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From the President

Standing Up

♦ November 22, 2016 ♦

"Our Lady of Ferguson," an icon that depicts Mary, mother of God, on a gold background, wearing robes of red and blue and a large medallion of a black man. Mary's hands, like the hands of the man in the medallion are raised, a gesture that become iconic following the killing of teenager Michael Brown by a Ferguson, Mo., police offer.

“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 inThe 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.”

What makes them hard? I will try to keep to the facts. At this writing it appears:

  • The Justice Department will be led by an attorney general with a history of racist comment; who is on the record as eager to initiate massive deportation proceedings and manhunts, requiring the cooperation of local police; who is on the record supporting policies that will continue to result in mass incarceration for minor drug offenders; and who has called the Voting Rights Act, already weakened by a Supreme Court decision, an “intrusion” on the rights of the states.
  • The CIA will be led by a strong proponent for restoring torture as an interrogation tool.
  • The EPA transition is being led by the most vocal proponent of the view that the 99% of scientists who have warned of the effects of climate change have conspired to perpetrate a gigantic hoax.
  • National security will be in the hands of an adviser who is convinced that Islam is an ideology, not a religion, with the implication that American Muslims are not protected by the freedom of religion clause enshrined in the First Amendment.

I have spent 32 years in the pulpit assiduously avoiding taking a position that might be construed or even misconstrued as political. That can no longer be the case. In this new dispensation, anyone with any credibility as a religious leader needs to exit the closet (and perhaps the pulpit) to stand in public solidarity with the oppressed, the marginal, and the vulnerable.

But I have also spent 32 years in the pulpit and the classroom urging my congregations and my students to take the lead as peacemakers; loving their enemies lest they become like them in hatred; to become repairers of the breach; to take down the walls that divide us. All this must still remain the case.

The challenge for me, for my colleagues, for my students, is to reconcile these two Gospel imperatives:

  • Imperative #1: To stand up for justice and mercy; to make no peace with oppression, and (to paraphrase St. Paul) to seek a fair balance between our own abundance and the needs of the world—for water, for housing, for refuge, and safety.
  • Imperative #2: To love our enemies; to forgive as we would be forgiven; to temper harsh judgment, lest we be judged; to become the ministers of reconciliation we have been called to become in our baptism.

Never before in my ordained ministry have these imperatives seemed so much at odds with one another, seemed so irreconcilable. But never before in my lifetime has it been more important, as a leader in the church, to embrace them both. As I said to my students on Saturday, that kind of leadership is what they have all signed up for.  

To paraphrase the ordination rite, “May the Lord who has given us the will to do these things give us the grace and power to perform them.”


♦ 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.

The Stench of the Apocalypse

♦ Sermon Given by Roger Ferlo July 24, 2016 ♦
St. Paul and the Redeemer, Chicago
The 10th Sunday After Pentecost

apocalyptic landscape webWhoever it was that wrote the letter long ascribed to Paul, something had gone terribly wrong.

It’s hard to tell from this distance, but fledgling Christians in that cosmopolitan city in the middle of present-day Turkey seemed to be captive to some kind of hyper-ascetic cult. Enamored of false philosophy, victims of empty deceit, traduced by the elemental spirits of the universe, dwelling on visions, obsessed with dietary rules, festival calendars, new moons, false Sabbaths, puffed up with what the writer calls human ways of thinking. Frankly, as a political candidate might put it, there was something going on.

We will never know exactly what it was. Within a few years of receiving this letter, the city of Colossae was destroyed by an earthquake, its Christian community completely dispersed.

Knowing what we know about Christian history, there are perhaps two ways of looking at this incident.

One is apocalyptic, and self-righteously retributive. The city got what it deserved. Like the inhabitants of Sodom, these wayward Christians, puffed up with human ways of thinking, got exactly what was coming to them. This earthquake was no accident. What happened to that city was a sign from God, and a warning to the rest of us to get ourselves in line.

The other perspective is just the opposite. Earthquakes are earthquakes—they just happen. Disasters are not a sign. They are just a fact. What matters is compassion for the victims, not self-righteous and defensive judgment.

You would think that in times of trial, compassion for those who suffer—whether in natural disasters or in civil wars or in mass shooting sprees in nightclubs and shopping malls—would be the only possible religious response. But in fact, retributive scapegoating is the long-standing Christian default. The enduring sin of Christian anti-Semitism is of course the most egregious example. That kind of hatefully defensive response is deeply embedded in the religious psyche, especially during times of distress. It’s the shadow side of the belief in God’s providence. If God can provide for those who are righteous, God can also punish those who aren’t. That zero-sum reasoning is what makes religion so dangerous, and so often toxic.

In this country as elsewhere, there is a certain kind of politics that is equally embedded in such righteous scapegoating, all too ready to invoke God as its witness. The events of the past few weeks have stoked many fears—fears for our personal safety, fears for the safety of our elected leaders and our candidates for office, fears for our police, fears of our police, fears for children playing on their family’s porches, fears for innocent bystanders, fears for our country’s unity, for our democracy’s very future. It is precisely in these times of fear that the stench of apocalyptic rhetoric fills the air, much of it emanating from sources that claim to be Christian. In my view, for what it’s worth, the mindlessly apocalyptic rhetoric that came out of Cleveland this week—rhetoric that will continue to bedevil our public discourse—constitutes a barely secularized version of that debased Christian default.

