President’s speech: “5 Core Diplomats”

President Jim Brenneman

Baccalaureate sermon, delivered by Dr. James E. Brenneman, President of Goshen College on Sunday, April 22, 2012 at the Goshen College Church-Chapel

Scripture Reading: 2 Corinthians 5:16-20

What a delight to be present together in God’s House with family and friends of our graduates from all around the world. I am reminded that the canopy of God’s grace is wide and broad, ancient and ever new creating at Goshen College that sacred space of learning, transformation and hope. Thank you for being here to celebrate with us the joy of a great commencement day.

2008, the year when many of you graduating today first came to Goshen College, was the year of Joe the Plumber, Barak Obama’s election, the year Puppycam went viral, the buzzword “Tweet” came into its own, 7” high heels were cool in Hollywood, and High School Musical 3 came out. Now, high heels lost an inch, maybe; texting has become the lingua franca; we’re in the middle of another Presidential campaign and Zac Efron has come of age in a new movie – thankfully, not HSM4. How time flies.

Don’t be surprised, however, if, someday, when you are a grandmother or grandfather and after your grandchild figures out when you came to Goshen College, they exclaim, “Wow, grandma, you mean you lived through the Great Recession of 2008? You probably don’t need reminding that just two months after most of you arrived on campus, the second biggest stock market crash in history shook our world, which quite literally made the usual first year stressors of college (new roommates, time management, relationships, grades, homesickness) seem like a whole lot of piling on.

To top it off, you began and endured throughout most of your college years two wars, non-stop political campaigning, and a near total loss in our national and civil discourse. And bookending your experience in this your last year, we experienced the unprecedented tragic death of our esteemed Professor of Biology, Jim Miller.

Wendell Berry, in his essay, “The Purpose of a Coherent Community,” [in The Way of Ignorance, 76-77]. reminds us that “there is no escape from the issue of context.” If it is true, as he says, that “the context of everything is everything else,” then the context and times of your college experience have meant that all the usual debates that happen on every college campus almost every year – conversations about the meaning and practice of faith, justice, patriotism, decision-making, identity, inclusion, politics — took on the zeitgeist (the spirit) of the times in which we live. Even though we sometimes like to see ourselves as not being swept up by cultural norms (i.e., being counter-cultural), it seems we have not been immune from the cultural influence of our fragmented times.

In times like these, various fears and paranoias are nourished in the extreme by prophets on all sides of the ideological spectrum, exacerbated by the likes of Rush Limbaugh on one side and Bill Maher on the other. Today, even our churches, while less segregated by race (at least ideologically speaking) than in the past, are more segregated by political ideology and political party than ever before. We are quite literally, “Divided by God” as a recent NY Times article declared [Ross Douthat, The New York Times, Sunday Review, April, 8, 2012, 1 & 6.]. Christ seems less and less the center of our common faith, than whether we are Democrat or Republican or a Tea Partier or Occupy Wall-Streeter. Into this milieu, your college careers unfolded.

So, I find it wonderfully refreshing that the Baccalaureate Committee of your peers chose for our sending message, the wonderful, powerful, liberating call of the Apostle Paul writing to the Corinthian church and so also writing to us. St. Paul calls us to become Ambassadors/Diplomats: “Ambassadors of Christ!” Ambassadors of hope. Diplomats of Reconciliation!

In a world where everyone on all sides of every issue in whatever profession considers himself or herself a prophet, do we really need more prophets running around? In a world where everyone on all sides of every issue considers himself or herself to be “rightly dividing the Word of Truth,” do we really need more clever exegetes and historical deconstructionists? In a world gone wild with moral ambiguity and indulgence, do we simply need ever more rigid legal and ethical guidelines, judicial decisions, and coercive moral arbiters? In a world of ever more selective identity politics, do we really need more excommunications by the right or left, the red or blue, the purple or other-than-purple? I sincerely doubt it.

In the closing days of our lives together here on this campus, our sending scripture reminds us that we part having been called to be God’s representatives on earth as in heaven: Ambassadors for Christ; Diplomats of Reconciliation. We are called to bring former enemies together, to unite friend and foe alike. How radical is that? In a world fraught with ideological conflict, being an ambassador, a diplomat, may just be the most radically counter-cultural calling one could ever hope to have. To be a diplomat of reconciliation is more radical than that of an apostle, a prophet, a priest; more so than a preacher, a teacher, a nurse; beyond that of an artist, an engineer, or judge. Whatever one’s major or profession, there is no greater vocation on earth. No more timely calling. None. Than the call to be an Ambassador, a Diplomat. An ambassador of Christ. A Diplomat of Reconciliation.

