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An Episcopal, co-educational 100% boarding school in Middletown, Delaware for grades 9 – 12

Gary Taylor P’14,’17,’21

2021 Baccalaureate Chapel Talk by Gary Taylor P’14,’17,21

I'm keenly aware that you've listened to a lot of excellent speeches in the last several days—indeed over the last several years—and I suspect there will be a few more later this morning, so I'm pretty sure there is nothing new I can add to all that wisdom. All I can hope to do this morning is to remind you of something you already know, and maybe help you to see just how important—maybe even world-changing—it is.  

I thought it best if I start with a song. My work is with much younger children, so it's a simple song. Join me if you'd like....

This little light of mine, I'm gonna let it shine
This little light of mine, I'm gonna let it shine
This little light of mine, I'm gonna let it shine
Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine.   

If you haven't heard that song sung enthusiastically by a four year-old, you have really missed out!

Fathers the world over are pretty much doomed to embarrass their teenage children, so I thought I'd get that over with right off the bat by bursting into song. Sorry, Theo!

But I hope you have heard that song before and realize that it comes from our bible reading for this morning. It's the point of my little talk today:

This little light of mine, I'm gonna let it shine

Hide it under a bushel? No!

Don't let anyone blow it out! 

Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine...

Just over nine years ago, a group of St. Anne's students belted out that song at my ordination to the Episcopal priesthood, held at center court on the St. Anne's basketball gym just across Silver Lake here in Middletown. Five members of this graduating class were there at the time. It was a... non-traditional ordination, but suited me perfectly as a lifelong school person and only a mid-career priest, trying to figure out how religion and the Episcopal tradition intersected with education.

Which kind of fits what we're doing here this morning, and what you've been doing in Chapel for four years or so every week. St. Andrew's motto, I'm sure you know, is "faith and learning." Ms. McGrath reminded you of this when she spoke in April, pointing out that one kind of faith—faith in ourselves, in each other, and in the journey itself—provides us the confidence to shrug off failure in the pursuit of whatever purpose your heart leads you to follow.

I sincerely hope that your years in this amazing community have developed in you that kind of faith: faith yourself, in one another, and in the process of learning. But this morning I want to talk about a different kind of faith, speaking to you as a priest, yes, but even more as a parent who, like so many here, has entrusted a significant portion of the raising of all three of my children to the magic that is St. Andrew's.  

In fact, the kind of faith I want to speak about this morning is one I bet you and pretty much everyone who has attended St. Andrew's has, even if you continue to be filled with questions and doubts about God and religion.

To describe the kind of faith I am talking about, I need to start with Jesus. I worry that might put some of you off a little bit, but please bear with me. I'm guessing there are as many different views of Jesus here this morning as there are people, but I'm going to stick just with two things that are pretty much certain, from a historical perspective. 

First, people flocked to Jesus. In a lovely book called The Scent of Love, author Keith Miller described the magnetism of Jesus and what he stood for:

The early Christians were such phenomenally successful evangelists because, through Jesus, they had discovered the secret of community. Someone would be walking down a back alley, let’s say, in Corinth or Ephesus and see a group of people gathered around talking excitedly about the strangest things that didn't make any sense at all: a simple, loving man who talked mysteriously in parables about mustard seeds and buried pearls, about loving one’s enemies and giving away one’s coat. But there was a special quality about the way these people talked to each other, laughed together, cried together, touched each other. The way they interacted with each other was so oddly compelling that strangers would be drawn to them. It was as if the “scent of love” had drifted down the alley and could draw people like bees to a flower. And people started to say to themselves, “I don’t understand this yet, but there is something special going on here — and I want in!"

A special quality about the way these people interacted with each other..... Ring a bell?

The second thing about Jesus is, I think, the cause of Jesus' magnetism: Jesus unfailingly included all kinds of people at his table and in his life: tax collectors, prostitutes, and others whom other people would dismiss as "sinners" or unclean. In fact, one of the things that got Jesus killed was his deeply counter-cultural acceptance of all people, his ability to see the value in each human life.  

