Baccalaureate Sermon 2001

"Holy Ground"

The Rev. Catherine Quehl-Engel
Cornell College

In Memory of Rev. Gordon Shea 12/23/53-5/7/01

One hundred years ago, the Cornell graduating class sat where you are now, and listened to William Fletcher King preach a twenty-nine page, single spaced baccalaureate address. That's something like a two hour sermon. Needless to say, I'm inspired to not do that to you, which, I'm certain, inspires you.
Class of 2001, you look good and ready. Seeing you robed in black, row after row, you're like a plowed Iowa field. You're well fertilized. Just waiting for seed and for heat.

Some of you are more ready than others. That's why I've stopped asking about plans for after you've graduated. For many of you, answering that question is as easy and pleasurable as bathing a cat. Those who love you have appropriately hounded you with this question, to the point where my well meaning inquiry is often met with a look of hurt or scorn. So I've been experimenting with a more pastoral approach. It goes like this. "Tell me, Steve, what metaphor would you use to describe how you feel about leaving college?" Such a question yields easier answers. Steve Burge replies: "It feels like your being vomited out into the world, and it's scary, so you don't know what to do but lie there like a pile of goo." Aaron Rosenthal compares it to teen angst. Monica Anderson and Erin Walley say it's like floating in limbo; that you don't have a life yet because you can't get to the place you think you belong. Then there is Jenny Hanson. She explains that leaving college is like falling in love. "Everyone has a very rosy picture of how it should be. But your actual experience is a lot more bumpy and sweaty than expected."

Let me cut to the quick which, according to Webster's Dictionary, means I'm going to go to the sensitive raw flesh. Slice open a cocoon open and you won't find a sleeping caterpillar with budding wings. Instead you will find a bag of Steve's goo. The creature inside the cocoon must utterly disintegrate before the butterfly can begin. The change isn't gentle. The birth of the new creature requires the annihilation of the old. Indeed, transitions-otherwise known as transformations--entail both possibility and vulnerability. And that's what I'm talking about this morning. The safety of your known world has just collapsed, and the security of a new life is not yet in place. In the Jewish mystical tradition of Kabbala this transformation is called 'entering the ayin' or 'Holy Nothingness.' As Rabbi Lawrence Kushner explains, in order for something to change from what it is into whatever it hopes to become there must be a moment when it has stopped being what it was while also not yet being what it hopes for. For a split second it is literally nothing.

Naming the necessity of such things on your big day may seem distasteful. It's like speaking of Mary's contractions on Christmas Eve. No one wants to talk about it. Speaking as one who has birthed, let me tell you, it may be spiritual, but it ain't bliss! Yet if there were ever a place in which the Sacred dwells, moves and has its being, it is in the midst of contractions and fear, the angst, the limbo, sweat and the goo.

Episcopalian priest, Barbara Brown Taylor asks:
How is it that we know God is present? When the chaos is gone? When your heart stops pounding, you're no longer afraid, and the direction you should go is as clear as day? While this is an appealing idea it has little foundation in scripture. Much of God's best work takes place in total chaos with people scared half out of their wits: Mary listening to an angel's plan for plunging her life into scandal, a blinded Paul lying on Damascus road, Jacob being attacked in the night. Perhaps it is because we know how these stories turn out that we overlook the wrestling, the stark terror.

I'm not saying God is that which causes the unhinging of our lives. Rather, as it was with Jacob, it's often in the wrestling and struggle that we find ourselves on Holy Ground.

The chaplain at Simpson College died a few weeks back. Gordon was a friend, and often chaplain to this college chaplain. He was 48 years old. Gordon was traveling with twelve students in Zimbabwe. They were hiking up a mountain toward some cave paintings when he collapsed. I've tried imagining what those students experienced on that mountain, and as they worked with the U.S. consulate on returning with Gordon's body. Perhaps the most moving thing anyone said about this tragedy came from Nicky Wynne, the secretary to the United Methodist Bishop in Iowa. Someone asked her if Gordon was the only adult on the trip. She replied: "Gordon was the only adult who went with those twelve students. But, twelve adults brought him home."
In her book on mentoring young adults in their search for meaning, and purpose, and faith, Sharon Parks writes: "When we wrestle with hope and fear, power and powerlessness, the known and unknown, we are swept up in Mystery. When a friend dies too young, when the plan that everything hinges on is in disarray, when we are stressed out and someone surprises us with a bit of gentleness, we are awakened to wonder. " "Spirit shakes loose…our tight hold on the foreground of life, and turns us toward the vast background ." Here is where the threshold into adulthood is found. And this, according to Parks, is how your college years were passage through that threshold.

