President’s baccalaureate sermon: “Cloudscapes”

Baccalaureate sermon (as prepared for delivery) by Dr. Rebecca J. Stoltzfus, president of Goshen College, on Sunday, April 29, 2018 in the Goshen College Church-Chapel

President Stoltzfus
President Stoltzfus (Photo by Olivia Copsey)

Text: Ephesians 3:18-22

Welcome, welcome to each one you! It is so good to be here with you this morning.

One of the paradoxes of being human is that each of us singular, more powerful than we know, capable of choice and autonomy.

And, we are utterly social and inter-dependent beings, like ants and bees and alpacas, we cannot exist alone. We need community.

And this raises the question for us: what is the nature of the community in which we live?

We are receivers, beneficiaries, of community. And, because we are singular, powerful, autonomous, we create and influence community.

What sort of community have your received up till now?

What sort of community will you create?

The first text the seniors chose for this morning is from the book of Hebrews:

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.

Surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses. Yes, yes! We sit together as a cloud of witnesses on this sunny day.

Clouds come in many forms, as you know. Cirrus clouds are high, feathery clouds. Cumulus clouds are the ones that look like giant cotton balls in the sky. Stratus clouds are low clouds, so common to Goshen. They cover the sky like bed sheets.

A cloud is made of water drops or ice crystals floating in the sky. Individuals in community. When those droplets join with other droplets, they turn into larger drops that fall to Earth as “rain.” Individuals joining together to water the earth.

John Updike wrote: “Rain is grace; rain is the sky descending to the earth; without rain, there would be no life.”

And even when they are not coming down as rain, clouds take care of us. At night, clouds reflect heat and keep the ground warmer. During the day, clouds make shade that can keep us cooler.

These days we are also familiar with clouds of a different type: clouds of information. IT clouds. Many of us have data or use data in a cloud.

Here is the definition of an IT cloud:
The cloud is a network of servers.
The cloud is a network of servers. Indeed.

We come together in community as singular individuals, no two alike, carrying the primal cloud of our ancestors. We carry their stories, their language, their DNA. If you are sitting beside an ancestor—anyone of the prior generations that brought about the singular human event that is YOU—give them a kind gesture, a smile or a squeeze. And those that are not with you, give them a grateful thought.

We come together today as the particular cloud of witnesses of your Goshen College journey. The ones you have come to know, those you have played with, competed against, flirted with, eaten with, loved, resented, admired, learned alongside.

I hope you have done a few honest blunders in your time at Goshen College. Things that were perhaps embarrassing or even hurtful.

I certainly did when I was a Goshen College student. Here’s one example fit for telling in church.

I always enjoyed studying languages and felt that I was quite good at it. One semester, I was studying French in preparation for going on SST to Haiti. I was also falling in love and working early morning hours at a restaurant. And so I didn’t really study my French. At the end of the semester, I got a grade that made me very unhappy! I remember feeling unfairly graded, because although, sure . . . I didn’t work very hard that semester, I was good at French! So I complained to the professor, saying something along the lines of “but I’m not a B student in French!” To which my professor replied, you may not be a B student, but you did B work.

I look back on my immature, overwhelmed, sleep deprived, love-intoxicated self, and think: what a mess you were that semester!

Anne Lammott writes:

“Clutter and mess show us that life is being lived…Tidiness makes me think of held breath, of suspended animation… Perfectionism is a mean, frozen form of idealism, while messes are the artist’s true friend. What people somehow forgot to mention when we were children was that we need to make messes in order to find out who we are and why we are here.”

I hope that you will own your whole Goshen College story. Perhaps this will take some time. Clouds can be messy places, and they don’t only create warm and gentle rain. They create floods and snow, ice and hail.

The faculty and staff of Goshen College are also part of your cloud of witnesses. I trust there is a professor or coach or staff person here that you would name as a mentor, a role model, a friend. We have been a part of your cloud and we have been your witnesses. We have witnessed you as writers and have bled ink throughout the margins of your papers. We have tried to understand your questions in the classroom and your answers on exams. We have cheered you on as performers and athletes and scientists and leaders and professionals. We have witnessed your journeys through majors and academic identities, through social movements, through hair styles.

It has been our immense privilege to learn to know you. Which makes today bittersweet.

We will always be your curious and enthusiastic cloud of witnesses—eager to see what the world holds for you, and what you hold for the world!

Be bold! In the often-quoted words of Marianne Williamson:

“You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

You will be changed. You will create things, and you will be knocked around, and you will age. Very probably, your heart will be badly broken. That is the bad news, and it is also the good news.

For Christians, the Cosmic Christ, who was the word in the beginning, and who continues to be the known or unknown word of love and transformation, will always be at work in the world and in each of you.

Make ready for the Christ, Whose smile, like lightning,
Sets free the song of everlasting glory
That now sleeps, in your paper flesh, like dynamite. 

The words of Thomas Merton.

The cloud of witnesses includes ancestors and it includes this present community celebrating your commencement.

The Haudenosaunee, also known as the six nations of the Iroquois, add another dimension that they call the seven generations. Rick Hill Sr, of the Tuscarora nation, writes these words:

“We’re connected to the first Indians who walked on this earth, the very first ones, however long ago that was. But we’re also connected to those Indians who aren’t even born yet, who are going to walk this earth. And our job in the middle is to bridge that gap. You take the inheritance from the past, you add to it, your ideas and your thinking, and you bundle it up and shoot it to the future. And there is a different kind of responsibility. That is not just about me, my pride and my ego, it’s about all that other stuff. We inherit a duty, we inherit a responsibility. . . . Don’t just come here expecting to benefit. You come here to work hard so that the future can enjoy that benefit.”

I am challenged by the Haudenosaunee to realize that my actions have intergenerational effects; that how I live my life will affect the seven generations that follow me.

The contemporary author and environmental activist, Wendell Berry, writes:

“We have lived our lives by the assumption that what was good for us would be good for the world. We have been wrong. We must change our lives so that it will be possible to live by the contrary assumption, that what is good for the world will be good for us. And that requires that we make the effort to know the world and learn what is good for it.”

Remember: the cloud is a network of servers.

As you have been served by your ancestors, serve each other. Serve the world. Serve the seven generations to come.

I am so glad when I think of what you are prepared and poised to do. I am grateful for your generation, and in particular, for each of you singular human beings who will graduate today. And I am grateful for the whole cloud of you.

Go: water the earth! Create warmth in cold nights, and when the heat is scorching, create shade.

I pray that you, being rooted and grounded in love,

18 May be able to comprehend with all saints—with the whole cloud of witnesses, past present and future—what is the breadth, and length, and depth, and height;

19 And to know the love of Christ, which surpasses knowledge, that you might be filled with all the fullness of God.

20 Now unto the God of LOVE that is able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or imagine, according to the power at work within you,

21 Unto God be glory in the church by Christ Jesus throughout all ages, world without end. Amen.