Pastor Russell, Principal Palisay, teachers and staff, parents, and you students, the 2013 graduating class of St. John’s Lutheran School: Grace, mercy, and peace be unto you from God the Father and from our Lord and our Savior Jesus Christ. I am honored to be with you today, and I bring you greetings from your brothers and sisters in Christ at The Evangelical Lutheran Church of Christ the King in Pawling, NY.
First, I wish to offer you congratulations on a job well done! You have progressed successfully through eight years of formal education in which you have learned the necessary fundamentals of Grammar, Language, and Spelling, Arithmetic, and History. In the last three years, undoubtedly, you moved beyond these fundamentals into logic and critical thinking, applying what you have learned to the study of the world God has made in Science, learning to evaluate the truth and strength of the claims and arguments of others, and to articulate and defend those of your own. You have learned to take what you perceive and experience and know from the world in which you live and express it in art, music, and poetry. Additionally, you have learned about God’s will and purpose for you and your life through the study of His Word in the Holy Bible and through worship in chapel. You have been disciplined and instructed in accordance with the traditional values and virtues upon which our nation was founded, themselves drawn from God’s Word, which are the fruits of God the Holy Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
You have grown and matured physically, mentally, and spiritually these past eight years. You have done well! The recognition of that fact is why we are all gathered here this day. We congratulate you and rejoice and celebrate with you, and we give thanks to God for you, and we pray for you, that God, who has begun this good work in you, will bring it to completion in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. For, though it is accomplished through the minds, words, and hands of these, your teachers and parents, and through many others, it is the LORD’s work, as you are the LORD’s work, and He has a purpose, indeed many purposes, for each one of you to the glory of His Name in Jesus Christ. You will discover what His purpose for you is by looking to His Word, by praying and asking for His guidance, and by being in His Word and receiving His Sacraments in church, where He is present to forgive you, renew and strengthen your faith, and teach you His will and His way.
For, second, you are embarking on a new leg of the journey that is your life. You are heading to High School – an uncharted world of new experiences, new learning, new opportunities, new challenges, and new dangers for you. You have good reason to be excited and anxious, hopeful and cautious. In high school, you will experience more freedom than you have had to date. This is because you are older and more mature, and you have been instructed in right and wrong and in the proper ways in which to treat other people with respect and dignity. Therefore, you will be given more responsibility, for yourself and for your actions. You will have many opportunities to rise to the occasion or a challenge and to meet it, overcome it, and excel. Even when you fail, you will have an opportunity to learn and to grow. Which leads me to speak to you about one of the greatest challenges you will face in high school – knowing who you are and remaining true to yourself.
You will encounter pressure, often intense pressure, to change your behavior, your opinions, and your beliefs to what someone else, or some group of people want you to do, think, and believe. Sometimes it will be good for you to change; sometimes it will not. How are you to know? You will need to know yourself. You will need to know what you believe and why, what’s right and what’s wrong, not based upon what you feel, but upon what you know to be true. God has made each of you a unique and special soul. He knit you together in your mother’s wombs and He has numbered the hairs upon your heads. He has loved you to the fullest extent imaginable, laying down His own life that you could be His own. And, He has promised to never leave you or forsake you, but to keep you and preserve you through good and through bad, even through death when it comes, unto eternal life with Him in His kingdom.
Therefore, though you will surely face many challenges, trials, and temptations, you do not need to be afraid. For, the Lord has faced all challenges, trials, and temptations for you and has suffered the worst that can happen and has overcome, so that, now, He can walk with you through the valley of the shadow of death, that is this life and world, and support you, and help you, and keep you until you are safe with Him in His Father’s house.
And, along your pilgrim way, you are to be as light, leaven, and salt. You are the light of the world, as the light of Christ shines through your words and deeds into a world of darkness and shadow. Where His light shines, there is no darkness, and neither you nor those you enlighten will stumble and fall. You are leaven, even if but a pinch, leavening the whole lump of this world. One kind deed, one compassionate embrace, one helping hand can impact a life, even many lives, in ways you could never imagine. And you are salt. Your God-given gifts and talents, used in service of your neighbor to His glory, can change lives and livelihoods, even cultures, civilizations, and the world.
However, the key thing is to continue to be what God has made you, and called you, to be. You must know yourself, and you must be true to yourself in accordance with God’s Word, not man’s word. And, do not be afraid, for there is nothing to fear but God, and He is on your side. Fear, love, and trust in Him above all things. He will bless you. He has blessed you. And He will continue to make of you a rich blessing to others.
The third truth that I want to share with you today is this: You are not alone. The 16th century English poet John Donne famously wrote, “No man is an island.” By this saying, Donne was communicating that all men are interconnected, even dependent upon, each other. Simply think about this truth: No one of you was born into this world alone. Each of you has, at the very least, a mother and a father. That means that you also have, or had, grandparents, great-grandparents, great-great grandparents, etc. Most of you likely have siblings, aunts and uncles, and cousins as well. You have all of these relations as part of your life, entirely apart from your own willing or choosing. Moreover, your gender, ethnicity, where you were born, even what country you were born in, were all things over which you had no control, no say, could make no decision, and had no choice.
You were born where God wanted you to be. You were born who God wanted you to be. And, you are good as you are, as God wanted you to be. That does not mean that you are perfect, for you are not. Indeed you, and I, all of us, sin daily and are, daily, in need of God’s forgiveness. But, what I mean is that, God didn’t create you that way – sinful. God created you good. Like the bumper sticker says, “God don’t make no junk.” (Ugh! Doesn’t that bad grammar make your ears hurt?) God created you as part of a family, a community, and a nation. He did not create you to be an island, but part of a continent, itself part of the entire planet earth. This means that your life and livelihood is dependent upon others, and likewise, other lives and livelihoods are dependent upon you. Therefore, you matter; indeed, you matter a great deal! God has a purpose for you that will benefit both yourself and, more importantly, others. I don’t know what that purpose is specifically – whether you will be a doctor, a police officer or fireman, a teacher, a mother or a father, a butcher, baker, or candlestick maker – I don’t know. No one knows, even yourself. But I do know this: Whatever you are to be, you are to be it as a Christian. That is to say, that in your vocation (that’s a “churchy” way of saying “your job” or “what you will be or do”), in your vocation, you will be the heart, and the hands, and the mouth of Jesus, showing love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control to others, whoever God causes to cross your path. In this way, you will be light, leaven, and salt, changing the world, for the better, for God.
Now, that’s a tall order, to be sure, and anyone worth his weight in salt would find it a daunting and heavy burden. But, again, I say to you, “Do not be afraid.” For, you will not bear this burden or carry this task alone. Jesus goes with you. He shares your burden with you. In truth, He bears most of it for you, for He has already born the burden of all humanity and walked the way of man that leads through the valley of the shadow of death, defeating that enemy, and passing through into life in His Father’s house. That means the victory is His. And that means the victory is yours too.
And, to help you to remain strong to bear your burden and serve your neighbor, God has given you another birth, into another family, the Church. In the Church you receive the forgiveness of your sins, the strengthening of your faith, comfort and fellowship from those who depend upon you as you depend upon them, and, most importantly, communion with your God who created you, who gave you life, has redeemed your life, and preserves your life, even through death, unto eternal life with Him in heaven.
That is the perspective that you must keep in mind throughout your life – that there is much more in store for you than what happens between birth and death. In truth, this life is preparation for true and lasting life, to purify you from all impurities and to refine that which is most true and good – to bless you, and in blessing you, to make you a rich blessing to others, to the glory of God, in Jesus Christ, through His most Holy Spirit. Amen.
Congratulations! Christ’s peace go with you. Amen.