School of Theology and Ministry Doctor of Ministry (DMin) student Karen Georgia Thompson was recently asked to present the commencement address at the Eden Theological Seminary, a United Church of Christ seminary in St. Louis, MO. Rev. Karen Georgia Thompson, ordained minister in the United Church of Christ, is currently serving as Minister for Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations for the United Church of Christ and lives in Lakewood, OH. As student and pastor, Karen is charged with speaking theologically to the public; the transcript below illustrates the depth and sophistication of this call to action. Follow Rev. Thompson’s work, via bytherivers13.com. To learn more about the school's Doctor of Ministry program, see here.
It is my pleasure to be here with you on this occasion that is both a beginning and an end for many of you. You will graduate and leave this place, move on to vocations that are related to church and society, and change the world! I have high hopes for you. In some ways, I would imagine that this place has offered some safety. Amidst the rigor of classwork, late nights and assignments that never seemed to end, there was the familiarity of the campus, as well as the staff and faculty and classmates who journeyed with you. They became a part of the known and the defined in your life. They were a part of the predictable, regardless of their role in pushing you and pulling you when you would just rather be content where you were. In graduating, you leave this place and in that there is the loss of leaving the familiar and heading out into a greater unknown.
You are leaving the role of student and anticipating what comes next in your lives. With leaving comes the process of discernment. Where will ministry take you? What will you do? In an age where the settings of the church are challenged fiscally and decline is the norm, you enter vocation in ministry when bi-vocational expectations are becoming more normative and churches are struggling to find the resources to keep their doors open. “Of the 7,400 authorized UCC clergy, one in four — about 1,850 — are bi-vocational, meaning they have at least one other job, instead of a full-time ministry call."(http://www.ucc.org/news_seeking_ways_to_support_learn_from_bi_vocational_ministers_03242016)
And if the state of the church is not challenging enough in these times, the state of the nation and the state of the world are sign posts on the spiritual and vocational journeys, markers that point us to where we should be lending our concern and attention in these times.
You are also leaving this place and its witness in the community in which it sits. Eden Theological Seminary provided you with a place to lend your voice in the cloud of witnesses crying out for justice here and in the world. Your seminary education was impacted by the shooting and killing of Michael Brown on the 9th of August 2014 on the streets of Ferguson, Missouri. Some of you were among the throngs on the streets chanting: “Hands up don’t shoot!” Some of you prayed and provided pastoral care in this community as we all cried and wept for justice when they appeared to be none. What else is there for you to say? What else is there for you to do? What will you do to change these times in which we are living?
SIGNS AND WONDERS
The Exodus passage that I chose for today is as much about call as it is about what we need for us to be present in the face of what God is calling us to do. An understanding of Divine Call is very present in the Judeo-Christian narratives, beginning with the call of Abraham, through the call of the prophets, the disciples and the apostle Paul. Call is never convenient and somehow seems to break into the routine of life and the certainty of the day. No one ever feels qualified to answer the call, so in that you are in good company. The call of Moses is framed in this tradition of individuals who are called by God at a specific time for a specific purpose. Call is not an event, my friends. Call and responding to call are a process that will be present with you as long as you choose to be in ministry.
The call of Moses was no different. Having fled from his grandfather the Pharaoh, Moses was busy, if not a little bored tending sheep. Moses had seen better days in his life. Moses’ self-imposed exile was a result of his intervention on behalf of one of the Hebrew people, a people who were enslaved in his day. Though a Hebrew himself, Moses was raised in the home of the Pharaoh. Moses was aware that the economic conditions of the Pharaoh’s household and the Egyptians were in sharp contrast to that of the Hebrew people. He knew that these Hebrew people were his people. In the aftermath of killing an Egyptian who was abusing one of these enslaved people, Moses fled into the wilderness and assumed a life away from the conflict of these two worlds that he straddled. He was born in the household of enslaved people, but he was raised in the lap of royalty and luxury. I would name this knowledge of the people’s plight as Moses’ first sign, with many more to come.
