May 20, 2018
On May 20th, 2018, Sarah B. Drummond offered the sermon during Yale Divinity School’s Commencement Worship. The transcript of her remarks is below. A link to a video of the entire service is provided at the bottom of this page.
Sarah B. Drummond
Acts 2: 1-4, 12-21
When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”
But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them: ‘Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:
“In the last days it will be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
and your old men shall dream dreams.
Even upon my slaves, both men and women,
in those days I will pour out my Spirit;
and they shall prophesy.
And I will show portents in the heaven above
and signs on the earth below,
blood, and fire, and smoky mist.
The sun shall be turned to darkness
and the moon to blood,
before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day.
Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”
Good afternoon. It’s my honor and privilege to be among the first to congratulate you, the Yale Divinity School Class of 2018, on the accomplishments and hard work that have led you to this series of Commencement celebrations. The party is just getting started.
Let us pray. “Holy God, may the words of my mouth, and the meditations of all our hearts, be acceptable in your sight. For you are our rock, and our Redeemer. Amen.”
Let this be known to you! And listen to what I say! (Shouting: repeat once or twice)
I mean, who talks like that? At the Pentecost, Peter did.
Peter talks “like that” when he addresses the crowd who heard Jesus’ followers speaking in tongues and assumed they were drunk. Starting a sermon like you start a fight was a common practice in the Book of Acts and probably in the rhetorical strategies of the earliest Christian evangelists. This afternoon, I’ll reflect with you on Peter’s insistence that the crowd listen to him despite their skepticism about the disciples’ outward exuberance. I’ll ask what his insistence that his hearers take the Gospel seriously has to do with us at Yale Divinity School.
As you both heard and experienced, our text this afternoon tells the story of the birth of the Holy Spirit as described by Luke in the Book of Acts. I chose it with no small amount of hesitation. Today is the feast of the Pentecost, so this reading is appointed in the Common Lectionary… and that’s true for graduation worship fairly often. I worried that dozens of previous graduation worship services have included it, and that those who come to graduation annually, like the faculty, would get bored (eye faculty). I went for it, as you see, and I did so for several reasons:
First, none of you (gesture to students) has graduated from YDS before, so if this text has been overused at previous graduations, you don’t care… and this service is for you. Second, we can’t miss Pentecost, and I can only imagine that not every one of you graduation revelers made it to church this morning, unless you were looking for the hair of the dog. Third, who are we kidding? No one remembers sermons around Commencement festivities anyhow.
Or do they? As I got thinking about my own assertion that no one remembers graduation speeches, it occurred to me that I actually do; not all of them, but many, and I’ve gone to lots of graduations. One I remember particularly clearly is the first I ever heard.
My sister graduated from our high school, Suffield Academy, two years before I did, and her graduation was the first I attended. I don’t know the speaker’s name, but I remember she was the president of a higher educational institution. She was short and looked huggable and kind, which contrasted beautifully with her somber black robe and velvet tam. Her message was about a typical graduation address topic – taking risks – and I was impressed by her affectionate and warm tone. One of the kinds of risks she promoted was this: “Talk to a nerd.” That advice became sealed in my mind and influenced the way I went through high school.
I know what you might be thinking: Of course that was meaningful advice to you, Sarah, you were a nerd and you were thinking her advice might get people to talk to you. But that’s not true: I wasn’t a nerd in the caste system of high school in the 1980s. The stereotype I dreaded and fought in the corridors of Suffield Academy was much, much worse. I lived in fear of being labeled a “Suze.” Suze as in Suzy Suffield. Suzy and Sammy Suffield were the two seniors named in the Suffield Yearbook to have the most school spirit. In those days of unquestioned gender binaries and sexist double-standards – so very different from today – Sammy Suffield was the athletic, charming class president, whose picture was on the cover of the admissions brochure. Suzy Suffield was condemned to social death.
I’d rather have been labeled a nerd. Nerds were fine. If we’re to define nerds as focused enthusiasts with special knowledge, nerds did quite well for themselves. Today my nerd-friends from high school are filthy rich. Those labeled Suzy Suffield, however, lacked depth. Were she thoughtful at all, how could she be so damned happy all the time? Where’s the adolescent angst, suspicion of those with authority, distrust of institutions? At least nerds have an internal compass: their interests and avocations. The school spirit associated with a Suze was of the brainwashed variety. A Suze is oblivious to her role as a cog in a machine. She swallows a narrative and then spews it on others. She poses for a selfie with the school mascot under the gaze of the panopticon. In the end, I worried for nothing. I wasn’t voted Suzy Suffield. My friend Rose edged me out, and for that I remain eternally grateful to her.
The disciples gathered in an upper room to figure out what they were going to do next after Jesus ascended into heaven. They were scared and sad. The Holy Spirit rushed in on them, disrupted what they thought to be their agenda, and set them speaking in tongues. To some out on the street their words sounded like the gibberish we expect from a drunk. But others heard their own languages: Babel in-reverse. The disciples received divine inspiration – in spiritus.
