OUR STUDENTS, OUR TREASURE

A Message from Acting President Therese DeLisio
September 26, 2017

A small brown wooden case with hinged top, leather straps, brass corners, and a leather carrying handle sits on an end table in my office. It looks like an old miniature piece of luggage, but the trim also makes it look like a treasure chest. Whether imagined as equipment for an adventurous journey or as a repository for precious things—or both—this box has symbolic significance for us at Bexley Seabury seminary.

While the case has been ceremonially opened only twice, it is already a part of our tradition in welcoming new students. The case holds treasure that every new student can carry with them as they journey through their seminary years. They discover during our matriculation ceremony that they have embarked on a spiritual and vocational path trod by thousands of women and men who have come before them, and who now walk beside them in Spirit, cheering them on. 

Signing a matriculation book when students begin their studies is a ceremony that some colleges, universities, and seminaries practice. This ritual had been performed at our antecedent seminaries, Seabury-Western and Bexley Hall, but the custom had gotten lost for a while. Last year, when all of the Bexley Seabury Seminary Federation’s programs were consolidated at our new campus in Chicago’s Hyde Park-Woodlawn neighborhood, the matriculation books of Seabury-Western and Bexley Hall re-emerged in the course of the move. Our institution was also emerging from being spoken of as “the Federation” to the shorthand name we use now: “Bexley Seabury seminary” — “not Bexley, not Seabury, but Bexley Seabury,” as our recently retired President Roger Ferlo has emphasized.

A year ago, as we planned orientation for our new non-residential students, we wondered how we might resurrect the matriculation ritual. We had no “Federation” matriculation book. So, which book would we use? We could start a new book, we supposed, but what of the rich legacy recorded in those old books? How might these books play a part in helping students to claim their historical inheritance as members of the community of scholars that had gone before them? How might we also mark this inaugural moment of their entering into the new seminary community that we were about to create together?

We needed a way to ritualize the joining of the past to the present. We decided to start a new book for this new-but-old seminary. Now, though, we would have three books to handle. Symbolically, we could have tied a ribbon around the old and new matriculation books at the end of a matriculation ceremony, but that image did not speak to us. The books would still look separate. Instead, after some hunting, we found just the right case to contain them all in one space, a container that looked like both a suitcase and a treasure chest. What a perfect juxtaposition of meaning!

During orientation last September 2016, our first at our new Chicago campus, our 11 new students signed their names in the new book. At the conclusion of the signing ritual, we placed the Seabury-Western and the Bexley Hall matriculation books inside the case. Then I placed the newly signed Bexley Seabury book on top of those books, closed the case, and placed it my office where it would be in full view of all who entered. When people would ask about it, I would say, “That is our treasure chest that carries the names of all of our students, past and present.”

Orientation for the 2017-2018 Academic year took place on August 31st, following a two-day formation retreat for all MDiv students, returning and new. Seminary faculty, staff, and new students got to know a bit about each other through story-telling about the history of the seminary, sharing information about our current curricula and academic culture, making casual conversation over meals, walking together on a campus tour, celebrating Holy Communion, and playing a round of a game we called “Episcopal Jeopardy.” Throughout the day, we could sense that community was already beginning to form. Evening Prayer with a matriculation ceremony capped off the day in the Clark Chapel.

When everyone arrived, they saw the “treasure-case” sitting open and empty on the altar. The Bexley Hall Seminary matriculation book that dates back to 1836 flanked the case on the left and the Seabury-Western Theological Seminary matriculation book that dates back to 1930 lay to its right. At the conclusion of Evening Prayer, I explained that the books contain the signatures of generations of seminarians who had entered these seminaries at the beginning of each academic year. After having been theologically educated and spiritually formed to serve the people of God, those students had gone forth, near and far, to answer God’s call, as would they. While our institution is no longer a traditional residential seminary, theological education and spiritual formation remain the reason students still come.

After being presented as a group, our new MDiv and Anglican Studies Diploma students joined together in asking “to be received as members of the Bexley Seabury community and pledge[ing], God helping us, to devote ourselves to spiritual growth, wisdom, and study to prepare ourselves as leaders in God’s Church.”

