Even our glimpses of eternity are fleeting. Peter, when Jesus shone like the sun and Elijah and Moses stood beside him, wanted to build temples on that mountain, and to stay there. The undeniable demonstrative presence of God is something we would like to bottle, to keep with us, to remain in. Moses himself only saw God’s back, for the fullness of divine presence would have been too much for his human frame to bear. Today we see disciples, on Easter, walking and talking unawares with the resurrected Jesus. They invite him to stay, to hear the Good News, even while it is still not really known. And when he breaks bread, like in the days before, they know it’s him, that the women who went to the tomb were right. And then he vanishes.
This ephemeral nature of our experiences of God is frustrating. But I think it’s more a matter of human nature than of God withholding Godself. And I don’t say that to tee up one of those sermons where I talk about how pitiful we humans can be. It’s more a matter of physics. As rather small, limited systems, we aren’t equipped to take in the breadth of infinity and eternity. It’s not bad or good. It’s just a matter of being much, much smaller than the universe and its creator, and being fastened to our particular viewpoints.
But that means that when those moments happen where the veil between heaven and earth is thinner, we innately want to stay in them. Those moments come as a gift, as an experience of something bigger and deeper than we can comprehend, something which can be at once beautiful and terrifying and soothing. These moments are riveting, and if we could just have every moment be like them, life would be a lot easier to sort out. Or so it seems.
I have, in my life, been fortunate beyond words to be part of several communities where glimpses of God come more often than in other parts of my life. None of them was obsessed with specific practices or doctrine—though those matter a lot—so much as about people whose lives reflect the grace of something beyond our grasp. Each one of those communities came to me as a miracle. I remember standing, as a high school sophomore at a retreat center, in a room full of people and feeling a genuine love for them all, even if I didn’t know them. Or being in college and having the kind of friends who called me to be a better, kinder, more loving expression of myself. Or being an adult and being given the space to think and to speak, to falter and to surprise even myself, by communities that aim to to free people to be who God calls them to be.
Of those communities, the EC is the only one I haven’t yet had to leave. I graduated, or moved, or got hired to be a campus minister, and I had to say goodbye to each of those communities. Each time, I worried that I would never find it again. For all the theology I love, none of it could convince me of God’s presence if I hadn’t felt it already, and I felt it in the presence of those people in those places. Leaving them was grief, every time. Even when I was coming here. The EC held more insecurity and uncertainty for me when I arrived than it did community and inspiration.
Certainly, though, the veil between heaven and earth is often a bit thinner in this community. We cultivate an attention toward God’s movement and toward the ways God calls us. And we are honest about the experience of being a human trying to sort it all out. How the task of being a human can be overwhelming and at times hopeless, and at other times soaked through with a beauty we feel in our bones.
I know, then, that it is hard to leave a place like this. I’ve done it, and I’ll have to do it again some day. It’s scary every time. So it’s with a lot of empathy that I say to this year’s seniors that whether it feels like it or not, you are ready. I’ve watched you grow in your time here. I’ve watched you find your voices as leaders, as friends, as people of faith. I’ve watched you shape this community with your spirit, your kindness, your intelligence, and your humor. I, with the luxury of not being the one graduating right now, can easily and sincerely say that you are ready.
And I can say that we are going to miss you. You are a part of us, and we love you.
I can also say that I know well the feeling of hanging on because the next thing hasn’t come into clear focus yet, of worrying that something is being taken away before you’re ready. It’s that clinging to the experience of God, because things are easy here. But we are called to share this thing we’ve found, to help other people know it. We are called to help others know the deep joy and relief of Easter. You are called to share the Spirit you’ve found here.
And that means parting ways. This is not a severing of ties, though. You are part of this community even when you aren’t with us in person. We are always here for you, and I am always your campus minister.
It’s particularly strange to preach this sermon under these conditions. There would be a lot of hugging if we were together at the EC, a lot of tears, a lot of laughter bursting through the sadness. All of that feels muted by the physical distances between us. I’m sorry that it is happening in this way, that we didn’t get to have big goodbye hugs and that you’re not getting the victory lap of Duke that you worked so hard to earn. It is altogether disorienting.
I’m going to miss you an awful lot, class of 2020. I know we’ll see each other again, and soon, but this goodbye is hard to say all the same. Perhaps it’s fitting then, that we read this story from Luke today, of disciples, a bit confused by what was going on, and surely feeling isolated around Jerusalem in the wake of Jesus’ death. God came to them, made things clear for a while. They couldn’t stay in that moment, but they could tell other people about it. That’s how we make the EC, and that’s how you’ll make the next thing, too.