A New Rite for Our Graduation Ceremonies April 25, 2016

by José David Rodriguez
Augustana Heritage Chair of Global Mission and World Christianity

Introduction

            I want to start my homily this morning by recognizing that last week on Thursday, our colleague Harvard Steven challenged us to take this text of the Gospel of John as a starting point to reflect on what he called then the “elephant in the room,” a symbolic way to address what another colleague Richard Perry earlier in the week had identified in his protest to the proposed panel discussion on Law and Gospel as “White Supremacy”, and earlier this morning our student colleague Erick Olav Thone described in his reflection at our blog “We Talk We Listen,” as the internalization of Racism.  As my colleague Linda Thomas claimed in her regular message on the blog, shaking our assumptions can be good for us all, particularly if is led by the power of the Holy Spirit.
            This morning I hope to continue reflecting on John’s text, but this time focusing on love as the creative divine power that not only shakes but also helps us reconstruct these and many other of our conscious and unconscious offensive assumptions.
We are fast approaching the end of this spring semester, and while everyone is anxiously working to complete established requirements for our programs of studies, the anticipation of a graduation ceremony where degrees are conferred, fuels the fretful race to the finish line.  To be sure, it is not just students who are part of this compulsive race but also our Staff, our faculty and administrators, as well as other members of this seminary community, that become overstressed in this obsessive race to the graduation ceremony.
            Commencement ceremonies are important rites of passage.  They are occasions for the public celebration of accomplishments and in our context, the completion of an educational project taking various years of disciplined effort, financial stress, and the intentional endeavor to prioritize meeting the objectives, outcomes and competencies of a programs of studies, over the enjoyment and comfort of spending time with our family, relatives and friends in fun and social activities.
            A few years ago Vitor Westhelle and I led a group of students to Spain during the J term for a two weeks immersion study of the development of Protestantism from the sixteenth century to the present.  One of the places we visited was the University of Salamanca, birthplace of the theological perspective that led during the sixteenth century the Christian conquest and evangelization of these lands we call the Americas.  At the university we learned a few things about ceremonies and protocols for meeting the requirements and conferrals of academic degrees that continue to influence graduation ceremonies today, even at our seminary.  Two very unusual practices of the university that challenged my imagination were first, that candidates for the degree were required to invite their advisors and the whole faculty examining committee to a meal in one of the best restaurants in the city before the examination, and pay for all the expenses.  The second of these rituals was that after an examination by the faculty tribunal, the candidate was to walk through a specific corridor to appraise, at the end of this passage, the success or failure of his or her examination with peers, family and friends.  Thereafter, a number of them went to the Plaza de Toros (the bull’s ring) to publicly inscribe with blood in a wall of the university, the date of his/hers successful accomplishment.
            I have to admit that the experience at the University of Salamanca encouraged me to find ways to enrich the practice and protocols for meeting the requirements and conferrals of academic degrees at LSTC.  Yet I am still not convinced that President Nieman, our Board of Directors or particularly students may be willing to consider as a new practice that previous to receiving their degree those participating in our programs of studies may be encouraged to take our Staff, faculty and administrators for a night out in the city paying for all expenses.  Or perhaps, instead of using blood to inscribe in a wall of the seminary the names of those that successfully meet the requirements for their degrees; we can try using washable ink, newsprint or just yellow post-it in symbolic remembrance of Luther’s nailing the 95 thesis at the door of the Castle church in Wittenberg.      

You will know them by their Love

            A careful reading of the Gospel of John for this chapel service is a more pressing challenge to find ways to enrich our traditional practices and protocols for graduation at LSTC and in any other institution of Christian theological education or ministerial formation, for it confronts us with the core practice to which Jesus calls his disciples; a practice by which everyone will know that we are his disciples and followers.  This practice is love. 
            The context of John’s narrative from chapter 13: 31 – 16: 33 is generally known as Jesus’ “Farewell address” to his disciples.  The story begins right after the announcement of Judas’ betrayal concluding short before Jesus’ arrest.   In a way, and somewhat stretching our imagination, we can argue that here Jesus’ speech aims at charging his followers to look forward to their ministry with the strength and power of love, once the period of formation with their instructor has concluded.  To be sure, while Jesus’ presence with his disciples will be transformed because at times we will look for him and will not find him since where he goes we will not be able to go (v.33); it will be Jesus’ love shared in his ministry with his disciples and the love that will mark their witness and faithful ministry with others, that will provide continuity with their teacher for; as the hymn produced by Peter R. Scholtes during the sixties who ministered in the south side of Chicago claims, “they will know we are Christians by our love, by our love, yes they’ll know we are Christians by our love.”     

