ABSW Commencement Address “Repairers of the Breach”, Rev. Margaret Ann Cowden, PhD

May 25, 2016 ~ ABSW

ABSW Commencement Address
“Repairers of the Breach”
Oakland Burmese Mission Baptist Church
Oakland, California
May 21, 2016

It was last November when Dr. Paul Martin invited me to participate in today’s commencement ceremony. I was delighted to accept and honored to be awarded a second degree from The American Baptist Seminary of the West. I know he looked forward to celebrating this great accomplishment in your lives. My thoughts and prayers have been with your whole community—the students, the faculty, the administration, the board of trustees, and most certainly with Dr. Martin’s family, as you’ve moved through your grief and all of the transitions that his passing has brought about. He will be greatly missed.

God has blessed this community with a gifted and dedicated leader in the person of Dr. Nick Carter. Nick, as an ABSW alum, let me be among those who welcome you with open arms. Our paths have crossed a number of times throughout our ministries and I know that ABSW is in good hands in these changing times.

My thanks to the board of trustees and the faculty for this great honor—and to my friend Dr. Marcia Patton for her warm introduction. I trust that you know that when you invite an alum back to a commencement ceremony, you run the risk of her scampering down the rabbit hole of personal memories and reflections on her own seminary days. I confess I have fallen prey to that temptation. One of Murphy’s Laws states “Where you stand on an issue depends on where you sit.” 41 years ago, I sat where you graduates sit today—well, figuratively speaking, since I was in the next to the last class to graduate from the Covina campus. I can still remember the tremendous sense of pride and accomplishment, as well as a deep appreciation for God’s faithfulness in seeing me through the arduous 3 years of study and preparation for pastoral ministry.

Today I “sit” in a different seat, retired with a 40 year ministry behind me, much of it spent as a denominational staff person for the American Baptists Churches. And I can attest to the wisdom of the saying—where you stand on an issue truly does depend on where you sit. (In the interest of full disclosure, let me also say that I’m sure my reflections are also shaped by way too many hours sitting in front of the television watching MSNBC’s election coverage.) However, with that declaration behind me, let me direct my words mainly to today’s graduates and invite the rest of you gathered here to listen in.

First, the good news: You’ve made it to this day! After years of dreaming about coming to seminary; years of late nights, endless reading assignments, more papers than you ever thought you could possibly write—you’re about to receive your degree. Now for the bad news: you’re not done! Well, it’s really not SO bad. The truth is that God isn’t done with you yet; or as our friends in the UCC say so well—God is still speaking.

As I sought to fulfill my call to ministry, I thought the world in which I did that was pretty complex. We were just concluding the Vietnam War, with the tremendous toll that took on so many lives. It was not that many years after the deaths of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.; Bobby Kennedy; Malcolm X; nor after the killing of student protestors at Kent State. The Civil Rights movement which had so shaped my high school and college years was now joined by a growing feminist movement—so much so that I was actually confronted by a student in the class behind mine, asking if I had come to seminary to preach the Gospel or women’s lib! The march at Stonewall had launched a budding movement for gay and lesbian rights, long before the more inclusive term LGBT was even thought of. And we certainly couldn’t have foreseen the toll that the AIDS epidemic would take on our congregations and communities, nor the schisms it would generate in congregations and denominations, as it forced us to face the fact that our families and congregations did indeed include gays and lesbians . . . some were even in our pulpits!

Finally, little did we know that the Church which we felt called to lead would diminish in influence over the coming decades—and on our watch–under our leadership. Denominations would shrink in size and funding; merge, reorganize or split over raging theological debates. It was not the job for which many of us had signed on. But for all of those challenges, I honestly believe that the world you’re called to minister to will be even more challenging.