No matter where we place ourselves on the political spectrum, as Christians, as religious people, we are entering a time that will try men’s souls—and women’s too.

So I strongly recommend that we all take to heart a central episode in the art of the deal. Not the ghostwritten version that appeared 30 years ago, published in the name of the person who assured us recently that his favorite Bible passage is “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.”

No, the art of the deal I have in mind is the book of Genesis, and the chapter I have in mind is the one we heard proclaimed today. I suspect that the biblical writer enjoyed the holy comedy of Abraham’s negotiating tactic, his compassionate, obstinate, hard-nosed persistence in the face of massive divine power. Here’s the deal, Lord. If I can find 50 righteous people, spare the city. If not 50, then 45. If not 45, then 40. If not 40, then 30. How about 20? How about 10?

I would like to think that Jesus himself appreciated both the humor and the power of this ancient story—this saga of divine judgment capitulating to human compassion. “Lord, Lord,” we ask, in harrowing times like these, with gunfire in the streets and hellfire from political pulpits, “how are we to pray?”

As usual, Jesus tells a story. A guest has arrived at your door, and you are massively unprepared. You go to your best friend’s house next door, and ask for three loaves of bread (the first-century equivalent of a cup of sugar). Probably not to your surprise, your buddy is annoyed. He’s had enough of this politically correct hospitality. It’s midnight, for Christ’s sake. Fend for yourself. But it’s not about you, you say, it’s for your guest. Your reputation is at stake. Where you come from, hospitality to your uninvited guest, hospitality even to the stranger—well, that’s everything. Hospitality is what defines you. So you don’t give up. You don’t let your buddy get away with locking his doors. You don’t let him hide in bed. You break down his isolation. You pound the door, pound it, pound it hard, hard enough that to get any peace at all he has no choice but to give you what you need. Ask, search, knock—don’t give way, don’t give up. Hospitality is at stake. Compassion is at stake. Your very humanity is at stake. This isn’t about political correctness. It’s about common decency. It’s about who we are.

So in these coming weeks, while the stench of apocalyptic bonfires continues to permeate the air, what does it mean for us to live our lives as who we are, to live our lives “according to Christ”, as Paul put it to the Colossians?

Well, let’s try to take our cue from the art of the deal, Abrahamic version. All this is not about us. It’s not about self-aggrandizement. It’s not about winning. It’s not about mocking the loser. In the face of mockery and exclusion, it’s about remaining steadfast in compassion; it’s about our life-long struggle to conform ourselves to Christ’s image, in solidarity with the weakest and most despised among us.

Jesus assured his friends that if you ask, it will be given to you, if you search, you will find, if you knock, the door will be opened to you. The least we can do in the coming days is to offer to others what Jesus offers to us, unlocking our doors to those who ask, search, and knock. If we ask God to forgive us as we would be forgiven, then it follows that we should welcome the stranger as we would want to be welcomed. We need to offer fish (not snakes), eggs (not scorpions), at a time when snakes and scorpions are everywhere in abundance.

In these troubled times, the question the disciples put to Jesus, “Master, how should we pray?” might be asked another way. “Master, how should we act?”

To act as Christ would act is itself a form of prayer. In the words of the Prayer Book collect, may we have the courage to “make no peace with oppression,” in whatever form oppression takes, for oppression is a many-headed beast.

We pray too that we may be saved from the time of trial. A time of trial in these latter days seems all too real, all too imminent. As one commentator put it two days ago, in the coming months the republic may be facing its gravest peril since the Civil War. See how easy it is to wax apocalyptic?

So, especially in such perilous times like these, may we have the courage to forgive as we would be forgiven, to receive others as we would be received. As Paul wrote to the Colossians:

As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord,
continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built
up in him and established in the faith, just as you
were taught, abounding in thanksgiving.

Pray for peace. Act for peace.

♦ June 13, 2016 ♦

A Letter from President Ferlo

Dear Friends,

OrlandoVigil OrlandoSentinelYesterday afternoon, I joined with hundreds of gay and straight Chicagoans at a silent vigil in Lakeview, a neighborhood known affectionately as “Boystown,” as we mourned for those killed in Orlando in that horrendous firestorm of bullets and prayed for the wounded. We heard addresses from several people, including two young Christian ministers, a Muslim educator, the new Superintendent of Police, several state and local politicians, a cousin of one of those murdered, and two Southside mothers whose children were shot and killed by stray bullets in what seems the endless gun violence that stains this city with innocent blood. A SWAT team stood warily to one side; I wish I could say their presence was a consolation.

