Listening for the Next 200 Years

As part of my sabbatical, I have been accepting some invitations to preach.

I preached this sermon at General Seminary in May


In the name of our God of beginnings and endings, goings–out, and comings–in: Amen.

Good evening. And Happy Anniversary! I feel as if I am on the 200th Anniversary circuit this Spring. St. Paul’s Cathedral, in my own Diocese of Western New York, just celebrated its 200th. Our Presiding Bishop was with us for that great occasion, and he preached from the very spot where he was ordained deacon in 1979.

Bishop Michael recalled how, in late December 1813, the tiny village of Buffalo on Lake Erie was burned to the ground by the British. And then–just four years later in 1817–work had started on what would become our cathedral. So out of uncertainty—a future was born.

A few weeks later I celebrated the 200th Anniversary of St. Mark’s Church in LeRoy, New York, which prospered with the coming of the Erie Canal and found a new wave of prosperity when Jello-O was invented there. You will not be surprised that their 200th reception was all Jell-O, all the time.

1817 is the year the General Convention of the Episcopal Church chartered this seminary. By then, New York was the largest city in the Western Hemisphere, with a population of 202,000–or about the number of people who will show up at the box office in Manhattan tonight expecting to get a ticket for HAMILTON.

General Seminary was born out of the world Alexander Hamilton inhabited before he was killed in a fateful duel in 1804. Hamilton knew Bishop William White when Philadelphia was our nation’s capital, and Bishop White was the chaplain of the Congress.

White was the great advocate for one national Episcopal seminary, but he wanted it out of Philadelphia because–the legend goes–his wife was tired of putting up with candidates for holy orders who camped out on the top floor of the White house, so that they could be tutored by the bishop himself.

So it was north to New York City and to Chelsea Square, where this land–then an apple orchard–had been made available by Clement Clarke Moore. Some of the Virginia delegates to the General Convention worried that New York was not a healthy place for the promotion of sound views of the Gospel and the Church. They were assuaged by promises that “the evil of the undue influence of New York City on the General Seminary would be chiefly at the beginning, and would be decreasing every year.” Some of you will have to let me know after the service whether that promise has come true.

I preached often from this pulpit from 1993 to 1997, when I was a layman and a professor here. This is only my second time in this pulpit since I became a bishop seven years ago. Sot it is a great honor to be with you in this special year. As your term comes to a close, this is a time to celebrate and to give thanks for General Seminary.

When I was here a year ago, preaching on Ascension Day, I urged you to be the hands and feet of Jesus. Tonight I want you to be the ears of Jesus as well.

Now, let me clarify. I am a member of the General Board of Examining Chaplains, and a reader of the General Ordination Exams. This year one seminarian wrote that it is that candidate’s goal in ministry “to see the hands and feet of Jesus in the face of the other.” At first I thought that this was a classic GOE blooper, but I can’t un-see that image. It may haunt your dreams, as it does mine.

I want to share with you a story of how I was humbled this past Lent by listening to my own diocese. My diocese was bitterly divided 50/50 in the voting in the 2016 presidential election. And so to move toward some healing and unity, I decided that our Lenten study theme should be “Making a Space for Grace,” and I invited parishioners to share stories of what lay behind their own votes—when they had felt ignored, when they had felt no one was listening to them, why they are so angry——and stories about how they had sought to see the face of Jesus in those who had voted differently from themselves.

For the forty days of Lent I went from parish to parish to hear what people had to say. At one congregation, on the Cattaraugus Indian Reservation, older native people recalled how they were taken away from their families as children and sent to so-called “Indian Schools,” where they were beaten if they spoke their native language. The Seneca language was lost in one generation. They told me:” Bishop, you’ve never asked us what our lives were like.”

Another congregation is in the village of Attica, near the state prison. Parishioners told stories of the 1971 prison riot–about their High School classmates who worked there as correctional officers and whose throats were slit, about inmates who had done nothing wrong but were gunned down. They told me:”Bishop, you have never been to talk to us about why we are so angry.”

Another night I went to St. Jude’s in South Buffalo, a blue-collar congregation in which almost everyone in the parish had lost their jobs when the Buffalo steel mills shut down in the 1970’s, and many of them lost their homes, and some of them lost their cars. They told me:”Bishop, you’ve never come to ask us what that was like.”

