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Baccalaureate Address

The Rev. Mark Wm. Radecke, D.Min.

Chaplain to the University
Associate Professor of Religion

 

’Twas the night before Easter some years ago, and I was putting my youngest daughter, then 5 years of age, to bed. “What’s tomorrow, sweetie?” I asked her. (Bedtime’s a great time to teach catechetics: kids’ll do anything to put off going to sleep.)

“It’s Easter, silly,” she said.

“And what do we celebrate on Easter?”

She sighed and gave the response, “Jesus died on Friday, and on Sunday, God made him alive again.”

I beamed. Spot on. Not bad for a 5 year old.

“Daddy,” she said. “I like Easter better than that other holiday.”

Whoa—now she was rockin’ my world. Five years old and the kid already knew that in Christian theology, Easter trumps Christmas. We might be able to skip confirmation and send her straight to seminary!

“And why is that, sweetheart”, I asked.

“Because you don’t have to go door-to-door to get the candy.”

True story. Seminary was off the table; there was still a lot of teaching and learning to be done.

 

Members of the Class of 2011—in the last four years, your professors have done a lot of teaching, and your presence here this morning is a testimony to the fact that you’ve done a lot of learning—in and out of the classroom. We are here to celebrate your accomplishments, and to give thanks to God for your stewardship of the talents and gifts that have been entrusted to you by your Creator.

It seems such a short time ago that many of us were together in this room—faculty, staff, parents, grandparents, siblings—and you, as entering first-year students—gathered for opening convocation on Aug. 23, 2007. Now you’re here again, having traded in High School Musical tee shirts for academic gowns and hoods, and backward ball caps for mortarboards. It seems a short time. But think with me about some of the things that made news since that day a summer less than four years ago:

You arrived on campus one month after the release of the seventh and final installment of the Harry Potter series. During your years here, there were devastating earthquakes in Chile, Indonesia and Haiti; a cyclone in Bangladesh; and an earthquake, tsunami and nuclear reactor crisis in Japan.

In some cases, the names of individuals are enough to prompt our memories of the events surrounding them:

  • Barack Obama
  • Bernie Madoff
  • Sonya Sotomayor
  • Elena Kagan
  • Michael Jackson
  • Jeremiah Wright
  • Sully Sullenberger
  • Fidel Castro
  • Ted Kennedy
  • Heath Ledger
  • Joe the Plumber
  • Balloon Boy
  • Octomom
  • Gabby Gifford
  • Osama bin Laden.

In some cases, couples made the news. And so we call to mind:

  • Bristol and Levi
  • Angelina and Brad
  • Jon and Kate
  • And most recently, most regally, and most happily, Prince William and Kate Middleton.

Three out of the four World Series played during your years here were won by teams supported by many of you, as the BoSox, the Phillies and the Yankees won during your freshman, sophomore and junior years. (My Orioles will take the American League East by 2014.)

Some things that did not begin during your years here certainly continued:

  • Israel and Palestine
  • HIV/AIDS
  • Darfur

The names of nations conjure up certain major developments:

  • Iraq
  • Afghanistan
  • Egypt
  • Tunisia
  • Bahrain
  • Libya
  • Syria
  • Yemen
  • China

As one who is particularly fond of words (I am a preacher by trade: I get paid by the word), I note the emergence or invention of the following words and terms during your years here:

  • Unfriend
  • Flash mob
  • Woot
  • Housing bubble
  • Health care reform
  • H1N1
  • Refudiate
  • Bankster
  • Birthers
  • Double dip
  • Stimulus package
  • QE2
  • Bailout
  • Teabaggers
  • Farmville
  • iPad
  • Subprime
  • Tweet
  • App
  • Angry Birds
  • Texting while driving
  • Sexting
  • And my personal favorite – particularly effective while wearing a black robe – the “Dracula Sneeze”

Your years here were also eventful for the university:

  • The sesquicentennial celebration
  • A new science building, health center, Writers Institute, and West Village expansion
  • Sigma Gamma Rho, Phi Beta Sigma and the Hillel House
  • A new Central Curriculum and the launching of the GO program.

This kaleidoscope of people, places and events—major and minor, global and local—reminds us that your years here were, in the literal sense of the term, eventful: full of events. Add to these your own personal events—courses, projects, organizations, community service, teams, friendships, romances, internships, study abroad, service-learning, student teaching, student code violations, work and work study—and it is hard to believe it all happened in the span of a mere 45 months.

