote in 1862 is now required reading for most high school students. You know it, the young Pip, his expectations to become a gentleman of great wealth, his dreams of marrying Estella. You remember the eccentric Miss Havisham and the treacherous Magwitch. Dickens puts the human hunger for social ranking and success on trial. He puts society in the dock and finds that we are too typically unable to accept the decency of a blacksmith like Joe or the redeeming love of a convict.

Pip’s "great expectations" for success and privilege prove counter productive. He is learning the painful truth behind the gospel text “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” As each opportunity arrives there are problems or tragedy and Pip becomes the more miserable.

And what of us? Where is our hope? A wise friend once taught me the difference between expectations and expectancy. To have expectations is to presume we might control what is likely to happen. What we expect is shaped by our greatest desires or fears. Living with expectancy, on the other hand, means one lives on the tiptoes of hope bringing our best gifts to events as they unfold, even when faced with tragedy. Benjamin Disraeli said, "What we anticipate seldom occurs, what we least expected generally happens.”

On Easter Sunday 2010 I suspect none of us knew what a “Deepwater Horizon” was, and today these are words that represent human greed and deceit. As this environmental crisis went unaddressed choices were open – either moving with our expectations or a new expectancy. Some expected a quick fix so that ample fuel can continue our nation’s insatiable joy ride to prosperity; some fear the sight of the ugly backside of environmental abuses might cause us to question our addictions. Did we stop to ask, what do we treasure most? And a
ll through these short months the astonishing gap between the wealthy and the poor in our society continues to widen. Over the past three decades we have regressed to levels of income disparity not seen for a century in this nation.

In Luke's Gospel we have the story of great expectancy. The instructions given to the servants waiting for the return of the master are crisp and concise: "Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit." Servants prepare! But for what? Well, the return of the master! But what will happen when he returns? Ah, here is the astonishing surprise. This parable is also structured as beatitude. It is: "Blessed are those who are prepared ... or, happy are those who are prepared, for they will be surprised."

Did you hear the surprise? "There is a role reversal. The master takes the position of a servant and serves his own servants. This climax to the parable is so shocking, it is introduced by the phrase, "Amen, I say to you." [“This striking formula occurs only six times in Luke and in each case introduces something that comes as a shock, or is a hard saying....] Here it introduces a stunning reversal of roles.”

III. Beyond the Unexpected: The Surprise at the End of the Rope

Expectancy opens to the space of what God is doing with and for all people. Expectations have power to limit and shape our understandings. The old axiom “What we believe to be real becomes real in its consequences,” merits our attention. But I am speaking of more than self-fulfilling prophecy. This is about one’s stance toward life and its possibilities.

Gary Dorsey tells of spending eighteen months in a rather traditional New England congregation. He had come as a journalist, and that only! Then the unexpected happened. His life was changed. Spending a year in church as a journalist, the liturgical year progressed and he discovered his place in the larger scheme of things. He writes: "This is what I tell people now: if you ever decide to go back to church, even despite yourself, you will eventually find yourself in a place where you can learn about mystery and timelessness. You will become part of a tradition of stories and verses and gossip greater than you can imagine… with a carnival of small-time saints, whose tales and homespun customs marshal wisdom out of a religious calendar, you will become a character, too, and a player in a cast.”

Dr. Buttrick answers his question of how we might take advantage the Messiah’s delay suggesting that this waiting allows us to see more clearly, to know God beyond the limits of space and time, so that we might grow to be free to discover our strength.

I couldn’t help but think of Frederick Buechner. Before coming to Boston, when Buttrick was still a pastor New York, one day a young man named Buechner sat in the pews of Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church and heard George Buttrick describing the Kingdom of God as an experience involving tears, laughter and great confession. As Buechner says, all of a sudden through this sermon it was as if, "the great China wall came tumbling down and Atlantis came up out of the depths of the sea." It was one of those incredible moments when God genuinely happens to a human being.

Attending Union Seminary Frederick Buechner says two things surprised him: First of all, he was amazed at the earthiness and the honesty of the Scripture. Secondly, what was even more striking about the Biblical story and what recurred all the way through, from Genesis to the Book of Revelation was the continuing motif that the worst things were never the last things. This God who had a thousand names was continually acting in unexpected ways… then waiting for our response.

Chicago’s own theologian and poet, Fr. John Shea puts it this way: “At the center of our best effort, we discover our worst motive. Our perfect plot fails and their sloppiest plan succeeds. In single-minded pursuit of one goal, we blithely achieve the opposite…

In these moments, and many more, we are thrown back on ourselves. More precisely, we are thrown back into the Mystery we share with one another. These moments trigger an awareness of a More, a Presence, An Encompassing, a Whole within which we come and go. This awareness of an inescapable relatedness to Mystery does not wait for a polite introduction. It bursts unbidden upon our ordinary routine, demands total attention, and insists we dialogue. At these times we may scream or laugh or dance or cry or sing or fall silent. But whatever our response, it is raw prayer, the returning human impulse to the touch of God.

