Posts Tagged ‘Robert Hill’

April 7

The Bach Experience

By Marsh Chapel

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Philippians 3:4b-14

John 12:1-8

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Our two readings, Philippians 3 and John 12, confront us with the ranges of reality in loyalty and mortality. Philippians is about loyalty.  John is about mortality. In the blurr of activities, come Sunday, in Christ, one is accosted by loyalty and mortality, through whom, in Christ, ‘we become like him’.

That is, two very different readings from Scripture greet us this Sunday morning.  One describes loyalty. The other evokes mortality. Both are good news, and each story amplifies and explicates the other.   For you this morning, the lesson and the gospel raise a mortal question about your forms of loyalty, and a loyal question about your sense of mortality.  A hymn of love and a reminder of death are somewhere, somehow buried in every sermon and every service of worship. In decisions about loyalty and in the encroachment of mortality, we become like Him:  Jesus Christ, the loyalty of God; Jesus Christ, the mortality of the human being.

There is today a tendency to minimize Paul’s change of allegiance, as expressed in Philippians 3, and elsewhere.   So this scholarly trend would argue: Paul did not really distance himself from his earlier religious expression. Paul did not really reject his mother tongue, mother land, mother religion.  Paul did not expressly depart from the eighth day, the tribe, the law. Paul did not really intend to step aside from his inheritance. Paul was born loyal and died loyal, and his loyalty at birth and death were of a piece.  I suppose that scholarly trends, like fashion, move in and out of vogue, for and with some regularity. Certainly, the work of these mentioned scholars, and that of many others, reminding us of the depth and breadth of background to the letters of the APOSTLE TO THE GENTILES (emphasis added for emphasis), carry much of importance.  Still, there is the little matter of…rubbish.

Paul calls his inheritance rubbish.  SKUBALA. It is a remarkable Greek word, whose force you can hear in its simple repetition.  SKUBALA. Rubbish. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and I regard them as rubbish.   It will not do to muffle Paul’s apocalyptic sense of loyalty.  In fact, much of the work of late that tries to do so ends up representing a view of Paul that is much more akin to the views of his opponents than to those of Paul himself.  But what of the particular inheritance, yours and mine and Paul’s? What of our particular, idiosyncratic, experiences and cultures and hues? In Paul’s case, what of circumcision, of covenant, of history, of torah, of valiant duty past?  I regard them as…SKUBALA.   We may wish Paul had been more temperate.  He was not. The gospel of Jesus Christ brings an apocalyptic, cataclysmic, sea change in the fount of loyalty.  I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.  

Across town, across the Scripture that is, and in the heart of the Fourth Gospel, meanwhile, we are engaged by another story.  Now mortality, not loyalty, addresses us. If there is a richer set of eight verses in the entire New Testament than John 12: 1-8, honestly, where would you find it?  Here is the Passover, the third in the fourth Gospel. Here too is Bethany, site of earlier astonishment. Here is Lazarus, who emerged from a tomb, covered with bandages, odorous and squinting.  Martha, of serving fame, and Mary, of praying memory, are here, too. A year’s wages are here poured out on feet, feet of course being of sacramental power in this Gospel, as we saw two weeks ago.  There is fragrance, the fragrant scent of perfume poured on holy feet, perfume dried in loving hands, perfume gathered on the hairs of the head. An astounding scene, already, but there is more. In comes Judas Iscariot.  There arises an argument about money, surely not the last religious argument about money. The poor and the present are set against each other, surely not the last religious argument about the good and beautiful. And then a dominical pronouncement:  keep it for the day of my burial.  After so many visual, audible, tactile, olfactory and savory images, we are sensorially exhausted and ready for  a nap. These images share a common trait. They evoke mortality.

The Passover is the scene of death.  Lazarus was raised from death. Mary has a premonition of death.  Martha and Mary pleaded with Jesus about death. Judas Iscariot is the agent of death.  The plight of the poor is mentioned to avoid a confrontation with death. The perfume is a symbol of anointing at death.  If there is one thing more significant in all of Scripture than justice—and it is not clear that there is anything more significant in Scripture than justice—but if there is one thing more significant in all of Scripture than justice—it is mortality.  Our gospel lesson this morning pulls out every stop to evoke mortality.

Reminders of mortality, like attendance in worship itself, which is one such reminder on a weekly basis, may make us squirm.  We have a way of thinking that death happens always to somebody else. We find ways to change the channel. In the last few years we have become experts at changing the channel.  Think for a minute about deaths in this country, over the last decade, due to gun violence. Diminishment to a part of the gentle hope, for a real spiritual culture and community, across this land, in our time.  Harm to some of the soaring ideals of a young republic, now seen from abroad as a pre-emptive behemoth. Defeat to a part of the great dream of those who built the United Nations. Yes, reminders of death make us squirm.

Dr. Jarrett, how does the music of Bach, aid us in our meditation this morning?


Bach’s point of departure tells another story of mortality and promise of awakening – of Resurrection. Luke Chapter 7 finds Jesus traveling to the town of Nain where he encounters a funeral procession. Moved by the mother’s grief, he calls for the dead man to rise from his funeral bier.

Cantata 8 was written a little more than a year after Bach began to work in Leipzig, placing our cantata in the second cycle of cantatas, the year of the Chorale cantatas. The chorale on the which the cantats is based is Caspar Neumann’s familiar “Liebster Gott, wenn werd ich sterben?” The 1710 melody is feature in the first and last movement, though treated slightly differently in each instance.

The cantata in concerned with mortality, and specifically, the hour of our final moment. We await the ticking clock toward the chime of our own funeral bells. In 18th century Leipzig, parishioners were notified of the death of a member of their community by 24 tolls from the tower bell.

In the opening movement, Bach creates an extraordinary Leichenglocken – funeral bells – using string pizzicatos, the wheels and sprockets of the interior mechanism of the clock, the two oboes d’amore chasing each other as the hands of the clock, and finally the flute tolling exactly 24 repeated pitches, punctuating and “chiming” throughout the movement. All of this extraordinary music accompanies the eight phrases of Bach’s setting of the Neumann chorale.

The clock continues to tick as the cantata turns inward for the first aria. The tenor takes up the strain with oboe obliggato. Typically when Bach wishes to call attention to a particular word or concept, he employs extended melisma. In this aria, note the treatment of the verb “schlägt” describing the striking of the final hour. Similarly, the place of rest – Ruhstatt – finds repose on a long, sustained pitch.

Fear, anxiety, worry are all dashed when the baritone steps forward to sing a gigue, reminding us that it is through Christ Jesus that we are called to new life and transformation. The flute’s somber tolling from the opening movement is transformed to the dance rhythms and melody’s of the baritone’s gigue. When the chorale returns in the final movement, it comes with confidence in full stride: Help me earn an honest grave next to godly Christian folk, and finally covered by earth never more be confounded!


Loyalty and mortality…

Let us return to loyalty for a moment.

In Philippians, our APOSTLE TO THE GENTILES (emphasis added for emphasis), has now stated for us the force and source of loyalty in Jesus Christ, as he does with equal power in Galatians 2 and Romans 5 and 2 Corinthians 5 and 1 Thessalonians 4. That I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through the faithfulness of Christ, the righteousness of God based on faith.  (The loyalty of Christ, the righteousness of God based on Christ’s loyalty.)   Paul has been found in a new life.  His earlier code and covenant have come to an end.  They are set aside. They are good and true and beautiful, but not by comparison with the truly good and the beautifully true and the divinely beautiful.  It is the loyalty of Christ to which Paul sings his hymn of praise as read this morning. The rendering of these verses depends upon a reading of the phrase, ‘faith..Christ’ as first in reference to Christ’s own faith, by which in faith Paul and we are ‘owned’.  It may be that Paul has written these words in prison, and it may be that these words from prison were written at the end of his life. He will have had, as we do on some days, and Sundays, a clear sense of the fragility of life and its brevity.

So let us return to mortality for a moment.  

The several marks of mortality set before us in the Gospel of John, chapter 12, are also reminders of divine love.  Lazarus evokes such love from Jesus that, in that shortest of verses, we are reminded, ‘Jesus wept’. Mary and Martha are the figures of serving and praying that we know so well in the teachings about disciplined love.  Judas is never portrayed as doing ill for the sake of doing harm, but is found to mistake some love for all love. Most strongly, the pouring of perfume in lavish expense is understood as the full fragrance of affection and love.  

Our readings today give us grace to live by faith.  We may want to consider, on a bright spring Sunday afternoon walk, the examples of abiding loyalty and loving mortality which we have known.  We are meant to ‘become like him’, and so we shall want to notice the forms of loyalty and limitation that are ever before us.

We may want to remember something of Josiah Royce, and his evocation of loyalty. You may recall from your own life and family experience, the example of a truly loyal friend.  You may recognize that sometimes lesser loyalties must be laid aside in the face of greater loyalties. No one wants the lower lights to occlude the one great loyalty of life. You may recognize the difference, say, between asking forgiveness for a promise broken, and asking forgiveness for a promise that should never have been made in the first place, whether kept or broken.  We may deeply recognize the need we have to reclaim the language of remorse out of our religious traditions, so that we might walk again in newness of life, following Lenten confession.

We shall want to find and practice the forms of loyalty by which, and through which, we may dimly acknowledge our mortality.  Any pastor will tell you that young people live as if they were immortal, and not only young people. There is a youthful courage in this, but also a tragic risk.  We may want to recall the verses of Scripture that warn us about limits. Store ye not up treasure on earth where moth and rust consume…All flesh is grass, it withers and fades…Prize your time now you have it, for God is a consuming fire…The race is not always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong…This night is your soul required of you…

Here is a potentially saving word.  It is the intimation of mortality that puts steel in the spine of our loyalty.  It is the practiced sacrifice of loyalty that gives us courage for the facing of the last things.  Where there is a sense of mortality there is a sense of loyalty. Where there is a preparation of loyalty there is a preparation for mortality.  The one inspires the other. (Where there is no inkling of mortality there is no spur to loyalty). Perhaps that is why, in the mystery of all things, and in the planning for Sunday readings, Philippians 3 and John 12 were yoked.  Think this lent about your lasting commitments. Think this lent about your limitations. And recall the hymn written next door, in the school of theology, by then Dean Earl Marlatt, singing of Jesus, a beacon to God, to love and loyalty…

The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill, Dean & Dr. Scott Allen Jarrett, Director of Music 

January 27

Hope is the Negation of Negation

By Marsh Chapel

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Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10

1 Corinthians 12:12-31a 

Luke 4:14-21

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We are living through a negative time.

Before dawn, aroused by a dream, you awake, it may be.   In the mind clutter of the dream you stand in community listening for a holy word, it may be.  Or you walk mesmerized by the beauty of a beach or a mountain vista, it may be. Or, otherwise, you sense the tug of a common good, a common desire, it may be.  In the mind clutter of the dream, too, you may wait to hear something, it may be.  Before dawn, in the moonlight.  Drowsiness returns, and you return to the arms of Morpheus, God of sleep.  But the time to rise comes along soon enough, and you take stock again, and you realize what time it is, again.

We are living through a negative time. 

For some, the negation is a chosen, intentional negation of inherited forms of public speech, of national discourse, of governmental responsibility, of encroaching overweening statism, of political correctness, of international order and regular borders—a time to pluck up, a time to pluck up what is planted.   Or so one supposes.

For others, many others, the negation is a consequence of all this and more, and amounts to a frightening, even terrifying daily rending of the garment of national life, of the rending of the garment of civil society, of the rending of the garment of compassionate care for the young, the poor, the sick and the old, of the steady destruction of treaties, alliances and agreements welling up from a steady disdain for treaties, alliances and agreements, a rending of the garments of courtesies developed over longtime to shelter ourselves from our worst selves,  the standard (if sometimes honored in the breach) shared, common rejection of misogyny, racism, sexism, xenophobia, greed, pride, sloth, and falsehood. And in their place another kind of clothing,  a laughing joy in and willingness to slaughter the truth by fulsome mendacity in the small and in the large.

