It is a great pleasure to be with you today and it is a great honor to serve, for a while, as the chair of the EDS board of trustees. Over the past several months I have been working closely with our President and Dean, Frank Fornaro, and I have come to learn what everybody here already knew about him: that he is the perfect person to lead EDS in this moment, possessed of great leadership ability, theological depth, and a compassionate heart. I know that when Frank and I are finished with our work together, EDS will have thrived under his visionary and caring stewardship, and I thank him for the invitation to be with you today.
It is hard for me to believe that, on a September evening 42 years ago, I signed the matriculation book here in St. John’s Chapel as a member of the last class to enroll at the Episcopal Theological School. This was in the fall of 1973, and though we had heard that a merger with PDS might be coming, nobody then knew what the new school would feel like as a lived reality. And as a first-year student who had come all the way to Cambridge from California, I had even less sense of what seminary would have in store for me. As it turned out, the external peace and justice movement cataclysm I had been part of at U.C. Berkeley was nothing compared to the internal transformation that seminary would hold for me, my classmates, and our spouses and partners. But that’s another story.
So enough about me. Today is about the EDS community and those who today are joining it. I’d like to say a general word about EDS and a particular word to those who are matriculating.
It is no secret that the Episcopal Divinity School has been through a rough patch. I don’t mean a rough patch just recently. I mean for its entire existence. This school was born in the struggles of the movement for women’s ordination. Nine years before the merger, ETS Jonathan Daniels had been killed in Alabama. The Cambridge school had its origins in the quest to teach the higher criticism of the Bible and explore the implications of the rise of science in the 19th century free of ecclesiastical interference. And after the merger, things hardly cooled down. There was the establishment of a Feminist Liberation Theology program in the 1980s, the open acceptance of LGBT students in the 1990s, and (this one may only seem like a controversy to us academic nerds, but believe me it’s contentious when you go to ATS meetings) the extension of seminary education through distance learning early in this century. In its 40 years of existence, the Episcopal Divinity School has been ahead of the church and academy on almost every issue. And it is no wonder that those of us who serve the church and have graduated from this school are often viewed with some suspicion. EDS has staked out a prophetic role in the life of the church and the world. It’s no wonder that we are often seen as more of a problem than a resource. If I meet one more bishop who says, “I’m really glad that EDS exists; I just don’t want any clergy in my diocese who have gone there,” I don’t know what I’ll do.
So here’s the problem. We feel called to be bold and prophetic, and then we’re surprised when the establishment sees us as troublemakers. I’m reminded of what the philosopher Jonathan Lear says about the character Cordelia in Shakespeare’s King Lear. You may remember that Cordelia is the one daughter in the play who refuses to tell her father what he wants to hear and is banished as a result. Here’s what Jonathan Lear says about her:
To identify with Cordelia is to want to be blunt, to avoid embellishment, flattery, or hypocrisy-and to want to be loved for doing just that. This is not a set of desires which get satisfied often. By and large, people prefer to be flattered. They find it hard to recognize love in a blunt appraisal; and they find it even harder to reciprocate such love. Cordelia's strategy is not the route to massive popularity. -- Jonathan Lear, Open Minded: Working Out the Logic of the Soul, p. 3
In other words: we want to tell the truth, and we want to be loved for doing it—not, in Lear’s words, “a set of desires which get satisfied often”. We shouldn’t be surprised that when a community like EDS experiences some internal tensions as this one has, many on the outside will be quick to dance on our grave. And that is why it is important, in moments like this, to remember what we came out to do in the first place. As an educational faith community shaped by the Gospel, EDS will always be one or two steps ahead of the conventional wisdom of institutional Christianity. This has consistently been the school’s vocation, and if we are to be true to our calling we will ever risk being unpopular and misunderstood. That perception simply goes with the territory. But it cannot be otherwise.
I have always found these words from the 11th chapter of Hebrews both personally and corporately inspiring:
All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them. They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them. [Hebrews 11: 13-16]
The author of Hebrews is talking about a certain kind of holy restlessness which motivated the matriarchs and patriarchs of Israel. They knew themselves to be “strangers and foreigners on the earth”, people who desired a better country. And because they were faithful in their search for that homeland, God has “prepared a city for them”.
