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Commencement in a cloud

Think you had a busy weekend? One Presbyterian pastor spoke at commencement Saturday, then broke in a new pulpit Sunday

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

The Rev. Jenny McDevitt

LOUISVILLE — Presbyterian pastors are busy ministering to their flocks in a pandemic, but few had the big weekend that the Rev. Jenny McDevitt just turned in.

On Saturday, McDevitt (Class of 2009) preached to the graduates at her alma mater, Union Presbyterian Seminary’s Richmond campus, during its first online commencement exercise, the 208th commencement in its history. The next day, she preached her initial sermon at the new church she’s serving, Shandon Presbyterian Church in Columbia, South Carolina. In fact, McDevitt also used the church’s pulpit to address her fellow Union Seminary grads online.

“Firsts are important,” she told the graduates and their proud families and friends, “whether we have planned them or not.”

Preaching from John 1:35-46, McDevitt recounted the first time Jesus met the disciple he renamed Peter.

“The Great I Am looks at Simon the fisherman and says, ‘You are.’ … He is saying, ‘I know you. I know the good and the bad and everything in between … No matter what, you belong here with me. I have a hope and a plan and a purpose for you.’ He gives (Peter) an identity that will hold onto him for the rest of his life.”

Our modern pandemic reality “is an incredibly strange time to be launched into something new,” McDevitt told the graduates. “You have been led this far already — and I promise you, you will be led farther still, because that’s just how God works.”

The work of our lives as Christians, she said, is to “remind anyone who will listen that God knows us and loves us for who we are and who we will become.”

“I know ministry is hard. There will be days it will be hard to remember that you make God laugh with delight,” she said. “My fondest hope and most sincere prayer is that you will hear Jesus when he calls you by name, that you will listen when he introduces you to your very best self — and that you will repeat Jesus. That is the work of those who follow Christ. It is holy and wonderful work that commences in a holy and wonderful way right now.”

Dr. Diana Butler Bass

Theologian and author Dr. Diana Butler Bass wore her academic robes to address the graduates from afar.

“I could have worn a casual T-shirt and not treated this with the dignity it deserves,” she said. “The truth is, this (commencement exercise) is quite real.” With graduates worried about Zoom interviews and not knowing how their first call will proceed, or whether their graduate school will “meet in real life in the fall,” “everything seems like it’s on hold, but it really isn’t,” she said. As the graduates should have learned in their church history classes, “nothing is ever as expected for the people of God.”

From the first day that Jesus began walking with his friends, “everything was a surprise.” They expected a political messiah, and they got “a rabbi and friend who was killed by the Romans and raised from the dead.” Likewise, the disciples could not have predicted the way the early church formed and grew.

“It might have been simpler before, but the truth is we are called to whatever state the church finds itself in,” she said, as well as being called into the world that is hurting at this time.

“As Christians, we know God’s work in the future is a surprise, and yet we are still called,” she said, “armed with compassion, grace and mercy.”

“However those things open up for you in the months ahead, I trust that the surprise will continue to astonish you in a way that will strengthen you and bring forth your greatest gifts, and that you will persevere in the love and generosity of God in Jesus Christ.”

“May all the blessings that can be imagined attend your way,” she said. “Congratulations!”

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