Surrounded by a mentoring community, you've been initiated into the realities and questions of a vast and mysterious universe, and asked how you will participate in it. Invested with critical awareness, you've encountered ideas and peoples that seem strange, foreign, and messed with pre-conceived notions of truth and reality. As the universe became wider than you imagined, caring mentors stood with you through "the dissolution and recomposition of the meaning of self, other, world, and 'God'" . This threshold is where big questions and worthy dreams are born. This is how, amid the vastness, the questioning and caring, you've experienced church-related higher education. This is how, during your Cornell years, you've been standing on Holy Ground.

In today's Torah portion or Old Testament text, we meet Jacob. We catch up with him as he enters the threshold of adulthood when God invests him with a worthier dream. The ambitious Jacob is quite the schemer. Fixated on climbing the ladder of self-advancement and success, he is willing to do anything for a blessing and in order to reach the top--even steal his older brother's inheritance. Even deceive his blind and ailing dad. Mom's in on the whole thing. Jacob is her favorite. After the sham is exposed, and his brother threatens to kill him, Jacob flees into the desert.

Now, according to numerous religious traditions, including those found in Jewish and Christian scriptures, desert and wilderness are settings for transformation. Left by ourselves, we are faced with the question of who that self really is . There is the pride-splintering sense of vulnerability . Father Nouwen called this solitude the "furnace of transformation. " Emptied of occasions to demonstrate one's brilliance to other people, the desert lacks everything except the opportunity to know self and the Sacred. And that's what happens to Jacob. In that desolate, seemingly Godforsaken place and time in Jacob's life, he has spirituality awakening. With nothing but a rock for a pillow, he dreams about a ladder pointing to anything but self-advancement. He wakes in trembling awe mingled with humility, revelation, and wonder. With his soul leaning into a new turn of his becoming, Jacob declares, "This desolate place is the gate to heaven. God was in this place and I, I didn't know it."

It's fair to say that, prior to this moment, this biblical hero exemplifies anything but great religious piety and ethics. Nor does his family model what some call 'family values.' Like other families of the Bible, Jacob's family has as many dysfunctions and broken places as our own. And yet God chooses them anyway. These less then exemplary spiritual specimens are privileged to have the serial rights of their life story chosen for the script of holy scripture . So there is hope for you and me yet.

On a secular note: Perhaps you heard how President Bush received an honorary degree from Yale last week. He commended C students, telling them they too can be president some day. And that comment reminded my husband of the college president who, when addressing her faculty, said: "Take care of you're "A" students because one day they will be your colleagues. Take care of your "C" students because one day they'll endow your chairs." We all have a purpose!

Anyway, back to Jacob. It was on a piece of unproductive real estate which looked like anything but Holy Ground, that Jacob experienced the Holy. God comes to this less that perfect creature through a dream saying, "OK, son. You're fleeing your past and your future is unknown. You're a liar, a schemer, and a cheat, and you've made a mess of things with your family. But guess what? I won't leave you. I will keep you wherever you go. And I'm going to use your life for something bigger than you; for your descendant's will be a light unto the world."
I suppose all this proves that God is not a moralist. God's compassion is big enough for not only Jacob, but you and me. In the failure. The depression. The mess. When we're thrust into unchosen deserts and sand storms, God comes to us. As God sought Jacob in that desolate place, so God searches for you and me in the night and midnight of the soul, saying "I won't leave you. I will keep you wherever you go."

All this grace leads to two disclaimers which will be important for your own life and faith journey. First, Jacob will need meet God half way by developing spiritual resources and what my dad calls the interior life of leadership. He'll need that for the fourteen years spent stuck in a job he can't stand. He'll need it for marital problems. There will even be famine which forces this proud, success-driven man to ask Egypt for government aid and food stamps in order to feed his family. Then there is that life chapter called parenthood. Rivaling sons will play him for a fool, pulling the wool over his eyes as Jacob once did to his dad. By the way, while we're on the topic of spiritual fortitude during the parenting years: I'm reminded of a television episode in which a teenager calls up the radio show psychologist, Frasier Crain. The fourteen-year old complains that his parents don't know anything. Frasier tells him, "I have some bad news, son. Your parents won't know anything for another seven years."

My point is that God's promise to "keep you wherever you go" doesn't mean shelter from ache. If anything, faith means to risk getting hurt. Which brings me to my final point. God's promise of presence to Jacob and to us is no me-first spirituality. As with the privilege of your education, the blessing Jacob so desperately wanted turned out to have little to do with advancement of self. Rather, the one who would later be named Israel lives for descendants whose purpose is to bless the world; to beat swords into plowshares; to live the outrageous dream of universal justice and peace.

