Baccalaureate Sermon 2003

The Rev. Catherine Quehl-Engel
Cornell College

Class of 2003, today is your Exodus day; that day of liberation you've long awaited. Like Israelites you've labored hard. You've longed to bust out of here into freedom, on a journey and a dream. Yes, I've heard more than a few of you bemoan your course work as if it were enslavement and your faculty Pharaoh army. Take, for example, Francine Bailey's comment about Managerial Accounting as a level of hell Dante failed to mention! But, my guess is that, deep down, you cherish this place and these years of growth. As your classmate Soraya put it, "I'm so much cooler now than I was four years ago." That has something to do with your faculty and staff mentors, and awesome friends who've walked with you out to the rim of life; out to that exquisite edge from where together you looked out over existence and life's big questions; even life's pain. In these moments of examination, when your ideas about self, other, and world expanded, there was a silent allusion to wonder--if not insight--into something larger than self of which we are part.

I know that for many of you, the sheer exhilaration of this exodus day is mingled with a twinge of fear and, for some, second thoughts about leaving. If you fall into this later category, please know that Pharaoh's army over here [point to faculty], under the command of the Dean, will be at commencement this afternoon pushing you forward into the Red Sea . And for those of you who are like Israelites, muttering, "It would've been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness," listen carefully: Captain Matt Johnson and his Residence Life Infantry remind you that the locks on your residence hall door will be changed as of 6pm today. By the way, some of your parents have already converted your bedroom into a long awaited art studio or den. So you see, there really is no choice: Despite fear of drowning by entering to the unknown, you must go forward putting your toes, then your whole being into that immense expanse of sea out there. You don't have to go bravely. You can even crawl. Others of you may have to be carried. But that you can go at all has everything to do with faith. For the opposite of faith is not doubt. It's certainty. And as a hospital chaplain chum loves to say, "If spirituality only takes you to peaceful places, it probably isn't real."

Did the sea really divide and the Israelites make it across on dry ground? Look: All stories are true. Some even happened. At the very least this Exodus story is truthful in that it is a mirror of identity for our own lives and fears, as well as God's promise to walk with us as we enter life's sea of unknowns. Jews take this Exodus paradigm into their being each Passover and it becomes the metaphor for the spiritual journey; every Jew regards him or herself as if he or she were personally a slave in Egypt. They remember the troubles and tribulations through which they've passed, and how the one who is present with them, from Exodus to Auschwitz, helps them bear, endure and eventually rise to walk on.

At the shore of the sea, with Pharaoh's army upon them, God said, "Moses, tell those bruised, bone tired, and terrified people of ours not to be afraid. Tell them to go forward." And they did. But, as Rabbi Lawrence Kushner puts it his book Eyes Remade for Wonder: "The miracle was not that the waters parted. The miracle is that the Israelites walked forward; forward into the midst of sea, willing to drown and ultimately be rebirthed eventually into something new." The same miracle holds true for you and me.

Whatever the Promised Land is which you are venturing toward, know that if you do not arrive at it immediately after your exodus today, that's OK. The Israelites wandered for 40 years in the desert. And as Jewish spiritual director, Carol Ochs puts it, "The fact that Moses, our leader, never entered the Promised Land may be one of the greatest teachings we've ever received."

My Great, Great Grandpa Quehl's name was Warhufest. When Warhufest made his exodus, he was living in a time as volatile as our own. His promised land dream was a comfortable life and distinguished career in medicine. But Warhufest abandoned that dream, leaving his medical studies in Prussia to avoid conscription by the Prussian Army and warring with Austrian Catholics. He was the son of a Lutheran pastor, and his parents loved him and his brother George so much, they let these sons go, waving good bye for the last time as they shipped out across the sea of unknowns. George made exodus to El Salvador. But Warhufest arrived in the U.S., only to be conscripted in another war. He served as a civil war medic under the inept leadership of Benjamin 'the Beast' Butler in the 16th New York Artillery, then ultimately took part in Grant's siege of Lee at Petersburg, Virginia--one of the final battles before Lee surrendered.

Last Spring, when I was at UofI Hospitals visiting an injured student, I stumbled upon a display honoring civil war medics. As I looked at the contents of that old leather medical bag, including hand saw, I could only imagine the sea of pain and sand storms of fear my ancestor had known on that exodus journey in what must have seemed a godforsaken desert.

I'm not sure Warhufest ever reached the Promised Land. Eventually he settled down in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, so--like Moses--he must have come close. My brother, Scott, is the family historian, and he tells how Warhufest worked as a small-town physician; performed amputations in return for chickens -- that kind of thing. He led a simple yet full short life, gave of himself to others, fell in love, and had children- all of which was likely part of his destination. As a good Lutheran, he said his prayers. Like the hymn we sang with Tonya and John, he likely prayed the 23rd Psalm, asking God to shepherd him beyond his wants and fears. "Though I should wander the valley of death, I'll fear no evil, for you, loving God, are with me. …You set a banquet of love before me in the face of hatred, crowning me with love beyond my power to hold it. Surely your kindness and mercy will follow all the days of my life, and I will live in you forever. Warhufest died of black water fever which he contracted during the war. His wife and children were dispersed to live with various relatives for several years until his Army pension came through. But their lives, too, sang on in the rhythm of that psalm.

