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From the Glorious Hill
April 26, 2017 By
This sermon was preached by President Michael Cooper-White at the service of Thanksgiving for Gettysburg Seminary, held during Spring Academy, April 26, 2017
Early in this Easter season, we’re going to stretch back to the Transfiguration and leap forward to the Ascension. I hope any of you who may be liturgical purists will forgive me on just this one occasion for this transposition of these two great festivals!
We have been running a series on the Seminary website throughout this spring semester called “On the Glorious Hill.” It lifts up just a few of the high moments from throughout the 190 years since the Seminary received its charter from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania back in 1827. That charter, by the way, lives on and simply undergoes a name change to United Lutheran Seminary when approved by the PA Department of State within the next few weeks.
On the Glorious Hill. For any who may be unfamiliar, that’s the title of a brief history of the Seminary, published for our 150th anniversary in the year I graduated, 1976. Indeed, it’s a glorious history that we honor today as this extended community of current and former students, generous supporters and lovers of this school gather for this legacy Eucharistic celebration. This amazing legacy includes more than 5000 graduates who have served the church and the world throughout this country and around the globe. A few of them are etched in the stained glass windows of this chapel or featured next door in the Seminary Ridge Museum; giants like Samuel Simon Schmucker, Daniel Alexander Payne, William Passavant, Milton Valentine and others. And then those who have been our teachers down through the generations of faculty—what an amazing array of saints!
There is, of course, a unique dimension of glory that lives on in this most historic of all seminaries. In the afternoon of July 1st, 1863 the great Civil War battle rose to its full fury right here on this campus. As I’ve said so many times over my years as president, we don’t lead with this in our Admissions materials, but we can truly say that more people have died on our campus than any other. Many would dispute that there is any measure of glory amidst the horrific evil that ensues when armies come together in brutal combat. But as our Museum shares so compellingly, there were extraordinary acts of courage both during and in the aftermath of that great battle, including on the part of those so often overlooked in other Civil War interpretations—African Americans and women.
So yes, I think we can embrace the title of that short history and our more recent blog chronicles. On the glorious hill. On this glorious hill. This hill that some of us have inhabited for periods shorter or longer; this hill, this Ridge that many of us have come to love, some to the point they choose it for themselves or their loved ones as a final resting place for cremains buried right over there on the other side of that south wall in our Memorial Garden.
To this glorious hill some 5000 of us have come from far and wide as students; hundreds have served on the faculty and staff over these past 19 decades. Quite a few have fallen in love in the corridors of these buildings where the dimmed lights of evenings in the bowels of the library did not always mean there was diligent study going on! Ah, the tales and stories I have heard! Of the guys (and they were all guys back then) who lived and etched their initials in the halls and walls of Old Dorm; and those who lived on 4th floor of Valentine Hall who would put jugs of cider out on the gutters to ferment; and a few who even apparently sat out there precariously perched 60 feet in the air to enjoy the spring sunshine.
Ah, the glories of battles fought first against the rival team from Philadelphia, and in more recent decades in a growing contest against a half dozen or more other schools in the annual LutherBowl. And the contests on the glorious Schmucker Grove croquet courts where Abdel Ross Wentz trounced Lutheran and ecumenical luminaries from around the world; and where, led by Dr. Maria Erling these past two decades, the tradition has been revived!
Ah, the glories of scholarship, publishing and teaching that have been generated on this hill and reverberated out into the church far and wide! Some of it was more than controversial: church-dividing, seminary-dividing as occurred when Samuel Simon Schmucker published the Definite Platform, when faculty members expressed sympathy with the Black Power movement in the 1960’s, and instituted the revolutionary practice of communing very young children in the 1970’s. Cries of “heresy,” “apostasy,” and calls for their firing ensued. More recently, we stirred up a hornet’s nest as the Seminary opposed casino gambling and banned public displays of the Confederate flag during living history encampments.
Along the way, there have been some incredible surprises. Who would have thought that the seminary in bucolic rural Gettysburg would be the place where women’s leadership was embraced long before it was in many other quarters? That a refugee from Nazi Germany, Dr. Bertha Paulssen, would emerge as a towering figure with such profound influence on generations of students who went out to be leaders in social ministry and urban ministry? That a woman would become chair of the board decades before that occurred in many other schools’ governing bodies? And that the first woman to be ordained a Lutheran pastor in the Americas would be a graduate of this place thought by many to be on the more conservative end of the spectrum? And now, as it has time and time again, in our new joint venture with Philadelphia Seminary, United Lutheran again leads the way as the first Lutheran seminary to call as president a pastor of a full communion partner church.
