Baccalaureate Sermon 2005

The Rev. Catherine Quehl-Engel
Cornell College                                               

Rain fell upon a mountain in a distant land.  It trickled down slopes becoming a great stream.  Effortlessly it flowed, cascading past cypress tress and stones.  It fell over cliffs.  Finally, having left great heights, it made its way to the desert’s edge. The stream fully expected to cross the desert too.  But as fast as its waves splashed into the desert, they disappeared into sand.  Then the stream heard Desert whisper, “You’ll never get across that way.  You have to let wind carry you.”  “But how?” shouted the stream.”  “Let it absorb you,” said Desert.  But Stream couldn’t accept this.  It didn’t know how to rely upon anything other than itself.  Besides, how could it be certain of becoming a stream again?  Desert assured stream that it could continue flowing, perhaps one day becoming a swamp at the desert’s edge.  But it would never cross the desert as long as it remained a stream.  “But why can’t I remain the same stream that I am?” it cried.  Desert answered, “You never can remain what you are.  Either you become a swamp or you give yourself to the wind.

Consent to letting the wind absorb you; to carry you as you journey from here to God knows where.  That sounds like a risky if not foolish proposition.  It’s unlike everything our culture teaches about individualism and success, self-reliance and measuring one’s worth by accomplishments.  Besides.  You’re like that small trickle of rain turned into a great mountain stream.  You’ve spent your entire life establishing yourself.  Proving yourself.  You’ve been busy in what Carl Jung called the necessary morning years of developing your ego in its orientation to the world.  So why glean wisdom from a Tunisian tale told by a 19th c. Sufi mystic?  Desert’s advice to stream is as welcoming to our egos as Jesus’ invitation to follow his life of self-emptying, and his zen-like sayings about losing ourselves in order to find ourselves.  It’s like the Tao Te Ching telling us that by clinging and trying to control we’ll lose.  That we must loosen the grip, letting things take their course.

Uncurling the fingers to loosen the grip.  Giving yourself over to something larger because your life is more than about you. Letting things take their course.  Now that’s a good one.   When your student loan company contacts you, its not an option to say “I’m not ready to pay back yet.  The college chaplain says we should just let things take their course.”  Still, there must be something to these spiritual themes of emptying the ego’s drive, otherwise they wouldn’t universally saturate our differing religious traditions.  Zen Buddhists, and Christian contemplatives from the medieval period to present, speak of this unselfing as giving up the Small or False Self: That is, our anxious self-constructions, fear, and grasping self.  Replace it with Big Mind or what Father Keating calls True Self:  That state when our ego attachments and illusion of our separateness dissolve.   That who we most deeply are is not the ego we prize.   Through unselfing we draw closer to the heart of all life, which in turn draws us closer to the heart of every living being.

The great Israelite prophet, Elijah, learned all of this first hand. In the spirit of Jewish midrashic tradition, I’ll playfully use his story as a lens for our own  life journey. 

Like you and the mountain stream, Elijah, had known great heights.  His scriptural resume reveals a high achiever dedicated to service, leadership, and a holy life.  He’s the valedictorian type; the classmate featured in the alumni magazine whose getting his doctorate from Oxford when not busy caring for starving orphans and widows, or protesting their ill treatment by government officials.  Elijah was so amazing, his fame grew beyond human dimensions including legends of miraculous cures. 

Yet at the moment we catch up with this great social prophet, he’s at the edge of the desert, if not his morning years. A resume filled with heroic accomplishments can’t make up for his feelings of self-doubt.  Of inward fear.  On the heels of yet another success—namely defeating the idols of Baal--Elijah has run out of his own strength.   The one who revives others from hopelessness throws off the super hero cape and falls to the ground telling God “Enough. I’m done.”  He’s like Peter Parker in Spider Man II and some social worker, clergy, and other care giver types who burn out by their 30s.  Indeed, it is the peculiar weakness of the strong to believe all depends on them. 