I share this exodus story with you, not to thoroughly depress you, but to hand you manna for your wilderness wandering. There are no guarantees when you step out into that wide expanse of unknowns, and not even goodness, faith, hard work or a Phi Beta Kappa key can make one immune to pain. Go forward any way. Yes, sometimes the things people do to each other makes this world a terrifying place. Sing anyway. Sometimes the pain of those we love causes us to pray with sighs too deep for words. Pray that sigh, but then make your amen, rising to dance. For as Kahlil Gibran, that great Muslim poet and mystic declares, "Is not the lute that soothes your spirit the very wood that was hollowed with knives? Your joy is your sorrow unmasked, and the deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain. "

In his novel, Gates of the Forest, Elie Wiesel gives a response to fear and evil. The survivor-protagonist Gregor tells of how, when he was in a concentration camp, he witnessed fellow camp members convene a special court to put God on trial for not stopping the evil. They found God guilty. The rebbe listening to Gregor's story says: 'I ask you a question and dare you to answer: 'What is there left for us to do?…In what direction are we to go? Where is salvation, or at least hope to be found?' The answer, as Wiesel perceives it, is expressed through faithful defiance. The rebbe tells Gregor: Who says that power comes from a shout…rather than a prayer? From anger rather than compassion?…There is joy as well as fury in the Hasid's dancing. It's his way of proclaiming: 'You don't want me to dance; too bad. I'll dance anyhow. You've taken away every reason for singing, but I shall sing…You didn't expect my joy, but here it is; yes, my joy will rise up .

You will always remember that 9/11 day and these war-filled times being part of your college years. These events have marked your lives and, no doubt, have only accentuated fears about the future. We live in a war wearied world powerful enough to destroy itself. Our proud civilizations have not withstood the stream of cruelty seeping from the undercurrents in the human soul. Perhaps it's understandable, then, if in venturing beyond the Cornell bubble, cradled by Iowan cornfields, fear tempts you to go forth with duck tape in hand: Duck tape to seal oneself off from joy, hope, generosity, and wonder. To seal yourself off from people with faces, faiths, and political views unlike one's own.

When we look out over global conflicts past and present, not infrequently do we see them heralded in the name of God. And so for many, it has been easier to seal oneself off from that too. Sure, religious institutions have created great universities, colleges and hospitals, patroned to the arts of Europe, under girded the civil rights movement, run soup kitchens, care for the homeless, and promote peace and justice, seeking liberation for the oppressed. More than a few contributions to the planet, I'd say. But have we not also seen our precious faiths--traditions which speak of love and justice, healing and peace, welcome and care for the stranger and marginalized-also misused to intensify hatred, intolerance and violence?

Understandably, there are those who are disillusioned with this scandalous use of that deemed sacred, and have chosen to abandon faith heritage altogether seeing it all as a hopeless enterprise. But there is a dream and a memory. The memory is of the Iberian Peninsula in the medieval period, where something flourished called 'convivencia' or 'co-existence' in which three precious religions influenced each other intellectually, aesthetically, economically and otherwise for good. In what was then Muslim controlled Cordoba, Muslims taught Jews, Jews were school masters to Christians, and Christians were welcome to worship in the Great Mosque Cordoba, which they did. And so it was that great creative interaction and co-existence thrived, proving that there is nothing monolithic about the history of Jewish, Christian, and Muslim relations which fates it to end in disaster. That we can live in amity, respecting differences while honoring commonalities-this is not a pipe dream. It happened for centuries.

Earlier this month, Mormons and Muslims in Pasadena, California worked side by side making hygiene relief packets for the people of Iraq. Earlier this year, Presbyterian young folks three blocks away told Pastor Emory that, in order for them to be better Christians and follow the command of to love one's neighbor, they wanted confirmation class to include visits to the Islamic Center, Temple Judah, and Buddhist and Hindu faith communities in the area. Their desire to learn about other religions and their peoples is not a watering down of their Christian faith but an extension of it. While respecting theological difference, in their bones they know that our differing traditions can be, and are, united around shared concerns for resolving conflicts, caring for the sick and needy, and for promoting peace. These young people are choosing to be the change and agency they want to see in the Church and world. So to my friends and relatives who are disillusioned with organized religion, I empathize, but ask: Please, don't give up on us. God is not through with us yet. More than as separate individuals, faith in community has the power to do great good.

