(Adapted from a sermon given by the Rev. Molly Short, assistant chaplain, on September 11, 2017)
Since its founding, St. Andrew's-Sewanee School has striven to be a grace-filled, lively, and welcoming community. This means that we as your coaches, house parents, teachers, mentors, and advisors, are invested in your development as a whole person. This concern is clearly reflected in our graduation requirements. To receive a degree from St. Andrew's-Sewanee School you must: participate in the arts, strive for excellence in physical activity, challenge yourself in the classroom, dedicate yourself to community service, and begin each week in the Chapel together.
Chapel is where we make time for prayer and self-examination, both as a community and as individuals. It is where we challenge ourselves to grow in awareness of how our actions impact others, and to encourage one another to live with integrity.
God's will for us as individuals, and as a community, is healing and wholeness. That means healing for those parts of our souls that have been wounded long ago, healing of relationships that seem beyond repair, and healing the pain of loss.
In Matthew 18, Jesus compares our calling to that of a shepherd who has 100 sheep, but has lost one. Jesus tells us that the good shepherd will leave 99 sheep grazing on the mountainside to seek the one lost sheep. Like the shepherd, we are called to seek out those who are lost or isolated.
Over the last few weeks, hatred and threats of violence and war have pulled at the seams of our nation and the world. Hurricanes, forest fires, and earthquakes have sown seeds of despair. In times of disintegration and fear, Jesus calls upon us to be countering forces of integration and hope through outreach, inclusiveness, and forgiveness.
In Baltimore Maryland, two people have found a unique way to live into this calling. Dave and Beth Cutlip founded Redemption Ink in 2017 as a response to rising incidents of gang and race related violence in Baltimore. Through Redemption Ink, the Cutlips' apply their talents in tattoo artistry to cover up tattoos that were applied in the name of hate or prejudice.
Men and women come to Beth and Dave Cutlip with Neo-Nazi and gang signs on their faces and necks from time in prison or from hard years on the street, at a time when gang life was their only protection. Dave and Beth seek out those who struggle to find jobs because of the symbols permanently branded under their skin. They reach out to those people in the community who think they are too far gone and help them to undo these signs of hate.
Those who wish to have hateful tattoos removed are asked to undergo an application process; this involves submitting a photograph of the tattoo, explaining why they got the tattoo, and finally telling their "redemption story." In this "redemption story," former prisoners and gang members describe how they got to this pivotal moment, and how removing the tattoo will be the first of many steps in seeking a better life. The Cutlips have realized that, for real transformation to happen, these men and women need to do the hard work of being honest about past mistakes.
After going through the application process, David and Beth come up with new tattoo designs to cover the old. The cost of covering up past tattoos can range from a few hundred dollars to thousands, but Dave does the work for free. He transforms symbols of hatred and intimidation into images of beauty and hope. One young man's swastika-covered skull was turned into a corsage of red roses. Another man's gang symbols were turned into a fierce roaring lion.
Young men and women who were once emblazoned with these symbols of hate feel the physical release of freedom and forgiveness with their new tattoos.
Where do we find ourselves in this story?
Perhaps you have a redemption story you need to tell. Is there a past mistake committed against someone else weighing on you, an offense from which you need forgiveness and release?
Perhaps you have a talent that can be used to bring in those who have been pushed out, isolated, or lost. How might you help bring them back in, and promote their healing?
In truth, we are both the tattooed and the instrument of redemption. This is what a truly inclusive community looks like; it is a place where we offer God's forgiveness and healing to others, turning a swastika into a beautiful rose tattoo.