Making Our Mark
Speaker: The Rev'd Emily Griffin and Dudley Winthrop
Some realities are too complex to be seen from just one angle. That’s certainly the case this morning – hence, why we have a tag team for today’s sermon. You see, today is a special day in our community when we pause from responding directly to the crises of the moment (which are grave) to reflect on the growth that’s happening right in front of us. Today (at our 9:15 service especially) we celebrate members of our Rite 13 youth group – and their transition out of childhood toward manhood and womanhood. The changes in these young people are certainly slower than what is happening right now on the national scene, but in their own way and on their own scale – they’re no less momentous.
For those of you unfamiliar with this St. Alban’s tradition, each year we take time to recognize our young people around their 13th year to mark this time as a rite of passage. So many other rites of passage are recognized in church. Our births are announced here. We’re married and buried here. So we take time now to mark this move toward adulthood as something significant in its own right, something separate from confirmation – because they are two different things. Today gives us as adults a chance to reflect on what we owe our young people, what kind of world we’re giving them, how we’re living up to our baptismal promises to do all in our power to support them in their lives in Christ. (It also gives you, our young people, a chance to claim out loud the creative powers God has given you.) Today is a chance for all of us to think about what kind of mark we want to make on the world.
We wonder sometimes what God really asks of us, and today’s Old Testament reading gives us a clear answer. “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”
Sounds like a good standard for judging just about any action – whether it has to do with refugees or Muslims or anybody else. Is it just? Is it kind? Does it reflect humility before God?
As if that weren’t a high enough standard to live up to, Jesus in today’s Gospel with the Beatitudes seems to raise the bar impossibly high. Who wants to be poor in spirit? Who wants to mourn? Being meek (or humble) doesn’t seem to get us far in life. And let’s face it – it’s hard to be merciful or make peace when what we really want is justice. Is it even possible to be pure of heart or to find joy in persecution? On some level, it doesn’t make sense to live this way. It can seem like foolishness. At the very least, it seems overwhelming. Given the sheer difficulty of the Christian life as it’s presented here, what kind of mark can we possibly make?
Whether you’re a Rite 13er today at the beginning of your journey to manhood or womanhood or, like me, farther along in your journey, let’s pause and think about the world in which we live – a world in need of “marks” and people willing to make them.
First, some background about who I am: I was born and raised here in DC. I had a brief introduction to St. Alban’s in my childhood, but it wasn’t until much later after my father’s death in May 2014 I returned and jumped in with both feet. I serve on several committees, help run our annual auction and, after Ron Hicks’s retirement, I joined a team of talented volunteer vergers who keep our services running smoothly (or as smoothly as possible, I should say). But, today, as we celebrate our Rite 13 Class, I’m particularly proud to be associated with these young members of this parish as they move into this new stage of their lives.
Of course, there’s a deeper answer to that question of “who am I and what am I doing here?” That answer requires a lifelong search, a search on which we all find ourselves. Today, as we talk about the transition from being a child to being an adult, I’m hoping part of that answer is found in this children’s book. Yes. Sit back and relax; I’m bringing some Children’s Chapel into “Big Church”. Our story today, boys, girls, ladies and gentlemen, is “The Dot” by Peter Reynolds - for my sake, let’s hope there are no copyright infringement lawyers in the congregation today.
Now, imagine a blank sheet of paper in your mind – or maybe grab one of those pencils in your pews and find a blank area of your bulletin and look at it. Now, make a dot. How’s that for an optimistic image? A blank piece of paper and a dot. Where will the dot take you? Perhaps, it is the eye of an animal or the first small pebble in a long stone path. Maybe it’s the crest of a wave in a giant ocean or an ant about to embark through a yet-to-be-constructed maze. The dot could take you anywhere, and it could be the beginning of something truly great.
A bit more about dots. I once went skydiving – and no, Rite 13ers I am not encouraging you to do that – but I loved the image of being on firm ground, getting into this small plane and then circling in this giant corkscrew as we ascended into the air. As we went higher, my perspective changed. Suddenly, I could see over the mountains that had blocked my view; birds became closer and people on the ground became smaller. The blue sky and clouds became inviting and the sandy desert below seemed to become drier and distant – almost cold ironically. I remember looking down and seeing the building on the edge of the airstrip. With my new perspective, now, all that building was was just a dot on the landscape.
Then, after swallowing hard, we jumped – I tethered to a professional jumper – and the wind blew loudly in my face as we fell. Of course, you don’t feel as if you’re falling, you feel as if you’re flying briefly not aware you’ve just become Isaac Newton’s apple on its way to the base of the tree. Then, thankfully, the parachute opened and what was incredibly loud became peaceful – the wind slowly rocking me as the dots became buildings again and I landed gently – or at least I was told it was supposed to be gently – back on the ground.
By the time we collected our things, the plane had already left with its next set of participants. My perspective had changed again. There I was on the ground next to that building, the big mountains around me, looking up at the blue sky and the airplane as it climbed again. Now the plane was just a dot up against the sky. My point - what seems like a just a dot may really be much bigger; it depends on your perspective.
To our Rite 13ers, and to all of us here today, I would say this. Find your sheet of paper and make your dot. Find many sheets of paper and make many dots. Large ones, small ones, bright ones and dark ones. When you find another person searching to make a dot, help them. Help them even if their dot is a squiggle because that squiggle may lead them to great art too.
As you [these] Rite 13ers journey to adulthood [at their service later/earlier today], think of ways to make dots together [with them]. Think of the beauty of many different colored dots blending together. Think of Georges Seurat, the post-impressionist artist remembered for his use of pointillism – a technique of painting in which a collection of colorful dots come together to make an image. Go to the National Gallery, and study Seurat. Up close it’s hard to make out what the dots mean, but as you step back, the dots form a field with farmers working, or a rainbow or simply people swimming at a pool or a park. The image changes as your perspective changes, but every one of those dots contributes to the larger picture.
While you’re at the National Gallery, walk through the other galleries. Consider for a moment that nearly all those paintings began with a blank canvas, with an artist touching a paintbrush and making a dot. As we all continue on our journey to and through adulthood, think of your canvas. Think about young Vashti. Think how you will make your mark and where that mark will take you. The realities of life may be complicated, uncertain or scary, but with many dots and splashes of color, you have a beautiful piece of artwork ahead of you.
There are lots of ways to approach the questions raised by our Scripture readings today. I could tell you that the Beatitudes are not a list of commands, that they’re an expression of God’s blessing and care for us when we’re in really tough circumstances. I could say that they’re about how we live with each other regardless of our individual faiths, how we can make God’s kingdom on earth look more like the one in heaven. But given what Dudley’s just shared, I prefer to say it this way:
Every time we admit our poverty in spirit and sadness at the pain of the world rather than pretend everything’s OK, we’re giving other people permission to do the same. We’re making a mark. Every time we react with humility and search for righteousness rather than assuming we’re always right, we’re making a mark. Every time we show mercy and seek peace or purity of heart, we’re pursuing a justice that’s bigger than whatever we would come up with on our own – and yes, we’re making a mark. And every time we stand up for what’s right and speak up and are willing to face the consequences for it, we’re making a mark. These dots might feel small, but they’re part of a much bigger picture – one we don’t always have the perspective to see. That’s part of why we have the church, this community of young and old and everyone in between – so we can gather up all our dots and offer them to God – trusting that with God’s help, we are making our mark on the world and creating something momentous. Amen.