Monday, May 28, 2012

Baccalaureate Address to the 2012 Eminence High School Graduates

Scripture Lessons:
I Samuel 17:38-40, 48-50
Matthew 5:2-11

            According to the dictionary, the word baccalaureate refers to a “farewell sermon delivered to a graduating class.”  For those of us assigned the task, it is often seen as our last chance to tell you something really important so that you can be sent off well.
            Some ministers use the occasion to preach their best evangelical sermon, urging those who do believe to remain vigilant and urging those who do not believe to do so.  I will not do that.
            Other ministers will use the occasion to tell you what an important role you have ahead of you and to assure you that you have all you need to meet the challenge.  I will not do that.
            Even others will tell you that the folks who make the biggest contributions to life are those who are selfless, who always put others first.  I will not do that.
            I’m here tonight to urge you to be selfish.  I urge you to use this evening and, perhaps, the next few days before graduation to turn your thoughts inward.  I urge you to figure out who you are and to be that person and no one else.  Fail to get that right, and you will get little else right.
            Did you read William Shakespeare’s Hamlet?  Do you recall Polonius’s last piece of advice to his son Laertes?
This above all: to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.
Farewell, my blessing season this in thee!
It’s sound advice.  The only problem is that it is impossible to be true to one’s own self unless one first knows one’s own self.  The best education is not one that leaves you with lots of facts, figures, and theories.  The best education opens the door of your mind and heart to self-exploration that leads to the discovery of who you are.
            . . . who you are apart from school
                        . . . who you are apart from your parents
            . . . who you are!
            Did you pay attention as Ms. Dees read the familiar account of David and Goliath?  King Saul is so impressed that David is willing to face Goliath, that he offers the young man his own armor.  It was quite an honor . . . a sign that David had arrived.  I suspect the armor was too large and too heavy, but that is not given as the reason for what happened.  David did not face down Goliath wearing the king’s armor.  Scripture states that David “tried in vain to go, for he had not tested them.”  David couldn’t fight this battle with another man’s armor, with another man’s courage, or in another man’s name.  He faced Goliath as David, the David he knew, and with the weapons he had tested and, therefore, knew.
            Be true to yourself.  Engage the world with the resources you have and know.  To be successful, you do not need to be anyone other than who you are; but you must be who you are, not who you pretend to be.
            Knowing who you are and being willing to be that person . . . fully to be that person is one of the surest ways to reach a goal that eludes many: to be happy.
Candide wanted above all else to be happy.  He sought happiness in places, in people, and in things.  It seemed to elude him.  Do you know Candide?  He’s the main character in Candide by Francois Voltaire.  Along with companions, Candide suffers many calamities.   Toward the end of the book as these calamities are recounted, Candide asks his companion Martin which member of the group he thinks is the most miserable.  Martin responds, "I cannot tell.  I would have to be inside your heads to know."  So it is. 
One’s happiness is not found in the circumstances of his/her life, but in his/her heart, soul, and mind.  Neither circumstances, fortunes, people, nor places can determine one’s state of happiness.  Happiness is determined by our response to those things.  Our responses are determined by who we have become.  Who we have become is determined by that to which we have given ultimate allegiance.  We will not find happiness in:
  Companions, including spouses.
  Jobs no matter how much they pay or how much prestige they bring to us.
  Fraternities to which we belong.
  Causes we undertake.
  Material possession.
It is found in us, or it is not found.
As the book concludes, Candide and all his companions are reunited, living in peace and security.  Yet, they bicker . . . because they are bored.  An old woman among them asks:  "I'd like to know which is worse to be raped a hundred times by . . . pirates, to have one buttock cut off, to run the gauntlet in the Bulgar army, to be whipped and hanged . . . to be dissected, to be a galley slave, in short to suffer all the miseries we've all gone through, or to stay here doing nothing."  Candide replies, "That's a hard question."
It is a hard question indeed; but to do nothing is the surest way to boredom and to a living death.  As human beings, we were not created to be idle.  But to do something is not enough.  The divine destiny waiting for each of us is to do what we are called to do.  To do it, we need to be true to ourselves, to trust, as did David, in the "armor" we have been given and have tested, and it is to be guided by a principle and a higher power than ourselves.
A wise older man, who owns but 20 acres of land from which he provides a living for himself and his four children, tells Candide that it is “our work that keeps us free of three great evils—boredom, vice, and poverty.”  The old man had found that for which Candide had searched—happiness; and it came from knowing who he was, what he needed, and what he had to give, and being satisfied.
Perhaps coming to know one’s own self in order to be true to one’s own self . . . perhaps finding the secret to happiness is possible outside of a relationship with God.  Perhaps . . . but it has not been my experience.  For me, self-knowledge came both from looking inside myself and from looking outside myself to God.
            There may be some here who do not believe the Christian faith to be true.  I would still commend to you the teachings of Jesus, particularly the Beatitudes as read by Ms. Emily.  They reverse almost every modern-day teaching about what it takes to be successful; but I invite you to let the beatitudes become the focus of your meditation and the guide for your living. 
            I will go further.  I will commend Jesus to you.  I do so not because the Bible says he is Son of God, Savior, and King.  I do so because I've tried him and found him worthy of my life.  In him, I’ve found the courage to know myself and to be true to who I am.  Having done so, I discovered that I belonged in this community, among people like you, your parents, and grandparents, pastoring a small-town church.  I found the courage to be the preacher I am, rather than trying to be like some other preacher.  I found the freedom to declare what I believe to be true and to acknowledge what I do not know and what quite frankly baffles me about life and faith. 
            In short by being true to myself, I have found the happiness that comes from being at home with one’s own self.  May it be so for you.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

We Must Remember

The prayer/poem that follows was written by Rev. Connie Gibbs of Woodland United Methodist Church in Windsor,Virginia and copyrighted 2003.