As you may know, I was for 10 years rector of the Church of St. Luke in the Fields, situated in Greenwich Village, like Boystown in Chicago, a neighborhood that is the epicenter of local gay and lesbian life. I went to the Lakeview vigil on Sunday as a witness to the deep Christian love I experienced throughout my time at St. Luke in the Fields and throughout my life, through deep friendships with members of the gay community. Bishop Andy Dietsche, a Seabury graduate and my bishop in New York, along with his two episcopal colleagues issued an eloquent letter today in response to the Orlando shootings. I urge you to read it, and to keep the dead and wounded and their families in your prayers. 

This morning, as our Bexley Seabury DMin classes gathered for Eucharist in our Higgins Road chapel, we read aloud the names and ages of those known so far to have died, most of whom were in their 20s and 30s, and we prayed for peace, justice, and an end to bigotry.

Pray for peace, but also act for peace. Do all you can to put an end to gun violence. Resist by sharp word and peaceful deed the bigots and fanatics on whom the ready availability of such lethal weaponry bestows such ungodly power.


Taking It to the Streets

♦ Sermon Given May 26, 2016 ♦

The Feast of Corpus Christi
The Church of the Advent, Boston

Pope Urban IV usually receives the credit for getting us here in church on a Thursday evening outside of Holy Week.

“Miraculous is the memorial ... in which the sign is renewed and the wonderful things are transformed, in which is contained all delight, in which certainly we obtain support of life and salvation.”

With these words, promulgated on a midsummer’s day in 13th-century Rome, this feast was officially launched. St. Thomas Aquinas soon gave the collect and prayers their requisite theological heft, and the great composers and hymn writers and psalmists over the centuries gave Thomas’ Eucharistic theology memorable voice.

All this constitutes what we might call the official story. But the official story is incomplete. It was not a powerful medieval pope, but an obscure lay woman who first insisted that we mark this feast, and she did so in spite of the initial resistance of a wary male hierarchy. Juliana of Cornillon was her name, from the Belgian town of Liege, where Urban himself had once served as archdeacon.

Juliane von LuettigJuliana was a Beguine—one of the most remarkable of those hundreds of equally remarkable and for the most part equally obscure Christian women who led lives of prayer and service on the fringes of the official church. Not canonized until the mid‐nineteenth century, by another pope who knew something about the power of symbols, Juliana labored as a nurse in a leper hospital, as far from the seat of papal power as it was possible for a woman to be. But she was a visionary in a day when visionaries might still be trusted. And a strange vision it was that brought us to this day.

“I tell you,” says her early biographer, “that a moon appeared to her in its splendor, with a little break in part of its sphere. The vision repeated itself every year for twenty years, until finally, we are told the Christ revealed to her that the Church was in the moon, and that the missing part of the moon stood for the absence of one feast in the church, which he would want his faithful to celebrate on the earth.” (Rubin 1991, p. 170)

“The Church was in the moon.” Let the strangeness of that phrase sink in for a moment.

That bizarre reading of a cosmic vision paradoxically points us back to ordinary earth, to 13th-century Liege and 21st-century Beacon Hill. Here we are, 850 years later, with the moon again in partial shadow, gathered in this splendid place to mark a feast that celebrates neither Juliana, nor Pope Urban, nor Friar Thomas Aquinas, but the very Body of Christ of which all three were members, as are we—the body of Christ made manifest in the material mystery of this Eucharist.

We mark this feast this evening in a world far different from Juliana’s. We are dwarfed by an infinite and expanding cosmos no longer legible to us in anything like the way it was legible to her, a cosmos about which the more we know the less we understand. We stand perplexed by a lot more now than mere shadows in the moon.

One wonders what Juliana would have made of deep time, or dark matter, or dark energy, or the curvature of space: would she have tried to discern in the darker parts of the cosmos a divine story that matters?

“We live in an old chaos of the sun,” Wallace Stevens wrote in “Sunday Morning,” that most post‐Christian of poems, “or island solitude, unsponsored, free…” Is that really all? In such a time and such a space, when old myths, old stories, seem inadequate to make legible a cosmos at once so visible and so opaque, where are we to turn? Where are we to look?

Well, we start by looking here.

We should be thankful to Juliana. To look up, it was revealed to her that she had to look down, to look outward, she had to look inward, to attend to things heavenly, she had to attend to things earthly—to the altar of the local church where bread is broken and wine is poured, to the festive gathering of Christ’s people in the humble streets of a market town, to ordinary people for whom the eating of that bread and the drinking of that wine makes manifest the presence of Christ among us, in the church which is his body, Christ’s body here, absurdly here, on this otherwise insignificant blue speck of wind and dirt and molten rock, floating in the cosmic vastness.

No wonder Corpus Christi processions developed early on. Nothing is more down-to-earth than a parade. I understand there is a lovely one planned, when the path of the Sacrament will be strewn with rose petals. Church processions are designed to reveal a lot about ourselves and about the world, although sometimes they reveal more than we intend.

Unlike the cosmos, our earthly processions can be all too legible. Processions like the one we will form in a few moments assert the value of hierarchy and order in a world gone mad. You might also say that the lavish but reverent display of hierarchy and order is one of The Church of the Advent’s key selling points in a shrinking Episcopal marketplace. You even persuaded the bishop to dance the sacred choreography this evening. I was able to access the Advent customary for Corpus Christi on the parish web site. It is a masterwork of liturgical precision—hierarchy and order on steroids.

