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The Sacred, Bloody Business of Seminary

(A Meditation on Mark 1:21-28)

By President Theodore J. Wardlaw

You’re new here at Austin Seminary, so let’s move right away to lesson number one of your seminary experience. Here it is, so pay attention.

Lesson Number One: You are entering sacred space. What is sacred about this space here on the northern edge of the nation’s largest residential university campus is particularly obvious when you’re spending time in Shelton Chapel. It just looks like sacred space, doesn’t it! It’s all Gothic and churchly and filled with pointed windows and stained glass and carvings in stone and wood. And it smells, even, like sacred space. You could come into the Chapel blindfolded and know what it is.

You are likely to become intimately acquainted with the Chapel, and probably sooner than later. Chances are that you will soon scrutinize that jewel of a place, searching for all of the details in that room that help to make it sacred—the line of symbols around the outside tower walls that represent the mission of the church, the Trinitarian representation over the entrance arch, the narthex screen with the symbols of the disciples, the columns on one side of the nave that bear depictions of the four Gospel writers and the columns on the other side that bear depictions of the major prophets, the alpha and the omega at the altar, the vine and the branches carved into the Communion Table, the pulpit and the font and the lectern and the banners and the vessels and the candles. Finally, perhaps, you will encounter, in the reredos just under the rose window in the rear chancel wall, the favorite of all the symbols in that space—the pelican-in-her-piety, who, symbolic of the atoning work of Jesus Christ, pricks her own breast to feed her young when there is no other food. You may decide, sooner than later, to just marinate in the redemptive beauty of the Chapel—to get into that place as often as possible: for preaching, for Eucharist, for lectures, for concerts, for quiet seasons of solitude and prayer. And who can blame you?

Or you may decide to visit the place less frequently—before a big exam, maybe, or before the ordination exams, or when you’re getting ready for the annual football game against the Episcopalians.

But, however often or not that you get into the Chapel, who will dispute that it is sacred space? It’s so peaceful and quiet: so removed, isn’t it, from those places in our world and in our time (Iraq, for example; or Israel or Palestine or Afghanistan or Iran or Northern Ireland or Sudan or …) in which there’s a monumental struggle going on! In this sense, of course, this space is generally just what our culture expects of sacred space. When Hollywood wants to inject a little spirituality into an otherwise steamy film, the protagonist—however bad he or she otherwise may be—finds his or her way into a church. And I’ll bet you dollars-to-doughnuts that it’s generally a church that looks remarkably like our chapel: high arched ceilings and soft organ music and candles and perhaps an encounter with a tall, gaunt, elderly guy in a black cassock who speaks in a quiet, pearl-shaped voice not generally at home in any other setting. The point to be made about sacred space, in the popular sense at least, is that it is a kind of demilitarized zone on the other side of relevance into which we step when we’ve had too much of life as it is lived elsewhere—out there in the “real world.” Sacred space, don’t you see, is time-out space, where maybe what happens is something reflective and quiet and contemplative and perhaps even useless. That’s a popular take on sacred space.

Or, increasingly in these times, you might throw out Gothic (or Georgian or Colonial or whatever), and decide to re-think the whole purpose of sacred space. You might opt for so-called “worship centers”—the name we often give our sacred spaces when we tire of calling them “sanctuaries” (such a clunky word, after all)—and you could design them to be large, friendly entertainment venues that make you think of nothing quite so much as, say, basketball. After all, you wouldn’t want to frighten off that potential believer with too much symbology—crosses and all of that—that might suggest to him or to her that there’s a story out there larger than his or her own. The popular take on sacred space like that—or, for that matter, sacred space like this—is that, whatever else happens in it, it is certainly not anything that much resembles struggle.

Sacred space is time-out space, right? Only quiet, pearl-shaped, contemplative repose in sacred space, right? Wrong.

Lesson Number Two: Start at the beginning. Here at the beginning of your seminary career, start at the beginning of the New Testament—Mark (if you think it’s Matthew, since that’s the first book of the New Testament, you’ll learn differently, but now we’re probably getting ahead of ourselves)—and, more to the point, start at the beginning of Mark, verses 21-28. What this text has to teach us is that maybe the biblical understanding of sacred space is thicker, by far, than ours. Maybe, in the Gospel of Mark, at least, there’s more at stake in a sacred space than we are often prone to think.

