Union Theological Seminary Convocation Address

Union Theological Seminary Convocation Address

Theological education and the dream of God
September 5, 2007

5 September 2007Isaiah 61:1-9. Welcome to a new year, to the new thing God is doing in this place. Welcome to enormous possibility, a profligate hyperabundance of grace, full measure, pressed down, and overflowing. Tonight and tomorrow begin anew. What makes this night different from all other nights? – but the promise that the coming year will show us more clearly the intent and present activity of God in all creation. May this truly be the year of the Lord’s favor, for all who work and study and seek God in this place.My formal seminary education began with a course on exegesis. The course was taught by a French-Canadian Dominican nun, and every bit of her 4’10” frame was afire with passion for her subject. Sister Mary Timothy ordered us to find a passage that we would turn inside out exploring all the many varieties of criticism she was going to teach us about. I picked this part of Isaiah because I thought it pretty well summed up God’s dream for humanity. I still do. This vision of a restored world, this dream of God, is what drives me, just the way Sr. Mary Timothy’s vision of educated priests drove her. When Rabbi Hillel was asked if he could recite the Torah standing on one foot, he gave an even more concise summary, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. This is the whole Torah; all the rest is commentary. Go and learn it.”What vision of God’s mission is going to keep on pushing you, year in and year out? The wags say that preachers usually have only one sermon – we just keep preaching variations on a theme. What dream of God is going to frame your sermons for the next 10 or 20 or 50 years? The task of theological education really is to help us learn to do theology – to relate our own stories, and the stories of those around us, to the great stories of our faith, so that we may be able to give an account of the faith that is within us. Theology is intended to keep us wrestling with those great questions: “Who are we, where have we come from, why are we here, and what are we going to do about it?” I want to invite you to consider not only how your work and study in this place help you to make sense of those questions, but how theological thinking is going to help to shape the rest of your life. Whether or not you end up in formal pastoral ministry, you are going to wrestle with those questions, and you are going to be asked to help others wrestle with them. Like Jacob, that kind of wrestling can both bless and wound us. Theological education can bless us with the ability to see the need and hurt and injustice of the world, the ways in which God’s dream is not yet being realized. Seeing these wounds will invite us to sing lament, loud and long. Yet our song does not end in lament, but once again in praise, for the God who has brought us to this task, blessed us with this mission, whose dream will prevail. Isaiah does all of this, blessing and wounding, and singing praise, in this magnificent dream of a restored creation.The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me – baptized and anointed each one of usto bring good news to the oppressed and bind up the broken-hearted – to make peace and do justice for the downtroddenliberty to the captives and release to the prisoners – to set the world free for the abundant life God intends for eachto proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor and the day of vengeance of our God – to keep on dreaming and insisting that justice will prevailto comfort all who mourn – to bring strength and hope to those in despairThey will be called oaks of righteousness,you shall be called priests of the Lord, you shall be named ministers of our God;For I the Lord love justice – this is what God requires of us, this is the Torah and it is the gospel and all who do justice shall be blessed. This institution of learning has a well-earned reputation for doing this kind of work, and forming students to carry this work out into the world with them. There are vast and creative resources here for blessing the wounded and expecting God to work peace and justice. This dream of Isaiah is vast, global, earth-encompassing. It also has application right here. Who is oppressed around here? Who is mourning? Maybe it’s too early in the term, but a few short weeks from now many of you will be thinking yourselves oppressed: living to deadlines, sitting exams, writing endless papers, in tiny and often inadequate quarters, with colleagues who can be… exceedingly challenging – like Jacob’s wrestling partner.Perhaps the faculty feel oppressed – or students think them oppressors – with hands and minds full to bursting with weighty matters like tenure reviews, publications to push out, theses and papers to review – and, yes, students to teach, day after day, week after week, and year after year. We all know the oppressive work of administrators and trustees – especially the Sisyphean labor of funding and directing this institution and keeping its fabric in good repair. And no, we don’t believe you sit in your offices all day thinking up what new rules to impose on unsuspecting inmates here... Yet you all know, or will soon discover, that the grieving and oppressed and imprisoned are among you, and at times within you, and all around you. This good news we proclaim is for all, including those who seek and search and study. And at some very deep level, you are already blessed, if you can devote all your time and energy to the study of justice-making