This year we have the honor of four seminarians from the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge who have joined us to complete their theological studies. Since we had no EDS matriculation book, we asked them earlier in the day to share something of the story of their school so that their “book” might also be present with the others on the altar. Their stories and presence added yet another rich layer of legacy and heritage to our common and still evolving story.

We began the signing ceremony by welcoming the new EDS Scholars, as we call them, to come forward to the altar to sign first. When called by name, each student took her or his turn to sign the Bexley Seabury matriculation book. Deep silence filled the chapel. When all had signed, we broke out into a joyous sung Alleluia.

Then, for the second time as Academic Dean and now as Acting President, I had the honor of symbolically placing our cherished history and future inside the ceremonial treasure chest: first the Bexley Hall matriculation book, then the Seabury-Western book, and finally the two-year-old Bexley Seabury book that now contains twenty new signatures.

The case, the books, the signing in silence, and our Alleluia capped off all that had come before during the two-day retreat and our orientation day. All of it helped us to act and to pray our way into becoming the unique community of teachers and learners that we are.

God of truth, God of wisdom, by whose Spirit the whole body of your faithful people is governed and sanctified: Receive our prayers, which we offer before you for these students and for all members of your holy Church, that in their vocation and ministry they may truly and devoutly serve you; through our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.

Amen. Let it be so.

The View Beyond the Walls

A message from Acting President Therese DeLisio

Image by Frank L Junior, 123RF Stock Photo

Bexley Seabury Seminary sees itself as a Seminary Beyond Walls. This self-characterization, in part, refers to our low-residency/high-context model of theological education that allows people from around the country to study with us from their places of residence and ministry. They do this by participating in our “hybrid” courses that mix weekend or weeklong intensive classes held on campus with online learning in between. They bring their ministry experiences and the realities of their local communities with them.

Being a Seminary Beyond Walls demands more of us than just offering an innovative non-residential educational model. We aim to form leaders who will come to appreciate ministry as a beyond-walls, boundary-shattering activity that provides glimpses of that for which we refuse to give up hope: God’s reign of love and justice in the world.

We in this seminary community of learners, lay and ordained, are teaching each other to look beyond the walls of church and academy to see what is happening in our local, national, and global communities, and to hear what God is calling us to do and to be in response to that call. Lately, we don’t like much of what we see. We see blatant discrimination, exclusion, and rejection of God’s beloved. We see truth-denying disregard for the health and wellbeing of our planet and of its creatures. We hear unapologetic hate-filled and judgmental rhetoric against immigrants and Muslims, and undeserved blame cast upon those who are sick, poor, and most vulnerable.

In the summer months of July and August, classes are not in session at our seminary. The campus is quiet but we are working hard to welcome our new and continuing students and classes in the fall. In many workplaces not unlike ours, colleagues gather together to share conversation over lunch. Several of our faculty and staff members at Bexley Seabury do, too. In recent weeks, we have shared our deep concerns about the looming loss of health care coverage for millions, and our horror at how the LGBTQ community has been singled out by the Department of Justice and the White House for renewed discrimination and deprivation of their dignity.

We have found it deeply disturbing — no, heartbreaking — to witness yet again the politics of division and the theology of exclusion that picks on transgender individuals, especially those in the military. These are people who only want “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” They are willing to lay their lives on the line to fight for this right on behalf of many, both in the U.S. and abroad. How is this degradation of human rights policy in any way consistent with American values or with the teachings of Jesus? How can we, as a Seminary Beyond Walls, respond?

At the very least we can reach out and speak out in support of our brothers and sisters who have been pushed to the margins of society, who are “yearning to breathe free” within and beyond our borders, and who have been labeled by some as “sinners” on account of twisted biblical interpretations. We must educate and spiritually form well-equipped leaders for a Church Beyond Walls that is also committed to embracing those who have been marginalized or excluded because of what they do not have, how they look, who they are, or how they love. We stand with Presiding Bishop Curry and other leaders in the Episcopal Church who have spoken up in support and solidarity with our transgender brothers and sisters serving in the military.Click here to learn more.