His encounter with the burning bush that was not consumed was another sign to Moses that the Divine, the I AM, was interrupting the normalcy of his life and sending him into something that was greater than he was. The fact that he did not run, but chose to talk to the bush that was on fire is noteworthy. The talking burning bush was yet another sign that the moment in his life was one of Divine grace. How many of us would stop to talk to a burning bush anywhere? The voice affords him another sign: After bringing the people out of Egypt, the people would worship God on the very mountain where Moses was at that moment. Moses needed several signs before he was willing to act on behalf of these people, his people. How many signs do you need to step into the impossibility of what you have discerned God is calling you to do next in your life? How many signs do you need as you sit and wait to hear that answer to where God is leading you to serve in these days?
SIGN O’ THE TIMES
There are signs everywhere in our world. These signs are rooted in fear and anxiety that is evidenced in the current election cycle in this country. There are bushes burning locally and globally calling your name, even as you stop to take a look and no longer marvel at the mystery of what is in front of you. We have become anesthetized to the news of the day. We are no longer alarmed by the killings. We are no longer affected by the poverty. We are no longer even aware that our 24 hour news cycle is telling us the same thing over and over again, on every mainstream news channel. And yet each is a sign if we but stop to look and listen. Each is a place that calls us beyond the comfort of the known to discover the mystery of God at work in us and through us. Each is a place that begs us to discover the presence of God that is indeed able to do more through us that we could ever imagine and may be unwilling to discover. Each sign requires that we confront the fears that are present and find our way to the hope that will save a world that is in need, a world that is dying. How many more signs do you need?
Michael Brown was a sign, a burning bush that caught the attention of the world. Before Michael Brown who was killed by a police officer in Ferguson, MO there was Trayvon Martin who was killed by a civilian in Sanford, Florida. You know about Michael and Trayvon but what of the other signs that race relations in the United States of America are in decline and have been so for many years in spite of the gains of the Civil Rights movement, the election of Barack Obama as president and the wealth of Oprah Winfrey. The challenges we see here in the United States are not isolated by any means.
Racism in the United States is part of a global epidemic that continues to cry out for our attention and intervention. The militarization of the streets of our urban enclaves, the shooting of unarmed black men and women by those who are hired to protect and serve, the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, the under education and miseducation of Black children in public schools across the United States, the lack of affordable and safe housing that have turned major cities into war zones all point to a global crisis that is anti-Black racism that dates back to the Transatlantic Slave Trade a history that we would just as soon forget, but for the fact that it continues to raise its ugly head because it lives among us.
Less than a month ago on the 17th of April, the New York Times ran a story about the 272 slaves sold by Georgetown University in 1838. The article named that these enslaved Africans were sold for what is $3.3 million in today’s dollars. According to the Times: “More than a dozen universities — including Brown, Columbia, Harvard and the University of Virginia — have publicly recognized their ties to slavery and the slave trade. But the 1838 slave sale organized by the Jesuits, who founded and ran Georgetown, stands out for its sheer size, historians say. At Georgetown, slavery and scholarship were inextricably linked. The college relied on Jesuit plantations in Maryland to help finance its operations, university officials say. (Slaves were often donated by prosperous parishioners.) And the 1838 sale — worth about $3.3 million in today’s dollars — was organized by two of Georgetown’s early presidents, both Jesuit priests.”
Are we willing to name and address the systemic problems that have produced the racial divide that exists in the United States? Are our congregations and institutional settings willing to go back and account for the ways in which wealth was amassed historically? Are we willing to name the places in which we too are guilty of holding on to endowments and infrastructure that was built by enslaved and indentured peoples? What do we have to say about a history that continues to prevail as Fugitive Slave Laws become the unwritten reality of profiling and mass incarceration?
The United Nations declared 2015 - 2024 as the International Decade for People of African Descent. On the website dedicated to this decade the UN states: “In proclaiming this Decade, the international community is recognizing that people of African descent represent a distinct group whose human rights must be promoted and protected. Around 200 million people identifying themselves as being of African descent live in the Americas. Many millions more live in other parts of the world, outside of the African continent.”
