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First Chapel 2011 Sermon by David McAllister-Wilson

Oct 04 2011

Sermon by Wesley Theological Seminary President David McAllister-Wilson

Download audio of the sermon

Scripture readings: OT - Isaiah 41.8-13; Epistle - Phil. 1.27-30; Gospel - Matt. 10.24-33.

David McAllister-Wilson in Oxnam Chapel

This is my 9th opening chapel sermon as president.  Normally, I have spent the previous summer agonizing over something profound or at least witty to say about the mission of Wesley and the goal of theological education.  And then I’d go look for specific scripture passages to support it.  But this year, I resolved to use the Lectionary passages for August 7 in the Church of North India because I had to preach from them in New Delhi.  It’s not that I was being lazy – this isn’t the same sermon.  Instead, I wanted to discipline myself to see the same set of texts in both the American and Indian capital cities in the hope of seeing Wesley and my ministry differently.

So, as I was tooling around India I was letting these messages soak in.  And two songs intruded my thoughts one after the other.  The first was so strong that even before I figured out how it fit, I got to an Internet cafĂ© and emailed 2011 graduate Jimmy Sherrod and asked if he could back and sing it this morning.

[Visiting musician, Jimmy Sherrod sang American Tune, ending with the first verse of “O Sacred Head Now Wounded.”]

Many's the time I've been mistaken, and many times confused
And I've often felt forsaken, and certainly misused.
But it's all right, it's all right, I'm just weary to my bones
Still, you don't expect to be bright and Bon Vivant
So far away from home, so far away from home.

I don't know a soul who's not been battered
Don't have a friend who feels at ease
Don't know a dream that's not been shattered
Or driven to it's knees.
But it's all right, all right, We've lived so well so long
Still, when I think of the road we're traveling on,
I wonder what went wrong, I can't help it
I wonder what went wrong.

And I dreamed I was flying. I dreamed my soul rose
unexpectedly, and looking back down on me, smiled
reassuringly, and I dreamed I was dying.
And far above, my eyes could clearly see
The Statue of Liberty, drifting away to sea
And I dreamed I was flying.

We come on a ship we call the Mayflower,
We come on a ship that sailed the moon
We come at the age's most uncertain hour
And sing the American tune
But it's all right, it's all right
You can't be forever blessed
Still, tomorrow's gonna be another working day
And I'm trying to get some rest,
That's all, I'm trying to get some rest.

O sacred Head, now wounded, with grief and shame weighed down,
Now scornfully surrounded with thorns, Thine only crown;
How pale Thou art with anguish, with sore abuse and scorn!
How does that visage languish, which once was bright as morn!

But it's all right, it's all right
You can't be forever blessed
Still, tomorrow's gonna be another working day
And I'm trying to get some rest,
That's all, I'm trying to get some rest.

Paul Simon came out with American Tune in ’73, the year I graduated from High School.  He meant to write something to celebrate the American Bicentennial.  But he was so discouraged by the war that it became a kind of elegy: “We come on a ship they called the Mayflower, we come on a ship that sailed the moon.  We come in the age’s most uncertain hour to sing an American tune.  But it’s all right, it’s all right, we can’t be forever blessed.”  It’s not a hymn, doesn’t mention God at all. But the melody is from Bach’s St. Mathews Passion and those people on the Mayflower probably sang the tune to the words “O Sacred Head Now Wounded.”

I think the reason it came into my head was because I was seeing around me the ruins of the Mogul Empire and the faded glory of the British Empire and I had a melancholy feeling about America because of the news we were hearing.  I was elected president at Wesley in May, 2001 with a one-year transition to office.  That means that my presidency has been defined by 9/11 and its aftermath.  Now, we are all looking back on that decade to assess what it meant.

Here’s what I’ve been thinking.  On the eve of a great battle, Shakespeare’s Brutus says “There is a tide in the affairs of men…on such a full sea we are now afloat.”  9/11 produced such a rising tide. It began with a rage that resulted in the longest wars in our history.  But this was also a decade of intense idealism.  Americans volunteered in record numbers for military service and fire departments, the Peace Corp and hundreds of other public service organizations.  Backed by new social entrepreneurs and historic levels of philanthropy, America surged to the aid of victims of war and famine and disease and hurricanes and earthquakes.  And there was great confidence that we could solve problems like extreme poverty in our lifetime.

Wesley’s strategic plan is in sync with the passion of the age.  We established ourselves at Mount Vernon Square and set out to be a truly global institution.  Our enrollment grew and giving matched our aspirations.

But while I was in India, I sensed that American tide ebbing.  I watched our political system fail as our credit was downgraded for the first time and saw the end of America’s voyages in space.  We are now withdrawing from foreign battlefields but there is no peace in our wake.  And it is certain that as the troops draw down so will American relief and development assistance.  Worldwide, NGOs doing good work are still counting on the generosity of American philanthropy but I fear that as the economy recedes it will look to them as if the Statue of Liberty is sailing away to sea. I think this is why American Tune was playing in my head.

