Standing on God's Watchpost October 6, 2010

by Claire Burkat
Bishop, Southeastern Pennsylvania Synod, ELCA

I bring greetings and blessings from all your many partners in the Gospel ministry we share.

From the congregations, missions, and leaders of the ELCA, from the Social ministry organizations and institutions, from all the Church wide units, and from our global and ecumenical partners.  Especially today we bring blessings from the other 7 ELCA seminaries, and the ecumenical schools of theology, which are also forming and equipping our future leaders.

I bring blessings and encouragement from the Conference of Bishops. We just ending our meeting yesterday and are glad to be with you in worship and conversation today. Those of us who are visiting thank you for your hospitality and welcome, and for our lively discussions.

So you’re just about halfway through the fall semester now, right?  You’re past those first jittery, anxious days getting into your new classes, getting to know names and faces, figuring out how things work around here. 

First year students – you made it through the first weeks of seminary boot camp (congratulations).  You’re settling into your field Ed sites, starting to bond with your faith formation groups.  

How many of you are taking Greek?  It’s right about now that you should be wondering what insanity led you to think you could make it through seminary. I don’t know whether this will make you laugh or cry, but I had the distinction of getting the lowest passing grade in Greek in my first year. 

Second year students – you should be at just the point where you start figuring out which classes you can be a little late for, which profs are sticklers for certain details, and smugly watching your first-year counterparts struggling with ordeals you survived and are glad to be done with.  (Like CPE.)  Another piece of information your might find interesting, I did my CPE in a Philadelphia hospital with your President Jim Echols.  Now there is some FACE Book dirt that will never see the light of day.

Somewhere out there are the interns.  They’re kind of out-of-sight, out-of-mind right now.  But say a prayer for them, because by now the glow of their honeymoon with their site and their supervisor has faded, and they are facing the realities of dysfunctional church committees, disgruntled parishioners trying to triangulate between them and their pastor, and the realization that ministry is really hard work.

Seniors – you already know all this, don’t you?  If any of you are actually present today, I’m surprised you’re even here.  You could be kicking back and enjoying this gorgeous day….but no…you have your own senior angst….because you’re facing candidacy committees and approval essays, and the anxiety of wondering just where God is going to lead you nine months from now.

Then there are the faculty and staff members.  Students, you may think that this time of the semester is one of great pleasure for your professors and members of the staff.  It may seem that they derive much amusement from planning torturous mid-term exams, plotting how they can creatively disrupt your ordination approval process, or picking choice morsels of biblical scholarship designed to make you question everything you thought you believed in and built your faith upon. 

It may cause you to wonder if they huddle conspiratorially in the faculty lounge or Jimmy’s, devising their evil plots and laughing maniacally.  But let me assure you that that’s simply not true.  No ….. they meet at 710!

But in all seriousness, your professors and the staff here at LSTC have a great deal at stake in making sure you get through this process. 

They want you to succeed.  They know how desperately the church is in need of well-trained, compassionate, leadership-focused, missional, inspiring and gospel-proclaiming rostered leaders and pastors.

This is just one snapshot inside the seminary here in Chicago right now. But outside this semi-sheltered world of religious academia where you have the luxury and privilege to fret about classes and grades and candidacy processes, there is a chorus of voices keening in the key of Habakkuk: 

“O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen?” 

O Lord, how long will I be able to live on unemployment benefits? 

How long will I be able to live with this cancer? 

Are you listening to me, Lord?  Are you listening to me when I cry ‘violence’, and you will not save?  When my teenage son is being bullied?  When my daughter serving in the military is in danger daily? 

“O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen?” 

When I live with brutality and hostility in my home, and in my school, and in my neighborhood and nurture revenge in my heart?

These are the cries of the people…these are the lamentations of the scared, and the desperate and the oppressed.

There is no way to pull the covers over our heads, or feign ignorance to the truth before us everyday in multiple ways.

The prophet voices our living nightmare.

 “Why do you make me see wrongdoing and look at trouble?  Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise.”

Fish and wetland plants and whole communities are reeling from oil that burst from beneath the Gulf waters like earth’s blood seeping into the sea. Whole mountainsides are watching their garments of green stripped from their bodies, their inner parts drilled for black coal that will pollute their skies and poison their waters.

 “So the law becomes slack and justice never prevails.  The wicked surround the righteous – therefore judgment comes forth perverted,” wails this chorus of human and nonhuman voices in the prophet’s words.

This is the ministry context for which you are being prepared, my brothers and sisters in Christ.  This is why God has called you to this place, those who teach, and those who learn, and those who provide the infrastructure needed to support this institution of theological education. 

It is no accident that you are where you are right now, with the state of the world the way it is right now.  This is not just some flight of religious fantasy you’re in.  You are digging deep into the meaning of those Greek and Hebrew words to discover what the Lord has to say to this world.  You are listening intently to these professors to hear what wisdom they have about how to minister in this world. 

And professors, you are teaching these students because you know that God needs as many skilled workers in the vineyard as possible to collect the harvest of these grapes of wrath, and watch Jesus transform them into the wine of his blood that can heal the wounds of this world. 

