You can listen to the sermon but note that towards the end I played an audio clip from the film American Beauty. The clip is audible but just barely in this recording:
Before I begin this afternoon, if any of you would like to live tweet this baccalaureate service, I’ve set up a feed for you. It’s #myparentsforcedmetocometothis
It’s no surprise that some of you are here today listening to me against your will, but that just makes it like a normal Sunday service for me.
It occurs to me, though, that some of you might be here not against your will but by accident.
For instance, if any of you studied Latin during your West Po time, then you know that the root word in baccalaureate is Bacchus, the name for the Roman god of drunken revelry and sexual debauchery.
If you know your bibles you know that Abraham was no stranger to drunken revelry and sexual debauchery. Even so, if any of you came here today expecting a bacchanalia instead of a baccalaureate, I’m afraid you’re going to have to wait 9 months for Greek Rush.
Seriously, as one of the pastors here, I want to welcome you to Aldersgate Church, and I want to thank you for the invitation to speak. As a Methodist, it’s not often I get to preach to people under 65 years of age.
Just kidding- but not really.
Actually, I shouldn’t lead with an age joke. With each passing day I’m increasingly aware that even though when I look in the mirror I still see someone about your age, when you look at me you see someone as old, dull and passionless as your parents.
The year I graduated from high school is the year you were born.
The year I graduated is the year you were born!
The moment I realized that earlier this week is the moment I started to hate every last one of you.
Things were completely different the year I graduated from high school.
For example, that year Washington DC was mired in partisan gridlock, the White House was consumed by controversy and scandal, Charlie Sheen was in and out of rehab and an aging Bruce Willis starred in yet another Die Hard movie. It was a completely different world- a world you couldn’t possibly recognize.
This is my 3rd or 4th baccalaureate sermon. Frankly, I’m not sure how I keep getting invited to deliver these considering the fact that I’m philosophically opposed to them.
For one thing, I’m opposed to baccalaureates because you don’t need an inspirational sermon at your graduation- YOU’RE GRADUATING!
That’s exciting enough; you don’t need anyone like me adding words to it.
You’ve been in school all day long for almost your entire life, but now you’ve made it. You’re finished. No more SOL’s, AP’s, GPA’s, SAT’s, PSAT’s.
It’s all over. You’re graduating.
You no longer have to pretend you actually read Ethan Frome.
The next time you’re asked a question about advanced math will the day your son or daughter asks you for help with their math.
And you won’t be able to.
But who cares? Because you’re done. You’re graduating.
From this point forward, if you can avoid a major felony you can avoid group showers for the rest of your life, and the next gym class you’ll be forced to attend will most likely be water aerobics at your cardiologist’s orders.
Because you’re finished. You’re graduating.
Once you get your cap and gown, if you so choose, you no longer have to spend any time with anyone who knows what you looked like when you were 13 years old. You don’t need an inspirational speech for something that exciting.
For another thing, I’m philosophically opposed to baccalaureate sermons because it’s just too hard to capture graduates’ attention. You’re understandably busy thinking about other things: beach week and summer vacation and your first semester at college- and all the things that that entails which can’t be spoken of in this sanctuary.
But really, the main reason why I’m at philosophic odds with baccalaureate preaching is because I can’t remember a single word of the sermon from my own baccalaureate. I remember the school choir sang. I remember a classmate read Dr. Seuss’ Oh the Places You’ll Go- ironically the person who read that still lives with his parents in the same neighborhood we grew up in.
And, I remember an aging, white-haired minister named Dennis Perry preaching, but I don’t recall a single word of what he said.
If I had to guess though I’d bet probably the gist of his message was ‘Dream Big.’
That’s what graduation messages are always about, right?
Carpe Diem and all that. Transform the culture. Turn the world upside down. Your future is whatever you make of it. Anything is possible.
I have a different message for you. I figure if you’re going to forget every word I say then I might as well tell the truth.
Here’s my message for you: Dream Small.
Now, I’m not saying you shouldn’t dream big.
Obviously, your West Potomac education has equipped you well to pursue whatever God might be calling you to in this beautiful yet broken world. Your families and teachers have given you everything you need to dream big.
In fact, dreaming large, big dreams comes naturally for us. I mean, you’ve grown up in a culture in which you’ve been exposed to an average of 4,000 advertisements a day- a day!
My 4th grade son did the math for me: that comes out to 26,280,000 advertisements during your lifetime.
26 million times our culture has tried to convert you, indoctrinate you, into pursuing the bigger, the better, the mega.
You all are the products of helicopter parents and tiger moms. You’ve been told your whole life that you’re gifted, you’re exceptional, you’re above average. Your whole life you’ve been told that you can do whatever you put your mind to.
You don’t need me to tell you to dream big, but maybe you do need someone to tell you to dream small.
Now, I know that dreaming small probably isn’t your first takeaway from the scripture passage that George read today.
The story of Abraham is the stuff of big, bold, baccalaureate-type dreams. After all, God calls Abraham out of obscurity and promises Abraham that if he dares to venture forth from his home into the unknown then Abraham’s future will be like the stars in the sky.
That may be the most obvious takeaway from Abraham’s story but it’s not the only one.
