Our gospel passage from John seems to serendipitously fall in the liturgical year right around graduation time. Jesus is transitioning too. Thursday was Ascension Day – the Day the resurrected Jesus leaves His disciples and returns to His Heavenly Father. Our passage today constitutes a kind of commencement address – Jesus’ words to His students before they go out on their own.
You can easily hear plenty of canned graduation pablum, so I thought I would give you a few good, light-hearted quotes from commencement addresses of the past. You heard a good one from Mr. Rogers in Willis’ sermon last week, and here are some more.
Bill Watterson, of Calvin and Hobbes fame, in 1990: “What’s it like in the real world? Well, the food is better, but beyond that I don’t recommend it.” Dolly Parton in 2009: “I usually don’t give advice. Information, yes, but advice, no. What has worked for me might not work for you. What has worked for me? Wigs, tight clothes, push-up bras.”
And a zinger from FDR in 1932, reminding us of how things never really change: “As you have viewed the world in which you are about to become a more active part, I have no doubt that you have been impressed by it’s chaos.”
Because the world still impresses us with it’s chaos, we thankfully have Jesus’ words from circa 30 A.D. Jesus’ commencement address is in the form of a prayer. He says, “And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you.” And what does Jesus say we need in this world of chaos? Protection. “Holy Father, protect them,” He prays.
Why would we need protection in this world? The ancient renunciations in our baptismal liturgy this morning remind us of the triumvirate of forces aligned against us, from the cosmological to the personal. First there is “Satan and spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God”. Next there are the “evil powers of this world, which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God.” And finally our own “sinful desires that draw us from the love of God.”
This view of the world, does not mean that the world wasn’t created good, or that truth and beauty and love don’t exist in the world. Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World” always makes me cry. “I see skies of blue, clouds of white, bright blessed day, dark sacred night, and I think to myself, what a wonderful world.” This was played a recent wedding reception, where the world was wonderful indeed. The bride and groom both exuberant with joy, the late evening sun on the green hills of Albemarle County, food, drink, friends, love all around. It was one of those times when you think to yourself, what a wonderful world, thanks be to God. You’ve had moments like this. I hope you have a lot of them.
I think I cry at that song because I’m grateful when it rings true in experience and I’m also longing for the day when Jesus comes back to make all things new, to make the world wonderful for everybody all the time. Because, obviously, the world is not wonderful all the time.
There are earthquakes with aftershocks, and murder trials, and train wrecks, and miscarried babies. There is bigotry and injustice, inequity and scarcity. There is betrayal, self-righteousness and narcissism. Sometimes the “friends shaking hands, saying how do you do, they’re really saying ‘I love you’, but other times our sinful hearts are really saying “I envy you, or I lust after you, or I want to be rid of you.”
Because this world impresses us with its chaos, we need protection. And protection is what Jesus prays for, because He even says that the world hates his followers just as it hated Him. He says that we are not to be taken out of the world, but to be protected in it. This means there is no flight from the world or its problems, because even if you are a hermit you still have to deal with all the sinful desires that draw you from the love of God.
In the novel, “The French Lieutenant’s Woman”, by John Fowles, we meet a woman who suffers in this world, a woman in need of protection. The novel is set in Victorian England; she is a “fallen” woman ridiculed, judged and derided by her small community. She is an outcast.
She shares her tragedy with a man she feels she can trust. He responds, “But my dear Miss Woodruff, if every woman who’d been deceived by some unscrupulous member of my sex were to behave as you have – I fear the country would be full of outcasts.” Miss Woodruff answers, “It is.” “Come now, that’s absurd.” She replies, “Outcasts who are afraid to seem so.”
Outcasts, or outcasts who are afraid to seem so seems to me to be an apt description of how many or even most people feel in this world. An outcast doesn’t really belong. We are, in fact, all outcasts, as we are the spiritual descendents of Adam and Eve who were cast out of the Garden of Eden, the original wonderful world. Maybe that is why Jesus says in his commencement prayer that we “do not belong to this world.”
What does an outcast need? And outcast needs to belong somewhere. An outcast needs to be taken in somewhere. An outcast needs someone else’s protection from the world, the flesh, and the devil. That protection comes, I think, in the form of Jesus’ second request in his commencement prayer. He prays that we would be sanctified. To be sanctified just means to be set apart, singled out by God Himself.
This set-apartness is most powerfully illustrated in our baptismal liturgy. Babies are vulnerable and helpless. Every parent I know prays for protection for his or her children. And, having recognized and renounced the evil of the world, we turn to Jesus Christ as Savior and put our whole trust in His grace and love. He takes us in and protects us with the indissoluble bond of baptism.
The mark of the cross in oil on a baby’s forehead sanctifies, sets apart this child: You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever. Talk about protection. After his baptism a few months ago, a 4 year old boy asked his mother on the way home, “When the oil from the cross on my head wears off, does that mean I’m not baptized anymore?” Of course the cross is there forever, a symbol of our Heavenly Father’s Protective Hand. We who were cast out of the Garden of Eden into the dangerous world are brought in forever.
All this is because Jesus, who prays this prayer of protection for us, became and outcast himself. He could have called for the protection of angels when the world, the flesh and the devil conspired against Him. But for ours sake, and for the sake of this wonderful world, He game Himself up to death on the cross.
I’ll close with the final scene from the George Bernanos novel, “The Diary of a Country Priest.” A sickly young priest is in his first parish out of seminary. He is rejected by his people and he sees himself as a failure. His stomach pains increase through the book. At one point he stays up all night to pray, but is unsuccessful. He finally concludes, “God has left me. Of this I am sure.” Certainly a feeling most of us can relate to.
The priest is finally diagnosed with stomach cancer. He dies in the derelict home of an unbelieving friend who dropped out of seminary. The friend tries to arrange for the local priest to bring the sacrament to the dying man, but he doesn’t arrive in time and the young priest dies. The friend recalls his final moments.
“The priest was still on his way and finally I was bound to voice my deep regret threatened to deprive my comrade of the final consolations of the church. He did not seem to hear me. But a few moments later he put his hand over mine, and his eyes entreated me to draw closer to him. He then uttered these words almost in my ear.
‘Does it matter? Grace is everywhere.’ I think he died just then…”
And that is the commencement for cast outs: Grace is everywhere.