Hooding Sermon WFU Div. School 2008

“Masters of Divinity: Servants of God Loving God’s Creation”

Isaiah 42:1-4; Romans 8:18-25; John 3:1-17

Master of Divinity Hooding Ceremony May, 2008

Craig D. Atwood


Introduction                All Right!  You’ve done it. You are on the banks of the Jordan about to leave the desert and enter the Promised Land. Congratulations. I want to thank you for asking me to be the speaker for this ceremony. It means a lot to me to have this opportunity to say how good it is to be here. I never thought I’d feel more at home in an ecumenical divinity school with a Baptist heritage than I did in a Moravian seminary, but this is a special place. A few weeks ago, I watched a young man give his senior presentation. The setting was his home rather than a classroom. It was a Thursday evening and more than two dozen students attended because they sincerely wanted to learn about ministry from a classmate. As I sat there, I thought that this was a living example of the house churches of the New Testament, and the raucous zeal of those who wanted to serve their risen Lord.

You are ready to leave here, but you will find that there are things we did not teach you. One of the things they did not tell me when I became a professor 14 years ago is that teachers go through a grief process every year as they say farewell to students and friends. We will miss you. In case you haven’t figured it out, you need to know that no one other than your families is more invested in your success and happiness than the men and women sitting here in funny robes. I cannot guarantee that your three years at Wake Forest have prepared you to respond to every kind of challenge you will face in the future, but we are sending you out in confidence that you will continue to learn and grow as theologians, exegetes, preachers, counselors, activists, and teachers. Whatever your specific vocation, you will need to be prepared to minister in a constantly changing world. The Dean calls that “post-modern,” but I just call it reality.

Masters of Divinity               This ceremony today is an event combines religious and academic rituals. It is an opportunity for faculty, students, and alumni to recall the greater purpose of this divinity school within a larger university whose motto is pro humanitatis. Soon you will be awarded an academic degree with the strange title of Master of Divinity. To be honest, as a member of a church that still uses the titles Brother and Sister, I’ve always been uncomfortable with having a parchment on the wall declaring to the world that I am a Master of Divinity. Not to undermine the solemnity of this great occasion, but it sounds like a children’s cartoon from the 1980s: The Masters of Divinity face their bitter foe Ontological Shock.

I’m not sure which part of the title bothers me more: the Master or the Divinity. Aside from the sexism of the title (although “Mistress of Divinity” might be too fraught with ambiguity), the word “master” implies you are superior to others; that you will have underlings and servants. But there is another meaning of “master” that comes from trade guilds of the Middle Ages. A Master was someone who had proven mastery of a particularly field of study or work. The Masterpiece was the work you did to prove you could be acknowledged as a Master of a discipline. This still applies in some trades today. For instance, a Master Plumber has proven she or he knows a great deal about pipes and joints. A Master craftsman has the authority to supervise an apprentice.

You were expecting a history lesson, right?  This history lesson helps us understand this solemn occasion. This evening a major southern university is presenting you with a special article of clothing that symbolizes that you have joined the ranks of the Masters. The hood will not protect you from rain; it proclaims your new identity. None of us can honestly claim to be a Master of Divinity, but your degree indicates you have achieved a certain level of competence in the study of things that pertain to God and to the service of God. You have learned and been tested in the skills of biblical exegesis, doctrinal study, theological inquiry, the care of souls, preaching, and leadership in the community of faith. There is much more to learn outside of this institution, but this Divinity School believes that each of you is ready to assume leadership in society and speak with authority about the ways of God.

Privilege and Responsibility              On Monday morning you will hear a phrase that we generally ignore as if it is the fine print on a contract. Your degree will be conferred with all the rights, duties, and privileges there unto appertaining. Rights, duties, and privileges. I know that it is hard for you to view yourselves as privileged at the moment. You have worked very hard and sometimes felt abused. You have a mountain of debt and a molehill of economic potential in the marketplace of modern America. You sacrificed a great deal to be sitting where you are, and you may wonder if it will ever pay off. Just keep in mind that a theological education teaches you to have contempt for the high salaries it prevents you from earning! You are feeling many things at the moment, but I’m not sure if privileged is one of them. What privileges come with a M.Div. degree?

