A Trinity Sunday Love Letter to our High School Graduates
June 7, 2009 – The Episcopal Church of St. Paul, Chatham, NJ
(the Rev’d Dr.) Elizabeth Kaeton, rector and pastor.
Today the church marks on its calendar the celebration of the Mystery of the Trinity. And, today, in this church, we celebrate another great mystery; that is: how in heaven’s name did time fly by so quickly as 10 of our children prepare to graduate from High School?
On June 23rd, Abby Bard, Josh Crowley, Caitlin Duffy, Bryan Ferguson, Claire Gano, Patrick James, Elliot Lowe, Grace Oakley, Addison Siegel and Kyle Trembour graduate from Chatham, Kent Place, Madison and New Providence High Schools to attend places like Dartmouth, Eckerd, and Hamilton Colleges, and the universities of Colgate, Colorado at Bolder, Monmouth, Northeastern, Vermont, Virginia, and Virginia Tech.
You can read more about them in the bulletin insert. There will also be a special celebration for them at Café St. Paul for them, featuring their favorite desserts and their baby pictures. They are, each and every one of them, bright, creative, and committed young adults. This is a huge milestone in their lives, so, if you don’t mind, I’m going to make this a bit of a ‘Graduation Love Letter’ to them. Y’all are, of course, welcomed to listen in.
Well, children, I suppose I won’t be able to call you ‘children’ much longer, but you know, you’ll always be ‘my children’ – well, mine and Tim’s. We’ve been together on this spiritual journey for the past seven years – pretty near a third of your young lives. I’ve watched you grow and mature into the fine young adults that you are today.
So, I’m pleased to have to preach to you about the mystery of the Trinity and, in particular, this particular passage from John’s gospel. It’s the story of Nicodemus, a Pharisee who was a leader of the Jews, who came to Jesus by night to ask him a question.
This story of that late night conversation between Nicodemus and Jesus has a great deal to teach us this morning, especially those of you who will be graduating from High School in two weeks and going off to college. They are important lessons, lessons that call you to open your minds and use your intellect to find your imagination, lessons that we all need to hear and re-learn no matter how old we are, or who we are, or where we’ve been, or where we think we’re going, or what we think we already know.
The first thing to note is that Nicodemus came to Jesus by night. He came seeking information under the cloak of darkness. He was a Pharisee – a keeper of the Torah, the ancient religious law of the Hebrew people. Jesus, on the other hand, was a young, upstart, radical Jew, who broke all the religious laws and didn’t follow the strict Levitical codes of ritual washing before meals, and though he performed miracles, he did them on the Sabbath. His followers included tax collectors and harlots and other unsavory characters.
So, there was a good reason for Nicodemus to come to Jesus by night. He wanted to learn from Jesus, but he also needed to protect himself from being seen with Jesus, ‘lest he set into motion the dynamic of ‘guilt by association.’
I want to turn away from the details of the story and, instead of considering what Nicodemus learned from Jesus, let’s consider for a moment, what we can learn from this story of Nicodemus. I could go on and on, but want to focus in on the top five:
Lesson #1: Expect to be surprised. Most of what you will learn that will be important to you in life will come from the most unlikely people and at the most unlikely ways. It’s not that what you have learned in high school and what you will learn in college is not important. It is. But, it’s how you apply what you’ve learned that will make all the difference. Because there is mystery at the center of life, life is filled with surprises. What you will learn about the world, but especially what you will learn about yourself, will always be a lesson wrapped up in surprise and mystery.
Lesson #2: There is risk in mystery. Higher education is always costly – in terms of dollars and . . . well, these days . . . .not cents but more dollars. Lots of ‘Benjamins’, in fact. That’s the rising cost of higher education, but ‘higher learning’ is also costly – in terms of the risks you may have to take in order to learn the things that you can’t always learn in a classroom. Sometimes, the hardest lessons to learn are the most dangerous – because they challenge everything you thought you already knew and teach you that you have so much more to learn.
