"When asked 'Is this the word of the Lord,' the answer ought to be 'Yes,'" African Methodist Episcopal Church bishop Vashti Murphy McKenzie told the 28 newest Beeson graduates during the December 7 commencement program.
McKenzie used the story of Moses to illustrate how God promised the "reluctant prophet in training" that he would teach him to speak and tell what him what to say.
Moses, she said, wonders why God chose him. He doesn't feel eloquent, wonders about his gifts, and is unsure what tools God gave him to handle his new assignment.
However, God's assurance that he would be with him, and his mouth, "gave Moses the confidence to preach the truth," said McKenzie.
She urged the new graduates to preach revolutionary sermons that might not be popular with some people, but "that transform lives and confront the status quo."
Moses, she said, preached to the social condition of his time, and to the perpetrators as well as to the victims. All too often, she believes, 21st century preaching doesn't confront "the powers that be," the leadership that can impact community redevelopment, sexism, racism, healthcare and other social issues.
Truth of preaching means embracing the power of God. "It will take you places that won't bless you back. We have not come to be served, but to serve," she said. "It's not about you, but about God."
McKenzie, the first woman bishop in the 200-year history of the AME church, said that she didn't truly feel like a bishop until she had scrubbed floors in a humble mission and cuddled an AIDS-infected infant that the townspeople in its African village were afraid to hold.
"God will take you from where you are and send you to where you can do the most good," said McKenzie, who serves as presiding prelate of AME's 13th Episcopal district, which includes Tennessee and Kentucky. She was appointed by president Barack Obama to serve on the President's Advisory Council of the White House Faith-Based and Neighborhood partnerships, and is the author of four books on leadership, professional growth and other biblical topics.
She was accompanied to the Beeson service by her husband, retired National Basketball Association player Stan McKenzie, who is now supervisor of missions for the AME Church.
The Beeson service also included the school's traditional prayer of consecration and blessing of each student in which each Beeson faculty member prays individually for each student.
The fall graduation roster includes one master of theological studies degree recipient, 21 master of divinity degree recipients and six doctor of ministry degree recipients. They hail from 13 states.
The young daughter of D. Min. graduate Clifford Daniel Gillenwater was entertained by her grandparents in the foyer of Andrew Gerow Hodges Chapel while her mother, Hanna, observed the meditation time during the blessing of the students.
"He had on a jacket," was the best way two-year-old Lydia could describe her dad, who she had earlier watched receive his diploma while wearing the traditional academic gown and regalia of doctoral candidates.
Gillenwater is pastor of Eastern Oaks Baptist Church in Montgomery, Ala.