2001 Baccalaureate Sermon
"Let Your Life Speak"
Jacob E. Nyenhuis, Provost
Scripture: Philippians 2.1-16
Thank you, President Bultman, for your gracious and generous introduction.
Members of the Class of 2001, I consider it a distinct honor and a great privilege to be invited to address you, along with your families, friends and faculty. I consider myself an honorary member of your class, since I will receive a degree with you this afternoon and will retire as you graduate. We don't know what lies ahead of us, but we go forward in faith. Whatever your plans after graduation, I pray that our Lord will bless you richly and guide you as you go forth from Hope College.
About a year ago, a good friend gave me a new book by Parker Palmer, entitled Let Your Life Speak. I have borrowed the title but not the content of this book for this morning's message.
As we reflect together on the words of the Apostle Paul to the Philippians, I invite you to consider the example not only of Jesus Christ himself, but also of St. Paul and a few other people who did not look to their "own interests, but to the interests of others" (Phil. 2.4). Their lives reflect and express God's love. Some of my examples involve people who, like St. Paul, were imprisoned for their beliefs.
In verse 13, Paul declares that "it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure." Ephesians 2.10 reinforces the point with these words: "For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life." In short, God created us to do good works as our way of life. It is in this context that I challenge and encourage you to let your life speak. But, you ask, what does that mean?
I. Examine Your Heart
First, it is important to examine your heart, for out of the heart are the issues of life. Evaluate your motives. Examine your inner thoughts. Hold your motives and ideals before the mirror of the Word of God. Do you-do I-see a heart that is motivated by selfishness, by a desire to be admired and applauded? Or do we see a heart that desires to serve others? Do we see a heart motivated by gratitude to God for the gift of salvation?
In my own life, I have had to confront, confess and conquer my own religious and racial prejudices. Born in the middle of the Depression in north central Minnesota, I grew up in a small town with a large church filled every week with Dutch Calvinist farm families. Our view of the Kingdom of God was very narrow. I was six years old when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and drew us into World War II. Influenced by a virulent nationalism, I acquired hostility toward Japanese and Germans. After the War, we encountered American Indians selling souvenirs along the roadside as we traveled to a lake in northern Minnesota to fish or to join a family reunion. Unawares, I was socialized into a prejudicial attitude toward native Americans by my family and friends.
My first encounter with African Americans and Hispanics came after we moved to Grand Rapids, Michigan, when I was a teenager. Again, I was socialized into prejudices by family and friends. It was only during my college years that I was first confronted with my prejudices. I have spent my adult life facing and striving to overcome those prejudices as I seek to follow the example of Jesus, who lovingly welcomed those that his society had marginalized. The writer of a devotional for Lent said it well: "We must be aware of the hatred and ill-will that we may be harboring against others, acknowledge it and seek to neutralize it by loving aspirations and actions" (James E. Adams, In Giving We Receive (2001), p. 19). My life has been immensely enriched by friendships with people who belong to the various groups that were excluded from my world when I was a child and youth. How terribly poor I would be, if I had allowed those attitudes to keep me from such wonderful friendships!
II. Look for Examples to Emulate
Not only do we need to examine our hearts, but we also should look for worthy examples to emulate. From among the many possibilities, I have chosen a few modern examples to supplement the examples from Scripture.
Example 1: Dietrich Bonhoeffer
During World War II, many Christians in Germany failed to take a stand against Hitler. One Lutheran pastor, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, dared to resist the Nazi regime. He therefore was imprisoned in 1942 and was executed in April, 1945, just before the end of the war. During his time in prison, he wrote many letters to family and friends. In one of his early letters, he asks and answers a penetrating question. He said, in Letters and Papers from Prison (p. 5):
Who stands fast? Only the man whose final standard is not his reason, his principles, his conscience, his freedom, or his virtue, but who is ready to sacrifice all this when he is called to obedient and responsible action in faith and in exclusive allegiance to God-the responsible man, who tries to make his whole life an answer to the question and call of God.
And then he asks another provocative question: "Where are these responsible people?" That question challenges us as much today as it did then, even though the circumstances are different. Do you, do I, have the courage to stand fast in the face of powerful forces? Do we have the courage to stand fast when contemporary society masks evil as good? It takes courage to live by ethical principles. It takes courage to say "No" when all around us are saying "Yes." It takes courage to speak out when others around us are remaining silent in the presence of evil and injustice. We desire for you this kind of courage, a courage rooted in faith, a maturing faith.
Example 2: Martin Luther King, Jr.
Back in January, some of you attended the special service honoring the memory of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Our speaker on that occasion was The Rev. Dr. Charles E. Booth, a pastor from Columbus, Ohio. Dr. Booth called on us to keep Dr. King's dream alive. He reminded us that, at the time of his death 33 years ago, Dr. King was "considered a gadfly and a nuisance. Political leaders were criticizing him for preaching his racial equality doctrine outside sanctuary walls. Many black leaders were critical of his 'civil disobedience' message, arguing [that] change would occur faster if they demanded it by force." Dr. Booth challenged us to realize that Dr. King "is not an ornament to be celebrated. His is a life to be emulated."
