Over the past three weekends, Melanie and I have attended three graduation ceremonies.
Remarkably, all three were outdoors and all three enjoyed wonderful weather.
Each ceremony was inspiring in its own way.
We heard college presidents offer words of wisdom.
We heard bright young scholars reflect humorously on their past four years.
We heard erudite professors reveal an obvious love for their students and their craft.
The most memorable speech we heard was from Rev. Dr. Danny Murphey,
the preacher at PC, Presbyterian College, who received a standing ovation for his baccalaureate sermon
– I had never seen that before!

One thing in common between all of those that we heard speak over the past three weekends was this:
“do not be surprised at fiery trials that come your way”.
Now, they did not say this in quite the same way as this quote from the first letter of Peter,
but the idea was the same.
Every speaker over the past three weekends talked about, or at least referred to,
the trials of human life that would inevitably come.
They spoke with great hope for the future, and passionate encouragement to young graduates,
but they did not speak as if they had rose-colored glasses.
They were real. They were honest. In so many words, they stated what our text for today claims:
Trials and tribulations, suffering and hardship, are not to be considered strange, or unexpected,
but rather an expected part of human life.
I remember Mo Thrash speaking at a Men’s Breakfast some years ago – he said:
if you haven’t suffered any in this life, you probably just haven’t lived long enough.
Everyone suffers. Everybody hurts, sometime.

A certain young man was born in Decatur and moved often as part of an Army family,
ended up at UGA and started a little band in Athens called R.E.M.
Michael Stipe, the lead singer of the band, wrote a song called “Everybody Hurts”.
It struck a chord in the late 1980’s and went straight to the top of the charts.
The lyrics went like this:
When the day is long and the night, The night is yours alone
When you’re sure you’ve had enough Of this life, well hang on
Don’t let yourself go, Cause everybody cries, And everybody hurts sometimes

Sometimes everything is wrong… If you feel like letting go (hold on)
When you think you’ve had too much Of this life, well hang on
Cause everybody hurts…Oh, no Don’t throw your hand
If you feel like you’re alone No, no, no, you are not alone

If you’re on your own in this life The days and nights are long
When you think you’ve had too much Of this life to hang on
Well, everybody hurts sometimes, Everybody cries…So, hold on, hold on,
No, no, no, you are not alone

I viewed a documentary on Michael Stipe and REM not too long ago.
Like many successful artists, Stipe holds together a powerful mix of incredible, passionate talent
along with some measure of humility regarding the human condition.
He does not keep the pain and suffering he has known in his life from showing up in his music.

Like Van Morrison or James Taylor,
I appreciate musicians who are honest and humble about the human condition.
One of my favorites from James Taylor –
You just call out my name, and you know, wherever I am,
I’ll come running to see you again.
Winter, spring, summer or fall, all you gotta do is call,
and I’ll be there, yes I will, cause you got a friend.

One of the lesser known Van Morrison songs is “Whenever God Shines His Light”.
Whenever God shines his light on me, Opens up my eyes so I can see
When I look up in the darkest night And I know everything’s going to be alright
In deep confusion, in great despair When I reach out for him he is there
When I am lonely as I can be…I know that God shines his light on me

Reach out for him (reach out for him), he’ll be there (he’ll be there)
With him your troubles (with him your troubles) you can share (you can share)
If you live (if you live), the life you love (the life you love)
You get the blessing (yeah) from above (from above)
(He) Heals the sick and he heals the lame Says you can do it too in Jesus’ name
He’ll lift you up and turn you around And put your feet back (feet back) on higher ground

I confess, in my relatively untroubled life, that I sometimes forget the purpose for this holiday weekend.
Memorial Day weekend has become for most of us a time of recreation,
a time for picnics and BBQs and chilled beverages, and yes, listening to good music.
Many of us enjoy some time off of work, some time to gather with family and friends,
perhaps a long weekend in the mountains or at the lake or beach.
But for military families who have lost a loved one,
this weekend stands as a time of remembrance,
a time to honor those who died while in active military service.
When you see a flag flying on someone’s porch this weekend,
or you notice news a group gathering at a cemetery,
take a moment to pause and give thanks,
take a moment to remember those who died so that the rest of us could live free,
so the rest of us could enjoy this long weekend in relative peace.

Gratitude for those who have gone before us,
and reverence for sacrifices made are closely related to humility.
There are several memorable quotes in our text for today,
scripture verses worth memorizing and taking to heart.
One that has stayed with me over the years is verse 6:
“Humble thyself in the sight of the Lord, and he will lift you up”

Jesus and those who follow him emphasize humility and warn against pride.
Pride trusts in oneself or in some human institution, whereas humility trusts in God alone.
(Alan Richardson, Theological Word Book)
Pride focuses on one’s own goals and agendas;
humility focuses on the will of God and the needs of others.

