Wednesday, May 21, 2008

baccalaureate sermon at huntingdon college, montgomery alabama (may 16, 2008)

This afternoon I want to reflect on a simple idea, and that is the call to follow Jesus. It is found in the brief gospel reading, but there are earlier echoes of the call of God in the lives of Abraham and Sarah, Moses and Miriam, Isaiah and Ruth, Joseph and Mary. As you listen, the idea may resonate with your own place in the world, especially on this very important weekend in your life.

The gospel passage is filled with active verbs: Jesus withdrew to Galilee, he leaves Nazareth, he walked by the sea of Galilee, he spoke to the disciples and said follow me, they leave their nets and follow, he sees two others, he calls them, they leave their boats, they follow Jesus.

To be a Christian is all about action, it is setting out on a journey, a path. You are about to set out on your own journey, from this wonderful college. You are about to make your own way in the world. I want to describe some of the features of this path, and again you will forgive me if this seems very simple, I hope it is not simplistic, but it is a “field guide” the basic calling in your lives, to help you get started on this path.

A friend Arthur Boers, a Mennonite pastor and professor in Indiana, recently published a book entitled The Way is Made By Walking. It is about a particular pilgrimage that Arthur took, 500 miles over a summer in northwest Spain, toward the Cathedral of St James, where the relics of the Apostle are supposedly housed. The book, however, leads the reader into reflection on the different journeys of our lives, and at the same time it is a commentary on something as basic as walking.

I love to walk. As a college student I hiked a portion of the Appalachian Trail, which extends from Maine to Georgia. The son of one of our church members in Charlotte lives in Birmingham and has been instrumental in extending the AT into Alabama. As a college student I hiked the trail with friends, I took youth groups, I took college students. My wife Pam and I would later hike up to the top of Mt. LeConte in eastern Tennessee, which is just a few feet less in altitude than Mt. Mitchell, the highest peak east of the Mississippi.

And so my friend’s book title appealed to me: The way is made by walking. It is a similar sentiment to the phrase of the 4th century teacher and saint of the church, Augustine, who said, “it is solved by walking”. I like that: It is solved by walking. One of our college-aged daughters prodded us into watching “Lost”. The characters are always walking somewhere, they are on the way. I like that too.

I am a creature of habit. As an adult I have walked most every day, my goal is usually two miles, and that is usually the distance that I walk. I can look back over time and see that a number of insights have come in the midst of walking—the call to ministry while walking the trails of a western north Carolina camp one summer; walking to the post office in seminary, and meeting and getting to know a student named Pam who often happened to be sitting there, along the way; sometimes I have walked in the midst of struggle---trying to resolve a financial issue; and the decision to invite Jack Lamour from Haiti to come and live with us, he is now a very happy student here at Huntingdon---this decision came as I walked the outdoor track at the YMCA near our home one evening. “It is solved by walking”. I like that phrase.

It is not accidental that the Christian life begins not as an assent to a formula or a creed, but as an invitation, a decision to get moving on the path---follow me, Jesus says. “Take a walk with me”.

And so you get started on the path. It will lead you into a different kind of life. Following Jesus---maybe it will mean spending every Sunday night with teenagers at church, or giving medical care to the uninsured, or sleeping in a church basement with the homeless, or flying to Haiti to serve the poor, or teaching the Bible in prison or spending a year or a lifetime in some kind of full-time Christian service. In this different kind of life you will see the things that Jesus did, you will do the things that Jesus did, you will go the places where Jesus went.

I marvel at the potential for good that exists in your lives, and you cannot figure out what it will look like ahead of time. The way is made by walking.

This is the path, the journey, following Jesus. You don’t have to know exactly how it will all turn out. That is the “trust” part, the adventure part. One of the stereotypes about Christianity is that it is boring; in reality, it is an adventure. Follow me, Jesus says. Where? You’re going to meet sick and confused people, wounded and conflicted people, but you are also going to know life, abundant life, it is going to make sense in a way that nothing else does. It is the way of the cross, this journey, but it is also about an empty tomb and an upper room and the promise, finally of Jesus: I am with you always.

Follow me, Jesus says. When you begin walking with him, you make a few discoveries. You learn something about yourselves, and this has something to do with the need to simplify, to shed, to lay aside some of the baggage that you are carrying. In the gospel they leave their nets, they leave their boats, they leave their parents. In hiking, I figured out what was worth carrying in the backpack, and what could be left out. I often chose the book that weighed the least, the food that was lightest, the clothing that took up the least amount of space.

The path of life is like that. Most of us carry around baggage that we could get rid of, baggage that clutters our minds, weighs upon our hearts. As you leave Huntingdon and go into the world, this might be a great time to let go of some of that baggage---some anger, some bitterness, some sin, some prejudice, some resentment. Jesus often talked about our need to shed the unnecessary baggage----

if anyone would come after me,
let them deny themselves,
take up a cross and follow me.
Take my yoke upon you and learn from me,
for my yoke is easy and my burden is light.

