Christ Chapel, Seminary of the Southwest September 8, 2013
Welcome to the beginning of the semester and the new academic year. This evening marks a new start not only for our new and returning students, but for the institution. In addition to my own installation this evening, Cynthia Kittredge, our new Dean and President, will be installed next week and our Executive Vice President Fred Clement begins his first full year with us as does Dave Scheider, director of the Henderson Wessendorff Center.
And into this evolving matrix of leadership our new students tonight “matriculate.”
“Matriculate” is not a word we use often in other contexts—we don’t send our kindergartners off to their first day of school with a hearty “enjoy your matriculation!” It’s a word that can easily come to sound like a name of an event rather than a description of an activity. But to “matriculate” means to register or enroll and is related to the word matrix, which suggests the environment within which something develops. “Matrix,” in turn, derives from the latin “mater,” mother, and suggests a womb within which formation happens. So, to matriculate has come to be the description of enrollment in an academic institution, for in so doing we are drawn into an environment of formation and growth. It is no surprise, then, that we refer to schools from which we have graduated as our alma mater, our nourishing mother.
But lest we push the womb metaphor too far, we have to remember that the direction of formation goes both ways. New students bring new ideas and new ways of seeing. We cannot expect to welcome new people into our midst and not be changed by their presence. This, of course, is what keeps institutions from becoming stale or stuck. It keeps us slightly off balance because we know that no class moves through this place without leaving an imprint.
And so we welcome this new class of students and we look forward to being marked by your presence.
￼In our scripture lessons this evening we read of the importance of teaching, learning, telling stories, discerning truth, and passing things on. This past week marked for our Jewish brothers and sisters Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, the day of remembrance.
One of the central prayers of the Rosh Hashanah liturgy reads: “You [God] remember all the forgotten things. You open the book of Memories and it speaks for itself, for each person’s hand has signed it.”1 This prayer, interestingly, pictures God not as the writer of the world’s story but as the reader of that story, the reader who is trusted to carry the memory of all that has happened.
Israel’s history and identity is rooted in telling, retelling, and remembering their story. The passage we read from Deuteronomy takes place as Israel is getting ready to enter the promised land. The forty years of wandering are over and the time has come to settle and rebuild. Moses prepares to recount for the second time all of the Torah regulations that will guide them in the ways of faithfulness and justice as they create a new society. But before this recitation begins, Moses raises a question about the future. Or, better put, he raises a question from the future: “When your son asks you in time to come, ‘What is the meaning of the testimonies and the statutes and the rules that the Lord our God has commanded you?’ then you shall say. . . ” In other words, Moses already anticipates that somewhere down the line, someone is going to ask, “why do we have to do all these things? The Canaanite kids get to play with their iPods on the sabbath, why can’t we?” And the answer Moses offers to this future parent speaking to this future child is to tell them, “we were Pharaoh’s slaves in Egypt. And the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand.'” This is our story, this is who we are. And living in this way helps us not forget.
The stories of the past are not dead and gone but are the material out of which the present is built. Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi, who was a professor of Jewish History at Columbia University, says this about how Jews think of their connection to the past: “What was . . . drawn up from the past was not a series of facts to be contemplated at a distance, but a series of situations into which one could somehow be existentially drawn.”2
￼When our children ask, “Why do we do what we do, why do we live how we live?” The answer is to tell our story and to claim it as our own.
Yet, as with Israel’s story, such narratives are not always easy or uplifting or encouraging. The identity of the people of Israel was formed in a troubling matrix of oppression, formed by what Martin Luther King, Jr. would describe in his own day as “the sweltering heat of injustice.” The psalmist recognizes this: “I will open my mouth in a parable. I will utter dark sayings from of old, things that we have heard and known, that our fathers have told us. We will not hide them from their children.”
Sometimes the stories we have to tell are hard stories—stories we would rather not tell or hear. But as people of truth we listen to Paul’s advice when he calls us to resist the temptation to “accumulate for [our]selves teachers to suit [our] own passions” who tell false stories to satisfy our “itching ears”—stories about how the free market creates a rising tide that lifts all boats, stories about how violent intervention can put an end to violence, stories about how the pursuit of self-interest will magically be turned to common good, stories about how we can cheat death and reverse the aging process, stories about how meaning comes from consumption and boredom can be defeated by a shopping spree. Our world is full of stories that tell us what others think we want to hear. But when it comes to the “dark sayings from of old,” we are a forgetful people.
My wife, Demery, and I recently saw “The Butler,” a film that tracks an African- American family through the tumultuous times of the civil rights era. Forest Whitaker plays Cecil Gaines, who makes his way from the cotton fields of the south to the State Dining Room of the White House by becoming a butler for white America. It is not an easy movie to watch and like all such stories it can be criticized for what gets left out or what gets simplified in the two hour journey through 80 years of contentious history.
But after the movie I told Demery that I was glad to have a movie like this that tells the story of a period of American history that we might be inclined to either forget or romanticize. Through the vehicle of this one man’s journey, the film creates an opportunity to teach the story to new generations, like my own children, born over 30 years after the central events of this film. To some extent the story itself works best when it serves as a conduit to carry actual video footage from the civil rights era into movie theaters and back into our consciences.
This is one way we share hard stories with our children, so that these memories that are not their own might become part of the matrix of their formation.
So, students, new and returning, during your time here at Southwest we hope you will learn to be the keepers of stories—biblical stories and stories of the saints, historical stories, including those stories of conquest, oppression, and violence that our culture might like to forget.
But lest I suggest this is a joyless endeavor, let me remind you that Israel’s story does not end with “We were Pharaoh’s slaves in Egypt,” but with “the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand.” The Butler’s story does not end with the cotton fields of the south but with change and transformation, with new opportunities and an African- American president.
Last year Bruce Springsteen gave the keynote address here at South by Southwest. He talked about his life, his music, and his influences. He gave the kind of address that might make you think Rock and Roll really could save the world. In the midst of that hour long rambling tribute to Elvis and James Brown and Hank Williams, he said this about Bob Dylan: “The great, the great trick I learned from Bob is that he still does one thing that nobody, nobody can do. He sings verse, after verse, after verse and it doesn’t get boring. It’s almost impossible. But he didn’t write about something, he wrote about everything that mattered at once in every song.”
We tell God’s story, we remember God’s story, not because it gives us all we want, but because in this story, varied and unwieldy as it is, we find everything that matters all at once. Amen.
1 Cited in Dara Horn, “Articles of Faith,” NY Times, Book Review, 9/1/13. 2