McKinney delivers final chapel sermon as PSR president

May 13, 2010

Retiring PSR president Bill McKinney, and chair of the PSR board of trustees Sharon MacArthur delivered a dialogue sermon reflecting on the past, present, and future of PSR. Below is the transcript.  

You can hear the audio recording of the sermon here.

Dialogue Reflections on the PSR Founders’ Hymn

  • Bill McKinney, PSR President and Professor of American Religion
  • Sharon Lee MacArthur, Chair of the PSR Board of Trustees, Senior Minister, Sycamore Congregational Church, UCC

PSR Founders’ Hymn

O God, above the drifting years,
The shrines our parents founded stand
And where the higher gain appears
We trace the working of thy hand.

From out their tireless prayer and toil
Emerge the gifts that time has proved,
And seed laid deep in sacred soil
Yields harvests rich in lasting good.

The torch of their devotion lent
Lightens the dark that round us lies
Help us to pass it on unspent
Until the dawn lights up the skies.

Fill thou our hearts with faith like theirs
Who served the days they could not see
And give us grace, through ampler years
To build the kingdom yet to be.

--John Wright Buckham (1916)

Bill McKinney: It feels kind of strange being up here for something other than opening chapel. I should welcome all the new students.

One of my favorite philosophers is a fellow named Dan Quisenberry. Anybody know the work of Quisenberry? ... Dan Quisenberry pitched for the Kansas City Royals. A reporter asked Quisenberry what the future would look like and the baseball pitcher responded that "the future is a lot like the present, only longer."

Well, if Dan Quisenberry was right, then Isaiah was wrong.  I have tried to take very seriously throughout my life the promise that appears in Isaiah 43. I’ve tried to act as if what it tells us might actually be true. What if God really is doing a new thing while we are here in exile? What if the future is not only longer than the past, but different?  Really different. What if we risked acting as if the future will be as different as God says it will be?

Sharon Lee MacArthur: Bill, It’s something that anyone who is raised in an immigrant family understands. My father originally came to Gum San, to Gold Mountain, to work and make a fortune and return to China. His plans didn’t materialize. But when my mother came, she knew she was going to a future, for her and her family, that was really different – not at all like her “present, only longer” – and with no language to invoke “God,” she could only risk it all trusting that for her, her faith ancestors, the spirits of those who have gone before, would be with her as she and her family began a home in a new place.  She couldn’t possibly have known the she was going to have a daughter who was going to be ordained a Christian minister. She couldn’t possibly have known that she was going to have a great-granddaughter whose blood would come from each of the continents – from Africa, from Europe, from the Pacific Islands, from Asia. She couldn’t possibly have known when she came to this new place.

Bill McKinney: Our opening hymn asked, “What is this place?” And that is the right question. I have had the privilege of trying to answer that question many times in my time among you. My answers have generally been a twist on Isaiah’s words. I have tried to portray PSR as living out a “Tradition of Boldness.”  Boldness, for me, means living in a tension between realism and aspiration. It means living in the confidence that God remains faithful even when things look awful; that God remains faithful, even when God’s people are in a dry exile.

I admit that I sometimes err on the side of aspiration when realism might be more appropriate.  I’ve spent more time talking about PSR at its best, probably because I find inspiration in aspiration.

And so I’ve talked about the “foolhardy” ecumenical vision of the founders, who built this school before it deserved to be founded, and their decision in 1916 to declare Pacific School of Religion as “undenominational”--and I’d say today, “post-denominational.” Or I talk about the first quarter of the Twentieth century, when PSR’s commitment to the Pacific Rim became institutional—and if you look at the pictures of the classes in the hallway at Holbrook and you look at the 1910-1920 period, you see that about half our students were Japanese-Americans, or Japanese. You begin to see women and African-Americans appear in those pictures early in the first quarter of the Twentieth century. Or I think of what may have been PSR’s finest hour during the scandal of internment during World War II, when five of our students were pulled out of Benton Hall and sent to the camps, and PSR refused to remain silent. Its president, its dean, its faculty all fought the scourge of internment and the mistreatment of our fellow American citizens. PSR started libraries in the camps and awarded degrees to its graduates who were forced to stay there. I think of 1948 when Buell Gallagher, who was an ethics professor here, running for Congress as a socialist, and getting 48 percent of the votes. (And getting his job back after the Board fired him.) I think of the bold act in 1950, when PSR called Georgia Harkness to our faculty as the first tenured woman in American theological education to serve as a faculty member; and she came here proudly with her partner Verna Miller and they lived openly on this campus. In 1961, PSR joined GTU and gave up its doctoral program and its library, the shining jewels of theological education on the West Coast. We did that because we knew and ecumenical future was a PSR future. I think of the witness of Bob Brown – Robert McAfee Brown— in the 1960’s and 70’s, his leadership in the Civil Rights movement and the protest against Vietnam, and in the bringing of Liberation Theology from Latin America to Berkeley. In the same decade, pioneers like Archie Smith, Karen Lebacqz, Roy Sano, and Barbara Brown Zikmund added luster to this faculty. Or Bill Johnson in 1971, standing up in D’Autrement and saying “I’m gay and I’m not going to hide it anymore,” the first openly gay person ordained to a mainline Protestant ministry. That’s audacious. It’s aspirational.  