But the orderly arrangements this Corpus Christi procession will display are something of an historical anomaly, and may even work against us.

For a good part of their history many local Corpus Christi processions were notorious for upending order and hierarchy, as various medieval trade guilds and pious sodalities vied for better position in the lineup, sometimes resorting to violence to ensure their rightful place in the street pecking order.

This should come as no surprise. The Eucharist has a sobering ability to reveal our cherished hierarchies as the oppressive jockeying for precedence that they often are.

The Eucharist is the great leveler of hierarchies. I suspect Juliana knew this. The church hierarchy never really cottoned to women who joined the beguines. Paul knew this, too. What infuriated him about the church gathered in Corinth was the way the powerful were lording it over the weak as they gathered for Eucharist, the rich lording it over the poor, inflicting fresh wounds on the body of Christ. Fifteen hundred years later, the English reformers took Paul’s warnings to heart, suppressing these processions for political as well as theological reasons.

I’m usually no fan of the Thirty‐Nine Articles, but Article 25 is particularly good to think with, especially at an occasion like this. In part it says:

“The Sacraments were not ordained of Christ to be gazed upon, or to be carried about, but that we should duly use them.”

The sacraments were ordained so that we might duly use them.

It’s no accident that The Church of the Advent customary prescribes that the procession with the consecrated Host take place only after the celebration of the Eucharist, and not before. We will place the consecrated Host in a precious monstrance and carry it through the streets, but not before the sacrament has been put to our use at this communion rail so that we might be put to Christ’s use in the world: as ambassadors of Christ’s love, as ministers of Christ’s reconciliation, as advocates for the poor, the oppressed, and those whom the hierarchies and powers of this world consider beyond the pale.

That’s why we take this ceremony into the streets. We put that Host in the monstrance and rightly process with it in dignity and joy. But we do so offering ourselves to public view, so to speak, as living monstrances—each of us transformed and commissioned in our baptisms to act together as Christ’s body in the world.

The real question this feast asks is, how do we intend to comport ourselves as the body of Christ once that Host is safely back in its tabernacle. As Pope Urban insisted all those centuries ago: “This bread is received [as food]” but it is not truly “devoured;” it is eaten, but it is not changed, because in the eating it is not transformed at all, but, if it is received worthily, the one who receives it is conformed to Him.

And to be conformed to Christ is to be as Christ was in the world, with little patience for hierarchy when hierarchy becomes the means of injustice, oppression, and exclusion. Juliana knew this, hard at work among the lepers. One hopes that Urban knew it, too—in spite of the trappings of power which allowed him to Issue that bull in the first place. And in these mean and divisive times, may we have the courage to say the same of us. The Eucharist is a great leveler when justice is at stake. So let’s go ahead and take it to the streets.

Life in Common

Letter read by President Ferlo at 2016 Commencement at Trinity Lutheran Seminary

May 21, 2016

To the President, Board of Directors, Faculty, Staff, and Graduates of Trinity Lutheran Seminary:

Grace to you and peace from the Lord Jesus Christ!

On this, the final day of the 186th academic year of Trinity Lutheran Seminary, and the 192nd academic year of Bexley Hall, now part of the Bexley Seabury Seminary Federation, we, the president, board, faculty, staff and students of Bexley Seabury give thanks to God for our 17 years of shared worship and ministry with you. Our time on this campus now comes to a close.

Farewell Eucharist 0683 051016 cropped webIn 1999, when Professor Emeritus Bill Petersen and the late Professor Walter Bouman first began conversations leading to our seminary partnership, our national church bodies were still struggling to find common ground in common mission, mindful of our Lord’s priestly prayer that all may be one, as he and the Father are one. Our two seminaries prayerfully led the way for our two denominations, resulting in 17 years of dynamic ecumenical partnership—one of the first fruits of the Episcopal/Lutheran Call to Common Mission. The graduates who cross this stage this afternoon are living examples of the ecumenically trained leaders that the Call to Common Mission continues to envision.

That word “common” has been an important one for us Episcopalians in our time at Trinity, and not just because we have occasionally managed to persuade our Lutheran friends to speak the 16th-century English of the Book of Common Prayer. Prayer in common, study in common, meals in common, friendships in common, mission in common: it has been our privilege to share in the community—the commonality—of this place for these 17 years. Our ministry has been shaped—and our own identity as Episcopalians has been reshaped—by what we have experienced here among you. We are especially grateful to the Trinity faculty—generous colleagues, powerful teachers, faithful ministers of word and sacrament. It has been Farewell Eucharist 0679 051016 weba privilege to teach and to learn in such distinguished and dedicated company. For better or worse (no, surely for better), we will always regard ourselves in years to come as dyed-in-the-wool Lutherpalians, a rare gift indeed.

