I want you young people to know that you have been subjected to a subliminal message, a subliminal message that is being communicated to you by your parents, grandparents, Sunday School teachers, ministers and mentors – a message which, next to the words, “We love you,” is the most important message we could imprint upon you. The message is this: you bear God’s special mark. You are made in the image of God. As long as you live with that sense of bearing God’s special mark you will live with an appreciation for the magnificent privilege of life and for the adventure that awaits you. As long as you live with an awareness of how important your life is to God and to others, you will live attuned to a dimension of ultimate meaning and will feel connected to a spiritual source of inner vitality that others cannot know. Then your life will be impelled by an excitement and sense of purpose that others do not have and cannot detect.
Our Lord Jesus sought to express this same message to the hearers who gathered around him on the mount. He didn’t say to his disciples, ‘You bear God’s special mark.’ Instead, he told his hearers, “You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world. You are called out to tread a narrow, particular path that is yours and yours alone.” You are the salt of the earth; you are the light of the world; you are called to walk the particular path to which God summons you. Every one of us bears the mark of God. We can claim this mark proudly and let it shine forth, or we can ignore our divine mark and obscure it. But if we claim it, the whispering Spirit of God ceaselessly calls us to become new creatures and to renew the world through the renewing of ourselves. The whispering Spirit of God calls us to claim our redemption and live as an instrument of redemption in the lives of others.
My young friends, I want you to understand the greatness of the movement into which Christ has invited you. You have been summoned by God to take your place in God’s extended redemptive narrative. The truth is, if Jesus’ disciples were arrayed among you on this Sunday, there would not be an honor graduate among them. They were crude, uncouth, untrained men and women. But they lived with a keen sense of being called and imprinted by the Lord Jesus. They all knew they bore the mark of God. They all knew they had been recruited to engage in a cosmic redemptive enterprise. Talk about a seemingly hopeless rebellion: all military might, all social status, all weight of secular and sacred authority were arrayed against these few ignorant peasants and their faith. But these seemingly powerless peasants stood unbowed and unabashed before every secular judge, every military general, every political emperor – and they prevailed. They were not deterred from pursuing their purpose. They evinced an enthusiasm no one could quench, exhibited a courage no one could sway, exuded an intensity no one would dilute, governed, as they were, by the conviction that they had been commissioned by God to turn the world upside down in sharing the Good News of Jesus.
You now are called to take your place in this narrative of redemption. You are summoned to fulfill your role in the ongoing continuum of the story of Christ. The responsibility has fallen to you to share the Good News of Jesus with your friends, with your acquaintances. It falls to you to plant the seeds of faith that raises up a new generation of Christian believers who can claim the mantle of nurturing the church. To you falls the sacred responsibility of turning the world upside down for the Kingdom of God. You possess a greatness, my young friends, but it is not your greatness. It is the reflected greatness of God, but this reflected greatness is a true greatness with which you can change the world. You are meant to be salt and light for God.
The truth is, salt carries with it an element of bitterness, a bitterness that is bitter to us as Christians before it is bitter to the world. We cannot live according to our own whims. Rather, we must allow ourselves to be molded by Christ’s values. You will certainly feel the saltiness of the Gospel when you experience those times that tempt you to blend into the anonymity of the herd, only to find that Christ calls you to stand out in behalf of his Gospel truths. You are going to feel the saltiness of the Gospel when you realize that one person standing as God’s salt can make a difference. There will be times when you are called to stand for purity amidst a milieu of crudity, times when you are called to stand for forgiveness amidst a milieu of vengeance, times when you are called to stand for courage amidst a milieu of fear, times when you are called to stand for clarity amidst a milieu of confusion. One person standing as a grain of salt for God makes a difference. One person standing for love and truth amidst a milieu of hatred — one grain of salt – can make a difference.
Sixty-one years ago, in my hometown of Montgomery, Alabama, May of 1961, a Greyhound bus pulled into the bus station and out came young white and black seminary students dedicated to the proposition that all people are created equal. They were fallen upon by an angry mob of white supremacists wielding clubs and bats. They broke the students’ bones, kicked in their teeth, and a young black seminary student named John Lewis realized in that moment that he was about to die. Suddenly, into that chaotic melee strode a man very much unlike John Lewis, a white man, a son of segregation, a man wearing the uniform of an Alabama Public Safety officer, yet a man who believed in law and order and in simple decency. His name was Floyd Mann. Floyd Mann fired his pistol twice into the air and announced, “There will be no killing here today.” One attacker sought to ignore these words and raised his bat to deliver a final crushing blow, and Floyd Mann put his gun to that man’s head and said “One more swing and you are a dead man.”
One man. One man standing amidst an angry mob. One man standing amidst a culture of hatred. One man standing as God’s salt. One man sensed that he bore God’s special mark, sensed that those attacked students bore God’s special mark, sensed that even the attackers bore God’s special mark. One man stood for love amidst a milieu of hatred. One man living as a grain of God’s salt changed the future of every single person in that bus station.
You bear the mark of God, and you are called to walk a narrow way, the narrow way to which God calls you.