Whether with some you celebrate such, or whether with many you abhor it, now over the last few years, it is clear, we are living through a time of negation.

You arise in the morning, in a wonderment, a dark wonder.  Will someone be given the nuclear car-keys with which to incinerate another land? Will the government return again to potential ‘fire and fury’ against a foreign people?  Will the lax tax on the rich bankrupt government protections of the poor?  Will the clearly emerging authoritarianism become patent and fulsome on the strength of a manufactured crisis at a border, or far away, or most possibly in cyber gear?

You brush your teeth, pour your coffee, turn on the news, and, amid a wonderment, a dark wonder, you do wonder:  Did I ever think I would live to see the day that my beloved country to which I have pledged allegiance since kindergarten, for which I acquired a selective service card, to which I have paid taxes now grudgingly now willingly over many decades, on whose account I have voted every years since the years of the silent majority and that Methodist minister’s son from North Dakota, land where my father has died, land of the pilgrim’s pride, be held hostage, like a 13 year old girl in Wisconsin, like her the whole country bound, gagged, hidden under the single bed and held hostage to the megalomania of an imperial, increasingly authoritarian, government, to a complicit citizenry which cannot yet fully reckon, neither to reject nor recant the 2016 tragedy, to a Senate whose every murmur now carries the middle name Faust, for its deal with the devil in aid of paternalistic judges and capitalism gone wild, and a willful blindness to the roaring, rising tide of exclusion, falsehood, selfishness, incivility, unkindness and greed. 

Each morning brings a darker wonder and you wonder how this can ever have anything other than the bleakest outcome.  We are living through a negative time.  In our time, we are hostages to negativity, living through a most perilously negative time, with no exit readily or easily in sight. Some of us may realize that we will be dead, even long dead, before the blood is fully spilled and washed, before the dawn comes, before a return to the country’s rightful mind.  We are living through a time of negation.

For a post-Christian culture and society, the next question, then, is not what it is right now and right here in Christian worship, the question of the possibility of preaching, not what it is right now and right here in the spirit of Christian community, not what it is in this venerable pulpit and other siblings to it across the land.  As a whole, as a culture, we are no longer rooted in or grounded by hope, if we ever fully were, no longer grounded by the promise of the Gospel, if we ever were, so, for society as a whole, the basic question of this moment, the preaching moment, is not, for the culture, a big or even serious question at all.   The symbols of faith have grown cold in a culture, in a land that is God-forsaken, or, better put, simply, forsaken.  So, our problem, or mine in this moment, the prospect of preaching, the problem of the possibility of preaching, the problem of how to sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land, the problem of how  to preach a word of faith in a pastoral voice toward a common hope, the problem of hope itself, in its realest, truest form, faith working through love-- is not that of our culture.  The radio program ‘wait wait don’t tell me’ is not waiting for the telling of a true hope. It is not perseverating about whether there can or will be any preaching worthy of the name in our time, let alone who on earth will deign to try to do it, Sunday by Sunday.  No, only the bitter biblical herb of ‘hope deferred that maketh the heart sick’ has any natural or easy purchase in our non-religious age.  Yes, we are living through a negative time.

In our time, hope, if it has any hope in it, is itself—negation.  A cheery, light, pseudo inner life, a false gaiety, a ‘que sera, sera’, is not hope.  It is false hope.  Some listening today will find the depiction of negation offered this morning as too negative.  You may be people my age and older.   Some though listening today will find the depiction of negation as not negative enough. You may be people my children’s age, now some 35% of whom identify, or non-identify, as ‘nones’ those of no religion at all, but one whose watch much of the mess of these years will have to be cleaned up.  No. Hope that is seen is not hope. That is in the Bible.  Who hopes for what he sees?  That too is in the Bible.  We hope for what we do not see (the key for once is in the adverb, NOT). That is in the Bible too.  In our time, hope, if it has any hope in it, is itself pure negation. 


And in that negation, it may be, is the lone location just now for preaching.  Hope is the negation—of negation.  Hope is the negation—of negation.

Hope is the negation of prideful over-confidence in our national or personal histories.  One lasting good in a negative time is that it leaves little space for high horses ridden and deadly assumptions hugged.  Authoritarianism can evolve, right here, just now, all the glories of the freedom trail notwithstanding (repeat). 

So D Bonhoeffer: Godwould have us know that we must live as (men and women) who manage our lives without (God).  The God who is with us is the God who forsakes us.  Before God and with God we live without God. 

Hope is the negation of our lazy, slothful spirituality—what a strange, odd, unbiblical word.  Hope is the negation of our lazy, slothful unwillingness to be politically involved—to go to meetings, to go to meetings, to go to meetings—on the left, and our refusal, now that the evidence is in, to recant what for whatever reason we chose to do three years ago—on the right, that negation comes to gruesome light, even in a twilight hope. 

Hope is the negation of our falsehood, our capacity somehow to look past or forgive or minimize the lying, the mendacity, the screaming falsehood of our naively authoritarian leadership.  Hope is the negation of the dark wonder, that which makes things clear, or clearer, at dawn.  In the light of hope.

Let us boil this down to daily life, if we may. It is almost inevitable, you human being you, that in the age of negativity, in the maelstrom of unlimited negative informational bombardment, and of wind swept rain soaking every daily pore, it is inevitable that you will now and then be depressed.  You will be.  That you now and then will be worried.  You will be. That you now and then will be haunted by bad memories and dark dreams.  You will be.  You cannot avoid it.  Forgive yourself.  Forgive yourself.  Forgive yourself.  There. That feels good or at least better. Hope walks by faith not by sight.  Faith is a walk in the dark.  Faith is the power to withstand what we cannot understand, to embrace hope that negates what it cannot eliminate.  What you can do is this.  Listen to the gospel, which is the negation of negation by hope, the negation of acedia by hope, the negation of depression and worry and anxiety by hope.  Not the elimination.  No.  The negation. Hope will give you a breakfast ounce of courage.  Hope will give you a noonday morsel of anger.  Hope will give you a twilight flicker of faith.  Because hope stands as the very negation of negation.  It is not something, hope, that you or I can concoct or control or conjure.  Hope stands in the pulpit, say, and speaks to us, say, and does so without fear or favor, without quiver or conceit, say, and utters a word of faith (take heart) in a pastoral voice (I am with you) toward a common hope (you are a child of God).

Hope, a sense that things are wrong and can be right-wised, is what gives us the angry courage, the courageous anger, to rise up, to resist out a tradition of principled resistance dating back to Amos of Tekoa, in the 8thcentury bce, to struggle, to lose, to be defeated, and to get up again.  Hope is the raising of the dead.

Jurgen Moltmann:  To recognize the event of the resurrection of Christ is therefore to have a hopeful and expectant knowledge of this event.  It means recognizing in this even the latency of that eternal life which in the praise of God arises from the negation of the negative, from the raising of the one who was crucified and the exaltation of the one who was forsaken.  It means assenting to the tendency towards resurrection of the dead in this event of the raising of the  one.  It means following the intention of God by entering into the dialectic of suffering and dying in expectation of eternal life and resurrection (211).  Thus the Spirit is the power to suffer in participation in the mission and the love of Jesus Christ, and is, in this suffering, the passion for what is possible, for what is coming and promised in the future of life, of freedom and of resurrection (212).  In all our acts we are sowing in hope (213).

 Before dawn, aroused by a dream, you awake, it may be.   In the mind clutter of the dream you stand in community listening for a holy word, it may be.  This is the gospel of Nehemiah, that there is a Holy Scripture, strange yet audible. Or you walk mesmerized by the beauty of a beach or a mountain vista, it may be.  This is the gospel of the Psalmist, in the most beautiful of all 150 psalms, all nature sings and round us rings, the glory of the creation.  Or, otherwise, you sense the tug of a common good, a common desire, it may be.  This is the gospel of the Epistle, Spirit known for what it does for the common good. In the mind clutter of the dream, too, you may wait to hear something, it may be. This is, here in Luke, Jesus, preaching, at home but not welcomed, preaching the divine favor for the poor not just the poor in spirit, for the oppressed not just the figuratively oppressed, for the captive not just the philosophically captive.  Before dawn, in the moonlight. 

Hope negates what it cannot eliminate.  Hope is the negation of negation.  Said Paul, Behold I tell you a mystery.  Said John, Where I am you may be also.  Said Paul, The trumpet shall sound.  Said John, You know the way where I am going. Said Paul, the dead, the dead, shall be raised.  Said John, I am the way, the truth, the life.  Said Paul, In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye.

He opened the book and found the place where it was written

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me

 Because he has anointed me to PREACH good news to the poor

 He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives

And recovering of sight to the blind

 To set at liberty those who are oppressed

 To proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord

And he closed  the book… and said to them, TODAY this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.

-The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill, Dean.

December 30

A Call to Faith

By Marsh Chapel

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1 Samuel 2:18-20, 26

Romans 12:9-13

Luke 2:41-52

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The only Scriptural account we have of Jesus’ growth and boyhood is located in today’s reading.  Only here does the Gospel allow us a glimpse of Jesus growing up.  In this one picture of our Lord’s maturation, we find him engaging the great teachers of his time.  After three days they found him the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions.

Later ages, and later writings, did not resist the urge to imagine Jesus in his boyhood, clever, magical, boy deity, able to make birds from stones and animals from the very dirt at his feet.  But the Holy Gospel of St. Luke, for which and in which we stand, refrains from wilder speculation.  Only here, just for a moment, does the writer relent and, in the reading meant for the Sunday after Christmas, show us the young Jesus, the young man Jesus, Jesus as a young man, which in some measure he would be for the whole of his earthly life.  He who was to call disciples, now himself, just this once, is a disciple too.  He whose life is the heart of faith, the call to faith, a daily call to faith, for this Christmas moment, is himself so called.

What good news this is for educators near and far, and for grandparents and parents and teachers and all who labor and are heavy laden in the educational projects of our time!  As he blessed weddings in Cana and healers in Bethany, so now Jesus, by his presence and practice, blesses those who teach, who prepare the ground for a lifetime, a lifesaving call to faith.

Jesus is our Lord and Savior, born in a manger.   Come Christmas, He is our transforming friend.  We have gathered, after already much church this week, to pray and listen for grace, because of Jesus, our transforming friend.  We bear witness, today, that Jesus has transformed our life, made us happier and better people than otherwise we would have been without him.  How we hope that people, others, especially young people will experience his power and love, in their own way and time!

E.J. Dionne

A friend down south sent me a copy of an article by E.J Dionne (WAPO, 12/23/18), from a week ago.   It rightly celebrates those who come to church come Christmas, perhaps only then, or only then and at Easter.  Perhaps you have come on Christmas, hoping for—what?, waiting for—what?, ready, it may be to hear a call to faith.  Dionne wrote about the difficulties in organized religion, particularly Christianity, today:  a decline in religious observance, the rise of the ‘nones’ (now a quarter of the population in the US, and 40% of those under 30), about unwelcoming attitudes and practices regarding the LGBTQIA portion of the population, about clergy sexual abuse, about the ‘complicated and compromised structures of churches and denominations’, but went further:

            Christmas remains wondrous, but it arrives at a difficult moment for Christianity in the United States…Regular worshipers can be disdainful of the Chreasters. But these twice-a-year visitors deserve our attention and, I would argue, our respect. Their semiannual presence is also testimony to the enduring hunger for the experience of the sacred…

Dionne then went on to name and cite three people whose work and teaching I have personally known, with whom I have taught and studied, and who have meant a great deal to me and others.  Theology matters.  Dionne’s capacity to call up these three wise persons, for our inspiration, also matters.

One is Gabriel Vahanian:  (Dionne) What the theologian Gabriel Vahanian observed decades ago in his influential book “The Death of God” explains the larger context: “Christianity has long since ceased to be coextensive with our culture,” he wrote, and “our age is post-Christian both theologically and culturally.” I remember Vahanian granting me an interview in his SU Hall of Languages third floor office, one winter day, and his comment, in a beautiful French accent, Ze will of man, it is more inscrutable zan ze vill of God!

