Baccalaureate Sermon 1998
The Rev. Catherine Quehl-Engel
Graduation day speeches are often about achievement and success. I’m going to do something a bit different this morning. Like my childhood mentor, Father Campion, I’m going to preach the Gospel of Hope by telling a story about failure. Father Campion was my role model while growing up. You may think that odd--a good Protestant girl from Monroe, Wisconsin, deciding, at age 13, that she wanted to be like the local Catholic priest when she grew up....like our local priest who served my hometown as a hospital chaplain.
I studied him, what he said, and how he said it. For four years, I listened to his baccalaureate sermons at Monroe High. You see, every year the seniors voted for Father to give that message. It didn’t matter if you weren’t Catholic. We kids were like the Lutherans in Lake Wobegon, Minnesota, who’d sneak over to talk with Father Emil, the priest at Our Lady of Perpetual Responsibility. Like those Lake Wobegon Lutherans, we Protestant kids from Monroe liked consulting a Catholic priest for a second opinion....just in case.
Deep down, I think we wanted Father to give that message because he spoke of something all of us feared about our futures but were too afraid to name. He spoke of failure. He openly named it. Then--as if no one of us in that small Wisconsin town knew--he’d tell us what it was like for him to be on skid row. He’d share his own mistakes and mess-ups. And somehow, to hear a priest--a role model for righteousness--speak so honestly about his humanness gave us hope for our own lives.
Class of 1998, you aren’t a failure. In fact, surrounding you this morning are people who are so proud of you: your professors, mentors, family and friends--all of whom stand before God at this moment in celebration of your life. That’s got to feel great. Yet we gather this morning not only to celebrate and praise you for what you’ve accomplished, but also to tend to the musings and longings of the soul. To offer you soul food, spiritual nourishment, and HOPE for your life journey.
Like Jesus did in good rabbinical form, I’m not going to lecture. Rather, I’m going to tell you a story. It’s a story about a flawed biblical hero, and I think it’s a relevant tale for your own lives because it too is about fear, failure, and wrestling with the direction of one’s life. It is not so much a story about our faithfulness as it is about God’s faithfulness. It is a story about how God’s redeeming love graces our lives, claiming us, sustaining us, and naming us precious despite our own efforts.
The setting is soon after the crucifixion of Jesus by Rome. According to the story, Jesus has already risen from the dead, first appearing to the faithful, former prostitute, Mary Magdalene, then later to the disciples. Now the risen Jesus is revealing himself for the third time before Simon Peter and the boys.
A Baptist preacher, James Somerville asks: "Why does Jesus make an encore appearance for the third time? What kind of encore can you play after you’ve risen from the dead (Christian Century, April 15, 1998)?" Like our dead with us, perhaps there was some unfinished business Jesus needed to take care of before his friends could let him go.
At the beginning of the epilogue, the disciples had gathered by the Sea of Galilee. Simon Peter is there along with James, John, and the gang. What they are doing there we can only guess. Finally, Peter says to the boys "I’m going fishin’," and they offer to go with him (Somerville).
Earlier the resurrected Jesus reappeared, speaking words of loving peace to the disciples even though they had previously abandoned him, having seemingly failed in the disciple business. He spoke of forgiveness. He even commissioned these flawed people to spread the gospel of forgiveness and loving grace, perhaps because they themselves knew what it was like to mess up big time, yet to still be loved and deemed valuable by God.
Except for Peter. Peter was still feeling guilty. He couldn’t shake the memory of how he failed. Just as you and your parents and faculty have big dreams for your life, so there were big expectations of Simon Peter. He was supposed to be the rock upon which the Church would be built. To help you grasp the pressure he must have felt, let’s say that if Simon Peter was going through commencement today, he’d be Valedictorian and Magna Cum Laude, and the other disciples just Cum Laude, Laude or no Laude at all. "Lordy, Lordy, thank God he just graduated," is what my Nana used to say. But that simply was not good enough for Peter. He wanted to be the BEST and, if I remember correctly, he was among those who, at one time, quibbled over who would get the favorite disciple-of-the-year award and be part of the platform party closest to Jesus in the great hereafter.
But he messed up. Like all the other graduates from discipleship school, Peter experienced failure. He promised Jesus it would never happen; he’d never desert or deny him. But he did. So, after beating himself up over his failure and imperfection, Peter did what many folks do when we don’t succeed. He quits. He goes back to fishing, back to his old life before he ever met Jesus.