We pause on this Memorial Day, a brief moment in time,
To bring close to our hearts those memories we hold so dear
Of the men and women before us who unselfishly put their dreams, their lives on the line.
Where danger lay as a stalker,
waiting to take away each breath, while the soldier
plowed with determination the furrows of death.

We must remember, we must, you and I,
those special heroes who chose to fly,
to fly the skies of blue that turned as dark as the midnight sky,
Their wings began to shudder as smoke choked their breath away,
And hope gave way to the resignation, "Today, I'm going to die."
Treading the waters so deep and wide,

Men and women continued on their mission,
For God and country, their hearts would abide.
Surprised by attacks with brutal disregard for human life,
they fought to the end, knowing that life and limb would be lost,
whether of self or friend.

Yes by land, by sea, and in the skies,
they fought for our land,
they fought for freedom so that you and I might stand,
Stand for what is right, for what is good and true,
fight that we might say without fear, "God loves you."

Yes, we must remember, for freedom is not cheap,
for lives and limbs were lost so that we might keep,
All the things that we can have and all the things we can do,
Like cars and boats and a house with a roof,
Like going to church without fear,
and reading the Bible where we find the truth,
The truth of knowing that whether we are red, yellow, black,
or white,
We are all God's children and we need to learn to love one another as God first loved us.

For if there is to be peace on earth,
where all men and women are free,
it must begin with each and all of us,
let it begin with you and me.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Loving Like Jesus Loves

Sometimes I long to love as Jesus loved and loves.  Have you noticed his love?  He loves the strangest assortment of people.  He loved John the beloved disciples (maybe a little egotistical, too, since that designation shows up in the gospel that bears his name).  He loved Judas the betraying disciple (though not the only one to betray.  He loved his mother and he loved the woman caught in the act of adultery.  He loved those who loved him and those who did not.  He loved his enemies and still does.  He even loves you.

Well, maybe I don’t want to love as Jesus loves.  It’s one thing to love someone who loves you back or even to love someone you hope will return the love; but loving enemies is a different matter.  Oh, the enemy, the guy who done me wrong, who gets his just deserts, apologizes, and comes around to my way of seeing, him I might love; but the rest . . . ? 

Jesus set some high standards.  Were we all to rise to them, the world would be a better place.  Such a world just might be the answer to the prayer Jesus taught: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”  Until such time, loving as Jesus loves will always mean taking risks.  Some who are loved will not love back.

So, how about your stepping up to the love challenge?  If it works out okay for you, I might follow your example.  Until then, I’m going to live in the real world . . . the world in which one had better be on guard lest love offered gets trampled underfoot.

Oh, the real world!  That is one of the problems with Jesus.  Not only does he set high standards, he lived high standards . . . lived them in the real world that routinely trampled love underfoot, including the love with which God loved the world.  It was the Jesus accused of being demonic who urged love even for enemies.  It was the Jesus accused of blasphemy who urged love even for enemies.  It was the Jesus dying on the cross who prayed, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”

In the real world, those who follow Jesus are called to a higher standard.  Love is not reserved for those who love us.  In Jesus’ name, it is extended across the board to all.

. . . But how is it possible?  Love God . . . obey God’s commandments . . . .  In so doing, perhaps we become more like God . . . more capable of loving as the Son of God loved the world even though it robbed him of his life.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

The Vinedresser

In my mind’s eye, I can still see the fields.  Drive where you might; look where you might; but you would find no fields as beautiful to the eye as those belonging to Mr. Gaylon O. Knapp, my maternal grandfather.
Grandpa was more than a farmer who raised crops.  He practiced husbandry, caring for the land that would grow the crops as much as he cared for the crops.  Whether one walked through his corn or bean fields, knelt to feel the freshly opened cotton, or marveled at the golden waves of grain, one knew that one who cared for the land was at work in those fields.
Grandpa and Wendell Berry would have liked each other; though Grandpa would have chided Wendell for his penchant for horse-drawn implements.  Yet, Grandpa did have his limits.  Tractors and their implements needed to fit the size of the land; and a farmer’s land needed never to exceed his ability to care for it.  He never bought into the bigger-is-better mentality, nor did he believe in expansion for expansion’s sake.  A man should have what he needs and need only what he has; and he should care for it in such a manner as both to leave it to those who would follow and to leave it better than he had found it.
When I read the story of the Vine, the branches, and the Vinedresser, I think about Grandpa.  Don’t misunderstand me.  Even in my cherished memory of Grandpa, I don’t mean to equate him with God, but I do mean to say that the image of the God as the Vinedresser rings true for me in part because of the manner in which Grandpa cared for the land. 
So, what frightens others brings me hope.  Some read the story of the Vine, branches, and Vinedresser, focusing only on the news that the Vinedresser takes away non-fruit bearing branches.  I’m focused on something far more amazing.  The Vinedresser cares so much for the Vine and the branches that he continually prunes the branches that they may bear more fruit. 
I’m not worried about being lopped off.  My self-assurance does not rest on my own sense of goodness.  It rests on my trust that the Vinedresser loves me . . . loves you . . . and has but one desire: namely, to so care for both Vine and branches that together they may produce the fruit of the kingdom.
Grandpa might be surprised to know that he gave his grandson an image of God that was kinder than the one he often encountered at church.  On the other hand, maybe he would not be. 
The story of the Vine, the branches, and the Vinedresser is not a story of judgment.  It is a story of hope.  In the Vine . . . in Christ . . . there is life.
May we abide in the Vine.  If we do, part of the fruit we bear will be the image of kinder and more loving God than many around us know.