Seventeen years old. Hand-me-down suit. Same hairstyle since childhood – the bowl cut with a fade to a point in the back. Senior pic before starting my last year of high school. I also found an epic Senior pic pose as well:
That guy, those socks, he’s going to take the world. Huh. Well. I don’t have a picture but I remember what I wore to my high school graduation. It was a short sleeved, light checkered, buttoned up shirt and khaki pants. I wore a navy tie (at least during the ceremony). It was the first tie of my very own – certainly the first one that wasn’t a clip on or zipper tie. I had cut my hair since those senior pics – cut it short the final semester of high school after all those years. I began cutting my own hair at that point and have for the last twenty-one years since graduation – thus – the same haircut for that same timespan. Old habits die hard. It wasn’t a great outfit – and I’m not sure what made it stick in my memory over the tassel turning, speech giving, cake cutting stuff that went along with the day. I suppose it’s the picture that I come across occasionally of an 18-year-old me, dressed in the way I just described, totally unaware of what was in store for the next twenty years. Do you ever do that with old photos? Maybe you’re thumbing through that old shoe box of high school relics, or turning the pages of an old yearbook and you look into the eyes of that old you, sighing deeply, and marveling at what you now know that you couldn’t possibly have known at that previous time. Whether that sounds familiar or not, I’m sure most of us have been asked that familiar question, “If your current self could give your old self one word of advice, what would it be?” Have you ever answered that question? Some could respond easily: “Don’t eat the tacos at the reunion,” or “Even though it will seem like a good idea to date so and so the summer after your junior year of college, save the heartache.” Maybe you would say to your old self, “Value your health – physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual. No one else will do that for you.” What would you tell your old-self? Our senior class sits here this morning on the front side of that journey. If nothing more, know that we’ve all been in your shoes even if our shoes didn’t all fit the same way yours will at your graduation.
The apostles were wading through their college years, if you will, in the book of Acts following their three-year boot camp with Jesus and that graduation speech on the beach when Jesus told Peter to “feed and tend my sheep.” They’re out there doing that feeding and tending now; figuring it out as they go – building on signs and wonders and growing in health and maturity in the process. Their meeting place was Solomon’s Portico – the porch of the Temple – a very important and public place to share the news and the work they were doing. The text offers and interesting line that says, “None of the rest dared to join [the Apostles] but the people held them in high esteem.” It suggests there was some uncertainty about what Dietrich Bonhoeffer would later call the cost of discipleship. This is often the case. In fact, throughout scripture we hear the writers talk about two kinds of people around Jesus, two kinds of people which we now find around the Apostles – “disciples” and “crowd.” My colleague, the Rev. Daphne Gascot offers this insight about these two categories – “disciples” and the “crowd.” She says, “Crowd tends to leave after needs are met. Crowd won’t reorient their lives around Jesus.” But disciples get in the mix, join the action of the arena… heart and soul unable to remain in the stands with the crowd. So, I say to myself: “Self – which are you? Disciple or crowd?” The problem with this question is that we tend to jump into comparison mode. If I can’t be a disciple like Saint so-and-so, then I’ll just stick with checking the ‘crowd’ box on my statement of religious affiliation. But I’ll tell you what we’ve all heard for years: Comparison is the thief of contentment. Comparison to others won’t grow you into the you that you are designed to be.
Checking the disciple box doesn’t’ mean smooth sailing or an easy course or a road without failure. Shake that misnomer right now because we’ll never live up to some sort of idealized perfection. This is why it’s important for us to share the honest, vulnerable part of our human stories. We’re good at telling the stained-glass stories – the times when we are the hero of the story. But braving the wilderness of our honest stories creates greater space and courage for more of the crowd to move into discipleship. So, don’t shy away from the messy parts. Be willing to talk about your complicated moments; the stress, the times you were overwhelmed, exhausted, frustrated, confused, even devastated… but kept going. In this way, know that the grass isn’t really greener on the other side. It’s green where you water it. A friend once said it this way: “You are standing on the greenest grass you’ve ever seen, it’s just up to you to see it and intentionally care for it.”
