Standing on the Shoulders of Giants
I have experienced several graduation speeches recently. Each of them has been unique and inspiring. The addresses given by the class leaders are always full of passion, humor, and the hope that was to be found in the years to come. This Sunday, we are celebrating our graduates at St. Andrew’s. It is a strange time because of the restrictions placed upon us by the COVID-19 pandemic. Students across the country have voiced that their graduations have been stolen by the illness and social distancing. First, I want our students to know they are heard and loved at this time. To help us understand, I hope that our students and the rest of the church family will take a moment to find encouragement and wisdom in scripture and in the stories that have come before us to help guide us in this time and in the days to come. And finally, I hope to leave you with a bit of collective homework and prayer.
My heart is heavy for our graduates and for our students. I hear your frustration and sadness, and I hope to encourage you. I know that we must abide by social distancing rules, but your accomplishments and dreams have not been lessened or taken away. The pride that your families and friends feel has not been taken away. The pride your St. Andrew’s family holds for you has not been lessened in the least. And we will celebrate you in the coming weeks and months to remind you of that. With that said, do not lose that sense of pride, achievement, or hope in your future.
Graduation is the mark of progress, recognition of achievement, and maturity in our lives. There comes a sense of possibility and freedom. Musing on that point may seem silly because all progress and freedom have been severely tampered by COVID-19. The truth is that we all need to be reminded that sometimes things do not work out the way we had hoped. In scripture you will find many stories that have God’s people and leaders facing impossible odds and overcoming them.
Similarly, some stories show that things do not always work out for God’s people. Moses’ story reminds us about the importance of passing on the faith and mission of God from one generation to the next. After his 40 plus year trek through the wilderness ends at the doorstep of the promised land, Joshua is brought up to lead the Hebrews (Deuteronomy 31:1-8). Jonah’s entire adventure warns us about disobeying God and shows displeasure in God’s mercy toward enemies (Jonah 1:1-4:11). Peter was challenged by God’s vision on how to minister to Gentiles (Acts 10:9-16). Scripture reminds us that life is much bigger than our individual experiences, and curveballs will come.
The feelings of isolation, anxiety, and fear for one’s life and the lives of their loved ones are not new to us in history. The world has experienced these types of pandemics in the past. I want us to lean on the wisdom of a Christian leader from a different time who experienced a different shutdown of the world. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran pastor who lived during the time of WWII. You may be familiar with his book, “The Cost of Discipleship,” and he was implicated in the plot to assassinate Hitler. This era in history was marked by economic collapse, war, and forms of anti-Semitism. Bonhoeffer found himself at a point of history where every lesson about virtue and how to live one’s life was distorted and twisted to encourage hateful and evil things. Sadly, the church also urged the state to continue the behavior. Teachers, pastors, and theologians justified such acts by saying it was following God’s will to preserve the German people. Because of the war, the world screeched to a halt to deal with the threat. Major world events, like the Olympics, were canceled and many young people lost significant milestones in their lives. The world was uncertain and groaned from the pains of war. Even from the 1940s, Bonhoeffer offers us wisdom that can guide us through times when we cannot trust everything we hear.
At the end of his life, Bonhoeffer wrote a small reflection called The Last Ten Years. He reflects on civil courage, the uncertainty of life, success, foolishness, God’s role in history, suffering, optimism, and a host of other topics. Two things stand out for me the most for our graduates. In a section headed ‘Are we still of any use?’ he writes,
We have been silent witnesses of evil deeds; we have been drenched by many storms; we have learnt the arts of equivocation and pretense; experience has made us suspicious of others and kept us from being truthful and open; intolerable conflicts have worn us down and even made us cynical. Are we of any use? What we shall need is not geniuses, or cynics, or misanthropes, or clever tacticians, but plain, honest, straightforward men [and women]. (Letters and Papers pg. 16-17)
And another hopeful quote in a section called A Few Articles of Faith on the Sovereignty of God in History says, “I believe that God can and will bring good out of evil, even out of the greatest evil … I believe that even our mistakes and shortcomings are turned to good account, and that it is no harder for God to deal with them than our supposedly good deeds.” (Letters and Papers p.11)
This is a powerful and candid reflection of a person who first loved God, even when it put him at odds with the church, the world, and threatened his mortal life.
Bonhoeffer’s words of honesty and hope still ring true today. It is also important to know that we are not living in the same world as he did. In many aspects, the world has progressed and learned from mistakes. Even so, graduates and church family, remember to look back in history so that we make sure we have not wandered too far or lost hope in our work alongside God. Life is messy in general, and the world today is constantly throwing curveballs.
Sometimes we can knock life’s challenges out of the park like Paul does when he writes to churches while imprisoned. Other times we completely miss like Peter in the garden, and we may become embarrassed, frustrated, or guilty. Amid those times of stagnation, frustration, or embarrassment, God is working in and alongside you. That is one important aspect of God’s freedom or sovereignty if you want to use churchy language. The physical, emotional, or societal boundaries that exist for us do not exist for God. God can save us when we need saving, God hears us when we cry out, and grows us when we need maturing. Through Jesus, we see and understand how God continues to love and guide us. As we live through this time, we can continue to look to the disciples and other church figures throughout history for inspiration. Take your torch of faith gifted to you by those who love you and journey on!
To close, I have a bit of homework, and zoom calls are not required! This week I want us to have some participation among our high school, college, and graduates of all ages. I want you all to think about what image in nature or in your personal life reminds you of newness and freedom. Does it inspire you to do something? How does this image connect you with God? Share posts and messages throughout the week. Encourage one another with your stories and how God is with us.
I hope to see you online Sunday at NINE45 or 11:15 for worship via Livestream. Blessings upon you, and I cannot wait to see you!