Let Me See–A Baccalaureate Sermon

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.

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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.

Image 4Let’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.

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Monmouth College Freshman Walkout

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.

Image 2And 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]

 

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Heschel’s Words

shapeimage_2I am grateful for my husband who puts words like these in my hands when I am writing a sermon. How does one adequately speak of God? Ask Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel.

“God is a challenge rather than a notion. We do not think Him; we are stirred by Him. We can never describe Him; we can only return to Him. We may address ourselves to Him; we cannot comprehend Him. We can sense His presence; we cannot grasp His essence.”

And this:

“God is not always silent, and man is not always blind. His glory fills the world; His spirit hovers above the waters. There are moments in which, to use a Talmudic phrase, heaven and earth kiss each other, in which there is a lifting of the veil at the horizon of the known, opening a vision of what is eternal in time. Some of us have at least once experienced the momentous realness of God. Some of us have at least caught a glimpse of the beauty, peace, and power that flow through the souls of those who are devoted to Him. There may come a moment like thunder in the soul, when man is not only aided, not only guided by God’s mysterious hand, but also taught how to aid, how to guide other beings. The voice of Sinai goes on forever: “These words the Lord spoke unto all your assembly in the mount out of the midst of the fire, of the cloud and of the thick darkness, with a great voice that goes on forever.”[1]

 My favorite phrase here, “A moment like thunder in the soul.” I’ve felt that. Have you?

 

[1] Abraham Joshua Heschel, Essential Writings, (Orbis Books, Maryknoll, New York, 2011), pgs. 93-95.

 

Stuck in Sheol, the Place of the Dead

fear_of_drowning_by_starfishyy-d5cqnvkTwo Sundays ago we had fifty-five students come over to our college’s Presbyterian House for our first program of the year.  It was great.  We made ice cream sundaes, sat around in the grass, and listened to live music. After a little while, I led a brief devotion.  To match the casual tone of the evening, I wanted our devotion to be somewhat interactive and extemporaneous.  I had a scripture story in mind, but I didn’t plan out exactly what I was going to say.  It went pretty well, I noticed the students were with me, paying attention, until the end, when I just sort of lost my train of thought and rambled on for a little while…about, basically, nothing.  It wasn’t my best.  This was confirmed for me when I got home and asked my honest husband how I did.  “It was good,” he said, “but you were kind of repetitive and rambly.”  Sigh. (He might have said this more gently, but all I heard was repetitive and rambly.)

This really got me down.  I was disappointed in myself, disappointed in what I saw was a missed opportunity to speak meaningful words into the lives of so many college students.  Repetitive and rambly….great….college students love repetitive and rambly.  Way to go, Teri.  For the rest of the night on Sunday and all the next Monday, I couldn’t get rid of this feeling of disappointment.  I obsessively replayed the devotion in my head thinking of all the brilliant things I could have and should have said.  I kept wallowing in this failure to do my very best.  I got stuck in a bad place, a real funk.

I was still stuck in this bad place when I began to prepare for a sermon I was to preach on Psalm 139.  But as I began to read the psalmists words I was comforted to recognize myself; I recognized the highs and the lows of human life, the mood swings, and the dark places. The psalmist asks, “Where can I go from your spirit?  Or where can I flee from your presence?” He asks because he’s been swinging to the highest of the heavens and then falling to the depths of Sheol…he’s taken flight to bright sunny places of light….and then fallen into the darkness which covers him like the night.  See?  I’m not the only crazy one.  The psalmist’s a manic depressive too!

Seriously, though, this is really us, isn’t it?  The psalmists always do a great job of shedding light on the human condition.  What really bothered me, though, was how stuck I could get in that bad, funky place (I’ll refer to it as my place of Sheol) and how hard it is for me to get out.  Sheol for the ancient Jews was the place of the dead.  It was where everyone went when they died, a good metaphor, then, for my dark mood because I don’t know life when I am in that place.

When I was a teenager my parents took my brother and me on a big family vacation to Hawaii.  It was wonderful, except for one particular trip to the beach when we decided to go boogie-boarding on some of the island’s big waves.  The waves were huge and powerful.  I had no idea how powerful, actually, until I was in the midst of them.  Then, somehow (I don’t remember how it happened) I was under them…underwater….under the waves….underneath this huge powerful force pushing me down deeper and deeper until I felt the sand at the bottom of the ocean.  I remember the sand.  I remember trying to push off the sand.  I remember trying to lift myself up off the ocean floor, trying to swim up so I could breathe, but the waves were simply too powerful. I thought I was dying.  But, eventually, the waves receded, the weight let up, and I was able to get my head up out of the water.  Oxygen filled my empty lungs.  It was like I was released, or set free.

Being crushed underneath the weight of those waves, being stuck there on the bottom of the ocean in that place of darkness, and death, the lack of oxygen, all of it was Sheol.  This is what Sheol still feels like for me. It pushes me down and keeps me down and cuts me off from life.

The good news of Psalm 139, though, is that God is everywhere, even in Sheol. We cannot flee, or fly, or wander, or cut and run.  God knows us, intuits our every move, pursues us no matter where we go. God is everywhere we are.  But we forget this.  (Or at least I do.)  I doubt it because it feels dubious.  God doesn’t always feel so close.

God didn’t feel close when I was in that dark mood last Monday…until I opened the scriptures and started contemplating what I might say in my sermon on Psalm 139.  I was drawn to verse 8, curious to learn more about Sheol.  Learning led to recognition.  Recognition led to insight.  Insight led to intention.  And I went and sat on my meditation mat to remember what it felt like to be in the presence of God.

And afterwards, I wasn’t so dark and funky.  My gosh, I thought, there were fifty-five students at the Presbyterian House that night, and I’m feeling disappointed?  We had a great time!  I met great students.  We had international students, and athletes, and musicians. Our neighbors, the AXD’s, came over and brought more tables and chairs.  We ran out of spoons and laughed about Taylor’s fear that the real ones might get thrown away. We shared with each other and opened up about the stress we were feeling here at the beginning of the year.  Yeah, I might have been a little repetitive and rambly.  But, seriously, signs of life were all around me!

So I’m not one of those Christians who believes God magically fixes stuff.  There’s too much complicated crap happening in the world today that could use a good magic fix if that was God’s modus operandi.  Instead, God, for me, is more of a liberating force, a presence that when I stop and intentionally seek God out, I am set free from a lot that is troubling me, I am made aware once again of the life and the beauty and the goodness that surrounds me, and I am awakened to my own best self.  I may at times make my bed in Sheol, but I am not stuck because God is there, too.