Meanwhile, the still small voice of the lectionary readings was trying to lead me in a different direction like a mother dragging a child away from the video arcade.  I began to realize how much I have been caught up in what the Germans call the zeitgeist – the spirit of the age.  It has permeated my preaching and my leadership. Don’t get me wrong, you are never more patriotic than when you are far away from home and you catch a glimpse of an American flag or a picture of Col. Sanders.  And I had pride of country when people talked about their hope in America and asked if Dr. Josiah Young was President Obama’s brother.  But I realized I have been too enthralled by where I live and too-often modeled by leadership on Jed Bartlett.  That’s not my calling.  And now, Isaiah, Paul and Jesus are beckoning me to think about the difference between leadership in the Christian community and that of a fictional T.V. president.

Each of these passages is about telling the difference, about drawing a distinction between a community of faith and the world in which it lives. Isaiah was speaking the Israelites in exile.  We hear Jesus in the middle of an instruction on the dangers of discipleship in a hostile world.  He says just a few verses earlier than he is sending us like sheep among the wolves. And he warns that we will be demonized. Paul tells the believers in Philippi “to conduct themselves in a manner worthy of the Gospel.”  

They all urge us to have courage and be bold in the face of adversity.  This is easier to envision in India where Christians are a small, persecuted and sometimes even martyred minority.  But here in America the lines are fuzzy aren’t they?  In India to become a Christian means becoming an outcaste.  In the U.S., it’s probably necessary to get elected president. That makes it hard here to tell the difference between being a citizen and being a disciple.  There are wolves in sheep’s clothing.

That’s what a seminary is for, isn’t it, at least in part? We study the Bible, Church History Theology and Ethics so that we can tell the difference: the difference between the Kingdom of God and the nations of the world; the difference between what the church is and what it is called to be.  It’s like we’re playing a cosmic game of Where’s Waldo.  We’re trying to pick out our teacher, our master, in a crowded field.

Another song started to take over from American Tune in my head.  You know it. Turns out, the Christians in Calcutta know it too.  It was Jesus Loves Me.  Will you sing it with me?

[The congregation sang Jesus Loves Me here]

“Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.  Little ones to him belong.  They are weak, but he is strong.  Yes, Jesus loves me.  Yes, Jesus loves me.  Yes, Jesus loves me.  For the Bible tells me so.”

I need to tell you how that song entered my soul.  It was not a warm, comforting, nostalgic moment.  We were riding in a car just blocks away from Mother Theresa’s convent (you can’t make this stuff up).  And appearing at the window of the car, staring inside, was a girl of about 9, carrying a baby in her arms begging.  We’d seen hundreds like her.  But in that instant, the words “Little ones to him belong,” taunted me and now haunt me. It’s not just the feeling that there’s nothing I can do because I could.   And it’s not the feeling that there is nothing that can be done about all of them because there is if enough of us want to.  It’s worse, it’s the feeling that there is nothing we will do, or very little, anyway. 

I don’t want to feel better about it just because I told you. Instead, I told you to invite you into the zeitgeist of the Christian faith – the spirit of the age of the church militant -- which is represented later in this service by broken bread and poured wine.  Because it’s the only way we can really hear the good news for what it is: an invitation to discipleship.  And the form of that good news this morning isn’t just “Jesus loves me,” it is also, “they are weak but he is strong.”

Here’s the thing about that song.  It’s not accurate.  Children learn it before they can read the Bible.  The lyrics ought to say: “Jesus loves me, this I know, because my parents and my grandparents who love me and care for me tell me so and because my Sunday School teacher taught this to us and because I am singing it with my friends.”  But that doesn’t rhyme. 

As Hillary Clinton famously said, “It takes a village to raise a child.” What it takes to raise up a generation of disciples ready to do God’s work in the world is to foster things like discipline and compassion and sacrifice and justice and courage.  These are all virtues generated, cultivated and sustained in community.  These are the family values of the children of God which are necessary to sail against the ebbing tide.  This is the goal, I think, of Christian leadership.

I’ve decided that after ten years, my profiles in courage will no longer be the heroes of 9/11.  They were honorable. But let’s study war no more.  Instead, the people I will lift up will be Christian leaders like Sathi Clarke’s student Father George Santosh in New Delhi whose team healed 1,500 club foot children last year; and Hilda Peacock (whose son is a seminary professor) who left a comfortable job in a wealthy girl’s academy to run a school for 2,000 abandoned children in West Bengal and Pastors Violet and Abraham in Bangalore who have, to date, adopted 34 children ages 15 months to 14 years.  There are Christians like that all over the world.  These are just the ones we met in one week.

I work at Wesley because I want our graduates and the churches they serve to foster the kind of faith that makes the world look more like the Kingdom of God than it does now.  Let us prepare for that ministry.  As our Dean Emeritus Bruce Birch used to say, “Let us sing to the Lord a new song.”

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