Leaving a Mark

 

 

OPENING WORDS                                                                           #568 

KINDLING THE CHALICE (unison)                                                                                                 

We light our chalice with a message of thanks

            For those who have come before us

We light our chalice as a symbol of peace

            In communion with those gathered today

We light our chalice as a beacon of hope     

            Signaling our commitment to a better tomorrow

 

STORY                "Slowly, Slowly, Slowly," said the Sloth               Eric Carle
HYMN                  All are Architects                                                #288
MEDITATION       "Why are we always in a hurry?"                       Eric Carle
READING            Saint Crispin's Day Speech, Henry V                William Shakespeare
READING            "What the Living Do"                                          Marie Howe
HYMN                  The Fire of Commitment                                    #1028
SERMON             Leaving a Mark                                                  Lawson Wulsin
HYMN                  My Life Flows on in Endless Song                    #108      

 

Leave a Mark

Autumn

We have had a wonderful summer.  A few weeks of hot weather in July were flanked by good rain every few days and plenty of sunshine.  Evidence for the summer of abundance is all around us.

Courtney and I like to garden.  We planted our first garden six years ago, and every year, the garden’s grown and we’ve gotten more successful.  Mostly, we grow tomatoes.  Rows and rows of large plump juicy tomatoes.  Beefsteak, Amish paste, and plenty of delicious heirlooms.  Last weekend, I harvested the last of them - pulling off anything large enough to save, even when they’re still green.  Courtney laid them out on the window sills around our home - cute and small assemblages of green tomatoes, slowly tracking the passing of the season as they transition into the ripe red fruit we hunger for the rest of the year.  We’re convinced there isn’t a method to the ripening - some ripen fastest in the sun, some in the shade - it appears to be random and the effect is that every couple of days, we go around the house for a second harvest - selecting those fruit that are ready to be boiled down for sauce, or sliced onto a sandwich, or skinned and canned for use this winter.  All in all, we’ve put up 15 quarts of tomato sauce and 14 quarts of canned tomatoes (and our window sills are still full).

But autumn has come.  The old sugar maple that looms over our garden is shedding its leaves, depositing a golden blanket across our fading tomato plants.  So last weekend, after pulling the last of the tomatoes from the plants, I pulled up the weed cloth, and the plastic plant labels, and yanked out the metal tomato cages and pulled out the stakes.  This weekend, we’ll rake those maple leaves on top of this year’s withering plants and cover the leaves with an old bale of straw we have left over. Like tucking in the garden for winter, we’ll pull a blanket over top and let the weight of the snow do its work.

In these days of transition as the darkness descends, it is natural – and perhaps healthy, to think about endings, closure, and tucking oneself in for winter.  There’s no shortage of autumn-inspired metaphors for death, and as I prepared for this service over the last week, I’ve been thinking about what we leave behind when we’re gone.

Our garden will have left behind more than 30 quarts of lycopene-rich tomato sauce, when it goes to sleep this winter.  What will you leave behind?

Connection to others

My best friend in high school was an inspiring, free-spirited, live-by-his-own-rules boy for whom many of the girls swooned (I grew up in a relatively conservative Ohio suburb, so please forgive the hetero-normative nature of that sentence).  Brandon was the alpha-male in any situation, and I served as his wingman throughout our friendship.  I was his enabler, a problem solver - he would come up with crazy ideas about how we should spend our free time, and I’d take care of the logistics: building a log cabin out of railroad ties, swimming in a flooded valley during a rainstorm, exploring the abandoned Cincinnati subway tunnels, stealing a the burger from the larger-than-life Big-boy statue in front of the local fast food joint (side note to the youth: don’t steal – I can tell you the rest of that story another time).

Brandon was, is, a free spirit.  He moved to Montana and Idaho where he doesn’t have to live by anybody’s rules but his own. This week, he posted on his Facebook wall:

“It’s important that weather, money and other people never influence my decisions. Where are all the real people? Bunch of cupcakes, you know who you are!”

I read this as an all-too-familiar plea for the individual, a declaration that he can do it on his own.  We only see each other every few years and his role in my life has become somewhat of a caricature - he’s come to represent one extreme - an isolated individual living without a bank account, without student loans, or a mortgage - without any official ties to anyone.

And I find it a little sad - a little lonely.  While I must admit that there are times that I envy his independence - when I think about autumn and the ending of things, I am deeply comforted to stand here in front of my congregation and know that we are part of something amazing here.  It is the growing soul - fed by love and devotion - that binds us together and makes our community a better place.

I am a youth advisor and after today’s services, I’m going join a group of teenagers who have chosen to spend their Sunday afternoon walking outside – experiencing the transcending beauty of New England woods in the fall. I am an OWL teacher and next week I’m going to spend an hour downstairs with an amazing group of seventh and eighth graders talking about the complexities of human sexuality. And I am the chair of this congregation’s worship committee – a group of committed individuals who help shape our community’s spiritual path by planning, supporting, and sometimes leading Sunday morning services.