I am pleased to report that the Bexley Seabury faculty is about to announce its first award of the Saint Marina Scholarship to a new student who will be entering our Master of Divinity program in the fall. Made possible by the generosity of anonymous donors, the St. Marina scholarship provides a full three-year scholarship to an openly LGBTQ first-year MDiv student who has demonstrated a commitment to social justice ministry within the Episcopal Church.

The St. Marina Scholarship is offered as part of our Bexley Seabury Scholars program that aims to support Master of Divinity students who are from or who plan to  serve underrepresented or underserved communities of faith. As we continue to live out our mission and vision, we hope to be able to expand the range of students to whom we are able to offer this opportunity.

This Seminary Beyond Walls has far more work to do.  We welcome your help and ask for your prayers, as always.

Christ Will Come Again

By The Rev. Roger Ferlo
Given at St. Chrysostom’s Episcopal Church, Chicago
Easter III, April 30, 2017

It’s relatively easy to celebrate redemption on Easter Day. But it’s harder and harder to sustain the Easter spirit as Sunday passes into Sunday. It’s especially hard in these latter days, when for many people the days are shadowed by uncertainty and anxiety about where the country or where the world is headed, no matter where we find ourselves on the political spectrum.

For many of us, especially if we are coping with personal crisis or personal sorrows, to assert Christ’s presence—that Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again—runs counter to the evidence of our senses, or even more, runs counter to our own common sense.

“Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.” It’s tempting, especially for the more empirically minded among us, to see this only as a figure of speech, as a useful metaphor. Easter as springtime of the spirit.

But it’s hard to live on just a metaphor. You can’t eat or drink a metaphor. It’s not a metaphor that will save us.

Consider the Emmaus story in Luke’s Gospel—the post-Easter story par excellence. Two friends of the dead Jesus trudge home after witnessing traumatic events on Golgotha. Try to imagine what they are thinking. I suspect that like most of us after a close friend’s death, they struggle to make sense of what makes no sense. Perhaps they were among the many friends of Jesus who the Gospel writers tell us stood in helpless witness to this act of state-sponsored homicide. They stood at a distance we are told, afraid for their lives, afraid that they too might get caught up in the web of deceit, hatred, fear, and betrayal that had set Jesus on this bloody road.

And now there was someone, something, shadowing. It’s spooky. They have survived a scene of catastrophic death, a death for which they may even feel vaguely responsible, a death that in some way perhaps, quietly, they secretly resent. The savior was not supposed to die like that. Anger and grief are never far removed from each other in situations like this.

As far as they knew, this Jesus was safely dead. The last thing they would want would be the wounded Jesus to draw near and walk the distance with them, like some kind of zombie or walking corpse to threaten them with destruction. But worse than that would be for him to come to them still as one of their own, to remind them of what they have lost in spite of what had been promised.

The last thing they would want would be to be forced to know this Jesus again.

No wonder then, once they encounter the stranger behind them, that they do not recognize him. When Jesus died, God was AWOL. God had abandoned his prophet, given him up to death, and betrayed their every hope. They had heard rumors of an empty tomb, and the wild stories of the women insisting that he who was dead now lived. But they had gone to see the tomb for themselves, and all they had seen there was emptiness, an emptiness that only confirmed their desolation:

“‘We found it just as the women had said, but him we did not see.’”

And now here was this stranger, a man like them, trudging along the dusty road from Jerusalem. His ignorance appalls them. Where has he been? They have to tell him about the whole bloody mess, all about the suffering and the torture and the betrayals. Yet he calmly insists to them that the story is not over, that already the Kingdom was breaking in, here and now, on this dusty road.

“‘Was it not necessary,” the stranger insists, “that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?’”

What must have these men thought when they heard these words? It was not what they were prepared to hear, perhaps not what they wanted to hear. This stranger was dangerous. He endangered their hope for closure, their sense that the story was over and done with, a thing of the past, to be put aside, accepted, repressed, forgotten. Everybody knew what had happened. Why reopen the wound? It was too much, too painful. Like all of us coping with our deepest loss, wouldn’t they want somehow to exert some power over the past, some power over memory? This stranger seems quietly determined to take that power from them. This stranger was opening the wounds.

