Episcopal Schools Sunday celebrates the ministry of the nearly 1,200 Episcopal schools and early childhood education programs throughout the Episcopal Church. Below are the prepared notes from Upper School Director Wes Clarke's sermon delivered on Sunday, February 3rd, 2019, during Episcopal Schools Sunday at Christ Church Episcopal in Greenville, SC.
4 Now the word of the Lord came to me saying,
5 ‘Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
and before you were born I consecrated you;
I appointed you a prophet to the nations.’
6Then I said, ‘Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.’ 7But the Lord said to me,
‘Do not say, “I am only a boy”;
for you shall go to all to whom I send you,
and you shall speak whatever I command you.
8 Do not be afraid of them,
for I am with you to deliver you,
says the Lord.’
9Then the Lord put out his hand and touched my mouth; and the Lord said to me,
‘Now I have put my words in your mouth.
10 See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms,
to pluck up and to pull down,
to destroy and to overthrow,
to build and to plant.’
21Then he began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’ 22All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, ‘Is not this Joseph’s son?’ 23He said to them, ‘Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, “Doctor, cure yourself!” And you will say, “Do here also in your home town the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.” ’ 24And he said, ‘Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s home town. 25But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up for three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; 26yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. 27There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.’ 28When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. 29They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. 30But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.
"May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
[The congregation is seated.]
"My name is Wes Clarke, and I have been fortunate to serve Christ Church Episcopal School for almost 12 years, to be a parishioner here at Christ Church for nearly that long, and to have two sons who first attended Christ Church Episcopal Pre-school here on our church campus. I want to thank Harrison for the invitation to think deeply about this week’s Scripture readings, and to share reflections with all of you this morning on those readings and on Episcopal School education.
"Today’s Old Testament reading tells of Jeremiah’s call from the Lord to become a prophet. This made me think of my own vocational call to become an educator, and specifically an Episcopal school educator, about 19 years ago. Like Jeremiah, who said, 'Lord...I do not know how..., for I am only a boy,' I was reluctant. I was working as an actuarial analyst in Atlanta for what was then one of the Big 6 accounting firms. I enjoyed my co-workers and the work, but for reasons I didn’t fully understand, I began to struggle to see a vision for how I would remain fulfilled there for more than a couple of years.
"At that point in my life, I was aware that a teacher might be within me: my paternal grandfather had been a high school principal and a teachers college professor. I held a math degree, had a lot of energy to give, and found appealing the possibility of interaction and impact among a broader group of people, particularly young people. I thought I might just get into coaching, specifically basketball. Although my faith at the time was not yet so important to me, it certainly grew through the process of exploring, questioning, and seeking discernment. Not unlike Jeremiah, I protested, 'But God, I haven’t taken a single education course!' 'Lord, I didn’t even play basketball in college.'
"God pushed me forward. Lacking state certification, I enlisted the assistance of an independent school placement firm and initiated a job search, which eventually connected me with Holy Innocents’ Episcopal School in Atlanta. Holy Innocents’ had existed for around 40 years as a parish elementary and middle school, but in the early 1990s, had added a high school and, by the time I arrived as a completely inexperienced math teacher, had graduated about 5 classes. They were willing to take a chance on me and help me grow alongside the School.
"On my very first day on the job, before classes started, I was sitting at lunch with another newly hired math teacher about 30 years my senior, named Mike. We were wrapping up our meal when a PE teacher and coach named Tony approached, introduced himself to Mike, and said, 'Mike, I heard you have a son who played baseball at LSU.' Mike confirmed that he did, to which Tony replied, 'How would you like to be our next Middle School girls softball coach?' Mike shot an apprehensive look my way. He was probably imagining afternoon bus rides in Atlanta traffic and team chants ringing in his ears that sounded something like this: 'G-double O-D, E-Y-E, Good eye, Good eye, Good eye!' So, Tony turned to me, introduced himself, and asked, 'Wes, how would YOU like to be our next Middle School girls softball coach?' Before either of us could answer, Tony said, 'Great! Practice starts at 3:30 this afternoon.' Now, I was a huge Atlanta Braves fan, and I did own an old baseball mitt, but what did I know about fast-pitch softball? For that matter, what did I know about what it’s like to be a middle school girl? My own younger sister hadn’t even entered middle school when I left for college.
"Mike and I did just fine coaching softball together for a year or two, before he decided that was enough for him. But I enjoyed the competitive strategy, the quest for skill improvement, and even the chants grew on me when performed spontaneously, repeatedly, and in unison by 12-15 adolescents. I felt I was helping to shepherd our team members during a formative time in their lives. Soon, I was coaching Varsity softball, alongside boys basketball and boys tennis. My next fellow coach in softball, the Varsity head coach, was a religion teacher. We became close friends, housemates, and eventually fellow rookie administrators. Several years along, he was the one who introduced me to Christy, my now-wife of almost 12 years. Looking back, it’s hard to believe that sequence was anything other than the hand of God at work in my life.
