A sermon preached by Professor Emeritus Donn Morgan at an evensong memorial for Bishop Frederick H. Borsch on May 17 in All Saints’ Chapel:
We gather tonight to remember and give thanks for the life and ministry of Frederick Houk Borsch. Fred touched many of us here tonight directly, but the difference he made for the church, the academy, and this school goes far beyond that. Of one thing I am certain, Fred would want more than remembrance and thanksgiving here tonight—he would also want, in the context of this worship service—a proclamation of the gospel, something that challenged and motivated us to live out our faith fully and well. In many ways Fred would join with the apostle Paul tonight, saying: “Therefore, my beloved, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labor is not in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:58).
“Because you know that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.” Sounds wonderful, but not always easy to say, to believe, to act on. One of my first and most vivid memories of Fred Borsch can be related to challenges of faith like this. Among the many new practices that Fred brought to CDSP was regular “Quiet Days,” times for a stop in the routine, away from campus—a chance for reflection and prayer together, a common meal, a solitary walk in the woods … It was our first Quiet Day. Fred was, appropriately, our leader. There we were, out at the beautiful Franciscan retreat center, San Damiano, and Fred was speaking in the chapel. He spoke of his own struggles with God, and how he found himself at some point alone in a chapel screaming: GOD DAMN IT, GOD, LET ME KNOW WHAT YOU WANT ME TO DO! In the midst of a serene and peaceful quiet time—that woke me up. Those words, not often heard from Fred, were a testimony to a real and abiding—if sometimes challenging and frustrating—relationship between Fred and God. Whatever else we remember about Fred, that relationship with God, that connection with God, and the resultant commitment to serve the world in God’s name—these were at the center of Fred’s life and ministry.
Memories of Fred’s life in the academy and here at CDSP illuminate a way we may interpret our lessons tonight from Daniel and Corinthians. These texts touch a central part of the Christian faith: the mystery and promise of resurrection, life after death. Fred’s early New Testament studies focused on the “son of man” (or, as translated tonight, “the one in human form”), that enigmatic figure responsible for many of the later visions and proclamations of Daniel—including the prediction of a deliverance of the people of God—some of whom now sleep in the dust of the earth. In the middle of very hard and oppressive times comes the promise of life anew. For the son of man and for Fred God is and will always be right in the middle of it all this difficult stuff. So also for us.
In Corinthians we have the conclusion of a pretty extensive discussion of the resurrection of the dead. Questions like: “Is there such a thing?” “What kind of body is raised?” “Is it perishable?” “Is it imperishable?” are raised. That discussion, a very serious one in New Testament times, is no less serious today. Many years ago Fred was writing an article on resurrection. He invited the faculty to read a draft and to come together to discuss what resurrection really means. I won’t rehearse the conversations and positions taken that night, except to say that Fred was pushing us all to talk about this most important and most difficult part of our faith—as scholars and as faithful Christians. Tonight’s passage, with its strong affirmation of change and transformation, expressed for most of us, including Fred, a clear, compelling, and abiding reality—again with God and Jesus Christ right in the middle of it all. So also for us.
Aside from his work as a scholar and teacher, Fred was the dean and president of CDSP. To this work he brought a deep commitment to education in general and theological education in particular. As an Anglophile educated for a time in England, Fred began an exchange program with an English theological college (in which CDSP’s present dean of the chapel participated, among many many others), encouraged faculty to live amidst students (like university “dons” of yesteryear), initiated the practice of student retreats (initially with the dean alone) and quiet days. Fred was clearly a “student” dean in the sense that this was the constituency at CDSP he most identified with. Not only in the classroom, but also on the basketball court, on the golf course, at a baseball game, at the bridge table—in all of these places Fred was found with students and friends, playing as hard as he worked! Besides classroom and recreational venues, Fred had two other favorite places at CDSP: this chapel and his study (located approximately where the present kitchen at Easton is). In my time at CDSP I can remember no one—dean, faculty member, or student—for whom chapel worship was more important and more central. Worship, as leader but perhaps especially as a congregant, provided Fred with time both individual and communal, with time both quiet and loudly celebrative, with time that sustained and refueled.
During his years at CDSP Fred seemed infected with a joie de vivre, with a love of study, of the Bible, of the seminary, and of the church that was contagious to most who came to know him. Though a serious man, he was also a jokester, willing to participate in pranks, to laugh at himself—to testify to the fact he did not have all the answers, all the power, all the influence—but that the God whom he loved and served did. Increasingly over the years after leaving CDSP Fred seemed, at least to me, to become more and more an institutional person, albeit with a prophetic tinge, since he was always an advocate for change and transformation in whatever institution he served. Surely this institutional character is reflected in the offices he held—but more important perhaps in his growing belief that institutions like universities and dioceses and seminaries, as well as a multitude of others (from publishing houses to city halls!)—were, or could be, the vehicles for living faithfully and well with Christians and non-Christians in this God-given world.
Fred Borsch: servant of the church and academy, educator and priest, advocate and bishop, faithful and modest Christian, teacher and proclaimer of the gospel. Tonight we remember this very young and relatively inexperienced scholar who came to work with a very distinguished and senior faculty pretty well set in its ways. Despite its leadership in liturgical reform and its liberal leanings, Fred’s job, among others, was to challenge CDSP’s faculty to change still more. Through his charm, his guile, his God-given brains and gracefulness—and, he would be sure to say, a lot of pushing by the Holy Spirit—he helped shape a faculty and a seminary that would be ready for the huge transitions happening in the church in the 1970’s. Thanks in part to that shaping, CDSP has been and continues to be a national leader in theological education initiatives.
Tonight the life and ministry of Fred Borsch call us to remember and to do three things as we seek to “be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord.”
- First, be engaged—with God, with each other, with the church and other institutions as vehicles for change. Pray hard, study hard, love hard—as team players. We can’t do any of this by ourselves, without the ONE who is the be all and end all of our lives and ministries.
- Second, Take time off for play, for reflection, for perspective, for rejuvenation, for graceful revelation. Find a healthy balance and integration of rest and relaxation with the intense work of engagement.
- Finally, and this is surely the bottom line for us tonight, as it was for Fred Borsch: Give thanks to God. For the gift of life—with its mysteries, with its tragedies and challenges, with its opportunities to love and serve. For the gift of each other—as companions along the way. For those wise ones, like Fred Borsch, who shine like the brightness of the sky and who help us to know that in the Lord our labor is not in vain.