Baccalaureate Sermon 2006
The Rev. Catherine Quehl-Engel
My 89 year old grandmother’s favorite book is Gone with the Wind. She owns three copies. A tough old broad, her favorite scene is when Grandma Fontaine, who has survived wars and adversities of many kinds, leans over to Scarlet, tells her to pull herself together, then says “We are not wheat. We’re buckwheat. When storms come along, they flatten ripe wheat because it’s dry and can’t bend in the winds. But buckwheat’s got sap in it. It bends when the winds pass through and spring up almost as straight and strong as before.” Those words summarize my grandmother’s life. And perhaps your own.
A while back a young man I knew was going through one of life’s storms. He needed to leave the college; he wasn’t ready to be here. But he wasn’t wanting to go home either. Deep down I think he knew his parents loved him, but there was that father-son-power and individuation thing that can be hard as one journeys into adulthood. His Dad called me the day his son had to leave because he wasn’t sure if his son was coming home or on the run. Then he called again. His son had left a voice mail saying he was at the gas station but his gas card expired and didn’t know what to do. That his son called for help was a good sign. Still, Dad was worried. I went to the local gas stations looking for him. No luck. I left a message on the student’s cell telling him there’d be gas cards tucked under the front doormat of my home.
I started driving back to campus when I had to turn the car around. Felt I should leave more than plastic money under the mat. Since I was visiting my grandmother back home later that night, the first thing that came to mind was the words of hope Rev. Schuh gave her some 83 years ago. She was an orphan Her parents wanted to reinvent their lives beyond their marriage, and she wasn’t part of it. They put her baby sister up for adoption, and tried to get her into a children’s home in Madison but there weas no room. Her dad found a boarding house, and there she would take her meals and sleep in the dining room. He pointed to the school down the street and told her to go to the principal’s office and register herself for school. She was on her own and only six years old. After that didn’t work she was bounced around from distant relative to relative for as long as they’d take her, and cried herself to sleep many a night for she loved her dad with her heart and soul. In time her mother wanted her back because she was ill and needed help raising two babies from another marriage. She loved those girls, and even dropped out of high school in order to care for them. Still, tired of family brokenness, she brought herself to Church. That’s when Rev. Schuh, in broken English, gave her these words which, like sap, helped her be buckwheat for the rest of her life. He said if ever there was a child who needed that verse it was her. He seemed to understand her plight. They are from the last line of the Gospel of Matthew: “Lo I am with you always, even until the ends of the world.”
I scribbled down these words which helped her bend in the wind all those years. I placed that note under the doormat, paused to thank Rev. Schuh for loving my grand mother, prayed for this young man and his family, and headed out of town. The next day I was out on a morning run. I ran past the old apartment where my mother, brother, and I lived alongside other broken families some thirty years ago. I ran into the Catholic cemetery next door where I played and prayed after school. I looked at the tree I climbed to communion with the holy, and at the statue of the crucifixion which comforted me amid my family’s little apocalypse, reminding me that in brokenness I wasn’t alone. Then I kept running, deeper and deeper in, out past the familiar. Then I randomly glanced up at a headstone, and saw the words “Rev’d Alfred Schuh” Tears welled up from this mystery of improbable coincidence. Again, I thanked God for this man’s shepherding of my grandmother, and I prayed that I be so led that I too may lead the wandering and wavering; the lost and afraid. That like Rev. Schuh, God strengthen me that I respond to grace by stretching out a loving hand. And I prayed that this young man, who was out of gas in more ways than one, would also be strengthened and shaped into knowing himself as risen wounded healer for the world.
Who have been your shepherd and loving guides? Your Rev. Schuhs? Your courageous grandmothers, your caring teachers, mentors, parents, colleagues, and friends whose small act of kindness shifted the gears in the machinery of your universe? [pause] Of course there are the well known, like Rosa Parks, whose small size and act of defiance were plenty big for shifting gears on a large scale. May the mightiness of that small act be inspiration to you and me. But how about the folk closer at hand for you? Who, in the words of Isaiah, unbound your broken heart? Who showed you that, despite all evidence to the contrary, there is good in this world and that it’s worth risking and sacrificing for? Which relative or mentor has done this for you? Who gave you the mantle of praise in exchange for faint spirit? A garland in exchange for ash?
