Good morning! Welcome, everyone, to the Chapel of the Resurrection and to the Baccalaureate service for the Class of 2013 at Valparaiso University.
So, graduates-to-be, here you sit at the nexus of your past and your future. How does it feel? Exciting? Terrifying? Surreal?
After so much effort, so many sleepless nights, so many prayers and hopes, wondering if this day would ever come, here it is. Here you are, surrounded by some of the most important people in your life.
And whether you are ready or not, here you are. Right in the midst of your very own rite of passage. An end and a beginning. A nexus of your past and your future.
Speaking of the past, have you seen Baz Luhrmann’s new film version of The Great Gatsby1? In it, Tobey Maguire plays the tortured writer Nick Carraway, and Leonardo DiCaprio plays Jay Gatsby.
In one of the film’s best moments, Carraway says to Gatsby: “Jay, you can’t repeat the past.” And Gatsby looks at him incredulously and says with great ferocity, “Can’t repeat the past? Why of course you can.”
We learn over the course of the film that while one cannot repeat the past, one can also not escape from it.
So here you sit on the cusp of your future. You can’t go back, despite your yearning. Yet, your future is inexorably tied to your past.
Shakespeare sums it up nicely in Act II of The Tempest2 when Antonio says, “What’s past is prologue.”
What’s past is prologue. So now, I guess, it’s high time to get on with your story.
A few weeks ago, Dean of Students Tim Jenkins looked across a group of seniors being recognized for their leadership and service and said. “It’s time for you to go. You’ve gotten everything you could possibly get out of this place. You’ve achieved great things here. And it’s time now for you to leave.”
I thought to myself—now there’s the commencement speech that everyone is praying for. Short and to the point.
But you and I both know that this day of speeches and ceremonies is about more than getting to the point. It is about making sense of all of these past years of toil and struggle. Stopping just for a moment at the brink of an irreversible journey and reflecting on life’s purpose and significance before taking that next step into the unknown.
And what a fitting way to begin. In this place. The Chapel of the Resurrection. A place built as a monument to the promise of new life, new beginnings, new hope. A place of worship. A place of prayer.
Maybe you are Lutheran and this Chapel has been a regular part of your Valpo routine. Maybe you are Christian, but not Lutheran, worshiping or attending events here sporadically. Maybe your faith tradition is not Christian, or you have no faith tradition. Maybe you lost your faith, or your belief in any organized religion. And maybe you do not believe in the concept of God.
Regardless of your beliefs, your presence here today is symbolic in several ways. It is symbolic of our collective acknowledgement that, in moments like these, we ought to stand before the presence of our Creator, a force much greater than any one of us, a force that we cannot fully know nor comprehend. And it is fitting that we should gather together to sing songs of faith and praise and thanksgiving, and to pray with and for one another.
For Christians, this gathering is symbolic of a return to our baptism and a rededication of our lives and our futures in service to our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Our presence here today is also symbolic of Valparaiso University’s commitment to faith and learning as a University under the Cross, to be that nexus where Athens and Jerusalem meet, to prepare graduates who will lead and serve in church and society.
This day, in the Christian church, is Pentecost. The fiftieth day after Easter. On this day we commemorate that moment when the Holy Spirit descended upon the Twelve Apostles, the Virgin Mary, and other followers of Jesus. In Judaism, Pentecost is the day of celebrating the harvest—a day of the First Fruits. This day commemorates God delivering to Moses the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai. Both Christians and Jews consider this to be a birth day of the faith.3
Pentecost is also a day when we are reminded of the diversity of the world, particularly diversity of language and culture. And, of course, Pentecost is all about sending forth, about going out into the world.
When I think about going out into the world, I also think about the story of this Chapel. Those who conceived, designed, and built this building are not known to many of us gathered here. Yet, over fifty years ago they came together, raised the funds from thousands of small donors, all of whom had one thing in mind—to build a monument to Jesus Christ. The architects and artists sought to capture the power and the majesty and the glory of the resurrection of the Son of God in this spectacular chancel. So that all who would enter this place in the generations to come would be drawn forward to this spot and struck with wonder by its splendor, its transcendent beauty.
But the Chapel’s architects had a second intent. That after focusing on the majesty of our Lord and Savior, all who gathered here, after hearing the words, “go in peace, serve the Lord,” would turn to leave and be struck by the unaltered view of the world, seen through clear glass windows. And with this view, the architects sought to remind each of us that we serve the Lord and live out our faith in the world and for the sake of the world—well beyond the walls of this place.
In a few minutes each of you is going to turn and face those clear glass windows. And when you do, ask yourself this question: How will I choose to live out my faith in the world and for the sake of the world?
This morning’s scripture readings offer two contrasting ways to answer that question.
Our first text was from that book about beginnings—Genesis. It is the story of the Tower of Babel. A nomadic people, wandering the desert for millennia, decide to stay in one place. They discover how to make bricks from the earth. And from these bricks, they build a city.
