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From the President

The Geography of Evil

Graves srebrenica bosnia and herzegovinaA sermon preached on Good Friday 2014, Church of St. Paul and the Redeemer, Chicago

Every year on the evening between Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, the Episcopal cathedral in New York sponsors an all-night reading of Dante’s Inferno, all thirty-four exciting and horrific cantos. The timing is grimly appropriate. The action of the entire Divine Comedy begins on Maundy Thursday of the year 1300. Dante the pilgrim makes his way down through the many circles of hell, and then climbs the seven story mountain of purgatory, and then—like a human rocket ship—is catapulted into the heavenly spheres of the Paradiso, all in the scope of an Easter weekend.

I expect that by this time, the readers in the Cathedral will have concluded the last canto of the Inferno. It is a shocking canto, perhaps more shocking to the 14th century reader than it is to us, as it begins with a blasphemous parody of one of the most beautiful Latin hymns of Holy Week. As Dante approaches the deepest center of hell, his guide, the Roman poet Virgil, warns him in a mix of Latin and Italian:

Vexilla regis prodeunt inferni verso di noi,/ pero dinanzi mira,

which, roughly translated, means “The regal banners of the inferno are flying in front of us, so keep your eyes peeled and your powder warm.” So somehow Virgil, a pagan who died in the first century, knows the words of the opening verse of one of the greatest seventh century hymns in honor of the Cross, a hymn still sung in monasteries and sanctuaries throughout the world on days like this.

Vexilla Regis prodeunt;

Fulget Crucis mysterium,

Quo carne carnis conditor

Suspense est patibulo


Abroad the regal banners fly,

now shines the Cross’s mystery:

upon it life did Death endure,

and yet by death did life procure.

Vexilla regis prodeunt—The banners of the king go forth. Virgil has the wit to add, “the banners of the king—of hell”—because he and his protégé have now reached the very pit of the Inferno, where no fires burn, where everywhere is ice. It’s a place where the banners of the king of hell in truth proceed nowhere at all. They are in fact not banners that Virgil points to, but ghosts, shades, “ombre”—the shades of those who had committed the worst sin that Dante could imagine—the sin of betrayal. And at the very epicenter of the inverted cone of hell as Dante imagines it is Lucifer, the Great Betrayer, the fallen angel of light, emperor of this woeful realm. He stands there waist deep in ice, frozen, immobile. No romantic hero he, but a kind of death machine, with one head and three faces—demonic parody of the Trinity. His body is the color of decay, as ugly now as it once was beautiful. His six eyes weep tears and bloody foam, and each of his three mouths chews the living corpses of one of the three men whom Dante regarded as the three greatest of traitors. Cassius and Brutus, assassins of Julius Caesar, each squirms in one of Lucifer’s two outer mouths. The center mouth chews Judas Iscariot. Judas’ head and upper body are hidden from view inside that horrible mouth, his legs outside kicking and trembling in the icy winds—winds kicked up by the six batlike wings of the fallen seraph who forever holds him captive.

Read more: The Geography of Evil

The End of the Story

I have always felt a close kinship with Nicodemus. He is one of several figures in the Gospels who approach Jesus in good faith only to get much more than they bargained for:  like the rich man who had followed the Law diligently from his youth, the man whom Jesus loved, and yet felt forced to flee his presence in guilt and sorrow because the demand Jesus made—to sell all he had and follow him—was more than he could bear. Or the Syro-Phoenician woman who sought a cure for her daughter, only to be rebuked like a dog for presuming to cross the boundary dividing insider from outsider, circumcised from uncircumcised, Jew from Gentile, men from women. To her credit she had the temerity to stand up to Jesus. Not many of us would, I suspect. Certainly not Nicodemus.

By the time Jesus has finished with him early in John’s gospel, Nicodemus all but disappears from view. He asks God what we all ask God at some point in our lives: How can these things be? And Jesus’ response is so total, so overwhelming, that Nicodemus doesn’t stand a chance. Nicodemus is always in the dark: masking his quest in the darkness around him, struggling hard against the darkness within him. And Jesus has no patience with him:

“How can a man be born again from his mother’s womb? How can these things be?”

“Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?”

It’s a nightmare of a rebuke, this rebuke of Jesus, in the darkness that Nicodemus thought was safe—a rebuke that sails into him from nowhere, like the winter wind wreaking havoc through the barren trees.

If we are honest with ourselves, and honest with God, this rebuke may be our nightmare too. It’s just not safe, this religious business. I am not talking about what the cultured despisers call “organized religion”—with its membership lists, its church councils, its pledging rolls, its liturgical niceties, its bishops defending against lawsuits, its competing seminaries. No, that part of religion, ironically, feels safe and familiar. For better or worse, we do institutions pretty well.

The part that’s not safe is the encounter with God—not just questioning Jesus (he seems to enjoy that), but simply being with Jesus. Especially when we think we know what we are doing. Like Nicodemus, we do not always understand. We do not always trust. Many of us, if we approach God at all, would rather not allow ourselves to be seen by the light of day.

The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.

We never find out what becomes of Nicodemus. We see him only once again in John’s gospel, toward the end of the story, again in darkness, as he drags a load of myrrh and aloes to anoint Jesus’ body in the tomb, Jesus being safer dead than alive. What a load to bear in the darkness. He will use those spices to anoint the corpse, laying it in the safety of the graveyard. Nicodemus will leave Jesus’ body where it is safe to leave it, and for that act of bravery and compassion God’s blessings on him.

We’ll never know, at least in this life, what became of Nicodemus after that. But knowing his after-story is not the point. The story in John’s gospel is not really about Nicodemus, struggling with Jesus in the dark. The story is about us. It is an Easter story. And although we all can predict the end of our stories—the human mortality rate still stands at 100%—we cannot predict, or control, how God will lead us to our end. We cannot predict where our own place at Calvary might be. But we can know what I hope Nicodemus finally knew, when he heard that the tomb was empty—that in Christ all things will be well, and all manner of things will be well.

The Spirit of God blows where it chooses. Knowing that is perhaps what Christian life is all about, allowing ourselves, opening ourselves, to feel and hear the wind when and where it blows, embracing it, breathing it in, with arms wide open and in the full light of day. To acknowledge God the Spirit breathing in and through our ordinary lives, and to allow ourselves to be born anew, born from above, even if it means dying to what we are and rising again to a life of hope and compassion and reconciling love that we have only begun to imagine and embody.

Putting Our Money Where Our Mouth Is

For ten years I had the privilege of leading an historic endowed congregation in Lower Manhattan. Of course, it is difficult to imagine a parish functioning in expensive lower Manhattan without an endowment.  There are five Episcopal parishes below 14th Street, all five of which exist in the shadow of the great Megillah of endowed parishes, Trinity Wall Street. In fact, my parish--St. Luke in the Fields--owed its very survival to Trinity.  For a hundred years it had functioned as a Trinity chapel in the West Village, in effect a wholly owned subsidiary of the Wall Street parish. In 1976, in the midst of a real estate meltdown (Trinity is a major landowner downtown), Trinity decided to shed its "chapels." They gave the newly constituted vestry of St Luke's title to an entire city block (including three rows of Federal townhouses suitable for market rate rental) and a million dollars. By the time I was called as rector 18 years later, shrewd investments had tripled the dollar amount, the rentals were grossing $700,000 a year, the school was flourishing, and the parish one of the most active and innovative in the city.

But endowments are a mixed blessing, at the mercy of stock market volatility and the hard-to-resist temptation to increase the yearly draw beyond the usual 5% to hide a deficit (a practice that in the past our own seminaries understood only too well). Endowments are also notorious breeders of institutional complacency. It takes a bold leader to move a congregation from reliance on the benefactors of the past to a readiness to invest their own money in the present, preserving the endowment to help guarantee the future. And of course, the great majority of Episcopal parishes cannot match the reserves of our better endowed parishes, and struggle just to keep the lights on. As I say, church endowments can be a mixed blessing. They can be seen to encourage the  creation of  a two-tiered set of churches--those that have (and will continue to flourish) and those that don't (and won't).

