Convocation Worship Service
Berkeley Divinity School, Evensong
October 15, 2008
The Rev. Betsy Anderson ’97 M.A.R.
Associate for Pastoral Ministry
The Parish of St. Matthew
Pacific Palisades, CA
Matthew 13: 13-16
Holy God: may these words be your words; and if they are not, may your people be clever enough to hear what you would have them hear. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
My name is Betsy Anderson—I was in the class of 1997 here at Berkeley and YDS. I have served my entire ministry as Associate for Pastoral Ministries at St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church in Pacific Palisades, California. There are a number of notable things about St. Matthew’s—first, 3 out of the 5 clergy on our staff are Berkeley alums—The Rev. Michael Seiler and I were in the same class. And we have one lay member of our congregation who is also Berkeley alum, Melinda Benton—and it is wonderful that she is here tonight. St. Matthew’s is located near the beach west of Los Angeles—on 32 acres, with a large Parish Day School-- the congregation has many members of the entertainment industry—Charlton Heston’s funeral was at St. Matthew’s, and I well remember being sent off from Berkeley by one of my fellow students—“oh, you are going off to be Moses’ priest!” It is a congregation of, for the most part, busy, high-achieving, well-educated people—with all of their blessings and challenges; it is also a place where there has been much spiritual formation and growth. More significantly, my other claim to fame is that my husband Carl is the new Chair of the Berkeley Board of Trustees--so tonight’s experience is a wonderful new ministry for both of us.
I have been thinking about what we all have in common tonight as we gather here—we are a diverse group. I think what we all share is a great respect and desire for excellence in the Church: Berkeley staff and trustees, YDS faculty and administration, honorary degree recipients, students, alumni, and friends. And I want us to think about what excellence in the parish church looks like, for that where so many of us should and do find inspiration as Christian people. We have many resources to draw upon tonight.
Today the Church remembers St.Teresa of Avila, and given that she is now one of now three women Doctors of the church—and that we have three women and one man receiving honorary doctorate degrees, I can’t pass her up. The Great Doctors of the Church were given this title beginning with Ambrose, Augustine, Jerome, and Pope Gregory I in 1298—Teresa is in impressive company, and she deserves to be so. These Doctors (and there are only 33 of them) have been so honored because they were people of eminent learning and great sanctity—their writings have had significant influence on the Church. Teresa was named a Doctor in 1970 (Better late than never—but nevertheless, late!) What strikes me most is her dogged pursuit of holiness—as a mystic, writer, reformer and founder of many convents in Spain. Her biography is printed on the last page of your bulletins. What it doesn’t communicate is a picture of Teresa—who apparently was a very pretty, charming, energetic young girl—who through her experiences, even in very poor health, became a passionate handmaiden of her Lord. The story of her conversion, and her writings about the Christian spiritual life are rich and full. But for me, Bernini’s sculpture,
“ The Ecstasy of St. Theresa,” says it all. Excellence, for Teresa, was the pursuit of holiness, of union with Christ, and out of that, her considerable gifts of energy, her passion for her work, her willingness to take risks, her dogged dedication for reform, and her administrative skills flowed. In all of these things, she left a remarkable legacy when she died in 1582.
In tonight’s passage from Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount, Jesus uses two images that provide helpful, further insights. I remember David Bartlett preaching at Berkeley one Wednesday night on the Beatitudes—he reminded us that they are descriptive, not proscriptive. We can picture Jesus teaching as he stood there on the hill above the Sea of Galilee, where the Church remembers this Sermon being given to his disciples (as well as to Matthew’s own audience and frankly those of us who would follow): You are the salt of the earth—you are part of the offering to God, as salt was used in the ancient temple sacrifices; you are the salt of purification, as the prophet Elisha used salt to purify the dirty water in Jericho; you are the salt that brings taste to that which is tasteless; you are the salt which also preserves. When that salt becomes unpure, it loses its potency and is useless. And you are light: you are as a city on a hill, that cannot be hidden and which must be seen; you are also the lamp of Christ, whose light is to shine through you by what you do, and who you are. an offering to God, an instrument of purity, seasoning for the tasteless, preservers of the Kingdom, a light which must always be seen, a vessel for the light of Christ. There’s no mediocrity in the Sermon on the Mount.
What about the parish church? I have had fun thinking about this kind of excellence with a number of Berkeley alum friends, my colleagues and parishioners. I am grateful for their thoughts. First of all, excellence in the parish can be fraught with danger because it all too often gets associated with a sense of achievement; if we work hard, do the right stuff, read the right manuals, apply the right techniques, we will be excellent because of what we produce by what we achieve. People at St. Matthew’s know this kind of excellence all too well, and so do many of us in the academy, I am sure. “Excellence is not perfection,” one of my parishioners, a very successful lawyer, told me…”in fact we become excellent in spite of these things.” As Teresa knew, excellence is really faithfulness, with an eye towards actual holiness, and herein lies another danger: faithfulness can all too often be used as an excuse laziness, or sloppiness, or incompetence. I recently attended two services at the American Cathedral in Paris. It was perfect Rite 2, Book of Common Prayer liturgy--Perfect Anglican worship—I don’t use that word lightly. The lectors communicated the lessons with great clarity; the intercessors were deeply prayerful; the humanity of the preachers was evident, and the sermons were theologically intelligent, thoughtful and biblical; the music was both accessible and sublime; the Celebrant was clearly at prayer; the participants in the service were spiritually present and attentive to their roles; the building itself conveyed the touching faith journey of a community of expatriates. It seemed an excellent manifestation of a real inward faithfulness (not only of that community, but also of the faith of the whole Church), the kind of faithfulness that speaks of a deeper, truer reality, that in its heart, knows that this is only possible because Christ is risen. This “faithfulness” is rooted in an important sense of stewardship. What we do we do not for ourselves, but as stewards of God’s kingdom—whether that is worship, formation, outreach, social justice, pastoral care, finances, or administration. It starts from the inside, and sends its people out into the world, as our honorees tonight witness for us in their various callings, as true light. I remember hearing a priest in our diocese once say, when we were talking about the challenges of parish ministry, that he had cultivated mediocrity his whole life—one wonders what kind of stewardship that is?
In a world that is very, very anxious, with good reason, this vision of the excellence of the Kingdom of God is what my parishioners, and many others, most need to address the root spiritual issues that underpin the newspaper headlines. They are struggling to deal with the shattering effects of excellence as they have known it in their worlds, and they are very hungry. Like Krista Tippett, I use my Berkeley and Yale Divinity School education every day at St. Matthew’s—whether it was the warmth and wisdom of Anne Kimball’s love, or the prophetic passion of Margaret Farley and Letty Russell, or the incisive theology of Marilyn Adams, or the inspirational sermons in of Lee Keck’s New Testament teaching, and much, much more—it was all excellent in every way. I am grateful to have been sent out from here, because out there in the parish churches, I have found that we really don’t need just smarter Christians, but deeper ones. Amen.