Where We Came From

Professor Stephanie Paulsell delivers sermon in Memorial Church

Sermon by Professor Stephanie Paulsell, Interim Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church and Susan Shallcross Swartz Professor of the Practice of Christian Studies, Harvard Divinity School. 


Genesis 12:1-4
Hebrews 13:1-3, 16

Years ago, I visited the pilgrimage site of Glendalough in the Wicklow Mountains of Ireland, a monastic settlement founded by St. Kevin in the sixth century and destroyed by English forces in the fourteenth. I was with a group of students and faculty from a seminary in Dublin, and it was raining when we arrived — so we stayed inside for a while, wandering through a small museum exhibiting gravestones and bits of masonry and objects from the pilgrim road. I walked through with a student who had come to Ireland from his native Nigeria in order to study for the priesthood. We looked together at the various exhibits, chatting about this and that, but one artifact made us stop and stare in admiration — an intricately carved stone cross, with a circle sweeping gracefully around the point where the arms of the cross intersected. The student explained to me that the cross might have once been a waymarker on the road leading up to the settlement, where pilgrims would have paused to rest and pray. As we stood there admiring it, he turned to me and said, “Isn’t it wonderful to see where we came from?”

I hadn’t thought of that young man in a long time, until “where we came from” started turning up in our national discourse this summer. I thought of him when the president told members of congress to “go back where they came from.” And again when children in Mississippi came home from school to find their parents had been deported back to “where they came from.” And I thought of him again last week, when one of our own students was not allowed into the country to take up his place in the college. These cruelties called to mind that seminarian’s more generous understanding of who we are and where we come from — not as something that can be reduced to a point on a map, but something layered and complex and creative, criss-crossed by many different stories that overflow boundaries and borders. I found myself remembering with admiration how he stood in a quiet corner of Ireland, a place neither of us “came from,” and claimed it as a source of who we both were. “Isn’t it wonderful,” he said, “to see where we came from?”

Now, if you are a new student, or a new staff or faculty member, you might be missing very much the place you came from — or you might be enjoying a little distance from it. In either case, of course, you have brought that place and its people with you. All of us carry our cloud of witnesses around with us, the invisible presences who helped make us who we are — the parents and siblings, the friends and neighbors, the abuelas and aunties, the teachers and mentors. Sometimes, when a class is going really well, and we’re starting to understand each other and why we care about the things we care about, we can almost feel those invisible presences in the room with us; it almost feels necessary to scoot the chairs closer together to make room for them. They challenge us not to forget where we came from, to remember the questions that the places and people we came from pose, and the hopes that they embody.

But we all come from other places and people too.

Maggie read for us a story from the book of Genesis that many people of faith have woven into the story of their own lives — the story of the call of Abraham to leave his homeland and set out into the world on faith. Abraham came from the ancient city of Ur in what is today Iraq, but Jews, Muslims and Christians throughout the world trace where they came from back to him and call themselves his children. His journey echoes throughout these three great religious traditions and challenges us to enlarge our understanding of what a journey can mean. God tells Abraham to head off into the unknown not only for the good of himself and his family but for “all the families of the earth.” His journey stretches into a future he won’t live to see but which he helps prepare the way for, reaching beyond the boundaries of his particular life and becoming a part of larger journeys — the journey of God’s people, the journey of humanity through history.

The great twentieth-century Jewish theologian, Martin Buber, called Abraham the “nomad of faith.” Because Abraham was always a foreigner, always a stranger — the only land he owned at the end of his life was a burial plot. Abraham’s status as a kind of permanent resident alien laid the foundation for the powerful ethics of compassion for foreigners and strangers that echoes throughout the traditions who trace themselves to him. You were a stranger, God says, so you should welcome the strangers in your midst. You know what it is like to be vulnerable, so you must care for the vulnerable. I have not put you at each other’s mercy, God says, but placed you in each other’s care.

In the second reading, from the letter to the Hebrews in the New Testament, the author returns to the story of Abraham, and arrives at the ethical teaching Alex read for us this morning. It begins with a reference to part of Abraham’s story that we didn’t hear read this morning, but is in Genesis 18 if you want to look it up later — a story about how Abraham washed the feet of three strangers who appeared at his tent in the heat of the day and broke bread with them. “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers,” our reading insists, “for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.” The author uses the story of Abraham to argue for a radical solidarity with others, especially those suffering out of sight: “Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them,” the letter says. “Remember those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured.”

