Two Big Questions. And More.

William McKinney
September 8, 2009

President Bill McKinney leads the opening chapel of the 2009-2010 school year, welcoming and updating new and returning students and offering reflections on Mark 8:27-38.

I have tried to avoid turning my opening chapel sermons into “state of the seminary” addresses and will continue to avoid doing so this morning. At the same time, change is in the air and I feel the need to at least acknowledge some of that change.

The most important change is that so many of us present this morning are new to this community. You have entered this feisty little theological school that claims a tradition of boldness. You will find that PSR will sometimes exhilarate you and that it will sometimes frustrate and anger you. We are glad that you are here.

We have a new Dean! Professor Mary Tolbert has agreed to serve a two year term and is off to a wonderful start. We have a new Chief Financial Officer. Steve Argyris is now working with PSR, CDSP and the GTU as we begin an exciting process of building new relationships in our administrative life.

Our board of trustees has a new leader. Rev. Sharon MacArthur was elected in May as our new board chair. Sharon is senior minister at Sycamore Congregational Church in El Cerrito. She received her M.Div. from PSR in 2001. In the past few months she has been a blessing to our entire community and to me.

Among the newcomers to the community are three new faculty members. Dr. Horace Griffin is our new Associate Professor of Field Education and Leadership. Dr. Rossitsa Schroeder is our new Assistant Professor of Religion and the Arts. Dr. Bernie Schlager is not new to PSR but is with us in a new role as Executive Director of the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies in Religion and Ministry and Visiting Associate Professor of Historical Studies. Also with us this semester are Professors Gerald West and Beverly Haddad, who are in residence from the University of KwaZulu Natal in South Africa. We also welcome Laurie Isenberg, who is joining us today as Director of Continuing and Community Education. This is a new position that will help us expand our non-degree educational offerings both on and off the Hill.

We said good-bye last spring to Professors Lynn Rhodes and Fumitaka Matsuoka, who are enjoying the start of their retirement years. Rev. Barbara Essex, who served for nine years as Minister and Coordinator of Community Life has a new call as Minister for Higher and Theological Education in the national setting of the United Church of Christ.

We also said good-bye to several staff colleagues in the PANA Institute as we came to the painful conclusion that the global financial crisis and a serious and growing PANA budget deficit forced the decision to suspend this important program. We will use this year to work with the API community to rebuild PANA in a sustainable way. Sharon MacArthur and I will be available on Thursday to talk further about what has happened to PANA. Today I would ask that you keep all of those associated with PANA, especially its former staff, in your prayers.

I also ask your prayers for Dean Emeritus Del Brown, whose cancer has returned and appears to be untreatable. We remember former board member, vice president and loyal friend Joe Thomas, who died this summer after a short illness.

As the spring semester ended we received news of other staff changes across the consortium. Several of our partner schools in the GTU announced reductions in staff and faculty, some of them quite drastic. The PSR board came to the conclusion that we would have to pass along a share of family health insurance costs to staff and faculty. All of these decisions have been painful and many of them have been controversial. Questions have been raised about how seriously our schools take their stated commitments to racial and economic justice. I am proud of the role PSR folks have played in pressing these questions.

I wish I could say that the economic difficulties we have experienced in the past several years are over. They are not. PSR has taken a number of steps that have already reduced our vulnerability and give me a good deal of confidence as we face the future.

The gospel lesson for next Sunday comes from Mark 8. It is a great text for the start of an academic year for a theological school and for this theological school. It is a great text for those of you are beginning your journey as seminary students.

Jesus and the disciples are in the villages of Caesarea Philippi. This means they are away from Galilee, away from home.

“Who do people say that I am?” he asks. And they fumble a bit for answers: John the Baptist? Elijah? One of the prophets?

“But who do you say that I am?” asks Jesus.

Now let’s stop right here.

Two big questions:
Who do people say that Jesus is?
Who do you say that Jesus is?

Aren’t those great questions for a theological school and a theological school student at the start of an academic year?

Much of what you will encounter at PSR will focus on the first question. Much of what you will confront in most of your coursework will flow from question of the identity of Jesus and all that follows from it. The histories of our churches, our spiritual and ritual practices, the ways we express ourselves through the arts, our concepts of mission and evangelism, how we understand ourselves as leaders, the ways we interact with other faith traditions are in many ways expressions of answers to the question, “Who do people say that Jesus is?”

In many ways the test of our effectiveness as an educational community and of your work as students is how well we are able to understand, critique and improve upon previous answers to Jesus’ first question.

Jesus also wants to know of his disciples, “Who do you say that I am?”

I think progressive Christian theological schools do a pretty good job of answering the first question. I’m not sure we do as good a job answering the second.

I am both a sociologist of American religion and a Christian minister. There are times when one ought to separate the question of who people say Jesus is from who one says Jesus is, but those of us who labor in the vineyard of theological education sometimes forget that Jesus asks us this question are well.

“Who do you say that I am?” is a question I hope you won’t be able to avoid during your time at PSR, or in your lives.

There will be times you will try to avoid it. We live in a religious environment in which Jesus and Christianity are often used as clubs to beat up on people whose answers and lives don’t fit the orthodoxy of the moment. Jesus and the church have been twisted to the point that they have become unrecognizable. All around us we see persons of faith who have forgotten the insights of the late Bill Coffin:

There are those who prefer certainty to truth, those in church who put the purity of dogma ahead of the integrity of love. And what distortion of the gospel it is to have limited sympathies and unlimited certainties, when the very reverse – to have limited certainties and unlimited sympathies – is not only more tolerant but far more Christian.

At PSR we sometimes talk about one of our educational goals as the critical appropriation of the texts and practices of the Christian faith. By that we mean claiming what remains worth retaining after deconstruction does its necessary work. I hope you will able to critically appropriate Jesus.

Back on the road to Caesarea Philippi we hear Peter’s response to Jesus’ question.

“Who do you say that I am?”

“You are the Messiah,” says Peter.

How does Jesus respond? He tells them to keep their mouths shut!

He does so because he knows that the end of his earthly times is near and that he has not yet prepared the disciples for the critical appropriation of the very concept of what is meant by the role of the Messiah. He is not about to reign in earthly glory but to undergo great suffering. The time hardly calls for triumphalism. “If any want to become my followers,” he tells them, “let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake and the sake of the gospel, will save it.”

These were not cheery words for the disciples. It was not a cheery time.

They are not easy words for us today. It is not a cheery time today.

But they are nonetheless hopeful words, for they look beyond the present moment.

I told the board of trustees at its May meeting that this will be my last year as PSR’s president. A search committee is in place that we hope will identify next year’s opening chapel preacher. Linda and I will be moving on. We don’t know exactly where we are going or what we will be doing. Yesterday was our 41st wedding anniversary and we are approaching the future in much the same spirit as when we began our lives together.

It has been an honor to serve as your president. We have a challenging year ahead but I begin the year with a strong sense of hope. It is a hope derived from the promise of the gospels and the history of this particular community. This morning we are singing PSR’s “Founders Hymn” written by Professor John Wright Buckham for the school’s 50th anniversary. I love the third line of the hymn’s second verse because it captures my sense of the vision of our founders and of our shared calling: “to serve the days they could not see.”

I suspect that a similar sentiment was in the minds of Jesus, Peter and the rest of the disciples as they moved toward Caesar Philippi, the cross and beyond. They could not yet see that days they served, but they served them anyway.

May this be a year of God’s blessings for each of you and for Pacific School of Religion!