Kent J. Ulery, President of Bangor Theological Seminary
March 1, 2009
To you, O LORD, I lift up my soul.
Oh my God, in you I trust;
do not let me be put to shame;
do not let my enemies exult over me.
Do not let those who wait for you be put to shame;
let them be ashamed who are wantonly treacherous.
Make me to know your ways, O LORD;
teach me your paths.
Lead me in your truth, and teach me,
for you are the God of my salvation;
for you I wait all day long.
Be mindful of your mercy, O LORD, and of your steadfast love,
for they have been from of old.
Do not remember the sins of my youth or my transgressions;
according to your steadfast love remember me,
for your goodness’ sake, O LORD!
Good and upright is the LORD;
therefore he instructs sinners in the way.
He leads the humble in what is right,
and teaches the humble his way.
All the paths of the LORD are steadfast love and faithfulness,
for those who keep his covenant and his decrees.
Psalm 25:1-10 (NRSV)
Grace to you and peace from Christ Jesus, the One who is the Head of the Church. I bring you greetings from the students and alums, faculty and staff, trustees and friends of Bangor Theological Seminary. What a joy it is for Meg and me to be invited to join you today in the worship of God, to have this opportunity to thank you for your support of the seminary, and to express our appreciation for your sharing of your pastor with us as a member of our Board of Trustees.
My experience of Carla is that she is able to identify root issues, appreciates focused discussions, and cares enough to ask even a seminary President “How are you doing spiritually? Are you taking care of yourself? What more can we do to support you?” – all the while multi-tasking with her knitting needles and yarn! Carla, I consider it an honor to address this congregation you are called to serve, and I thank you for the privilege of your pulpit as well as for the opportunity to serve with you at the table.
Yesterday was spent leading a continuing education workshop for New Hampshire United Church of Christ clergy on the lectionary gospel lessons assigned for Holy Week. That is what we do as a seminary. We teach church leaders. We teach church leaders, both lay and ordained. We teach church leaders, both lay and ordained, so that their ministries will be informed.
Jonathon Fisher, a founding Trustee, 300 years ago said: “I am strongly averse to an unlearned ministry; if in this district we wait to be supplied from other institutions, I am fully persuaded that the ground will be preoccupied by Sectarians, many of whom will not only be unlearned, but very unlearned.” I know that at the Church of Christ at Dartmouth College you value higher education. You know that religious leaders who speak and act out of ignorance cause hurt in individual lives, do damage to local churches, and wreck havoc in our world. So you appreciate that, as the only accredited seminary in northern New England, Bangor Theological Seminary’s mission is clear.
Because our teaching ministry is critically important, we are bold enough to ask for your support. To put it bluntly, Bangor Theological Seminary depends on your annual donations. We long to receive your major gifts. We want to be written into your wills. We trust you will lift us up in your daily prayers. We never want to be out of your hearts and minds.
Since today is the First Sunday in Lent, it is fitting that you invited a representative of your seminary to speak since, from the earliest days of the Church, this season has focused on teaching; and how appropriate it is that we gather around the Communion Table, because the lessons to be learned during Lent should bring us to our knees.
Historically, Lent is the season of preparation for new converts to the Christian faith. In the early Church they received an education looking nothing like our modern new member classes. In his book Apostolic Tradition, written around the year 215, Hippolytus of Rome described the process of extended training and rigorous examination.
It began with three years of instruction centered on the Hebrew Scriptures, during which time those wanting to join the Church were expected to attend the Service of the Word, but were excused during the Sacrament of Holy Communion. Those proving by their knowledge they could “talk the talk” of the Christian faith, and showing by their virtuous actions they could “walk the walk” of the Christian life, in the several weeks preceding Easter, received specific instruction in the gospel, submitted themselves to daily exorcisms, and were examined carefully.