(http://www.un.org/en/events/africandescentdecade/) What the website does not say in that information is that the majority of those 200 million people are present in the Americas as a result of the Transatlantic Slave Trade!
The Church declared over and over again that racism is a sin. The Church declared repeatedly that racism is a Church dividing issue. In 2010, there was a WCC Conference in Cleveland, Ohio which I hosted at a time when I was the Minister for Racial Justice for the UCC. The Statement from that conference says the following:
“..the churches have not done as much as they should in addressing racial and other exclusionary practices within their own ranks. This is a state of affairs which cannot continue if the churches are to have any credibility in their claim to be the Body of Christ. Because the very nature of racial and other forms of discrimination entails levels of economic, social, and political marginalization which create profound suffering and life-long hardship, our local and national churches cannot continue to ignore this nightmarish reality in which men, women, and children of God are condemned to live. The entire Body of Christ has a prophetic task to denounce by word and deed all forms and expressions of existence which constrain the reality of the abundant life which God offered to us in Jesus Christ. Our failure to do so constitutes disobedience to the God we endeavor to serve through faithful discipleship.” (http://www.oikoumene.org/en/resources/documents/wcc-programmes/unity-mission-evangelism-and-spirituality/just-and-inclusive-communities/racism/statement-from-the-wcc-conference-on-racism-today)
Where are the voices in the United States crying out for justice in a broken world? What are the signs of the times that you see in the communities that you will serve? The communities where you live in? The communities you read about in the news? What are these signs saying to you? I can say with certainty that every issue that you name is part of a larger issue that is connected to the county, the state, the United States, North America and the world. As theologians, as ministers of the gospel, as people called by the Divine Mystery to the service of all who are made in the image of the Divine, we are called to see the signs, we are called to read the signs, and we are called to give voice and action so that we can indeed live in a world where all are free and live with dignity and value for their lives. How many signs do you need?
WHO ARE WE AS LEADERS?
What is the value of a human life? I found it interesting that the NY Times article regarding the sale of the 272 enslaved Africans asked: What is owed to their descendants? To figure that of course, a value will need to be named for the value of a life as opposed to the cost of a slave. These are two different things my friends. The buying and selling of peoples is nothing new. As religious leaders, what is the value that we place on a life?
The valuing of life is about how we choose to pay people for the services that they provide. Those who sweep our streets, clean our toilets, fix our meals and grow our food are paid less than nothing for their services. Farmworkers in this country continue to be exploited and fight for a fair wage. The price we pay for our food is subsidized on their backs as they labor in fields to hand pick the produce we consume. How do we value these workers? How do we value their lives?
The valuing of lives is about who has access to health care and who does not. It is clear that not all lives are valued as worth saving through preventative health care, access to regular medical services and access to medicine. People are dying in emergency rooms in our communities. You will not see it on the nightly news, but people are also dying globally from the same lack of attention because they do not have adequate medical attention. People are dying from war, famine and violence. People are dying from diseases like HIV/AIDS, malaria, ebola, measles, and they are also dying from dirty drinking water.
(http://www.doctorswithoutborders.org/our-work/medical-issues) What value do we place on their lives?
Access to clean water has long been an issue of crisis proportions globally. What value do you think Governor Snyder and the Emergency managers for Flint, Michigan placed on the lives of the residents of Flint? What value do we place on the lives of communities whose water rights have been sold to multinational corporations like Nestle and Coca Cola who are at the heart of the privatization of water globally. We consume bottled water that is raided from the aquifers and water tables of communities where people cannot afford to buy the water that is exported from their communities, while they drink contaminated water. These also include communities of indigenous people where water rights and land rights are being stolen away for minerals and resources that are sold for huge profit, none of which is returned to these communities in ways that will make a difference for residents. The rights of indigenous people continue to remain a lack of concern even as indigenous communities in North America continue to be exploited, suicides are on the rise and the disappearance and murder of aboriginal women increases.
