May 23, 2004
President Andrea J. Lee, IHM
First Reading: Acts 9:26-31
When Saul had come to Jerusalem, he attempted to join the disciples; and they were all afraid of him, for they did not believe that he was a disciple. But Barnabas took him, and brought him to the apostles, and declared to them how, on the road, Saul had seen the Lord who spoke to him, and how at Damascus he had preached boldly in the name of Jesus. So Saul went in and out among them at Jerusalem, preaching boldly in the name of the Lord. And he spoke and disputed against the Hellenists; but they were seeking to kill him. And when the community knew it, they brought him down to Caesarea and sent him off to Tarsus. So the Church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria was at peace. It was being built up and walked in the fear of the Lord and with the consolation of the Holy Spirit it grew in numbers.
Second Reading: Romans 8: 22-27
We know that all creation groans and is in agony even until now. Not only that, but we ourselves, although we have the Spirit as first fruits, groan inwardly while we await the redemption of our bodies. In hope we were saved, but hope is not hope if its object is seen. How is it possible for one to hope for what one sees? And hoping for what we cannot see means waiting for it with patient endurance. The Spirit too helps us in our weakness, for we do not know how to pray as we ought;
But the Spirit makes intercession for us with groanings that cannot be expressed in speech.
The One who searches our hearts knows what the Spirit means, for the Spirit intercedes for the saints as God wills.
Gospel: Luke 4: 14-21
Jesus returned in the power of the Spirit into Galilee, and a report concerning him went out through all the surrounding country. And he taught in their synagogues, being glorified by all.
And Jesus came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up; and he went into the synagogues, as was his custom, on the Sabbath day.
And he stood up to read:
And there was given to him the book of the prophet Isaiah.
Jesus opened the book and found the place where it was written,
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me; because the God has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. God has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind.
To set at liberty those who are oppressed; to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.
And Jesus closed the book, and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. And he began to say to them, "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing."
Today we step closer to the great feast of Pentecost, when we celebrate the assurance of God’s transforming and abiding spirit within, around, above, and among us; celebrate the powerful gifts the Spirit lavishes on us; and celebrate God’s people sent forth into the world, their diversity a stunning reflection of creation itself.
What poignant synchrony with our purpose here today as we send you – equipped with degrees, of course, and with all the knowledge and wisdom gleaned from your education – but more importantly send you with hearts open to a world that desperately needs your spirit, the one only you can bring; the one intertwined with God’s, the one God is clearly counting on to heal the very heart of the planet, for it is indeed groaning in agony, as the Scripture says.
The Spirit of the Lord is upon you; God has anointed you to bring good news to the poor; to release captives; give sight to the blind; set free the oppressed and help shape an acceptable year for God, who is the Almighty but paradoxically the One who counts on us – in all our weakness and myopia and stingy self-centeredness - to heal and build the world so divinely and beautifully imagined. This is the hope of the Sisters of St. Joseph; it is my hope and that of your professors and mentors. It is why this College exists. But our hope is really not hope in the biblical sense – for how is it possible for us to hope for what we already see? … signs of your work, your energy, your leadership during your years here. Our hope for you then, is more a confident expectation.
The Spirit of the Lord is upon you. And what will it be like as you move into this great work through your various professions and circles of influence and from your diverse faiths and perspectives and plans? Our readings offer a glimpse.
It must have been hard to be Paul (as he was known following his conversion) in those early days of enthusiastic action. No one seemed to trust him or want him around. He had been the enemy, you know – after all he’d been present at the stoning of the disciples’ friend, Steven; he was responsible for imprisoning many of their supporters; besides - he looked different, spoke with an unfamiliar accent, had been outspoken even violent in his opinions, ones not friendly to the mission of the tightly connected group of disciples and friends of Jesus. To them, Paul was the biblical equivalent of a “sure to set off the airline security risk alarm,” an altogether not to be trusted stranger.
Paul had tried to join them, the reading says, but “they were all afraid of him, for they did not believe that he really was a disciple.” God’s spirit would have her way, though, and through the hand and voice of Barnabas, Paul eased into the community to which he yearned to belong. Barnabas intervened to relax the barriers, be the conduit of the Spirit that subsequently allowed the Church to build up, grow in numbers, be at peace.
In all the days and years ahead may you be a Barnabas and willingly take the hand of good- spirited folks who seek entry into the inner circles of your life. As well, may you find a Barnabas at the gate of every place you want to be that seems closed, distrustful of your motives, wary of what you bring to that community or the needs you might drop at its feet.
In the eyes of God, what are the criteria for belonging to the community? Many fewer than we think. That thought (should we take hold of it) might just be powerful enough to break through seemingly impenetrable impasses the world is up against – war, poverty, erosion of trust, meaning, and connection. In the Hebrew scripture, the prophet says to belong we must only act justly, love tenderly and walk humbly with God. The Christian Scripture says, they will know you by your love.