One is Peter Berger, whom some of you knew here at BU:  (Dionne)The great sociologist of religion Peter Berger offers a clue in “A Rumor of Angels,” his 1969 book about the persistence of faith in the face of rapid secularization…the stubborn refusal of human beings to give up on the transcendent. I picture Berger at lunch here on Commonwealth Avenue, chastising the Lutheran church he very much loved, and warming to tell a truly funny joke.

One is N.T. Wright, for whom I was a teaching assistant at McGill over three years: (Dionne)The biblical scholar and former Anglican bishop N.T. Wright sees “the longing for justice, the quest for spirituality, the hunger for relationships and the delight in beauty” as human aspirations beyond the material that can be heard as “echoes of a voice” pointing toward God (from Wright’s book, Simply Christian).  I picture Wright both curious and frowning as I guest lectured on the Gnostics, and inviting me to dinner in his Montreal home, with four beautiful growing children, and his desk stuffed in tiny closet under the hallway stairs.  A few summers ago we lunched across the river, and he thanked me for a sermon title from decades ago, What a Friend We Have in Paul. (J)

Jesus had his teachers, and we our own. Vahanian, Berger and Wright, in very different theological voices, would approve Dionne’s reliance on them.  Seeing their books cited was a joyous Christmas gift.  You might like to read them!  My friend (Mr. Art Jester), in sending the article, brought these teachers back to me, and so gave me back a part of myself.  And that is what friends do, they give us back ourselves.  And finally, then, Dionne himself, who preceded us in our room the week before we were at Chautauqua Institution, a summer ago:

(People) show up twice a year because some part of them is in rebellion against a society defined solely by self-interest and calculation, by the visible, the measurable and the tangible. They have an intimation that the world is made up, in the words of the Nicene Creed, of both the “seen and unseen.”…Christmas sketches “a picture of a cosmos capable of love.” (Joseph Bottom).

Are we lovers anymore? Christmas comes along with a question:  Are we lovers anymore, or are we resigned to a post-agapic, post-agape, ‘post-love’ world and life?  (From my point of view the Christmas longing is not only for transcendence, but also and more so for love.) And in the question there is a call.

Romans 12: 9

Might we hear in this a call to faith this morning?  Following the candles lit and lifted, following the sense of the numinous, the moments, fleeting moments of transcendence at Nativity, might there follow, for one or another, a straightforward call to faith, spoken and heard and heeded?

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

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

Romans 12: 9ff,  the ‘Pauline 13’ may be your best threshold, liminal line, front door response to the question, ‘Can you help me get going on this?  What does it mean to hear a call to faith?’

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

What does it mean to hear a call to faith?  It means to hate what is evil.  Notice the firmness in Paul’s flexibility, the vagueness in his certainty.  In sin, salvation, Spirit, and synagogue he has now confidence that—for our own time, we shall know the place of hatred and the outline of evil.  Implied here:  new occasions teach new duties.  Not all of life is good and clean.  Some is, some is not.  We are free, nay called, to hate evil.  You overhear Amos:  ‘I hate I despise your feasts’ (5:23).

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

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

What does it mean to hear a call to faith?  It means to outdo one another in showing honor.  Creative generosity, happy hospitality, courage in counting others better, here is our way.  Forebear one another in love.  Light, salt, sheep:  people need to see you giving honor, taste the spice of your commendation and expect willingness to honor to be shorn, clean cut, readily recognizable.

What does it mean to hear a call to faith?  It means not to lag in zeal, to be ardent in spirit, and to serve the Lord.  These three dicta largely place before you the directive to get yourself out of bed, into some clean clothes, over to Marsh Chapel, and be seated in a pew, come Sunday.  A walk in the country or on the beach is good. Turning on the radio is good.  People have so many reasons not to go to church.  Some of them are quite good.  Others range from the pitiful to the hilarious.  Hear a call to faith, and come to worship!  Your sister, here, needs the encouraging support of your zealous presence.  Your brother, here, needs the example of your ardent spirit.  His service is perfect freedom, and this service is one hour.  People become so lackadaisical about worship:  and I am not only speaking of us academics (J).  In a lifetime, you have 4,000 Sundays, 1,000 haircuts, 60 income tax returns.  And 525,600 minutes ayear.  Zeal, spirit, service, Sunday:  prize your time now you have it!

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

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


Here is your Christmas call to faith.  If this were a Methodist revival, we would line this out like a hymn for us to sing.  If this were a black church we would call you to response in call and response.  If this were Fenway Park we would start the wave or sing Sweet Caroline.  But this is Marsh Chapel, so we will just ask you, encouraging your memory, to remember together, entering 2019:  Romans 12: 9-13.

Let love be genuine

Hate what is evil

Hold fast to what is good

Love one another with mutual affection

Outdo one another in showing honor

Never lag in zeal

Be ardent in spirit

Serve the Lord

Rejoice in your hope

Be patient in tribulation

Be constant in prayer

Contribute to the needs of the saints

Practice hospitality

- The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill, Dean. 

December 23

Simply Christmas

By Marsh Chapel

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Micah 5:2-5a

Hebrews 10:5-10

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Bethlehem Ephratha, though thou be little, from thee shall come

One summer we had a chance to take our granddaughter out for lunch.  Children are the landlords for the kingdom of heaven.  Children show the manner of entry into the kingdom of heaven.  Children receive the touch of the kingdom of heaven.  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 two year old an 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.  Simplicity.

And they were bringing children to him that he might touch them; and the disciples rebuked them.  But when Jesus saw it he was indignant, and said to them, ‘Let the children come to me, do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God.  Truly I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.’ And he took them in his arms and blessed them, laying his hands upon them’

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.  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.

Sometimes, like children, in simplicity, we need to re-enter the kingdom of God. 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.

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).

The least, the little, the simple…simply Christmas.  A childlike attention to simple things.


Bethlehem Ephratha, though thou be little, from thee shall come

Last month of a Sunday afternoon we gathered for Holy Baptism here in the chancel.  Afterward, one of the guests asked who was in the Rose Window above.  “That is the Lord Jesus Christ”, we replied.  “But he looks like the Buddha” came the response.  With some pique, it could be added.  Well.  There is a simplicity here, shared it may be, between the two.  Our latest grandchild is now being raised by a Methodist father and a Buddhist mother, and will be baptized this winter.  So the question had traction.  Granted so many differences, simply put, there are similarities, as in our time granted so much diversity, there is unity yet.  And we are going to have to learn to share the spiritual care of the globe with some other religious traditions, now and then, are we not?

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.

This is why experience matters.  As D Brooks wrote not long ago:   ‘How is prudence acquired?  Through experience.  The prudent leader possesses a repertoire of events, through personal involvement or the study of history, and can apply those models to current circumstances to judge what is important and what is not, who can be persuaded and who can’t, what has worked and what has not’.

Our age needs prudence: the capacity to ‘foster public virtue through moral instruction and official ritual without coercing dissenters.’ (anonymous).

Dr. Jean Twenge, of San Diego, in her new book, iGen, identifies markers of health to aid those struggling with depression and suicide, in *face to face interaction and conversation, in *reading printed material, and in *attending religious services (SKY citation).

The least, the little, the simple…simply Christmas.  A child like attention to simple things.


Bethlehem Ephratha, though thou be little, from thee shall come

A church service like this one reminds you of your childhood.  Not your youthful past, your childhood.  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.  Nor can the religious longing ever easily be written out of human life: ‘whatever introduces genuine perspective is religious’ (Dewey).

A GM executive, wrote:  ‘we have vastly underestimated how deeply ingrained are the organizational and cultural rigidities that hamper our ability to execute’.

D Sorokin:  ‘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’. Would you not love to master the simple art of efficacious compassion?

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’.

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.’

Simplicity can be paradoxical.  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). Dag Hammarskjold:  ‘God does not die on the day we cease to believe in a personal Deity, but we die on the day our lives cease to be illumined by a radiance, renewed daily, of a wonder whose source lies beyond all reason.’

The least, the little, the simple…simply Christmas.  A child like attention to simple things.


Bethlehem Ephratha, though thou be little, from thee shall come

Here is the traveling experience, rendered with simplicity, of a Palestinian poet, Mahmud Darwish:

                  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’).

The Holy Scripture assumes a multi-generational perspective, no more so than in the narratives of Advent and Christmas.  Notice that Luke pictures a conversation in the womb, Jesus and John the Baptist, Mary and Elizabeth.  Real change takes a long time, generations of time, when it comes at all.  Do you remember what you were confronted with 30 years ago, exactly a generation ago?  For some of us, almost to the hour, 30 years ago, it was the sudden announcement on a bitter snowy night, to a stunned basketball crowd in the Carrier Dome, that a plane with many of our own neighborhood students, our own Syracuse University students, and students from other regions including Boston, had crashed in Lockerbie Scotland.  The portent of that moment in 1988 eluded us, eluded all, but it was a harbinger of the struggles of the next thirty years, in one limited, little simple horror and tragedy, 182 dead.

‘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.)

The least, the little, the simple…simply Christmas.  A child-like attention to simple things.


Bethlehem Ephratha, though thou be little, from thee shall come

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 least, the little, the simple…simply Christmas.  A child like attention to simple things.

‘When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb’.

It was a Boston preacher, Phillips Brooks, no stranger to Commonwealth Avenue, who wrote the simple lines of our familiar carol:

O Holy Child of Bethlehem

Descend to us we pray

Cast out our sin and enter in

Be born in us today

We hear the Christmas angels

The great glad tidings tell

O Come to us, abide with us

Our Lord Emmanuel

-The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill, Dean.

December 16

The Mark of Being Alive

By Marsh Chapel

Click here to listen to the entire service

Zephaniah 3:14–20

Philippians 4:4–7

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‘Worship is the most elementary mark of being alive’ (J Moltmann, 209).   Praise, singing, prayer—the primary forms of worship—are the most elementary marks of being alive.   You want to live.  You will want to find your way to worship, to inhabit its location, to learn its language, and to adopt its listening.

Where we are, our location, shapes who we are, our recollection.  Spaces, places, sounds, scents, tastes—these directly affect, impact who we are.  Location shapes recollection.

For some weeks, off and on, I had been struggling, without success, to remember a name.  I take it you will know the struggle.  Off and on, and who knows the switches for either or both, I would conjure the memory of a person whom I have not seen in a decade or so.  He was an impressive spirit.  A tall African American gentleman with a rich baritone voice, he would attend worship  here, now and then.  His daughter in those years was an undergraduate at BU and on occasion they would attend together.  He was a world-renowned vocalist, and taught voice here at the University.  For some reason, every so often this fall, he came to mind.  But not his name.  I would reach out in recollection, but fall short, and give up, on to other things.   He, my unnamed friend, was a generous, gracious soul, with his talents, his time, and his treasure.  He had founded a small school elsewhere to support recent immigrants.  What was his name?

Then last week, it happened, I found myself stopping in our College of Fine Arts, to bring a greeting to the new dean there and to drop off some extra post cards as invitations to our Lessons and Carols service.  Almost 1,000 of you attended the services, with tens of thousands more with us by radio and internet.  You may remember the experience of praise, hymnody, choral beauty, prayer.  It is the elementary mark of being alive.  I left the cards and loped down the long stair case.  At the turn, I remembered his name.  I hadn’t been trying to remember, but the name came, unbidden—bidden or unbidden, God is with us.  A rush of gladness captured me, in stairwell descent.  His name: Simon Estes.  The recollection of his name:  due to the location of that day, a return to the building where I had called on him in his office, now and then.  The physical power of the physical location gave me the recollection I did not and could not gain elsewhere.

To collect ourselves, we rely on recollection.  You may return to read St. Augustine on this one day.  Being in a particular space is the difference so often between hearing and not hearing, knowing and not knowing, remembering and not remembering, breathing and not breathing—life and death.