And what is more, he seemed to want to leave it at that, to go on his way without further discussion, like an insensitive therapist who stirs up painful memories in you and then goes off on a month’s vacation. You have to hand it to these friends of Jesus that they won’t let that happen. Something in them insists that they can’t let the stranger go.

“‘Stay with us, for it is now evening, and the day is past.’”

How eloquent that request. How ironic its implication. There was a time that they saw Jesus face to face, in his moment of greatest need, and they sought to flee from his presence. And now, early on this Easter morning, they unwittingly sit at table with the one who they had once abandoned, the one who they thought had once abandoned them.

So he went in to stay with them.
When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight.”

This is the heart of the Easter gospel. As Archbishop Rowan Williams once said, about this moment, “The Gospel will never tell us that we are innocent, but it will tell us that we are loved…Grace will remake but not undo.” Resurrection is not about a lost paradise regained, or a lost innocence restored, or a springtime of the soul, any more than this Eucharist is. Resurrection is not about nostalgia, and it’s not about forgetting or repressing the pain of the past, any more than moving past grief for a loved one is a denial of your loss.

“Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight.”

Don’t be alarmed by Jesus’ disappearing act. I for one am not alarmed that they no longer see Jesus once the bread is broken. Neither do we. Seeing is the most removed, the most distanced, the most analytical of the senses. Rather it is in the taste and smell and feel of the bread, in the taste and savor of the wine he shares, that they recognize him. It is knowledge of an altogether other kind than the knowledge most of us are used to. It is knowledge felt, not knowledge learned.

Let’s be real. To hold the bread in your hands at a Eucharist is not to take control of God, or to taste God fully. That little morsel of bread will never satisfy our hunger, that sip of wine will never quench our thirst. Jesus is here among us, but like the stranger at Emmaus, he is not meant to linger.

Nor are we. We all travel the Easter road all our lives, seeking the Christ who seeks us. We never know where or when we might catch a glimpse of him. In the face of the stranger. Of the outcast. Of the refugee or asylum seeker. Even in the face of the one person we thought was our worst enemy. And as to the stranger, the outcast, the refugee, even our enemies, our hope is that they might recognize the face of Jesus in us—in how we act toward the least of God’s people, in how we act toward each other in churches and neighborhoods and in the public square, in how we act toward our families and friends, in how we act toward ourselves.

Where and when and how we are led to recognize Jesus is not necessarily in our control. But in our Easter hope, we know what those disciples in Emmaus knew—the Lord of love who we thought was dead turns out to be our companion on the way, and has been made known to us in the breaking of the bread. That presence is no metaphor. It is not Fake News. It is Gospel Truth.

Christ has died. But Christ is risen. And Christ will come again.

The Crowd at the Foot of the Cross

The Crucifixion, 1538 by Lucas Cranach the Elder

Sermon preached at Church of St. Paul and the Redeemer, Chicago
Good Friday 2017
Roger Ferlo

This year at this Good Friday service, we are introducing a new practice to complement our much more ancient one.

The ancient practice will be familiar if you have come to this service before. In a few moments, we will bring a large, rough wooden cross into the room, in solemn procession down this aisle. As soon as the cross is in place, the Prayer Book informs us in a carefully worded rubric that “appropriate devotions may follow.” That’s implicit permission for us post-Reformation Christians to revive a pre-reformation Good Friday ritual. Once we’ve set it down, everyone here should feel free to approach the foot of the cross in an act of veneration. Some of us might simply kneel there for a moment, in silent contemplation. Some of us might reach out to touch the wood. Some might even kiss it. If past experience holds, a number of us will simply remain in our places, sitting still and silent, perhaps a bit uneasy, absorbed in our own private reflections. Whatever you decide is appropriate. Meanwhile, the choir will sing settings of one of the few anthem texts included verbatim in the Prayer Book itself:

Savior of the world,
Who by thy cross and precious blood hath redeemed us:
Save us and help us, we humbly beseech thee, O Lord.

