Opening Convocation 2019

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– Good afternoon, and a very warm welcome to everyone present in this room and those who are watching via Livestream. We’re welcoming you to the
319th year of Yale University, the 198th year of Yale Divinity
School as a distinct unit within the university, to the fourth year of
Andover Newton with us, and their 213th year, to the 48th year of Berkeley
Divinity School with us, and their 166th year. And to the 47th year of the Institute of Sacred Music with us and to their 92nd year. But who counts these things? (laughs) (audience laughing) This convocation marks the
official opening of our year. It promises to be a special
year in a number of ways. This is the 150th year
that women have been a part of professional schools at Yale, and the 50th year that they
have been part of Yale College. It is the 112th year that
women have taken classes. (audience applauding)
(audience cheering) It’s the 112th year that
women have taken classes at Yale Divinity School, and the 87th year that women have been degree-seeking students here. The first two women who took classes were Lottie Genevieve Bishop
and Ethel Zivley Rather who were in other professional
schools at the time, but took courses in the 1907, 1908 year. From 1907 through 1932, women students in other
professional schools around Yale took classes at YDS, and I have to say what’s obvious, I’m sorry to say, they were not allowed to enroll in degree programs
here during those years. At 1932, all of that changed. Prior to that, most of the women were in the education department, and took their religious
education courses here. For example, between 1930 and 1932, Lavinia Scott took at
least half of her classes at Yale Divinity School. That would not have been on this campus. You have to think about downtown, and Grace Hopper, where
Grace Hopper is today, that college is where the Divinity School was located at that time. Following graduation,
she went to South Africa where she became the
principal of Inanda seminary, a secondary school for Zulu girls, and then fought the government to protect the school against
the apartheid policies that it launched. In 1920 to 21, women from
other professional schools made up 63% of the students from beyond the Divinity
School who took classes at the Divinity School. In 1932, the Divinity School moved here, opened its doors not
only to the male students but for the first time, to
degree-seeking female students. The first two students to graduate were Bernice Buehler
and Thelma Diener Allen who received their
Bachelors of Divinities, as we called it back then in 1935. Others followed and made history. I personally think of Rena Karefa-Smart, who was the first black woman to receive a degree from this institution, the first woman to receive a ThD from Harvard Divinity School, the first black woman to serve as a tenured member of the
faculty at Howard University and a pioneer in the launching of the World Council of Churches. To say she was a pioneer
is an understatement. She was a very special woman. They were followed by faculty members like Letty Russell and Margaret Farley, whose portraits hang in the common room on the second floor. They were women of courage and capacity who opened this school up to all women, and I am very pleased to announce today that for the first time in our history, women now comprise more than 50% of the tenure track faculty. (audience applauding) We will join in the
celebration of women at Yale in various ways. I’m gonna mention just a few
so you can watch for these. Every endowed lecture this year will be given by a woman. Every major alumni award
will go to a woman. The fall issue of “Reflections Magazine” will be devoted to the
story of women at YDS. The library will offer a special
exhibit on their history, and women will be featured
here in Marquand Chapel. I want to say a special
word of appreciation to Carolyn Sharp, who is sitting back of, Carolyn, stand up, if you would, who’s worked for a couple of years to help put all of these
programs together for this year. Thank you, Caroline, for all of your work. (audience applauding) Perhaps the best way that we can celebrate the place of women here today is to introduce the new faculty and the new senior staff of the school because seven out of
the 10 people are women. As I mention your name, would you please stand and remain standing until I’ve asked everyone to stand. Our new tenured faculty
member is Laura Nasrallah. (audience applauding) She is the Buckingham Professor of New Testament Criticism
and Interpretation, a specialist in the intersection between material culture and
the interpretation of text. She comes to us after a very distinguished first half of her career at Harvard Divinity School (laughs). (audience laughing) Second, we have two Presidential Fellows, and I’m not sure if both
of them are here or not, but let me introduce them briefly. And I’m going now in alphabetical order. John Azumah is Visiting
Professor of World Christianity and a Presidential Fellow. He may not be here yet, and you’ll understand
why in just a minute. He will offer a course
each semester for us, but he is also responsible
for helping to set up the Lamin Sanneh Institute
at the University of Ghana, which will be launched
officially in February. This is one way we as a school could support the launching
of that Institute. The other Presidential Fellow this year and by Presidential Fellow, you have to be appointed
by the Divinity School and then also go through a process at the Provost Office, is Anthea Butler. And she is with us today, (audience applauding)