Zephaniah and Isaiah both call us to the recollection of praise, of singing, of prayer, the elementary mark of being alive.  Worship.  But here is the blunt, Advent, John the Baptist word: your recollection depends on your location.  To know the Presence you need to be present.  In church.  Somewhere.  All of the unspoken allusions to God, before whom in prayer, we remember ourselves, are conveyed in saving measure, in location.   Here we sing, preach, and pray in the same space, the same room, the same seats, the same sanctuary as did Howard Thurman.  Right here.  We admire him.  We aspire to learn with him.  We hope to acquire his faith, especially at Christmas, when the song of the angels is stilled.   Yet here is the John the Baptist challenge:

You can’t get very close to Howard Thurman without prayer

You can’t get very close to Howard Thurman without song

You can’t get very close to Howard Thurman without hymns

You can’t get very close to Howard Thurman without spirituals

You can’t get very close to Howard Thurman without meditation

You can’t get very close to Howard Thurman without candles

You can’t get very close to Howard Thurman without study

You can’t very close to Howard Thurman without Scripture

You can’t get very close to Howard Thurman without gathering

You can’t get very close to Howard Thurman without community

You can’t get very close to Howard Thurman without meaning

You can’t get very close to Howard Thurman without belonging

You can’t get very close to Howard Thurman without empowerment

You can’t get very close to Howard Thurman without preaching

You can’t get very close to Howard Thurman without praise

You can’t get very close to Howard Thurman without Psalms

You can’t get very close to Howard Thurman without worship

You can’t get very close to Howard Thurman without…RELIGION

You can’t get very close to Howard Thurman without…RELIGION

You can’t get very close to Howard Thurman without…RELIGION


Our gospel today goes deeper, still, from location on to language.  Worship is the most elementary mark of being alive (J Moltmann, 209).   Praise, singing, prayer—the primary forms of worship—are the most elementary marks of being alive.   You want to live.  You will want to find your way to worship, to inhabit its location, to learn its language, and to adopt its listening.

Not one of us can learn a language without labor, without attention and work.  Think of your Latin conjugations and declensions.  Think of your study of the periodic table, of the Kings and Queens of England, of theorems and formulae.  Worship, the elementary mark of being alive, has a language too, which bears practice, bears learning, bears knowing, bears discipline.

Later last week, a friend  and I were talking. For some inexplicable reason, I asked him to remember the theology he studied in the School of Theology.  He named a book from some years ago, by George Lindbeck, titled The Nature of Doctrine.  Lindbeck was a Yale teacher, and a good writer, too (not that those two are at odds, by the way).  Inspired so I vainly hunted for my own dog eared copy of years ago, hunting in the usual suspect places, four in number, to no avail, and retreating to get a library copy, then sitting in a different posture suddenly spied my own book on the third shelf after all.  Anyway.  Lindbeck produced a couple hundred pages of dense argument, easily summarized in this way.   Faith comes from knowing the grammar of faith, the syntax of faith, the spelling of the nouns and verbs of faith.  Coming to faith is like learning Japanese or Koine Greek.  In worship we learn a new language.  Yes, propositions, doctrine and dogma are present and important (Lindbeck complements the conservatives).  Yes, experience and expression are important (Lindbeck complements the liberals).  But the real nature of doctrine is embedded in the life long struggle to learn your real mother tongue, the language of praise, prayer, worship—the language of faith.  To do so, you have to speak it, to sing it, to utter it, to name it, to lift it.  Or, you won’t know it or have it.  So Lindbeck:

Just as an individual becomes human by learning a language, so he or she begins to become a new creature through hearing and interiorizing the language that speaks of Christ. (62) The grammar of religion, like that of language, cannot be explicated or learned by analysis of experience, but only by practice. (129).

 Language, the language of faith, is crucial.  We might though argue to Lindbeck as well, that his own emphasis benefits too from the others.  Learning a language is meant to prepare one to speak truth, and truth may come in proposition and especially in experience, and that truth may well require changes in inherited language, grammar, syntax and spelling.

Our Gospel prepares us for Jesus, to know Jesus, by knowing his people and his predecessor.  Luke has greatly expanded on what Mark earlier taught about John the Baptist.  Here the Baptist lines out the language of faith.  Be it readily remembered that real religion is never very far from justice (repeat).  What says John?  Turn your neighborly attention to equity, your legal tax work to fairness, your regimental armor to protection.  All of these lines are about justice, economic justice.  The Baptist could have been more economical himself, talking to neighbor and tax collector and soldier, simply by saying this:  tithe.   Such a John the Baptist word.  If everyone tithed we would need no charities, no taxes and no armies.   The language of faith would be the grammar, syntax and spelling of the common hope.  It is the language the world most needs and that which Jesus teaches, from alphabet to sonnet.

So here is the challenge, the very Advent, very John the Baptist, very timely challenge:

You can’t get very close to Jesus without prayer

You can’t get very close to Jesus without song

You can’t get very close to Jesus without hymns

You can’t get very close to Jesus without spirituals

You can’t get very close to Jesus without meditation

You can’t get very close to Jesus without candles

You can’t get very close to Jesus without study

You can’t very close to Jesus without Scripture

You can’t get very close to Jesus without gathering

You can’t get very close to Jesus without community

You can’t get very close to Jesus without meaning

You can’t get very close to Jesus without belonging

You can’t get very close to Jesus without empowerment

You can’t get very close to Jesus without preaching

You can’t get very close to Jesus without praise

You can’t get very close to Jesus without Psalms

You can’t get very close to Jesus without worship

You can’t get very close to Jesus without…RELIGION

You can’t get very close to Jesus without…RELIGION

You can’t get very close to Jesus without…RELIGION


 Worship is the most elementary mark of being alive (J Moltmann, 209).   Praise, singing, prayer—the primary forms of worship—are the most elementary marks of being alive.   You want to live.  You will want to find your way to worship, to inhabit its location, to learn its language, and to adopt its listening.

The gospel takes us deeper still, down from language and location into listening.  Right now, you may not be drawn to Howard Thurman.  Right now, you may not even be drawn to Jesus.  But you have no choice about knowing yourself.  And the sermon, we pray with care and omitting any surgical mistakes, cuts to the bone, to the heart, to the marrow.  Worship is about being alive—the elementary mark thereof—in the face of our death.  Death makes us mortal.  Facing death makes us human. Death makes us mortal.  Facing death makes us human.    And if you read the Bible, and if you worship in the church, if nothing else then the utter god-forsakenness, the deathliness of death is unmistakable.

Just a few days ago I was sitting in the beautiful relatively new atrium of our Business School (no longer Management, but Business, by the way).  I was waiting there, reading a newspaper.  After a while a young man put down his various devices, eyed my name tag, and sat down next to me.  We began to talk.  Conversation is a grace.  It is a grace.  Prize your conversation now you have it.  After a while—his name too was Robert—he admitted why he had sidled up to me: ‘I never see anyone reading a newspaper.  What is it like?  Why do you do that?’  Well, I gave the usual reasons: ‘I like the fuller length of the articles, I like to be surprised by turning a page onto something unexpected rather than cyber-guided.  I like the texture of the pages in hand.’  It was not a debate or a matter of convincing.  He was happily curious.  And I was glad to be a curiosity.  I invited him to Lessons and Carols.  Here he might find a pastoral guide to listen to him.  Here he might find a friend in the pew to listen to him.  Here he might find a kindred spirit to listen to him, someone who could befriend him even better than the newspaper covered dean who listened to him that day.

When Paul acclaims, so beautifully, “Rejoice….” he has taken us beyond location and language, into a deep listening, a listening of and for the soul.

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”

It is a question whether in the end there is any real rejoicing that is not always and utterly ‘in the Lord’.  But what makes a lifetime of difference is whether there is someone there to listen when you sing, when you pray, when you worship.  To listen your soul into life.  In worship, you put yourself in earshot of relationship, in earshot of acquaintance, in earshot of friendship.  Yet here is the challenge:

You can’t get very close to YOURSELF without prayer

You can’t get very close to YOURSELF without song

You can’t get very close to YOURSELF without hymns

You can’t get very close to YOURSELF without spirituals

You can’t get very close to YOURSELF without meditation

You can’t get very close to YOURSELF without candles

You can’t get very close to YOURSELF without study

You can’t very close to YOURSELF without Scripture

You can’t get very close to YOURSELF without gathering

You can’t get very close to YOURSELF without community

You can’t get very close to YOURSELF without meaning

You can’t get very close to YOURSELF without belonging

You can’t get very close to Jesus YOURSELF empowerment

You can’t get very close to YOURSELF without preaching

You can’t get very close to YOURSELF without praise

You can’t get very close to YOURSELF without Psalms

You can’t get very close to YOURSELF without worship

You can’t get very close to YOURSELF without…RELIGION

You can’t get very close to YOURSELF without…RELIGION

You can’t get very close to YOURSELF without…RELIGION

Worship is the most elementary mark of being alive (J Moltmann, 209).   Praise, singing, prayer—the primary forms of worship—are the most elementary marks of being alive.   You want to live.  You will need to find your way to worship, to inhabit its location, to learn its language, and to adopt its listening.  So the Baptist preaches, ‘I baptize you with water, but one who is more powerful than is coming…He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire’.

-The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill, Dean.

November 25

Bear Witness to the Truth

By Marsh Chapel

Click here to listen to the entire service

Revelation 1:4b-8

John 18:33-37

Click here to listen to the sermon only

When was the last time you were interviewed by legal authorities? When were you asked to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help you God?  Here, John 18: 33, in his last hours, Jesus is interviewed by Pilate.  Such a strange Gospel passage, wherein the one interviewed becomes the questioner, wherein the one accused levies accusation, wherein the one intending to interrogate, is himself interrogated, wherein not power but truth has the last word.   The Holy Scripture, the strange world of the Bible, is holy because it is healthy, and you need its nourishment, its strange teaching, far more than any other watery diet of merely spiritual meditation. Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”

Flashing Lights

From June 24, 2018 to August 4, 2018 we had only two days of real rain.  From June 24, 2018 to August 4, 2018, we also had only two days without grandchildren, of some number and assortment and age, with us.  They were not the two same days.  On the evening of August 4 we set out with our dear friends for dinner at a nearby restaurant.  An experience of warning soon ensued.  Now and then, the Gospel itself comes in a word of warning.

In 1959 our family moved to the little college town of Hamilton, NY, where we attended seven years of grammar school, where and when grammar was taught in grammar schools. The evening of August 4 we drove over Hamilton Hill, where our scout troop once hiked.  We passed Andy McGonnis’s Farm, he who in the sixth grade starred with me in a two voice drama, ‘Brainy and Brawny’, about a strong good person and a smart bad person.  The better title might have been Brawny and Scrawny.  Andy is still farming his family land fifty years later, down the road from where my friend Bill lived as a Colgate senior.  By the way, if you happen to enter the town from the north west, as we did that night, be sure to slow down after Andy’s barn, to the legal 30 MPH limit, even though the road seems a 55 MPH roadway.  Otherwise you will contribute unwillingly, ticketed for speeding, to the township budget, funded in part by this particular passage. We moved from Hamilton in 1966 but I have been there through the summers for part of every year since.  Or, I have been there ever since.

That night the twilight gleamed and we were celebrating.  I noted Andy’s farm and with body memory slowed to 30 MPH.  Our friends who have eleven grandchildren to our mere seven, were also, for the moment, grandchildless on the lake, and ready to party.  Coming down Hamilton Hill I remembered my fortieth birthday, on the evening of which I had driven down the hill to hear my old teacher Cornel West hold 1,000 Colgate students mesmerized as he spoke without notes, but with wise passion, for 90 minutes.  After the entry to town, from this odd angle, there is a crossing onto the main street that involves a tangled intersection with one yield and one stop sign within 20 feet of each other.  I navigated the intersection and headed into town when—you will recognize in viscera the moment—red lights swirled behind me atop a local police SUV.  We pulled over.  A portly policeman about my age came to us, and you can write the next lines yourselves. ‘May I see your license and registration please’.  ‘Do you know why we are having this conversation?’ (Here, for the young, I simply note that one never says anything like yes to that query.  Your answer is ‘I truly have no idea occifer’)  “No I don’t.”  “You went right through the stop sign back there”.  (Again, for the young, I note, the response here is no response). ‘Are you aware of that’.  “Well, no, actually, I did not recognize that”. “Well, you did.”

