St. John's Memorial Chapel, Episcopal Divinity School
The Feast of Saint Augustine of CAnterbury
Wednesday, May 26, 1999
Dr. Fredrica Harris Thompsett
Academic Dean and Mary Wolfe Professor of Historical Theology
Gracious God, who has
traveled with us thus far,
Holy One, who cherishes, heals and disturbs us,
Bless Us with power to proclaim your might acts,
not only on our lips but in our lives. Amen.
Welcome to a New England Evening Celebration, a New England Eucharist, a New England Commencement Sermon! Tonight and at tomorrow afternoon's Commencement, it is our privilege to honor New England's "Number One Product" == Graduates. There are more universities, colleges and seminaries in "New" England than there are in the whole of "Old" England, indeed than (there are) in the whole of Europe. Graduates in caps and gowns with newly-awarded degrees are "our most important products!" Much like the cars, trucks and Sports Utility Vehicles that are the favored product of my hometown of Detroit, Michigan -- we in New England cherish our graduates for your bright new maneuverability, for your willingness to take off on uncharted and often-bumpy terrain, and for your state-of-the-art theologies of liberation. We know you have journeyed from far away and from just next door to join this place of strange theological customs, and even stranger accents, "roundabouts," and scary drivers. We know that you have sojourned in this rugged, and at times inhospitable climate, dwelt near the edge of an ocean which can seduce and swamp even the most experienced navigators. We know that in this School you have studied, engaged and even cherished profound and provocative theologians from many cultures, races and centuries. We know that you have already been tested and proven "road worthy" by more evaluations than you had ever hoped to survive! We ALL know that it takes trust to grow, change and indeed thrive in this challenging theological climate! And so, first of all, on behalf of the faculty, staff, trustees, and continuing students, I invite us to pause and honor THIS commencement class for the trustworthy risks that THEY have already taken!
And this, my friends this -- the eve of your commencement -- this is only the beginning. This is your jumping off place, your occasion to move forward held in the confident arms of a God who gives us a future as well as a past. What lies ahead? Historians (like myself) are not known to be reliable futurists. Still, allow this Doughty-Departing-Dean to hazard a sage guess. I pray and suspect that whatever it is that specifically lies ahed for each one of you, your voyage will be fraught with even more dangers and delights than you have already encountered at EDS. Could such a thing be true? Yes, indeed! And did I say dangers as well as delights? Yes, indeed I did! I do this confidently propelled forward by this evening's biblical, historical, and theological lessons.
Tonight's biblical passages contain hard and Good News: news about calling and sending, about pronouncements and promises, about liminal, shimmering threshold-crossing moments, moments when ordinary people like us glimpse the Holy in our midst. These are dangerous moments, moments when the divine reassurance is not a pious nicety. Divine reassurance is the absolute essential, the precondition, for the living of these days.
Here's a biblical lesson. In Luke's Gospel, the calling of the first disciples is not your basic second-career vocational shift! It is a frightening and an amazing tale that includes a revelation of the Holy, a confession of inadequacy, and, finally, acceptance of a decision to follow Jesus. Here's the summons: "Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch." (Luke 5:4) These followers are called into deeper waters, farther out, away from the shallows where they or we can indulge our caution; way, way out into the deep where the catch is not visible, where we may catch "God alone knows what," far out into that dangerous ocean where success might even break our nets and swamp our boats.1 Peter's fearful confession of inadequacy is poignantly apt. His instincts are sound. The implications of this biblical metaphor are that discipleship will draw us into deeper waters, dangerous oceans, places of unpredictable chaos far away from the well-known safety of the shore. Do any of you remember the hymn text that tells of:
Contented, peaceful fisherfolk,
before they ever knew
the peace of God that filled their hearts, brimful and broke them too.
Young John who trimmed the flapping sail, homeless, in Patmos died.
Peter, who hauled the teeming net, head down was crucified.
The peace of God, it is no peace, but strife close in the sod.
Yet let us pray for but one thing -- the marvelous peace of God.2
I repeat. Peter's instincts are indeed sound. Jesus's reassuring words, "Do not be afraid," will not tame the seas of discipleship. Yet these words of promise and reassurance are the very words with which we are left! These words are our legacy, our divinely-propelled invitation: "Put out into deep waters... Do no be afraid!" Jump off that rocky ledge of a seminary perched near the edge of the ocean; jump again into the vast delightful sea of God's creativity, the dangerous ocean of discipleship and of voyages known to God alone.
Now perhaps you are thinking that I am exaggerating about the dangers. Surely I must be exaggerating...at least about Episcopalians! Whether we are Anglicans or graduates and their friends from other faiths and religions, do we really believe that most Episcopalians go out of their way to find trouble? Is not the general street "Pap" on Anglicans that we dwell in tamer climes, culturally polite and assumedly established places, upheld by the primacy of generations of monochromatic Archbishops of Canterbury? Are not Anglicans those who believe that the middle way is the safest place to walk? Wait! Halt! There are several things seriously wrong here.