You, graduates, came to this place through conscious planning. You worked hard in your previous studies and life’s work, and you persuaded the admissions committee that you had something to offer this community of learners. You were also visited by a spirit. There was something in you that wanted and needed to be here that went beyond your goals and into a realm you don’t fully understand. Similarly, you studied and worked hard and earned rewards here, as any graduate student might. Alongside your achievements, the spirit that drove you here walked with you and shaped you in ways you couldn’t have achieved on your own. Both your accolades on-paper and your spiritual transformation matter and are to be taken seriously.
Over the course of these days, you’re likely to hear one question again and again: What are you doing after you graduate? Are you already sick of that one? After you graduate and move out into the world, you’ll get a different question: people will hear you got a degree from Yale Divinity School and ask, What was that like? Most people haven’t gone to divinity school, won’t go to divinity school in the future, and have no idea what a divinity school is. They’ll ask the same question those on the street outside the upper room posed about the strange noises they heard: What does this mean?
At that point, you’ll have a choice. You can act like the typical Ivy League graduate and downplay your accomplishments. In humility, you can make it sound like it was no big deal. You might say cynical words, because inside the academy you might have picked up the bad habit of sounding mean or miserable in an attempt to sound smart. Only the insufficiently intellectual are gung ho about their alma maters, right? You aren’t thrilled about the idea of coming across like a nerd, but you definitely don’t want to be a Suze.
I hate to be the one to break it to you, but you’re already nerds. If you don’t think you fall into that category, those of you who have family and friends here to witness your graduation will be happy to set you straight afterward. When you talk with your YDS classmates, you get a false sense of non-nerd-dom. You talk about popular culture and feminist theology and Biblical hermeneutics and where you want to go for dinner in a seamless way that causes you to feel like a normal person. But you might have noticed by now that those from whom you came listen to what you say about theology with quizzical looks on their faces. I’m sure that everybody you know and love outside YDS can think of a time when you attempted to explain something that you’d learned in this place without regard for how exquisitely uninteresting the idea was to them (can I get an Amen?). (Pointing to graduates) Nerd, nerd, nerd.
You’re already nerds. I’m encouraging you to go a step further and build for yourself a narrative of school spirit. Watch and imitate Peter, the rock on which the Christian church would stand. He demands to be taken seriously. He tells those who dismiss him as a drunk, “Listen to what I say.” He raises his voice; he “let it be known” that the disciples mean business.
Over the decades since I heard my first graduation address, I’ve learned a lot about the difference between a nerd and a Suze. I’ve come to appreciate school spirit as something much more than boosterism. A Suze examines nothing and tries to indoctrinate others into a blind acceptance of structures built to oppress, whereas one with school spirit has a more complex and less comfortable awareness behind their enthusiasm. School spirit isn’t mindless cheer, and it’s not the pretentious pooh-pooh of the self-proclaimed intellectual who’s above it all. Embedded within school spirit are two related yet opposing forces.
First, doing school spirit right requires of us a broken heart. We can’t un-see the injustices about which we learned in this place. We’ve torn down texts and all we thought we knew about that which is most sacred to us. We’ve begun to rebuild a new understanding with the support of careful and critical supervision of the giants of every theological field under the sun. We can’t un-know what we now know about the ways in which our world falls short of God’s imagination for it. A broken heart is the most appropriate starting place for a divinity school graduate to leave with the mandate to repair the world. If this place didn’t break your heart sometimes, and in some ways, you weren’t paying attention.
Second, and perhaps more obviously, school spirit involves a sense of wonder. Wonderment isn’t the same as cheerfulness or cheerleading. Wonder is infused with passionate – though not uncritical – curiosity about the world in which we live. A person with a sense of wonder makes everyone around them feel fascinating. It’s rooted in awe, a powerful emotion not to be taken lightly. When Peter’s listeners tried to dismiss his awe as folly, he doesn’t just rebuke them but throws some Bible at them, quoting words of fire from the Book of Joel.
Later in the passage in Acts appointed for today, Peter connects the Pentecost with Jesus’ ascension in a way that suggests that the arrival of the Holy Spirit was predicated on Jesus being gone. In a similar way, my encouragement that you embody a school spirit shaped by a broken heart and a sense of wonder probably won’t make sense until after you’ve left this place. You can’t see yet what’s happened to you here. You have a new language. You have to get out there to speak it.
When you get the question “out there” about what it was like to earn a degree from Yale Divinity School, the person asking might make a not-funny wisecrack about how holy you must be, and how scared they are to swear in your presence. If you tell them the truth – that this place is incredibly special – they’ll think you’re drunk, or, even worse, a Suze. Sometimes you’ll need to raise your voice and insist that you be taken seriously. Other times, you might just try to swear within the next sentence or two in order to clear up any confusion.
Either way, you’ll know the truth: this place is wonderful, and it broke your heart. It’s wonderful because it broke your heart. In the rebuilding you’ll discover inside yourself new capacity for love and goodness, and an unstoppable passion to share your many gifts with the world. For that I give thanks to God. Amen.