Anthea (laughing). You can tell she’s shy (laughing). Anthea is an associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania, and she is widely known not
only for her scholarship but for her role as a public intellectual. And that’s probably how
most of you know her. But she is here this year working on a major monograph entitled “Reading Race: Hope, Religion Education, “and Interracial Cooperation
from 1880 to 1917.” I ask you not to bother her in the fall while she finishes this monograph, and then you can pester
her in the spring (laughs). (audience laughing)
But we’re thrilled to have Laura and Anthea with us. We have three new lecturers this year, and I will again take them
in alphabetical order, and would you wait to applaud
until I introduce all three. First in alphabetical
order is Daniel Bohac, a lecturer in New Testament who’ll be teaching Greek,
back up here for us working in the library
and doing his research. Next is A.R. Malik, an award-winning, he’s standing in the
back on the other side, an award-winning journalist who’ll be teaching
courses for us in Islam. He’s also going to be directing the Social Justice
Leadership Lab in Dwight Hall and serve as the program coordinator for the Certificate in
Middle Eastern Studies in the McMillan Center. He will be a very busy man. And last but by no means
least is Gabrielle Thomas, who joins us from the University of Durham as a lecturer in Early
Christian and Anglican Studies. She will not only work with our students in ancient Christianity but work with the formation
of Berkeley students. She is an Anglican priest. She’s just published “The Image of God “and the Theology of Gregory of Nazianzus” and is now working on a second major book. So would you please join me in welcoming all three of these lecturers. (congregation applauding) During the summer, we’ve been joined by four senior staff members. Alison Cunningham, and if
you know the local scene, you know she was the
director of Columbus House, has joined us as the new Director of Professional Formation. Alison, would you stand, please. (audience applauding) Alison is merely one of
the most important people in not-for-profit in all
of Connecticut (laughs). Kelly Morrisey, who’s joined
us as the Managing Director of the to-be-launched Center
for Continuing Eduction. Kelly, are you with us? Right back here, standing in the back. (audience applauding) Barbara Sabia is joining us as the new Senior Director of Development, right back over here, coming to us from the
Law School at Yale, and. (audience applauding) I might mention that we have consolidated development efforts so
the area that used to be where the Registrar and Student Affairs is is now Development for
Yale Divinity School, Berkeley Divinity School,
and Andover Newton are all right there. And last but again by no
means least is Lynn Sullivan, and the new students have met her. She’s the new Director
of Community Equity. Lynn is right back here in the back. (audience applauding) One little final note about faculty. This year, three faculty are
in the final year with us. It happens, you know, the
almond tree blossoms for us. But Harry Attridge, we will celebrate all of them towards the, Harry, stand up. (audience applauding) Janet Ruffing. (audience applauding) And Bob Wilson, who I don’t
think is with us today, but Bob Wilson. We will celebrate them all in due course. But the largest group of new people are, hardly a surprise, 146 new
degree-seeking students. 71 MAR, 67 MDIVs, seven STM, I should say 145, one
is non degree-seeking. You’ll be pleased to know,
given our earlier comments, that 51% of you identify as female, 45% as male, and 3% as
other or non-binary. You are diverse in multiple ways. 31% come from underrepresented groups, more than 8% from
countries outside the U.S., and they range across the entire globe. Your age span goes from 21 to 74, (audience members chuckling)
so bravo for the 74-year-old. The average age is 28.2, so pretty young. 23% of you already hold
an advanced degree. And enriching this group
are eight exchange students, two from Denmark, two
from, three from Germany, two from Hong Kong, and one from the UK. There’ll be one more in the spring, which will bring all of the
students to 155 this year. And we have three visiting
scholars from China. You’re joining a very distinguished and outstanding group
of returning students who are passionately
committed to our project here. We hope that you will experience a commitment to faith
that nurtures your soul, an intellectual challenge
that will stretch your minds, and an ecumenical community that offers you the warmth
of genuine friendship. I do, this is a tradition we
started several years ago, want to recognize the students who worked so hard to
welcome all the new students from last Thursday until this morning. So as I call your name,
would you please come forward just for a minute. Geronimo Desumala. (audience applauding)
(audience cheering) Thank you, Geronimo, stand
with me just a minute. Jessica Church. (audience applauding)
(audience cheering) No, don’t go, just stay
up here for a minute. BTFO Coordinator, Chief of Staff. Now in operations, we have Omar Nicholson and Jack Mahoney, would you come up? (audience applauding) Omar. – [Omar] Thank you, sir. – And Jack’s not here, I guess? And for Hospitality, how did
you eat for the last week? Deonie Duncan and Essence Ellis, Deonie. (audience applauding)
(audience cheering) Thank you. (audience applauding) – [Audience Member] Woo! – 16 students led small groups
