April 7, 2017
Having spoken just a couple of weeks ago with Michael Curry, the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, I bring you his greetings on this great day in the life of Voorhees College. He prays his blessing upon you and gives thanks for the presence of Voorhees in the life of the Episcopal Church. I am grateful for your presence here today and the honor of being the preacher on this grand occasion and share a word that I hope and trust is of God’s Spirit.
Perhaps you have heard this story, reported to me as true even as names have been changed. It seems that a young entrepreneur’s business had become so successful that it had outgrown the building in which she started. So, in the hope of future success she moved this little enterprise to a new and much larger facility.
On the first day of business in the new spot, the young woman came to work excited and scared, optimistic yet with some concerns. The first thing she found in her new spot was a lovely flower arrangement. The note said, “We were so terribly sorry to hear of your loss. Please accept our deepest condolences.” It was from someone she thought she recognized as a customer, but as you might imagine she was a bit confused and wondered if it was some kind of omen.
About an hour later she got a frantic call from the florist. He said, “Ms. Jones, I am so sorry. The Smiths ordered two arrangements—one for you and one to go to a funeral home. My delivery boy got the two mixed up.” Ms. Jones laughed and said, “Oh that’s okay. I’m a small business owner. I make mistakes like that too. But can you remember what the note on my arrangement said?” The florist said, “Well, that’s the really embarrassing part. The arrangement that you were supposed to get is at the funeral. It has a big ribbon on it that says, ‘Congratulations on your new location.’ ”
Dr. Evans, welcome to your new location at Voorhees. We are delighted you are here. And because you are here we are all in a new location, as this particular constellation of human beings has never before come together on planet earth. It is a day of thanksgiving to God for all who have gone before us, from the original visionary, Ms. Elizabeth Evelyn Wright in April of 1897, on to all who have made it possible to be Voorhees College in 2017. We also give thanks for what will yet be, in anticipation of a future held by God’s goodness and love, in order to move into all that God is yet calling Voorhees to be through your leadership and the leadership of all who serve and study here in this historic place.
So I ask, what might the scriptures say to us about who God calls us to be, together with you in your new location, and particularly this college as an Historically Black College affiliated with the Episcopal Church? In Psalm 78, as it rehearses the history of Israel, a significant question is asked. “Can God set a table in the wilderness?” I would say, as a person of faith, that not only can God do so, God has done so and is even now seeking to do so, through us. It prompts me to ask the question: Can Voorhees be an altar, that is, a sacred table set by God around which God’s good people are gathered, as an instrument of God’s vision “on earth, as it is in heaven?” To use the Presiding Bishop’s language, can Voorhees be a part of the Jesus movement in this time and place, in the wilderness of the culture in which we live?
It is the hope of Isaiah’s prophetic vision of Israel’s restoration in today’s lesson, where the poor are invited to the joyful banquet. For Isaiah it is desacralized, if you will, from mere temple ritual and placed right into the daily life of real people. It is taking this altar and figuratively setting it up wherever God’s people find themselves. For Isaiah it was a movement away from sanctuary to the wilderness of the street: your street; a dorm room; a street in Denmark; the parking lot of the grocery store; a place of business; a classroom or laboratory, or even, the college president’s office. I hear echoing in my mind a line from a song by the Doobie Brothers, “taking it to the streets.” Isaiah’s vision is to be our vision. The purpose of education is not merely exporting facts and concepts, as important as they are. It is about formation of the human spirit to be a more mature, informed and transparent instrument of God’s justice for the world. Indeed a part of the Voorhees mission statement is “to educate the minds, hearts and spirits…”
I wonder if we remember that the early Christian community, when gathering for Eucharist, the very thing we are doing here right now, did not first see the image of the Last Supper as its primary Eucharistic imagery. Their first image was of the various feeding stories of the four or five thousand, one of which was read today as the Gospel. The Eucharist was seen more as an anticipation of the full reign of God where all are fed, there is perfect equity and justice, all barriers that separate us are removed, and all have access to God’s bounty. Why? For in this way we are more clearly the icon of God’s community of love, justice and thanksgiving.
We see in the Gospel of Luke today as it plays out in the five loaves and two fish Jesus’ Kingdom mission – feeding the hungry creation as ALL ate and were filled with an abundance of leftovers. If I may be so presumptuous to say, can this be a primary purpose of how people are prepared and empowered at Voorhees, for the sake of one another and for the sake of a whole, reconciled and healed world? There would be a “Re-imagined Voorhees, a different school of thought.”
Let me make what I think is a bold statement. Every one of us here today is called by God, in some way, to be setting up God’s table in the wilderness of life, to live a life of gratefulness, sometimes setting the table yourself and sometimes having it set for you. It is an altar that, if true to God, challenges everything of our world that works contrary to that vision and dares to challenge what needs to be different in any structure or institution that robs God’s people of dignity and hope. The bread and wine we hold up here belongs not to us, it belongs to God and therefore it belongs to the world. This altar, the altars in our churches, only have integrity if they become the altars we set out there, or better, the altars or holy tables God is setting for us out there. We are asked to show up.
Dr. Evans, help us through your ministry as president of Voorhees College to be table setters, to cooperate with God in God’s dream for God’s people. The life of faith is not to be merely prudent, sensible or safe. No, too often such attitudes lead to a stale, stagnant and passionless Christianity. It leaves us unchanged and the world remains very hungry.
Perhaps the call here, the reason God has brought you together as president, professors, staff, students and community, is to be the new table God is setting here at Voorhees, a table where all are welcome, a table where all are fed, a table where justice rises up to be heard, seen and fulfilled. Let us practice it here, make it so here, so that we can live it out there.