On June 24, 2017, we celebrated The Seattle School’s 19th Commencement ceremony at Seattle’s historic Town Hall. It was a day that was at once festive and sacred as our entire community gathered to honor the hard work of the graduating students in our Master of Divinity, MA in Theology & Culture, and MA in Counseling Psychology programs. Here, we share the commencement charge delivered by Dr. Keith Anderson, President, as he challenges the Class of 2017 to boldly, dangerously, and humbly serve their unique altar in the world.
You are the final class over which I have spoken the words which authorize the completion of your
Graduate education. It is an honor I do not take lightly. On the one hand, what are you doing today is
Ceremonial.It always has been. Caps and gowns, colorful stoles, ceremony, pomp and circumstance are
the vestiges of the past. Robes are part of the history of higher education.But in an earlier time
in history there was something pragmatic about it all too. Robes were worn for warmth and some even
suggest the arms were long to allow faculty to place cheese and fruit so they could have a good lunch
during the day.
There is talk today about whether degree in higher education are a thing of the past. It’s
a fair enough conversation especially if all we do today is ceremony. It is not. In its
truest, deepest, and most dangerous sense, what we do here today is not only ceremonial; it is
Apostolic. We celebrate you because we now get to watch you go. Today is a sending that is not only
an ending, not only a culmination, not only completion but also something much more profound.
I saw a couple of you flinch when I said what we do is dangerous. Education as we engage it at The
Seattle School is neither abstract, nor isolated from life; we dare to say it is transformational. It brings
change that is bone-deep. What was when you first walked into the doors of 2501 Elliott is no more. If
we’ve done our work well, the already-formed person you were then has become more deeply
informed, formed, and transformed. But it is something more: you are the embodiment now of our
dreams for you. Today, in other words, is deeply embedded in the dreams this community has for the
future. We dare to claim it is missional.
Education, at its very best, moves from deep thinking to living justly.
The Irish Poet Yeats said, “Education is not the filling of a bucket, but the lighting of a fire.” Your diploma may be the bucket, but what you do in your life is the fire.
Today, therefore, is not the completion of mission but the commencement of mission; not the ending of something only but the beginning of something next. It is another grand beginning. It is the beginning of the mission that you will carry into communities, neighborhoods and homes.
I’ve been reading a biography of John Adams, our second president. As he thought about helping to lead the colonies toward independence, he recognized one thing of dramatic moment: “In everything one must consider the end.” In education, we must always look to the end, the outcome, the telos. As absolutely momentous as these diplomas are, we do not educate for the sake of diplomas—we educate for the sake of your apostolic calling. We educate for the disruption you will bring, and the grace and, I pray, for the discourse you will engender. For the respect you will embody. For the ability to bring nuanced thought and not the cheap and easy fundamentalism of either the left or the right. We educate to be people of grace and gospel. Ire say we educate you for truth. We educate you to be people of text. If you believe you have somehow grown beyond the wisdom and truth of biblical text, then we have failed in our mission. I call you to not only read the text but to live in it all of your lives.
What we do today is a harbinger of things to come—a preview of coming attractions: It is culmination but it is commencement in the truest sense of beginning. It is, most deeply an apostolic liturgy in which our community gathers in the holiest of moments to send you forth, in the name of Jesus, for the sake of the kingdom of God.
Elsewhere I have written for you graduates my vision for what lies ahead for you. I want to share only one part of that vision. Simply, put, I declare today that you are priests standing at an altar. Every job has a workspace. For some of us it is a desk. These days many in our building stand at their desks as a matter of health (or maybe as protest against the rest of us who continue to sit).
In the world of religion, the sacred desk may be a pulpit for proclamation or an altar for Eucharist. It is a holy place of liturgy, scripture, word and sacrament. For my father, the lithographer, his workspace was often in his car as he traveled to printing houses in and around Chicago to sell the artwork the lithographic plate makers created in his shop with cameras, cutting tables, and color wheels. For my mother, her workspace was our home, a kitchen table, kitchen sink, and household but it was often, ironically, also the family car as she delivered five children to activities, jobs, and events and cared for a special needs child. For some it is a surgical table, a whiteboard, or classroom, a tractor, plow, and textbooks to study agronomy and weather. It may be a laptop and computer link to the business of securities, government, finance, and commerce.
The poetry of the prophets, however, intends to proclaim that we all have our own “altar in the world” because God is served in all of the ways we serve others. God’s house, says the psalmist is the whole earth. God’s “work,” therefore, is not limited to what a few ordained clergy do, but what we all do when we are listening, paying attention, alert to serve at our own altar in the world.
Kevin Kline starred in a movie called My Life as a House. It is the story of a man who is dying of cancer, but only he knows his diagnosis. I’ve seen the movie at least half a dozen times because I’m drawn in by the emotions it evokes in me. He is divorced from his wife and estranged from his self-loathing teenage son who considers his father a relic of something long since forgotten. He owns a piece of property that overlooks the California coast that once contained a ramshackle house built by his own father. He gets fired from his architectural firm and in a moment of rage destroys all the architectural models he created over this career but keeps one—it is the design for a new house he wants to build on the site of his father’s house.
After his death, he speaks to his son about life in a voice-over: “I always thought of myself as a house. I was always what I lived in. It didn’t need to be big; it didn’t even need to be beautiful; it just needed to be mine. I became what I was meant to be. I built myself a life. I built myself a house.”
What his words miss, of course, is that we not build alone. Graduates—you did not come to this moment on your own. We do not live in a flat world inhabited only by us. We live in a house build, as Paul said yesterday, where the Risen One is alive and active—where the Risen One is at work to call and form and now to send. What that means is that our task is always to listen and look, to know what the Risen One whose name is Jesus is calling and forming and at work sending us to do—in the holy work we all are called to do. Hear me now: Each of us has an altar in the world.
This ceremony today will end as it should end—with our Dean speaking a word of benediction in the name of God, father, son, and Holy Spirit. It will end with a ceremonial procession from this place. You came into this place alone to pursue your dreams. We leave this place together, as a learning community, which now sends you forth as the church has always done—with words of holy benediction: Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.