Monday, May 22, 2017

Sermon: "It Matters", 1 Peter 3:13-22 (May 21, 2017)


Sermon video here.


Even if you don’t have kids in high school and you haven’t been to school yourself in years, it’s hard to miss the fact that it’s graduation season. The party supplies are everywhere in stores, the announcements from family friends are arriving in the mail, and let’s face it: no matter how many years you work without a “summer vacation,” you’ll always remember that sense of hope and freedom that comes in late May and early June. Graduation is a big deal. For high schoolers, it represents the culmination of 13 years of study and learning (with maybe a TINY bit of goofing off mixed in). For college students, it often marks a cultural entrance into adulthood and the first step towards building a career. For many Masters, Doctoral, and Professional Degree students, it marks the end of formal education. No wonder we make such a fuss over it. 

Graduation ceremonies themselves may vary somewhat depending on the school and the program, but one thing that’s pretty consistent across the board is the commencement speech. In some ways, the speech is seen as a “final word” to the graduating class, a capstone to years of education and hard work. As such, many schools (at least, in the upper levels of education) bend over backwards trying to get celebrities, politicians, or other famous people to share their wisdom with those present. My alma mater, Middlebury College, has had some pretty well-known people speak at graduation over the years—the Reverend Fred Rogers (better known as “Mr. Rogers”), Christopher Reeve (a.k.a. Superman), and former President Bill Clinton (who spoke the year before I graduated), to name a few. As my own graduation approached, I became more and more excited to find out who would be speaking at my ceremony. Would it be an actor? A musician—BeyoncĂ©, perhaps? Maybe a famous inventor or business person, like Steve Jobs or Bill Gates?

As it happened, I was sorely disappointed. I had never heard of our class’s speaker before in my life (it was Dr. Walter E. Massey, since I’m sure you’re curious). Apparently, he was a brilliant, accomplished man who had contributed significantly to the fields of science and education. He was really important within his spheres of influence, but he wasn’t what my 22-year-old self considered appropriately famous to be a graduation speaker.

I was crushed. I’d never be able to impress people at dinner parties by saying, “Oprah Winfrey gave the commencement address at MY college graduation”. I’d never be able to reminisce about the time I breathed the same air as Michael Jordan while he gave the final advice of my college career. I’d never be able to brag that Mr. Rogers personally told me and 600 of my closest friends that I’m special (to be honest, I’m still a little bitter about that one).

But you know what? That really doesn’t matter. Best case scenario, it would have gotten me, what, the ability to impress someone for 30 seconds by name-dropping? Maybe a brief boost in my small-liberal-arts-college-street-cred? Neither of those things is particularly valuable in the long run. What matters wasn’t the identity of the speaker; it’s the content of the speech—the message that I heard and how it’s impacted me and my life.

Now…this is where this story stops being useful to my sermon. To be entirely honest, I don’t remember much about that commencement speech at all, aside from the part where everyone cheered when he promised he’d keep his comments short (don’t worry; it was a good-natured cheer). And frankly, a lot of graduation speakers tend to keep their advice pretty generic and bland—after all, they’re speaking to a whole lot of different people, and their job is to inspire, not to offend or challenge. But that just proves my point: the difference between a memorable commencement speaker and a forgettable one has everything to do with the content of his or her message.

It matters.

I imagine that as far as celebrity commencement speakers of the first century go, Peter would have been in great demand, at least for Christian Universities (if, of course, they had been around back then). To the early Christian community, his credentials and connections were impeccable. His advice was much sought-after. He was the type of person that other Christians wanted to hear from. So when I read the passage from 1 Peter during this graduation season, I hear echoes of a commencement speech, one with the type of speaker that I wish I’d had at my graduation: someone impressive and influential, whose name was enough to make people take note.

What you may or may not know is that the authorship of First and Second Peter is disputed by scholars. Although the text claims to be written by Jesus’ disciple himself, some think that whoever the real author was used Peter’s name to lend an air of authority to his words. It just goes to show that some things never change—people ALWAYS prefer to hear inspirational words from celebrities. But just because Peter may not have written these words himself doesn’t mean that their message is invalid or unimportant. Authorship aside, it’s still scripture.

And it matters.

It matters because of its message. It matters because of what the author said, not who the author is. The part of the message that was most memorable to me this week is verses 15 and 16. These verses give us a definition of evangelism that any mainline protestant would be proud to claim: “Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence.” In other words, don’t be afraid to tell others what you know about Jesus, but do it in a way that’s kind and respectful of the other person.

In other words, what WE say and do matters.

