The Courage to Start

John 1:1 and Lectionary Passages

Opening

AND God stepped out on space,

And He looked around and said,

I’m lonely—

I’ll make me a world.”

And far as the eye of God could see

Darkness covered everything,

Blacker than a hundred midnights

Down in a cypress swamp.

Then God smiled,

And the light broke,

And the darkness rolled up on one side,

And the light stood shining on the other,

And God said, “That’s good!”

(James Weldon Johnson 1922)

Start Fresh

Well begun is half done. Gut begonnen, hapt gebonnen. Your first day on the job includes rhythms, histories, personalities and systems that will accompany you until retirement. Your first month of marriage includes stories, histories, encounters, and disagreements that will span the lifespan of the life of the marriage. Your first week on campus will expose you to a place, a time, a community and a history which will change you far more than you will change it. Picture the extended family crowded in the evening around the cradle of a newborn.

A true joy of university life is matriculation. In one sense, the world is reborn every September, reborn in spirit and reborn in flesh. It is thunderous to hear 4000 18 year olds and a few scattered, well outnumbered faculty and staff, create the new year with a roar. It echoes all the way from Monday morning through today.

On Monday we applauded the young men and women. Many wore T-shirts. As a liturgical observance, a place that is where the work of the people is seen under the aspect of eternity, my colleague and I read out the statements. Many simply named a club, a town, a team, or a project. Marsh Chapel, read one shirt. But the great wave of announcements continued well beyond group identities. Save the Sudan…So many books, so little time…Big Love…Red Sox (this is a religious affirmation in our region)…Make cupcakes not war…The Grateful Dead (really!)…A heart strangely warmed and a community warmly strange…Devil says: God is busy, may I help you?…My colleague said he was going to market a shirt reading, ‘Stop marketing silly T-Shirts’. I thought those of you present today, and the many listening from afar, might enjoy feeling the pulsing power of thousands of young lives, ready to start fresh. Fresh men and women.

There is a divine energy, a creative energy, pulsing in the start of something. To this energy, the Psalmist sings as he offers a blessing upon meditation, reading, and the reading of Torah, by one who so becomes ‘like a tree planted by streams of water, in all that she does, she prospers’. Start well. It matters.

Our community was blessed by one who himself has been planted by streams of waters, and has prospered. Sir Hans spoke clearly about beginning. Like Zaccheus, he is a diminutive don. I am a scientist—more precisely a microbiologist. You might think, looking at me, that a micro biologist is a small biologist, but it actually means that I do research, using bacteria as test organisms. By doing research I am not only trying to discover new things, but I am publicly proclaiming that I am ignorant. If I knew the answer, I obviously would not need to do research. In other words, your Professors are still students, just as you are—the only difference is that they have been at it rather longer. Let me remind you that there is a world of difference between ‘I don’t know’ and “I don’t know but I am trying to find out”.

It is this creative energy, a divine donation in our midst, which gives us the courage to start fresh. We do not know every place the journey will take us. But we are trying to find our way. You do not need to know the whole story to get started. In your faith journey, you need not finally have concluded just where you want to land your little boat. But begin. In one sense, for the 21st century, there is simply no better place to start your spiritual journey than in a university setting.

Nor do we need to have a fully finished picture of God, to begin our journey. God is not one of the aspects or features of our world, not an item or a value or a virtue or a plant or a decoration. We are well warned from history not to start with an image of God that is really an idol. God gives the conditions for life, but may not be identifie
d with any solitary aspect of life.

As John Kennedy put it, “All of this will not be finished in the first hundred days. Nor will it be finished in the first one thousand days, nor in the life of this Administration, nor even perhaps in our lifetime on this planet. But let us begin.”

Start Fresh!

Start Over

Still, every solitary beginning, which we might name in our hearts, is not ever fully solitary nor completely a beginning either. Sometimes to start is more to start over. Immanuel Kant, across the craggy, beautiful and arid expanse of his Critique of Pure Reason, argued that the ultimate role of the reason to understand itself, to apprehend itself, through time and space, and so to guard itself. From what? From misuse, from misunderstanding, from misapplication. He too feared pride, sloth and falsehood, as we do too. So, we might say in parallel fashion, the role of religion is ultimately to watch over itself, to keep itself from harming itself and others. That requires not merely starting, but also starting over. To begin is to begin again.

