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This past Tuesday in staff meeting I, as I always do, read the text for the week. At the end I said, ‘This is the Word of the Lord.' And, dutifully, every week, they always answer, ‘Thanks be to God.' Except this week. I read the text - Jim just read it - and then I said, ‘This is the Word of the Lord.' And, to a person, no one said anything. And I can't say I blame them. While I can work with the very beginning and the very end, it's the part in the middle, particularly, "Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me." If Jesus is going to make me choose, especially when I think about my children, I'm not sure if I am on board. I'm just not.
It started quietly at first. A young woman's voice opened the space, once silent, now sung. With her came the voices of older men and women, voices that long knew the song, their tongues and lungs reacting out of sweet ritual. The voices built, generation after generation adding their tenor until the music swelled like one living, breathing organism. I knew not the words they sang, these ancient Hebrew-meets-Yiddish words but I knew, I knew what they meant. It was clear from the tone, from the eyes that softly closed, the hips that slowly swayed, the heads that gently bowed - this was a song of devotion. Before I knew it, I was singing along with the congregation, offering my own voice to our God. My eyes began to well with tears as I watched my friends Aaron and Julie make their way to their chuppah, the wedding canopy. When each rounded the corner and heard the fullness of our song, of their community singing praises to the Lord, it was clear as could be that we were in a thin place, a place where the veil between heaven and earth was lifted. It was clear to me that our voices - voices of the old, the young, the trained and untrained, the stranger and the friend - our voices were living into our purpose: to praise God with pure devotion.
In this season of graduations, some folks at National Public Radio took time last week to give us a summary of what makes a good speech. Many of these components are easy: 1. be funny. 2. be self-deprecating. Movie stars mention their worst movie, authors the times the book didn't sell. 3. Downplay the genre. People giving these speeches say something about having no idea who it was who spoke at their own graduations. The fourth point was a more substantive, about message, about some consistent theme or thread, and it being authentic and real. The best messages are two sides of the same coin, they said. One is: You are special. We've all heard it - this is the inspiration, aspiration, good job, get out there, you can do it, you are amazing, believe in yourself, trust your passion, you can change the world, yippie! The other is the exact opposite: "You're not special." "Even if you're one in a million," one speaker said, "on a planet of 6.8 billion that means there are nearly 7,000 people just like you." As hard as you've worked, you also lucked into plenty, including your parents and your country. "And with luck comes obligation," author Michael Lewis told the Princeton class of 2012. You owe something. To repay this debt, he said, "You must find a way to serve."1
"Now who will harm you if you are eager to do what is good?" Peter begins.
Well, a lot of people. Last week we read from Acts, the crowds stoning Stephen for proclaiming the gospel. I imagine that slaves on the Underground Railroad would tell you there were many seeking to do them harm. People in Europe hiding Jews from the Nazis. Little children being rolled up the street by the force of fire hoses in Birmingham 50 years ago. I bet they have some folks they can point to. This Memorial Day weekend we are acutely aware of the sacrifices made by people we love who died doing what they thought was right, and good.
There has been a fascinating debate this spring in the town of my alma mater.
One Friday towards the end of February, workers installed a sculpture outside the St. Alban's Episcopal Church, on the edge of a pretty nice neighborhood in Davidson, NC. The church had received a bequest of some $22,000. The woman who left the money was a big proponent of public art, so the church used the money to purchase a metal sculpture by Canadian artist Timothy Buck called, "Homeless Jesus." On a bench, facing the street in front of the church, lies a man, almost entirely covered by a blanket - not unlike scenes we see too often, in larger cities or here in Durham. The thing that makes this sculpture even more interesting is that the thing identifying the man is his feet, sticking out from the blanket, with holes, nail holes, in each foot.