Prof. Mark Heim Offers Commencement Address

May 19, 2018

The transcript of Prof. Mark Heim’s Commencement address can be found below. It was offered to the final graduating class from Andover Newton Theological School in our Newton location.

Pilgrims in Promise

Graduation Address at Andover Newton Theological School 
May 19, 2018
S. Mark Heim
Scripture Reading
Hebrews 11:8-16 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV with some alterations from RSV)
8 By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going. 9 By faith he stayed for a time in the land he had been promised, as in a foreign land, living in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. 10 For he looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose builder and maker is God. 11     By faith Sarah herself received power to conceive, even when she was past the age, since she considered him faithful who had promised.     12 Therefore from one person, and this one as good as dead, descendants were born, “as many as the stars of heaven and as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore.” 13 All of these died in faith without having received what was promised, but having seen it and greeted it from afar. They confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth, 14 for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. 15 If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. 16 But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them.
       Holy One, what has been, bless.
                 What this present moment celebrates, bless.
                              What will be, over our every horizon, bless.
     One thing alone we ask—that our next steps may be with you.   Amen 
I am on a mission. I don’t have time to tell a joke or shed a tear. I’m on a mission to make the most of these few precious moments before your class scatters, before the last doors are closed on this hill, before the story we tell ourselves about all this is set in some kind of mental concrete. The mission is to bring one message: the promise continues. And the promise continues to be fulfilled in the people, in the community and, yes, in the living, continuing  institution that is Andover Newton. 
           The scripture passage is there to bring the message, to bring it on, to bring it out, to bring it home, that as biblical people this truth is in our blood. It is in our genes. It is our fundamental plot line. It is our family history. Today we are able to hear that teaching about being pilgrims in promise, about Sarah and Abraham’s faith that travels in hope..…to hear it not as an optional something that might be “nice to have,” not as a pleasant supplementary instruction that can be filed away for some future time of need. We hear it as life and death,  here and now, bread and water, the bottom line, the whole ball game. 
           “Abraham and Sarah went out, not knowing where they were to go…..”  
           The good news is a promise of a good place and a great people. 
The bad news to them was that the promise is not for THIS place
                    and no one knew where to find the new one.
The bad news was that the promise needs more than just these people
                  and no one knew where those new people were going to come from. This is our story. And the promise is coming true…because we can begin to see the answer to both questions—the place and the people.  
            Your graduation today is awash in more emotions than ought to have to fit in one event. Typically, graduation should be all about you—your accomplishments, your hopes, your families, your future fields of service, your encouragement. It is one time when aspiring, humble, servant leaders could legitimately say, for once, it IS all about you. 
              But you have to share the space with what today means for the whole community of Andover Newton—-the last graduation in this place. Those of us who would typically be cheering you from the sidelines are standing right beside you.   It is a bit as though you were heading off to college, and you are barely out of the driveway,  and behind you your parents are packing up the entire house, including your bedroom, to put in the RV, because they are leaving right behind you.  
              I hope that will make your graduation only the more memorable and the more significant. It forces us to focus, not as we might normally do on this day, on the promising members of the class of 2018 and what they may accomplish, but on THE promise—of grace and justice and hope and new life. That promise is the reason you came here. It is the reason that Andover Newton existed to receive you, and the reason people have come to work and serve as part of it. 
              It would be traditional at a graduation to tell you an inspiring story with encouragement for your future. And I am telling you such a story. It is the story of your school. And you are some of the heroes in it. It is the story of this school, this community, in the role of Sarah—“By faith Sarah received power to conceive, even when she was past the age, since she considered him faithful who had promised.”   
Two hundred years is past child-bearing. But we received the power to conceive a new thing.  And when I say a new thing, I am not thinking only of Andover Newton at Yale…I am thinking of the many new things conceived in this school at its advanced age—faith, health and spirituality; theology and the arts, border crossings, interreligious learning with Hebrew College—not even to mention the new things you have created these past two years…new forms of community and worship and support. 
      This inspiring story runs parallel to most of your individual ones.
                You have wondered how you could make ends meet and yet pursue your education, calling and mission.
                                     So has Andover Newto.n
               You have felt pulled and stretched between the different ones or communities who depend upon you, who have a rightful claim upon your time and resources and energy.
