A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, May 27, 2012
On Friday evening, May 18, I drove to Greeneville to attend the high school graduation of my brother’s oldest daughter. Before introducing the graduating class, Greeneville High School Principal, Linda Stroud, asked everyone to stand up who had in any way loved or nurtured one of the graduates. Well, as you might imagine, practically everyone—several hundred, perhaps a few thousand, people—stood to their feet. And the Principal’s point was, true to that African proverb, it does indeed take a village to raise a child. Those graduating seniors were taking with them a part of every teacher who had ever taught them, every parent, grandparent, aunt, uncle, and so forth who had exerted any amount of positive influence in their lives. Sometimes all of us need to be reminded that we are not self-made. There are many others who have helped make us who we are and who are part of us.
Have you ever taken time to think about all the people who are so much a part of you—not only your relatives from whom you have descended–but also those friends, co-workers, and other acquaintances like teachers, ministers, doctors, dentists, pharmacists, grocers, and neighbors? It can sort of be mind-boggling.
To give you a few for instances, I will share some personal history with you. One of my personal gifts or skills and favorite hobbies is carpentry and woodworking. Back in the days when I was doing it to earn a living, my specialty was furniture making. In times past, I have found carpentry and woodworking to be very therapeutic. I especially like making Shaker style furniture. So it might not surprise you to learn that both of my grandfathers and their fathers before them were skilled carpenters. On my mother’s side were furniture makers whose pieces of cherry furniture have become coveted antiques. On my father’s side were carpenters who around the turn of the 20th century built such edifices as the country store that is still standing and in use at the community crossroads yet today. That skill, that gift that was part of my grandfathers and great-grandfathers, is now a part of me.
Also, just over 10 years ago, I learned that my great, great, great-grandfather Hammer was a preacher. For 47 years I had not known that. We were en route from our home in Franklin to our move to First Congregational Church of Albany, NY. It was Labor Day weekend, and we had stopped over at my parents’ house for the holiday weekend. My brother, Tim, said to me, “There’s somewhere I want to take you.” So on Sunday afternoon we all loaded up and drove about 20 miles to a log cabin built in 1793 by Isaac Hammer. I learned that Isaac Hammer—my ancestor—was one of the first Quaker Brethren to migrate from Pennsylvania to Eastern Tennessee. After arriving in Eastern Tennessee, he was called to be the pastor of a Church of the Brethren congregation. I want to think that some of my great, great, great- grandfather’s preaching ability and good Quaker ideas are now a part of me. The stories of our ancestors become part of our family lore, and consequently part of us, and to some extent help shape us.
But, as I have alluded to, the people who are part of us need not be limited to blood kin. I think of my first grade teacher, Mrs. Trivett, the one person who was not kinfolk and who, perhaps, had the most impact on my life. Mrs. Trivett was already of retirement age when she taught both my brother and me. In fact, she had taught our dad before us. Mrs. Trivett was a sweet, grandmotherly type who would take you upon her lap during reading class and who would hold you close when you got homesick. She was a devout Presbyterian who instilled within me so much of the faith that I was to later possess. Truly, Mrs. Trivett is as much a part of me as many of my own relatives are. But the sad thing is, though I had many opportunities to do so, I never went back to Mrs. Trivett in my adult years to thank her for playing such an important role in my life. She lived not more than three miles from my boyhood home. And I passed by her house often. I could have easily stopped by one afternoon to say “thank you” and to let her know what a positive impact she had had on my life.
And, I am sure, you have your own stories that you could share about parents and grandparents, teachers and ministers, aunts and uncles, friends and others who helped make you the person you are, persons who are so much a part of you today. People who are part of us; have you ever stopped to think about it?
The Apostle Paul has noted how that “We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves” (Romans 14:7). We live in relation to others, and we live in relation to God. In fact, it just may be that living in relation to others IS the way we realize living in relation to God. We are inter-related and interconnected in ways we could never hope to fully understand. Or to put it another way, our lives are intricately intertwined with the lives of others in such a way that it would be almost impossible to completely untangle ourselves from others if we tried. It might even be said that we don’t’ have an identity except in relationship with others. We know who we are as we identify ourselves with other individuals and groups. Being accepted by others, and feeling we are a part of others, is integral to who we are as humans. In a way, who we are is wrapped up in the relationships and interactions we have with the world. The poet John Donne put this way: “No man is an island.” None of us is a solitary creature. Another poet, May Sarton (not to be confused with Mary Oliver, whom I quote often) put it this way: “Now the dead move through all of us still glowing” (“All Souls”). I like that—“the dead move through all of us still glowing.” Rarely do we think about those who have influenced our lives now glowing through us. But they do. So many people are part of us, and we are part of them.
On this day when we are thinking about graduates, as well as on this Memorial Day weekend when we are reminded of loved ones who have passed from us, it is altogether fitting and proper that we take a few moments to remember and express gratitude for those relatives, friends, and others who are so much a part of our lives. We probably can never know all the people who are part of us and who have helped shape us and make us who we are. But we can cite many of them, can’t we?
So, who are those loved ones, both living and dead, who are part of you today? Who is it from your life history that glows through you today, as poet May Sarton put it? For whom that is no longer living might you say a prayer of thanks? And then, who is still living whom you might go to or write to in order to say “thank you” for the positive influence they have had on your life? Our lives are so much fuller and so much richer because of those from our past who are part of us. And for that, we can express our gratitude and say, “Thanks be to God.” Amen.