But to make matters worse, it seems that Peter can’t succeed at fishing either. As the gospel text puts it, "that night they caught nothing." Can’t you just see Peter standing there in his boat, pulling in nets as empty as his dreams (Somerville)? That, of course, is our fear too, isn’t it? Even the one thing he thought he could do well, he can’t do. Hence, Jesus’ need to make a third encore appearance.
Just after daybreak a stranger calls from shore. "Caught anything boys?" "No, no," they reply. "Well, why don’t you try casting off the other side of the boat?" said the stranger. They do so, and could barely haul the net in because there were so many fish. All that abundance. All that grace. Now the last time we heard such a fish story Simon Peter was experiencing his original call to become a disciple. According to the Gospel of Luke, Simon Peter was so overwhelmed by that boat full of flappin’ fish--that divine unmerited gift of abundance--that Peter fell on his knees, saying "Go away." "Go away from me, Lord. I don’t deserve this. I’m not good enough. I’ll disappoint you. I’ll fail. I’m a sinner. I’m a human being!"
But Jesus just stood there saying "Don’t be afraid. Don’t be afraid...why don’t you come work for me anyway."
Could Peter be feeling any less afraid now--in the wake of his failure as a disciple--as he did in that original call to become one?
An odd thing then happens. The gospel text reads "When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the sea." Don’t you think that’s weird? To put your clothes on to go for a swim? Of course, it’s odd to fish naked, too.
Now my dad--not Bob Engel whom some of you know--but my other dad--has been known to fish like Peter in the buff, but he lives in California; and that’s only when his fishing boat has problems, so he strips down before jumping into the water in order to keep his clothes dry. Actually, the last time this happened, Dad jumped in expecting ten feet of water and only ended up with two. There he was, a 60-year-old naked guy from Green Bay, Wisconsin, standing on a sandbar in the middle of a lake with water up to his knee caps. And he wonders why the neighbors talk.
My point with all this is that if Peter’s putting clothes on to SWIM toward Jesus, we can assume that there’s something symbolic going on. Perhaps something along the lines of Peter feeling his human frailties exposed, and out of a sense of shame over his failure, clothes himself before encountering the former teacher whom he loves. What would they say to each other once he reached shore? How would he explain that he quit trying...that after all his hard work in discipleship school, he quit his job, and put a sign outside his door saying "gone fishing?"
A soggy wet Peter reaches shore. Jesus makes a little breakfast, and an awkward conversation begins; perhaps not all that unlike your future class reunion dinner, your twentieth class reunion dinner when you show up to find that the only seat available is next to the ex-boyfriend who dumped you, the freshman roommate you never forgave, the person you and your friends picked on...the professor whose statistics class you royally bombed. These people are well aware of your flaws. And that feels scary.
In this climactic face-to-face encounter, Jesus asks Peter three times how he feels about him. Interestingly, in some translations, the biblical text has Jesus addressing Peter as Peter son of Jonah. This is interesting, because the Book of Jonah is yet another whale of a fish story involving a failed character--the failed prophet Jonah--who had a difficult time accepting and extending God’s loving mercy, forgiveness and grace.
Though it pains Peter that Jesus repeats the question "do you love me" three times, it is three times that Jesus extends grace. "Feed my lambs," says Jesus. "Tend my sheep." Imagine the guts it took for Peter to face his failure and then to receive these words and job offer back. That, by the way, is the difference between Simon Peter and Judas. All the disciples--not just Judas--messed up. As William Sloane Coffin points out, the difference is that Peter and the boys came back for their forgiveness but Judas never did ("Easter and Forgiveness" Living Pulpit, Jan/March 1998).
The second powerful message of this encounter is that despite Peter’s failures, God still uses this flawed man for something worthwhile. Perhaps Peter is named Rock of the Church so that you and I can remember that about our own lives. For if God could use a flawed man as a biblical hero, imagine what God can do with you and me.
As God spoke to Peter, so God speaks to us. When we have tried to be good people, good students, good administrators and faculty; when we’ve tried to be good daughters and sons, good husbands, wives or parents, and it seems as if we’ve made a shamble of our work, families and lives...when responsibilities are great and odds against us seem overwhelming, and we are most aware of our own weaknesses and shortcomings, God speaks to us with words of hope and persistence as Jesus did for Peter when he fell on his knees in utter despair. God’s Word in the midst of our words is "Don’t be afraid."
"Don’t be afraid said Jesus to a flawed fisherman turned biblical hero and rock of the Church. In spite of the failure. In spite of road blocks, rejection letters and lame excuses--go on. Don’t be afraid. In spite of unrealistic expectations you and others put on yourself--just go on. Don’t be afraid. For in the midst of our words about each other and ourselves, God’s Word appears. God’s redeeming love graces our lives, claiming us, and naming us precious despite our own efforts. "Where can I go from your spirit?" cries the Psalmist. "Where can I flee from your presence? IF I ascend to heaven, you are there. IF I make my bed in hell and my life’s a mess, you are there. IF I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right had shall hold me fast (Psalm 139:7-10).
