Editor's Note: Sojourners' CEO, the Rev. Jim Wallis, delivered the following commencement address Thursday morning at Virginia Theological Seminary.
I feel very honored to be invited by this class to give this commencement address, and I asked about the make-up of your class. Most of you, I am told, are going right into the church, or are already there— to ordained ministry and other missions of the church.
So I want to speak directly to you about the vocation of the church in the world. Let me start with a baseball story. I have been a little league baseball coach for both my sons' teams over many years. And I’ve learned that baseball teaches us “lessons of life.”
Just a few weeks ago, our 9-year-old's team was down 5-0, and we had already lost our opening couple of games. It didn’t look good. But all of a sudden, our bats and our team came alive; and all the practice and preparation we had done suddenly showed itself. Best of all, our rally started in the bottom half of the order with our weakest hitters. Two kids got on with walks and our least experienced player went up to the plate. With international parents, Stefan had never played baseball before and you can tell he doesn’t have a clue. But somehow he hit the ball; it went into the outfield. Our first two runs scored and he ended up on second base. Being from a British Commonwealth culture, he began to walk over to the short stop and second baseman and shake their hands! “Stefan,” I shouted, “You have to stay on the base!” “Oh,” he said, “I’ve never been here before.”
Inspired, other kids who had never got hits before either also got them now, then the best hitters started to hit, and we came back to win 11-6. In a long team meeting afterwards, the kids couldn’t stop telling each other what they had learned. “We didn’t give up and came back!” “Our rally started with the bottom of the order.” “Sometimes you get what you need from unexpected places.” “We all just kept cheering for each other.” “Everybody helped us win today.” Finally, our star player said, “This just goes to show you, you can’t ever give up on hope. We always have to keep on hoping no matter what.” Lessons of life. Most importantly on that day, we became a team; and have won our games since.
I think this is central to our vocation in the churches: to offer unexpected hope.
Because our mission is to the kingdom of God—“thy kingdom come, they will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” That is what we pray. And while the kingdom of God was the central message of Jesus, and the New Testament, it has faded as ours. Finding salvation to heaven is part of the message, getting closer to God is part of the message, but the heart of the message of Jesus was a new order breaking into history—to change everything about the world, including us.
And that’s why we can offer such hope to the world. The church is supposed to be saying, and the church is supposed to be showing, that our life together can be better. In our shallow, superficial, and selfish age, Jesus is calling us to a completely different way of life. He called it the kingdom of God—as very different from all the political kingdoms of this world. But that better way of living wasn’t just meant to benefit the Christians, but everybody else too. And that is the point of it.
Christianity is not just a religion that gives some people a ticket to heaven and makes them judgmental of everybody else. Rather, it is a call to a relationship; and one that changes all our other relationships. Jesus calls us into a new relationship to God; and he says that also brings us into a new relationship with our neighbor, especially with the most vulnerable of this world, and even with our enemies. You don’t always hear that from the churches. But that transformation of all our relationships, when lived out, has always been the best thing for what we now call the common good.
Since we have lost the common good in our community and public life, and especially in our politics—on both sides of the aisle—it’s time to listen again to an old but always new vision which could, and is supposed to, change our selfish behavior—and make us happier too. “Happy are those,” Jesus said, who live by the beatitudes of his kingdom.
The summary of ethics and the religious law, said Jesus, was to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, and strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself.” And that most fundamental teaching of faith flies right in the face of all the personal and political ethics which put myself always before all others; my rights first, my freedoms first, my interests first, my tribe first, and even my country first—ahead of everybody else. In other words, selfishness is the personal and political ethic that dominates our world today; but the kingdom of God says that your neighbor’s concerns, rights, interests, freedoms, and well-being are as important as yours are.
That is not only radical, it is transformational; and it is essential if we are going to create a public life not completely dominated by conflict, but one that actually can articulate what might be in the interest of the common good and even some common ground between us all. Win/win and not just win/lose. It is also essential to religion finding any credibility again. Otherwise, the next generation is just going to move on from religion. The “none of the aboves” are now the fastest growing group on religious survey’s.
But when people see that kingdom of God being actually lived out, they are first surprised by it, and then attracted to it.
Like when a huge and successful church in a midwestern state’s suburbs decides to take on the renovation of dilapidated and failing public schools in their neighboring urban area. Or like when a church in the Southern Bible Belt puts up a sign welcoming the Muslim cultural center that had just moved into their neighborhood and befriends those who were afraid of being attacked; and when that story of Christian/Muslim friendship on CNN changes the hearts of angry men in Pakistan. Or when a graduating seminarian, like many of you today, decides to start a church made up of homeless people and, after ten years, most all of their congregation’s leaders literally came from off of the streets.
When a Christian family farm business builds day care centers and houses for their migrant workers, provides college scholarships for their employees' children, gives millions of dollars to Africa and Haiti, and still has the most successful orchard in their region, it attracts attention. When conservative southern California Anglo churches get deeply connected to Hispanic churches in their own communities, come to know each other’s faith and families, and then seek to fix a broken immigration system, it gets the attention of policy makers in Washington. When a famous evangelical mega-church in Chicago sends its people to the Middle East and starts speaking up for beleaguered Palestinian Christians, it challenges foreign policy. When another one in Ohio doesn’t just righteously proclaim itself to be “pro-life” but quietly takes in hundreds of low-income pregnant women every year to help them carry their child to term and settle into a better life, people feel helped and not just judged. And when faith-based organizations and denominations who might vote differently in elections make it clear to both Republicans and Democrats that they must not balance their budgets and reduce their deficits by increasing poverty and must draw a circle of protection around the poorest and most vulnerable, it breaks through the self-interest politics of both parties.
All these are true stories. And they are all about the unexpected and about bringing hope to hopeless times.
So my advice to you, going into the church, is to never be content with what is predictable, to never become cynical about change. Don’t be satisfied with a church whose lifestyle and behavior you can predict by just looking at everybody living around them. Your job is to pastor and lead faith communities whose vocation is to be unpredictable and to be able to offer hope where nobody else does.
That’s because you leave today, not committed to the kingdom of any culture, class, or racial group, or the kingdom of America or any other nation state, or even to the kingdom of any church, even the kingdom of the Episcopal church; but rather to the kingdom of God, which is meant to turn all the other kingdoms on the head, to break open the unpredictable, and bring new hope to lives, neighborhoods, nations, and even the world. So God bless you in that wholly unpredictable and so needed ministry of hope. And as we should all say at the end of every commencement: “Play Ball!”
And may the Lord be with you.
Image: By hxdbzxy/ Shutterstock.