                                       So has Andover Newton.
You have faced an uncertain future, a changing landscape of church and culture.
                                                                   So has Andover Newton.
You have made your way through with improvisation, and creativity, and mutual help and support, and prayer.
                                                                       So has Andover Newton.
             For each of you there is an individual story that sums up all the late nights, the harried commutes, the stretched family schedules, 
                       the soaring moments of discovery and joy when in some class or some conversation or some pastoral moment you knew that this what you had come for, 
              and the crushing moments of doubt and pain that sprang up like sudden walls in your path. 
You can multiply that individual story by the number of  those sitting beside you, those who have shared parts of the path together. 
          That’s enough. That is more than enough reason for you to party in celebration and cry with remembrance  this whole day and night long. 
             It’s enough, but it’s not all.  Because Andover Newton is right there beside you, with its version of that same story writ large. 
         You signed up to study the biblical exiles, the pilgrim patriarchs and matriarchs, to exegete and preach about death and resurrection, to learn about the power of the spirit and the gospel that turned the world upside down. You did not necessarily sign up to become exiles and prophets, to live death and resurrection or to have your educational world turned upside down. None of us volunteers to be an object lesson in near death experiences. But if this is our story and our charter, we cannot claim to be entirely surprised when it happens for real. 
As I read this passage in Hebrews in recent months, the line that jumped out at me is part of verse 13 “They confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth.”  Some translations say, they “admitted” that they were strangers and pilgrims. The apparent solildity of our institutions or existing social conventions may distract us from recognizing what is always true—that God is not permanently bound to any human forms for the exercise of grace and transforming power.  
          In loyalty and in faithfulness, we preserve the places and the forms in which we have met and served God in the past. But there is loyalty and faithfulness also in the moment in which we recognize that we can let them go, so long as we can go with the one who keeps the promise.
          [All successful movements become institutions…..but institutions that no longer have the wind of living movements in their sails need to refit, to catch the spirit. ]  
               I want to salute you, the class of 2018, for the part you play in this story….and are not finished playing. I salute you for not giving up. For being the beloved community in trying circumstances. There will never be a class like you.  You have been, and are, keepers of this promise. This passage is about you, and about what will come after you. 
      Parts of graduation are like tearing up roots, breaking the bonds that have held you in place and the arteries that have nourished and sustained you, leaving raw ends. 
              My roots here go as deep as anyone’s and where they are cut, they certainly do feel raw and sore.   
             I believe the first time I set foot on the Andover Newton campus I was 12 years old, with a Baptist youth group that was visiting Boston. All I remember is the quad and the trees framing the edges that made it an ideal setting for touch football. I visited here as a college student for the conference on the ministry, partly because it was two free nights of room and board in Boston. I came here as a student, newly married, and later we brought our first child home from Newton Wellesley hospital to Herrick House. We came back to raise our family on the side of the hill. And when I look across that space now I see thousands of figures hurrying up and down Herrick Road, like angels up Jacob’s ladder—classmates, faculty colleagues, staff, students over almost 50 years.  My heart swells and my roots ache. 
         But that is only nostalgia. There is much sharper and deeper pain in the here and now.  I know there are many who have paid a stiff price for this change and the conceiving of a new thing. You have, certainly, and particularly faculty and staff. Veterans of the military have a saying that applies in its way to this situation. They say, all gave some; some gave all. 
         The faculty and staff who have served you, worked with you, walked beside you over these last two years, and have stayed with you to this day deserve our special respect and gratitude. I salute them, and I know you will want to that also with me……… (applause). 
      If parts of graduation are like pulling up roots, then other parts are like setting sail— feeling the wind suddenly driving you forward, overpoweringly, a little too fast for comfort or safe steering….and yet exhilarating.  
 That is the experience you are bound for now.    You are heading into ministry and service, and I can tell you as any graduation speaker would, that the situation of faith and church in our time is such that you will be challenged to think and act in new ways, to imagine and innovate, because simple continuation of the past is insufficient and unsustainable. At least, as I give you that advice, I speak for a school that has faced up to following that same counsel….that recognized that trying to do a new thing within all the parameters of the old would not work, and was willing to step out in the promise.  
