Baccalaureate Sermon 2010
"The Life Within Us"
Rev. Catherine Quehl-Engel+
When Jeannie Firth graduated from Cornell College, she told me that the most memorable chapel service she attended here was the one about Jesus calming the stormy sea. Wow, I thought. I actually said something that someone remembers! Something profound that made a difference in a student’s life! “Well,” Jeanie said, “You were speaking about all the storminess going on in our lives. You asked us to imagine ourselves as a deep lake whose surface is often restless, but how--like the calm waters at the deepest part of the lake--there is a peace always residing inside us. How we can learn to tap into and live from that sacred stillness within. So after getting us into a deep quiet, you invited us meditate with the scripture phrase that begins, ‘Jesus rebuked the wind and said to the sea, ‘Peace! Be Still!’ But there was a typo in the service bulletin. So instead of ‘And then there was a dead calm’ you invited us meditate on these words: ‘Then the wind ceased. And there was a dead… clam.’”
So much for being profound. I guess it’s the fumblings students remember us by. But maybe that’s okay since mess ups give us some of our best education. Actually when I think about my mentors and heroes—be they teachers, pastors, grandparents, or even the likes of characters on the hit TV series Lost, I’m reminded of how my endearment and awe of them only deepens from their daring though often unintended disclosure of a blip. A life typo, broken place, or flaw. Yet how interesting that such vulnerabilities, fallibilities, and imperfections are often the very things we find difficult to accept in, say, our parents, when we are young. In siblings. Ex-spouses. In the classmate or best friend you had a falling out with your junior year. And most especially in ourselves. God forbid we be seen as weak. Or wrong. Besides. You’ve spent a life time proving yourself. Trying to get somewhere. Be someone. All the efforting and ego-building that’s so important in the first half of life.
Last August I officiated a memorial service for the spouse of a former Cornell cleaning lady whom my husband and I have cherished since we were students here back in the ‘80s. Norma’s husband, Chuck, came from stoic Midwest Lutheran stock which--as stoic Midwest Lutheran and war vets among us understand, partially explains why he never told Norma or the kids that he had received the Silver Star for gallantry during World War II. That he experienced and survived both the invasion of Normandy and the Battle of the Bulge. They never knew that until he after he died. Perhaps the only evidence of this valor, fear, and horror experienced in his youth was a deep need throughout his life to stay tough and feel in control. That and an old black and white framed photo of him and several war buddies with a caption which read “Hitler’s nightmare” he kept nailed to the living room wall. Yet all Chuck’s rugged strength couldn’t keep this hero from knowing the loss of control which comes with aging. Or when a few years back we buried his son. Then came the loss of a granddaughter, as well as his daughter’s breast cancer, and the final blow of putting of having to put Norma in a nursing home. It was too much for anyone, let alone Chuck whose used to calling the shots, to bare. Before his health declined I asked his daughter how she thought her dad was coping. She said, “He’s working it out through power tools. He keeps buying and filling the garage with unopened boxes of power tools.”
One of my seminary professors used to say that our biblical heroes are not models of morality but mirrors of identity for our own lives. Well, Chuck is a hero who is also a mirror of identity. For my hunch is that—like him, we all have our equivalent of power tools when we sense we’re not in control. When like Arjuna in our Gita reading, I’m unable to practice non-attachment to the mighty wind of anxious thoughts, I just might down a family size box of Cheeze-Its. Or purchase one more possession I really don’t need for a book shelf or closet that’s already full. Or enter pathetic self-bullying over some personal imperfection. But how about you? What are the fear-based habits and tactics you use to avoid dealing with vulnerability including as you head out here be it bravely, or kicking and screaming? I ask because my sense is that hiding just a millimeter below the surface of your joy on this big day isn’t a dead and peaceful calm, but a restless and raging sea of anxiety. Fears as exuberantly life-giving as a dead clam. Maybe there’s that voice of self doubt whispering in your head. Fear of uncertainty. Pragmatic fear over things like finding a job, getting into grad school, wondering if you’ll ever pay off your student loans, and pressing matters like where to live now that mom turned your bedroom into an art studio or den.