Elijah was tired.  Tired of success, and perhaps even more of the fear of failure. Harvard Chaplain Peter Gomes says Elijah offers a lesson we in this achievement and results-oriented world need to know:  “That failure is not the opposite of success; it is often the result of success.  We get it in our minds that small successes ought to lead us to larger successes and upward mobility forever…but we know the truth, that the more we have, the more we stand to lose, and the more we accomplish the greater will even small failure appear to be.”[ii]

And so it may have been with Elijah.   But I think more is going on here.  It has something to do with him crying “I’m no better than my ancestors.”  What a humbling and humanizing moment of maturity.  Perhaps this realization is akin to what Victoria Bissell Brown sees in the maturing of the young, ambitious social reformer, Jane Addams.   In the late 19th c. Adams spent her college years dreaming she’d become the independent hero who stood apart and above ordinary lives.[iii]  But in the eight humbling years between a privileged education and founding Chicago’s Hull House for poor immigrants, life taught Addams to abandon all sophomoric notions of a heroic destiny beyond the ordinary.[iv]   Discovered was that her life was as ordinary and her worth as great as those she cared for.  That she was not an autonomous self who heroically saves the day.  In fact her life was not something she created.  Rather, her life was something she found in recognition of community, knowing we need and belong to one another.

When my daughter, Rachel, was little she had Power Puff Girl pjs which read: “Saving the world before bed time.”   Wow.  Talk about heroics and pressure.     It’s hard enough being a child named after the Mother of Israel, who was not only tough and beautiful but wept with exiles and those whose children are no more.   Last week I discovered Rachel leafing through century old Bibles once prayed over by our ancestors.  Amid her pile was a newer text, a Jewish studies book entitled Rachel which I bought for her when she was only a babe.  I opened the cover and saw the inscription I wrote nine years ago: “For my Rachel.  May the life you give the world continue the legacy of the great biblical hero after whom you are named.”   Good heavens.  That’s a tall order for a two month old.   Still, this tall order is not about individual heroics.  And here’s a major reason why we’re raising her within a faith community rather than simply giving her a stack of Bibles and insights from various traditions in order to develop an autonomous faith.  Leaders of the Civil Rights Movement didn’t attempt social change through individual heroics.  Their courage, hope, and the strength to practice non-violent resistance was grounded not only in spiritual and theological underpinnings.  Faith in community is how courage, hope and strength were possible.

 Of course there are many frustrations with life in community.  There are conflicting personalities and ideologies.  There is also that part about not only aiding others but learning to receive. As one whose left the morning years for early afternoon, I’m still learning this, despite the thread bare cape wonder woman cape.  Besides, I not only crave solitude and find communion with nature and God on a morning run, in my garden, or a good book. Like you, I’ve grown up in a culture that worships autonomy. 

Speaking of that, Dad tells me that the day he becomes physically or mentally dependent, we’re to stick him on a floating ice chunk and push it out to sea.  Seems extreme, but perhaps you leader and fierce independent types understand that fear.  Or at least you can imagine the initial reluctance of Elijah the Great when ministering angels have to arrive in order to care for him in that cave, to remind him to eat as he lays there in a depression—for that is literally what a cave is. Perhaps for the first time, the legendary prophet relying upon someone or something other than his own leadership and strength. 

While many of use are occasionally seduced by the temptation to prove our relevance or heroics, it’s probably more common for us and those we love to be afflicted with the opposite:  The temptation to think of ourselves as irrelevant, powerless, and utterly mundane.  As Parker Palmer points out, the irony is that the origins and outcomes of the weak and strong ego are the same:  Both proceed from the same mistaken assumption that being spectacular is the only way we can have real impact on the world.[v]

At Elijah’s moment of personal crisis, he had just come from tearing down idols.   I can’t help but wonder if something inside him was also being torn down.   Idolatry happens when something finite is given ultimate meaning.  In our culture, that’s not some carved stone but placing ultimate value in fleeting things like money, success, physical perfection, and fame.   My spiritual advisor and priest calls this our cultural obsession with the 3As:  accumulation, appearances, and accomplishments. I also like James Fowler’s take on this.  He describes idolatry happening when one looks at the altar, and the image on it smiling back bears a striking resemblance of oneself.  To that I’ll add one’s own religious or political group, or nation.   Relying upon the autonomous heroic self?  Given that we’re made with limits, I think that qualifies too. 

“What are you doing here, Elijah?” says the voice.  The prophet mutters something about how he’s not like the others; he’s the only faithful one.  The only one who cares and this job is about to take away his life.  “Really?” is the response I’m tempted to give.  Fortunately for Elijah, the Word of the Lord gives a different answer.  It says, “Pay attention. God’s presence is near.”  Then a powerful wind arose.  But God wasn’t in that.  Then an earthquake.  Again, God was not in that impressive might.  Then came fire, but God was not in that either. Then came the sound of sheer silence.  Closer than breathing, the holy is found.  “Be still and know I am God; that you don’t have to be.  That the job description is already taken.  Be still and know.” Elijah buries his face in his mantle, allowing himself to be absorbed.  Self unmasked, in holy hush. Not in the spectacular but ordinary, he discovers the holy ground of all being, and of his being.

Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams says, “We expect God to work in us at the points of our lives where we sense we are most pious, together, and on the right lines—not in those areas of our life where we feel at sea, weak or in need.”  But often it’s then when it happens.  When the “heroic I” and false self are stripped away.  As Williams puts it, “at least then our sense of doing well and satisfying expectations is not getting in the way.”[vi]

When the pivot of the universe leaves the I, when Elijah recognizes he dwells in the Being and Heart of Life, he is then able to become one with the heart of all.  To feel and find need of others, for by the end of this chapter, the prophet who once claimed to be the only one and all alone, is summoned into community.  And his eyes are opened to seven thousand others who’ve been there all along.

Friends, we live in an era where self-culture seem far more compelling than public life and the hard work of unity amid our plurality.  Yes, we need solitude.  We need a private life for renewal, and to clear the noise in order to hear that still small voice.  But that in itself is not the end.  Your life, and your education, are about more than you.  The world needs you.  In fact, to pluck a phrase from the new Dean at the National Cathedral, “the absence of open-minded, intellectually probing, and compassionate versions of our faith traditions” needs you.  “Deep wells of these core principles exist within these traditions but they are being drowned out by extremists (ibid).”  So we need you.  The heart of life who connects us with the heart of all needs you.   For as the Abbot of at Trappist monastery once told me, “I feel close to God out in the woods too, but sharing oneself and giving oneself away is how one is a real person.” 

This is an age where private life, and private warring special interest groups are increasingly obsessive, fraying the fabric of our common life.  That’s why we need to renew our sense of belonging to one another.  As Thomas Merton put it in No Man is an Island,

we do not exist for ourselves alone.  It is only when we are fully convinced of this fact that we begin to love ourselves properly and thus also love others.  […For in living for others], we gradually discover that no one expects us to be ‘as gods.’  We see that we are human, like everyone else, that we all have weaknesses and deficiencies, and that these limitations of ours play a most important part in all our lives.  It is because of them that we need others and others need us….[to]complete one another.[vii]

Closing story.  Dr. Walt Stromer, a retired professor of speech and communications, died two weeks ago.  Most of you seniors knew him, though you may not realize it.  He was the white haired, blind gentleman with a walking stick you may have sat next to at a campus lecture, or opened a door for, or wondered if you should offer a guiding arm to on your way to class.  I’d like to end with wisdom of his faith and way of seeing the world. 
Like some of your relatives and friends, and classmates like Laura Fuller, Rose Konvalika, and most recently Jamaal Onoh whom we keep in our prayers, Walt Stromer proudly served in the U.S. armed forces.  This service of self-emptying is how Walt lost his sight.  During the Battle of the Bulge a shell from a German tank shattered into pieces a near by tree.  In that moment, one chapter of Walt’s life ended.  As the new one began, Walt was determined not to become a swamp at the bottom of the mountain.  He was an optimist, a hard working Iowa farm boy, raised in that deep Lutheran rhythm of paschal mystery, of dying down and rising up with Christ.  Of despair not being the final word.  Of  trusting something larger than self to carry him across the desert obstacle he faced.  Walt chose to finish his education, something some family members thought was a waist of good money and time.  The unemployment rate among the blind was high, few colleges were hiring, and even fewer willing to open their doors to folks with disabilities.  But Cornell did.  Given Walt’s 32 years teaching with a faculty mandated speech requirement for all students, Walt entered the lives, and prepared for commencement over 4,000 students.  According to Milhauser, that’s more than any other single professor in Cornell’s history.

But this man taught more than how to communicate effectively and persuasively. This blind man taught the rest of us how to see.  He spoke out against racial and religious prejudice.  He was committed to understanding among differing religions and cultures, taking seriously the Jewish ethic Jesus taught about loving neighbor and stranger.   This good Mo. Synod Lutheran even taught a course on Ghandi.  He and wife, Viv, took care of many students, especially international students. And Walt taught many young people how to see when they couldn’t find the way. One of these former students was Hiroko Katsuyama from Japan who also is blind. In her recollections of Walt she writes:

It was the first day of September, 1980, when I moved into Dows Hall.  I was thinking vaguely in the room what I should do to solve many problems from now on.  As I was totally blind, I wondered whether I could locate the classroom, library Commons, and so on.  Secondly, my English was so poor that I could not understand what people around me were talking about.  Thirdly, I had to find a way for transcribing textbooks into brail.  I heard someone knocking on the door and said, “Hiroko, shall we go out?”  “Here comes a savior!” I thought.  Of course it was Dr. Stromer with Kiyohisa Kaneko, a Japanese student.  He guided me to The Commons, library, and my classroom at College Hall explaining landmarks carefully.