Like all such occasions, this commencement marks both an ending and a new beginning. For our graduates, it is the end of their time here and the beginning of their ministries, a beginning that is for all of them, Lutherans and Episcopalians alike, a deepening and continuation of ministries long since begun—begun, in fact, at their baptisms. This occasion also marks an end and a new beginning for both our institutions, as Trinity embarks on its courageous appeal “for the sake of the world,” and Bexley Seabury makes its new home in Chicago, in a deepened association with Chicago Theological Seminary. For both of our institutions, in spite of the changes and chances of theological education in these tumultuous times, our commitment to the gospel and our respect for each other remain strong and firm. We give thanks to God through our Lord Jesus Christ for the abundant gifts we have received in our years of partnership with Trinity Lutheran Seminary. And in this season of Pentecost, may the Holy Spirit continue the work here begun with such generosity and grace.

Yours in Christ,

Catherine W. Bagot, Director

The Rev. Mary Carson, Director

The Rev. Roger A. Ferlo, PhD, President

The Rev. Jason Fout, PhD, Acting Academic Dean

The Rev. Bruce Smith, Director

Deborah Stokes, Director

Creator of All Things

In the beginning when God created the heaves and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light.
Genesis 1:1–3

Paper Collage by Anne Harlan

My wife, Anne, is an artist. She makes things from other things. She calls it cutting and pasting. It’s different from the kind of cutting and pasting I’m used to.

I’m a writer of sorts. I cut and paste in pixels. Anne uses paper and scissors and glue, the kind of glue you stir in a pot. She cuts random cuts of paper into more attractive cuts, and then assembles them on poster board. She glues them down in patterns that sometimes she plans, and sometimes she doesn’t, but when she doesn’t she usually shifts things around anyway and what emerges looks like she planned it, sort of on the fly.

What you see here is an image that Anne created the other day. I take a bit of credit for that bit of flaming orange, only because I happened to pick up a bright scrap that attracted me and wondered whether it might change the way the darkness looked.

Anne is a generous person. She doesn’t mind people hovering over her stuff. In fact she occasionally throws what she calls paper parties, where people sit around a big table, mostly in genial silence, cutting and pasting. But sometimes someone looks at what’s developing across the table and makes a good suggestion, and suddenly creation shifts.

So that’s what happened here. Creation shifted.

The finished piece reminds me of what little I know about dark matter, which is invisible, but is present pretty much everywhere. Physicists tell me (OK, Wikipedia tells me) that the combination of dark matter and dark energy might make up something like 95% of what is the case. This makes religious sense to me, even though I usually have no clue as to what physicists are talking about.

But God as the maker of things both visible and invisible? I’m married to a cutting and pasting artist, so that part I get.

Lift High the Cross

Sermon given at General Theological Seminary
Tuesday in Lent V
♦ March 15, 2016 ♦

I arrived in New York City on Friday from Chicago. Like many Chicagoans, I watched in dismay as the Trump rally, scheduled to be held a few neighborhoods west of my apartment, descended into violence—yet more evidence of the bloody effects of the polarizing rhetoric that is poisoning our body politic.

So I find a sermon on these readings a challenging one to preach. What we are experiencing in our political culture, especially in these last days before Holy Week, makes it more and more difficult for me to sympathize with the troublesome polarities of John’s gospel, polarities equally shadowed by the promise of violence.

Jesus mosaicThere is so much in John’s gospel to love: Jesus washing his disciples feet, Jesus at home in Bethany, Jesus defending the woman taken in adultery, Jesus speaking to the Samaritan woman as an equal, Jesus weeping at Lazarus’ tomb, Mary of Bethany extravagantly anointing him, Mary of Magdala yearning to embrace him in the resurrection dawn. This is the intimacy of the Jesus circle that all of us here so much yearn to share, an intimacy that we will try in our awkward way to emulate when we gather next week to wash each other’s feet in his memory. There is so much in John’s Jesus to love.

But there is also much not to love. The episode we just heard ends, we are told, with many Jews believing in him. But this is the same Jesus who, just moments later, will denounce those same new believers as children of the devil, all but inciting them to riot:

“Then Jesus said to the Jews that believed in him…why do you not understand what I say? It is because you do not accept my word. You are from your father the devil, and you choose to do your father’s desires.”

It’s one of the ugliest episodes in the entire New Testament, Jesus ruthlessly goading his once sympathetic hearers, sowing landmines into the holy ground on which these new followers long have staked their lives—there in the very center of the Temple—calling them liars, insulting them, infuriating them so much that “they picked up stones to throw at him.”

I know, I know. I’ve been to seminary. I’ve read Ray Brown. I know that John’s gospel is a many-layered thing, that there is more than one story unfolding here. There is the story of Jesus the redeemer, Jesus the healer, Jesus whose every work of love—beginning at Cana and ending in the cross—is a sign of God’s reign breaking in among us. This is the Jesus I have preached for 30 years, the Jesus at the center of this glorious reredos, the Jesus under whose benevolent gaze you and I have been trained for the Lord’s service, Jesus the Good Shepherd for whom this chapel is named.