And the sad truth is, those who lose their sense of God’s special mark upon them will suffer a great vacuum of values. Mason, as you go off to that den of iniquity known as Georgia Tech, (though in truth iniquity can be found easily at most any college), know this: you are going to watch people that you respect lose their way because they lose their sense of God’s special mark upon them. You are going to watch people you cherish be consumed by the darkness of conformity to other people’s expectations. Remember that you are an instrument of God’s light. You are God’s grain of salt! You are called to tread the particular path to which God will summon you. Your weapons are love, hope, faith, mercy, grace, truth, peace and gentleness. These are the weapons of the Spirit, and they are powerful!
Be aware that the attitude with which you regard your service in behalf of the Kingdom of God truly matters. How you approach your life, how you regard the privilege of your existence, makes all the difference. I think of two guys laboring on a railroad line in the hot sun, hammering nails with sledgehammers. A well-dressed executive motioned to one of the laborers, who went over and shook the man’s hand and exchanged pleasantries before heading back to his partner on the rail line. “Who was that?” the one asked the other. “Him? He’s the president of the railroad.” “Then how do you know him? “We started out hammering nails together on the railroad twenty-five years ago.” His companion asked the inevitable question: “Then how did he get to where he is and you are still where you are?” “Because,” said the man ruefully, “twenty five years ago I came to work for minimum wage. He came to work for the railroad.” The attitude with which you approach your service to God’s Kingdom makes a difference in how you employ your gifts on God’s behalf.
Some years ago I came across a speech delivered by a highly-placed executive of General Motors who was explaining to young Ivy League MBAs about the characteristics they needed to look for in their labor force. He said the first value you must look for in employees is integrity. He said, our company grades people on a two-dimension grid. We ask two questions: Do they get things accomplished? Do they achieve results in accordance with our values? He noted, people who get results and do so in accordance with our values, we treasure them. We promote them. We pay them well. We cherish them. Then there are those people who don’t achieve results, but they operate in accordance with our values. These people receive repeated chances to improve. Because if their values are right, if they demonstrate integrity, we know that over time, with the right training and nurture, these people will achieve their potential. Those who do not have our values and who do not achieve results we get rid of quickly before they do us too much harm. But the most troublesome people are those who achieve good results but do not do so in accordance with our values. We try to address this flaw in their character, but if they can’t be changed, they must be fired. If such people cannot be reoriented around integrity, we must reluctantly release them, for they would ultimately bring our company to ruin. Understand my young friends, that your salt, your light, your integrity are needed by the world. You can make a difference for God’s Kingdom and a difference in people’s lives.
Right now, you are all traveling much the same path as your peers: kindergarten, elementary school, middle school, high school, college. But there will come a point when you will begin to define your particular path as carved by the scalpel of your own choices. You will find yourself making decisions that differentiate your life from everyone else’s. You will find yourself making choices of vocation, choices of location, love, marriage, children, church and faith. Every one of those decisions will define your own narrow path. The truth is, nobody can make those choices for you. God will not even make those choices for you. God will give you the resources needed to make right choices, but you must choose for yourself the path of obedience and service.
Our Lord issues one last warning: Do not waste your talent. Salt that has lost its saltness is no good. A light that is placed under a basket illumines nothing. Buried talent accomplishes nothing. Non-believers, those who do not know that their gifts are from God, don’t really do injury to the majesty of God, because they do not know God. But those of us who know we bear God’s special mark know that we are under obligation to use our abilities to better our world and advance God’s Kingdom. Otherwise we are saying to God, ‘Yes, you have given me great gifts, but I do not really trust you to make use of me. I do not trust you to provide for me.’ Let your light light! Let your salt salt! Use whatever talent that God has given you for God’s glory.
Thirty-seven years after John Lewis was attacked in that Greyhound station, he came back to Alabama for the dedication of a civil rights memorial. He had enjoyed a long and distinguished career. In fact, he returned to that event as a U.S. congressman from the state of Georgia, one of our state’s most celebrated, distinguished politicians. An older white man came up to him at the reception and said, “You are John Lewis, aren’t you? I remember you from the Freedom Rides.” John Lewis had no idea who this man might be. Suddenly, the light dawned; he knew who stood before him. It was Floyd Mann. Floyd Mann. Overcome with emotion, John Lewis embraced the old white man and began to cry. He whispered to Floyd Mann over and over, “You saved my life. You saved my life.” Floyd Mann embraced John Lewis back and said sweet words that John Lewis remembered the remainder of his days. He said “I am right proud of your career.”
My young friends, your adult lives and careers are just commencing. You stand at the threshold of what I hope will be a long and fruitful journey. But listen to the counsel of one who is no longer young: life has a way of whooshing by. Life speeds by fast. There are plenty of people in this room who can look back on fifty years of life and wonder, ‘Where did it all go?’ You have ample opportunity to use your gifts and serve God as salt and light as you tread your own particular path. But one day the God who has given you this life will call you to account for how you invested it. My hope and prayer is that you will hear God say to you words similar to those uttered by Floyd Mann to John Lewis: “I am right proud of your career.” Truly, there is no higher accolade to be won in heaven or on earth. May God continue to bless you in your every endeavor. And Mason, as you go forth from this fellowship, you do so with our blessing and our love. Know that from this point on, you do not journey alone, for our prayers and encouragement go with you.