Jesus said in his great Sermon on the Mount, which underlies the mission of Goshen College, “if we are only friends with friends, how are we different from anyone else? Anyone can do that. Rather, it is when we are able to befriend foes that the true miracle of our faith is made plain for all to see.” It is that ‘second-mile’ love that demonstrates whether or not we are truly Christ-followers.

Here’s how it works – as simple and as difficult as this. God came to us in Christ, while we were still enemies of God, in order to re-establish a right relationship with God. And now, God has given each and every one of us this same “ministry of reconciliation.” Our greatest challenge going forward, especially in the day and age in which we live, may simply be to deeply befriend someone with whom we have profound disagreements.

The late great ethicist and theologian, Dr. James McClendon, a long-time friend, and sometime attender of our congregation in Pasadena, wrote a three volume systematic theology from an Anabaptist perspective. This work was his “last will and testament,” his magnum opus, the crown jewel of his life’s work. In his dying days, he literally thought he might not be able to finish the third and most significant volume of this trilogy. And so he turned to someone he trusted who knew him so well as to be able to complete his work for him. Someone who would write with the same voice, the same feeling, who would defend and reason with the same force and sense as he himself would were he to do so. The great irony of this relationship was that he and his friend disagreed on some of the most profound issues of life and faith. You see, his friend was an atheist. And at Dr. McClendon’s memorial service, his atheist friend eulogized Dr. McClendon by saying he knew of no other person who so profoundly showed him the meaning of the Christian call to be an Ambassadors of Reconciliation, a Diplomat for Christ.

I just returned from leading a group to one of the most conflict-riddled places on planet earth, Palestine/Israel. While there, we visited one of the great Christian leaders of that region, Rev. Zoughbi Zoughbi, founder and director of Wi’am, the Palestinian Conflict Resolution Center. He also happens to be the father of GC Junior, Marcelle Zoughbi. [I know some of you students here this morning spent last summer helping with Wi’am’s summer programs for kids. Zoughbi asked me to bring you greetings and heartfelt appreciation for your labor of love in this troubled land]. Wi’amin Arabic simply means, “cordial relationships” – developing relationships across profound differences. That is exactly what Zoughbi Zoughbi and his team do, day in and day out, year after year.

In the greatest of ironies, in the birthplace of Jesus, the little town of Bethlehem – where this Center is following Apostle Paul’s call to break down the walls of separation between enemies – a 30 foot high dividing wall between Israel and Palestine literally passes right along the property line of the Center. There in the garden, with a machine-gun laden watch-tower looking down on us, we gathered to have coffee with Zoughbi and his staff. You see Wi’am believes peacemaking and reconciliation often happens over coffee – sip by sip – in what Zoughbi calls ‘citizen-diplomacy.’ Zoughbi and his team have worked a lifetime to break down walls of separation between people – especially between Jews, Christians and Muslims — people who claim a common God through their common ancestor, Abraham – now locked in and traumatized by years of violent confrontation. In our parting, he presented me with the stole I am wearing today (red stole with Jerusalem crosses). I told him I would wear it at this service as a visual reminder of our common bond in Christ, our common call to be “Ambassadors of Reconciliation” and our solidarity with him in his holy work.

In a world of division, demonization, and polarization without end, as Wendell Berry reminds us, “the ground of our reconciliation will have to be larger than the ground of our divisions” going forward. The role of prophet may just have to give way a bit to that of diplomat, ambassador, and reconciler.

I know many of you. I have watched many of you work hard to befriend and get to know others who are very different than yourselves. Keep up the good work. You are an inspiration to me and others who see such gracious love on display and in action. I hope all of us leave GC with friendships of a lifetime, not just with those who are a lot like us, but also, those with whom we still have significant differences.

Being Ambassadors of Reconciliation isn’t about being the perfect diplomat. Rather, it’s a calling to live the kind of life that models what it means to be forgiven by and reconciled to God so that we can do the same for those around us, foe and friend alike.

As you depart, may you leave as diplomats, ambassadors of a life-changing story – hopefully learned and reinforced throughout your years here – a story shaped by the five core values of which you are now so familiar: to be compassionate peacemakers, passionate learners, servant leaders, global citizens, centered in the life and teachings of Christ (Christ-centered).

Would that you find that friend or better, make a friend, who is so different from you that the opportunity to be an Ambassador of Reconciliation, a Diplomat of Hope, is truly an opportunity of a lifetime. Would that you make a friend – someone you trust or trusts you no matter your profound differences. In so doing, your lives will truly manifest the kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven. In so doing, healing and hope will be born anew in this broken world little by little, peace by peace.