Now.  I assume that he was right and I came to a rolling but not full stop at the aforementioned intersection.  Whether I did or not does not matter.  It is his view that matters.  A long pause ensued, during which he surveyed the audience, the driver, an aging white guy with a comb-over, as my son likes to describe me, and three other Caucasian passengers with white hair.   For once, I was delighted to be an aging white guy with a comb-over.  While the portly policeman pondered his next move, I fleetingly wondered what would have happened if I had been 28 years old, black, and with dread locks; or alone, female, and 25; or Hispanic, speaking limited English, with crying children in the back seat; or Japanese, with a newborn, and not fully sure of the ways of our people (like my daughter in law, a native of Kyoto, who had flown back to San Diego that afternoon).  Yes, this was one good time to be older, white, balding and accompanied by similar cue tips fore and aft.  “Well” said the officer “you did slow down coming into town, that was good;  but that intersection does have a yield and a stop sign; you blew through the stop. I am going to give you a warning.  Learn from it.  Have a nice evening going out to dinner.  But remember you have passengers with you and we have a town here that we want to keep safe.”With that he returned my license and registration and shook my hand. 

Hostile Environment

I come back to the warning in a minute.  As a 12 year old I left my hometown of Hamilton in 1966.  By 1986 Jan and I were in ministry with a struggling urban regional church in Syracuse, an hour north and west of Hamilton.  The church was growing, thanks to excellent lay leadership and willingness to engage the neighborhood with a new day care center, a renewed nursery school, two new scout troops, a new dance school, a new senior citizens’ program, a new student ministry, a new writers’ project, and an added second Sunday service.  People tolerated the preacher, largely because they liked his family.  One new couple, Pam and Josiah Young, a thirty year old African American couple, joined us perhaps in part because our congregation, like that at Marsh Chapel today, had become solidly racially integrated, say thirty percent people of color with 200 in worship on Sunday.  One night we had Pam and Josiah to dinner.  They later left our church, with some struggle and misgiving, because our bishop planted a black congregation in the same part of the city, and they felt that had to support him in that.  But for some years they helped lead the church, were tithing and faithful in worship, and were good happy people to have around.  She was a partner in a law firm downtown, and he taught, at, of all places, Colgate, in my hometown, in the Religion department.  Over dinner we listened to music Jan had chosen and Josiah appreciated.  We got better acquainted.  At one point, I expostulated on the bucolic joys of Hamilton where I learned to skate and play hockey, where I fished in the swan pond at will, where we stole freshman beanies off the heads of newcomers, where I pitched for the little league team, where I became a tender foot scout and camped in the woods in February, where Andy McGonnis and I became friends, and where we were enthralled by the Colgate funded fire works every year on July 4th.  Pam and Josiah listened graciously.  After the lengthy peroration, I asked: ‘Josiah, how do you like teaching at Colgate and being in Hamilton part of each week?’.  I will never forget his reply.  It was a warning.  “It is a hostile environment” he replied.   Of course, he did so with grace, and acknowledged my own experience, and was endlessly careful not unnecessarily to offend.  But he was honest, not just kind, but kind and honest. For a thirty year old black man with a beard and horn rimmed glasses, Hamilton coud be pretty hostile territory.  I knew that, sort of, but I knew it well when he said so.

As our portly officer retreated, Josiah came to mind.  What would have happened had he been the driver, not me?  Maybe the outcome would have been the same.   I know the policeman would have fully noticed my own Massachusetts license plate, and on a weekend when the Red Sox beat the Yankees four straight games at Fenway, things Boston were not popular there in the heart of New York.  But the officer forgave the Boston license, even though a ticket for an out of towner is low hanging fruit.  Maybe he would have been equally gracious with Josiah.   However, only 20 miles north from Hamilton, some years ago, our son, then with shoulder length hair and tank top, was pulled over before the policeman saw my wife, sitting next to her son (she had been slumped in the seat sleeping).  Surprised, the officer made some comment and moved on.  He had wanted to ticket a hippie, perhaps, but then mom reared her head.  He moved on. 

Words of Warning for You and Me

On August 4, I was given a needed, just and kindly warning.  Be careful when you go through that intersection again.  I took it to heart.  We had a fine summer dinner, and I drove home later at four miles an hour. Warnings matter, in the little and in the large.  They are gifts, often kindly shared, like the portly officer’s warning gift to me, like Josiah’s warning gift to me.  Be careful, says such a gift.  Stop when the sign says stop.  Stop. Look.  Look around you at what another person in the same little town, but with different aspect, might experience.  Look.  Listen. Listen for what the warnings may mean. Warnings are good things.

Jonathan Haidt has read ethnographies, traveled the world and surveyed tens of thousands of people online. He and his colleagues have compiled a catalog of six fundamental ideas that commonly undergird moral systems: care, fairness, liberty, loyalty, authority and sanctity. Alongside these principles, he has found related themes that carry moral weight: divinity, community, hierarchy, tradition, sin and degradation.  How well can we honestly ever ‘see ourselves as others see us’?  All of us can learn from Haidt, to some measure.  He is warning us, like the portly officer warned me, and like the Colgate professor warned me, and now, like this sermon, we hope with love and humility, is trying to warn you.

There are at least two words of warning available to us, with the lights of John 18: 33 flashing, for a moment, this morning.  They are both for us all.  One though may be a bit more for those of us on the right, and the other a bit more for those of us on the left.  And as the Apostle would put it, ‘on this I have no word of the Lord but I give my own view’ (parallel, 1 Cor. 7: 12, 25).

For those more on the right:  You may be a 48-year-old mother living in southern New Hampshire, or a 60 year old plumber living in northern Connecticut.  A couple of years ago, and again a couple of weeks ago, driving into town, and passing Andy McGonnis’s farm, you slowed down to do your civic duty, and to enter the election season.  You obeyed the speed limit, you thought about your choice, and you acted, you chose, you, say, voted.  You came to a confusing intersection, and maybe, just maybe, you let a rolling stop substitute for a full stop.  Maybe what you thought you meant, was, you see in hindsight, not what it means.  For what it means is what it does, to others. So you see in the rear view mirror, you see in conversation with a portly officer dressed in a Sunday sermon,  a country thrust into a time of humiliation, mendacity, racial divides, diminution of women, fear of immigrants, neglect of the environment, support for the wealthy and disregard for the poor, a time of Charlottesville, Helsinki and children taken from their mothers’ arms.    So now, up comes a sermon, in uniform, and asks, ‘Do you know why we are having this conversation’?  Well, we all have our moments when we slide through a stop sign.   Here is a good news.  We can learn from our past, and we can benefit from warnings.

For those more on the left:  You may be a 50 year old college professor living in the Boston suburbs, or a 22 year old musician making ends meet in the east end.  It may be, this morning, there is warning in the morning for you:  slow down.  Slow down.  The laws are meant for us all.  We are a country of ‘laws and not of men’, as my college classmate Kiki Kliendienst’s dad, Richard Kleindienst, said in the spring of 1975, just before he went off to prison, one of the last convicted in the Watergate affair.  The laws, including traffic laws, the laws, including stop signs and yield signs, the laws, from sea to shining sea and from border to border, are for all of us.  You will not turn a 330 million person ship around in one fell swoop.  It will take a decade, or more, and that is if you really work at it.  And it will take a just regard for just law, liberty and justice for all.  So there are not short cuts, and up comes a sermon in uniform, and he asks, ‘Do you know why we are having this conversation?’ Well, we all make mistakes, and have our moments when we slide through a stop sign.  Here is a good news.  We can learn from our past, and we can benefit from warnings.

 When was the last time you were interviewed by legal authorities?  When were you asked to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help you God? Here, John 18: 33, in his last hours, Jesus is interviewed by Pilate.  Such a strange Gospel passage, wherein the one interviewed becomes the questioner, wherein the one accused levies accusation, wherein the one intending to interrogate, is himself interrogated, wherein not power but truth has the last word.  The Holy Scripture, the strange world of the Bible, is holy because it is healthy, and you need its nourishment, its strange teaching, far more than any other watery diet of merely spiritual meditation.  Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”


–The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill, Dean 



October 28

The Hope of Freedom

By Marsh Chapel

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Job 42:1-6

Mark 10:46-52

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One: Bird

 Overhead an eagle soars, on quiet summer days when the lake is empty.  He does not come out on the weekend, or when there is noise, or when the boats are numerous.  But in the quiet he sails and soars, hunting the lake with an eagle eye, hunting for a next fish meal.  You turn over swimming, floating on your back, and over he goes, right overhead, a beautiful long wing span against the blue gray sky.   On the off occasion, twice say a summer, he has his partner with him, his mate, eagles mating as they do for life.  But not today.  He commands the sky, and all below with a grace, a soaring beauty, a regal flight. Beyond the gulls, the sparrows, the robins, the red winged blackbirds, the cardinals, the finches, the bluebirds, the blue-jays, even beyond the blue heron, just there soars the eagle.   Karl Barth recited and repeated, ‘The Gospel is the freedom of a bird in flight’.

Freedom.   In the summer our Marsh sermon series surveyed the expanse, the freeing breadth of hope.  This fall we have listened for the wind chimes of hope, setting us loose, setting us free, in presence, in pressure, in peace, in beauty, in healing, in welcome, and in faith.  What does the God of Hope (Rom. 15:13) bring us today, now that we set hope next to freedom? What is the hope of freedom, for you, a woman or man of faith?

‘For freedom Christ has set us free’, intones the Apostle: ‘stand fast therefore and do not be enslaved again’ (Gal. 5: 1).  Paul addresses the Galatians,53ad, with regard to the superiority of faith to religion, with regard to the superiority of gospel to tradition, and in affirmation of the gospel freedom to include the Gentiles by grace.  Paul’s words, remembered, recited and repeated, became the core of the Protestant Reformation501 years ago, a Reformation we recall and honor the last Sunday each October--today.   The same sense of freedom, the expansion of human freedom, nurtured the Renaissance,the renaissance of learning, art, music, philosophy, and science that over several hundreds more years has given us our current world, culture and life.  Market capitalism emerged steadily in the light and under the wingspan of religious and artistic freedoms.   Political democracy came along as well, in fits and starts, starts and fits which have yet to cease, as we are relearning in this decade.  The freedom of the person of faith, unshackled from the bonds of institutional religion, grown in the expansion of culture and art, given substance and support through the burgeoning accumulation of social and personal capital, and protected by democratic governments, ideals, and practices, surely is a great or the great blessed happy victory of the modern era.

Two: Fromm

 Or is it? 

Freedom, the freedom of the person of faith, surely is a great or the great blessed happy victory of the modern era.

Or is it?

In a time when suddenly and unhappily we witness a broad willingness to taste test authoritarianism, a dark willingness to give over personal freedom for the sake of a putative security, or a rage for order, or a minimization of the more complex forms of self-government, just how precious is freedom, and at what cost?

You know, a sermon seems like a monologue.  Yet it is not.  A sermon is a thicket, a tangled webbing of dialogues, including in the spoken word, the moment of the word.  The dialogues include memory, Scripture, experience, prayer, illumination, fear, dreams and the uncanny evocation of the divine.   For instance, today’s sermon comes in part out of a June dialogue.  We had been invited to speak a half dozen times, sermons and lectures, for the New England Annual Conference, in session for part of a week in Manchester, NH.  The forgiving and kind Methodists there received these pronouncements with a good grace, more than deserved.  You will not be surprised that the Gospel of John appeared, now and then, that week.  After one such presentation which probably, like the peace of God, ‘passed all understanding and endured forever’, one fellow paused in reflection on what he had heard.  He may have been a retired minister, though with sadness the name escaped collection and so memory.  Trailing after his response came this:  What you said reminded me very much of Erich Fromm.  I stuffed the reference in my so-called memory.  Erich Fromm.   I had not thought of him in decades.  With the eagle soaring in the summer, I dug him out.  You see about sermons and dialogues.  Here, five months later, the dialogue emerges, continues, continues its wayfaring course in discourse.  For Fromm acutely inspected both hope and freedom, the theme of our sermon today.