In my religious community when a sister dies, the motherhouse sends out a small card of remembrance. On one side is the Sister’s name and dates of birth, baptism, final vows and death. On the other side is this quote from Scripture: In the evening of life we shall be judged on love. Everyone’s card is the same, so whether she has been the President of the Congregation, the CEO of a hospital or leader of a college or diocesan school system, a receptionist in an office, a gardener or chaplain in a rural parish… whether she holds a Ph.D. or has spent her entire religious life in the kitchen at the motherhouse…whether she was wise and witty and the life of the party far into her 90s or rendered mute by mental illness in her 40’s…whether she came from a wealthy urban family or a poor farm, the card carries the same message. In the evening of life we shall be judged on love.
This tells us that belonging to the community of God is not an end in itself. We must always focus out to the world and its people. Creation is “groaning” and it is the work of the community to ease that agony. You know, groaning connotes pain of a deep and relentless sort. It is most often private pain, muffled and easily missed unless you are listening well. Groaning is not the cry or scream that yields an immediate response. It is rather the sound of relentless, inescapable, inevitable pain. The Spirit, the reading says, can help us in our weakness, so that the groaning of the whole creation may be replaced with a sigh of peace, a song of joy.
In all the days and years ahead, may you tune your ear and your heart to the groaning of creation, and tend well to that agony; help to ease it and erase it. We are confident you will do that, because during your years here, you have imagined well and dreamed in full color. And today there is abundant evidence everywhere of a whole rainbow of dreams coming true, of your collective coming of age.
But while you may dream in grand gestures you must live life in thousands of small and humble actions, ones that often blur the vision of the greater whole. Then you see only glimpses of the connections between your own humble contribution to a great work and the stunning power of the whole. Goethe says that only what proceeds from our gathered strengths can be called beautiful and God knows this class has the capacity to create beauty.
You are artists, writers, scientists, social workers, teachers, nutritionists, accountants, healers – sisters all. You reflect our best imaginings about liberal education; embody the powerful possibility of a committed community, ablaze as you are with talent and energy; strong as you are in determination; compassionate and wise as we have seen you in struggle. You are in this for the long haul, for this world and for its people.
When your resolve falters or you fear your gifts insufficient to the task, consider this reflection in cellist Mark Salzman’s novel, The Soloist:
I remembered once, when I became frustrated that my fingers were not long enough to reach a certain extension, my frail teacher edged forward on his hard pine chair. ‘Every musician,’ he said, as if reciting a prayer, ‘discovers that God has given him faulty equipment. That’s where the difference between an ordinary musician and a great artist lies – in how they face their shortcomings.
After a time, the teacher would show the student how releasing the thumb a little at precisely the right moment would correct the problem, but not right away. There were, to him, deeper lessons to be learned.
One of the lessons is this. This is a very good day. We are here together in this space. God is present. Etch this experience into your memory because, at some time in your life, your own shortcomings will pull you up short. Whether you are trying to rescue a broken relationship, advance your career; reclaim a shattered dream, travel through grief, understand perplexing difference or replace the grating sounds of betrayal with music that restores; when you cannot make music at all; when neither hands nor heart will cooperate, a small release of the thumb that comes in the form of a friend or partner’s encouragement, an insight gained, confidence that praestet fides supplementum sensuum defectui (faith will supply what our senses cannot) a slight shift in perspective will lead you to know that you are still good and talented and capable and truly an agent of God on the earth.
Expend whatever energy it takes to believe that. As is the way with grace and God’s spirit and as with the cellist struggling with subtle finger extensions, not right away, but eventually, the power of your capabilities and your heart will take over.
Today, this day - your day of commencement – this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing. Today you march out into the week of Pentecost. In an excerpt from Denise Levertov’s poem, today is a
…brilliant day – a young virtuoso of a day.”
And every prodigy of green –
Whether ferns or lichens or needles
Or impatient points of buds on spindly bushes-
Greener than ever before; or the way the conifers hold new cones to the light for the blessing,
This is a day that shines in the cold and rain
Like a first class brass band swinging along the street
Of a coal-dusty village, wholly at odds
With the claims of reasonable gloom.
…wholly at odds with unredeemable groaning.
Let me end with the postscript to Tony Kushner’s play, Angels in America. You have been blessed with remarkable comrades and collaborators. Together you organize the world for yourselves or at least organize your understanding of it; you reflect it; refract it; criticize it; grieve over its savagery and help each other to discern paths of resistance, pockets of peace and places from which hope may be plausibly expected. The smallest individual unit is two people – not one – one is a fiction. From such nets of souls human life springs. The great work begins.
Today, this day - your day of commencement – the Scripture, the word of God is being fulfilled in your hearing.