            Privileges that millions of people around this terrestrial sphere are longing for. Whether you want to admit it or not, by receiving a masters degree from an American university, you are a recognized member of the intelligentsia. You are granted authority to speak on a wide variety of subjects and you have been given the keys to the further pursuit of knowledge. You have the privilege of pursuing doctoral studies or serving in any number of jobs denied those who do not have a degree. Your future will not be without risk, but they are not the risks of men and women who have little formal education. You will continue to work hard, but never forget those whose hands and backs are mangled by toil. Yes, each of you is privileged and will be more privileged when your degree is conferred.

            As the lay theologian Stan Lee reminds us frequently, with great power comes great responsibility, and that is true of your masters degree. This institution was not established simply for your happiness, although we are all concerned about your welfare. This institution was established for the good of humanity and the promotion of humane values in the wider world.  You have the responsibility of deciding how you will use your knowledge and access to knowledge for the good of the world.

As we ponder the title Master of Divinity, we need to recognize that that Jesus introduced a fascinating twist to this title. In the sacred writings of Christianity, Jesus teaches that those who wish to be great in the Kingdom of God must become servants of all. If you are truly to live up to your identity as a Master of Divinity, you must become a servant in the Kingdom of God. Or, as it says in Hard Rock Cafes around the world, “Love all, Serve all.” I cannot tell you what your servant leadership will be or how you will live out your potential, but I assure you that this cannot be simply a theoretical perspective that we discuss on-line or over coffee. With this degree comes the responsibility to continue to grow and learn. You have the responsibility to spend time in contemplation and meditation on the ways of God and the labyrinths of the human soul. Most of all, you have the responsibility to rise to the challenges set before you, and to contribute your wisdom to the healing of the world. You must continue to search the Scriptures and the Internet so that you make ancient wisdom relevant in a modern world.

For God so Loved the World One dark night many years ago, a religious scholar paid a visit to a young rabbi. Like many of us, the scholar was responding to the private urgings of his own heart, and was seeking answers. The young rabbi told him: “no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”  You heard this story read earlier in this service, and I hope you realize that the rabbi was talking to you. The Master of Divinity degree is not a ticket into the Kingdom of God. Jesus tells us that we have to born from above to enter God’s realm. To be born anew or from above is to approach life from God’s perspective, to take the spirit of Christ into your life and let your life be transformed. Being born from above is a life-long adventure and encounter with God. Too many graduates of divinity schools claim the mantel of being born again without living into the divine reality. Too many churches merely copy their society instead of embodying the passionate love of God for his creatures. John’s Gospel lifts Jesus up as the hope, the model, and the source of true human life. Eternal life is full and complete life; it is a life that begins now; a life that is so full of life that it can never be extinguished.

Jesus’ late night conversation about rebirthing is the setting for one of the most famous verses of the NT: John 3:16. These words do not exist in isolation, like a thunderbolt in the sky; they clarify what Jesus was saying to Nicodemus, the religion scholar.  You, who follow the law and judge others must be born again. You who long to enter into heaven, but want to keep others out must be born again. Nicodemus, you must taste true eternal life; you must be turned around and see the world as God sees it. If you want to truly live, to have eternal life, unending, ever growing life, then believe in the divine logos or the Logic of God. You Masters of Divinity, you must see the world through heaven’s eyes.

            “For God so loved the world,” the anonymous evangelist wrote. Many of you memorized this verse long ago, but pause and think on these words. For God so loved the world.  Too many times the Bible is used by those who hate the world to condemn the world.  It is so tempting to use the church to retreat from the world, but God so loved the world. This world we inhabit may have become darkened and subjected to futility, as Paul says, but it remains God’s world; it is still God’s good creation; it is still the world that God loves enough to suffer to redeem it. To be born from above, to be a master of divinity, is to live in this world as a harbinger of hope and messenger of peace. Those who are born of the Spirit, who see the world as God sees it, are filled with God’s passionate love for creation. 

