Friendship and Joy: Commencement Eucharist Sermon by Dr. Fredrica Harris Thompsett

The following is the text of the sermon given by Dr. Fredrica Harris Thompsett, Mary Wolfe Professor Emerita of Historical Theology, during the 2015 Commencement Eucharist on Wednesday, May 20. 

In the name of one God:
Who blesses us without asking,
Persistently leads us to new life
And joyously pursues us morning by morning, day by day.

My friends: this sermon is brought to you by the letter “F.” Yes, “F” is for Fredrica, of course! “F” is for fabulous Frank. “F” is for this exceptional faculty. “F” is for a fantastic staff (I think of you often and have held you in my heart, especially over the past two years). “F” is also for fun, the sheer enjoyment of this glorious, long-awaited springtime EDS Commencement.

I saw a picture recently that sets the context for this sermon. It was of Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu and His Holiness the Dalai Lama. They were laughing together. Why were these two spiritual giants, these octogenarians doubled over in laughter? These brothers had come together to talk and write about joy. If you have met or followed either of them, you will know that this project was bound to succeed. The ultimate product of their conversations is to be a publication entitled The Book of Joy: Finding Enduring Happiness in an Uncertain World.Fredrica Harris Thompsett

The more I reflect on this project, on the many dangers, toils and troubles in their lives, and on the pictures of meetings between these spiritual brothers, three characteristics come to mind: 1) Friendship 2) Fortitude 3) Joyous Faithfulness.

This graduating class has already exhibited these three qualities: friendship, fortitude, and a joyful faithfulness. Tonight I want to build upon what you have already accomplished and send you forth with these essential attributes renewed and strengthened as you face forward, as you write your own book of friendship and joy in the years ahead.

I want to point to the phrase “Uncertain World” in the title of their proposed book. You are not graduating into predictability! Are you? Whatever form of ministry you pursue, my hunch is your call, like Samuel’s, will not play out in predictable ways. There will be surprises ahead. Be sure to honor and carry with you what you have learned here about friendship, fortitude, and joyous faithfulness. Here are a few reminders.

Tonight’s gospel tells us that for the Nazarene Rabbi friendship (to borrow words from VISONS Inc.), is personally, interpersonally, institutionally, and culturally demanding. John’s gospel commands us to “call one another friends.” This is the ultimate nomenclature and relationship he extends to his disciples. These words also hold a particular poignancy as they are spoken, like this sermon, at a time of saying farewell. John was also writing to a community strained by struggles and divisions. Then as now, the Rabbi’s command to embrace one another as friends is essential for communities of faith. These words express God’s deep ambition for the disciples and for each of us today to experience and exhibit a deeper kind of love. If we do so, the Rabbi tells us, his joy and ours “will be complete.” Simply put, Jesus commands us to love one another in the context of joy.

These words invite us to reexamine the ways we sentimentalize, and in other ways underestimate, the bonds of friendship in our ministries and in secular culture. The hallmarks of friendship commanded in John’s gospel are using frank speech, speaking and listening honestly and openly, speaking truth to power, and risking one’s life for one’s friends. We too are invited to value, practically and theologically, the model for friendship lived by the Rabbi, the teacher, the one who loved without limits. For the sake of your futures, I urge you to cherish what you have learned here about friendship as you have pursued your theological education. Friendships formed here and elsewhere continue to help us know God anew!

That leads me directly to a few comments about fortitude. This is an old-fashioned kind of word. It is an apt word to apply to senior citizens, like the archbishop and his holiness. Yet somehow I like applying it to this class, this exceptional gaggle of graduates. Webster’s dictionary tells me fortitude refers to a “strength of mind that encounters adversity with courage.”  Speaking frankly, that is among friends, these have not been calm, “adversity free” years at 99 Brattle Street. I believe this is true whether you have been a member of this community for one, two, three, four, five, or more years.

Now, why would I—in a sermon joyously celebrating our graduates and their achievements—mention recent troubling times at EDS? Denial of difficulty too often holds sway in elite cultures and institutions. I have learned, especially over the past three years, that speaking the truth in love is seldom cheap or painless. (As Bishop Barbara Harris attests: “Denial is not only a river in Egypt.”) What’s more, I know that members of this graduating class have shown fortitude, that is you have persevered (that is, lived through severity) at the same time you were completing your studies. I and many others are grateful, full of heartfelt appreciation for your patience, resilience, and love for this seminary.

My prayer is that you will continue to put these qualities to work in your ministry locally, nationally, and globally. The brilliant African American theologian, Cornel West, asserts that two intertwined forces are undermining human life: increasing levels of poverty and increasing levels of paranoia (see West’s Race Matters). Anti-Semitism and racism are amplified; ethnic cleansing in Syria and elsewhere persists; recent reports tell us that Boko Haram militants raped hundreds of female captives in Nigeria; meanwhile the numbers of refugees and immigrants magnify exponentially. We hold people in tents and prisons for prolonged periods; and we build walls along the Mexican border and in the West Bank to keep people out! Culturally, ethically, politically, I believe we are experiencing a tragic, globally arrested capacity for friendship.

Clearly Archbishop Tutu and the Dalai Lama know the deep pain endured amid these and other tragedies. Yet we are told that these two spiritual leaders laughed a great deal as they explored what joy is in terms of happiness, love, and compassion.

I know that several of you (and I suspect even those I do not know well) also have well-developed, infectious senses of humor! I have, along with many of my faculty colleagues, loved learning with you. Our interactions have not only been intelligent and provocative, they have often been filled with joy. Heaven only knows, a good sense of humor (and not pomposity) is and will continue to be an essential theological tool.

Perhaps that is why we find Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama engaged in conversations about joy, connecting the depth of the world’s pain with balanced grounding in real inner joyfulness. Their book will be modeled on the earlier Book of Forgiving that the Archbishop wrote with his daughter Mpho Tutu (herself an EDS graduate). Who knows whether this book might contain some of their last words, their own farewell discourse to their disciples. Together these two global sages and spiritual companions share their hope for shaping a brighter future.

Following the counsel of Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama, and paying attention to our Lord’s invitation that his “joy may be complete in each of us,” please continue to ground your life, your call, your vocation, your ministry, your preaching, your service, and even your singing in joyous faithfulness.

My friends, as you write your own book of Book of Joy in the years ahead, know that here at EDS our prayers, and our abiding love, will travel with you morning by morning and day by day.