I am fascinated by commencement addresses--those talks that are given at the close, and at the beginning, of a transition time in a person's life. They are given most often when one is finishing college or high school.
I'm not the only one who is attracted to commencement talks. I notice that the New York Times carries portions of commencement addresses in late May and early June, when colleges and universities are having commencements. I notice that Time Magazine also does that, as does Newsweek and the Washington Post. Even C-SPAN carries portions of what they feel to be outstanding commencement addresses.
The legendary Bob Hope once gave a commencement address at, I believe, Stanford University. He was telling the gathered seniors there about the real world they were about to enter after their experience at Stanford:"It's going to be cold out there. It's going to be hard and tough and lonely out there. Therefore, for you seniors, I have two words of advice: Don't go."
Alan Alda, best known for his role as Dr. Hawkeye Pierce on the TV show M*A*S*H, was asked to give the commencement speech at Harvard Medical School one year. The New York Times carried portions of it, and it was absolutely superb. "One of the things I learned from acting as a doctor in the series M*A*S*H," said Alda, "is that doctors must remember that you are doing a ministry of medicine to a whole person. You are not operating on a heart. You're not operating on a gall bladder. You're operating on a person who has a damaged heart. Therefore, you must," he said, "you physicians must heal the whole person."
Do you ever think of a Sunday homily to be a kind of commencement address as you are concluding one week in your life and about to begin a new one? Do you ever consider your life to be a mission? Do you ever consider your journey in faith to be a significant part of God's mission? Our worship service ends as though it is a kind of commencement: "Alleluia, alleluia. Go forth into the world, rejoicing in the power of the Spirit," and the congregation responds, "Thanks be to God. Alleluia. Alleluia." You go forth into the world, into a new week, and it's a commencement. So think of today's homily as a commencement.
Jesus is heard to say, "The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few. Pray therefore, that the Lord of the Harvest will send forth laborers into his harvest. Now," says Jesus, "go on your way. Travel lightly--take no purse, no sandal," and on goes the Gospel story for today. It's commencement time, and it is the task of this preacher, this homilist, to unpack the words of this commencement address of our Lord for us. So, let's begin.
The Lord has gathered together seventy disciples. They've been in his presence now for some period of time. They've heard from him something of the glory and the majesty and the personal meaning of the Kingdom of God. They've seen in him something of the face and heart of God. They've been in training. Now he's sending them out in pairs to the cities and towns that Jesus intends to go to bring the message of the Kingdom of God. He is sending them -- this is an Old English word -- as paviors for the Savior.
Think about this in terms of your life. You are a preparer of the way of the Lord. You are a pavior for the Savior. The Lord is sending you out into a new week--sending you to your office desks, to the work place where you dwell, sending you to your home, sending you to your recreation places -- the tennis courts, the swimming pools, etc. -- sending you out into a new week, where our Lord intends to follow.
The word "seventy" probably does not mean a literal seventy. Rather, Luke, the writer of this Gospel, is probably drawing from the Book of Numbers, where Moses called together seventy elders to represent him in the building of the Kingdom of God. Also, in the Book of Genesis it lists seventy nations, which is a way of saying, "This is a universal we are talking about. This is the globe we're talking about. We're talking about sending out this message to everyone."
And who are the seventy? They're not even named in the Bible. We don't know who they are. They are people just like you and me. They're just ordinary, everyday people who come into Calvary Church on a regular basis and fill the pews and then go out into the world. You become the heart and hands and face and voice of the Christ in your week. You have a mission, and this is it. This is what another writer of the New Testament calls "the priesthood of all believers." This is everybody. This is each of us. We're not in stained glass, and we don't get headlines, and there is no bright light on us. We're just sent into the world as the seventy ordinary people to take messages of the Kingdom of God by the way we live it and serve it. As you leave the church, you hear a voice speaking to you: "Now remember the harvest out there, that week you are about to live, that life you are about to go to -- it's immensely plentiful, but the laborers are too few. So," as some translations say, "pray to the Lord of the Harvest to send forth laborers into His harvest." Let's go, laborers, into the harvest.And I want to suggest to you that it's the Lord's harvest. It's not yours. It's not mine. It's the Lord's harvest.
There are some voices that say that the Episcopal Church, on a national level, is in a difficult place right now. We seem to be torn apart by different visions of what the church ought to be. We are divided around thorny issues like the gift of human sexuality or abortion. The church is fragile, and some say that it's maybe going to fracture.
