Baccalaureate Sermon

Baccalaureate Sermon

Rev. Jonathan R. Pia, Senior Pastor, Silliman University Church

(Sermon delivered to the members of Class 2013 during the Baccalaureate Service held March 24 at the Silliman University Church.)

Text: Luke 19: 28-40

Today is a big day for you graduates and your family.  Congratulations on a job WELL… DONE, with the emphasis on DONE.   For the parents it would seem that you are now done paying the school fees and giving allowance to your child.  But let me warn you, this is not the end.  Nevertheless you are proud of your child.

For the graduates, it means you are now done with your papers, with the exams and done waking up early in the morning to attend classes. 

After 4 years of studying here at Silliman University, or maybe five for some, I trust that you have learned your lessons well.  A graduate of a certain school was asked to define H2O and CO2.  His answer was H2O is hot water and CO2 is cold water.   He also said that water is composed of two gins.  Oxygin and hydrogin.  Oxygin is pure gin.  Hydrogin is gin and water. (For some of you who have visited some of the drinking places in Dumaguete, perhaps this is what you have learned.)

Since today is Palm Sunday, in our celebration we will let the story of the entry of Jesus to Jerusalem speak to us.  Jesus during his three years of teaching, preaching and healing was a sensation.  People would still follow him wherever he went.  According to Mark, on Palm Sunday, leafy branches were waved and cloaks of the people were spread before him and there were shouts of Hosanna.  And if the people won’t, the stones will cry out.

The crowd of well-wishers had witnessed the miracles Jesus had performed and felt the power of his presence.  The people were momentarily moved beyond their own concerns, their own agendas, and offered some adequate form of praise to this man who gave them hope and promised a different kind of future.  And so, they stripped their cloaks and laid them on the road to show Jesus their simple, yet sacrificial gesture.

According to ancient Jewish law the cloak is a person’s most important piece of clothing.  It offers warmth and protection.  It doubles as clothing and shelter, functioning as bedroll by night.  And those who met Jesus were so overwhelmed with gratitude and happiness that they took off their cloaks and placed them on the street where Jesus would pass.

Today is a time of celebration.  It is a time to express gratitude to your families, teachers and friends who helped you through the past years.  And above all, it is a time to express your gratitude to God that I hope you are energized to offer what you have, even your clothes.  I do not mean for you to take off your clothes now.  I mean being willing to show your gratefulness.  And it is just but fitting to start this day with worship, acknowledging that it is through God’s help that you have reached this milestone in life.

However, after the celebration this week, like what happened to Jesus, there will come a time when the ideals that have been nurtured here at Silliman will be questioned.  Here you have been taught to develop competence, character, and faith.  Here at Silliman you have been taught that following Christ who is the Way, the Truth and Life requires a radical change of thinking.  When people think of power as having more guns and bombs, Jesus tells us to love; when others ask what we can get from a relationship, Jesus tells us what we can give.  Here, we are taught to seek the truth, where needs of neighbor would have equal concern for self, where we are asked to go the second mile, where enemies would be prayed for, not hated, where sharing is better than shoving, where caring would overcome indifference, and where truth is stronger than falsehood.

But then, as you move on, we know that we live in a sinful world where we encounter the sociopaths, those who shoot children without remorse, the vicious child and spouse abusers.  Out there are evil systems in which we sometimes are asked to participate—people going without food and shelter where others have too much; people not getting medical care because of no other reason than lack of money. There are even evils born of sheer stupidity and greed—that is why we have to cope with flooding and other calamities.  There is also the temptation to compromise the things we have been taught—when you will be asked to take short-cuts so you can make more money, when one scrambles to the top stepping on others. 

In the midst of all these, remember that Palm Sunday is also about betrayal, disappointment and suffering.  Although Holy Week and Good Friday would dreadfully demonstrate the depth of the betrayal and rejection Jesus would face, the Sunday after shows us of the triumph of what is just, what is good, what is right.

Talking about persisting to do what is right, let me share with you two stories.  Bill Wilson was a pastor of an inner city church where violence was seen every day.  He himself has been stabbed twice.  One time a Puerto Rican woman volunteered to help with the ministry of the church.  He asked her what her talents were and she could think of nothing — she couldn't even speak English — but she did love children.  So he put her on one of the church's buses that transported kids to church.  Every week she would find the worst-looking kid on the bus, put him on her lap and whisper over and over the only words she had learned in English: “I love you. Jesus loves you.”

After several months, she became attached to one little boy who did not speak.  Each week she would tell him all the way to church and all the way home, “I love you and Jesus loves you.”

One day, to her amazement, the little boy turned around and stammered, “I—I—I love you too!” Then he put his arms around her and gave her a big hug. That was 2:30 on a Sunday afternoon. At 6:30 that night he was found dead. His own mother had beaten him to death and thrown his body in the trash. “I love you and Jesus loves you.”  Those were some of the last words this little boy heard in his short life—from the lips of a Puerto Rican woman who could barely speak English.  (Mark Adams, The Roads He Walked – Palm Avenue)

When you “leave the halls of Silliman, Roam the world O’er near and far, Still the faith and truth she gave us Will remain our guiding star;”

Itzhak Pearlman is an Israeli-American violinist.  He was stricken with polio as a child, and so he has braces on both legs and walks with the aid of two crutches.  Walking across the stage one step at a time, painfully and slowly, is an unforgettable sight.  He walks painfully, yet majestically, until he reaches his chair.  Then he sits down, slowly puts his crutches on the floor, undoes the clasps on his legs, tucks one foot back and extends the other foot forward.  Then he bends down and picks up the violin, puts it under his chin, nods to the conductor and proceeds to play.

One time at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center in New York City something went wrong. The story comes from Jack Riemer of the Houston Chronicle, who was there to tell the story.  Just as Perlman finished the first few bars, one of the strings on his violin broke.  

People thought he would get up, put on the clasps again, pick up the crutches and limp his way off stage — to either find another violin or else find another string for this one.’  But he didn’t. Instead, he waited a moment, took off his jacket, rolled up his sleeves, closed his eyes, and then signaled the conductor to begin again.  The orchestra began, and he played from where he had left off.  And he played with such passion and such power and such purity as they had never heard before.  Of course, anyone knows that it is impossible to play a symphonic work with just three strings.  But that night Itzhak Perlman refused to know that.

You could see him modulating, changing, recomposing the piece in his head. At one point, it sounded like he was de-tuning the strings to get new sounds from them that they had never made before.  When he finished, there was an awesome silence in the room.  And then everyone was on their feet, screaming and cheering.

He smiled wiped the sweat from his brow, raised his bow to quiet the crowd, and then he said, not boastfully, but in a quiet, pensive, reverent tone: “You know, sometimes it is the artist’s task to find out how much music you can still make with what you have left.”

This is the way of Palm Sunday. That is the Way of Jesus. That is the Way of Life. God calls us to make music with all that we have for we know that God continues to be with us, to strengthen and to sustain us.  When you are out there roaming around the world and you face temptations, remember the convocations that you attended, where the speakers talked about integrity; when you are afraid, remember the Galilean Fellowship where we learned that God is a “Mighty Fortress that never fails.”  And in times when you are discouraged for it seems that evil is winning, remember that we can be victors with Christ.  This is the Good News that you can bring with you.  Go and live the Good News.