Dr. King himself said, in "A Letter from the Birmingham Jail," written in August 1963:
An individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and willingly accepts the penalty by staying in jail to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the very highest respect for the law.
I have heard numerous religious leaders of the South call upon their worshippers to comply with a desegregation decision because it is the law, but I have longed to hear white ministers say, "Follow this decree because integration is morally right and the Negro is your brother."
The riots in Cincinnati last month, after the fourth killing of an unarmed African American male by Cincinnati police officers since November, are yet another reminder of how little real progress we have made in eradicating racism from our society.
Example 3: Mother Teresa
In 1928, at age 18, a young Albanian woman named Agnes responded to God's call and moved to Ireland to join the Sisters of our Lady of Loreto, a congregation of nuns dedicated to teaching the daughters of both the poor and the rich. Three months later she set off for Calcutta, India, arriving on January 6, 1929. In 1937 she professed permanent vows and took the name "Teresa." Inside the convent walls was the only Catholic school for girls in Calcutta, but the majority of the students were of European descent and reasonably well off. Outside those massive walls were many people living in shacks, in abject poverty. Sister Teresa took literally Jesus' challenge to identify with the poorest of the poor and in 1948 she left the convent to live among the poor. She said, "I had to do it. It was a calling. I knew where I had to go
." With some of her students from the convent, she founded a new order, Missionaries of Charity, and together they began to work with abandoned children, then they opened the Home for the Dying, to serve the needs of parents of many of these very children. Mother Teresa achieved international renown, but she never wavered from her calling to serve the poorest of the poor.
Mother Teresa challenges us with these provocative words:
In order to be Christians, we should resemble Christ, of this I am firmly convinced. Gandhi once said that if Christians lived according to their faith, there would be no more Hindus left in India. People expect us to be consistent with our Christian life.
She also said:
We should learn how to give. But we should not regard giving as an obligation, but a desire. I usually say to our Co-Workers: "I do not need your surplus. I do not want you to give me your leftovers. Our poor do not need your condescending attitude nor your pity. The poor need your love and your kindness."
Example 4: Some Additional Unrecognized but Valuable Models
For my examples thus far, I have chosen people whose names should be familiar to most of you. But there are many other examples that we can find right here in Holland or in your hometown. Let me add one or two quick examples.
Living in Holland is a man named Virgil Gulker, but few of you have heard of him. Yet his story is a remarkable one. When he was serving as the third director of a para-church organization, the Good Samaritan Center, he saw the need to facilitate the ministry of churches so that they could better serve the community. He initiated a program called Love Inc. to coordinate the relief efforts of local churches, with the Good Samaritan Center as the first program. He next spread that concept to other communities. There are now over 50,000 volunteers in churches in four different countries-the U.S., Canada, Australia, and New Zealand-who are part of Love Inc. and World Vision now is the parent corporation for Love Inc. When Dr. Gulker observed the needs of children in the local elementary schools, he started KIDS HOPE USA in 1995, linking members of churches to individual children who need special tutoring and a nurturing relationship. Every public elementary school in Holland has a KIDS HOPE program and there are 155 KIDS HOPE USA sites in 24 states. Everything that he has done is intended to celebrate the love and compassion in the people of Christ and to release that love into the communities in which they live.
Also living in Holland is someone who was born in Texas but brought up by his grandmother in Mexico. He later traveled with his parents as a migrant worker and did not begin his formal education until he was nearly 16 years old. Nonetheless, he went on to earn a college degree and to complete graduate study at the University of Michigan. A former Assistant City Manager of the City of Holland, he is widely read and enjoys a national reputation for his work on multicultural education. About twenty years ago, he assembled a handful of Latino professionals to encourage them and to nurture their leadership abilities. Working quietly and without fanfare, he has built that organization to over 300 people who are changing the face of the community. He has served on countless local boards and committees, from a bank board to chairing the hospital board, from the Arts Council to Community Action House. For over 20 years he has dedicated his life to the transformation of Hope College into a place that welcomes and celebrates diversity. He is my dear friend and assistant provost, Alfredo Gonzales. He, too, is indeed worthy of your emulation.
