Graduate Recognition Sunday.
Just the mention is enough to give you THE SHIVERS, isn’t it?
Not for every church, and not for every grad. It’s a joy celebrating with graduating seniors whose faith, bodies, and wisdom we have watched grow and mature over the years. There’s a precious poignancy in having walked this far with these young adults, an irresistible excitement in standing on the edge with them as they take those first, true adult steps into the workforce, college, Peace Corp, Young Adults in Global Mission, whatever it may be. These are the moments where you look out over the congregation and try to memorize those strong, young, dear faces.
As with most milestones, there is an inevitable, unmistakable awkwardness lurking in the background. And sometimes, if you’re as naïve or unlucky as I was my very first year of my very first call, you unintentionally shove that lurking awkwardness center stage of the church.
Thinking it would be fun and whimsical, I called up the three graduates to come up for a final children’s sermon. The three, strong, stoic farmer boys reluctantly shuffled up to the front, folded their long legs awkwardly under them, and sat on the ground. I then proceeded to read to them Dr. Seuss’ Oh, the Places You’ll Go!
The entire book. It’s a long book.
I would highly recommend not doing that.
But even beyond the inelegance of a green pastor, there are certain actors waiting in the wings that amplify the discomfort of the day: The visible tension as estranged family members sit uncomfortably close in the same pew, straining to keep from touching. The forced smiles of a family that has been mostly absent, of graduates who haven’t darkened the church door in years. The subtle resentment of faithful church members who begrudge recognizing “those millennials” who are slowly grinding the church to the ground. And finally, the slowly turning gears of a Working Preacher, staring at their blank computer screen, wondering, “What in the world am I going to preach?”
Well. I may not have the answer — but I do have some ideas (and, I swear, none of them involve Dr. Seuss):
- Preach the thing you’re best at. We’ve all got that one ace in a hole that we know how to serve up: forgiveness. Grace. Discipleship. Trust. Radical vulnerability. Stick with your strengths on a day that might feel otherwise off-balance.
- Harvest from your confirmation curriculum. Pull out those lesson plans from their confirmation days; was there any day that sparked conversation, really got them going? Shamelessly pull from that curriculum — preach to them from their tradition.
- Preach the thing you never preach about. As a Lutheran, for example, we do great talking about grace, forgiveness, and social justice, but paint me green and call me a cucumber if I’ve ever heard a sermon preached about how to figure out when God is or is not actually speaking to you. (No judgment intended, Lutherans — I’ve never preached that sermon either!) Or if you preach often about responsibility and faithful living, give ’em a sermon of pure gospel, for those nights they’ll be lying in bed, playing that mistake over and over and wondering, “Does this change everything about me?” Preach them into grace.
- Preach about discernment. Good gravy, these young adults are going to be served with more decisions in the next few years than they’ve faced in their young lives up to this point. Knowing how to responsibly and faithfully decide something is a mystery even for most fully grown adults. Preach to them about how they’ll know if the voice, the urge, the nudge they’re feeling is actually God or not. Preach them into learning to hear, see, smell, even taste God’s voice, vision, touch.
- Preach them their bodies. It may sound strange; but remember all the messages the world has told them and will continue to tell them about their bodies: that their bodies are commodities if they are beautiful; that their bodies are dispensable if they are broken; that their bodies are less-than if they are brown, or black, or any shade, really, other than white; that their bodies are public space for comment, judgment, even touch if they are female (and increasingly if they are male); that their bodies are mere flesh and so are evil or irrelevant in the pure world of morals and reasons.
Proclaim these as lies; give them back their bodies, which are good, which are wondrous, which are tov in God’s eyes. Preach them back into their bodies.
- Preach to their parents. To those strained smiles; to those held-back tears; to the worries, the wonders, the thoughts and the fears that they store bottled up underneath their skin. Preach those parents into the comfort, patience, and love they’ll need to weather the next few months and years.
Preach, knowing that they probably won’t hear or remember a word you say. Preach, knowing that all this time, effort, thought, and prayer may seem to be for naught. But preach, trusting that the Holy Spirit is planting seeds, seeds that may lie dormant in their memory until that moment when they may need it most.
Preach them off into the world, dear Working Preacher.
Just … whatever you do … don’t read them an entire book from Dr. Seuss.
In Rachel Wrenn’s bimonthly Working Preacher column, “Notes from the Field,” this pastor and Ph.D. candidate offers a fresh approach to preaching in light of the everyday and the extraordinary.
1 Fans of great literature will recognize the shameless steal from John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany.