Baccalaureate Sermon 2000

"Loosen the Womb"

The Rev. Catherine Quehl-Engel
Cornell College

Students of the birth process tell us that there is a threat of negation in our emergence into life. That birth itself is a trauma. In the twenty-minute passage through the birth canal we nearly smother. In the words of human development theorist, James Fowler, "We are bruised and squeezed into life (1)." Or, to borrow the Eastery words of a Lutheran friend, "you've got to die a little before you can rise."

I'm preaching this morning to those of you feeling bruised and exhausted from the contractions of your senior year. The Cornell womb has been nurturing and supportive. But now life is pushing out. Like a baby out the birth canal, you're known world has just collapsed. It's been disorienting. You're exhausted and slightly terrified, for while you are thrilled to be graduating, we're cutting the cord and we expect you to breathe-all on your own.

For many of you, there is uncertainty about where you belong; of where home is going to be. Your folks love you, but your bedroom has been converted into a den. And so, like Abraham and Sarah, you're setting out for a place to receive as your inheritance yet unsure of where that is exactly. You wish your degree came with one of those global positioning systems. That way, you would know you where you are when feeling lost. Trouble is, the gadget only works if you know the coordinates of your destination.

This morning I'm going to play spiritual "midwife" for this passage in your life journey. Like the prophet Jeremiah, whose name in Hebrew literally means YHWH loosens the womb, I'm here to assure you of God's presence amid life's contractions. I'm here to tell you that some of God's best work has taken place in chaos with people half scared out of their minds. I'm here to offer you fresh manna of Hope for your wilderness wandering by reminding you that ours is a God who sojourns with us in our exiles and unfolding, even when we're unsure of whether we are dying or being born.

One of my favorite preachers is Episcopalian priest, Barbara Brown Taylor (2). In an essay entitled 'Preaching the Terrors' she tells of the summer she spent on a barrier island where loggerhead turtles were laying their eggs. One night, she watched a huge female heave herself up on the beach, dig her nest, and empty herself into it. The next day, Taylor found the turtle disoriented, lost in the dunes, and all but baked. She fetched a park ranger then watched in horror as he flipped her on her back, wrapped tire chains around her front legs, and hooked the chains to the trailer hitch on his jeep. He took off, yanking her body to the ocean's edge. The ranger unhooked her and turned her right side
up. She eventually revived, swimming toward home. As Taylor notes in her reflections

upon that nightmare ride through the dunes, sometimes its hard to tell whether you are being killed or saved by the hands that turn your life upside down (3).


The Book of Jeremiah was originally written for despairing Jewish exiles sojourning as displaced people. In the 6th c. B.C.E. their womb came loose. They were taken from their home, and sent out into Babylonian captivity. There they sojourned as strangers in a strange land. Sometimes they felt abandoned. Sometimes lost. Often they were unsure of whether they were being killed or saved as their lives turned upside down. Like all biblical stories, theirs' is a story of a people on a journey--not merely a journey toward a geographical location, but a pilgrimage with God in which the journey itself is the destination.

One of my seminary professors used to say that biblical characters are not models of morality, but mirrors of identity for our own lives. You'd think God would only pick the flawless ones-the magna cum laude equivalents of the biblical world. But God picked 'em with warts and all-even the ones who didn't make the grade; even the ones who went through the Dean Claar disciplinary hearings of their day. And if God loved and used those flawed lives for great things, imagine what God can do with you and me.

Take the prophet Jeremiah. There were times when this prophet felt ineffective and inadequate. There were even times this biblical hero felt utterly alienated from God. Like many of you during your college years, he experienced the ebb and flow of faith and doubt, courage and despair, compassion and hostility. Sometimes he whined to God about his job bringing him nothing but pain. Some days the world seemed so messed up and scary that he wished he'd never left his mother's womb (20:15-18).

But in all of it, including the laments, Jeremiah gives expression to the interior life and its wilderness, to the faith, and hope-indeed the theology-which makes it possible for the Israelites to survive defeat and exile (4). He reminds them of God's faithfulness and love for them-that no matter how much they mess up, God will not leave them orphaned. Their story is a theological reminder to you and to me that God's job is not to prevent bad things but to stay present in them; "to keep creating whole worlds out of total chaos; to take the unfathomable wreckage of our lives and making something fine out of them in spite of us (5)."
And the prophet Mohammed cried out: "Your Lord has not forsaken you (surah 2:214)." And Jesus said: "I will not leave you orphaned; my peace I give you; I will make my home within you; be not afraid (John 14). And through Jeremiah, God declared: "you will find grace in the wilderness; I will build you; I will lead you; I will bring you home; there is hope for your future (Jer 31:2;9;17)."

Last February I spent time with Carol Ochs who is a Jewish spiritual guide, especially for rabbinical students at Hebrew Union College. I told her how I was exploring exile as a metaphor, not only for the spiritual life, but for seniors leaving college. Like you, the exiles in Babylon dreamt of how great it would be once they got out of captivity-that once they made a break from Babylon, their troubles would end and they would finally arrive. Yet when the equivalent of their commencement day came, some didn't want to go, and many who did were initially disappointed that leaving Babylon didn't mean instant arrival at the dream (6).