The apostles on the front porch of Solomon’s temple are working out the mission day after day. There is no blue print. There is no church growth conference to attend. They can’t YouTube “How to Be the Church.” They gathered, shared their stories of transformation – of people being healed, of the struggles they encountered. They surely compared notes about their sermons – effective illustrations, jokes that fell short, conversion stories that were powerful and could be shared in other parts of town. And again – just as you heard Kevin share last week, “More than ever,” the text says, “believers, great numbers of both men and women, were added [to the following].” Let me say something here about the word ‘believers’ because we have our own take on this in the American church which is not always the most helpful. When we think ‘believers’, we think of those who intellectually ascribe to a list of doctrines but the word belief in the biblical context more closely is defined as something to give one’s heart to. John’s gospel, in particular, equates the word belief with trust. Marcus Borg delved into this more deeply a couple of decades ago. He said, and I paraphrase, “We’ve really confused this idea – we think belief is this list of things you have to write your name at the end of and say, ‘Yes, I agree.’ Actually,” he goes on, “belief is to give one’s heart away.” When Jesus asks us to believe, he’s asking us to trust in his way of life. It has been said that the Gospel is deep enough for an elephant to swim and shallow enough for a toddler to wade. With this kind of range in the waters of faith, you’re going to swim at your own pace – I can’t coerce you to swim faster, I can’t convince you to jump off the high dive like I might. You hear the gospel, decide ‘crowd’ isn’t the designation you’re after and then you give your heart to being a disciple. Some won’t be satisfied until you do it, do the faith, their way but then, I ask, is it really your faith at all?
You may have seen this past week a viral video of three-year-old, Lennox, who was told by his baseball coach to “run home as fast as you can,” which turned into a slow-motion, Matrix bullet-dodge-styled trip to home plate at the blazing speed of sixty-seconds. Take a look…
You see the coach, who happened to be the kid’s dad, try to speed him up half-way home? Lennox denied the advance and continued his slow-mo run home with that epic slide to cap off the moment. There are some haters out there, of course. Among the more than ten million who have viewed this now, some said, “Pete Rose, Charlie Hustle, would never have disrespected the game like that.” He’s three years old! And we do know that sometimes you have to get moving if you’re going to move from “crowd” to “disciple” but truth be told, you set your pace and soak in your life as a result of the path you choose. Otherwise, your life will never belong to you – it will be the life someone else thinks you should have.
The apostles are getting healthy. They have recovered from the heart-stopping realities of Jesus departure and have now positioned themselves to bring that wellness to the world as well. When you get healthy, it seems others around you grow healthier as well. You may not have the power to change another person who is on a path of destruction but your own health may help them turn things around in some life-changing ways. This is why, when on an airline, the instruction is to put your oxygen mask on first before helping those around you. I know there are places that metaphor doesn’t hold up but generally speaking – your health projects or inspires health in others more than your talk or post or opinion about health ever will. The crowd may watch your faithfulness over and over again and someday imagine for themselves that stepping into the arena is possible for them as well. The disciples found a way to become accessible to the people. We wouldn’t be here today if they hadn’t. They found a way to step out, flaws and all, to be vulnerable enough to share, “This is how it happened for me. This is where I failed. This is how I got back up again.” Are we willing to share that kind of faith today? The world is a great wilderness – if we can’t be honest about what we’ve encountered ourselves, how do we expect our graduates to brave it thinking no one before them ever struggled through it?
Dr. Brene Brown, author of the book, “Braving the Wilderness,” which is a companion to our current series, shared an interview she conducted with actress, Viola Davis. Viola is most known or her performances in The Help, How to Get Away with Murder, and Fences. She’s the first black actor to win the Triple Crown of acting – the Emmy, Tony, and Oscar. Last year, Time magazine named her one of the one hundred most influential people in the world. Brene asked her about what it means to belong and she said, “I spent the first three-quarters of my life feeling like a square peg in a round hole. I did not physically fit in. I lived in an Irish Catholic area of Rhode Island – white girls with long blond hair. I was a kinky-haired girl with dark skin who spoke different. I wasn’t pretty. I carried the trauma of growing up in abject poverty- the daughter of a violent alcoholic. I was a bed-wetter until I was twelve or thirteen. I smelled. Teachers complained about the smell and sent me to the nurse’s office. I was wrong. This was my beginning. My language for belonging was about survival: Can I take a hot shower? Is there food today? Will my dad kill my mom? Will there be rats in the house? I had no tools – I carried this trauma, fear, anxiety and the inability to speak up for myself into my adult life. All of it was deeply rooted in shame. I spent all of my energy hiding and keeping the brutality of my life secret. I carried this dysfunction with me into my adult life.”