and volunteered their time over a period of days. Would you stand, if you’re one of the 16, would you please stand? I’ve gotta give Peter a little time for his address (laughs), please. (audience applauding)
(audience cheering) And finally, I wanna
say a special thank you to the woman who oversaw all of this in her first official year as Associate Dean of Student Affairs, Jeanne Peloso, would you please stand. (audience applauding)
(audience cheering) – [Audience Member] Woo! – [Audience Member] Woo! – Thank you all. (audience applauding) Two other people, just because you may not see them regularly. We have a special friend
in the Provost Office who’s been very close to this school for longer than I’ve been Dean. She worked with Harry, I know. And that’s Emily Batemire, who has been our very good
friend in the Provost Office. Emily, would you stand? (audience applauding) And last, the deanship is not a position, it’s a life. It’s seven days a week. And I couldn’t do what I do without the support of my beloved. (audience applauding) Those are all the preliminaries. They were longer than usual, but I felt like we needed to say something about the place of women at Yale. And I hope you will help
celebrate the place of women all through the year. There’s a special website devoted to it. Very easy to find, just
CelebrateWomen.yale.edu. We have a tradition. We have a little hazing
that we use for new faculty by asking them to read our
scriptures at this ceremony, so we’re going to follow that tradition. And so Laura and Gabby
will be our readers. We also have a tradition of asking two of the leaders of
students to participate by offering prayers, and so we’re asking,
this year, Jathon Martin, who’s the president of
Yale Black Seminarians, and Jessica Church, who is the President of the Student Council
to lead our prayers. Our speaker, who is in his final semester at Yale Divinity School
is Peter S. Hawkins, Professor of Religion and Literature. Educated at the University
of Wisconsin at Madison, and I had forgotten that. I have a daughter on the
faculty there (laughs). Union Theological Seminary, and then Yale University, where you received your PhD in English. And you’ve never really left Yale. We loaned you to a couple of other places, but you never left. You did spend nine years in the wilderness of Boston once (laughs).
(audience laughing) And had temporary post at Cambridge, Oxford, and York in UK, and Dartmouth and Stanford in the U.S., and that city that we
call Florence in Italy, not too bad of a track record. But one year after your
graduation, you return, and this has been your home
for all of those years. You are a Dante Scholar
of international acclaim, you are a scholar, however,
of many different areas. In the 13 books that you
have written or edited and the more than 100 articles, you’ve looked at everything from interpretations of
the Bible to modern poetry. But Peter is more than just a scholar. He is a pedagogue par excellence. You have set the bar in the
classroom and as a scholar, and we are so grateful that you spent your career at this school, and we’re glad that you agreed to deliver the address this year in
your final semester with us. I now wanna call upon Jathan
to lead us in our invocation, and we will begin. – Let us look to God. God, we thank you for allowing us to be in this place one more time. Some of us are returning
for our second, third, fourth-plus time, and some, this is a
completely new experience. No matter our journey to this place, your grace and presence in our
lives has remained constant. Now God, we ask you to bring your presence to this service. Bless all that our eyes will
see, our ears will hear, and our bodies will feel. Let us experience your presence in new and unimaginable ways. And for this, we will
forever give your name glory, honor, and praise. In the name of Jesus, we pray, amen. – [Audience] Amen. – A reading from the book of Genesis: The same night Jacob got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his 11 children and crossed the fjord of the Jabbok, he took them and sent
them across the stream and likewise, everything that he had. Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with
him until daybreak. When the man saw that he did
not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket, and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, “Let me go,
for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go “unless you bless me.” So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” Then the man said, “You shall
no longer be called Jacob “but Israel, for you have striven with God “and with humans and have prevailed.” Then Jacob asked him,
“Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it
that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, “and yet my life is preserved.” The sun rose upon him as he passed Peniel, limping because of his hip. Therefore, to this day, the Israelites do not eat the thigh muscle that is on the hip socket because he struck Jacob on the hip socket at the thigh muscle. – A little east of Jordan,
evangelists record, a gymnast and an angel
did wrestle long and hard ’til morning touching mountain, and Jacob waxing strong, the angel begged permission
to breakfast to return. “Not so,” said cunning Jacob. “I will not let thee go, except
thou bless me, stranger.” The which acceded to. Light swung the silver
fleeces, Peniel Hills beyond. And the bewildered gymnast
found he had worsted God. – It’s one thing to write an address, it’s another thing to reassemble it. (audience laughing) Hold that thought. (audience members chattering) (audience laughing) – I hope they fell straight.