After hearing this, Carol said: "No one gets to the Promised Land. The wilderness years [the exile years] are not about getting from point A to B. They are themselves times of encounter with God. Moreover, God doesn't say 'I promise you will make it and I guarantee a happy ending.' Instead God says 'I will be with you.' The guarantee is the promise of presence (7)."

A couple of years ago I met an amazing poet and Roman Catholic lay minister named Edwina Gately. She tells the story of how she wanted some alone time with God, and did so by taking off to a hermitage in the Sahara Desert of North Africa. A pilot dropped her off at a tiny shack-cave built into a mountainside. He filled up the water basin, left other provisions, and promised to return three months later. There was nothing but barren desert and rocks for what seemed like hundreds of miles. At some point during her retreat, Edwina dipped into her water basin and discovered her water was almost gone. Turns out their was a leak. And so, while the idea was quite absurd, she had no choice but to set out on a journey to fetch water. Like you, she didn't have a global positioning system, only the direction of the sun to guide her to God knows where. After trudging along for several miles, off in the distance, shimmering through veils of heat, was a black figure coming toward her. As she got closer she saw it was an Arab woman in flowing black cloth. The two women started running toward each other. Then stopped. They starred at each other in amazement. Seeing each other's face in that barren desert was like glimpsing the face of that Holy Other.

The brown Muslim woman took the hands of the white Christian woman and guided her to her shack made of goat-skin and stones. She sat Edwina down on a carpet, disappeared, then reappeared with a pot of sweet Arabian tea. Together they sat, wordless, relishing the wonder of the other's presence. Their worlds were different, yet Edwina knew--and felt the Muslim woman knew--that the Holy One they worshiped was one and the same. And as they shared sweet tea, they also shared the God who sat with them in that wilderness place. Edwina returned to her hermitage with a supply of water. The two women would never saw each other again, but Edwina realized that her encounter with the 'other'-the one unlike herself-was an encounter with the Holy Other; with the same God who brought her into the wilderness to speak to her soul (8).
And the prophet Mohammad cried out "Your Lord has not forsaken you. Did God not find you an orphan and give you shelter? Did God not guide you? Did God not find you poor and enrich you? Therefore do not wrong the orphan, nor chide away the beggar. But proclaim the goodness of your Lord (surah 93).


Clergy have a saying: that ministry is about comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable. I'm now transitioning to that afflicting part. Don't worry. This won't take long.

A few years ago there was a study done at Duke School of Business in which students were asked what they wanted to be when they grew up. With few exceptions, the survey showed them wanting three things; money, power and "things"-vacation homes, expensive foreign cars and the like. In the preoccupation with careers and financial portfolios their personal plans contained little room for family, community, intellectual development, or spiritual growth. Their aim of education lacked any responsibility for knowledge; it reflected a self-orientation with no concern for larger society…in short, for these students, education's purpose was passport to privilege. In the words of former Harvard president, Derek Bok, "relativism and individualism have rewritten the rules of the game. They have extinguished the motive for education (9)."
The journey and better country which Jeremiah, Paul, and Mohammed spoke of was not about privatized religion, privilege, or the advancement of self. Indeed, the dream of God is quite different. As Jesus' inclusive ministry demonstrated, God's dream of valuing and liberating each individual is equally matched by passionate concern for social justice. As our Jeremiah text spelled out, the heavenly home won't happen until the orphan, the lame, and the outsider/stranger in our midst-those most vulnerable, disempowered and marginalized in society-arrive with us. All this means that we are not our own end; we participate in birthing something larger than ourselves. And these are the theological underpinnings of this church-related college-education not as passport to privilege but for shaping of citizenry to be leaven of compassion and wisdom for a more humane world.

Note how there isn't a disclaimer which says that we are only to help those who look, act, think, pray, and vote as ourselves. As Parker Palmer explains, "community is that place where the person you least want to live with always lives! And when that person moves away someone else always arrives to fill the empty place. Why? Because the real purpose of community is not to retreat somewhere with other like-minded people. Rather, it's giving ourselves up to the working of the Spirit by learning how to live with people we may not like at all. What better way to open ourselves up to the God beyond our knowing than to begin with the neighbor beyond our knowing (10)?"

Aristotle thought friendship was a problem for anyone under thirty because, not having yet really failed or disappointed yourself, you are therefore too severe in your judgements and expectations of others (11).

But obviously this isn't just an age thing. All of us struggle with this, which is why Jeremiah insisted that the Jewish exiles pray for the well being of their captor Babylon and all its inhabitants.

