Good morning! Welcome, everyone, to the Chapel of the Resurrection at Valparaiso University and to the Baccalaureate service for the Class of 2015.
And what a spectacular morning it is! Not only has God given us an iconic Indiana spring day, but look at these young people — all dressed up, the men have their hair combed, the women have their makeup on and the highest heels I think I’ve ever seen. And it looks like you all have gotten some sleep. All those worry lines are gone. Gosh, I don’t remember the last time you looked so good!
We always want to look our best for threshold moments, don’t we? Our lives are punctuated with threshold moments like commencements. Sometimes, like today, they are periods at the end of a sentence, signaling the conclusion of something and the start of something new. At other times they are more like semi-colons or commas — milestones or markers — noting a change, but connecting what has come before with what will follow.
Threshold moments hold great power for human beings across cultures and across time. These are the moments in life when we are propelled, ready or not, into new terrain. Metaphorically and sometimes quite literally, we humans describe these moments with archetypical images, in this case walking across a threshold and through a door into unfamiliar space. The threshold archetype captures both fear and hope — fear of the unknown coupled with hope that what waits for us beyond the door will be better than what is left behind.
Commencements are certainly significant threshold moments. You may have felt that significance when you crossed the threshold and entered the Chapel this morning, with splendid music and voices uplifted. If someday you marry, there will be that significant moment when the two of you cross the threshold into your home for the first time as a married couple. If you have a child, there will be that threshold moment when you cross through the door with your newborn son or daughter. And, in the blink of an eye, there’s the day when that same child walks out the door to leave for college. These threshold moments, the periods and semi-colons that punctuate our lives, continue through to the day when you are gone from this earth; the day when those who remember you gather in places like this to speak about your life until, finally, the pallbearers carry what’s left of you across the threshold one final time.
Anthropologists call these liminal moments. Liminality is like a little death; its participants experience this sense of mourning something lost. (Szakolczai, 2009) As one enters the liminal state, standing before that threshold, marking the line between one phase of life and the next, the participant becomes a tabula rasa — a blank slate — filled with potential, uncertain of that person’s place in the larger community, able to redefine the self as he or she assimilates into society as a “new being.” (Szakolczai, 2009) So, from an anthropological perspective, in commencement there is both death and rebirth. And at this very moment you are that tabula rasa, a new creation, filled simultaneously with loss and fear and potential and great hope. (Turner, 2008) In anthropological terms, it’s a pretty freaky place to be.
As you prepare to cross this important threshold in your life’s journey, I commend you for choosing to begin in this place: the Chapel of the Resurrection. A place built as a monument to Jesus Christ and the promise of new life. A place of worship. A place of prayer. A place of hope.
Maybe you are Lutheran and this Chapel has been a regular part of each week at Valparaiso University. 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 which 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 re-dedication 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. Together, we choose to begin this threshold moment here.
And for some of you, at least, it’s hard to imagine how you even got here. Wasn’t it just yesterday when you were carrying all your stuff from the car to your new dorm room, saying goodbye to your parents and your sibs, and worrying about what college was going to be like? And in the blink of an eye, here you are all dressed up and worrying about what life is going to be like. And it is equally hard to believe that after so much worrying, so much praying, so many sleepless nights, so much caffeine and sugar, this day would ever come. Yet, here it is. And here you are, surrounded by some of the most important people in your life. Seems like all that hard work and all that worrying paid off.
Of course, you weren’t the only ones who worried. There were plenty of your professors and staff members here at Valpo who worried about you. I lost a few nights’ sleep worrying. Parents, friends, and loved ones, you’ve probably had your share of worries, too. Worries about sending you off on your own — the choices you might make, all the things that could go wrong. Worries about the major you chose to study. Worries about whether or not you would be successful. And, of course, the never-ending worries about money.
I wonder, however, how many sleepless nights we spent worrying about the hungry, the poor, the homeless, the incarcerated, the oppressed. How much have we worried about things like character, or integrity, or wisdom. It seems so natural to worry about things like our career, success, money, even happiness — our culture has hard-wired us to worry about those things. But, I would like to suggest that we as individuals and as a society ought to worry more about our inner life, our moral foundation, and about the cultivation of virtue.
