Promises, Promises: Jesus' Commencement Address

The Promise of the Holy Spirit
Lectionary Reflections on John 14:15-21 for May 29, 2011

I've got commencement addresses on the brain because, this past weekend, I attended one baccalaureate service and two graduation ceremonies, and the scripts of several speeches I heard are still ringing in my ears. But I always feel a little depressed by commencement speeches. It results from my narcissistic habit of relating a speech meant for young graduates to my own life. As the speaker seeks to motivate the graduates to excellence, I reflect on how much work it takes even to be mediocre at something and, feeling fatigue set in, begin to slump in my seat. As the speaker lists the challenges that face the graduates, I sit there asking myself the question: "Why haven't I corrected all these economic and social problems for these young people so they don't have to face them now?" As the speaker lists five lessons he or she has learned from life, I sit there inwardly asking the speaker the question "Where were you 30 years ago when this information would have been highly helpful to me? Now it's almost too late for me and your intended audience of 20-somethings are not listening with nearly as much urgency as they should be."

Commencement speeches are a tough gig. I gave one several years ago. I tried to put something in it for everyone. Unbeknownst to me, the cordless mike malfunctioned. Whenever I turned my head toward one half of the room, the other half couldn't hear. So each half of the room heard half of the talk.  And that was probably more than enough.

Change of Address: Advice for Commencement Speakers
I've heard commencement speeches by senators, presidential librarians, first ladies, professors and university presidents. (I haven't heard any yet by reality TV stars or prize winning authors). I must say that some have been quite engaging and that there has been something useful and helpful in all of them.  Still, I feel moved by a spirit of public service  to offer this brief clinic entitled "Change of Address? Do's and Don'ts for Commencement Speakers based on my extensive experience as a listener."

Do choose a title that hooks the audience. If the speaker is a senator, avoid titles like "Five Challenges for the 21st Century Graduates" in favor of something like "Stories only a senator knows, and probably shouldn't tell." If the speaker is a librarian, avoid "Lessons in Lifelong Learning (though it does have alliteration to its credit) in favor of something like "If the stacks could talk, what tales they could tell..."

Or how about Jesus' commencement address title in John 14:15ff: "I'm leaving, but ... guess who's coming?"

Do have a point. Or maybe two. But try not to go crazy. If you must make three points (or, in extreme circumstances, four), I feel they should spell something. But not something inappropriate. 

Jesus makes points in this passage:

  1. Ask whatever you will in my name and the Father will grant it, and
  2. The Father will send the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, in my name.

Do adopt a gracious, positive, encouraging tone. Don't chide the graduates. Don't be negative or judgmental.

Jesus warns of the opposition of the world later in John's gospel (15:18f), but he also encourages the disciples not to let their hearts be troubled or afraid (14:25-27) because "the ruler of this world has been condemned" (16:11). 

Do be yourself. Don't try to sound younger and hipper than you are. Speak from your current level of hipness or lack thereof. Access your personality and tell stories from your life and those of others which present your point(s) in a lively and memorable manner.

Don't be dry. Use humor when appropriate and call on images and metaphors to enliven your message.

Humor isn't on the menu in Jesus' commencement address, but rich, emotive images are—vine and branches (15:1-11) and a woman's labor pains that turn to joy at new life (16:21).

Jesus certainly doesn't need my "Change of Address" clinic for commencement speakers. His Farewell Address in John 14-16 shows that he has the genre down.  Now that I think about it, that is the source of my difficulty in listening to commencement addresses—his masterful one here in John's gospel has spoiled me for all the rest.

The Famous Two Points of Every Secular Commencement Address:
Somewhere in every commencement address I've ever heard the speaker gives these two pieces of advice:

1.     Work Hard.

Ted Turner's commencement speech at Duke University 10 years ago is now the stuff of legends. He ambled to the podium and leaned an elbow on it and said, "Your President asked me if I'd offer a few words of advice to you as you graduate. Here they are: 'Get out there and work your butts off.'" Then he sat down. 

5/22/2011 4:00:00 AM
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  • Alyce McKenzie
    About Alyce McKenzie
    Alyce M. McKenzie is the George W. and Nell Ayers Le Van Professor of Preaching and Worship at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University.