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Taking Up Life on the Margins

A sermon preached by President Roger Ferlo at the Diocese of Indianapolis's Convention on October 26, 2012:

When Bishop Cate invited me to give this sermon, the honor was great but my trepidation was greater. I'm a native New Yorker, born upstate, long resident in New York City, and now newly arrived in Chicago. Until settling in the Midwest, most of what I knew about Indiana I learned from driving through Gary behind the moving truck. Clearly this would not do.

So I boned up on a little history—Wikipedia to the rescue. And what I learned turned out to be oddly resonant with the text of today's reading from Ephesians, and with the theme and purpose of this great gathering, assembled at a signal moment in the history of this diocese and of our church, a moment of great unity and joy in the diocese of Indianapolis, and of great division in our national life.

From today's New Testament reading:

...in Christ Jesus you who were once far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, the hostility between us.

It is striking to realize how much the early history of this part of the country is peppered with dividing walls and ethnic hostilities. Our story of ethnic division and civil strife stretches far back, starting long before the French and then a hundred years later the British hacked their way westward through the brush. The French had little idea that when they arrived in these parts they would be swept up in the endstage of the Beaver Wars. These were Indian wars for territory and influence that ran for seventy years. The Iroquois from my part of the woods in upstate New York –the Senecas , the Oneidas, the Mohawks, the Cayugas, the Tuscororas—vied for dominance against the Potowotomee, the Miami, the Wea, the Shawnee and the Illinois. Or to put it another way, people from far off battled people that were near, increasingly desperate to carve out safe boundaries for themselves—fortifying the walls both physical and imagined dividing nation and nation, people and people.

Even when peace was declared, once the British beat the French and the colonists beat the English and the Iroquois and the Shawnees and the Illinois beat each other, arguments over who owned what and who owed what to whom lasted well into the nineteenth century, almost up to the year this diocese was founded. Illinois, Ohio, Kentucky, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Indiana itself—there was no predicting at the turn of the century exactly how those boundaries and dividing lines would shape up. And of course, at mid-century, this state's southern boundary marked another dividing wall, a wall in many ways still with us, as this free state of Indiana remained fiercely determined to occupy the northern side in the great national divide over slavery, and later raised a great monument in the middle of Indianapolis that rightly marks the justice of this cause, with our own Episcopal cathedral in its shadow.

Most of this seems like ancient memory, old racial and ethnic divisions long since settled. Only our place names—including the name Indiana itself—bear any trace of these all but forgotten battles. And if these old divisions seem now seem remote, how much more ancient seem the old taboos that divided the Ephesians—Gentile from Jew, circumcised from uncircumcised, clean from unclean—divisions that so exercised Paul's communities, and threatened to tear the early church apart.

So he came to proclaim peace to you who were far off and those who were near, for through him both of us have access in the Spirit to the one Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God.

For this diocese gathered today, this passage rings true. There is so much here to celebrate in this corner of the household of God, so much here to remember and for which to render thanks. Together, time and again, you have labored to heal divisions, to lower the dividing walls, to embrace the stranger, the alien and the outsider, beginning with Bishop Francis' ministry in Japan all those years ago and extending to the scores of ministries that were showcased amid the energy and excitement of Indiana Day at General Convention this past July. This is a diocese richly blessed.

But with that blessing comes great responsibility, what I would call, in the light of the Gospel we just heard, an apostolic responsibility.

Both as a church and as a nation, our divisions persist. We still struggle to cross the boundaries and borderlines that divide us. You need only schedule a flight from Chicago to Indianapolis, or from Indianapolis to Columbus, and walk through the labyrinth of security lines, to sense the power of boundaries, and the level of our insecurity and mistrust, justified and unjustified, of the stranger, or the alien, or even of each other. And you need only look at the latest report from the Diocese of South Carolina to realize that the larger household of God is in sore need of repair.

Perhaps the greatest challenge we have as a church is not so much to expand the household of God as to demonstrate that the household matters. For a growing number of people in this country—people with whom many of us work, people whose children play with our children, people whose opinions we otherwise deeply respect—what we do as we gather here seems quaint at best and irrelevant, even harmful at worst. According to a new survey released by the Pew Research center earlier this month, the number of people professing no religious commitment in this country has risen to an astonishing 1 in 5. The number of Americans for whom the word "Christian" connotes intolerance and violence is growing equally fast. And as many as 80% of those who identified their religious affiliation as "nothing in particular"—the evermore numerous "nones" among us—also stated they saw no reason to change their view. And perhaps most troubling of all, the largest and growing percentage of those who professed no religious commitment was in the age range of 18-29.

