Words for the Graduating Class of 2017
May 19, 2017
This Commencement Address was delivered by President Michael Cooper-White at the final graduation under the auspices of the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg on May 19, 2017. As of July 1st, Gettysburg Seminary becomes United Lutheran Seminary, a consolidation with the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia.
So then, here we are. It is a historic moment and you are the history makers! When you enrolled as Gettysburg Seminarians a few years ago, you did not expect to be the last class to graduate with a Gettysburg degree. Even as much will change this next year and beyond, much will seem the same and feel familiar both on this campus and over in Philadelphia. But it has so happened since the time you enrolled that truly transformative institutional change has come about. So, indeed, you will be the final group to receive a degree with the seal of the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg.
It is also a historic graduation year for all Lutheran theological seminaries and divinity schools, being the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. And your commencement comes right on the heels of a historic general assembly of the Lutheran World Federation, in which some of you together with Dr. Erling and Pastor Spangler participated. It’s hard for us all to recognize in the moment, but what’s happening right here right now will go down as a significant milestone in the history of theological education in this country.
O another historic day, Tuesday, September 5th in the fall of 1826, an inaugural ceremony for the new seminary and its first president, Samuel Simon Schmucker, lasted over four hours. I assure you we will not be here that long in this Commencement! On that day nearly two centuries ago, the first of 15 students to be enrolled was one Mr. William Artz of Hagerstown, Maryland. Today the last to be handed a Gettysburg Seminary diploma will be Pastor Elizabeth Garber Martini of Duncannon, Pennsylvania. I suspect Bill Artz and his 14 male cohorts would be rather surprised that the majority of you receiving degrees today are women. In between Bill and Beth there have been more than 5000 who have gone out from this place with these degrees into all the world. What a legacy! And just as the names of that first entering class are for all time recorded in our institutional archives, so will be yours. And, Nikki, let it be noted that one in that first class was also a Presbyterian! Many good things have continued throughout our history.
Some of us on this side of the chancel area—and some staff colleagues out there as well—will exit the institution with you this year as our callings on this hill also come to their conclusion. It’s a bittersweet moment for many who are gathered here this day in this Church of the Abiding Presence. It’s a time for us to feel the whole range of emotions. I think that’s part of what Jesus meant when he said, “I have come that you might have life, and have it abundantly.” “I have come that you might feel the whole range of what it means to be human.”
The minutes of the board meetings in the pioneer days verify that each member of a senior class was thoroughly examined by the entire board of directors just prior to receiving their degrees. No, our current Board of Trustees is not squirreled away somewhere on campus waiting to grill you before the dean and I hand you those big red diplomas. But it’s an interesting prospect; maybe one to be revived as the United Lutheran Seminary takes shape? Or maybe not. What is the case is that you have been thoroughly examined, over and over again, by this faculty and found worthy of the degrees that for the final time it will be my privilege to confer in just a few moments.
And what a joy to send out this class of 2017 into the church and the world! What a joy to look both near and far down the road and to imagine the impact and import of just what you will do with these degrees and in your ministries.
For months now, I have been struggling with what to say on this occasion. And that goes far beyond what’s happening with our Seminary as we join to form the United Lutheran Seminary. It has even more to do with where we seem to be as a nation in our United States of America. Six months ago, this country elected to its highest office one who campaigned on the slogan, “Make America Great Again.” However else one may view these recent political events and decisions, they point to the reality that so many in our land seem to have lost a sense of hope and confidence in the future. Millions of our fellow citizens feel they have been forgotten and neglected; left behind in the struggle for a decent living, and on a deeper level devoid of a sense that life has dignity, meaning and purpose.
It feels like we have arrived at another crossroads in our communal life together as a polis, a people. Will we go this direction or that? Try to recreate a past where things seemed simpler—some would say when women and people of color knew their place, when the worlds of commerce and politics were pretty much dominated by middle-aged or older white guys like yours truly? Or will we move forward into what to me seems like a more exciting and promising future? Where diversity of color and language and sexual identity is not viewed as a threat but as gift? Where, as they have always done in the past, new immigrants bring energy, a work ethic, a yearning desire to become some of the very best citizens; in other words, wherein their arrival holds promise not peril?
All of you have gained enough experience already to sense that the church in our time finds itself at a crossroads as well. Many congregations yearn to return to what old-timers recall as glory days of the past, when the pews were full; when Sunday Schools always needed more classrooms; when every congregation 5 miles from another of the same denomination could afford a full-time pastor—never mind that a lot of those ministers were poorly paid, had no benefits and could never afford to retire. All of us called to lead churches and ministries can easily give way to some whining and complaining at the lack of commitment, over-busyness of members that make it so difficult just to keep the church as organization functioning and offering attractive experiences for newcomers we seek to embrace.
From our discussions and your papers in our Practices of Ministry seminar last fall or this spring, I know that you know just how challenging is and will be ministry here in these early decades of the 21st century. And as if that weren’t enough, our very lives may again hang in the balance in the days ahead, quite possibly in times we have not experienced since the height of what we called the Cold War between the U.S. and Soviet Union. Just how trigger happy is a brash young dictator in North Korea who may soon have a nuclear arsenal at his command? How far down the road to fascism may travel some emerging super-nationalist despots in an alarming number of nations on every continent?
