Here’s my sermon from this Sunday for the local high school’s baccalaureate service, using Mark’s text of the rich (young) man. Props to my friend Scott Jones for linking the themes of Ascension and Melissa Febos‘ memoir Abandon Me.
There’s nothing quite like preaching to a congregation full of teenagers who are all here because their parents made them. It’s kind of like being a comedian in front of a completely sober crowd.
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.
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 Fraternity 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 preacher, it’s not often I get to preach to people under 75 years of age.
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 you were born I was a third year at UVA. That’s The University to all you who might be going to Tech.
The year you were born I was a third year at UVA.
Things were completely different back then.
For example, back then, the White House was mired in scandal because of a President who might also a sexual predator. And back then the Republicans held both houses of Congress yet were incapable of any legislative wins.
Meanwhile, a new release of Star Wars had broken all the box office records.
It was a completely different world- a world you couldn’t possibly recognize.
This is my 5th or 6th 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’re done.
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 MacBeth. The next time you’re asked a question about advanced math will be 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. You don’t need an inspirational speech for something that exciting.
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.
The only baccalaureate sermon I can remember, in fact, is the baccalaureate sermon I preached for West Po 10 years ago. I remember it because I made the mistake of choosing this scripture passage as my text. This one from the Gospel of Mark, chapter 10:
This rich young man- he’s only young person mentioned in all of the Gospels.
He’s the only youth anywhere in the Gospels. So preaching on this scripture text in such a well-heeled zip code was more than me just being confrontational. I wasn’t feeling contrary just because the program that day called me an “inspirational speaker.”
I genuinely thought it was an appropriate Gospel given my audience. He’s the Gospel’s only young person.
To all of those seniors setting off for college and the American dream, to all of their parents who had just as many ambitions for their children if not more- I told them about this rich, young, over-achiever who asks Jesus about eternal life.
And in telling them about the rich young man, I also told them about a young woman I knew in my previous church. A young woman who was a straight-A student at an Ivy league school, who was nearing graduation, whose parents were anticipating her career and six-figure salary.
I told them how Ann, that young woman, threw them all for a loop one day and announced that rather than doing anything they had hoped she was going to work in a clinic in some poor village, in Venezuela of all places.
At first, I thought that baccalaureate sermon went alright. I got a few laughs.
I saw a couple of heads nodding in affirmation. I didn’t notice any one sleeping or scowling. All in all, it seemed like it went okay.
Then I made the mistake of walking into the Fellowship Hall for the reception.
All I wanted was a cup of lemonade.
At first, I didn’t even make it through the double doors.
‘Do you always preach like that?’
The question was barked at me in a hushed, let’s-not-a-make-a-scene tone of voice. He was wearing an expensive-looking suit with an American flag pinned to his lapel, and his bald head was flushed red with bulging out everywhere.
‘Do you always preach like that?’ he questioned me.
‘I guess you don’t go to church here?’ I said.
‘No, and we never will.’
‘I guess I don’t understand.’
‘My daughter has worked hard and I’ve saved so she can go to the best college and law school. And you’re telling her she should just throw all her ambition away to go help the poor? That’s irresponsible.
You call yourself inspirational speaker?’
And, okay, maybe I was in a contrary mood that day.
‘Look,’ I said, ‘it sounds like your problem’s with Jesus not with me. Maybe you should take it up with him.’
He stormed off with his family in tow.
Next, I tiptoed up to the punchbowl hoping nobody would notice me, and thought I was in the clear. But then a different Dad, this one in a yellow polo shirt and khakis came up to me.
He had a gold chain and cross around his neck. He smiled and shook my hand and said: ‘Jesus didn’t really mean sell EVERYTHING and give it to the poor.’
‘He didn’t?’ I asked.
And he smiled at me like I was no older than the high schoolers and he said: ‘Of course not. Don’t you see he just meant we should keep things in their proper perspective? That money and possessions aren’t problems so long as we put God first in our lives?’
And like I told you- it’s possible I was just feeling contrary.
I took a sip of lemonade and replied: ‘Proper perspective, huh? I like that. That sounds good. That sounds a lot more manageable. I don’t know why Jesus didn’t say that, but I like that a lot better.’
I left him there at the punch bowl not sure whether I’d just agreed with me or not.
I almost escaped the Fellowship Hall. I made it to the door by the kitchen, when a Dad, a church member here, stopped me.
He shook my hand and said: ‘Jesus just told that one man to sell everything and give it to the poor, right?’
‘What do you mean?’ I asked.
‘Jesus didn’t ask anyone else to do that did he?’
And I thought about it and replied: ‘Well, the disciples weren’t rich but, yeah, they gave up everything too when Jesus called.’
I saw the vein in his forehead start to throb so I didn’t wait for a follow-up question.
‘Good Teacher, what do I have to do to inherit eternal life?’
Jesus is on his way to the nation’s capital when this rich guy from the suburbs comes up to him with a question.
And Jesus doesn’t appear all that interested in the questions of these brown-nosing, hand-raising, helicopter-parented upwardly mobile types. Jesus just tries to blow him off with a conventional answer about obeying the commandments.
‘Teacher, I’ve kept all the commandments since I was a kid. What else must I do to inherit eternal life?’
And Jesus looks at him. And Jesus says: ‘Because I love you…there is one thing you can do…go, sell everything you possess, give it to the poor and then come follow me.’
They watch the rich young man walk away.
And Jesus looks at the disciples and says: ‘You know- you just can’t save rich people. It’s hard. It’s just about impossible.’
Near as I can tell, this is the only place in the bible where Jesus invites someone to become a disciple and the person refuses.
And yet we call this story Gospel, good news, because, well, nothing is impossible with a Living God.
I left that Dad with the throbbing vein in his forehead, and I walked out to the parking lot. I’d almost made it to my car when this student with floppy hair and a wrinkled dress shirt (this was years before hipster side-parts and Vineyard Vines) said to me: ‘Did you choose that bible passage yourself?‘
I turned around, took a deep breath and said, in love: Look kid, I might have to take that crap off your parents but I don’t need to take it from you.
‘Yeah, I chose it. Why?’
‘I thought it was inspiring,’ he said.
And I did a double-take and squinted at him: ‘Are you jerking me around?’
‘No seriously. It’s inspiring to think that of all the Gospel stories the only story where it says Jesus loved someone is a story where a young person like me failed.’
‘Uh, come again?’
‘That’s the only story where it says Jesus loved someone’ he said.
‘Uh, it is?’
’It sure is’ he said.
‘You know your Bible, kid. You must be a Baptist.’
He didn’t nod.
‘Sure, Jesus loves everybody, but that’s the only story where it says Jesus loves an individual and the individual he loves is a young person like me who failed.
‘Huh,’ I said, thinking that would’ve made a better sermon than the one I’d just preached.
‘Obviously that’s why you chose the passage, right Reverend? You wanted us not to be afraid of failing because God’s love for us doesn’t fail.’
‘Oh, umm, right, yeah of course that’s why I chose it. You don’t think I chose it just because I was PO’d that they called me an inspirational speaker did you?’
He laughed and was about to get in his car when I said:
‘Hey, kid, would you mind going back inside? There’s an angry tight-sphinctered looking bald guy in there. He’s wearing a nice suit and he’s got his boxers in a twist. He didn’t get that scripture. But you did. Why don’t you explain it to him.’
I don’t remember a single word of what was said at my own baccalaureate.
Maybe you will remember what a student just like you said at another baccalaureate where no one remembered what I said.
Not only is it not the typical cliched baccalaureate bullshit, it also happens to be true:
Don’t be afraid to fail.
Because you will, you know.
In many myriad ways.
And sometimes in mighty ways.