Earlier this spring, my Dad celebrated his 60th birthday. There was an intimate party with family and friends, including a group of men calling themselves "Repotters." These are successful, brass-ring, overachieving men who--in their 50s and 60s--had to "repot" or reinvent their lives in the wake of an unexpected, devastating loss of career, health, marriage, or child. We said things to Dad and he to us that folks usually don’t share until it is too late--intensely honest things.
I’d like to tell you what Dad read--a quote by William James--because he shared it for our benefit as much as for his own. He said:
I am done with great things...big things...and big success. I am for those tiny, invisible, molecular moral forces that work from individual to individual, through the crannies of the world, like so many rootlets, or like capillaries oozing of water yet which, if you give them time, will rend the hardest moment of man’s pride.
"Feed my lambs," said Jesus. "Tend my sheep."
Then I risked saying the following to my Dad: I said:
"Dad. There have often been times when I thought you tried too hard to be successful--that the drive for money, power, and prestige were detracting from what I, as your daughter, cherished as your best attributes: your tenderness, humor, compassion, and thirst for learning."
But obviously there are issues here related to societal expectations of men that I"ll never fully understand. Expectations of husbands and fathers as providers; expectations of sons who grew up not clearly hearing and knowing how precious and loved they are by their own fathers.
Yet thank God for the drive and work ethic. It has taken us both far. It’s the stuff Max Weber attributes to the rise of capitalism! But we have had to learn lessons about grace; about our inherent worth as beloved sons and daughter of God, despite our own efforts. You have tried to teach me this as only a wounded healer could.
I then shared with Dad the following childhood memory. I recalled a weekend in which he visited my brother, Scott and me. I was in junior high, and though we talked over the phone every Sunday, I was anxious to bring Dad up to speed on all that I was and did in his absence from my life. I wanted him to be proud of me. So I brought a bag of my trophies and ribbons to his motel room and spread them out on the bed. He praised me briefly, then brushed their relevance aside--not in a cruel way, but in an educational way.
He told me that I didn’t need to show him silver and gold metal in order to prove how important I was to him. And I love him for that.
And then I said to my Dad, on his 60th birthday, "Dad, I can share my own vulnerabilities, failures and self-doubts with you, in part because I am assured of your unconditional love, but also--and HERE’S THE KEY--because you have risked facing and sharing your own mistakes, flaws, and failure, and thus humanness. In short, you’ve been a symbol of God’s love, grace, and tenderness. That’s why, as both pastor and feminist, I actually take comfort rather than offense, in the poetic use of father language when privately praying to God. Of course, you and I aren’t gods, nor need try to be; and that is the whole point. Thank you, Dad. I love you."
Class of 1998, you and I aren’t gods, nor need try to be. When you leave this place today, you can risk...you can even stumble because you are already loved and deemed precious in the eyes of God.
Let me end with a brief disclaimer, and I promise that this is the last and only preachy part I’ll say today: Obviously grace doesn’t mean you can sit back and not work hard. As survivors of the block plan, I think you already know this. Second disclaimer: assurance of grace doesn’t end with your personal sense of comfort. To critique a Christian cliché: faith isn’t limited to or end with one’s personal relationship with Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. Why? "Feed my lambs," said Jesus. "Tend my sheep."
Your education has been a privilege and will open many doors for you. Yet God calls us not to privilege but to service. For the opportunity of service is a major portion of the privilege. In the Heidelberg Catechism, under a heading titled "Concerning Thankfulness," it is written: "Since we are delivered from our suffering through grace alone...why is it necessary to engage in good works? For this reason: that we must employ our whole life in expressing our gratitude to God for God’s goodness." A person whose soul is filled to overflowing with gratitude does more of one’s own free will, says Luther, than is demanded.
Members of the Class of 1998, you are precious. So like flawed biblical heroes, go forth. Despite all the unknowns, despite the struggles, responsibilities, risks, and potential for failure, go forth with an abundance of hope. Hold fast to the knowledge of God’s compassionate grace and strength when you fail and fall. And hold fast to the knowledge that you are God’s hope; God’s hope because this education has endowed you with the ability--and privilege--of being bearers of hope to the world.
Walking humbly in the foot prints of Father Campion, I close with the words of Pope John Paul II when I say to you..."You are the hope of the Church and the world. You are my hope." Amen.