This morning, we are reminded of all the latent potential we hold in these liminal moments — these rare times when we enter a new phase of life with a blank slate — these moments present us with extraordinary opportunities to establish new habits of mind and heart. This is the time to commit to nurture our virtuous selves, to cultivate the important inner strength, consistency, and moral compass that we will need to guide us through the uncertainty, ambiguity, and profound change that lies ahead.
Humility, devotion, courage, compassion, integrity, and wisdom are but a few of the qualities we lift up as human virtues. Virtue — that moral excellence represented by personal qualities or behaviors deemed by humans in society to be right and good. These characteristics, either individually embodied or collectively shared, exemplify the finest qualities and ultimate potential of human achievement. Virtue lies at the very heart of greatness. Our most excellent selves are also our most virtuous.
In his new book, “The Road to Character,” New York Times columnist David Brooks probes this concept of virtue at some length. He differentiates what he describes as “résumé virtues” from those he calls “eulogy virtues.” The résumé virtues, he writes, are “the skills you bring to the job market and that contribute to external success.” “The eulogy virtues,” he says, “are deeper. They’re the virtues that get talked about at your funeral, the ones that exist at the core of your being — whether you are kind, brave, honest, or faithful; what kind of relationships you formed.”
David Brooks grounds his framework in the writings of Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik. The Rabbi describes two accounts of creation in the book of Genesis and how each represents opposing sides of human nature. He calls these opposing sides Adam I and Adam II. For our purposes, I will also label them Eve I and Eve II. (Brooks, 2015)
Adam and Eve I ought to be very familiar to you. They represent the résumé virtues; they are externally focused, ambitious, and career oriented. Adam and Eve I want to “build, create, produce, and discover things. They want to have high status and win victories.” (Brooks, 2015)
Adam and Eve II are internally focused on those eulogy virtues. They desire “not only to do good, but to be good. Adam and Eve II want to love intimately, to sacrifice self in the service of others, [and] to live in obedience to some transcendent truth.” While Adam and Eve I’s motto is “Success,” Adam and Eve II’s motto is “Charity, love, and redemption.” (Brooks, 2015)
These two Adams and two Eves live by differing logics as well. Adam and Eve I understand the world through utilitarian logic: “Input leads to output. Effort leads to reward. Practice makes perfect. Pursue self-interest. Maximize your utility. Impress the world.” (Brooks, 2015) These are certainly virtues that are celebrated in American culture.
Conversely, Adam and Eve II rely on moral logic. “You have to give to receive. You have to surrender to something outside yourself to gain strength within yourself. You have to conquer your desire to get what you crave. Success leads to the greatest failure, which is pride. Failure leads to the greatest success, which is humility and learning … In order to find yourself, you have to lose yourself.” (Brooks, 2015) These are the virtues that are commended to us throughout the Old and New Testament and are reflected in our lessons from scripture this morning.
Today’s lessons offer wisdom and guidance on a particular eulogy virtue — charity, or in today’s parlance, generosity. Jesus tells us that we have a choice to make, because we cannot love both God and money. By attempting to do so, “Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other.” (Matthew 6:24) And the Apostle Paul suggests in 2 Corinthians that we, like the farmer in the field, reap what we sow in life. And if we want a generous harvest, we must sow seed abundantly.
