Jesus meets us today on the road to the future, His and ours. Our decisions about calling, about vocation, open our future.
On Thursday last week, Brett Favre lost it. I recognize the peril of mentioning a non-Bostonian athlete in these hallowed precincts of the home of the bean the cod. As ever I depend upon your forebearance. Favre lost it on Thursday, and, on Thursday, he found it. He found his voice to name his vocation, his next step on the road into the future. He chose. And in choosing he entered life.
Your life counts. Remember, though, that you are not alone in making the decisions that open your life. Your freedom emerges from a particular history, even a particular destiny. Your freedom is found in a particular common family. Your freedom is nurtured in a particular community. Your life counts, but you can count on others, walking into the future.
With the palm waving children, we remember today the teaching of Jesus. You are the light of the world, he taught. Light. Let your light so shine, he taught. Light. This side of Jordan there is hardly a happier verse in the Bible. It radiates a positive joy, a positive peace. The verse resounds with memories. One recalls singing this verse in a children’s day program. Another remembers hearing it in a rock opera, Godspell or Jesus Christ Superstar. You remember hearing the upbeat rendition given by the Kingston trio. I remember William Sloane Coffin singing it at the end of his first sermon at Riverside Church, thirty years ago. This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine…let it shine, let it shine, let it shine.
Yet this happy verse is also the cruelest of verses, like coming April, to Eliot, is the cruelest of months. In a verse it captures the light and shadow of Palm Sunday. A verse about light, it is in some ways the most haunting and the most harrowing of verses, because it asks the ongoing existential question. “Just how, now, do I, do you, let your light shine, truly shine? What is my life meant to illumine? What corner of the earth is it meant to brighten? Seniors in college, seniors in retirement both face some version of this hard question of light. At 18 we ask, how do I invest? At 81 we ask, how do I divest?
I have in mind a young man who is now returning from Spring break. He may have slept in this Sunday. He may listen to the sermon later by i-pod. He may not. He has received plenty of career advice, from family and friends and university. His parents have a particularly acute interest. Yet it is the deeper, murkier matter of vocation that intrigues him as he looks forward to commencement. I also have in mind a strong woman who is now in the winter of life, just a hop, skip and jump from that earlier Spring brother. Careers she has had. And now: to what is she called in the deeper murkier matter of vocation. How does he truly let his light shine? How does she truly let her light shine? And how do you?
These questions about light are not light questions. These questions about light, about walking in light, about walking into the future and letting light shine—not light at all. They are dark, murky matters of vocation.
At Marsh Chapel our envisioned mission is to be a heart for the heart of the city, and a (worship) service in the service of the city. Living so, we embrace three hopes. First, we hope to become a national voice for responsible Christian liberalism. Second, we hope to turn up the volume of life and work at Marsh Chapel. Our third hope is at the heart of our concern today, neither voice nor volume, but vocation. We embrace the hope of expanding the human sense of human calling to ‘walk in the light’, to let light shine, to live as a city on a hill, to harbor a hopeful form of service. Today, that is, we lean hard into our very mission, here alongside this venerable pulpit. You have exactly, precisely, one life. How will you let your light shine? You have 4,000 Sundays in your one life. How will they profit you? Both our seniors, our college senior with 3,000 Sundays to go, and our existential senior with 300 Sundays to go, are looking for the light. The thrust of this sermon is simple: Vocation is a part of a common hope. Your vocation is yours and ours. Hear the gospel: in the original greek the youyours in Matthew 5 are plural, ‘you all’.
Both the freshman looking forward to being a senior, and the senior remembering her freshman year are part of the people walking in the light and walking into the future. Our Scripture and our tradition affirm both, both your hope and your heritage, both your reaction and your recantation, both your heresy and your history, both your insight and your inheritance. Both count. Both matter. Walking into the future, you are both yourself and your situation. Your light is precisely yours as it goes away from you, into the world around. Your own intimate experience is precisely your shared experience, experience shared. In fact, what makes your freedom your freedom is precisely its expression and location in your own history and destiny. Light is light in the world. Both our imaginary freshman and our imaginary senior are a part of what is real. Those persons who make up your community have a shared interest in a shared experience of discernment.
