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President McFadden, members of the graduating class of 2015, faculty, staff, parents and esteemed guests:
It is a delight to share the experience of this day with you. It was 1976 when I, too, crossed a stage of this institution with sights set on the future. I was filled with anticipation, hope, relief finals were over, and a modicum of anxiety. Little did I know that the journey ahead would take unusual and unexpected twists and turns beyond my wildest imagination.
Before continuing on with that narrative – I can imagine that you are perplexed with how this Old Testament story of Moses enters into the picture of a celebration like today. Those of you who are familiar with the ethos of the Church of the Brethren might expect me to focus on “the calling” of Moses as he intersects the very spirit of God at the burning bush. That, however, will need to be the topic of another day. Instead, we will consider the story of an aging shepherd in search of green pasture. Moses – a trusted and experienced shepherd – is asked by his father-in-law, Jethro, the priest of Midian, to lead his flock beyond the wilderness for grazing. Moses sets out with all of his expertise and skill, to accomplish one task: get the flock out there, get them fed, protect them, return them home, and make father-in-law happy.
It is of particular interest that Moses is westward bound. The Israelites’ geographic orientation was primarily towards the east, but in this text, biblical scholars consider the Hebrew word to mean literally “to the west.” This intentional focus westward beyond the wilderness sees Moses well on his way to Horeb, the mountain of God.
There is no indication in the story that Moses is intentionally looking for Horeb. He is simply setting out to accomplish his everyday routine of caring for the flock as assigned by his father-in-law.
But Moses’ serenity is interrupted in a most unexpected way -- by an angel of the Lord emerging out of a burning bush. I don’t know about you, but I cannot imagine looking out my office window at beautiful trees and green grass only to see one of them explode into flames that “do not consume the tree.” The last thing Moses expected was to be in the presence of the Divine. It was thought impossible for a mortal to experience consciously the great host of witnesses or to be in the presence of God. But meet with Yahweh he does, indeed. Out of the bush, God orders Moses to “come no closer and remove the sandals from your feet,” bringing the unimagined reality into Moses’ here and now. He knows beyond all doubt that he is in the presence of Yahweh, the Lord God.
Waldemar Janzen writes in the Believers Church Bible Commentary,
“The God who speaks to Moses knows him by name even while Moses fumbles about. Moses is overwhelmed by this fearful confrontation which stopped him short in his daily routine. God is the one who takes the initiative to relate the new to the familiar. God introduces God’s self as the one who [Moses’] own father in Egypt has worshiped, and also as the God of the more distant ancestors Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.1.”
God has made this encounter personal and relational, because God has Moses’ complete and undivided attention.
God names the misery of the people who are in Egypt, and we know that ultimately Moses is called into leadership as the shepherd of the people.
Moses was well trained and prepared for the future – just as you must be feeling, and rightfully so. But like Moses, you will find the day during which unexpected events will alter your journey. Granted, they may not be as dramatic as a burning bush, but unexpected events do change the course of our lives. It is in that moment that you will dig deep into the wellspring of your experience, knowledge, and abilities to problem solve as you face the next day.
When I walked across the stage in 1976 I had been accepted into the Interpersonal Communications doctoral program at Ohio University. I could not wait, and all summer long I went about preparing for the rigors of the program. Three weeks before classes were to begin, I received a Western Union telegram from the governor of Ohio. It said, “We regret to inform you that the Ohio state legislature has withdrawn all financial aid for out-of-state students. We look forward to receiving you at Ohio University, but you will need to bring a check to cover room, board, and tuition.” In many ways that was a burning bush. It got my attention and sent me into a tailspin! My dreams and preparation for graduate school were dashed by a financial decision over which I had absolutely no control.
Looking back on that moment in time, I recognize that it was a combination of my own tenacity and the excellence in education that I received at Manchester College that provided me the resources to deal with the disappointment and to redirect my life’s energies. It was a freefall that ended up being as Richard Rohrer puts it, “an experience of falling upward.”
When I crossed the stage I never thought that I would work for Church World Service. I never dreamed that I would be a youth pastor, own a trucking company, or manage a very large physician owned and governed medical practice. I never imagined that on September 11, 2001, I would stand on the hillside at the Brethren Service Center in New Windsor, Md., watching F-16s fly overhead loaded with missiles headed for Camp David and Pennsylvania.
When I crossed the stage, I did not know I would become the first lay person to hold the office of General Secretary in the Church of the Brethren. That I would have the privilege to work with and lead an incredibly gifted group of colleagues and staff at the Church of the Brethren, without who’s expertise and efforts the events of the past 12 years could have not happened and ministries of the Church effectively carried out. Nor could I have imagined this position would allow me the privilege to have audience with Pope Benedict at the Vatican to discuss peace and freedom of religion as an inalienable right for every human being. Nor could I have imagined sitting across the table from the former president of the Islamic state of Iran, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, along with Mennonite and Quaker colleagues. There, we urged the former president to stop the rhetoric that was inciting fury around the world as he implied the Holocaust was fictitious and never happened. Never could I have imagined that one day I would sit across the table from the President of the United States of America, Barack Obama, to discuss the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, modern-day slavery, torture, drones, the conflict between Israel and Palestine, and the humanitarian crisis of the 1.5 million Syrian refugees. Never in my wildest dreams would I have imagined that on April 14, 2014, I would be in Abuja, Nigeria, being awoken by a bomb blast 5 minutes from the guest house I was staying and it ending as the very day when the Chibok girls were abducted. Do you know that 95% of those girls are members of the Church of the Brethren? Little did I know when I walked across the stage at Manchester College that one day I would be awakened at 3:00 a.m. by a text message reading “Pray for me, Brother Stan. I’m hiding in a tree. Boco Haram is trying to kill me.” This past week, I visited with this young adult about his experience of escaping with only his life and the clothes on his back when Kulp Bible College in Kwarhi, Nigeria was overrun by Boko Haram. He is well, and very much alive awaiting the day when the College opens.
And yet all of these events and the opportunity for interaction with people from all over the world would not have been possible had I not experienced that burning bush moment when a telegram closed the door to grad school. I am so very thankful for the professors, staff, and administrators of Manchester College who put up with the antics of this preacher’s kid from Eastern Pennsylvania. I give thanks to God for their perseverance and insistence on academic excellence.
Today the future you and I face is more similar than you might imagine. At age 61, I know that a year from now my job as general secretary of the Church of the Brethren will come to an end and I may find myself unemployed. I pray that not be the case, but it is possible. Today each of us is heading toward a future with great expectation, even though the end we seek is truly unknown. I have the utmost confidence and trust that the education we have each received from this Manchester University will serve us well. We will persevere in our pursuit of life, relationships, and service to the world.
We are similar to the people Paul talked about in Romans, for today we approached this baccalaureate and commencement service standing on tiptoe, looking, forward with great expectation and excitement. We know that whatever we may encounter now is nothing compared to the future that God has in store for us. We are on tiptoes with all of creation to see the wonderful sight of God coming into our presence. We can’t yet see the reality that may come our way, not because we choose to be blind, but because God has limited our vision of the future. Yet the Almighty, through the burning bush, has given us the hope of a life that shares in the magnificent liberty available to those who have been created in the image of God.
I do not know if you are going to experience a burning bush, but I do know that if you do, you are well prepared for it. I am confident that your life experiences will weave a cloth that is rich in color, form and design. It will render the narrative of your life.
May the blessings of Almighty God, Christ and the Holy Spirit be with you this day and forever more. May it be so!
1 Janzen, Waldemar, “Believers Church Biblical Commentary, Exodus,” (Herald Press, 2000), 60.
May 17, 2015
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