What is this virtue we call generosity? The Oxford English Dictionary defines generosity as “Character or conduct characteristic of or befitting a person of noble birth, especially nobility of spirit. A readiness to give more of something, especially money, than is necessary or expected. A generous act; an act or instance of courage, magnanimity, or liberality. The quality or fact of being plentiful or large.”(“Generosity,” 2015)
The word “generosity” derives from a classical Latin word for good breeding, excellence, or nobility of stock (of people, animals, or plants); centuries later, generosity came to refer more broadly to nobility of character. Noble character was more than breeding; it was something that could be cultivated. (OED, 2015) It was only in the 18th century that the concept of generosity expanded to signify munificence, “open–handedness, and liberality in the giving of money and possessions to others.” (“What is generosity,” 2015)
Given its noble origins, generosity carries some baggage that continues to influence people’s perceptions and behaviors today. The Notre Dame University sponsors research on the science of generosity (“What is generosity,” 2015). Their research suggests that generosity is often viewed as a trait to be practiced primarily “by those of higher quality or greater goodness,” that it is “more an ideal toward which the best may aspire” rather than “the duty of all to practice.” (“What is generosity,” 2015) Yet, each of us, regardless of our financial means, can be called to live lives of generosity. And research shows that there are tangible benefits to doing so.
In their book, “The Paradox of Generosity,” researchers Christian Smith and Hilary Davidson suggest that those who give of themselves — their talents, their time, and their possessions — receive much more in return. Smith and Davidson’s research defines generous people as those who exhibit one or more of the following characteristics: they give away 10 percent or more of their income each year; they volunteer; and they maintain strong and caring relationships with family, neighbors, and friends. (Smith & Davidson, 2015)
What these researchers learned was startling. Generous people appear to be happier and healthier than those who are not generous. They exhibit a greater sense of purpose in life and show continued interest in personal growth and development. And they avoid depression and anxiety at a rate that is statistically significant when compared to those who describe themselves as less generous. (Smith & Davidson, 2015)
The paradox, of course, is that those who hold on tightly to their possessions, those who do not give of their time, those who are less engaged and caring with family and friends, those who obsess over protecting themselves against future uncertainties, are “more anxious about uncertainties and vulnerable to future misfortunes … [for] by failing to care for others, [they] do not properly take care of [them]selves.” (Smith & Davidson, 2015)
What these social scientists describe as the paradox of generosity gets to the heart of those eulogy virtues that David Brooks describes. That you have to give to receive. That failure leads to the greatest success, which is humility and learning. That in order to find yourself, you have to lose yourself. (Brooks, 2015) Virtue is paradoxical. Virtue is counter-cultural. Cultivating virtue requires discipline and constant work, which in turn unleashes tremendous power, liberating and freeing the spirit. Cultivating the habits and discipline of virtue enable our spirits to soar.
In today’s lesson from Matthew, Jesus describes this liberation from the cares of the world. He tells us, “do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes?” Why should you worry so much about where your next meal is coming from? Just look at the birds in the sky. God cares for the birds, providing them all the food that is needed. They know to rely on God to provide all that they need. (Matthew 6: 25-26)
And why should you worry about the clothes on your back. Just look at the flowers of the field. God adorns them with the most beautiful array of colors on the earth — they are outfitted finer than King Solomon in all his splendor. (Matthew 6: 28-30)
Liberation is a frightening concept, especially in the land of the résumé virtues. The worry kicks in, and we cry out, but “What shall we eat?” and “What shall we drink?” and “What shall we wear?” (Matthew 6: 31) Will I get a good job and a promotion in a year? What will my starting salary be? Will my graduate program set me up for success? Can I buy a new car? Or a house? What about my school loans? Will I need to move back in with my family?
And Jesus answers. Do not worry about tomorrow. This day has enough to worry about. And when tomorrow comes, we can count on it bringing its own worries to bear. Focus instead on the kingdom of God and on God’s righteousness. And God will provide. (Matthew 6: 31-34)
Ultimately, everything rests on our ability to trust in the Lord, doesn’t it? If we are to keep those résumé virtues in their proper place, if we are to be liberated from the cares of the world, we must accept and confess the truth, at our deepest and most fundamental level, that we believe and trust in God the Father Almighty. And we must accept the truth that everything we have, including our own life, is provided by God, that, unlike those Marvel comic book heroes, we are not the masters of our destiny.