 

Now – as our minds stretch to comprehend the fact that all of this happened in such a compressed time frame—hear again the words that Andrew read from the Book of Sirach:

“The sand of the sea, the drops of rain,
and the days of eternity — who can count them?
The height of heaven, the breadth of the earth,
the abyss, and wisdom — who can search them out?
Wisdom was created before all other things,
and prudent understanding from eternity.”

The events of our lives and of this world are comprehended within the framework of eternity. Wisdom—the first of God’s creations—is the teacher who guides our learning, our understanding, our comprehension of this staggering truth: Your eventful lives have eternal significance.

The university’s theme this year has been, as you know, “sustainability.” And the question presses itself with particular urgency on this commencement day: “How will you sustain a meaningful life over the course of the coming decades, conscious of these twin realities: the framework of eternity and the rapid pace at which life comes at you?” How will you keep faith—what Sharon Daloz Parks wonderfully defines as “that matrix of meaning that human beings construct, negotiate, disassemble, and reconstruct throughout their lives as they seek to make sense of the world, their lives, their relationships with others, and God”? How will you do that and, in so doing, sustain a life of meaning lived in the context of eternity?

 

The temptation at this point is to launch off into a whole boatload of advice. We have approximately six hours before you blow this joint; let’s cram into those 360 minutes all the stuff we failed to tell you in the preceding two million. A classic example of this approach can be found in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. It’s Polonius’ famous parting speech to his son Laertes, a young adult who is about to embark on a journey. In that speech, the father spouts all manner of aphorisms that would have been clichés even in the 16th century: “Neither a borrower nor a lender be... Give every man thine ear but few thy voice… This above all: to thine own self be true.” It’s all good advice, really, and prompted by a father’s genuine love, even if he is a bit of a blowhard. But the time and place are all wrong. Laertes isn’t going to hear any of it, however well-intended it might be. Same goes for a baccalaureate sermon. So instead of dispensing advice, I want, in the moments that remain, to remind you instead of two promises and ask you a few questions.

First: the God of the Bible—the God of Israel and Jesus—is a God who acts in history. The Eternal One is not a God afar off, disinterested and uninvolved in what the Declaration of Independence called “the course of human events.” No. The most important narratives of the Hebrew and Greek bibles tell the story of the God who rescued Israel from Egypt, brought God’s people back from exile—not once but twice—and raised Jesus from the dead. The string of events that began this homily is not just “one damned thing after another.” It is the drama enacted on the very stage on which the God of history acts. And in those master stories of the faith—exodus, return from exile, crucifixion and resurrection—the loving nature of that God is revealed. This is the God active in the events of your life. That’s a promise.

Second: God’s eternity points not only nor even primarily to a redeemed past, but to an open future. God is not the grey-haired curator of a musty religious museum, but the dynamic Spirit who beckons us over history’s next hill, where God already is. You and I live our lives into God’s promised future.

A few weeks ago, while reading the papers and journals of students who went on last January’s SU CASA trip, I came across this story related by a student on the team that taught Vacation Bible School to a group of elementary school age children. These kids and their families live in a very poor and humble community of Nicaraguan immigrants in San José, Costa Rica. The day’s lesson had been about the blessings of God, and our student leaders asked the children to draw pictures of God’s blessings in their lives. Most drew pictures of flowers and birds, families and friends. One young lad, however, drew a picture of himself in the upper half of the page. And below this, he drew a picture of a young man in a suit and tie, carrying a briefcase. Beside the young man, he wrote the words “el futuro”—the future. This lad lives in a place where no one asks kids what they want to be when they grow up. It is safe to say that he personally knows no one who wears a suit or who carries a briefcase to work. Yet he envisions and claims for himself a future full of promise, and he considers such a future to be a blessing from God. A child of faith, he has heard and is hearkening to God’s call to a promised future.

 

Now for a few questions: “So what are you going to do, once you leave this place?” That’s the question everyone 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 Teach for America. Some have not yet discerned the precise shape of the future to which God is beckoning you.

Don’t worry too much if you leave this place unsure precisely where the Spirit is calling you to go; what the Spirit 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 40 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 3 o'clock this afternoon.

Sharon Parks, whom I quoted earlier, wrote these words: “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 than never.

What do you want your life to mean?

How are you going to make a difference?

How will you live a life that is not curved in on itself but rather open to others and to God’s promised future?

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, your dreams and visions, those things that touch you, move you, break your heart and then make it 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 constructing a life, I salute you.

May the God who acts in history bless you; may wisdom guide and accompany you; and may the love of the Eternal One keep you as you go boldly and faithfully into the eventful future to which God now beckons you. Amen.

 




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