In hiking, in traveling, we learn to simplify, to reduce, to let go of the non-essentials. The spiritual writers called this purgation, or detachment. And as we purge, as we let go of stuff, as we lay it all out, we also discover what is really important, essential, crucial. We figure out what we really need, what is necessary to sustain us in the journey. In a backpack that might include food, clothing, a sleeping bag, a good map, a way to build a fire and something to help in case of an emergency.

In life, we figure out the necessary provisions for the journey: companionship, work to do, the dreams that God places in our hearts and the passion to go after them, desires for beauty or compassion or truth or justice, and the discernment between what you need and what you want. Or you might make a different list: family, faith, church, community, country, work, friendships. And this has everything to do with the vision you have caught a glimpse of here: faith, wisdom, service.

The good news for those who follow Jesus is that he promises to provide for our needs. This is the message of Exodus 16, the gift of manna in the wilderness, from which the hymn comes, “Great Is Thy Faithfulness, great is thy faithfulness, morning by morning new mercies I see, all I have needed thy hand has provided, great is thy faithfulness, Lord unto me.”

It helps to remember that God provides, because along the way you are going to encounter difficulties, and you will be tempted to give up. A necessary dimension of following Jesus is perseverance. Jesus must have known this. Later, he will be in conversation with Peter, this same Peter whom he calls by the lakeshore, they are well along the path by now, and Jesus asks him, “Would you also like to leave?”

And Peter responds,

“Lord, where else would we go?
You have the words to eternal life.”

At times, along the path, we are tempted to give up, to give in, to quit. But the path of following Jesus is a lifelong journey, it is, to borrow Eugene Peterson’s wonderful phrase, “a long obedience in the same direction”. Let’s be honest: hiking is not always easy. There are dangers: you can become dehydrated; you can get lost; you can develop blisters, and your muscles often become sore.

You have arrived at this place because you have persevered. Studying for final exams. Making it beyond disappointing relationships. Coming to a dead-end in a particular field of study. Maybe the pull of home, something going on in your family, should you stay, should you go back? You have persevered, you have stayed on the path.

In life, this will continue to be true. At times we are exhausted, at times we are lost, at times we are wounded, and at times we are hobbling along, doing the best we can, and it does not seem to be enough. In fact, sometimes we wonder if we are going to make it!

What do you do? You take life one day at a time (this was the great lesson of Exodus 16), you follow Jesus one step at a time, you place one foot in front of the next. A friend of mine says that it is about progress, not perfection. Progress. And when life is most challenging, it is enough to take small steps. I think of the hymn composed by John Henry Newman:

Lead Kindly Light
Amidst the encircling gloom,
Lead thou me on,
The night is dark and I am far from home,
Keep thou my feet
I do not ask to see the farthest scene,
One step enough for me.

Progress. One step at a time. In the words of the prophet Isaiah, it is “to walk and not faint”.

And so Jesus calls you to follow him, to set out on the path of discipleship. Along the path you purge all that is unnecessary and you give thanks for the provision of all that is necessary. You persevere through adversity and you keep before you the purpose of the journey, which is to stay close to Jesus. Over time, by grace, you become more like him, you take on his identity. Along the way, you live into the words of the Psalm and make it your prayer:

Teach me your ways, O Lord
Show me your path.

When I was working on this sermon, it seemed to connect together for me, it made some sense to me ( I hope it does for you!), but I could never figure out a way to end it. Maybe you have figured that out already!

And then I thought---it has no ending, the path has no ending, and that is the point. The adventure of following Jesus begins in this life—for some of you a long time ago, for some maybe right now,---but the path really goes on forever, in this life and into the life to come.

The one who said follow me also said I go to prepare a place for you, and that is his final provision for us, eternal life, a life that begins now, but a path that goes on forever. To walk the path is the adventure of the Christian life. It is the adventure of living out the vision of this school, your school: faith, wisdom, service. You are not at an end. You are at a beginning. In the words of the poet T.S. Eliot,

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

Your life, I promise, will be an adventure. What will happen? Where will you live? What will you do? That is the adventure: ultimately, it is solved by walking. In the meantime, there is a simple word of instruction.

Jesus says, Follow me.

Let us pray:

O God,
Give us faith to know you,
wisdom to discern the way ahead,
and opportunities for service.
Lead us in paths of righteousness
for thy name’s sake.

Sources: Arthur Paul Boers, The Way Is Made By Walking. John Henry Newman, “Lead Kindly Light”. T.S. Eliot, “Little Gidding” (Four Quartets).


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