Here is how Martin Luther, in the first article of his “Small Catechism,” explains what this means:
“I believe that God created me along with all creatures. God gave to me: body and soul, eyes, ears, and all the other parts of my body, my mind and all my senses and preserves them as well. God gives me clothing and shoes, food and drink, house and land, spouse and children, fields, animals, and all I own. Every day God abundantly provides everything I need to nourish this body and life. God protects me against all danger, shields and defends me from all evil. God does all this because of pure, fatherly, and divine goodness and mercy, not because I’ve earned it or deserved it. For all of this, I must thank, praise, serve, and obey God.” (Luther, 2008)
This is why the Apostle Paul tells us, in today’s lesson from Second Corinthians, that we should give of our selves, our time, and our possessions “what we have decided in our heart to give,” that we should be “cheerful givers,” that we should not feel compelled to give because we want to look good in the eyes of our neighbors or because it is expected of us. (2 Corinthians 9: 7-8)
Paul tells us that God will bless us abundantly, like the birds of the air or the flowers of the field, so “that in all things at all times, having all that you need,” you will be enriched so much that you can be even more generous. Paul describes the noble and virtuous cycle of giving and receiving even more in return from our ever generous, gracious, and forgiving God. (2 Corinthians 9: 8, 13)
All because of the grace of God. His generous and abundant grace. The gift of his only son, Jesus Christ, who came down from heaven to live among us, fully human and fully among us, who suffered for us, who took on the burden of all our sin, who died for us. And in whose life, and death, and resurrection promises us life everlasting before the throne of God.
What an indescribable gift, Paul writes. What amazing generosity!
That job you are worrying about — it will come to you in time and with persistence. You have been well educated and well prepared. That starting salary — it is a start. With hard work you will earn more. That new or used car — it only needs to get you where you need to go. The world will make demands on your time and energy, you will be drawn to spend your money on possessions that, in time, you will give away or throw away. Many of you will climb that ladder of success and achieve notoriety, perhaps even greatness when measured by those résumé virtues.
Yet, I pray that you will always remember that you were shaped at Valparaiso University, a place that requires and expects more of you than success, more of you than even happiness in this world.
During your years at Valpo, you have lived and learned in a community dedicated to excellence. We strive here to be our most excellent selves, not for ourselves, but out of gratitude for God’s abundant mercy. For we know that it is only by God’s grace that excellence is possible in our lives and in our work. It is only by God’s grace that we gain new insights and discover new knowledge. It is only through God’s generosity that we master and fulfill the potential of our physical bodies and minds and leverage the talents of our colleagues to complete that successful project, to win that important game, or perform that difficult piece of music. It is only by God’s grace that we transcend the ordinariness of human existence and are offered fleeting glimpses of paradise when we love and serve those in need, or in moments like these when we gather for worship and prayer. And it is out of gratitude for God’s abundant and endless mercy that we, in turn, seek to glorify God by striving to live virtuous lives, individually and in community.
This is Valpo. This is who you are. This is the excellent person, the virtuous person you are called to be.
Graduates, as my benediction, I write these words from the American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, onto your blank slate as the first words to guide your new lives:
“Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope. Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we are saved by love. No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as it is from our standpoint. Therefore we must be saved by the final form of love, which is forgiveness.” (as cited in Brooks, 2015)
May these virtues — humility, generosity, hope, faith, love, forgiveness — be your compass as you cross this threshold into the unknown. May they also be the words used to describe you as you cross that final threshold when your journey is done.
And now, may the peace of God, who surpasses all understanding, Guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:7)
Mark A. Heckler
May 17, 2015
Brooks, D. (2015). The road to character. New York: Random House.
Luther, M. (2008). Luther’s small catechism with explanation. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House.
Generosity. (15 May 2015). Retrieved from http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/77534?redirectedFrom=generosity#eid
Smith, C. and Davidson, H. (2014). The paradox of generosity. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Szakolczai, A. (2009) Liminality and experience: Structuring transitory situations and transformative events. International Political Anthropology, 2(1), 141.
The Holy Bible, New International Version. (2011). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan. Turner, V. W. (2008). The ritual process: Structure and anti-structure. New Brunswick: Aldine Transaction Press.
What is generosity. (15 May 2015). Retrieved from http://generosityresearch.nd.edu/more-about-the-initiative/what-is-generosity/