Religion and Culture

2008 Commencement Address
I am grateful to the class of 2008 for choosing the Torah Song from our Episcopal hymnal as the lead-in to this address, set to that haunting and rousing Hasidic melody. As it turns out, I have an Hasidic story to tell. I was once the rector of a small university parish situated in the middle of a large and thriving Jewish neighborhood in Pittsburgh. My church building sat on Forbes Avenue cheek by jowl with the largest Jewish Community Center this side of Tel Aviv. There were sixteen synagogues in that neighborhood, some of them affluent and influential, some of them just storefronts, a few just occupying a room or two in the rented house of a Russian immigrant. There was also a long-established Catholic parish in the neighborhood, along with the Sixth Presbyterian Church (this was Calvinist southwest Pennsylvania, after all), a Swedenborgian meeting house, and of course, in the shadow of the JCC, our own little Episcopal Church of the Redeemer.

The vibrant ethnic and religious diversity I experienced in my Squirrel Hill neighborhood was a hallmark of urban life in Pittsburgh, in spite of what you might have heard about the strident narrowness of Christian thinking now sadly ascendant in that part of the Episcopal world. Such ethnic and religious diversity was not without its tensions, but it also offered more than its share of amusing moments, and its joys. So here’s the story. Just a few blocks up the street from the Redeemer rectory a group of Hasidic families had demarcated the invisible lines that bounded the territory around their shul. They had strung up an evruv—an inconspicuous, all but invisible network of wires that linked and enclosed several city blocks. In a Hasidic neighborhood, you set off an evruv in order to create a safe ritual space where some laws of Sabbath keeping could be suspended, a designated block or two where you could push strollers full of kids on Saturday morning, or arrange to pick up your groceries. By stringing up an evruv, the local Hasidim had created a kind of virtual village—a shtetl— in the midst of rust-belt America.

One brilliant Saturday morning, a clergy colleague of mine was entertaining her elderly mother, an elegant, proper Protestant lady of a certain age who was visiting from California. My friend needed to drive her mother through the Hasidic neighborhood in order to get to an appointment in another part of town. As usual on a Sabbath morning, there were large groups of Hasidic families walking toward the synagogue. The women were dressed beautifully but soberly, with longish skirts and sensible shoes, their heads covered by a scarf or snood; the men and boys were dressed in black suits and white shirts, and were wearing their distinctive broad-brimmed black hats. My friend’s mother watched the proceedings with evident interest as they drove through the neighborhood. After much thought, she then turned to her daughter and remarked: “I had no idea there were so many Amish people living here in Pittsburgh.”

I learned a lot from my Jewish friends and colleagues in that neighborhood, as different as their religious lives were from mine. I learned about honest friendship, about the power of ideas and the murderous danger of ideology, about how the way of Torah was the way of life. Perhaps the greatest compliment I have ever been paid came from a rabbi I had just befriended. We had spent a pleasant afternoon talking about the ways that our scriptures and our traditions had shaped our lives. As he left he said “Thanks for this time together—it would be good for us to get together again for some lernen some time soon.”

“Lernen”—it sounds nicely Southern (“learnin’”), but in fact the word is Yiddish. To translate lernen simply as “learning” doesn’t quite capture its semantic resonance. For a true lover of Torah, lernen is not about schooling, it’s about a way of life, an approach to scripture that discerns the power of the Spirit in the all-too-human give-and-take of honest conversation grounded in the sacred text. It is a recognition that divine truth is revealed most plainly only in community and in relationship—in the communities we form around the sacred page, in the honest relationships which such community creates and fosters. Scripture reading is never a private affair. Authentic scripture readers are contradictory, argumentative, not necessarily in agreement, but united in reverence for a sacred text, inspired by God, a text that itself speaks in many voices. And just as importantly, such authentic readers are also united in loving respect for each other, despite their deepest differences. To engage scripture in this way is to create communities of readers who take a deep joy both in the text and in each other’s company, who in this ancient work of lernen experience a new lightness of being, as the Spirit of God lifts the conversation to the things of life that really matter. I have always thought that it was this kind of sheer delight in the act of reading that shaped and nurtured Jesus’ own revolutionary understanding of Torah.

“I opened my mouth, and said, acquire wisdom for yourselves without money; Put your neck under her yoke, and let your souls receive instruction, it is to be found close by.” (Sirach 51:25-26) One of the lovely paradoxes of lernen is the odd way that the Wisdom tradition, and the rabbis and teachers who followed Wisdom, both in Jesus’ day and later, characterized this discipline of Torah reading. Put your neck under her yoke, says the book of the Wisdom of ben Sirach. “Take upon yourself the yoke of the Kingdom of Heaven,” says the Mishnah. Recite the Shema at dawn—that the Lord our God is one God—because your first act of daily life is to take the yoke of the Kingdom upon you. Torah ora: The Law is our Light!

