Sermon at Episcopal Divinity School Alumni/ae Festival Eucharist

  1. Episcopal Divinity School and Feminist/Womanist Liberation Theologies

Funny what the least remarkable passages from scripture may reveal. “They stood still, looking sad.”

It’s been awhile, about 35 years, since I was living over at 101 Brattle and hosting the “liberation group” that came for coffee and snacks every Tuesday morning at 7:30. The liberation group was a bunch of EDS and HDS students and a few faculty colleagues like Sue Hiatt who met regularly for a couple of years to consider what actions to take next in response to the Reagan Administration, which we believed– from a Christian liberation perspective – was up to no good.

We undertook letter-writing, phone calls, public prayer and demonstrations … the most dramatic being in 1983, when about a dozen of us were arrested in Groton CT for protesting the launching of the Trident nuclear sub.   For us, the liberation group was as high a priority as any course we were teaching or taking. As a matter of historical fact, the liberation group was a significant impetus, and resource, in the formation of EDS’s Feminist Liberation Theologies program.

The critical need for feminist and womanist liberations theologies, including feminist and womanist liturgies, is as real today as ever before. The demand for theologies and liturgies that reflect the lives and values of women across race and class was generated in the closing decades of the last century by the critical scholarship and enthusiastic faith commitments of women scholars, teachers, and religious leaders and our male allies, as well as by students of all genders, cultures, races, and religious traditions. Together, we insisted that feminist and womanist liberation theologies become foundational to our educational curriculum here at EDS.

In this context, as the decade of the 1980s wore on, Sue Hiatt and I and our feminist male colleagues were joined on the faculty by feminist historian Fredrica Harris Thompsett, womanist ethicist Katie Geneva Cannon, and feminist biblical scholar Elisabeth Schusler Fiorenza. Over the next three decades, others would join us, women and men, strengthening EDS as a first-rate educational center, among the best in the world, for studies in Christian feminist liberation theologies, sharpened over the years by strong a anti-racism commitment as well as the post-colonial theologies taking shape as the 20th Century receded into history.

Moving forward now, those leading the movement of the Episcopal Divinity School at the Union Theological Seminary can honor the values and ongoing legacy of this seminary only if they, and we, continue to strengthen the anti-racist, feminist, womanist, post-colonial, and other liberative dimensions of all theology worth doing; and moreover only if we sustain a passion for women’s well-being –justice for women of all colors, cultures, creeds, and continents — as foundational to our movement.

Women – near and far, at home and abroad, in D.C., New York City, and Watertown. Women –throughout these United States, Mexico, Korea, Myanmar, India, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, Palestine. Women, too often trivialized and abused throughout the world in the names of god!

2. Sad times

Now, from our perspective today, it’s hard to overstate what bad times the 1980s were for our nation and our global home, for women and for many men as well, especially people of color and people who were poor. This was the moment in which trickle-down economics was born as a policy that didn’t work then and won’t work now. My beloved friend and life-companion, Christian feminist social ethicist Beverly Harrison, condemned trickle-down economics as a wicked ploy of “capitalist spirituality. “ Assessing the situation, Dorothee Soelle, German political theologian and professor of theology at Union Seminary, warned of an impending “christo-fascism” in the United States. Almost four decades later, in our own time, Pope Francis has blasted the same global capitalist system, noting that “greed does not generate generosity.”

Greed, however, does generate presidents, we have learned of late, and greed generates policies being put in place decades later – here and now – that promise to enhance the richest among us and further decimate the poor as well as the rest of creation. It’s important that we realize thatwhat seems so terribly bad and bleak right now is indeed grim – but that it didn’t begin with the most recent electoral fiasco and inauguration.

So Jesus comes along on the road to Emmaus, picks up alongside two of his woebegone friends and isn’t recognized by them. He sort of nonchalantly asks what they’re talking about — and , we are told, “they stood still, looking sad.”

That would be us, right?

And not only on the morning of Nov 9, 2016, but also on the day last July when we got the terrible news –it seemed, from out of nowhere –that EDS would not be granting degrees beyond this spring.

