Monday, June 19, 2017

Friends Forever: A Graduation Sermon

Thanks to a reminder from a former parishioner, I just ran across this sermon I wrote in 2000.  Thought I would publish it here, since it contains a lot of valuable advice for both current graduates and the rest of us too!

"Today we want to honor our seniors as they come to their graduation from high school.   This morning I find that I speak from my heart as both as a pastor and as a parent, though I don’t happen to have a senior this year, (though in another sense I feel like a father to some of you seniors).
In the course of 18 years, we have seen you go from being helpless, totally dependent babies nestled in your mother’s arms to what we now must acknowledge to be independent young adults, ready and able to venture out into this big wide world that God has created for us.  What an amazing change we have witnessed!
Highlands UMC 2000 Graduating Class
We who are your parents still want to call you kids.  And you are our kids.  And in a sense you’ll always be our kids.  And as you all know from time to time, we still try to treat you as ‘kids,’ as our dependent children to protect and nurture and keep from harm.   Of course that’s more of a habit, or maybe a wish to go back in time, to reverse direction in our family’s life and go back to when you needed us, and we could care for you and protect you against those things in this world that can harm you.
But deep down in our hearts we know those days are over.  We know it.  Oh, you might still need a small loan, or we might still have to spend a small fortune on your college education or your wedding.
But the bottom line is that we recognize that you are young adults now.  Like a baby bird that has been growing big and strong, with wings of feathers capable of soaring on the winds, you need to get out of the nest and fly on your own.  For you were born to fly, to soar high and beautifully.  And fly you must if the circle of life is to be completed.
 And we know that you need that.  If we parents have been doing our job right, this is a time we have been preparing for.  But still it frightens us, not because you lack anything, but because it’s just hard for us to change what we’ve been doing for so many years now.
So have patience with us if we have a difficult letting you go.  Over the last 18 years you have become part of us.  We have poured our lives into yours, and while it has been a lot of work, it has given us the greatest joy and satisfaction.  You may not fully understand this until, God willing, you raise your own children and experience it yourself.   Your leaving is a bit like cutting off an arm.  We’ll adjust in time, but in the meantime it just plain hurts.
But it’s time for you to fly, to soar on your beautiful wings that are strong and ready, if yet still a little untested.  We want you to go and you need to go.  But always know that we still want to be a part of your lives, though on a different basis than before, which we’ll work out together, as adults.
So what do we want for you?  The best, of course. 
But more specifically, we want you to fulfill your life and your God-given destiny, whatever that is.   We want you to go out and take the abilities, skills, and talents that God has given you and you’ve developed, and both develop them more and find a place to apply them.  We want you to do something useful and productive, something that will make this community, this society, and this world a better place than it was before you arrived.  Probably, it isn’t perfectly clear to us or to you what that is, and that’s okay.  That will develop as you go through your life, and for some of us, it may take quite a while!  And if you let him, God will help you find it.
We of course want you to be happy.  But our faith tells us that happiness is not something that we seek for directly, but rather it is largely a byproduct of other things.  One thing is for sure: happiness certainly does not depend upon being wealthy or beautiful or powerful.  Those may or may not be worthy goals in their own right, but don’t count on them making you happy.  Many people grasp for happiness by being self-centered or materialistic or by seeking a life of constant pleasure.  But true happiness is not to be found there. 
So how does one find true happiness?  Yes, that is the ‘million dollar question’, isn’t it!  But we believe that God has given us the answer to that question.  But rather than it being the answer to a ‘yes or no’ question or a ‘multiple choice’ question, it’s more like the answer to an ‘essay’ question—there are as many ways to answer it as there are individuals, yet some answers are more correct than others.  So let me give you Carl’s brief essay answer to this question of where one finds true happiness in this life, understanding that everyone here would put this in a slightly different way.
And my answer is simply this:  remember who you are.  You are God’s beloved child, you are his beautiful creation, you are made in God’s own image.  Everything else you do or make of yourself should revolve around this understanding of who you are. 
If you will live your life with this understanding of who you are and live out its meaning, true happiness will come to you as naturally as the rain falls on the earth.  True happiness is none other than what the Bible refers to as the joy and peace that comes to you when you live out the reality of being God’s beloved child.
  So, make room for God in your life.  Indeed, more than make room, surrender your life over into His keeping through trust in Christ.  Never forget that you are ultimately a spiritual being, and that faith in Christ is as natural and as essential a part of your life as anything else.  Therefore, practice being a faithful person, using the spiritual disciplines of prayer, worship, scripture study, fellowship in community and deeds of love and mercy.
I don’t know of a better recipe for real happiness and blessedness than the Sermon on the Mount, which Jesus taught his disciples in Matthew’s gospel, chapters 5-7, and which he demonstrated for us in his life.  Blessed are the humble, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers.  Do not store up for yourself treasures on earth, but store up for yourself treasures in heaven.  Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.  Do not worry about your life or about tomorrow, but seek first God’s kingdom and his righteousness.  Build your house (and your life) upon a rock and not upon shifting sand, because a house built upon a rock will not fall when the storms comes.
Christ put it well in the gospel of John, when he said that we are to love one another as he loved us.  In doing so, we become friends, friends of our brothers and sisters and friends of Christ, friends forever.
One more thought on happiness.   One contemporary writer, Richard Carlson, author of the “Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff” series, put it this way:  “The truth is, there’s no better time to be happy than right now.  If not now, when?  Your life will always be filled with challenges.  It’s best to admit this to yourself and decide to be happy anyway.  There is no way to happiness.  Happiness is the way”  (from Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff).