An African-American woman, whose ancestors knew this nation's sin of slavery, declares: "I live my life for the 300 years which came before me, and for the 300 years that will come after. " For this strong woman, for our flawed biblical hero, for you and me, we are beckoned to switch to a wide-angle lens, to recognize that despite the message of our culture which pushes self-sufficiency, individualism and do-it-yourself spirituality, we are caught up in the vast tissue of life. I call it God. With the promise of divine presence we have the courage to risk on behalf of more than self. For as Parks notes, compassion-which literally means to have the capacity to suffer with--recognizes that "my well-being and the well-being of the other are linked."

The sons of Zebedee, being bolder that the rest of the disciples, pulled Jesus aside, and privately suggested that they were most deserving for being his right-hand guys when entering God's Kingdom. Jesus just shook his head. You want to be great? You want to hang with me? Then be a servant. Feed the hungry. Care for the imprisoned, the stranger, the sick-the most vulnerable and powerless ones . Because while you are busy climbing the ladder and playing 'whose God's favorite?', heaven and I will be dwelling with these whom you're afraid to be mistaken for. When you've cared for the least of these, you've done it to me.
In this scene where Jesus describes God separating the righteous from the unrighteous among the nations, there is a surprise. The standard given is not, as Parker Palmer says, "the minor morality some Christians cling to," or about "converting the stranger into modified versions of ourselves." It's not about Christianity as the only path up the mountain, for when Jesus was saying all of this he was speaking as a devout Jew. It's not even about being kind so we can feel good about ourselves. Rather, we are to care for the most vulnerable and those unlike ourselves because: (a) the kingdom of God dwells in that encounter; (b) because they point to our own hunger and need; (c) because, as the prophet Mohammed put it, "Did God not find you an orphan and give you shelter? ". And finally, as you know from service experiences, we are the recipients in these encounters. For as biblical tales reveal, God often comes in the guise of stranger and beggar. Like Jacob wrestling with the night stranger, it is in this encounter that we experience and see the face of God.

I end with a story. In 1940, Chiune Sugihara served as a Japanese diplomat in Lithuania. German troops invaded Poland, and refugees streamed into Lithuania bringing with them tales of atrocities against the Jewish population. Thousands of Jews crowded around the Japanese Consulate seeking permission to flee to any safe haven. The rest of the world, including the U.S., barred their immigration. Against the orders of his own government, Sugihara worked 20 hours a day for seven weeks, writing an estimated 6,000 to 10,000 exit visas for refugees to reach Japan. Even as he and his family boarded a train for Berlin on government orders, Sugihara kept writing visas, throwing them out the window to Jewish refugees running along side.

As the war ended, Sugihara, then posted in Romania, was captured by the Russians, and sent to a concentration camp with his wife and child for 18 months. Arriving back in Japan in 1947, he approached his country's postwar foreign ministry, hoping for a sympathetic reception and even a new assignment. Instead, they demanded his resignation. He worked a menial job for the remaining years of his professional life. Yet the children of those whom Sugihara saved, including the wife of my husband's cousin, possess family documents bearing his name.

Last year, he was awarded the Immortal Chaplains Prize for Humanity. This honor is given in memory of four chaplains--a Catholic, Jewish, and two Protestant clergy who drown together during the sinking of the U.S. Dorchester during WWII. Witnesses say these chaplains were the first on deck, calming the men and handing out life jackets. When they ran out, they took off their own and placed them on waiting soldiers without regard to faith or cultural background. They were last seen arm-in-arm on the hull of the ship as it was sinking, each praying in his own way for the care of the men. The Prize for Humanity, given to Sugihara in their memory, has an interfaith motto I offer you which reads: "If we can die together, can't we live together?"

Sugihara was an intellectual and a Greek Orthodox Christian. This should be sufficient reason for why he and his wife risked everything in order to help strangers. But we must remember that Nazism was birthed in the intellectual center of Europe; and though it was an anti-Christian movement, it was carried out by the hands of many well educated people, including baptized Christians. While few, there were others like the Sugiharas who knew the cost of discipleship. But why not more? When asked why he did it, the elder Sugihara, who also knew what it felt like to be the stranger/the other: replied "It's what anyone would do when seeing the refugees face to face, begging with tears in their eyes."

Two decades after the dream, Jacob returns to that same desolate place for a second great spiritual encounter. It wouldn't be serene, risk-free, or peaceful. Like your own angst and sweat, it involved wrestling in the night until dawn. Some say Jacob's wrestling companion was an angel. Some say it was his estranged brother. Others say it was another dream; that he wrestled with his ego and past. Jacob himself calls the stranger God. From henceforth he could look into the eyes of others with reverence--even stranger, even estranged brother and enemy, and declare "to see you face to face is like seeing the face of God." May we have the eyes of Jacob and Sugihara in which knowledge of self, other and the Holy are blurred. Like Jacob's descendents, may we go forth as blessings of compassion, justice and peace. May we not dream sweatless dreams. May we not squander our inheritance and potential on dreams too small.