2013 Commencement Speech by the Rev. Michael Cooper-White, D.D., 12th President
Eighty years ago, there was another graduation in another school. Among the senior class of 1933 at the West Central School of Agriculture in Morris, Minnesota, (now a campus of the great University of Minnesota) was my father Bennie Cooper. Orphaned at the age of 12, after his mother died in childbirth and his father was hit by a car during a snowstorm, Dad shared a very modest inheritance with his 11 brothers and sisters. That small inheritance of a few hundred dollars was to be his ticket to an education beyond the standard 8th grade. Responsible young teenage Bennie knew that he might be tempted to spend his inheritance, so he wisely took it to a bank and socked it away in a savings account.
That transaction occurred on Friday, October 25th in 1929, the day the US stock market began to plummet, ultimately ushering in the Great Depression of the 1930’s. The bank where Dad took his ticket to the future on Friday remained closed Monday and never reopened. Having lost his entire inheritance, young Bennie did not lose his determination to get the best education he could. He went off to West Central without a dime in his pocket and somehow convinced the school’s officials he could earn his way. His main job on campus was as a “fireman,” not putting out fires, but shoveling coal by night into the great furnaces that heated that campus in the dead of some of Minnesota’s fiercest winters ever.
In Dad’s 1933 yearbook, one of his classmates wrote to this effect: “We could always tell what kind of a mood Bennie was in by how the classrooms felt in the morning. If he’d had a good night, we were warm and cozy; but if Ben was in a foul mood, those classrooms could be mighty cold.” Other classmates wrote some other things, noting especially Dad’s finesse on the football field and his deftness on the dance floor. But it was his stewardship as a fireman that seemed to draw at least a couple of classmates’ keenest attention.
Not a bad image for public ministry, is it? For sure, in the days and years to come, all of you who conclude your seminary sojourn this day will have your moments on the public stage. You will be cheered and praised when you score that occasional touchdown sermon. While you may not be the winner in your local Dancing with the Stars competitions, you will gain public recognition as you deftly deal with difficult situations; as you dance your way through challenging conflicts or crises. Some of you will receive special honors—today and in the future. A few may become bishops or other high profile church leaders; a handful of you may receive one of this institution’s distinguished alumnus or alumna awards years and years down the road.
But the vast majority of your ministries will involve the unglamorous, unseen, coal-shoveling kind of stewardship. Hidden far from public view, toiling away often alone and unseen, doing many tasks no one else either wants or is capable of doing, you will earn your wages as you continue your lifelong educations.
Of course, that story of my Dad shoveling coal is severely outdated, isn’t it, in this era when the heating and cooling of this building and the Museum next door is provided by 65 geothermal wells hidden beneath the grassy fields that surround us? A new day has called us to a new kind of stewardship of our campus and the environment. Coal-shoveling firepersons increasingly go unemployed.
What has not changed, however, since the 1930’s or the 1830’s when this school was first established on this Ridge or the 30’s of the first century when the first apostles took up the ministries, is the calling that St. Paul described as being “stewards of the mysteries.” In 1 Corinthians 4:1, he wrote thusly: This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God.
Notice carefully that the word is mysteries, not certainties, not beyond-all-reasonable-doubt. A week ago, the faculty held a fascinating conversation with our visiting professor of preaching, Dr. Langknect. He reminded us that as soon as we arrive at absolute certainty about all things, we need to be reminded that we are not God! We don’t have it all figured out when it comes to the ways and will of God. In our preaching, teaching and living, we point toward where we think God is acting in the world; recognizing that God soon moves along and we may sometimes miss the mark in our conclusions about the Divine’s will and ways.
Nevertheless, despite our inevitable fallibilities, we who have enjoyed the privilege of gaining a theological education bear a special measure of responsibility to be stewards of the Triune God-story. It is the story on which we have staked our lives. When all the other fires have been extinguished, we claim our ultimate allegiance to and confidence in the God who raised Jesus Christ from the dead and who unleashed the fire-power of the Holy Spirit to call into being and strangely warm the hearts of a holy Godly people.