I think what we need to recall is that this is not his church or her church or that one's church or this Bishop's church or this Rector's church. It is the Lord's church. As Bishop Bert Herlong, Bishop of Tennessee, said in the consecration sermon for Bishop Johnson several Saturdays ago: "The task of the church is not to defend the church, but to be the church." I would say the same thing is true for Calvary. Calvary Church is not your Rector's church. It's not your staff's church. It's not your Vestry's church. It's not even the congregation's church. It's the Lord's church. So pray to the Lord of the Church, the Lord of the Harvest, that more laborers be sent forth into the harvest.
Then Jesus says, "Now, go on your way and travel lightly. Don't take a purse. Don't take sandals. I'm sending you as lambs in the midst of wolves," which is a way of saying it is going to be difficult. It's going to be tough to be on mission with faith, and don't expect it to be otherwise. Jesus' expression "lambs among wolves" is meant to give people a warning. You're going to run into situations that are going to break your heart. You are going to run into situations that are too difficult for you. So, remember that it is God's church. Not yours. Not mine. "Go on your way. I'm sending you out as lambs into the midst of wolves, and sometimes the going will be tough. But remember," says Jesus, "my spirit is with you."
I am reminded of that great image by G. K. Chesterton, meant for us when we take ourselves too seriously, "Behold, the birds. They fly because they take themselves so lightly. Shouldn't we?" We're to be on mission for God, not for ourselves. It's God's church, and in the midst of God's church, we are to travel light sometimes and be aware of disappointments.
At the end of this commencement address Jesus says, "Now, I want you to heal the sick. I want you to live among the people in such a way that they will proclaim, 'My God, the Kingdom of God has come near to me because of you. Because of you.'"
The Kingdom of God always seems to have about it the spiritual ethic and also the social ethic. New Testament scholars are convinced that whenever Jesus is talking about the Kingdom of God, he is always talking about not just one's spiritual life, but also the society that needs to be changed. So, to be a part of issues of social justice, even as controversial as they can sometimes be -- it's not just a possibility, it's a responsibility. Calvary Church must always be about the business of the changing of the society in which we live, Kingdom of God style.
I was reminded of this yesterday morning in reading the morning newspaper. Did you read the headlines about the Reverend Doctor Jim Lawson, former pastor of Centenary United Methodist Church here in Memphis? He was invited back to Memphis to speak at Christian Brothers University, which was hosting the national convention of Pax Christi USA, an organization that strives to create a world that reflects the Peace of Christ by articulating and witnessing to the call of peaceful non-violence. Because Dr. Lawson also serves on the national board of an organization for reproductive rights and women's choice, Christian Brothers University and its leadership withdrew the invitation for him to speak on the campus. It made headlines in the Commercial Appeal. Now Pax Christi USA had a difficult decision. (I learned this in phone conversations yesterday morning.) They had to decide whether to cancel the national convention on the campus of Christian Brothers University in protest or to move it off campus. They chose to cancel the national convention, saying that Dr. Jim Lawson did not come here to speak about abortion, that Pax Christi USA invited Dr. Lawson here to talk about issues of non-violence and peace and justice in our life, in our city and in our inner-cities.
Jim Lawson knew that this might make some problems for me because I'd invited him to preach in the pulpit of Calvary Church that Pax Christi weekend. I said to him through another friend, "The pulpit of Calvary Church is still yours that weekend, Jim Lawson. You come right ahead. We in Calvary Church do not filter what it is that one preacher says. If I can invite a Dr. Adrian Rogers from Bellevue Baptist Church to preach from this pulpit, I can certainly invite a Dr. Jim Lawson to preach." And so, he is coming. He is going to be here to make his witness that weekend and preach in the pulpit of your parish church.
Is that the right decision? Some will say that I've made the wrong one, and that's all right, because that's your choice. But I believe it is an issue of justice in our society. Therefore, I lift that up on behalf of your Calvary Church in order that anybody who comes into this church can always say, "Behold the Kingdom of God comes near here." It's not just a spiritual matter. It's also a social justice matter. The two have to be side by side.
a mission. This is your commencement address. It comes from the Lord of
the Harvest. In closing, let's read together stanzas one, three, and five,
of Hymn 541, "Come, Labor On." Notice how we get our mission
in this great hymn that is also a prayer:
Copyright 2001 Calvary Episcopal Church