And then there’s the other Jesus, a Jesus more problematic to embrace. He is the Jesus revered by the branch of the Jesus movement that gathered around that mysterious beloved disciple—the Jesus movement that felt itself under siege perhaps 60 years after the events it recounts here, fighting to secure its identity over against an emergent and resurgent Pharisaical movement that promised new hope to the followers of Moses and the lovers of Torah. This branch of the Jesus movement, at once so generous, so spiritually grounded, so not of this world, is also shadowed by its own toxic polarities. It is exclusionary in its very inclusiveness, like the Passion gospel we are forced to read every Good Friday, the Passion gospel that so clearly places blame on the very Jews whom Jesus loved. “If the world hates you,” John’s Jesus will tell his friends, “be aware that it hated me before it hated you. If you belonged to the world, the world would love you as its own.” (John 15:18-19)

So where does this leave us, for better and for worse the inheritors of this gospel, lovers of this Jesus but also very much embedded in this world, called by this very gospel to be bridge builders and peacemakers in polarized times, yet to be in the world but not of it.

“They said to him, ‘Who are you?’” 

“Jesus, who are you?” It’s the question at the heart of this evening’s reading. It’s the question at the center of all four gospels, not just this one. It’s the question we ask of Jesus all our lives, especially in times of stress, if we are honest with ourselves.

“Who are you, Jesus?” That’s the question our parishioners ask, when they are being honest with us, especially in these increasingly violent and troubled days.

“Who are you, Jesus?” That’s the question the world asks. And let’s be clear. For many who live in what this John’s gospel can so dismissively call the world, once they witness the hateful behavior of many Christians, in this country and elsewhere, who claim to act in Jesus’ name, the answer is all but self-evident. If this is who Jesus is, if this Jesus is anything like his nasty followers, we are better off without him.

There’s a lot at stake here. Who are you, Jesus? The answer to that question is not just what’s at stake in John’s gospel. The answer to that question is also what’s at stake in our common life today, as Christians and as citizens, in these dark election days more than ever.

Let’s think this through for a moment. Go back to the gospel passage we have just heard. What exactly was it that Jesus said that, for the moment at least, moved his listeners to join him, so that “as he was saying these things, many believed in him?”

Listen to it again:

“So Jesus said, ‘When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will realize that I am he.’”

“As he was saying these things, many believed in him.” I like to think that those who heard him utter these cryptic words recognized more readily than we might the allusion to the book of Numbers, to the story that we also heard at this service, the story of the brazen snake lifted up in the wilderness, not as a sign of a poisonous death but as a sign of a reconciled God, a sign of healing and new life. Perhaps they had heard Jesus say pretty much the same thing earlier in this gospel, when he had made the reference clear: “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” (John 3:14)

The Jesus at the heart of this gospel is not the Jesus who divides, but the Jesus who heals.

So really, I suggest as Christians, as lovers of Jesus, we need to turn around the central question. For those of us who follow Jesus, who seek entrance to the inner circle, who seek to follow Jesus the friend of Lazarus, the friend of Mary, the friend of the beloved disciple, to join the intimate circle of friends gathered in the upper room this Holy Week, the question we need to ask is this: Not who are you? But who are we?

We will all need to ponder that question in the next several days, as we gather at our various altars in our feeble attempts to lift high the cross in Holy Week. We will read this gospel in a time when it will be tempting to divide believers from unbelievers, and to hide ourselves in the cross’ shadow. We will read this gospel while we will witness fellow Christians wield the cross as a kind of weapon of righteousness, yielding to every xenophobic impulse. Facing such religious disarray, it will be tempting to draw in the wagons, to take shelter in a churchy passivity, to hide ourselves in a beloved community that turns out to be beloved only of ourselves.

But in Christ we are more than that. In the coming days, may we be bold enough to raise the cross in the wilderness of our public life, not as a symbol of division but as a vehicle of reconciliation; as an antidote to toxic hatreds that are poisoning public speech; as a sign that we are baptized to a ministry of reconciliation and not of retribution—baptized to a ministry of healing, and perhaps most important in these mendacious days, baptized to a ministry of truth-telling.

In the end, that’s the only Jesus movement worth joining.

New Home for Bexley Seabury Beginning July 2016

February 26, 2016 ♦

Since November, when our Board of Directors voted unanimously to consolidate in Chicago as recommended by our Beyond Walls Task Force, we have been pursuing several possible paths forward. Now, following decisions made at the Board’s February meeting, we know where we are headed, and when.

After considering several alternatives, the Board voted unanimously to establish a new home for Bexley Seabury in Chicago’s vibrant, ecumenically and theologically diverse Hyde Park/Woodlawn neighborhood. In July, we will unify seminary staff and faculty on the second floor of the Chicago Theological Seminary (CTS) at 1407 East 60th Street.

Our association with CTS dates from 1984, when our two seminaries joined the Association of Chicago Theological Schools (ACTS) as founding members. We are very pleased to take our association with CTS to a new level and build on our many shared values.

