May 17, 2015 – Jesus’ Commencement Speech, a sermon by Carroll Boswell
Here is a recording of this sermon. Below is an outline written after the fact. 110924_001
Today is graduation at Potsdam College. Commence is a very widespread American tradition. Four years of hard study, followed by a barely choreographed lengthy ceremony, some of the year’s most boring speeches, all to get to that 10 second walk across the stage. And the commencement speeches are all alike. Congratulation on the completion of all your hard work. Not go forth into the world and make it a better place.
John 13-17 is just that, a commencement speech. It is the longest single recorded speech of Jesus. It came at the end of a three or four year training program. Disciple means student, and Jesus had taught them all they needed to know to work for Him. Now it was at an end, and He makes this speech and tells them to go forth into the world and make it a better place.
But there are some differences. First, Jesus’ speech is not boring. Second, He tells them that the world is a place they do not belong in. Third, He tells them that the world hates them. How would that go over as the commencement speech at some university? – go forth into the world; you’ll never fit in out there; and they don’t want you anyway; have fun!
And Jesus tells them all this so that they can share His joy. He definitely has an odd approach to a pep speech. So how is it that we are to be joyful going into such a world? How does it work? That is what the rest of the Bible is about, to some extent, with lots of advice on what to do and what not to do. The Lectionary refers us to Psalm 1 so for today we will just look at that.
Walk not in the counsel of the wicked. Walk is a common metaphor for living. How is it that the wicked try to get us to live that will utterly destroy all joy, and does? There are many ways but the one example for today is fear. There are a lot of things to be afraid of out there, scary things, and the world will make sure we notice them. But the world doesn’t just want to make you feel fear. The world wants you to walk in fear. It wants you to be afraid and then live your life under the spell of that fear, under the influence of that fear, under the guidance of that fear, under the control of that fear. It is the world that makes people stockpile food and survival skills for the coming apocalypse. So do not do that. Do not let anything other than the love of God and compassion and kindness and joy guide you in life. Don’t walk in their counsel.
Stand not in the way of sinners. If you have ever walked through a pasture, you know you must be careful where you step. The world is a very large pasture and the world keeps a large herd of cows everywhere you go. If you suddenly smell something stinky and look down and finding you are stepping in something you don’t want to be stepping in, do not stand there. Especially since you will be wearing that good biblical footwear – sandals. The main things the world would like you to stand in are these: hate, anger, bitterness, unforgiveness. Everyone feels such things sometimes. You will be betrayed. You will be hurt. You will feel anger, and the world wants you to stand right there. So don’t do it. When you find yourself surrounded by the horrid smell of bitterness and anger and hate, then walk away. You really don’t want to stand in such things.
Sit not in the seat of scoffers. This is an interesting in Hebrew. The seat is the word that means an assembly, a council, a formal group that guides and makes policy and pronounces judgment. Don’t sit with those people. In Episcopal terms, don’t sit on the vestry of the scoffers. You know scoffing, of course. It is an attitude that dismisses as stupid a whole class of people or ideas. In college, the scoffing council is made of the cool people who consider it dumb to love an ideal or have a hero or respect some virtue. One of the most insidious form of scoffing is racism: dismiss a whole class of people as inferior, as trash. It is the assembly of scoffers when men get together and talk about women the way they sometimes do, or when women get together and talk about men the way they do. It is the assembly of scoffers who dismiss the poor as welfare bums and lazy and freeloaders who just need to get a job. There is even an assembly of scoffers whose sole purpose is to mock the president. This is all just the world. They make their scoffing assemblies easy to join. There are no qualifications. Just pull a chair up to their table and sit. But don’t do it.
I graduated Clarkson. I have the diploma. It has writing on it that tells me how smart I am and how great they are and it is signed by the president of that university and embossed with their seal. You also have a diploma with a seal: if John 13-17 is Jesus’ commencement speech, then Pentecost is the day the diploma was handed out. You are sealed with His Spirit, and He signed His name with His blood.
Now one thing about graduating. I have this recurrent nightmare. In it I have just done or said something so incredible stupid that I get a call from the university: “Mr. Boswell, we regret to inform you that you are just too much of an embarrassment to us and we have decided to revoke your degree.” I wake up in a panic. And I bring that up because I am pretty sure that many of you have that same recurring nightmare. In this nightmare you have done something so wicked or foolish or disgusting and Jesus has decided to revoke your diploma. “Sorry, scum, you are such an embarrassment to me I can’t put up with it anymore, so I have decided to revoke your redemption.”
That nightmare is another trick of the world. Clarkson can’t revoke my degree (I think!). Do you really believe Clarkson is kinder and more gracious than Jesus? No, He send you into the world sealed with His Spirit and He never makes mistakes when He sends someone out. But He knows the world gives you nightmares. That is why every Sunday morning He gathers us all together. And we celebrate Eucharist (that what He was doing in John 13-17) and He reminds us again of that commencement exercise, and then Mother Kathryn ends with the whole thing with words along the lines of “Now go forth into the world in peace to love and serve the Lord in gladness and singleness of heart.” You did graduate. You may have had a nightmare that said otherwise, but not you are awake, now you are ready again to go out into a world that hates you. Take heart and rejoice for you do not belong to it anyway.