Where Are We Going?
June 3, 2018
Reverend Timothy Hart-Andersen
Psalm 1, Luke 9:1-6
Those of you graduating this year will soon get to experience a commencement speech. Or maybe you already have.
A commencement speech is one of the most difficult forms of public oratory. Delivered by someone deemed to be important with something significant to say in a setting where few people are truly inclined to listen, the commencement speech wants to be simultaneously pithy, humorous, wise, memorable – and mercifully brief. It’s like a sermon at a wedding; people are eager to get it over with and move on to the main reason they’ve come.
Be kind to the one making the speech, and listen. They’re offering words of wisdom as you set off on the next phase of your life. They may even have something worth hearing!
The psalmist says,
“Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked, or take the path that sinners tread; but their delight is in the law of the LORD, … They are like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season…. In all that they do, they prosper… For the LORD watches over the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish.” (Psalm 1:1, 3, 6)
The Hebrew poet uses the image of trees planted by deep streams of good water to describe the life of the people of God, “the way of the righteous.” The earliest name for Christianity was, in fact, The Way; to be a follower of Jesus is to be on the move. Today we acknowledge that you graduates are now on the way.
The word “commencement,” of course, comes from the French, commencement, meaning beginning. Your graduation may feel like the end of a long grind, but, actually, it’s the start of something. It’s the kicking-off point of the next stage of your life.
Those of you who’ve been listening to my preaching in recent years know that I’m drawn to the image of pilgrimage as a way to think of our lives. It’s an ancient metaphor used to interpret the human journey. Thinking of my life as pilgrimage helps me cope with the many unexpected things that happen along the way, and it reminds me that I am not in control. As a pilgrim I frequently ask myself, “Where are we going?” and I wonder, “How will we get there?”
Those are good questions for you at this point in your life. You may have a job or you may know where you’re headed next fall, but still, the questions are good to ask at this moment on your journey. They probe beneath the surface and ask about meaning and purpose. Where are we going? How will we get there?
Note that the questions are not in the first-person singular, as in “Where am I going?” Even the most solitary pilgrim eventually learns they are not alone on the journey. Part of the purpose of a pilgrimage is to come to trust sources beyond ourselves.
I remember one day some years ago standing on top of a low mountain in the English Lake District, in soaking rain, having lost our way. We were walking about 15 miles to the village of Grasmere, but we had no idea where it was. We could see no sign of the path. No other walkers. No sign of other human life anywhere. Even the sun was hiding from us. We were wet and cold and didn’t know which way to go. We used a compass to find where north lay, and then oriented ourselves generally toward the east. We set off, trusting that direction to be right. It was, eventually.
We’ve gotten lost at least once on every long walk we’ve taken…seven miles off the path in the steaming hot French countryside…two hours floundering in the heart of a busy city in Spain…wandering over windswept Welsh hills. We’ve learned not to panic.
We usually find our way by asking for help. That was difficult for me, at first. It was a lesson in humility – but it turned out to be a good way to travel. A friend just came back from Cuba where he was visiting Presbyterian mission sites in remote rural areas. Their driver had never been to where they were going and there were no road signs. Nonetheless, they got there, because the driver kept using what he called “the Cuban GPS”: stopping every few kilometers to ask for help.
That’s an obvious bit of advice for those of you setting off on the next stage of a life journey that may or may not be clear to you. Ask for directions, or at least seek out some encouragement on the way.
Former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Anan spoke at Macalester College last month. When asked if he had any idea what his future would be when he graduated from the school he quoted the Spanish poet Antonio Machado. Anan said these words have guided him throughout his life journey.
“Traveler,” the poet writes, “There is no road. The road is made by walking.”
As you graduate and set out on the next stage of your pilgrimage, you will make the road. And you won’t be traveling alone. Some of us have known you a long time, some since you were born. I can remember baptizing some of you, including one of you who put up quite a fight in getting to the water. I had to resort to the infamous pastoral “football hold” to get you to the font. From this vantage point, 18 years later, I’d say the water worked.
Baptism is the beginning of Christian pilgrimage. The commitment we make at Westminster when we baptize is, in effect, a collective, initial commencement speech:
“We promise to love, encourage, and support you, to share the good news of the gospel with you, to serve that gospel alongside you, and to help you know and follow Christ.”
This congregation seeks to be a companion and supporter to those on the way. That means we’re there when bad news comes, or when the road is especially tough, or when injustice won’t let go, or when grief overwhelms. The church is a way station for weary pilgrims, a shelter for those besieged by circumstances of life, a starting place for those seeking to begin the next step of the journey.
Some Scandinavian denominations are rethinking what it means to be church on the basis of pilgrimage. The new Swedish Church Act defines a congregation as “all who live in or pass through the parish.” The wording acknowledges the reality of mobile life in the world today, and the uprooted nature of spiritual wandering.
We can see that same emerging definition of church with our new open doors at Westminster. Church doesn’t mean only those on the membership rolls anymore; it also means those welcomed when they pass through the doors, the pilgrims who are on the way. That will include those of you whose plans take you far from here; when you stop back for a visit, we will still be church for you.
Christian faith is fundamentally about choosing to live our pilgrimage in pursuit of love and justice. In her commencement speech at Duke University, author Barbara Kingsolver said,
“The arc of history is longer than human vision. It bends. We abolished slavery, we granted universal suffrage. We have done hard things before. And every time it took a terrible fight between people who could not imagine changing the rules, and those who said, ‘We already did. We have made the world new.’ The hardest part will be to convince yourself of the possibilities, and hang on.” (2008)
That’s what Jesus does in his own little commencement speech to the disciples as he sends them out to transform the world. He tries to convince them of the possibilities. His remarks are brief, practical, and to the point, and his advice is good.
First he empowers them and charges them to go forth and proclaim the reign of God. Next, he urges them to let go of the impulse to acquire and consume, and, instead, travel as lightly as possible. Then he tells them to rely on the goodness of others. And finally, he warns that not everyone will welcome them, but not to let that stop them.
We hope you whose graduations we celebrate today feel compelled to do what you can to make the world a better place. As Christians, we do that by following Jesus and living as if the reign of God were breaking forth in our time. If ever there were a world where that needed to happen, ours is it.
My friend Tom Are says, “We may not be able to change the world, but we need to be reminded that the world can change.”
The right question for the disciples and for all who are on the way may be less about where we are going and how we will get there, and, instead, more about who we will be on the road.
Every Sunday we end our worship with what amounts to a short commencement speech, sending us into the world to be church. The words come from scripture and are used in churches everywhere. They describe who we will be as pilgrims of faith. Most of you know it by heart:
Go forth into the world in peace.
Be of good courage. Hold fast to that which is good.
Render to no person evil for evil.
Strengthen the fainthearted. Support the weak.
Heal the afflicted. Honor all people.
Love and serve the Lord,
Rejoicing in the power of the Holy Spirit.
If those gospel words can be our guide on the way, then we will have already arrived at our destination.
Thanks be to God.