Viola Davis grew through these feelings about herself in her own slow-motion-run-to-home sort of way. “At thirty-eight,” she said, “things changed. I didn’t jump out of bed one morning and everything was perfect. I’ve always known I was a strong woman, but I wanted ‘fast-food joy – quick, easy joy. More tools and tricks. I also could still fall back into ‘not enough – not pretty enough, not thin enough, not good enough.’” One day, her therapist asked a pivotal question: “What if nothing changes – your looks, your weight, your success – would you be okay?” For the first time, she thought, “You know what? Yes, I would. I really would.” She goes on to tell a beautiful story of finding her way through the wilderness of life, the death and reconciliation she experienced with her abusive, alcoholic father, and finished by saying, “Today, I live by a few simple rules: 1. I’m doing the best I can. 2. I will allow myself to be seen. 3. I apply the advice an acting coach gave me to all aspects of my life: Go further, don’t be afraid. Put it all out there. Don’t leave anything on the floor.” 4. I will not be a mystery to my daughter. She will know me and I will share my stories with her – the stories of failure, shame, and accomplishment. She will know she’s not alone in that wilderness.” And then these four, short, poignant statements…
“This is who I am.”
“This is where I am from.”
“This is my mess.”
“This is what it means to belong to myself.”
To get to this moment on Solomon’s porch, where the apostles could gather, share honestly their stories of who they were, how Christ saved their lives, how they were living the struggle forward, they had to continually heal the wounds of their past and present shortcomings, with hope enough for the future that they could become a healing salve for those around them. There is more faith in an honest testimony of struggle, woundedness and healing than in all the creeds combined. I think this is why we form community in this house of faith. We want to learn, yes. We want to intellectually challenge ourselves to understand. But intellectually explaining everything, describing it in detail, footnoting it all only takes us so far. We have to be clear about what we’re really doing at the end of the day – what it is that we’re really after.
Almost nineteen years ago now, I stood at the altar of the little First Church of the Nazarene in Columbia, Missouri alongside my bride-to-be. I was nervous as I had decided to secretly serenade her during the service – I’m pretty sure I made up some of the words of that song along the way but I got through it and I meant every word, even when I made them up. My heart was full. But, intellectually, there was a thought to say out loud in the ceremony something I heard a colleague of mine once proclaim: “Today we are getting married because it has been proven sociologically and throughout history that the marriage contract is an essential way to form community and to enlarge the human race and continue to move forward in an appropriate way.” Part of me wanted to say that. I didn’t. What did we say? “For better, for worse. For richer, for poorer. In sickness and health.” What was that? A promise. A promise that we could trust in each other. A promise that says when we are at our worst, the other would be there to pick him up. When we are at our best, there would be a partner to celebrate with me. A promise. Simple and clear. Given in love. And KC and Jo-Jo sang us out of that place – “All my life, I prayed for someone like you and I thank God that I, that I finally found you.”
Seniors – that graduation day is coming and you’ll get dressed for the occasion and you might even remember twenty-years later what you wore on that day. You might even look back with some advice for your old-self. More than any of that, I want you to know that you are loved. We are proud of your efforts to reach this moment. We cheer you on into the next phase of your life with hopes that you’ll not fear who you are or who you’ll become, but that you’ll run your race, at your pace, with your character and beautiful spirit unfolding day by day. We pray that you’ll not settle to be designated as one of the “crowd” but courageous enough to be among the “disciples” who follow Jesus honestly, with vulnerability and without shame. I say this directly to you, even as I preach the same to my own heart – and to the rest of the folks in this place who are overhearing our conversation.
This church has been your front porch to the faith – your Solomon’s Portico – and for the times we have failed you, we ask forgiveness – but we pray that you’ve seen enough, lived enough, dug inward enough to see that even in our flaws, we strive forward as a healing presence for one another – that in turn, we all, in our own skin and through our own beautifully unique soul, may be a healing presence in the world.
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 Dr. Brene Brown. Braving the Wilderness. Random House. New York. 2017. Pg 85-87.