An Episcopal School, Spring 2024

An Episcopal School, Spring 2024

A Final Homily

By The Rev. Sean Cavanaugh
Upper School Chaplain

The Rev. Sean Cavanaugh is returning to parish ministry after 20 years of service to the school. We are deeply grateful for his contributions to the Saints community. Father Cavanaugh served as head chaplain, chair of the Religion Department, and as a religion teacher, leaving an indelible mark on our school’s Episcopal identity. His leadership has been instrumental in fostering a religious culture centered on the importance of relationships and inclusivity, ensuring that everyone has a place at the table. Father Cavanaugh gave the following homily  to the Upper School community in chapel on April 3.

You may or may not have heard of star pop singer John Cougar Mellencamp, who’s music career started in 1976 as John Cougar. When you listen to his music from the ’80s and ’90s, you hear all the kind of pop revelry that you would expect from a pop singer.

He’s 72 years old now, but he played into his 60s, and if you listen to his music from that era, it’s very retrospective–looking back on his life. For me, there’s one song in particular that stands out in his later work, “The Longest Day.”

I want to read some of the lyrics to you.

Seems like once upon a time ago
I was where I was supposed to be
My vision was true and my heart was too
There was no end to what I could dream

I walked like a hero into the setting sun
Everyone called out my name
Death to me was just a mystery
I was too busy raising up Cain

But nothing lasts forever
Your best efforts don’t always pay
Sometimes you get sick and you don’t get better
That’s when life is short, even in its longest days

If you listen to the rest of the song, Mellencamp has this sort of melancholy for the separation of the relationships in his life. As he gets older, he realizes how much it pains him to separate from those that he loves. And I love the line where he says, “Sometimes life is short, even in its longest days.”

There’s another American singer and songwriter named Jason Isbell. Maybe you’ve heard of him. He’s a little more contemporary. And in a song that he’s called “If We Were Vampires,” he also reflects on separations from the people that he loves. And in doing so, he speaks a bit sarcastically when he wishes he could be a vampire so he would never have to grieve for the people he loves.

But unlike Mellencamp, he also has a bit of wisdom in the song when he recognizes that maybe, just maybe, if there is a bright side to being separated from one another, it’s that it forces us to really connect with each other when we’re around.

It’s not the long, flowing dress that you’re in
Or the light coming off of your skin
The fragile heart you protected for so long
Or the mercy in your sense of right and wrong
It’s not your hands searching slow in the dark
Or your nails leaving love’s watermark
It’s not the way you talk me off the roof
Your questions like directions to the truth

It’s knowing that this can’t go on forever
Likely one of us will have to spend some days alone
Maybe we’ll get forty years together
But one day I’ll be gone
Or one day you’ll be gone

And here  he kind of waxes poetically.

If we were vampires and death was a joke
We’d go out on the sidewalk and smoke
And laugh at all the lovers and their plans
I wouldn’t feel the need to hold your hand
Maybe time running out is a gift
I’ll work hard ’til the end of my shift
And give you every second I can find

I think the hope for Isbell in this song is that because our relationships and our own lives are so finite, we are really forced to connect with each other and to love each other without delay—knowing that the relationships in our lives will not go on forever, as much as we wish they could and would.

I’ve been thinking a lot about these two songs, which are on my playlist, lately. I’ve been thinking about them as my time here as your priest draws to a rapid close. I remember the very first chapel I attended when I joined the Saints community 20 years ago. I had much less gray hair than I do now, and chapel looked a lot different than what it does now. There had been some issues with the priests struggling to connect with students—and literally the first chapel I walked into, there were teachers lined up shoulder to shoulder against the wall looking directly into the student body, almost like a prison chapel. I remember I went home to my wife thinking I’d made a horrible mistake.

But for the last 20 years, the gift you’ve given to me, the other priests, and to this community is that you’ve been open to the possibility that relationships and faith were worth fighting for and that chapel could be a place where both are nurtured. You and those who came before you were open to the possibility, and I gave thanks to God for each of you and past alumni I have known, taught, and served.

And I’m so thankful for having had the privilege of being here amongst you for so long. When I first came to St. Stephens and St. Agnes I thought I would be here for two years and then return to the parish. However, God and this community had different plans for me.  I’m so thankful for the gift of serving as priest here among you.

