Inaugural Sermon from President Brenneman

October 30, 2017 ~ ABSW

On Saturday, Oct 28, 2017 ABSW inaugurated its new president, Dr. James E. Brenneman—here is his inaugural speech (PDF of his sermon available at the end of this page):

Twenty-Four Words that Changed the World: Doing Public Theology at ABSW

Inaugural Address, October 28, 2017 by President James E. Brenneman


Texts: Deuteronomy 6:4-9; Leviticus 19:1-2;17-18



“Lord make me an instrument of your peace”  “Lord make Us instruments of your peace.” It is my fervent hope. It is my ardent prayer for those words of St. Francis to be our daily testimony as sisters and brothers here at The American Baptist Seminary of the West. Thank you Dr. Wilson and the University Gospel Choir for your beautiful rendition of this prayer and your participation in this sacred hour.


Greetings in the name of the Lord of Peace to all of you here today and those here only in memory and in spirit. To the Board of Trustees, Faculty, Staff, Students, Alums, special guests and friends, thank you for being a part of this wonderful occasion. I want to especially thank you my dear family, my wife Terri and son Quinn, sisters-in-law, Rosemarie and Sandy, and brother and sister in the spirit, Stan and Ursula,for your love, which is more precious to me “than gold, even fine gold, sweeter also than honey in the honeycomb.” Thank you for being here.



Those of you who know me well, know that I am a bit of a Lincoln-phile. I’ve read a ton of biographies about him, read his speeches, and make pilgrimage to his memorial most every time I’m in Washington, D.C. You can imagine how absolutely delighted I was to find out that I stand today in the spiritual lineage of ABSW presidents, especially that of  President Edgar Harkness Gray, who served as one of the four ministers of record at the funeral of President Abraham Lincoln.


Historian Gary Wills won the Pulitzer Prize in 1993 for his book, Lincoln at Gettysburg. He calls the Gettysburg Address, the “two hundred and seventy two words that remade America.” At a time when our nation was at its nadir in terms of division and strife, Wills says, President Lincoln in the Gettysburg Address “cleansed the Constitution” from its tainted original interpretation and from its built in inequalities. Before Lincoln’s address, folks would say, “The United States are a union of states; after Lincoln, in public rhetoric, we would forever say, “The United States is a union of the people, by the people and for the people.” In just 272 words President Lincoln told us what the deepest intentions of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence stood for, correcting long held interpretations of both without overthrowing either. In a sense, his words were not meant to abolish the law, but that through them, the law might be fulfilled. Sound familiar?



Such mind-blowing, history-shifting, precedent had already been set eighteen hundred and thirty some years earlier, when a Rabbi from Galilee, in just  twenty four words, would change the world. In just twenty four words, Jesus did something that has rarely been matched in the annals of history.  Jesus summarized two thousand years of laws, prophecies, and writings of the Scriptures into two sentences: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might (mind); and love your neighbor as yourself.”


In these twenty four words, Rabbi Jesus claims that all 613 laws of the Torah (365 negatives laws and 248 positive laws), all the speeches of the Prophets, every jot and tittle of all the Wisdom of the Psalms and Proverbs, including the gaps and spaces between every letter are summed up in these 24 words. I would contend, that Jesus’ claim might equally be applied to every inspired word of the whole New Testament, every dogma, doctrine, creed, and confession of faith, since.


I don’t want to take the time, nor do I need for purposes here, say much more as to the meaning of these twenty four words, as they are pretty straight forward: Love God and love everybody else, including yourself. Besides, if you pick up the latest issue of the Review & Expositor, the international Baptist Journal, dedicated in honor of our very own Dr. J. Alfred Smith, Sr., you can read a wonderful article by ABSW Associate Professor, Dr. Ron Burris, entitled: “Another Look at the Good Samaritan,” in which he analyzes these twenty four words through the lens of a speech by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. about reconciliation. BTW — the entire Journal is packed with wisdom and insights from ABSW professors, alumni, and students from a range of cultural perspectives on the meaning of public theology in seeking the welfare of the city. Matchless scholarship.


As we consider these twenty-four words for understanding public theology —  how we live out our faith in the public square — I think it is important to understand Jesus’ choice of these 24 words, why these and not others and, as importantly, from where did he choose them.


Rabbi Jesus was declared by his followers to be the greatest prophet since Moses. Isn’t it a bit surprising, then, that Jesus did NOT choose his twenty-four words from among the great rhetorical Hebrew prophets!  And why not from the great poetry of the Psalms or from the pithy wisdom aphorisms of the Proverbs? Or he could’ve picked a couple morals of the stories from the great narratives in the Bible, say stories about Abraham and Sarah, Ruth, Joshua or King David. He also could’ve gone back to the beginning and pulled out some of the profound lessons from the Creation stories.


