Sent Out to Serve, and Suffer

“If it’s so easy, let’s see you do it” will be an eminently fair response to this post, offering as it does a suggestion for how to give speeches or preach sermons at college commencement or baccalaureate exercises from someone who’s done neither. Here goes…

Bethel History Graduates, 2012
A few of our department’s 2012 graduates

It’s been a commencement-filled weekend for me: my own university’s yesterday, and then my brother-in-law graduated this afternoon. So I’ve heard my fair share of exhortations from speakers eager both to praise young people for their accomplishments and to remind them that their work is just beginning. It’s not an easy message to deliver in a way that’s fresh, memorable, or concise, and I’ve never had to do it myself.

But I would suggest that we tend to make these comments too gentle, as if we feel the need to hide the truth from graduates: it’s going to be incredibly hard to hear their calling, or to follow it faithfully. For lots of reasons. But one is that the world they’re about to enter is not, in most ways, disposed to aid them in that task.

I thought of this while listening to a mostly inspiring baccalaureate message this morning, delivered by a Lutheran campus pastor. Her message was entirely appropriate to a dual Commencement/Pentecost Sunday: that the Holy Spirit is God’s “holy imagination,” blowing through the works to which graduates like my brother-in-law are called to do. I couldn’t disagree with her that we tend to prepare for the Holy Spirit as we do for severe weather alerts: putting up shutters, heading downstairs, and hoping we can ride out the storm. Despite such preparations, the Spirit will not be tamed, not even by our religious conventions and institutions.

Too true, but if the Spirit is untamed, the Word of God is unchained, not something that we can box in or bracket off. Which is why I always worry when I see a lectionary entry that has a comma separating two clusters of verses.

I should preface what follows by saying that I love that our church uses the lectionary. In a fractured Body, just to have the same verses read in churches of all kinds in all places at the same time is no small blessing. And the lectionary keeps us from being the kind of church in which community tradition or a powerful pastor determine which handful of biblical chapters we read again and again, just as it keeps us from the temptation of striving to make the Bible relevant (as if it needs our help) by preaching solely on themes we think lend themselves most easily to contemporary application.

Of course, even over all the Sundays of a three-year cycle, the lectionary does not actually lead us through the Old and New Testaments in their entirety. That’s to be expected: such reading is probably best left to individual or group study conducted carefully, prayerfully over a longer period of time. What bothers me is when the designers of the lectionary construct pericopes that omit verses not because they’re tangential to the message, but because most people sharing a common lectionary don’t necessarily want to hear them.

Back to this morning’s baccalaureate service, which had two such gaps. First, in the psalter: (I’ll put the omitted words in italics)

O Lord, how manifold are your works! In wisdom you have made them all; the earth is full of your creatures.

Yonder is the sea, great and wide, creeping things innumerable are there, living things both small and great.

There go the ships, and Leviathan that you formed to sport in it.

These all look to you to give them their food in due season;

when you give to them, they gather it up; when you open your hand, they are filled with good things.

When you hide your face, they are dismayed; when you take away their breath, they die and return to their dust.

When you send forth your spirit, they are created; and you renew the face of the ground.

May the glory of the Lord endure forever; may the Lord rejoice in his works—

who looks on the earth and it trembles, who touches the mountains and they smoke.

I will sing to the Lord as long as I live; I will sing praise to my God while I have being.

May my meditation be pleasing to him, for I rejoice in the Lord.

Let sinners be consumed from the earth, and let the wicked be no more. Bless the Lord, O my soul. Praise the Lord! (Ps 104:24-35, NRSV)

It’s one thing to edit “imprecatory” psalms that call for, say, little children to have their heads crushed. But it’s an odd kind of Lutheran worship that offers grace without judgment.

But I was more disturbed to find the Gospel reading (done very well by my brother-in-law, if I can inject a note of familial pride) abridged as it was:

[Jesus said,] “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.

If the world hates you, be aware that it hated me before it hated you. If you belonged to the world, the world would love you as its own. Because you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world—therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you, ‘Servants are not greater than their master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you; if they kept my word, they will keep yours also. But they will do all these things to you on account of my name, because they do not know him who sent me. If I had not come and spoken to them, they would not have sin; but now they have no excuse for their sin. Whoever hates me hates my Father also. If I had not done among them the works that no one else did, they would not have sin. But now they have seen and hated both me and my Father. It was to fulfill the word that is written in their law, ‘They hated me without a cause.’

When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father, he will testify on my behalf. You also are to testify because you have been with me from the beginning.” (John 15:9-27)

Actually, the entry in the Revised Common Lectionary starts with those last two verses from John 15, then continues with John 16:4b-15, skipping Jesus’ words recorded as verses 1-4a of that chapter:

“I have said these things to you to keep you from stumbling. They will put you out of the synagogues. Indeed, an hour is coming when those who kill you will think that by doing so they are offering worship to God. And they will do this because they have not known the Father or me. But I have said these things to you so that when their hour comes you may remember that I told you about them.”

Now, I understand why we’d rather not read those verses. I certainly wouldn’t read them in isolation (as some non-lectionary churches no doubt do), or let them define my theology. Indeed, I’m not one of those Christians who thinks the “world is not my home” and desires to be raptured away. I’m writing an article at the moment on Pietist understandings of mission: one of its central arguments will be that Pietists both reject “worldliness” and feel enormous compassion and love towards “the world,” even welcoming its insights when they help call the Church back to itself. So if I were designing the lectionary or simply scheduling the readings for a single worship service, I’d probably be tempted to gloss over John 15:18-25 or 16:1-4a. (The latter all the more so because one of my professional vocations is to study the Holocaust, and I have no doubt that those verses have been used by Christian anti-Semites to appalling effect.)

And as a college professor, I also understand why we’d especially prefer to avoid those verses on a day that students and their families and teachers are in a celebratory mode. All the more so at a church-related college that has any number of non-Christian students and faculty present for worship (as this morning’s preacher alluded to).

But I think there’s wisdom in John 15:18-25 and 16:1-4a for college graduates, who ought not to think that it’s going to be easy to serve as instruments of God’s grace and justice. Much as they need to hear that they are loved by God and chosen by Him, that they need to love others as they have been loved, that the “fruit” they bear will endure, and that they are equipped by an Advocate, they also need to be reminded of what this same author wrote at the beginning of his gospel, that the Word “was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him” (John 1:10-11).

Graduates of Christian or church-related colleges and universities need to be reminded that they are entering a world that, to some extent, will hate them as it hates their Lord, and persecute them as it persecuted him. (I wonder if colleges descended from the Radical Reformation are more likely than those from the magisterial traditions to warn their students to expect suffering…) None of this means, of course, that they ought to return that hatred with hatred, or persecution with persecution; that’s why the pericope shouldn’t start at v 18 and skip vv 9-17. But young people about to experience the highest degree of freedom they’ve known need to recognize again that they will be in the world, but ought never be of it. They will experience all these things soon enough, but that doesn’t mean they should go unspoken at Commencement. “I have said these things to keep you from stumbling,” said Jesus to his disciples, and we should do the same for the young disciples leaving our charge.

“Send us out to serve,” we asked God at the conclusion of each of the prayers of the people that followed the sermon. Amen, but God would send us out knowing that service brings suffering, as it did to his Son.

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