Jesus and his just-recruited disciples—all of them brand new at this gospel business—“went to Capernaum; and when the Sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. They were astounded at his teaching,” Mark writes, “for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.” We don’t know what he taught them—whether it was “Introduction to the Old Testament” or “Pastoral Care Since the Age of Aquarius”—but, whatever it was, there developed a struggle. Not just a struggle, actually, but the struggle—between Jesus and a demon, between the God of all time and places and an anti-God, representative, maybe, of every other object of devotion that you’ve ever flirted with. Right there in the middle of sacred space, where, as Mark describes it, what was going on was not entertainment or a few quiet verses of “Kum Ba Yah”… but bloody business! And right there, somewhere between the narthex and the robing room, Jesus exorcised a demon. To which the congregation responded, “What is this? A new teaching?”

Have you ever seen something like that in sacred space? And yet, in Mark, hardly out of the first chapter of the first Gospel, Jesus—standing somewhere, if you will understand my meaning, between the manger scene and the Paschal candle—is demonstrating a kind of teaching that has authority; a kind of theological education, if you will, that, at its best, is nothing less than exorcism.

Lesson Number Three: Theological education at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary is, at its very best, nothing less than exorcism!

You may think that three years in this place is primarily about your getting a diploma, doing your time in an arbitrary credentialing process, getting the union card that will enable you to do pretty much what you’ve already decided you’re going to do anyway; and if that’s what you think about this time, I beg you to think some more. I beg you to think more deeply about the role of theological education in this sacred space—and, to go deeper still, about the role of the gospel to challenge the demonic assumptions that even you might be bringing with you to this sacred space.

When I entered seminary as a twenty-one-year-old, I brought with me the demonic assumption that there probably wasn’t too much that I still had to learn about ministry, about church. After all, I had been raised in the church, and I came from a ministerial family. I pretty much had it all figured out, speaking for myself, thank you very much, but maybe I could be useful for other students around me who didn’t know as much as I did. I brought with me the assumption that I had so thoroughly tramped around the landscape of the faith and of church that there wasn’t much about it all that I didn’t know. If it was a churchly matter, if it was a theological destination, I was sure I could lead you there blindfolded. It was as if I had walked all around God taking pictures. In terms of theological and churchly shop-talk, I had every religious value in my hip pocket—except distance. And in my first year of seminary, I was often assaulted by, corrected by, graciously taught by, and finally redeemed by nothing quite so much as an essential, even cleansing distance. Seminary knocked me off-balance, temporarily threw off my equilibrium, rebutted a lot of my premature certainty, and blessed me with a necessary distance within which so much of what I thought I knew got renegotiated, to the glory of God. It was nothing less than an exorcism!

Think about the sacred space that is Austin Seminary—and not just the Chapel, maybe, but also the classrooms and the offices and the dining hall and every nook and cranny of this campus where a redemptive conversation might take place for you while you’re here—think of it all as the arena where it’s possible that your own premature certainties (maybe themselves demonic assumptions) about the way the world works might be exorcised by the one who bears in his own person nothing less than the Kingdom of God. For if theological education isn’t about learning, within the context of sacred space, to encounter the bloody business of the exorcism of your own demons with which you might in fact be far too comfortable, then what good will it be? And how will it serve the will of God?

What’s happening throughout the Gospel of Mark is that Jesus is confronting a world gone to Hell with the news that the Kingdom of God is near and that that nearness changes every routine assumption we have about the way the world works. And this project, by the way, is not just a matter of imparting new information; it’s the bloody business—even, in fact especially, in the midst of sacred space—of exorcising the power of the old information. Before this Gospel is over, Mark intends to make it clear that your job, too, is to take part in that bloody business, if you’re up for it. For, after all, if the church cannot take part in that call of the Kingdom of God to follow a different, transformational set of values that turns the world upside down, then, to put it theologically, who in Hell can?1

Once in a while, we get to see what happens when the gospel overthrows the world, and it’s always a stunning sight. And those who have eyes to see and ears to hear are always amazed at it.

