Baccalaureate Sermon 2004
The Rev. Catherine Quehl-Engel
Baccalaureate sermons preached here a century ago lasted a good two hours. Needless to say, I'm inspired to be more merciful which, I'm certain, inspires you.
Perhaps your joy is mingled with fear this day, not only because you're leaving friends and the familiar, but because some of you have utterly no clue what you're doing with the rest of your life. Am I right? You're in what Dr. Seuss calls the waiting place. Perhaps your wise ones suggest patience in the face of the unseen. But you and I don't need a dictionary to sense how the word 'patience' comes from a Latin verb meaning 'to suffer.' Patience is agonizing. As a culture, we're lousy at it. We pace in front of the microwave, let alone waiting for our lives to unfold.
Earlier in the service, I said our purpose this morning is to give thanks, and to anoint you with hope. Well, you know how oil has been used not only to anoint kings or a messiah, but the heads of the troubled and sick? Seniors, if you look up above where you are seated you'll see where, in the days before electricity, there hung a huge chandelier. It was fueled by sperm whale oil. During those two hour sermons, oil dripped down anointing the tired heads of students as clueless as you about their future. Think about it. Those shining students-as troubled as you, in a world as troubled as ours, found their way. They may not have become kings, a messiah, or saint. But I like to think that-drop by drop, they filled the world with goodness, and so will you.
I pray hope pours down upon you this day. May it seep deep into your pours, saturating the terrors of your internal world-onto any and all self-doubt and anxiety which keeps you hostage to fear over your future. And may God's defiant hope in you and humanity--despite evidence to the contrary, flood the fault lines of our shared external world. For while you won't remember a darn thing I say today, you will remember the state of our world when you came of age on the hilltop. One day a grandchild may ask you "Where were during the attacks of Sept. 11th? Who were you with? What did you feel? Where were you during this war and that economic collapse, this vengeance and that scandal? You'll place yourself back on this campus amid the corn fields. Perhaps you'll recall the terrors of your external and internal worlds. But that would not be the full the story.
In his book, The Gift of the Jews, Thomas Cahill says "We normally think of history as one catastrophe after another, war followed by war, outrage by outrage-almost as if history were nothing more than all the narratives of human pain assembled in sequence." Cahill's right; in fact some of use do this with our personal histories too. But history, states Cahill, "is also the narrative of grace, the recountings of those blessed and inexplicable moments when someone did something for someone else, saved a life, bestowed a gift, gave something beyond what was required by circumstance ."
So, perhaps you'll answer that grandchild, saying "Most of life doesn't make headlines. So ask me where I was when-drop by drop, goodness filled me. Ask about relatives who, in the ordinary routine of daily life, taught me about generosity, and self-sacrifice. Ask about college professors and staff who cared about me more than was required, or the upper class student who took me under her wing when I saw myself as awkward and utterly uncool. Ask about the incident which humbly transformed my ignorance and intolerance of a people. Ask me what I saw under the microscope and experienced in a poem that enlarged my being and size of the world." They may ask you about images of war and cruelty. Share with them events that didn't make the paper. Like how, in the year you graduated, former Fata activists and Israeli special forces veterans climbed a previously unscaled mountain in the Antarctic, unfurled their national flags, and read a statement supporting a nonviolent solution to conflict back home. While it may accumulate slowly, says the Buddha, like drops of water, goodness fills the pitcher. Purpose and the accumulation of goodness are part of your reality no matter how untogether, unholy, or uncertain your life or the world may seem.
In today's Exodus story we meet Moses is in his younger, more vulnerable days. He doesn't look like Charleston Heston yet with that stunning white hair and wise confidence . His external and internal worlds are also full of terrors. Come to think of it, Moses' struggles are not utterly unlike some you have wrestled with amid the college years. His eyes opened to the human pain and injustice around him, and how his life--and the lives of those who suffer, are profoundly linked. He wants to make a difference, to help end injustice and human misery, but the sheer size of it is overwhelming. Besides, he's riddled with guilt over having lived a privilege life; even his clothes are made by child and slave labor. There are complex family issues so, perhaps like a few of you, he's afraid to go home. On top of everything, he's having an identity crisis-unsure of who he really is or wants to be.
Instead of facing the terrors, Moses flees to the wilderness. Time passes, but eventually God, his past, and life catch up with him. God says, "Moses, I've seen the oppression of my people. I want to you arouse faith in them. Hope in them. I want to you help me free them from oppression and all that binds. So come; I'm sending you." Perhaps like you, Moses is paralyzed with fear and self-doubt. He has a list of excuses on why God should go bother someone else if God's so desperately desires servant leaders for a more humane world. "Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh? I have no clue what to say, or what to do. Suppose people don't believe me? I'm lousy at public speaking. So please, don't ask this of me." God's response is interesting. He doesn't promise people will listen. God doesn't promise the task will be easy, pain free, or lead to famed greatness. Instead, God says, "Despite your fear, self-doubt, and evidence to the contrary, I have defiant hope in you." Have faith, and get up and go, for I will not forsake you. I am with you wherever you go." To Moses and to us, God says, "I will be with you." That's all. And that's everything.
