The Rev. Dr. Emmanuel K. Akyeampong, Minister for Worship and Formation in the Memorial Church; Ellen Gurney Professor of History and Professor of African and African American Studies; Oppenheimer Faculty Director of the Harvard University Center for African Studies. Photo by Jeffrey Blackwell/Memorial Church Communications.
By the Rev. Dr. Emmanuel K. Akyeampong,
Minister for Worship and Formation in the Memorial Church
Ellen Gurney Professor of History and Professor of African and African American Studies
Oppenheimer Faculty Director of the Harvard University Center for African Studies
(The following is a transcript from the service audio)
Let us pray. Lord God, as we ponder your word and seek to apply it to our lives, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable to you. Amen.
I have been a professor at Harvard for 28 years now. Over such a long period, one accumulates stories. Some of my most fascinating stories are by taxi drivers who drove me from Logan airport to Harvard. This was before the advent of Uber and Lyft. I have had some of the most erudite taxi drivers who gave me many lectures on the history of Harvard. One stand out though, for his knowledge on Harvard's architecture. I would not be surprised if he had majored in art history and architecture in college. These stories by taxi drivers, I suspect, were elicited by the odd detection of an accent in my voice. They assumed I was visiting Harvard. And so told me about the university.
The approach to Harvard from Memorial Drive shows these colored domes on top of the houses. The taxi driver told me about the houses with the domes or cupolas. They are distinct colors in the architectural history. So I learned that Dunster House is distinguished by its gold and crimson dome. The cupola with the blue color rises above Winthrop House. Eliot House's cupola with the green dome has been described as among the loveliest on campus. I looked these up online for this sermon, but I first heard of them years ago from a taxi driver. These taxi drivers are very proud of Harvard, almost in a proprietary way.
Another set of stories comes from applicants to the Harvard South Africa Fellowship Program, which the center for African studies overseas, on behalf of the Office of the President. I direct the Center for African Studies. The program was established by Harvard President, Derek Bok, in 1979 for mid-career south African professionals who have been disadvantaged by apartheid. It pays for them to spend a year at Harvard, and many have pursued degrees and programs in Harvard's professional schools and the faculty of arts and sciences. Almost every applicant tells the story of a Harvard alum they knew in South Africa who is a leader in their field. They are inspired by this alum and believe a year at Harvard will be a game changer for their careers. In short, Harvard has a reputation for training leaders.
Where am I going with these stories about Harvard? These stories are very connected with our scripture readings for today. Two themes stand out in the readings from Psalm 1:32 and John 18, kinship or kingdom and truth. Harvard has a global reputation for training leaders. Perhaps we have trained more heads of state around the world than any institution of higher learning. Twenty-three presidents and 29 prime ministers. So Harvard has produced political leaders.
Our university also has a very distinctive motto. Veritas, the Latin word for truth. In the exchange between Pilot and Jesus, two key issues come up. The first dealt with the nature of Jesus's kingdom, as the Jews had accused him of arrogating to himself, the title of king. Making him, the Jews argued, a pretender, and a rival to Caesar, as governor of the Roman province of Judea. Jesus's claim to kinship would be an immediate political threat to Pilot.
The second was about truth. Jesus informed Pilot, that he had come into the world to testify to truth. Pilot retorted, rhetorically, "What is truth?" and walked away without waiting for an answer. In our present world, where truth has become relative with fake news and alternative truths, what is truth? And how does an institution like Harvard forge leaders who lead in truth?
A subtext in both scriptures is not just the nature of a kingdom, but how the kingdom's spirit is reflected in the character of its citizens or followers. In our reading from Psalm 1:32, the psalmist quotes an alleged oath by David to find the Lord a dwelling place. And happy that he had built himself a house of cedar, while the arc of the Lord resided in a tent. David had brought the ark to Jerusalem, but the temple was yet to be built.
David's oath elicited a reciprocal vow from the Lord. The Lord swore an oath to David to make one of his sons, his heir to the truth. This vow or promise could exist in perpetuity. If David's descendants kept the laws, covenant and laws, then David's sons would sit on his throne forever. How did David model kingship for his sons, that they would lead in truth and secure David's legacy in perpetuity? We know what transpired after David's death.
Solomon, the chosen heir, had a glorious start with the building and consecration of the temple in Jerusalem. Blessed by the Lord with wisdom and riches beyond compare, Solomon went after foreign women and their guards. Lost their favor of the Lord, which resulted in the division of the kingdom, under his son, Rehoboam, into the Southern and Northern kingdoms. Solomon's own dissolution after a rather a life of adventurous in pursuit of earthly pleasures and goals. This pursuit in the book of Ecclesiastes. The kings in both the Northern and the Southern kingdoms continued this waywardness, leading to the conquest and exile of the Israelites, the Northern kingdom by Assyria, the Southern kingdom by Babylon. The Babylonians destroyed the temple David vowed to build for the Lord, a vow which was fulfilled by Solomon.
