It is an honor, on the occasion of your graduation, to be with you this evening. I congratulate the students on this accomplishment, and the parents on your watching over this journey and making it possible!
I am blessed to serve as the Bishop of the United Methodist Church in Florida. We are 670 churches and missions from Tallahassee and Jacksonville to the Keys. We have covenant relationships with Cuba and Haiti. We have a Children’s home and an immigration initiative, a camping ministry and campus outreach in the state universities. We are blessed by historic relationships with two schools: Bethune-Cookman University and Florida Southern College. I am honored to serve as a Trustee of your alma mater.
You have had the experience I would have loved to have known as a college student. As a young adult I lived at home. I worked in the evenings and on weekends and attended the local college. It was not the college I would have chosen, in an ideal world. But this was a part of a mumber of transitions in our family, and it made it possible for me to take the next steps. Looking back now, I think of the saying: “God writes straight with crooked lines!”
You are the beneficiary of such a different gift. The theologians call all of this grace, of which your graduation from Florida Southern College is an outward and visible sign.
The Story of One Life
Life is a gift. I want to share a life with you, one person’s life story. John Wesley was born in 1703, at the beginning of the eighteenth century. He would live until 1791, until almost the close of that century. He was the 15th child of Samuel and Susannah Wesley. His father was an Anglican priest, his mother the daughter of a minister. Both came from non-conformist, dissenting families, and yet both found a home in the Church of England. Samuel served churches, Susannah was involved in the daily management of the home and the development of the spiritual lives of their children. She was the mother of 19 children. Yes, it is rather amazing!
An Excellent Education
John grew up in a family that valued church and school. He attended Oxford University, then and now one of the elite educational institutions in the world. The first baccalaureate service was held at Oxford, 600 years ago. So John Wesley would indeed have sat exactly where you sit this evening, at his own baccalaureate service.
He lived in the transition from the medieval era to modernity, just as you live in the shift from modernity to the postmodern world. He was the beneficiary of an excellent education, just as you are. He read deeply in science and religion, the classics and history. It is true that had John Wesley not been shaped by a classical liberal arts education, his followers, the Methodists, would not have sensed the importance of founding and sustaining educational institutions such as Emory, Vanderbilt, Duke, Southern Methodist, Boston University, Bethune-Cookman and Florida Southern.
Upon graduation he began a life in the ministry, and he decided to set out on a quest. Life is an adventure. He traveled as a missionary to Georgia, specifically to the area around St. Simon’s Island and Savannah. The historic markers of his time are still there. His purpose was to convert the Native Americans. The outcome was a miserable failure; this he confessed in a journal that he kept. To make matters worse, he engaged in a romance with Sophie Hopkey that also ended badly.
I mention this simply to note that many of us, along the way, will get started in a direction and discover that something has gone wrong. This year I read with fascination the autobiography of Steve Jobs.
- How many of you have an iPad?
- How many of you have an iPhone? (Hold it up!)
- How many of you have an Atari?
Because it is all about the adventure, remember that Steve Jobs was a technician with Atari before he was the creator of the iPad, the iPhone or the Mac. Not many of us have Ataris.
But if you have an iPhone, and now would be fine, send me a twitter message, @bishopkencarter, and, in 140 characters, tell me about what is next for you, something big or small. What are you going to do? What would you like to do? Write me @bishopkencarter…and let me know: What is next in the adventure that is your life?
Now I don’t wish failure for you, but for most of us, in the adventure of life, it happens. Remember, “God writes straight with crooked lines!”
So, having failed in his first job and in his first romantic relationship, John Wesley returned home, to England. Upon his return to London he began attending worship services, at St. Paul’s Church, for example, where Margaret Thatcher’s service was held last week. He also reconnected with a small group of his friends.
An Experience of God
And then something happened; it is the most remembered passage that Wesley ever penned, and in the history of spirituality it stands in the tradition of Paul’s Damascus Road experience and Augustine’s conversion in the garden in Milan. Wesley wrote:
“In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed, I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.”
Wesley was formed in a devout and disciplined family, he was the beneficiary of an excellent education, he knew failure in his early adulthood, and then he experienced some kind of spiritual renewal---the grace of God, that filled a place in his life that all of his achievement, accomplishment and privilege could not. Life is a gift! This may have been or may be your experience: you may come to an Aldersgate Street along the way, you may go there unwillingly, which is to say that it will come as a surprise.
I do not wish vocational and relationship failure for you, but I do wish spiritual renewal for you. Who knows how that will happen? Life is an adventure!
So Wesley was a new person. He still suffered bouts with spiritual depression. He had doubts about himself and his gifts and his future. But he was a new person, what the Apostle Paul described as a “new creation”. And this unfolded in two passions.
