Extraordinary Happenings in Ordinary Time

William McKinney
September 4, 2007

President Bill McKinney delivers the opening chapel service of the new 2007–08 academic year.

According to the Christian liturgical calendar we begin PSR's 142nd academic year in Ordinary Time. "Ordinary" is understood not to mean "ordinary" but to convey a sense of not extra-ordinary, as in not-Advent, not-Christmas, not-Lent, not-Easter.

But extraordinary things happen in Ordinary time. People are born and people die. Wars begin and wars end, and wars go on and on. Hurricanes and earthquakes happen and end, and recovery efforts go on and on. Students graduate and new students come to take their place, and other students' programs go on and on.

Yes, extraordinary things happen in Ordinary time. As we gather this morning we are aware of a Doug Adams-shaped hole on our campus. Professor Doug Adams died on July 24 at the home of friends in Jackson, California. We will formally celebrate Doug's life and ministry on October 14 but he is not far from the memory of most of us every day. Indeed, we see Doug's impact every time we gather for worship and realize how our understanding of worship has been forever changed by the reintroduction of the arts into Protestant Christian worship patterns.

And a few weeks ago we lost another extraordinary friend when trustee emeritus Bob Riddell died at his home in Oakland. Bob first joined the PSR board of trustees in 1970 and served for five years as its chairman. Among his accomplishments were the construction of the Mudd Building and the growth of the Graduate Theological Union, where he also served as board chair and treasurer and was named a Life Trustee. Bob and Kay Riddell have been extraordinarily generous in Ordinary time. Not the least of their contributions is the faculty chair now held by Professor Aaron Brody.

The Lectionary reading for next Sunday seems appropriate for the beginning of a new academic year.

Jesus's words aren't easy. He says to the large crowd that has gathered, "Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple." And, later, "none of you can be my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions."

Matthew 10 gives us a kinder, gentler version of the same message suggesting one ought not to love family and friends more than they love God, but Jesus' teaching is clear. This life of ministry, of discipleship, is demanding as we enter what is in effect a new family and set the old family, the old patterns, aside.

As new students gathered for orientation in the past two weeks we heard many stories of sacrifice. Many of us gathered here this morning have given up important things to be here. We have disrupted families, veered off career trajectories and confused our friends. This seminary doesn't require students to give up all of their possessions but we certainly provide incentives to downsizing.

The decision to carry the cross is not one to be made lightly. Jesus warns his listeners that like the fellow wanting to build a tower or the ruler considering a battle we ought to consider the odds carefully lest we set ourselves up for failure. And Jesus does not want us to fail.

All of us are here because at some point we became aware that this centuries-old message is addressed to us. We are here. We are here for reasons we cannot fully explain and don't need to. But discipleship is in our being and in our future.

The last time I preached on this text was here at opening chapel in 2001 — just one week before September 11.

When I re-read that sermon a couple of weeks ago I was surprised to find that I had nothing to say about what has become an important theme for me in the past couple of years. Jesus is not so much asking his followers to give something up but inviting them to take something up. He is asking his disciples to begin to live into a new reality — into an extraordinary reality in Ordinary time.

My summer reading included new books by two leading American theologians that deserve the attention of all of us who care about the future of Progressive Christianity.

The more difficult of the two books is Liberal Theology: A Radical Vision by Peter Hodgson.0

Hodgkins argues for the centrality of freedom in theology and the Christian life — God's freedom and human freedom. He is worried about a religious world that offers only fundamentalism and neo-conservatism on the one hand and atheism and secularism on the other. A radical form of liberalism is an alternative and Hodgson shows us what it might look like.

I've been saying in recent years that it seems to me there are new possibilities for conversation across the lines that separate some evangelical, neo-orthodox, liberal, ecological and liberation movements in theology. Hodgson shows how these movements are united in their appreciation of freedom: God's radical freedom, nature's incipient freedom and humanity's liberated freedom.

He writes of God's "freedom project": "the process and place wherein God's freedom — the freedom of love, forgiveness and grace — prevails in place of the normal arrangements of domination, retribution and exchange. "Jesus," he says, accomplishes emancipation or redemption not in place of us but with us and through us; he does not bring the kingdom on his own but gets us involved in the project."

Discipleship does not mean hating our families or even giving up our possessions. Discipleship means living in a new way. Taking up the cross means living at least in part in an alternative reality — one in which the freedom of love, forgiveness and grace — prevails in place of the normal arrangements of domination, retribution and exchange.

Part of our job as Pacific School of Religion is to provide space and opportunities so that God's freedom project — the freedom of love, forgiveness and grace — can prevail and to help shape the next generation of bold leaders who can build a church and a world that can sustain freedom and emancipation for all of God's people.

An article in The New York Times over the weekend reported that there have been concerns raised in Rome about a loose movement of Catholic biblical scholars, philosophers and theologians who are pressing the church to take seriously new scholarship about biblical teachings and Christian origins. Traditionalists in power are concerned that this loose but dangerous movement looks to "intuition, human experience and inner yearnings as the basis for religious belief rather than to the argumentative proofs that neo-scholasticism... offered for the existence of God and the authority of Scripture and the church." The Roman leaders want to create a distinctively Roman Catholic alternative to secular rationalism or liberal Protestantism.

The article points to talk of careful screening of seminarians, censoring publications and restricting meetings where priests might discuss theology. One proposal is that every diocese would set up a "Council of Vigilance" to ensure sound teaching.

The author, Peter Steinfels, is writing not about today but about the encyclical known as Pascendi issued by Pope Pius X to condemn the rise of Modernism. That encyclical was issued 100 years ago this week.

What is frightening is that one doesn't have to look very far for contemporary examples of similar thinking today. Steinfels notes that the encyclical has defenders in contemporary Catholicism and most of us can point to parallel arguments closer to home.

The stakes are high. God's freedom project is not welcomed in some circles.

A second book from my summer reading pile is Wayward Christian Soldiers by Charles S. Marsh. Marsh teaches theology at the University of Virginia, where he also directs the Project on Lived Religion.

Wayward Christian Soldiers is an example of what a socially engaged or public theology can look like. His focus is on how some religious and political leaders have allowed religion and theology to be co-opted for partisan purposes, but he also engages anti-Christian critics like Sam Harris, who he feels have something in common with the Christian Right. Here's a wonderful line: "The two hurl lumpy dogmatisms at each other like children in a food fight."

What I admire most about Marsh's book is that it is constructive at the core. He is clearly disgusted by much of the religious discourse he sees in America today but the book is no mere screed against the other side. He knows that we are in a theological struggle in America today and that unless Christianity can separate itself from its current political captivity, America's future is rather bleak.

He makes his case against the religious right not on political grounds but on theological grounds and that is more of us need to learn to do. Our world is engaged in a struggle that seems to define fundamentalism and secularism as the only alternatives.

You and I know that is not true. We need to find ways to let the world know there are other ways.

PSR is committed to doing that. Sadly, some of the schools that once aspired to serving as "schools for the prophets" have begun to back off from what Hodgkins calls the freedom project.

And so I invite you to consider an extraordinary possibility in Ordinary time: a world, a church, a seminary campus in which the freedom of love, forgiveness and grace might prevail in place of the normal arrangements of domination, retribution and exchange. As we begin this new academic year, let us journey together toward discipleship.