In honoring graduates of various levels at this time of year, we pause to remind ourselves of many a high hope and lofty ideal. And while this sermon will (eventually) get around to entertaining as high a hope and as lofty an ideal as ever one might aspire to, I want to begin on a rather less exalted level.
I want to remind us all today -- our graduates especially, but all of us who may need to hear this word -- that the world as we encounter it is NOT an orderly, intellectually comprehensible, consistently run sort of place. In fact, if you set out to demand that the world make sense, you are going to have some bizarre and frustrating experiences. The World (as opposed to those two other strange fellows, the Flesh and the Devil) is often run, shall we say, by the Great Goddess Nonsense, whose creed is:
"There's no reason for it, it's just our policy."
Now, some of us first encounter the Great Goddess Nonsense in school or college, where we are handed a set of rules that we sometimes find demands that before we take course A, we get permission from Professor B. But before Professor B will sign off on our petition, we have to get a certification of proficiency from Dr. C -- who refuses to certify our proficiency until we have taken course A (which is what we were seeking permission to do in the first place).
Believe it or not, some of us manage to get all the way through school, still believing that the world is run in a sensible manner, and then we enter the world of work. And we meet someone like Dilbert's pointy-haired boss, who demands that Dilbert put the date on a set of transparencies to be used in a presentation. Dilbert points out that it would take hundreds of dollars and hours upon hours to redo the color transparencies, while putting the date on them would also limit their use to one time only. But knowing that the boss cannot admit error, he awaits whatever bizarre, otherworldly reasoning the boss can give: and the boss says, "Everyone might not have a calendar."
Dilbert: Ouch! my head blew up!
PHB: The first date is February 30th.
For many, as for C.S. Lewis, the Great Goddess Nonsense had her first epiphany in the military. Heading for the front in World War I, Lewis wrote,
"The troop train from Rouen -- that interminable, twelve mile an hour train, in which no two coaches were alike -- left at about ten in the evening. Three other officers and I were allotted a compartment. There was no heating; for light we brought our own candles; for sanitation there were the windows. The journey would last about fifteen hours. It was freezing hard. In the tunnel just outside Rouen . . . there was a sudden wrenching and grating noise and one of the doors dropped off bodily into the dark. We sat with chattering teeth until the next stop, when the officer commanding the train came bustling up and demanded what we had done with our door. 'It came off, sir,' said we. 'Don't talk nonsense,' said he, 'it wouldn't have come off if there hadn't been some horseplay!' -- as if nothing were more natural than that four officers (being, of course, provided with screwdrivers) should begin a night journey in mid-winter by removing the door of their carriage."
Well, Nonsense is not the only Goddess running about in the world. Our story concerns another "Great" Goddess: the Goddess Artemis, who was a special patron of Ephesus. She had a great temple there, with a sacred stone that fell from the sky.
Ephesus was a place of pilgrimage. And where there are pilgrims, there are shops that sell souvenirs to pilgrims -- and artisans who make those souvenirs. And everyone in the business of pilgrimage -- whether from motives of commerce, or piety, or local pride -- doesn't want to see anything take the luster off the local patron's shine. And so it happened that one day, Demetrius the Silversmith -- Demetrius the idol-maker, the crafter of souvenirs (holy souvenirs, mind you) -- got himself and his friends all worked up over the apostle Paul and his Christian co-workers.
Now, Paul & Co. had never interfered with the temple of Artemis; they were all for a quiet life. But Demetrius could look ahead and see:
What if this new cult caught on?
What if nobody cared for our goddess anymore?That would be terrible!
That would be impious!
That would be RUIN for those who supplied the pilgrimage trade!!
And from their fear came a great anger. So, with a shout of "Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!" they grabbed a couple of Christian leaders and dragged them into the amphitheater to denounce their impiety.
Well, everyone joined in, not because they understood what was going on, but hey! a scuffle in the theater beats working. So all the shops closed, and the whole town came and everyone thought it was about something different -- until someone tried to explain, and then the entire throng shouted him down -- and everyone else -- chanting for two hours, "Great is Artemis of the Ephesians! Great is Artemis of the Ephesians! Megale he Artemis Ephesion!"
Finally, the town clerk managed to get people calmed down and sent them home before they decided to surge out into the streets and start a real riot: Nobody wanted that. But what was it about? What had Paul and Gaius and Aristarchus and Alexander done to provoke this uproar? Nothing. It's just that they threatened the status quo -- just because they were different, and because they offered the possibility that others could be different, too.
