Monday, June 7, 2010
2010 Graduation Message for Zion Lutheran School - Everett, WA (June 7, 2010)
“Follow the Leader” (Matthew 16:24)
It's an honor to be with you tonight on this important occasion. Graduating from the 8th grade is an important step in your life. High school is just around the corner.
Thirty-two years ago, I was in your shoes. (Wow...am I really that old?) I was graduating from Good Shepherd Lutheran School in Downey, California. My entire school career up to that point had been among my teachers and classmates at a private Lutheran school that was much smaller than Zion is. As excited as I was to put that all behind me and head off to a huge public high school, the truth of the matter was...I was scared.
Now, I don't know if that describes you or not. But certainly, you must have a little bit of uncertainty as you leave this place behind. Will I fit in? Will I be able to make new friends? Will I be able to get good grades and pass my classes? And then, four years later...then what? What is in store for me for the rest of my life?
One of the many blessings about being here at Zion … no, let me correct that … the central blessing about being here at Zion is that everything here revolves around Jesus. Jesus is at the center of everything that goes on here. Along with all that you learned to help you succeed in the years ahead – math, reading, history, science, art, music, and so on – you also had the chance to learn about what Jesus has done for you. That may not seem like a big deal to you right now. It's probably something you have taken for granted. I hope you get to the point somewhere in the years ahead where you can look back and thank God for the opportunities you had here at Zion, especially the opportunities to hear about and learn about and talk about Jesus on a daily basis. I know I took it for granted when I was your age. But I am so thankful that my parents sacrificed so much in order for me to be able to attend a school much like this one. I know your parents have sacrificed a lot so that you could be blessed by being here.
Now let me ask you a question. You've all played the game “Follow the Leader,” right? One person is the leader. Everyone else gets in line behind him or her and does exactly what the leader does. Any player who messes up and doesn't do exactly what the leader does is out of the game.
The theme for our chapel services this year has been “Christ Be My Leader.” Jesus called his disciples with the words, “Follow me.” That goes for all of us. Jesus said, “If anyone serves me, he must follow me.” (John 12:26) So how have you measured up to following the leader? Doing exactly, perfectly, as your leader Jesus? Loving God with all your heart, soul, and strength. Loving your neighbor as yourself. How have you done? Not very good, I would bet. Do you want to know a secret? I haven't done very good at it either. In fact, I stink at it. And you know the rules to “Follow the Leader.” If you mess up and don't do exactly what the leader does, you are out of the game.
Once Jesus said this about following him: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” (Matt. 16:24) Now we're getting more to the heart of what it means to follow Jesus. A follower of Jesus denies himself. That doesn't mean you have to deny yourself that extra scoop of ice cream or that extra piece of pizza (although that might be the healthy choice). It doesn't mean you have to go around grovelling before others and thinking that you are nothing but a piece of trash (you are God's beloved, after all...he made you and he redeemed you). What it does mean is to have a repentant heart that acknowledges that you haven't done a very good job following Jesus. And once you have come to that realization, then you turn away from your sin and you turn to Jesus in faith and trust. He is the One who perfectly loved God the Father with all his heart, soul, and strength, and loved his neighbor as himself...always, all the time, in every way...and he did it in your place. And he took all your sin with him to the cross, paid the price for your sin with his own shed blood, and rose victorious over sin and death on Easter morning. Now, all that Jesus accomplished for you is credited to your account. He took your sin. He gives you his righteousness. Martin Luther called that “the great exchange.” A pastor friend of mine calls it “the sweet swap.” God forgives you and sees you as holy and righteous in his sight ... and you are not "out of the game," if I can call it that. Because this is no game. It's reality. It's about a real, eternal life that God gives to you as free gift.
Jesus took up the cross for you. Now you, as a follower of Jesus, can take up your cross. When people were crucified, part of their sentence was to carry their own cross to the place of execution. Jesus had to do this, until he collapsed, exhausted, and a man named Simon was pulled from the crowd to carry the cross the rest of the way for Jesus. As a follower of Jesus, you will have to bear all kinds of burdens on your shoulders simply because you are a follower of Jesus. It's not always popular in this world to be a Christian. People may make fun of you. Some people will think you are foolish. Some people will think you are a religious nut. Some people will tempt you to do things that are displeasing to your Lord and Savior and draw you away from trusting in him. Maybe you've already experienced some of these things. But being a follower of Jesus means taking up your cross. It means bearing the disgrace you may face because you confess faith in Jesus. It means keeping your eyes on Jesus who bore the cross for you.
In John 8:12, we hear Jesus say this: “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” Forgiven of your sins, you are enlightened and redeemed. You follow Jesus and the light of his Word illumines your pathway (Psalm 119:105). You have been purchased with Christ's own shed blood. Christ is the Light with a big “L.” You and I now are meant to be lights, too...lights with a little “l”, but lights nonetheless.
Jesus said that as lights, you can't be hidden. "You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” (Matt. 5:14-16) Likewise, St. Paul said that even though we live in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, as children of God we “shine as lights in the world.” (Phil. 2:15)
“This little Gospel light of mine, I'm gonna let it shine,” we learned to sing as little children. But that's a song for God's children of every age. Our Lord wants us all to let our Gospel lights shine into every corner of the world and to every person. “Hide it under a bushel? No, I'm gonna let it shine!...It will point the way to heaven...I'm going to let it shine!” And shine we will, because the light of Jesus our Savior is reflected in us.
Christ has been your leader during your years here at Zion. Christ will continue to be your leader as you leave here. His Word will light your path as you follow him. And you will reflect the light of your Crucified and Risen Savior wherever you go.