Whitworth College Fall 2005 Convocation Address
Sept. 7, 2005
The last month has been wild. We have been involved in a very difficult trial in which we are being sued for wrongful dismissal. The case is in its fourth week but it went to the jury and we should have a verdict today. Unfortunately, this situation has snatched away the time I had set aside to think about this morning's remarks. I thought about raiding my "opening convocation" file. This is my 20th opening convocation as a college president. Surely I've said something worth repeating. Wrong.
A few weeks ago I was invited to speak at Chapel Hill Presbyterian Church in Gig Harbor. A few of you were there. My sermon was based on several ideas from a story about Jesus. I decided the life of Jesus would be a better place to raid than my files.
The passage Jeff read this morning (Matthew 4: 12-25) is the story of Jesus setting up his church. Matthew begins this story after skipping over a rather large chunk of time in the life of Jesus. He goes straight from the wilderness temptations to Galilee. I'm not sure why Matthew did that. Maybe he was so incredulous that Jesus would start a church in Galilee, he just cut right to it.
Galilee was a melting pot. The phrase "Galilee of Gentiles" is also translated, "Galilee of all nations." It was an extraordinarily diverse province ethnically, socio-economically, and religiously. And, as we find in this text, it was populated with more than its share of sick, diseased and demon-possessed people.
Galilee was pretty much of a mess, referred to by Isaiah as the shadow of death. It was a catch basin for society's most troubled souls. It sat on the Northern edge of Palestine and served as a doormat for the Assyrians who bullied the region often. Actually, Galilee reminds me of one of the more disturbing remarks ever uttered by my father. I was a college student, bringing home an elegant young woman. (Though not as elegant as Bonnie.) It was her first visit. I was nervous. But my trump card was my parents. My mother would make sure there was no awkward silence, actually she would make sure there was no silence at all. And the Rev. Paul F. Robinson, our driver that day, would charm her like few fathers could – I thought. As we neared our small town in the western suburbs of Chicago, we came upon the village of Woodale. My date made some small talk remark about Woodale being a pretty name for a town. At this point some alien invaded my father's body and pointed out that if the world ever needed an enema, Woodale would be the point of contact. Eesh. Well, I'm not going to say that Capernaum of Galilee, or Woodale for that matter, was that bad, but Jesus did not set up his church in a wealthy suburb.
Jesus went to Galilee. It is where the need was the greatest. It is where the light would shine brightest. Jesus was drawn to the place of greatest need. Are we drawn toward deep need? Galilee was a strange place for a king, but it was a perfect place for a healer. Lots of business.
After Jesus settled in Galilee we come to the most famous story of this chapter in his life – the calling of Andrew, Peter, James and John. "Follow me and I will make you fishers of men."
It's important to remember that these four guys were already disciples. Matthew skipped the story of how that happened, but it is recorded in John 1. So this is not a story about Jesus walking along the beach and rounding up the first four people he saw. I'm sure there are many of you here today who do not call yourselves Christians. You might be a non-religious person, or a Muslim or a Hindu or even a Yankee fan. If so, there are great principles in this story for you; but this passage speaks primarily to those of you who are open to Christ's call on your lives. And that brings me to my first point:
1. God calls ordinary people in the midst of their ordinary lives.
I urge you to listen for the voice this year. A lot of you were at our goofy orientation skit where you heard the voice, "if you build it, he will come." Don't listen for that voice. Listen for the "follow me" voice. Fifteen years ago two guys named Chris were freshmen here. At the conclusion of a chapel service Jesus broke into the lives of these two ordinary guys and said, "follow me." They did. They started En Christo. Since then, En Christo has delivered roughly 150,000 meals to homeless people in Spokane.
2. The second principle in this story is that when Jesus calls us, he works with who we are and the gifts we bring.
This principle is NOT just for those of you who are Christians. If they ever write a book called Stupid things College Presidents Say it will surely include the quote "You can be anything you want to be." Wrong. You don't have the equipment to be a lot of things. Neither do I. But you can become way more than you ever dreamed possible if you take the gifts that God has given you and develop them through hard work, discipline and good choices.