That’s the ancient practice. But if you’ve attended Sunday services here during Lent, you would have heard that we are also starting a new one. You would have had an opportunity to write a prayer or intention on a little card, seal it in an envelope, and deposit it in the empty baptismal font. As we carry in the cross today, we will carry in all the cards that have been collected in the past few weeks. We will strew them at the foot of the cross, as silent testimonies to our sorrows, penitence, cares, and desires, both for ourselves and for those who matter most to us.

It will get crowded today at the foot of the cross.

If we can believe the Gospel accounts, that would not be unusual. There were quite a few people gathered on the killing ground outside the city gates to watch the original proceedings. I did a quick census of the four gospels. Mark and Matthew set the record for attendance. Besides the soldiers; the chief priests and scribes; those who passed by; and the bystanders, Matthew and Mark single out as many as nine people specifically, several of them by name: Simon of Cyrene; the two bandits; the centurion; Mary Magdalene; Mary the mother of James and Joseph; the mother of the sons of Zebedee; Salome. In his gospel, Luke talks about the “great number of people” who followed Jesus to watch the “spectacle.” “Spectacle”: that’s Luke’s word, not mine. Witnesses to the spectacle, Luke says, besides the soldiers and the rest, included all Jesus’ acquaintances, including the women who had followed him from Galilee. They perhaps wisely stood at a distance, but close enough to see. Then of course there was Joseph of Arimathea, who helped get the body down from the cross once the crowd dispersed. John’s gospel also mentions Nicodemus. He’s the one who John tells us had come to Jesus in the middle of the night, who was told to his dismay that he needed to be born again, born from above. Who knows what was going through his mind if he remembered that encounter as he helped Joseph wrestle down the corpse. John’s account also mentions a crowd, but like a good cinematographer John likes to engineer dramatic close-ups. The crowds disappear as the camera zooms in on Jesus’ mother and the disciple whom Jesus loved, and we witness a macabre combination ordination and adoption ceremony: Woman, behold your son. Son, behold your mother.

Strange and unsettling things can happen at the foot of the cross.

This was not, of course, either the first or last execution designed as spectacle. Until recent times, executions almost always drew a crowd. That was part of the point. For a long time, executions were specifically designed for maximum public effect. Sometimes, like Jesus’ execution, these public spectacles were organized for easy public access to discourage similar insurrectional impulses, or to placate the public’s perceived need for retributive justice, or to terrorize people into submission to authority.

But truth be told, executions also provided huge sources of public entertainment. I suspect that was the case for at least some of the bystanders and the curious who gathered on Golgotha. There were public executions at the hanging ground at Tyburn in London right through the 18th century. There were well-attended beheadings by guillotine during the Reign of Terror in Paris in what is now ironically named the Place de la Concord. Those were the better-known spectacles.

We in this country, of course, have our own bloody stories to tell. There were those dreadful, hateful lynchings of black citizens in the American South. Those events, too, were treated by spectators as entertaining sideshows. You can see that for yourself in the surviving photographs that circulated for months after each event, sent through the mail as sordid postcard souvenirs. Repressed desire and vile racist hatreds are everywhere in evidence on the faces of witnesses in those photographs, lazily munching their boiled peanuts as they hoist their children to their shoulders for a better view of the swinging corpse.

It’s always been a bit crowded at the foot of the cross.

