Preached in St Thomas’ Church on May 24, 2012 for the Commencement of St. Thomas’ School
Tonight, you—the class of 2012—graduate from the tutelage of St. Thomas’ teachers, coaches, and headmasters into the wonderful world called “freedom.” After tonight, you are free from curricular requirements defined by a Headmaster and School Board. You are free from school uniforms and their enforcement. You are free from daily chapel. You are free from every boundary that has defined and informed your life during your time at St. Thomas’. Tonight you graduate from your definition of yourself as a young student, and you begin to master and command a new definition of yourself. Free from the 24/7 watchful authority of your parents, you are free to define who or what your authorities will be. Free from the iron-like bonds of school-yard friendships, you are free to define who your friends will be, and how they will define you. Free from the structures and schedules of school and extra-curricular activities, you are free to define how you will invest and spend your time and talents. You are freed from much, to do much; much, if not everything, now depends on how you will define your freedom. And yet, every person in this room who enjoys the freedom you will soon possess can tell you that freedom is hard. In fact, every person in this room who has any degree of self-awareness can give you a concrete example of a time when they exchanged their freedom to serve an external cause, an internal need, or a person in a relationship that ultimately disappointed them. Mankind was born to be free, and yet we so often find ourselves in chains of vanity. What is it in our nature that makes us so eager to surrender our freedom for things that are ultimately meaningless?
In the current blockbuster film The Avengers, the antagonist, the Norse God Loki, becomes drunk with power while on a mission in Germany, and he asserts his power over hundreds of cowering Germans. After he forces them to kneel before him, he cries out, “Is this not simpler? Is this not your natural state? It’s the unspoken truth of humanity that you crave subjugation.” He concludes, “You were made to be ruled.” While Loki uses force to make his claim, human history has shown that force is rarely required. All too often, mankind has freely chosen to surrender its freedoms to those who would rule them. Stalin was elected the General Secretary of the Communist Party in 1922. Hitler was elected Chancellor of Germany in 1933. Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier was elected President of Haiti in 1954. Pol Pot was elected Party Leader of Kampuchea in 1963. Robert Mugabe was elected President of Zimbabwe in 1980. Leaving the realm of politics, how many lives were ruined only in the 20th century by millions of people who offered themselves, their souls, and their bodies to countless ideological, cultural, or religious causes and “isms” that provide a false coherence to an otherwise messy reality? Loki’s insight has been proved time and time again: the one thing that mankind wants more than freedom is slavery. We consistently surrender our moral freedom to false gods that promise but can never deliver security, identity, and the promise of meaning. Instead of accepting the freedom of Christ and the responsibility for life that comes with freedom, we consistently choose to be enslaved to anyone or anything who tells us what our lives purpose ought to be.
The Biblical icon of freedom is the story of the Exodus of the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt. After the Plagues, after the parting of the Red Sea, after the giving of the Ten Commandments, and after forty years in the wilderness, God finally leads His people to the Promised Land of Canaan. In the Book of Deuteronomy God tells His people to celebrate their deliverance into freedom with a great feast and worship. But then God concludes with a warning, “Take heed to thyself that thou offer not thy burnt offering in every place that thou seest (Deut. 12:13:10-14).” In other words, He tells the Hebrews to be sure that the places where they seek God are places where God is found. Not everything that claims to be God is God; nothing we turn into God is God. Too often we place our life loyalties, our yearning for fulfillment, and our defining purposes onto altars by the roadside rather than onto the true Altar that God provides. In the same way that Loki declares that humanity neurotically desires to surrender our freedom to gods that take our freedom away, God warns us that we are likely to worship and give ourselves to things that we think will meet our immediate needs but end in nothingness. We are in little danger of falling into the idolatry of worshipping statues; but we are in constant and grave danger of the idolatry of worshipping anything other than God that we think will give meaning to our lives: a political candidate or party, a career, a relationship, or our place in a social structure. Instead of worshipping the diminished and diminishing gods that we prefer, we are to worship the God Who Is. As William Hale White wrote in his 1890 novel, Revolution in Tanner’s Lane, “If we violate this law, we will not be struck dead, and we will not be excommunicated. Instead, we will be simply disappointed. Our burnt offerings will receive no answer; we will not be blessed through it; we will come to see that we have been pouring forth our treasure, and something worse, our heart’s blood, before that which is no God—a nothing, in fact. ‘Vanity of vanities,’ we will cry, ‘all is vanity.’” God loves us too much for us to be disappointed in this way. He desires that we freely love Him above all other things, and in that freedom to love others as He loves us: as we are, and not as others, or even ourselves, might wish we would be.
Class of 2012: please stand. You are young, you are earnest, and you are filled with a desire to find your life’s meaning in something greater than yourselves. These gifts and desires are good things, but if they are directed to things that are not God Himself they will lead you to profound and devastating disappointment. “Take heed to thyself that thou offer not thy burnt offerings in every place that thou seest.” Do not squander yourselves by giving yourselves to causes or to people whose ultimate destiny for you is nothing. Every person in this building—including myself—can give you concrete examples of times when we gave ourselves to a career, to a cause, or to a relationship that in the end left us betrayed, disillusioned, and disappointed. If you are like most of us, and you are, then your gifts, talents, motivations, and desires will be the very things that persuade you at some point to seek your ultimate purpose in something or someone that will claim to be your god, but is not. Therefore, reserve yourself, reserve your talents, and reserve your energies, to serve the radical and free love of God for every person you meet. Do not be ruled by false messiahs and roadside altars that exchange your freedom for false security and ephemeral meaning. Seek the truth of God that is larger than any one person’s experience, perspective, or desire. In so doing, you will preserve the freedom to love which alone gives meaning to every experience God offers you, in this life, and in the life to come.
Class of 2012: We are proud of you. We are proud of your gifts, of your hard work, and of your accomplishments. We love you, and we send you into the world with sincere prayers and high hopes. Love God, love each other, and stay free.