Below is the text of the Baccalaureate Sermon that I will offer at the Classen SAS service this afternoon hosted at First Baptist Church of Oklahoma City this afternoon.
You are almost there. It is Sunday, a day to celebrate. But the good news for you is that Wednesday is almost here. Soon you will hear your name called and will walk across the stage to receive your high school diploma. One significant journey will end and another will begin. Today we gather for one more occasion before that graduation walk. We gather in the church that I call home for an afternoon to consider what lies before you. The task I have been given is the Baccalaureate Sermon. The World Book Dictionary tells me that a Baccalaureate Sermon is “a sermon or other address delivered to a graduating class at, or the Sunday proceeding, commencement.” It is the Sunday before – we are gathered here – it must be time.
I confess that I have sat through enough dull sermons and speeches that my goal is to try to make sure this is not just another that you will add to your list. My hope is that you might feel that I am talking with you rather than just at you. I recognize that many gathered in this room come from other faith traditions or have chosen to claim no religious faith at all. While I come unapologetically from a Christian faith perspective, I hope that you will find elements of this message that might strengthen and encourage you as well.
In the main North-South hallway of our church we have chosen to emblazon a particular passage of scripture that I believe helps us claim lives that matter. It is traditionally called The Great Commandment. We hear it in its fuller context in Matthew 22:34-40. It reads; 34Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. 35One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: 36"Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?" 37Jesus replied: "'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.'[a] 38This is the first and greatest commandment. 39And the second is like it: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.'[b] 40All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments."
The passage finds its place among a series of roving religious interrogations, first by the Sadducees, and then picked up by the Pharisees. They were trying to trip Jesus up, trying to find a place to accuse him of heresy. First they asked claimed the controversial political question of whether a good Jew should pay taxes to Caesar. Then they asked about the emotional issue of marriage at resurrection. When Jesus had dealt with these two, a Pharisee, identified as an expert in the law, raised a question that spoke from the breadth of scripture. He asks; “What is the greatest commandment?”
Have you ever taken a test when you felt that the purpose of the test was for you to fail? For most gathered in the crowd that day, the question the Pharisee asked of Jesus was a question with no answer. In a moment the Pharisee tried to draw Jesus into the popular debate among religious leaders about which of the commandments were the more important and less important of the hundreds of laws the Jews had accumulated. The Pharisees had classified over six hundred laws and spent much time discussing which laws were weightier than others. Some religious leaders tried to distinguish between major and minor laws; some taught that all laws were equally binding and that it was dangerous to make any distinctions.
Jesus wanders in with no fear. He begins with the great Hebrew confession of faith called the Shema from Deuteronomy. Mark’s gospel quotes it directly. It reads; “Hear O Israel, the Lord God is One. You shall love your Lord your God with all of your heart, all of your soul and with all of your might.” Every faithful Jew standing in the crowd would have recited the Shema daily. You can almost hear their nodding with approval. Jesus adds; 38This is the first and greatest commandment.
We live in an era when we are taught to question everything. I think there is some real value in that process. It helps us to distill what is worthy of our time and attention. Jesus wanted the crowd to hear that he was not talking about a blind following of rules and regulations but rather to claim a faith born in passion, in the depths of our souls, and in our intellect pursuits. God is not looking for religious puppets but for those who will test their faith and find its worth – who will wrestle with the big questions and find God worthy.
Love your God
Ø With all your heart – a love born in power and passion.
Ø With all your soul – the nephish – the living spiritual essence
Ø With all of your mind – a love born in passion and intellect. We are not asked to throw our mind away- but to claim it and use it as an act of love.
Ø With all of your strength – energy, power, might.
Jesus tells them that if they want to live lives that matter – then to begin with their love of God.In the coming days your faith decisions will be most profoundly by your own heart and your own decision process. If you want to live lives that matter ask the hard questions and fall in love with God.
Love Our Neighbor
I imagine to the surprise of many listening, Jesus does not stop with the Shema. He takes another step. 39And the second is like it: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.'40All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments."
Jesus claimed the second half of the greatest commandment from Leviticus 19:18 where the initial edict is to love a fellow Israelite or resident alien. Jesus dramatically expands this concept. In the story of the Good Samaritan he makes it clear that our neighbor is all who are in need. Jesus tells us that as in our care for the naked, the hungry, and the imprisoned- that as we do it until the least we also do it to Christ. This love of our neighbor is very inclusive. If we have truly come before God in love and adoration, then the natural response will be to love the people that God loves.
Many more pessimistic pastors across the nation proclaim that this has become the forgotten commandment. I can understand their reasoning. It is easy to look around and see people who have dedicated their whole lives to seeing how much they can get. They measure their value in the size homes they can buy or the brand car that they drive. Our culture is an unabashed in its lifting the rich, the famous, the powerful, or the pretty as our models. But, Jesus did not come to this command with a pessimistic mindset. He wanted the people to understand that the only thing that could lie beside a call to love God was to love the people that God loves. It is about others he tells us.
We live in a country where there is a growing gap between the haves and have-nots. The temptation is to become numb to the presence of those struggling with poverty or abuse – to look over them rather than into their lives. But the story is not all dark. We also live in a country where there are ever increasing opportunities to stake your careers – your lives in the service of others. In a moment not unlike this one, news achor Tom Brokaw told a group of seniors; “You are educated. Your certification is in your degree. You may think of it as the ticket to the good life. Let me ask you to think of an alternative. Think of it as your ticket to change the world.” I would add, if you want to change the world – then decide to love others with the same passion you love yourself – look out for the interest of others with the same passion you look out for your own interest – care about the success of others with the same passion you care about your own success.
Jesus would model a self-sacrificing love of others on a hillside outside of Jerusalem and celebrate it with an empty tomb on Easter morning. He told his followers that they should be known by how the loved each other and cared for others. He lifted up those who were willing to give of themselves for the sake of others and set aside those who claimed for position, place, or power.
On a dirt road on the edge of town some two thousand years ago, when asked what was the greatest commandment, he set aside the quest for religious rules and regulations and told them it was about loving God and loving others. If you want to live lives that matter, the call is still the same.