Austin de la Torre ’20
Woodberry’s new Chaplain, The Rev. Tyler Montgomery, gave his first sermon this Monday in chapel. He touches on a topic that is extremely relevant to the Woodberry community. That topic is how we can better take care of each other by humbling ourselves in order to make our neighbor feel more welcome. Below is a transcript of his sermon.
Monday, September 3, 2018
Proper 17: James 1:17-27, Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-13
Be Doers of the Word and not Merely Hearers
I can think of two moments in my life when I arrived to an event terribly underdressed. The first was at the National Association of Episcopal Schools Conference at St. Paul’s School in Concord, New Hampshire. I left the suit and tie that I had set aside to wear to the opening chapel service at home in Connecticut, so I had no option but to wear the khakis and golf shirt in which I had traveled. Hundreds of educators, chaplains, and Bishops from around the country had gathered for this formal event, and I believe that I may have been the only person in the Chapel without a tie or jacket. I hid myself in the back by the door trying not to be seen; however, one of the first colleagues whom I encountered after the service sneered, “A little casual don’t you think Montgomery?” Already embarrassed by my dress, his comment made me want to disappear on the spot.
Several years later, I was invited to supper at the house of Dr. Hurt, one of the members of my Church in Williamsburg, Virginia. I had not noticed the “formal attire” note on the invitation, so I appeared in my khakis and collared shirt. The front door of his house displays two long vertical windows on either side of it, so I could see into the front foyer and part of the kitchen while I stood outside. After I rang the doorbell, I saw through the window that Dr. Hurt was wearing a coat and tie. I moaned inwardly at my choice of dress; however, I was surprised to see him glance out the window and then walk back into the kitchen. Watching through the window, I saw him remove his tie and take off his coat and stash them in the closet. Once he had dressed down to my level, Dr. Hurt greeted me at the door and made no mention of the swap.
In the first instance, my colleague at the conference used his knowledge of custom to put me in my place, which was clearly divergent from the rest of the group. He knew the cultural expectations, I was violating them, and he wanted me to know it. In the second instance, my host did not display or flaunt his knowledge; on the contrary, he humbled himself so that I might feel more welcome. I was no less wrong or out of place in the second instance, but my host chose to forgo his own status in order to focus on my wellbeing. Listen again to what Jesus tells us in Marks Gospel: “Listen to me, all of you and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.” Jesus is telling us that our customs and cultures of conduct are not ultimately important as an end of themselves.
To make this lesson relevant to our community here at Woodberry Forest, we might observe that many of our customs and cultures of conduct are not ultimately important, whether we are talking about small things – like which Form sits where in the dining hall during buffet meal – or big things – like the bonfire or the pep rallies or the prefect system. All of these customs are outside of a person, and such things do not defile us. What defiles our lives is how we too often leverage those customs and cultures to abuse other people. Do we use our knowledge and power of culture to make other people feel small? Or do we understand, like Dr. Hurt, that our customs are simply a means to the end of respecting and welcoming our neighbor?
Let us examine for a moment our dress code. We “dress up” in Chapel as a symbol of respect for God and our neighbor, to set aside a time when we are intentional about our appearance in community. We require you to wear chapel dress on Monday nights to instill in you a reverence for things sacred. I think this is a good custom, and, frankly, I hope that it never changes. I also hope that this custom might infect each one of you, such that when you leave Woodberry Forest, you might think twice before looking like a slob in a sacred space. I hope that you might come to associate your bodies and your appearance with a respect for the transcendent and mysterious elements of our universe. Having said all of that, if any one of us were to use such a symbol of respect as a means of disrespecting our neighbor, we would be making a terrible mistake.
Jesus was speaking about dinner table manners rather than dress code in the Gospel passage tonight, but his point is the same. The Pharisees and the scribes were outraged that Jesus’s disciples were not following the ritual customs of washing and eating that the Jewish community had established over millenia. Not unlike the colleague whom I encountered at St. Paul’s, the Pharisees and scribes sneered at Jesus, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders?” I can almost hear them saying, “A little casual don’t you think Jesus?” In response, Jesus quotes the prophet Isaiah, “You hypocrites…you honor [God] with your lips, but your hearts are far from Him.” To put it in a different way, Jesus is saying to them, “You know the rule to love your neighbor as yourself, but you are not living by it.”
This is the same message that we heard in the letter from St. James, in which he writes, “Be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.” St. James is reminding us that it is not enough to know the customs and culture of any community if we fail to honor the principles for which they were established. We have A LOT of customs here at Woodberry Forest School, and I imagine that the New Boys, like me, are still trying to learn most of them. I enjoy customs and rules. In fact, I thrive on them. I don’t think I would have been attracted to a place like Woodberry if this were not the case; however, in Chapel this evening we are being reminded that no custom, culture, or rule is ultimately important as an end of itself.
As a school that is explicitly under Christian principles, it would be fair to suggest that all of our rules and customs are intended to help us to love God and to love our neighbor. If ever we find ourselves using our knowledge of custom or culture to ridicule, isolate, or demean our neighbor, then we too have become hypocrites, and we are violating the very principles upon which our customs have been established. So in these first weeks of school, if some III Form boys unknowingly sit in the VI Form section of the dining hall, or if you see one of your peers violating some other unwritten custom of this community, will you rub your knowledge and power in their face, or will you humble yourself and welcome them anyway? If you see a boy you hardly know isolated and sitting by himself, will you turn away and sit with your friends, or will you humble yourself and go and sit next to him? When some of your peers make a mean joke about another student behind their back, will you duck the hard right and laugh along with the joke, or will you find a way to redirect that joke into something positive, even when such an action might expose you to criticism? When the occasion arises, like Dr. Hurt, will each one of us be willing to take off our own figurative tie privilege (and here at Woodberry, we could actually speak literally about ties of privilege) in order to make our neighbor feel welcome?
Every one of us is called to be a doer, not just a hearer. Listening to talk about brotherhood and honor and integrity and courage isn’t worth a dime if we cannot learn how to live with these principles together in community, and that means taking care of one another. That means loving one another. When we do that, we might just come to realize the love of God that is “unstained by the world” – the same love of God that we see in Jesus.