Wednesday Sermons, 8/29/12: New Student Orientation Sermon

by Nan Hirleman, Director of Contexual Education

When my son Jacob was a toddler, he began making funny faces that cracked up the whole family. One vivid picture in my mind is Jacob sitting in his high chair at his two-year old family birthday party, where he had requested clam linguini. That was the first time I remember him – with chopped clams and linguini noodles caught in his hair – rolling his eyes after everything one of the four of us said. He would start way over, down in the corner of his eyes and begin a slow roll – looking oddly a lot older than his 24 months –and roll right over and down to the other corner. It was as if by his eye-rolling he was making the wisest comment on what was going on. My late husband Terry would make a comment on an idea for a sermon he was working on and Jacob would roll his eyes. Or I’d comment on a possible family trip and Jacob would roll his eyes. Hannah would talk about her friend Allison coming over to play and we’d get the eye-roll. One of the best ones was when Laura asked us for bail money for her friend’s older sister. Jacob: roll.

Another one of Jacob’s looks was priceless also. Starting about the same time as the eye roll came into being, Jacob developed a new look at those times when he knew he was about to cry. With this look, his eyes would get wide as his head started leaning backward, as he tried to keep his tears from spilling over his lower eyelid. He wanted so much to contain those tears that his head kept going back and back.

Now fast forward to this last June 18th, when I was about to set out on my journey to drive from Coralville, Iowa to Berkeley, California and begin my new life at PLTS. Jacob, now 24, was standing beside my packed car and we had a long hug. Then I got in my car, looked at him again before I backed my car out of the driveway. And when I looked at him I saw his chin come up and his head start going back…and back, as his tears welled up. I got out of the car and asked, “Are you O.K.?” and Jacob answered with his head still moving backward, “I will be when you leave and I can breathe again.” One more hug, and then I left.

With so much love shared in those moments, this was a sacred day for Jacob and me. It was sacred because in that love, God was there. And that leave-taking was also the beginning of another sacred journey, being beckoned forth as I was, by a love and respect I experience for students, faculty and staff who are committed to this task and journey of theological education. The beckoning I heard – as much as any of us are able to hear “God’s voice” – had to be God’s in order for me to leave the people who are the closest I know.

Both the Old and New Testaments contain many stories of journeys. Moses takes his beloved people out of the land of Egypt. Ruth, a Moabite widow, leaves her homeland to travel with and care for her mother-in-law Naomi, and also to follow God. We see the many journeys of the prophets, who made courageous journeys to deliver intense and challenging messages. And then there are the journeys – trips made – that we pattern our very hopes and lives on: Mary travels to visit her cousin Elizabeth as both women await new life that will change the course of history. Joseph and the very-pregnant Mary’s arduous journey to Bethlehem, Jesus journeying up the mountain to pray, Jesus’ preaching, teaching and healing journeys with his disciples and followers, and his trip across the Sea of Galilee. We also know well Jesus’ journey into Jerusalem, his ride on the colt, and the painful path he took up the hill to Golgotha. Our lives and the universe itself are changed forever because Jesus travelled from his tomb of death to be with God, and yet – still -- to remain with us…even now in this moment. Paul’s life was completely changed by his errand to Damascus.

It’s interesting to observe that people taking journeys is an element of humanity that hasn’t changed at all since the time of Moses, the prophets, Ruth, Jesus and Paul. Our modes of travel have changed, but we are doing exactly what people did thousands of years ago. We still make journeys, for mostly important reasons. We take journeys just because we want to see or witness something. We travel to learn something we know will change our lives, even if we’re not sure how. We make our trips to Cana-like occasions to celebrate with our relatives and friends, we travel to hold the hand or the heart of someone we love and cherish. We travel in search of love and affection. We travel out of excitement, longing, boredom, joy, hope and sometimes even desperation. And when we travel, it seems we always travel with a question, or questions. A central question – even if not fully articulated or understood – question that we’d like to be answered. How might you name your central question, as you sit here this morning? What is the central question you would like answered? What are the questions you have packed in your suitcase, along with your favorite sweatshirt and your books?

Both our Old Testament and our Gospel readings speak about journeys. In the book of Joshua the journeys of Abraham, Jacob and Esau, Moses and Aaron are spoken of – all journeys that Joshua reminds his hearers -- were led by God. In the Gospel of John, it is Jesus himself who is making a journey, teaching and preaching, as his disciples travel with him. And in both readings – just as with other journeys – there is a central question. For Joshua, the embedded question is, “Can you choose whom you will serve? Can you choose this day who you will serve? Can you choose, and do you know that the consequences of choosing life or choosing death will be enormous? Will you choose the living God, or will you choose to attach yourself to other gods you have followed in your life?

Jesus asks a question also. After hearing some of his listeners complain and watching some of them decide to stop travelling with Jesus and go back home, Jesus turns to his twelve disciples and asks: “Do you also wish to go away? Do you want to leave?” Perhaps some of us have also heard Jesus ask this question of us, maybe not in so many words but to feel his life within us questioning the possibility that we’re turning away from true life, and turning to counterfeit gods. And then Peter asks a question, denoting the greatest journey we can ever take while we are here on this earth. Peter asks, “Lord, where would we go?” I love this question. “Lord, to whom shall we go?” “Is there another place we could go, or should go?” Is there a place we could travel to, for a six-week workshop that would make us happier or more peaceful than we are now? Is there a journey we could make that would take us some place better?” Was there a silence after Peter’s question? Was there any coughing among them as they knew they had the chance to leave? Who knows for sure. But we do know Peter stated why he wasn’t joining the others who were already on their way home. “You have the words of eternal life. You have the words of eternal life.” One knows, in this moment, that in addition to Peter’s proclamation that only Jesus has the words and Word of Eternal Life, and that Jesus is the Holy One of God, that Peter’s heart had already been bathed in Jesus’ irresistible love…and that Peter can’t imagine being separated for even a half day, from Jesus’ love.

I offered you my story of a sacred day shared with Jacob, and the beginning – that day -- of a new sacred journey out here to Berkeley. You too have made a similar journey in these last days. You have travelled up this hill, smelling the sweet smoke of the fire, or actually seeing the burning bush that was set before you. And think of all the faces, images, words, events, books – of your own journey – that have brought you here today. Think of the moments, seasons, the lean years, the fat years that have shaped you and carved out a place in your soul so that the Word, and words of God, can live more deeply and fruitfully in you. Think of how you have witnessed Creation, Redemption, Abundance, Times in the Wilderness, Joy and Celebration, Community and Beauty – all of these that bring us closer to God – all of these, aspects of God’s very presence with us.

One thing is clear – moments like these, and the fact you are sitting here – are no accident. Providence, at the very least, means that there is a fundamental rhyme and reason to life and that this moment is one of God’s responses to you and to what you have whispered or spoken to God in the night. This is the beginning of a new sacred journey God has prepared for you. AMEN.

This article is from the October 2012 issue of Above The Fog, the PLTS monthly e-newsletter. Click here to subscribe, and receive great articles and seminary news right in your inbox.