Hold On

May 20, 2018

Series: May 2018

Category: Faith

Speaker: Rob McClellan

1The hand of the Lord came upon me, and the Lord brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. 2The Lord led me all round them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. 3The Lord said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?” I answered, “O Lord God, you know.” 4Then the Lord said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. 5Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. 6I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord.“

7So I prophesied as I had been commanded; and as I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. 8I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them. 9Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.” 10I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude. THIS IS HOLY WISDOM, HOLY WORD. THANKS BE TO GOD.

Hold On

          Hold on, it’s Pentecost, when the Spirit comes through like a rush of wind.  It’s also the day we celebrate our graduates, which must feel like a whirlwind to some of you.  I imagine to some of you it seems like yesterday that these or other graduates in your life were clinging to the legs of their parents riding around on top of their shoes with each adult step.  Now they are ready to walk across a stage all on their own. 

Graduation is such an exciting time. I have come to love the genre of the commencement address.  There is David Foster Wallace’s famous “This is Water” given at Kenyon College.  There’s Barbara Bush’s address at Wellesley pushes the feminist envelope to make room for all choices about what it means to be a woman.  Then, there’s my personal favorite, Alan Alda’s speech given to graduating medical students at Columbia in 1979.  Alda, who was not a doctor, but played one on TV, has a surprisingly timely critique around gender equality himself.  You can find lists of the most famous addresses, from Ellen Degeneres to Steve Jobs, J.K. Rowling to Stephen Colbert, Bono, Jeff Bezos, Michelle Obama.  The list goes on and on…

          Many commencement addresses are wonderful…and many of them trouble me, or at least contain a troubling thread.  We say to our young, “You are the future,” when they, in fact, are part of the present, just as we all are part of the present.  Nothing is promised for the future and living a life that defers actualization is no way to live.  To hand over the entire future to a single generation, to pass the world on to them in one fell swoop, well what a loaded gift.  Here you go; it’s kind of broken, but it’s yours now!

          We tell them they can save it.  They can save the world.  What a setup, an unfair burden.  Here we are Christians, so we can trust that the world has already been saved.  We can release ourselves from any messianic complexes we carry, the desire to be savior.  We’d be better to learn to follow the one we have.  A lot of damage has been done by people trying to be great; what about striving instead to be good?   Jesus’ life was largely comprised of small moments that became great because of the sacred presence he brought to them.  He was not afraid to be touched by people, affected by peoples’ stories and suffering.  He was not afraid to reach out to those others deemed untouchable.  Jesus didn’t go around talking about his greatness; he spent his time telling the truth, about the sacredness of all things and all people.  He told the truth about and to systems—religious, political, and economic—that preyed upon the vulnerable.  He was about goodness, not greatness.  That’s our work, not our job.  We tell our graduates to go and get the right job, yet our work is much deeper than what’s tied to our paycheck, if we have one.

          And our work isn’t first about doing.  Did you notice how Jesus sends out his disciples, his students, when their early training is complete, after their graduation of sorts?  You can read about it in Luke, the first part of Acts, which you heard earlier.  He sends them out two by two, never alone, and not to bring the kingdom of God, the reign of God, but to experience it, to experience first-hand hospitality.  He wants them to know it is already at work in the world, to know how to recognize it and participate in it, lest they make the mistake of thinking they need to, or even can, import it. 

          I would want to say to graduates, “You are a part of something beautiful and diverse and there is a special place in it for exactly what you have and who are, knowing that you will continue to grow.”  I would draw on the Apostle Paul who reminds us that we are members of a shared body, in need of each other and each another’s gifts in order to function well.  I would draw on who may be our patron saint John Muir, who reminds us of our fundamental connectedness saying, “When we try pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.”[1]

          I would ask our graduates if we can come together to recognize this.  It’s been done before.  Today is Pentecost, when we remember a sacred moment that it happened.  Just when the world felt as though it was coming apart yet again, it came together.  People from across the globe, from different nations, carrying different customs, certainly speaking different languages, all came together, and the miracle that took place, symbolized in wind and tongues of fire, was that the people were able to understand each other.  They understood one another without forcing one another to change or to speak the same language.  Pentecost is often seen as the birthday of the church and isn’t it a gift that our birthright is not the ability to conquer; it is the ability to connect.  That is a gift worth honoring.

          I would ask our graduates if that feels like our world, a connected body, or does our world feel broken, severed, disjointed?  Are we one living body or are we a pile of old bones.  Of course, in any given moment and setting we are combinations of both, but if you lean toward the latter, then listen to the prophet Ezekiel who said, “prophecy to the bones…prophecy to the breath,” which is the wind, which is God, say to God, come upon that which is dead and bring it back to life.  Can these bones live?  If we say so, literally, if we say so.  In a few weeks I’m preaching at Zephyr Point, a Presbyterian Conference Center in Tahoe.  The passage I’ve been given is where Jesus’ disciples are not welcomed.  The disciples in their eagerness ask Jesus, “Lord, do you want us to call down fire from heaven and consume them?”  No, children, don’t speak death.  Speak words of life.  Prophecy to the breath that you want to call forth life.  No more consuming each other. 

          To learn to do this, to practice this, one needs community.  It can’t be done alone, and so I would say to those graduating today, please don’t let yourself graduate from the need for a faith community.  Yes, explore.  Yes, question.  Yes, branch out…but remember where you’re rooted and graft yourself onto a vine that bears fruit by finding a faith community that helps you navigate this complicated world in these complex times.  You’re going to need the connection, and you will be the connection that someone else needs.  That’s what it means to be human.  

          Now, I’ve played a trick on you with the bulletin cover, and those complimentary words about how Westminster is a church living faithfully in a complex world.  I believe that deeply about you, but they were actually uttered about a Westminster Presbyterian in Minneapolis (we’re all connected!).  Next week I am going to tell you about how this church has endeavored to live faithfully in its complex setting.  This week I simply want to tell you a little about its pastor, Tim Hart-Andersen, who used to pastor the Old First Church in San Francisco.  I want to tell you about his first memories of church because it provides a powerful image for us.        

Tim’s father was a pastor, a giant man, 6’6”, (about like me) with size 17 shoes. At the end of the service, when his father would come down to give the benediction and blessing, Tim, maybe 3 or 4 years old and his sibling, would get out of their seat, come forward, crawl under his father’s robe and plant himself on the platforms of those size 17 shoes, wrapping their arms around his legs.  There they would stay during the blessing and as his dad recessed down the aisle and greeted members after church.

          My word for the graduates for now and for all times –of course, you are never too young to make your own bold steps and do something good for the world. And, you are never too old to lift up the hem of the robe, to crawl inside to find that firm footing, wrap your arms around and hold on for dear life, for no matter your age, no matter how far you wander, you are never ever ever all on your own.  Amen. 

[1] https://vault.sierraclub.org/john_muir_exhibit/writings/misquotes.aspx