Instead, Jesus chose these twenty-four world-changing words from what many consider, one of the driest, tedious, portions of the Hebrew Bible: the Law, the Torah. The first eighteen words come from the book of Deuteronomy, sometimes called the Constitution of Israel, which was already a rewrite of the law code found in the book of Exodus: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.” The other six words of the 24 came from the “holiness law code” found the book of Leviticus . . . “And love your neighbor as yourself.” [Those texts were read for us earlier from their original settings in the Torah]


If we have ever read through the Bible, I’m guessing most of us have more often than not skipped Leviticus, right? Leviticus doesn’t have the family drama of Genesis. It lacks the miracles and liberation texts of Exodus and Numbers. It stands alone as one of the biblical books with a horrible rap sheet. Rabbi Neil Hirsch even feels a bit sorry for poor Leviticus and writes a letter to cheer the Book up (I’ve adapted it a bit here):


“Dear Leviticus, You get a bum rap. They say that you are all blood and guts; you are the nasty little bits of the Torah. Your focus is sacrifice. Dash some blood on the altar, burn the entrails. You are all about sexual immorality and scaly skin infections. [You ban about seventy-six different things, much of it under penalty of death. And I thought Pulp Fiction and Django Unchained were violent.] You tell us all about the minute details of eating kosher. Remind me, is duck kosher? Why is it that we cannot eat Chicken Parmesan, again? [I kinda like all that guts, sex and rock and roll. Well, two out of three isn’t bad.] But mostly, I do like it that at your core, Leviticus, in your heart, rests the central moral tenet of Judaism, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Hang in there. Thank you for being you, Leviticus. With affection, Rabbi Hirsch.


Truth be told, I’m guessing not a single one of us who might understand ourselves as prophetic types, not one of us seekers of justice, not one of us radical followers of Jesus, not one of us champions of the gospel, not one of us preachers of grace. Not one of us would have considered or still would consider the books of Leviticus or Deuteronomy for our curriculum in public theology. Maybe Amos! “Let justice roll down like a mighty stream!” And Jeremiah! “Seek the welfare of the city!” Perhaps, Matthew 25’s “Unto the least of these,” or the “Blessed are the poor” and “turn the other cheek” of the Sermon on the Mount. But not, Leviticus! Not Deuteronomy!


I don’t have time to show all the ways why the book of Leviticus and Deuteronomy might actually be excellent biblical texts for framing conversations about public theology. For now, let me just rely on the fact that Jesus chose these two legal traditions from which to assess the whole of our public discourse and political action!


The ten commandments of Moses became the two commandments of Jesus. The love of Torah (law) became the Torah of love . . . the Law of Loving.



If I apply Gary Wills’ words about Lincoln to include Jesus, I would say, that

both Jesus and Lincoln altered the understanding of their Constitutional documents from within by appealing from the letter to the spirit.  Both Jesus and Lincoln “performed one of the most daring acts of open-air sleight of hand ever witnessed by the unsuspecting. They used the law to change the understanding of the law for the benefit of everyone!.” For Jesus and Lincoln, the law, when discerned rightly, could be a prophetic instrument of divine justice.


Eleven months earlier, Lincoln had already acted on his belief in the God of justice by signing Executive Order 95: The Emancipation Proclamation. But he knew that his Executive Order could just as easily be overturned by another president. So he worked tirelessly for the next two years to get the 13th Amendment to the Constitution passed securing the legal  emancipation for all time of any enslaved person in the United States of America. And it would cost him his life!


Soon after President Lincoln gave his last speech expanding on the extent of the 13th Amendment’s meaning, John Wilkes Booth, a confederate flag waving actor, wrote a letter to his brother saying, “that means ‘Negro’ citizenship” (only he did not say ‘Negro). This will be the last speech he’ll ever make.”


The great justice, Oliver Wendell Holmes, who fought on the Union side in the Civil War before being named onto the Supreme Court, advanced a judicial philosophy that we would all do well to understand more fully.  Certainly, Jesus and Lincoln got it. Justice Holmes argued that the law is prophecy! Just laws, laws that advance the freedom to love God and others do what prophets do, they proclaim the truth of a matter for all to see. And, as importantly, they set precedent, and, when enforced rightly, emancipate love’s justice to reign supreme in the land.  (see, “The Path of the Law,” 10 Harvard Law Review 457, 1897)



When one thinks of the great prophets of the civil rights era, one inevitably names Fannie Lou Hammer, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Jr., and  Malcolm X.  Prophets they were. Having said that, I found the opening lines of a biography of Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, truly remarkable in its own right: “Thurgood Marshall was America’s leading radical. He led a civil rights revolution in the 20th Century that forever changed the landscape of American society.”