Jesus taught the crowds that unless they change and become like children,
they would never enter the kingdom of God.
“All who exalt themselves shall be humbled
and all who humble themselves shall be exalted.” Matthew 23:12
Anyone who exalts their own opinion or their ways or their abilities over others shall be humbled.
All who humble themselves, who empty themselves before God and others,
who resist the temptation of thinking too much of themselves,
who make themselves available to God and others, shall be exalted.

Frederick Buechner wrote that true humility “doesn’t consist in thinking ill of yourself
but of not thinking of yourself much differently from the way you’d be apt to think of anybody else.”
(Listening to Your Life, July 31 entry)
Humility is not thinking of yourself much differently, neither better nor worse,
than you think of someone else, than you think of anyone else.
We are all limited, fallible creatures. We all make mistakes.
We hurt one another – either intentionally or unintentionally.
We over react or under react. We fall through on plans. We fail to do our best.
Humility recognizes that we are all in need of God’s grace,
all in need of God’s guidance and wisdom, all in need of God’s comfort and strength.

Humility recognizes that we are not able to carry life’s burdens on our own.
Humility recognizes that, in terms of life’s greatest challenges,
like the relationships that mean the most to us, we need divine help. We need each other.
Most often we cannot fix it or figure it out or make it all better on our own.
Those who trust in their own resources, who feel sufficient in and of themselves,
are likely just getting by until something major happens in their lives
and they find themselves on their knees in prayer.
Humility recognizes that we need other people and that we need God.
“Humble thyself in the sight of the Lord, and he will lift you up.” (I Peter 5:6)

Today we baptize Vivian Shinn.
Vivian is a 7th generation member of Decatur Presbyterian Church.
The faith that is passed down to her is strong and deep.
She will stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before her.
But ultimately, she will personally respond to the faith given to her.
She will claim God’s covenant promises for herself, and, by God’s grace,
will place her trust in God for faith and for life.
This placing of her trust in the hands of God will have something to do with humble resistance –
resistance to the prowling lion of pride, resistance to the temptation of going it alone.
Pride – which is thinking too much of ourselves – is just one form of sin, but sin nonetheless.
When we think we don’t need God,
when we think we can handle life on our own,
when we think we don’t need the care and support of others,
we fail to resist the prowling lion of pride that can devour our souls.

Vivian is just a small child now, just learning to walk.
She has her whole life ahead of her, a life of wonder and joy,
a life of hopes and fears, of dreams and discoveries.
Our prayer for Vivian and for all of God’s children is that they would be strong in faith,
that the faith of our ancestors would, by God’s grace, become our own,
that our high school graduates and college graduates
would take in stride and overcome the trials and tribulations,
the temptations and sufferings, that will inevitably come their way.

As the parents of graduating seniors will tell you,
it is Kevin and Jill’s great privilege to be Vivian’s faithful caretakers this day,
and this time of parenting will fly by. It will truly last for just a little while.
Before they know it, they will turn around and her baptism gown will have a graduation gown,
and not too far down the road, perhaps a wedding gown.

Life is grand and wonderful, and yes, life will be marked by various challenges,
even trials and tribulations. The promise from Holy Scripture is this:
“After you have suffered a little while,
the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ,
will himself restore, confirm, strengthen and establish you.”
God will not necessarily fix everything and make it all better.
God will not shield us from every trial and temptation.
We will not be able to avoid pain and suffering in this very human life.
But God will restore our faith when it has been sorely tested.
God will confirm us, make us God’s own, when we turn to the Lord in faith.
God will strengthen us with resolve to seek and do God’s will, even when it is challenging,
even when it may lead to further suffering,
and yes, God will establish us, establish us as God’s own people,
so that one day, when every tear is wiped away, we will be welcomed into our eternal home.

Yesterday, at yes, the third graduation in three weekends,
we heard our favorite of all the speakers I mentioned.
My niece, Caroline, was recognized as Salutatorian of her high school yesterday,
and had the opportunity to speak to her fellow graduates and their families.
As we sat in that wonderful old Northcutt stadium at Marietta High School,
where I hold dear strong memories of kicking extra points, playing center midfielder,
and even marching down that fifty yard line as part of a trombone line,
we were all very proud of Caroline.
She worked very hard to achieve her goal.
She humbly resisted temptations to give up, or give in, or give less than her best.

Caroline’s speech included admiration of her academic rival and good friend, JJ,
who was the Valedictorian.
She mixed in a good bit of humor and offered several shout outs, or inside jokes, to her fellow classmates.
She encouraged her classmates to stand strong on the foundation they had received,
then she closed by recognizing with humility the ones who had helped her reach her goal.
Caroline’s final words to those with whom she had spent 12 years of school were this:
“I thank my God, who is my strength.
I thank my parents, who pushed me to do my best.
And I thank my grandparents, who loved me unconditionally.”

Friends, God is our refuge and our strength, a very present help in times of trouble.
We need one another to do our best, to seek the best, and to make it through difficult times.
Friends, “humble thyself in the sight of the Lord, and he shall lift you up.”

To God be all glory and power and dominion forever and ever. Amen.

Rev. Dr. Todd Speed
Decatur Presbyterian Church
Decatur, Georgia
May 28, 2017