175th Charter Day Sermon
I am overwhelmed with gratitude to stand in this pulpit, on this occasion; thank you, Vice President Locke and other leaders, for the invitation. This is a big job, of course; 175 years is a lot for a preacher to cover, so I hope you brought snacks. We’d best get started. We should finish in time for the Paideia conversation this afternoon at 4:00.
Kidding. I’ll have you out in time for the picture.
I don’t remember a time when I didn’t remember Southwestern. My parents both graduated from SU, and back in the day when there was nothing better for kids to do, I used to spend a lot of time looking at their yearbooks. My dad, with his horn-rimmed glasses and skinny ties, headed toward becoming a preacher, even as he perpetrated his share of, shall we say, collegiate mischief; my mother, a piano teacher in the Negro Fine Arts School, looking like a movie star in off-the-shoulder dresses, voted by her peers as Dream Girl and Rose. I learned that her parents and all sorts of other old people I was related to had studied here, too, that Grandpa taught Bible here during WWII, and that my mom could remember, from when she was a girl, the last time we had a football team.
I remembered Southwestern, too, through my parents’ friendships with people they met here—all Methodists, all characters, all with stories they loved to retell, out of earshot of the children. Some of them are here today, people I’ve known since before I was born. Now I have my own lifetime friends I met here, relationships that become more and more dear with the passage of time. I have siblings who followed me as students here, and I’m proud of the dedication and generosity of my stepmother in establishing an endowed peace with justice scholarship in my father’s memory. And now I am privileged to serve the school on the Board of Trustees, with a remarkable group of leaders and our most excellent president. I know each of you has your own layered ways you experience and remember this place, too.
By the time I arrived at SU as a student, I was trying on my own adult life, putting intentional space between my parents and myself. I struggled with profound feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt, even as I found affirmation here. I studied political science and history and worried about all the nuclear weapons we and the Russians had pointed at each other, and I hoped to find a way to help work for peace. I had serious questions about the faith I had inherited from my very Methodist, very preacherly family. I wondered whether the story of Jesus might have been a fairy tale written to help us live better lives. I learned in anthropology that it’s very natural for humans to figure out ways to make meaning, to interpret the world around us, and that religion is one response to that impulse. I took philosophy courses and tried to decide whether I was a hard or soft determinist; I considered that it’s very possible that most of what we call reality is something we’ve made up.
Yet every Thursday, here I sat, in this place. I sang with the Chorale and Dr. Sheppard my whole time in school, and sometimes, like you students today, we had to be here. But I came even when I didn’t have to, drawn in by this space, set apart—its height and color, dark and light, cool and quiet, the sound of the organ, even the smell. This chapel served me as an embodied alma mater, mother of my soul, always somehow pointing me up and out, while at the same time reaching in, deep, and bridging the distance between the two.
That’s actually one way I could describe my whole education here—an ongoing process of connection and communication between the deep place in me and the wild wonder, the out-there-ness of the world. And as we turn to today’s text, I hear this same connection in the reading from Isaiah, as well.
This prophetic word was a message of hope and consolation to the people of Israel, exiled in the 6th century BCE from their land and seemingly from their identity. They despaired over what would become of them and what it meant that their life in the Promised Land had been so violently cut off. The 40th chapter begins a long section that announces consolation for the people and hope for the future—as a pastor I can tell you that the first verses of Isaiah 40 are used by the church as readings for Advent, while its final verses are common in the funeral liturgy. This is a big chapter, an important word for people throughout the centuries who have doubted or wondered or suffered, for whatever reason. And the consolation of this word comes in part through the message that God is Life, at a cosmic level—stretching out the skies as you would pull open the drapes in the morning. Princes and rulers, those with power to wage war and exile whole nations—these wither under the breath of God, these of shallow seed and fragile root.
