Commencement, COVID, and Moses

Commencement, COVID, and Moses

Remarks given at Trevecca Nazarene University Commencement on May 7 and May 8, 2021.

I’ve found a close friend in the Old Testament character Moses. God gave him a job that he didn’t feel qualified for. He told Moses from the bowels of a burning bush, “Go tell Pharaoh to let my people go.” Moses tried his best to get out of the assignment, making all kind of excuses to God. But in the end, Moses surrendered to the call. But he did ask one essential question. “And when Pharaoh asks who sent me, what do I say?” God gave him an interesting answer. “Tell Pharaoh that the conjugation of the verb ‘to be’ has sent you”. Now that’s not exactly what our Bibles say, but it is what it means. The name that God gave Moses was Yahweh, or ‘the one who was and is and will be’. Or to put it another way, tell Pharaoh that the one who has always been present, who is now present, and who will always be present has sent you. At the core of Moses’ work is a God known by presence.

So Moses goes, does as God asked, and by mighty miracles delivers an enslaved people from Egypt. Had I been Moses, I would wanted to have taken my curtain call on the other side of the Red Sea and walked off into the sunset. Not so with Moses. His toughest challenges were still ahead. 40 years of wandering in a wilderness not equipped to support a traveling band of nomads. They needed water, food, encampment, social order, medicine, wise ears to hear their disagreements, and a leader who could stomach their constant griping. 

This is why Moses has become my dear friend. Leading a university through a year of COVID is a lot like leading the Israelites through the wilderness. Providing education for 4000 people when ‘gathering’ is compromised requires resources and skills that aren’t simple. And did you know that humans have different opinions about masks and social distancing and safety protocols? About whether you go face to face or stay remote, whether you open up sports competition or don’t, and whether you get vaccinated or don’t. Like Moses, I’ve learned that you can’t please everybody. And 40 years in the COVID wilderness tests the fabric of any community. For all of us, this has been a wearying year. I think I understand why Moses hit the rock.  

But in the text that was read today, things have reached a tipping point. The people have wearied of the wilderness and turned against God. They fashioned for themselves a new handmade god, a golden calf. And when Moses returns to camp he finds them dancing around the god and worshipping it. Moses is done with them. And it seems that God is too. Listen to Moses’ language – “these people that you gave me”. Not my people but your people. Moses is ready to wash his hands and walk away. And God seems ready to do the same. God will just start over again with Moses. “My presence will go with you Moses (singular) and I will give you rest”. God is telling Moses that he will start all over with him and create a people. These people can just die in the desert. If they want to follow a golden calf, they are free to. At this point, we find one of the most powerful divine-human exchanges in all of scripture. Moses contemplates the reality of existence without the presence of God and says this: “If your presence does not go with us (plural), do not lead us forward from here. For how else will it be known that we have found favor in your sight? Your presence is what distinguishes us from all the peoples on the earth.”

Did you get that? The presence of God is what makes us the people of God. Presence is our uniqueness. This is why this God became flesh and dwelt among us. This is why this God says, “I will not leave you or forsake you”. This is why this God says, “I will be with you always, even to the end of the age”.  This is why our scriptures end in Revelation with God announcing, “My home is among you. I will dwell with you and be your God and you will be my people”. 

Commencements are high moments of platitude. Go make your mark. Go stand out. Go make a difference. Go succeed. Go show the world that you are unique. Go be what no one has ever been before. Go prove that you are better than everybody else. 

I don’t know about all of that. I think it may be too much for a fragile human to shoulder as a life expectation. Because even Moses, when given the choice to be an exalted individual or to travel through the wilderness in community, chose to petition God to “go with us, be present in us and through us”. I think the option is clear. We can build our own golden calf god and go it alone. Or, we can live in messy community and reflect the image of God.

Maybe the uniqueness that the world most needs to see today is not the lone individual making their distinctive mark but people who travel in communities of witness. My deep belief is that the presence of God is the glue that holds us together. 

You are seeing the same thing I am seeing – the unraveling of our social fabric. We are splintering into tribes: Republican/Democrat, black/white, rich/poor, mask/no mask, vaccine/no vaccine, for/against. Our culture is legitimizing the cancellation of people who think differently than we do. Tribes are powering up on each other. Enemy-making has become the sport of social media. Shaming our fellow humans has become the art of excluding them. Like a people wandering in a wilderness not equipped to sustain thriving life, we are turning on each other, fashioning our golden calves, and declaring that we will not travel with “those people”.  

David Brooks, NY Times columnist, writes about simple people who live in communities where they work with their neighbors to address to address human needs – needs like child care, mentoring teens, supporting special needs children, helping a single mother, preparing food, loving the elderly. He calls these people weavers because they are binding neighbors together around human need. They are the presence of God in their space. 

My dream for Trevecca, and my daily practice as its president, is that this place be a place where the presence of God makes a distinct difference in how we do life together. I aspire to form the kind of community that the world needs us to export through our graduates. We will have the hard conversations, ask the tough questions, air our differences, debate our findings and theories but not in a way that divides us. We are all made in the image of God and are worthy of dignity and respect. We will speak to each other with grace and kindness. We will talk face to face about differences rather than launching drive-by bloggings stained with shame. We will see each other as neighbor rather than enemy. We will sacrifice our personal preference for the common good. We will lay down our life for our brother and sister. We will use any power that we have to serve those who have less and to help them stand on their feet. And in living this way, we will be weavers, a unique community in a bitterly divided world. But we are not capable of this on our own. It is the presence of God among us that empowers us to be uniquely neighborly. 

So I charge you, the graduating class of 2021 to move into your world as an expression of the presence of a God who creates communities of respect, reconciliation, peace, justice, and grace. Be the God-filled glue that allows people to come together in all their differences. Be weavers of a human tapestry in your work and neighborhood. Find your way into relationships that are messy and challenging. Stand in the middle of the people and call them to dignity.

A few weeks ago, a 3-year-old girl was killed by gun violence in North Nashville. As I watched the coverage, I saw a mother from that community rise to call her neighborhood, her people, her community to deep repentance. It was not shaming or enemy-making but the plea of a woman who wants her community to be a place where little children can grow up and thrive. She named the irresponsible behaviors. She called on everyone to step up. People like her are what the world needs right now. Will you be that person for a community yet to be formed around you?


  1. Tim Pullin says

    Thank you for this very timely and very God-inspired word, Dr. Boone.

  2. Phyllis Beam Coulter says

    Words worth keeping, repeating, living. Thank you, Dan.

  3. Dale Wine says

    Dan, I love the way God helps you be able to articulate the vision of living in this world as His people….what that should look like as we live in community…how we are to represent Christ to others who don’t know Him. Your words have inspired me from 1992-2005 when I had the privilege of serving on your staff at College Church in Bourbonnais and now as I am being impacted by you even though it is at a greater distance.

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