Thurgood Marshall, the grandson of emancipated slaves, described himself as a “hell raiser” as a child.  His naturally argumentative nature got him in trouble, especially in school. One of Marshall’s punishments for talking too much in class as a child was being sent to the basement to learn parts of the Constitution. He was so obstreperous and kept getting sent to the basement that he eventually learned every word by heart. And the rest, as they say, is history. Thurgood Marshall went on to win more cases before the United States Supreme Court than any other American and became the first African American to be named to the Supreme Court.  As lawyer, judge and justice — he won more legal battles establishing equal rights for people of color than anyone before or since. He was a revolutionary of the law of love.


Martin Luther King, Jr., one of the greatest orators of all time, didn’t allow his voice to be exiled to the realm of prophetic truth-telling, alone. He embodied the prophetic witness of vigorous protest, direct action, civil disobedience to unjust laws and the need for vigorous pursuit of equal justice under just laws. In a speech he gave at Western Michigan University in 1963 he said, “To those who say, you can’t legislate morals. That the job must [instead] be done through education, religion [and prophetic warning]. [Which MLK, Jr., knew was almost always the excuse for keeping the status quo]. Well, there’s half-truth involved here. . . .It may be true that the law cannot change the heart but it can restrain the heartless.It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me but it can keep him from lynching me and I think that is pretty important, also. So there is a need for executive orders. There is a need for judicial decrees.There is a need for civil rights legislation on the local scale within states and on the national scale from the federal government.”


And I would ask here — just to provoke our imaginations regarding the binary definitions of what law and grace mean (especially in these days of celebrating the Protestant reformation) — are not laws that restrain the heartless, or keep someone from lynching someone else, not examples of profound grace to the potential victim?


And furthermore, I was sitting next to a social psychologist at a board meeting of the Graduate Theological Union GTU just last week and on a completely unrelated topic, though absolutely pertinent here, she leaned over to me and said, “Much evidence shows that often times, when you change the law or structures or systems around us, the heart will follow.”  Our public theology must work both ends of public persuasion at the same time. It might also call us to question our rigid dichotomies of law versus grace, prophetic speech versus legal recourse.



In an important sense, ABSW is a law school. We are here to train people in the law of love. We are here to train future leaders in the teaching and practices of public theology as understood by Rabbi Jesus, teacher of the law of love.


Sisters and brothers, the law of love must be won on every front! We need fierce organizers like Dolores Huerta, co-founder of the farmworkers union; and we also must have our Justice SotoMayors in the highest court of the land. We need more prophet-lawyers and dissident-poets like Nelson Mandela and Vaclav Havel, and we also need President Mandela and President Havel. We need Martin, Malcolm and Mother Teresa, and we also need, Rep. Barbara Lee and Attorneys General Holder and Lynch. And yes, sisters and brothers, we need great preacher-theologians like our very own Dr. J.Alfred Smith, Sr., or the late great Dr. Orlando Costas, or Rev. Traci Blackmon, and, we also need great lawyers, business men and women, civic leaders, novelists, teachers, artists, entertainers and athletes staking their hearts and souls, their strength and minds on the twenty four words that changed the world. Jesus swept away all other laws that did not bend toward these two: Love God (with everything you got) and love others as yourself.


It is a sacred honor for me to be stepping into this historic stream whose love flows down like mighty waters. The Baptist core value of “soul freedom” insists on our inherent freedom to make choices for or against God, no matter our religion, race, nationality, language, belief or unbelief. Soul freedom says Christ trusts us to discern how best to live out the law of love in Scripture over time and in new contexts including the 21st century. Jesus found the law of love in the oddest of all places: the books of Deuteronomy and Leviticus. He freely rewrote history in the process.


The law of love, as historically understood by ABSW, has freed us to create the amazing, colorful, culturally diverse, world house of learning we have become: by almost all criteria and according to outside assessment, one of the ten most diverse seminaries in the nation.  In this day of division, polarization, political infighting, religious, nationalist and economic warfare, and straight-out hate for others, let us never under appreciate the amazing grace guided by the law of love that is ABSW.



E pluribus Unum Deum!  Out of many, one God!. Shema, Yisrael, Adonai Elohenuh, Adonai Echad. “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One. Therefore, love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength and with all your mind. And love your neighbor as yourself.”


In furthering that glorious vision, I humbly accept the mantle of leadership of the American Baptist Seminary of the West. Thank you for your trust.



Deuteronomy 6: 4-9  (NRSV)

4 Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. 5 You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. 6 Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. 7 Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. 8 Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem[b] on your forehead, 9 and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.


Leviticus 19: 1-2; 17-18 (NRSV)

The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: 2 Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them: You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy. . .17 You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin; you shall reprove your neighbor, or you will incur guilt yourself. 18 You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.


(Compare also, Matt. 22:37; Mark 12:30, 32; Luke 10:27)



Inauguration Sermon_ABSW_Oct 28 2017