It’s not just about being right; it’s not just about having access to the truth through Christ. It’s about telling and showing it in a way that other people will want to hear. It’s about standing up and being the graduation speaker that people actually want to listen to and remember. Because effectively sharing God’s message matters.

This is a big responsibility. It’s an understandably scary prospect, and a task that few people undertake willingly. But it doesn’t have to be scary if we remember that we’re not starting from nothing. What we do and say matters, but context and history matters, too. When Peter (or whoever wrote this letter) insists that each person be prepared to share their faith with others, this isn’t a demand that comes out of thin air. The early Christian community was steeped in Jewish history, customs, and, of course, scripture. And Jewish scripture has a lot to say about how our faith becomes a part of us. According to the Bible, talking about our faith should be easy, because by the time we’re adults, it should be ingrained on our hearts.

We shouldn’t expect this to happen naturally—it takes work. Proverbs has taught generation after generation of God’s people to “Train children in the way they should go; when they grow old, they won’t depart from it.”[1] The Psalms say, “God established a law for Jacob and set up Instruction for Israel, ordering our ancestors to teach them to their children. This is so that the next generation…will know these things, and so they can rise up and tell their children to put their hope in God…”[2] The Shema, a central part of Jewish prayer for millennia, concludes by exhorting the faithful to “Keep these words…in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.”[3]

Peter’s commencement speech to us isn’t sharing a new, standalone idea; it’s the logical extension of what we should have been doing all along. Just as a diploma isn’t valuable in and of itself but represents all the work that’s led up to it, so too is Peter’s charge to us a culmination of our life as a people who tell stories to one another, who teach one another, who learn from one another. We (hopefully) don’t graduate just for the sake of saying we’ve done it, but for the sake of what comes next. In the same way, we don’t organize Bible Studies, Sunday Schools, Church Camps, and worship services just for the sake of saying we’ve done it, but for the sake of what comes next. The future stands on the shoulders of the past, whether you’re a long-time participant or brand-new to the fold. And so, when Peter (or whoever) gave this “graduation speech”, it was meant to stand on the identity that the community had forged—first as God’s chosen Hebrew people, then reimagined in light of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. It stood on the shoulders of every parent, teacher, rabbi, and friend that had ever helped someone else to understand God.

What they did mattered, so that what we do matters.

And so it is for us, for our graduates in particular, but for each and every one of us, having come to this place today hoping to hear the word of God. We don’t come from a vacuum, and we don’t go out into a vacuum. When we get sent out into the world—whether in terms of beginning the next chapter of our lives or simply leaving this deliberate and sacred space—we bring with us everything we’ve learned up to this point. We remember the values that our parents have instilled in us, the stories that our Church School teachers have taught us, and hopefully at least a few of the messages that our pastors’ sermons have conveyed to us. And if we, your community, have done our part right, you will have the tools to go out and show what you’ve learned to the world, not through subjugation or victory over others, but through patient example and compassionate service.

This is the thrust of Peter’s message: be cooperative and helpful to others while being faithful to Christ—not to the point of becoming a doormat, but so that others might come to God through admiration of God’s people. So that others might look at you and see goodness and justice and love for others rather than vengeance and combativeness. Jesus’ example lived out through your life.

It’s our turn to teach what we’ve learned. And in this world today, boy, does it matter. The anxiety and frustration and anger in our country alone is palpable, no matter your political leanings. Vengeance and combativeness is the norm. This is why it’s more important than ever for us to heed Peter’s words of gentle and conscientious teaching. No one was ever won over through violence and force—no one’s mind or heart, anyway. Confidence, yes. Determination, yes. Commitment, yes. Domination—no.

And we know this. And it matters.

In Peter’s graduation speech to us, he’s not telling us anything new. Just like pretty much every commencement address ever. But he IS reminding us of something important: we are the teachers. We are the hands and feet of Christ in the world. We are the mind-changers, the heart-changers, the world-changers. If we imagine that today’s worship is a “graduation” from what’s happening now, pointing us to what comes next, we begin to realize that the ceremony itself matters less than the message: the task is before us—all of us—no matter how old or experienced or educated (or not) we might be. What begins at home or in the church school classroom doesn’t end in 12th grade, but only when the entire world believes the Good News. I’m not talking about the “good news” that we’re right and they’re wrong or the “good news” that the whole world needs to think and believe a certain way. I’m talking about the true Good News that God is love and that love wins.

So let this graduation sermon be different, not because the person giving it is particularly memorable, but because the message sticks with you: we are equipped and God is with us. It’s important, and it matters. Go and do, in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.


[1] Proverbs 22:6 (CEB).
[2] Psalm 78:5-7 (CEB).
[3] Deuteronomy 6:6-9 (NRSV).

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