Lesson #3: Follow Jesus, not the hype about Jesus. Some of you will be going off to places and having experiences and meeting people who give Christianity a bad name. You know. The kind of Christianity that leads you to believe that following Jesus means that you have to follow rules – rules that judge and exclude other people. People who are different. People who don’t follow their rules. People whose ‘hype’ about Jesus has nothing to do with what you’ve been taught here at St. Paul’s. As one of my friends and colleagues in ministry says, “Follow Jesus. Don’t follow the hype about Jesus.” Write that down somewhere, will you? It’s important to remember that piece of advice.
Lesson #4: Make sure you get the whole story. When you go off to college or university ball games, some zealot in the crowd will be holding up a sign that says, “John 3:16” – and, because you went to Confirmation Class with Tim and I, you’ll know what that means. Or, at least, you’ll know how to look it up: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.” Understand, please: that sign and those sacred words are being used to send out a message to anyone who is not Christian that their religion is inferior. That, if you don’t believe John 3:16 you are not going to heaven - you will not have ‘eternal life’.
Here’s what I want you to do: I want you to make a sign that says, “ . . . and 17,” and sit right next to the guy who has the sign that says, “John 3:16”. If you read vs. 17 of the third chapter of John’s gospel it says, “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
See? God gives us a choice – not an ultimatum. Make sure you get the whole story.
And finally, Lesson # 5: Life is in the journey; it’s not just a destination. You may start off thinking that you are on one path and then suddenly, something happens. You meet this guy or this woman. You have a conversation that gets you to thinking about things you never thought of before and suddenly, you find yourself on a completely different path.
Remember Nicodemus? The guy who came to Jesus by night? Guess how he ends up? Remember what I said about reading the whole story? Well, you’ve got to read from this passage in Chapter 3 clean onto Chapter 19 and there, buried in vs. 38-42, we meet up with old Nicodemus again. It’s after Jesus has been crucified. Joseph of Arimathea comes to Pilate to ask if he can take away the body of Jesus. And there, in verse 38, we find that Nicodemus had come with Joseph, bringing ‘a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about a hundred pounds weight’. In case you didn’t know, that was Very Expensive. And the two men, together, tend to the body of Jesus and bury him in a new tomb in the garden.
Did you catch that? Nicodemus, the Pharisee, became a disciple of Jesus. Nicodemus, the one who came to Jesus by night, the one who was in the dark about the mystery of God in Christ, finally saw the light. No one knows what really happened. Maybe Nicodemus went to his friend, Joseph of Arimathea, who was a ‘secret disciple’ of Jesus. Maybe they had a talk. Maybe they got beyond the hype about Jesus and got to know something about the mystery of Jesus. Maybe light dawned in the darkness for Nicodemus. And, Nicodemus was changed and transformed and was never again the same.
I don’t know how that happens. I only know that it does. It is as mysterious to me as the mystery of the Trinity, which I also don’t know how to explain to you. I only know that the Trinity of God – God, The Author of Life. God, The Word of Life. And, God, the Spirit of Life – is part of the core of my life that brings me to new life as well as the promise of life eternal.
The three are one and the one are three. Sort of like family, which my grandmother used to describe like this: She would hold up her hand and say, “There are four fingers and a thumb on my hand. Each one is different and yet they belong to the same hand.” That’s true for your family. It’s also true for this church family. That’s because whether its family or whether it’s the Trinity, at the center of it is the mystery of Love.
Love is the mystery buried deep in our faith. It has been said that God created humans because God loves stories. The real story of Nicodemus is not in Chapter 3, but buried deep in vs. 38-41 of Chapter 19. The real story of God is buried deep in the mystery of the Trinity. The real story of your life is buried deep in the mystery of your life. To find it, you must find Love. One way to find Love is to find the story of God and learn how the stories of our lives fit into the story of God in Christ Jesus.
Your most challenging task, as you head off to college, is to discover your story within the context of God’s story. Learn that story and you’ll have learned enough to begin to know the right questions to ask that may lead you, to paraphrase Rilke, into the long, winding path where you may find the right answer for yourself.
Indeed, that challenge is the challenge of all our lives of faith – no matter how old we are, or where we have come, or how much farther we think we have to go.
As you take your leave of your home and your friends and your family, I hope you will also take the story of Nicodemus with you. Remember the lessons he has to teach you. And, most importantly of all, enjoy the ride – because life is in the journey; it’s not just the destination.