That is, in 1941 the philosopher Erich Fromm wrote a striking, seminal book on this question, ‘just how precious is freedom, and at what cost?’.  Its English title is Escape From Freedom.  Fromm explores the dark side of freedom, religious, cultural, economic and political.  As an expatriate German, watching the events in Europe at the time, Fromm was trying to understand, from the perspective of social psychology, the rise of authoritarianism in his native land, but also, and more broadly and in a general way, to understand how people and groups of people become enthralled with, enamored of, and committed to authoritarianism.  His argument is direct and simple:  real freedom is real difficult to handle, and, when pressed, people move to escape from the demands of freedom by investment in authority.  Freedom is scary.  Freedom is demanding.  Freedom is dangerous.  Freedom is difficult.  Better to hide underneath the sturdy voice of an authoritarian leader, preferably one who denies all responsibility for wrong or hurt, the rock solid social identity of a mass of people, the commitment, itself often quite costly, to a cause that sets aside personal freedom, so lonely and hard and uncertain, for group support under authoritarian wings. 

Freedom has a dark side. Our current national dilemma, in this unfolding decade of humiliation, presses us and makes us present to the question of freedom.  It is more than issues of political liberalism—gay rights, women’s rights—that besets us.  It is more than issues of economic socialism—ample education and abundant health care—that concerns us.  It is more than cultural conservatism—unflagging Sunday worship and vigorous voluntary associations-- that beckons us.  As important as all these are.  It is more than a highjacked national narrative, more than a collapse of moral conscience and compass, more than the protections of civil society, the customs and ceremonies of courtesy meant to protect us from the pipe bombs of unbridled, unhinged rhetoric, that beset, concern and beckon us.  As important as all these are.  It goes deeper, this our current malaise.  It goes down deep into the caverns and caves of freedom.  How will we live, in hope, with freedom?

Erich Fromm warned us.

He warned us about the dread of freedom:  Freedom has made (us) isolated…anxious and powerless…(which) is unbearable(x)…(One’s) brain lives in the 20th century, but she art of most (people) still live in the stone age(xvi)…To feel completely alone and isolated leads to mental disintegration just as physical starvation leads to death (17)…enhancing the individual’s feeling of aloneness and insignificance (38)…(We) becomes more independent, self-reliant, and critical, (but we) become more isolated, alone and afraid…

 He showed us the historical origins and outcomes of freedom: Protestantism made the individual face God alone (108)…The prinicipal social avenues of escape in our time are the submission to a leader, as has happened in Fascist countries, and compulsive conforming as is prevalent in our own democracy…

 He traced the effects of the lack of hope in freedom:  (for) the individual to escape his unbearable feeling of aloneness and powerlessness…(he has) no more pressing need than the one to find somebody to whom he can surrender, as quickly as possible, that gift of freedom which he, the unfortunate creature, was born with…

 He unveiled, out of his own experience, and touching too our own, the consequent appeal of authoritarianism:  the authoritarian character admires authority and tends to submit to it, but at the same time he wants to be an authority himself…

 He described the impact on persons:  The authoritarian character loves those conditions that limit human freedom…The individual ceases to be himself; he adopts entirely the kind of personality offered to him by cultural patterns (say in rallies?) and he therefore becomes exactly as all others are and as they expect him to be…love for the powerful and hatred of the powerless… (is) fertile soil for the rise of Fascism anywhere (240)

 He pointed to a couple of daily consequences—see if they sound familiar: …to lose the sense of discrimination between a decent person and a scoundrel…the fear of death lives an illegitimate existence among us (245)…

 Beloved.  Be alert, on the qui vive, watchful, be sober, be watchful for nascent authoritarianism.   In the daily denigration and disfigurement of facts, of truth.  In the weekly demonization of ‘others’, of those other, in religion, in race, in nation, in orientation.  In the dishonoring of other seats of power, like the judiciary, like the press, like the churches and other religious communities.  In the steady denial of fact and responsibility.

Yet Fromm offered a word of hope in freedom, what he called positive freedom:  positive freedom consists in the spontaneous activity of the total, integrated personality (257)…THERE IS ONLY ONE MEANING OF LIFE: THE ACT OF LIVING ITSELF… (In positive freedom (one)) can relate (one)self spontaneously to the world in love and work, in the genuine expression of (one’s) emotional, sensuous and intellectual capacities (139)..        

Spontaneity.  Comraderie.  Emotion. Intellect.  Where you come alongside these, according to Fromm’s work, there we might say is a hope in freedom. 


Three: Community

We can appreciate, perhaps, a bit of what Fromm said, even in our immediate setting.  The academic world intensifies and crystallizes these tendencies, especially under the aegis and aspect of technology. Spontaneity?  Emotion? Comraderie? Creativity?  These can be hard to find, and to nurture,  in academia.  Consider the rigorous path for the professor, for example.  7 punishing years of graduate school (following on 16 earlier years) lead to the Ph.D.  Another 7 punishing years of junior appointment lead to tenure.  After 30 years, perhaps, one gains tenure.  Think of the commitment to excellence, the attention to detail, in that life work, forged in freedom.  You can stray from the path, but you cannot then complete the journey.  Consider the rigorous path for the undergraduate student at an institution like ours, for example. Begin with earning a 1420 on the SAT, then continue in classrooms and courses where not some but almost all are as able as you. Think of the commitment to excellence, the attention to detail, in that life work, forged in freedom.  You can stray from the path, but you cannot then complete the journey. Further, as Sherry Turkle and others are showing us, we have only the slightest inkling thus far of what the massive newer technologies are doing with our students, ourselves, our world.  We have done a great deal to teach teenagers how to pick up devices, but have done virtually nothing to teach them about how to put them down. 

Thanks to each one of you, for all the challenges of academic life, here at Marsh Chapel, week by week, you sing the song, tell the tale, and ring the bell of freedom!  It is a remarkable, uncanny gift you offer!   The spontaneity of conversation.  The comraderie of communion.  The emotion of song.  The Intellect of faith.  You sing! In four part harmony!  Right here in the heart of a great University!

Real freedom, that for which we affirm Christ has set us free, positive freedom, resounds with spontaneous, physical, emotional, mindful, personal work and love.  The move away from positive reedom comes from alienation, isolation, anxiety, and fear. The move toward positive freedom comes from independence, responsibility, thinking, feeling and willing--forged in the soul. Every one of our lives inhabits two dimensions, one psychological and one sociological, personal and social holiness both.

As the community of faith, then, we want to be and become that place and space where one can listen another’s soul into life, where the urges and longings toward positive freedom are protected and nurtured, where the demonic drives in culture and economy are called out and known by name, where we have each other’s back, where we live and give the benefit of the doubt as a means of grace, where we hold up and hold out and hold onto the freedom of the human being.  A place where, like last night, in the historic nave of this Chapel, the music of joy, the music of majesty, the music of brilliance, the music of gladness—the music of Mozart—plays the accompaniment to our ongoing daily struggle, in freedom, the daily struggle of faith, to withstand what we cannot understand, the ongoing struggle of faith to eradicate violence and religious animus from the earth.

There is hope in freedom, when positive freedom baptizes us in sensuality, emotion, spontaneity and intellect.  Thanks to each one of you, for all the challenges of academic life, here at Marsh Chapel, week by week, you sing the song, tell the tale, and ring the bell of freedom!  May we contine to live by such hope!

Yes, there is hope in freedom, but it comes at cost, and it comes with work.  Jurgen Moltmann appends our benedictus: in Theology of Hope: “Hope finds in Christ not only a consolation in suffering but also the protest of the divine against suffering.  That is why faith, wherever it develops into hope, causes not rest but unrest, not patience but impatience” (p. 21).

-The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill, Dean. 

October 14

The Present Moment

By Marsh Chapel

Click here to hear the full service

Hebrews 4:12-16

Mark 10:17-22

Click here to hear the sermon only


The Present Moment.

Lift up your hearts in the present moment, to hear the good news within the present moment.

A word of faith in pastoral voice toward a common hope.

A word of faith in a pastoral voice toward a common hope.

Hope has two handsome sons, Presence and Pressure.  Both meet you in the Present Moment.

Hope has two handsome sons, Presence and Pressure.  Both meet you in the Present Moment.

The presence of Love.  The pressure to Love. The presence of Good.  The pressure toward Good.

The presence of Love.  The pressure to Love. The presence of Good.  The pressure toward Good.

I need Thy presence every passing hour;

What but Thy grace can foil the tempter’s power?

Who, like Thyself, my guide and stay can be?

Through cloud and sunshine, Lord, abide with me.

The Present Moment.  

Lift up your hearts in the present moment, to the hear the good news within the present moment.


‘In Thy Presence There is Fullness Of Joy.’ (Psalm 16).

In the Present, the present moment, come with me, to become open again, open to Presence.   Around you, yes, racism and misogyny and sexism and xenophobia and rapacity and mendacity and perversity and predation.  Yes. So, all the moreso, your being hungers for Presence. Presence, as our Psalm 16 acclaims this morning, the fullness of joy.  Simchat’ my Rabbi and friend tells me.  It means joy. Simchat Torah. Serve the Lord with Joy. Come with me, aside, just a moment.

Come with me, aside, just a moment, to recall one morning, an early morning early in August this year, wherein there was an experience of Presence.

The coffee was percolating in the cottage kitchen.  Wait for it with me, why don’t you, and come sit down on the living room couch.  Through the front open windows you might hear the lapping of the lake water against the shoreline, carried by a steady breeze out of the west, north west.  Most of the time, there, the wind comes from the west, blowing Midwestern weather through us and on to Boston. The lap, lap, lap continued, somewhat in rhythm with and somewhat out of rhythm with, the music of Liszt by radio.  The water and the waves are there all the time, background music to the day every day. We should carry some summer into winter. This day you could hear the surf, though surf is too much of a word for that little lake. Just the steady lap, lap, lap of the water on the shore.

The quiet (can you hear it?) was full.  There was and is no sound, other than natural sound, most of the time, mid-week, in the mornings there.  Little to no traffic on the road or on the water; little to no talk, on the road or on the water. The sound of the silence is the most pronounced audition of the day, in such contrast to our life really anywhere else.  A gull now and then will sing out—our five year-old granddaughter has learned nearly exactly to mimic the gull song, ‘Gina’s’ song, she calls it, as she names all gulls Gina. The murmuring of the blessed classical music, soft but audible, rumbles, morning by morning.  

You are, as I was, unusually, all alone.  It can be discomfiting, especially for the extroverts among us, that lonely quiet.  For some weeks, with two days excepted, we had the full joy of some assortment of grandchildren, as few as one, as many as seven, and their parents, as few as one as many as six, and friends, neighbors, visitors, in sixes and sevens, all.  Jan though had gone away the day before, to see our daughter, to make a call on my elderly mother, to lunch with old friends, and to see her former work colleagues. So the company I kept for a day and night and a day was my own. It can be discomfiting, especially for the extroverts among us, that lonely quiet.  

With the coffee susurrating, sit for moment, and feel the cool breeze through the windows, and hear, though not as a focused listening, the lap, lap, lap of the water on the shoreline.  That morning you could feel and see faintly, a storm brewing out of the west, full clouds coming dark with rain, but still a distance off. I picked up the book I was reading, where it had been left the quiet night before, following a solitary dinner, prepared by, made by, and pre-cooked by Jan, warmed and consumed alone by me.  The book is that of Paul Theroux, Deep South, his masterful journal and reflection on a year of travels due south of his home on Cape Cod.  You may have known him from his earlier book, The Mosquito Coast, and from reviews of his other two dozen.  This one had been casually left by my dear friend Jon Clinch, himself a world renowned writer, author of Finn, Kings of the Earth, and several other novels.  ‘You might like this’ Jon said, following the fireworks of July 4.

