“Jesus’ Valedictorian Speech: The Choice”
Mt. 7: 21-29 ~ Rev. G. Scott Turnbrook ~ Northwood United Church ~ June 14, 2020
I’m thinking about our graduates this year. What a different year this has been for ALL of our students; however, what a truly different year this has been for those preparing to graduate! In the midst of social distancing, grad ceremonies look very different than just one year ago. When we think of graduation, we might reminisce back to corsages & limos, to young people dressed in ball gowns and tuxedos, to graduation ceremonies with young people wearing cap and gown walking down the aisle to receive their well-earned diploma, and to dry grad parties that last all night. And, of course…the speeches. The one speech that always grabs my attention is the valedictorian speech. The speech offered by the student who had become a leader among his/her peers. The valedictorian speech that is offered as the graduating class prepare to transition to the next phase of their life. I will be fascinated to listen in on some of the valedictorian speeches that come out this year of 2020. Amidst the pandemic; amidst the tragic death of George Floyd, amidst this profoundly challenging time that calls for our wise and faithful living, the valedictorian speeches this year will be fascinating indeed.
I would like to invite us to consider this morning’s text, these words of Jesus, as being akin to his valedictorian speech given to his fellow disciples…unto all who follow in His Way. These few verses we examine this morning form the conclusion of Jesus’ longest sermon recorded in the Gospels: what St. Augustine called “The Sermon on the Mount.” You will remember well the beginning of Jesus’ sermon. Three chapters back in chapter 5, Matthew records Jesus’ teaching the beatitudes: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven; blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted; blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.” Jesus’ will teach how each of us, his listeners, are the salt of the earth ~ and not to lose our unique flavour, how we are the light of the world ~ and to let our light shine. He offers a code of ethics concerning relationships, the love of enemies, forgiveness, prayer, loyalties, worry. And as he comes to an end, the most challenging words of all ~ the Golden Rule. There is no stopping in Jesus’ sermon. He does not take a breath! There is no interjection from the narrator, no stories of interactions with others. Three chapters of pure prose, homiletical heaven, Jesus’ joy-filled hopes for our graduation into being his disciples.
Great speakers, as we know, always build towards a dramatic conclusion that wraps up their powerful message. How will Jesus’ valedictorian speech conclude? It will be conclude with this morning’s parable of the builder. As I mentioned in the reading’s introduction, immediately prior to Matthew’s gospel being written, the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple had just occurred. Could you imagine the devastation that lay in the hearts of the community? Imagine…your home laying in ruins…Northwood laying in rubble…THIS was the reality that Matthew’s Jesus spoke to. So, Jesus spoke both allegorically and practically about rebuilding…rebuilding upon good foundations.
It is important in this text to have a little background on the weather patterns in Palestine, where the dry season continues for months without a drop of rain. There would be ground that appeared to as dry, hard foundation; however, when the fall storms brought the rains, the winds and the floods, it would quickly become moist, flooded, and unstable. In this parable, Jesus contrasts two differing foundations: a foundation of rock and a foundation of sand. In fact, this parable contains many dualistic comparisons, doesn’t it? There is the wise man contrasted with the foolish; the destruction of one house versus the house that remained; and finally there is that of doing contrasted with not doing.
And as I consider what it must have been like to have received Jesus’ sermon, I think this is the brilliant part of Jesus’ conclusion. There are volumes upon volumes of books and commentary written on Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. One of the key themes lifted up by scholars, is that Jesus’ challenge offered to us is insurmountable. It is impossible. Since the church first received this text, we have struggled with the challenges of: how can we possibly live this way? How can we possibly rise to such a high level of moral virtue and fulfill Jesus’ teachings? And perhaps, even: Why would anyone want to live this way in the first place? Go back and read those three challenging chapters, and ask yourself if you would find them inspiring, hope-filled, or motivational in a Sunday morning sermon. Or perhaps, you might find them depressing, overly demanding, and out of reach? The beautiful part of Jesus’ message arrives in his conclusion. It is found in the choice Jesus offers; it is the choice he charges us to make in foundations; it is the choice in doing; it is the choice in following wisdom. It is the choice that we have to make!