(Peter laughing) (audience laughing) – I think you did a pretty good job of knocking it off in order, yeah. Well, you heard him. This is the beginning
of the academic year, but nobody is ready for this. (audience laughing) Our free Labor Day startup probably hits the faculty worst. Only yesterday, it seemed, we put our regalia into mothballs, set out to do the work of the summer, a season that in May stretched
for month after month in our imagination. (audience chuckling) Now it’s time to stop, even though no project
is actually finished, and worse yet, the writing
looked pretty well made in early June started to
crumble in mid-August. And then there are the seasonal nightmares that plague a professor
on the cusp of September, dreams in which you cannot
find the proper classroom, (audience laughing) in which your tongue clings
to the roof of your mouth. Or suddenly you see yourself standing in front of fully-clothed students when you yourself are naked
as the day you were born. (audience laughing) Welcome to my world. (audience laughing) Teachers have it bad, but so
do administrators and staff who keep the school running
throughout the year, not to mention year after year. They have had the quadrangles
to themselves all summer, have recently discovered,
as they do every June, that they could actually
do their jobs better without the rest of us making trouble. (audience laughing) Now we come back and spoil things, and the mayhem starts all over again. Which brings me to students. Mayhem is the theme word there, (audience members chuckling) some of whom are experienced in the ways of 409 Prospect Street
and therefore invaluable to showing the ropes to the rest of us. We need them to explain what
a reading week actually is. You’ve got five of them this year. And how in the world to find
the Nouwen Prayer Chapel, which is buried somewhere in
the bowels of the library. (audience chuckling) Returning students can even
afford to be a little smug toward those who have
just arrived, after all, they know where everything is, have figured out how to handle New Haven, are no longer shy about being at Yale, and have calculated exactly
how much of the sign reading needs to be done. (audience laughing) Then there are those
students who are brand new and embarking on a
divinity school education with great and very various expectations. Some are preparing for ordained ministry, trying to understand just what it means. So little time, so many people to please. So many gnawing questions
about vocation, hm. Others arrive with a career rather than a vocation in mind. They have an academic
discipline they want to pursue rather than something
spooky like a calling. (audience laughing) For them, YDS may be stage
one of graduate school, and who knows, if everything goes well, the grades are good, the
professors are encouraging, there may be a PhD
further along the horizon. But of course this kind
of needs sorting out. It’s much too neat. Vocation and career overlap, and a profession can easily be a ministry, though with a different
costume and pay scale. (audience laughing) Students also change
their course midstream and find that a degree in divinity can lead, quite naturally,
to law or social work or secondary school teaching, or indeed, the myriad other things that divinity school graduates do with or despite their degrees. (audience chuckling) Last but not least, there
are those who come here looking for God, and hope that doing a degree program isn’t going to prevent that
search from going forward. These folks are often very difficult for faculty to advise, (audience laughing) and they’d be hard for other students, especially those who have
figured it out already. They don’t want the degree in divinity so much as they want divinity. Their patience with academia
can be small, their appetite for something they can’t
quite name, enormous. They come from every
denominational background or arrive with little or
no religious background. They round out the
motley crew that we are. Now, given our very mixed and motley bag, I wanna propose a patron
saint to invoke this year. Jacob, the wandering Aramean who is our spiritual ancestor, the man who wrestled one night in the waters of the Jabbok, and at least according to
the cheeky Emily Dickinson, worsted God. Jacob’s wrestling in the river is one of the most famous
passages in scripture, a show-stopper in either
Hebrew or English, versatile enough to inspire
a pious Charles Wesley hymn and an irreverent Dickinson poem. It may also be powerful and bizarre enough to get us to think about something other than the distractions of
moving in and settling down. But as always, to get the force of any particular Biblical story, what you student newcomers
will learn to call a pericope, you have to take in the bigger picture. For what happens in the river Jabbok is only one eddy in a
stream of Genesis narrative that originates in Ur of the Chaldees and flows forward to Egypt. To feel its full effect requires
a backstory and some hint of what’s to follow. Now, the background, given the occasion of a solemn Yale assembly,