Jesus sought to model a different kingdom for his followers. He struggled to get his vision of his kingdom through to his disciples, who were hung up on traditional understandings of kingship and kingdoms. They dreamt about the imminent kingdom and how they would hold positions of influence.
On the road to Capernaum, in Mark chapter nine, the disciples argued amongst themselves on who would be the greatest. The disciples seemed not to get it, because earlier on in Mark chapter eight, Jesus had predicted his death and resurrection. Peter quickly took Jesus aside and rebuked him. How could the Messiah, who was supposed to usher in a new reign, die? Jesus in turn, rebuked Peter, calling him Satan. For you are setting your mind, not on divine things, but on human things. Peter's desire for an ethic kingdom still lingered, and he was willing to fight for it. In the garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus was arrested by soldiers and the crowd, Peter was quick to draw his sword and cut off the right ear of the high priest's servant, Malchus. Jesus ordered Peter to put would his sword in his sheath. "Am I not to drink the cup that the father has given me?", Jesus asked Peter. With the death and resurrection of Jesus, the disciples apprehended the truth of the gospel and the teachings of Jesus.
Now advocates of a different kingdom, a sphere of belief that testified to the truth of Christ being. Several of the disciples of Jesus died as martyrs. But what is truth? The question Pilot asked Jesus. Pilot discerned that what was being contested by the Jewish leaders and Jesus was not about some factual truth. This was an existential question. And for Pilot, an issue of Jewish religion. The gospel of John makes clear that Jesus's claim was theological and not historical.
Last Thursday, on November 18th, the Dean of Social Sciences, Larry Bobo, convened a virtual panel of Harvard professors, to discuss the theme, fighting truth decay. I joined in eagerness, as I worked on my sermon for today. It featured Naomi Oreskes from the history of science, two professors of psychology, Steven Pinker and Daniel Gilbert, and an economist, Edward Glaeser. It was a fascinating discussion. But the focus was on factual truths, such as in science, and the veracity of scientific evidence in areas like climate change, evolution, and COVID 19 and masking mandates. To fight truth decay, Steven Pinker, alleged the need to become more rational, ensure that the norms of rationality are promoted. That the tools of formal rationality become second nature. And that institution like ours, with rationality promoting rules, are safeguarded.
I wish they had included a theologian on the panel. Naomi Oreskes opined, that science does not speak to the existence of God and the meaning of life. This is not the domain of science. Stephen Pinker, contrasted realist versus mythological beliefs. Situating religion and national myths and their mythological beliefs. But for the early church, members of which had seen and touched the resurrected Christ, this was veritas, the truth of the gospel.
Paul, in First Corinthians 15, would restate the truth of this good news. And I quote Paul, "For I handed unto you, as of first importance, what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures and that he appeared to Cephas." That is Peter. "Then to the 12. Then he appeared to more than 500 brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me." It is this truth that the early church preached, and the living witnesses were proof of the message of the cross. For Paul, the legal scholar, it was important that this message be unadulterated, as he puts it, "That your faith should not be in human wisdom, but in the power of God."
Naomi Oreskes, in last Thursday's panel, made an important distinction in what appears to be the contestation of science. It is not that science is experiencing a crisis of trust, but scientists, whose motives have become suspect in the public eye. This is perhaps not surprising. Science can produce scientists, but it cannot forge character. This is the domain of our faith traditions, which privileged the search for truth and living with integrity.
The history of Harvard's motto, veritas, is interesting in this regard. Adopted as Harvard's motto in 1643, it was set aside for almost two centuries. Instead, in 1650, the Harvard Corporation chose as the university's motto, In Christi Gloriam, Latin for the glory of Christ. This was the truth the university wanted to proclaim. Veritas resurfaced as the university's motto in 1836, for the 200th anniversary of Harvard. It was lost again, and finally reclaimed as Harvard's motto in the 1880s.
Considering Harvard's international status, and its multiple faith communities, veritas is an appropriate motto perhaps, that In Christi Gloriam, for it embraces all faith traditions in their search for truth, and their values that underscore living life with integrity.
I believe the production of knowledge at Harvard should not be divorced from the engagement of truth that our faith communities pursue. Then, we will produce, not just leaders in various disciplinary fields, but leaders who lead in truth. That is the essence of veritas.