Creation and Nature:             Our Gospel lesson leads us naturally to Paul’s letter to the Romans.  We don’t have time for a lesson on cosmology, but one thing that Judaism, Christianity, and Islam agree on is that God is the cause of all that exists. Modern physics, in discussing the big bang theory of the origin of the universe, sounds very much like the book of Genesis.  In the beginning, there was nothing, and then blinding light, and from the light, all of the stars and planets. It is both humbling and thrilling to realize how insignificant we humans are in the grand scale of creation.  How can a person be compared to a star, and yet we are loved with an infinite love. This is a pillar of our faith, and yet we affirm faith the midst of challenges.

Intellectually we profess that God is the Creator and that creation is good, but in recent years it has been hard to view nature as good. Blizzards, earthquakes, floods, and hurricanes make us question the goodness of the Cosmos. As you were taking final exams tens of thousands of people were drowning in Myanmar. Thousands of voices were silenced by an earthquake in China. How can we affirm that creation is good when we confront such tragedies? I don’t think we can on our own. We need look with eyes born from above, with eyes of faith. All around us is the evidence that Paul was right: creation is groaning in travail, like a woman giving birth.

In the first chapters of the Bible, God gives humans the task of “subduing the earth” and making it fruitful. That has been a task humans have taken on with glee. From the days of ancient Sumer to now, people of all races and religions have tried to subdue the earth and destroyed it. We have looked at nature less like a mother in travail and more like an adversary. Our machines have left gaping wounds in the flesh of our planet. We have drained swamps and marshes, built rivers for our own convenience, and tried to restrain the great rivers. We make grass grow in the desert, and can produce great quantities of food. We have subdued the earth, and proven that we are little gods, or have we?

With the eyes of faith, we can see that the world suffers from the ravages of human sin and arrogance. With eyes of faith we see that creation is in bondage to death and decay. This is the Inconvenient Truth we must face. Though creation is good, it is subject to futility and screams in agony and confusion. This is why creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God. Creation is waiting for the children of God to be revealed because they are the midwives of redemption. That is what it means to be a Master of Divinity.

Bring forth justice to the nations.                  Long before Jesus taught Nicodemus and Paul wrote to Christians in Rome, the prophet Isaiah proclaimed that the Servant of God is one who brings forth justice in every part of the world. Are you prepared?  Are you willing to teach justice and act mercifully?  The world is in travail, but you are called to be midwives of redemption. Lands covered in the blood of children sacrificed in power struggles cry out for justice. A planet in which the forests are disappearing and the oceans are rising cries out for justice and redemption. We see image after image of the travail of the earth that break our hearts and threaten to unravel our reason. We want to shout, but the prophet reminds us that the Servant brings forth justice quietly, without raising his or her voice.

            The true master of divine matters will not break the bruised reed nor quench the dimly burning wick. The Servant will not ignore those who have been bent or broken by life or extinguish the flame of hope in people. Wherever there are servants of God, the hungry will be fed, the oppressed will be liberated, workers will no longer be exploited, families will be strengthened, violence will decline, and songs of hope will be sung. We act in love and mercy not because of an abstract moral code or it makes us feel good. We do so because we have been born from above. We act in love and mercy because we servants who share in the life and love of God. We are servants of the One who called us into being and who has redeemed us from our isolation and despair.

Conclusion      John 3:17 is less well-known than John 3:16. It says, “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved.” The gospel is not about condemnation and damnation; it is about life and salvation for all. Too often we forget that in our quest for success.  Like Nicodemus we get stuck in our theology and observances, but we long for release from the malaise that afflicts our souls; the fears that leech away our love. We long for life eternal. This is more important than academic titles. Surrender yourself in faith. Creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God. Hear again the words of the prophet, thus saith the Lord: “Behold my servants whom I uphold.  My chosen ones in whom I delight.”

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