Think of the story of Jacob and Joseph, Naomi and Ruth, Simon Peter or the apostle Paul. Think of Jesus. This is the image of a God for whom the worst things are never the last things. John Claypool said it this way, “The loveliest truth I know is that God lives at the end of our ropes.” Claypool notes that the familiar aphorism "as long as there's life, there's hope" may carry a deeper truth if we consider the converse. That is: as long as there's hope, there's life.

My Friend Faye asked her question of me more than once. You remember that question, “Where the hell is God in all this?” – She was a longtime member of the parish where I served, She had suffered from deep depression following her husband's long struggle with cancer. I encouraged Faye to seek help for her depression and she also joined a Wednesday morning healing group. We didn’t know much about healing rituatl, we were not Pentecostal, nor did we have the rituals of anointing more common to Roman Catholics or Episcopalians. We struggled to find a Methodist way.

And so, at the close of this group, each week we would anoint one another, going around the circle and asking our neighbor what we could pray with them about for the coming week. Months turned into years for Faye, slowly she began to play the violin again. Slowly she would share in the company of friends. However, she still struggled with her question. One week, when it came time to pray, I was sitting next to Faye and when I asked, “What can I pray with you about? She stuttered. She was about to deliver one of the most powerful malapropisms I have every heard. She answered, "Please pray that… that… that my strength will be faithened." She got her words all twisted round, but her theology right. In that moment I watched her face slip into a wry smile. Within days, I heard her laugh and then one day she surprised me with a new question. She asked, “And what do I do with this God now?”

How would you help her answer this question?

~The Reverend Dr. Philip A. Amerson, President
Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary
Evanston, Illinois

August 1

All of Us are Better When We are Loved

By Marsh Chapel

Click here to hear the sermon only.

Romans 5: 1-11

Ride On

One Tuesday, over lunch, a pastor told us about children at church camp. One 9 year old in pig tails chose horse camp last year. I didn’t know Methodists ran horse camp. We do. But on Monday she fell off, or was frightened or something. She cowered through the week, unable to get back on the horse and ride. Her counselor just kept on encouraging. Friday was the rodeo. I guess that is horse camp graduation. All week she wrestled, her fear of falling grappling with her desire to be in the rodeo. Dawn broke on Friday, as it does. I loved, really loved, the way the minister told us about the rodeo. The girl in pig tails put herself on the horse. The old glue factory mare stumbled around the little circle made of six orange cones. First the girl hugged the horse’s neck and kept her eyes closed. But then, after a little while, she opened her eyes. Then she looked up. Then she sat up. Then she leaned back. Then she straightened her back. Then she dug her knees into horse flesh. Then she clicked her tongue. Then she slapped the reins. The old glue factory mare plodded along. But the jockey beamed. She waved to the crowd. She nodded response to her counselor’s encouragement. She rode around the circle again. And again. And again. The rodeo went 30 minutes over schedule. With a little encouragement, a little girl grew up a little.

All of us ride better when we’re loved.

Swing Batter

It made me think about encouragement. A few years ago somebody came up with the idea that the Little League champs should play their dads on Labor Day. A picnic was arranged, with watermelon and chili dogs. The right fielder’s dad tried not to come. First he said he had to work. Then a trip was planned. Then he felt ill. But his son kept after him. Dad was at middle age and he had always been a simply terrible batter. He could not hit the broad side of a barn, when he was young. Now he was bald. And his glasses were thick, very thick. And, speaking delicately, he carried frontside a bit, let us say, of a paunch. The thought of facing fast pitching made him squirm. His son, though, was not to be stymied. Dad prayed for rain, or a hurricane, or untimely death. Anyone’s. But dawn broke on Labor Day, as it does. Not a cloud in the sky. Not a breath of wind. 72 degrees on the Fahrenheit scale. It could have been San Diego. Distraught, Dad went. The dreaded moment came, his “ups”. He stood in the box, remembering every strike out of 30 years ago. He thought of running. He adjusted his coke bottle glasses, and sweated. All of a sudden from right field he heard, in the full throated innocent confidence of his son’s voice, “Come on Dad, you can do it, I know you can.” He took a ball, and stood tall. “I know you can!” He took a strike and felt a little better. “Come on Dad, I know you can hit it.” Over the plate came a fast straight pitch. Do you know how good he felt to see that little Texas leaguer dropping in behind second base? Rounding first, and stopping, he wiped his glasses. He felt good. Behind him a whisper, “I knew you could, Dad, I just knew you could.”

All of us swing better when we’re loved.