Now let me ask you this: Who are those persons outside your –ism? You know. Outside your liberalism, conservativsm, agnosticism or atheism; outside your Protestantism, passivism, Buddhism, Judaism, Catholicism, secularism who have stretched out a loving hand to you? Who reached out beyond the often polarizing political and religious divides to love and guide you? And what about you? Are you willing to reach out beyond your –ism? To take your liberal arts education and preparation for global citizenship and cross the divides; to defy the evil of our cultural climate in which we so easily demonize and distance ourselves from those unlike our religious, political, or cultural own? [St. Paul asked feuding factions of the early Church to out do each other in showing honor. Gandhi told a feuding Hindu and Muslim to each raise an orphan in that other person’s tradition. Prof. Liberko put it this way: Can we look at the tradition we may not be entirely comfortable with and open ourselves to Spirit breathing there? Or how about this? Can we be humble enough to not only give to the stranger and one unlike yourself but, as Kahlil Gibran put it, have the courage and confidence, nay, the charity to receive? Your liberal arts education, and our life together have, in a way, been an experiment in love. Reconciling virtue and interdependent global citizenship have been fostered in you through integrative thinking, commitment to service, and caring community. As personal example, I could stand here reading off the names evangelicals, atheists, Mormons, Methodists, Muslims, neo-pagans, Roman Catholics, Hindu, Buddhists, Jewish, red zone, blue zone, pro-war, anti-war people at this college who have supported, shaped, and mentored this Episcopal priest and chaplain. I’m talking interdependency with folks like Preston.
Preston was a visiting professor in mathematics when he was diagnosed with a brain tumor. He was only 39 years old. An agnostic, there were two things he asked of me as chaplain: To befriend his mother who was moving here to be with him during the brain surgery and to deal with the partial paralysis and other the debris of wreckage this aggressive treatment leaves in its wake. The second thing he asked for was companionship in entering the fear. He was open to my walking a labyrinth as a meditative prayer form during the brain surgery, imagining it like a human brain, each step in sacred geometry being attentiveness to this young mathematician’s healing. We navigated the fear by experiencing Jody Hovland’s Riverside performance of ‘Wit’, a play about a woman’s journey with cancer [How ironic given all she has faced this past year]. And I’d sit and listen to him make meaning out of his adversity. Of how he weighed the risks and unknowns of the clinical trial. During that conversation Preston said something I’ll never forget, and he has given me permission to share it. This agnostic spoke of the cross as the only metaphor which made sense of the possible chemotherapy; of taking toxic chemicals into his body being a death; of losing life in order to find it. Of dying down in order to rise.
Of course death and resurrection are not a religious paradigm unique to Christianity. What is unique, though, is the Christologal musings of an agnostic mathematician moving me in ways not all Christian interpretations do. Though my faith was not his, this agnostic was enriching my baptismal vows of daily dying down and rising each day this side of heaven. Of being buckwheat. Of facing adversity head on. In other words, his courage and words about chemo were reminding me of my need to live a life of relinquishing trust in the face of fear and change, like falling seed casting off its casing. To free fall amid our living and dying into the pitch black fertile earth of God who I understand as the Ground of our Being. To live resurrection all the days of my life, practicing it all the way home.
So far I’ve asked about your Rev’d Schuhs; the gear shifters of hope and courage in your universe. I’ve asked who have been your Prestons; the ones outside your –ism who have helped you. Healed you. Enriched life’s meaning for you. I’ve also suggested that we can pay back or respond to this grace by paying it forward as the film by that title so aptly named. And like the child in Pay if Forward--and folks like my grandmother, and Preston, and the young man calling his dad for help, and perhaps like you, to face adversity head on and not shut down or run in fear. And that’s how I’d like to end this. With words on defiant hope; of resisting cynicism, despair, and paralyzing fear no matter how cruel or broken the world may be.
In a series entitled Living the Questions, Tex Sample tells of a philosophy professor who had once had a young woman in his class who was paralyzed in both arms. She only had movement in two fingers. The young woman would get a pencil between those two fingers, bend over her desk, and write as furiously as she could. This professor was well known for lecturing like a machine gun, ideas continually shooting forth. This student tried keeping up as fast as she could, her posture twisting in pain as she wrote with those two fingers. And the professor had been watching her, quite struck by her determination.
One day, on her way out the door, he stopped her and said, “Tell me your story. Tell me about your arms.” She exhaled, then told him how when she was ten years old she had Polio as any number of children did back then. She remembered her mother taking her to a big hospital. How the doctors said she’d never have use of her arms again. How they also said it was possible, through intensive therapy, to restore use of two fingers. That rehab would be painful. That she would hate it. That she most likely couldn’t do it. That her mother probably couldn’t bear it.
She remembered how her mother took her home, laid her on the bed, shut the door, and lowered the shades. How her mother began rubbing those two fingers. The pain from the treatments was fierce. She said, “I begged my mother to stop. Then I called her all kinds of names cursing her with every word I knew. Then when I ran out curse words I made up names to hurl at her. After those treatments, my mother would disappear for about an hour. She’d go into her room, close the door and cry. That went on for a year.” The professor dropped his eyes to the floor moved by this young woman’s story. The she said, smiling, “But professor [slowly motion with two fingers].
