When it came time for me to think about the person I wanted to preach at my installation as Principal of the Diocesan Theological College, the obvious choice was my former colleague from Concordia’s Department of Religion, Dr. Carly Daniel-Hughes. Not only were she and I, for a number of years, the two faculty members who consistently taught the history of Christianity, but we worked together very closely, and we often talked about the challenges of being people of faith in a secular environment. I therefore knew that when it came to talking about the wonders and challenges of theological education, Carly would be the person best able to give voice to my own feelings about it.
I also asked her to preach on one of my very favourite passages in scripture, the Emmaus story. It is a story that has deep resonance for me. While I continue to read it in a variety of ways, Carly, in her homily, brings out some of its rich imagery, notably of food and feeding as ways of not only talking about, but also as ways of doing, theological education. I especially love her imagery of the two Emmaus disciples as being among the earliest seminarians. I was deeply moved and reaffirmed by what she had to say. In my work as Principal, I can only hope and pray that I will be worthy of the challenge she has now set before me.
I offer the words of my friend, colleague and fellow-traveler in the gospel for your own prayerful reflection. (Rev. Dr. Donald Boisvert, Principal of Montreal Diocesan Theological College)
Dr. Carly Daniel-Hughes, Associate Professor of Religion Concordia University
Installation of Dr. Rev. Donald Boisvert, Oct. 4, 2015
(Luke 24: 28-35)
This evensong we come together to celebrate the installment of Donald Boisvert as Principal of the Diocesian Theological College of Montreal. It is a time of change and transition for those at Dio. It is a time of excitement and anticipation. And how I envy you!
I came to Concordia University eight years ago as a new professor of Christian history. With a newly minted doctorate in hand, I was eager and capable, but certainly in need of guidance and support. I found it in my colleague, Donald Boisvert. Ever warm and compassionate, he was not only a model teacher (for he is among the most popular in our department), he demonstrated to me how Christian faith can inform our pedagogy, even in a secular context. Donald and I often joked that it was little coincidence that we, the two Christianity professors on staff, routinely had a trail of students sitting outside our office doors—as if, at times, we were running some kind of confessionals. He showed me that in the kindness we display in our teaching—our open-ness to students and their ideas, our concern for their well-being, our humor and humility—we were giving powerful (yet subtle) expression to the gospel that orients our own lives—a gospel of inclusion, acceptance, hope, and justice. I will, in short, miss him a lot! Yet I share with you joy at the prospect that Donald can now give explicit voice to that gospel as he endeavors to nurture and train women and men in the service of God.
Here we have an opportunity to reflect on what theological training entails? What should orient it? What is required for these Christian men and women to lead our communities in this increasingly complex world? (Particularly here in Quebec where our faith seems, to many around us, intolerant, outmoded and even irrelevant?) What would prepare our Christian leaders to serve God here, and now: to guide our communities, to increase our faith, and find meaningful ways of sharing it with our broken world?
In the Gospel of Luke, we read about two disciples—two of the very earliest seminarians, you might say—on the road to Emmaus. It is fair to state that these two, Cleopas and his unnamed classmate, were confused and dejected. They had a plan, an idea of what it meant to be a follower of Jesus. And it did not involve seeing this beloved teacher arrested and killed by Roman soldiers during the Passover festival. In the wake of these events, they saw little else to do but wander on the road, leaving Jerusalem behind, and wondering at Christ’s death, and at the news that his body was no longer resting in its tomb. While discussing these unfortunate events, suddenly, and unbidden, a stranger walks alongside them. We, the readers, know that this stranger is the resurrected Christ, but these disciples cannot see this. Christ points the pair to the scriptures. This course of events was outlined all along (it was revealed there, in the law and the prophets), only if they could see it. But they do not, they cannot. From their perspective things are very wrong; things should not have gone this way.
Evening rolls in, and they ask the stranger to stay on, to come inside and eat with them. It is in this moment that this story of dejection and despair takes a remarkable turn. Christ takes bread, he breaks it, and he gives it to them. Like he did before the hungry multitudes, and like he did again in the Upper Room, Jesus feeds his disciples. And in this feeding, something happens: the disciples see Christ present among them where before they saw only a stranger.
In our tradition we have tended to focus on one of Jesus’ feedings, the Last Supper, but we should note just how often in the gospels Jesus gives food to his followers, and how often he shares food with them. Jesus did not turn down dinner invitations (there was no table where he would not sit), and he never minded hosting impromptu meals either. There is something profound about all this eating and feeding that Jesus does. For giving and receiving food is a profound recognition of another’s humanity. These acts forge connections. They are intimate. In them, we take in the world together. Thus feeding is at the very heart of Jesus’ ministry and our faith. It reminds us that Christ comes right into midst of our world, our communities, and offers us our daily bread. He comes on a road, as a stranger, when we aren’t expecting it, when we are unsure, indicating to us that in fact he has been there all along.
Theological education that takes into account this sort of surprising God does not entail a highly structured curriculum—one that proceeds without changing, goes along as it always has, hoping that the culture will change, and that things can return to the way they once were. For to do so is frankly to see our Protestant communities continue to wither, and our clergy, indeed all of us, lose heart. It seems, rather, that theological education should be vibrant. It should have the willingness to guard tradition, yes, but also, the boldness to innovate and take risks. A theological education like this would instill in Christian leaders a dynamic faith. It would give them resources, intellectual as well as spiritual, to meet the challenges of ministry in ways that are thoughtful and inspirational. This education should embolden our leaders to work with their communities in order to bring justice and compassion to our societies, and to do it that work with courage and conviction. This education would surely put a premium on community, would value compassion, understanding, and relation to others, within our churches, and well beyond them. It would invite its students to be open to the presence of God in the world, and to relish the fact that in doing so they will be taken to places that they could not see beforehand.
Theological education is never for itself. Moreover, it should concern all of us who proclaim to follow Christ. Education is a kind of feeding. It is truly a form of sustenance for our clergy, and so, for all of us. Jesus feeds his disciples, it is true, but he does this so that they might continue on, sharing with our world what they richly received in the “breaking of the bread.”