“graduation,” june 26, 2016


Responsive Call to Worship
We gather this day,
to acknowledge a threshold moment—
a thin place
between what’s been and what’s to be—
between what’s been studied, learned, and accomplished,
and all the more there is to study and learn and do.
It is so very good to mark growth in celebration,
and then so very good as well,
to celebrate having further to grow—
to note a mile-marker on the longer way
and to take joy both in the distance traveled
and the distance yet ahead.
Bless this liminal time and space
and those who stand in thresholds
looking back and looking ahead.
May it be with a sense of both gratitude and anticipation.
May it be with an awareness
of how we grow our life long with our whole person—
our minds, bodies, spirits, and emotions.
And may it be with a profound sense
of what it means to place our way
(where we’ve been and where we’re going)
within the way of Jesus.

We are not a society that nurtures commitment-making. We live in a culture that puts a lot of emphasis on individual liberty and freedom of choice. Ivy League student culture is built around keeping your options open and fear of missing out. We live in a society filled with decommitment devices. Tinder, OkCupid, Instagram, Reddit; the entire Internet is commanding you to sample one thing after another. Our phones are always beckoning us to shift our attention span. If you can’t focus your attention for 30 seconds, how can you make a commitment for life?
But your fulfillment in life will not come from how well you explore your freedom and keep your options open. That’s the path to a frazzled, scattered life in which you try to please everyone and end up pleasing no one.
Your fulfillment in life will come by how well you end your freedom. By the time you hit your 30s, you will realize that your primary mission in life is to be really good at making commitments.

You have to give to receive. You have to surrender to something outside yourself to gain strength within yourself. You have to conquer your desire to get what you crave. Success leads to the greatest failure, which is arrogance and pride. Failure can lead to the greatest success, which is humility and learning. In order to fulfill yourself, you have to forget yourself. In order to find yourself, you have to lose yourself.
David Brooks, Dartmouth, 2015

And now go, and make interesting mistakes, make amazing mistakes, make glorious and fantastic mistakes. Break rules. Leave the world more interesting for your being here. Make good art.
Neil Gaiman, University of the Arts, Philadelphia, 2012

Respect people with less power then you. I have, in the past, made important decisions about people I work with—agents and producers—based largely on how they treat wait staff in restaurants. I don’t care if you’re the most powerful cat in the room, I will judge you on how you treat the least powerful. So there.
Tim Minchin, University of Western Australia, 2013

It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all—in which case, you fail by default…
We do not need magic to change the world, we carry all the power we need insider ourselves already: we have the power to imagine better.
J.K.Rowling, Harvard, 2008

Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.
Steve Jobs, Stanford, 2005

What are you willing to spend your moral capital, your intellectual capital, your cash, (and) your sweat equity in pursuing outside of the walls of the University of Pennsylvania? The world is more malleable than you think and it’s waiting for you to hammer it into shape.
Bono, Penn State, 2004

If you’re a Democrat, spend some time talking to a Republican. And if you’re a Republican, have a chat with a Democrat. Maybe you’ll find some common ground, maybe you won’t. But if you honestly engage with an open mind and an open heart, I guarantee you’ll learn something. And goodness knows we need more of that, because we know what happens when we only talk to people who think like we do — we just get more stuck in our ways, more divided, and it gets harder to come together for a common purpose.
Michelle Obama, Eastern Kentucky, 2013

Witness of the Closed Canon, i.

Matthew 25:14-30
‘For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money. After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, “Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.” His master said to him, “Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.” And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, “Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.” His master said to him, “Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.” Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, “Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.” But his master replied, “You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

Witness of the Open Canon, i.
a Litany and Prayer for our Graduates
You have grown up here on the stories of God.
We have told them to you, sung them to you, acted them out—
hoping to teach them to you,
and, in turn, with gratitude,
listened to you tell them to us, sing them, act them out—
teaching us in the process.

We have tried to live them—as best we could—
confessing our failures—
confessing too, our assurance that it is far better
to have tried to live these stories and fallen short of their fullness,
than to have given up on the possibilities within them
and never tried to live them at all.

We have prayed for you more than you know—
both in frequency and in urgency.
Amidst our prayers, we give thanks for you continually.
And today, we celebrate
your achievement with pride in what you’ve done …
and in who we see you becoming.

We will not put words in your mouths—
words of profession, words of commitment,
and we pray less that you claim any particular propositions of belief
than that you believe in the stories you’ve grown up with and on—
the possibilities of the world being turned upside down and inside out.

