The Third Sunday after Pentecost: June 9, 2013
1 Kings 17:8-24; Psalm 146; Galatians 1:11-24; Luke 7:11-17
Graduating High School Senior Address – Cordelia Avery
I’ve been participating in Youth Sunday for a very long time. I can remember back to Kindergarten or first grade. I think we were giving the Peace. We had to decorate a big banner for it, and I remember coloring it in with all my enthusiasm, but the whole time I was thinking, “Don’t we have official people who usually do this stuff for us?” So maybe I wasn’t coloring with all my enthusiasm. But eventually the banner got done, and we got up in front of the congregation to hold it up, and that was pretty cool, even though I thought I’d colored in my area better than the other kids.
I think, at this point, I couldn’t really differentiate between the graduating seniors and the “real adults”, they all just looked big to me, and it was a couple of Youth Sundays before the people who were giving the sermons were identifiable, kids I had seen around, or at Bistro, and that’s when I started to realize that some day I would have to give a sermon, too. I remember thinking that those big kids were so brave for getting up there, that they had to be so smart to be able to think of anything to say. I was sure I would never be able to do that.
As more and more Youth Sundays passed, the idea of standing in the pulpit became slightly less daunting. Soon it was my close friends standing here to speak. While the idea of writing a sermon seemed less terrifying to me at fifteen than it had when I was five, listening to my friends’ speeches raised a new worry. As the youngest of the group, with the exception of Annie, I was at once proud to see them up here, to hear myself mentioned in their speeches, and sad to see them speak about leaving knowing that I would be staying behind. And there was the occasional panicked thought, as they recounted all of our stories and inside jokes, that they wouldn’t leave me anything to say.
There was no need to worry, of course. Because it would be impossible to run out of things to say about this beautiful community. St. Michael’s has been a haven for me, from all the stresses of school and sports. In particular, singing in the choir has provided me with a community that has truly helped to shape who I am. I have had the opportunity to sing in all four of the choirs here, and it was truly been one the most important parts of my life. It was so wonderful not only because of the people I met along the way, who are still my among my closest friends today; but also because of Rose Peachey, who really created this community within a community for us kids, by Jon Devries, who has truly kept the Youth Choirs alive and thriving after she passed away, and by John Cantrell, who blesses us with music in all forms, whether it’s anglican chant on Sunday mornings, or Irish music in Celtic band, or comedic relief everywhere in between, and John and Jonathan, and to Rose, as well, because I know she’s here with us, I really just want to thank you so much for everything you’ve done, not just for me, or my friends, or the choir, but for this entire community, thank you.
St. Michael’s, of course, is not just a place to create music. This is, first and foremost a religious community. I don’t think anyone could dispute the fact that music brings its own sense of spirituality, but it is, often, easy to become detached from the service when sitting so far back in the, often not as silent as it should be, choir loft. I think this effect is compounded by the fact that, while I am surrounded here by a group of truly spiritual people, religion is often not the primary focus of conversation, at least among my friends. We all take communion, recite the Lord’s Prayer, but not at the expense of giving up our identity as liberal, Upper West Siders. So, in sitting down to write this sermon, I found myself having to do more than dredge up happy memories of sneaking upstairs during parties to play with the bean bag chairs in the Sunday School room, or annotating the service leaflet during the sermon. (The Lesson was always “Story Time”, and the Peace was always “Social Hour”, and then we’d play hangman, but instead of the traditional version we’d play Episcopal Hangman, where we’d draw Jesus on the cross. I’m not sure whether or not that last one is sacrilegious. I hope not) And when my friends and I were in sixth and seventh grade, that was all it really needed to be. We were here, we were happy, this could still be our haven without us having to really define our faith.
I was always dimly aware of the fact that it wasn’t always going to be like that, because there is a world outside of St Michael’s, and that world isn’t always willing to just take people as they are. I certainly felt that at my school, which if not a majority, is at least a plurality Jewish. And to people at my school, the term Christian, liberal New Yorker was oxymoronic. If I talked about my church friends, or told a funny story about choir, people would say stuff like, “Oh, you’re really religious,” like it was a bad thing. I found myself thinking that it wasn’t fair. I didn’t understand why they couldn’t just listen to me and realize that my church was such a great place. My solution was to just not talk about it at school. And that was fine, it worked great, no more comments from my classmates.
It wasn’t until last year’s confirmation class, that I really started confronting my faith. There was a woman who came in to talk to us, I think she was a guest, she didn’t go here, and she asked us if we could think of any moments that really helped us to define our faith. And it was a difficult question for me, because I had spent so much time intentionally not defining it. The only answer I could really come up with was when I watched Fall From Grace, which is a documentary about the Westboro Baptist Church, and I remember being angry that people would use Christianity, a religion that I felt so close to, and so protected by, to spread such a hateful message. And I saw what I believed. Or I thought I did, for a moment. At least, I knew what I thought about Christianity. As a Christian it was my responsibility to show the people that I met that the word “Christian” was not supposed to mean “hateful.” I knew I could be a Christian and still be a liberal. Christianity isn’t “conservative.” The entire New Testament is a story about giving up the old hierarchy and traditions in order to reach everyone.
But there was still the question of faith, and my resolve for that was spurred by a completely different group. The scientists, the young liberals, the people that I felt so in tune with, that I agreed with so much of the time. But they talk about religion, and use science to say that it’s false. Because apparently it’s stupid to believe in God when there’s all this science that can tell us about our world so much better. This always made me angry, and it was a while before I figured out why, but at some point in the last year or so, I finally got it. It made me angry because they were missing the point. The general social media and youtube censuses is that no one should believe in God because there is no real way to prove that God exists. But if we could prove it, then we wouldn’t need faith. That brings me, rather belatedly, to the Gospel passage today. Jesus tells us that the model is here before us–parents giving to their children, and it follows that God will give us even more, but we have to ask first. We have to have faith that it will happen.
Now, as I go off to college next year, I have to step out of this haven. This community has provided me not only emotional but also spiritual shelter, giving me a chance to form my own beliefs about faith and religion without pressure. Now it is time to test those beliefs, and it is scary, scarier than leaving high school, or New York City, but I have faith that I will not be alone as I make that next step. I will be back, but even when I’m not here physically, this church, I have no doubt, will stay with me. Thank you.