III. Educate Both Heart and Mind
Examine your heart. Look for examples to emulate. Then, educate both heart and mind, so that you may let your life speak in all its fullness. Hope College, from its founding, has stood firmly in the Reformation tradition of John Calvin, although we have become broadly ecumenical, both in intention and in character. Our heritage also derives from St. Augustine, who said, Fides quaerit intellectum -- "Faith seeks understanding." Our mission statement clearly declares that we offer education "in the context of the historic Christian faith." The Reformed tradition does not pit faith against knowledge, does not take an anti-intellectual stance, but declares unabashedly that faith and learning, science and faith, go hand in hand. We do not fear knowledge, but promote inquiry, promote learning, promote the search for truth. And because Hope is broadly ecumenical, you have studied with faculty members who represent a rich diversity of theological traditions. These traditions offer different understandings of how faith informs learning, of how learning relates to faith. If we have served you well, you will have developed a deeper and richer faith and a deeper and richer knowledge.
The Psalmist of Psalm 19 says that the creation tells its own story, but it is our task to read it. It is a story open to all, as Paul tells us in Romans 1:19-20: "Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature
have been understood and seen through the things he has made." Believers look at the world and see the design, the purpose of the Creator, behind it. The reason we can see this, Paul tells us, is that "we have the mind of Christ" (I Cor. 2.16). Christ himself said, "If you
are truly my disciples,
you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free" (John 8.31-32).
I find myself going back again and again to the Psalms, which are such rich poetry. The Psalms allow us to experience the full range of human emotions. They go from doubt to faith, from lament to praise, from grief to joy. But I also read poets from Homer to Dante, from Shakespeare to T.S. Eliot and W.H. Auden, from Marianne Moore to Maya Angelou, from Langston Hughes to Jack Ridl. Like the prophets, poets call us to embrace justice, truth and beauty, not as abstract concepts, but as lived reality, as an expression of our humanity, and of our humanity transformed by the Spirit of God dwelling within us.
As you set out from Hope College, I offer you a few lines from one of my favorite modern Greek poets, Constantine Cavafy (1863-1933). In his poem Ithaca, he uses the homeland of Odysseus as a metaphor for the final destination on the journey of life.
When you set out for Ithaca,
Ask that your way be long
Full of adventures, full of knowledge.
But you must always keep Ithaca in mind.
The arrival there is your predestination.
Yet do not by any means hasten your voyage.
Let it endure for many years
Until grown old at length you anchor at your island
Rich with all that you have acquired along the way.
IV. Let Your Life Speak, with Heart and Mind Working Together
"Let Your Life Speak," proclaims the title of the book. You have surely heard your parents or a teacher say, "Your actions speak louder than your words." Our lives do indeed convey a message. They tell our families, our friends and our acquaintances-and even people whom we do not know-whether we are thoughtful, caring, and considerate or unreflective, indifferent, and selfish people.
It is not enough for us to speak piously about noble ideals, but we must translate those ideals into reality by our actions. Become a Big Sister or Big Brother. Tutor a child once a week. Volunteer in your community in other ways, even if it is for only an hour or two a month at first, but establish the habit of serving others from the beginning of your career, before your life's patterns get fixed and there is no time for others. Let your life speak, with heart and mind working together. And let your life proclaim by your actions that you want to help create a world for yourselves and for future generations in which true justice prevails, in which people really are judged "not by the color of their skin but by the quality of their character."
I am reminded of a commercial on PBS that I saw several months ago. Its theme was conveyed in this phrase: "Millions of lives changed by the power of one." To illustrate the point, the producers of this ad selected various figures from sports and public life. I have chosen just three from the list: Jesse Owens, who won four gold medals in track at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, thus undermining Hitler's doctrine of the superiority of the Aryan race; Jackie Robinson, who in 1948 became the first black baseball player in the major leagues; and Rosa Parks, who began the bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1955.
Each person's story was summarized in a single sentence:
Jesse Owens: "One athlete went the distance."
Jackie Robinson: "One player changed the game."
Rosa Parks: "One woman kept her seat."
Mother Teresa reminds us where to find the strength to take up the challenge to change our world. She said: "Give yourself fully to God. He will use you to accomplish great things on the condition that you believe much more in his love than in your weakness."
What will future generations say about you, Members of Hope College Class of 2001? What will your life say about the values that you hold dear? How will your life influence the lives of others? Let your life speak! Let it say that you have been changed during your years at Hope College. Let your life speak! Let it say that you will pursue the truth and that you will follow the one who said, "I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life." Let your life speak! Let it say that you have caught a vision for justice and righteousness, not as abstract terms, but as a living reality. Let your life speak! Let it say that you intend to break down the artificial walls between the races, that you will follow Jesus Christ in accepting all God's children as brothers and sisters, that you will value and build one another up. Let your life speak! Let it say that you will minister to the poor and needy, not out of pity, but out of love and compassion. Then you will "shine like stars in the world" (verse 15). Then we your teachers will be able to say with Paul, "It is by your holding fast to the word of life that I can boast on the day of Christ that I did not run in vain or labor in vain" (verse 16). Then, some day, when you stand before the Judgment Seat of the Lord, God will say to you, "Well done, good and faithful servant, enter into the joy of your rest!"
God bless you, Class of 2001! And God bless you all, today and always! Amen.