We have lived in college towns nestled along river banks. Ohio Wesleyan sits on the banks of the Olentangy. Columbia rises above the powerful Hudson. Cornell straddles Fall Creek in Ithaca. Montreal swims in the middle of the mighty St. Lawrence. Syracuse University you find where the vale of Onondaga meets the eastern sky. George Eastman removed the University of Rochester to the very edge of the Genesee. And here we are in Boston, where the head of the Charles meets the heart of the country, in learning and virtue and piety, at Boston University.
In Syracuse, our children grew up with a Chemistry Professor next door to the north, a Mathematician next door to the south, a Physicist next door o the east, and cemetery west across the road. Carl Rosensweig, the physicist, was the most religious and the most spiritual. His family practiced a rigorous orthodox Judaism, and their children best friended our own. In childhood the gifts of society and nature which charm out faith radiate. The Rosensweig kids came and borrowed our picnic table every fall for Sukkoth. They taught us the mirth of Purim. They helped us see how long a Saturday could be, before at last dusk would come, and out they could tumble into the summer twilight to engage again the radiant gifts of life. Swing sets. Sprinklers. Ball gloves. Forts and fortresses. Hot wheels and hillsides. Popsicles which somehow were kosher enough, or if not, hidden well enough. Imaginary friends, imaginary journeys, imaginary battles, imaginary adventures. Tricycles rocketing down ‘Rock Spook Road’. Until at the last the streetlights came on and the day was ended. I can hear Carl calling his daughter, right now, as if he were here in the chancel: “Simone…It’s time for dinner…Simone…It’s time for dinner…Simone…Bring your brother…Simone…It’s time for dinner”.
Carl advised his students with care. Once he told me the pattern of advisement.
“In the freshman year, every one of my students pronounces some version of the following decision: ‘Whatever I do I know one thing. I AM NOT, REPEAT NOT, GOING INTO MY FATHER’S BUSINESS.’ I nod and affirm and agree. In the senior year, every one of my students pronounces some version of the following decision: ‘I have finally discerned that the best choice for me following graduation this spring to is to go into my father’s business.’ I nod and affirm and agree.
That is, both Carl’s imaginary freshman and his imaginary senior are part of what is real about you, your calling, your freedom and your destiny. You are yourself, in your setting. Both are right, and neither is completely right. Both are wrong, and neither is completely wrong. As Tillich put it,
‘Man experiences the structure of the individual as the bearer of freedom within the larger structures to which the individual belongs. Destiny points to this situation in which man finds himself, facing the world to which, at the same time, he belongs…Freedom is experienced as deliberation, decision, and responsibility. Our destiny is that out of which our decisions arise…it is the concreteness of our being which makes all our decisions OUR decisions…Destiny is not a strange power which determines what shall happen to me. It is myself as given, formed by nature, history and myself. My destiny is the basis of my freedom; my freedom participates in shaping my destiny.’
In his book, Let Your Life Speak, Parker Palmer recalls the experience he had deciding whether to take a position that was almost right for him. There is difference between right and almost right. His Quaker community sat and listened to him. We listen to you. His Quaker friends prayed with him. We pray with you. His Quaker community leveled with him. We level with you. So, when asked what he would most enjoy about the position, a college Presidency, Palmer responded: ‘Seeing my photo in the paper announcing the selection’. And then he knew, then and there, that he was on the wrong track. It took a community. It took a community though to help him let his light shine. You need a community that will honor your light. Marsh Chapel is one. We shall return soon to this theme of vocation. But for those who will be choosing in the interim, we may offer a ten digit collection of practical aids as we conclude this morning:
Remember that you are yourself and your circumstances together.
Be careful not to cut against the grain of your own wood.
Learn to compromise and not to compromise, to settle and not to settle. Remember Wesley’s motto: ‘in essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity’.
Talk to six confidants when you face a life decision, at least five of whom are sure to level with you.
Know the scent of responsible risk.
Do not let money eclipse love, do not let money drive the car, do not let money run the show, do not let money become a first level concern.
Do not fear failure. Learn from it.
Consider where you can have the most influence, the greatest impact on the greatest number.
Be able and willing to change your mind, to entertain good second thoughts.
10. To paraphrase Beuchner, discover where your deepest
passion meets the world’s greatest need.