May 21, 2017
Rev. John Watts
Nampa First UMC
WHAT WOULD JESUS SAY TO OUR GRADUATES?
This is going to be what Jesus would say, not what I would say. I have no idea what I would say if I were to speak to a room full of graduates. My brother had that opportunity last year. He was not a commencement speaker. He was just asked to say a few words as he presented a scholarship at Madras High School’s end of the year awards assembly.
It was held during the school day, so he had a captive audience. He began by telling them he had a daughter their age and that he had asked her what he should say that would connect with high school students. He told them what she told him. She said, “Dad, they don’t care what you have to say. All they care about is that you stop talking so they can get out of there.” He got a standing ovation.
A room full of graduates would be a tough crowd. I’ve been to three as a graduate – high school, college, and seminary. I remember one of the three speakers, and only because he was everyone’s favorite high school teacher. I do not remember a single thing any of them said.
But what if Jesus were the commencement speaker? I hope I would remember that one. And what would Jesus say? All I know is what Jesus said. It’s in the Bible. And especially the only time a full extended sermon of his found its way into the Bible. It’s called the Sermon on the Mount.
Read the Sermon on the Mount if you haven’t already. And even if you have. You can’t read it too many times. You’ll find it in Matthew, chapters 5, 6, and 7. I had a pastor years ago who challenged us to memorize all three chapters. I did, but that was a long time ago. Please, don’t test me on that now. But if you want to accept the same challenge, I would love to hear about it. Reading something in the Bible is one thing. Memorizing it so it becomes part of you, is something else.
I think what Jesus would say to our graduates might be in four parts. First, push back the darkness with your light. Here’s what he said in the Sermon on the Mount:
You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light so shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven (Matthew 5:14-16).
Jesus is saying that we were created to be shining lights. And the takeaway here for graduates is that we can be shining lights whatever our field of employment might be. There are certain jobs in today’s job market where the demand exceeds the supply. Nurses, teachers, and engineers, for example. But in every job, the demand exceeds the supply when it comes to light. The light of Jesus is so needed and so lacking in today’s world.
There is a lot of darkness. I don’t need to tell you that. A lot of gloom. A lot of pessimism. A lot of fear. A lot of heartache. A lot of people who, in the words of Henry David Thoreau are living lives of quiet desperation. Which just means there is a lot of opportunity to push back some of that darkness as Jesus shines in us and through us.
My mom had surgery a couple of weeks ago and I was sitting with her in the little room where they got her ready. I was impressed with her nurse. She was down to business and very skilled. But she was also very kind. It was obvious that this wasn’t just a job for her. She really cared about my mom. She made it more than just a professional interaction. And that really helped.
The surgeon was great, too. We had met him the day before. He had a surgery scheduled before my mom’s that went a little long so he was late getting to our room. That gave me some time to visit with this nurse. I wasn’t surprised to learn that she is a Christian. She is a nurse and she is also a shining light. We need both.
Second, make money your servant, not your master. Here’s what Jesus said:
Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where
moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in
and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will
be also . . . No one can serve two masters. Either he will
hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and
Money (Matthew 6:19-21,24).
In another place, Jesus said, “Your life does not consist in the abundance of your possessions” (Luke 15:12). That’s our memory verse for today, because that’s one we all need to internalize. We need to say it over and over again until it’s part of who we are. Life is more than stuff. We need to keep repeating that message because we are bombarded all the time from every direction with the opposite message – that life is what we own, and what we have, what we can buy.
It’s subtle, but it’s powerful. We don’t even have to agree with the message to fall under its power. We know better, but still we fall prey to this seductive idea that happiness is just one purchase away. If I just had an iPhone 7. If I just had a newer car. If I just could buy a house. Or a better house. Or a second house. That’s what it would take for my life to be complete. It’s a lie. But we keep falling for that lie.
It’s on all our money. There are some who say it’s unconstitutional for it to be there, but it’s still there. “IN GOD WE TRUST.” And isn’t that ironic? Our money says we trust God but the truth is we trust money a whole lot more than we trust God.
Sam Polk has written a book called For the Love of Money. He was a Wall Street hedge fund trader. He quit at age 30. That’s the year he was offered an annual bonus of $3.6 million. He got angry at the offer because he expected more. That’s when he realized he had lost himself in his obsessive pursuit of more and more money. So he walked away from it all. He said, “I wanted more money for exactly the same reason an alcoholic needs another drink: I was addicted.”
You don’t have to get $3.6 million dollar bonuses to be addicted. Even brand new graduates who are starting with nothing but a pile of student debt can very easily start down the path that makes money their master, not their servant. There are nice people out there, people who just want to make you happy, who will approve you for credits cards or cars or houses that you cannot afford. And you will be well on your way to living beyond your means. You will be well on your way to financial bondage, not financial freedom.
So it’s important to figure out how to spend less than you make. Avoid debt. Make saving a habit. Be content with a lifestyle that is several rungs below the lifestyle that might make you happy in the short term but that is guaranteed to make you miserable in the long term. And get in the habit of giving. Generous giving to God’s work and to causes that will help others is the best antidote there is to the addiction to money and things.
Third, take the road less traveled by. Jesus didn’t say that. Robert Frost said that in his famous poem.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood and I –
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
Here’s what Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount:
Enter the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it (Matthew 7:13-14).
Only a few find it. So do you want to be one of the few, or one of the many? There are only a few who choose to go the way of the few. And there are a great many who choose to go the way of the many. You have to choose which way you will go.
