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2019 Baccalaureate Sermon

The Rev. B. W. Woodward, Jr.
The Rev. B. W. Woodward, Jr. delivered the Baccalaureate Sermon at 2019 Commencement. Read his sermon below:
 
God, be in my head and in my understanding
God, be in my eyes and in my looking
God be in my mouth and in my speaking
God, be in my heart and in my thinking
God, be at my end, and at my departing
 
Thank you for having me at your graduation and my congratulations to all. I am happy to be back in this chapel, my spiritual home for 24 years, and I can’t wait to sing hymn 711 with you once again. Graduations are such joy. As a graduate, I can still recall the feeling of achievement, particularly when I nearly dropped out of two different institutions, and the events bringing my family together. When I graduated from divinity school in New York City my parents were too old and ill to attend, so I received a telegram which read: “there was a divinity student named fiddle who wouldn’t accept his degree. It was bad enough being fiddle without being fiddle dd.”  As a parent of five, the pride at graduations and the satisfaction that I was not broke.  And as Headmaster, the sense of accomplishment for all faculty and students, and the beginning of the three lofty reasons for teaching; June, July, and August.

I am honored to be asked to address you at this service. I last delivered a Baccalaureate address at Endicott College on the north shore of Boston. The president of the college and the graduates had spent the entire night on a cruise around the bay arriving back a couple of hours before the 10 o’clock service. I did not take the many drooping heads personally and counted as successes those who did not fall asleep. Knowing Mr. Peck did not take the seniors on an all-night hike, any drooping heads this morning are on me!

I want to acknowledge the retirement, and hence graduation, of four remarkable human beings, teachers, and parents who I hired many years ago and with whom as a colleague I shared this sacred mission of Holderness School: Franz Nicolay, Kathy Weymouth, Janice Nielson and Rich Weymouth. Their talent and devotion and care for students, representing 117 years of service, explains the excellence of Holderness School.

While I have been tangentially involved with the school the last 19 years, I have seen many changes. For instance, this is the first Holderness School Baccalaureate I have attended as it was always the sixth form eucharist, and always on Sunday. And I would note that i am the eighth and last headmaster in the 140 year history of Holderness School, as when Phil took over he chose to become the first head of school.  

But what has not changed, in the least bit, is that Holderness School seniors graduate with the knowledge and experience of community; with the meaning and purpose of service to others; with passion for their interests and compassion for others. They graduate with respect for others and embody honesty and truth. They are leaders. They are globally and environmentally aware. They have tasted their creative abilities; and they are resilient, if not courageous, and not afraid to take risks. They have in spades what we see so little of on the national stage. I recognize the seniors are not perfect in these dimensions, but they are well on their way.

I wish I knew you seniors personally. I know you represent 15 different states, 9 different countries, and four of you are sons and daughters of students from my era. I would also add that according to Dr. Robert Putnum of Harvard in his persuasive book, Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, you are in the top one percent in america receiving a quality education…the other 99%, sadly, are lacking a quality education and falling behind.  
How fortunate for you, and I hope you will take the time and effort to thank your parents and others for making this opportunity available to you. Maybe they, and your teachers, should get the graduation present?  Yes?

So what message would I have for you seniors and for the four faculty graduating with you? I don’t need to think long. It is the message that the Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire said when it authored this school 140 years ago. It is the message you heard in this Chapel over and over. It is the message in the school’s motto pro deo et genere humano, for God and humankind. The message is this:

Go in peace to love and serve the Lord. Depart in peace to love and serve others.

That sounds nice. Honorable. Safe and harmless. But let me say, to leave Holderness School in the peace of God to love and serve the Lord will exact from you. If you take it seriously and as it is meant, your strength and courage and your best self. To live in the peace of God is the greatest challenge you face; and also, potentially, the most fulfilling challenge you face.

Let me explain, and I will need your best minds to follow me.

First, it is important to eliminate what is not the peace of God. Some might think the peace of God is to be identified with a place and situation with no problems, no tensions, no conflict, no noise; like being on Squam Lake on a beautiful, quiet, romantic evening and the sense that all is right with the world. While there is a theological basis for rest and relaxation, that is not the world we live in. And, even if that were to be true, then the peace of God is available to a very select few throughout the world. Imagine an ad in the Boston Globe: For sale. The peace of God. Squam lake, Holderness, New Hampshire. only $95,000 per foot of shoreline.  

I should hasten to add that there is not always calm and contentment on Squam Lake. I have buried three persons who have drowned in Squam Lake, including our school doctor in the late 70’s and his daughter, a Holderness Student. No tranquility on Squam for those families.

Second, another false view of the peace of God is that it is something which falls on the successful. If I am healthy and financially well-healed and if I have gone to the right schools, like Holderness, and belong to the right clubs, and have respect in the community, then I know indeed that God’s peace has landed squarely on my head. I have proof. In this view God’s love and blessings become evident in what I have, in what i have achieved. But again, if that is the case, then the peace of God is not available to a vast majority of the world’s population.

This false notion, so dominate in popular thinking, originates in part in the Old Testament. The early Jewish theology believed that God favored Israel and made everything go right for the jewish people. When things did not go right, the only answer could be was that God was punishing them for not following the law. The good are rewarded and the bad are punished. It was known as the dogma of retribution. Behave or else.

Fortunately and eventually this dogma of retribution was challenged by the writers of the wisdom literature in the Old Testament or Hebrew Bible. The Book of Job is an example of that. Job does everything right; he is a remarkably upright, faithful, hard-working and righteous person, yet he loses everything..his flock, his family, his health. And Job says, “Why me Lord, I have done everything right?”

