Did you remember the story about the very wealthy businessman who was invited about 15 years ago to give a commencement address to a group of 61 sixth graders graduating from elementary school? All of the students lived in a very poor part of a large city and if they followed the path laid out by the school’s other graduates then only about six or seven of them would graduate from high school and virtually none of them would go on to college.
“The business executive began to gather his thoughts in order to write the customary commencement address. You’ve heard it: the one that goes, ‘Work hard, keep your nose clean and your shoulder to the wheel and — with a little bit of luck — you can make it just as I did.’ But the speech had a false ring to it. Empty words, the man thought; hollow words. These kids had little reason to hope and even less reason to try to beat the overwhelming odds stacked against them. The man knew something radically different was called for if he was to make any impact whatsoever, if his presence in their lives was to be more than a momentary diversion, if the children’s future was to take a different shape, a different texture. And so, in place of a commencement address, he made a surprising announcement that graduation day. To each and every one of the 61 girls and boys, he made a promise: I will pay for your college education. Completely. He announced that he had established a fund and had made an initial deposit of $2,000 for each child. To that amount he would add each year until compounding interest and additional contributions would be sufficient to fund the college education of all 61 children.
Six years later, the students were in twelfth grade. All 61 of them! Not one had dropped out. Three had moved away, but they remained in touch with their benefactor, and the promise continued to hold for them as well. Their grades were far superior to those of their predecessors. In fact, one of the ironies of the situation was that some of the students qualified for and were awarded academic scholarships! An astounding 58 of them finally attended college.” (1)
Isn’t that a great story? Do you see what happened in the lives of these students? Someone changed their future and as a result their present was changed as well. They were promised an education if they took their lives and their learning seriously and that promise changed how they lived and what they valued. In place of a conditional future – If you work hard and apply yourself, then you might, just might, overcome the odds against you and succeed, now there was an unconditional promise – Because the cost of your higher education is paid for, as a gift and not as an entitlement, your studies are not in vain. Your efforts have meaning and purpose; they count for something because you have a future that counts for something. (2)
For those of us who call ourselves Christians, the good news of the empty tomb on Easter morning is our unconditional promise. Jesus’ resurrection has changed our future. We are given the promise that just as God loved Jesus so much he would not let death destroy him, so you and I are loved so much that death is not our end but rather there is life after death. Like those 61 students, we have a benefactor willing to make a deposit on our behalf. We have a God willing to guarantee our future if we want to accept God’s offer.
Baptism is the way the Church celebrates this acceptance of God’s free, unearned gift of a future. When we mark a child with the waters of baptism we say – Yes, we want this promise of a future for our children, we want it for ourselves. And being a saint means allowing this future gift to change the way we lead our present lives. Look at those students. Each of them lived differently because they knew they had a future. They had hope so they stayed in school and took pride in their learning. They worked hard to be good students because the gift of a college education awaited them the day they graduated. In essence, they lived backwards – their promise of a future made it possible for them to live more fully in the present.
In a similar way, you and I as saints are supposed to live backwards as well. We are asked to live in faith, exuding hope and joy right now, in our present lives, because we know the promise that awaits us. We have nothing to earn, nothing to prove, God has already given us this gift; the investment has already been made. All we are asked to do is to live in light of this gift.
St. John in his letter to the seven churches that we call the Book of Revelation knew what he was talking about. This life is indeed an ordeal, full of challenges and struggles. Truthfully, there is enough pain and suffering to go around and it gets all of us sooner or later. But the promise of our faith says that it matters how we live in the midst of this ordeal because we have a future. It matters when we – “love our enemies, do good to those who hate us, pray for those who abuse us.” It matters when we bless the poor, when we show mercy, when we make peace, when we stand for justice – it matters because our lives don’t just vanish after 80 or 90 years. We can stand as one of God’s saints now because God has promised that we will be one of his saints when this life is over.
And so today let’s give thanks. Let’s give thanks for all the children who have been baptized in the past year and those who will be today. Let’s give thanks that they too are heirs of the greatest gift of all – life in Christ. Let’s be thankful as well for the saints who have gone before, for those we have loved and lost who have moved on to a ‘higher education.’ They live on; they are those for whom the promise has been realized. We love them and miss them, but we give thanks for their lives. Finally, let’s rejoice today that a merciful and loving God secures our own futures. We are heirs of the love of Christ, the greatest gift of all. Amen.
1. God in Flesh Made Manifest, Mark WM. Radecke, CSS Publishing, 1995.