Knowing this, and knowing that as a Jew Jesus knew this, and that Matthew knew that Jesus knew this (isn’t exegesis wonderful?), you realize the power of Matthew’s polemic against the Pharisees, who have weighted down this joyful yoke with the heavy burden of rule and scruple. “Come unto me,” says Matthew’s Jesus, “come unto me all you who are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” You get the thrust, I hope, for Matthew and his community of readers—a community of lernen into which we have been invited by this morning’s act of reading. The joy of the Torah finds its renewal not in the closed circles of the rule-bound and proof-texting sectarian and schismatic mind, but in the incarnation and restoration of Wisdom herself, in the very person of Jesus.

“Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me.” But be careful. This is risky ground. Walk this way with caution. This same Jesus whose yoke is so much easier than the yoke of the Pharisees is also the troubling and troublesome teacher who admonishes his followers to leave everything behind and to take up the heavy yoke of the cross. To deepen the paradox even more, the very heaviness of that yoke, borne by Christ alone, has against all reason and expectation restored the lightness and delight of Torah joy in us, unlocking and revealing to us in the Word of scripture the very Word made flesh. In cross and resurrection, in the power of the Holy Spirit blowing through our midst, Christ is made alive and vibrant in us, here, now, as readers and hearers and doers of the Word, in the continuing discipline of holy reading and holy living—in the lively, contradictory, polemical, dialectical, open and open-ended community of lernen—to which all of us are called, a yoke which all of us now joyously assume as our own.

One of the things I liked about living in Pittsburgh so close to that Hasidic neighborhood was how matters secular and matters religious were at once so separate from each other and always so intermixed, especially in the rough and tumble of urban life. You can say the same for the mixed-up ritual we are engaged in here. It’s a secular ceremony with religious roots, a religious ceremony with secular implications. We’re sitting in what could pass for a high-school auditorium and behaving like it’s a church—and we’re proclaiming churchly things in the context of a decidedly secular ritual. You’re listening to me deliver a commencement address as if it were a sermon. Or are you listening to me deliver a sermon as if it were a commencement address? It’s all wonderfully confusing. And to make matters even more confusing, you are all to be clothed with a secular symbol of intellectual accomplishment—an academic hood—that in the context of the gospel we have just heard reminds us of the very kind of yoke that the rabbis and Matthew and Jesus talked about and celebrated. I had no idea there were so many Amish people here!

As we gather here in prayer and thanksgiving, and as some of you cross this stage, I suggest that all of us here try to regard these academic hoods not simply as the secular symbols of advanced degrees, but also as symbols of the yoke of the Kingdom of Heaven, the outward and visible signs of our shared commitment to the way of the Torah that is the way of Christ, a commitment to the act of lernen that my rabbi friend cherished so deeply, a commitment to the act of loving the Lord our God with all our minds as well as with all our hearts, and loving our neighbors as ourselves. Can you receive these flimsy hoods this morning as a sign of your lifelong commitment to the life of the mind in service to the life of the soul, and not just your own minds and souls, but also the minds and souls of all whom you encounter as teachers, pastors, administrators, counselors? Will the lightness of these hoods remind you of the easy yoke that Jesus has laid upon us? In all our academic achievements, can we learn from Him the gentleness and humbleness of heart that are essential to the ministry of teaching and learning to which we have been called?

Let’s be frank, there is danger in academic occasions like this one. I daresay all of my colleagues here on this stage have experienced that danger as much as I have. I will talk about M.Div. degrees in a moment, but those of us gathered here to receive certificates of work accomplished, or MTS or MACE degrees, or D.Min’s, or honorary doctorates of divinity, might also know something about this danger. It is the danger of spiritual pride and intellectual hubris, the conviction that our educational achievements have somehow set us apart, that in earning our degrees we have been inducted into some kind of intellectual elite. Of course, such arrogance flies in the face of what the gospel insists upon when it comes to knowledge. As Paul might have said, the more we know about the things of God, the more we know how little we know. Or as Jesus says in Matthew’s gospel, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and intelligent and have revealed them to infants.” When those of us who wear these academic hoods, who bear these academic yokes, are honest with ourselves, we know that our knowledge of God and the ways of God is all-too-partial, all-too-human. We long ago entered the great cloud of unknowing. As Paul once famously remarked to all those smart people in Corinth: “Look around you. What do you see? Where is the one who is wise?”