Be Like 43

For the first time in a decade one High School basketball team competed in sectional semi-finals, some years ago. It is a mystery how this happened. A team shorter, skinnier, weaker, smaller, and less experienced than nearly every opponent, somehow succeeded. They grew steadily in ability and confidence. They failed and lost, and in this they learned. Sometimes they won, and in this they learned, too. Every so often you would see, as visible as a cocoon giving way to a butterfly or a snake shedding its skin or a calf standing after birth, one of the players find himself on the court. It was something to behold. The parents, as ever, attributed all losses to bad officiating, and all wins to marvelous genes. Before the post season, the coach sent a personal, hand written note to every one of his players. He thanked them for their willingness to play. He honestly commended their improvement. He admitted how much he enjoyed their company. Then he challenged them to rise to the post season challenge. They did. He wrote personally to one young man, number 43 on the team, “my own son is growing and learning to play ball, too, and when he asks me how to play and how to be, I just say, you look on the court and you watch 43 and what he does you do --be like 43”. Dawn broke on the day of the sectional game, and they won.

All of us rebound better when we’re loved.


In October of 1997 my brother and I trained to run in the Washington Marine Corps Marathon, around the Pentagon twice, through Georgetown, past every good monument, and out onto the peninsula. Dawn broke on Sunday, a rainy cold morning. I thought I was ready. I was wrong. Maybe it was the driving 40 degree rain, or maybe I’m just older than I think. My brother finished more than an hour before I did. I hit the wall at mile 16. In the rain, I was passed by young men, young women, old men, old women, waddlers, craddlers, wigglers, people in wheel chairs, moms, soccer moms, and man from Denver running backwards. It was not pretty. Somehow though, I finished. In part, looking back, through the encouragement of anonymous curbside exhorters. I was wearing a red Ohio Wesleyan sweatshirt. It was encouraging to hear a shout, “Go red guy!” It was more encouraging to hear, “Keep going Ohio!” It was even more encouraging to hear, “Good going, Ohio Wesleyan!” But most encouraging of all were the occasional alumni voices, “Go OWU!” The more personal, the more particular the encouragement, the more powerful it is. I made it to the Iwo Gima monument. Chris and I drove home.

All of us run better when we’re loved.

Paul Writes to Rome

In similar beguilingly simple terms, Paul wrote to the Romans. Our reading today could well be memorized and recited, daily, for the course of a lifetime. Our reading this morning might properly be printed and framed for the office desk or the kitchen counter. Our reading this Sunday could rightly be imprinted upon the heart, written on every human heart. This is the great watershed of the faith of Christ, simply stated for you and me, for the dying.

What dim reflections we find of Love, here in the dark, come from the death of Christ. The great peaks in human history dimly reflect this love: Alexander the glory of Athens, Augustus and the pride of Rome, Michaelangelo and the beauty of Florence, Franklin and the birth of a nation. The great peaks of spirit do too: Dionysius the Areopagite, Augustine’s mother, Katie von Bora, Joan of Arc, Teresa of Avila. Love is not for the simple, only. Love is for the wise. One friend, now dead, alone caught the humor of a single phrase, years ago: we think of ourselves as ‘temporarily immortal’.

You remember the basic points in Romans: 1:16, the Gospel of which Paul is not ashamed…2:21, our condition, foolish faithless,
heartless ruthless…8:33, hope that is seen is not hope…10:9, if you confess with your lips…12:9, let love be genuine…

You hear and receive his basic terms in this central high peak chapter 5: faith, the gift of God in Jesus Christ; peace, the closeness of faith and the absence of barrier; hope, not seen; glory, heaven yes but also the full humanity for which we were made; spirit, that which confers conveys conducts all the above, and all of them circling agape, the initiative of God loving us into love and freeing us into freedom.

Our business here is dying. Life is about learning to die. How are we ever going to manage? Our almost interminable avoidance will not, in itself, cut it.

To be saved is to be incorporated “in Christ”, that is , to belong to this new and heavenly order, primarily eschatological but even now proleptically present, just as the day is present in the dawn. (J Knox).

Love alone justifies. Love alone bring peace. Love alone provides space in grace. Love alone hints at glory. Love alone outlasts suffering. Love alone is stronger than death. Love alone stoops to give out for the weak and lost. Love alone bleeds on your behalf. Love alone reconciles enemies.

Love alone has the grace and power savingly to soften the inevitable collisions (Isaiah Berlin) of personal and social life.

The first Christians even found in suffering something productive. It was their manner of suffering that impressed others. It was their manner of dying, it was Paul’s manner of dying, perhaps in Rome, that others noticed:

All of us live and, especially, die better when we’re loved.
~The Reverend Dr. Robert Allan Hill,
Dean of Marsh Chapel