might appropriately be the measured tones of the Deuteronomist. A wandering Aramean was my father. He went down into Egypt, lived there as an alien, few in number, and there, he became a great
nation, mighty and populous. Hm, thus rendered, the backstory takes on an easy smoothness. There’s a sense of inevitability to it as well as the dignity and
the cadence of a liturgy. Yet leave behind the blessed
assurance of sacred history, and what you find is a
really weird family story, (audience chuckling)
more complicated and vexed even than your own family story. Indeed, you get something like
the world of Jerry Springer or Dr. Phil or the Bravo Channel. (audience laughing) Where to begin telling Jacob’s tale? Is it with grandfather Abraham who hears a voice and goes
wherever it sends him, whether across the Negev or up the slopes of Mount Moriah? Or with grandmother Sarah, who to her anguish and
shame cannot have a baby? Or do you start with father Isaac, who was offered up to God as a sacrifice and lives to tell the tale? Isaac, who subsequently doesn’t seem able to do very much on his own except to pass off his
bride as his sister, and that seems like a good idea. That bride, Rebekah, is
afflicted by barrenness like her mother-in-law until she gets double what she asked for, not one child, but two,
two raging male fetuses who make her life a
living hell in the womb and a trial thereafter. Or should we focus on our
ancestor Jacob himself, the slightly younger
of those warring twins who was unsuccessful
in his uterine attempt to be born first, but then spent the rest
of his life making sure he always turned out on top. He buys a birthright that
doesn’t really belong to him. Then in the course of
an elaborate camouflage, all staged for his benefit by Mom, he at once deceives a
doddering, near-blind father and egregiously swindles
his only brother, his twin. Now there’s enough here
for a cable miniseries on television. The plot continues to thicken. Once Jacob, on the lam, escapes
his brother’s household, his fury, he discovers
his true love, Rachel, or rather, after the
delirious wedding night, he discovers his love’s
older sister, Leah, who has been substituted between
the sheets by her father, Jacob’s uncle, Laban. And why not, this family being what it is. (audience chuckling) Makes a kind of perverse sense. Laban has two daughters to marry off, and as it turns out, a
son-in-law he can exploit for roughly two decades
of indentured service. He has in Jacob a trickster
he can enjoy tricking. During these years of
minding Laban’s flocks, the tents of Jacob turn into a stud farm. Night after night, he’s
commanded by his wives, their female servants, who force him into
fatherhood again and again with the command, “Give me
children, or I shall die.” What’s love got to do with it? 10 boys and one girl are born to Jacob, four different women, all merging with a larger biological push to increase and multiply. Jacob’s population explosion, moreover, is not only about children
but about herds of livestock, sheep, goats, all speckled
and striped and mottled. When it’s time to return to Canaan where the likely-to-be still
smoldering brother Esau remains to be seen, Jacob marshals his forces, wives Leah and Rachel,
concubines Zilpah and Bilhah, the accumulated sons
and the single daughter, not to mention the flocks
and herds and camels. He prepares for the worst by sending the best ahead of him as wave after wave of animals make their way across the river, followed by the family he’s raised up. This gradual staging of return presents a really odd instance
of women and children first (audience chuckling) since they are initially set in harm’s way to provide a protective buffer for him before he sets foot on Esau’s territory. Or perhaps Jacob knows that
everyone else is safe but him. There’s really only one victim that Esau will have in mind. When we come to our
passage, it’s nightfall. Jacob’s all alone. This is remarkable, for not only is he seen apart
from all that he has required since running away from
his brother in Canaan, but as far we can tell, he’s alone for the first time in 20 years. There’s no entourage of flocks and family. There’s just him. In his aloneness, it this aloneness meant to take us back to that
other solitary night long ago when he first fled from
his brother’s wrath? At that time in the middle of nowhere with a few rocks for a pillow, he laid himself down to sleep. He dreamt that a ladder
descended from heaven to earth with the Lord speaking to him from above, the God of Abraham and Isaac, who extends the same blessing of land, offspring, and protection that earlier had been given
to grandfather and father. Coming to his senses, he builds an altar, he makes a sacrifice. He calls the place Bethel,
literally the House of God because that is what the middle of nowhere turns out to be. Now 20 years later, at the
fjord of the river Jabbok, Jacob is again all alone. But then suddenly, he’s not. In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, there is something else in that water, or is it someone else, whose idea of getting to know you is nothing less than all out assault? Tradition speaks of the