A couple of springs ago, at Emory University’s graduation exercises, there were four people who received honorary degrees. The exercises were held outside, and it was a nice, crisp day, and those graduating seniors had more on their minds than the dusty obligations of academic ceremony. So, for the most part, as the ceremony droned on up at the stage, they tossed their mortar boards in the air and threw Frisbees to one another and just generally gave it all the back of the hand, the thumb of the nose. One of the honorees was a Nobel Prize-winning mathematician, another was an African-American ambassador to an African country, and still another was Alfred Uhry—the playwright who wrote “Driving Miss Daisy” and “Last Night of Ballyhoo.” Pretty impressive people, I would say, but the Frisbees and the mortar boards kept on flying. Until the last guy was honored, and it was the only time that the students at graduation settled down. He was a helicopter pilot who had flown missions during the Vietnam War. He was the guy who intervened with his helicopter at the My Lai Massacre. Right there in the middle of a moment when Lieutenant Calley and various of his men were attempting to kill a mother holding a baby, the man set his helicopter down between the mother and the baby and those men. For thirty years he was considered unpatriotic; he was court-martialed, in fact. And then, our culture got more perspective, I guess, and on this day he was receiving an honorary degree. He stood up at the podium and said, “I’ve always lived with words I first learned from my parents: ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.’”2

“What is this? A new teaching—with authority!”

That’s the kind of stuff that Mark says happens all the time—in sacred space. The gospel, at its authoritative best, is not just the imparting of new information; but is exorcism.

For twelve years I served a church in Atlanta. It was an old historic church, smack-dab in the middle of downtown where its spire had presided over urban life since the middle of the nineteenth century. Shortly after the Civil War, this church called a new pastor. And then, over the next ten years, he managed to haul approximately a third of that congregation before the Session, where they were tried for various warm-blooded sins. It must have been his way of getting their minds off of all the musket balls embedded in the walls of that building, all the bloodstains down in the basement where Union troops had literally used that sacred space as a slaughterhouse—a place to butcher cattle. Possessed by a sense of moral righteousness, the man was diligent—summoning one parishioner after another into the Session room over the years of his ministry. And they weren’t hauled in over the unexciting stuff—usury, for example (Presbyterians never get tried for usury). It was the tabloid stuff—public drunkenness, dancing in front of other people, taking excursions to Savannah on the Sabbath. Trials before the Session! It went on like this for ten years.

On one occasion—the occasion, in fact, that prompted the Session to perform its own exorcism and to show that man the door—two young girls were brought before the Session. They had recently been confirmed there, but now they were commanded to confess to the Session that they had recently attended a party where there had been dancing. They confessed, and the Session minutes read that these girls vowed that they would never dance again for as long as they were members of Central Presbyterian Church. The very next entry in the Session minutes, by the way, was their request that their letters of membership be transferred to another church.3

Soon the man was gone, and a few years after that, they tore that building down and built the present Victorian Gothic structure. Because they built it on the original foundation, it was still possible in the years of my ministry there for children and youth spending the night at this or that lock-in to creep tremulously down to the spooky basement and catch sight of still-evident bloodstains from slaughtered cattle.

I don’t know for sure, but I suspect that they tore that original sacred space down because they were disturbed by less evident stains—those, perhaps, of any lingering post-Civil War pathology that might have otherwise embedded themselves into the plaster and the pews of the place. Maybe they felt that sacred space should not be so besmirched by the nicks and stains and struggles and fallibilities of ordinary mortals.

Whatever the reason, I wish they hadn’t done that. For the truth of the matter, if we can believe Mark, is that sacred space is made for bloody business.

May it be that, over these next three years, you come to see that for yourself. May it be that, in years to come, you can return to this place—the Chapel, the classrooms, the dining hall, or just about any other site that somehow becomes sacred for you on this campus—and identify this or that lingering reminder of some struggle, some significant surrender, something important given up in order to usher in some new thing being formed within you. May it be that, in each nick or stain, you remember something that was crucial, essential, to your own becoming.

Meanwhile, welcome to the bloody business that goes on here, to the glory of God!   

1 Thanks to my friend the Reverend Dr. Paul K. Hooker, executive presbyter if St. Augustine Presbytery, who assisted me in drawing these conclusions from this text.
2 Thanks to my friend the Reverend Dr. Thomas G. Long, who told this story during the 2003 meeting of the Moveable Feast lectionary group meeting in Louisville in early January.
3 This story is recounted in John Robert Smith’s history of Central Presbyterian Church in Atlanta, The Church That Stayed (The Atlanta Historical Society, 1979), pp. 19-24.

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