Baccalaureate Sermon 2009

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Thank you, to the mighty, matchless class of 2009 of our beloved Boston University for receiving me so generously. Congratulations. You all can exhale now. You made it!

Thank you to families for the sacrifices of love you have made over the years. Hopefully, after today you can start receiving your own stimulus package.

Thank you to President Brown, faculty, staff and trustees for extending this invitation.

Thank you to my family who form the wind beneath my wings – daughter, Mariama, and her husband, my son-in-love, Rahn, our daughter, Adiya, and granddaughter, Ella Bella Boo.

Thank you to my husband, the Rev. Dr. Ray Hammond, who was privileged to deliver the baccalaureate sermon 10 years ago. After 35 years, 11 months, 23 hours, he still take my breath away.

Over the years, I have been privileged to deliver other commencement speeches. This year is particularly difficult. Your class is facing the worst unemployment rate in a generation. Instead of making your way into the real world, many of you will be returning home to live with your parents.

Yet there is a word from the Lord. As we reflect on the significance of this call to persevere in the 10th chapter of Hebrews, please pray with me on the charge, Just do it!”

Today this theme is most often identified as the popular logo for Nike athletic gear. But I submit that long before Nike was a twinkle in its founder’s eye, this mantra could be found in the timeworn book that has been passed down through generations of mothers.

Where are the mothers in the house? “The Handbook of Motherhood” is comprised of all those tried-and-true statements that we promised we’d never say when we grew up and had kids of our own. My personal favorite is, “I brought you into this world, I can sno’ nuff take you out.”

“Just do it” is one of those statements.

Your mother didn’t want to say it, but every now and then, you made her go there. Can I get a witness from any mothers in the audience today? After repeatedly asking you to do something, you bright, gifted, articulate hopes for the worlds of tomorrow became the deaf, mute, blind and ignorant of our today. Right mothers?

And your uncooperative attitudes would mount up with wings like eagles and soar to a path that led straight to her last nerve. After enduring a litany of excuses, the collective wisdom of Dr. Spock, the Proverbs 31 woman and even Oprah became patently irrelevant, she blared, “No ifs, no ands, no buts – just do it!”

Surely, this logo summarizes this text in the book of Hebrews. This open letter, whose definitive author remains a mystery, was written to a group of early Christians, who faced great persecution. They endured jeers and flogging, chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, sawed in two, for the sake of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

By God’s grace and because of their courage, faith and determination, the early church not only survived, it had thrived. However, as we meet them in this text, they are undergoing a new wave of persecution. Some were starting to give up the faith.

The writer issues this poignant challenge: “Remember where you’ve come from, what God’s brought you through, how He made a way out of no way and do not throw away your confidence. You need to persevere so that when you have done the will of God, you will receive what he has promised.”

No ifs, no ands, no buts, just do it!

As you seek to discern your next steps during this season of challenge, allow me to suggest three: Step up with courage; step out with faith; step forward with determination.

You must step with courage, just do it!

For the past eight years I have devoted my time, talent and treasure to advocating on behalf of the great people of Sudan, victims of genocide — not only in Darfur, which is western Sudan, but also in southern Sudan and the Nuba Mountains in central Sudan – all of which was facilitated by the current president, Omar Al-Bashir, for whom the ICC has issued an arrest warrant for murder and crimes against humanity.

My earliest trips were fear-filled, not because of fear from external dangers associated with traveling into a war zone, but because of the fears of inadequacy that loomed large within me.

One day during my second trip was a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day. I encountered an 11-year-old cow herder whose face was rendered utterly grotesque by his former master. Angry because the lad lost a cow, the master used an ax to chop off the boy’s nose.

That night I lay in the loneliness of my tent, tossing and turning, and yes, crying and crying out. God, get me out of here. I don’t have what it takes to confront the profound depth of this crisis. I cannot do Sudan. Father, let this cup pass from me.

God began to minister to me in the midst of my inadequacy. God said that I was exactly in the place I needed to be. And it did not feel like a good place, but it was a God place.

The God place is where you hit a wall and you have to choose whether you’ll succumb to fear or step up with courage. The God place is where you come to know that you know the truth of Mother Teresa’s observation that most Christians don’t recognize that Jesus is all they need until Jesus is all they have.

On a dark night in war-torn Sudan, God reminded me that I stand on the shoulders of heroes like Harriet Tubman and Eleanor Roosevelt and Rosa Parks and Mother Teresa. These women confronted hard situations with courage. They refused to shrink back in the midst of dire circumstances and set the stage for great changes in our world.

