At my mother’s 80th birthday, we gathered on Whidbey Island to celebrate. At least, that’s what I thought. In the true nature of families, however, my mother had an agenda. My father was 82 and starting the long journey of dementia that would lead to Alzheimer’s. On that perfect summer’s day, there he was standing on the deck looking at sailboats on Saratoga Passage, the Cascade Mountains and Camano Island to the east. He was captivated by 80-foot tall Douglas fir trees that he loved. I stood beside him in silent wonder. I walked into the living room and then came the crushing words from my mother: “You need to tell your father he has to give up driving,” she said. The words still create tightness in my chest and an echoing crash in my head. I have three sisters. I’ll confess I suggested alternative messengers for the epic words she declared: “No, it must be you. He’ll listen.” I doubted the accuracy of her words but, I am, if nothing else, one who sought to honor them—these two who gave me birth in 1949 at Little Company of Mary Hospital in Chicago.
It was not a sermon that went well. I spoke the words and proposed that 82 years was long enough to drive. He suggested I had not the faintest idea what I was asking him to do. His forest reverie was abruptly halted and then, in our Scandinavian Anderson family way, nothing more was ever said about it. On his birthday two months later, he told my mother he needed to go to the DMV. She drove him there with terror. He asked for an ID card, not a license. He was ready, it seems, for the transition that, at first, struck him as a loss of power, authority, mobility, strength, perhaps even more.
I don’t suggest a one-for-one parallel; you draw whatever conclusions you will. I do say, however, that I too am ready to give back my keys, my fob, my AmEx card in trade for a visitor’s ID. And I come to this moment overwhelmed with awe and gratitude that you are here. I will say no more about that because I will not be able to hold back my emotions so I’ll shift into a role that I feel most comfortable with and bring a brief homily. My gratitude for the privilege of working with you is boundless. If I could I would anoint you each with oil to bless you for spending your lives in the service of this mission that matters but I start on personal goodbyes, the tears will start and I’ll never get home to finish packing.
There’s a covering, I call it, a sacred canopy in biblical teachings that has power in my life, authority over my life, and gives meaning to my life. Biblical writers called it covenant; Wendell Berry uses a word that will not let me evade what it means: he speaks of fidelity. It is, he would say, membership in something that is human and flawed, but that matters in ways that shape entire generations of people. Please hear those words: fidelity shapes entire generations of people. Fidelity is a relationship; it is a membership.
Covenant for Israel was a promise God made to them and an often failed promise they made to YHWH. He would always be their God; they promised to obey. I suppose it sounds like something you do with a pre-school child but only if you don’t know the way a covenant was ratified in the era of Old Testament history. They called it “cutting” a covenant. It involved a 1200 or 1500 hundred pound heifer. Two parties would bisect the animal—it sounds sanitary when I use that word but I worked one summer at Swift & Company in the stockyards and spent some days with a massive saw doing exactly that with 1000-pound hogs. It was anything but sanitary. Then the two parties would walk between the two halves of the animal to symbolically “cut” the covenant. It was as if they said in their steps taken together: “If either of us break this covenant, may this happen to you.” In the American culture of 2017, I imagine we see it as violent, brutal, and harsh. PETA would certainly not approve. But, sadly for us, most of our covenants have simply become transactions, our priest’s attorneys and our agreements financial.
In my wedding in August of 1970, I made a covenant with Wendy in the name of Jesus. In my ordination in the fall of 1975, I made a covenant with the church in the name of Jesus. In both cases we did something that was grounded in a practice that sits uncomfortably for many of us today. I certainly know my failings in my marriage. I certainly know my failures in ministry. But in both cases, something happened between me and her and between me and the church because it was not a contract but a covenant which demands something more than, protects something. 47 years later, I have now walked through all of my days with the woman who let me stand beside her in a Seminary Chapel in Minnesota. 42 years later, I remain ordained—it’s not that I can’t just shake it, I can’t uncut the covenant.
It is not based in fear or threat and it is not based in mere sentiment or nostalgia. I do not look like I did at 21 and 26. We are not those people we were in the 1970’s. The pastor who married us is long gone, the pastor who guided my ordination council died just recently at 95, those who laid hands on me in a sanctuary on Mark Street in Pontiac, MI are mostly gone and the sanctuary now bears the name of an all-Black congregation, no long American Baptist Bethany Baptist Church. Still, something happened to me, in me, with me, around me, with her and with them and I cannot change the story. I married Wendy Lee McJunkin. I cannot erase that reality. It marks me in ways that brings grace and delight and scars and sadness and the deepest possible fulfillment. I took the vows of ordination as an American Baptist clergy. I cannot erase that reality. I no longer function in a role as a minister of word and sacrament in a local parish but I am always ordained. Which is why I take ordination to be so sacred, not to be treated frivolously. It too is sacred and holy work. It is a declaration of covenant with the church.
Something happened to me that I cannot undo. I entered into covenant with Jesus in those moments, just I had as a ten year old in my baptism. I knew far less then what I was getting into but I also had a heart that longed that every word they spoke over me could be true. In that moment too something happened to me. I was baptized in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. In the Anglican Church we say that baptism marks us with the Spirit forever.
And so I tell you, I testify to you that I entered covenant at 10, 21, and 26. I have sometimes failed my part of the covenant but I cannot wander far from a life-long realization that the one with whom I entered covenant has not failed his part. This one has confused me, troubled me, startled me, caused me sleepless nights and placed me in situations I never wanted to go but told me in covenant,
“I will never leave you or forsake you.”
