Yesterday I delivered my first sermon. It was for the Class of 2017 baccalaureate ceremony at Western Heights High School, where I’m the English department chairman. Some Facebook friends asked for a copy of the speech, so here it is, pretty much just as delivered.
Family Means Forgiving
Hello. Thank you to my colleagues, the parents, and especially the Class of 2017 for asking me to be your speaker today. I know some of you are thinking I’m an odd choice to deliver your baccalaureate sermon, and honestly, I’m as surprised as you are. When I was a kid, my dad would blast Jimmy Swaggart on the turntable Sunday mornings while getting ready for church, and I would stay in bed as long as I could, pretending to be asleep, sick, lame, or dead in hopes I wouldn’t have to go. And now here I am.
I spent a lot of time trying to decide what I wanted to talk about today. Although I am a licensed minister, I’ve only used those credentials to marry people, and I couldn’t find anyone willing to get married today, so I had to sit down and write an actual sermon. I’ve written news stories about teenagers dying while huffing gasoline and novels exploring my own deepest fears, but this was one of the hardest things I’ve ever written. For my topic, I decided to talk about something I wish I’d been told some three decades ago when I was sitting in the audience at Enid High School’s baccalaureate.
Forgiveness is part of what I want to talk to you about today. Forgiveness, family, and avoiding regrets. But let’s start with the family part.
What is family? If you were a senior in my AP Literature class this year you probably expect to hear some John Steinbeck quotes about how there’s only one soul and each of us has a little piece of it and that makes us all family. Well, instead of a quote you got a paraphrase … and I expect you to know the difference.
Romans 12:10 has something to say about who we should consider to be family. “love one another with mutual affection; anticipate one another in showing honor. ” First Peter, Chapter 4, verse 8, tells us, “Above all, let your love for one another be intense, because love covers a multitude of sins.”
My point here is that family extends beyond the mom or dad or grandparents sitting with our graduates today. Sure, we’re all made in the image of God and that makes us family. But beyond that, we share a kinship forged here in these hallways, in the stadium, in this auditorium and in the classrooms. We are a family of Jets.
One of the things that has always struck me about Western Heights is the diversity of our student body and how well we all usually get along with one another. Sure, there are some fights, especially at the beginning of the year, and there are cliques and best friends and bickering and such, but for the most part, despite our differences, everyone gets along with everyone else.
That’s not how it was for me in high school. Races didn’t mix. Economic groups didn’t associate with one another. And stoners didn’t talk to preppies. The Breakfast Club was real, man.
There were over 400 seniors in my graduating class. I didn’t personally associate with more than about 25 of them. I didn’t talk to guys who wore pink shirts or girls who wore bangles. Student Council kids were brown-nosing nerds. Our state champion football team was a bunch of thugs. My grades were average, so I couldn’t chill with the geeks. I didn’t use drugs, so I didn’t even hang out with the kids who shared my musical taste. High school wasn’t much fun, and now, looking back on it, I can see that it was mostly my fault I didn’t have any fun.
We’re human and have to deal with our human nature. We’re cliquish. We’re petty sometimes. We hold grudges. We push our brothers and sisters away from us. Some of you are about to graduate without really knowing your classmates, or maybe you’re holding on to old angers. She dated your ex-boyfriend, or he dented your car, or Sally blocked you on Snapchat and Miguel got that scholarship you thought you deserved.
When you come back for your 20-year high school reunion, do you want to still be holding on to your anger because Mackenzie changed senior quotes to senior thank-yous in the yearbook or because Nayelli ate your lunch or Lakota ran faster than you in track? Take it from someone who has a hard time forgiving, from someone who let prejudices and peer pressure decide who he associated with in high school, you don’t want to walk out of here for the last time with hard feelings or not knowing your family.
Colossians chapter 3 verses 11 to 13 say, “Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcision and uncircumcision, barbarian, Scythian,* slave, free; but Christ is all and in all. Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience, bearing with one another and forgiving one another, if one has a grievance against another; as the Lord has forgiven you, so must you also do.”
