Dear Friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
Forty-four years-ago when I graduated from Austin High School, I was invited to speak at our commencement ceremony. My parents were very proud. For the son of a union worker in a meatpacking town, that was a high achievement. As they would say, they were living high off the hog. Now, I can assure you that I wasn’t invited to speak as the class valedictorian or the salutatorian. Frankly, I was so far down the academic roster of GPA candidates, that there weren’t any Latin titles left. Nor, had I been chosen because of my popularity as the Homecoming King, Snow Week Prince, the mostly likely to succeed, or even class clown. A year earlier, however, I had been elected Student Council President on a 12-point platform. A scout is trustworthy, loyal, helpful friendly, courteous, kind, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean and reverent., and whenever I was called upon by the School Principal to speak to the student body, I would do it.
Forty-four years later, I now know the difference between the speeches of the Valedictorian and the Salutatorian. The Valedictorian speaks to the class saying farewell, and the Salutatorian speaks on behalf of the class to celebrate the moment. There wasn’t much expected of Student Council Presidents, although you can look on the internet for suggestions of how to write an effective valedictorian speech. Here are five little rules I found:
Speaking at my high school commencement ceremony was good preparation for ministry. People laughed and cried, and two hours later, no one remembered a word I said. But, they knew how they felt when I was speaking.
The Day of Pentecost was a graduation ceremony of sorts for Jesus’ followers and the disciple Peter was charged with speaking as the Valedictorian, Salutatorian and Student Council President all in one. Jesus was gone and in the ten days following his farewell address and ascension into the heaven, the disciples had felt like many anxious graduates today. They were fretting about their final exams and papers, wondering what the future would bring, feeling empty after all the work had been completed, and contemplating when they would see their friends again.
To the class of 2021, the Day of Pentecost reminds us that even though you may no longer be in the physical presence of teachers, parents, mentors, and friends, the bonds created in these years will be a source of wisdom and inspiration throughout your lives. More importantly, the story of Pentecost assures us, that the Holy Spirit will accompany you, inspire you and encourage you wherever you go. But beware, the Holy Spirit has an amazing ability to disrupt the most organized and disciplined of lives, if, you allow it.
The festival of Pentecost is often overlooked by less observant Christians, after all I have heard of CEO Christians, Christmas and Easter Only, but I have never heard CE & PO Christians. Sounds more like a railway on the Monopoly Board. Pentecost is often neglected because the Holy Spirit itself is overlooked. Jesus can be seen and studied. His words are open for discussion and reflection, the Holy Spirit, however, is that force that cannot be seen. But look out. The late Presiding Bishop of the ELCA and Luther College President, H. George Anderson, once said, “When you pray for the Holy Spirit to come, you better be prepared to move aside, because it will not leave you the same.”
The day of Pentecost itself is rich in spiritual significance. It was first tied to Moses receiving the Ten Commandment at Mount Sinai 50 days after Passover when the Israelites were led out of Egypt. Hence, Pentecost meaning 50 days. When the Israelites entered into the Promised Land, it was woven into the Feast of First Fruits, or Shavout. That is why Jews from across the Mediterranean Sea, all speaking different languages, were gathered there in Jerusalem to celebrate the day. Pentecost is always celebrated in the spring- often close to the days of high school and college graduations. And like graduation, Pentecost, is never about staying home and resting on your laurels. It is about moving out and moving on.
On that first Pentecost, the disciples were all filled with a new power; a new spirit; a new courage. And for the first time, they were acting on their own. That is how we look on graduation. Before Pentecost the disciples had stood under the shadow of Jesus, but now the Holy Spirit had come to guide them. They had been Jesus’ disciples, ever learning and observing. Now that time was over. They were Jesus’ apostles being sent into the world. By the power of the Holy Spirit they were preparing to do the work of establishing the church.
No doubt, dear graduates, your parents, grandparents and friends, have been pouring last words of counsel and advice into their conversations with you while they feel they still can. Yes, they all have hopes they want to share, and fears and warnings that they want to give you- and let me them. Graduation is really tough on parents. After years of child-raising, they will return home from your graduation ceremony feeling unemployed. But be assured, the Holy Spirit will continue pouring words into you even after graduation- if you are open to them.
Of course, there may be a few thoughts and words, as graduates, that you need to share with those who have supported and nurtured you as well, but you’re not sure how. You know that you are reaching a major turning point in your life, and you know that your relationships will change. Maybe that’s exciting; maybe it’s a little scary. That too is an occasion for opening yourself to the Holy Spirit.
My friends, God’s mission for our lives rarely goes how we expect. Sometimes, the Holy Spirit comes to us looking a bit like people acting too exuberant, too excited, too un-Lutheran. The spiritual, but non-religious voices around try to make sense of the Holy Spirit in their own way. Yes, even though it is only 9 in the morning, they are convinced that God’s followers have simply consumed too much wine. The doubtful academics, on the other hand, enjoy quoting Luther’s Small Catechism, “What does this mean?” They are skeptical that the Holy Spirit can ever truly play a role in an educated person’s life. You may think that you have plans now, but if you are open to it; the Spirit may take you to places you could have never imagined.
The ways of the Holy Spirit are always an unseen mystery, which is good counsel for every graduate. After all, we don’t usually see the Holy Spirit in as dramatic a way as the disciples did in Jerusalem nearly 2000 years ago. Frankly, if I saw a tongue of fire on someone’s head in church, I’d ask one of the assisting ministers to get the fire extinguisher and put it out. That will be true for your life and decisions as well. Your friends and family are not going to see how the Holy Spirit is moving, but you will know that your life is being challenged in new ways- if your life is open to Holy Spirit.
Now if you have been listening closely to my sermon, you may have noticed that I was following the five rules for an effective Valedictorian speech, and now I have reached my final point which should be the most important.
To the Class of 2021, there are few gifts that I can offer you at your graduation that will truly last. A new laptop, a car, a backpack, or travel coffee mug will all wear out, but the promise and hope of the Holy Spirit will never age or become obsolete. Baron Thomas Dewar once said, “Minds are like parachutes. They only function when open.” That is true for the Holy Spirit as well. It can only function if your life is open. But if it is open, look out.
Dear graduates, may the Holy Spirit stir up in you a passion; and may it light a fire within you. When you don’t know what to do, or how to move forward, trust that that same Holy Spirit will be there to encourage you even when you don’t see it. Be open. And may you like the first graduating class of apostles in Jerusalem long ago on discover that the Holy Spirit enjoys interrupting lives. And what a privilege that can be. Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.