[This homily was preached as a part of our Coming of Age recognition service on May 15, 2011.]
When I was the age of our Coming of Age youth, I belonged to the model rocket club at my junior high school. To build a model rocket, you take a cardboard tube (short or long, skinny or fat) and then you glue on some fins made out of lightweight wood. Into one end of the rocket, you stuff a plastic parachute attached to the body of the rocket with a string, and you secure a plastic nose cone on the end and then you spray paint it. Into the other end of the rocket, you insert a blasting device that looks like a roll of quarters, but is filled with this horrible, sulfur-smelling, explosive power. You put the rocket on a launching pad, stick wires into the blasting device, and send an electric current through the wires to ignite the blasting device.
When you ignite the blasting device, it propels the rocket a couple hundred feet into the air, the nose cone comes off, the parachute comes out, and the rocket drifts peacefully back to earth. Well, that is what is supposed to happen when things go well. And, when I launched rockets, things didn’t always go well. I remember launching this sleek looking number that traveled perhaps thirty feet into the air and then turned abruptly and began heading at the group of students who were standing there watching. We all ducked for cover and the rocket sailed over our heads, slammed into the ground, and disintegrated on impact.
But, there was one rocket that failed above all others. This rocket was about four feet long and it looked powerful. You put not one, not two, but three blasting caps in it and the idea was that one would light the next which would light the next and would send the rocket several thousand feet into the sky. It looked like something that could possibly shoot down a large bird or a small aircraft. The day of our model rocket club meeting, I brought this giant rocket with me to school. It was too large to fit in my locker and so I had to carry it to all of my classes. I was very proud of this fierce-looking rocket, the largest and most powerful rocket in the history of the rocket club. After school, we went out to the sports fields. I placed the three blasting devices inside of the rocket. I put the wires in. I stood back. Way back. I pressed the launch button. Smoke began to billow out. And then more smoke. And then flames. The rocket burned on the launching pad. Finally, it jerked upwards and hung in the air about ten feet off the ground where it exploded and fell to earth in about seven flaming pieces. My classmates raced towards the burning pieces of my rocket and stomped out the flames.
I was crushed, embarrassed. As I picked up the charred remains of the rocket, I noticed that about eight inches of the cardboard tube remained intact. And, I had a couple of wood fins remaining. I returned to the next meeting of the model rocket club with a self-fashioned rocket that I was prepared to send on a mission of destruction. This thing had no parachute. The rocket had disappointed me once; the second time I would exact my revenge. It was not going to return. I placed the largest blasting device you could legally purchase in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts inside of it. I put it on the pad, stuck the wires in, and hit the button to launch it.
Zoom! It sailed off the launching pad, leaving behind just a faint hint of exhaust, and was gone into the stratosphere before we could even jerk our heads up to follow its path. In a split second it was out of sight. We usually chased after rockets to recover them, but this one was history. It was gone. A few weeks later I did discover a bright red fin about a half mile away from the school. The rest of the rocket was never found.
All this year, you have been in the Coming of Age program. What does it mean to come of age? It doesn’t mean that when you go home today, your parents will have packed up your stuff and will say to you, go get a job and an apartment, it is time for you to live on your own now. You wouldn’t do very well. Some of you really wouldn’t do very well. Does Coming of Age mean that you are now all adults? No. Not really.
What it means is that you are and will be transitioning into a time in your life in which the choices you make and the decisions you decide will become a lot more serious, a time in your life in which you’ll be asked to be responsible in the face of expanding freedoms.
Over the next five years of your life there will be all sorts of important rites of passage: you’ll go to a new school that will ask you for greater levels of responsibility. You’ll have the responsibility that comes with learning how to drive a car. When you turn 18 there will be a lot of choices, including where you want to live, for whom you will vote, what you want to try to do with your life, and what you want to become. And, all along the way, other questions will present themselves for you to figure out. You’ll face questions about the types of friends you’ll want to have, the types of relationships and whether to go along and do what the crowd is doing, You’ll have to make your own decisions about right and wrong, good choices and bad choices, choices with a moral dimension.
So, how exactly has this year prepared you for any of this? Well, we hope that your beliefs, your beliefs about right and wrong and good and bad, your beliefs about your place in the world, and your beliefs about justice and fairness will guide you as you face all these decisions and responsibilities. But, more than that, we hope that you will apply some of the same resources you used this year in thinking about big questions. We hope that you will work hard at finding good answers to the important questions and serious choices that you’ll be faced with. The questions are deep and they are hard: what does it mean to live well? What kind of person do I want to be? What responsibility do I have to help change the world?
Now remember, when we asked you to think carefully about your beliefs, we didn’t lock you in a room with a crayon and piece of paper and tell you to figure it all out by yourself. No, you thought about these questions while you were surrounded by peers, with the help of a mentor, and teachers, and religious professionals, and the members of this religious community. We provided you with resources, information about others who have asked important questions and answered those questions well. And, we encouraged you to trust your own conscience, to listen to that small, still voice inside of you.
One of the things that I hope you learned this year is that Unitarian Universalism doesn’t tell you that you can believe anything you want. You can’t believe anything you want. It doesn’t work like that. Try to believe that men and women shouldn’t have equal rights. Try to believe that it is OK for people of one race to have more rights than people of another race. Try to believe that the world is flat or that the world is only 6,000 years old. Try to believe that God will harshly punish people who belong to the wrong religion.
Hopefully, you can’t believe these things. You couldn’t believe them even if you wanted to. Hopefully, your own conscience, your own sense of right and wrong, tells you that you can’t accept these things. Hopefully, you say, “That is not what I believe. I believe something else.” And hopefully, in the years to come, you will have the strength of character to say, “That injustice is not right.” “How people are being treated is not right.” “That thing you are asking me to do is not safe and is not healthy.”
You see, with Coming of Age, we are preparing you to launch. We are preparing you to launch. And, we want to provide you with a few things: a powerful blasting cap that will send you far into the mysteries of the world. But we also want to provide you with a strong parachute that will help you to land smoothly and safely. And, we also want to provide you with some fins that will help steer you in good directions for the entire duration of your flight.
We want you to launch. We do not want you to fizzle out and sit there on the launching pad. We don’t want you to explode, to begin to lift off and then crash and burn. We don’t want to pack you so full of gunpowder that you disappear. We don’t want to lose you. We care that you are Unitarian Universalists.
This launching thing, it isn’t easy. It is a difficult balance, providing enough propulsion that you will go far in life and enough steering and enough of a parachute that you will go safely.
So, as you prepare to launch, take a moment to really think about where you want the rocket of your life to take you. Think of the heroic Unitarian and Universalist women and men whose lives you studied. They worked for justice. They fought for equality. They charted a new path for themselves, doing amazing work to help their fellow sisters and brothers. Do you want your life to be like theirs?
Take a moment to think about what you’ve learned and discovered this year. What matters most deeply to you? What does God ask of you? What is asked of us as Unitarian Universalists?
You’ve come of age. You’ve entered this next chapter of your life in which you will have to answer a lot of important and crucial questions. But, you won’t have to face those questions alone.
To infinity and beyond, kids.