Howard Thurman: A Voice for Speaking, a Faith for Living

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Matthew 20: 1-16

Howard Thurman’s name and legacy are well honored here at Marsh Chapel. Come Sunday, whether you tune in on the radio, listen on the podcast, or sit in the pews at 735 Commonwealth Avenue, you will often hear Howard Thurman’s words sounding forth from this pulpit. You will hear him quoted in prayers, in sermons. After worship, you can visit Howard Thurman’s portrait downstairs in the room that bears his name. Dean Hill has even developed something of a Marsh Chapel mantra about Thurman; you will often hear him say that “Howard Thurman was one hundred years of his time, fifty years ago.” It is good that we remember and listen to Thurman’s words, but there is something missing when we encounter these echoes of Thurman. We miss out on the unique tenor of Thurman’s voice, his speaking voice, which so perfectly fits his personality, his person, his life, and his very soul. So this morning, I want to share with you a small recording of Thurman speaking, reading from Meditations of the Heart.

[Thurman recording] 2:17-2:42

Thurman, as you can hear, has a unique speaking voice. His is a deep and resounding bass, particularly when praying, meditating, or telling stories which really hit home. Very few people speak that low in the range of the human voice, and so when I first heard Thurman’s speaking voice, I was reminded of my paternal Grandfather. My grandfather passed away when I was quite young, but I can still hear the echoes of his voice in my mind, the deep resounding bass vibrating my whole body, as it chuckles after cracking a joke at the dinner table during grace or captured on a record, a single moment in time, singing a duet at my parent’s wedding.

Thurman’s voice is, of course, different from my grandfather’s; it is uniquely his. But it too, is a moment captured in time for us to hear today. It is oddly reedy for a bass, and when Thurman gets a little excited, you can imagine him rising to the balls of his feet or grasping the pulpit and leaning forward into the microphone. It doesn’t happen in this short clip, but when Thurman really gets warmed up, his voice soars up the scales like the opening notes of Rhapsody in Blue, reaching to a high, near falsetto range. Howard Thurman had his own carefully developed, deeply discerned voice.

Coming up to converse with Thurman this morning we have our gospel lesson from Matthew, the parable of the laborers in the vineyard, only found in the Gospel of Matthew. The parable of the laborers in the vineyard is colloquially known as the parable of the totally unfair vineyard owner. You mean that the people who sneak into the last pew just before the sermon and then in their return down the side aisles after communion bypass their pew and just keep walking, sneaking surreptitiously out the back…those people earn the same kingdom of heaven wages, the same good deed credits as those who sit all the way through, from the introit to the very last note of the postlude, all the while with their hands politely in their laps and eyes facing forward?

Yes, that would seem to be something of the meaning of Matthew’s parable. That is what the kingdom of God looks like in this parable of the generous (some of us might mutter under our breath socialist) landowner. In the parable, if there is a divine accounting system of any kind, it is not measured by our standards. Everyone’s work, everyone’s participation, everyone’s voice is of deep value to the vineyard owner.

But the generosity of the parable’s vineyard owner still grates at us, particularly in our politically charged climate. In this country, in our attempts to cure our extended illness of financial fear, we have become addicted to a vocabulary of scarcity, in which our attitude has become “There cannot possibly be enough for all so I better take my share before someone else does.” We secretly, and as we saw in the Republican debate last week, sometimes openly cheer those who, through some combination of choice and circumstance, might lose their job, their house, or even their very life. We cheer because we secretly hope that if another loses, we might have a job, a house, or the care that we need for life. This mass mentality leads to high emotions, which have become so ingrained in us that we cannot cut through the dense opiate fog to hear the parable, and in it, the voice of the evangelist, and behind him, the voices of the earliest Christian communities, and behind that, the voice of Jesus.

I’d like to retell the parable, using a setting perhaps a bit more familiar, and a bit less infuriating than the one found in our Gospel.

A senior professor, a real giant in her field, offered an advanced seminar to work through some final edits of her book before she sent it to press.

