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Baccalaureate Reflection

Rev. Lee-Ellen Strawn
Words change us. If this were not so, we would not be here at school, where much of our day involves encounters with words. This morning, let us put three words into the space of this chapel; wisdom, freedom, compassion. As we ponder these words in the context of a story, please know they are my prayer for you as you start new chapters of your lives.

The story I will share is one that perhaps you already know. But listen carefully, because it has been modified for our 21st century, and think, too, about which character or characters you feel you identify with. The story goes like this. ...

There once was an individual who had just finished their studies and had been traveling for some time from one town to the next in search of inherent human goodness. Influenced by philosophers and activists, this individual was committed to a minimalist lifestyle, and carried all they owned in one small sack. They had given up technology and had decided to carry only a small amount of cash knowing they would find work along the way. This individual had high hopes for finding goodness and changing the world by caring for the earth, reaching out to those in need of food and shelter, and working for peace in all ways possible. They were not quite sure yet how to put ideas into concrete plans, but enthusiasm and hope propelled their way forward.

The individual journeyed on foot, glad for the solitary time that walking allowed to reflect on the meaning of life. Birds were singing, the sun was strong, and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. It seemed that life was perfect and everything was falling into place as planned. But, right as the individual turned a corner, they encountered a band of robbers who grabbed the individual’s meager sack and searched for electronic devices and money. The individual’s insistence that the sack was all they owned only angered the robbers more. After being repeatedly kicked and punched, the robbers spat in the individual’s face and left them curled up by the side of the road in a pool of blood. Dashed were this individual’s hopes in the possibility of ever finding human goodness.

A long several hours passed with not a soul in sight. Then, a car with loud blaring music seeping through its closed windows whizzed by this individual crouched over in pain. A half hour later, an apparent scholar reading Plato’s Republic walked by, noticed the individual, but kept going as if to say the suffering he saw in the individual was but a reflection and not its actual form. After some time, two people in love walking hand in hand actually crossed to the other side of the street so as not inadvertently to come in contact with the bloodied individual.

Finally, one more person appeared in the distance. But it was not who was expected. To the shock and dread of the individual curled up in pain, it was their neighbor from years past. It was their neighbor with whom they had fought to secure the attention of a certain person in their community, and with whom they had got caught in a swirl of lies and accusations. They had even argued over ideological differences and had exchanged unconscionable words, all at a time before they had been awakened to the essence of life and understood the noble purpose to which they had been called. In so many ways, this neighbor had been the enemy who provoked feelings of jealousy and hatred.

The throbbing pain of the robbers’ beating was now coupled with the pain of embarrassment about their present weakness and about memories of distressing rivalry with the neighbor. Yet the individual did not even have the strength to hide. But the recognition of their current devastation became oddly liberating for the injured individual, because it opened up for them hope that a vestige of humanity might still remain in the neighbor’s heart.

When the neighbor saw the individual, she stopped. She had been on her way to visit elderly relatives, but she got off her bike to examine the individual’s wounds. She said not a word, but her gestures suggested forgiveness. There was no trace of the bitter exchanges from previous years. She pulled out her phone and called 911. She followed the ambulance on her bike and waited the long hours in the emergency room while the individual was being cared for. She was not family, so she could not consult with the doctors, but she bought flowers to be delivered and paid for the individual’s medical expenses herself. She wanted to be sure the individual would heal fully, and returned two weeks later to the hospital to check on their recovery. Later, when the individual learned of what the neighbor had done, they wept tears of gratitude, for indeed they had found inherent human goodness that could heal brokenness and bring peace to this world. But it was not found over the mountains and across the seas, as they had expected. It was found in a place the individual never would have looked.

And that is how the story goes. It is a story that has been told over and over throughout the centuries in different ways. It is a story about wisdom, freedom, and compassion.

If we recall the story, first we are told of a car that whizzed by the suffering individual, then, a scholar, and then, a couple in love, before the neighbor appeared. For everyone except the neighbor, they all seemed unable really to understand what time it was, to know the moment as a time requiring a response. The passage that Lydia and Keith read to us earlier reminds us that, in life, there are certain times to do certain things. There is a time to listen and a time to speak; a time to be still, and a time to act. There is a time for all of you to celebrate your graduation loudly and to jump up and down for joy. But that is not the time now; now it is the time for you to sit in this chapel and reflect in your heart what your experiences at NMH mean to you.