The greatest of the prophets, Jeremiah, tells us so, in unmistakable terms. His figure is the potter and vessel, his hope is in the capacity in life to start over. More: the potter is the divine design against evil, the pressure in life and history to learn from what is wrong, and so to learn again what is right. Here is a hidden gospel. If you know evil, at least, by inversion, we may learn to know good.

Our student matriculation speaker caught the new beginning spirit, the starting over, the excitement of trying again. I was so moved by his speech that I asked his permission to quote him this morning, as I had done with Sir Hans. Adil Younis, who gave the student address, is with us today. I wanted to stand up and shout! Amen! Not just because Adil mentioned ML King. Not only because he aptly quoted Howard Thurman. Not merely because he mentioned Marsh Chapel. (All very honorable things to have mentioned, mind you.) Friends give you back your real self. Adil gives Marsh Chapel a reminder of who we are supposed to become, in the hands of the divine potter: I challenge you to discover what ideals that have been fostered here at Boston University for generations are most import to you. For me it has always been Boston University’s innovational history and its relationship to the city.

Boston University is in the heart of the city of Boston and in that sense we are in service to the city. When I first came to the Boston University campus what struck me most was Marsh Chapel and how it serves as a non-denominational place of worship. For me, coming from Lebanon where religion is often a cause for conflict that was a really powerful thing and it is something I hope to take back to my community one day. I also like to think that one of the greatest dream in American History may have begun right here on the Charles River Campus, but it certainly did culminate with Martin Luther King Jr. sharing his dream with millions of people on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

I challenge you to discover what your dreams are and to begin pursuing them here at Boston University.

I would like to leave you with a quotation. One that you may have heard before, but nonetheless truly embodies the spirit of Boston University. A quotation by Howard Thurman: Do not ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.

Start over!

Jump Start

There are some times and places in life where a start requires a jump start.

We learned to drive in the frozen snow of the northern reaches of New York State. To learn early to ‘jump’ the car, with the help of others and cables and a strong source of energy, was a necessity not a luxury.

Sometimes, in the journey of learning to live, there are points that require a sudden jolt, a burst of spirit and energy, a jump start. John Dempster, who started Boston University as a school for Methodist ministers, and who grew up in upstate New York, adroitly brought such sudden starts to new projects. In the heart of Luke’s gospel, today, we hear a similar word. Here Jesus is depicted as jolting his hearers. To start down the road of discipleship some may need to hear the jolting word of separation from first identity, as a prerequisite to second birth, or the birth of a second identity, or becoming a real human being. Bear the cross. Count the cost. Leave kindred and even life. These are stern and sharp words. They jolt. They jump. They inflame. To start some engines, especially in the cooler climates, a jump start may be required. A word of sober caution, a word of mature warning, a word of challenge.

A couple of years ago, my colleague and friend Robert Neville said as much, at a time of another beginning: ‘Our text from Ecclesiastes however says that “better is the end of a thing than its beginning”. Dramatic openings are fine, filled with large choices. But life is lived in the living, not the starting, and we do not know how to assess it until the end…Success…will be measured in large part by the management of prosperity and adversity as dual gifts of God”. Sober caution and a word of mature warning and a word of challenge.

There are perils in sudden starts. But t
here are perils, too, when sudden starts are avoided. A sudden decision is not necessarily a hasty one, prepared as it may have been by earlier experience, sincere prayer, personal courage, and collegial support. Still, the high voltage and energy burst of sudden starts warrants sobriety and caution.

A day of new beginnings is a day of good news. In the faith of Jesus Christ, you are given courage to start. To start fresh, to start over, to jump start. I will not complain if someone hears this as a Trinity of creation, redemption, and inspiration. For there is a blessing in beginnings, enshrined in the Fourth Gospel at its very outset: “In the beginning, was the Word”. The presence, voice, person, relationship, power, love of God were—from the beginning. So we believe…

Coda

We believe in God who has created and is creating

Who has come in the true person, Jesus, to reconcile and to make new, who works in us and others by the Spirit.

We trust God.

God calls us to be the church, the Body of Christ.

To celebrate Christ’s presence.

To love and serve others.

To seek justice and resist evil.

To proclaim Jesus, crucified and risen, our judge and our hope.

In life, in death, in life beyond death,
God is with us.

We are not alone.
Thanks be to God.

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