Tuesday, May 21, 2013

"First and Last' - Richard R. Crocker

First and Last
Richard R. Crocker
Rollins Chapel
Dartmouth College
May 19, 2013
Mark 10:17-31

            Today is Pentecost – the Jewish celebration of the gift of law, and the Christian celebration of the gift of the Holy Spirit. Today also marks my last “sermon” in Rollins Chapel as College Chaplain at Dartmouth. Some of you here today have never been to chapel before. Thank you for coming. Others are among the few who have been regular chapel attenders. Your presence today is especially valued. We have been thinking this term about “the good life” – a subject that I will address today more implicitly than explicitly.

            When I came to Dartmouth as College Chaplain ten and a half years ago, there were no regular college-sponsored worship services in Rollins Chapel, and there had not been for many years. There were occasional services, but no weekly ones. I did not immediately start such a service, since all previous chaplains and Tucker deans had failed in this task, but after a few months, I decided that I would try again. I would like to share with you a few words that I spoke at that first service, in October 2003:

No matter how much we might like to reinterpret the past, it is an undeniable fact that Dartmouth College began as an effort to train Christian ministers to preach the gospel in the wilderness. For some people, this fact is wonderful. For others, it is embarrassing. But it is nonetheless a fact. Just a fact. For 156 years – until 1925 - gathering for worship was an essential part of Dartmouth College life. That is why we have this building - built in 1885 to hold the entire college. It is why we have our college motto (Vox clamantis in deserto). It is why we have a history of ministerial college presidents, the last of whom was William Jewett Tucker. 

There are some people who will welcome this new chapel service. It is something they have hoped and longed for. Others will oppose it because it seems to them a retrogressive way of thinking, an anachronistic throwback to Dartmouth's sometimes embarrassing history. Most will take neither view. They will not even notice it, or if they do notice it, they will view it with the same indifference with which they might view the daily tea parties in Sanborn House.

My perspective, obviously, is different. I think this gathering is very important. I am a preacher, employed by Dartmouth College to stand in a line of continuity with its founders. The gospel I proclaim is a chastened one, to be sure. I, like you, am aware of the errors and arrogance of Christian proclamation here in this wilderness and elsewhere. None of us, in ignorance, is entitled to condemn anyone's sincere convictions, nor to exclude any perspective from the college discussion. But I also know that to have any conviction at all in our time makes one vulnerable to the charge of "bias" or "close-mindedness". Yet to live without any convictions is, I believe, impossible. I live with that tension, and so do some of you. It is a tension that I do not choose to abandon, or to resolve by sinking into relativism.

We live in a culture that sometimes seduces us with false and shallow promises based finally upon the assertion that nothing really matters. In such a wilderness, we are called to remember who we are. That is what I want us to do in these weekly services. We will meet to think together about who we really are. We will meet in this place that reminds us - whoever we are, we are belong to God. And that is both the oldest and newest, the truest and most controversial, word I can say. Amen”

Perhaps I should stop there. Perhaps that is all there is to say. But I will not. The chapel light that we lit ten years ago has not been extinguished. Though congregations have fluctuated between small and smaller, there has never been a service when no one showed up. I was right in saying that the service would be greeted by most people with absolute indifference, but I was also right in saying that it would be meaningful for some. Certainly it has been for me.

Throughout these years, there has been one text to which I have repeatedly returned: it is the text that we read today. I have returned to it because I have come to see it as the quintessential Dartmouth story – the story that everyone at Dartmouth can relate to, whether they know it or not. And so I return to it today.

We speak a great deal at Dartmouth about diversity. And that is an important thing to talk about. We need to realize, respect and celebrate the different experiences, backgrounds, cultures, talents, and convictions that people bring to Dartmouth. Yet, amid this diversity, I have come to realize that there is one trait that is shared by almost every student and faculty member, as well as some of the staff, at Dartmouth.

That trait, of course, is ambition. Every student who comes to Dartmouth is ambitious - achievement oriented, wanting to excel. It is the sine qua non for admission. Can you imagine an admissions essay that discusses one's desire not to achieve? Or that documents one's lack of success? And of course the same is true for faculty. And some staff. We all are ambitious, high achieving people.

So what's wrong with that? In many ways, of course, nothing is wrong with it. It is exciting to be surrounded by people who are highly motivated to achieve. This is the very fuel of our community. It is one of the things that makes Dartmouth a good place to be. It is why this passage, recorded in all three synoptic gospels, speaks so powerfully to us who live here. Nothing could be more ambitious than to want eternal life. And the questioner - sometimes described as a rich young ruler - is a very appealing person. He is a serious questioner. He wants to do the right thing. He has been good all his life - got good grades, high scores on his SATs, was involved in lots of extracurriculars, was an officer in youth group and added a lot of community service to his resume as well. I read the account from Mark’s gospel. Matthew's is almost identical - except for one detail. In Matthew, Jesus  simply says to the questioner "You lack one thing." In Mark, we are told "Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, "You lack one thing."

Jesus loved him. Ambitious people - especially people who are ambitious to be exceptionally good - are often very appealing and lovable. I have certainly found that to be the case at Dartmouth. But at the same time, their ambition can be an obstacle to achieving the very thing they really want.

The very thing they really want. Now I am speaking to you as one of you. I do not stand before you as a representative of perfect humility. I am very much part of the culture of ambition that I am describing. And therefore I realize what a radical challenge is posed by Jesus' words - especially the final words ' "But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first." It's a reversal of our way of thinking, isn't it? Think of what would happen at Dartmouth is we tried to fill our campus with students who had been last in their class. It's a stupid idea, isn't it? Much of what Jesus says strikes us as counter to our normal way of thinking. But it also just stays with us - like this passage has stayed with me - challenging us to think a different way – to ask: “What am I ambitious for? What do I really want? And wil my ambition really take me there?”

How then do we get beyond ambition? (That of course is itself another kind of ambition, the ambition to get beyond ambition - so we see the nature of the difficulty). This is not a question that I can answer easily. But I will make a suggestion. Transforming experiences. Students talk to me, sometimes, about transforming experiences. Sometimes they happen in a classroom, when we encounter a profoundly unsettling idea. Or they happen when we place ourselves in a position where we are powerless and afraid like taking a leave term to work in an orphanage in Morocco, or a prison, or an urban school. Or they happen when we confront utter failure. These experiences can truly reverse our priorities and  preconceived notions. And when they do, we get a glimpse about what it means for the first to be last, and the last to be first. I think of that man in today’s text, so talented, so ambitious, who encountered Jesus, but who chose financial consulting.

            What we are talking about, on Pentecost, is receiving a new spirit. It changes our ambitions. We seek to become teachers rather than tycoons, protestors rather than protectors of the status quo, contributors rather than consumers. Sometimes such changes happen right here, in these chapel services– which is why I hope that they will never end.