“To Commence is to Trust” (2017 Commencement Day Baccalaureate Sermon)

Posted on May 29th, 2017 by

The following text is taken from the sermon offered for the 2017 Baccalaureate Worship Services in Christ Chapel, on the campus of Gustavus Adolphus College (St. Peter, MN) on May 28, 2017. Please note that the text was written with the intention to be heard, not read, thus the various grammatical choices were made with an emphasis on the ear, not the eye.

Graduates of the Class of 2017, you have made a terrible, terrible mistake!

You have made a terrible, terrible, mistake, for you have chosen to leave this wonderful place. What a terrible, terrible, terrible mistake!

Class of 2017, what were you thinking? Here, on this campus you are surrounded with amazing prairie grasses to the west, a winding river to the east, and majestic Minnesota trees in each and every direction. Here, on this campus you get to think-in deep thoughts, sink-in amazing discussions, and link-in glorious experiences of asking and receiving some of life’s most wonderful and worthy questions. Here, Class of 2017, on this campus you have sports, books, music, and an assortment of activities to match your particular proclivities. Here, you have amazing food that you do not cook for yourself, and here, you have dirty dishes that you do not clean for yourself. It is amazing here!

Yet you, Class of 2017, despite our commitment to teach you the art of critical thinking, you have committed the grave tactical blunder of obtaining the required number of credits to graduate. And now, you must go. Now you must go, and because of it, you will now embark on the what may be the greatest adventure – and most significant challenge – of your young lives: That is, the adventure and challenge of moving back in with your parents. Good luck.

Class of 2017, perhaps the question to begin this Sunday morning message is not “What were you thinking?” But more appropriately, the question is “What were you trusting?”. Class of 2017, “What were you trusting?” is an appropriate question to collectively consider this particular Sunday morning. Because, perhaps ultimately, to earn a college degree requires far more than knowledge, but it also entails some of the core components of religious faith. Because, to graduate requires more than just thinking, as the act of graduation itself is also about trusting.

More specifically, to graduate from this particular institution of higher education necessitates taking the learning you have received, and believing that you are indeed ready to offer something of significance to the world. For to commence, this day, requires the trust that you are indeed significant in this world. And furthermore, it entails the trust that what you have been offered on top of this hill, will help you in the midst of all that is happening down it.

Class of 2017, to commence from here requires trust, just as to commence to here required trust. And being here, in the midst of those years between arrival and departure, it all required trust. The totality of your time here required trust, as trust is fundamental to the Gustavus Adolphus College promise of faith and learning, something that I personally re-discovered just a few Decembers ago.

It was Christmas in Christ Chapel, opening night on a beautiful Friday in December, not long ago. Many of you know the scene. Christmas in Christ Chapel, with 350 students ready to participate through song, dance, and the spoken word, and thousands of friends and family members filling up this campus. Miles of electrical wiring. Tons of lighting. Five worship services. Countless Smiles. A multitude of tears. An assortment of Swedish Sweaters! A celebration of the incarnate divine. As many of you know full well, Christmas in Christ Chapel is indeed an incredible experience.

However, just five minutes into that particular Friday night opening service, I was sitting right here in this very pulpit, the choir had just finished processing to the risers, and things were quickly off track, as I noticed a few lights not working at the northwest wall of the chapel. After months of planning and countless moments of preparation, it was not something you wanted to see just five minutes into opening night of Christmas in Christ Chapel.

We needed to fix the problem, but of course, because I was sitting here, and because the lights were over there. And, because there was about 1,000 people sitting between here and there, there was absolutely nothing I could do. Nothing except sit, pray, and ask for Jesus to appear and fix it himself. The odds were were against me.

But then, shortly after, in a wonderful moment of hope, I noticed the next best thing to Jesus. Our beloved Fine Arts Director, Al Behrends! Thankfully for us, Al had been involved in Christmas in Christ Chapel even longer than Jesus! Thanks be to God, I thought, as I could see Al moving across the northwest wall of the chapel at a pace that I had not seen Al move before. “He must know!” I thought. “He must know! He must be seeing what I am seeing! He must! He must!”

And then, just minutes later, as Christmas in Christ Chapel continued, once again I noticed Al Behrends. But this time, no longer was he at the back of the chapel, but now he was on his hands and knees, crawling through the chairs of the orchestra near the front of the chapel, looking for that particular and precise electrical connection that was needed in order to fix the particular and precise lighting issue. And of course, from my pulpit vantage point, I prayed that that this would not all end in a lawsuit, as I noticed the students in the flute section as they rather unexpectedly witnessed a 60-year old man creeping and crawling through their midst, trying his best not to violate their personal space, or something else. I thought: “Father forgive us, for we know not what we do”.

In the midst of it all, little did I know that someone had also called our campus electrician, Harold Tish, who at the same time was on his hands and knees in the crawl space that sits directly below the floor of this chapel. And as Harold secretly made his way directly underneath the congregation and eventually directly underneath the orchestra, I noticed a ventilation grate on the floor rise up off the ground. And then, as if it were straight out of a nightmare, I watched a grown man’s hand emerge out of the floor, searching for wires. And all of this, of course, took place while the orchestra was leading the faithful people of God in a lovely Christmas tune.

The Director of Fine Arts crawling on his hands and knees through the orchestra, our Electrician’s hand emerging out of the floor grasping for wires from underneath the orchestra, and the flute section within the orchestra wondering if this was how you “Make your life count”. I assumed it would be my last Christmas in Christ Chapel.

But then, in a moment of true and heavenly bliss, those prodigal lights on the northwest end of the chapel turned back on. Al and Harold, by the grace of God, had done it. And all was well. We moved on with the worship service. And most. Never noticed. A thing. Except of course, the freshly traumatized flute section.

It was a moment that I will never, ever forget. And I share it with you, here and now, so that you will not forget. Because, this story of holy ridiculousness highlights the message of this Commencement Day, in that “to commence is to trust”. To Commence is to Trust.

Trust. Trust is about being vulnerable to the actions of someone else. Trust is about realizing that we are all inter-connected, we are all inter-related, and we are all inter-dependent. Trust is a prerequisite for love. Trust is the glue of our communities. Trust is the oxygen of our existence.

And thankfully, Graduates of the Class of 2017, here you have learned to trust. You have learned to trust, because here, you have learned that we do belong to each other, you have learned that we do need each other, and you have learned that that we are always vulnerable to the actions of someone else. Always. And as a result, what you have also learned is that it is only out of such inevitable vulnerability, that can one can experience the blessings of love, the beauty of creativity and the boldness of change.

Class of 2017, you have learned that a trusting heart, born out of vulnerability, is at the commencement of everything good.

And of course, as we begin our graduation celebrations this Sunday morning in a chapel that bears the name of Christ, we recognize that no one incarnated trust and vulnerability more than Jesus Christ himself. Yes, the God made known in Jesus was born vulnerable, lived vulnerable, died vulnerable, and rose vulnerable. And in doing so, Jesus, as God incarnate, showed that vulnerability is by no means equated with weakness. But rather, to be vulnerable is the underlying, ever present and abiding undercurrent of being most authentically human. Because, for you and for I, from our arrival on this Earth to our departure from it, our pre-existing condition is that we are always exposed to the actions of others. Which in turn means, that our life goal is not to run away from such inevitable vulnerability, but our collective calling is to occupy such vulnerability. As Jesus said in Luke 10:6, “Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much…” Such powerful words on this powerful day.

“Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much…” These words from Luke’s Gospel carry a message about trust. They are about being trusted by others, and yes, about the willingness to trust others. As such is perhaps the ultimate requirement for commencement.

Yet, of course, such a message about trust is so incredibly contrary to what we are being told in our current day and age. You know and I know, the hard yet obvious truth is that we now live at a time when we are told not to trust others. We are now living at time when we are told not to trust anyone, not to expect anything from anyone, and not to anticipate anything remotely righteous from anyone. We are told to assume the worst of others, especially those who look differently, love differently, sound differently, or believe differently.

Sadly, due in part to our fear of the inevitable vulnerability that surrounds us, we now live in a state of perpetual public panic. And as a result, we are now living at time when we are being told to build up the concrete walls of distrust. Yet, we know, as the vulnerable God made incarnate repeatedly reminds us so, that such personal insecurity and public distrust is contrary to the essential elements of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Because, to be a community requires trust. Because, to be a human requires trust. Because, to love anyone or anything requires trust. Because, a trusting heart, born out of vulnerability, is at the commencement of everything good.

And so, one final story. In October of 2010, as my wife and I were serving in South Africa with the global mission unit of the Lutheran Church, she gave birth to our first child, a son, one of the happiest days of my life. Our son was born with a cleft lip and cleft palate, which meant that he would be in and out of surgery during his first months of his life. To this day, I can remember the day of that first surgery, when he was three months old, as if it all happened yesterday. I can remember the sight of my wife carrying our tiny baby boy down the hall near to the operating room. It was 10,000 miles away from the comforts of family and friends in the United States. It was, in my experience, the definition of vulnerability.

Before my wife handed our son over to the care-givers for his surgery, she was stopped, and our family was approached by our surgeon, Dr. Anil Madary of the Nelson Mandela Medical School in Durban. We were joined by our primary care physician, Dr. Safoorah Raja, as well as two other assistants. The scene was remarkable. In that hallway our group included a Muslim, a Hindu, and Evangelical Christian, an atheist, and of course, there was my wife and I, Lutherans from Wisconsin.

They all surrounded us. And then, Dr. Raja invited us to pray together. And while a part of me thought, “Who are we actually praying to?”, most of me thought about how much I needed that moment. So, we prayed together. And while I do not remember what was said, what I do remember was that we were together, and it was Holy. And what I remember most, was that, in the single most vulnerable moment of my life, I had no choice but to trust. I had to trust. And in that moment, once again, I learned that we trust in God, by learning to trust in other people.

Graduates of the Class of 2017, from this day forward, whether you realize it or not, each and every moment you will hold someone else’s life in the palm of your hands.

And from this day forward, whether you realize it or not, each and every moment someone else will hold your life in the palm of their hands.

And from this day forward, whether you realize it or not, you are ready to experience both.

And that, perhaps more than anything, Class of 2017, is why we all thank God that you are leaving this place.

The purpose of arriving at college is so that one day you may depart from college. So, Class of 2017, please. Please leave. Leave this place, and may God Bless you as you do.

May God bless you, Class of 2017, with the courage to tell the truth, and the discipline to show respect.

May God bless you with the ability to be kind and the capacity to make the wrongs of this world more fully right.

May God bless you with the strength to be loyal, the conviction to live out truth, the nerve to improve each and every day, the daring to confront reality, and the clarity of purpose to confront personal and public injustice.

May God bless you with the strength to listen before you speak, the integrity to keep your promises, and of course…

May God bless you with the audacity to trust God through the vulnerability of trusting others.

Class of 2017, on behalf of the faculty, staff, and administration of this college, thank you for trusting us, and please know that we do trust you.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

The Rev. Dr. Brian E. Konkol serves as Chaplain of the College, teaches in the Peace, Justice, and Conflict Studies program and Three Crowns Curriculum, and is the Creative Director for Christmas in Christ Chapel at Gustavus Adolphus College. He tweets @BrianKonkol 

NOTE: The views expressed here are entirely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gustavus Adolphus College, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, or other affiliated organizations. Those with questions or concerns may contact the author.

 


One Comment

  1. Craig Nelson says:

    Brilliant!

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