These are sobering numbers, even for a diocese as vibrant as this one. My colleague Diana Butler Bass notes that Protestant Christians once thought of themselves as at the very center of American public life. But as the Pew researchers tell us, the protestant majority has now slipped to 48% of the American population. In terms of religious life in this country, she says, there is no longer a center. This might be a good thing. As Diana writes, "every [religious] group [in America] exists as a minority in a community of minorities, including everyone from Mormons and Muslims to atheists and evangelicals...We need to know who we are with great clarity and personal commitment and, at the same time, be able to love our neighbors and work beyond faith boundaries to create a new shared sense of common good."

Let's face it, our Christian churches have for too long been enmeshed in our own parochial conflicts, acting as if we were at the fortified center of God's universe. But there is no fortified center. We must not let ourselves be fooled or held captive by the solidity of our church buildings, or the memory our successes in the ministry of the past.

Go on your way. See, I am sending you out like lambs in the midst of wolves. Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road. Whatever house you enter, first say, "Peace to this house!"...Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you; cure the sick who are there, and say to them, "The kingdom of God has come near to you."

If we take this Gospel seriously, it is time to travel lightly, even if it means breaking some long held rules about what it means to maintain a sense of permanence in our religious institutions, even the kind of permanence that we are privileged to celebrate here today on this 175th anniversary of this diocese's founding.

Here's a cautionary tale. I came to the Midwest in July to take up a position as president of the two smallest, most fragile seminaries in the Episcopal Church—Seabury-Western in Chicago and Bexley Hall. In Columbus. These two schools have a long history of forming priests for the household of God, including priests for this diocese. They are two of our church's oldest institutions, and both have felt the effects of the vast changes in church affiliation that I have just described. We have in fact been humbled by adversity. Bexley Hall has always existed on a shoestring. It has been forced to move its operations three times in living memory—from Gambier, Ohio, where it was founded along with Kenyon College, to Rochester where it joined Colgate-Rochester Divinity School, and now embedded in the Lutheran seminary in Columbus. Seabury-Western in Chicago declared financial exigency in 2008, and then two years later sold all its buildings to Northwestern University across the street, re-establishing an endowment, and moving to a suite of classrooms and offices near O'Hare airport.

In leaving behind the trappings of institutional stability, painful as it has been to do so, Bexley and Seabury have become paradoxically free to rethink everything, including what it means to prepare people for ministry, and to reach out to those people who might otherwise never think that the church had anything to contribute to intellectual or public life. We have been freed to try out new platforms of teaching and learning, and to attract new students and participants—people with no intention of being ordained, and who never thought seminary would have anything to offer them. It is a bold experiment, and a risky one. After many years living over the shop as a parish rector, and then as a teacher in a more traditional residential seminary, I found it more than a little disorienting to be commuting to an office building set close to the city limits. We're about as far from the city center, from the Chicago equivalent of Monument Circle, as is it possible to be. But we take heart from today's Gospel, from Jesus' apostolic imperative to live lightly—to carry no purse, no bag, no sandals. Perhaps what we are doing has the ring of Gospel authenticity. At the very least, it's instructive to take up life not at the center but on the margin, at the threshold of the city rather than at its heart, as we seek to renew mission of service and scholarship in a world that can easily show its indifference to such matters. Perhaps life at the margin can help redefine life at the center.

What's true for Bexley and Seabury, and for many seminaries in similar circumstances, may be a sign of what's true for all of us in the church. Maybe we all have been called to spend some quality time at the margin—in effect, to identify ourselves with the marginal—with the very aliens, strangers, wayfarers and doubters for whom the Kingdom of God seems an elusive thing, all but invisible, always out of reach, and perhaps even something to avoid. Maybe it's time for us to lose ourselves in order to find ourselves, to accept the truth that the household we struggle so hard to maintain—embodied in our church buildings, our organizational structures, and in some ways in our exalted sense of ourselves as Episcopalians—is not really identical with the household Jesus had in mind. We have not been called to permanence, but to mission. Even as we gather here at this table, buoyed and heartened by the memory of what we have been as a diocese, and as a church, perhaps in all humility we can also pray for a glimpse, a foretaste of what we could be if our divisions really ceased, and there were no more aliens or strangers among us, and the Kingdom of God should come near.

First Christian Church, Bloomington, Indiana
October 26, 2012

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, who was previously the associate dean and director of the Institute of Christian Formation and Leadership at Virginia Theological Seminary, where he also served as professor of religion and culture, took up his duties at Bexley Seabury on July 1, 2012.

Prior to working at Virginia Seminary, Ferlo, who trained for the priesthood at the General Theological Seminary in New York City, spent 19 years in parish ministry, serving in Georgia, Pennsylvania, and New York City. He has 14 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.