We pray these stories will sustain you, encourage you,
inspire you, transform you, accompany you
wherever you go, whatever you do—
because these are the stories, we believe,
so much richer than most any story of our culture—
the stories of great inversion, of tremendous surprise,
of profound wonder, of deep joy,
of God’s truth and grace, God’s love,
and the redeeming of all creation.

These are the stories we pray
you remember, reread, rethink, and choose—
choose to live toward—choose to live into.
We have no more important gift to offer you.
These are the stories we pray
you come to deem worth your own selves.
This we pray today, and through the years to come, Amen.

Witness of the Living Word, i.
I asked you at the beginning of the service,
to consider a word you would offer our graduates.
I invite you now to speak out—
to offer the word you’ve been considering—
significant to you—relevant—
the word you would offer all of us on thresholds—
in the midst of transition—
the word of affirmation, the hope, the prayer.
What word do you have to offer?

no experience is wasted except experience you choose to waste
income equality
God’s guidance
deep listening

Witness of the Living Word, ii.
As we close out the month of June,
we close the door on the past school year.
And today, we honor our graduates.
We are proud of you—
of what you have accomplished through the years—
of your hard work.

We also acknowledge today,
whose work has brought them to this day—
whose accomplishments—
whose discipline—
those who have accomplished, finished, completed,
and who also now await what lies ahead.

In the widest sense, you see, I address us all.

So acknowledging and celebrating ending
and accomplishment,
we offer congratulations.
We also acknowledge and celebrate starting anew—
beginning again—
not the same thing.
Obviously you’re not starting what you’ve just ended,
but what you have been prepared for.
This is growth.
This is progression,
and it is good.

We know everything has changed.
Everything is different.
Except, of course, for everything that’s not!
We know that you are leaving—
that who and how we are together in relationship will change.
But we also know these relationships are important.
They will last; they will go on—
changing—adjusting—adapting, but consistent.
We will be praying for you.
We will be watching—
eager to see how your story continues to unfold.

So on a day of transition—
a day of thresholds—a day of change—
a day of looking back on what’s been
and looking ahead to what’s to be,
there are things I hope you’ve heard—
been a part of
here at Woodbrook,
as a part of this faith community
through the years.

I’ve said all of this before.
I hope it sounds familiar to you.
But I get to say it again, today,
because it’s important—worth repeating.
Seven things … of course.

and the first of three observations:
to reach a certain level of expertise
is simply to be ready to enter the next phase of learning.

And it doesn’t matter how hard you had to work—
how much you had to sacrifice—
how long it took.
All that matters is that you made it,
and now there’s farther to go!
That’s certainly not to say you can’t enjoy the moment—
enjoy the summer!
But don’t get stuck in an accomplishment—
even a significant one.
You’re so much more than that.

Whether it’s school or life or video games—
for those of you who play video games—
how many of y’all play video games?
Ah, well, you make it through levels of the game
in order to get to more levels, right?—
many times building on what you’ve learned
through the levels you’ve passed through.

If you ever get to thinking you’ve arrived,
you’ve actually fallen behind.

Good endings are good beginnings.
That’s why, as we say downstairs in the WEE school,
good beginnings never end.

and the second of three observations:
I am regularly struck
at the gym
with the awareness—the affirmation
of how much work it takes to get stronger—
how much resistance I have to face and overcome
to be more healthy.
You don’t get stronger looking at weights—
playing with weights.

The times I’ve kept at it—
regularly—consistently and persistently working at it,
what was hard
got easier.
And then, you know what?
Sure you do.
You have to make it hard on yourself again,
or you stop making progress.

If you keep lifting the same weight the same number of times,
it gets to a point where it’s not doing you any good.
You need resistance to make progress.

That’s true at all levels of growth—
in all areas of growth.
As you graduate from high school—college,
you know that’s true about learning—
growing intellectually.
You have to crack the books—
and not always the same book.

It’s hard work—growing—maturing.
We tend not to think it so
when it comes to growing emotionally.
Why should I have to work
at what is my natural instinctive response to things?
We tend not to think it so
when it comes to growing as a person.
Why would I have to work at who I am?
We tend not to think is so
when it comes to growing spiritually.
Make a profession, say a prayer,
walk the aisle, be baptized, be saved. Be done.
We tend not to think it so
when it comes to growing love.
But it’s just as true as in the gym,
if not as practiced.

I remember walking to church one Sunday morning,
seeing all the people out walking, jogging, biking,
and commenting in morning worship,
would that people had more a sense of the importance
of exercising their spirit—their souls.