Matthew 6:14 tells us, “If you forgive others their transgressions, your heavenly Father will forgive you.” And Luke adds to that in Chapter 6, Verse 37, with, “Stop judging and you will not be judged. Stop condemning and you will not be condemned. Forgive and you will be forgiven.”
I’m not one to turn down good advice from other sources. One of my favorite quotes comes from author Elbert Hubbard, who says, “The ineffable joy of forgiving and being forgiven forms an ecstasy that might well arouse the envy of the gods.”
Forgive your friend for not letting you copy that homework assignment. Forgive Mr. Zenati for not rounding that 89 up to a 90. Forgive the referee for his bad calls. Forgiving will bring you joy, even if the offending party never knows or cares that you’ve given it. Do it for yourself.
Some of you know I’m kind of a literature nerd. You’re not getting out of here without a few quotes from some of my favorite books. And if I’m going to quote an author, you know I’m going to start with John Steinbeck. No paraphrase here. America’s greatest author wrote this in his journal during the time he was working on his short novel Of Mice and Men. He said:
In every bit of honest writing in the world … there is a base theme. Try to understand men, if you understand each other you will be kind to each other. Knowing a man well never leads to hate and nearly always leads to love. There are shorter means, many of them. There is writing promoting social change, writing punishing injustice, writing in celebration of heroism, but always that base theme. Try to understand each other.
If somebody had told me this when I was your age, maybe I would have been smart enough to be open to the advice. Maybe not. If I had, when I went to my first high school reunion maybe I would have actually known the names of people who greeted me instead of simply remembering how she was a snob and he was a jock and that guy was always too stoned to matter.
My next message is for the parents and guardians. My daughter Sara graduated from Western Heights in 2013. When she came here as a freshman I had the highest hopes for her to work with Mrs. Wood and get a ton of scholarships and go to college for free and become the psychologist she’d talked about becoming. As time went on and we were constantly around each other at school, it got to where Sara liked me less and less and I approved of what she was doing with her life less and less until by her senior year we were hardly on speaking terms. Her path ended up being something different than I’d imagined. It was a few years after she graduated before I read Herman Hesse’s novel Siddhartha and found this advice given to the title character in regards to his son. Hesse writes:
Which father, which teacher had been able to protect [his son] from living his life for himself, from soiling himself with life, from burdening himself with guilt, from drinking the bitter drink for himself, from finding his path for himself? Would you think, my dear,
anybody might perhaps be spared from taking this path? That perhaps your little son would be spared, because you love him, because you would like to keep him from suffering and pain and disappointment? But even if you would die ten times for him, you would not be able to take the slightest part of his destiny upon yourself.
And so my message for my fellow parents and guardians is this: Recognize that the young person sitting here today has made mistakes and will continue to make mistakes. They are going to live their own lives and it might not be what you envision. It might not be what they envision today. Be forgiving. Be supportive. Love them no matter how stupid you think they are sometimes. And trust me, there are days I’ll agree with you about that. They have to learn on their own, just like you did. Just like I did. Be ready to welcome home the prodigal once he or she has earned wisdom.
Finally, I’d like to mention Zora Neale Hurston, who wrote Their Eyes Were Watching God, the only book most of my AP seniors liked. I’m taking this quote a little out of context, but she writes that some people “forget all those things they don’t want to remember and remember everything they don’t want to forget. The dream is the truth. Then they act and do things accordingly.” Memory is like a fishing net, she says, with the mesh releasing things that aren’t needed and holding in the good stuff. Hurston closes her novel with the protagonist, Janie, sitting on the porch as an older woman with much experience. She writes, “She pulled in her horizon like a great fish-net. Pulled it in from the waist of the world and draped it over her shoulder. So much of life in its meshes.”
As you leave today, I want you to think about your time at Western Heights High School as a fishing net. It’s time to draw in your net. Make sure it’s full of things worth remembering. Repair any relationships that need it. Forge new ones with people you avoided. Never forget that you are a member of the Jet family, and family sticks together.
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