         Many of the most profound opportunities for transformation and service, particularly with regard to our institutions and structures, may have this near death quality.    John F. Kennedy was asked how he became a hero. He said, “It was involuntary: they sank my boat.”  No enemy, within or without, sank the version of Andover Newton that I lived with my whole life. Culture, sociology and ecclesial weather battered it until it was too leaky to keep on course and carry the promise in that form.   
         Sarah and Abraham knew what they were leaving, but not what they were getting.  And we have lived that in relation to our school as well. We have lived a long time in consciousness of what we were losing, incrementally for some time, and then rapidly and intensely for these last two years.  It has been hard to say anything clearly about the promise.  
       So I want to name a few aspects of this new thing, this new thing that we can now say exists, not just as an idea, but as a real living community, the Andover Newton of the future, Andover Newton Seminary at Yale. Because when you receive your degrees today, you belong not just to a school of the past, but to this school also. You aren’t the last in a long line, but you are joining up on the front end of a new line.   It is because you have been faithful to your promise that you will have descendants, future generations of Andover Newton students.   I know that today….and I did not know it two years ago.     
           There is a moral in the kind of re-founding that we have gone through, that I think applies to many institutions and churches, many of the settings where you will serve. It is that you often cannot find a way to a new future by incrementally changing things on all fronts at once. It is only radical change on at least a few parameters that allows you to reverse the trajectory for the whole, to go from night to day, so to speak on some life and death factors. You can imagine and seek “new ways of doing things from inside your existing framework only so far. You must step out of some assumed part of your box. And it is impossible to do that without holding for dear life, with both hands, to the promise. In Andover Newton’s case, the promise we have held close is the promise to offer transformative formation of faith leaders for the transformative life of congregations and communities. 
   So let me name a few examples. 
1     We knew that in a time when so many churches and organizations face radical challenges, we needed to deliver a new level of preparation in areas like the organizational life and management of churches. But at the same time we struggled to maintain the strength of all our key traditional fields. It was impossible to do both. 
          For Andover Newton at Yale, that situation has been radically reversed by making available university-wide resources, including law and medical and public health schools. Specifically, the new Andover Newton curriculum will require some course work at the Yale school of management,  the premier business school in the country that focuses on entrepreneurship and management in non-profits. These will be courses like “Entrepreneurship and New Ventures” or “Strategic Management of Nonprofit Organizations.”  This isn’t an incremental change, it takes an area of our curriculum from “weak or non-existent” to “unparalleled in theological education anywhere.” 
2.  We knew that Andover Newton struggled to maintain and expand cutting edge resources for spiritual growth, for worship life, for community formation.  At Andover Newton Seminary at Yale, in addition to Andover Newton’s own weekly worship, fellowship and programming—-which mirror exactly the kind of experiences we have had here in Newton—our students will share also in the daily chapel program at YDS , the activities of the Yale Institute for Sacred Music, the center for Faith and Culture, the Institute for Youth Ministy, and a complete program in spiritual direction open to all students.  I think the simplest way to grasp this is to think of it as in-house BTI (Boston Theological Institute) all under one roof. There are programs and activities that are entirely Andover Newton run (but open to others), programs run with Andover Newton in partnership or co-sponsorship with other bodies, and programs run by other organizations, yet entirely open to Andover Newton members. This isn’t an incremental tweaking. It is a reversal of the trajectory of the available resources. 
3.   We knew that over time financial restrictions have meant a steady attrition in the number of our faculty, and so of the areas covered.  Now, to the Andover Newton faculty who have moved to New Haven, and those who will teach with us in some format in the next few years, we have formally added affiliate Andover Newton professors from within the Yale Divinity School faculty. These are United Church of Christ, Baptist and Unitarian Universalist faculty members who have been eager to play this role and to contribute to our community. And even beyond this we have added affiliate faculty members from the wider university. There are two of these so far, a United Church of Christ professor (and pastor) at Yale Medical School and a Baptist—one of our own Andover Newton graduates— in the African American studies and history departments.  From here we can expect that the  Andover Newton at Yale faculty will be a steadily expanding group, with an ever more impressive breadth of expertise and gifts. This isn’t an incremental change, a reduction in the rate of decline. It is a whole new ball game.  
