In preparation for preaching this morning, I read a compilation of Kurt Vonnegut’s graduation speeches titled: “If this isn’t nice, what is?” The book is made up of commencement addresses delivered to college graduates across the country. Vonnegut’s speeches are comprised equally of helpful advice and obscure tangents. The book opens with an excerpt from one of his addresses, in the following way:
“A show of hands, please: How many of you have had a teacher at any stage of your education, from the first grade until this day in May, who made you happier to be alive, prouder to be alive, than you had previously believed possible? Good! Now say the name of that teacher to someone sitting or standing near you. All done? Thank you, and drive home safely, and God bless you all.”
This morning I would like to ask you:
A show of hands, please: How many of you have had a Christian mentor—Sunday school teacher, youth group leader, chaplain, peer, elder, priest—at any stage of your spiritual development, from Baptism until this day in May, who made you happier to be alive, prouder to be alive, than you had previously believed possible? Good!
We all owe a great deal of thanks to our mentors for raising us up. It is from these teachers, that we discern what it is we value. We certainly learn values through our parents and families. But as we grow and develop, we increasingly incorporate values and beliefs from a wider and wider network of influencers. We learn what is right and good and true in community. Which is why this community— St. Paul’s—all of us here, is so important. We develop our values through the help of our Sunday school teachers, youth group leaders, chaplains, peers, elders, priests.
Here are a few values I’ve discerned with the help of my church community and by listening for the will of God in my life over the years: Every person is deserving of love, respect, dignity, and a margin of grace. I am responsible for taking care of creation. Respond with mercy and forgiveness. These values help to guide every decision I make. Holding these values does not mean I am always going to discern what is right, do what is good or know what is true. But they help me to understand how God is calling me to be in the world.
As Christians, we look to Jesus, to scripture, as an example of how we are to align our values. As Episcopalian’s we look to our Baptismal Covenant as a framework and a foundation on which to build our value system. The mentors who take us under their wing walk beside us as we grapple with these texts. They work with us to unpack and interpret the ideologies and theologies which help us to become the humans God calls us to be. We have all, at multiple points in our lives, been changed by our relationship with others. And as we continue to grow, we become those teachers and mentors, influencers and agents of change for others. We continue to grow in our vocations and to live into the vision God has for each of us.
Our community, the influencers in our lives, not only help us to discern these values but also to act on them. To make choices that align with what we know to be right and good and true. Doing what is right does not mean doing what we ought to do, it means doing what is just in the eyes of God. Doing what is good does not mean doing what we should do, it means doing that which will bring about the Kingdom of God. Doing what is true does not mean doing what our society and culture dictates, but the truth we inherit by being in right relationship with God. What I mean when I say acting on our values does not mean creating a list of nice words and principles to live by. Acting on our values requires discerning our Christian vocation, listening for God’s call, and living into our Baptismal Covenant.
It is our Christian duty to do what is right and good and true, to live out our values. We do so because we have a vision for the world that is different from the world we currently live in, the Kingdom of God made real. We choose to stand up for what we value in a world that tells us to sit down, despite the consequences, because we believe in the transformative power of God’s love. Standing up for what we value despite the consequences is a concept discussed in the social science world as “moral courage.”
Moral courage involves doing what is right in the face of our fears. We are able to act on moral courage when we believe that wrongs can be righted, and that change is possible. When we practice moral courage, we do what is right, even when others tell us not to. When we have moral courage, we stand up for what we believe in, speak up for what is good, even when the world tells us to sit down and be quiet. When we act out of moral courage, we are willing to ask challenging questions and to do so with the goal of understanding in the hope of making things better. Moral courage pushes us past concern of being blamed for the consequences of acting on what is right. It removes from us shame of doing what is countercultural. When we practice moral courage, we face the judgement of others and embrace the fact that those who disagree with us have something to teach us.
I want to say to you now, having moral courage is not easy. Just look at what happened to Jesus. He stood up for what is right and good and true because he was called by God to change the world. He knew, through God and his relationship to others, to value unconditional love, respect, dignity, mercy, and grace. These values were and are countercultural. These values got him killed. Jesus had moral courage. Jesus did what was right in the face of his fears because he believed that change was possible.
This morning we heard the story of Stephen. Another person who was transformed by God and called to stand up for what he believed, who spoke up for what was good, in the face of the world telling him to sit down and be quiet. The story tells us that even as Stephen was being stoned to death he practiced moral courage. Stephen prayed, “Do not hold this sin against them.” He knew that mercy and forgiveness are right and good and true.
When we stand up for what we value, we should be prepared for the reaction. We live in a world with a different moral code than what I have been inviting you towards this morning. Many people try to tell us what is right, but there is always an underlying agenda. Many people try tell us what is good, but there is always something at stake. Many people try to tell us what is true, but there is always bias. But we cannot let our action be dictated by the possibility of reaction based on some earthly moral code.
In his most recent address to Executive Council, Presiding Bishop Michael Curry speaks on this subject saying we are called to be value based, not issue driven. That being the Episcopal branch of the Jesus movement involves becoming deeply rooted in the vision that God has for the world. Being value based and practicing moral courage involves putting our trust in God and listening for our call. Doing so will likely not lead us into death as it did Stephen and Jesus. But practicing moral courage will be hard, it will be painful, it will be challenging.
We need people with moral courage. Your family, friends, church, workplace, community, the world; need you to practice moral courage. If your mentors— Sunday school teacher, youth group leader, chaplain, peer, elder, priest—had not practiced moral courage, you would not be who you are today. They have taught you to act on your values by discerning your Christian vocation, listening for God’s call, and living into your Baptismal Covenant. The world needs you to do these things. You will be a mentor to others, you will help them to learn what is right and good and true in the eyes of God. They need you to have moral courage. You will have to stand up in a world that wants you to sit down.
I know this may seem to be asking a lot. We are human after all. Remember that God loves you and God calls you. God gives you grace and forgives you when your fear holds you back. We are blessed to have wonderful examples of leaders with moral courage, such as Jesus and Stephen and countless other prophets and apostles, who have been called by God. Our task is to listen to God’s call and to follow where that leads. Let us then be comforted and encouraged by our Gospel lesson this morning.
Jesus says, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me.” When you find yourself in a space where you must choose to have moral courage, where you must choose to do what is right, to do what is good, to do what is true, to stand by your values… “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God…” Follow in the example of Jesus. Believe in yourself and what you value, in your ability to discern what right and good and true. Believe in how you have been raised up by this faith community. Believe that we will do all that is within our power to support you. Believe that you will grow and that there will always be a place for you. Jesus tells us “In [God’s] house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?”
Along the way, we will surely be like Thomas, wondering “How can we know the way?” We will question ourselves— What if I can’t discern what is right? What if I don’t do what is good? What if I don’t know what is true? What if I get blamed? What if I am shamed? What if I can’t hear how God is calling me to be in the world? What if? What if? What if?
Jesus assures us, just as he did his disciples, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.” Through Jesus, through God, we discern our values. Believe in God. Believe in yourself, in your ability to discern what is right, do what is good, and know what is true. Believe in your community and in the guidance they provide and require from you. For Jesus’ proclaims, “Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to [God.]” If you put your trust in God you will do God’s work.
I’ll finish the way I started, with another quote from Vonnegut for our graduates this year: “We love you, are proud of you, expect good things from you, and wish you well.” May God bless you and keep you. May God give you courage and strength to discern what is right, do what is good, and know what is true. May God’s love, and our love, surround you all the days of your life. Amen.