We’re gathered today at the beginning of our annual three-day October board meeting, and I begin with the less than shocking observation that in our time together here a great deal will be at stake. At last year’s fall meeting we celebrated the school’s fortieth anniversary. Yet even though the community was undergoing a good deal of trauma at the time, not one public mention of that fact was made over the course of the three days. As a brand new board member, it felt a bit crazy to me at the time.
A year later, almost everything has changed. We have a new cast of leadership characters. The on-campus community has gone through a process of reconciliation and renewal. The board both in self-study and retreat has come to terms with its own performance, and we are perched now on the possibility of a new era in what we might call collaborative functionality. Though each constituency maintains its own unique roles and responsibilities, I believe we have set the stage for taking account of the past and charting a visionary course for the school’s future.
I have had a lot of jobs in my career—parish priest, cathedral and seminary dean, school chaplain and administrator. The one I think most about these days as I approach retirement is the one I was probably best suited for: college and high school English teacher. Over the course of my teaching life I taught mostly American literature, but because English teachers of my generation were expected to be polymaths, I also worked up a good deal of Shakespeare. In the last few years I have returned to Shakespeare as a kind of touchstone. Working in Washington has been a bit like inhabiting a Shakespeare history play: everything there is about power and what people will do both to obtain and keep it. And when reflecting on the larger issues of life—suffering, redemption, forgiveness, hope—I find that Shakespeare’s late plays give a fuller expression than do abstract theology or—dare I say it—our liturgy itself.
Shakespeare’s late plays are pretty much about the horrible things people do to each other. Husbands betray their wives. Brothers sell out their brothers. In plays like The Winter’s Tale or The Tempest, evil is not a cosmic abstraction. It is a lived, human reality. There are no witches or ghosts in these plays. The action springs from simple human malevolence. And yet watching or reading them is a great, ennobling experience. Because as they unfold, a process takes place that allows for real complaint, real repentance, real forgiveness, and finally real reconciliation to be accomplished. At the end of Shakespeare’s late plays, the stage is set for a new community, one based in W.H. Auden’s great phrase, on “trust instead of threats”.
Shakespeare comes to mind this morning not only because of our own community need for mutual complaint, repentance, forgiveness, and reconciliation but also because of our Gospel reading for today. When Jesus says
From now on, five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided: father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.’ [Luke 12:52-53]
he is not making an esoteric prediction. He is describing the functional dynamics of human life.
In the church we can become so Romantic about community that we forget the hard work that living and working with other people actually entails. Because of our innate tendency to put our own needs, wants, and aspirations ahead of others, all human communities (from the family to the classroom to the workplace to society itself) need to find ways to manage the inevitable conflict that ensues from just bumping up against one another. And that’s true just about ordinary communities. When you take a place like EDS (or the church at large) which has a high ideological expression of its own values, the stage is set for us to club each other to death using the weapon of our great, liberal commitments. There’s nothing like being assaulted in the name of virtue. As Bob Dylan says, “it happens every day”.
It’s at this point, I think that God calls us back to the values that were there before our values. In the sixth chapter of his letter to the Romans [Romans 6:19-23], Paul argues that his emphasis on grace is not an excuse to go ahead and sin. It all depends, says Paul, on what you give yourself over to. You can serve iniquity or you can serve righteousness. Again, to quote Bob Dylan, “You’ve got to serve somebody.” Paul’s point is that now we are freed from sin and bound to God we are becoming sanctified, literally holy. That doesn’t mean that every thought or impulse we have is pure. But it does mean that we are part of something bigger and deeper and more inclusive than simply our personal wills or egos.
Many of you will know Shakespeare’s King Lear, an almost unrelieved tragedy which sees two families—those of Lear and Gloucester—turn against themselves. A father banishes a daughter. Sisters vie for power. A son turns against a father. At the end of the play, the stage is littered with the bodies of heroes and villains. And then one character steps forth and says this:
The weight of this sad time we must obey; Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say. [King Lear 5.3]
I don’t normally think of Shakespeare as a guy who went through a lot of group process. Nevertheless, he understood the dynamics of human relationships. Without being Romantic about this or any other community, I would suggest that EDS and what it stands for are worth speaking the truth to each other about. My truth will not always align with your truth, but if we speak them to and with each other, we might just find ourselves making a new truth—one built on trust, instead of threats.
No human community will ever be free of conflict. In this as in any other society, we will all need to find ways to stand both for ourselves and with each other. In Paul’s words, “the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” We can hang back and nurture our mutual resentments, or we can come together, hear each other’s truth, and work in community to build a new truth that does justice to all our partial perspectives. I hope in these three days we will find ways to be both frank and charitable with each other. What we’re up to is too important for either defensiveness or self-dramatization. This work will no doubt be hard, but it will also be joyful and liberating as we open ourselves to it. And the best place to start that work is here and now, as we gather around Jesus’s table to give thanks. Amen.