Bill Parsons is a Cornell graduate, former school teacher, and the current chief-of-staff of the U.S. Holocaust Museum in D.C. At our annual Holocaust lecture he shared a young Moses story. He told of a UN peacekeeper from Pakistan stationed in Rwanda amid the genocidal slaughter a decade ago. His country couldn't afford to give him a uniform, let alone a gun. The only thing he had to signal his status as a UN peacekeeper was his beret. This Pakistani's job was to stand guard in front of a church packed with hundreds of Tutsis hiding from the slaughter. The Hutu youth militia came with their hatchets demanding to be let in. Instead of running, the Pakistani told them to go away, that church is a safe haven; that there will be no killing today. While the whole international system with its guns or whatever did nothing, one guy with no gun lessoned the number of murders that day. He was just an ordinary guy like you and me, and probably back in Pakistan right now working low wages as a security guard.
Professor Ault, his wife, my step-dad and I traveled to Pakistan over winter break. A former student was getting married, we love her, and wanted to experience her beautiful culture. So, despite fears over worst case scenarios, and the bride saying things like, "Don't worry, Dad can hire a security guard," we went. Your Prof. Farooqi was right: Instead of being afraid on the streets of Karachi, we were embarrassed by the outpouring of hospitality and kindness from utter strangers coming up to us off the streets who were grateful that someone from the United States set aside stereotypes of Muslims and Mulsim culture in order to get to know who they really were. And Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was right. As he once said in this chapel, we hate each other because we fear each other, and we fear each other because we don't know each other.
While Roohi's four day wedding was incredible, equally moving was an orphanage we visited founded by a man named Edhi. Edhi was younger than you, uneducated, and living in poverty when his mother became ill. From her death bed she recited her Allah Hu prayer on her prayer beads, then blew her breath on him, whispering "Empty words and long praise do not impress God. Show your faith by deeds, otherwise why should God believe you?" On the first night his mother spent in the grave, he dedicated his life to the service of humankind.
Edhi found food for the hungry. He started organizing care for the homeless and the mentally and physically ill. There was no welfare system; not even ambulances, so he even raised money to refurbish used vans. His reputation grew. When a dead body was found under a bridge, or if family was afraid of touch the body of a loved one who died of infectious disease, Edhi came to wash and shroud the body, giving it a proper Muslim burial. He put cradles at garbage dumps with signs attached saying, 'Please, don't throw away your daughters (cultural remains of the that region's caste system; expense of dowries…) He promised that if he could not find the child new parents he would raise them as his own, educate them, pay for university, and provide for their dowry. He took in those babies, Muslim, Hindu, and Christian alike, promising to raise them in the faith tradition of their heritage. This uneducated man went on to become the welfare system of the nation. Even after he became famous, he humbly begged in the streets with cupped hands, not only to raise funds, but to create humility and fight false exaggerations of success within himself.
I'm ashamed to say I'd never heard of this man prior to sipping tea with his daughters. Tears from the pit of my being poured out in the presence of so much self-less goodness. I had just come from shopping. The man owns two pairs of clothes. Is it because he is a Muslim from a Third World nation that I, a Christian living in the world's super power, never heard of Edhi? That I never felt the need of him? He's known as the Mother Theresa of the Muslim world. He's a household name. He was offered the Nobel Peace Prize. He turned it down, saying that he wasn't doing what he does for a prize.
Listen. You don't have to be Edhi. You don't have to be the main character from The Book of Exodus. You don't have to be a saint. In fact, I think Rev. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was right when, from his Nazi prison cell, he noted how, while the goal of sainthood is impressive, he'd rather learn to have faith instead. This Nazi resistance pastor wrote, "One must completely abandon any attempt to make something of oneself, whether it be a saint, a…so-called priestly type, a righteous or unrighteous one…[but] live unreservedly in life's duties, problems, successes and failures, experiences and perplexities. In so doing we throw ourselves completely into the arms of God, taking seriously not our own sufferings, but those of God in the world-watching with Christ in Gethsemane. That," states Bonhoeffer, "is faith….How can success make us arrogant, or failure lead us astray when we share in God's sufferings through a life of this kind? "
I know the internal and external terrors seem huge. Read the headlines, and you know why servant leadership in a global community-the very thing your education has empowered you for-beckons to you. So despite your fears, dare living an unequivocal 'yes' to the transforming, healing, and reconciling of the world. Not only is this moral choice central and meaningful to our various faiths and to secular humanism. Living this unequivocal 'yes' is what makes for a meaningful life.