And the vestiges and remnants of that philosophy or theology of the good are rewarded and the evil punished remains today, amongst groups and individuals and in the national psyche. One might contend that God has rewarded America with the highest average income and standard of living in the world, and that is proof that God loves us more than other countries. Baloney of course.

This idea, that God rewards the successful hijacks the peace of God. Today, even when things are not going well, some people look for a reason or a scapegoat. One of those reasons is that God is punishing us because we must be misbehaving. For example, Fred Phelps, head of the Westboro Baptist Church and his family and followers in Topeka, Kansas are convinced that all that is going wrong is due to our tolerance of homosexuals. His people have picketed everywhere, including funerals of American soldiers, our own Bishop Robinson’s consecration in Durham, and ever yours truly when I was curate at St. David’s church in Topeka many years ago because I preached that God’s love knows no boundaries.

In short, the peace of God is not financial or social success, and conversely, those who suffer and struggle are not necessarily absent from the peace of God.

What then, in the peace of God?

Consider this. Jesus says, “I have come not to bring peace, but a sword.” and Jeremiah asked, “How can you run around yelling ‘peace, peace when there is no peace?” The epistle of Peter says, “fight the good fight.” and one of our favorite hymns says, “Onward Christian soldiers, marching as to war.”

Yes, there is plenty of validity to the emphasis of struggle and involvement and conflict in a Jewish/Christian life. Not calm and contentment, and, if so, then the peace of God is not running away, not an escape, not a refuge from the pain of human existence. Of this I am sure, the peace of God is not cessation, nor is it holing up divorced from the pulse and struggle of life.  Where is there not conflict or hurt? If we were for some reason to contend the peace of God was somehow a refuge from life’s demands, where in heaven’s name could God’s peace be found? The answer….nowhere.

Christian truth is paradox:  God becomes man; life through death; the last shall be first and the first last; he who loses his life will find it, and the list goes on.

And here is one more paradox; it is the heart of what I want to say today. It’s this. The peace of God is to be found in suffering, in conflict, not in tranquility and quiescence. What then is the peace of God? The peace of God is participating with God in the suffering of the world.

Dietrick Bonhoeffer, the German theologian and martyr in World War II, wrote so persuasively in his book Letters and Papers From Prison, written in a German prison on pieces of paper and smuggled out, fully aware of what the German Reich was doing to the jews, writes convincingly that God is to be found in human suffering. And that suffering is entered into when one involves himself or herself in doing God’s work—which is a war, or battle, or sword. It is the war against the forces alive within and without us which destroy God’s world and his people—call it greed or evil or selfishness or injustice. It is so difficult, when one looks at the absolute horror of the Holocaust, to believe that there could be a God anywhere around, and yet Bonhoeffer directs us to participate in the suffering in order to find God.

Again, the paradox: the peace of God is found within the battle, not outside the battle. To not be involved in places where God’s people suffer, where God’s creation suffers, to remain aloof from the issues and pain going on around us is to miss the peace of God.

God is in the horrible strife in Syria, in the continuing devastation of Puerto Rico….suffering.  and God is in Plymouth, New Hampshire at the Bridge House amongst the suffering of the homeless, and at whole village amongst the suffering of at-risk low-income families, most dealing with opioids. God suffers when these clients suffer. So let us not sentimentalize the peace of God nor avoid the central Christian symbol, the cross, the symbol of struggle, conflict, suffering, death. The author of Philippians read a minute ago says, rightly, that the peace of God is beyond our human understanding, but can and is to be known through participation with God in serving others.

If we are to find true peace in this life, the center of life’s meaning, we must enter into God’s world, not out of it.  We must expect, even want, suffering. There we will find and know the peace of God. In action, in giving, in sacrificing for others, we will experience and know the peace of God.

The peace of God is not a thing. Not something I have or am given. Certainly not something  I earn. The peace of God does not pay attention to social or economic class. The peace of God is available to all people at all times, even in the most difficult circumstances.

And you could well be thinking, “Woodward, this is a bit heavy, don’t you think? Particularly for this happy day?”

I obviously respond, “no.” While you have been at Holderness School, you have worked in inner-city Philadelphia, you have done a daily job to serve the community, you have fulfilled a social service requirement for graduation. All of this while you were pursuing your goals, playing sports, having fun. So it is not something you set aside while you go to college or while you pursue your career. It should be who you are, what you have been given to do, what your leadership is, what you will become.

My favorite daily prayer is the prayer of St. Francis. It expresses all I have been trying to say. It is a prayer of involvement, a prayer of confronting suffering. I hope you will take it with you.

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.  Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is sadness, joy;
Where there is darkness, light.
O divine master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console;
Not so much to be understood, as to understand;
Not so much to be loved, as to love.
For it is giving that we receive;
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
It is in dying that we are born again to eternal life.
 
So, Holderness School class of 2019, depart Holderness School in peace, using your talents and education to serve and meet the needs of others in your colleges and universities, your hometowns, and your home countries.

Go in peace, and help the other 99% obtain what you have obtained.
Go in peace, in gratitude and thanksgiving.
Go in peace to serve, you are the light of the world, you are the salt of the earth.
Go in peace Janice and Franz and Kathy and Rich, to love and serve the Lord, there is still much to do. Godspeed.

And, taking liberty with W. H. Auden’s poem, “
For the Time Being,”
Go in peace. and, if so,
You will see rare beasts, and have unique adventures
You will come to a great city that has expected your return
And all your occasions shall dance for joy.
Go in peace. To love. To serve.
Amen.
 
 
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List of 3 news stories.

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Holderness School
33 Chapel Lane, Holderness NH, 03245
mail P.O Box 1879 Plymouth, NH 03264-1879
phone (603) 536-1257