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2023 Commencement Address by Rev. Dr. Willie James Jennings

We Start Again

by Rev. Dr. Willie James Jennings

 10 He was in the world, and the world came into being through him, yet the world did not know him. 11 He came to what was his own,[a] and his own people did not accept him. 12 But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, 13 who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.14 And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son,[b] full of grace and truth. —John 1: 10-14

Commencement speaker in cap and gownat lecternI draw your attention this afternoon to that text from the Gospel of John that was read in your hearing. This text speaks of an extraordinary new beginning. And if there was ever a time when we need to think about a new beginning, it is now. My friends, things are falling apart around us. In fact, it feels like almost everything is falling apart around us. I know that there are many pundits who are bemoaning the collapse of confidence in many of our institutions. But there are some institutions that never really deserved as much confidence as many of us gave them. Please don’t misunderstand me. I am not against institutions. But I am less interested this afternoon in us thinking about restoring confidence in some institutions, and far more interested in this new beginning suggested by this text.It is a beginning that lifts off from rejection. We must always handle the gospel of John with care because of how it has been used in modernity to fuel antisemitism, by interpreting rejection poorly, painting with a very broad brush an entire population, and lacking precision in understanding rejection. The rejection named here in this text is of both a person, Jesus, and his extraordinary claims to redeeming the world and creating a reality of redemption in this world and a rejection those Jews and Gentiles who had already become convinced by him. Yet this is a rejection that Jesus made productive. My friends, there is such a thing as a productive rejection. I am not suggesting here rejection as the hidden will of God or rejection as some providential plan. I am talking about taking what has been presented, the cards that have been dealt, a situation not of our own making or choosing, and doing something different with it.

We have inherited a sick Christianity that gave us a deformed vision of salvation. It is a vision of salvation focused on control. It was born of white European colonialists coming to the new worlds and seeking to control everything and everyone down to the bone and the dirt. It sought to control how they behaved, what clothing they wore, what they thought, how they loved, what they loved, who they loved, when they could love. It sought to tell them what kind of family they must form, what kind of gender they must perform, and what is true, good, and beautiful. It is a form of Christianity woven with whiteness.

And as I have said many times—whiteness is not biology, it is not phenotype, it is not culture, and it is not a part of God’s creation. Whiteness is a way of being in the world and a way of seeing the world at the same time. White is a way of organizing the world, measuring the world, making sense of the world and whiteness is having the power to order the world, force the world into that organization. And this whiteness has been woven into modern Christianity.

But there is such a thing as a productive rejection. I have been involved in theological education my entire adult life. I have been a Christian theologian most of my life and I am watching people outright reject Christianity. I understand that rejection. With a political party that is 90 percent Christian, and senators and representatives most if not all of whom identify as Christian who together deny the right of a woman to choose her own health care needs, promote the proliferation of guns, refuse to address the urgent needs of a suffering planet, who promote fear and hate of LGBTQIA folks, I understand that rejection. In a country where most of the high income and wealthy people claim to be Christian and do little to address the grotesque inequalities in wealth and resources or this country’s poverty, I understand that rejection. But that, my friends, is not in my eyes a productive rejection.

A productive rejection brings us back to this passage. A productive rejection starts again with a Christianity rooted in this beginning that Jesus establishes. It says he gave to all who would turn to him a new beginning with a new kind of power to become the children of God. The children of God— these are words that have echoed down through the centuries, spoken by many religions, yet rarely heard in their power. And in our time, we have allowed them to become banal through the kind of Christianity that we inherited. But they mean everything. The children of God—they speak of a beginning claimed by God. They tell us of a holy theft, a glorious taking back of our lives from the storytellers who told us who we are. Who told us how we should be in the world. Who told us what our destiny should be. Who told us who we belong to. God took us back from them. God claims us—before any family; before the designs or decisions or plans of parents or kin; before any dictates of country or a people—God brings us our beginnings. We begin in God.

This is what our baptism was supposed to teach us. This is what the life of faith was supposed to make clear to us—that our existence is not arbitrary, that our difference is not inconsequential, that our voice is not random, that our way of seeing and being is not common. But we were not born to fulfill the needs of a corporation, or a nation, or an army. We were not born to be consumers or producers of goods and services. We were born to form a revolutionary life together with God and one another, where justice is our currency and peace is our way of life.

I am reminded of the story that the great Howard Thurman told of his grandmother, Nancy Ambrose, who was born a slave and who on the plantation was told repeatedly that she was born to be a slave and that slavery was her destiny. But she found a gospel that told her that was a lie. She glimpsed a Christianity that rejected that form of racial faith, a Christianity that stood against a Christianity. It was a Christianity that allowed her to start again.

That is the crucial question today, my friends, will we start again? The story of so many people who enter theological education, who come to places like United, is the story of people who have been rejected. They did not fit; they did not conform to the form of faith they were presented. They had too many questions, too much frustration, too many complaints, too different from the Christianity that were given. If theological education is anything, it is the work of helping people find a way to make their rejection productive.

To turn rejection into an art of living well with God, an art of forming life together, the art of cultivating belonging with people diverse and wonderfully made. This is the task we carry together out into the world. This is the task for you, graduates. To help people make rejection productive, to invite them into the upward turn, out of the pits that rejection has sought to place them. To help people turn down the voices that tell them they are outside the realities of God’s love and grace and peace. We are tasked with building belonging.

You can do this, because you have been given a power beyond belief, a power that goes unused much too often, it is the power of the children of God, of beginning, of new birth, and of new life.

I wish I could say that we in this country and the western world have already seen the worst behavior of Christians. But I cannot say that. In fact, it is probably going to get worse as some Christians are desperately grasping for dominion and control, even if they don’t admit it to themselves that they are in search of worldly power. And they will probably get it and unfortunately that worldly power will render up a Christianity that is an ugly and brutal thing. It may even collapse Christianity. But there is good news, my friends. We can reject worldly power. We can reject a Christianity woven into whiteness, aiming at control, fearful and angry. We can take hold of a different kind of power, one born of the life of Jesus, full of grace and truth. And then, (you know what I am going to say), we start again.

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