This move will make Bexley Seabury the sixth (sole Episcopal) seminary located in an approximately one-mile-square area. Importantly, the move will also help us achieve the number-one goal of our 2015–2017 Strategic Plan: increased access to theological education.

We announce this good news mindful of the many blessings of our 17-year collaboration with Trinity Lutheran Seminary in Columbus. We look forward to celebrating our partnership with Trinity in May—and to participating in commencement there on Saturday, May 21, when we will award 2016 MDiv degrees. Then, in both Columbus and Chicago, we’ll be preparing for our July move to Hyde Park/Woodlawn.

We will spend the summer months getting situated at CTS, and begin teaching there in the fall. Our offering will include our Doctor of Ministry degree (both Congregational Development and Preaching concentrations) and our Anglican Studies and Lifelong Learning programs. Pending accrediting and state licensing approvals, we also plan to offer our Master of Divinity degree at the new location.

Among the many advantages of relocating to a single site in the Hyde Park/Woodlawn neighborhood:

  • Substantially increased breadth and depth of ecumenical experience. Our community will blend with a rich mix of highly diverse individuals who represent a broad range of belief communities and practice traditions.
  • Increased access to innovative online and hybrid courses, newly expanded by our use of proven online teaching technologies that CTS developed.
  • Proximity to other ACTS member schools will help our students to take greater advantage of cross-registration privileges. This is particularly true for CTS coursework and the academic programming offered by its four theological centers: The Center for the Study of Black Faith and Life; The LGBTQ Studies Center; The Center for Jewish, Christian & Islamic Studies; and The Center for the Study of Korean Christianity.
  • New housing options that are both convenient and affordable at Catholic Theological Union and Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, each approximately one mile from our new location.
  • The opportunity to deepen our relationship with Chicago Theological Seminary and collaborate on multiple initiatives.

Visit "About Our New Building" on the CTS websiteand you’ll see that our new home is an impressive structure, tailor-made for creating community and providing a rich, 21-st century teaching-learning experience. The facility is modern (built in 2012), eco-friendly (Gold LEED-certified) and accessible for individuals with differing needs. In addition to dedicated offices, we will have access to well-appointed classrooms, a glass-enclosed chapel, and the CTS Learning Commons, which includes a 45,000-plus-volume collection of classical and contemporary theological thought.

Another important and exciting decision from the February meeting is the Board’s endorsement of a detailed framework for the Bexley Seabury Scholars Program. The program is designed to create new possibilities for potential ordinands, including leaders from underrepresented populations and under-resourced communities. Staff has begun next steps, including development of a collaborative diocesan-based strategy to identify candidates, and we will report progress as it develops. Meanwhile, we continue to offer needs-based scholarships to lay and ordained students.

Stay tuned for more details and please This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. on any changes in your mail and email addresses so that we can keep you informed.

With thanks for your prayers, encouragement and feedback, may we follow Jesus to the cross this Lent with renewed humility and resolve,


P.S. You can review the press announcement here and learn more about CTS here.

Driven to the Desert

February 14, 2016 ♦

Sermon for the First Sunday in Lent
Church of St. Paul and the Redeemer, Chicago


I spent some time in the desert last weekend. I was the guest preacher at the Episcopal cathedral in Phoenix, a city that by rights shouldn’t exist where it does but persists in claiming it deserves to. On a splendid winter morning, some good friends introduced me to the Desert Botanical Garden, perhaps the only such park in the country, and if not that, certainly the largest and the most beautifully maintained. There are few things more noble to behold than a giant Saguaro cactus silhouetted against the open desert sky. The Saguaro is a true survivor species, both dangerously fragile and immensely tenacious. It has evolved to survive in the cruelest desert temperatures, its roots shallow but widespread, its main trunk absorbing and retaining sometimes more than a ton of water, at the same time providing a sheltered home to desert woodpeckers who peck their way into the cactus’ cool embrace.

That part of the desert was beautiful. But remember, this was Phoenix, which means there’s also Scottsdale, the Southwest shopper’s suburban paradise. While I was wandering through the winding pathways of the cactus garden, a few miles away in Scottsdale more than 250,000 wellheeled and suitably dressed spectators had gathered in the desert heat to watch the Phoenix Open. There is nothing more unsettling than to encounter the well-manicured and undulating green of a professional golf course sprouting fully grown in the midst of the desert waste. Traveling through Scottsdale, it’s hard to resist the uncharitable thought that the water that’s been diverted to maintain the eighteenth hole for the amusement of the 1% might have been put to much better use elsewhere. Flint comes to mind. Is it just me, or do I detect an unintended irony in the official title given to last weekend’s tournament? It was called the Waste Management Phoenix Open. You can’t make these things up.

But I digress. What I am saying is, deserts are seldom simply deserts. Religious people of a certain sentimental persuasion tend to idealize deserts, especially in Lent. We too easily make mistake the desert for a metaphor. It is an inner place to which we can remove ourselves from the world, become more adept at religion perhaps, see things more clearly, take better control of our spiritual lives, fast and diet our way to a better tomorrow.