But there’s also another danger in this graduation ritual, and to be frank, it is a danger faced by everyone here with plans to enter the ordained life, a danger to be faced head on by our beloved M.Div. class of 2008. It is not so much the danger of pride (although no one here is immune from that particular failing). It is the danger of intellectual and spiritual complacency, of intellectual and spiritual laziness, grounded in the perhaps understandable conviction that once you’ve run through the seminary curriculum—once you’ve fulfilled all righteousness, once you’ve dotted every “waw” and crossed every “tau” in every last exam, once you’ve hurdled every hurdle that your commission on ministry or board of examining chaplains or senior thesis advisor has placed in your path; once you’ve crossed this stage and left this campus—then enough is enough, and from here on out all you need to know is Jesus. In your parishes and in the wider church you will encounter many people who will tell you this, especially when you want to take some Sabbath time to read, to learn, to reconsider, and to cultivate the seeds that have been planted here. There will be many experiences in your ordained life where a deep resistance to learning will make itself felt. You will feel it in a popular culture increasingly hostile to the educated mind. You will feel it in a political culture where strident voices pillory knowledge and expertise as somehow undemocratic and elitist. You will feel it in a religious culture where the give-and-take of the intellectual life is perceived as an alien threat to people of faith. My hope and prayer for you as you enter the ordained life is that you will steadily resist such know-nothing religion, that you will wear the yoke of your continuing learning with passion and determination, and that you will demonstrate to your parishioners and to the larger world that the love of learning and the desire for God are one and the same love, and a life-long enterprise—an enterprise that as teacher and pastor and priest you seek to share with those you serve.

In keeping with my Hasidic theme, I considered ending this talk with a quotation in praise of Torah from the Zohar, that wonderfully bizarre 14th-century compendium of Jewish mystical texts. The author imagines the Torah as a beautiful and attractive woman (like Wisdom herself in the tradition) “disclosing her innermost secrets only to those who love her.” The kabbalistic imagination gets a little erotic and steamy at this point, so I will spare you the details. Let me end on a slightly less sexist note, with a text dating from the same period, but landing perhaps a bit closer to home. It is late in Dante’s Purgatorio. The shade of Vergil is taking his leave of Dante the pilgrim, whom he has guided through all the circles of hell, and now almost to the top of the seven storey purgatorial mountain. The have braved and endured the circles of pride and anger, wrath and sloth—qualities Dante recognized as all too familiar in himself, as they are all to familiar in the lives of us academics, bishops and priests. But Dante’s purgatory is not about punishment. It is about conversion of life. Counter to all the theological assumptions of his day, Dante doesn’t imagine purgatory as a vengeful cauldron of fire filled with suffering souls. Dante re-imagines purgatory as a vast theme-park of conversion, a magic mountain of repentance, full of poets and artists and musicians and princes and scholars, with the Earthly Paradise itself accessible to the redeemed and chastened soul that has reached the mountain’s peak. As an unbelieving pagan, Vergil knows that he cannot himself cross into the sacred precincts of a restored Eden. His time as teacher, counselor and mentor is drawing to a close:

…The temporal fire and the eternal
You have seen, my son, and now come to a place
In which, unaided, I can see no farther.

I have brought you here with intellect and skill.
From now on take your pleasure as your guide.
You are free of the steep way, and free of the narrow.

Look at the sun shining before you,
Look at the fresh grasses, flowers and trees
Which here the earth produces of itself.
No longer wait for word or sign from me.
Your will is free, upright and sound.
Not to act as it chooses is unworthy:
Over yourself I crown and miter you.

(Purgatorio xxvii, 127-142; Hollander translation)

As valedictories go, that’s about as good as it gets, and so on behalf of my colleagues in the seminary I now offer it to you. As you leave this place (which may well have felt a bit like purgatory to some of you!), we cannot promise you, as Vergil promised Dante, entry into any sort of earthly paradise. None of us sitting on this stage has any illusions about the church on that score. Nor can we offer you crown and miter, which should come as some relief to the two primates who honor us by their presence here today. These flimsy academic hoods must suffice: poor things, but our own. We hope you won’t forget us, but our work here is done. No longer wait for word or sign from us. Go from this place, bearing the yoke of the Kingdom of Heaven with humility, intelligence and grace:

They who have ears to hear the message,
they who have ears, then let them hear.
They who would hear the way of wisdom,
let them hear God’s word…

…from you.

Godspeed and God bless you all.

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