Then there are those larger, seemingly impossible tasks like tending to the mess we’ve handed you as part of your inheritance: Things like oil spills, collapsing coal mines and economies. Greed and corruption in banking and on Wall Street. Unemployment. Earth quakes. Floods. Global warming. Wars we don’t know how to get out of—or if we should. Poverty and hunger. Political extremists on all sides with cheap pop shots, posturing, and lack of bi-partisanship polarizing and grid locking government. Racial profiling. Religious extremists and radical atheists alike who are so busy arrogantly condemning those who don’t think like themselves that they fail to recognized selfless compassion, humility, and mercy at the heart of all faiths and secular humanism alike.
Now that I have thoroughly depressed you, I should note how, thankfully, a recent campus wide institutional research study shows you are up for the challenge. A huge percentage of Cornell students say they live out their spiritual lives and sense of meaning and purpose by responding to brokenness in the world through compassionate service. You echo the intention behind this College’s founding--which wasn’t about making Methodists but, like the rest of the Yale band of clergy scattering non-sectarian church-related colleges like good seed across this country, there was this desire to help build a good society; to use education for helping bring in God’s peaceable kingdom of justice, peace, equality, and love on earth; to do so by uplifting the poor, and ending ignorance and prejudice through access to education; cultivating good stewards of creation, and creating servant leaders for a more human world. Or as President Garner told you in a touching story last Thursday night, to help restore order in the universe through small acts of love. Yet like love itself, all of that comes with the willingness and risk of being vulnerable. And of living for something larger than one’s own comfort and ease.
There’s an image of a mother pelican in the stain glass window in the round middle panel over there. The mother is striking her breast in order to feed her young. It’s a Pre-Christian symbol, borrowed by the Church, which speaks to redemptive self-sacrifice and love for the greater good. It’s here, in part, to speak of the sacrifices made for you including that of your forbearers, and of this, your Alma Mater, which I should note is a Latin term meaning Mother of Fosterlings. Indeed, Cornell—your Alma Mater, has mothered you through benefactors, custodians, cooks, secretaries, faculty and staff the likes of whom you named in the class litany of thanks. Trust me. We’re not in it for the money. There is a larger sense of purpose and meaning our lives are caught up in among you—that is why we come here. That is why we stay. And it would be a huge typo if I forgot to name Les & Katrina Garner who—literally, have fed, led, and cared for you throughout your college years. Hey, how about we give them some love [applause]. ….That image of the mother pelican striking her breast in order to feed her young--her self-giving love, as well as blazing in your memory the faces of people named who got you through—may this also serve to inspire you as you embark on this new chapter of your life journey: To not cower from your implanted desire to lead lives that matter in compassionate service. To live life beyond the myth of the autonomous, self-sufficient self which often characterizes our U.S. culture, and the unfortunate labeling of your age group as the Me Generation. For not only our religions but science insists that our lives are linked one to the other. What impacts someone or something over here is going to have a ripple affect over there.
But back to what to do with all that fear. Those feelings of being overwhelmed by the seemingly insurmountable responsibilities, unknowns, and self-doubt. Well, in the sacred texts read by your classmates, even Moses, Arjuna, and Jesus’ disciples are half scared out of their minds. They’re flawed, feeling overwhelmed, and riddled with self-doubt just like us. But God picks them and uses them anyway as the stuff of sacred scripture, so imagine what God can do with the likes of you and me! “Who am I?” says Moses. “Who am I to stand up to Pharoah and liberate an enslaved people?” Moses had as much mental slavery to his typo-filled past, self-doubt, and fear as any Israelite back in the slim pits of Egypt. But God doesn’t respond by pumping up Moses self-esteem saying “You’ve got what it takes, kiddo. Believe in yourself.” No. And the real kicker: God doesn’t even give Moses a guarantee of success. Instead, the Source of liberation, life, and love simply says “I will be with you. Stay grounded in the great I AM. The ground of your being, all being.
Friends, there is a life within you. A peace and strength that the world will not always give. As Rumi the Sufi poet puts it, the power and life force which made the universe is not outside your limbs, but is in your sinew. The great I AM—the Ground of Being itself. Some call it pneuma—Spirit or Breath. Others refer to is as Indwelling Light or Christ within, though Hindus call this divine indwelling Atman. Some non-deist traditions speak of it as Chi or energy while Eastern Orthodox Christians speak of it as God’s energies within us. The diaries of a young Jewish mystic, Etty Hillesum, who before her death in a concentration camp described it as the encounter with God at the depths of one’s own soul and in other people—how she’d advocate clinging only to beauty and goodness amid the horrible and desired that we live a vocation of redeeming the suffering of humanity from within by safeguarding what she calls “that little piece of You, God, in ourselves.” There are many names and faith traditions for this one truth. For this life within us—the One dwelling in the many who beads us together on a string of love. Or as Cornell alumnus, Joe Aossey puts it, there is a Muslim expression about there being many lamps for this one Light. Goodness, even the final episode of Lost has the Mother character describing the Light and energy within the island also resides inside us all. And as the Gospel puts it, no matter how horrible things are going in your life, this Light shines in the darkness which the darkness cannot overcome. It’s shining in and through you even when you don’t sense it or feel lost at sea.
So do not be weak spirited. Or play it small, hiding your light under a bushel basket. That is unworthy of you, and the Eternal Reality and Light you bare. At the same time—and please hear the difference--while you are not to be weak spirited, you are, according to the spiritual wisdom traditions East and West, to become weak in the sense of surrendering your self-sufficiency and ego-based fears and grasping. Or as the final episode of Lost puts it, the necessary thing Jack must do is…[What? Anybody?]….Let go. To surrender into Mystery, Love, and Eternal Life this side of heaven, practicing it all the way home. In doing so, you’ll be tapping into a current of energy, healing, life force, and strength larger than one’s own, for strength is made perfect in weakness. It’s what our flawed mentors and heroes have tried teaching us all along. “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” says Christ. “Blessed are the meek.”
Let me end with a story about inner life of The Rev. Martin Luther King. Jr as he disclosed it a sermon delivered at Ebenezer Baptist Church, for like Rev. King your finding and learning to live from a peace within yourself will have everything to do with whether or not you experience peace in your outer life including amid adversity and leading lives of servant leadership for a more humane world. One night after a particularly strenuous day Rev. King got into bed and was finally falling asleep when the phone rang. It was another threatening phone call. All his fears came rushing upon him as he reached his saturation point. King tells his congregation,
I got out of bed and began to walk the floor. Finally I went to the kitchen and heated a pot of coffee. I was ready to give up. I tried to think of a way to move out of the picture without appearing to be a coward. In this state of exhaustion, when my courage had almost gone, …I bowed over the kitchen table and prayed….”God…I am here taking a stand for what I believe is right. But [I’m] afraid. The people are looking to me for leadership, and if I stand before them without strength and courage, they too will falter. I am at the end of my powers. I have nothing left. I’ve come to the point where I can’t face it alone.” At that moment I experienced the presence of the Divine as I had never before experienced it. It seemed as though I could hear the quiet assurance of an inner voice saying ‘Stand up for righteousness, stand up for truth. God will be at your side forever.’ Almost at once my fears began to pass from me. My uncertainty disappeared. I was ready to face anything. The outer situation remained the same but God had given me inner calm. Three nights later, our home was bombed. Strangely enough, I accepted the word of the bombing calmly. My experience with God had given me a new strength and trust. I knew now that God is able to give us the interior resources to face the storms and problems of life. Let this…[be our] courage to face the uncertainties of the future.”
Class of 2010, remember that you have interior resources to face any outer situation. That when you are faltering and at the end of your own powers, recall how the power that created the universe courses through your veins, not to mention what scientists claim is the dust of stars. The explosion of a star that helped create our world—that light is in you too. Sure--as our Gita text, Buddhism, and contemplative Christen tradition teach, we are to practice non-attachment to our wind tossed and ever changing feelings and thoughts. I know that, in our world of speed and quick fixes, you like instant results but like all things of substance, fostering that is going to involve fostering time for daily pockets of getting quiet. But even if you can’t do that, know that there still remains this power and peace dwelling deep inside you, deeper and more enduring that your storm tossed fears. So surrender, let go, and living from that inner Light, strength, and peace that the world will not always give. Then you will be radiant. Transfigured. A bright and shining lamp for the world. Luminous with a greater ease, lightness of being, and strength than if you relied upon self-sufficiency and your gear grinding, over efforting, ego-mind desires and fears. For as my bishop once said to a fresh crop of priests like me, it all doesn’t depend on you. And we needn’t always be so serious about ourselves.
So stay light and bright, dear ones. I love you.
Peace, peace, peace.
BENEDICTION And now, may the shalom of God, may the wildness and warmth of God, breathe within you and through you…Go in peace, joy, and hope.