bruiser as an angel, perhaps even Michael the archangel. The NRSV identifies him
only as a he or a man. The Hebrew calls him a
divine being, an Elohim. Whatever happens between the two of them goes on all night and
lasts until daybreak. It also goes unreported. The teller of this tale has
no interest in a blow by blow. There’s no account of
hammerlock or full nelson. There’s no eye gauging or hair pulling such as what we’d read about in Homer or see televised by the
World Wrestling Federation. (audience chuckling) Strange for a wrestling match. It’s not clear who wins. Jacob seems to have the upper hand before dawn’s early light. He prevails, we’re told. But then the other man
finally takes him out by striking him on the hip socket. Jacob is literally thrown out of joint. “Is this fair,” says the
first-year MDIV student. (audience chuckling) A divine being pulling rank when things are going badly for him and arbitrarily changing
the rules of engagement? There’s no referee to decide the case, nor come to think of it,
does fairness in general have much to do with heavenly beings or, for that matter,
with Genesis as a whole. I mean, just ask Hagar, Ishmael, and Esau. With Jacob’s injury, the wrestling stops, but Jacob himself doesn’t. He doesn’t let go of his
opponent for a minute. Instead, he holds on, even when the man says,
“The time is flying,” and it’s really time to go. He holds on like a terrier with a bone. He concedes no ground. “I will not let you go
unless you bless me,” and a blessing is what he gets, which comes in the form
of a new name, Israel. From his time in the
womb, he had been a Jacob, a heel grabber, a supplanter,
a struggler against the odds. But now, you shall no longer
be called Jacob but Israel, for you have striven
with God and with humans and have prevailed. The mama’s boy who was good in the kitchen has striven with God and with angels and has prevailed, hm. Promised a multitude as
infinite and far flung as the dust of the
earth, Jacob gets it all, at least in promise. The wandering Aramean becomes our father as generations of Jews and Christians, in one way or another,
claim him as their own and call him blessed. The sense of a happy ending spills over into the next chapter when
it turns out that Esau, rather than setting out to murder Jacob, wants to love him. Esau ran to meet him, embraced him, fell on his neck and
kissed him, and they wept. Jacob is stunned, as well he might be because he certainly doesn’t deserve this. “Truly, to see your face,”
he tells his brother, “is like seeing the face of God “since you have received
me with such favor.” But happiness in this
world is short-lived, and very soon, as the story continues, blessing and favor seem to disappear into the dust of the earth. Jacob’s one daughter, Dinah, is raped, then hideously avenged by her brothers who take matters out
of their father’s hands and into their own. One son, Reuben, sleeps with
Jacob’s concubine, Bilhah, the mother of two of Jacob’s children, which is to say, with
two of Reuben’s brothers. Another son, Judah,
sires with a woman twins, he thinks that the woman is a prostitute. No she’s not, she’s his daughter-in-law, and from their issue come twins. Jacob’s favorite son, Joseph, might easily have been
murdered by his brothers. Instead, they sell him
into slavery in Egypt. “Why,” you may be asking yourselves, “is the convocation speaker “choosing to open the academic year “with this convoluted and sorry account?” Plus, it’s hot. (audience chuckling) Is it to remind the incoming students that the Bible is more a cautionary tale than an exemplary one, that God consistently works with people you would never want to meet (audience laughing) but who are in fact versions of you, albeit you on a very, very bad day. (audience laughing) Maybe, yeah, what interests me most in the story of Jacob’s
wrestling in the river are two details I’ve not yet mentioned. They’re of note within
their own right, I think, but they strike me as
poignant for all of us at this moment in our year’s calendar. And especially for those who are just beginning
their studies in divinity. Point one, the divine
being who suddenly rises up from the river refuses
to disclose his name. Make no mistake, he doesn’t
hesitate to ask for Jacob, “What is your name?”, nor does he scruple about
changing that name on the spot. “You shall no longer be
called Jacob, but Israel.” He will also confer, along with that name change, a blessing. But even though Jacob holds on tight, even though he begs his challenger with the Hebrew equivalent
of the magic word, “Please, tell me your name,” the man will not in
return deliver the goods. The commentators tell us why, to have someone’s name is
to have power over them, it’s to call the shots, not here. Divinity may let a human being come close, may even prevail from time to time, but sorry, Emily Dickinson,
God is never worsted. Even Jacob realizes this,
for all his brashness. After the wrestling match when he comes, when he names the place
Peniel, the face of God, he does so in order to