Wherever we were, whoever we are, we stood still, looking sad, mostly transfixed in disbelief.

Then think too of all the very personal experiences of profound loss in our lives. I remember Bev Harrison’s passing in December 2012 and, more recently, the death last month of her precious little dog Pom, who had been beside Bev when she died and who, over the past five years, had become a beloved friend to Sue and me.

Think for a moment of the many sad losses you have known – of dear friends, family, and loved ones of many species.

In times like these, in grief and shock and disbelief, regardless of who or what may meet us on the road, if someone asks what’s happening, we’re most likely to stand there still, looking sad. For truth to tell, we want our interrogator, especially if a stranger, to be quiet, leave us alone, give us our space.

The Emmaus story is about many things – but first and foremost, it’s about grief and sadness . We have lost something precious: The nation we thought we knew. The school we cherished. A beloved partner. A little dog.

3. Toppling the idol

Then along comes Paul, ever the philosopher, himself no stranger to shock and confusion. The same narrator who tells the Emmaus story recounts Paul’s trip to Athens, where he is distressed to find himself surrounded by people who believe in many gods. Trying to navigate a challenging situation, Paul tells them that he’s found an inscription on one of their altars — “to an unknown god” – whom he proceeds to describe as “the one God who made the world and everything in it…. a God ‘in whom we live and move and have our being.’” Here Paul, perhaps to bolster his influence among the Greeks, is quoting Aratus, not a Jew but a Greek poet who lived some 300 years earlier.

So now, in a season of grief and change, we have two stories that may shed a little light on our lives. Both stories are about a Spirit in whom we live and move and have our being, a God whom we often don’t recognize. Could our failure to recognize who is with us possibly be because when we do notice who is with us, when we do realize who it is, we hear Her calling us to live radical lives?

Since I left the Northeast 12 years ago – as a professional teacher and student here at EDS and earlier at Union in New York City – to return to the Southern Appalachian mountains of my roots –I’ve had every bit as much reason as ever, it would seem even greater cause, to join in the Resistance to the principalities and powers of our time. Because right now, it seems that just about everywhere we turn – in whatever city or county, to whatever channel, town-hall meeting, or congressional hearing – we come face to face with the twisted power of the Great Idol of our time: advanced global capitalism and its savaging of human life and all creation.

Our capacities for empathy, conscience, and solidarity with the most vulnerable creatures of all species, sharpen our moral imperative. Indeed, if we live and breathe and have our being in the “unknown god” of whom Paul speaks, we hear ourselves beckoned by this Spirit to the hefty moral task of toppling the Great Idol.

We are likely to stand still, looking sad, when met with this challenge, are we not?

And really it’s okay to be a little frozen and a bit sad when faced with any spiritual challenge that seems beyond us, especially when so much of the public brouhaha these days mocks us as “the elites,” folks out of touch with real suffering of the common folks. And of course we can always do better. We can, and should, try to be more aware and more empathic with those siblings whose humanity we may too often forget or even fail to see. Perhaps all we can do, sometimes, when we realize how our lives seem to hurt our siblings , is stand still for a while, looking sad.

But I don’t think we should spend much time or energy fretting about being branded as elite or self-righteous. Our worry too easily can become self-indulgence. Instead we need to get on with it, to act, to do whatever we can together to resist the ruthless economic, social, and spiritual policies being advanced by global capitalism with its racist, sexist, nativist, christofascist agendas through which both wealth and poverty are on the rise, and in which women and children are almost invariably the most dreadfully violated and the first to be rendered invisible and irrelevant.

Let us not forget Beverly Harrison’s empowering essay in social ethics, in which she reminds us of “the power of anger in the work of love.” If you don’t know it, you should. Go read it, and keep in mind that is was Dr. Harrison’s inaugural address at Union Seminary in New York when she became the Caroline Williams Baierd Professor of Christian Ethics.