I write all this in Atlanta, where my Bexley Seabury colleagues and I are attending the annual gathering of the Consortium of Endowed Episcopal Parishes, known as CEEP. For the first time, our ten Episcopal seminaries are present as full members. All ten seminaries owe our continued existence in large part to our endowments, and to the generosity of our alumni and supporters. Of course, we are all here in Atlanta with our development officers, hoping to win friends and influence influential people. 

But the good news is that this is not a gathering of wealthy and complacent Episcopalians. There is a palpable sense of mission here, and a clear desire to address the financial and spiritual crisis faced by all our congregations and institutions, endowed or not. It is clear to me, as it is to many participants here, that our large endowed parishes have a moral obligation to nurture and support the kind of leaders we need to engage God's mission as our church has been called to engage it. We have the resources to do it. We need to find the will. This means raising up lay and ordained leaders who will help us, in effect, re-invent what it means to be church, especially for the fast-growing number of younger people who think what it means to be church is to be exclusive, strident and censorious on the one hand, or boring, complacent and outmoded on the other.

In the next ten years, there will be a massive wave of retirements of priests like me--members of the boomer generation who are in some ways responsible for the present mess we are in. My hope is that my colleagues here at CEEP can put our mouths where our money is, and redouble our efforts to raise up new leaders for the long run, in ways that will rejuvenate and strengthen all our congregations, endowed or not.  The Gospel demands nothing less. 

Baptism Makes Us All Outsiders

I write this President’s message during the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. "It has been reported to me...that there are quarrels among you, brothers and sisters." Now there's an understatement. Imagine what Paul might have said about present-day Christians, now scattered, as my colleague John Dally reminded us recently in chapel, into over 30,000 different Christian denominations.

In what has rightly been called our current ecumenical winter, Paul's words stab deep. With Paul we yearn for unity. Yet at the same time many of us fear in our own congregations what perhaps the Corinthians feared in theirs in their quest for unity—we fear being co-opted, or absorbed, or belittled, or worse thing, perhaps, just pitied and ignored.

But we need to lay fear aside. In the end, as Paul knew, it's our common baptism into Christ's death and resurrection that unites us, no matter what branch of the Christian family we find ourselves in, or no matter how many church-dividing stumbling blocks our theologians lay before us.

But we have to be careful. The Spirit can be dangerous, and our baptism in common can take us to places we had not expected to go, especially those of us determined to keep our denominational integrity intact. Ecumenism has been all about a search for inclusiveness, a search for the formula that will allow all of us, Protestant, Anglican, Orthodox, Roman Catholic, to find a common home, a temple where all can worship in safety. Baptism seems tailor-made for this task, the ultimate symbol of Christian inclusiveness.

But baptism is not necessarily a rite of inclusion, nor perhaps should it be. As Bexley Seabury Board member Bishop Tom Breidenthal has argued, we should learn to regard baptism not as a rite of inclusion but as a rite of expulsion. That word expulsion comes as something of a shock. Embracing our common baptism is not about finding a peaceful center where we can all feel comfortable and friendly and polite. To embrace our common baptism is to allow the Spirit to blast our centers apart.  Jesus was baptized by John, and immediately the Spirit expelled him into the wilderness. Nicodemus wants to follow Jesus, but to his horror he's told he needs to be expelled from the womb a second time. Andrew and Peter, James and John, abandoned the everyday world they knew, expelled by the Spirit into the presence of this strange man Jesus, following him even to Calvary, leaving a puzzled and scandalized father Zebedee to ponder his lonely fate in the dust of their sudden departure.

The baptized community is not about inviting people in, which is what our ecumenical discussions try so hard to do, and to such frustrating and feeble effect. Baptism is not about widening the circle of insiders and distinguishing them from outsiders. Baptism makes us all outsiders, expelled from the center to inhabit the margins, driven by the Spirit out of our places of safety—whether it's our fishing boats or our churches, our racial prejudices or our economic comforts—to make common cause with the poor and the isolated, the refugee and the captive. One reason we may have entered an ecumenical winter is at there has just been too much talk of safety, or simply too much talk.  Perhaps in this troubled season we might just let the Spirit empty us of churchy eloquence so that the cross, that ultimate sign of expulsion, might be revealed in all its power to save. Perhaps it's time for our churches in their ecumenical discussions to stop jockeying for position at the foot of the cross, and instead for the sake of all outsiders empty ourselves of our denominational certainties so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power.

Worth the Wait

Robben Island, the bleakly beautiful island off the coast from Cape Town, is now a national museum and a World Heritage Site. It was once a leper colony, and then for decades housed the prison where Nelson Mandela and scores of other political activists were brutally imprisoned. Tour boats now shuttle regularly between the island and the Cape Town waterfront. Once you get to the island, you climb aboard a bus, led by an elderly guide who is likely to be a former prisoner.

The most important stop, of course, is the tiny cell where Mandela was kept in isolation for decades. But what I remember most from my first visit in 1999, just two years after the prison was decommissioned and opened to the public, is a limestone quarry, a high white cliff blinding you even in the winter sun. During the years of apartheid, this was where Mandela and many of his companions were put to meaningless work, chiseling away at the cliff to no real purpose, permanently damaging eyes and lungs. With the dust and the wind and the glare, it is a relief to get back on the bus and head back toward the sea. But as the bus turns from the quarry toward the main road, you will notice a small pyramid of stones, carefully piled at the crossing. It is an odd sight, jarring. It looks like a burial mound. But it is in fact a marker of new life. After the prison had been closed and apartheid ended, there was a reunion of former prisoners at this site. They erected this cairn of remembrance as a signpost on the road to freedom.

Robben Island rockpileI took a photograph of that rockpile. As the world mourns Mandela's death, I think of this image as an icon for Advent—an icon for this season of waiting. When the racist government imprisoned Nelson Mandela all those years ago, their intention was to put an end to expectation, to cut off hope. But Mandela knew how to wait. For South Africa, his release signaled the triumph of hope over the tyranny of fear, a triumph poignantly celebrated in those memorial stones.

The triumph of hope: that, after all, is what this Advent season is about—hope in the midst of suffering. In these mean times in our own country, when immigrants are demonized and the poor get poorer, it is well to remember whom we are waiting for: an impoverished child, born in a shed to parents uprooted by tyranny, a Savior who will suffer at the hands of tyrants only to rise triumphant not in vengeance but in mercy, seeking not retribution but restoration, offering both reconciliation and a thirst for justice. Mandela himself was no Messiah—he knew that better than anyone. But his long walk to freedom allowed us a glimpse of what true redemption will look like. It's worth the wait.

God Bless Africa;
Guard her children;
Guide her leaders
And give her peace, for Jesus Christ's sake.

A blessed Advent and Christmastide to all.

Two Cheers for Samuel Seabury

A few days ago, it was the turn of the Bexley Hall students to organize and lead the community Eucharist at Trinity Lutheran Seminary.  Susan Smith, the rector of the local parish, would preside, and I was asked to preach.

It was the feast of the consecration of Samuel Seabury, not an auspicious theme for an Episcopal preacher in a Lutheran institution. For all we owe to him as Episcopalians, the Rev. Mr. Seabury was not a very attractive character. In saying this, I am in pretty good company.  Alexander Hamilton didn’t think much of him either. In the run-up to the American Revolution, Seabury was fiercely loyal to the British crown.  From the safety of Westchester Country, in 1775 he launched a series of pamphlets (signed only “The Farmer”) defending the Tory position against those clamoring for independence.  Hamilton—a master polemicist—launched a brilliant if venomous response.

