This homily was delivered at the Baccalaureate for Episcopal High School in Houston, Texas, on May 19, 2012
Today we are gathered to acknowledge and to celebrate your achievements. You have completed high school, and you have done some remarkable and admirable things along the way.
For a few moments tonight, you will be looking back and savoring the memory of all that you have done.
And yet, some part of you is already turning toward the future.
You look ahead at what you hope to achieve. Many of you have already set your sights on a career: perhaps in law or medicine, science or business, education or circus performance.
Looking toward the future is not like looking back at the past. When we remember the past, the only uncertainty we encounter arises from the reliability of our memory. What has already happened is fixed.
By contrast, the future is uncertain in a completely different way. Things are not determined yet. We have choices to make.
There are unforeseeable variables over which we have no control. People and events will enter our lives, and we will experience them as gifts, intrusions, threats, and saviors.
But our choices are within our control, and it is our choices that I want us to focus on for the next few minutes.
That is because our choices have a trajectory. They are not discrete moments of choice. We fall into patterns or habits of choice-making, and those habits will take us somewhere.
In fact, we want them to take us somewhere. All of us want to be happy.
Happy Inside and Out
Happiness has an outside and an inside.
The outside is our external circumstances: our material comforts, our career success, our reputation, and the status we hold in our community.
The inside of happiness is our spiritual condition. We can be hopeful or anxious, filled with joy or burdened by sorrow, compassionate or resentful. We can be at home in our own skin or restless with the sense that something vital is missing.
What many of us assume is that achieving external happiness will lead to inner happiness. But I want to emphasize with you this evening that making the right choices for outer success will not guarantee for you the inner life you crave.
In fact, inner vitality and spiritual health hinge on a fundamental choice that will govern all the other choices you make in life, including your choices about career, marriage, parenting, and lifestyle.
Whether you do so through intentional reflection or unreflective impulse, you will choose a highest good, a summum bonum. Or more precisely, you will devote your life to a top priority of your choosing.
The issue for all of us is whether we devote ourselves to something genuinely worthy of our devotion. Our happiness hinges on whether the thing we count on to give our lives meaning will really deliver on its promise to do so.
Lesser Goods and Broken Promises
Cynthia Heimel tells us about the calamity of treating celebrity status as a highest good. Listen to what she has to say:
I pity [celebrities]. No, I do. The minute a person becomes a celebrity is the same minute he/she becomes a monster. Sylvester Stallone, Bruce Willis and Barbra Streisand were once perfectly pleasant human beings with whom you might lunch on a slow Tuesday afternoon.
But now they have become supreme beings, and their wrath is awful. It’s not what they had in mind. . . . The night each of them became famous they wanted to shriek with relief. Finally! Now they were adored! Invincible! Magic!
The morning after the night each of them became famous, they wanted to take an overdose of barbiturates.
All their fantasies had been realized, yet the reality was still the same.
If they were miserable before, they were twice as miserable now, because that giant thing they were striving for, that fame thing that was going to make everything okay, that was going to make their lives bearable, that was going to provide them with personal fulfillment and (ha ha) happiness, had happened.
And nothing changed. They were still them. The disillusionment turned them howling and insufferable.
In one essential respect, celebrities are just like all the rest of us. We all have the sense that there is something that, once we attain it, will “make everything okay.” It will validate our existence.
We will be able to say that our life has truly mattered, and knowing that our life matters will set us at ease
The highest good is precisely what will make everything okay. The human dilemma is that our lives are shaped by the pursuit of what we take to be the highest good, but we can be mistaken about what that highest good actually is.
To complicate matters, we inhabit a world in which plenty of things will promise to validate your life in exchange for your complete devotion.
Cynthia Heimel names celebrity status, but we see plenty of examples of people who devote themselves to career success, power, and material comfort.
Not a one of these things will deliver on their promise to make everything all right in an enduring way. John Ortberg compares life to playing a game of monopoly.
What we achieve in this life is like the property, houses, and hotels we accumulate during the game. But no matter how well you have done, when the game is over, it all goes back in the box.
The Highest Good
You see, the highest good for us humans will fulfill our highest aspirations. And our aspirations should be incredibly high. Infinitely and eternally high.
God created us in his image. That means that we cannot help but yearn for our lives to matter on an infinite and eternal scale.
Even the greatest earthly achievement is fleeting from the perspective of eternity and small on the scale of the infinite.
Our material possessions and worldly status pass away with our earthly existence. Our fame or historical importance rests on the frailties of human memory and the capriciousness of human acknowledgement.
Do you know the name of the person who invented the wheel or discovered fire? Of course not. The same fate awaits Lincoln and Einstein.
So what will make everything okay? What justifies our existence and assures us of our infinite and eternal significance?
God’s love for us does. In Jesus Christ, specifically in his death for us on the cross, we see the unmerited, unwavering love of God for us.
The key to happiness is to understand that our existence is justified by what God has achieved for us, not by what we can or ever will achieve. We are the beloved.
And all the gifts and talents and energy and creativity with which we have been endowed are not potential that we must fulfill in order to win approval, recognition, or status.
On the contrary, we are already the recipients of the love that makes our lives worth living.
Each of you, as you go out into the world as high school graduates, can be armed with the knowledge that your highest good is your relationship with the God who loves you beyond reason.
If you devote your life to him, you will be free from the tyranny of the changes and chances of this world over which you have no control.
Your external conditions will not determine the state of your soul. Instead, your spiritual vitality will derive from your lively relationship with God and make you able to face every challenge and inhabit any set of circumstances as the one through whom God is changing the world.
Acknowledging your relationship with God as your highest good makes you free to do something radical and risky.
Instead of pursuing achievements to validate your existence, you can devote yourself to service.
Instead of striving to accumulate goods to consume, you can look always for the good that you can contribute.
Instead of making a better place for yourself in the world, you are free to make the world a better place.
And you can rest assured that, by the hand of the gracious and sovereign God, everything will indeed be okay.