First of all, did I say that the middle of the road was the safest place to walk? Not in Boston, at least. And certainly not at EDS where we are challenged to live within a radically collaborative and broad "both/and" middle, where we are challenged to be antiracist and multicultural change-agents, challenged to live smack dab in the midst of God's people, challenged to give up whatever personal expectations we have of possessing the only right answer, challenged to stop hanging on to narrow corners of truth. Sisters and brothers, if you wish only to be safe, then flee the visible public road altogether, head for the side-ditch, the closeted place where you can hide. I contend that the middle passage is a place of great and humbling dangers. It is the place of discipleship, then as now. For Christians, the middle way is not about mediocrity, the middle way is about learning to stand with justice and integrity in the exposed public midst of church and society.3
Here's a second lesson from another of my favorite sponsors, church history. Tonight is the feast of Saint Augustine of Canterbury, the first "Archbishop of the English Nation." At the start of the seventh century, Augustine found himself overrun with diversity! Imagine that, an Archbishop of Canterbury overcome with DIVERSITY. Ah-GUS-tine wrote to the Pope, Gregory the Great, complaining that among these rowdy English: Easter was celebrated on the wrong date, women were heading abbeys of nuns and monks, and so-called Celtic "Christians" were venerating nature, worshiping trees and stones. Moreover, Augustine, a celibate monk, was scandalized by the Anglo-Saxons' "uncouth" sexual behavior. What did they do? Why these untamed Christians baptized expectant mothers, they permitted women to enter churches soon after childbirth, and they allowed women "polluted" by menstruation to receive Communion.4 Augustine's long list of unacceptable behaviors proves, then as now, that Archbishops of Canterbury are not pastoral giants when it comes to dealing with human sexuality. The good news is that Pope Gregory's advice to Augustine is surprisingly helpful: (he says) consider the pastoral context, mediate between local customs and imperial Roman guidelines, and choose to live amid diversity. This "Great" Pope advises Augustine that neither pregnancy, nor childbirth, nor even menstruation are polluting. Women are to be welcomed, he insists, the "fruitfulness of the flesh is no offence . . . [given] God's gift of Grace." God's grace is greater, much wider than even the first Archbishop of Canterbury had expected of (frankly) wished.
I wish church leaders of all faiths would study this historical lesson. When we shun God's expansively confident embrace, when we allow any group to be scapegoated in the name of Christ, we are all imperiled. This lesson was tragically enacted this spring in London when bombs inflamed by hatred maimed and killed in Brixton, the symbolic capital of London's black community, and then another bomb exploded in the East End, the heart of the Bangladeshi community, and then yet another explosive was set off in a gay pub in the middle of Soho, the most tolerant neighborhood in London. Jewish communities, public officials warned, might be future targets. In response, many doughty Londoners united and refused to be threatened off their public streets.5 They have vowed to walk the dangerous broad highway, to seek God in the midst of a valued and shared diversity, there "in the chaos, where God calls forth new and abundant life."
I have yet one final lesson to share, a distinctly theological one. There is a profound cluelessness to most contemporary stories of discipleship, of call and response. The theological error I wish to name is that many contemporary Christians believe self-confidence is our number one vocational ally. I am certainly in favor of self-esteem and of the hard work of continuing recovery from internalized oppression. You bet! Yet I think we in the post-modern world suffer from TDD, theological deficit disease. We believe in a "Too Small God." An auxiliary "God of the gaps" who merely fills in those places where we, and especially where others, are lacking. The main story line in this sermon, and throughout all theological journeys, is the proclamation of God's large, expansive confidence. Not our efforts alone, but God's confidence. As my deanly successor, Joanna Dewey, once proclaimed with her typical directness:
"This is God's business,
God's department. You are not God.
Take comfort in this good news. It is God who gives the growth."
Listen to Melannie Svoboda's ongoing conversation with God:
Sometimes I say to God:
"You know what's wrong with you?"
And God asks, "What?"
And I begin to enumerate. "You love too indiscriminately.
You trust people way too much. You're far too forgiving. And
you're entirely too patient!"
Having said that, I invite God to tell me what's wrong
with me. But all I hear God say is, "You know, Honey, I really
get a kick out of you!"6
Sisters and brothers, it is God who gives us a future. This is the God of deep waters, the God who, then as now, calls and sends. This is the God of grace and glory who grants us courage for the living of these days. This is the God of all hopefulness, the God of all joy. And this God continues to get a kick out of each one of us! Amen
2. "They Cast their nets in Galilee," #661, The Hymnal 1982.
3. Here again I am quoting and drawing upon Portaro, Brightest and Best, p. 93.
4. On Augustine and Gregory correspondence see Clarissa W. Atkinson, The Oldest Vocation: Christian Motherhood in the Middle Ages (Cornell University Press, 1991), pp. 78-79.
5. See Kevin Cullen, "Spate of bombings has Londoners on edge" The Boston Sunday Globe, May 2, 1999, A3; and Alan Cowell, "Bomb Kills 2 in Gay London Bar; Extremists Tied to Three Attacks," The New York Times, May 1, 1999, A1 and A3.
6. Melannie Svoboda, Everyday Epiphanies (Twenty-Third Publications, 1998), as cited in a sermon by Robert J. Appleyard, Jr., preached at Saint Barnabas Parish, May 2, 1999.
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