Today is a big day and I am honored to have been chosen to represent my senior class in this part of our worship. I can remember sitting in the pews and listening to people like Bryce Starnes and Anna Stephens represent their high school senior classes in this very same way.
There are two other people who I’m very close to who have stood in this pulpit before, so I think it is important that I get this out of the way. A lot of you know that my grandfather and my father are both ministers, but I don’t want you to get any ideas as to what my career path is going to be just because I am standing here preaching this sermon today.
What you might not know, is that I love movies. I love comedies, sports movies, and true stories. There is one true story though that stands out above all the others even though it was released the year before I was born. Remember the Titans came out in the year 2000 and after seeing it for the first time on a middle school fall retreat, it instantly became my favorite movie of all-time. The movie tells the true story of the newly integrated T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, Virginia. Due to the integration, tensions in the area were very high, and those tensions grew even further when Herman Boone, an African-American Coach from North Carolina was named the Head Coach instead of Coach Bill Yoast, a successful, white, coach who everyone assumed would be named Head Coach.
Tensions were also high between the white players and the black players, especially for Gerry Bertier and Julius Campbell – Gerry the captain of the former all-white team and Julius the captain of his former all-black team. At their pre-season football camp, fights between the white players and the black players were constant, but Coach Boone never wavered in his commitment to create a unified team. Coach Boone even went so far as to have Gerry and Julius room together in an effort to bring them together. Then one day at the pre-season camp, the frustration boiled over for Gerry and Julius and they end up in a heated argument. During this argument, they discover what is holding them captive by listening to the other. Gerry needed Julius to realize that he was being held captive by the inability to live outside the box that he had known his whole life while Julius, on the other hand, needed Gerry to realize his own selfish desires were holding him back.
By the end of pre-season camp, both Gerry and Julius left with new perspectives on their lives. They were freed from their captivity and developed a friendship that could be considered the strongest on the team from that point forward. So strong, in fact, that they became best friends.
This idea of captivity has also played a role in my life, especially in high school. You see, during these last four years, I have had the tendency to come home from school or tennis practice at Grimsley High School and immediately go to my basement for the rest of the day and night watching sports and playing video games. As I look back on it now, the world started to feel so big and scary that my basement became the one place where I felt safe. It became a space where I could avoid confronting my fears and as a result I was less social during high school than I would have liked to be. Until this moment, only a handful of people have known how hard this was for me. The thing is, I love to be social and hangout with lots of friends.
Now this doesn’t mean that I was unhappy, because I was still happy, but if you asked me what my favorite thing to do is, I would never say being by myself in my basement. Instead, I would tell you that I am happiest and I am my true self when I am with my friends. I now know that I trapped myself and allowed my basement and what I did there to hold me captive.
This realization all started for me when I talked to my dad to begin preparing for this sermon. The first question he asked me was, “Which character in the scripture do you identify with the most?” As we just heard Steven read today’s scripture, my options were the slave girl, the slave owners, Paul, Silas, and the jailer. I pretty quickly ruled out the slave girl and slave owners, leaving me with Paul, Silas, and the jailer. As someone who loves to help people, my first thought was that I might relate more to Paul and Silas. The truth is, I wasn’t sure so I asked my dad if there was a right answer. But before he responded, I read the scripture one more time, and it hit me: I am the jailer.
But let’s go back to the scripture so I can explain what I mean by that. After releasing the spirit from the slave woman, Paul and Silas are imprisoned by the slave owners. As they are singing hymns to God, all of a sudden the jail doors open and Paul and Silas, along with all the other unnamed prisoners are set free. At least that is what the jailer thought when he opened his eyes. You see, he believes he has failed so miserably in his job that he wants to take his life. Before he is able to, Paul and Silas stop him and after being asked by the jailer, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” they reply, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you and your household will be saved.”
You might think that Paul and Silas are the ones being held captive considering they are imprisoned, but the fact of the matter is that the jailer is really the one who is held captive. His captivity comes from his sense of responsibility because up to this point in his life, all meaning has come from his profession. So, when he thinks he has failed professionally, his only option is to end his life. Luckily for him and his family, Paul and Silas helped him realize his life had so much more meaning. The irony in that is that the ones in physical prison are the ones who lead the jailer to his source of freedom. Freedom that he never realized was possible until he thought he had failed. For the jailer, he discovered a new perspective on life when he was freed from conditional love. Through Paul and Silas, he came to know God’s unconditional love: The same unconditional love that God has for each and every one of us.
Part of my struggle has come from my idea that I am loved conditionally. Even though I know that my parents will love me no matter what, I, like the jailer, have been so nervous to step out of my comfort-zone in fear of letting them down. In 3 months, I will be 40 minutes down the road at a place I’ve dreamed of being at for as long as I can remember and my hope is that Wake Forest University allows me to see through new eyes and understand that I have been loved unconditionally my whole life.
Everyone here today has been held captive by something in their lives. Maybe it is something related to your family. Maybe it is something related to your job. Or maybe it could be something involving your faith. Maybe churches as a whole are held captive by something. The point is, if we are not careful, our eyes might not be open to the ways that we are held captive.
So now I challenge all of you, and specifically my fellow seniors, to open your eyes and see if anything is holding you captive. By doing this, my hope is that all of the seniors, myself included, will be able to go off to our respective colleges this fall free from whatever has been holding us captive. If we can do this, then I believe we will be able to truly embrace everything college has to offer. Just like Gerry Bertier, Julius Campbell, and the jailer, when we open ourselves up, we free ourselves from the limitations that have prevented us from living as God would have us live. So as we leave this place today, my prayer is that we leave knowing that we are loved unconditionally by God… That we are meant to be free… And that we will find that freedom in God’s unconditional love. Amen.