The Class of 2023 receives not one but four charges from President Asa J. Lee
July 26, 2023
Pittsburgh Theological Seminary celebrated its 227th commencement this year with a joyous gathering at East Liberty Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh.
It fell to Caroline C. Baker, who would soon receive an MDiv, to articulate for everyone gathered the hard-to-pronounce names found in Romans 16. “I’d like to thank PTS for teaching us to say all these names,” Baker said with a smile, “or to fake it confidently.”
“Apologies to Caroline for having to read all those names,” said the Rev. Dr. Valerie Bridgeman, who delivered the commencement sermon. Bridgeman is the dean and vice president for academic affairs and associate professor of homiletics and Hebrew Bible at the Methodist Theological School in Ohio and the founding president and CEO of WomanPreach! Inc.
Bridgeman told PTS’ Class of 2023 she selected the text “because I wanted to remind you that you are in a lineage. You’re not the first and you will not be the last. The church was as wondrous and messed up then as it is now.”
She said she can picture the scene: Tertius, who’s keeping notes for Paul, urges the apostle to make the effort to greet people: “Not like we do, ‘how ya doin’?’” Bridgeman said. “Here, it’s, ‘how is it with your soul? How are you feeling under the current assault by the Roman empire, having heard Stephen is dead?”
Bridgeman urged those graduates set to enter parish ministry to “learn to identify the people who nurture the church. There are people who think they hold the power, and then there’s the mother who sits in the corner and nods at the right person” at just the right moment.
While Paul here extends a warm welcome, “think about all the people you have no intention of welcoming. Name them one by one, and then repent,” Bridgeman said. “This is part of our lineage, opening our arms and hearts to those we probably wouldn’t welcome.”
“Be like Phoebe. Collect what people are giving and share it. Treat the people’s needs as if they are holy. Don’t turn your nose up at anyone,” Bridgeman said. “Paul says, ‘Prisca and Aquila stuck their necks out for me.’ It’s a reminder we have to step up for folks when they can’t stand up for themselves.”
Paul, she said, “greeted the Jews and the gentiles together to remind them they belong together.”
Paul ends his letter to the Romans with a doxology that celebrates community. “None of this is happenstance. We belong together,” Bridgeman said.
“I hope you will remind yourself you are in a great long line of people behind you, and you set the stage for people to come,” she said. “This is our work, this is our call, this is our charge.”
The Rev. Dr. Asa J. Lee, PTS president, offered the Class of 2023 not one but four charges:
Get accustomed to commencing. While commencement means to begin, the truth is, “we’re ending something” today, Lee said. While walking with God, “you’re always beginning when you’re ending and you’re always ending when you’re beginning.”
Maintain a teachable spirit. “When it comes time to encounter differences, we can become stuck and intransigent. Here you have been challenged with differences,” Lee told graduates. “Continue to encounter those who would challenge your very being. At that moment of vulnerability and discomfort, you will find your best self and encounter God afresh and anew.”
Remember who called you. “The institutional church likes to take ownership of your call, that they called you to serve. That may be true, but it’s good to remember if the church refuses you, God called you to something,” Lee said. “It may be the only thing that keeps you sustained. Jesus the Christ called you for such a time as this.”
Remember to make your mother proud. Alma Mater is Latin for “loving mother,” Lee pointed out. “Leave this place believing in a God who still calls men and women, boys and girls — all God’s children — to the work of ministry, daring to hope in a stagnant world. Make your mother proud and remember to call us sometimes because we’ll call you. Amen.”
Mike Ferguson, Editor, Presbyterian News Service
Today’s Focus: Pittsburgh Theological Seminary
Let us join in prayer for:
PC(USA) Agencies’ Staff
Sarah Henken, Mission co-worker serving in Colombia, World Mission, Presbyterian Mission Agency
Lorraine Henry, Director, Financial Protection & Retirement Program, Board of Pensions
Let us pray
Gracious heavenly Father, thank you for the courageous and faithful example of your people. Protect, guide and embolden them as they continue to seek ways to proclaim your message of good news in Jesus Christ. May the people receive this message with joy and thanksgiving. Amen.