(For several days this past week I have been at my alma mater, Andover Newton Theological School, at a reunion for alums. I have seen some old friends and experienced some moving addresses and worship. The school is in the process of selling its historic Newton campus and de-camping to New Haven. CT, to become an “embedded school” within Yale Divinity School. About 165 of us alums gathered to have one last time together on “the Hill” as it has been known. I was part of a closing service that moved from place to place where we reflected and prayed before retiring to the chapel for the Lord’s Supper. I prepared the following notes, but spoke ex tempore, but these words are close to what I said. We were in front of Sturtevent Hall, and I was charged with reflecting on all the dorms, the halls and houses where we lived while we were there.)
This place was important to me. I grew and changed here, was shaped and formed here. I met my wife while I was here. I made some of the best friends I have ever had here. I had some of my most important teachers and mentors here. Three of them died within weeks of each other earlier this year and I attended their funerals: Max Stackhouse, Jerry Handspicker, and Bill Holladay.
Yes, this place was important for me, and I say “place” rather than “school” because the two always seemed inseparable. Andover Newton was “the Hill,”“the Hill” was Andover Newton.
So imagining Andover Newton not here on this hill has been for me, and I know for many of you, a difficult matter to get our minds around.
We know these brick and mortar buildings are not instrinsically holy spaces, only made holy by what took place in them from time to time.
These halls and houses that I will soon name in prayer were our homes while we were here. We lived in them, slept in them, ate and drank in them, studied in them, played and partied in them. We also laughed and cried and prayed in them.
I thought this place would always be here, as a touchstone and landmark of an important chapter in my life. A couple years ago Martha bought a brick for the walkway to honor my forty years of ministry and that felt good to me, that it should be here.
But it won’t be here, and those bricks that some of you had to collect and take home are perhaps the most poignant symbols of the loss of this place.
So it would be easy (and has been easy) for me to succumb to the narrative of the decline of the mainline church.
And by the metrics of the world that narrative makes simple sense.
But we are not the world, we are the church, and we have been here before.
We have another narrative, another story. How many times have the faithful come to what looks like a dead end?
I imagine the captives marching to exile in Babylon, who had lost their land, their king and their temple, wondering if the story was over. Is the story over?
And I imagine those standing at the foot of the cross feeling as if the story was over. Is the story over?
And those disciples on the road to Emmaus, who had such high hopes, were feeling as if the story was over. Is the story over?
When you feel you are part of God’s story, and it seems to come to an end, does that mean my story with God is over? Is the story over and I am no longer a part of it? Is that what saying goodbye to this place means?
I am here to testify (to remind you, really, because you know) that God’ story is not over.
The story that has been going on this Hill (and before it), of men and women called by God to the ministry of the church, to share the good news of God’s vast love for all in Jesus Christ, that story is not over, not by a long shot.
Will you pray with me now:
Our God, we give you thanks and praise for this day and all its blessings, and for all the many ways that you provide for us.
On this day, in this place, we thank you for all the places here at Andover Newton that have been our homes, and we name them before you: Appleton Chase House, Farwell Hall, Fuller House, Herrick House, Kendall House, Sturtevant Hall, and the former Chase House.
Though but brick and mortar these places became vessels of holy conversations, spirited discussions, sacred arguments, and blessed inspirations, as many generations of us were formed here to be your ministers.
We acknowledge before you the complexity of our many feelings as we mark our time of closure with this campus and these buildings. Mixed with our gratitude and warm memories is a sense of loss and displacement.
But we know you are a God who is always doing a new thing, and you call us forth to new paths and new journeys. As we live always between memory and hope, we rely on your kindly providence for the new journey of our school.
May the work of preparation for ministry that began at Andover and Newton so long ago, and took place here on the Hill for so long, continue in new places and new spaces as it has done so here, to further the mission and ministry of the church of Jesus Christ, and it is in his strong name that we pray. Amen.