Your classmate, Amy Pitlik, helped Walt prepare his memoir before he died.  In it he describes how, as a teenager, he was afraid of everything from heights and water to contact sports.  So he found it interesting that folks thought him courageous, giving him credit for doing routine things like crossing a street, climbing a ladder to clean out the eaves, or flying to conventions and to Japan to visit Hiroko, as though the pilot invited him into the cockpit to take over the plane.  He even painted the inside of his church.  “But have I changed?” he asks, thinking back to his youth.  “I’m not sure. I still have fears.  My heart starts racing when I try to cross the street and a howling wind or jackhammer makes too much racket for hearing traffic.  Trembling a bit, I stick my cane out, hoping the drivers have good sight and good breaks.”

When you’re afraid to cross life’s desert, unsure if you’ll make it when you can’t see the way, close your eyes and see Walt again with his cane.  Let that image be an icon for trusting despite the fears.  May his image also remind you about our need of each other. That we all have weakness, as Thomas Merton said, only Walt’s were more visible than most of ours which we try so hard to hide.  For while Walt was a hero of sorts, he didn’t believe in the myth of the “heroic I.”  He couldn’t.

 From Walt taking this community by the arm, and we him, may we remember to contribute to each other’s flourishing; that as you go out into the world you find courage to resist the temptations of making your life only about yourself or your own political, religious, or anti-religious kind.   That being at one with the heart of life, your life is tied up with every living being.

Before he died, Walt wrote:  “A novel I read in high school ended with this line by the dying hero.  ‘I don’t know where I’m going but I ain’t afraid.’”  “That still appeals to me,” Walt said.  And may it be for you as your life flows on.


May God disturb you and comfort you.  May God keep before you the faces of the hungry and hurting, the rejected and despised.   May God absorb and carry you past your fears, granting you peace, courage, and the arms of others to make ours a better world.

[i]Story by 19th c. Tunisian Sufi mystic, Awad Afifi in Beldon Lane’s  The Solace of Fierce Landscapes: Exploring Desert and Mountain Spirituality (NY: Oxford University Press), p. 21.

[ii] Gomes, Peter, Sermons: Biblical Wisdom for Daily Living, (NY: William Morrow and Company, 1998)
            pp. 159-163.

[iii] Bissell Brown, Victoria.  The Education of Jane Addams (Phil: University of Penn Press, 2004),
               pp. 9,91,105,125, 142.

[iv] Victoria __ Brown, The Education of Jane Addams.  March 17, 2005, Cornell College.

[v] Palmer, Parker.  The Active Life, p.

[vi] Williams, Rowan.  Ponder These Things: Praying with Icons of the Virgin (Franklin, WI: Sheed & Ward,
                    2002), p. 49.

[vii] Merton, Thomas.  No Man is an Island (1983), pp. xx, xxi.

THE LESSONS for today’s sermon:

From The Tao Te Ching:

The tall tree
begins as a tiny sprout.
A journey of a thousand miles
starts with a single step.

Rush into action, you fail.

Trying to grasp things, you lose them.

Forcing a project to completion, you ruin what was almost ripe.

Therefore the Master takes action by letting things take their course.

He remains as calm at the end as at the beginning.

He has nothing, thus has nothing to lose.

What he desires is non-desire; what he learns is to unlearn.

He simply reminds people of who they have always been.

He cares about nothing but the Tao.

Thus he can care for all things.

1 Kings 19:9-13a

He came to a cave and spent the night there.  Then the word of the Lord came to him saying, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He answered, “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword.  I alone am left, and they are seeking my life to take it away.  He said, “Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.”  Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence.  When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle.

From Buddhist tradition, Sutta Nipata 145-150

Just as a mother would protect her only child at the risk of her own life, even so, cultivate a boundless heart toward all beings.  Let your thoughts of boundless love pervade the whole world.

From the New Testament, Gospel of St. Mark 8:35

And Jesus said, “Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it.” Here ends today’s lessons.  May God bless our hearing of these words.