Graduation Day

Sermon of Sunday, May 20, 2012
Easter 7B
John 17:6-19
The Rev. Geof Smith

Northeastern University’s big day was May 4; Simmons’ and BU shared May 18; Boston College’s is tomorrow; and Harvard’s will be Thursday.  It’s college graduation season here in Boston; that time of year when all those fresh faces come spilling out of the ivory towers.  They’ll stand in lines in auditoriums and football fields across the state, draped in ill-fitting polyester robes and oddly-shaped hats with tassels.  They’ll be subjected to graduation speeches, running from the memorable to the mind-numbing.

And then maybe next week, the lucky ones will start their new careers and put what they’ve learned to work.

Here at St. Stephen’s, we’re wrapping up an adult formation series on Christian advocacy.  We’ve learned all about advocacy: what it is and what it’s not and how advocacy is the flip side of the coin from what we do so well in outreach.  We’ve explored what advocacy means to those who need an advocate, and where and how the Episcopal Church engages in advocacy around the globe.  Today we get down to the exciting stuff: exploring what role St. Stephen’s has as advocates.  You’re all welcome to join this conversation after the 10:00 service in the Bartow Room.

And overlaying all of this is the fact that today is the last Sunday of Easter, the last Sunday of a season of focus on the resurrection and its hope.  Next Sunday will be Pentecost, the day when the Holy Spirit lands on the heads of the disciples like a firestorm.  The Spirit will stir them up and finally get them out of that upper room where they’ve been holed up since Easter.  Pentecost is about us getting out into the world.  Some call Pentecost the birthday of the church, it’s when we got our mission as a church; but as I thought about this Sunday in relation to Pentecost, another metaphor came to mind: Pentecost is like our first day on a new job; for from Pentecost on, we have work to do.  Which means that today, May 20th, I get to say to all of you, “Congratulations, St. Stephen’s class of 2012.”

For each of us are about to leave our Easter classroom and start the work the Spirit will have for us.  Metaphorically at least, we need to allow ourselves to think of today as graduation day!  OK, we can get by without John playing Pomp and Circumstance; and we’ll take a pass on the funky robes; but – and I’m prejudiced here – can you remember a better graduation prayer than our Gospel this morning?

Jesus says to God on behalf of his followers, “I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world.  They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word.  The words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them.”

In other words, in spite of all their misunderstandings, mistakes, puzzled and muddled looks, and in spite of all the mistakes still to come, Jesus is saying his chosen disciples are OK; they get it: they’ll keep God’s word.  They’re as ready as they’ll ever be.

And so too are we.  For as we close our Easter season, and with it, John’s Gospel, we find ourselves hearing the same prayer that Jesus’ disciples heard him praying the night before he died.  It is a powerful, moving prayer where Jesus asks that his crucifixion reveal God as the one true God, the lover of Israel and the world.  Jesus prays to God on behalf of all those whom God has given him.  He prays as their great high priest a prayer of “sanctification.”

Now in Hebrew, the word “sanctification” means that something has been given over to God, something is being made holy.  On the cross, Jesus will give himself up to God’s will.  He will bear in his own body the shame and failure of the world in order to bring us healing and seal us with God’s love.

It is out of this love that Jesus now prays aloud for those sitting around the table with him: for James and Peter and John, yes, and also for Mary and Martha and Lazarus and other whose names we do not know.  These are the people who have physically seen God in Jesus, and they are the first to trust him.  They are the first to begin living his way at Pentecost; his first graduating class.  Jesus’ prayer becomes their graduation address.

As Jesus goes to the cross, he prays for his faithful, that, as he has been sanctified, so too all those who believe in him will be sanctified.  His graduation prayer blesses the class and asks God to protect them.  Jesus celebrates the fact that God gives him these friends; that these friends are now a new chosen people.  And by extension, we are now that new, chosen Israel.

Which sounds almost preposterous, doesn’t it?  Maybe even a bit arrogant?  As 21st century Episcopalians, we blush at the notion of being “God’s chosen.”  And with good reason, after twenty centuries of shameful behavior, we should blush a bit.  For how many times have we considered ourselves “chosen” at the expense of those whom we’ve decided are not chosen?  How many times have we inflicted suffering on Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and peoples with indigenous faiths all around the world?

Being chosen does not mean they – whoever we label as “they”– are not chosen.  It doesn’t mean, “Mom loves me best.” Quite the contrary, Jesus prays for us because we are among Christians and non-Christians, among those in the world still angry with God, and those who do not follow Christ.  Being chosen means as God sent Jesus into the world, so Jesus now sends us into the world, to live out his love.  To bless the world, not divide it; to serve, not to be served.

This is Jesus’ high prayer for us, his high hope for us.

This is our commencement address.

Odd isn’t it; how graduation – the closing of a chapter in our lives – is also called “commencement,” as if we are supposed to be beginning something new in our lives.

And we are.

Today we will close the Easter season, the season most associated with hope.  But before we go, I want to close this sermon with a message of hope, with a poem Barbara Kingsolver wrote for a commencement address.  It’s called, “Hope; An Owner’s Manual,” and it goes something like this:

Look, you might as well know,

this thing is going to take endless repair: rubber bands, crazy glue,
tapioca, the square of the hypotenuse.
Nineteenth century novels, heartstrings, sunrise:
all of these are useful.

Also, feathers.

To keep it humming, sometimes you have to stand on an incline,
where everything looks possible; on the line you drew yourself.
Or in the grocery line, making faces at a toddler
secretly, over his mother’s shoulder.
You might have to pop the clutch and run past all the evidence.
Past everyone who is laughing or praying for you.
Definitely you don’t want to go directly to jail,
but still, here you go, passing time, passing strange.
Don’t pass this up.
In the worst of times, you will have to pass it off.
Park it and fly by the seat of your pants.
With nothing in the bank, you’ll still want to take the express.
Tiptoe past the dogs of the apocalypse
that are sleeping in the shade of your future.
Pay at the window.
Pass your hope like a bad check.
You might still have just enough time.
To make a deposit.

Congratulations, graduates.  Amen.

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