Proper 16 C – 13th Sunday after Pentecost Episcopal Parish at Yale
The Rev. Dr. Paul J. Carling August 25, 2019
Playing Small at Yale
Jeremiah 4: 1-10; Luke 13: 10-17
Welcome home! We gather tonight at a way station, from so many disparate journeys. We gather for the first time or the nth time, to start college or to finish graduate school. And for each of us, we come home. Home to a God of many names and many traditions, and of as many particular understandings and experiences as there are people sitting here.
Thank you for coming home and, as your Chaplain, for making my joy complete. I’ve missed you terribly this summer, you regulars, and all of you who hadn’t yet crossed the threshold into ECY.
Welcome home to this uniquely countercultural band, a ragtag community of profoundly human beings attempting to build an oasis of contradiction to that beautiful yet deeply flawed culture that surrounds us – the “Yale Bubble.”
The Yale culture, like the ones many of you came from, expects you’ll bring your A Game to everything you undertake: every course you select, every internship or extracurricular; every networked, exquisitely transactional relationship; every experience – emotional, physical, intellectual – especially intellectual.
At Yale, we posses an ultra-sophisticated cultural lexicon, yet it’s often devoid of words that describe our deepest truths – like compassion, kindness, vulnerability, loneliness, disappointment; words that carry transcendent meaning, like faith and God, and love… and of course, that most forbidden of all words at Yale – failure.
Yet it’s only in the lived experience of these forbidden words, that we discover the crucibles of our deepest growth and maturity, the darkness and struggle through which God, using the grace of self-discovery and healing love, plants the seeds, and tills the very soil of our hearts, growing us, connecting us, as e e cummings would have it, with “the one, precious, and beautiful” identity God seeks to shape within us, if we only consent.
Welcome to the pilgrimage, as theologian Marcus Borg puts it, away from the “secondhand religion” of your upbringing, toward a “first hand faith,” not of dogma or belief, but of intimate relationship with an unconditionally loving God, and through God, with each of God’s people, and with God’s precious, endangered creation.
The late Bishop Tom Shaw describes a small West African tribe that believes God composes a unique song for each human being. As a parent-to-be anticipates conceiving a child, they go off to the wilderness to learn this song, then returns to teach the song to their partner. The couple sings it while making love, and when the child is born, they teach it to the whole village. At each rite of passage, the village sings that unique song, again and again, until, at the last, at their funeral.
Will you dare to use your time here to discover that unique song, to harmonize it with others of good will, to use it as your North Star to guide all of your choices? Or will you go with the flow, and simply choose your A Game, as this place called Yale has defined it over the centuries, a game carefully constructed to maintain a “Class A World” – a world of appearance, ambition, advancement, achievement, acquisition – and arrogance.
In choosing, you might consider that it’s a slavish adherence to this A Game World that has led humanity into a desperate struggle between the haves and those called “undeserving,” for what are seen as increasingly scarce resources, a zero sum game that has guided humanity to the precipice of extinction through climate change, the potential for nuclear war.
This culture has created both unparalleled prosperity and a nearly permanent underclass in our society, based on zip code and education, social class, gender and sexual orientation, and race – always race – the original sin of the great American social experiment.
One could argue it’s precisely the application of this collective A Game to religion in America, that’s led to the wholesale abandonment of institutional religion by so many of your peers on campus, hungering for an alternative that doesn’t weaponize Jesus’ words for political advantage and to maintain the inequity of the status quo. Many, indeed most of your peers at Yale, are abandoning that kind of religion faster than rats off a sinking ship.
What are we to do as followers of Jesus? Do we silently, smugly dismiss those who self-describe as “spiritual but not religious?” Or do we see their choice as something to learn from, as an opportunity to talk with our unchurched friends about faith in a different way, to be curious about what they are creating as alternative “churches,” feeding themselves and serving others?
I suggest that a casual submission to the A Game mentality that surrounds you here, may actually be an unconditional surrender to Playing Small with your life.
Why not choose, instead, to make Yale into a place to ask the most important life questions, like “What will I love,” and “What does a life of moral courage look like for me?” And “What will constitute greatness for me?”
I know most of you arrive here with an equal measure of excitement… and sheer terror. But I bring you a message of hope, to remind you that every new beginning presents you with the exciting opportunity to shape your own next chapter, through making sure that your choices are intentional.
So many choices. You can dress differently, you can grow a beard – well, some of you can – or you can shave one, you can, like my twin brother, on his first day at Yale Law, tried to overcome an impoverished background by affecting a British accent.
You can seek out bizarre ways to exercise your new freedom, like reversing the time of the day you experiment with drinking, or the order in a meal in which you select a dessert, or you can even consider the soul-numbing and incredibly unhealthy-at-every-level “College Challenge.”
You’ve already made perhaps the most consequential choice of your career here – to come to church tonight, and thus to make the statement that discovering a vibrant faith is an absoutely essential part of your new life.
You will struggle. As humans, we’re obsessed with what others think of us. Nearly 60% of today’s college students experience clinical levels of anxiety and/or depression. Welcome to the club – don’t try to hide it. Talk about it, get help, bring it to your Chaplains and to this loving community, where you can laugh and cry about it, because you’ve discovered it’s perfectly normal.
Above all, make choices that shape your life into one that sings the unique song God has written for you, choices that help you discover – through every success and failure – your true self. And don’t do it alone. You have wonderful resources right at hand if you choose wisely – deans, heads of college, professors, Chaplains, friends. God’s dream for you is that you create, here and now, the beloved community that will carry you through this next chapter, even as you help to carry every one of your fellow travelers on the path to greatness – real greatness.