What follows is my Baccalaureate sermon delivered to Monmouth College’s graduating class on May 14th, 2016. It is based on Mark 10: 46-52.
It’s funny, I find myself getting increasingly sentimental at graduation. Every year I am up on that Commencement platform crying over the cheesiest things. Like, tomorrow, you girls will walk across the stage to get your diploma in these six-inch platform shoes and I’ll be sitting there crying, thinking to myself, “Look at those shoes. How can she walk in those shoes? I’m so proud of her.” And then there will be these memories that arise—memories that I associate with you—Zach P. will walk by in his graduation gown and I’ll remember watching him stroll down Broadway in the Homecoming Parade, wearing nothing but body paint and a pair of underoos—and I’ll start crying all over again.
Graduation is a poignant, emotional time, enhanced by the fact that we are all exhausted by the time we get here. But we did it. You did it, seniors! Congratulations.
Last year’s Baccalaureate preacher, the Rev. Dr. Margaret Aymer, memorably told the graduating class, “I will be praying for you, and you will need it.” I could certainly say the same today.
The world we live in has grown increasingly troublesome:
- Keeping up with Presidential campaigns has felt like Keeping up with the Kardashians.
- The Black Lives Matter movement has highlighted the racial and racist structures that persist in our society.
- In 2015 there were more mass shootings in the United States than there were days.
- The world produces enough food, but 11.3 % of the world’s population is still hungry.
- Syria. Our hearts break over Syria.
- People are just generally afraid and suspicious, we don’t know who we can trust, we don’t know what we can do to solve the complicated problems of our time. So we just lock ourselves up emotionally, spiritually, physically and buy a lot of guns to protect ourselves from that which we can’t control.
So, yes, graduates, I will pray for you, and you’re going to need it. But my prayer will be more specific. When it was decided that I would be up here preaching today I asked myself, “Okay, what do I hope for these graduates? What do I yearn for them as they leave this red brick oasis of higher learning and move into their future?” As I considered these questions I was led to the story of Jesus healing the blind beggar Bartimaeus because my hope for you, what I yearn for you, is the ability—but most of all—the desire—to see.
Let’s look closely for a minute at this story in the Gospel of Mark. Bartimaeus is an important character here, depicted as wise and faithful for two reasons: First, he knows he is blind. And secondly, he wants to see. Now I know you may be thinking, well, duh. This is obvious. Who wouldn’t want to see if they were blind? Well apparently, lots of us.
At this point in the Gospel there are a lot of blind people milling around. Twelve of them are Jesus’ closest friends. Today’s text (bear with me here) is the end of what Bible scholars call an inclusio, or a Markan “sandwich” that begins with Jesus healing one blind man in chapter eight and concludes with the healing of Bartimaeus here in chapter ten. The two healings are meant to highlight the texts in between and how “blind” the disciples are to what is right in front of them. No matter how many times Jesus tells or shows his disciples that the Kingdom of God is near (as in, right here, in me, guys) they still cannot see what Jesus is about. I’m not sure how he had the patience to put up with them.
Or with us, for that matter. Because we’re all blind in some way. Some of us are blinded by misunderstanding. Some of us by prejudice. Some of us are blinded by ego or by the worldview or tradition we’ve been taught not to question. Some of us are blinded by others—you know—like the blind leading the blind. And some of us, frankly, are blind because we choose to be, because we simply can’t handle the truth.
Flannery O’Connor, a woman whose fiction I admire for its prophetic examination of the moral injustices of her time, once said, “We have to see the world as it is before we can turn it into art.”
Artists, in fact, help us to see because art makes us pause. Just about every day I walk by the Southeastern corner of McMichael Academic Building. Typically, I am running late for a meeting in Poling Hall, racing to beat the chimes before they toll the end of the hour with my nose pressed to my Smartphone to make sure I don’t miss a single email or message via Facebook. Like you students, I have gotten very good at race walking while scrolling through my feed. But as I fly past McMike, something in the grass there catches my attention. I remove my nose from my digital device to look and I see what appears to be a large, yellow plaster snake—just sitting there in the grass. It’s not a scary snake. It has a little smile or smirk on its face and a cute little pattern of pebbles running down its back. But it makes me pause. It catches my attention. What is this? Now I’m late for my meeting, but I am curious. What does this mean? Crazy art appears outside of McMike like this quite often. Red and blue solo cups emerge from and circle around the windows. Yarn bombs explode and knit the trees in colorful little sweaters. Bike parts are welded together and assembled into a new and curious sculpture. These displays always make me stop, make me recalibrate my trip across campus. They take me out of my self-absorbed, Smartphone existence, to reconsider the space I am in. They help me to see. Art does that. It wakes us up to take note of the world and can even change how we move through it.
So I’ve been hanging out with more artists lately—poets, creative writers, musicians, visual artists. I’m drawn to these creative types because of their ability to see and sense and notice the world better than the rest of us. I want more of this kind of vision because I want to create work that will make people pause, work that is beautiful and meaningful, work that has substance and depth, work that changes or recalibrates how people move through the world. I want to offer something to this world of value. So you know what I have been doing? I have been training myself to see.