and holy things!This seminary is also a laboratory for the larger context – the world of God’s creation, or as Sallie McFague puts it, the body of God. This place can teach ways of seeing and relating that are meant to strengthen – literally, to comfort you – for the rest of your lives. What you gather in this place will inform and undergird the rest of your ministries, in church and out. And, God willing, you will find challenge enough here to keep you restless for the rest of time. You will learn, perhaps easily, to see the opportunities for justice-making in the larger world, and you will gain skill in challenging the injustices of society. It may be more difficult to see them right here. Open your eyes and your hearts and learn to see the need for justice-making among your fellow students and members of this community. If this institution is doing its job as a human community, you will likely feel the wound of injustice yourself. Those experiences are part of the worried wheat and watered tears you will use to bake the bread of worship. One year I had a neighbor in seminary housing, a single woman with a daughter of middle school age. The mother had odd visitors at all hours of the day and night, men or women who stayed at most an hour. She was not running a counseling service. At other times her daughter was left unsupervised and alone for hours, or even overnight. Her neighbors worried about both of them, and we went to the administration to ask for some pastoral intervention. Nothing happened. The mother was imprisoned by various addictions, and the daughter by neglect. We as a community did not manage to set either of them free, for we did not soon enough learn that we must be the interveners, and urgent interveners, incapable though we yet thought ourselves. Those prisoners still haunt me. May God give you eyes to see the prisoners in your midst, and a heart to seek their freedom. The great and enticing gift of a community like this is its ability to dream big dreams, to equip its members to see the interwoven tentacles of evil in this world, the injustices wrought by global economies and state-sanctioned violence. All of us who learn and study and teach are driven by a taste of God’s overwhelming yearning for a healed world. That passion is an enormous blessing. It can also be a crippling wound if we miss the homeless person on the bench outside, or the hungry child of a fellow student, or the faculty member who is overwhelmed by the demands of academic career ladder. God’s dream of a healed world becomes real as unique and particular human beings are comforted, set free – and get a dose of oil of gladness. You and I are not just called or invited, but ordered, mandated, and required to develop eyes that see in two ways. Like the surface dwelling fish (Anableps) whose eyes have parts that see into the air above and other parts that look through the water below, you and I must see both real wound and blessed hope, we must see hurting individual, the system that imprisons, and the dream for a restored creation. As Karl Barth put it, we have to learn to preach with the Bible in one hand and the New York Times in the other. We have to be both prophet and priest. And there is no relief from that tension this side of the grave or the Second Coming. We grow in our ability to live in that awkward interface between two worlds through the vulnerability to be wounded. Those fish who can see both ways don’t function as well in either environment as their single-lensed congeners, but they have the remarkable ability to see into two worlds at once. Through our lens of resurrection, you and I can see the hope for blessing even in mortal wounds. There is even a hint of that dual vision in the roots of the English word, bless, which comes from the word for blood. There’s a connection in French as well, where the verb blesser means to injure. All of the members of this institution – students, faculty, and administration – will at some time feel that you are being treated unjustly. May God continue to bless you with the ability to know what injustice feels like. Being bloodied, even figuratively, can be a gift that elicits passion. I can remember walking into a class with what I thought was a prophetic paper on clergy sexual abuse and walking out feeling like I had shredded by an IED. It took me a while to learn the history behind that explosive topic in that community, and realize the reaction had little to do with me or my paper. It also gave me an even stronger motivation to change systems that ignore that kind of abuse or permit it to continue. The followers of Jesus insist that there is always possibility for redemption, resurrection, new life in the midst of whatever injustice we encounter. Our mission, collectively, is to help discover – uncover – that injustice, it, and make it real and present enough so it can be felt. The body of God is wounded when any of its members is wounded. When we notice that, we can begin to heal it. That is the thrust behind Isaiah’s challenge: we are all sent to provide the oil of gladness and a mantle of strength for the weak-kneed and broken-hearted. When Jesus began his public ministry, Luke’s gospel reports that he walked into the synagogue, read this passage from Isaiah, sat down, and said, “today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Today, this year, at Union Theological Seminary, is the year of the Lord’s favor, and all of us together are meant to share God’s work in liberating captives, bringing good news to those in need, healing the sick, and working justice up and down this land.

Share This: