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Baccalaureate

Susquehanna University
May 13, 2007
by The Rev. Mark Wm. Radecke

The first time I was invited to preach at a high school baccalaureate service, my daughter, then 12, was shocked. "They want you to preach to high schoolers?"
"Yeah," I said. "Is that so astonishing?
She shrugged an impassive preteen shrug and said, "What are you going to preach about?"
"About 12 minutes," I said.
"I mean, what are you gonna say?"
I shared a few ideas, and she seemed to think they were OK.
"And how are you gonna say it?" she asked.
"What do you mean?" I replied.
"Well, you're not just gonna stand up there like a talking head, are you?"
"You have a better idea?"
"You could do a rap sermon."
"A rap sermon?"
"Yeah, you know. You could start off with something like, 'I am the Rev. I'm here to preach to you today. I won't take too long, but I got a thing or two to say. (Word)'"
"Thanks, sweetie," I said. "But I don't think they're looking for a Rappalaureate sermon."
"Whatever," she said, and went off to her room.

Welcome to Susquehanna University's 149th Rap-Free Baccalaureate Service.

Pray with me, will you? May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

Imagine you're driving in the Indianapolis 500 (it's not too much of a stretch: I've seen some of you drive around the campus loop!), and at the end of the race, instead of seeing the checkered flag, you hear the announcer cry out, "Ladies and gentlemen, start your engines!"

Imagine running the Boston Marathon, and as you triumphantly cross the finish line, you hear the crack of the starter's pistol.

Imagine watching Derek Jeter (or José Reyes or Jimmy Rollins or Miguel Tejada – fill in the name of your favorite shortstop) – imagine that player snagging a line drive for the third out at the bottom of the ninth, and hearing the umpire shout, "Play Ball!"

Imagine completing four or so years of undergraduate education, donning a cap and gown, and coming to a ceremony called "Commencement."

Wait a minute … we do that! But isn't that oxymoronic? Doesn't it belong in the same category as jumbo shrimp, plastic silverware, elevated subway, and cheap tuition?

Isn't this a recognition of your having fought the good fight and finished the race? Wouldn't it be better to call this the "Culmination Celebration" or the "Festive Finale" or at least something that doesn't mean "beginning"?

Is this just a gussied-up way of saying "Today is the first day of the rest of your life," an enacted version of Karen and Richard Carpenter's "We've Only Just Begun," or something like that? Well, maybe. But I think there's more to it than that, and the key to understanding this apparent paradox is contained in some words you will hear President Lemons say to you later this afternoon, when he welcomes you, and I quote, "to the company of women and men who have begun to be educated."

Begun to be educated. That's what's commencing: your membership in a community of adults who know they don't know it all, who know that they have begun to be educated.

We celebrate your passing this important milestone in your life cognizant of the fact that it is just that: a milestone and not a finish line. Like Jacob in the story that Molly read, you have striven with the divine. I don't mean the faculty; I mean you have wrestled with ideas that are bigger and deeper than all of us. You have pondered mysteries.

You have strained to hear that still, small voice of God calling you to combine the talents your Creator gave you with the knowledge you have acquired so that you can, as we are fond of saying around here, lead productive, creative and reflective lives of achievement, leadership and service. You have begun to be educated.

Seldom is this a linear, straightforward, simple process. You know this. You have had your intellectual and emotional and spiritual capacities stretched, wrenched out of their comfortable sockets like Jacob's thighbone yanked from the hip. At times I expect that it has hurt like a dislocated joint. Like Jacob, you are now worthy of a blessing and a new name: "Bachelor of Arts or Science or Music; Associate in Applied Science" signifies that you have wrestled with mighty ideas and mastered difficult skills.

You have begun to be educated.

Your achievements are considerable. They are a source of joy and inspiration and justifiable pride -- for you, for your family and friends, for the faculty, staff, and underclass students. I expect that they are the first of many remarkable things we will see you do. You know that this is a respite along the way, and not a time to begin resting on your "bacca-laurels."

For some of you, continuing your education will take the shape of additional years of formal schooling. In my case, I walked into Mildred Kinnersley's kindergarten class at PS 236 in 1957, and walked out of Princeton Theological Seminary with a doctorate in 2007. The 50 Year Plan: it's not for everybody, but I have always been a slow learner.

Graduate and professional school is only one form of continuing education, however. Students who have gone to Central America know that some of our most profound lessons were learned from children; others were learned from campesinos , immigrants and refugees whose formal educations ended well shy of 8th grade. Those whose homes some of you mucked out in New Orleans taught you much about life and love, perseverance and determination, about what is important in life, and what only seems to be, and how to handle the ugliness that life sometime tosses at you with the ferocity of a Class Five hurricane.

All of us learned a lesson in godly grace and forgiveness last October when an Amish community forgave the man who shot and killed five of their little girls and wounded five others before turning the gun on himself. And as if that weren't enough, more than half of those in attendance at the killer's funeral were members of that grieving Amish community – a community that began a fund to support the shooter's family. The plain people of Nickel Mine, Pa., did not merely bear witness to the peace of God; they made peace – and in a world too much in love with war, it is a peace that passes understanding.

Similarly, students at VA Tech quietly added a 33rd stone to the 32 placed in memory of those shot and killed on April 16. The student who placed the stone wrote in the campus newspaper: "My family did not raise me to do what is popular. They raised me to do what is morally right. We did not lose only 32 students and faculty members that day; we lost 33 lives." Her family taught her well, and her actions, in turn, teach us.

Mentors, books, journals, poetry, plays, music, workshops, new relationships, new experiences, travel, prayer and meditation, listening deeply to your own life and reflecting on the state of you soul, moving intentionally out of your comfort zone – all of these and dozens of other things can help you continue your education. What you have learned is how to learn, and that is a magnificent thing indeed!

I pray that you stay curious, my friends. Curiosity may have killed the cat, but it enlivens the human soul, and animates the human spirit. "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom," the Book of Proverbs tells us. Reverence for God and respect for continued learning will help your education ripen and your knowledge mature into wisdom.
"Wisdom has built her house." The question is: Will you move in?

So where do you go from here? That's the question everybody asks you, isn't it? For many of you, answering that question is as easy and pleasurable as bathing a cat.
Some of you are quite clear about next steps. Some of you have jobs lined up; others have acceptances at graduate and professional schools, and still others have committed their energies to a year or more of volunteer service with the Peace Corps, AmeriCorps, Young Adults in Global Mission, and other faith-based ministries of outreach. Others have not yet discerned the shape of the future to which God is calling you.

Don't worry too much if you leave this place unsure precisely where God is calling you to go; what God is calling you to be or do. Discovering your calling is a process which some – perhaps many – of you have not yet completed. So be patient with yourself. Israel had to wander forty years in the wilderness before arriving at the Promised Land. Your parents hope it won't take you that long (they have plans for that room!), but neither do they expect you to have an epiphany by the time the Provost calls your name around three o'clock this afternoon. Whatever the shape of the coming weeks and months, even and especially if it includes a protracted period of wilderness wandering, remember this: you have begun to be educated.

Sharon Daloz Parks researches and writes about young adults and the deep questions of meaning, purpose, faith and vocation. Parks writes,
"I have observed, among some of the most talented, many who simply have been lured into elite careers before anyone has invited them to consider the deeper questions of purpose and vocation."

I think that it is difficult to graduate from a place like Susquehanna University without having encountered those deeper questions. On the outside chance, however, that you have reached this juncture without having considered them, let me urge you to do so now, better late then never. What do you want your life to mean? How are you going to make a difference? How will you invest what the poet Mary Oliver called "your one wild and precious life?"

Have you listened deeply to your life, to your passions, your hopes, those things that touch you, move you, and make your heart sing? Can you imagine yourself being satisfied investing the only life you get in something less than that?

  • If all you are interested in is making a killing, I pity you. 
  • If you are interested in making a living, I respect you. 
  • And if you are interested in making a life, I salute you.

You have begun to be educated. God's grace, your family's support, your professors' wisdom, and your own hard work have brought you thus far on the way. So "let (y)our rejoicing rise high as the listening skies, let it resound, loud as the rolling sea."

Ladies and gentlemen, start your engines!
 
(1) Ruth Russo, Locked Like Rafters, Baccalaureate Address 2000, Whitman College.
(2) Ibid.
(3) Sharon Daloz Parks , Big Questions, Worthy Dreams: Mentoring Young Adults in Their Search for Meaning, Purpose, and Faith ( San Francisco : Jossey-Bass, 2000).
(4) From James Weldon Johnson's Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing.




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