Sharon Lee MacArthur: Yes it is. Those are huge milestones, and things of which we are very very proud. But don’t forget all the little things that inform folks about this boldness that we’re talking about. There were many people from my community, from Berkeley Chinese Community Church, and also from Sycamore United Church of Churst, the church that I was called to serve who came to my graduation, to the commencement ceremony. Many had never been to a PSR function, let alone a commencement. That year we began the ceremony with the ringing of a bell in the tradition of Buddhist worship.

That ritual spoke volumes to my communities. They got it! That PSR was not like any seminary they had imagined. They knew it was a Christian seminary, nondenominational (or post-denominational) but now they knew it was one that honored faith traditions beyond Christianity. A little thing like how we began the 2001 commencement began to change the worldview of quite a number of people and the future of their faith lives were forever changed.

Bill McKinney: The unique charism or gift of this place has been its willingness to be a bit out of step with its times. That’s been true from the beginning, and it’s still true today.  
We are called, I believe to live our lives risking that God is about to do a new thing, a really new thing that will transform you and me, and this community, and this country and this world, for our current desert is too hot and the current river is too dry.

This new thing does spring forth. Do you not perceive it?

Do you not see that new thing in the person sitting next to you? Do you not see it in the wisdom of those who are your teachers and colleagues? Do you not see the new thing God is doing in the support you receive from family members and loved ones and church communities and this community?  Do you not take hope in your own pursuit of the new thing God is promising? Do you not see signs of hope? I do.

Sharon and I were invited to participate this morning by reflecting on John Wright Buckham’s PSR Founders’ Hymn, written in 1916 to commemorate PSR’s 50th anniversary. Sharon and I talked last week and she said, “Bill, I find that hymn to be really old, and awfully ‘churchy.’” And I said to Sharon, “How dare you describe us that way? Sharon, you and I are both old and churchy.”

Sharon Lee MacArthur: Speak for yourself. I’m old but not churchy…

I plowed through the lyrics of Founders’ Hymn…And you know I really appreciate the writings and perspectives of John Buckham – talk about someone who was way, way ahead of his time. Then I realized that a poem attributed to Oscar Romero says pretty much what I understand the lyrics of the Founders’ hymn to be:

It helps, now and then, to step back and take a long view.
The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts,
it is even beyond our vision.

We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction
of the magnificent enterprise that is God's work.
Nothing we do is complete, which is a way of saying
that the kingdom always lies beyond us.

No statement says all that could be said.
No prayer fully expresses our faith.
No confession brings perfection.
No pastoral visit brings wholeness.
No program accomplishes the church's mission.
No set of goals and objectives includes everything.

This is what we are about.

We plant the seeds that one day will grow.

We water seeds already planted,
knowing that they hold future promise.

We lay foundations that will need further development.
We provide yeast that produces far beyond our capabilities.

We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation
in realizing that. This enables us to do something,
and to do it very well. It may be incomplete,
but it is a beginning, a step along the way,
an opportunity for the Lord's grace to enter and do the rest.

We may never see the end results, but that is the difference
between the master builder and the worker.

We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs.
We are prophets of a future not our own.

Bill McKinney: Several years ago Linda and I spent a Saturday afternoon at the annual San Francisco Labor Day festival in Yerba Buena Park. It was one of those perfect Bay Area days: the fog lifted early and the weather was just right, the crowd was wonderful, we heard challenging words from politicians running for office and great, great music.
My sermon for PSR’s opening chapel was almost finished.

One of the performers was Utah Phillips…a radical songwriter in the Pete Seeger tradition who I had first heard back in the sixties. He spoke that day of the despair that many people feel but that he refuses to accept. He sang a new song about those who have dedicated their lives to building a ship on which they will probably never sail. The song remembers some of those who have gone before us building a ship for those to come: Sojourner Truth, Mother Jones, Cesar Chavez, Martin and Malcolm, Harvey Milk.

You can add your own names to the list of those who, in faith language not heard that day in the park, knew with their whole being that God is doing a new thing.

We may not sail on the ship, but that makes it no less real as a source of hope and the cure for despair. That’s a word for people who “serve the days they cannot not see.” That’s a word for you. That’s a word for me.