memorialize the lesson of the encounter. Although he may have
prevailed in the instant, he knows that his real blessing is to have gotten out alive. “For I have seen God face to face, “and yet, my life is preserved.” Let us children of this Jacob
renamed Israel take note. There are limits in
every sense to our grasp. When it comes to the divine, we will always be surprised and worsted. God shows up in the middle of nowhere at the fjord of a river
in a dream, in a fight, and often in the dark when it’s easiest to catch
us unprepared and disarmed. We may say, “Please” all we want and stay awake as long as we can, but there are certain things, in the story, it’s a name, that not even the most persistent human will be able to grab hold of. There is no mastering divinity, no matter what your degree is called. (audience laughing) But how wonderful that Jacob
did the grabbing nonetheless. How wonderful that he was willing to take on all comers,
to hold on ’til morning, to ask for what he wanted, even if he couldn’t have it. In the end, he had to
take no for an answer, but look what he got. A face-to-face vision,
a new name for himself, and with it, could it be
the identity of someone who not only wrestles with God but wrestles on God’s
side, on God’s behalf, in God’s cause? It sounds marvelous, doesn’t it? And yet it comes with a cost, which leads me to my second point. Jacob’s able to prevail
against the divine being, at least for a time, but he’s never the same again. He’s wounded, he’s struck in the hip. He walks away into a future limping because of his hip. Now the teller of the tale is overtly interested in this fact because it has to do with food, with what you do or do not eat. It’s an etiology, hm. (audience laughing)
(audience applauding) Oh, the punicente who have
been here before, yes. But more compelling to me is
what Jacob’s limp suggests about the danger of getting close to God. Inevitably, it hurts, it wounds, it changes the way you walk in the world. This assault on one’s status
quo is important to remember at the beginning of an academic year. You should be prepared for trouble because you’re getting into it. You should also cautiously
allow the trouble to happen. Soon it will become all too easy to study scripture or theology as if it were business as usual. Now you can turn it into
merely academic business if you want to. But in fact (laughing), this
curriculum comes with a waring. It’s dangerous, it can
keep you up at night, and not only because there are so many pages to read or to write. It can keep you struggling because it’s so full of hard
sayings and difficult issues. Be warned, you can lose sleep trying to figure out
what’s actually going on in the river that you’re entering here. Are you fighting against,
or fighting alongside? Hey, and maybe it’s just
another fantasy, after all, another ghost story from long ago that somehow has managed
to keep bothering people when by all rights, the whole
thing should have disappeared with the enlightenment’s daybreak. If that’s the case, then
you’re spending time and money giving an illusion a future. Do you really wanna do that? Or to turn tables, what if you come here with an intellectual interest in religion as one subject among others, and then find yourself
getting involved with it in some newly passionate way? Suddenly it’s not just
religion you’re studying, fascinating though it is, is there anything more fascinating? But there’s something that
seems to be studying you, taking your measure, taking you on. It feels as if you’re being drawn in against your better judgment, as if someone were calling you, maybe giving you a new name. Something, someone is
messing with your life. You might drown. Now I suggested, a little while ago, that studying divinity
might be especially poignant for those who are, in one sense, doing it for the first time. I wanted them to be prepared
for the disruptions to come, which may very well cause
a wound, leave a limp. But this is no less true for those of us who have been at this work for a while. Nothing really gets easier. Divinity is inevitably disturbing, as what you used to be
able to sit easy with becomes problematic. What you thought wasn’t worth dealing with becomes the thing you can’t let go of. What you once had under control refuses to be brought into your line. Yet should we love the
scary unknown, not fear it? Maybe this is what our patron Jacob would have us embrace about the river we’re all entering now. You have at least a year together in time’s ever-flowing stream. There will be occasions when
it’s best to hold on tight, there will be others when
it’s meet and right to let go. Limping is in the forecast, but so, too, is blessing, both. There’s absolutely no telling the outcome, but who in his or her right mind would prefer to stay on
the shore where it’s safe? Take heart, we are all in this together, in the company of many ancestors who have wrestled in the
river millennia before us, like Jacob, hip out of
socket, but still walking. May we carry on in his
