Harvard professor, minister urges UPSem graduates to care for fractured world

RICHMOND, VA (May 25, 2018) – The Rev. Dr. Jonathan L. Walton pulled no punches in his May 19 sermon delivered to the 2018 graduates of Union Presbyterian Seminary and the 400 family members and friends who packed Ginter Park Presbyterian Church near the Richmond campus.

“You have researched and written about moral frameworks and ethical traditions, only to find that you live in a world that rewards deceit and deception,” said the professor and minister in the Memorial Church of Harvard University. “We’ve sacrificed the eternal truth of Jesus’ teachings for the falsehoods of an emperor without any clothes. This is why the question you must answer and answer inside of you is ‘Who cares?’” he said.

The question for the graduates that he posed was not what they will do but who they are called to be. And the answer, he said, is found in John 4 in Jesus’ encounter with the woman at the well.

The woman, he reminded the graduates, was a Samaritan, a people considered by Jews to be no better than dogs, one of “them.” But to Jesus, it did not matter who or what she was. He did not need to know her circumstances.

“Jesus’ treatment of her was not predicated on her goodness any more than her marginalization was predicated on her sinfulness,” said Dr. Walton. “How deviant or holy her personal lifestyle was to Jesus of little consequence. He sees a woman who is in desperate need of respect and recognition. The story instructs us that it is not about who she is. It’s about who He is.”

Dr. Walton told the graduates they are entering a world that is unapologetically fractured, intentionally estranged, and arrogantly alienated.

“We have hung hateful labels around the necks of entire groups,” he said, “and built xenophobic walls around ourselves. We need now, as much as ever, men and women who can bear witness to this Jesus,” he said, pointing to the Bible, open to John 4. “This is the One who cares.”

“So, who cares that you’re graduating today? God cares,” he said. “When you and I can treat fellow humans with the grace and compassion of God, we’re reflecting God’s love, God’s kindness, and God’s grace toward us. Let us go and do likewise.”

President Brian K. Blount

Reflecting on Dr. Walton’s sermon, UPSem President Brian K. Blount recalled a question he asked himself often when he was in seminary was “Why am I here?” drawing sympathetic laughter from the UPSem graduates.

That question, he noted, comes to Jesus right after the opening of his ministry. Jesus explains that he would get up and go into ministry. It was hard for his disciples to understand this answer. But it becomes clear when he breaks all expectations of the kind of religious person he is so he can truly represent what God is doing in the world and to prepare himself in contemplation to do the hard things he would have to do in ministry.

“That’s why you were in seminary, said Dr. Blount. “Contemplation, meditation, study, hard work. But it’s all been for a purpose. To go forth and break down the boundaries that separate God’s people.”

In closing the commencement exercises of UPSem’s 206th session, he told the 33 graduates that, in many ways, the beginning of Jesus’ ministry is a teaching moment at the beginning of their ministries.

“As you go forth from this place. You go forth recognizing that you came here for a purpose so that you could be sent out there for the same purpose Jesus was sent — to represent God in all the dangerous places.”

Watch video of the full commencement ceremony.

Watch the Rev. Dr. Jonathan L. Walton’s sermon in 360.

View and download photos of the ceremony.