Baccalaureate Sermon 1999
The Rev. Catherine Quehl-Engel
You're probably looking at the title of this sermon and thinking, "Oh, how inspiring. Here I am, with my Cornell world ending, and 'the priestess' is up there preaching apocalypse and the Book of Revelation." Well, I'm sorry; I couldn't help myself. You see, you're the last Cornell class of this millenium; possibly the last Cornell Class if we listen to Y2K folk speaking in a lather about year 2000 doom. So you see, I've been worried about you, wondering how you are. You've finally got that hard-earned degree in hand, and along come secular millenialists frothing at the mouth about computer chips and the end of the world as they stockpile spam in the countryside. Prof. deLaubenfels tells me there's an Asian corporation requiring its executives to board plane on New Year's Eve. Just in case. Some kind of flying Noah's arc, I suppose. Well, I don't know much about micro-computer chips buried in inaccessible power sources. However, I've heard that we can counter religious extremists who preach 'the End' on the far sides of our AM dial: We can tell them to pitch the Gregorian calendar and live, as Jesus did, according to the Jewish calendar. Yes, peace of mind can be yours by calling yourselves the Cornell Class of 5759! Then again, if Mom and Dad ask why you didn't apply to grad school or find a job, then this end of the world angle might work for you.
I'm not here this morning to instill dread. No, instead of spouting off words of fear and doom--instead of using this apocalyptic text as a detailed prediction of the future, or as an invitation to withdraw from the concerns of the world-- I am using it to remind you of a hope that endures even when your heaven and earth are shaken. I am here to remind you, as you journey into unknown futures, that ours is a God who--when your world feels like its falling apart-doesn't strut like a vengeful dictator, but promises to go through it with you as he wipes tears from your eyes. I'm here to remind you of a God who gathers up the shards of your brokenness, anxiety and fear, unfolding possibilities as she declares: "Behold, I make all things new."
Some of you know, or think you know, what you are doing after you graduate. Then there are those of you who are pestering God for a burning bush-some clear unambiguous sign to guarantee yourselves an unambiguous future. In either case, if we are truthful, this is a day in which joy and relief at completion contends with anxiety over unknowns, a day in which self-doubt and fear over whether you can cut it out there contends with hope and our thirst after hope's meaning. "Lo, I am with you always, even unto the ends of the earth."
As your Cornell world comes to an end, I'm wondering if the real questions wrestling around your gut are something like this: At the end of all this nourishment of a liberal arts education; amid all this pregnant waiting for my life to unfold, can I trust that something has already been born? In a culture obsessed with immediate gratification and results, speed and control, am I able to sit still with the unclear, dark places of my life? The Son of Mary was born in darkness. The exodus of Israelite slaves from oppression in Egypt began one dark, frightening night. Can you say 'yes' to the darkness and go anyway, trusting that God works slowly, slowly like seeds planted in pitch-black Iowa dirt, birthing their way out in their own speed and time?
When I was a child I wanted to be a nun. Then I found out I was not Roman Catholic. By the time I was fourteen or so, that longing began to transform into discernment of a call by God to go into ordained ministry. Like many of you, when I graduated from Cornell, I had big plans and dreams for my life. I was heading off to seminary; maybe a PhD. But I was in love. I married my best friend, Craig, the day after graduation, and we agreed to take turns establishing vocations and completing advanced degrees. You know what I did for two years after college while I waited for seminary and grad school to unfold? Well, you know those annoying telemarketing calls you get right when you sit down to dinner? No, I wasn't a telemarketer. Worse. I was the person who wrote the scripts which the telemarketers read as your supper gets cold. [Exploits of a pastor]
"Lo, I am with you always, even unto the ends of the earth."
Earlier I said that if we are truthful, this is a day in which anxiety over an unknown future contends with hope and hope's meaning. But I'm curious; what do you think Hope is? What's that really all about? When you feel like an exile wandering in the wilderness, what is the source and object of your hope?
I ask these questions because I'm supposedly a Generation Xer and, depending upon who you read, most of you have been labeled the Millenial generation. Both you and I have been described as coming of age in a culture of despair and apocalyptic fear--not religious-based apocalyptic, mind you. As students who've taken Dr. Weddle's Apocalypse class know, Jewish and Christian apocalyptic literature is less about endings, despair and doom than it is about new beginnings and hope for people caught in affliction. What our generations are accused of is a secularization of apocalyptic which disseminates no words of hope, only paralyzing anxiety and cynicism. This nihilism stands in contrast not only the biblical, hope-filled notion of apocalypse with its longing for justice and a new Jerusalem; but also in contrast to the hope of our parent's generation.