Indeed, there is a direct line to be traced from the courage of Harriet Tubman and the courage of Eleanor Roosevelt and the courage of Rosa Parks to the election of America’s first African-American president, Barak Hussein Obama.

After that terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day, I along with others found the courage to say yes to God. We found the courage to found My Sister’s Keeper and come alongside Sudanese women as they seek justice and rebuild their communities.

We found the courage to build a national and international advocacy movement to stop the genocide in Darfur and promote peace throughout all Sudan.

We found the courage to move from that lonely tent in Sudan to the West Wing of the White House to advocate for this cause with two different presidents of the United States.

In two weeks, by God’s grace, my husband and I will join a delegation returning to South Sudan to dedicate the new campus for our primary school for girls and our literacy project for women. That campus, constructed by MSK, will serve 1,000 girls and 200 women.

Step up with courage and just do it!

Step up with courage and also step out on faith. I’m talking about a special kind of faith, what Jesus called “mustard-seed faith,” and what I so often see in the faith of a little kid. I am convinced that just as there are few atheists in the foxhole, there are also few atheists in the sandbox or on the merry-go-round or the teeter-totter.

In my second year of residency I met 5-year-old Elizabeth, from Maine. Elizabeth developed one of the worst forms of leukemia for which we could buy time but offer no cure. Curing her frequent hospitalizations, we became best buddies. That was a blessing. The problem was that the treatments for Elizabeth’s disease at that time almost 30 years ago was often as traumatic as the disease itself.

One morning, Elizabeth’s mother greeted our resident team during rounds. Through the night, she had wrestled with a sense that she could no longer put Elizabeth through the indignity and pain of this regimen. That same morning, Elizabeth awakened and independently shared that she didn’t want any more needles. The faithful mother and the courageous 5-year-old daughter stood firm and returned to their beloved Maine.

Several months later, while walking the hall of the oncology ward, I heard singing and laughter coming from one room. I peeked in to discover now 6-year-old Elizabeth and her mother, and several friends and nurses, donned in party hats and eating cake and ice cream.

Elizabeth had come for a transfusion to prevent excessive bleeding. She explained why they were having a party. She had been praying – she paused to explain to me that praying is when you talk to God and God talks back to you. God had told her that she was going to go to heaven where she would see her grandmother and she would not be sick any more.

Because Elizabeth believed what God had said to her would be accomplished, the party was on! That’s the kind of faith Christ was talking about when he said that in order to enter the kingdom of heaven we have to change and become like a little child. That’s the kind of faith that allows you to step out and pierce the darkness of challenging times.

Seated in my favorite chair of my study is a black Raggedy Ann doll named Dr. Gloria. Before Elizabeth died, she had willed Dr. Gloria to me. Now Dr. Gloria reminds me that as I face difficult challenges both personally and professionally that make up the package called life, that God will never leave me nor forsake me.

With courage and faith, a child-like faith, I can step up and just do it!

Step forward with determination. To be perfectly honest, the work does get wearying. That’s when God sends an angel – for this pediatrician, usually a child – to propel you to step forward with determination.

A few years ago, I came to the end of a rather frustrating day. I spent the morning unsuccessfully searching for alternate housing for an asthmatic hospitalized in the ICU again, who lived in a rat- and roach-infested third-floor walkup that was a serious hazard to his health.

My afternoon began trying to access social services for the family of a little girl who we discovered had been sexually abused. All my referral sources told me to take a number, the wait would be long. By the time I got to my last client, I seriously wanted to ask Scotty to beam me up.

Maria was a 12-year-old girl, recently emigrated from Guatemala. In order to assess how well kids are adjusting to the new culture, I encourage them to speak English with me. But Maria kept shaking her head no. Her mother explained that Maria was “muy timida” – very shy.

Sympathetically, I invited Maria to pull the curtain and undress for my exam. As she did so, Maria’s mom and I continued to talk. Her mom was a minister; so was I. A doctor and a minister? Yes. Married? Yes. With children? Two. Que bueno! Well, challenging.

Suddenly the curtain flew back to reveal Maria in her blue paper gown. With her hand on her hip, her head bobbing, a smile on her face, and her finger pointing at me, she said in perfect English, “You go girl!” In any language, that sounds like profound wisdom for graduates determined to persevere.

You go, Class of 2009 of Boston University – just do it! Step up with courage – just do it! Step out on faith – just do it! Step forward in determination – just do it! Clip the ifs, can the ands, and kick the buts – Just do it!

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