Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Welcome Home

Opening Eucharist August 31, 2010, 185th academic year
Preached by President Michael L. Cooper-White
Texts: Proverbs 25, Hebrews 13, Luke 14:1, 7-14

Theologian and ethicist Stanley Hauerwas has been teaching down at Duke Divinity School for nearly three decades. A few years back, TIME magazine deemed Hauerwas the most influential theologian in America. He recently published an autobiographical memoir, Hannah’s Child, which I received as a gift and have begun to read. Looking back at his Texas origins, where his father was a bricklayer, Hauerwas reflected, “I have spent my life in buildings built by people like my father, buildings in which the builders have felt they do not belong.”

Buildings in which the builders have felt they do not belong . . . Hauerwas refers, of course, to the halls of academia, and perhaps even to the great chapels at places like Duke University. Here in our own grand Church of the Abiding Presence, those who built and have stewarded it over seven decades have seldom sat among us as we gather for worship or one of the fine lectures or concerts that take place within these walls.

In the current season, it seems that we are surrounded on every side by questions of who and what belong where and when. Heated debates are waged up in New York City. Out in the New York harbor, Lady Liberty still beckons and beseeches: Bring me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free. But if your idea of freedom is to build a Mosque near the place of horrendous tragedy at Ground Zero, then go elsewhere. Here you do not belong.

Likewise down in Arizona, and in many jurisdictions around the country, there is high anxiety over those who cross our borders without their immigration papers in order. “Send them home or somewhere else,” cry out many. I suspect if they did their family genealogical work carefully, some of those most vociferous in their opposition to so-called “illegal aliens” would soon come across ancestors who came to this country with no questions asked. Many who cling most fiercely to their land and property would have to acknowledge that their ancestors walked onto rich land and simply called it their own in a time of rural homesteading.

Even within our churches, the debates roil on and on about who and what belongs where and when. So-called worship wars continue to be waged in some places over what kind of liturgy and type of songs, even which hymnal shall be used. In my student years at this institution, a couple of professors could not celebrate the Sacrament because they held radical notions about who might receive bread and wine, including very young children. This was at a time when pastoral discretion in such matters was quite circumscribed, and deviations from the norm received a heavy hand of church discipline. Just last week, a new North American Lutheran Church body was created over questions of who belongs where doing what in our churches. Some of the long-time builders, including bishops who gave their lives and careers to the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and its predecessors, have concluded that ours is now a building they can no longer inhabit. While I do not agree with their assessment, I am saddened by their departure and hope for a day when they and we and indeed all Christians can truly abide in the same household of faith.

This week’s appointed Scriptures issue some theological vectors and pastoral advice that address these very questions of who and what belongs where and when. And their message is consistent, even insistent. The writer of Hebrews sums it up succinctly: Never fail to exhibit, to demonstrate hospitality to strangers! Those who have done so already have often entertained God’s very messengers, angels coming incognito and in disguise. Go so far, says the Hebrews author, as to remember those in prison, for they too belong in places where they are no longer free to go.

In the Gospel, Jesus once again is mixing it up with the Pharisees, who seemed to spend most of their time worrying about who belongs where and when doing what. On a Sabbath, when Jesus went to dine in the house of a Pharisee, Luke’s Gospel says, “he was being watched carefully.” The Pharisees were always watching Jesus. Theirs was not the loving kind of watching, as when you watch a baby sleep and utter prayers from your perch beside the crib. It was a more sinister watching—to take note when he might stumble. Theirs was the watch-keeping of a security guard or police officer keeping tabs on a shady suspect.

As he did so often, Jesus engaged the Pharisees and invited them to expand their comfort zone. He first offered some friendly advice about how to avoid embarrassing themselves. “Don’t take a seat in first class if you don’t have that ticket. They’ll kick you out and send you back to coach, and you’ll be shamed in the process.” Then he went on to teach them the way of true Christian hospitality:

When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your relatives or rich neighbors. But when you host a five-course banquet with your finest china and nicest linen tablecloths, or when you make a group reservation at your town’s most expensive restaurant, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. Then you too will be blessed by the experience of offering lavish hospitality.

Once again this year, as I have been privileged to do now most years of the past decade, I sat in as you summer Greek students introduced yourselves and explained how you came to be in this place. I came away that Friday afternoon more grateful than ever for my own call to serve in a Seminary that attracts such outstanding women and men! As I listened to your “call stories,” I was struck by how many of you wondered for so long—and may still be wondering—whether or not YOU belong in this place. Are you not indeed like Stan Hauerwas’ father, the builders who feel you don’t belong in the buildings that you have sustained by your prayers, your offerings, your commitment during all those years of your formation in the faith; during a long season of your lay leadership in the church?

Perhaps some or many of you need a word of assurance, maybe even from me a presidential proclamation. So here it is: Welcome home! This Church of the Abiding Presence is a building that your forebears built. You will continue reinforcing and refurbishing it by your frequent presence within these walls. This Seminary will not be the same four or two or one year hence. As has occurred every year since the beginning way back in 1826, once again this year the Seminary will be rebuilt, refashioned as a community—by all of us.

So, be confident in God’s call and your own sense of calling. You do belong in these venerable buildings and upon this holy hill. Whether or not you come for your very first service of Holy Communion around this altar, or have been coming here for decades already—in the case of some of the faculty, staff and alumni—welcome home. Welcome home!

Now, in the spirit of high transparency to which this school’s leadership aspires, I must go on to remind you that exhibiting good Christian hospitality is indeed hard work. Those who open their doors and their hearts to a host of strangers will on occasion be taken advantage of and even abused. There is some wisdom in the little ditty that Barney the dinosaur teaches children who watch him on television:

Never talk to strangers; that’s very good advice. Cause you just can’t tell if they’re good or bad, even though they may seem nice.

In my experience, however, it is generally not strangers who do us the greater harm. So often, our most painful encounters come with those who are close to us or even within our care. Of late, there has been a flurry of newspaper articles and internet pieces on the topic often referred to as “clergy burnout.” These articles point out that on average those who engage in full-time ecclesiastical service have poorer physical health and more mental health challenges than the population as a whole. Many in the professions to which you students aspire find themselves strapped financially, work far too many hours, often neglect their families, and experience a profound loneliness because they lack either the time or the ability to form lasting supportive friendships. But the even greater burner-out, which leaves some colleagues smoldering in the ashes after a time of ecclesiastical service, is the constant grind of demands by and lack of appreciation from those among whom they serve.

Perhaps in this regard also, there is some word from the Lord for us in the Bible’s many teachings on this important matter of Godly hospitality. I think both Jesus in his mini-lecture at the Pharisee’s house, and the writer of Hebrews issue a reminder, and it is this: The host is the host. The host is not a servile victim who must fulfill every unreasonable demand of every guest who shows up at the banquet, invited or not. In another saying, Jesus urged us to go the second mile; he did not say we have to always run a marathon beside those whose intentional or subconscious aim is to facilitate our fatigue. A good host has to remain healthy enough to issue the invitations, set the table, and then engage in holy conversation that builds up and sends guests away more whole than when they arrived.

Jesus concludes this little lesson in the school of the Pharisee’s home with a promise: “You will be blessed. Even though your guests cannot bother to say thank you; even if they pan you or blast your hospitality in the post-banquet reviews, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous. God’s answer to our modest acts of hospitality will be the Great Surprise at the in-breaking of the Coming Age, when the Triune Host of Heaven flings wide the doors to the larger life of God and shouts, “Welcome home, daughters and sons, friends, family all. Welcome home!”

That, dear fellow travelers on the journey this year on this hill, that word of welcome is precisely what Jesus issues to us now as he beckons us to his banquet table.

No comments: