Today, I was blessed to preach my senior sermon to my professors, colleagues, classmates and friends. It was truly an honor to be at the pulpit today. Here's the text of my sermon for those who weren't able to be there in person. Scripture texts are Exodus 4: 10 - 13 & Philippians 4: 8-13.
My name is Moses. I was called by God to deliver the Israelites out of Egypt and take them to a land where they would no longer be slaves. God asked me to do this in spite of the fact that I was in no way, shape or form qualified for the job. I had never held any type of important positions in any organization before that. I mean, when God spoke to me, I was a sheep herder for my father in law and a fugitive from justice. So, what in the world did I know about anything involving successfully leading people to do anything at all? Did I mention that I had a speech impediment and wasn’t exactly known for being a great orator? Yeah, good job God. You picked a real winner here!
Yet, God used me anyway. God made me a great orator. God helped me lead my people out of Israel and into the Promised Land. Sure, there were some speed bumps along the way. Pharaoh wasn’t too happy about letting us go and there was that whole roaming through the desert for 40 years debacle and don’t even get me started on that whole golden calf drama. Yeah, needless to say, it wasn’t always smooth sailing. Yet, in the end, it all worked out as you may have heard by now. The Israelites were freed from the land of Egypt and became a great and powerful nation. And it was, at least in part, thanks to my leadership. God used me to help deliver God’s people in spite of the fact that I wasn’t at all the right person for the job based on my prior history. I never saw myself as the type of person who would do all that I did. Somehow, God did though.
The Bible is full of characters like Moses, characters who at first glance you would never imagine would be remembered as important or essential or be seen as great leaders. Characters who if they existed today would have been written off by society as failures. You had Jacob, the liar. David, the adulterer. Abraham and Sarah, the infertile elderly couple. Rahab, the prostitute. And let’s not forget to add Jesus to this list. A man who in his 33 years of life led an unsuccessful attempt to challenge the status quo and was publicly humiliated, tortured and executed while his own followers either betrayed him, denied him or completely abandoned him. Not exactly what any of us would define as a success story, right?!
I’m supposed to be preaching today about the topic of success. That is, after all, why I titled my sermon “How to Succeed in Seminary (Without Really Trying)”! Yet, I must confess something to you. I literally know absolutely nothing about this topic. You see, I’ve never succeeded at anything in my entire life. If you were to look up the word “failure” in the dictionary, you’d see my picture! Everything I’ve tried, I’ve been a failure at. I’ve never been any good at sports or mathematics or science or relationships or keeping a budget or taking care of myself or gaining weight or remembering to do things on my to do list or finding a job or sleeping. I’m not particularly clever or funny. I pretend to be much smarter than I actually am. I am 30 years old and yet I can barely tie my shoes. I never learned how to swim. I just recently learned that people actually floss their teeth and to top it all off, I can’t even make a grilled cheese sandwich successfully!
So, why in the world would I ever even pretend like I have anything to say at all about the topic of success? Where did I, someone who society would label a complete and total failure, get the idea that I can even possibly know at all what it means to succeed?
“I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me”. Sounds great, doesn’t it? I have to confess this is perhaps my favorite verse in the entire Bible and I think many Christians would say the same thing. It is so empowering and so encouraging and so simplistic, isn't it? Yet, are Paul’s words actually true? Can we really do all things through Christ? What does that phrase even mean? Does it mean that all I have to do is believe in Jesus and I will pass that test? Or get that job? Or even get that mysterious third date with someone?
“I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me”. Really? Can I now? Because as stated earlier, it sure doesn’t seem like I can. If that were indeed the case, my life would surely have been a whole lot easier and I would know what it looks like to succeed.
I think what Paul is intending to say here is that simply believing in Christ isn’t actually enough. You have to show your beliefs through your actions. “Whatever is true. Whatever is honorable. Whatever is just. Whatever is pure. Whatever is pleasing. Whatever is commendable.” Do those things and you really will be able to do all things. It is not enough to simply be a Christian. Anyone can do that. We have seen that plenty of times over the centuries. However, simply claiming the title of Christian means nothing if you aren’t willing to live into that label and do Christian things.
So, without further ado, let me present exclusively “Tad’s Tips on How to Succeed in Seminary (or in Life) (Without Really Trying).”
Step 1: Love but more importantly allow yourself to be loved. Allow others to see you, the real you. Allow yourself to get close to others even when you know it might hurt because it will. When you are in the midst of a nervous breakdown because you failed yet another quiz, permit others to comfort you as you cry. When you feel as if your entire life is spiralling out of control and you don’t see any way out, call up someone and ask them to come sit with you as you eat ice cream and vent. Lastly, allow yourself to make friends, real, life-long friends. The kind of friends who will continue to be friends with you in spite of your many, many, many flaws or failures. The kind of friends who will still love you even after you make outrageous, outlandish statements in the middle of class about hating babies. Oh yes, they will continue to remind you about it for years afterward but they won’t let that stop them from loving you. That’s the first step to success.
Step 2: Don't be afraid to raise your voice and speak out. Speak out against the sins of homophobia, sexism, racism, classism, transphobia and other societal evils. Use your voice and don’t let anyone tell you that you have nothing important to say. If you have a problem with the way things are being done or if you feel like you’ve been wronged, speak up. Don’t believe the lie that the world may tell you that your voice isn’t necessary because you aren’t part of the dominant paradigm. That is precisely why your voice is so important. Our world needs to hear the voices of women, of queer people, of trans people, of African American, Asian, Latino and Latina people. Low income, no income, all those voices need to be heard and need to be shown respect. If I have learned nothing else from my time here, it is this very fact. You have a voice. You have a power. You have a chance to change the world. Take it, always.
Step 3: Do well but more importantly, do good. Get out into your communities and do something that helps others. Whether it be making dinner for the homeless, teaching Sunday School to children, babysitting, or any number of other things, don’t let yourself off the hook for getting involved. Our world needs more committed citizens like us out there in the streets: marching for marriage equality; protesting for women’s rights; lobbying for prison reform. It is part of our calling as Christians to help others. It is part of our calling as human beings to work to make a better system for others. It is part of our very essence to want to see others succeed. So, do it. Get out there and get in the streets. You won’t regret it, not even for a second.
Step 4: This is the final step. Give yourself permission to fail. Yes, I did just say that one of the steps to success is to fail. Perhaps that sounds counter-intuitive, maybe even counter-cultural. However, it means you have the freedom to not put so much pressure on yourself. Here’s a simple fact that I absolutely hate to admit publicly. You can’t do everything. You especially can’t do everything well. Thus, give yourself permission to drop the ball or fail or let someone down. It is going to happen and that is ok. It may happen multiple times over the course of your life. That is ok too. You won’t like it. You may feel like a complete and total loser. You aren’t. Not even for one second. Just because you fail in certain aspects of your life doesn’t make you a failure at life. Take it from someone who knows, a scrawny nerdy gay kid from Texas with learning disabilities and a speech impediment. Take it from NBA legend Michael Jordan who once said, “ I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life and that is why I succeed.” Take it from the Biblical narrative. God still used Moses, a murderer and a fugitive with a speech impediment and made him leader of the Israelites. God still used David and Rahab and Abraham and Noah and many other “failures” to achieve God’s plan for humanity. If God can use them, in spite of their failings, doesn’t it make sense that God can use you and me too?
So, those are my four tips on how to succeed in seminary without really trying. But wait, you are saying to yourself. Those are all great pieces of advice but none of them will help me achieve an A on my Theology test or help me write my final papers. What gives? I want to know how to succeed academically. I thought that was what you were going to tell us. You are correct, nothing I told you will help you succeed academically or guarantee that you make all As. Making good grades isn’t a bad thing but it isn’t a true measure of success. What will matter? That you loved and were loved. That you spoke up and raised your voice. That you did good in your communities and your world. That you gave yourself permission to fail. That’s the true measure of success. “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me”. Now, we have to actually go and do. In Christ’s name, AMEN.