We live in a day different from the one in which this text was written, yet we still have much in common. It is for me intriguing to consider the rulers of this day as withered shoots, blown away by a stiff wind. I have traveled and worked with people in different parts of the world living under oppressive burdens—systematic poverty, state brutality, torture, civil war that terrorizes the most vulnerable, journeys of fear and flight from one land to another. You all have seen it, too—the horrific violence we perpetrate on each other in body and mind, in the name of all sorts of self-interest, fear, principalities and powers, and even, ironically, religious fervor. And how we might wish a decent hurricane or blue norther might take care of it all. It doesn’t happen that way, sadly, not in our experience, not yet.
So why, then, do we hope? We are grasshoppers of a sort, scattered across the land, small and vulnerable. There is much about this complex life I—and we—do not know. But what I do know, I have learned in part from a community of people rooted in this vision, not ready to give up the fight in the face of great, destructive power. I have learned what cannot be proven, in the scientific sense, but what I know within the deepest fibers of my soul—that there is something bigger than me and us in this life, and not just bigger things that can hurt us. There is a different power at work for good in the world, and we know it because we experience it, and that’s its own kind of proof. We’ve seen it transform other people and even whole communities. It’s not a magical grandpa puppeteer or Santa Claus, fulfilling wish lists, choosing some for health and others for harm.
The power to which we point as people of faith is that found in the final verses of today’s scripture, words of comfort for generations of Jews and Christians and others who have wandered into funeral parlors. Because you know it happens; hard things happen—even youth do sometimes faint and grow weary. Young ones do fall exhausted, to say nothing of older ones. Maybe it’s happened to you. Maybe it’s happening even now. But our proof of power lies in the strength that comes to us from outside ourselves when we are weak. Perhaps it comes through the gathered community, through music or quiet or the stars strewn above our heads. We may see it when what looks like randomness takes on pattern, or when selfishness becomes sacrifice. But it comes. Life and trouble and even death continue, but strength also comes, and it transforms us.
One name for that kind of power is love. It is love to which the text testifies; love in the eye of the Holy One without equal, who sits above the circle of the earth; love that Christians receive and proclaim in Christ Jesus; love that centers so many other faith traditions, too. It is love that opens hearts and minds to the new idea, the different perspective, the stretch that growth and learning have required all these years. It is love that built these buildings, stone by stone, that has touched generous hearts to give for the sake of young minds yet to come. It is love I have always found in this space, welcoming, consoling, pointing me onward and upward. When you look up at these windows, it’s love that marked even the lives of these men—who admittedly were all men, and all white, and all dead—but who, whatever else is true of them, surely wanted their lives to be windows for love to shine through. It is love that so many others who never made their way into stained glass or history books have shared and poured out and passed down as they sought truth and justice and the righteousness of peace.
As an alumna, as the descendent of alumni, as a pastor of the church and a trustee of this university, I believe that, even though we don’t use the word in our mission statement, the power of love is what we seek to cultivate in students here at Southwestern, and it is in fact our legacy. This school has produced thousands of people who know there’s something important that’s bigger than they are, who sit upon the earth like grasshoppers but who yet use their compound eyes to take in and know the world, and their legs to sing a song of praise.* We are people who find ourselves lifted up as on eagle’s wings, with strength that is not our own, humbled by the wisdom of others, and inspired to walk and serve and speak out on behalf of others and ourselves. This world of violence and fear and abundant possibility needs what we do here. We form moral citizens, compassionate neighbors, people with what we call emotional intelligence, in addition to all that other smarty-pants intelligence y’all practice around here. From where I sit, I don’t know what to call that but love.
21 Have you not known? Have you not heard?
Has it not been told you from the beginning?
Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth?
28 The Lord is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
[God] does not faint or grow weary;
[God’s] understanding is unsearchable.
29 [God] gives power to the faint,
and strengthens the powerless.
(Isaiah 40:21, 28-29)
We have inherited a word, brothers and sisters, a vision, a deep knowledge that has sustained and strengthened this dear place for 175 years. May God bless us with the privilege of unfolding the next chapter in this legacy, as people faithful to learning and to love.