I am ashamed that I, as their bishop, had never asked them to tell me their stories. How can we heal and love and serve our people unless we know their real stories of tragedy and loss?

Jesus listened. He listened to women when they asked for healing for their children. He listened to rich young men who wondered why all their possessions did not make them happy.

In our Gospel reading from John, the Temple leaders hear Jesus’ words but are unable to listen with the ear of their hearts to understand him. But Jesus listens to his Father, he declares to the world what he has heard from God. He speaks as the Father has taught him to speak.

O that we might follow the example of Jesus: —–to listen so completely —–to hear so clearly ——to speak so fearlessly Jesus was able to heal and love and serve because he listened to what was really on people’s minds—-to know the solace that people needed in their actual circumstances. Listening—-Listening—-Listening has in fact been part of the DNA of General at moments of crisis.

In 1878, Eugene Augustus Hoffman–said to be the richest clergyman in the world because of his extensive real estate holdings–became the Dean of GTS. He led General at a time of great division–the lingering divisions of the Civil War; and the great division of the Episcopal Church into Evangelical and Catholic camps. General had been a pawn in these theological culture wars. A General seminarian had been tried for heresy for accepting the doctrines of the Council of Trent, and a delegation of bishops was dispatched to Chelsea Square to search student rooms for hidden rosaries. Dean Hoffman listened to the arguments, and the emotions, surrounding him, and his solution was to heal division by the design of the seminary.

His design emphasized four themes to lead to unity and reconciliation: formation, education, the necessity of a residential community, that community connected realistically to the realities of contemporary Church life. Hoffman oversaw the construction of this great collection of buildings in Chelsea Square to make this mission a visual reality: focusing above all on this Chapel of the Good Shepherd as the key place where future priests were formed by worship….and the classrooms surrounding the chapel where they were formed by reason….and a residential community not hiding from the city but also formed by the city, in a then tough, teeming neighborhood.

How can we find inspiration in this tradition of listening? How can listening to the voices of reality in our parishes, the hopes and actual needs of the parishes and its leaders, in our Episcopal Church, help us to build the seminary of the next 200 years?

Some of the newly-ordained priests I speak with tell me they wish their seminary education had offered some basic courses in more practical things (even in plumbing, the better to deal with crumbling church buildings). Others tell me they wish they had earned an MBA in addition to their M.Div. to keep their parishes sustainable at a time of scarce financial resources. Some think they would be better equipped with advanced degrees in psychiatry to deal with pesky parish personalities.

As an academic myself, I will always hold out for scholarship as the foundation for seminary formation. But, in 1880, THE NEW YORK TIMES made this editorial comment about General Seminary: What people are looking for today, the TIMES said, is “the teaching which reverences precedent, and yet is not its slave; which understands modern thought, and yet is not dominated by it.” The TIMES went on:”If the General Seminary can meet the need by training students to bring strength to modern life, it will bring returns that will amply repay its large present outlay in money and staff.”

To bring strength to modern life as it actually is—Is that not why we are here, we as a seminary, and we as a Church? The clash between what is in here, and what is outside Chelsea Square is why we need the General Theological Seminary. We need this place, steeped in the beauty of holiness, to prepare us to do the work of Jesus in a world where anger is the currency of the day. Here is where we find the truth that makes us free: Faith in Jesus’ identity as the holy listener to the cries of his people. Here is where we learn the skills: we learn to listen IN here, so we can listen OUT there. We need this place where it is EASY to listen, so we are prepared to go THERE—where it is HARD to listen—and to listen there with the ear of Jesus.

May God bless you on your 200th Anniversary, and for many years to come! Amen

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1 Response to Listening for the Next 200 Years

  1. The Rev Tom Broad says:

    So often I hear comments about “what I should have learned in seminary,” and generally those comments involve sundry details of day-to-day operation of a parish church. Thank you for your clear articulation of the REAL reason for a seminary education — learning to listen to the cries of God’s people, learning the power of sharing our stories, and learning to minister in a modern world without being dominated by that world. These are the blessings of that precious time set apart for formation. Thank you for this reminder!

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