Merit, Pomp and Money as the Criteria for Graduation

            Now you may ask what does this gospel reflection has to do with graduation ceremonies at LSTC or other places of theological education.  Well, let me start by going back to my earlier story at the University of Salamanca.  I was so intrigued about the protocols for graduation at the University that I bought a book to learn more about it.  The book is published by Juan Luis Polo Rodríguez and Jerónimo Hernández de Castro. 
In the book I learned that, while it is difficult to get to the source generating these practices during the middle Ages, throughout time they have been revised and transformed to reflect the specific role and contribution of the University for its public and social function.  One interesting fact that I learned was that while a primary goal of the university was to provide for the best educated leaders in the areas of teaching, law, medicine, theology and later for other secular and religious administrative positions, the design of their programs of studies was such, that very few students were able to successfully meet its requirements, or the costs for their completion, thus becoming restrictive an elitist in their character.  Merit, pomp and wealth became so closely related to the successful completion of a university degree, that a great number of bright and intelligent potential candidates, given their humble and modest background were excluded from entering the university. 
To be sure, I am not against rigor, discipline or intellectual pursuit.  In fact I am among those who completed a degree at the University of Puerto Rico, three others here at LSTC, and presently I am pursuing a fourth one at the University of West Indies. I also believe in the public celebration of personal achievements.  What I seriously question is our tendency to focus our celebration just on individual accomplishment, splendor or privilege.  For this and other reasons I believe that we can envision adding another rite to our graduation ceremonies.  

Formation versus Merit: A Criterion for a New Rite for Our Graduation Ceremonies

            Then you may ask, what could be the nature of this rite that we have not currently already have in place? We do grant the Confessor of Christ and the Community of the Cross awards as well as other public recognitions in our graduation ceremony that, rather than concentrating on the intellectual achievements of candidates, are focused in recognizing the love mentioned in the gospel reading.  Well, I still think there is plenty of room for improvement.
            A while ago our seminary treaded this road by granting a posthumous PhD degree to one of our candidates who, while completing the draft of her dissertation, died before attending her dissertation colloquy.  Her name was Prasana Kumary, a church leader from India whose witness of faith truly incarnated the love that Jesus Christ expected from his followers.          
            But what about those of our students who come to our seminary not seeking a degree, or unable to meet the requirements for such degrees, yet show diligence, commitment and promise and surely the interest in seeking a formation preparing them for one of the various ministries of the church.  A case in point are the candidates for the TEEM program.  In 1993 the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America affirmed in its church wide assembly in Kansas City, that for the sake of its missionary calling it was identifying and encouraging a variety of ministry offices beyond the traditional ones, which eventually led to the program of Theological Education for Emerging Ministries.  TEEM candidates do not pursue a degree program of studies.  Their focus is in a program of theological formation to enhance the skills and experience they bring as a gift to their various ministries.  We have had a number of TEEM candidates in our seminary and will continue to have them as long as our church remains committed to develop leaders for its various ministries.  Imagine the significance of developing a special rite during our graduation ceremonies to recognize and celebrate the witness of these candidates as they move forward along with their degree seeking peers to strengthen and broaden the variety of ministries available to our church for its mission and ministry.
            The gospel reading for this morning challenges us to renew our efforts in preparing ourselves for a witness of faith in which loves takes a central place.  May our gracious and merciful God grant us the will and imagination to focus in this love as the central feature we recognize and celebrate in our graduation ceremonies.  Amen.              

Text

John 13:31-35

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