Graduation Day – Final Sermon

* This is the manuscript for my final sermon as Youth Pastor at Chestnut Grove Baptist Church. After much prayer and thought, my family has stepped away from full-time pastoral work so I can pursue a career as a writer and speaker. I’ll have another job too (it’s almost a necessity) but my main focus is on expanding my writing and speaking opportunities.

To all of you who have supported or helped me in the ministry over the past fifteen years, please know that I am grateful for each of you. Your contributions, far more than my own, were the reason that God was able to transform so many students. Thank you for being such a blessed part of my service as a pastor.

*****

“For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters.” – Romans 8:29

ImageThere’s a book that’s been sitting on my nightstand now for almost a month. It’s less than a hundred pages thick, and the stark white cover almost mocks me every time I walk by.

“Risk is Right” it tells me. John Piper says so.

I’m not a very risky person. Never have been. When I was a kid, my idea of taking a risk was dunking an Oreo into milk after I’d taken a bite, thus allowing for the potential of tiny black cookie crumbs to contaminate the pure white milk. It was my brother who jumped off the house with only a shopping bag for a parachute. It was my friends who snuck out of the house at night to sit on their front porches and feel the rush of the cool night air combined with the knowledge that they’d broken a rule. It was the heroes in my comic books that dared to do things that common sense and insurance agents said was, to put it bluntly, stupid.

But not me. I was the good kid. The (semi) obedient one. I set the example. I toed the mark. Always have.

Sure, there were times when I did things that were risky. Once, when I was about 15, my friends convinced me that it would be fun to camp out in my neighbor’s yard as a cover for sneaking down to a store that was rumored to sell cigarettes to under-age kids. I didn’t smoke, had no interest in smoking, but I was the straight-arrow, so they figured I could just walk in, be my normal polite self and procure a couple of packs of smokes for the heathens. The plan, they said, was flawless.

Except for the fact that I froze up. I couldn’t go inside the store. I had visions of the police being called, of my arrest and incarceration, of my parents sobbing as the judge threw the book at me and derailed my chance for college, which would derail my chance for a good job, which meant that I was inevitably headed towards a future of riding the rails like the hobos in Hardy Boy novels, destined to either help Frank and Joe solve a mystery or be a shadowy figure who foretold their doom.

So my friends took my learner’s permit and went inside to try and by smokes anyway. The clerk kicked them out, laughing. I was relieved until, as we crossed the street, I got hit in the knee by a car that didn’t have its lights on. I was knocked head over heels into a drainage ditch, convinced that my leg had been severed as punishment for being so stupid. I just knew I was going to die in that ditch, becoming a cautionary tale to other kids and a source of embarrassment to my family.

“Poor Jason,” my grandparents would say as they sat on the carport shelling peas. “He seemed like such a good boy.”

Obviously, my leg was fine. My knee did swell to the size of a mini-basketball, but I hid it from my parents by wearing baggy pants for two weeks and pretending my limp was just some new kind of strut. It is entirely possible that I was responsible for starting the gangsta lean. I should’ve thought to trademark it.

But that’s just not who I was.

I could tell you more stories, stories about how I didn’t take the right kind of risks, stories about how the risks I did take were either coldly calculated to the point that there was no risk at all, or wildly impulsive, resulting in a day-after sense of shame and regret that made me burrow deeper into myself. Bottom line is that I’ve never taken the right kind of risks. Never figured out that there are healthy and productive ones to be taken.

Which is why I picked up that book, “Risk is Right”, in the first place. I needed to know how to do what God was telling me to do.

I needed to know how to leave this church, step out in faith, and see where God would take me.

It’s funny that this is all coming together on Graduation Sunday. A lot of people are here to celebrate and acknowledge the preschoolers and high schoolers and college folks who’ve put in their time, completed a major season of their lives, and are moving on to other things. New things. Scary things. I look at Austin and Madison and Cody and Brandon and Jon and Haley and Victoria and I remember what it felt like to walk in their shoes. After high school, the choice was simple: college. After college, the choice wasn’t so simple, especially for me.

There’s not a lot of people banging down the door to hire English majors. Though there are a lot of English majors banging down doors to deliver you a fresh, tasty pizza in 30 minutes or less.

It’s funny that this annual ritual comes around and we stand in front of these kids and extol the virtues of risk, of stepping out, of change. We tell them to chase dreams and find their passions, and we slip them a couple bucks and we wait for the inevitable: for them to do what so many of us did, and settle down, find a job, start a family, and leave risk behind.

Change, for some of us, is best left to the younger. Or to the marketers behind clever political ads.