The ancient rabbis believed that Abraham’s father was idol maker. Whether that’s true or not, Abraham did grow up in a culture populated by a pantheon of gods- useful gods who could be fashioned out of wood and stone, gods that could be sought out when you needed them and put back on the shelf when you didn’t.
Abraham grew up with gods who were visible and confined to particular places and people and called upon only on particular days.
But this God who calls Abraham is different, different from the gods he grew up with.
This God who calls Abraham just calls.
Unlike the gods he grew up with, this God who calls Abraham is invisible.
Invisibility- that’s scripture’s way of speaking of God’s omnipresence.
Because God is not precisely there, God can always be here, which is to say, everywhere. God can’t be seen anywhere precisely so that God can be found everywhere.
What we tend to take away from Abraham’s story is this big, one day, dream of a future as bright as the stars in the sky.
But you can bet that what Abraham took away is the discovery that the God who hung the stars in the sky is everywhere.
That’s why Abraham can set out into the unknown unafraid because there is no where Abraham can go in his life where God isn’t already.
And if this God is everywhere, if there is no where this God isn’t, then that means that what’s important isn’t just the one day you have at the end of your big dreams for your future.
If God is everywhere, then what’s important is your every day.
Each and every day.
You may not realize this yet but trust me. There’s a lie behind those millions of commercials you’ve been hit with in your lifetimes.
And maybe there’s even a lie in some of what your parents and teachers have told you.
Real joy isn’t found at the end of graduate school. It doesn’t come with a diploma; it’s not waiting for you at the end of a career path. It doesn’t come knocking when you have the right salary or the toys that go with it.
Real joy is found right here in the details your every day life.
This week is a time for you to imagine all the possibilities in your future so it might hard for you to imagine that some of your best days, when you feel like all is right with the universe and what you’re doing means something and you know why you’re here and your heart swells in gratitude and joy– well, believe it or not, those will be days when you’re just going about everyday life in ordinary ways.
The reason they won’t let a preacher speak at your graduation is because in my line of work I talk to all kinds of people every day, people who have achieved everything they set out to do in this life, who made it to the top of the ladder, and after they’ve gotten there, what they’ll tell you 9 times out 10 is that it doesn’t mean all that much.
That’s why it’s so important to dream small, to find and cultivate joy in the little things of your daily life and the people around you and not hitch all your hopes for happiness on a one day in the future.
If you won’t take it from me, take it from Lester Burnham, the main character in the film, American Beauty. The movie came out when you were watching Dora the Explorer so you may not have seen it.
Lester, as played by Kevin Spacey, is mired in the boredom and emptiness of what was supposed to be a ‘successful ́ American life.
He is finally awoken from his suburban slumber by fantasizing about Angela, who he thinks is the girl of his dreams (his wife Carolyn notwithstanding).
So Lester falls into the trap of thinking that happiness is to be found in the fantastic, in a dream-world that is something other than his mundane, everyday existence. But just when he is about to attain his dream, he realizes that what he’s wanted has been right in front of him this whole time. It’s just that his fantasies and dreams blinded him to the all the delights enfolded in his own little world.
And so the film closes with Lester, having been shot, giving this moving, post-mortem soliloquy:
I had always heard your entire life flashes in front of your eyes the second before you die. First of all, that one second isn’t a second at all, it stretches on forever, like an ocean of time« For me, it was lying on my back at Boy Scout camp, watching falling stars« And yellow leaves, from the maple trees, that lined our street« Or my grandmother’s hands, and the way her skin seemed like paper« And the first time I saw my cousin Tony’s brand new Firebird« And Janie« And Janie« And« Carolyn.
I guess I could be pretty pissed off about what happened to me« but it’s hard to stay mad, when there’s so much beauty in the world. Sometimes I feel like I’m seeing it all at once, and it’s too much, and my heart fills up like a balloon that’s about to burst« And then I remember to relax, and stop trying to hold on to it, and then it flows through me like rain and I can’t feel anything but gratitude for every single moment of my stupid little life« You have no idea what I’m talking about, I’m sure. But don’t worry« you will someday.
For too many people, just like Lester, that ‘someday’ comes too late. I see it all the time in my line of work.
And so I want you to realize today what Abraham discovered that day when God dared him to count the stars in the sky.
God is everywhere. Anywhere you go. In every place. In whatever you do. Alongside whomever you’re with.
Not one day far off in the future. But in your every day.
And that’s where your education comes in.
Because, as St Augustine said, education is not about what you know but what you love.
If your teachers and parents have done their jobs, then they haven’t just given you knowledge about the world. They haven’t just given you tools to succeed in the world.
They haven’t just equipped you for a career. They’ve trained you for joy.
If your teachers have done their jobs, they’ve invited you into the nooks and crannies of God’s creation: into the fascinating complexity of science or the emotional power of music, into the play of poetry and prose or the dazzle of digital media.
If your teachers and parents have done their jobs, your education hasn’t been about making the grade or getting into the right college. It’s been about getting you to wonder, to puzzle, to take delight in the every day world and people around you.
I know you’re going to dream big dreams. Given the culture in which you’ve been conditioned, you have no have no choice but to dream big.
But dream small too. And do so every day.
Because the goodness of God in your life is just as surely here and now as it will be there, one day.