"Originally, I thought I might teach and coach for a few years before pivoting back toward my initial occupation. But gradually I discovered that I didn’t want to do anything else. I loved the pace and variety to the school day and academic calendar (still do!). Most importantly, the mission of Episcopal Schools - to live out a model of God’s grace and to affirm the spiritual dimension of learning - has resonated more and more deeply with me over time. Indeed, it’s become a part of me, having now worked in Episcopal schools for all 19 years of my teaching career. Opportunities for growth, both spiritually and professionally, have presented themselves. Two years ago, I was honored to be appointed Upper School Director at CCES. Repeatedly, at times, I have felt like Jeremiah must have: God, am I really meant for this? God, am I really up to this? And God, were you really sure you had in mind for me to attend 19 straight high school Proms...and counting? Fortunately, at CCES, I am surrounded, supported, and inspired by amazing faculty, staff, and administrative colleagues, many of whom are here visiting today, people whom God has placed in my life and at our school in service to our Episcopal school mission.
"The essential - and unique - character of Episcopal schools is that we purposefully practice the liturgy and celebrate the Eucharist, but we also seek to welcome, understand, and support students of all faiths, and those who do not identify with any faith. We aspire to guide our students to discern and deepen their own faiths and convictions, to nurture people of all faiths through witness of Christ’s love for them and for the world. We hope to plant seeds in our students that will, by some day, harvest a spiritual yield. Just as we Episcopalians in this congregation question, forbear, doubt, persevere, welcome, seek truth, and serve others, so too in Episcopal Schools.
"At CCES, we instill character using policies and rules, to be sure, but we also invoke the Baptismal Covenant in summoning our students to respect the worth and dignity of all people, including most recently during a Spirit Week marked by the typical youthful exuberance. We gather weekly in worship, song, and prayer. Actually, we open all of our meetings in prayer, so we gather in prayer more often than that. Each Wednesday during our liturgy, which is substantially conducted by students serving as acolytes, lay readers, choir members, and from time to time, guest preachers, we pray for all schools in Greenville County and for schools throughout South Carolina. All students participate weekly, regardless of faith background.
"One of my favorite chapel services of the school calendar will take place ten days from now. One out of every 8 CCES students across all grade levels holds a passport from outside the United States, and our International Chapel celebrates that circumstance. We might have the Old Testament read in Hebrew, or an Epistle in Latin, the Gospel read in Chinese or German, or a sermon delivered by one student in Spanish or French, and translated by another student who has studied those languages in school.
"A second timely example occurred twelve days ago, when we held a moving Civil Rights assembly in observance of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday. After an opening prayer authored by Dr. King, members of our student diversity club shared quotes from change agents throughout history. The highlight of the assembly was a documentary film produced by one of our 12th graders. It featured her Sunday school teacher at Temple of Israel, a man named Roger Thompson. Mr. Thompson has led an inspiring life, growing up in segregated Decatur, AL, marching to Selma alongside Dr. King, and later converting to Judaism and moving to Greenville. In the documentary, he speaks with pride of his daughter, who herself converted to Christianity as an adult, and he describes Jesus’s travels through the Middle East exhorting the people to 'love your brother' and 'love your neighbor'. Says Mr. Thompson, 'We all have different paths.'
"The Christian virtue of loving your neighbor brings me to our Gospel reading for today. In it, Jesus, like Jeremiah before Him, is still near the beginning of his earthly ministry. The people begin the passage by marveling at His early proclamations, and end it by attempting to drive Him off a cliff. They grow incensed at Jesus’s teaching that two different Old Testament prophets, both Elijah and Elisha, chose to heal outsiders to the faith, Gentiles, when they could have helped members of the faithful and local in-group in Nazareth.
"In Jesus, God brings a new narrative, a new hope for all people. Through this passage, Jesus assures us that God loves us...and them, whomever them might be. He calls us…and He calls them. He is present at CCES...and in all schools; here in this sanctuary...and in other houses of worship as well as in places where there is suffering and abandonment and oppression and seemingly no worship at all. Especially in our weakest moments, perhaps we, like the Israelites long ago, struggle to comprehend a God so big, a sacrifice so full of grace.
"A few years ago, I was undergoing medical tests in an Upstate doctor’s office, a place where undoubtedly, the people passing through must often face distressing circumstances. On the wall of that exam room hung a sheet of paper with wisdom that the reading from Jeremiah evoked in my memory. It said:
God doesn’t call those who are prepared; He prepares those who are called.
"Episcopal schools at our best see all students as precious vessels of God’s glory, each unique, each worthy, and each awaiting God’s often unanticipated call in their lives, in accordance with Jesus’s admonition in Luke 4. It is our Episcopal identity that calls our School to be an inclusive community, both parts of that phrase, both inclusive, and in community. We at CCES are incredibly grateful for the theological and pastoral foundation laid, and the ongoing guidance and partnership provided, by the members and clergy of this parish. Even though many at our School celebrate other faith traditions, we strive as brothers and sisters in the Episcopal family to make this, our founding congregation, proud.
"That school in Atlanta which gave me a chance 19 years ago claims today to be the largest Episcopal parish day school in the United States. The School had at the time, and still has, an alma mater that is closer to an Episcopal hymn than a victory march. One particularly beautiful stanza of it has stayed with me over the years, even as other details from that chapter in my life have faded. I’d like to close by reciting the lyrics of that stanza. And even though I do still recall the tune, I’ll let the words stand alone and spare you an attempt at melody.
In every person may we learn
to recognize some special worth
To lay aside the world’s concern
With looks or wealth or place of birth
To move beyond what may seem odd
and find within a child of God.