In February of this year I traveled with our presiding Bishop Hanson and 12 others who were invited on an ecumenical trip to visit with the world’s Christian Leaders. We were privileged to meet with the Archbishop of Canterbury in London, the Ecumenical Patriarch of the Orthodox Church worldwide in Istanbul Turkey, Pope Benedict XVI in Vatican City, Rome, and the heads of the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, and the Reformed Church Worldwide.

 But it was not the living world leaders, as important as they were, that made the greatest impression on me.  It was the witness of two humble men, the Abbott and the librarian of the Holy Trinity Orthodox monastery & seminary on an island off the coast of Istanbul.

In our hotel in Istanbul, we woke up before dawn on Sunday morning, quietly walked through dark hallways, and worshipped at 6 a.m. in an upper room off the mezzanine.  The worship was not only private; it was secret, as public Christian worship is discouraged in this Islamic country.  Clergy are not permitted to wear collars or crosses, so those of us who were clergy, wore business clothes for all public travel, and only wore our religious garb when we met in a private session with the Ecumenical Patriarch.

Later that day, two Orthodox deacons took us on a ferry to Holy Trinity Monastery and Halki seminary.  As you know, the Roman Emperor Constantine declared the Roman Empire Christian, and moved the capital city from Rome to Constantinople.  This city later was named Istanbul, and it sits across the Bosporus River.  On our way we could view the ancient city of Chalcedon, the location of the fourth ecumenical council in 451 where the two natures of Christ (human and divine) were debated and agreed upon.

Before lunch we arrived at the island where Holy Trinity seminary sits atop a beautiful hill.  The steep road up the side of the mountain prohibits walking, so we climbed aboard horse drawn cart for a truly wild ride up the mountain!  The monastery sits on the top a stunningly beautiful mountain overlooking the sea.  We toured the chapel, which is more than a thousand years old.  But it was very quiet.

No students agonizing about their exams, no chatter, no laughter, no young or wizened conversations.

The Turkish government closed the seminary 1971. Not one seminary student or professor has been able to study or teach for 39 years. This place, which had been a monastery for a thousand years, and a seminary for a hundred years, is now empty of life and learning.

Imagine our surprise to see every classroom remains intact, awaiting pupils; every dorm room has fresh bedding and floors swept clean, awaiting students; every space at the table in the dining hall has a tablecloth, as if it was just a few moments away from dinnertime. 

The abbot and one monk are the only remaining inhabitants, except for the tours or a few who come to pray and stay there for a short time.  The Orthodox church of Turkey has been keeping the facility open (yet empty) for 39 years with the hope and prayers – which we join -- that one year soon they will be permitted to reopen the seminary.

What does Habakkuk go on to say?  “I will stand at my watch post, and station myself on the rampart; I will keep watch to see what God will say to me, and what God will answer concerning my complaint.”

 This is your watchpost, my friends.  Station yourself on the rampart and watch to see what God will do.

God will say, “Write the vision; make it plain on tablets, so that a runner may read it.  For there is still a vision for the appointed time; it speaks of the end, and does not lie.  If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay.” 

Let me share with you a glimpse of what God’s vision is for this appointed time, and it is worth waiting for.

Just last week I received a news release, a statement from his All Holiness, the Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew, that the Prime Minister of Education, and the Chief negotiator for EU talks, have indicated that the obstacles to opening the seminary are being dismantled. The reason it could happen now is because the Turkish government is anxious to join the European Union and in so doing is being forced to improve the rights of it’s non Muslim minorities. 

So next year on the 40th anniversary of closure, the seminary could once again be filled with seminarians and faculty.

The Orthodox Church as been there in Constantinople (Istanbul) for 1,700 years. What is 40 years to a people who have been keeping the faith for 1,700?

What did Paul say to Timothy?  “Rekindle the gift of God that is within you through the laying on of my hands; for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.”

So do not be afraid to take the watch post for a while. Receive the courage and strength to do what God calls you to do.

Go where God is calling you to go, wait when God is telling you to wait, and watch when it is your turn to watch – this is part of the rekindling process. 

God’s spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline is being instilled within you through your studies, your field Ed sites, your internships, and yes, even in those conversations at Jimmy’s. 

When I look back at my seminary education, and my early years in ministry, I realize with increasing awe, how those experiences and opportunities, and even heartaches, (especially the heartaches) trained me to stand now at this watchpost, and to be on the lookout for the vision that God is renewing for us every day.

Paul says to Timothy,  “Guard the good treasure entrusted to you, with the help of the Holy Spirit living in us.”  Habakkuk chimes in, “The righteous shall live by their faith.” 

And maybe you sputter, “But, but . . . my treasure is so small. 

My faith is so tiny.  Why, it’s no bigger than  . . . no bigger than a mustard seed.” 

And Jesus says – It’s enough.  That’s all I need. 

Now . . . watch mountains Move!” 


Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4, 2 Timothy 1:1-14, Luke 17:5-10

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