A year ago this weekend I sat in Kenan Stadium in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, participating in the graduation of our older daughter. It was raining, but I have been in weather that was more challenging. Early in the proceedings the Chancellor announced that there would be no commencement address and that the ceremony would be shortened. The crowd, students and families, roared with gratitude! I admit that I was not unhappy about this either. The ceremony moved forward, with all of the key ingredients retained-- conferring the degrees, moving the tassel, a brief pep talk, singing "Carolina in My Mind". And then we left.
The ceremony was wonderful, even given the weather, but a part of it has stayed with me, as a preacher. Later that month I gave the Baccalaureate Sermon at Huntingdon College, a remarkable church-related school in Montgomery, Alabama. I wondered: what if I had said to those present--"I have decided to cut the length of my message in half". Would they have applauded? Or, "I have decided to give you just the essentials, in three minutes". Would there have been a standing ovation?
And...maybe you have guessed where I going with this....what if I said to my congregation, on a Sunday morning, "Today, my sermon will be half of the normal length". Now, because they are nice and polite people, they are not going to stand up and cheer, but inside they would be smiling!
I am really talking about words: the words that we hear, the words that we speak. On some days, say on the graduation of a daughter, the words are not so important, the day is so full of meaning in and of itself. But words are important. The Christian God is not a God who is silent, like the God of Buddhism. The Christian God speaks----the creation of the world itself cannot be separated from the God who speaks, "And God said, and God said, and God said...". God speaks through the law and the prophets, and through Jesus, who is the word made flesh, and through the apostles, and through the scriptures.
This is important for those of us who get together about once a week to listen to words, some of them thousands of years old. I think of the beginning of Genesis 1, which speaks of the creation of the world and concludes with the profound truth that we are created in the image of God.
This is our primary orientation, as Christians. The creation narrative orients us. We are created in the image of God. This is our most fundamental orientation. Not race, not gender, not ethnicity, not partisan political persuasion. We were created in the image of God, male and female and God said, "it is good". Many of the words that we hear during the rest of the week are words that divide, words that critique, words that accuse, words that warn. These words, the words of creation, are important words, maybe the most important words about us.
I also think of the words that appear at the end of the gospels. The disciples had been in the school of their rabbi, Jesus. He had given them his words, in parables, in fresh interpretations of the law, in wisdom that they did not always grasp. Now most of this work with them was done. He was sending them into the world.
The reason we have schools is so that people can spend time in them, but there comes a time when we leave school! There is an unspoken message: "OK, we have enjoyed you as a student, you have done well, there is someone else who is coming along to take your place and....surely there is something you want to do with your life?"
Jesus says, commence with your life. "Go and make disciples, teach them everything I have commanded you. These words, my words, make sure other people hear these words, they are important." This was of course Jesus way of staying with the tradition of the Shema, "Hear O Israel, our God is One, love the Lord with all your heart and mind, teach all of this to your children...".
The rabbis loved to teach. The rabbis loved to talk. They loved words. One of my favorite preachers is Garrison Keillor of the Prairie Home Companion. He once said that he saw his work as being similar to a preacher. "Why?", he was asked.
"I am like a preacher because I talk until I have something to say, and then I say it!"