Thursday, May 19, 2011

Commencement Sermon

With the Rev. Dr. Jim Merritt
 Commencement is a ritual. It is a ritual about transition. We gather to celebrate and to give thanks to God for the accomplishments of our graduates. We send them forth to transform the world, heal the broken-hearted, and become ministers of reconciliation.

The Gospel passage (Luke 10:1-9) talks about Jesus sending out seventy people to prepare his way. I have long been very suspicious of this passage because it has been taken by Fundamentalists and TV evangelists to mean that Jesus is sending these people to convert non-Christians and save their souls. Some of these people also proclaim that Jesus will come back this Saturday, May 21, to judge the living and the dead.

But this spring semester, I taught a course on Spirituality for the Contemporary World and we read Marjorie J. Thompson’s book Soul Feast: An Invitation to Christian Spiritual Life. She talks about the spiritual yearning of our time and introduces her readers to various Christian spiritual practices. The first one is spiritual reading of Scripture, which she calls “chewing the bread of the Word.” Spiritual reading, she writes, “is reflective and prayerful. It is concerned not with speed or volume, but with depth and receptivity.”

Invited by Thompson, I tried to ease my suspicion and quiet down in order to hear what God may be saying to us through this particular Gospel text.

I began to see that this passage is about a spiritual journey. It is about the persons who are commissioned to embark on a journey and the adventure will be full of roadblocks and difficulties. Through twists and turns, the persons learn to trust in God and not their own abilities or self-worth. Such kinds of stories or myths can be found in the world’s many cultures and religions. The Franciscan priest and spiritual leader Richard Rohr says, “The journey into the mystery of God is necessarily a journey into the ‘unfamiliar.’”

Read through this lens, the Gospel story has many surprises and things unexpected. The sending of the seventy comes after the sending of the twelve in Luke chapter 9. Jesus is sending not only those who would be apostles to do his mission. He is sending many out. The movement that Jesus is about to start is not built by the apostles or future ministers of the church alone, but by people of various gifts and talents. In Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, Paul says in order to build up the body of Christ, we would need apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, teachers, and people with other gifts (Eph. 4: 11-12).

In ancient times, travelling was full of risks. Jesus sends them out in pairs. I imagine in our modern church, we would need a committee to sort out who is going with whom. The thought of traveling with a co-worker makes us nervous and might even give us a headache. Will we get along? What happens when our styles of doing things are different?

We are so often taught that a leader needs to be autonomous and self-reliant. But Jesus tells these people not to go alone and take a companion with them. When we are weary and sick, don’t we long for someone who can watch over us? Who wouldn’t want to have what the Irish poet and philosopher John O’Donohue has called a soul friend, “a person to whom you could reveal the hidden intimacies of your life?”

Jesus sends them out saying, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few.” My immediate response was where? Where is the field where the harvest is plentiful? There are so many Americans unemployed looking for work. Some of our graduates might not easily find full time employment.

“Where is God calling me to harvest? Where is the farm, the garden, or the vineyard to which I need to devote my time and energy?” These are recurrent spiritual questions we have to answer throughout our lives. Other people cannot answer for us. The church cannot answer for us.

When Jesus says the laborers are few, he has a sense of urgency. Where are the places that most need you, that you want to commit your life to? It has taken me a long time to figure this out in my own journey.

I did not dream in my early seminary days that I would be working in field of postcolonial theology. Although I was born and grew up in the British colony of Hong Kong, I have not seen the immediate application of postcolonial theory to the study of the Bible and theology. It was not until several years before 1997 when Hong Kong was about to return to China that I began to seriously think of my identity as a postcolonial person. In the summer of 1998, my former colleague Dr. Ian Douglas, now the Bishop of Connecticut, organized a conference of Anglican contextual theologians on our campus. I met with Anglican theologians from other parts of the world—Jenny Te Paa from New Zealand, Jaci Maraschin from Brazil, and Denise Ackermann from South Africa. As we compared notes, I became even clearer than before of the long colonial legacy of the empire on the theology, liturgy, and structure of the Anglican Church and Communion.

There were so few of us at the time looking at the history and legacy of the Anglican tradition from a postcolonial lens and so much needed to be done. I felt then and I feel now that “the harvest is plenty and the laborers are few.”

Jesus forewarns the people he sends out that the journey is going to be treacherous. “I am sending you like lambs into the midst of wolves,” he says. Christian ministry is not for the faint-hearted. The children of this world have learned to trick you and sabotage your noble projects. People will not always like you, if you insist on doing the right thing. What you count as friends might turn out to be your worst enemies.

If the journey is going to be that tough, at least you want to be as best prepared as you can, such as filling your backpack with bread and water, buying the best pair of L.L.Bean hiking boots, and bringing a mobile phone with GPS in case you get lost.

What a surprise to hear that Jesus tells them, “Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals.” I can’t help asking, “Is this for real and is it rhetorical license?” Is Jesus demanding too much?

As I reflect more deeply on what “carry no purse, no bag, no sandals” would mean for a spiritual journey, I recall the tradition of holy women and men who have gone to the desert to live in prayer and austerity. They have learned to be a friend of God and not rely on the security of the world.

Suppose after much soul-searching and sleepless nights, you finally decide to embark on this spiritual journey into the “unfamiliar,” what are you supposed to do? You might imagine you are going to slay the dragon, start a revolution, and somehow end up being “the person of the year” on the cover of some magazines.

Here comes the biggest surprise for me in the story. Jesus tells them his mission consists of three simple things: (1) form community through establishing table fellowship with others, (2) take care of the sick and those with physical needs, and (3) proclaim the Kingdom of God has come near.

Our graduates might think that with several years of theological training, they ought to be able to do more challenging tasks. Having given up security and come back to school as a student, forfeiting vacations with family and friends, and writing all those final papers, they might think that they are called to do greater things than these.

Well, during the temptation, Jesus resisted turning stones into bread or jumping down from the pinnacle of the temple. His small movement consisted of building alternative communities, caring for the sick and the marginalized, and subverting the power and authority of ruling elites. It was through doing very simple and seemingly ordinary things that the extraordinary was revealed. The Logos became flesh.

So we send forth our graduates to continue to do these small and mundane things to usher in God’s Kingdom. This ritual is called commencement because your education has not finished. You are going to be continually formed by the people who will open their houses for you and invite you into their midst. As a leader, you will be formed and shaped by the people whom you have been called to serve.

You have to be faithful to the Gospel and always be open to the promptings of the Spirit. Hold on to your visions but remember that unless your dreams are shared by those whom you serve, you cannot change the world alone. Be sure to replenish your energy or qi, and take care of your physical, psychic, emotional, and spiritual well-being. As the late Rev. Peter Gomes, professor and minister of Harvard’s Memorial Church, told the senior class of Harvard undergrads before their commencement in 2004: “Doing what you can is all that worthwhile living is about, so for God’s sake, and your own, get on with it. You have nothing to lose and everything to gain.”

When you are tired and the temptation to give up sinks into your soul, remember the time when God first called you to this place and your excitement when you arrived. Remember that we pray for you and for our graduates regularly at this chapel. We ask you to continue to pray for us. Wherever you go and however hard the journey is going to be, know that you are never alone for you will always be a part of the EDS family and community. We give thanks to God for who you are and we are proud of you and claim you as our very own. Amen.

* Sermon preached at St. John's Chapel, Episcopal Divinity School, Cambridge, Massachusetts, on May 18, 2011.