St. Crispin

This Friday is Saint Cripsin’s day. It is also a hundred and fifty-nine years after the Battle of Balaclava during Crimean War. This battle is remembered because of the six hundred British light cavalry that charged into a vastly better equipped, positioned, and outfitted Russian army. This Charge of the Light Brigade was commemorated a few weeks later by Lord Tennyson.

Four hundred and thirty-nine years before that, on Saint Crispin’s day in 1415, another British battle took place. The Battle of Agincourt was a turning point in the Hundred Years’ War between England and France and serves as the climax of Shakespeare’s Henry V.   Like the Battle of Balaclava, the British troops were vastly outnumbered. In the speech I read earlier, Henry V is readying his men for battle. It’s a triumphant call to action – in the face of almost certain defeat, he uses the promise of glory as motivation.

He that shall live this day, and see old age,

Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,

And say, To-morrow is Saint Crispian:

Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars,

And say, These wounds I had on Crispin’s day.

Old men forget; yet all shall be forgot,

But he’ll remember with advantages

What feats he did that day: ---

“He’ll remember with advantages what feats he did that day.” We should do hard things today so that we can remember them in the future; there’s something about that that resonates. To me, it’s similar to volunteering at the soup kitchen so that you can be eligible for the National Honors Society so that you can get into a top level college so that you can get a great job after graduation so that you can buy a wonderful house so that you can raise an amazing family so that you can sit on your porch and be proud of all of the great things you’ve done with your life.

There’s another way to read this speech. That it’s a reaction to the many advisors who are pleading with Henry V not to go into battle – that are saying there is no way to succeed – that they are outnumbered and therefor shouldn’t try. Henry V says:

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers’

For he to-day that sheds his blood with me

Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,

This day shall gentle his condition:

And gentlemen in England now a-bed

Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here, ---

He’s saying that working together makes us brothers. And that is enough to take on an army.

We face battles everywhere we look and on the other side of the field is an opponent who is better equipped, better trained, and more reinforced. Reforming the public education; the disparity of wealth; access to democracy in developing countries; affordable health care, effective health care; the use of force in personal, institutional, and governmental relationships; the generation and consumption of energy; food security; desertification; access to clean water.

The Athropocene

I am not a geologist and Bob Barker my find this next section a little light on the hard science. In the spirit of full disclosure, much of what I know about the history of our planet, I’ve learned from surfing the internet (not always the most reliable source of information). With that caveat out of the way, let’s explore a little geochronology.

Studying the geological history of our planet requires mind bending understanding of enormous amounts of time.  Geologists have specific terms for identifying the different stages of our planet – and they vary in scale.

The largest time scale is an Eon - there have only been 4 eons since the formation of our planet and they tend to last a half billion years, give or take.

Eons are divided into Eras which last a few hundred million years and are distinguished by catastrophic extinction boundaries (think dinosaurs).

Eras are divided into Periods which are divided into Epochs which are divided into Ages.

We are living in the Holoycene Epoch. We’re right at the beginning of it – epochs tend to last tens of millions of years, but the Holocyene began about just over ten thousand years ago when the last ice age ended. The warming of the climate allowed humans to begin farming and form societies.

Anytime I start talking about the history of our planet and using time scales that include epochs and eras, I like to put things in perspective a bit. Let’s imagine that we collaborate with the Unitarian Universalist Society of Amherst to construct a timeline of our planet between their pulpit and ours. We’ll start at their pulpit with the forming of the earth. As we make our way back here, we’ll pass key points in Earth’s history. Our first landmark comes relatively quickly when we cross the main intersection in downtown Amherst – that’s when our moon forms. When we cross the border into Hadley, the first forms of life emerge. At the Hadley mall, photosynthesis begins and tiny bacteria begin turning sunlight into energy and producing an oxygen rich atmosphere. The oxygen in the atmosphere led to a significant cooling of the climate and by the time we get to the Hadley Garden Center, the earth is covered by a giant sheet of ice (Geologists actually refer to this time as snowball earth). By the time we cross the Connecticut River and pass the fairgrounds, sea animals have evolved. These animals continue to evolve and at the Post Office, they move onto land and begin crawling. At Fitzwilly’s, dinosaurs roam the earth and take their place at the top of the food chain. Unfortunately for them, they’re extinct by the time we get to the Courthouse. We continue up the hill and come down our front walk way, through the big blue doors and down the aisle and about the time we get to the fifth pew, hominids emerge.

As I mentioned before, the Holocene epoch encompasses all of human civilization. The roughly ten thousand years that we’ve been on this planet fit into the USNF icon at the top of your order of meeting. Some scientists and philosophers, however, have proposed that we have moved into a new geologically significant time marked by the influences of human activity. What this means is that there is (or will be) substantial evidence in the geology of how human life changed the physical characterizes of our planet. This new epoch is called the Anthropocene and there’s still some dispute as to when exactly it began. Some propose the dawn of agriculture about ten thousand years ago. Others cite the industrial revolution when we began harvesting fossil fuels and literally exploding the bedrock of civilization. While others look to the 1950’s and the atomic age when human activity produced never-seen-before levels of radioactive soil and other nuclear byproducts. Though there may be disagreement about the precise beginning of the Anthropocene, the powerful idea that human activity has permanently altered earth persists.

Andrew Revkin, a reporter with the New York Times, underscores the importance of this when he writes: “Two billion years ago, cyanobacteria oxygenated the atmosphere and powerfully disrupted life on earth, but they didn’t know it. We’re the first species that’s become a planet-scale influence and is aware of that reality. That’s what distinguishes us.”

We have changed our planet – the dramatic increase in carbon dioxide in our atmosphere and the irreversible increase is nitrogen levels in our soil are shifting the geology of our planet forever. Like the cyanobacteria that came before us, we have disrupted life on earth. Our species is leaving a mark.

What we leave behind

My great grandfather on my mother’s side was a Presbyterian minister in Maine and Ohio.  He, like me, was a manuscript preacher who typed his sermons and delivered them verbatim. Unlike me, he typed his on an old Royal typewriter on tight, single spaced pages.  He preached through both World Wars and as late as 1982 when he was ninety years old.  A few years ago when I was visiting my uncle in Florida, we pulled out a couple of large file boxes.  Inside were the yellowed pages filled with Boppa’s sermons.  These boxes are physical evidence of his life’s work.  They were born at the writing desk decades ago and emerged into the world in the pulpit on Sunday mornings for the better part of the 20th century.  Then they were filed away and boxed.  These leaves of Presbyterian musings are tangible remnants of the marks Boppa left on this world. His most powerful marks were in the souls of his parishioners, but my Uncle keeps the boxes out of respect – and I think, because it is proof of what Boppa gave to his community.

Each and every one of us is leaving a mark – staining our wake with the effects of our actions. There is no hierarchical value placed on the size or location of your mark. Some of us leave delicate, beautiful marks on our closest family by writing cards and folding laundry. Some of us leave caring stains on the sidewalks of our city by helping those in need, treating our sick, and feeding our hungry. Some of us leave marks on the children we teach and mentor and love and inspire. Some of us leave scars of hope across the landscape as we regenerate once vibrant ecosystems.

The Contradiction

This sermon is a call to action – an invitation to think about what role you play in shaping our shared world. The Reverend Howard Thurman put it beautifully when he said: "Don't ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive and then go do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

I understand this coming alive to mean a clarity of purpose – an understanding of who we are and how we most effectively engage with our community as agents of positive change.

But that clarity sometimes comes with a cost: the anxiety of not doing enough can shut down our ability to – as our sources remind us – experience that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces that create and uphold life. We have to stop and smell the roses – because they smell so sweet and because without them, what is it we are fighting for?

The Sloth in today’s story is relaxed and tranquil and likes to live in peace. That does not mean she is lazy. I choose this story to offer an important perspective on this call for action – doing things slowly, slowly, slowly is not only okay – it’s really, really important.

In our second reading, Marie Howe reminded us that life is about the tiny moments. The delight of a life fully lived lies in the details:

For weeks now, driving, or dropping a bag of groceries in the street, the bag breaking,

I’ve been thinking: This is what the living do. And yesterday, hurrying along those wobbly bricks in the Cambridge sidewalk, spilling my coffee down my wrist and sleeve,

I thought it again, and again later, when buying a hairbrush; This is it. Parking. Slamming the car door shut in the cold.

We cannot afford to lose touch with the magnificent rise of Friday’s full moon, or the feel of the soft green carpet under your feet in this great hall; the sounds toddlers in childcare down stairs or the taste of pumpkin bread in October. We cannot afford to lose touch with transcending wonder in the face of the overpowering army marching towards us.

Conclusion

Our lives are in balance between building a better future and relishing in the sweetness of now. It’s a gestalt balance in which the effects of doing both are greater than focusing solely on either the now or the then. Breathing this fine autumn air slowly and being grateful for the season we have had does not preclude us from working hard today so that tomorrow will be better.

Last week, Janet invited us to look at our hands - to look around and look at each other’s hands – and to dream about what we can accomplish together. It is our work to build the world we want to live in; it is up to us.

Benediction Haiku

Go forth, leave your mark

Stain your wake with intention

Breathe in the beauty