The Rev. Canon Jan Naylor Cope
Transcribed from the audio.
In the name of the triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
On a crisp Tuesday afternoon last December, my friend and Cathedral colleague Jim Shepherd, who is the Director of Preservation and Facilities, invited some staff who were gathering for a meeting to go on a field trip. I’ve learned since Jim has been with us that you never want to pass up an invitation to go on a field trip in the Cathedral because Jim would often take us in the upper reaches and hidden recesses of the Cathedral to see some of the glory of our stained-glass or our carvings up close and personal. On this day he advised us to wear flat shoes which told me whatever we were going to do, it was a little bit dangerous. Nevertheless, we intrepids gathered together and on what seemed like an interminable series of metal ladders that were absolutely vertical we ascended into the upper reaches of the Cathedral to see the Isaiah window. For those of you who are in the nave, it’s at the highest reaches here, the second window on the south side of the Cathedral.
You’ll see in that window the story of Isaiah’s calling, the very passage that our head acolyte Maddie read a little bit earlier. What struck me in that window, particularly since I was not very far from it, is the enormity of that coal that is about to singe Isaiah’s lips. You may think that Isaiah looks expectant. I think he looks a little terrified, personally. “Woe is me! I am lost. For I am a man of unclean lips and I live among a people with unclean lips.” You know the story. The seraph singes his lips, cleanses him, prepares him to be commissioned, to be nothing less than a prophet of the Lord. In that singeing he sears Isaiah’s soul to go on to be one of the major prophets in all of Holy Scripture.
Immediately following Isaiah’s commission he speaks words of critique. That is often the role of a prophet. As Frederick Buechner said, there is no evidence to suggest that a prophet was ever invited home for supper twice. But it’s a pivotal role. It was in the time of the Bible. It remains a pivotal role today. One of the things that I think is important for us to remember, and you certainly see this in Isaiah’s ministry, is it’s not just the role of a prophet to critique but to also energize by offering words of hope and promise of what is intended to be but is not yet.
In his landmark book The Prophetic Imagination, Walter Brueggeman speaks to this multilingual nature of prophets. Writing in the late 1970s and looking at what was going on in our country at the time, he makes the observation that liberals and conservatives at that time tended to speak in a monolingual way. Liberals tended to critique about what was and the conservatives seemed to gather more strength because they would energize their base by speaking about a hope and a vision for the future. Brueggeman makes the point that a prophet is supposed to speak to the grief or lament or critique but also to give a vision, a hope, an expectation, a promise for what is intended to be, but is not yet.
We see that duality of critique and hope in many of our graduation addresses these days. It is that time of year, and a little bit later in this service, we will have the valediction of our outgoing acolytes and the installation of our incoming acolytes. I think that every commencement speaker endeavors to work hard on what they’re going to say to make it both meaningful and memorable.
Many, many years ago I had the privilege of speaking at my high school graduation. I was the salutatorian and I worked on my little speech for months. I labored over that thing, wanting badly for it to be meaningful and memorable. All these decades later, if I were really honest with myself, no one remembers what I said except me. Even my loving and proud family who were in attendance that day—and I won’t embarrass them or humiliate myself by asking if they remembered anything that I said that day.
I think so often the most memorable things, the most meaningful things, are the ones that are unscripted, unplanned, unpracticed and yet become unforgettable. In her book I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Maya Angelou writes poignantly and powerfully about her eighth grade graduation. The year was 1940. She was 12 years old living in a little town in Arkansas. It was a proud and expectant day. The students had worked so hard; their teachers, their families, their parents, supporting them to this great day of achievement and promise and hope and dreams. The girls all had new dresses. The boys had on neatly pressed clothes suitable for such a glorious and celebratory day.
Maya Angelou writes about the eighth-grade valedictorian who was going to speak. His name was Henry Reed. She describes him as a small boy, sensitive, smart. He had worked on his speech for months. It was entitled “To Be or Not to Be,” taken from Shakespeare’s famous soliloquy of Hamlet ‘To be or not to be.’
Well, the great day finally came and everything was going according to plan and according to script. They marched in and when they assembled they said the Pledge of Allegiance, they sang the national anthem, and then something out of the ordinary happened. Whenever they gathered in their assemblies the national anthem at this all-black school was immediately followed by what Angelou called the Negro national anthem,” Lift Every Voice and Sing”. It was skipped.
The principal came out rather nervously and told everyone to please hurry up and take their seats and then they understood why. He said, we have an honored guest speaker today and he only has a little time to be with us. You see, he’s got a train to catch. So out walked a white male politician running for election on this great day of celebration and victory and promise. He proceeded to tell them the wonderful things he was going to do if he got elected. The white high school was going to get the best in chemistry sets and microscopes and an artist-in-residence. It was going be a world-class high school. Then he turned to the group gathered, so as not to forget them, and said, you know, I’ve learned that one of the star football players at the state university came from this very school and if I get elected I’m going to ensure you have a really good playing field.
Maya Angelou said her graduation day ended there. Once again, her people had been relegated to an envisioned future of being farmers and maids, and if they were strong and fast and big maybe a football player. All the hopes and dreams were dashed in that very short speech. The politician left. Someone had to prod Maya Angelou when her name was called to go up to receive her diploma. Then it was Henry Reed’s turn to come up and deliver “To Be or Not to Be” which he had practiced for months. He bravely got up, delivered the speech that he had prepared carefully. Maya Angelou writes that she was listening to the things he said and thinking, it’s just farcical, you’re wasting your time talking about hopes and dreams and visions.
He got through his speech and then he did something unexpected. He turned his back to the audience, faced his fellow students, and in his small, sure, 12-year-old voice began to sing:
Lift every voice and sing Till earth and heaven ring,
Ring with the harmonies of Liberty;
All gathered rose and sang with gusto as tears streamed down their faces. It was unplanned, unpracticed, unforgettable. Twelve-year-old Henry restored their dignity. Twelve-year-old Henry was a prophet who offered for them a hope and a vision and restored their dreams.
Maya Angelou wrote that it was a song that every child she knew learned along with their ABCs. She’d sung it a thousand times but she’d never heard the words, not until her graduation day. You see, I think when we open ourselves to the Holy Spirit, the third person of the Trinity, who continues to be God’s abiding and living presence in us, expect the unexpected.
How is God searing your soul? What is God calling you as a prophet to speak to and upon which you are called to act? When you hear the Lord’s voice calling you and saying “Whom shall I send and who will go for us? May you and I, empowered by God’s Holy Spirit stand up and say “Here am I. Send me.” Amen.