You could say that EDS is a community of faithful learners who desire a better country. You could say that we are strangers and foreigners not only on the earth but in the church. And you could also say that, to the extent that we are faithful in our perseverance in seeking that homeland, God has prepared a city for us. We often talk about working for peace and justice as if it is the bitter pill of faithfulness. But anyone who has done justice work knows that the work itself is liberating. If EDS sees its reward as enduring all this justice work so that we will be popular across the Episcopal Church, we will miss the point. If we see our justice work as allowing us already to inhabit the city that God has built for us, then we will be standing now together in our true homeland.
And these thoughts about our corporate pilgrimage lead me to say a word to those who today embark on this more personal sacred journey of theological education. You wouldn’t be here if you hadn’t experienced yourself as a stranger and foreigner in the place you came from. You wouldn’t be here if you weren’t seeking a homeland. You wouldn’t be here if you didn’t want a better country for yourself, your household, your nation, your world. You have seen and greeted the promises from afar. You have come here to figure out how further to step into the pathway and pursue them.
Theological education is a wonderful, bracing, invigorating experience. It is also really hard. It is hard for a couple of reasons. First, you’re trying to take in four new disciplines from a dead stop. In my first year of seminary, I soon realized that I didn’t have enough Bible to understand theology. I didn’t have enough theology to understand the Bible. I didn’t have enough history to understand either. Ethics was a total mystery. And who had time for pastoral care?
The point is: you are embarking on a process which is inherently destabilizing. And that leads to the second reason that seminary can be hard. Not only are you trying to wrap your head around an interlocking series of intellectual challenges; you’re doing this in the context of trying on a whole new set of cultural and vocational attitudes. You might have a spouse or a partner who didn’t think that this was the life they signed on for. You’re going into hospital rooms and people are looking to you to have something healing to say. And then there will be those ridiculous GOEs. This is hard work. It’s hard intellectual work. It’s hard spiritual work. It’s hard interpersonal work. I don’t say this to scare you off. I say it because as a former seminary professor and dean myself, I know something of the internal dislocation that this experience can cause.
And I say it not only because I know that you, as seekers after a better country, will persevere through that dislocation. I say it because—and this is the experience of everyone who goes through theological education—it actually gets better. There will come a day, not all that far off, when you will begin to integrate all this. There will come a day when Bible and history and theology will come together and inform the way you understand both God and yourself. There will come a day when your internal sense of your own vocation will align with your personal and interpersonal relationships. There will come a day when the process not only helps you prepare for a life in ministry but gives you the intellectual and personal skills to reflect on your life, your ministry, and the contextual situation in which you find yourself. There will come a day when you will realize that theological education is not about downloading all the right answers and perfect things to say. It is about getting the skills and tools to access and live out the deep truths that you uniquely know and can tell about God.
People who graduate from seminary remember it so fondly because so much happens to them there. So think of signing this matriculation book as signing your passport to adventure. Both you and the school itself are embarking today on a pilgrimage together toward that better country, that city which God is preparing for us. What you discover when you’re on it is that we encounter the heavenly city in the steps of the pilgrimage itself. And that is why the speakers of Psalm 126 have always had it right:
1 When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, *
then were we like those who dream.
2 Then was our mouth filled with laughter, *
and our tongue with shouts of joy.
3 Then they said among the nations, *
“The Lord has done great things for them.”
4 The Lord has done great things for us, *
and we are glad indeed.
Translation: God is already doing for us now that which we hope for. As we walk together on this sacred pilgrimage toward God’s heavenly city, we endure both personal and corporate disruption. It cannot be otherwise. But we do not experience that dislocation for its own sake: we endure it for the sake of the vision of personal peace and social justice and shalom that Jesus holds out to those who cannot do other than walk with him.
And so, to the EDS community at large and to those who now join it today, not I say, but Jesus says: “Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? . . . But strive first for the kingdom of God and God’s righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” [Matthew 6: 25-34] It really will be OK for you. It really will be OK for us. So let’s take up that passport to adventure. Let’s get on that road and walk together with Jesus and each other--with the poor, the oppressed, the sick, the grieving, the homeless—let’s walk toward that better, heavenly country and help God build it, all the while advancing the work of peace, justice, and liberation among ourselves and in the world. Amen.