But these city dwellers are not satisfied with this singular and transformative achievement. They say to one another, “Let us make a name for ourselves.” “Let us be known for something!”
And so they decide to build a tower. Not just any tower. They build a tower that reaches heaven itself.
That’s one way to answer the question of living out one’s faith.
In March, Mrs. Heckler and I, along with Professor Chuck Schaefer and Dr. Renu Juneja, found ourselves in an elevator. This was not just any elevator. It was an elevator taking us to the observation deck in the Burj Khalifa, located in the City of Dubai.
The Burj Khalifa is the tallest building in the world.4 It rises 2,717 feet above the desert floor. It is a wonder of the modern age. Impossibly tall. Dream-like. Unforgettable. It is a marvel of engineering. An elegant work of art. A signature human accomplishment, certainly unparalleled in my lifetime.
Our host that day was a proud Valpo alumnus and engineering grad, Jumah Al Maroozie. Jumah owns the company that services the elevator controls for the Burj Khalifa. So there we were, rising swiftly and silently to the observation deck on the 124th floor.
The doors opened onto the 124th floor of the Burj and we stepped out. From that dizzying height, one could see the dazzling architecture of this brand new city of brick and steel and glass, rising up majestically from the desert. Skyscrapers of all shapes and sizes, huddled together for protection against the unforgiving desert sands extending out as far as the eyecould see.
Soon, Jumah guided us back to the elevator and we returned to the earth. Our way to the exit was lined with larger-than-life portraits of the people who came together from 200 nations to build this architectural marvel.
Adrian Smith from Chicago. Engineers from the U.K. and Germany. Construction workers from Pakistan. From Bangladesh. Service workers from the Philippines. From India, China, Thailand. Brazil and Africa. We passed the smiling faces and names of these people from all over the world, people who came together across language, across culture, who together built this marvel of engineering, reaching toward the heavens.
These people certainly made a name for themselves.
As you might have guessed, someone else is working to build an even taller structure. Ground has been broken on the Kingdom Tower, located in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. The Kingdom Tower will rise 1,000 meters above the sea, nearly 50 stories taller than the Burj. 5It, too, will be an international collaboration of architects and engineers.
And then there are rumors of another marvel in the planning stages, a building that will rise one mile into the heavens, more than twice the height of the Burj Khalifa.
Let us make a name for ourselves.
Let us come together across language, across nation, across our differences in a common pursuit. Let us show the world what human beings can accomplish together.
There is a second story to tell this day of Pentecost. It is the story of Jesus’ disciples and followers gathered together. They, like you, were at this nexus of past and future. Their beloved Jesus had died on the cross. He had miraculously risen from the dead and walked among them. Flesh and blood. He had talked with them. Taken food and drink. Then, he ascended into heaven. The disciples and followers of Jesus were left with many questions, more questions, perhaps, than answers. Yet certainly, one of the driving questions this day was this: What do we do with the knowledge that we have? That Jesus of Nazareth is the long-promised Messiah. That He has died, He is risen, and He has promised us our own salvation and resurrection from the dead. What do we do with this knowledge? How will we live out our faith in the world and for the sake of the world?
It was at this moment, this nexus, that the Holy Spirit descended upon each of them. Tongues of fire appeared above each of their heads. And they began to speak “of God’s deeds of power,” each in a different language. All the languages of the world. All the diversity of the world engaged in a common pursuit. Those who observed this moment were amazed and wondered aloud, “What does this mean?”
Jesus’ followers understood. Peter understood. The Holy Spirit had answered their question. They were to tell the world about the life, the death, the resurrection, and the promise of Jesus Christ. They were to call upon others to repent, and to be baptized, and to share with others the Good News that Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.
There is, of course, a final story to tell this morning. It is the story of a group of people coming together across the boundaries of language, the boundaries of nation, of religion and race and culture. All in a common pursuit, the pursuit of truth. This is your story.
You have gathered here, in Valparaiso, across your many differences, yet united in your quest for knowledge, your desire for wisdom, your yearning to lead, your calling to serve. All for the sake of the world.
And in this community, you discovered that truth is something continuously revealed by God through human suffering, human intellect, human enterprise.
You have, I hope, discovered that your years at Valparaiso have been about much more than making a name for yourself, much more than making a living; rather, they have been about preparing to make a life. A life of substance. A life of purpose. A life of meaning.
You have seen that meaning, substance, purpose, can be achieved through a thousand different journeys and in a thousand different ways. Yet we have found unity in our diversity through our common pursuit of truth, understanding that God drives our quest. It is God and not ourselves, that answers our ultimate question, one that perhaps on this day more than any other burns in our hearts—why am I here? What is it that You would have me do with my life?
Your prologue has now been written. This story, your story, is only beginning. Answering that question “How will you choose to live out your faith in the world and for the sake of the world?” will take the rest of your life…
“You’ve gotten everything you could possibly get out of this place. You’ve achieved great things here. And it’s time now for you to leave.”
So Go in Peace. Serve the Lord. Thanks be to God!
Mark A. Heckler May 19, 2013