Former Presbyterian General Assembly Moderator, John Buchanan, tells of a Serbian businessman named Antol who decided to commit his life to Christian mission by signing on with Agape Project, a refugee service and resettlement initiative funded, in part, by One Great Hour of Sharing. Antol's job was to bring together materials and labor and to coordinate the rebuilding of Muslim villages destroyed by the Serbs. He noticed that the rebuilding plans for one particular village did not include the Mosque which had been leveled. He inquired of the village chief: 'Why no Mosque?" and the Muslim chief said, "You're Christians aren't you? Why would you help us rebuild our house of worship?" Antol answered 'We will help you rebuild your Mosque because we are followers of Jesus, he told us to love our neighbors, and because he told a story about a man who stopped beside the road to help a stranger, whose religion was different but whose need was great."

Such faith and generosity, rather than triumphalism, is witness to authentic Christian identity. It's the same authenticity many of you expressed this past spring as you counter-protested Pastor Fred Phelp's hate filled theology. When a news reporter asked a Phelps person why he was not only protesting the College but Mt. Vernon churches, he said "because they teach that God loves everyone." I was taken back with how many of you responded to bad theology with better theology. Students and others came out of the woodwork, from the most conservative evangelical Christian, to mainliners and progressives, to atheists, non-Christians, and those unable to be categorized. You came peacefully with messages like the one which read "I will not teach hate in the name of the one who taught love." I ask you that you continue to be good theologians, being the agency and change you want to see in our various religious heritages and world. I ask that you go forward like The Rev. Martin Luther King who once preached from this very spot I now stand, remembering how the Good Book claims--not just a religious few-but all people are created in the image of God; that we must subsequently live ethical lives which recognize that divine likeness in each other's essence. At the very least, we need encounters with the face and faith of the one utterly unlike ourselves in order to avoid the idolatrous temptation of making God in our own image. We love the stranger in order to know the Holy which--though closer to us than breathing, imminently pulsating through out all creation-is also more than creation, transcending all our finite attempts to define and contain. Perhaps that's why the Holy Scriptures which Jesus studied and prayed, namely the Torah, has some 36 references to welcoming and caring for the stranger. It is often in the guise of beggar and stranger that God is revealed.

One final story, then I'll wrap this up. A few years ago I met an amazing poet, mystic, and Roman Catholic lay minister named Edwina Gately. At a college chaplaincy gathering she told the story of how she wanted some alone time with God, and did so by making exodus 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 there 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 for her wandering in the wilderness; 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. Edwina had no idea why this woman was all alone out in the desert. I'm sure the woman in black looked at Edwina and wondered even more of the same. But it didn't matter. The two women started running toward each other. Then stopped. They starred at each other in amazement. Seeing the face of the other in that barren desert was like seeing the face of the God.

The Muslim woman took the Christian woman's hands, and guided her to a 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. Edwina returned to her hermitage with a supply of water. The two women would never see 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.

And the prophet Mohammad cried out "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. Each Passover Jews reclaim the ethical mandate which comes as a package deal with Exodus. Reciting Torah passages in the Haggadah, they remember: "You know the feeling of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt. You shall not wrong them but love them as yourself. You shall rejoice before God [not only with your son and daughter]…but the stranger in your midst ." And to feuding factions of a schism riddled 1st c. church, the author of 1 John declares 'We love because God first loved us; how, if you don't love the brothers and sisters you have seen, can you love God whom you cannot see? This is why there is the commandment (v.20)."

Friends, like veins in the body, our lives are linked one to another. We are all one. We are all valued in God's eyes and bear that holy essence. All we do affects, for good or ill, all other lives. And so I pray that, as you make exodus from Cornell, you choose not your own interests or needs as the Promised Land destination, or as determination of right or wrong. Rather, go forward using the knowledge you've acquired here for an end greater than self, of which we are all part. Remember Paul's words, which Bosede read. The one who has supplied your life with blessing, has supplied you with seeds for sowing. It's by scattering seeds that your life will be a harvest. For a rich life comes not from acquisition, but generosity, and from generosity a life of gratitude, wonder, and thanksgiving to God will rise.

Class of 2003, go forward on that exodus journey. Plunge into that deep sea of unknown, buoyed by hope. Plunge in with the psalmist's song upon your lips, praying "Shepherd me, God beyond my wants; beyond my fears." Pass through those waters to the other side with seeds for sowing in your pockets, and wonder in your eyes, seeing the face of God in friend and foe, knowing God loves all. Before the threat of stand storms which will inevitably arise in your life if they haven't yet, go forward dancing defiantly like the Hasid, declaring "You didn't expect my joy, but here it is." Finally, make exodus from these Iowan fields like the mad farmer in Wendall Barry's Mad Farmer Liberation Front: That is, forgo love the quick profit and the annual raise; forgo being afraid to know your neighbors or to die. Choose instead to do something every day that won't compute. Love God. Love the world. Love someone who doesn't deserve it. Ask the questions that have no answers. Laugh. Be joyful though you have considered the facts. Say that your main crop is the forest that you did not plant, nor live to harvest ." Amen and amen.