Until recently, that is. One of the ironies of the current legal practice of capital punishment is that it has gone strangely private. If Jesus were on death row today, Mary and the beloved disciple could not get close to him even if they tried. Witnesses to these spectacles are few, and getting fewer. I don’t know whether you have been following the stories out of Arkansas. It seems that starting on Monday, Arkansas intended to execute eight convicted criminals, two a day, by chemical injection. They are in a hurry because the supply of midazolam, one of the three lethal chemicals used in such executions, expires on April 30, and drug makers have pretty much cut off any further supply. The Arkansas Department of Corrections is eager to use what’s in stock before the well runs dry. But according to an NBC report that came out a few weeks ago, there’s a catch. The law requires that at least “six respectable citizens” must view the executions to confirm that they “are conducted in the manner required by law.” But they were having trouble finding the 48 witnesses they needed. The director of the department even paid a visit to the regular meeting of the Little Rock Rotary Club to find volunteers. The Rotary Club president told NBC that at first there was a little laugh from the audience, because they thought she was kidding. It quickly became obvious that she wasn’t. The Department now says that people could double up, which would reduce the numbers of witnesses required. I take it as a good sign that no Rotarian came forward, which means the whole thing might end up delayed.

O Savior of the world,
Who by thy cross and precious blood hath redeemed us:
Save us and help us, we humbly beseech thee, O Lord.

We, too, gather here as witnesses, but not the kind of witnesses that the authorities in Little Rock are trying so desperately to gather. We gather here as witnesses willing to testify to the richness of God’s mercy, to the depth of God’s compassion—a compassion revealed in the broken body of the crucified one, a broken body that gives hope to all the broken bodies of this world: to those who suffer, to the oppressed, to the hungry and thirsty, to the exiled and the refugee, to all who live in fear in this city, to all those for whom our prayers have been requested, for all those intentions that we will now lay at the foot of the cross.

If you wander through the galleries at the Art Institute, it won’t take you long to find paintings of the Crucifixion. Most of them devote a lot of canvas to depicting the crowd. The image on today’s service leaflet was painted 500 years ago in Germany by Lucas Cranach, a close friend of Martin Luther’s. You might notice that Cranach has divided the crowd pretty decisively, as if he were painting a scene of the Last Judgment. He puts the good people (and the good thief) at Jesus’ right hand, all of them focused on the cross. On Jesus’ left, there’s a pretty sinister crew, looking pretty much every way but up. That kind of black and white thinking is all too familiar to us these days, a judgmental polarizing for which our country—like Cranach’s Europe 500 years ago—seems poised to reap the whirlwind. It’s probably the least attractive aspect of this image.

But then you notice the two people Cranach positions directly below Jesus feet. You see a father standing with his young son, the father’s hand pointing upward. They stand on neither one side nor the other. The father wants to be sure that the boy isn’t distracted by the noise and dust and tears that surround him. He wants his son instead to keep his eye on what matters most, on the dying criminal who is no criminal, the suffering God who now, lifted up, for better or for worse, draws all humanity to himself. As the father directs the young boy’s gaze, so Cranach directs ours.

Which brings us back to this time, to this room, and to the ritual action that will soon take place. You will notice in Cranach’s picture that the people gathered at the foot of the cross are not wearing first-century costumes. Neither are we. We gather here in our ordinary clothes, as our ordinary selves—or as the hymn declares, we gather just as we are. We gather first to lay our petitions at the foot of the cross, those simple sealed envelopes that contain the mute but eloquent testimony of our failings and our desires, of our penitence and our gratitude. In so doing may we also present ourselves, our souls and bodies, as agents of justice and reconciliation, trusting in God’s mercy and loving kindness even here, at the foot of the cross, even in these dark and perilously divided days.

O Savior of the world,
Who by thy cross and precious blood hath redeemed us:
Save us and help us, we humbly beseech thee, O Lord

Widening the Circle

Bexley Seabury President Roger Ferlo and Academic Dean Therese DeLisio view an Irish translation of the Bible (1681).

A few weeks ago Dean Terry DeLisio and I had the privilege of visiting the Newberry Library in Chicago to view the Bexley Hall Rare Book Collection, which had just arrived from Columbus. Although I knew what the inventory looked like on paper, it was a moving experience to examine some of these extraordinary holdings in person: an edition of a work by Erasmus published in his lifetime, with a woodcut by Hans Holbein’s father gracing its opening page; a brilliantly hand-illuminated Muslim prayer book; hundreds and hundreds of mid-nineteenth-century American pamphlets and sermons published by small town presses throughout the Midwest; presentation copies of nineteenth-century tracts signed by Hannah More, the distinguished evangelical English poet and pamphleteer; a multi-volume travel diary in an exquisite hand, written by an early twentieth-century Bexley alumnus.