Are the lives of the poor, the racially marginalized, those who are deemed “different,” worth the same value that we place on our own lives? As leaders, we must be able to respond on behalf of the world around us. Jesus quoted Isaiah 61:1-3 when he begun his ministry. Third Isaiah wrote:
The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners;
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,
and the day of vengeance of our God;
to comfort all who mourn;
to provide for those who mourn in Zion—
to give them a garland instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.
It is time for us to rise to the challenge before us. It is time for us to see beyond the local of our lives and embrace the global community of which we are a part. There are burning bushes all around us. Open you eyes and you will see. Or will you, like Moses continue to look for signs while ignoring that which you have already seen in the oppression and marginalization of God’s people, as you continue to sit in the wilderness tending sheep, waiting for the next burning bush encounter. How many signs do you need?
RISING TO THE CHALLENGE!
There are many people we would name as great historical leaders. I could name a long list of men and women who placed their lives on the line and made a positive significant difference in the world during their day. Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Gandhi. Sojourner Truth. Abraham Lincoln. Marcus Garvey. President John F. Kennedy. Nelson Mandela. Ella Baker. Mother Teresa. There are others we could name for hours and still not exhaust that list.
Most great leaders were themselves reluctant leaders. We can applaud the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. and point to his place as a significant leader of the Civil rights Movement in the U.S. When the dawn of the Civil Rights Movement happened upon Rev. King, he was at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama - minding his business - having arrived there in 1954 as its pastor from Boston where he was working on his doctorate. He said yes to a call to the plight of a people, God did the rest, much like Moses.
There are a myriad of social ills that require attention, broken places that need healing and hope. In these crevices of life where people continue to fall into cracks and are rendered invisible and forgotten, there is the hope of the gospel. The good news that you bring is a word of healing and light amidst the brokenness and despair that is the on-going devaluing of people, the growing wealth disparity and the building of Empire and neo-colonial expressions that consume the resources of the world and amass wealth that perpetuates greed and the demand for more. What do you have to say about any of these issues?
The cries for justice are being heard. God hears the afflictions of God’s people in this age. Amidst the decline in the pews, there are men and women who are willing to continue to raise their voices and take risk so that all can be free. We need voices that will counter the xenophobic narrative that dominates the airwaves in this election cycle but can also be heard in those who see differences as a reason to oppress.
Our visions of the Church in decline, of limited resources and of financial woes need to be replaced with a vision of the Church shaped by the gospel that is life giving, renewing and abundant. Operating from a place of fear and paucity leads to the actions that enslave others, take resources that do not belong to us and create xenophobia that justifies the economic disparities around the world. In his book The Journey to the Common Good, Walter Brueggeman writes that moving to the practice of neighborhood is necessary to overcome this “kingdom of paucity” as he names it (p.30).
He writes: “That journey from anxious scarcity through miraculous abundance to a neighborly common good has been peculiarly entrusted to the church and its allies. When the church only echoes the world’s kingdom of scarcity, then it has failed in its vocation. But the faithful church keeps at the task of living out a journey that points to the common good” (p. 32).
This common good continues to call us to act on behalf of the poor. This common good draws us into creating and living as beloved community. This common good ignites the fire and fuels the passion that will motivate us to live in communities where all live in dignity, in communities where all are free.
Galatians 3:28 reads: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” In this there is hope!
There is hope, sisters and brothers. It is this work for the common good that call us, that calls you today, from this Eden into a world that awaits your voice, your hope, your commitment, and your care. The signs will find you. You just need to be willing to see them, encounter them and have your life be changed in the encounter.
There is hope in the good news that calls us to serve a world that is diverse in many ways. The cry of the people has come to God. God has seen their oppression at the hands of the oppressors of our day. God is sending you to bring these people out of the land of their oppression. Go! God is sending you.
How many more signs do you need?