There is something to be said for choosing the broad road. You’ll have a lot of company. You won’t get lonely. You’ll get lots of pats of the back and affirmation and encouragement. You’ll feel confident that you’re on the right track. After all, how can you go wrong when so many are going the same way you are?
It’s also the easy way. You can just kind of go with the flow. Every time you have a hard choice to make, you choose easy. Why would anyone ever choose hard? Comfortable beats painful every day of the week.
No wonder this road is so popular. No wonder it’s so crowded. But Jesus calls to our attention a little bit of information we’d rather not hear. The road that is so broad, so easy, so popular is taking its many followers straight to destruction.
You can turn this into a heaven / hell thing. That may have been where Jesus was going with this. But it also is simply telling us that there is a price to pay for everything in life that is worthwhile. The opera singer, Beverly Sills said, “There are no shortcuts to any place worth going.” If you choose easy over hard every time, you are not going to end up where you want to be. The life worth living is achieved by choosing to do a lot of things you’d really rather not do.
Here’s another saying. I can’t tell you who it’s from because it is attributed to quite a few different people. It is so simple but it is so true. “Successful people are willing to do the things that unsuccessful people are not willing to do.”
Why aren’t unsuccessful people willing to do the things successful people do? Because they are hard. And most people choose easy. That’s why Jesus tells us the path that leads to life is not crowded. It’s so lonely you’ll think you took a wrong turn. But you are right on track. You took the road less traveled by, and that will make all the difference.
Fourth, live the Lord’s Prayer. I grew up praying this prayer daily, as my mom and dad would tuck me into bed. Now I pray this prayer weekly. Actually several tines on Sunday, because we have several worship services. In the early church they prayed this prayer three times every day. Why so often?
Jesus is teaching us in this prayer to put God in place of self. We are all born selfish. We all by nature think the world really should revolve around us. But that’s not the best way to live. So Jesus teaches us to pray, “Hallowed by thy name.” Not my name. We want to make a name for ourselves. But our name, our importance, doesn’t really matter. God matters. It’s, “Thy kingdom come.” Not my kingdom. “Thy will be done.” Not my will. All through the prayer Jesus is replacing “my” with “thy”, teaching us to think more about God and less about self. It’s a prayer designed for selfish people. Which means it’s designed for us.
That’s why the early Christians prayed it so often. And that’s why we should pray it more often. Prayer changes things, and prayer also changes us. The things we pray for over and over, become part of who we are. They shape our hearts and our values. Jesus wanted that to happen to us. Jesus knew that when we get over our selves and put God first, everything else will fall into place right where it belongs.
David Brooks is the faux-conservative who writes for the New York Times. He lives in an interesting world. The liberals say he’s conservative and the conservatives say he’s liberal. He must live a lonely life. But he has a lot of good things to say. Like this recent column.
Commencement speakers are always telling young people to “follow your passion / be true to yourself.” This is a vision of life that begins with self and ends with self. But people on the road to becoming authentically human do not find their vocations by asking, “What do I want from life?” Instead they ask, “What is life asking of me? How can I match my intrinsic talent with one of the world’s deepest needs?”
I would say that slightly differently. I would say, What is God asking of me? What is God calling me to be and to do? God has gifted us in many ways – talents, life experiences, teachers, tenacity, health – all this has been given to us and now all this needs to be put to use. God has prepared us for something great. Now we say, “God, what is it? What are you asking of me? Here I am. I am yours.”
Eric Greitens gave the 2012 commencement address at Tufts University. Eric Greitens is a highly decorated Navy SEAL. That’s about the highest praise you can give him. But he’s maybe better known now as the newly elected governor of Missouri. He opened his commencement address with this:
I have spoken to people who were on the precipice of life changing moments; moments of severe consequences and even potential disaster. I have spoken to refugees in danger of starvation. I have talked to United States Marines as they had to face down death in Iraq. I have talked to Navy SEALs who faced the prospect of being severely wounded in Afghanistan. and now I add to that list you, the graduates of the class of 2012, who face the very real danger of going home to live in your parents’ basements.
But that’s not the part of the speech I want you to hear. We were getting kind of serious here, so I figured you might be ready for a laugh. I’m going to send out the whole speech in tomorrow’s Monday Musings. You’ll want to read it all. He talks about some of the most difficult things he faced as a Navy SEAL. And then he says this:
The more I thought about myself, the weaker I became. The more I recognized that I was serving a purpose larger than myself, the stronger I became.
That’s the way it works. And that is why the Lord’s Prayer ends the way it began. It began with “thy name” and “thy kingdom”, and “thy will be done.” At the end we find words that aren’t in the Bible because they are a benediction added by the early church. “For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen.” Thine, not mine.
We don’t live for ourselves. We live for him. His kingdom, his power, his glory. Not ours. That’s where we find life. That’s what Jesus wants to say to us. Even those us whose graduation day was a long, long time ago.
Lord Jesus, help us to be light that will push back some of the darkness in this world. And help us to make money our servant, never our master. Help us to take the harder path, not the easier path. And help us to live for God, not for ourselves. These are four benchmarks to help us find where we are in our walk with you and where there is perhaps room left for improvement. We all need you help. We always need your help. Thank you for both teaching us your way and also for coming into our hearts to live your way in us. In your name, we pray now as you taught us:
Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our trespasses and we forgive those who trespass against us. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen.