The Rev. Scott M. Kershner, Chaplain to the University
May 11, 2014
President Lemons, graduates and families, faculty and staff, and all gathered on this festival day: grace and peace to you. This is, indeed, a day of many meanings. Even the language we use for this day can’t make up its mind. It’s graduation, which suggests an ending or a completion, and it certainly is that. But it’s also commence-ment, which suggests a beginning. Everything that follows commences from today. This is a threshold day between beginnings and endings. Having completed your course of studies but not quite a graduate, you are between identities and stations in life, occupying a liminal space, a time between times. This is big stuff. Just ask the cultural anthropologists, who tell us that when lots of otherwise normal people are very solemnly processing around wearing funny hats and sporting gigantic jewelry, it’s time to pay attention. Big dramas are unfolding. As both an ending and a beginning, today is a rite of passage in which we wreath your graduating and commencing heads with metaphorical laurels (that’s the laurel in Baccalaureate)—a crown of greens worn by victorious Olympians in ancient times. You have run a great race which we celebrate today. It’s safe to say that today will be a day of countless selfies: memorialized forever by smiling and straining faces crowding into a digital frame. This is what we do now. But we gather this morning to place this day in a more expansive frame, a much wider horizon, than any selfie can manage. Just a few minutes ago we sang a hymn that challenged us to imagine ourselves as members of a great choir in which earth and sky and sun and moon and stars and every last creature sings their part. That’s an expansive frame and points to why we’re gathered here on this joyous day. The hymns, music, scripture readings and prayers are all attempts to shift and expand the frame to the widest possible stretch—placing the celebrations of this day within the much wider context of the needs and concerns of the world, the demands of our neighbors near and far for both justice and love, and the unsearchable mysteries of God.
You can feel the frame stretch and expand in our passage from Proverbs that C.C. (Candance Cannady) read a few minutes ago. Proverbs is an ancient Hebrew book of wisdom, practical teaching for living. If you’re anything like me, a book of wisdom sounds like an invitation to take a nap. Yet, an interesting thing unfolds here, something you might not expect. Lady Wisdom, known in the tradition as Sophia, stands on the street corner amid life’s bustle and distraction and calls out to all who care to listen. How and where to find wisdom? What Lady Wisdom has to say sounds more like something out of an Environmental Studies than a Biblical Studies class. What we get is an inventory of the conditions necessary for life: fresh water and oceans, sun and moon in their daily cycles, dry land and fertile soil. Expand your frame, Lady Wisdom is saying. And as you do, you will discover something both humbling and freeing: you—we—aren’t the center of the cosmos. Rather, we discover ourselves as members—and hardly the center at all—in the great commonwealth of Creation, who, along with the birds and plants and fish, are dependent on the rising sun and the falling rain and the fertile soil for breath and life. Decentered and humbled, this expanded frame is truly the beginning of wisdom, both ecological and theological.
In the gospel of Matthew, you can again feel the words of Jesus stretching and straining at the frame, challenging us to shift our vision—but maybe in ways we don’t quite expect. We need to remember this this passage is part of what is probably the world’s most famous sermon, the Sermon on the Mount, which means that Jesus is preaching on a mountain top. The scene may have been something like what unfolded on the top of Mount Mahanoy on Tuesday, where a record group of senior hikers made that steep ascent and listened to Professor Elick give her geology lecture “on the Mount.” Jesus is not talking about plate tech-tonics and Pleistocene glacial action, however. He’s talking about how the frame of our lives gets so small and pinched we become consumed by worry instead of having as our highest priority what he calls the Kingdom of God, which is simply a way of talking about the world according to God’s desire: a world of peace, a world of justice, a world of fullness of life for all. Again, it’s a radical call to shift the frame.
Then, by way of driving home his frame-shifting point, Jesus says something that sounds so random and unexpected it could be right out of Monte Python if in fact it weren’t right out of the gospel of Matthew: Have you looked at the birds? Now, I don’t think this is simply a recommendation of the hobby of bird watching (much as I wish to think so) but a call to mindful, careful, loving attention to the wondrous world right in front of us. Remember how Dr. Elick gestured toward features of the Susquehanna valley landscape as she lectured from the top of the mountain on Tuesday? In my mind’s eye, Jesus is similarly gesturing toward actual birds on that Galilean mountaintop, as if to say: check out those birds right over there, the ones that just flew out of the acacia tree, beautiful and free, and sailing along on their own two wings and a pillow of air. Are you paying attention? And have you considered the lilies? I don’t just mean lilies as some abstract idea as Plato would have it. I mean the yellow ones just opening to the sun and bobbing in the breeze right over there. Are you seeing the simple miracle of this one astonishing flower? Are you paying attention? Is this in your frame? Because if you could really behold the intricate wonder and everyday miracle of the birds and flowers all around you, you just might have all the wisdom you’ll need.
Selfies are fine. I’ll probably take a few today myself. But it’s worth asking the question: who’s in the frame and who is not? What does that frame reveal, and what does it hide?
As a pastor and preacher for nearly twelve years now, I find it important to be constantly asking this sort of question. One writer who has been an invaluable companion to me along the way is the late David Foster Wallace. Wallace writes with candor and compassion and tremendous courage about being and becoming human. What has become one of his most widely read pieces is a short graduation speech he gave at Kenyon College in 2005. In the speech, Wallace reflects on the importance of expanding and shifting the frame of our vision. Every one of us, he notes, experiences the world with ourselves as the center. On a basic level, this is inescapable. None of us has any eyes to see the world but our own. The problem is, if we’re trapped in this basic and inevitable self-centeredness, our lives will be both stunted and terribly lonely. The journey of becoming fully human is the hard work – unimaginably hard, in Wallace’s words – of shifting the frame out of this default self-centeredness, to imagine the perspectives and struggles and pains and sorrows and hopes of lives other than our own. This requires the constant attention to adjust our frame and expand and focus our vision to include the great world beyond the end of our noses which calls for our attention, our creativity, our love, our lives. It’s no accident, Wallace writes, that we speak of a mature and grounded adult as “well-adjusted.”
So we celebrate this day of beginnings and endings by shifting and expanding and adjusting the frame. Selfies aside, this is a day with a frame as wide as the horizon. In that frame is the fragile earth -- that common ground we all share -- and a human family of some 7 billion, and every amazing bird and lily offering itself to your imagination. It takes work to keep that frame wide. And it’s not easy to let the world in, because you can be sure it will break your heart. But that, too, seems to be part of the deal of being and becoming human.
“We understand backward, but we live forward,” wrote Soren Kierkegaard. To live forward with hearts wide open to the world, we will need a measure of trust, which is to say we need a measure of faith, which is to say we need courage and joy and hope and gentleness and love. Shift the frame and seek first the Kingdom of God, as Jesus promised on the mountain that day so long ago, and all these things will be added to you as well.
Class of 2014, may it be so. And wherever life’s journeys take you, I wish you a wide frame, the confidence to use your unique gifts to lead and to serve, and the faith to love the birds and the lilies and your human neighbor with courage and abandon.
To borrow the words of Wallace: “I wish you way more than luck.”