Think you have nothing to offer? Think your self-giving must be spectacular? Viv is as ordinary as you and me. We belong to the same church, and like several other members of the congregation, she lives with physical and mental disabilities. Unlike Edhi's cupped hands, Viv's are curled into clubs, her body is strapped to a wheel chair, her voice is slurred and slow. One Sunday we sat together as the pastor baptized two autistic children. Their mother had just finished telling the congregation how her family and friends said she'd never find a faith community that would want her children, especially during worship. Among the challenges of this developmental brain disorder are uncontrollable screams.
Their baptism into the Body of Christ was unforgettable. The seven and eight year old siblings stood before the font. They covered their ears and wailed, as is characteristic of children who suffer from this disease. When water was placed on the girl, she bit the pastor. When, over the wailing cries Pastor Dee yelled to the rest of us "Do you promise to love, support and care for these children?" We said yes but with great pause. I think we were afraid, unsure whether we were good enough or qualified.
As the congregation prayed 'Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven" a little friend of the autistic children…a girl with mental challenges and legs that didn't work, got down onto the floor and began dragging her body over to where Viv's wheel chair sat. Though they hadn't met before, of all the people in that church, the one with ministry this child needed was Viv. She pulled herself up into Viv's lap, and pressed her smiling face upon Vivs, as if looking into a mirror…as if looking into the eyes of God. I had made the mistake of only seeing Viv as the recipient…the one to hold the hymnal for, to place wine and bread between her lips, to wipe her nose, the one to whom we give but never receive. But she is the one who outwardly embodies my inward brokenness which longs to be liberated from the fleshpots of perfectionism and self-righteousness. Viv and those children were God's prophets witnessing to sacred worth, purpose, and happiness beyond our cultural obsession with what Father Mel calls the "3As": beyond Accumulation, Appearances, and Accomplishments. In experiencing heaven through their ministry of presence, I learned my need of them. To humbly receive.
At these graduation ceremonies we talk a lot about giving to others. I'd like to end by suggesting that servant leadership for a more humane world also means you, I, and this nation setting aside our idea of unilateral or one-way giving, and exchange that model for interdependence which includes learning to humbly receive. That's a different message than the "manifest destiny" baccalaureate sermons preached here a century ago. Now, asking you to receive may sound odd. Why? Because many of you are embarking upon the greatest adventure-and biggest challenge-of your young lives: Moving back home to live off your parents. You'll hand Mom the Hefty bag full of laundry and become what Dave Barry calls, well, SpongeBob! After a couple weeks of watching you sleep 'til noon as they leave for work, you'll be reminded how even McDonalds needs English majors. They'll annoy you in other ways too, and soon, as Barry puts it, you'll find courage and ask them to move out.
OK, so what I mean is something quite different. It's similar to how, in Christian tradition, one experiences a difference when one receives the bread and wine with cupped hands rather than taking it. As educated and therefore privileged people, living in a world super power, self-sacrifice also means our self-emptying…emptying unilateral models of leadership, unilateral giving, unilateral taking. As Paul suggested in his letter to the Corinthians, self-sacrifice and love means letting go of arrogance and insistence upon one's own way in our life together. It means humbly acknowledging our need of the Pakistans and the Vivs. …How, we too, could use missionaries. Just our cultural obsession with the three A's, we have something to learn…about happiness through simplicity. About patience, slowing down, or how to live in community from people in Latin America. Perhaps we have something to learn about conflict resolution from efforts by Muslims and United Methodists working for peace in Nigeria.
Flip forward in the Book of Exodus and you'll see how after Moses became a great leader, even he had to be pulled aside by his father-in-law and told, "Look, kid, you're not only exhausting yourself but these people. The task is too heavy for you. You can't do it alone. Let others bear the burden with you." That way, you'll endure, and these people can go to their homes in peace. Why should servant leadership today be any different?
I end with the Paul text Jaclyn read on how God gives a variety of gifts for the common good, just as a body has many parts though it is one. The eye cannot say to the head, I have no need of you. Moreover, God arranged the body, given greater honor to the inferior members so that there may be no dissension but the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer with it. Paul is describing members of Christ's body, but we can use his image to vision all of creation and humanity as parts of God's Being. How would that affect ethics and servant leadership? How can we engage-not in manifest destiny-but in manifesting unity without violating the diversity God created and blessed? The classic 'love is patient, love is kind…love isn't rude, arrogant, or insists on its own way.' This text is often read at weddings, however, it wasn't written for a couple in love. Paul wrote it for the church at Corinth as divided over theological and ethical disputes as are today's religious bodies, but again, his instruction works for our secular public and global life too. To all smug arrogance, insistence on who is right, and appetite for domination, Paul says: The real wisdom, the religious experience, the real essence of life in community…is love. It's about connection. It's no more complicated than that.
Class of 2004, those magnificent redwood trees are great in size, but their roots aren't deep. Only by being entwined with the roots of others does the redwood have support needed to stand. Like these trees or the veins throughout our bodies, our lives are linked one to another. So go out humbly giving and receiving within the Being of God. Go out with cupped hands, open to receive. Go out watching over each other in love. Well oiled and glistening, go out, drop by drop, anointing the world with hope. Amen.