Sunday, June 17, 2012

President Teresa Sullivan: No fences around the caring community

This morning's sermon is based on Mark 4:26-34.

Keep, O Lord, your household the Church in your steadfast faith and love, that through your grace we may proclaim your truth with boldness, and minister your justice with compassion; for the sake of our Savior Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

This morning I must begin by mentioning the most significant event in our community of the last week – and which I know is weighing on many of you: The dismissal of University of Virginia President Teresa Sullivan.

Even if you are not connected directly to the University of Virginia, you and I are affected daily by this huge institution across the street. It is no exaggeration to say that the most important public official in our community is the president of the University.

I certainly have no more information than any of you, and no doubt a good deal less than some of you. And I am in no position to comment on the actions of the Board of Visitors, nor should I.

But I would be remiss in not expressing the gratitude of our congregation, and my personal appreciation, to President Sullivan for the care and friendship she has shown to the Charlottesville community, and in particular, to this the parish church to the University of Virginia.

I first met Dr. Sullivan in a snowstorm, in the great blizzard of January 2010, when she was still president-elect.

Like many of you, she braved the elements to attend our Centennial banquet, and it was our great honor to seat her next to Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori.

As it turned out, the only two guests at the UVA Colonnade Club that snowy weekend were Dr. Sullivan, the first woman to head the University of Virginia, and Bishop Katharine, the first woman to head the Episcopal Church of the United States, and the first woman primate of an Anglican province in the world.

I’ve wondered since what these two intellectually powerful, historically groundbreaking women talked about over breakfast in the middle of a blizzard.

As President, Dr. Sullivan gave her first public address here in this pulpit on August 29, 2010 at our University Convocation Sunday. The backdrop to that sermon, and it is not so long ago, was the death of student Yeardley Love.

President Sullivan eloquently spoke to us about how we cannot be bystanders as others suffer.

She said this to us: 

Care for those around you, especially those who are most in need. This is one of the foundations of a strong community based on caring and shared responsibility for one another’s well-being. The Kingdom of God has many bridges, but not so many fences.”

I don’t know – none of us can know – what will happen next week, or next month or next year, as this struggle over the leadership of this great university unfolds.

But I do know this – we can show our gratitude for Terry Sullivan and what she has stood for by continuing the work of building a caring community.

And I would point out, the president of this very secular University put the building of a caring community in terms of her own faith and the building God’s kingdom.

What she spoke of is far bigger than any of us, bigger than a university or its president, or any single leader.

And bigger than any fence.

Today, in the Gospel lesson from Mark, Jesus describes the Kingdom of God as a place without fences. But get that, you have to hear what he is describing as something of an inside joke. Follow me here.

We’ve domesticated the mustard seed story into a platitude about how big things can grow from small things, and that is certainly true. Giant Sequoia redwoods do start with a seed from a very small cone.

But it’s not just about the seed. It is about what grows from the seed.

Jesus uses the story of the mustard seed to make fun of the pomposity of the Temple authorities, who compare the glory of the Temple to the majesty of the cedars of Lebanon, which as the Old Testament says, are so large birds nest in them.

Jesus compares the Kingdom of God to not a majestic cedar, but to a scraggly, weedy, unruly mustard shrub.

Mustard bush in the Middle East
In the Mediterranean world, mustard is not a condiment for hotdogs. It is a weed that grew as big as a house, and it took over the grain fields.

It starts as a tiny seed no bigger than the period on a printed page. It is truly the tiniest of seeds, and when it grows, watch out. It is the Kudzu of the Middle East.

It take over everything in its path. It is unpredictable, no respecter of fences, no respecter of neat rows of grain. It growns everywhere, no stopping it.

The Kingdom of God is “like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”

No doubt the Temple authorities were infuriated by this pithy little story – Jesus was, indeed, mocking them. And the people got the mocking tone, and they repeated his story over and over and they wrote it down. It appears in three of the gospels and in documents about Jesus that did not get into the New Testament.

The Kingdom of God is like a mustard weed. It starts small, and it grows where it will and no fence – no institution – can stop it.

The community we are called to build in God’s kingdom – the community of caring people who heal the sick, comfort the afflicted, put bread on the table, educate the young and old, and work to change the social structures that cause suffering – that community is like a mustard bush that will grown everywhere.

It is unpredictable; fences cannot contain it, and it will bring heaven to earth in those places of need and suffering. That is the true Kingdom God.

All of us are a part of this great work – all of us have a role – and no fence can keep you or I out.

Please allow me to end this morning by reading to you the concluding words of President Sullivan in her remarkable sermon to us nearly two years ago. I quote:

“Ask yourself this question: If you happened to encounter an angel unawares, how would you treat him or her? What if this angel-in-disguise were a stranger, or someone who looks different from you, or someone who is on the low end of the socio-economic ladder, or someone suffering from physical or mental distress?

“This morning, let’s affirm our commitment to caring for every member of this community every day. Let’s make this promise to ourselves and to each other. Let’s promise not to stand by when someone else needs help. Let’s promise to take responsibility for each other. Let’s promise to show hospitality and kindness to everyone around us — even the strangers, who, for all we know, might be angels.

“Your neighbors might not exalt you for taking such responsibility. Your friends might criticize you. But building a community of caring is a very positive long-term investment.”

Let me to add that it remains our task to carry on this work of building a caring community – work that is truly all of ours to share, no matter our age, our social status, our educational status, or our affiliation with the University of Virginia.

Teresa Sullivan ended her sermon by saying “God bless the University of Virginia,” and I would add, God bless President Sullivan. Amen
By James Richardson, Fiat Lux 

1 comment:

Alison Stokes said...

Teresa Sullivan, a. brilliant woman, a treasure for the University of VA, a caring friend to Charlottesville.
My daughter and I ( both UVa grads) were privileged to
meet Pres. Sullivan at St Paul's, be inspired by her sermon and share with her our concerns and specific ideas for student safety improvements to which she was keenlyly attentive.
I am so proud of our University's united response and action for fairness in this recent challenging situation.

Thank you,
Alison Stokes