An incredible legacy; an amazing history; truly, and of course modestly, we can claim that this particular Ridge in this small south Central Pennsylvania community is a world-renowned Glorious Hill! And what a privilege to be among those who have sojourned here for a season! Well, I could go on and on in a memorial reverie with all of you who share my love for this place. But this is to be a sermon after all. So we should shift our focus from the Gettysburg historical tales and texts to our chosen biblical stories.
These Scriptures point to other glorious hills; other high moments enjoyed by forebears in the faith whose witness comes to us across the ages. The first was an occasion when Jesus invited a small subset of disciples to accompany him on a journey up a high mountain. There on the mountaintop, as all three synoptic gospelers tell us, his countenance was changed; transfigured and transformed. Talk about a glorious hilltop moment! Not so long thereafter, after the horrific crucifixion, and then the wonder of experiencing resurrection, a larger group of Jesus’ followers joined him on another hike up a hill. They did not realize on the up-bound journey that Jesus was traveling on a one-way ticket; and that the hilltop destination for the rest of them was only a waystation for him on a much longer itinerary.
Twenty centuries removed from those game-changing, life-changing, world-changing two hilltop experiences, I think it is simply not possible for us to grasp their full impact on Jesus’ disciples. But we can try to bridge the hermeneutical gap, attempt to project ourselves across the divide of time and culture and context. We can imagine those first followers asking that same haunting question that seeps into the minds and hearts of every human being at one point or another, “Is this all there is?” And then suddenly in a transformative moment, their hearts were filled to overflowing.
Of course, they wanted to stay. When you’ve experienced a piece of heaven, you want more of the same. You want to remain forever; never again make any changes. In the emotional high of a transformative moment, you cannot even begin to imagine a future in which things might be different, perhaps even better. But Jesus and his messengers say, “That’s not how things are going to be. You can’t stay here, Peter; there’s no need to build those booths that you think will hold and confine the spirits of Elijah and Moses and me. We gotta move on. You gotta go back down that mountain. You have to leave this glorious hill, because there’s a mission below and beyond this high moment.” For the people of God, mountaintop moments always lead to mission momentum! On the mountain of the transfiguration Peter, James and John heard Jesus say, “It’s time to move along from this glorious hill.”
It happened again on that occasion we refer to as the Ascension. The scene is captured in the painting that for the first 40 years of this chapel’s existence hung right up here over a high altar; and now for nearly as long has been back there in that corner. Again, Jesus and his beloved were on another glorious hill, Mount Olivet, a short hike outside Jerusalem. This time it had to be even better, because they were now post-Easter and the Teacher needed no second transfiguration; he was already transformed into the resurrected Lord. It just doesn’t get any better than being on a mountain with a resurrected Lord!
But then, in the blink of an eye, he was gone. And they kept looking up, yearning, pleading, begging for his return. But that was not to be. Their mission had not been completed. They had to descend from the glorious hill, get back to work on the plains and in the valleys below. On the mountain, once again they received the mission mandate: “Guys and gals of Galilee,” asked the two in white robes, “Why do you stand looking up into heaven? Don’t you know the one who was taken up will come again? But for now, your calling is not to remain on this lofty place. You must move along from the glorious hill. Mountaintop moments lead to mission momentum!”
And so it is for us. So it is for us. It’s hard to let go, isn’t it? It’s sad to leave behind Gettysburg Seminary, the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg, LTSG. It will be difficult to relegate all those glories of the glorious past to a final book of history, which needs to be compiled in the days and years to come. It’s harder for some than others to embrace a United Lutheran Seminary. Some chapters of our history have been marked by a fair measure of contentious, even cantankerous relations between Gettysburg and Philadelphia seminaries. At least a half-dozen times before, the two schools met at the altar and then on the verge of saying “I do” backed away. But this time, those of us entrusted with the governance of this great institution, have come to conclusion that God is calling us to do a new thing. Our best judgment is that while there are no guarantees, a shared common future holds greater promise of continuing strong and sustainable theological education in the Lutheran tradition here in the northeastern portion of our nation. And so, tempting as it has been to try to preserve things as they have existed for nearly two centuries on this glorious hill, we have decided that it’s time to move on. We do so praying that our many mountaintop moments now lead to renewed mission momentum.
And the good news is that even in those times when our mission momentum may not be heading exactly in the right direction, Jesus is always out ahead of us, calling, cajoling, issuing course corrections. So we can relish and enjoy the mountaintop moments that come along only rarely. We can, no indeed we must cherish in our hearts and record for posterity the amazing grand legacy of all that has transpired for nearly two centuries on this glorious hill. And then we move on, from the glorious hill. We do so bolstered by the promise: “You will receive Power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you. And you will be my witnesses in Gettysburg and Philadelphia—and to the ends of the earth!”