As challenging as my years in the ministry felt to me and my contemporaries, I think you are faced with a world where religion has taken on a new profile—one that is challenged by a new realization of the power of religion to bring about great evil as well as to do great good. A handwritten note at a makeshift memorial in Belgium said it this way: “In the end, when you see what can be done in the name of God, it makes you wonder what is left for the devil.” Holly Near, a singer/songwriter whose work has spanned not only my ministry era, but yours as well, has written a song entitled “I Ain’t Afraid.” The lyrics go like this: “I ain’t afraid of your Yahweh, I ain’t afraid of your Allah, I ain’t afraid of your Jesus, I’m afraid of what you do in the name of your God.”

I wouldn’t blame you if you are thinking about now, “well, this isn’t a very uplifting message for a group of graduates, eager to begin or continue their ministries.” I do presume to have some suggestions for how you might envision your leadership in these challenging days.

Let me begin by cutting to the chase: if you remember nothing else from what I say today, please remember this. I believe with all my being that one of the most important commitments you can make in your ministry is to be faithful to the tradition from which came your call, while being committed to being a faith leader in a multi-faith context. That will require you to be deeply, deeply rooted in the Gospel, in the Good News, in the Judeo-Christian tradition which has shaped your calling and educated you in the prophetic and gospel teachings of the Christian faith. But I beg you to see your role alongside of and in partnership with the faith leaders of other traditions.

I chose Isaiah 58 for the Old Testament reading and Romans 1:16 for the New, because I believe those passages offer some insight into how and why one might address that challenge. Let me read again the words in Romans 1 “For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written ‘The one who is righteous will live by faith.’”

Some of the most powerful reflections I have ever read on “faith” I found in Carter Heyward’s book A Priest Forever. It was published in the mid 70’s as a theological reflection on her journey into the priesthood. For those of you unfamiliar with her, she was one of the 11 women ordained in an “irregular” ordination in Philadelphia in 1974, before the Episcopal Church recognized the ordination of women. She wrote these words, which have stayed with me for over 40 years.

“Faith is a process of being which embraces doubt. . . .

A need for certainty is something we cultivate. We want to be sure of things. Ambiguity is hard to take. We want answers, not avoidances; yes or no, not maybe. It is difficult to believe in that of which we cannot be sure. We have trouble embracing a faith in which there is room for doubt. But doubt is as crucial to faith as darkness is to light. Without one, the other has no context and is meaningless. Faith is, by definition, uncertainty. It is full of doubt, steeped in risk. It is about matters not of the known, but of the unknown.

But doubt is as crucial to faith as darkness is to light. Without one, the other has no context and is meaningless. Faith is, by definition, uncertainty. It is full of doubt, steeped in risk. It is about matters not of the known, but of the unknown.

Certainty is a name for a territory that has been explored, mapped out, and staked. Faith is about that which is still unexplored, yet unmarked. . .

Faith is a process of leaping into the abyss not on the basis of any certainty about where we shall land, but rather on the belief that we shall land. We do not risk without some awareness that we are afraid to leap. Then leaping, we tremble towards integrity.” (A Priest Forever, Pilgrim Press 1976, pp. 8-9)

As ministers, we must be as willing to bless doubt as to bless faith. It is the only way to avoid an arrogance that is infecting the Christian witness in this country in alarming ways. We are called to neither be ashamed of the gospel, nor arrogant of the gospel. When Paul wrote that he was not ashamed of the gospel, it is as if he were saying “I have confidence in the gospel, in the good news about Jesus Christ.” I, too, am not ashamed of the gospel. It tells the story of God’s saving grace and God’s power to transform human lives. It does not need defending; it needs merely to be proclaimed with power and conviction and with humility—recognizing that God is not done with us and that God is still speaking. It even needs to be preached with the humble realization that God may speak in a faith language unfamiliar to us—one that will require dialogue with others to hear and understand. The gospel is good news for the whole world and as such, it can hold its own alongside other truths.

In a sense, I’m issuing a challenge to a ministry of juxtapositions, the first being the juxtaposition of faith and doubt. The second I would suggest is the juxtaposition of personal piety and worship with prophetic proclamation and social justice.