That morning, the book was open to a passage about Julius Rosenwald.  Rosenwald became the head of Sears, Roebuck in 1909. He was the son of German-Jewish immigrants.  Most have not ever heard of him. Theroux’s book is in the great tradition of travel books. You may have loved John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charlie.  You may have loved William Least Heat Moon’s Blue Highways.  Well, Theroux apparently did too, and set out to visit the least known part of America, to him, the deep south.  He comes along poor country roads, and the stories along those roads, with the clean, bright eyes of a genuinely interested visitor, a Yankee a long way from home.  And he, Theroux, revels in what he finds. By the help of an African American barber, chef, and preacher, he finds the story of Rosenwald. Julius Rosenwald gave his substantial fortune to build rural schools for black children in the deep south.  They have a particular architecture, fit for their role and setting, large glass windows facing the southern sun, open and flexible rooms and walls to be used for many different needs, and a distinctive aspect given by those at Tuskegee who planned them.  How many? Five thousand. There are 5000 Rosenwald schools in 15 states, the first built in 1917. Rosenwald died in 1932. He gave his fortune to poor black children in the rural deep south.

Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?

For some reason, with the breeze blowing, and now the dark clouds somehow headed north and away, with Franz Liszt’s meditative music alive and round about (he whose name you can never recall whether to spell with an s or with a z—(which is it choir?)  because—it’s both!), this little account of Rosenwald, in Theroux’s graceful hand, choked me, moved me. I think it would do so for you too.

Once I had a high school meeting set with a black preacher and his church in Syracuse.  My mother, lightly but sternly, said as I left something like this: You should try to appreciate what those good people in that church have had to live with down there on the south side of Syracuse, you want to be respectful of what others have been through. None of us in this country, even those of us educated at Nottingham High School, Bob, or going on Ohio Wesleyan University, Bob, has really ever had enough education about slavery, about what the conditions of that 250 year hell were, about what the ongoing effect to this day in the 150 years since have been, about how this country and its notable capitalism, and the very sky line of our dear city, the making of American Capitalism and every dollar still swirling in its rinse basin today, came in part from stolen land and slave labor, the trail of tears and the middle passage, the five arable states of the new south and 4 million chattel slaves—beaten, raped, lynched, chained—to till it.  Even your or I, Bob, could make money with free land and free labor. And our economy still depends on the same two features, abuse of the environment and abuse of labor, to make the profits demanded by the market. We walk through it every day, and hardly notice. How do we do this? She said.

These are the kind of memories a breeze, a little music, and a quiet morning can conjour.

Now with the coffee almost done, and the reading of Theroux in motion, the lap, lap, lap again in the breeze, the lap, lap, lap again, from the lakeshore, the lap, lap, lap of, well, the present moment.   For three generations now our family has been itinerant, moving from church to church, from pulpit to pulpit, from town to town and from hidden communal misery to hidden communal misery. Every town, every city, has secret failures, as every heart has secret sorrows.  So the lake, the very modest little lake, and the cottage, the very small humble cottage, the north western tip of Appalachia about which the most remarkable thing to say is how little it has changed since 1959, becomes a place of reverie, a place of memory, a place of home life, the place called home.  Home is such a big word. That also means it is a place where hard memories are present and can be faced. Hard things. Accidents. Mistakes. Betrayals. Deaths. Losses. Failures. On this morning, in the lap, lap, lap, and with the Liszt, Liszt, Liszt, and in the breeze, perhaps mainly the breeze, with the coffee brewed, these readily come up to mind in the morning, if they haven’t already made their nocturnal appearance in the buzzard wildness of dreams.  The water on the shore brings a steady reminder that life gets lived in the aftermath of disappointment. The breeze from the west, with and without raincloud, brings the confidence that even the hurt, the shame of the wrong can be endured. The music, light and lingering, brings along the recollection of happiness that is more true for its injury in sorrow, its debasement in waste, its limitation in grief.

Let us stop, here.  In the little air, in the lap, lap, lap, in the dead quiet.  In the present moment. There. This is what the Psalm means. This is what prayer touches.  This is what the divines felt. This is what Ralph Harper wrote about, in his treatise, On Presence.  This is what old Huston Smith then of MIT said of God, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence…We are in good hands, and so it behooves us to bear one another’s burdens and so fulfill the law of love.  This is what Alistair Macleod depicted in his stories of Nova Scotia, concluding, all of us are better when we’re loved.  This may be what my Dad meant when he said that he had never seen anyone die fearing death.  This is what the black cold of the Pyrenees was saying to me, about vocation, in the deep winter of 1974.  This is what you carry into surgery, as the anesthesia kicks in. This is the miracle of the present moment.  Presence. Hope has a handsome son named Presence. Wordsworth: Eternity in a grain of sand and heaven in a wildflower.  Hammarskjold; ‘God does not die on the day we cease to believe in a personal Deity, but we die on the day our lives cease to be illumined by a radiance, renewed daily, of a wonder whose source lies beyond all reason.’

Chesterton: the world does not lack for wonders, but only for a sense of wonder. This is the refutation, at the last, of disenchantment by enchantment.  This is the overflowing giddiness of the getting up morning hour of the day when the stars begin to fall of the of the light shining in darkness that has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory in the face of…the present moment.  Psalms: 1, 19, 22, 23, 33, 46, 51, 61, 95, 96, 100, 121, 139. Psalm 16, in Thy presence there is fullness of joy.

It was only a half-second.  It was only an un-holdable, ungraspable flicker.  It was only the breeze and the book and the coffee and the music, the lake and the Liszt, and the memory and the lap, lap, lap of the water on the shoreline.

Take with you this week a sense of presence.  Take with you this week a feeling of presence.  Take with you this week a quickened apperception, awareness of the gift of one day, one day, one day, lap, lap, lap.  Take with you this week the spirit, given in the present moment. And practice, with Brother Lawrence of old, the presence of the good, the presence of God.  Do so here at Marsh Chapel. Sunday evening, right here, with prayers and spirituals sung by the Inner Strength Gospel Chorus.  Monday, right here, the compline quiet and sturdy liturgy. Tuesday, right here, with creative pause. Wednesday, right here, with a guitar at 11am in the morning and a sung eucharist  at 5:30 in the evening. Thursday noon, right here, and maybe especially, with quiet, silent silence. (The best thing at Marsh Chapel is ’nothing’—we leave the sanctuary open in silence, and open to…Presence.)

And what of pressure, Hope’s other handsome son?   The pressure toward the good, in the question of the Rich young Ruler today—‘what must I do?’.  For that, we must come back next Sunday, when the Gospel of the Present Moment is acclaimed, not only in Presence, but also within Pressure, the pressure to love.



The Present Moment.  

Lift up your hearts in the present moment, to hear the good news within the present moment.

A word of faith in pastoral voice toward a common hope.

A word of faith in a pastoral voice toward a common hope.

Hope has two handsome sons, Presence and Pressure.  Both meet you in the Present Moment.

Hope has two handsome sons, Presence and Pressure.  Both meet you in the Present Moment.

The presence of Love.  The pressure to Love. The presence of Good.  The pressure toward Good.

The presence of Love.  The pressure to Love. The presence of Good.  The pressure toward Good.

I need Thy presence every passing hour;

What but Thy grace can foil the tempter’s power?

Who, like Thyself, my guide and stay can be?

Through cloud and sunshine, Lord, abide with me.

The Present Moment.  

Lift up your hearts in the present moment, to the hear the good news within the present moment.

-The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill, Dean.

September 30

The Bach Experience

By Marsh Chapel

Click here to listen to the full service

James 5:13-20

Mark 9:38-50

Click here to listen to the sermon only

The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill

Those who have paused, here, or now, to worship with us at Marsh Chapel in the last decade, are aware that we lift the Gospel, come Cantata Sundays, in word and music, together, juntos, in harmony.

Bach brings us the reach of beauty around the globe, a global sphere of orientation.  Bach brings us a stretch toward the universal, the reach up and out to what fully lasts, truly matters, and really counts.  Bach brings us an artistic angle of vision, rooted in Scripture and in an earlier Lutheran garden, nonetheless known by heart and in the heart, far and near, with those, today you and me, who will pause for the offering of the gift of faith.  Bach brings us beauty, a paean for sure to the true and the good, but no avoidance of the beautiful.  In our time, this hour, especially this week, we can truly appreciate, benefit from such a global orientation, a high universal reach, a feeling in faith, and the bathing of such beauty.

Given the maelstrom of this moment in our current culture, the wind blasts of charge and counter charge, the examples of courage and also the instances of failures in courage, near and far, we, come Sunday, maybe especially this Sunday, look for the God who is a rock in a weary land.  Said Dr. Emilie Townes, last Tuesday, ‘we want to cultivate a vibrant community of hope… we hope to beget an ever more piercing faithfulness’.  An ever more piercing faithfulness.

Today we receive the gift in memory of the faith of the church, and we give ear to the beauty of our first Bach Cantata of the year.  We are truly ‘blessed’ as our Gospel affirms.  All the senses—sight, sound, scent, touch, taste—are enlivened today.

This is truly good news, especially for those who may be in mortal need of a living reminder, as the Scritpure says, that we are ‘children of God’.  For we can sometimes acutely need such a reminder of belonging, meaning and empowerment.  We are acquainted with the night.  You are acquainted with the night.  As our New England poet memorably put it:

I have been one acquainted with the night.

I have walked out in rain -- and back in rain.

I have outwalked the furthest city light.


I have looked down the saddest city lane.

I have passed by the watchman on his beat

And dropped my eyes, unwilling to explain.


I have stood still and stopped the sound of feet

When far away an interrupted cry

Came over houses from another street,


But not to call me back or say good-bye;

And further still at an unearthly height,

O luminary clock against the sky


Proclaimed the time was neither wrong nor right.

I have been one acquainted with the night.  

To such acquaintance does our worship this morning minister, and our affirmations of faith, and the beauty of Bach.  Tell us, if you will Dr. Jarrett, how best we can listen for the gospel today, in and within this marvelous cantata.

Dr. Scott Allen Jarrett

Today’s cantata represents a high water mark in the Baroque expression of the anxious tortured soul. Bach surpasses himself in each movement of this musical essay, a sermon-in-song. From the outset, the scope of the opening chorus presents a people in supplication – a people yearning for mercy in the countenance of God’s promised judgment. Presented in two contrasting sections, the opening chorus depicts the many facets of our anxiety. After a pleading alto recitative, the soprano aria gives pitch and rhythm to our angst in the form of trembling sixteenth notes in the upper strings. The foundational voice of the continuo silenced for this movement,  the soprano and oboe are left to wander alone. The voice of wisdom and New Covenant in Christ’s Cup consoles and comforts in the baritone recitative which follows. The sixteenth notes here take on a caring and supporting motive. Drawing on the security of promised Redemption heard in the baritone recitative, the voice of the tenor with obligato horn professes a confident assurance. The cantata concludes with the expected chorale setting. The trembling sixteenth notes of the soprano aria reappear, but as the chorale proceeds, phrase by phrase the trembling anxiety is calmed – sixteenths become triplets, triplets yield to duples, until their final concluding quarter notes – Indeed Bach’s musical signature of promised redemption and divine grace.

The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill

This moment:  in word and worship, in memory and hope, in voice and instrument.  We are blessed.  We are recalled as children of God: who enter the kingdom of heaven and receive comfort in mourning, and gentle the earth, and crave goodness, and trade in mercy, and see divine grace, and pave with justice the path of peace, and see out to the far side of hardship.  Said Howard Thurman, ‘Come Sunday the church says to one and all, the church says to you:  you are a child of the living God, you are a child of the living God, you are a child of the living God.

We gather our bits of hard won wisdom:  ‘The only way of achieving any degree of self-understanding is by systematically retracing our steps’. ‘One can know fully only what one has oneself made.’ ‘I was once a philosopher, but joy kept breaking in.’ ‘What we borrow, we also bend.’ ‘To surrender the actual experienced good for a possible ideal good is the struggle.’

