Good evening. Thank you to Mr. Smith, Fr. Green, Rev. Holden, the trustees, faculty, and administration for inviting me to be with you today. I have looked forward to this occasion for some time. You see, before going to seminary and becoming a priest, I was a university admission director. I spent sleepless nights knowing that the educational future of high school seniors rested in part on whether or not I offered a positive recommendation to our admissions committee. I know intimately the alternating feelings of hope and anxiety many of you have had in recent months as you’ve applied for, and then waited upon a letter or email from, your first-choice college. Because of that, I’ve had you in my prayers, even when you didn’t know it.
I am not going to speak to you long this afternoon. Though I have not sat where you are sitting in twenty-three years, within me there is still something of the eighteen year old. You are sitting there thinking about what comes next, both later tonight and at your commencement, which I understand is a much more fun event. I will tell you what I tell young couples when I do their wedding rehearsals (another event participants don’t generally want to attend!): I’ll make you a deal. If you’ll give me your laser-like attention for a few minutes, I promise only to take a few minutes. I need every set of eyes. Deal?
I want to share with you a story, and only one. It comes from the acclaimed author Toni Morrison. Ms. Morrison told this story when she accepted the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993. Here it is:
“Once upon a time there was an old woman. Blind. Wise… [She] lives alone in a small house outside of town. Her reputation for wisdom is without peer and without question. Among her people she is both the law and its transgression. The honor she is paid and the awe in which she is held reach beyond her neighborhood to places far away; to the city where the intelligence of rural prophets is the source of much amusement.”
Let’s pause for just a second. Can you see her in your mind’s eye? This wizened, old, blind woman sitting on the porch, rocking? O.k., Toni Morrison goes on…
“One day the [blind] woman is visited by some young people who seem to be bent on disproving her clairvoyance and showing her up for the fraud they believe she is. Their plan is simple: they enter her house and ask the one question the answer to which rides solely on her difference from them, a difference they regard as a profound disability: her blindness. They stand before her, and one of them says, ‘Old woman, I hold in my hand a bird. Tell me whether it is living or dead.’
She does not answer, and the question is repeated. ‘Is the bird I am holding living or dead?’
Still she doesn’t answer. She is blind and cannot see her visitors, let alone what is in their hands. She does not know their color, gender or homeland. She only knows their motive. The old woman’s silence is so long, the young people have trouble holding their laughter.
Finally she speaks and her voice is soft but stern. ‘I don’t know,’ she says. ‘I don’t know whether the bird you are holding is dead or alive, but what I do know is that it is in your hands. It is in your hands.’
Her answer can be taken to mean: if it is dead, you have either found it that way or you have killed it. If it is alive, you can still kill it. Whether it is to stay alive, it is your decision. Whatever the case, it is your responsibility.”
O.k. Let me ask you, seniors: Do you understand the story? I wish that I could stand before you this afternoon and tell you a joke, or quote Andy Samberg, or tell you that you’re all exceptional. I can’t and I won’t, though, because the stakes are too high for you and for the world.
You will go off from here to further your lives. Some of you will think about fame, and that’s o.k. Some of you will think about having authority over other people, and that’s o.k. Some of you will think about earning lots of money, and that’s o.k. It’s all o.k., so long as you remember that you hold the world in your hands. It is in your hands.
Do you understand the story? Whether the world lives or dies depends entirely upon how you hold it. There will be people who encourage you to believe the world is there for your amusement, that it is in your right to smother it for a laugh or a dollar, in order to fulfill your own ego needs. Those people are wrong. It is not in your right, but it is in your power. It is equally in your power—and it is your responsibility—to help the world and its people flourish, fly, and sing, to release the world from the deadly grip in which the generations before you have held it.
I said earlier that I would not stand before you and tell you that you are each exceptional. But I will stand and remind you that you are, all of you, children of God. And that means you are good. It means you are made in the image of the Creator and share in God’s very power to create.
See, I believe in God, and therefore I believe in you, too. I have hope in you. I expect you to leave this place, and leave your homes, and cut the apron strings from your parents, and imagine all the things that could be better, and more beautiful, and more fair, and more true. And then I expect you to make them so, not for your own sake but for the sake of the world. Because, dead or alive, the world is in your hands. It is in your hands.
Blessings and congratulations to you. Amen.