And yet change is at the very heart of what it means to be human. From conception onward, we are constantly in flux. Life is steady progression from one stage to the next, only we stop acknowledging it at some point when we feel safe. Maybe it comes when we make “enough money”. Maybe it comes when we get that dream house. Maybe it comes when we find a church we like that has people like us and we feel at home. I can’t say what it is for you, but for some of us out there, you know what I’m talking about.

You find that comfortable spot and you set up camp and you say, “This is where I’m supposed to be. I ain’t moving.”

Which would be great if life worked that way. But it doesn’t. We’re not meant to become static. We’re meant to be ever-changing. Just look at what Paul is saying in Romans 8:29 – we are meant to be conformed into the image of Christ.

Conformed. It’s a verb. It means continually shaped. Molded. Remolded. Occasionally taken back to the drawing board and started over again. It’s the truth about our lives and character: we are constantly being remade by the One who made us, the One who doesn’t have to be remade.

Have you ever thought about that? That God doesn’t have to be remade? I grew up hearing that “God doesn’t change” and while that’s true, it’s misleading. It makes God sound stale. It makes God sound like the old man who lived in my former neighborhood and threatened us with a shotgun for walking on the neighbor’s side of the property line.

“You’re almost on my grass! Do it again and I’ll shoot! Whippersnappers!”

The reason that God doesn’t change isn’t because He’s crusty, it’s because He is infinite. He is all things in all times to all people. That’s why He’s just as accessible to people today as He was in the time of Moses. That’s why His word still has wisdom and power in our modern world just as it did when the majority of people thought that sailing too far would make you fall off the edge of the planet. Because God is infinite, which means that He is always sufficient, it means that He never has to grow or change or learn. He simply is and that’s always enough.

So when we, who must change, decide that we’re not going to anymore, we establish ourselves as equal with God. The Bible says that’s blasphemy.

Our comfortable, familiar lives are blasphemous.

Now that’s a powerful thought. It’s no wonder we resonate so strongly whenever we hear speeches that implore us to strive for more. We are built for that kind of thing, and when we become too entrenched in a blasphemous lifestyle of complacency or apathy or fear, we sense deep within our hearts that God not only means for us to do more than just sit there, He is grieved by our self-satisfaction because it means we no longer listen to Him.

I was in that spot. I didn’t want to risk being obedient to God, which sounds pretty dumb for a pastor to say. But obedience to God meant walking away from a sure thing; it meant leaving behind friends and family and security and hope for a future. It meant stepping away from students that I’ve come to love very, very much. It meant defying conventional wisdom that life is better when we mitigate risk, settle in for something comfortable and dependable, and only consider stepping outside that zone if we’re sure that there’s something better waiting on the other side.

In fifteen years of preaching about having faith in God and obeying Him no matter what, this is the first time I’ve followed His leading without knowing where I’m going to land. It’s the first time I’ve truly put my life and the life of my family into the hands that formed the universe and said, “Okay. Show me what you’ve got.” It’s scary. There are days when I wonder what the heck I’ve done. There are days when I want to say, “No! I take it back!”

It’s like falling in love with the person you’re meant to be with for the rest of your life: there is no safe. It’s all risk – but you never feel more alive than when you take that chance. And you never feel more certain that you blew it than when you let it pass by.

Jesus knew all this stuff, of course. He knew when to push, when to withdraw, when to challenge and when to comfort. As it says in John 13:3, “Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God.” Jesus knew who he was, whose he was, and what he was supposed to do. This is the image that we’re being conformed into: it’s not one of weakness or timidity, it’s of power and love and sound judgment; it’s not one that is easily defeated, but it’s more than a conqueror; we are not conformed to the things of this world, the ideas and beliefs that tell us to settle and hold tight, but we are conformed to the image of the One who didn’t think equality with God was something to hold onto, who instead submitted Himself to death on a cross so that His Spirit might echo in our hearts, telling us the will of the Father is for us to “Go.”

So I’m going. It’s Graduation Sunday, after all.

What if you chose likewise? What if you didn’t accept the premise that safe is best? What if you put your hand into the hand of God and said, “Show me what you’ve got?” What would change? What would be different?

Because here’s the thing, and it’s unavoidable: the world is changing. Grayson is changing. The things that people hold as right and dear and true are changing, and we are called to be witnesses to them. But how can we tell them with a straight face, much less convicting power, that the greatest Truth in the world is that God loves them and wants to change them into the likeness of His Son, if we ourselves are content to sit tight and not change a thing?

Risk is Right, Piper says. So says the Lord. What will you do with that truth today?

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