Somewhere, sometime, it may be, you will find yourself in receipt of the gift of faith.  It may be a faith recounted in the Niceaen creed.  But it also may be faith as simple, and pure, and true, as the courage to be, the real courage to be.  To be and speak.  To speak and bear witness.  To bear witness, for all the dangers about, and to tell the truth.  To tell the truth, and to get up again the next day.   Your restoration in faith may be as Lutheran and Scriptural as the substitutionary atonement of tradition, ‘the sacrificial death that wipes out guilt’.   Or it may be faith shorn of religious clothing, clean and clear: ‘a courage welling up from a deep and hidden place’ (Senator Blumenthal quoting Senator Graham, from Graham’s book about work with brave witnesses as a lawyer with sex crimes (9/27/18).   Either way, you have, say today, a restoration in faith.  Faith you can remember, return to be, rely on, when faith, being faith, is, finally all you have left.  Receive the gift of faith in music and word this Lord’s Day.

Then go and live!

As one said: ‘I have only just a minute, 
Only sixty seconds in it.
Forced upon me, can't refuse it.
Didn't seek it, didn't choose it.
But it's up to me to use it,
I must suffer if I lose it,
Give account if I abuse it.
Just a tiny little minute’.
But eternity is in it.’

Our music sings it so:

Now, I know, You shall quiet in me

my conscience which gnaws at me.

Your faithful love will fulfill

what You Yourself have said:

that upon this wide earth

no one shall be lost,

rather shall live forever,

if only he is filled with faith.

 -The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill, Dean. & Dr. Scott Allen Jarrett, Director of Music.

September 16

Hope that is Seen is not Hope

By Marsh Chapel

Click here to listen to the entire service

James 3:1-12

Mark 8:27-38

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Hope that is seen is not hope.  Who hopes for what he sees?  We hope for what we do not see, and what for it with patience.

Our denomination bade farewell to one of its great matriarchs this summer, Barbara Steen, who with her husband the Rev. Tom Steen mentored generations of clergy, especially regarding invitation in outreach and fellowship.  Chuck Foster (Educating Clergy)Is an example.  Their example teaches us about hope.  In fact, Barb lived out the sense and substance of the Letter to the Romans, chapters 1,3,5,8,12,15 (here verses are recited in the sermon). 

What gracious good news to recall in this era of racism, sexism, misogyny, xenophobia, irresponsibility, perversity, rapacity, and, especially, mendacity. Listen again to James, and to Mark.


The Tongue

If ever there were an age that could hear, and appreciate, the teaching of James about the tongue as a fire, it is our own. You know, the preacher here does not need to bring exegesis to bear, or to give explanation for the wisdom proffered, or to bring examples, many or few.  We know in our evenings of listening to the cable news.  We hear in our mornings of commuting with the radio on. We read and learn and inwardly digest what speech can do for ill.  We are coming to a point where even James 3 is too tepid, too mild to describe our national condition.  At some point we will need to repair to Amos, and to drink the hard cold medicine of his teaching.  When we wreck the use of words without pause, you do come to a time when words no longer work.  You have stripped the gears.  You have shredded the fabric.  You have cut the muscle.  And no one can speak the truth and no can hear the truth any longer. 

Behold the Lord was standing beside a wall built with a plumb line, with a plumb line in his hand.  And the Lord said to me, ‘Amos, what do you see?’ And I said, ‘A plumb line’.  Then the Lord said, ‘Behold I am setting a plumb line in the midst of my people Israel;  I will never again pass by them; the high places of Isaac will be made desolate, and the sanctuaries of Israel shall be laid to waste, and I will rise against the house of Jeroboam with the sword’. Amos 7: 7-8.        

‘Behold the days are coming’ says the Lord God, ‘when I will send a famine on the land; not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the Lord.  They shall wander from sea to sea, and from north to east, they shall run to and fro, to seek the word of the Lord, but they shall not find it.’ Amos 8: 11-12


Mark 8: 24-37

To renounce oneself, said John Chrysostom is ‘to treat oneself as if one were another person’ (Marcus, II, 624). Consider oneself as every day on the edge of death.  Death makes us mortal.  Facing death makes us human.  We live at the intersection of present advent and future hope. What good is the greatest possession if there is no possessor to enjoy it?  ‘Take up the cross’ is a reference to the beginning of the journey, and the next part, ‘follow me’ refers to the ongoing life of faith. Baptism, first, you could say, Communion, second, you could say.

We like Peter have aversion to suffering, as did Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane.  Jesus is more than a prophet.  But he is not less than a prophet.

Mark’s harsh portrayal of Peter as ‘Satan’ is too much for Luke, who omits it later, and that reaction was probably not unique, for we can understand it too.

Hope that is seen is not hope.  So your preachers this summer reminded you:  Br. Whitney, Dr. Walton, Rev. Gaskell, Dr. Coleman, Rev. Donahue, and the dean, speaking about hope and righteousness, hope and freedom, hope and disappointment, hope and children, hope and lying, hope and listening, hope and the sweet aroma of the bread of life, hope and blending blue and red into purple (ok, maybe it was more like violet!), hope and faith.

Seek the Lost: Outreach

Barb and Tom Steen lived out of a desire to seek and to save the lost.   That is old language, for sure.  But it catches the fire and flavor of their, of her, faith.  Many of us have had several helpings of faith, Sunday by Sunday.  But for some, for some others, the first meal has yet to be served.  That is where some of our youth work, some of our outreach and evangelism, some of our willingness to open the church to others who may at some point need community comes in. AFUMC did this to national recognition in August this year.

Barb loved the camping programs at Watson Homestead and Casowasco.  This summer, driving along Route 90, our granddaughter counted up the number of times she will be at, she will have been at Casowasco, this year and next.  Many times.  Barb would have smiled.

We knew her many years ago, along the lakeshore of Owasco Lake, in the parlors of the building there aptly named ‘Galilee’. We saw there the effect that loving community, caring presence, modulated teaching, all in a naturally beautiful setting can have.

One summer, toward the end of the season, we had a young man of about 15 as a camper.  He had never been to camp before.  He was a rugged, stout fellow, who could and did pass the swim test, but barely.  He was just full of life, and not overly attuned to boundaries.  He had to sit out every now and then, but was quite affable about it, not minding the light discipline.  He was such an exuberant fellow, it was hard not smile at his various antics.  He was having a whale of time, all week long.  I was working as the lifeguard so I don’t know how much Scripture he learned, or how much praying he did, or how fully he could articulate his sense of faith.  But he was every bit alive, all week.  And the meaning of life is in the living of life anyway, isn’t it?

Come Friday, after lunch, our young friend disappeared.  He did not show up for rest period, and the later class, nor the swim at 2pm.  His counselors were rightly worried.  We formed up a search group, and trekked up to Mt Tabor, and hunted across the road in the Highlands, and looked through the gorge and the woods surrounding.  No luck.  By dinner we were plenty worried, even looking through the waterfront.  Then early that evening, I was walking up the railroad track, to the south of the camp, still hunting.  There he came, shuffling along.  He told me why he ran away.  He said that he did not want to go home.  He said that the week had been the best one of his life, that he for once friends, that he loved the hiking and meals and swimming, even the evening vespers. He just had never known anything like it.  And he did not want to go home, to what he had to go home to.  He told me about that, too.

That night, as he had some late supper, he came to something of realization.  It wasn’t so much that he could put everything into words.  The gist of his thought was along the line that he would go home and he would make the best of it.  But he would do it with memory of the week he had had, and that he would not forget, and he would not let the memory of the week fade. He would have to go home, but he could take something new home with him.  Another way, another experience, another perspective, a little hope. 

That is an example of what Barb and Tom were aimed at, in that part of their ministry.  A first helping of faith, shared genuinely, shared authentically, with those who had not yet had a chance to sit down at the table of fellowship and faith. It is what inspired her regular phone calls to our home, in Rochester, as our growing up children would hear, rattled out rapidly, ‘Hi Hon, Barb Steen here, how are you doing, how is school, is your mom there, thanks’.  She made her list of 5 or 10 calls she would make every day, and she made them.

Welcome the Stranger: Fellowship

We left New York City suddenly, in 1979, to take a church in Ithaca, in the snows of February.  Jan was ill, with child, and both the mother and the in utero baby had survived surgery for an ovarian cyst.  The doctor at St. Elizabeth’s in NYC had been unsure whether he could save either.  Our conference and Bishop had an open Cornell neighborhood church and we had every need to be in place, be employed, be able to heal and prepare.  Ordination—and with it health insurance as a conference member—were months away, in mid-June, near the due date for the birth.  As it happened, the child, our first, arrived two weeks late, a gift for some in the family, and a task for others.

We knew no one really, of our age, in the conference at that time.  Those were hot, lonely months, with all the pure joy and utter confusion of parenthood’s sudden arrival.  The birth of the daughter, that day, July 5,1979, was and remains the happiest day of my life.  Whatever joy is, it is not something I can think about without the sight of that little beautiful baby, that beautiful young mother and the delivery which was deliverance too.  So we began to stumble around in ministry, writing sermons, making visits, trying to make sense of personal and church budgets, a salary of $8K a year, plus a house. 

In early September the phone rang in our little parsonage cottage in Ithaca, at the end of Forest Home Drive.  ‘Hi Hon Barb Steen here, how are you doing, how is the ministry, Ithaca has enough committees for everyone to be the chair of at least one, these people don’t want faith they want a graduate course in religion—ugh!—is your wife there?’  We knew Barb and Tom by reputation only, a part of which we were about to see in real time, their commitment to small groups, to welcome, to hospitality, to invitation.  She called to invite us to a brunch two weeks hence in the Newfield parsonage, then occupied by Gary and Jeannie Judson.  Later in ministry our Syracuse predecessor Rev. Wayne Archer, his wife a Fenton of Fenton glass, reminded us that the Newfield church burned down during his ministry there. Oddly, the DS had said, ‘Archer, light a fire under that church’.  Well, Wayne also had served a church in Pennsylvania that hard burned, hence his nickname, ‘the Arson Parson’.  But Newfield UMC was rebuilt, and parsonage, as the older ones do, had a big parlor. 

Barb had gathered a dozen twenty something couples, including the Judsons and the Hills, who didn’t know each other form Adam’s house cat, for a meal.  Half or more had little babies in tow.  We sang and prayed a little, ate a little more, and laughed a whole lot more about the oddities of life, young adult life, parenthood, ministry and the loneliness lurking behind and above and underneath them all.  She gave us ourselves, by giving us to each other. She gave us ourselves, by giving us to each other.  We came alive.  The next week the phone rang. ‘Hi hon Barb Steen here, how is the ministry, how is life, how is that beautiful little ‘Emly’ how are your folks Marcia and Irv, wasn’t that a great brunch at Judsons, is Jan there?

From that one gathering friendships formed. One minister then took me to lunch. Another suggested a round of golf. A third saw my car and told to me to come over so that he would teach me to how to change the brake pads.  ‘You don’t want to spend money on that.  You can’t afford it on $8K a year. I’ll help you’. A fourth came and preached on Christmas Eve, making reference, in earshot of Rudolph, to the blessed taste of venison.  Thanks to Bob, to Duane, to Gary, and to Dale.  Tom Steen himself got me into a clergy study of the Psalms that lasted two years until we moved north.

The habits of visitation, the habits of welcome, the habits of outreach, the habits of hospitality, the habits of Christian charity and love, all so dearly central to any genuine form of ministry, are not necessarily permanent gifts.  They have to be remembered.  To be remembered they have to be modeled.  To be modeled that have to be practiced.  I give you Barb Steen.

Peter Berger (Rumor of Angels) reminded us that the very sense we have of lasting, earthly injustice, of wrongs not and never made right, a real and palpable sentiment, is itself a rumor of something more.  Which we cannot see, of course, and of which we do not know, of course. But maybe a heavenly breakfast will again be served, at which the table will seat the resurrection of the just. We hope for what we do not see.

-The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill, Dean.