Well, if as I suggest, we are various crossroads in the church, our own lives and the global community, then we who bear these theological degrees, we who thereby are signaled by premier faculties and boards as worthy of them, find ourselves precisely, exactly right where we need to be!
Throughout my tenure here as the Seminary’s chief steward, we have rallied under a vision that places us squarely at the crossroads of history and hope. It seems to me that now more so than when we first adopted that vision nearly two decades ago, the crossroads imagery remains apt and accurate.
Indeed, the weight of recent history bears down more heavily than when that vision was adopted just prior to the dawn of the new century and third millennium. When we adopted that vision statement, September 11th had not occurred, nor had the great economic meltdown that so shattered a decades-old confidence in the American and global economic system.
When we placed ourselves at a crossroads at the end of the 20th century, the crosses we bore perhaps did not feel as heavy as they do today. And so, I wonder, as the years have passed, has our hope become somewhat shackled, our confidence less sure?
If that is the case, then you all come along at just the right moment! The time is right and ripe to unbind and unleash the abiding hope of the Gospel! It’s time to unleash it at every crossroads where we find ourselves in every arena of our lives and world.
When our U.S. president and so many say it’s time to make American great again, we cry out, “That’s far too limited a vision; God loves and wants the whole world to thrive!” Let God’s hope be unleashed!
In an era when policies are being proposed and adopted that will further diminish an already-fragile safety net for the least, the lost and the lonely among us, it’s time to unshackle hope for the poor. Let God’s hope be unleashed!
In just such a time as many in the church are wringing their hands about its future, I say, “Don’t worry! For I know the hands of those who are being lifted up as its leaders—and they are your hands!” Let God’s promise “I am calling new leaders for new times” be unleashed!
No, it will not be easy. Class of 2017 I will not paint a rosy picture. At the many crossroads you will find yourselves in the course of a ministerial career in any form, you will have crosses of all manner thrust upon you. You will go home after some long meetings feeling your creative, renewal-generating ideas were ignored or on occasion belittled. The arrows of criticism can be sharp and many, and they will come at you. Most insidious will be all the ways in which some—usually just a few—attempt to stifle and stomp down your own faith and cheerful hopefulness.
But knowing you as I do, I am confident you will not allow this to occur. Rather, at every crossroads you come to, time and time again, most especially in times of adversity, you will declare it: Let God’s hope for the world be set free.
In her book Becoming Wise, Krista Tippett declared that "Hope, like every virtue, is a choice that becomes a habit that becomes spiritual muscle memory." Practice it enough, and like driving a car or brushing your teeth or catching a fly ball it becomes routine and second-nature.
If we have achieved our institutional objectives when it comes to your formation, and I believe we have in good measure, then you go forth with the personal habits and spiritual muscle memory that will make it impossible for you not to be hope-givers, gospel-proclaimers, joy-spreaders wherever you go. Some of your hope-spreading will occur in your preaching, teaching and more public ministries to be sure. But much of it will happen in quiet, behind-the-scenes settings where you simply offer a word of cheer and encouragement. As several of you have written in papers for our senior seminar, there is great wisdom in a variation on Woody Allen’s famous quip: Much of ministry is about just showing up! Hope-giving happens, I have found, most especially when you simply show up amidst crisis and chaos.
Now, a caveat; more strongly, a warning: If you feel that you need to carry and deliver hope wherever you go, you will later or probably sooner grow weary and experience burn-out. Notice, notice, I have not suggested that YOU must deliver the hope. You need only unleash what is already there! For around every corner, at every crossroads where you will find yourselves in the days and years to come, the source of all true hope—the God who raised Jesus from the dead, in the ultimate hope-giving moment the world has ever known—is already present. God has preceded and awaits you at every crossroads. God’s hope is always up ahead of us; and all we have to do is to unshackle and unleash it.
During the darkest days of repression under the military regime in Chile, where I did my internship more than four decades ago, a political prisoner facing torture and execution at the hands of the dreaded secret police defiantly uttered these words; some say he sang them over and over again as a ballad before he was brutally tortured and then killed: “Encarcelarme? Ha, como si fuera posible encarcelar el viento!” [“Imprison me? Hah, as if they could imprison the wind!”]
That’s how you will be; of this I am very, very confident. Each time your enthusiasm is dampened, on every occasion you feel discouraged and unsupported: you will rise to the occasion and unleash a torrent of hope. When the days and weeks grow long, and your bone-weary tiredness seeps deeper and deeper into the bone marrow, you will return over and over again to those good promises from St. Paul in Romans: “Endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope will not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” (Rom 5:4-5). Each time somebody or a host of somebodies tries to bind you or even abuse your ministry you will rise up: “Imprison the hope to which I point, the hope in the incarnate One Jesus—hah, as if you could imprison the wind!”
Among the many things they declare; among the multiple gifts they confer, these last big red diplomas to be given in the name of the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg verify that that spiritual muscle memory of hope has been nurtured and has grown strong within you already. So, flex those muscles. Unleash the God-bestowed hope that is in your hearts. And never look back for long, but always up ahead to the next crossroads where you are called to show up and declare simply, and sometimes defiantly in the face of those who would stifle the power of the Holy Spirit, “Hah, as if they could imprison the wind!
This Commencement Address was delivered by President Michael Cooper-White at the final graduation from the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg on May 19, 2017.
The Rev. Michael Cooper-White, D.D., President