Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Sermon: Theological Education Sunday

Text of a sermon given Sunday, Feb. 6, 2011 at St. Mark's Episcopal Church in Dalton, Ga. I was invited to preach by St. Mark's interim rector, Fr. Reed Freeman, who along with his wife Nancy, established the Freeman Award for Merit at the School of Theology at Sewanee, which I was awarded this past fall.

Today, if you didn’t know it already, is Theological Education Sunday. In 1997, the General Convention of the Episcopal Church established the first Sunday in February as a day to encourage parishes to give at least a small portion of their budgets to supporting theological education. I stand before you as Exhibit A: a real, live seminarian!

Since your rector has informed me that you currently have a member in the discernment process about to head off to seminary next year, I assume that at least some of you know well about the process of forming new clergy. You know about discernment. You know about sending folks to seminary. But some parishes don’t. If your parish hasn’t supported a seminarian a while, or if you don’t live in a town near a seminary, you’re likely never to come across this strange breed of person: the seminarian. And you’re likely to get the impression that priests sort of fall from the sky, manna-like, a perfectly-formed creation of God in heaven.

So that’s why they trot us out once a year to talk, real person to real person, with the people in the pews – or as my husband affectionately refers to himself and other laity, the “pewsters.”

So. Hello, pewsters. I’m Tracy, the seminarian. I’d like to talk with you this morning about how I found my way to seminary and about why I think theological education is so important for the future of the church.

I never expected to become an Episcopal priest. I was raised in the Lutheran Church, but I saw much of what happened there as empty ritual. After a “conversion experience” at a Baptist youth rally in late high school, I left the Lutherans for non-denominational evangelical churches, drawn in by people who seemed really passionate about what they believed. I soon found that some of my views on women’s leadership and on God’s presence in religions other than Christianity were not welcome there, and I eventually found my way to an Episcopal Church while pursuing a graduate degree in world religions and interfaith dialogue in the Boston area. At the time, I’d assumed I’d become a religion reporter for a newspaper or a documentary filmmaker – I wanted to help educate the public about religions. Little did I know, God had other plans.

Ever since my high school “conversion experience,” I had been struck by the many calls to care for the poor that I found in Scripture. Passages like the one we read from Isaiah 58 this morning began to haunt me. “Is not this the fast that I choose:
 to loose the bonds of injustice... to share your bread with the hungry,
 and bring the homeless poor into your house?” Or Micah 6:8, which we heard in the lectionary last Sunday: “What does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?” Or John 21:17: “If you love me, feed my sheep.” Or Matthew 25:40: “Whatever you did to the least of these, you did it to me.” Passages like these rang in my head as I walked, eyes down, past the many homeless people on the streets of Cambridge, as I rushed to class or to the store.

After being tormented by this Scriptural soundtrack in my head for over a year, I finally responded to the proddings – or shall we say HARASSMENT – of the Spirit. I began to volunteer with an outdoor church in Cambridge for people who either would not or could not enter traditional churches. Most of our parishioners were people who lived on the streets.

The first time I attended the Outdoor Church, I bit back tears as I stood with several homeless people and two ministers in the middle of a public park, gathered in a circle around the rickety metal push-cart that held the simple altar linen and wooden cross, while the minister stretched out his hands and recited these words as part of the Eucharistic prayer: “Out of your desire to draw us into your infinite love, 
Jesus was born into the human family 
and remained with people who were outcast.” As the priest at my parish in the Boston area had said of this gathering, “It really felt like CHURCH.”

At that moment, I knew I was where God had been calling me to be for some time. For the next year and a half, I tredged several miles down to Harvard Square, rain or shine – or snow! – and worshipped with the Outdoor Church in Cambridge Common. We would then journey through the streets of Cambridge on foot, offering lunch and Communion to anyone who looked like they might need it.

After doing some writing about my experience with the Outdoor Church, some of my mentors began to suggest that I might have a call to ordained ministry. Several years of discernment and several geographical moves later, I found myself in seminary at Sewanee.

In seminary, I got a chance to examine more closely many of those Scriptural passages that led me to my involvement with the Outdoor Church, and sparked my call to ordained ministry. I learned, for instance, that the author of Matthew’s gospel is not actually referring to the poor and outcast when he says, “Whatever you did to the least of these, you did it to me.” Instead, this is a sectarian statement that claims that people will be sent into “paradise” or “everlasting torment” at the end of time based on how they have treated Christians – and in particular, Matthew’s community and how THEY thought people should be Christian, which was to continue to follow Jewish practices like the Sabbath and keeping the ritual food laws -- as we heard in this morning's reading from Matthew -- "I have not come to abolish the law but to fulfill it." The Greek phrase translated as “the least of these” in the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible is actually probably more accurately rendered “these little ones,” and is a phrase used to refer to Jesus’s disciples in the Gospel of Mathew.

I also learned that some of the wonderful injunctions to care for the poor in the Old Testament, like this morning’s reading from Isaiah 58, were couched within what I found to be a rather problematic theology. After learning the historical context in which Isaiah 58 was written, I realized that the message of this passage is not just that God prefers ethical and just behavior to going through the motions of empty ritual – that I could get on board with – but that the destruction of Jerusalem and Israel’s defeat by the Babylonian Empire was actually God’s PUNISHMENT on the Israelites for not living in such a manner. If we were to translate this into our own day, it would be something like, “Care for the poor, or I’ll send another country to destroy the United States in a massive war. Thus says the Lord.”

Now, recovering the ancient meaning of the text doesn’t mean we have to stop there in terms of our own understanding of and relationship with the text. The task of biblical studies is determining what the text meant in its own day; the task of theology is determining what it means for us today.

Do we believe, as the ancient Israelites did, that God punishes nations for their behavior by wreaking national disasters and military conquest upon them? Some Christians do. You may remember that shortly after 9/11, Jerry Falwell said that gays and lesbians and feminists “helped this happen” by making God angry at America. Or that Pat Robertson claimed that the earthquake in Haiti last January was God’s punishment on that country for making a pact with the devil. Most Episcopalians I know were horrified by these statements, but they’re actually not too far off from the way the ancient Israelites would have understood and interpreted God’s agency in the world.

Or do we believe that God will judge the people of the world at the end of time based on how they have treated us? Not whether the most vulnerable among us have been cared for, or even whether they are Christians or not, but whether they have given Christians special treatment?

If we don’t want to affirm this kind of theology and what it says about God’s nature, what does that mean for the way we read Scripture? Is there a way to affirm the call to ethical and just societies that Isaiah 58 presents without believing that God will send terrorist attacks and earthquakes upon us if we mess up? Can we continue to read Matthew 25 as a calling to care for the poor, even though that wasn’t what the author of that text meant to say?

These are the questions we wrestle with in seminary, and they are of ultimate concern for the future of the church. How we read Scripture matters. How our clergy read Scripture matters. The consequences of misuse of sacred texts can be immense, as any cursory glance at Christian history will show: slavery, the Crusades, the Inquisition, you know the story. It’s not something most of us are proud of. But it’s a very real part of our tradition and history as Christians, and I believe it’s crucial that our future clergy are educated in such a way that we become self-aware enough not to repeat it.

And although studying Scripture critically can uncover some unsettling things about how the church has moved away from the original meaning of some of the texts, in some ways it can actually be liberating or helpful to us in our ministry. For example, had I known what I know now about Matthew 25, I would have had an answer for the homeless man in Cambridge who had seen this verse posted on the outside of a shelter where he’d stayed and asked me, “What does that mean, the LEAST of these?” His tone of voice made it clear that he wasn’t at all flattered at being considered “least” of anything, and that if such a mindset were motivating the people who ran the shelter, it came across to him as derogatory and patronizing.

And this is why theological education is so important. Our understanding of and interpretation of Scripture has a direct, personal effect on the people with whom we serve and minister. We need our priests to be educated and intelligent interpreters of Scripture. But seminary is much more than biblical studies and theology – we also study church history, liturgy, ethics, and get practical experience through field education placements at nearby parishes, with opportunities to reflect on our experiences with our peers.

When you financially support theological education, you’re not just helping one man or woman and their family pay to go to seminary. You’re supporting the future of our church and the impact it will have on the wider world. You’re supporting all those folks on the street who are wondering if God considers them “less than” people with more money when they see Matthew 25 posted on the walls of their shelter.

Now, “Theological Education Sunday” was established to promote financial support of those studying for ordained ministry. But I personally believe that “theological education” shouldn’t be just about clergy. One of the reasons I’m proud to be at Sewanee is that it is the home of the Education for Ministry program, better known as EfM, which seeks to educate all Christians in the basics of the faith – biblical studies, church history, and theology – in a four-year program offered in parishes across the country. EfM believes that all Christians – that means all of you! – are ordained to ministry by virtue of their baptism. Although it’s certainly important to support seminary education for clergy, I’d also like to encourage us on Theological Education Sunday to think about how we are educating the laity in their faith. How are we giving them opportunities to discern THEIR callings, to live our THEIR ministries? EfM is a wonderful program, but it requires a “tuition” fee of several hundred dollars as well. How do we make quality Christian formation and theological education accessible to every member of the church?

But let’s get back to Isaiah. What does all this high-falutin’ talk about seminary education have to do with Isaiah’s message of bringing justice to the poor? Wouldn’t our money be better spent helping a homeless person get an apartment than supporting some already-privileged person to go off and sit in the luxury of a university setting for three years getting a graduate-level degree?

Maybe it doesn’t have to be an “either/or” scenario. The best of our seminaries are about training people how to respond to Isaiah’s call for justice for the poor. I’m currently taking a class at Sewanee that involves traveling to Chattanooga once a week to visit various urban ministries and outreach programs and to learn very practical lessons about effective ways to organize people in responding to God’s call for justice for the poor. Supporting theological education is supporting the poor, in that it provides educated and adept clergy who will be able to answer that call to justice and motivate others to do the same.

And if it didn’t cost anything to go to seminary, maybe some of those “homeless poor” who feel a call to ministry could be my classmates.

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