Now, perhaps you think I've described your college years as Babylonian captivity and your faculty and staff as captors. Not true! But let's work with that metaphor for a moment. You've lived in close quarters with people utterly unlike yourself, sometimes feeling like a stranger in a strange land. You didn't always care for the politics or opinions of your neighbors, or how they expressed them. Daily you had to pass the ex-boyfriend, the teacher who flunked you, or the wounded friendship on the way to class. Like siblings sharing the same womb, it's been hard escaping each other. Yet good stuff comes from all this conflict and closeness; and Aristotle assessment of you has often been proven wrong, for I've watched you learn to not only tolerate but reconcile, collaborate and even advocate for those unlike yourself. Who, for example, would imagine the OWLs and WAG co-sponsoring a party…for a Woman's Conference? Or the Delts and Owls providing tee-shirts for the clothesline project? Folks, these are events of biblical proportion. Real lion lying down with the lamb, cats with dogs, kingdom of God stuff!

Ultimately, your learning to live in community has been part of your education as something other than passport to privilege. For as a trustee told President Garner "I'd rather hire a graduate from Cornell College than from schools where everyone looks, thinks, believes and act the same because, like this fragile world, the work place requires collaboration with colleagues you disagree with and may not even like.
There once was a Benedictine sister who was comforting her dying mother. To assure her, the sister said "In heaven, everyone we love is there." But the old woman corrected her, saying "No, in heaven everyone who is there I will love." May that kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.

Let me close with a story. Back in 1941 a poor Jewish immigrant named Kurt Weiser was awarded a one year scholarship to Cornell College. He went on to have a brilliant academic and professional career. Tragically, he was killed in an automobile accident last October. After his death, his family found the first few chapters of his memoirs. Among them were pages about his year at Cornell, which he described as the happiest year of his life.

In the period of 1942-43 Kurt describes that the Holocaust was still unknown among Americans, and anti-Semitism was both widespread and socially respectable. Therefore his treatment at Cornell was especially praiseworthy. He described Cornell as a Methodist College among the cornfields. He recalled the Midwestern openness, spending evenings in a professor's home talking and reading poetry, and being asked to join a prestigious social group [imagine!]; he thought that offer was remarkable for a Jewish refugee boy. Finally, he never forgot how, unbeknown to him, the Dean of the College contacted a Jewish family in a nearby town asking them to invite him to Passover Seder. He writes "coming from anti-semitic Austria that was quite an experience for me." His cousin shared these memories of Kurt's happiest year because he wanted us to know how deeply thankful he is, both to the College and a small Iowa town for welcoming the stranger, and helping to create an American success story.

As it is written, so may it be: "you shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in [a foreign land]. When strangers reside with you in your land, you shall not wrong them or the shall love them as yourself (Exodus 23:9;Lev.19:33-34; Deut. 24:17-18).

Class of 2000, as you leave this birth place, as you go out like displaced exiles, sojourning as strangers in strange lands, may your journey be the destination. May your passport read something other than privilege. May you be leaven of compassion and manna of hope for the world. And when in your journey you encounter the other-the stranger unlike yourself--may you recognize the face of that Holy Other.

Go out in peace, knowing that God dwells with you amid your exile wanderings. And, if one day you are blessed with children, return them to this Cornell womb and we will be for them a home. Amen.


1. Fowler, James. Becoming Adult, Becoming Christian: Adult Development and
Christian Faith. SF: Joessey-Bass, 2000 p. 41.

2. She has greatly shaped the language of my faith expression, as is seen in fn 3, 5 & 10.

3. Taylor, Barbara Brown. Preaching the Terrors. Exilic Preaching: Testimony for
Christian Exiles in an Increasingly Hostile Culture. Ed. by Erskine Clarke.
Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 1998, pp. 83-90.

4. Chp. 30-33 of Jeremiah are known as 'Little Book of Consolation". Unlike western writers, Jeremiah sticks the message of hope, not at the end of the story, but just after the middle so that-like life-hope is mingled with, and still surrounded by, fear, grief and longing. His laments greatly influenced the writings of other biblical texts, including numerous psalms of lament.

5. Taylor, Barbara Brown. Gospel Medicine.(Cambridge & Boston: Cowley
Publications, 1995 p. 107.

6. As is exemplified in Psalm 126. I am grateful to Carol Ochs for suggesting that I use the Book of Jeremiah as my exilic biblical text for this sermon.

7. Informational conversations with Ochs, and presentations at The National Association of College and University Chaplains, New York, Feb. 2000.

Ochs also writes: "Early on we may see the desert experiences as requiring only endurance. Later the vision changes, and we see that the desert is really where we spend our entire life. See Ochs, Carol, and Olitzky, Kerry. Jewish Spiritual Guidance: Finding our Way to God. SF: Jossey-Bass, 1997, pp. 162-163.

8. Edwina Gately lecture at NACUC. New Mexico, Feb. 1999. Story also told in her book A Warm Moist Salty God. Trabuco Canyon, California: Source Books, 1996.

9. Garber, Steven. The Fabric of Faithfulness: Weaving Together Belief and Behavior
During the University Years. Intervarsity Press, 1994, p. 69.

10. Parker Palmer Company of Strangers cited by BBT in Bread of Angels
Cambridge/Boston: Cowley Publications, 1997 p. 86

11. Thanks to Rev. Will Willimon for this reference. Friends, Duke University
Baccalaureate Address, May 15, 1998.