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 5th 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, condition you to believe the lie that if- and only if- you just achieve the right lifestyle, find the perfect spouse and the coolest job, earn the biggest salary, look a certain way, drive this kind of car, live in that sort of house then- only then- will your life be a success.
Only then will you be happy.
That’s a lot of pressure.
Not to mention- let’s be honest parents, I’m one too- 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. The world is your oyster.
Your whole young life you’ve been told that you can do whatever you set your mind on, that your life and your future and your fulfillment is yours to sieze. Carpe Diem!
But here’s what they never tell you in graduation speeches: when we tell you your future is yours for you to choose, it can feel like it’s all on you.
To make the right choice. And to succeed at it after you’ve made your choice.
That’s an enormous amount of pressure. On you.
And it can feel like the stakes couldn’t be higher because it’s your life and your future we’re talking about.
Your whole education, all your grades and testing and extra-curriculars, all your parents helicoptering over you and tigering for you, all of it has been invested in you; so that, now you can choose the life you want.
That’s a scary amount of pressure on you.
So much so, it can leave you afraid to fail.
Or, rather, it can leave you feeling like a failure when you do fail.
Even worse, it can leave you feeling like a failure when you end up with a life other than the one you or your parents anticipated.
Or when you do get that life everyone wanted for you and it’s not what you’d hoped it would be- it can leave you feeling like you failed somewhere along the way.
I think that’s why in 12 years here at Aldersgate I’ve known a whole lot of youth who’ve graduated from West Potomac only to find themselves lost and confused, depressed, and terrifically lonely.
You’re not going to remember what I said in your baccalaureate, but maybe you’ll remember what that other graduate said after my other baccalaureate sermon: Don’t be afraid to fail.
Don’t be afraid to fail because the most important thing about you has nothing to do with you.
The most important thing about you has nothing to do with your performance or your career or your family or your GPA or your Major or your mate or anything that’s brought you today to this celebration.
The young man said to him, Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth and God said, You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.
When the youth heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.
And God, looking at him, loved him
The most important thing about you has nothing to do with you.
The most important thing about you has even less to do with what you do.
With your life.
So don’t be afraid to fail because God’s love for you…no.
Last week, when I wrote this sermon for you, the Church celebrated a holy day called Ascension, a festival day that remembers the resurrected Jesus ascending into heaven to sit at the right hand of God.
I realize you might not all be Christian. Just let the image do its work.
What’s important about Ascension isn’t just that Jesus goes up.
What’s important about Ascension is that when Jesus goes up into God, he takes us with him. He takes our humanity- every bit of every one of us- into divinity.
Your humanity has been taken in to divinity. Your life, your past and your present and your future; all of it, every bit of every last one of you- resides now in God; so that, no matter what you do or who you become, the ways you succeed or how often you don’t, your story is forever, eternally so, bound up with God.
He’s taken your story up into the story and, trust me I bury a lot of successful people, in the end, that’s the only story that will matter about you.
So don’t be afraid of failing because no matter how your story goes your story will end in the very same place.
I interviewed a dominatrix for my podcast recently.
I mention that she’s a dominatrix only so you realize that being a minister is more interesting than it sounds- even when everyone in your family wanted you to be a lawyer and thought you’d failed when you chose differently.
Anyways, this dominatrix she’s written a couple of memoirs and in one of them she puts the point better than me or that graduate in the church parking lot 10 years ago:
The story of Jonah seems a parable of what I have often suspected, that life is a great “choose your own adventure story.”
Every choice leads the hero to the same prince, the same cliff. Every love [every choice, every joy and success, every obstacle, every failure] is a sea monster in whose belly, like Jonah, we learn to pray.
Life is a great “choose your own adventure story. There are alternative routes, but there is only one ending.
You have only one ending to the adventure called you.
It ends with the God who looked upon a youth’s failure yet loved him still.
So my word for you today is the most common refrain in scripture of Christians, Jews and Muslims.
My word for you today is this: Do not be afraid.