4. Humility

Make no mistake, dear friends, in this world of ours, in which we are called to radical lives, which involves being angry at injustice, oppression, violence, and lies, it’s hard is to live in God’s Spirit with empathy and humility. We simply cannot do it without each other’s active solidarity, and without the spiritual practice of revolutionary patience with ourselves and one another, and without a shared, collective wisdom.

These days, I have regular occasions to walk in the woods and along country roads with my dogs and horses as well as human friends and consciously try to see and hear what and who is walking with me – Which ancestors are making themselves known to me today? Who among my old EDS colleagues, friends, and students are walking with me in this moment? What are my companions – including the horses and dogs and trees — trying to communicate to me? What is the Spirit telling me through the voices and memories that greet me? And how do I know what is Good News and what is Fake?

Among the reliably good and true lessons we learn along the way, whoever and wherever we are, none is more important than humility. It’s enormously important that we not mistake humility for self-effacement or self-deprecation. Humility is a perception that we are walking together on common ground. Humility gives us perspective – making us aware that we never have the whole story; we never see it all; we seldom know as much as we need to know about a situation; and, despite our best efforts, we are often unaware of the Spirit beside us, or of whom we may have left behind, because we just didn’t know.

If the story of the unknown God suggests that our vocation is to love fiercely the One in whom we live and breathe and have our being, which means casting down and smashing the idols of our time, surely the Emmaus story suggests that we need to be aware that we don’t know it all, and never will. For that reason, we must never be personally dismissive of, or violent toward, our human adversaries, neighbors, siblings, those whom we perceive as hostages to the death-dealing idols of our time.

5. Good news

Before I close, I have a message from our sister priest and former EDS colleague, the magnificent and ever-so-kind feminist liberation theologian and counselor, Alison Cheek. In her later years, Alison has graced us down South with her presence, her good humor, and her abundance of Sophia-inspired wisdom. Alison urged me to bring you her love and regret that she couldn’t be with us here today. As a matter of fact, she’s having surgery a week from today and asks for your prayers. It’s a fairly minor procedure to correct a wound left over from a major surgery a year ago. But, as some of you know, Alison has just celebrated her 90th birthday, so any surgical procedure is a pretty big deal.

Alison joins me in wishing you well, her alum siblings, as you and we move along on the road– citizens or residents in a nation in great trouble in the midst of a world in even greater trouble; alums and friends of a seminary in transition to something we don’t quite know how to welcome, but moving into an affiliation with another seminary renowned for its justice legacy, including strong feminist, womanist , liberation, and interfaith commitments that seem to stand the tests of time. We shall see.

Finally, Alison would join me in pointing out what should be clear to Christians and to many others as well:

The Emmaus story is about our grief at the death of a loved one being met by the startling possibility of that ones ongoing presence with us.

It’s a story about our sadness at what’s happening in this nation being confronted by the Good News that Life and Love and Justice will carry the day.

Emmaus is a story about the still small voices of courage and compassion that greet us everywhere we roam, however lost or sad we may feel.

It’s is about the Spirit present in the breaking of bread, giving life and hope to people and creatures who need to be fed with justice and joy – in the words of the old labor song, folks who need “bread and roses.”.

Emmaus tells us that, indeed, when confronted by injustice and oppression, ”nevertheless, She persists.”

This is what Easter’s all about — it’s Christianity at its core. May we go well, my friends, in the Spirit of a Power and a Movement that is rising among us – Good News indeed!

Carter Heyward

Episcopal Divinity School

May 19, 2017

 

 

2 thoughts on “Sermon at Episcopal Divinity School Alumni/ae Festival Eucharist

  1. Thank you, dear Carter. That sermon was exactly what I needed to hear today. I am sorry I could not be there, and I’m very grateful to see your words shared here. I share in the sadness at the closing of our school in Cambridge. But I am glad there will be an affiliation with Union, as I have friends there, and great confidence that much wonderful theology, and teaching and learning will still take place. May the blessing of almighty God be with you now and always.

  2. Thank you Carter for preaching liberating good news! I also recall Bev, possibky also in her inaugural address, calling us to pray and share “the deepest longing of our hearts” for loving justice. This sermon belongs in journals and archives of theses shared institutions!

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