This journey began for me the first summer after I started here as Chaplain when I decided to attend a writer’s workshop in Iowa City. I’d never done anything like it before and I was completely intimidated. At this literary gathering of aspiring poets, novelists, essayists and the like, I was the only pastor. I tried to conceal my identity for a while, thinking no one would feel free to drink or swear around me if I revealed what I did for a living. I think I even told someone I sold insurance or something like that. (Hey–it’s kind of true!) But eventually my truth came out. I had to meet one on one with my teacher, who was a poet, to get his feedback on something I had written that I considered my best work. At that point, all I had written was a bunch of sermons. So I gave him one—one of my best. It was a sermon that had been really well received and it had even gotten published in a preaching journal. Yeah, I was feeling pretty confident.
My teacher began our conversation by confessing his envy. “You know, Teri, poets get really excited when ten people show up for one of our readings. As a pastor, you have an audience larger than that every week.” Then, in a bit of a fury, he proceeded to rip apart my carefully crafted sermon that lay on the table in front of him. His pen blocked off and slashed through whole paragraphs as “unnecessary.” He circled my “real beginning” which I had mistakenly placed at the end.
Finally, in a frustrated huff, he just stopped, looked up at me and said, “You’re not venturing far enough into the wilderness of humanity. You tippy toe in, but you don’t go far enough. Then you slap a band aid on the end for a conclusion as if to make everything okay.” I sat there, silently, not knowing what to say. I understood and I didn’t understand. Yet I came away from that meeting knowing I had work to do as a writer, as a pastor, as a Christian, as a human being who desires to do good with her life.
My teacher’s words of critique “You are not venturing far enough into the wilderness” have become my mantra because he basically told me I wasn’t seeing clearly enough to produce anything of value. I had to go farther. I had to see the ugly as well as the beautiful. I had to be honest about the world and the people in it. I had to, recalling Flannery O’Connor, see the world as it truly was before I could turn it into art.
So this, dear graduates, is why I hope and yearn for you to see. The world we live in is extraordinary, but it needs us and our gifts to turn it into art. And you don’t need to be an art major to do this. A good entrepreneur needs to have vision, needs to see his or her community clearly, to know what kind of business will best serve that town. A good physical therapist will find ways to heal bodies by using all her senses, by not taking pain at face-value but by looking deeper, assuming nothing, seeing each patient as an individual. A good chemist, biologist, or physicist will see a setback in their experiments not as a dead end, but as a creative challenge that will require creative thinking to solve. A good politician will not look upon his or her constituents as red people and blue people, but as people who each has their own version of the American dream.
Bartimaeus is highlighted in the Gospel of Mark because he gets it right. He knows he is blind and he wants to see. His prayer should be our prayer as he cries, “My teacher, let me see.”
Imagine what it must have been like for Bartimaeus when he regained his vision. As he stood there, in the midst of that crowd, slowly beginning to see color and shapes and bodies moving around. I imagine him confused and overwhelmed, his brain not recognizing yet what his eyes were showing him. Everything in that moment for Bartimaeus must have felt brand new.
Perhaps it was like that first moment you Seniors stepped on campus four years ago and realized this place would be your new home. Or maybe like your first exciting, brand new steps on the Freshman Walkout. Remember walking downtown in that sweltering August sun with your Orientation Leaders bouncing around and the bagpiper wailing up ahead. Do you remember how that moment felt? Do you remember what you saw? The bright-colored flags on the Intercultural House whipping in the wind. Community members with smiling faces lining the streets, welcoming you downtown by pressing cold bottles of water, baggies full of homemade cookies, and hot slices of pizza in your hands. Oftentimes, walking into brand-new, meaningful moments like this, moments that you know will pass so quickly, we intentionally heighten our senses so we can take it all in and remember every detail.
I imagine tomorrow will be like this for you too, Seniors. You’ll hear your name echo through the loudspeakers and you’ll feel your body start to walk across the stage. That damn tassle on your cap will keep flying in your face, but you will be focused, intent on your destination, the piece of tape on the other side of the stage that marks your spot where you will stand and shake the President’s hand and receive your red leather folio with its gold-embossed seal catching and reflecting the sun. Like a blind man who just received his vision, everything will look and feel brand new in that moment. You’ll step off that stage with all your senses heightened, trying to take it all in, to notice everything, to see the world as it truly is so you won’t forget a thing.
And when you do, Seniors, I pray that you remember not only Bartimaeus’ desire to see, but the charge Jesus gave to him when his eyes were finally opened. A charge that Jesus gives every time a miracle like this occurs. Jesus says, “Go!” Go! Don’t stay here. Don’t keep this gift to yourself. Now that your eyes are opened, don’t go back to being blind. Move forward. Take this gift of vision out into the world. Take this gift and do something with it. Take this gift and go see it all.
Now to the God who calls us to this vision, be all honor and glory, thanksgiving and power, now and forevermore. Amen.
[Images by Monmouth College]