How we got labeled a generation of despair isn't that difficult to figure out. In contrast to the baby boomers, our generation, states Tom Beadoin, "inherited not free love but AIDS, not peace, but nuclear anxiety, not cheap communal lifestyles but crushing costs of living, not free teach-ins but colleges [throughout the nation] sticker-priced for aristocracy." In his book, Virtual Faith: The Irreverent Spiritual Quest of Generation X, Beadoin speaks of media coverage, music videos, and movies which visually mark our generation. [Hank, I guess your right; it really does come down to aesthetics.] Anyway, Bedoin gives examples such as the popular 1980 movie Kramer vs Kramer, a sensitive story about divorce; but he cites how our generation didn't need to watch it since many of us knew it from real life. Our fragile families, writes Beadoin, seemed like a microcosm of the world-or at least a nation-brought to its knees, a world under the spell of Star Wars both the sci-fi blockbuster, and the name of President Reagon's anti-nuclear defense system.
I was born in the summer of love (yes, I'm young), but the love of '67 was not enough to change the course of history. By the time I was one, the Dreamer of the Dream, and many of our other national heroes were gone. When I was in college, we participated in the Soviet-American peace walk, Latin American Sanctuary movement, and anti-apartheid demonstrations. Thank God, the end of the Cold War and apartheid are benchmarks of hope at the end of this turbulent century. And yet I also remember where I was on campus when I first heard of a place called "Chernobyl." And I remember how we gathered in the TV lounge of Pauley Hall to watch replay after replay of my best friend's elementary teacher going up in space; each time watching with the expectation that the results of that shuttle disaster would be different. I need not name the national and international events, which have marked your years and final months at Cornell.
These, my friends, are reasons why I ask you about the meaning, object, and source of your hope. No one can assure us that the worst will not happen. As a pastor, I want to be able to do that for you, and to tell you that being a good person, a well-rounded educated person, or person of faith will guarantee you safe passage. But faith doesn't promise that; if anything, it does the exact opposite, calling us to stick our necks and hearts out like Isaiah, Jesus, Bonhoeffer, Dorthy Day, the Rev. King did, and open & affirming pastors like Gregory Dell. It is written: "Take the yoke off the oppressed, care for the poor, weep with those who weep, extend your soul to the afflicted, speak out in the face of injustice." I have yet to find an authentic way of being such a disciple of Christ, or faithful Jew, or any person of faith with out experiencing sacrifice and ache. And so I reiterate that the object of our hope cannot be a wish that nothing bad will happen. Moreover, I'd like to suggest that hope should not be confused with a happy face slogan for positive thinking. Positive thinking has its place. However, as Thomas Long points out, such bravado in the face of affliction can amount to a callous, even blasphemous disregard for the real unyielding human pain all around.
Authentic faith-based hope. Now that's a rock to cling to. As is symbolized by the crucifixion, faith-based hope doesn't deny a broken world. If anything, such hope prepares us for pain and failure. And yet, like the resurrection, it does so by claiming that despair will not have the final word. Indeed, faith-based hope clings to the promise that a power greater than ourselves enters into the dark secrets and broken places of our biographies, gathers up shards of our broken past or present, and creates a future where we once thought there would be none. To borrow Long's words, ours is a God who "acts from the future toward the present to create a redemption not already there."
Class of 1999, when you leave this place and this century; when you are feeling a bit lost or broken; when all your plans fall apart; when your plans come through but your begin to question them, or your abilities to fulfill them and you are feeling like an imposter; when myths about your self-sufficiency, strength and security are shattered, and you feel like it's the end of the world: Can you say 'yes' and go anyway? Can you say 'yes' like exiled Israelites, clinging to the words "Don't be afraid. I have called you by name and you are mine; "I will comfort your wasted places, making your wilderness like Eden, your desert like the garden of the Lord (Is. 51:1-3). I will wipe every tear from your eyes (Rev. 21: ).