All these precious volumes had been in storage and inaccessible in Columbus for almost 20 years. They have now become part of one of the finest independent research institutions in the United States, to be permanently catalogued as “the Bexley Hall Collection—a gift of Bexley Seabury Seminary” as funds become available, and featured in an important exhibition on Religious Change that will open at the Newberry in the fall. (Bexley and Seabury alums know a lot about religious change!)

As our Board of Directors well understood in arranging this gift, making such resources as the Bexley Hall Collection available on a global scale is deeply appropriate for a unique institution like ours—a seminary “beyond walls” dedicated to widening the circle of theological scholarship and inter-religious understanding.

We are in good company. Since its founding in the late nineteenth century as an independent research library, the Newberry has had a policy of open public access—where the public high school junior writing a term paper on Native American history is as welcome as a seasoned university scholar researching her next ground-breaking monograph. Our own Bexley Seabury Board member, Canon Diane Porter, who grew up in Chicago’s Hyde Park, remembers with fondness a formative trip to the Newberry as a young girl, the reward for her first-prize participation in a summer reading club. I would like to think that Philander Chase, our irascible founding bishop and the initial collector of these volumes, would have been one of the first readers to show up at the Newberry, no doubt loudly taking credit for his foresight in creating this world-class collection.

Next time you are in Chicago, make a visit to the Newberry, and ask them to show you that Erasmus volume. Our friends there will be happy to welcome you to this new way-station of our seminary beyond walls.

Discovering Something Rich and Strange

As I write I am preparing to lead the pre-Lenten clergy retreat for the Diocese of Massachusetts. Their new bishop the Rt. Rev. Alan Gates, is a former Bexley Hall and Bexley Seabury board member, and a thoughtful and informed supporter of seminary education in a time of unsettling change — including change in his own theological neighborhood.

In the political and cultural turmoil of the last several weeks, I know I am not the only person who has found it hard to focus. So I am looking forward to this time in Massachusetts, if only because
the theme I have chosen for the retreat —Engaging the Scriptural Imagination— is intended to offer something of a respite from the dread and anxiety that has afflicted so many of us recently.

We will spend time with artists like Rembrandt and poets like Emily Dickinson, both of them better scriptural interpreters than most of us gathering in Ipswich. My hope is that an artist’s take on our sacred stories — at once critical and creative, impatient of pious cant and yet resplendent in beauty — will embolden us to approach our Lenten scriptures as if we were reading them for the first time, and discover in them something rich and strange.

The Massachusetts clergy don’t know this yet, but by the time I am done with them they will all have written a few lines of poetry based on the coming season’s lectionary, and will be asked to share their work with each other in an impromptu public reading. I love doing this poetry thing with preachers. What better way to take our minds off what’s happening in Washington, get off our high horses, and reconnect to the Source of Meaning that makes life not just bearable but even beautiful — a place to rest, and even rejoice, in what for many of my ordained colleagues (and for me) are such dark days.

Pray for Justice. Act for Justice.

Message from President Ferlo

I am writing this message on Martin Luther King Day, just four days before the next presidential inauguration. The juxtaposition of these two events underscores the deep racial and economic divisions that have haunted our national polity since its inception in the late eighteenth century. These divisions have seldom been more evident.

For perhaps the first time in my life as a Christian in America, I realize that if I really believe what I say when I repeat the promises of the baptismal covenant, my political and cultural passivity is no longer acceptable. In the current political climate, when a hero of the civil rights movement (and the great city he represents) can be so ignorantly pilloried by the most powerful man in the country, silence is no longer an option, any more for us than it was for Dr. King. If we really mean as Christians to uphold the dignity of every human being, and to make no peace with oppression, there is hard and risky work ahead.

