Baccalaureate

Jane Strohl—May 15, 2009

Reading:
Matthew 5:1-12

It was my senior year in college. My professors assumed that after graduation I would be heading off to graduate school to continue my work in German literature. I was taking a music appreciation course, and I had to write a paper on Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. I listened to it over and over again. I learned to analyze the harmonies and sing the chorales. And then one day I realized that Jesus was in the room with me and that he wasn’t leaving any time soon. The wonder of it, the sheer joy grew and grew in my heart. Forget graduate school; I was going to work for the church. I would care for God’s people and make Jesus known all over the place.

Then came graduation, saying good-bye and moving. I helped the father of one of my suite-mates carry her mini-fridge to his van. Half way to the door he mentioned that his daughter had told him about my plans. Before I could offer an enthusiastic response, he said, “You’ve done really well here. I just can’t believe you are pissing away a good college education like this. How do your parents feel, having shelled out all this money and for what?!” Three things came to mind: no wonder my friend never went home during breaks; how incredible that this guy made his living in sales; and how sweet that his daughter had forgotten to drain the refrigerator because it was leaking all over the front of his pants.

Well, it’s hardly persecution, not on the order Jesus envisioned as he concluded the Beatitudes: “Blessed are you when people revile you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.” We can be thankful that we do not face violence for naming the strong name of Jesus. Nor are we driven to leave our homeland so that we may safely raise our children in the faith. Yet we too have reason to heed Jesus’ words. The disdain and indifference that we often encounter when we witness to the Gospel take their toll. “This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine. Hide it under a bushel – NO! I’m gonna let it shine. Won’t let no one blow it out, I’m gonna let it shine.”

Parenting experts advise that if you have company with children coming over, you should sit down with your kids and ask them to determine which of their toys they are not ready to share. Then you put those items in the closet where they remain until the guests have left and the danger is past.

I don’t know about you, but I often act as if the only way to keep my Christ light safely glowing is to put it in the closet and keep it to myself. It is reassuring to be in a community that speaks the same language you do and shares the convictions that shape you. As “out there” as some people may seem in seminary, at least they are on the margins of the same page!

But you are being called to leave and to LEAD the church in a new era of mission. When you arrive in a congregation, it’s likely the church council will present you with a list of “inactive” members you should visit. A carwash in my neighborhood recently sported a banner that announced “Under New Management. We Are Nice.” This would seem to be the theory behind shipping the newbie off to the inactive and frequently disaffected. Then there is the couple wanting to be married in the church because its wondrously wide aisles will allow all the bridesmaids to process unscathed. Well, at least those two have honesty going for them. So how can you be honest too, working to inscribe their marriage vows onto a life of Christian faith? And then there will be those cold evangelism calls in a changed neighborhood now populated by people of different races, different cultures and different languages. Inclusivity is evangelically necessary and theologically compelling, but often scary on the ground.

Day after day you will have to put it all on the line—your time, your talents, your possessions, and your faith. Luther writes: “So a Christian, like Christ his head, is filled and made rich by faith and should be content with this form of God which he has obtained by faith; only, as I have said, he should increase this faith until it is made perfect. For this faith is his life, his righteousness, and his salvation: it saves him and makes him acceptable, and bestows upon him all things that are Christ’s…. Although the Christian is thus free from all works, he ought in this liberty to empty himself, take upon himself the form of a servant, be made in the likeness of men, be found in human form, and to serve, help and in every way deal with his neighbor as he sees that God through Christ has dealt and still deals with him.”

Being called to serve among God’s people, churched and unchurched, is daunting. But don’t let your light be extinguished by rejection or exhaustion or your own unfaithfulness. Claim your Lutheresque heritage. “I am baptized,” the old man bellowed, whenever the darkness of temptation or unbelief closed in. You have beaten me down, you have taken my joy, but there is no way in hell I will let you rob me of God’s promise. The darkness will not overcome my light. I am baptized, so back off, you evil one. A member of this community forwarded a wonderful e-mail to me this week. It said, “Be the kind of person that when your feet hit the ground each morning, the devil says, ‘Oh rats, she’s up!’”

Many of you have voiced your deep disillusionment with the church, and there is no denying its sins. There are folks who act as if the Holy Spirit went on an extended sabbatical around the time they took retirement. But don’t worry so much about what WE have done and left undone or even what we think we know better than you. You are the ones now called to be leaders within the body of Christ – run with it. There is a great song by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young which includes the lines: “Teach your parents well…and feed them on your dreams.” Teach us well and feed us richly, for we are all hungering for grace. Amen.