For the sake of those who accompany you in this celebratory occasion, perhaps I should take a moment to unpack this whole idea of being a steward. The steward is a servant. She or he is not the owner but is rather entrusted by the owner with precious, even priceless things. The steward’s calling is to care for, to tend, to help grow and flourish. And then the faithful steward has to let go and give back precious commodities and precious people.
As you have discovered already in your various chapters of what we call field education or contextual learning, being a public minister means that people will come to you with their stories. Some are like gushers who pour out their life stories to total strangers. I have encountered such fellow travelers especially on airplanes, especially at night and if it’s a bit turbulent or stormy, particularly if I happen to have on a clerical collar or otherwise reveal that I am a “Reverend.”
Still others, especially those whose life stories are composed of layer upon layer of pain and shame and guilt and sorrow, will not begin to reveal it all until they have found you trustworthy over the course of years in their midst. That gives me occasion for my annual plea that one way or another works its way into every graduation address. When you go to a place, plant your feet and plan to stay a good long season. The most effective ministry, all things being equal, happens over decades, not in a few months or a couple of years. The best stories you will hear won’t be revealed in the first three years. If you move on after what many regard as the standard first call tenure, you may miss the very best that a community of faith has to offer you, and vice versa.
In your stewarding of others’ stories and their mysteries, be gentle, graceful, frequently forgiving, and yet firm and fearless when required. Always, always, always remember that you are but the steward. The stories others bring to you are their stories, not yours. You cannot and will not fix most of their problems. You should not bear for long misplaced anger and misdirected anxiety. Don’t take personally about 87% of the criticism you may receive. Probably somewhere around 13% is accurate; own it, learn from it, humbly admit you are not perfect. Ask forgiveness when you offend. Notice I say when you offend, not when the gospel offends.
That leads to the next point in this short discourse about being stewards of the mysteries of God’s ways with the world. Faithful story stewards cannot be too selective. As the old hymn I grew up singing and can still recite from memory declares it, there are stories we not only like to convey, but there are stories we love to relate. Oh, yes, yes, yes, “I love to tell the story of unseen things above, of Jesus and his glory, of Jesus and his love . . . And when in scenes of glory, I sing the new, new song, ‘Twill be the old, old story that I have loved so long.”
Many indeed will be the Sundays when you step into a pulpit and find yourself tingling with anticipation. The pericopes for the day offer comfort, hope, good cheer, even some specific answers to profound questions that you know are on the hearts and minds of your people.
And then there will be other Sundays with other stories that faithful stewards cannot avoid or evade. These will be the times when you, like former Vice President Al Gore, must share some inconvenient truth. Even in very public arenas, like community forums or newspaper letters or op-ed pieces, you will find yourself called to remind your own faith community and the broader public of the inconvenient stories with which the Word of God on occasion confronts us. And you will tremble, because you know that what you are about to say or write or text or tweet will make many people uncomfortable and some people really mad at you.
“Can you give us some examples, Pastor-President?” I think I hear at least a few of you asking silently?
You need look no farther than right next door to grasp the vital prophetic calling for public theologians and mission leaders in every time. Some of the preachers in the mid-1800’s got it right, including our founder Samuel Simon Schmucker and one of our most illustrious alumni, Daniel Alexander Payne. And many got it wrong when they contemplated the scriptural stories and sayings that addressed the topic of slavery. To use that very helpful Lutheran hermeneutical principle, Schmucker and Payne and some other rightly discerned the proper relationship between law and gospel.
While he went a bit afield in some of his later theological speculations, on the ethical question of slavery, old Sam Schmucker got it dead right: We believe that God has of one blood created all nations to dwell on the face of the earth, has endowed them all with moral agency and invested them all with certain inalienable rights . . .