As you think about your gifts and calling, I want you to be aware of two powerful influences on your life. The first influence was stirred up a couple thousand years ago. The second influence got most of its energy in the past 150 years. The early Greek thinkers believed that people were born with an "essence." This essence might be thought of as a person's basic genetic capacity, although we don't find references to DNA in Plato's Republic. Essence refers to the gifts, disposition and abilities that are uniquely ours. Philosophers use the term "essentialism" when discussing this general school of thought.
The more recent influence on our thinking is known in very general terms as "existentialism." Existentialists such as Jean Paul Sartre and Martin Heidegger argued that we exist with a free and full range of choices. We are not trapped by internal or external forces. They contend that we can enjoy much more freedom than Plato and Aristotle were willing to grant.
When Jesus said, "I will make you fishers of men," we hear elements of both essentialism and existentialism. When Jesus connected his call to the disciples' occupation, fishing, he was in keeping with the Greek influences of essentialism on his culture. "Follow me, I'll work with who you are, your interests, your gifts, your essence. You are just what I need."
But Jesus also acknowledges the existential side of life. The phrase, "I will make you fishers of men" is very different from the phrase, "You are now fishers of men." One of my great hopes for you is that at Whitworth you will recognize that we are a people unfinished. We are "in the making." We are not prisoners of our history or heredity. God takes who we are and presents us with choices that make who we are better. And a massive array of choices lie before us. But here's the coolest thing about Christian existentialism versus secular existentialism. The great mistake, if I may be so bold to assert, of secular existentialism is equating choice and freedom. I believe existentialists glorify choice in a way that decreases freedom. But Jesus guides choice in a way that increases freedom. I'll give you an example. About 25 years ago I was doing research in California with a guy named Pete. He mentioned that he and his wife were separated and headed for divorce. He explained that they had agreed to an open marriage where either partner could be sexually involved with other people if they so chose. "What happened?" I asked. Pete looked me in the eye and said, "It didn't work. It never works. It can't work. It destroys trust." So when Pete expanded his choice for sexual partners beyond his wife, it cost him major freedoms related to his children and his income. Jesus says when you get married you forfeit the choice of infidelity, but eliminating that choice leads to greater freedoms with your spouse, your children, and your income.
Students, you find yourselves in a very existential moment of life. You've got more choices than you've ever had. Make the ones that expand your freedom. Unrestricted choices about friends, food, sleep, alcohol, etc. can lead to the destruction of your freedom. When Jesus calls us, he does not make us robots. He re-commissions our gifts and guides us in the choices that lead to the greater fulfillment and freedom.
Our third principle is one we learn from the disciples.
3. If you hear the voice and decide to follow, you can't bring all of your stuff.
I don't know what you will have to release, abandon or leave. Maybe it's a relationship, maybe it's video games, maybe it's feeling sorry for yourself, maybe it's your vanity, maybe it's gambling, maybe it's something harmless or even good. But when Jesus calls, he does not say, "follow me, and bring all of your stuff."
The last principle we learn from this story is one we learn from all the Jesus stories.
4. The call to follow Christ is the call to truth and grace.
It seems like I'm always harping on grace and truth, so I'll spare you other than to say that here again in Galilee Jesus neither sugarcoats the truth message of repentance nor holds anything back in the grace message of healing. I wish I had time to discuss some thoughts I've had about truth, but I don't. I'll just leave you with one challenge. I want you to think about the difference between conviction and certainty. They're not the same. And believing they are the same can be very dangerous. Think about it.
Fifty years ago, my Sunday school teacher taught us the I will make you fishers of men song. I don't know about the other kids, but this whole story posed big problems for me. At age five, I thought my calling was to report daily to the little creek in our town and make life miserable for blue gills and bullheads. So when Mrs. Boebinger conjured up some guilt and shame (her duty as a Baptist Sunday-school teacher), she tried to make me think this story somehow applied to five year-olds. I'm sure I imagined myself at the creek's edge thinking "Oh brother, here comes the Son of God again, and this time he wants me to stop fishing."
Now I'm a grown-up, and I'm so grateful that I was called to this stream. I hope you keep listening for the voice. I know great callings await all of you. Right now, you have been called to this college. I hope you find it a great place to begin a life that says yes when you hear "follow me." God bless you this year.