During Holy Week they bathed on Maundy Thursday before fasting on Good Friday and Saturday. A final exorcism was performed. Then they spent Saturday night in vigil – reading, praying, and receiving additional instruction in the faith. After confessing their faith at dawn on Easter morning, they were baptized with water and anointed with oil. Finally, at the Easter celebration, they joined the faithful at the communion table where, along with bread and wine, they also received a cup of milk and honey.
Compare that to our new member experience when we moved to Maine. After visiting various local churches on Sunday mornings, we told the pastor of one we wanted to join. The pastor made a social call to get acquainted. There were no classes. There was no mention of the church’s mission. There was no conversation about discipleship. On the Sunday we joined we had breakfast with the Deacons (Dunkin’ Donuts and coffee). We went around the circle introducing ourselves. The Deacons said a word about why they were active in the church – mostly having to do with pot luck meals. A packet was distributed listing activities we might become involved in if we choose to do so. Then the pastor instructed us where to stand, which candle to light, and that we should stay after church for more Dunkin’ Donuts and coffee.
Whatever happened to “pick up your cross and follow me”? What happened to the command to love God “with all you heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength”? When did we start enticing new members with easy benefits rather than emphasizing the demands of discipleship?
I’ll leave answering to the seminary’s history professor. Today I’ll simply say Lent is the season when the Church teaches that following Christ is neither comfortable, convenient, nor cheap. The Lenten classroom is brutally honest. Its lesson is that God’s ways are not our ways. The season begins with prayers of confession – with the bearing of ashes on our foreheads – and proceeds toward all the skeletons in our closets being paraded publically on Palm Sunday.
Psalm 25 assigned for today is an ancient teaching tool. It is structured as an acrostic poem. Written like a child’s alphabet book (“A is for apricot, B is for banana…”), as an aid in memorization each line begins with the next letter in the Hebrew alphabet (alef, bet, gimel, daled…).
Hebrew poetry tends to be circular rather than linear, ascending from the first line to the middle and then descending to the last. Fascinatingly, the initial letters of the first, middle, and last lines spell the Hebrew word ’alaf, meaning “learn.” Moreover, the verb “learn” appears three times in the psalm, “instruct” and “make known” each twice.
“Make me to know your ways, O LORD;
teach me your paths,” the psalmist pleads.
“Lead me in your truth and teach me…”
As Virginia Theological Seminary’s Professor of Hebrew Scripture, Stephen Cook, concludes: “This psalm is about learning from beginning to middle to end.”
The psalmist opens with a very human request for God to make the effort worth it. If the psalmist is going to all the trouble of living God’s way, then the least God can do is make sure good things happen to those who do good, and bad things to those who don’t.
Of course, life is never that simple. And once the education of the psalmist begins in earnest, the psalmist’s self-examination quickly leads to profound humility:
Be mindful of your mercy, O Lord,
and of your steadfast love…
Do not remember the sins of my youth or my transgressions;
according to your steadfast love, remember me.
I wonder what sins the psalmist committed as a youth. Mark Twain once quipped that a “[human being] is the only animal that blushes…or needs to!” What is it within your own life that causes you to blush? What is it about our common life that should cause us all to blush? What have we done as a nation that we’d rather God not remember? What have we as a church left undone that we’d rather God not notice? If more specific questions are needed, here are a few I found somewhere but failed to write down the source so I could give proper credit, which give me cause to pause:
If I am following Jesus, why when I have done my giving have I so much left over for myself?
If I am following Jesus, why do my closets bulge when so many are forced to do without?
If I am following Jesus, why do I have so many friends among the affluent and so few among the poor?
If I am following Jesus, why do I enjoy so much privacy in a world that is starved for love?
If I am following Jesus, why am I tempted to overeat in a world where so many are malnourished?
If I am following Jesus, why have I never visited someone in jail, or worked for their release?
If I am following Jesus, why am I getting on so well in a world that marked Him out for death?
Consider such questions your homework assignment for this First Sunday in the Season of Lent. If they give you pause, then you’re learning why the blessing offered at the communion table is nothing less than unearned mercy, undeserved forgiveness, unmerited grace – the Good News that God chooses to remember not our sins, but to remember us.