Elsewhere in this newsletter, you will see an invitation to gather with your fellow alumni and friends of the seminary at our April 26 convocation, Bending Toward Justice, to be held at St. James Common in Chicago. My hope is that the work of that convocation will resonate with the prophetic witness of Dr. King and Congressman John Lewis. We are honored that the Rev. John Floberg, long-time priest at the Standing Rock reservation and a Bexley Hall alumnus, has agreed to speak to us about his work in organizing the clergy participation in the recent Standing Rock protest.

In a panel discussion, John will be joined by our keynote speaker, the Rev. Gayle Stewart-Fischer, a former police officer and now Episcopal priest, and founder of the Center for Faith in Justice in Washington, DC; and by Mr. Kenji Kuramitsu, an Episcopal seminarian at McCormick Seminary. Kenji is an eloquent writer and speaker on issues of civil rights and ethnic justice, and a member of the national board of the Japanese American Citizens’ League.

Please mark your calendars; tell your friends and colleagues; and urge them to attend on April 26 at St. James’ Common, 65 Huron Street, Chicago. The convocation begins at 2 p.m. and ends with a reception following Evensong at 5:30.

Pray for justice. Act for justice. In Christ’s name.

Standing Up

♦ November 22, 2016 ♦

Our Lady of Ferguson icon written by Mark Dukes, commissioned by Mark Bozzuti-Jones, Trinity Church Wall Street
“What I’m trying to cultivate is not blind optimism but what the philosopher Jonathan Lear calls radical hope. ‘What makes this hope radical,’ Lear writes, ‘is that it is directed toward a future goodness that transcends the current ability to understand what it is.’Radical hope is not so much something you have but something you practice; it demands flexibility, openness, and what Lear describes as ‘imaginative excellence.’  Radical hope is our best weapon against despair, even when despair seems justifiable; it makes the survival of the end of your world possible.”

—Junot Diaz on President Trump and Radical Hope in The New Yorker

—♦—

Last Saturday, I had the privilege of offering the homily at the Bexley Seabury Eucharist, in the presence of the 15 or so seminary students and faculty assembled for a weekend liturgy class. I have preached many sermons in the past three decades, on many challenging scripture texts. But in the light of the events of the past few weeks, I found the two texts assigned for the day particularly problematic. In the first one (2 Corinthians 8:7–15), Paul urges the Corinthians to be generous in support of their fellow Christians in Jerusalem. “I am testing the generousness of your love,” he says, “looking for a fair balance between your present abundance and the needs of others.” The Gospel reading was even more troubling (Luke 6:35–38): “Love your enemies…do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven.”

Given the signs of the times, I now include these two passages in my growing collection of what Biblical scholars call, rather dispassionately, “hard sayings.” (more…)

Enough

 

♦ October 20, 2016 ♦

Illustration of raised hand with a message bubble in it's palm that reads "ENOUGH."

Everyone I speak to agrees on at least one thing: the political climate in the past several months has grown unusually toxic.

The coarsening of public language; the revelations of predatory sexual behavior; the continuing distortion of religious rhetoric; the hacking of private email accounts by a foreign power in an attempt to manipulate public opinion; the growing public mistrust of fact-based expertise and constitutional order, coupled with an even more troubling reliance on false claims and unsubstantiated rumor; the growing public tolerance, even embrace, of misogynistic and racist memes — all of this has no precedent in any of our lifetimes.

We are experiencing a 21st-century replay of the worst moments in the history of American public life, from the Alien and Sedition Acts to pro-slavery agitation to the Know-Nothing riots to the devastation of Jim Crow to the paranoia of the Red Scare. As we enter the final throes of this election cycle, pray for justice and mercy, and pray especially for those who seek the restoration of a morally acceptable level of civil discourse.

One of the joys for me of our move to Hyde Park is a closer connection with two Episcopal communities long part of this neighborhood — Brent House, the Episcopal chaplaincy of the University of Chicago, and St. Paul and the Redeemer Episcopal Church, where I now serve as priest associate. Peter Lane, our young and gifted rector, preached a powerful sermon this past Sunday based on the Lukan parable of Dives and Lazarus. Peter has graciously given me permission to share the text of that sermon with all of you. I will reflect on his words often as we approach Election Day, and suspect that, on reading them, you will do the same.