God is like that mother who enters our wounds and paralyzed places, who takes on our suffering, and labors with us amid the fear and pain when we’re unsure whether we are dying or being born. Understandably, most of us prefer a God who prevents suffering, only that is not the God we’ve got. But we are wise to recall how some of God’s best work has taken place amid adversity, woundings, and chaos, with people half scared out of their minds. Among people whose seed has fallen.
As the life of the paralyzed young woman reminds us, ours is a God who restores life, which may involved risk and some painful procedures on our part. This is true not only for facing our personal adversity. It has everything to do with our national and global adversity. To not flee from conflict and brokenness but to risk humbly and bravely remaining in the struggle. In doing so, we are not being asked to trust in our own niceness or strength. We’re being asked to trust God even when things don’t go as we’d like. Of laboring with God in this broken, hurting world until something new is born.
Some of you are familiar with the writings and life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran minister who, after safe refuge as a seminary professor in New York, returned to Germany in order to resist Hitler. He felt that if he wasn’t in the struggle during Germany’s darkest hour, he would have no right to be part of its reconstruction after the war. So back in Europe, this pacifist theologian joined the Resistance in an attempt to end Hitler’s life. The attempt failed, he was caught, and arrested. We know that while in prison he crossed the divides in order to minister to prisoners and captures alike. We also know he was hung before the age of forty on the last day before the end of the war. My religious tradition honors this young man as a saint, his feast day being April 9th. But Bonhoeffer said firmly in a letter smuggled out of prison that he didn’t want to be a saint. That’s not what all of this was about. What he lived for, and what he wanted, was to learn how to have faith.
Bonhoeffer’s opposition to tyranny, the extermination of Jews, and the Nazification of the Church was his way of learning how to have faith and live out discipleship. For him, being a Christian meant more than claiming Christ as one’s personal Lord and Savior. It was more than personal comfort. In fact, he sited this comfortable faith which lacked costly discipleship as part of the problem with Christianity in Germany. That such a faith without works and risk in the world was cheap grace. That those of us who call ourselves Christians are to extend the same love and grace Christ offered us by doing things like standing against tyranny of government and all that oppresses or exploits; of standing instead with the hurting, marginalized and very least, even if that means that—like Jesus--we might get hurt. It’s a very Jewish thing he asked of us. To live Isaiah’s words of bringing good news to the oppressed and liberty to captives. As my friend, Bob, puts it, Christianity isn’t for sissies.
Being like seed falling to the ground and dying so life may rise does not mean that we are called us to be sacrificial doormats. For it was not a preoccupation with sacrifice which got Jesus killed. Rather it was his refusal to bend from radical love in the face of Roman oppression. It was his faithfulness to a kingdom and god larger than Caesar, a passionate love of right relations, and a refusal to cease embodying his faith in the face of fear despite all that tried to thwart it. Jesus voluntarily accepted the consequence of such a faith stance, just as Bonhoeffer, and civil rights workers in our country have done; just as Ghandi and so many others within various religious and secular traditions have done in order to bring about a greater good.
Friends, we are to face adversity in our personal and collective lives head on. To live a life of relinquishing trust in the face of fear and change, like seed casting off its casing. Yes, there are many days all of this seems too hard. Days we want to stay safe within the seed pack. Scary and bone tired days when, like Bonhoeffer naming his fears in a letter to a friend from prison, we are simply trying to learn how to have faith. The brokenness in the lives of those we love, and with those we struggle to love, is real. Culture wars and the great divide within this nation and world often seems darn near impossible to heal. Ending poverty and the average age of a homelessness in Chicago being that of 9 years old—addressing that social sin--all a pipe dream. Healing the sin of racism in this country, too complicated; affordable health care—not possible. Curbing global AIDS and caring for 14 million orphans in Africa left in aftermath—unattainable. The personal virtue, national politics, and technology needed in the U.S. to curb global warming before we reach tipping point in ten years--daunting. Mayors in over 200 cities across this nation are signing the pledge to meeting the Kyoto treaty goals but what about the infrastructure. What about Washington?
Yes, the diagnosis is that rehab for all this adversity and paralysis will be painful. Some claim we most likely can’t do it. That we probably can’t bear it. But you are buckwheat. And to all this paralysis, the one who labors with us amid the fear and pain when we’re unsure we’re dying or being born; the one who says ‘Lo I am with you always,” simply responds [slow movement of two fingers].