These are not easy things to imagine. But the author of this letter is trying to rouse readers to action. We won’t act if we don’t care, and we won’t care unless we can imagine what the lives of others are like. The kind of solidarity called for in this passage is dependent on our capacity for imagination — a capacity that reflects our creation in the image of God.

We’re living in a time when “where we came from” is being used to divide us from each other — a way of determining who’s in and who’s out, who belongs and who doesn’t. It’s being used to argue for a zero-sum view of the world in which our security and prosperity depends not on working together but on excluding others. And these ideas have real effects on real people’s lives — real students can’t get to their colleges, real children are separated from their parents, real patients are denied the care and the treatments they need.

And so, new students, your work is urgent. Not just your work in the sense of the job you get after graduation. But your work as students as well. We need narratives that inspire a wider welcome, calculations that are more inclusive, forms of community that enlarge our sense of what it means to be human and illuminate the connections between us.

In 1938, in her book Three Guineas, the British writer Virginia Woolf imagined what kind of education would help us resist authoritarian power in all its pageantry and violence. Her ideal college, she said, would be “an experimental college,” organized not around specialization or competition but rather combination and cooperation. The emphasis in teaching and learning, she wrote, “should be not to segregate and specialize but to combine” — and to “discover what new combinations make good wholes in human life.” “The dream of peace, the dream of freedom,” she wrote, is dependent upon “the capacity of the human spirit to overflow boundaries and make unity out of multiplicity.”

I’m not saying that Harvard is Virginia Woolf’s ideal university. It is not. For one thing, one of her most emphatic rules for her ideal university was: don’t have chapels, and we’ve already broken that one. But I am saying that I hope you will approach Harvard as if it were the school she imagined — that you listen for unexpected resonances among histories and equations and music and languages, that you ask yourself what new combinations of things will help life flourish, that you feel the claim of the journeys of others on your own, that you cultivate your imagination about what it means to be human until your own spirit overflows its boundaries.

I remember when Rev. Charles Adams preached from this pulpit during Jonathan Walton’s installation as the new Pusey Minister back in 2012. Rev. Adams mourned the fact that we often do so little with the possibilities of our humanity and encouraged us to live as the boundaries of our lives lie much further out than we think, set not by our anxieties and fears but by God. We can do so much more than we imagine, he told us; we can do what God imagines.

The God that reaches us within the boundaries of our particularity also calls us beyond those boundaries. Because we are all more than can be defined once and for all — more than what can be written in a passport, more than our jobs, more even than our callings. We are more than the schools we attend. We are more than our successes and our failures; more than our virtues and our sins. We are more than we know ourselves to be. As another Pusey Minister, Peter Gomes, loved to say: that is the good news.

When that seminarian said to me in Ireland, isn’t it wonderful to see where we came from, I think I probably nodded piously and murmured, oh yes, it is. I don’t think I understood in that moment what a radical claim he was making, for himself and for me. I think I thought he was claiming not only Glendalough, but Ireland itself, as his own — that he had been called beyond his homeland to this new place, and it had made a claim on him. I think he did mean that, but I think he may have meant more than that as well. I think he was responding to the Celtic cross we were admiring, the one that might have been a waymarker for pilgrims along the road. When he said, isn’t it wonderful to see where we came from, I think he meant that we come from people who left home like Abraham to respond to something beyond themselves, to find direction for their lives, and a way to be useful in the world. I think he meant that every time and place is full of people looking for these things, and we are part of them and they of us, we come from them, and that we can choose to join them in moving human history forward. Because, on the road, new forms of community might be discovered and practiced that could save us from narratives that obscure the connections between us and urge us to harden our borders and our hearts. The circle sweeping through the cross before which we stood swept through our distinctive histories and identities, gathering them up with all the other lives it had gathered over time — the life of Jesus, St. Kevin, and the pilgrims kneeling together by the side of the road —and set them turning together with what was still hidden and waiting inside of us.