In one famous story in the book of Acts, an Ethiopian eunuch had traveled for three months to the temple in Jerusalem in search of God. It is likely that because of his background and his sexual identity, the purity laws he found there meant he wasn't allowed in. But on the long road home he encountered Philip, a disciple of Jesus, who embraced him with faith and learning, and launched a conversion that culminated in the Eunuch's iconic question, "What is to prevent me from being baptized?" and his conversion to Christianity. This excluded stranger from a distant land felt Phillip's genuine acceptance and wanted in.

What I'm driving at is that the essence of Jesus' message—the message that attracted such huge devotion and spawned a movement that would last for more than 2000 years—was the profound but radically new truth that everyone has value, everyone is deserving of respect and inclusion. Everyone, Jesus would say, is a Child of God. No. Matter. What.

This may not seem like a big deal to you today at St. Andrew's. But faith in the value of each person, in the moral imperative to go out of your way to see that everyone is included, to bend over backwards to care for the next person regardless of who they are, is, sadly, remarkably rare in this world. 

But you know that it is not rare in this wonderful place. When people at my home in New Orleans ask "why St. Andrew's?", I tell them about how at every dance here (at least before COVID) people made sure everyone had someone or some group to go with. How at every performance the audience goes crazy for their classmates' efforts, every single time. How you seniors are imbued over all your time here with the famous St. Andrew's "ethos" to make it your business to help the first years feel at home and to make this community a place everyone feels glad to be a part of. Generous acceptance and radical inclusion. No. Matter. What.

This does not happen at most high schools in our country. This is what sets St. Andrew's apart. And I believe this ethos that you have been steeped in in this place is rooted in what Jesus was talking about, a faith in the inestimable value of everyone. You have lived that here. You have seen that a community and a life built on that faith is fuller, richer, and more joyful. 

What a marvelous, world-changing faith it is that you have been given! As a very-soon-to-be St. Andrew's alum, this, in part, is who you are and ever will be. 

I am here to tell you that the world beyond Middletown needs to hear and experience this faith from you, for not only is there far too much distrust and exclusion and devaluing of others today, these is also an awful lot of people who have a hard time thinking they themselves are worthy of the kind of love you have felt here every day. Indeed, those are the people who are usually hardest to love, but who are also the ones most in need of it and whose lives can be most transformed by it.

When Jesus told his friends, "You are the light of the world," that's what he was talking about. When we sing "This little light of mine, I gotta let it shine" that's what we mean. You carry with you from this place a faith in the value of people, all people, that shines like a beacon in the darkness to a world that desperately needs it. 

At the Episcopal sleep-away camp that has meant so much to me and my family, every camping session ends with a candlelight service where the chapel is darkened while each person there holds an unlit candle. The lone flame from the altar candle is passed from hand to hand, candle wick to candle wick, until every face is illumined by each tiny light and, ultimately, the room is filled with brightness. And then everyone stands, and, singing, files out into the summer night carrying their light into the world. 

In the Christian calendar this week we celebrated the Pentecost, the miraculous moment when, Christians believe, the terrified and incapacitated disciples cowering in the wake of Jesus' execution are dramatically filled with the Holy Spirit, quite literally inspired to rush out and spread the news of the power of inclusion, of radical welcome, of unconditional love.

I believe you too have been inspired by your experience of loving community at St. Andrew's and are now called to carry that out into the world. You have a candle of kindness and inclusion that you carry forth to spread that light, to transform the world. Wherever your path may lead, whatever vocation you are called to, in whatever corner of our world you are asked to serve, let your light shine, don't hide it under a bushel, don't let anyone or anything blow it out.

As a lifelong St. Andrean, how could you do anything else?

May God bless and keep you, now and always. Amen. 

  • Commencement 2021 Talks
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