Sunday, November 5, 2017

The Youth Replies, I Can

These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.”  Revelation 7:14

The tradition at my high school was that each graduation speaker had to discuss as his or her theme a famous saying of an American hero.  There was a rotating series of texts, and these were assigned by Mr. Snyder, the venerable senior class advisor, who had been at it since my mother was a student.  Even by 1996, this sort of thing was dreadfully old-fashioned, but no one really complained about it—it was just how it was at Clear Spring High School. 

I wasn’t told until two weeks before graduation which text I would have to discuss.  I wanted Daniel Webster’s words from the Dartmouth College case: “she is a small school, but there are those who love her.”  Whoever got that could write the tear-jerker.

But instead, I was assigned a bit of a poem by Ralph Waldo Emerson:
So nigh is grandeur to our dust, 
So near is God to man, 
When Duty whispers low, Thou must, 
The youth replies, I can.

I tried to pull up my old speech recently, but due to an obsolete word processing program, it now rests in the cyberspace graveyard.  But I remember much of what I said.  It’s probably what you, too, would have said when you were seventeen.   The future is bright, we have great promise, and Duty is whispering our name.  Maybe one of you, the graduating class of Clear Spring High, will find the cure for cancer, or feed the hungry in Africa, or write the song that will give hope in our darkest days.  Be brave, take risks, you can do it.

Yes, that’s how young people are.  That’s what they believe.  They’re not afraid.  They don’t take time to calculate all the risks.  And yes, sometimes because of that they fall flat on their faces.  But that’s also what helps them promise to love someone “until death do us part,” to found a business based on the “big new idea,” to give themselves to fight beneath their country’s flag.  Emerson, you might be interested to know, wrote those lines in 1863, as a part of a recruitment drive to fill the gaps in the Union Army, those bluecoated men fighting for freedom.  “The youth replies, I can.”

Today we celebrate the Feast of All Saints.  Though Emerson was a second-rate theologian at best, his lines speak directly to that enthusiasm and courage, what Saint Paul calls a willingness “to spend and be spent”[1] that marks the lives of the true saints of God.  “The youth replies, ‘I can.”  I can hunger and thirst for righteousness, and seek after purity of heart.  I can endure “the great tribulation,” so that my robes might be washed clean in the blood of the Lamb.

Jesus, after all, began his public ministry at thirty, and the apostles he called were probably younger still—not old enough to own their fishing boats.  The church has always placed the martyrs at the first rank of the company of saints, and they’ve mostly been young as well—maidens who refused to be violated, foot-soldiers who would not bow the knee to idols, missionaries far from home armed only with a word of hope.  St. Benedict started his monastery at 23.  St. Elizabeth of Hungary, for whom hundreds of hospitals are named, gave herself so completely to the care of the poor and the sick that she died of exhaustion at 24.  Martin Luther King launched the Montgomery Bus Boycott when he was 26. 

The stories of the saints are marked by a thrilling boldness.  They laugh at the folly of a sad old world, push on in full confidence that God is with them and nothing will be able to turn them round.  One of my favorite authors, George Bernanos wrote an amazing short story about Joan of Arc, she who, without a scrap of military experience, relying only on a vision, took command of the French army at the age of seventeen.  Toward the end of his story, Bernanos says with reflective astonishment:
To become a saint, what bishop would not give up his ring, his mitre and his crozier; what cardinal his purple; what pope his white robe, his chamberlains, his Swiss Guard and all his temporal power? Who would not want to have the strength to embark on this wonderful adventure; it is indeed the only adventure.”[2]

We long for the strength to embark on this wonderful adventure.  Following Jesus demands all we can offer: our full concentration, the endurance of our bodies, our unbounded love.  We struggle against the desires in our hearts that would lead us astray.  We share a message that challenges the world’s self-satisfaction and complacency.  There are always more hungry people to be fed, more troubled souls to comfort, more broken relationships to be healed.  And often, when give our best, we are greeted with anger or indifference. 

It’s no mistake that when Saint Paul tries to describe discipleship to his congregations, he most always uses same two metaphors: an athlete running a race and a soldier marching into battle.  Running and fighting demand all we have—exertion and pain for the sake of a glorious goal.  Even after many years of imprisonment, as he pens his final letter, he still writes, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.”[3]  His sense of adventure was undiminished.  He had aged, but in his heart, he was as bold as he had ever been. 

Did you notice how rousing the All Saints hymns are today?  “So may thy soldiers, faithful true and bold, fight as the saints who nobly fought of old.”  Gary humored me by printing for us Bishop Heber’s All Saints hymn, “The Son of God Goes Forth to War.”  It’s a recruitment song, edited out of our current hymnal for being a little too vivid for sedentary Episcopalians—the tryant’s brandished sword, the lion’s gory mane and all that.  It’s the hymnological equivalent of “Uncle Sam wants you”—Christ is charging ahead, will you come and do your part:
They climbed the steep ascent of heav'n
Through peril, toil, and pain.
O God, to us may grace be giv'n
To follow in their train!]

Discipleship demands all we can offer, but we never struggle alone.  In the great adventure of sanctity, Christ is faithful to His own.  He stands in His risen glory, and His arm is not shortened.  He gives us His Spirit, to guide our minds and to fix our will on what is good and true.  He surrounds us with brothers and sisters pledged in baptism to the same cause.  The great heroes who have gone before us cheer us on, continually praying for us.  Grace abounds.

It abounds no matter how old we are in years, in spite of the other obstacles and limitations we face.  The only true enemies of sanctity are our hesitations and excuses, our search for the comforts of religion without its challenges, our fear of the risks that give space for God to show his true power.  The trumpet blares, and we stare at our shoes.  The days of youth seem far spent. 

But Emerson was right. For those who are one with the Captain of salvation, grandeur is always nigh to our dust, God is near to man.  The new wine of youth flows freely, and the only true adventure in human life is ours for the taking.   It’s not too late to become a saint. “The youth replies, ‘I can.’

[1] II Cor. 12:15.
[2] “Joan, Heretic and Saint.” in The Heroic Face of Innocence.  Trans. R. Batchelor.  Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999, 19. 
[3] II Tim. 4:7.

1 comment:

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