Addressing the Class of 2023 at Davis & Elkins College during Friday’s baccalaureate service, the Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson, II assured graduates that “it doesn’t matter if you came here cum laude or thank you Lordy. If you wear that tassel today, say thank you for the amazing way family and friends have nurtured you.”

Nelson, the Stated Clerk of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), was introduced by Davis & Elkins president the Rev. Chris Wood, who told those gathered, “It never ceases to amaze me the Creator of the universe is individually interested in our lives.”

J. Herbert Nelson, II leads worship at the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board meeting in May 2017. Image by Randy Hobson.

J. Herbert Nelson, II leads worship at the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board meeting in May 2017. Image by Randy Hobson.

“Know that God delights in your accomplishments and your good deeds,” Wood told the graduates of Davis & Elkins, a PC(USA)-related college in Elkins, West Virginia. “You are the blessings for which we are thanking God.”

Psalm 47 and Acts 1:1-11 were the scriptural texts for Friday’s service, held on campus at the Harper McNeeley Auditorium in the Myles Center for the Arts. The two-hour, 15-minute service can be viewed here.

The people who loved and cared for the graduates as they matriculated — parents, siblings and friends “who helped you get through tests and who prayed for you” — represent “the fullness of the Scripture read today,” especially the Acts pericope, Nelson said. After the resurrection, “the disciples are walking with Jesus the miracle worker, the one who gave doubting disciples [an idea of] what it really meant to look into the deep wells of their spirit and walk by faith, not by sight. The one who said, ‘follow me,’ and they took time and learned so much from him … Jesus said to his disciples and to us today that nothing is going to be easy. But we surely know there is a power that can keep us walking with others try to deter us.”

“What a powerful story,” Nelson told the graduates, “to think about the miracle-working power of one who never threw anybody away.”

“You didn’t get here by yourself. You couldn’t,” Nelson said. If his own mother had been present Friday, “she would be shouting, ‘Thank you, Jesus!’ just like she did on the day of my graduation [from Johnson C. Smith University]. ‘That boy got out of college. Thank God!’”

After Jesus was crucified, “those closest to him begin to struggle. They are afraid, and they don’t know what to do,” Nelson said. “Where do you turn? The text today helps with that struggle.”

“I know who you are — not necessarily personally, but I know the journey of trying to get a tassel when you’ve struggled during the pandemic,” Nelson told graduates. “I know some of you tried to quit. But you knew there was always a power walking with you, reminding you that you don’t walk alone. The fact is you’re still here and you’ve crossed the finish line. You have family members right next to you and, most of all, a God who never failed you but brought you thus far.”

“It’s not meant for ‘me,’ ‘my’ and ‘I,’” Nelson said. “It’s about holding people’s hand while you run the race. We need people who can stand in the midst of us and help us.”

Jesus asks the disciples “to continue to do the work and not bellyache how hard it is,” Nelson noted. “Jesus reminds us this world is a difficult world." Now that Davis & Elkins graduates have earned their bachelor’s degree, “We have to raise the question, ‘How will we look back and bring others who have been lost in the journey, who didn’t have the opportunities, who need your help and your hope?’ I’m pressing you today because we often neglect what powers much greater than we are have done to bring us to this point. Every breath we take is truly a powerful essence of what God really is.”

Jesus orders his disciples to the Upper Room, where “they fought and argued with one another. Read your Bible,” Nelson urged those in attendance. “We do that sometimes too.”

“You will turn a tassel today,” Nelson told the graduates. “But I want you to remember that tassel doesn’t make everything right. What makes it right is endurance — knowing that we don’t walk alone … Take a bow and give thanks, because now there is another mission: the world needs you.”

“The world you’re about to enter is in a mess,” Nelson said. “We’ve got a lot to do in this world in which we live, my friends … The journey is not over. We have much to do.”

As a Presbyterian, Nelson said, “one thing I have had to deal with is the ongoing work of engaging the powers and principalities” to “help us become the people we were called to be.” We move forward in part “by looking back at the people who prayed us through. There is something in our spirit that gives us the possibility to shake up the world. I know you can do it because I know that when we stand up in the right spirit, we can sit in an Upper Room and find the answer. That is the challenge of 21st century living: how do we learn how to respect the ‘otherness’ of the other, to love people? I am convinced it will take your generational culture to transform the world.”

“I love this country. I love the church I serve, but I know we can all be better,” Nelson said. “It will have to come from the souls and hearts of those of us committed to something deeper than ourselves.”

“Go out and do the best you possibly can,” Nelson told the graduates. “Be famous if you have to, but be willing to give back and look at the cause of the crucified Jesus, who reminded us it is our life that matters … In times like these, we learn to take the best of what we have and share it, love and care for people and say thank you for what we have and be reminded that what we have comes from the Lord.”

“That’s what the mission of faith is all about,” Nelson said. “When we bind together, we can do abundantly more than we ever believed.”