4.   We knew that diminishing resources sometimes meant that things that had been crucial to Andover Newton’s past identity and life had to give way to help keep the whole project going. In this category, many would place the decision to drop CPE form the M.Div. requirements. Yale Divinity School, similarly, does not require CPE of its M.Div. students. But the Andover Newton curriculum has restored CPE as a requirement, reflecting our judgement of what truly makes for the best prepared pastors and leaders.  
  This is just only the beginning. I could go on. My point is not to make you feel badly about opportunities that weren’t included in your degree studies. My point is that you, with your faithfulness and commitment, have helped to make this happen. And even more, it is to let you know that there are now Andover Newton students at Yale who feel badly about the opportunities you have had in your education that they missed. Why wasn’t Andover Newton here sooner? They are wishing that they could have been part of your community and shared what you have taken for granted. 
               On Monday, Andover Newton students will graduate at the Yale Divinity School. They won’t yet have the seal or the separate document that marks them fully and officially as Andover Newton students. That won’t come until next year, now that our official educational program at Yale is officially in place. But it is happening in fact. Students who did not know about Andover Newton two years ago, and now proudly and unequivocally identify with us and are part of us, will graduate Monday. There are 94 of you today. There will be 13 of them on Monday. More than that next year. And the year after. 27 or more new Andover Newton students will enter this September. The chain is not broken. 
              Andover Newton at Yale has offices and faculty and—soon—a building, but most of all, it has a community and an identity. This next September is the first that students will enter Andover Newton at Yale with a full scale program to sign on to. But we already have a student body of existing YDS students who joined us and new students who entered Yale last year for the express purpose of joining Andover Newton, even before its doors were officially open for business. These students have formally signed up with us, and there are others who are part of our wider community of worship and formation.  How do they put it? The way I’ve heard it from many is that Yale is their institution, the school,  and Andover Newton is their seminary, the community of formation for pastoral leadership. They say they are students at Yale, and they belong to Andover Newton. 
Most of you haven’t met any of these people, but they are right now your fellow Andover Newton students, graduating or continuing. In a few moments, we will hear each of your names, in recognition and celebration. I want you to hear their names, people I picture here with you today:
            Julia, Tom, Nicole, Janet, Katrina, Victoria, Tyler, Tony, Martine, Jordan, Calvon, Mahogany, Laura, Peter, Sean Patrick, Qadry, Laurel, Julia, Olga, Maurice, Nicole, Tom, Acacia, Haywood, MaryBeth, Emily, Richard, Pearl, Kyle, Aleyna, Deniqua, Jonah, Janet, Andrea, Alex , David, Abner, Herron…..     
                I heard the promise, and I now see it. These people are the thin edge of a great multitude of descendants, as many as the stars, who are one family with you.  
                Two years ago, I was uncertain about this. But now I know for a fact that as you go about your ministries and work in New England (or elsewhere) in the coming years, you will be meeting ministers and leaders who are Andover Newton graduates from 2019, and 2020, and 2021 and beyond. 
              You have a lot in common with those people. As one of the Andover Newton students at Yale said, looking around the room at others, we are the only people who know what it was like before Andover Newton came and after. From now on, people will only know the way it is. 
              And you are the only people who know what it was like while Andover Newton was here in Newton and what it was like as it stopped being here. You are the ones who help carry its memories and commitments and its promise. 
   So I have a dream. It is a dream that your first class reunion not wait for five years. It is a dream that you hold it this fall, and that many of you, and many from last year’s graduating class, and others, will gather with us at Convocation in October in New Haven. I dream of seeing you there current Andover Newton students and the new entering class from this September, so that you can get to know each other. The Andover Newton at Yale students are so interested to know you, so interested to know where this tradition and life and promise that they have experienced comes from. I hope that you are interested in holding that chain with them.  
God’s people are to live by promise. And sometimes, when we have exhausted all other options, we take God up on it. All of you—along with those you love– have done that, or you would not be here today. 
            Andover Newton has done that, and so it will be here tomorrow. We are pilgrims together. 
            I’m on a mission. I don’t have time to tell a joke or shed a tear—-though there will rightly be plenty of both before today is over.  We are here to make the most of these few precious moments before your class scatters, before the last doors are closed on this hill, before the story we tell ourselves about all this is set in some kind of mental concrete. The mission is to bring one message: the promise continues.  It continues to be fulfilled in the people, in the community, and, yes, in the living, continuing institution that is Andover Newton. 
Thanks be to God.