The spirit that breathes throughout is so rancorous, illiberal, and imperious; the argumentative part of it is so puerile and fallacious; the misrepresentation of facts so palpable and flagrant; the criticisms so illiterate, trifling, and absurd; the conceits so low, sterile, and splenetic, that I will venture to pronounce it one of the most ludicrous performances which has been exhibited to public view during all the present controversy.

The criticism stuck. A year later, after a short time in an insurrectionist jail, Seabury took refuge in British-occupied New York City, where he served throughout the war as chaplain to a British regiment. With the British withdrawal, Seabury sensibly if rather ignobly changed sides, moving to Connecticut in the hope of reorganizing an Anglican church that was pretty much in shambles. A small group of like-minded clergy gathered in Woodbury to elect him as the first American bishop, sending him off to England for consecration. Even with Seabury’s Tory history, the English bishops had no stomach for  ordaining an American who would not swear allegiance to George III as head of the church.  So Seabury made his way to Scotland, where he was ordained at the hands of Scottish bishops who were equally hostile to English hegemony. And thus, the American church—and for that matter, the Anglican Communion—was launched.  There’s a postscript to the story. Both Seabury’s son and grandson entered the Episcopal ministry, and both held distinguished faculty positions at the General Seminary. But the grandson inherited the grandfather’s gift for championing the wrong cause at the wrong time.  In 1861, as important a year in our history as 1775, Samuel Seabury III published a small tract entitled “American Slavery, Defended.”

Read more: Two Cheers for Samuel Seabury

President Ferlo Cheers Illinois Marriage Equality

The Rev. Dr. Roger A. Ferlo, president of the Bexley Seabury Theological Seminary Federation, welcomed the arrival of marriage equality in Illinois:

"I am delighted that Illinois has joined 14 other states in endorsing marriage equality. Years ago, as a parish priest in Greenwich Village, I was inspired by the example of gay and lesbian couples who kept their relationships alive despite intense social disapproval. They were an example to me and to others in the congregation that what matters to God is not the sexual orientation of the partners, but their honesty, integrity and life-long fidelity. Now something is right in the eyes of the state that has always been right in the eyes of God."

The Bexley Seabury Theological Seminary Federation forms an Episcopal educational center in the Midwest that offers a new model for sustaining rigorous theological education. Our flexible academic programs, rooted in ecumenical partnerships, offer fresh options for clergy and laypeople who are preparing for ministry in a changing church. Learn more at


To Train the Trainers

I am delighted to inaugurate this monthly column as a permanent feature of our new Bexley Seabury website. I hope you will take a moment to explore the various new features of the site, especially our new course offerings, the bios of our combined faculty and our new and continuing Board members, the photographs and personal stories, and the description of the daily worship and the disciplines of formation that mark our common life in Christ.

One of the features of our common life in both Columbus and Chicago that I find most meaningful is the longstanding Seabury tradition, now shared by Bexley, of praying in weekly rotation for each of our alumni by name. Leadership in the church, especially in these difficult times, is a lonely vocation. It is a privilege to pray for every graduate in the course of the academic year. That kind of intercessory prayer—a sign of our solidarity with all who are in ministry—is integral to our seminaries' historic identities. This round of intercessory prayer affirms that we are all in this together.

It was in that spirit of solidarity that last week our newly united board of directors unanimously adopted a vision and mission statement for our new federation. The two statements are now a permanent feature of this website, and can be accessed under the "About" tab on the home page. The two statements read as follows:

Our vision: Bexley Seabury is called to be a 21st century seminary beyond walls – open to all who seek to deepen their Christian formation in a generous spiritual and intellectual tradition.

Our mission: As an Episcopal center for learning and discipleship at the crossroads of the nation, the Bexley Hall Seabury Western Seminary Federation forms lay and clergy leaders to proclaim God's mission in the world, creating new networks of Christian formation, entrepreneurial leadership and bold inquiry in the service of the Gospel.