“I will be with you always even to the end of the age.”
“You are my beloved in whom I am well pleased.”
I wish I believed that every day and felt it in a visceral way every day and in the dark nights of the soul. I may not always feel it, but somewhere deep inside I know it to be the truest thing there is in this universe. If I give up on covenant, then I am left alone in a world populated only by humans as flawed and failed and finite as I; then the world of enchantment, spirit, principalities and power and the unrelenting otherness of the creator is gone or dulled or muted.
And so I find as I come close to fourscore and ten that I claim fidelity in the very core of my bones. I claim there is truth in the one with whom I entered into covenant and there is truth in the book he left to help us find our way. It is not a truth for a time long since forgotten because we are more sophisticated in our hermeneutics or more educated in our psychology or more knowledgeable in our neuroscience or more adept in our organizational strategies. It is often considered a very narrow truth to still believe in the incarnated truth of the person of Jesus. It is almost passé in our culture to even call it truth as if truth could exist on its own. As if God is more than just my idea of God. As if Jesus is more than metaphor but existed in human flesh and walked among us. I see it in our culture and I see it at times in our building. What we once held with conviction has changed into something less clear and sharp.
But it is truth that led our partner in the covenant to a cross where he practiced his faithfulness to our agreement, where he practiced his fidelity to his word, where he did precisely what he said he would do. And, in his resurrection, the Father of all creation did the same as he raised the Son to resurrected life through the power of the Holy Spirit as an act of faithfulness to the covenant. This is more precious to me than anything: we stand in the face of this culture today and say, we declare, we testify, we claim a stake in the ground. We say at the start of every single year: “we believe…” We believe in something, someone that matters. Not in just a kind of balance that will make everyone feel good. Not in the kind of tolerance where we’d like to have everyone agree with us or at least to not be offended because we know where we stand and on what we stand; not everything weighs the same. Not so afraid to declare our conviction in what some see as the narrow truth of Jesus. Not only is that kind balance and that kind of life boring, it is dishonest. Our DNA in this place has taken stands. We have driven stakes of belief in the ground. Belief requires courage. Balance require only compromise.
I don’t know the future of The Seattle School, the church, or any of us in the end. But, in my final words to you as your President, I call you to the raw courage of covenant; I call you to fidelity as I did in my inauguration—to live unashamed of the gospel of Jesus in whose name I now hand over the keys to the leadership of this school. We’re all aware of the challenges for that in our culture today. We’re all aware of how much easier it is to soften our commitment to the convictions of our faith. I love the way our Trustees have put their intentions in sharp and unmistakable conviction: A Trustee at The Seattle School is “a woman or man of well-articulated faith in Jesus, able to tell the story of their own faith journey.” It is the requisite for leadership at all levels in the mission of The Seattle School. We are, first of all, people who believe. We are, first of all, people who profess faith in Jesus. We are, first of all, people who declare our faith with our words and then practice our faith with our work. It has been the heartbeat of my life in ministry which I place before you as I prepare to leave.
I saw Harrison Ford interviewed by Charlie Rose the other night. He said what I want you to hear: “In all of my roles and in all of work, whatever good has been accomplished is because of collaboration. Everything I’ve done has been done in collaboration.” I’ve said it and I say it again: what we have done, what we have created, what we have built, what we have accomplished is the work of all of us. It is not the work of one person now and will not be in the future. But it does take the breath away from this man. The words to describe our journey together are many: resilient, courageous, innovative, fiercely committed to mission, costly, graced, sacred, holy, anointed, trusted work. My friends, we have much of which we can be proud. We’ll soon be 21. No longer in our childhood or early adolescence. Not yet fully grown up. And may we never get there. But hundreds of lives have been informed, formed and transformed. Oh yes, we have much of which we can be proud. I am ever grateful to have walked alongside you in this profound and sacred journey. I met recently with my pastor who said to me, “My best advice is simply to leave with grateful and open hands.” That I do now.
In the Anglican tradition, when the rector finishes their work in a congregation she or he takes the stole, the pectoral cross, and the vestments of the sacrament and places them on the altar as they walk out in a simple white robe, still ordained, still within the covenant, but no longer authorized by the local community for leadership. I experienced this as our rector, Dennis, retired some months ago. I didn’t see it coming. I didn’t know to expect it. The visual imagery was almost too much. He took the outer vestments he had worn and used and that we all had come to know and expect and placed them back in the hands of the congregation. He didn’t leave having lost his ministry; he moved forward to something next. As did the congregation. The mission, the ministry, the sacred and holy work did not change because one leader walked out the door. The conviction, the mission, the ministry, the sacred and holy work remained where it always is to be found: in the hearts and minds, spirits and souls of us all in fidelity to the covenant.
We have no such tradition here but in my inauguration as President in 2009, I was given a symbol that I give back to you now that you may place it in the hands of a new president with whom you will create a new covenant. The sextant is a symbol of leadership that looks ahead, to read that which is to come and to see what helps to guide the ship to its destination. I look forward to the ceremony when you will place it in my hands again so, on your behalf, I can give it to the next president on behalf of our covenant.
I pray that you will be will be as gracious, forgiving, kind and caring to one another as you have been with me. I pray that you will continue to speak the truth in love and I pray with tears in my soul that you will remain people of fidelity in the name of Jesus, always for the sake of the Kingdom. AMEN.