contentious tradition, whether we’ve been crossing the river for a long time, like me, or are only just entering
it, like some of you. This will be my final beginning at YDS, and my hope is that you, too, find the joy and struggle
and excitement of discovery that I’ve known here since 1976. This has been a place of blessing, as I hope it will be for all of you. And if I may turn Jacob’s
astonished exclamation at Peniel into a personal benediction and a wish, may you see God’s face to face, and may your life be preserved, amen. (audience applauding) – I don’t think we’ll ever
hear that passage again without thinking of this moment. For the last eight years, the worship services
conducted in this chapel have been led by an exceptionally
talented individual. Maggi Dawn is a gifted musician whose compositions and performances have enriched our collective worship. She is a sensitive and creative liturgist who understands how to blend
traditional forms of worship with new and untried forms in a service that not only flows seamlessly but is at one and the same time
challenging and reassuring. She is an insightful scholar
of religion and literature who has challenged many in the classroom. She’s also a capable administrator who’s held one of the
most challenging positions at this school. If you think that it is
challenging to lead a church where most people have
some common perspective, think about what it’s like
to lead Marquand Chapel, where we have deliberately
brought together people from all kinds of
backgrounds and perspectives and trained you to be critics. (audience laughing) The skills that Maggi has brought to us have not gone unnoticed by others. It seems almost too good to be true that as she neared the
completion of her term here, a door opened at the
highest-ranked theology program in the UK. You have earned this, Maggi, and we wish you the very best as you begin your new position at Durham. On behalf of the entire YDS community and especially the ISM,
as well as personally, we want to express our
deep appreciation to you for the eight years that you
have given us in your life, given us fully from your life. And we’re doing so by giving you a solid silver Marquand cross. We hope that whether you
wear this around your neck when you serve as an Anglican priest or whether you put it on
the wall of your office or your home, that each time you look at this cross, you will see the faces of the
people assembled here today and that have come
together for eight years. Maggi, would you please
come and be recognized. (audience applauding)
(audience cheering) You can remain standing, if you would. I now would like to invite Jessica Church, the President of the Student Council, to deliver our benediction. As the recessional hymn
is played and we sing it, the faculty will engage
in a procession out, and then if you’d wait until after the recessional
is over, the hymn, then you are all invited to
join us for wine and cheese and hors d’oeuvres in the
first floor common room, or what we call the Old Common Room, and our newly renovated quad, Jessica. – Will you pray with me? Creator, redeemer and sustainer God, to a God who sometimes appears hidden but who we know is always there, at the dawn of a new year,
let your spirit fill this room with love, curiosity, gratitude, and a courage to wrestle
with the tough questions. We gathered here today
hailing from many homelands with many stories, carrying with us memories
of time spent with family, summer jobs, faith communities, and some blessed moments of relaxation. And maybe, like Jacob, we, too, have spent some time in recent months wrestling, wondering, “Is that you, God?” And now, we ask, let those
of us returning to Yale remember how it felt to worship you here for the first time. I pray we take comfort
in inhabiting a space that recognizes our footsteps,
cries, shouts, and song. Let those of us who are
newly joining this community delight in the creativity
and conviction of this space. May they soon find it
comforting and familiar. God, this past week has
been a momentous one. Classes have not yet started, but already, we have
gotten dangerously close to the divine. Through your spirit ever
drawing us closer together, we’ve done the hard and worthy
work of community-building. Stories have been shared, strangers have connected
and become friends, and students who have been
here for just one week are already finding
ways to make their mark. We will never be the same, and for this, we thank you. As we begin this academic term, please walk with us day by day. We ask that you be there in the fun times and the trying ones. Sit with us while we’re
reading and writing and seeking to know you better, and embrace us in those moments when we’re not sure how or
why we ended up here at all. God, we love you, and we know you love
each and every one of us with no exceptions. Bless this space, and bless this class that we may pursue knowledge and wisdom, but most importantly, that we may pursue beloved
community in your name. With all our hearts, we pray, amen. – [Audience] Amen. (inspirational organ music)

 

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