Brothers and sisters in Christ, faculty and staff of Lutheran Westland, honored guests, proud parents and family, and our beloved class of 2023,
It is my honor to stand before you tonight. I have been a life-long lover of our Lutheran Schools. I come from a family of Lutheran School supporters and educators who have collectively spent near a century teaching in our grade schools, high schools, and universities. To speak before this body of brothers and sisters here in this beloved Lutheran School on the night of your commencement, is a true joy.
Can you believe that 1st grade was 12 years ago for you. Do you even remember what it was like? Did your mom dress you up in a cute outfit for your first day? Did you have Anna and Elsa on your school bag? Or was it the Spider-Man? Do you remember your first friends as this journey began? Are any of them still your friends today? Maybe even here at Westland with you?
Can you believe you have not only made it through the years of grade school but you've also made it through these four years of high school. Did they go fast for you? Does it still feel like you were just a freshman yesterday? Well fasten your seat belts, ask your grandparents just how fast life will get as the years go by.
One thing I missed out on on my own journey was a Lutheran High School. Oh I had the opportunity, sort of. The nearest school was a 40 minute ride away. I ended up deciding not to make that long journey every day for school, and ended up going to the public school just 5 minutes away. It just seemed too far. In hindsight that comes as highly ironic, as now my family lives 45 minutes from Westland and my boys have been making the trip here every day for four years. And I am so grateful that we do.
While I didn’t attend a Lutheran High school as a student I was blessed to teach at our former sister school Lutheran High South in Newport for eight years. I witnessed the amazing environment and the wonderful atmosphere of home and family that a Lutheran High School can create. I have from a distance witnessed so much the same for you here at Lutheran Westland. There are times I would certainly say I’ve been jealous, I wished I had the high school environment and family that you have had. I hope you’ve been able to cherish your past four years here and these friends and fellow classmates you’ve shared it with. Underclassmen, embrace it while you still have time! You’re surrounded by teachers who care for you and love you as brothers and sisters in Christ. These things are hard to find and you’ll miss them when they are gone. I have a feeling your teachers will miss you too.
Tonight you have arrived on the precipice of a new adventure. Your years ahead are an unwritten story ready to be explored. I hope this holds excitement for you prayerfully looking ahead to what is next. Who wouldn't want to embark on a joyful adventure into the unknown wilderness ahead? I am reminded of Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit, when he runs through the very quiet countryside of the Shire shouting “I’m going on an adventure!”
As you take this next step forward into the wonderful wilderness of life, I want you to consider what it means in your life to say "God has set me free." This thought comes from your theme verse for the year from Psalm 118 verse 5, "out of my distress I called on the Lord; The Lord answered and set me free."
So again, take this moment, on this oh so busy night for your hearts and minds, and consider what it means to say "God has set me free.". Does it mean what our hearts so often want it to mean? That I can do whatever I want. This certainly might sound enticing, but it's not true freedom. When we do whatever we want we quickly find that this will hurt others as well as ourselves. True freedom, being set free, is not indulging everything that our heart desires. Life is full of consequences.
God has set us free for something more. He desires so much more for you and for me than to be a slave to the desires and the sin that is within. He has set you free and He has done so at a great price.
Think back to that wonderful holiday weekend we just celebrated two weeks ago. Did you remember why you had that Monday off from school? It was Memorial Day. It was a day in which we remembered the immense sacrifices made by those who have given up their lives to preserve and protect freedom. We as a people ought to know that our freedom comes at a price. We ought to live our lives, then, in appreciation of what has been given to set us free.
When such a terrible price is paid for freedom Jesus calls this an act of love. You might remember the beautiful words Jesus shares in John 15:13 “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down His life for His friends.” Jesus wasn’t just speaking of the American soldier when He spoke of laying down one’s life. He was also pointing us to what He would do personally for us all. It was our Lord Jesus who demonstrated what true love looks like. It is our Lord Jesus who ultimately sets us free. The innocent selflessly dying for the guilty. That's love. To say God has set me free is to know the price Jesus has paid for your life and my life. He has set you free. Free to be selfless. Free to be full of love and live a life that honors and glorifies what He has done for you. It is for this that God has set you free. Know this, and take this with you on the next step in your life's journey.
If I were to tell you I was going to mention one of Marvel’s superheroes who sets an example of selflessness and love and being set free, who might come to mind first? Captain America maybe? Black Widow perhaps? Well they aren’t the example I’m thinking of tonight. The one I’m thinking of may come as a surprise because he’s usually not known for being selfless but rather would usually be described as a self-indulgent, egocentric, billionaire.. I’m thinking of the example of Tony Stark, Iron Man.
Tony had it all. Endless wealth. Endless technology. Endless talent and brilliance. You might even think he has endless freedom. That all holds true until it all falls apart. He is attacked and captured by terrorists. He ends up with shrapnel in his chest which threatens to kill him. And to make matters worse, while in this place he has come to witness the terrible consequences and harm that his weapons and his technology have brought on innocent people. His conscience begins to hit him hard. While captive, Tony meets a fellow scientist who with a single quote helps to begin this change in his life. “Tony, you’re a man who has everything … and nothing.”
From this moment his life does begin to change. He comes to realize that his life’s work was not what he thought it was, that all his success and wealth was nothing if it only harmed others or benefit him alone. It wasn’t freedom, it wasn’t joy, it was empty if he didn’t live it out for the good of others. A great lesson indeed.
If you know the rest of the story you’ll know Tony does indeed join up alongside other superheroes and they do help save the world several times over. And not to spoil too much of the ending of a great movie, but you might like to know that Tony eventually lays down his own life for his friends, one last act of love, to save everyone. That’s selflessness. That's love. That’s being set free.
This is the message that Jesus speaks to all of you. To say God has set me free means this. Your life isn’t about just doing whatever you want. Your life isn’t only about you. We need to get out of our self-centered, selfish holes and see the true freedom given us in Christ. He has set us free to live as he lived. Learn to be humble as Jesus is. Learn to be forgiving and merciful as Jesus is. Learn to love as Jesus loves and then you will be set free.
These are my hopes and prayers for each of you as you move on to the next adventure of your life. Your parents, your family, your teachers, your pastors have all stood by you in prayer and in trust in the Lord to help get you here. They have sacrificed much in love for you along the way. And as one last reminder of what it means to be set free I want you to hear Jesus words one more time: “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”
Congratulations, class of 2023. May your wilderness wanderings lead you forth in amazing and selfless love. May you continue to be set free by the grace of Jesus. And may our wanderings lead us to meet again someday in that promised land to come.
To God be the glory, Amen.