A sermon on the texts Romans 13:8-14 and Matthew 18:15-20
at the opening Eucharist and first worship experience in the partially renovated chapel
by President Michael Cooper-White
Welcome, those of you who for the first time find yourselves in this holy space as a Gettysburg seminarian! Welcome back, welcome home to those returning from far flung places where a summer season has been spent growing, groaning, perhaps grinding your teeth a bit (that’s a special nod to those who are back from CPE)! Life has changed dramatically for some of you over the summer months as you were married or experienced other joyous occasions. For others there was deep sadness as beloved family members or those you had come to love on internship died, or as you experienced other low moments.
Isn’t it grand to sit in those pristine-like-new pews that were scratched, marred and looking a bit tired when many of you last sat in them in springtime? Isn’t it amazing to walk in and behold a new floor that brings alive our singing in ways we could not imagine with that old faded worn carpet beneath our feet? During the weeks of summer 2011, this grand old house of worship has indeed undergone a facelift that makes her/him/it look decades younger than the aging sanctuary we closed the door on in springtime following Commencement and our final communion service.
As I watched this process of Chapel renovation unfold over these past weeks of summer, it occurred to me that in what has transpired since June there may be a parable with something to teach us about the nature of theological education and Christian formation. And in this building’s still-unfolding chapter of renewal and retrofitting, there may also be strong connections to what I think the authors of today’s Scripture lessons were attempting to convey.
The outer surface story is quite transparent, as we can readily observe. Some new paint applied by careful painters, new flooring installed by skilled workers, pews removed and returned in a thousand pieces, then reassembled by a crew who worked until the midnight hours last week to finish the job on schedule: all that labor, and considerable money, gave our Church of the Abiding Presence a facelift second only perhaps to the one performed 30 years ago when this grand Andover organ replaced the high altar which was the focal point for the prior four decades.
But as is so often the case, that which we can see—the Seminary Chapel’s cosmetic facelift—is the lesser story in what occurred between early June and late August here on Seminary Ridge in the holy, sacred space that for 18 decades has been home to the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg. The more transformative work, of more lasting significance than spiffing up tired worn 70-year-old pews and replacing a carpeted floor with this beautiful wooden platform for our worship, has been that going on beneath the surface.
Here to the north of the building two dozen wells have been bored some 400 or more feet into the earth. Now rather than draw the bulk of our heating and cooling from fossil fuels, we will draw our primary source of energy from God’s good earth itself. In so doing, we reduce our carbon footprint as well as energy costs. And we trust, our work in this regard is also deeply pedagogical—that is, it will teach about stewardship in an incarnational way to reinforce all we attempt to teach in the classroom about a Christian’s duty and delight in lovingly caring for God’s good and marvelous creation.
And there’s another story hidden in the chapel’s Phase I renovation that is perhaps the most remarkable of all. As the workers removed earth and rock from the undercroft area right here below this chancel, they were surprised to discover that the weight-bearing pillars that hold the building’s superstructure had eroded to a startling degree over the decades. Had this work not occurred at this juncture, one can only imagine what might have transpired as one by one those pillars of the church lost their capacity to hold up the enormous weight that rested upon their shoulders. Now in their place stand new steel I-beams that surely will bear their burdens for decades if not centuries into the future.
So again, I suggest that in what has occurred here inside and around the Church of the Abiding Presence during this brief summer season lies a parable with application to the process of theological education and Christian leadership formation.
The face-lifting aspects which occur for us during the course of a seminary sojourn are not unimportant, to be sure. “Looking good” is not something a leader in the church ought to dismiss or take lightly. By “looking good” I do not refer primarily to the outer image one presents by the proper wardrobe or right combination of cosmetics. Few of us were given faces and physiques that will land us on the covers of the latest fashion or fitness magazines. But as an ambassador of Christ, indeed as one who in the words of St. Paul has “put on Christ,” the way a church leader makes an appearance is indeed significant.
In my humble opinion, the Church has too many among its leaders in our time who appear to find life a burden, whose frowns outnumber their smiles by a stunning ratio. So too is the primary affect of many of our peers and colleagues one of anxiety and timidity, rather than a demeanor which exudes quiet confidence in the eternal promises of God. This anxiety manifests itself in the angry outbursts by spoken word or poisoned pen whereby the Church’s ordained, consecrated and commissioned leaders often appear no better than the frenzied polarized politicians who ran around Washington in July like chickens with their heads cut off while the nation’s government teetered on the brink of putting out a sign, “Closed Until Further Notice.”
Ah, yes, indeed outward appearances matter on the part of those called to public ministry, just as does the public face of a congregation or seminary which is seen especially in the quality and condition of its house of worship. As you students progress in the course of your theological education, you will notice the face-lifting changes that come upon you. And others, especially those “back home,” wherever that may be for you, will note the changes. You will become more comfortable leading worship, preaching sermons, making hospital and home visits, and performing all those other highly visible public acts that constitute rostered ministry in the Church. At some point along the way, many of you will be surprised and perhaps even a bit shocked to pass by a mirror and see someone with a clerical collar staring back at you!