But that’s not how Luke presents the desert this morning, and that’s not what drew Jesus to it. To be sure, deserts can be places of great beauty and safe refuge, but they can also be treacherous—and I am not just talking about rattlesnakes. As we know all too well from our recent history, deserts can be hotbeds of human destructiveness, theaters of torture, places of trial that take the measure of our collective moral being and all too often find it wanting, exposed in all our weakness and folly.

Let’s be clear. Once he was safely baptized, Jesus didn’t enter the desert in order to seek the Spirit. Just the opposite. It was the Spirit that forced him into the desert, drove him there not in spite of his baptism but as a result of it. The Spirit drove Jesus into the desert because that’s what baptism does—it forces our hand. The Spirit drove Jesus into the desert—what better place to withstand the world’s temptations, to be seen and tested as our own divine Saguaro, both fragile and tenacious?

Luke’s Gospel, unlike the other three, presents Jesus with three desert temptations. But really, I think for us, they really come down to just two: the temptation to despair, and the temptation to control. These two temptations might seem like opposites, but in fact they function well together. How many of us have not felt at some time in our lives, maybe even now, in some way abandoned by God, left in the wilderness with no compass, no map, as if God has simply left the building. And in the face of such abandonment, how many of us have not felt the need to regain control, to master our own destinies, to seize the initiative in a hostile world and take control where we can and when we can? I suspect that need to control what cannot be controlled—the resort to verbal, emotional and even physical violence to reassert control—is what now haunts our political culture, and poisons our public life.

And for those of us who think of ourselves as religious, or even just spiritual people, that need to control is the shadow side of this Lenten observance, the shadow side of many of our religious practices: if only we can say the right things, pray the right way, read the right texts, reject the appropriate heresies, only then can we overcome the doubts that haunt us, overcome the world’s contention—and maybe our own—that all this might be just nonsense, that non-sense is what the cosmos is all about, and that life is just an aimless drift, a wandering in a trackless desert.

This drive to control in the face of despair underlies the three temptations that Luke’s Satan offers to Christ in the desert.

  • Turn those stones into bread: Take control of your Messianic destiny, and leave this human frailty behind.
  • Enter into your glory: Worship me, seize your lordly inheritance, and devil take the hindmost. God has nothing to do with what you have coming to you, because, when push comes to shove, God is really just Satan in disguise, and you deserve everything you get.
  • Throw yourself down from the parapet: Let your desperation force God to play God’s saving hand.

What Satan preaches in this Gospel is an ethic of control: spirituality as a means of controlling the future, martyrdom as a means of controlling God.

Where Satan goes astray, and what this Gospel proclaims, is that even in the desert, faithfulness is not about control. It has nothing to do with personal perfection, or following the proper rules, or testing whether God is really on our side when push comes to shove.

Faithfulness in the desert, as Jesus practices faithfulness, is not about control. Faithfulness is about bearing witness. Bearing witness—standing firm against the destructive powers of this world, acting with both passion and compassion toward others so that God’s saving grace may be seen and felt in the world. Bearing such witness is a risky business. Perhaps there is no more ominous sentence in the Gospel than the one that ends this reading: “When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.”

It is no different for us. In this Lenten season, all sorts and conditions of people seem intent on bearing witness to wanton falsehoods: to a savage individualism, a ruthless xenophobia, and racist rhetoric masquerading as Christian truth. Savage individualism, ruthless xenophobia, violent racism, all in the name of a so-called Christian nation that neither is nor was: this is what our desert looks like, it is into this desert that the Spirit has driven us.

This is the great paradox of the Christian life. In this Lenten season, we don’t enter the desert to stay there. We don’t go there to prove anything. We don’t go there because we want to go there. We go there because we have to go there, because that is where the Spirit is driving us. And we don’t necessarily emerge from the desert as more spiritual persons, whatever that means. But in Christ’s name we leave the desert as witnesses to God’s enduring care for the world as it is, acting in charity toward our neighbors, seeking the kind of justice that restores and reconciles, in solidarity with the weak and the oppressed, the exile and the refugee, even those who do not look like us or speak like us or eat like us or pray like us.

There was a time when these things could go without saying in this country.

These times are different.

Into what desert is the Spirit driving you?

President Roger Ferlo

Roger Ferlo

Roger A. Ferlo is the president of the Bexley Seabury Federation and professor of biblical interpretation and the practice of ministry. Ferlo came to Bexley Seabury in 2012 from Virginia Theological Seminary where he was associate dean and director of the Institute of Christian Formation and Leadership and also served as professor of religion and culture. 

Earlier, Ferlo, spent 19 years in parish ministry, in Georgia, Pennsylvania, and New York City. He trained for the priesthood at the General Theological Seminary in New York City. He has more than 15 years of teaching experience at the university and seminary levels; 15 years of service on the board of the National Association of Episcopal schools, including a term as president; and nine years of service on the board of trustees of his alma mater, Colgate University ('73, summa cum laude), where in 2010 he was awarded an honorary doctorate.

Ferlo holds a Ph.D. from Yale University ('79) and has authored and edited three books and numerous published essays, sermons and reflections.