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About What Is

By Cynthia Briggs Kittredge

The following is the final sermon delivered to the Class of 2020 by the Very Rev. Cynthia Briggs Kittredge at the Evening Worship Service the evening before commencement, May 19, 2020.

Mark 10:35-45

But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great
among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first
among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be
served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

Every year on the night before commencement we gather in Christ Chapel and hear this story from the gospel of Mark about tyrants and servants, suffering and glory, baptism and resurrection.

Every year I read the names of those who have died and give thanks for their lives and read the names of the graduates, we invite those whose loved ones have died to attend the service. Most cannot come, but it is meaningful for their kin to know that the seminary community remembers them and that we name them in this sacred place. 

Every year, the graduates are gathered. I call your names one by one, and one by one you walk to the front of the chapel where I give you a seminary cross. We shake hands, we embrace, and you one by one return to your seats.  Some years we worry, because of past experience that  the hugging will get out of control and make the service too long, so at the rehearsal we ask that you don’t hug me, and sometimes you follow those instructions…. and sometimes you don’t and …  it doesn’t matter….  You have thought ahead and brought chains or leather lace for the crosses and you take them out of the boxes you hang them around your necks. 

Every year I love this service because it honors the past, those who have lived out their baptism and gone from strength to strength, and it looks to the future as we celebrate this year’s graduates, what they have undergone in their time of formation, and what good work they will accomplish as they step forward into life after seminary.

This year, this year, of course, is not like every year. As with everything ceremonial or ordinary we do during this time of pandemic we have a kind of double vision. Always we are seeing what used to be, and what is now. We see What isn’t. What is. 

What isn’t.  There is so much to mourn. For the families of those who have recently died, not only losing our parent, be being barred from holding their hands to say goodbye and not permitted right away to have a funeral at church and a party in the parish hall or at the country club.

What isn’t. The senior class is robbed of that poignant last semester of saying goodbye and getting ready to leave this community and enter another in a new role.

What isn’t. We cannot see the features of the world we expect to enter, the future we imagine lies ahead. There is not any certainty about what the next few months or years will be like. We see not even through a glass darkly, but hardly see at all.

This year – What is – 

What is is the presence on line. presence of family members of those who have died. What is is The presence on line of the graduates and their proud families … and the presence of the staff and the faculty who love you from a distance. 

What is – this story from the gospel of Mark, a cautionary tale, a critical juncture in the process of the disciples’ formation, a human comedy.

Let’s read it this year:

Not the finest moment for our heroes, the brothers Zebedee.

They  are in their senior year, two of the class “stars,” James and John, begin to fantasize about their popularity, the glittering ministry they are embarking on, and ask their teacher to reserve prize places for them in the royal administration.  Even though the teacher refuses to grant their request, the whole class devolves into, anger, resentment, and bickering, blaming, comparing, rehearsing the past.  Jesus calls a meeting to reorient them and reminds them of who they are supposed to be…

But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.

This year our seniors have no need for a warning against pride or ambition. 

For they have been humbled for sure, enduring lockdown, house arrest, Zoominary.

This year, The amazing people whose names we have read. They have led lives of serving… as rectors, priests, deans, bishops, investment managers, board members, professors, students, mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers, children. They are saints, who in their own times of challenge, lived not as tyrants, but as servants, giving, sacrificing, loving.

This year What is, these seniors, each one for one year, or two or three or four or more, how they have shared the time of formation here. 

Being disappointed… 

Getting hurt

Receiving feedback – 

learning, having many “growth experiences”

and through it all,  you have formed us. 

How in this time of adversity, you have invented and tended on line chapel, celebrated Easter with stones, shared liturgical leadership in Zoom windows and virtual small groups, cared and home schooled your children; Thom has been exiled from Austin sung and prayed and learned together.

You have had to drink this cup to the dregs. You have had to go under the water all the way.

You have had to accept what is. And grieve and go forward, step by step, one day at a time. 

That is what is. You and your patience and courage and endurance and faith.

Christian life is about what is. 

The pandemic is asking us, forcing us, to see and to be in what is.

Like Jesus and his followers did, living in poor, occupied Galilee, tyrants taking advantage of it all.

This time is causing us to face what we spend so much energy not facing mortality, death. 

Our own yes, but Vulnerability, inequality, suffering. prisons, streets, border. Remember what the disciples confronted – mortally sick children, mentally ill people, blind beggars. 

This time is asking us to give as lavishly as the one who broke the jar and poured out the oil over the hidden king’s head. 

To take courage as those who watched from a distance and returned to the tomb.

As counselors… 

It is by entering more deeply, more courageously into what IS… that we will experience God’s deliverance, God’s rescue, God’s raising us up. 

Dear, dear Seniors in the class of 2020, sometime in the next week or so, you’ll get a package in the mail. 

It will contain your diploma and in a small box, your silver seminary cross. When you open it and put it around your neck, see what is, your unity with the saints who have gone before, your everlasting bond with your classmates who have shared this formation with you, and know what is, God’s faithfulness to you, that will sustain you in each day ahead, and the enormous pride and love with which we bless you tonight.  Amen.

Watch Cynthia’s sermon below:

The Very Rev. Cynthia Briggs Kittredge, ThD, is dean and president of Seminary of the Southwest. The focus of Dean Kittredge’s leadership is the formation of Christian leaders in community for the vitality of the church and to advance God’s mission of reconciliation. She believes that critical engagement with scripture, tradition, and context, energized by imagination, and grounded in prayer is the center of formation for mission.

In the wider church, Dean Kittredge is a respected scholar and preacher who teaches and leads retreats on the vital intersection of scripture, spirituality, and preaching for Christian leaders. In her role as dean and president, she continues to form students at Southwest in creative and faithful approaches to biblical studies, early Christian history, Greek reading, and the embodied practice of liturgical leadership.

Dean Kittredge is the eighth dean and president of Seminary of the Southwest. She was appointed in 2013 after serving on the faculty as the Ernest J. Villavaso, Jr. Professor of New Testament and as academic dean. Committed to theological education for the church, Dean Kittredge has served as a member of the Steering Committee for Theological Education in the Anglican Communion, as Chair of the Board of the Episcopal Evangelism Society, and President of the Anglican Association of Biblical Scholars.

A biblical scholar valued by her colleagues for her insight and generous collegiality, Dean Kittredge is a contributor to The New Oxford Annotated Bible and the Women’s Bible Commentary, and the author of Conversations with Scripture: The Gospel of John and Community and Authority: The Rhetoric of Obedience in the Pauline Tradition. She co-edited The Bible in the Public Square: Reading the Signs of the Times and Walk in the Ways of Wisdom: Essays in Honor of Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza. She is the co-editor of the Fortress Commentary on the Bible: The New Testament (2014).

Fascinated by the interplay of intellect and imagination in the interpretation of scripture, she wrote A Lot of the Way Trees Were Walking: Poems from the Gospel of Mark (Wipf & Stock, 2015).

Prior to joining the seminary faculty in 1999, Dean Kittredge taught at Harvard University and the College of the Holy Cross. She serves as assisting priest at The Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd in Austin.

She is married to Frank D. Kittredge, Jr. and they have three grown children.


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