A Passion to Share The Grace of God
First, he spoke in open fields, in the marketplace and in university churches, his subject, again and again, the whole story of God’s intersection with human life:
- that we are created, every one of us, in the image of God;
- that nothing we can do totally defaces or destroys this image----God is always in a relationship with us;
- that we come into a right relationship with God through faith in Jesus Christ;
- but, and this is important, that religion does not end there. God is always about the creative process of restoring that image, perfecting us, making us whole. This is the journey toward holiness, which Wesley defined, simply, as the love of God and the love of neighbor.
This process is present in a prayer that Wesley knew and prayed, whose origins can be traced from the 11th century Latin Mass to the anonymous spiritual classic The Cloud of Unknowing to the Prayer Book that Wesley would have used each day:
to you all hearts are open,
all desires known,
and from you no secrets are hidden.
Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts,
by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit,
that we may perfectly love you
and worthily magnify your holy name.
This desire for perfection is relevant to our relationship with our Creator---the love of God---and our relationship with each other---the love of neighbor. And this led to a second unfolding passion for John Wesley: acts of justice and mercy with the poor.
A Passion to Engage with the Poor
Eighteenth century British society was marked by deep divisions between those who had wealth and those who did not. The society was composed of a small group of wealthy citizens and a massive, impoverished underclass. And so Methodists began to develop relationships, ministries, and institutions with the poor:
- the Kingswood Schools, for the children of coal miners;
- medical clinics—Wesley taught himself to practice both medicine and pharmacy, because the poor did not have access to health care;
- and lending banks for the poor.
In Wesley’s lifetime, the Methodist movement grew from five thousand to fifty thousand people in England. Near the end of his life Wesley had taken a tour of Britain, and he was discouraged. He wrote in his journal:
“I am not afraid that we as Methodists will cease to exist. I am afraid that we will become a dead church, having the form of God without the power of God. I am concerned that we have become rich, and that we no longer have the desire to give to those in need.”
So, you are entering into a time in history when the gap between rich and poor is increasing. In the state of Florida, over the last seven years, the United Way research tells us that we have lost forty percent of our middle class jobs, and that the fasting growing sector is the poor. It is a mission-field John Wesley would have recognized. He did not see the poor as a burden. He commented:
- “I bear the rich, and I love the poor.”
- “If you cannot relieve, do not grieve the poor. Give them soft words, if nothing else.”
- “One great reason why the rich have so little sympathy for the poor is they so seldom visit them.”
Why did Wesley, practice medicine? Because Jesus was a healer.
Why did Wesley begin schools? Because Jesus was a teacher.
Why did Wesley feed the poor? Because Jesus fed the multitudes.
So what does any of this have to do with you?
The Next Generation
I am praying that you will replicate Wesley’s life, but in a way that makes sense in your world, the future that you will shape and lead:
- that some of you will become involved in socially responsible investing;
- that some of you will learn about microcredit lending with the world’s poor, perhaps even here in Florida;
- that some of you will enter politics and err on the side of grace and mercy and justice for the poor;
- that some of you will hear the cries of the immigrants and help them to enter into the mainstream of American life, just as generations have done before us;
- that some of you will become healers and teachers and preachers.
A Legacy of Generosity
Because of Wesley experienced the grace of God, he could affirm a truth with us: Life is a gift. And he had internalized the teaching of Jesus: “to whom much is given, much will be expected." (Luke 12. 48) Wesley preached a famous sermon with three points:
- Make all you can
- Save all you can
- Give all you can
He also practiced what he preached. As a student and teacher at Oxford, he lived on 28 pounds a year, and he gave 2 pounds to God. Later in life, when he earned 120 pounds, he gave away 92 pounds. He said that if at his death he had more than 10 pounds to his name, he could be called a robber.
Largely through his publications, Wesley earned about as much money as any private citizen in eighteenth century England. At his funeral 6 paupers carried him to his grave. Each was paid 1 pound, thus depleting his resources.
In 2013, according to J.P. Morgan, having a bachelor’s degree is a predictor, even through economic shifts, that you will earn twice as much income as someone without a degree. Should you earn an advanced degree, your income will likely double again in your lifetime. I am speaking to young men and women who will be blessed with financial resources across your lifetime. I am hoping that you will share all that you have and all that you are with those who do not have the advantages that have come to you.
“To whom much is given, much will be required.”
The Story of Your Life
So what about your life story? It begins with a basic truth: Life is a gift. And now it unfolds:
- Maybe you will fail at something. Remember: God write straight with crooked lines!
- Maybe you will experience God.
- Maybe you will influence others, start a movement.
- Maybe you will know the blessing of the poor (I’m quoting Jesus now).
- Maybe you will be blessed beyond your expectations, and maybe you will be a blessing.
- Maybe you will transform the world.
Jesus did it. John Wesley did it. Steve Jobs did it. It has happened before. It could happen again. Life is an adventure. And you owe it to yourself, and to God, to make the most of it.
May God bless you in the life you have been given, and in the adventure that lies ahead!