In today’s charged and polarized political climate, all of you will soon find yourselves confronted with stewarding some of scripture’s inconvenient stories and stipulations. Do not the NRA and all who fight so fervently against any changes in the stewardship of guns in our violence-prone society need a reminder that the 2nd Amendment must be balanced by the 1st and 5th commandments? “Thou shalt have no other gods; and Thou shalt not kill?” Amidst the raging debates over how our nation might rewrite laws on immigration, can we Christian proclaimers avoid the biblical injunctions to welcome strangers, embrace sojourners, and from time to time grant jubilee seasons? Can we remain faithful stewards of the stories and not remind those who make our laws that when they fled to Egypt to save the infant savior Jesus, Mary and Joseph crossed a border illegally, in defiance of Herod’s immigration policies?
Oh, yes, we love to tell some stories. And the inconvenient ones we would avoid, they too must be stewarded with grace, courage and a measure of freedom, even abandon. And, you wonder, where in the world do we find such grace and courage? When we must confront others with inconvenient truth, it helps to be reminded that some of the mysteries continue to elude even us, the trained theologians and degree-holding church leaders. In other words, it helps to retain a measure of humility. And that is enhanced as we force ourselves to move outside our comfort zones, to interact frequently with those who see the world differently. In a commencement address a year ago at Southern Methodist University, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice urged the SMU graduates: “At those times when you’re absolutely sure that you’re right, talk with someone who disagrees. And if you constantly find yourself in the company of those who say ‘amen’ to everything that you say, find other company.”
Well, dear friends, Bennie Cooper’s coal-shoveling, furnace-firing days are long gone forever. Nearly totally blind, fairly deaf and unable to stand up on his own failing legs, at the ripe old age of 98, Dad spends his days alternating between his wheelchair and bed in the one-room assisted living apartment he shares with my Mom. In just a few weeks they will celebrate their 75th wedding anniversary. With a twinkle in her eye, she still recalls how he swept her off her feet when they met at a dance three-quarters of a century ago.
Often when I visit these days, with a far-away look in his glazed-over eyes Bennie muses and speaks slowly, “It’s been a long time, a lonnnng time. . .” And then he sometimes goes on, in that way where you know he’s asking a question (which he believes that since I’m a minister I should surely be able to answer): “I just don’t know why I’m still here. All my brothers and sisters, even the younger ones, have been gone for quite a few years. I don’t understand why I am the only one left.”
It’s hard to be a pastor to your parents. I think many of you have discovered that already, even before you are ordained, commissioned or consecrated. But then, it’s hard to be a pastor to anybody who asks that kind of question! And so I stammer, “You’re here because we still need your prayers, Dad. You can still do the most important work of all.” Bennie wouldn’t exactly get this language, but I think you will: “You’re still here because for as long as you draw breath, you are a servant of Christ and a steward of the mysteries of God. It’s a cold world out there, wherein many hearts need the warmth you can generate. So take up those red folders, take on that hood which you have both earned and which is a gift of grace; head for the furnace room and start shoveling!”
And before you know it, a decade, then two, three or more will have passed. Some of you might just make it back here in 2063 for your 50th class reunion. And you might reflect back over the years since your graduation this day, as did the Rev. Richard Hess, member of the LTSG class of 1963, who earlier this spring wrote a reflection for his classmates:
In the varied places and times of this fifty-year journey, the Word was proclaimed and the Sacraments were administered. Couples were married, and vows of marriage were affirmed. The sick, hospitalized and home-bound were visited. The dying were commended to God’s care; the dead were buried; the bereaved were comforted; and the faithful departed were remembered. Children and young people were taught, nurtured in the faith and confirmed. The poor, hungry, homeless, and those who suffered in body, mind or spirit were served. Countless meetings were attended, and endless administrative tasks were addressed. Dwellings were blessed. . . New members were received and some were sent forth to be a blessing to others. In short, a half-century of ministry . . . was rendered. And, somehow, the venture was enough—fulfilling and rewarding, meaningful and purposeful, satisfying and gratifying. Amen, and a fifty-fold alleluia!
This graduation address was delivered by Gettysburg Seminary President Michael Cooper-White at the 187th Commencement on May 17, 2013.