And you know what? You threaten the status quo, too -- just be being who you are: a disciple of Jesus Christ. And that may surprise you, especially if you've always thought that the Church was the absolute in status-quo-ville -- the ultimate upholder of the Way Things Are. And it is -- until you start to take its message seriously.
For you see, your faith in Christ will set you apart from the rest of the world. You will see things differently, do things differently, reach your conclusions -- even when they agree with everyone else -- by a different process. And the rest of the world is threatened by people who are different -- at least, different in that way: in Christ's way.
And we may laugh at the world's follies -- particularly when jolly Queen Nonsense is in charge -- but the world has an ugly side, too: a paranoid side. And it doesn't like being reminded that there are those who have an allegiance to someone beyond the world, someone who might disapprove of some goings-on in this world, or who might just offer a hope that turns all the golden hopes of this world to mere tinsel.
Writing of the Christian philosopher Blaise Pascal, Charles Williams said, "Pascal, like all believers, was a public danger." And so he was. And so are you and I.
Now, mind you, no one cares if you're religious. The world likes religion, mostly. It acknowledges that religion is part of life. But to say that Jesus Christ is the Way, the Truth AND the Life -- the whole of Life, the Lord of Life (for you) -- even if you think that's just between you and him -- is guaranteed to make some folks feel threatened.
When I was a young man eager to answer my call from God, finishing up at ISU and planning to enter seminary, I knew a man in Terre Haute -- a city policeman, who moonlighted as a guard at the mall where I worked. He liked to hang around the store. And having found out my desire to be a minister, he delighted in telling me wild, crude stories of his younger days -- and some of his more recent days, too.
"Bet you think I'm going to hell, don't you, Art?" he'd say. Well, it was no concern of mine, but it must have been of his, for he delighted to brag about his sins, and then say, as if it answered for everything, "Yeah, well, I'm a good cop. You remember that."
I didn't get it. Why did he think I would be shocked? Or did he think I might be intimidated? Mostly, I was bewildered. I didn't know why he leaned on me so. I do now: psychologists call it projection, where someone takes a conflict between two sides of himself and projects it on you so it becomes a conflict between the two of you. And I've learned that if you stand for God, those who have a beef with God will sometimes decide they have a beef with you. And that can get uncomfortable.
But it is also becoming increasingly common in this world that those who try to resist what the world blathers on about will often be shouted down in their attempt to stand up for the faith. I'm not one who likes to preach against things, but I would be remiss if I didn't point out that there are all kinds of hostile folks -- in the classroom, in the workplace, in campus activities -- all of whom feel threatened by anyone who doesn't affirm their slogans. They come in all shapes and sizes and degrees of weirdness, and all they have in common is that they are exceedingly mad at Christians, with our supposed bigotry, homophobia, stifling conformism, hypocrisy, puritanism, or what have you.
And if you and I are to escape being set upon by them, or if we are to survive the experience if we cannot avoid it, then it is important that you know who you are; it is important that you know whose you are; and it is important that you know what you stand for. Otherwise, you risk losing you: the you you know yourself to be; the you God made you to be. Better far, I say, to lose a hundred friends, to face ridicule or even injustice, than to lose the core of yourself. So let me remind you this morning who you are, and whose you are, and offer you something to stand for.
You are someone for whom Christ died. In a world where no one wants to admit he is wrong, where failure is treated like a dead skunk under the front porch, and where no one will stand with you when you mess up, Christ says your sins are forgiven. Your debts are paid. You can go free, for he has taken all the punishment due you. If there had been no one else ever in the whole world, Christ would have done all that he did -- for you; no matter who tells you different.
You are a child of God. God believes in you far more than you will ever believe in him. He has claimed you as his own. He has set his everlasting love upon you. Other people may give up on you, treat you as a throwaway, or deny what you thought you meant to each other, but you belong to God, and he won't forget it. Don't you forget it, either.
We stand for Love. Everybody talks about love, but they mostly are hedging their bets. We believe that Love is the intended destiny of creation. We believe that God is Love, that perfect Love is holiness. And thus, we believe that Love is truly possible. There are no "unlovable" people. And there are to be no "unloved" people, either. This is our cause. And we will not be shouted down.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.