Her two advisees, doctoral students who were finishing up their own dissertations, were the only two to show up the first week of the seminar. They engaged with the professor in spirited debate. The professor thanked them for their contributions, and made some edits based on their responses. The doctoral students went away pleased.

The next week, they were a little surprised to find a master’s student sitting at the table. “I invited her because I wanted to include some more voices in the conversation to help me to really hone my work,” the professor said.

Two weeks later, past the allotted add/drop deadline, a timid young woman came into the classroom for the seminar. She was a freshman and had been invited to unofficially audit the course. “I invited her because I wanted to hear an undergraduate’s take on my argument,” the professor said. The freshman was shy at first in front of the graduate students, but with some coaxing, she opened up and shared her opinions.

The second to last week of the semester, everyone was shocked to see the professor escort in one last person, who was wearing one of those plastic vests that people who are soliciting money for some charity or political organization often wear when they accost you in the street. Donor clipboard still in hand, the young man took a seat and accepted the chapter of discussion for the week, from the professor, who explained to her seminar that she was thinking on her way to class about what people “on the ground” would really think about her book. “So, she said, “This fine young man introduced himself to me outside, and I thought he would be perfect!” The man spent the whole seminar reading the chapter and listening, and by the end, had only made a single, brief comment.

The last class, the professor came in with a copy of her final manuscript in a binder. “I want to thank you all for the help that you have provided me this semester. My book would not be as thorough, as thoughtful, or as articulate as it is without you. I have brought you my manuscript to show you that I have thanked you all, every single one of you, by name in the acknowledgments.”

The doctoral students were appalled. What might it mean to prospective employers when some nobody’s name was listed next to theirs in the introduction to what was sure to be the next big work in the field? Besides, they had engaged the professor’s use of secondary sources, her larger methodological choices. What, really, had the master’s student, the freshman, and especially that solicitor off of the street really done to deserve equal billing?

“You are both emerging scholars in the field,” the professor answered, “and you have a more developed sense of your own scholarly voice. But I needed to hear each of the voices that came to the table to truly understand what my final book needed to look like. Each of the voices in that seminar, even
from the young man off of the street, was essential to the completed work.”
Now, parables are extended similes; as you learned in high school, they compare something to something else using “like” or “as.” The object of comparison throughout the Gospels is nearly always the Kingdom of God, that elusive eschatological term. The Kingdom of God is like a vineyard owner who goes out to offer work to all and pays them equal wages. The kingdom of God is like a professor who invites all voices into her classroom and gives them equal recognition.

We’re so used to hearing parables that we hardly pay attention to the other side of the equation, the “Kingdom of God” part. But that is essential to our understanding of the parable. The “Kingdom of God” is an eschatological catchphrase. “Eschatology,” is a word that has a tendency to make people nervous, conjuring up images of pamphlet-wielding, billboard-buying doomsdayers on the one hand and theologians squinting over dense, boring, difficult theological treatises on the other. What a strange phenomenon! What other phrase brings up such disparate, strange images to mind?

Earlier this semester, New Testament scholar Helmust Koester, introducing a lecture on the history of Ancient Christianity to a mixed classroom of underclassmen and graduate students, promised that his class required no background in the field. He came to the phrase “eschatology” in his lecture, and looking up, he noticed a few furrowed brows. “Eschatology is simply living in the present with a certain hope of the future” he explained. Eschatology is simply living in the present with a certain hope of the future.

With this clear-as-a-bell definition, our eschatological vision can expand to include all sorts of people who we can see live eschatologically. College students come to mind. College students labor away on their laptops, in libraries, in laboratories, taking on significant debt, working second jobs, all in the hope of a certain kind of future. College students can sometimes live extreme manifestations of their eschatology. Some live so deeply in the present that they ignore their fears about the future, which will include an abrupt entry into the “real world” where they believe there will be less fun, more seriousness, and earlier alarm clocks. Others focus so intensely on a future vision of success that they fail to become involved in their present surroundings, missing out on life-transforming friendships, community service, and student life. But when we welcomed our freshman class at matriculation just a few short weeks ago, we welcomed in young people who entered into Boson University with their eyes wide open, taking in their new, exciting, and sometimes terrifying surroundings. They have certain hopes that here they will discover something about who they are and who they are called to be. They have certain hopes that their voices will be heard. They have certain hopes that someday they will make a difference to the world. In short, they seek to find and share their own voice.

