2014 Commencement | Director's Remarks

Remarks to the ISM Graduating Class of 2014

Offered at the Commencement Banquet on May 18 at the Graduate Club

Martin D. Jean

Photo by Robert A. Lisak

Every year, as Commencement approaches and we anticipate what’s to come for all of you, we also inevitably look back on where we began the academic year, many months ago, in the cooling days of late summer. We shared in many experiences:  a massive hymn festival; Bach cantatas here and in Boston; guest choirs; the Camerata Advent concert; films; lectures;fellows lunches; student recitals; daily chapel; a vast and rich array of courses; a Bach passion where the Evangelist did his first run-through on the stage of Alice Tully Hall, no less; Haydn’s Harmony Mass; Honegger’s King David; art exhibitions; conferences; special performances – and the list goes on.


If you compare this to other years, in many ways this was business as usual, but of course, along the way, we took special pause to note the milestone of our fortieth year, and to give thanks for the great blessing of this ISM.


Recall this phrase from our founding letter:


A peculiar danger of our own society is that so many of us are now so well off. The “do-it-yourself” society is in danger of developing a contempt for the minority of the poor, and disadvantaged, and helpless. In recalling us to such concern and to the unpalatable truth that we save our lives only by losing them, the compassionate artist has often been the best preacher among us.


You may remember that at our first colloquium I suggested we think of this gift as being given “for the sake of … the world”, but perhaps a more positive way to describe the reason for our work is that we do it “for the life of… the world.”


My colleagues in liturgy will be the first to remind us that this Johannine phrase from Jesus’ exposition on “the bread of life” is the title of a little book by the Orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemann. In it, Schmemann begins by paraphrasing Feuerbach’s dictum “you are what you eat.” In other words, the type of food you put into yourself (and by extension, the type that you give to others) becomes the life that you and they will lead. For Schmemann, this was not some blanket defense of church’s sacramental duties, but rather a way to get to “mission,” and “meal” might be one metaphor or example of what that mission is (in his case, the Church’s mission).


Humans are born hungry as we know, often seeking after anything that will sate our cravings. Of course, the health and fitness experts are eager to tell us what (and what not) to eat, and my point here is not to advocate for one nutrient over another, but to acknowledge that there are radically different diets the world over. Bach and Barth aren’t the only kinds of “food,” after all!


In fact, rather than thinking of “mission” as a product or commodity that one provides, Schmemann saw mission in the Christian worldview as one where God’s kingdom breaks into our present situation. While he didn’t describe this too precisely, he did admit, however, that with this in-breaking comes peace and joy. For him, how did he know it was there? How did he know the mission was working? It worked when no matter where he looked, he would find Christ.


You all came to this place one, two, or three years ago, each with your own sense of mission. Some of your perspectives might have a great deal in common with Schmemann’s, others not so much. However, as I’ve gotten to know you over the years, you all seem to have something important in common. You have a vision: a vision that sees that the world can be more whole, more just, more equitable; a vision that is not satisfied with the status quo; a vision that is fueled primarily by love.


We have done our best to stand by you to help you shape and enhance this vision, and to give you the tools and confidence to enact it, so that the music you make, the sermons you preach, the images you shape, the words you craft, the ideas you explore may all come in service of this love that you have – of this love that’s been given to you.


Tomorrow you receive your diplomas. Tonight, for the work you have done in this place, we award you the ISM certificate with equal seriousness, testifying to ways you have grown beyond your own field, and to our high hopes for the leaderly contributions you will go on to make “for the life of the world.”