Earlier this week was our United Church’s 95th birthday. As a body, we needed to make a choice that led to our union in 1925. A choice that led the uniting of the majority of Protestant denominations in Canada ~ the Methodist, Congregationalist, the newly formed churches anticipating union, and the majority of the Presbyterian churches. We formed upon the solid foundation of a united vision of the social gospel being lived out in Canada and in the world through our mission partners. This solid foundation allowed the church to shine God’s light of hope through the Great Depression, through the war times, through the Civil rights. A solid foundation led us towards being a guiding light for other churches through difficult decisions: the ordination of women, gay and lesbian people, the ministry of the laity. As we look towards our centennial birthday, we recognize that we have engaged in at least half of our life amidst a growing post-Christendom era. And we would not have survived this journey to 95 years if we did not choose to ground our faith upon rock and choose to live our faith out. We were chatting at virtual coffee on Wednesday about our denomination’s birthday and we got on the topic of some of the memorable Moderators over the years. I was sharing my memory of the Rt. Rev. Bill Phipps who was elected moderator in 1997. He was memorable to me, firstly because he laid hands upon me at my ordination, and memorable to our church following his statement calling us all, not just the ministers, but for all of us to see ourselves as ‘theologians’. He argued that theology is faith seeking understanding. As such, we are all theologians, with a rich faith, seeking a deeper understanding into the choices that God is calling us to live out.
Apart from remembering our church’s 95th birthday, this is also the Sunday that we recognize our graduates: Alyssa Pacmarra and Jade Sergius, from whom you will hear from just a little later in the service. As we think of Jade and Alyssa, and all of the grads this class of 2020, we think of this junction in time as one of choice. It is a time of decision; it is a time to re-evaluate and consider the course for the next few chapters in life. Just like Jesus dualistic parables filled with choice: the wise and the foolish, the rock and the sand, doing and not doing, now is the time to choose how the next few steps will look. Kindergarten all the way through grade 12 was filled with some choices, yet many were prescribed. Upon graduation, choices become much more plentiful. And with the rise in choices, the challenge in making the right ones, for you, grow. The metaphor of building upon a solid foundation is an apt one as we consider making choices. The solid foundation of knowing that we are children of God; the solid foundation of knowing Jesus’ light shining in your soul; the solid foundation of knowing the Holy Spirit’s breath is in you guiding your path forward. The solid foundation of some of the angels who have graced your lives: family and friends who have walked with you, and shaped your journey. And laid upon this solid foundation is the house that we each must build throughout the course of our lives. The structure, the house that will be the unique creation of Alyssa, and Jade, and each person of faith, continues to be built. In these times of discernment, we take stock of the unique gifts that God has placed within each of us. We are each uniquely gifted, and these raw abilities must be discovered, and refined, and shared as we live out our life as spiritual people on earth. For Alyssa and Jade, who are heading to post-secondary education this will be a time of tremendous growth. And for all of us, as long as we have a heart-beating in our chest, we are all continuing to grow, aren’t we? Perhaps at times, we might be expressing our talents and gifts, and at others we might be spending more focus on exploring and growing them. But this rhythm of choosing to grow our selves, and choosing to express our talents is, I think, the essence of what it means to be human.
One sentiment lifted up at many a graduation ceremonies is: ‘our young people are our future’. Amazing young people such as Greta Thunberg, Malala Yousafzai, and many others are teaching us that young people are not the future. Young people are the present. And I think that this is what Jesus’ message is calling us to choose. It doesn’t matter our age, we are called to live and serve. We are called, at times to seek good foundations and build the house. And at other times, we are charged to open those doors and share our gifts as acts of servant love and care. The great theologian, NT Wright put it this way: “mighty deeds and mighty creeds are not, on their own, an indication of whether one belongs to Jesus.” We need a mighty creeds ~ your creed of faith ~ your solid foundation. We also need mighty deeds ~ your personal expression of faith ~ your dwelling built upon that mighty foundation. May we take time to examine the foundations, building on faith. And may we construct human dwellings that offer life, hope and peace to the world.