Will we invite them in to the conversation? Will we encourage their first attempts to speak out? Will we encourage them as they try out a different, tone, a different pitch? No seminar is too advanced, no economic problem too serious that we cannot include the nascent voices of those who will in the future teach our seminars and run our companies.

Besides, if we are honest with ourselves, we are always in the process of developing and discerning our own voice. It is shaped by the voices of others, and it is shaped in the stillness, when we listen for the voice of God. In the full chorus of voices not our own, we are best able to tune in to our own sound, to correct its pitch, to round out its tone. We are continuously in need of discerning our own voice.

Howard Thurman’s deepest commitments were to these values, to his firm belief that we are not complete, that we are not whole until we have begun to understand ourselves. And we cannot understand ourselves, Thurman believed, until we open ourselves to hear the voices of our neighbors, and to hear the voice of God.

This, Thurman believed, was the very definition of freedom. In 1948, speaking at the meditation hour of the National Council of Negro Women’s Convention, he said this, “The highest role of freedom is the choice of the kind of option that will make my life not only a benediction breathing peace, but also a vital force of redemption to all I touch. This would mean, therefore, that wherever I am, there the very Kingdom of God is at hand.”

The Kingdom of God paints a vision of how we are to live in the present if we have a certain hope for the future. From our parable today, the gospel tells us that we are to live our lives in the hope that someday this world will be like a ripe vineyard where all are invited to work at the harvest. We are invited to live our lives in the hope that someday this world will be like a classroom where all voices are truly welcome. Eschatology is not about doing nothing while we wait for this future to come. Rather, we are called to live in the right-now as though it were so. If we makes space for the still-discerning voices around us to try, to fail, and to try again to find their own-most selves, then we embody that vision of the Kingdom.

In June 2011, National Geographic published an article by Charles C. Mann about Göbekli Tepe, an archaeological site in Southern Turkey, which had remained relatively unknown in the West up until then. Göbekli Tepe is an old site. It is really old, older than old; it is the oldest structural site in the world. It is beautiful, circles of pillars with fascinating representations of human figures and animals, gazelles, scorpions, foxes, carved into the stone. It was built, archaeologists estimate, 11,600 years ago, seven millennia before the pyramid of Giza. Göbekli Tepe is not a palace, or a military outpost, or even a community dwelling. It is a religious site of some sort.

The traditional narrative about human development goes something like this; once our ancestors had settled down, domesticated some animals and some basic grains, once they stopped having to wander around constantly hunting for food, then “civilization” emerges, including art, religion, music, etc. We only turn to questions of meaning when questions of survival are relatively settled.

Göbekli Tepe is leading many scholars to turn that narrative on its head, because this site predates the domestication of livestock, and predates the cultivation of crops. Our hunter gatherer ancestors, it seems, turned to questions of meaning, questions about who they were and how they related to the universe well before they had figured out the whole settled living thing.

I am certain that Howard Thurman, with his incessant cultural and scholarly curiosity, would have loved the story of Göbekli Tepe. I think Thurman most of all would have agreed with the position it forces one to consider.

Thurman believed that questions of who we are and who we are called to be in relation to the universe are not afterthought questions. They are not something to turn to once the schoolwork is done, once the week is over, once the kids are in bed. No, these questions are an essential part of life, as important as our sleeping, our eating, and our breathing. May we hear the echoes of his voice and believe it too.

Thurman believed that when we turn to these questions about ourselves, we naturally turn inward to listen for the voice of God, and outward for the voice of our neighbors around us. May we hear the echoes of his voice and believe it too.

Thurman believed that when we invite all to labor beside us in the vineyard or in the classroom, we embody the Kingdom of God and become a blessing of peace and redemption. May we hear the echoes of his voice and believe it too.

Amen.

~Ms. J
ennifer Quigley
Chapel Associate for Vocational Development

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