This is a determination to live in the present, making the most of every hour and every day, because we never know when our life will end.  The prominent philosopher John Lennon once wrote:  “Life is what’s happening while we’re busy making other plans.”  Now is the only time we have!  So, plan for the future, and learn from the past, but live in the present and enjoy or at least appreciate every day as it comes.
  Let me go on to some other aspects of living life wisely.  Accept yourself—who you are and where you come from.  And be grateful for it.  One of the truest things I ever saw on a poster was this: “What you are is God’s gift to you.  What you make of yourself is your gift back to God.”  This is, I think, the heart and soul of service.  When we serve, we give back to God what he has first given to us.
Learn the lessons that life has to teach you, which interestingly enough mostly come from the problems we encounter in life.  Life is difficult, about that there is little doubt.  All of us will, at some point in our lives, turn to the book of Job for solace and comfort.  But in the face of tough times, determine that you will not ever give into despair or become cynical.  Hang in there when things seem to fall apart, and friends desert you, and even God seems to have hidden his face.  For in reality, like the sun beyond the clouds, God is still there and your real friends are still there.  Always keep hope alive in your life.
Strive to be a person of integrity.  Always keep your promises and commitments, or don’t make them in the first place.  Be honest in all your dealings, and know that lies, whether large or small, will always find you out.
But in your honesty, don’t be so blunt to the point of brutality or cruelty.  Practice speaking the truth with gentleness and compassion, and if that proves too difficult, at least be civil.  We often find that a hard thing to do, when we are filled with passion in our beliefs and thoughts.  At all times, always look to build other people up, to share in their joys and their sorrows, to be a peacemaker.
Practice true humility.  You don’t need to seek other’s approval by bragging about your accomplishments.  They speak for themselves.  People are actually drawn to persons who have a quiet, inner confidence and don’t need to make themselves look good.
Never hate anyone or allow yourself to become bitter or cynical.  These negative attitudes are toxic poisons to the soul, both your own and that of others.  They will slowly kill you.  Forgive one another.  Forgive one another.  Forgive one another.
Be grateful.  Focus on what is good in your life and the things for which you can be grateful.  And of course the ultimate recipient of our gratitude should be the One who has made us and provided us with good things, our loving and almighty heavenly Father.  Someone has written that “everything has God’s fingerprints on it.” And we should try to view the world from that perspective.
And I should like to add how important it is that we as a human community try to reconnect with the natural world, God’s creation.  In all our Western affluence, with all our technology, we have increasingly become disconnected from the creation, from nature.  We have forgotten that we are not gods, that we are also a part of nature.  And what we do to nature, we do to ourselves.  So let us begin to treat the earth and all its creatures with more respect, gentleness and compassion.  Remember, the creation doesn’t belong to us, we belong to the creation.
Now let me become even a bit more specific, graduates.  Except for a house and a car, avoid debt like the plague.  Throw away those applications for credit cards that you’re already receiving in the mail.  Spend less than you make.  Save and invest as much as you can.  In your finances and in every other part of your life, practice self-discipline and self-control.  Control your desires, your passions, your feelings, your habits, and your actions. Make these your servants, and never allow yourself to become their slave.  And if you ever do become enslaved, seek help.
Set goals for your life, both short and long term, and then do what is necessary to achieving them.  Strive for excellence.  But at the same time, don’t forget to enjoy the simple and daily pleasures of life.
Avoid television and movies as much as possible, and when you do watch, make sure it’s not mental and emotional “junk food.”  Read more good books.  Listen to good music, for music is the language of angels.
Don’t read People magazine!  In other words, don’t envy or try to imitate celebrities, because most of them know less about living the “good life” than you do, and certainly less than your parents do.  Instead, find yourself a real hero to emulate, maybe your father or mother or a grandparent or uncle or aunt, or a teacher or coach, or a saint or prophet.  Set for yourself high ideals.
If you get married, and the chances are that most of you will, be very careful about the person you select as your life’s partner.  Get serious premarital counseling.  But once you have made your wedding vows, keep them!  Work hard at your marriage, and be prepared to change, because both you and your partner and your relationship will change over the years.  And make this the basic operating principle of your marriage:  when in doubt about whose turn it is to take out the trash, go ahead and take it out.!
Finally, although I know that it’s probably hard for you to think about his now, don’t forget to grow old gracefully.  Early in our lives, it’s easy to think we’re going to live forever.  Later on, when our bodies start to go bad, we begin to face the hard truth of life and our eventual mortality.  That’s when some of us go kind of crazy and have mid-life crises and so forth.
But actually it’s a pretty good idea to once in a while consider your death and in so consider the state of your life.  When you lie on your deathbed, what will you think of your life--your relationships, your priorities, your achievements?  What would want your epitaph, carved on your tombstone, to be?
Most people look back on their lives and wish they had spent more time with the people and activities they truly loved and less time worrying about aspects of life that don’t really matter all that much.
There is something to be said for living each day as if it were your last day on earth.  Not to be morally reckless or to neglect your responsibilities, but simply to help remind yourself of how wonderfully precious life really is and what your real priorities in this life should be.
Well, that’s it for today.  Graduates, we wish you the very best.   We’re proud of you, and we love you and will always support you.  God go with you, and know that you are loved, and that you are always in our thoughts and prayers, wherever you are.

Heavenly Father,
We are thankful for these young people you have shared with us, as our children and our friends.  We now humbly present them back to you.  Go with them and keep them safe as they leave our control and our protection.  Continue, in your ultimate wisdom and providential care, to make them into what you would have them to be.  And may your love continue to fill their hearts and lives, as we all together remain your people and your spiritual family in humble service in this place and throughout the world.  In Christ’s name we pray.   Amen."  

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