But far more important than the cosmetic outer upgrades that come by way of a seminary education is what goes on far beneath the surface. That is why the faculty insists on a rigorous curriculum appropriate for a graduate school; this is not a glorified and expensive Sunday school. It is only as you drill deep down into the Scriptures, using all the tools provided by centuries of biblical scholarship, that you will get to the life-giving waters that will warm you and your people amidst the coldest winters, and provide cool refreshing breezes when things get really hot and life becomes insufferable. It is only as you drill down—into the sometimes nearly impenetrable depths of church history, and systematic theology and all the other disciplines—that you will discover the sustaining resources that will get you through two or three or four or more decades of ministry.
And it is only when you recognize that some of those ideas and beliefs you have considered to be your indestructible pillars have become eroded and no longer suffice to uphold your faith and that of others, that you will have the courage to make some fundamental foundational changes. If you come with pillars of thick piety and the attitude that good Christians just need to be nice people and everything will turn out all right; if you come with that kind of theology of glory as Luther called it, you must be prepared to let it be chipped and hammered away (deconstructed) so that an enduring theology of the cross may be constructed in its place. In these kinds of times in which we live, a theology of glory will crumble about three weeks into your first call when someone dies young, or when a woman with more pain than you imagined possible in a human face comes to pour out her story of domestic violence and child abuse on the part of her husband.
If I read today’s Scriptures accurately and adequately, it was this very dialectic—this tension—that was being addressed by our forebears in the faith who address us in the book of Romans and today’s gospel from St. Matthew. Each in his own way was exhorting his hearers and readers to drill down deeply, to burrow down beneath the surface; and to be willing to embrace fundamental changes in the very foundations of our lives and worldviews.
St. Paul writes in Romans: “Owe no one anything.” I don’t think he was talking about seminarian debt loads and paying your student loans as soon as possible, though if he knew back then what I know today I am quite confident good old Paul probably would address that specifically. Owe no one anything. Don’t ingratiate yourself with certain people you perceive as powerful; quite often the prophetic calling of ministry is a call to speak truth to power, and powerful people tend to get angry and retaliate against those who raise hard questions. Owe no one anything. Don’t get yourself all in a twit worrying about whether or not your preaching, teaching or prophetic leading in work for justice will offend a few. If you never offend, you’re probably not doing anything truly transformative.
Owe no one anything—except to love one another. Good advice. We can and do practice it in this place. In his Interpreter’s Bible reflections on this text from Romans, N.T. Wright comments on the nature of authentic Christian love. It is not, he states unequivocally, a matter of syrupy piety or good feelings that flow from the emotions as when one “falls in love” with a gushing of romance. Rather, “The love of which Paul speaks is tough,” says Wright; “not simply in the sense of ‘tough love’ as applied to the difficult task of bringing up children . . . but in the sense that, since it does not spring from the emotions but from the will, love will grit its teeth and act as if the emotions were in place, trusting that they will follow in good time. If we reduce ethics to emotions, we lose not only consistency of behavior but also the very possibility of moral discourse.” Quite an image is it not?: the kind of love where I sometimes must grit my teeth to love you! The kind of love in which, following Jesus mandate in Matthew 18, rather than complain to my friends about your outrageous behavior I go to you, sit down and hash it out. That kind of love requires a rare form of courage—the kind Paul Tillich described as “the courage to be.”
Over the course of the past few weeks, I have been in search of a way to encapsulate the messages that I hear in these Scripture lessons for this opening Eucharistic service of our 186th academic year. It finally came to me just a week ago as colleagues from our Eastern Cluster and I met with senior officials of the Lilly Endowment out in Indianapolis. For those unfamiliar with this marvelous organization, echoing an old familiar favorite hymn, the Lilly Endowment has often been called “the Church’s one foundation!” Lilly has funded so many worthy efforts over the years, including recently our Theological Education with Youth program and the Eastern Cluster’s Project Connect, that many of you have named as influential in helping you discern your call to public ministry. Lilly’s Vice President for Religion, Dr. Craig Dykstra, offered as an overarching paradigm to summarize what the endowment seeks to foster and support: “Communities of competent practice—of a way of life.”
It seems to me that is what St. Paul and St. Matthew exhort us to embody in our life together, most especially as a community of those called to be among those leading the Church of Jesus Christ in the 21st century. A community—not just of practice, but of competent practice—of the Christian way of life. God knows, there are lots of incompetent faith-practitioners who go bumbling about distorting religion for their own personal and political partisan agendas. The coming weekend’s many ten-year observances of the atrocities of “9-11” are a stark reminder of religion gone awry. So too is much of the harsh apocalyptic rhetoric that has already invaded the early stages of the presidential primary campaign. Beware those especially who have ready, easy “Christian” answers to complex issues in today’s pluralistic and profoundly interfaith global context! Ah yes, indeed, there are enough of those theologians of glory, who as Luther said, call the good bad and the bad good. Over against them we are called to be the theologians of the cross, who call things as they really are—and then do something about the bad and evil things.
So again, whether this is your first or fourth or fortieth (believe it or not there are a few of us old-timers at that juncture!) opening Eucharistic celebration, welcome! Welcome home to this place where you can and will find your face lifted, your outer abilities to engage in public ministry enhanced day by day and year after year. Even more important than the frequent facelifts you experience will be the more foundational changes that come about hidden from public view as we “put on the Lord Jesus Christ” to become ever-more and always a community of competent practice of the Christian way of life.