I’m not, by the way, claiming we know how to do this!—
that we should change our name to Soul Fitness!
I’m saying it’s what we are—
what we should be figuring out—
always stretching and strengthening
our gracing,
our serving,
our including,
our loving.

good endings are hard work—
as are good beginnings.
They don’t just happen.
And it’s more than just wanting them to be good.
You make them good.

and the last of three observations:
there is nothing more important—
nothing more important for you to do—
to work at—to grow into—
to get better at
than loving—
and loving in such ways
that people know they’re being loved.

If you go from here
with some sense of the work it takes to love,
some sense of the importance of that work,
and some commitment to that work,
I will feel so very good
about what you take from this place
and this people.

So the three observations:
first, good endings are good beginnings;
second, good endings—beginnings are hard work;
third, the best hard work is love
which is beginning and end,
amen and amen.

Okay, now three suggestions:
don’t count yourself among the first,
if you don’t include yourself among the last.

don’t trust any story that fits too smoothly
into and with the stories and ways of the world.

And third,
know that God is with you always—
loving you more than you know how to,
and, of course,
loving everyone else more than you know how to too.

All of this, as we’ve said before,
all these observations and suggestions
are very simple.
They’re not easy—
not easy to implement—not easy to do—to keep
to keep doing,
but simple to grasp—

There’s one verse, abstracted from its larger story in Matthew,
that sounds like a challenging expectation:
to whom much is given,
of them, much is expected.
And it is—
a challenging expectation.
And the context of the story makes it no less so.
In fact, the Scripture story we heard read earlier seems almost unfair.
Actually there’s no almost about it.
The story seems unfair
in its utter rejection of the servant who buried the money—
especially, as we’ve noted before,
since that was an appropriate way to keep money safe.
“[r]abbinic law says that whoever immediately buries property
entrusted to him is no longer liable
because he has taken the safest course conceivable …”
(Eduard Schweizer, The Good News According to Matthew
[Atlanta: John Knox, 1977] 471).

It seems unfair,
but for someone wanting to grow—
improve—get stronger—get healthier,
challenging expectations are good.
We need more of them
in this world and in this culture of ours.

And we expect a lot of you—
with grace—
with love.

We don’t want to put undue, inappropriate pressure on you,
but we do want an appropriate pressure.

We have seen enough in you
to expect a lot—
to hope a lot—
to anticipate not just what’s going to unfold for you,
but how your unfolding story
will make the world a better place.
That’s what we expect of you.
That’s all!

And so it is our hope and our prayer,
when you consider your giftedness—
your passions—
your fears—
your growth areas—
your sense of God’s presence and God’s call,
we hope and pray some questions arise
out of your experience here
with us—with God—with Scripture:
what if life is not about playing it safe?
What if life is about risking it all?

So finally, above all else—
after all the observations
and all the suggestions,
one commandment
that is also assurance and reassurance.

The noun and the verb
that are creation and fulfillment—
beginning and end—
you and us—
you and tomorrow.

Witness of the Open Canon, ii.
George Saunders, commencement speech, Syracuse University, 2013

Witness of the Closed Canon, ii.
with a little of that lectio divina going on
Luke 2:52
It’s just one verse, my friends,
but oh my, what a verse!
And Jesus—even Jesus—
Jesus the Son of God—
Jesus, God incarnate—God made flesh—
even Jesus increased in wisdom and in years.

Oh, he increased in years—big deal, right?
He was born. He was a boy of about two—
of about twelve.
He began his public ministry when he was about 30—
died when he was about 33.
Of course he increased in years.
That is, after all, part of what it means to be the incarnation.

But Jesus also increased, we read, in wisdom.
That’s what Scripture says.
We read that Jesus increased in wisdom in the Bible.
Nothing to skip over too quickly.
Jesus got wiser.
Now wisdom isn’t knowledge.
We’re not talking here about Jesus learning more—
though presumably he did that too.
Wisdom though, is about seeing better how
what you know fits into a bigger picture.
It’s about recognizing that there is,
a bigger picture—
horizons far beyond what’s apparent.

Jesus increased in wisdom and in years,
and in divine and human favor.
Now God loves you.
Oh, God loves you so.
Yet you can increase in divine favor—
as did Jesus.
You can make God more proud of you.
You can make God’s heart sing.

It’s not just going to happen.
You have to work at it—
at living love—
manifesting love—
incarnating God—
to reach the horizons far beyond what’s apparent—
the bigger picture that is our calling
in Jesus’ name.


3 thoughts on ““graduation,” june 26, 2016

  1. Hello! May I use your lovely Responsive Call to Worship for an Interfaith Baccalaureate service at a university? I would just change the last words to “in the way of the divine.” If this is OK, I would like to include your name for attribution (if I may have your name, please!). Thanks.

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