“Becoming Aware of the Light:” The Baccalaureate Sermon for Lyon College

Stuart Higginbotham

May 12, 2023

Lyon College Baccalaureate Service

Becoming Aware of the Light

Let me begin by thanking you for the invitation to come and share a few thoughts as you prepare to graduate. This truly is a watershed time for you and your families. I recognize that only a few people here have any memory or present contact with me, so thank you for your willingness to invite a stranger to be amongst you.  You’ll also be grateful to know that, as a rule, Episcopal priests give shorter sermons. So, you at least have that going for you.

I grew up in a Baptist church down in the Southeast corner of the state, and I was initially taught and trained by Presbyterians–decently and in order and with a keen awareness of my total depravity. But then I was led astray by the smell of incense and the sound of cathedral choirs, and I transferred to The Episcopal Church where I was ordained a priest. Since then my studies and practice of prayer have led me to explore the mystical traditions of many of the world’s faiths, especially Tibetan Buddhism. Knowing where I came from and where I am now, needless to say, my family has questions about the value of a liberal arts education. 

I came to Lyon in 1997 with high hopes of becoming a physician. Let me rephrase that: I came here with my family’s hopes of me becoming a physician. I had to figure out what the Spirit had in store, and that took a bit of time and, honestly, spiritual courage. Some peoples’ paths seem quite straight and clean; mine had hairpin turns and more than a few shady spots. 

I was a biology major on track to attend medical school, and the summer of my Sophomore year, I did research with Dr. Paul Rosenblum in the old science building. He had a longstanding research project that focused on the levels of gonadotropin releasing hormone and other elements of the reproductive cycle. We had a grant from the State of Arkansas to fund this work, and my focus was to work with a group of goldfish. We wanted to see if the amount of food we gave them influenced the production of the hormone, hence their reproductive rate. That is correct: I spent a summer studying the reproductive patterns of goldfish.

Now, keep in mind that Dr. Rosenblum had a keen understanding of how all these pieces fit together. I did not have that perspective, so from my point of view, I only learned this: if you don’t give goldfish very much to eat, it turns out they are not that interested in reproducing. They are interested in eating. 

While I missed the larger question, it turns out that this lesson has actually stayed with me all these years as I have studied and served as a priest and a teacher: our ability to thrive in life is directly proportional to our conscious intake of energy and spiritual food. We cannot produce if we are starving, and we as a society are starving for deeper meaning in our lives.

While everyone seems pitted against each other these days, I think we might all agree that we are all seeking to make meaning in our lives. We are all hoping for fulfillment, we are all seeking wholeness. Our buddhist friends might say that we are all seeking happiness and the freedom that comes from an awareness of the true nature of our mind. Our Jewish friends would speak of tikkun olam, the call to nurture the healing of the world. Jesus constantly says that we are all seeking wholeness. Think of how many stories in the Gospels focus on Jesus healing people. He has a keen eye toward the hunger of those who are drawn to be near him.

We all want to be whole, and we know that something is askew, something is warped, with the world in its current state. Things feel out of balance, even out of control. The intense time that we shared with Covid heightened, for me, this sense of deep hunger that we are feeling.

In our frenetic world, we are constantly expected to produce more and more and more, yet we are starving for wholeness and healing. We are craving some energy that will fuel our souls so that we can breathe and grow. 

So many of the Christian texts describe this spiritual food, this energy that nourishes our souls, as light. Light is a powerful metaphor for describing the presence of the Spirit within us. It is not meant to be taken literally (which is so often where we go in anxious systems, with this craving for certainty). When the texts speak of Light, they are speaking about the energy, the life force that exists within each one of us and within all creation. Jesus is described as the Light of the world. 

I believe with all my heart that this is a key connection between us all: that we crave to be nourished by an awareness of and relationship with this Light. But we struggle to engage with it and understand it, don’t we?

Look at Moses in the text we just heard: he encounters this life-transforming presence of God on Mt. Sinai. He will never see the world the same way again, and as he comes down to talk with his people, to tell them about how his life has been changed, how his soul has been fed, what happens? They can’t stand the intensity of it. The truth is that they can’t stand the pressure with how their lives are being challenged to move out of their shallow patterns into a deeper awareness of God’s presence. They want to stay where they are, so they tell Moses to wear a veil when he comes to speak to them. Shading that light just a bit makes them feel more comfortable and they can go about their lives as they did, with the patterns they have held. 

When it comes to the encounter with the Light, with this transforming energy of Christ, we also see a fascinating pattern in the Gospel text we just heard of the Transfiguration. Jesus has taken Peter, James, and John up on the mountain to pray, and they witness Jesus transformed before them. The text says he shines; he is transfigured and illuminated from within. And, Jesus is there talking with Moses and Elijah, two great Hebrew prophets.

In that moment of encounter, Peter speaks for all of us when he says, “Let us build three dwellings.” In other words, let us capture this light, let us grasp this moment and hold onto it. Let us do what we can to freeze things right here so this presence, this energy, this Light can be right at our fingertips all the time.

Of course, in that moment of Peter’s idea, a cloud comes and overshadows them all, taking away their ability to see and think as they did before. They are moved into another state of awareness. They are transformed.

  We see something interesting in both these stories. Moses on one hand and Peter, James, and John on the other, both encounter this Light that fuels their souls. With Moses, he encounters the resistance of those around him who want him to stay in the box they have grown accustomed to. With Peter, he faces his own urge to grasp and control and put things into a box. 

So, what do we learn here? Your work is your own with these stories and the deep truths they point to, but what I am learning is this: This Light that feeds my soul is something I can trust, and it challenges me to let go and rest in the presence of Christ that connects me with my deepest self and with all creation. 

In a world that constantly screams at us to grasp and control, I can relax my grip, ease my anxiety, even just a bit. In a world that sees so many people want to fit others into their box of what is acceptable, I am challenged to recognize the Spirit of Christ at work in their lives too. I can break down walls instead of building them, and I can lift up my own veil to let my light shine as I encourage others to let their light shine as well. 

My friends, this is what it means to practice our faith in the world today, at least for me. This is what we are invited to explore together: a posture of trust that recognizes the Spirit at work in all our lives. We can direct our attention to what feeds us and support one another in challenging days. 

As you step into this next stage of your lives, may you have eyes that catch a glimpse of this light, and may you have a heart that rests in the fullness of God’s presence within you. And may you trust. May you trust the presence of the Spirit as She speaks to you and guides you forward on your journey. 

I’ll close with words much better than mine, from one of my favorites: the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke:

I ask you, dear sir, to have patience with all that is unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves, like closed rooms, like books written in a foreign language.

Don’t try to find the answers now. They cannot be given anyway, because you would not be able to live them. For everything is to be lived.

Live the questions now. Perhaps you then may gradually, without noticing, one day in the future, live into the answers. Perhaps you bear within yourself the capacity to imagine and shape a sacred way of life. Prepare yourself for that. Trust what comes to you.

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