Isaiah 58 struck me as particularly timely, with its attempt to address the issue of a public posturing of personal piety, while ignoring the call to just and moral engagement with society. While we may not hear folks boasting much about fasting, we certainly have been inundated in this election season with posturing about personal piety, while promoting some of the most racist, sexist and xenophobic proposals in recent political discourse. I believe that Christian faith leaders MUST take seriously our role in helping our congregants understand that faithfulness to our own tradition need not and indeed should not call upon us to denigrate the religious traditions of other faiths, or other perspectives within our own Christian tribe.

I love the imagery of the closing verses of Isaiah 58 “You shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.” My, my, my . . . the breaches you are called to address are legion. And one need only watch the news to see the myriad of streets in our own country and around the world, in need of restoration. How and where does one begin?

I’ll again turn to input from the 70’s that has grounded my ministry. It is a small book, just over 100 pages entitled How Are You Programmed? by J. Edward Barrett. (John Knox Press, 1971) How’s that for a title right out of the 70’s? It was one of the readings from my M.Div. training that helped shape my ministry. In it, Barrett tries to address the challenge of what it means to be human. He does so by discussing 4 personal freedoms. Bear with me while I share what I think is key to offering leadership that enables folks to make sense of this juxtaposition of personal piety and social justice.

The first is the freedom to be self-critical. He speaks of this as a uniquely human but alarmingly rare freedom. It has to do with one’s ability to look critically at one’s own life and assess what is working and what is not; hopefully informed by a perspective of God, neighbor and the larger social context. It is the means by which we recognize when we have been successful in living out the values we espouse or when we have missed the mark.

The second is the freedom to hope—that is, the ability to envision a different future, a future reality. As the proverb says, “without a vision, the people perish.” The freedom to be self-critical is of little use if one cannot envision a different reality, an ability not simply to determine what needs to be changed, but a hope that things can be different.

The third freedom is closely related—the freedom to create. Once one has made the self-assessment that change is needed and one has begun to envision a future different than the present, one must also engage in the hard work of making real that vision. It requires the discipline and commitment to not be overwhelmed by the magnitude of what is required, but to roll up one’s sleeves and set about the work of creating in reality what one has envisioned in hope.

But, here comes the catch. We all have enough life experience to know that even with the best of intentions, even with a deep commitment to exercise the freedoms to be self-critical and to hope, there will inevitably be times when our freedom to create is thwarted—often by powerful forces beyond our control. It is then that the trump card of the 4 freedoms comes into play. When one is unable to creatively change the circumstances of one’s life, one is still able to transform the meaning of the circumstances over which one has no control. In other words, the freedom to transform the meaning of the circumstances of our lives.

I firmly believe that many of the breaches between people in this country and in the larger world are due in part to our tendency when things get rough to find “the other” on whom to place the blame. When our own ability to bring about change is thwarted, there is always the temptation to blame another for our misfortune. We need only watch the briefest of news coverage to see how much that tendency is being fueled by our current political climate. How different that discourse might be if we found new and more effective ways to nurture a congregational life where folks grew in their ability and willingness to transform the meaning of the circumstances of their lives. Imagine how much harder it would be to sell a message intent on exacerbating the breaches—making them deeper, wider, more fearful.

Imagine with me, if you will, a future where communities of believers were as safe in expressing and exploring their doubt as their faith; where they were so deeply rooted in their own faith that they could hear and respect and even grow and learn from the faith perspectives of other traditions. Imagine a future where faith leaders and whole congregations are so empowered by personal piety and strengthened by meaningful worship that they feel called to be repairers of the breach, restorers of streets to live in. Imagine a day when a mark of true faithfulness to one’s own tradition was the ability to pray well with others and to build a longer table rather than a higher wall.

That would come about as close as one can get to making real the prophet Micah’s vision. “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” It is a tall order to provide leadership that transforms our churches, our society and our world to make real this vision. But it IS the call to be a minister in these days. Rev. Megan Rohrer has issued the call in these words. “Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly, now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.”

Let me close with these words from Philippians. “Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. . Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen . . . , and the God of peace will be with you.” (Philippians 4:8-9)

Margaret Ann Cowden
May 21, 2016