Looking out now, I see so many of you that I first got to know as Lower or Middle School students, of course, for some of you it’s been the Upper School that I first had the privilege of knowing you. Regardless of the length of the relationship, the greatest gift that I have been given over the course of my 20-year vocation here, has been the gift of simply listening to you and your stories. It’s been such a sacred gift being with you in the good times of your lives but also through the  sufferings of your lives. I want to thank you for the enormous  gift of these relationships, because it takes a great deal of trust to share your stories with another human being, much less with someone who is wearing a priest collar where you might worry about being judged. I hope and pray that your experience with me has been one of acceptance and love rather than judgment or scrutiny.

It has taken a great deal of trust and believing on your part, that relationships and sharing of the hardships of your lives brings with it the real possibility of both healing and hope. And I know that this doesn’t just happen overnight, and I’m so grateful for each of you. I’m so grateful and thankful for the gift of allowing me to be here for so long. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the great Lutheran theologian said, “We must be prepared for when God interrupts our plans and to be prepared to move on.” This is one of those moments, where my own hopes and expectations have been interrupted, and I will miss you and this community immensely. My heart seems to break again every day. Know this, I will take this community, each of you and those who have come before you deep into my spirit. The last thing I’ll say is this—and I think it’s very much connected to our gospel this morning, a gospel about grief and hope—is that nothing remains sorrowful forever.

In today’s gospel reading, our reading to celebrate the feast day of Easter, three of Jesus’s best friends, two Marys and a woman named Salome, are grieving his death. The three women are going about their daily life like ghosts who must go about their daily motions. The women in the gospel find themselves in Jesus’s tomb. And the reason they’re in Jesus’s tomb is because there was a process in the 1st century of taking a body that’s passed and layering different herbs and solutions upon them so the body could decompose faster. So they’re in the tomb for perfunctory reasons, but something happens to them that is anything but routine and ordinary.

And what happens is there is an unexpected gift, and it’s a gift from the Spirit. And the gift essentially says to the group, although you do not see your friend Jesus, he is here, present in a way that is very difficult to fully understand, but he is nevertheless alive and ready to be with you again. And the hope in this gospel, and I think the hope of the resurrection in general is actually twofold. First, is that the resurrection proclaims to us that death is not the end of who we are—that when we die, we return to God. I fundamentally believe this truth and am rooted to its good news, no matter how mysterious this news is.

And the second gift of the resurrection is this, that I believe throughout our lives there are many mini resurrections we experience. There are many moments of rebirth sprinkled throughout our lifetime. Rebirth that happens when God comes to us and heals separated or broken relationships as both a gift and promise of things to come.

Above all please remember this, that in the darkest moments of your life, you’re not alone. In the darkest moments of your life, God offers not only hope, but also a way forward so we are not tossed and thrown about as people without hope or a plan. God knows your sufferings and and works through those sufferings to make you stronger, this is how faith and hope work in our lives.

I give thanks to God for the gift of my 20 years here, a gift that has changed my own life and my family’s life for the better. A gift in which each of you, and those students and faculty who have come before you, have given me so much joy and grace. All I can say is thank you from the bottom of my heart. Thank you for letting me serve you as a priest. Serving each of you and this community has been the greatest gift of my 28-year vocation. Amen.

Nurturing Hospitality

By Rebecca Cooper
ES-12 Religion Department Chair
Middle School Teacher of Religion and History

In Henri Nouwen’s beautiful book “Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life,” he outlines a three-part framework for nurturing spiritual growth. The first movement focuses on the spiritual life in relation to our individual experiences. The second movement emphasizes our spiritual life as a commitment to others. The third movement explores the relationship between oneself and God. Regarding the second movement, Nouwen writes:

“Hospitality, therefore, means primarily the creation of free space where the stranger can enter and become a friend instead of an enemy. Hospitality is not to change people, but to offer them space where change can take place. It is not to bring men and women over to our side, but to offer freedom not disturbed by dividing lines.”

As an Episcopal school, SSSAS is tasked with embodying the Christian faith and reflecting God’s love and grace. Grounded in the baptismal covenant of the Episcopal Church, we are to serve God in Christ through all individuals, irrespective of their origin, background, ability, or religion. We strive for justice and peace among all people and to respect the dignity of every human being. To achieve these aims, we must cultivate a school community that nurtures the intellectual and spiritual growth of all our students. This includes a diverse student body with various religious backgrounds, including an increasing number with no religious affiliation or multiple faith traditions. The Religion Department is committed to creating a hospitable, free space which is evident in our approach to teaching about religion.

How do we create this welcoming, hospitable environment where, as Nouwen suggests, “strangers are invited to become friends?” How do we demonstrate our commitment to fostering a diverse community and deepening our understanding of diversity? These essential questions guide our sixth grade global religions curriculum. For most students, this course marks their initial encounter with religions distinct from their own and prompts reflection on the significant role religion plays in history and culture. After establishing a shared vocabulary for analyzing religion and religious identity, students explore a range of global religious practices, including Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh, Japanese, Chinese, and Indigenous traditions.

A highlight of the year is our annual global religions field trip, where students learn from seasoned practitioners and religious leaders at three local houses of worship. This year’s focus centered on the Abrahamic religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Beyond imparting foundational knowledge about each religion’s beliefs, behaviors, and ways of belonging, our guides were invited to share how recent events in the Middle East are personally impacting members of their communities here in the US.

Left photo: Visiting the ADAMS Center as they prepare for Ramadan. Right photo: Learning about the Torah at Beth El Hebrew Congregation.

Following our Tuesday morning chapel service on February 27, we set out for our first destination: the ADAMS Center in Sterling, Va. As one of the country’s largest Muslim communities, the ADAMS Center’s leadership stands at the vanguard of interfaith engagement in our region. Students enjoyed a tour by Mr. Rizwan Jaka and while in the prayer hall, listened to a talk on the guiding principles and practices of Islam, given by Mr. Jaka’s teenage daughter. Mr. Jaka shared how the war is impacting their families with roots and relatives in Gaza. The visit concluded with students savoring samosas and date-filled cookies called mamoul.

Our next visit was to St. Alban’s Episcopal Church in Annandale. Here, The Rev. Jeff Shankles and The Rev. Paul Moberly hosted us for a “Lunch and Learn” session in the church’s parish hall. Fr. Paul shared reflections and images from his pilgrimage in Jerusalem, where members of St. Alban’s had been during the terrorist attacks on October 7. The discussion highlighted the purpose of pilgrimage, offered firsthand insights, and shed light on the unique challenges faced by Christian minority groups in the region. Additionally, students enjoyed a food tasting featuring delights from two local vendors: Mediterranean Bakery in Alexandria and Jerusalem Restaurant in Falls Church.

With our bellies full, we embarked on our final stop to Beth El Hebrew Congregation. Rabbi David Spinrad welcomed us, engaging with students’ questions from the outset. Alongside exploring the synagogue, sharing his perspective on the ongoing hostage crisis, and viewing the Torah scrolls up close, Rabbi David emphasized the significance of defining Judaism not merely as a religion but primarily as an ethno-religious identity.

Upon return to the Middle School, students reflected on their insights from the day. Here’s a selection of their reflections:

  • My joy was when we got to see a Torah. I liked this because I felt like the host was welcoming us into how they live their lives and shared something very special with us.
  • I enjoyed learning about how all the Abrahamic religions are so different, but also so similar.
  • I learned that it is exhausting going on pilgrimage.
  • I learned that a purpose of kosher is to humanize animals.
  • Today I learned what the rigorous average life for a Muslim is like. I learned about the mosque, and also the challenges that Muslims face today.
  • I enjoyed that each of the hosts was open to questions.
  • I enjoyed it because I got to learn about many different religions and got to experience and taste different cultures.
  • I learned that people have bar and bat mitzvahs in the Holy Land, and that people can get baptized in the Jordan River where Jesus was baptized.
  • I learned that pilgrimage is about the journey through sacred places, bringing yourself closer to God.

Through this multisensory learning experience, students deepened their understanding and appreciation of diverse religious traditions, honed critical thinking skills, fostered community engagement, challenged stereotypes and misconceptions, and found safe spaces for inquiry and meaningful dialogue. When our society faces division and fear, our school’s Episcopal identity calls us to provide healing spaces. As Nouwen describes, these spaces allow hostility to be transformed into hospitality, equipping our students to thrive in our complex and ever-changing world.