TST Sermon, January 22, 2020
Pamela D. Couture,
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, o God our strength and our redeemer.
The movie The Two Popes begins with Jorge Bergoglio, the Cardinal of Argentina, sending a letter to Pope Benedict resigning his position. When the letter gets no response, the Cardinal travels to Rome to see the Pope and hand deliver the letter. Pope Benedict is incensed: Cardinal Bergoglio’s resignation will be seen as a challenge to Benedict’s leadership. The men argue—vehemently. It’s clear that their theologies and their vision of the church could not be further from one another. But as their visit progresses, they play music together, they break bread together--and they begin to talk: what brought them into ministry, what they regret.
The Pope hears the Cardinal’s confession: as a younger man and Jesuit superior in Argentina, Bergoglio failed to protect his priests during the military dictatorship. They were captured by the junta and tortured, and he cannot forgive himself. Pope Benedict, the scholar, admits that he was so engaged in his books that he did not see enough of the world to understand it. As they discuss their vocation, they also begin to remember the times they felt God’s presence in their lives. They bond spiritually. And then the Pope asks the Cardinal to hear his confession. The Pope has failed to protect the children who were being molested by priests. His confession is linked to the decision that the Pope shares with his friend the Cardinal: that he is going to resign the Papacy.
How can we diverge theologically yet be spiritually bound together? Ecumenism seeks this reality. Yet the schools of theology in which I’ve taught have no one way of embodying theological difference. My United Methodist schools, Candler and Saint Paul, had a strong Methodist ethos. They embraced students across the Methodist theological spectrum that now threatens to divide that denomination. Non-Methodist students often felt their own theological identify was swallowed up by the Methodist parochialism. When I taught at Colgate- Rochester Divinity School, an American Baptist school that explicitly centered itself in an ecumenical identity, Methodist students, who gathered in extracurricular groups, were eager to learn what made them Methodist. They sought to become more deeply rooted in their own Wesleyan heritage. They bound themselves spiritually as Methodists but also extended themselves across denominational lines as Christians. The school faced significant financial threat, but the spirit was present in the ecumenical context.
But that day, Rochester answered a more important question: how to respond spiritually to this crisis. Rochester had had thirty years of difficult but resilient interreligious dialogue. That night, in our shock, we gathered in Rochester’s synagogue. Christian, Muslim, Jewish and other religious leaders led us in lament. We renounced the violence that was occurring and the violence we anticipated would come. I will never forget that service--the spirit was powerfully present in that interreligious context.
And now, nearly twenty years later, I find myself as Director of Toronto School of Theology. We are a Christian consortium of seven theological schools, seeking to be faithful to the gospel. Some of us are hosting conversations in our classrooms with other religions. We are in stormy times for Christianity—membership in the church continues to decline, and Christian theological schools worry about enrollment. When Christian theological schools are struggling, should they pay attention to themselves first—put on their own oxygen mask, as the metaphor goes—before attending to their relationship with others? Has the era of ecumenism passed? The energy seems to have gone to interreligious dialogue. Is the spirit still present in an ecumenical consortium?
Is God still present in a theological consortium whose world has radically changed from the one in which it was founded, nearly fifty years ago?
Two weeks ago in Iran, a plane crashed, and nineteen universities and three colleges in Canada lost members of their communities. Students came to faculty concerned about the family of an Iranian- Canadian student, Seyed Mehran Mansoori, who is studying among us. When we inquired about the safety of his family, Mehran wrote this message to several of us and gave me permission to share it:
"Thank you so much for your concern and well wishes for my family. We are all grateful for your support during this tumultuous time. Fortunately, my wife, Mandana, who traveled to Iran during the holidays was not onboard the downed plane. We hope to see her at home in the next week. Sadly the tragedy of the events is not diminished by our own family’s good fortune. The loss of so many valuable members of our community is being felt all around us.
Again, thank you for your kindness and warmth. It is invaluable to remember our common humanity during these times of manufactured division."
TST: Manufactured division met with kindness and warmth. TST: Courage not to go overboard. TST: The intimacy of a fire, around which to tell stories that strengthen us and glimpse the spirit among us.
TST is not a building; it is not a staff; it is not the eighth theological school among seven. It is a network, a community; it is a place where the spirit resides. It seeks a spirituality which energises creative scholarship and transformative teaching, a spirit that serves peace and