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A Baccalaureate Message

John 14:15-17The Message (MSG)

15-17 “If you love me, show it by doing what I’ve told you. I will talk to the Father, and he’ll provide you another Friend so that you will always have someone with you. This Friend is the Spirit of Truth. You know him already because he has been staying with you, and will even be in you!

Lately, making rounds on the internet are college graduation speeches that are being given all across the country. Various celebrities, people who have made their mark in one way or another are being asked to share a few words of wisdom with graduating students – give them some food for thought as they step out into the future. These speeches often have a similar but compelling tone: the speeches begin with a story of some hardship or challenge the presenter had to endure or overcome, the process of how they made it through that difficulty, and then words of encouragement or tips for how the listeners can and must find ways to persevere through the challenges in their own lives.

Commencement speeches are plum full of inspiring quotes – here are some examples:

“It doesn’t matter how far you might rise. At some point you are bound to stumble. And when you do I want you to know this, remember this: There is no such thing as failure. Failure is just life trying to move us in another direction.” – Oprah Winfrey in a speech to Harvard

“Death is very likely the single best invention of life. It’s life’s change agent; it clears out the old to make way for the new. Right now, the new is you. But someday, not too long from now, you will gradually become the old and be cleared away. Sorry to be so dramatic, but it’s quite true. Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life.” – Steve Jobs in a speech at Stanford

And now go, and make interesting mistakes, make amazing mistakes, make glorious and fantastic mistakes. Break rules. Leave the world more interesting for your being here. – Neil Gaiman in a speech at the University of the Arts

Speeches like this, given at a time of great transition – after much has been completed but also when there is much yet to come – they are powerful.

In the gospel that was read in many churches this morning from St. John – Jesus continues his own graduation speech of sorts. Although there are no caps and gowns, no diplomas, it certainly is a time of great transition. He is talking to his disciples on the night he will soon be arrested and taken away to be killed. He has much to share with them.  He is telling the disciples to continue to live and serve in his name even though he wasn’t going to be with them in the same way any longer, he encourages obedience to his commandments and speaks of the Spirit who will be with them forever.

In Greek the word for the Holy Spirit is paraclete – which can also be interpreted as Advocate or Friend or Helper, Encourager, Comforter.

The Holy Spirit is with us always – promising to intercede for us with sighs too deep for words to express, blessing us with suspicions of hope when everything else might be pointing toward desolation, calling us, shaping us, shifting us, inspiring us. And just as that Holy Spirit is with us always – it affects the way that we are present in the lives of others.

For whom in your life are you their paraclete? Who are your paracletes? Who are those people who have been there for you – helping, encouraging, comforting you on the journey? I bet some of those people are sitting beside you tonight. We need these paracletes in our lives, friends and family, mentors. These people who walk alongside us in our daily living.

About a week ago, well-known comedic actor and Saturday Night Live alum Will Ferrell, gave the commencement address at his alma mater, The University of Southern California, and he told a beautiful story of how his career found its seeds right there on that campus. He said he graduated from college with a degree in Sports Information and immediately moved right back home – for two solid years. He thanked his mom who was in the audience as he gave the speech. He said, “she recognized that while I had an interest in pursuing sportscasting, my gut was telling me that I really wanted to pursue something else. And that something else was comedy.”

He went on to talk about how the campus became his testing lab and theater. He was always trying to make his friends laugh. He said, “I had a work-study job at the humanities audiovisual department that would allow me to take off from time to time. By allow me, I mean I would just leave and they didn’t notice.”  Ferrell would leave his job if he knew his friends were attending class close by and he would crash a lecture in costume and character. One day a friend told him he should crash his literature class and so Ferrell put together a janitor’s outfit complete with work gloves, safety goggles, a dangling lit cigarette, and a bucket full of cleaning supplies. He then walked into the class, interrupting the lecture, informing the professor that he’d just been sent from Physical Plant to clean up a student’s vomit.

A month later, the professor at that class, a distinguished professor named Ronald Gottesman, grabbed Ferrell by the shoulder when he was walking through campus. Ferrell said he was sure that he was going to tell him to never do that again. Instead, he told him that he loved him barging in on his class, that it was one of the funniest things he had ever seen, and would he please do it again?

So on invitation from Professor Gottesman Ferrell continued to barge in on his lecture class from time to time as the guy from Physical Plant coming by to check on things, and the professor would joyfully play along.

Ferrell said, “One time I got my hands on a power drill and I just stood outside the classroom door operating the drill for a good minute. Unbeknownst to me, Professor Gottesman was wondering aloud to his class, ‘I wonder if we’re about to get a visit from our Physical Plant guy?’ I then walked in as if on cue and the whole class erupted in laughter. After leaving, Professor Gottesman then weaved the surprise visit into his lecture on Walt Whitman and the Leaves of Grass. Moments like these encouraged me to think maybe I was funny to whole groups of people who didn’t know me, and this wonderful professor had no idea how his encouragement of me — to come and interrupt his class no less — was enough to give myself permission to be silly and weird.”

I loved that story and how that teacher found a way to be encouraging to Will Ferrell – letting him use his own classroom as a lab to test out his comedic talents. Isn’t that great? The teacher could have been so wrapped up in himself and the material he wanted to present and the brief amount of time he had to do it and gotten upset that Ferrell interrupted – but instead he saw this young guy with talent and an opportunity for joy to be shared. You can’t schedule that. You have to be open to it and encourage it when you spot it.

It might seem a bit odd to think of this as a holy thing – and yet we get to participate in the work of the Holy Spirit when we are encouragers. When we are comforters and helpers. This is no small thing. It changes lives. It directs courses and pathways, and even if we accomplish many great things in our lives, this work of encouragement is among the finest work any of us will ever get to do.

So, my dear graduates – you have hopefully had many encouragers who have loved you and supported you and gotten you to this exciting time in your journey. And now, I pray that as you move forward through the days and months and years to come, you will remember to pay it forward. Every day, look for ways to encourage those around you. Think about uplifting words to say. Work hard to be the one who helps joyfully, who serves happily, encourages abundantly. May you, and all of us, excel at this Holy Work in Jesus’ name. God bless you always. Amen.



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