Even—-especially-—as we face continued structural change and diminished resources in our mainstream churches, we believe that our new federation is called to be generous, not anxious, in its Christian witness to the world. We are committed to sharing a global Anglican tradition of wisdom and learning, broken open and available to all. Our aim is to empower people to replicate the kind of teaching and learning that they have experienced in our courses—in their own congregations, dioceses, and places of daily work and ministry.

We seek, in short, to train the trainers—to teach the teachers of the next generation of faithful Christians. Our aim is to create lifelong learners, faithful Christian leaders whose lives remain always open to transforming grace. Bexley and Seabury offer these gifts and vocational aspirations to the wider church conscious that our size—we are the two smallest Episcopal Church seminaries—is in many ways a great advantage. Together we can maintain both a sense of proportion and a sense of humor. To paraphrase Paul, who knew what it means to live loose to institutional requirements, it is not we ourselves we preach, but the Gospel of Christ in the world. That is why we are here.

Watch this site!

Taking Up Life on the Margins

A sermon preached by President Roger Ferlo at the Diocese of Indianapolis's Convention on October 26, 2012:

When Bishop Cate invited me to give this sermon, the honor was great but my trepidation was greater. I'm a native New Yorker, born upstate, long resident in New York City, and now newly arrived in Chicago. Until settling in the Midwest, most of what I knew about Indiana I learned from driving through Gary behind the moving truck. Clearly this would not do.

So I boned up on a little history—Wikipedia to the rescue. And what I learned turned out to be oddly resonant with the text of today's reading from Ephesians, and with the theme and purpose of this great gathering, assembled at a signal moment in the history of this diocese and of our church, a moment of great unity and joy in the diocese of Indianapolis, and of great division in our national life.

Read more: Taking Up Life on the Margins

How Do You Imagine Resurrection?

A Holy Week reflection by President Roger Ferlo

How do you imagine resurrection?

Frankly, the Gospels aren’t much help.  We know a lot about the before and after of Jesus’ resurrection, but precious little of the during.  The Gospel writers balk at describing an event that no one witnessed.   Once Joseph of Arimathea gives the go-ahead to use his pre-purchased resting space, we are told very little. True, Matthew has a story about the Pharisees arranging with Pilate to put guards at the entrance, thus preventing anyone from breaking the seal, stealing the body, faking a resurrection.  In a way, that reported episode is the exception that proves the rule.  On the actual mechanics of resurrection the lips of the evangelists are as sealed as the entrance to the tomb. 

This gap in the Gospel account gets reflected liturgically, in the odd little service designated for Holy Saturday in the Book of Common Prayer.  Few parish churches I know of actually mark that occasion.  In most places, the church building is as hollow as the grave—the altars stripped of ornament, the aumbry emptied, no Eucharist scheduled for the day.  Perhaps the bare wooden cross from the Good Friday service still occupies its spot in front of the barren table.  No one has yet had the time to put it back in the sacristy closet. 

Read more: How Do You Imagine Resurrection?

President Roger Ferlo

Roger Ferlo

Roger A. Ferlo is the president of the Bexley Seabury Federation and professor of biblical interpretation and the practice of ministry. Ferlo, who was previously the associate dean and director of the Institute of Christian Formation and Leadership at Virginia Theological Seminary, where he also served as professor of religion and culture, took up his duties at Bexley Seabury on July 1, 2012.

Prior to working at Virginia Seminary, Ferlo, who trained for the priesthood at the General Theological Seminary in New York City, spent 19 years in parish ministry, serving in Georgia, Pennsylvania, and New York City. He has 14 years of teaching experience at the university and seminary levels; 15 years of service on the board of the National Association of Episcopal schools, including a term as president; and nine years of service on the board of trustees of his alma mater, Colgate University ('73, summa cum laude), where in 2010 he was awarded an honorary doctorate.

Ferlo holds a Ph.D. from Yale University ('79) and has authored and edited three books and numerous published essays, sermons and reflections.