In the story, those in the car, the scholar, and the couple in love thought the time was to get to where they were going, or to understand the depths of philosophy, or to lose themselves in each other’s embrace. That is how they understood what it was the time to do. It was only the neighbor, the supposed enemy, who had the wisdom to know it was the time to be interrupted and to stop and care for the person before her. Her action broke the cycle of pain and shame that had entrapped herself and the injured individual. This neighbor displayed wisdom because she was able to read the times accurately and act on her understanding.

She also exercised her freedom by changing her course in order to be compassionate toward someone who had had only hurtful things to say to her. She exercised her freedom to ignore previous patterns of relating to this petulant individual, and found, instead, the power to reach out in compassion. Her compassion did not allow her to be complacent in the face of pain. Her compassion did not allow her to remain comfortable in her neatly scheduled routine of visiting and caring for her own family. Her compassion jolted her to step out of her own skin, and this made all the difference, to the suffering individual, at least. How do we know? Because this story lives on, even through its many iterations. It is usually entitled, ‘The Good Samaritan.” You might want to call it “The Unexpected Neighbor.”

But, I think I’ll call it “The One by the Side of the Road” because I’d like us to focus not only on the character who goes out of her way to help another, but also on the character wounded and by the side of the road. Where is the wisdom for this person, you might be thinking? Wisdom clearly does not lie in the puffed-up pride of having uncovered the mystery of life as the individual had initially believed, but in the vulnerable yet humble realization that there comes a time when one simply needs help from others. You, too, will experience moments in which you need the assistance of others, be it socially, academically, financially, emotionally, or in terms of your health. My hope is that, with wisdom, you will be able to recognize that time for what it is; a time to allow yourself to accept the help that is offered you.

Freedom is evident, too, in the wounded character in this story. Their freedom lies in the ability to recognize that neither the past nor the present needs to determine their lives. Difficult past relationships do not need to inhibit their future, and current wounds do not need to dictate their health going forward. Just as Jonas read to us earlier, the freedom to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances is a fundamental human freedom that cannot be taken away. This is the freedom I want all of you to know today. I hope you will know that, despite any of your past successes or failures, your life will never be predetermined to be a particular kind of thing, unless you say that it is. The freedom to shape your next moment is always yours.

And finally, as we think about the “one by the side of the road,” we know that compassion saved them, but it came from a completely unanticipated place. This was the surprise that defied normal logic. Someone who had been like an enemy showed the undeserved compassion that saved life. Graduates, as you leave this school and find yourselves in new places with new people — and soon-to-be 10th, 11th, and 12th graders, as you continue to engage in your studies and school life — you may be tempted to assume that you know, for sure, who will show you compassion and who will not. My prayer is that you, too, will have an experience of receiving, but also giving, unexpected compassion, that will change your life and grant you faith in the inherent goodness of humanity.

So my words for you this morning are wisdom — wisdom to know what time it is and to be interrupted, if need be; freedom — freedom to know your life is only ever determined by you; and compassion — compassion that saves and reveals human goodness. I shared these words in a story because I want these words to take root and come alive in the unfolding story of your life, which you should never be ashamed to tell. It just might make all the difference in the world to you and to your unexpected neighbor.

Thank you.


Class of 2019, underclass students, faculty, and staff,

Together, let us seek the wisdom to know the time that is before us; let us own the freedom to shape the moments of our lives, and let us embody the compassion that reveals inherent goodness. May you be empowered to live your identity as a member of the NMH family. May you know the blessing of your learning as you make it a blessing for the good of the world. May you know the blessing of your talents as you use them to reveal beauty and kindness to all, and may you know the blessing of living with humanity and purpose. Find joy in these blessings and share them with one another whether you remain on this hill or find yourself in new places. And may the peace that passes all understanding be with you now and forever more. Amen.


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