Baccalaureate Sermon for St. Andrew’s Episcopal School Thursday, June 6, 2013
Readings: Psalm 78:1-7 Deuteronomy 6:4-9, 20-25 Matthew 11:25-30
Looking Back and Looking Forward
“Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart.”
It is a time to look back and a time to look forward. Your parents and grandparents may be looking at you, but they do not see you just as high school seniors. They see your face the first time they held you in their arms, or the morning you took your first unsteady step, or the first day of first grade, or maybe the first time you yelled “I hate you!” then slammed your bedroom door.
You are looking back too, but you are remembering different things: you remember vacations at the beach and sleep-overs with your best friends. You remember camping trips with your buddies, your first date, and the pranks played in one of your most boring classes. You may even remember sleeping through some of them. There was the time you almost got caught for doing something wrong, and that time you did get caught.
Now, everyone here stands at a threshold. Seniors, you have learned much in the past twelve years. I hope you will learn more and deep—en your understanding of life in the next four years. One thing you will learn is how much smarter your parents have become in those four years—so much smarter than they are tonight. . .
No doubt you are nervous about the future, even if you don’t want to admit it. You remember the pressures of achieving grades, building a portfolio for college admission, community service hours, late nights and early mornings of study. Yet despite your confident faces, I know that deep down, some of you are not just nervous, but scared. Will I make it in college? What if I hate it when I get there? I’m kind of shy and there will be a lot of new faces. How will I make friends? Will people think I’m weird because I don’t like to drink? Then there are questions related to family. I’ve never been on my own before but I want to try now. How can I get my parents to stop hovering? What will I do if I decide that what I want to do in life isn’t what my mom or dad wants me to do? I really love my girlfriend—we’ve been dating for a while—but she’s not going to the same university as I am—how will we make things work?
So you look back and forward. You stand at the crest of a mountain. You know what is behind you—you’ve logged many miles to get here. You can see some things before you, but you cannot see the details. And not until you arrive in the new land of adventures will you see and know more. In the midst of this transition, what centers you? What holds you together?
When you were little kids, your parents centered your world for you and taught you how to behave responsibly: Make your bed. Take out the trash. Mow the lawn. Don’t leave the back door open—were you born in a barn? Stop fighting with your sister back there—don’t make me pull over. Get off the computer—it’s 2:00 in the morning!
Throughout time, human beings have always needed something to center them and to hold them together. Thousands of years ago, a group of people were also at a threshold. Their parents and grandparents used to live in another country. They had been slaves, making bricks and building pyramids for a Pharaoh. For forty years, their families had wandered all over the wilderness, looking for food and water, working out relationships, hoping to find the Promised Land. Of course they finally did find it. But by then, Moses—their leader—had made God mad by putting himself in the place of God, so God told Moses he was not going to be allowed to go into the Promised Land. Now that sounds unfair, I know, but one thing you guys are going to learn—if you haven’t already—is that sometimes life is not fair. You’ll have to deal with it.
Even though Moses couldn’t accompany his people into this new land, he wanted to make sure that they remembered who they were and Whose they were. He wanted them to have something to grab onto when they were scared, or uncertain, or in a tough situation. Moses had once spent a lot of time up on a mountain with God. When he returned, he had a couple of stone tablets with ten commandments written on them. Now truth be told, God’s commandments were not long, complicated sentences. (We’re talking about an oral culture.) The author Thomas Cahill says they “may actually have been Ten Words—utterly primitive, basic injunctions on the order of ‘No-kill,’ ‘No-steal,’ ‘No-lie.’ These Ten Words (which is the term the Bible uses, not ‘Commandments’) would have been memorizable by even the simplest nomad, his ten fingers a constant reminder of their centrality in his life.”
When Moses knew that his people would have to enter the Promised Land without him, he wanted them to remember what was most important. It was not running a spear through every pagan. Not working twenty-four seven. Not hoarding your gold. It was God. It still is God. “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.” Later, Jesus would sum up all the Commandments or Words when he added “And love your neighbor as yourself.”
Had I been preaching this sermon when you guys were six years old, I would have reminded your parents that they must teach you these commandments. I hope and pray they already have. (If you want the list, I can put it on my blog.) While you are intelligent young people, you still may need a guide for how to act after you leave home and go to college. A few things to remember: God is first. Why is God first? Because God created the heavens and the earth—and you. God loved you—long before your parents knew you, before you knew you. Ultimately, when you draw your last breath, God’s love will be the only thing that matters. In that moment, it won’t matter how many initials are in front of or behind your name. It won’t matter how much money you’ve made or what you’ve achieved. It will only be about love—God’s love.
Because that’s true, the second important thing to remember is that if God loves you, then you need to love you. Whoever you are, whatever gifts and talents you have, is just right for you. I want you to look in the mirror every morning and know that God loves you, no matter what. Then love other people the way God loves you. If you’ll remember that, it will help you make a whole lot of decisions.
Let’s test that out. You party more than you should, and there’s a paper due. So you decide that lifting a few paragraphs here or there from a Google search will be okay. Note: university professors know plagarization and they will kick your butt out of school. No kidding. But is copying someone else’s work honoring God or honoring another person? No, it doesn’t even honor you. Girls, if you go to a party and drink so much that you pass out, is that honoring God or yourself? No, and it puts you in a vulnerable situation. Guys, if you’re at the party and a girl passes out, is it a good decision to take advantage of her? No! Remember to love the Lord your God with all your heart. Love your neighbor as yourself. Treat women the way you want your mother or your sister or one of your best friends to be treated. Treat people the way YOU want to be treated.
On one level, it isn’t that difficult, but in the moment, sometimes it is. Think. Remember you belong to God. The world is not kind, so be kind to each other. Love God, because God loves the world and you. Love each other, because God loves your brothers and sisters in humanity. And love yourself. You are amazing, wonderful creatures of God. Live into that truth. Never, ever forget that God loves you as if you were God’s only child.
I would like to close with a quote by Bishop Stephen Charleston: “There are no words to tell you how deeply you are loved. Not poets or priests, sonnets or scriptures, can convey the true nature of the love that enfolds you. It is the love of the One who first saw you, first imagined you, dreamed you out of nothing into everything, believed in who you could be and cared for you no matter what you became. It is an infinite love, warm and devoted, tender and playful, yet as strong as the fire within the sun itself. God loves you. From the first to the last, from now until forever, there are no words to tell you how deeply you are loved.”
As you continue this journey, my young friends, remember who you are and Whose you are. Then live that way, remembering that God loves you. No matter what. Amen.
© The Rev. Dr. Sheila N. McJilton
 Thomas Cahill, The Gifts of the Jews: How a Tribe of Desert Nomads Changed the Way Everyone Thinks and Feels, (New York: Nan A. Talese/Anchor Books, 1998, 139.