This is my speech for the commencement at the Seminary of the Southwest.
It’s hard to entrust our faith to another generation, as happy and thankful as we are for their willingness to pick up their cross and follow love! It’s always been that way. As the last letter is sent off to Timothy from Rome, Paul’s disciples are passing the cross to new disciples. Passing the cross is as delicate as passing a baton in a relay race. One generation has to hold it out steady behind them, and the next has to reach out and take it without hesitation. Letting our calling to pick up the cross go is hard as we are reminded In 2 Timothy.
First, because bearing a cross is not about asking a new community what they are willing to die for, but to give them a new way to live. Secondly, we want the next generation to carry cross the right way. (Please don’t drag it around and for the love of God drape it in lent...) Finally, it's hard for those who have carried it for years and through trials to trust the new bearers. Paul’s disciples begin Timothy’s letter saying, "We don’t know Timothy. But we are going to try and trust you because your grandma Lois and your mother Eunice were good people."
It’s equally hard picking up the cross. Its hard for all of you recent graduates of the Seminary of the Southwest as you carry your James Avery crosses from this place. People may not know or trust you, as many of them will likely believe you are either too Christian or not Christian enough. They will trust you in part because they know your people here at the seminary and that your dean, Cynthia, is a woman of profound poetic faith. Your dean assured everyone in her epistle this year that “you would be educated in the ancient traditions of the faith where you will have opportunities to observe and participate in the gospel speaking to culture, and challenging the church." In Cynthia’s letter she assured you that here your education will form mature, wise, and creative Christian leaders to participate in God’s reconciling mission in the world. Carry the cross you have been given by our tradition with the three attributes of love, power and self-discipline given to Timothy. Don't be ashamed of what you have learned. Hold to the standard of the teaching you have received and guard the treasure that is your cross.
Secondly, it's hard because carry your cross is an art form. Bearing your cross is like falling in love. It is not thinking you have an unbearable ball and chain to drag around. It is falling in love with God and one another, believing we can do this together. Cross-bearing is not an individual sport, and it promises a way of life that is lived deeply and offers you a way to live into the love you bear forever.
Finally, you are bearing your cross in hard times. You bear it as the earth splits and spews in Hawaii, as people in Texas mourn the latest school shooting, as the number of refugees hits its highest levels in more than 70 years. You are heading out into a world rife with systematic injustices so entrenched it’s hard to figure out where to walk. It's humbling work. I want to offer you three tips in crossing bearing as you serve as pastors counsellors and teachers.
Translate what you have learned so that others can understand
You are going to have to engage the marketplace and not just speak the common seminary language. Without translation, the church life and ministry is becoming less relevant because it's not practical and doesn't impact daily lives. In seminary you learned that there were four kinds of love, I think in the wider world there are more like a 1,000. You learned that there were 7 sacraments, but in the world they know that there is only one, healing.
It will be a gift to deviate from speaking Episcopalian. Good cross bearing requires us to be translators, unafraid to cross new ground to love the world. I have learned that a candle with the word love on it translates beyond the pulpit, past our good intentions and influences the economy of love that can change culture and politics. I didn’t learn that in seminary. I learned it serving women survivors, who taught me if we talk about love we have to be concerned about the economic well-being of those with whom we bear crosses. The violence and vulnerability of poverty requires us to learn a new languages.
Strip down what you have learned into what you can inwardly digest so you speak from your heart with passion
I once buried a woman from the community of Thistle Farms in state custody. They gave us her ashes in a cardboard box. There was no congregation, flowers, or music. I was nervous as the funeral began thinking maybe it’s just too hard, maybe the issues are too big and we are just not up for bearing one another.
After the first sentence of the service, the six of us who had gathered couldn’t speak because love was so thick you couldn’t cut through it with words. We wept together realizing that when there is nothing else, Jesus fills the space. If her life and death represent some of the worst the world can offer--born in poverty rife with systematic racism and abusers who paved a path for her to the streets and prison resulting in disease and death--I will bear my cross gratefully to know Love is there when everything else is stripped down.
Serve what you have learned on the path of justice
When you can’t write a sermon, go to prison, not the library, to understand how love is borne. Whether you are offering communion, counseling, or teaching, let your hunger for justice lead you. This solves evangelism issues, finances, and help us sing with joy, break bread with tears, and go back out into the world to love it again, and again and again until we get it right. As you serve justice, you will not always be inspired, not always see visions, or even believe it all. That is not the point. The point is to keep bearing the cross knowing the distance between the wilderness and Jerusalem is closer than we think.
Translate, strip it down, and serve this faith you have been given with justice. Then you will bear the cross and pray like Peter and preach like Paul. You will carry it as gracefully as Timothy and as faithfully as all those who have walked this aisle before you.
It is a big cross. We can bear it together.