The biblical texts read this morning were originally spoken to people who needed a reminder of God's faithfulness in the midst of difficult times as chaotic as our own. In the Book of Revelation, we find John of Patmos writing from prison to the persecuted Christians of first century Rome. These people have suffered in a cruel, unjust, violent world, and the imprisoned author writes to assure them that despair will not be the final word. John echoes the assurance which Isaiah made to exiled Israelites centuries before in the wake of destruction and expulsion from Jerusalem. From this exilic experience, if not before, emerges a new theological category-a gift of the Jews (if I can use Cahill's expression) in which redemption is not only seen in a past Exodus and arrival in the promised land. For these exiles who lost everything, the category of novum-or new thing-becomes emphasized so that redemption is now associated with future. Unlike other Ancient Near Eastern religions which understood time as cyclical, the God of Israel declare does the surprising thing, the thing that could never be expected based upon the evidence at hand. This is a God whom both Isaiah and John describe as saying "Behold, I will do a new thing (Is 43: ; Rev. 21:5). This kind of God, states theologian Jurgen Moltmann, is a God "whose being is not becoming, but coming;" a God "who has future as the essence of God's being."
As God spoke to despairing Israelites and Christians, so God speaks to you and me. When it seems as if we've made a shamble of our work, families or lives….when catastrophe comes, responsibilities are great, and the odds against us seem over-whelming; when we are most aware of our flaws as parents, sons and daughters, God comes. God comes saying "Don't be afraid. I will satisfy your soul in drought; I will make your bones strong (Is. 58:11)."
Let me bring this to an end through spiritual biography. I'm mostly from a little Wisconsin town called Monroe [known for Swiss cheese, yodeling, and Baumgartner's on the square where you can always get a limberger sandwich with a slab of onion on rye.] This cheesemaking community is also on the map because it is my mother's hometown.
One evening, back in 1961, my mom and dad were married in my mother's family church. I have a tender father and a loving, remarkable mom. Unfortunately, when I was a child, they fell out of love with each other. Dad fell in love with his secretary, and like a clip from the movie Hope Floats, Mom, my brother Scott and I returned to mom's hometown in Wisconsin to find hope.
[As a young teen, I coveted the Bible Mom prayed over as a single, divorced parent. I savored as sacred her scribe-like markings in the margins about a God of hope, joy and possibilities. Like that Holy Book, the people of my mother's church spirituality raised me, instructing me in the faith of my ancestors.]
Now jump ahead in time. I'm grown up with a child of my own. It's the day of my ordination in that same Wisconsin town. I would kneel to take my ordination vows in the very place where Mom and Dad once pledged their love; kneeling in the place where Mom brought Scott and I after our family's apocalypse, looking for hope in a faith community which said "morning follows midnight" and "behold, I make all things new."
Now picture this: It is the morning of my ordination. It's the 10:45 worship service in that same church. My Dad is there, probably for the first time since the wedding of '61. He places a jar of water upon the font. The pastor pours it into the basin. This water had come from a far away past. A broken marriage had taken Dad to the River Jordan half my life ago. There he scooped up water. Water of grace. Water of forgiveness. Water of new life. He bottled it, and kept it in the freezer all these years, frozen in time until the day I or Scott would birth and baptize a child.
And that water, that water which washed the world in creation; which re-recreated it in the days of Noah; that same water whichh parted whem the God of Exodus liberated my Lord's beloved people Israel; that same water which nourished my Lord in Mary's womb, and later ran down his body as John baptized him in the River Jordan…that same baptismal water was placed upon my daughter's head. My cheek pressed against Rachel's wet hair. Water from my father's bottle mingles with my tears. Soak deep. Soak deep into my pours, water of life and new birth. "Lo, I am with you. I will rebuild your wasted places, repairing the desolations of many generations (Is. )."
An unpredictable God enters an unalterable past, and in some extraordinay way, through people we least expect, alters and redeems it. This is not to say that there are not scars all of us bare, but that we are somehow wiser and stronger, able to reclaim chapters of our biographies that have long since been written off. This is my daughter's spiritual inheritance. I offer it to you: That is, the assurance that God was and will be present in dark times and in joy times, blessing and transforming you; a hope from the future entering even the little apocalypses of your life, offering possibility of new life and healing which, I believe, salvation is.
Class of 1999, go out in hope, be led forth in peace. Pester God as much as you've pestered your parents and some of us. Look for and long for God as much as a little girl longs for her Dad, holding fast to him even when his chair is empty. Know that the most important time to pray is when your prayers seem meaningless. Finally, if your plans should fall through, or if the lights go out New Year's Eve, well then, light a candle, hold the person next to you, get to know your neighbors, re-discover the lost art of a hand-written note. Use your knowledge wisely and compassionately. Pray. And remember what Cornell has taught you about the power of community. And then, if one day you are blessed with children, return them to this place. Amen.