This will likely not be the last thing I have to write about my trip home to Berry College this last weekend. But it is, for now, the thing I need to write. I’ve never used this platform to publish a sermon manuscript. But, some folks have asked. And, while I wrote these words for Berry, as I was invited to preach the sermon for the 2022 Mountain Day Chapel Service (an annual homecoming and reunion weekend for Berry alumni), I wrote them out of a heart that believes these words matter for all of us. Because we are, all, longing to come home. My great hope for all of us is that we one day will.
I also wrote them knowing that when I was a student at Berry 25 years ago, there were those on that campus who did not believe I could be a preacher, because I am a woman. I hope that if there is a young woman out there who has been told the same, that she can read these words and know that, “Yes. You can. In fact, God needs you to do so.”
Home By So Many Ways
Berry College Chapel
October 9, 2022
Good morning, y’all. I truly have no words for what an honor it is to be here today, in this capacity. I’m a little awestruck, to be honest, so, I’m going to begin by reading a couple of passages from the Gospels – each of them referencing a place called Bethany– a little village in Judea, couple miles, maybe, from Jerusalem. Reading these scriptures will 1) help me settle in a bit and 2) set the stage for the words I want to offer today. And, maybe you’ve heard some of what I’m going to read before.
The first is from the Gospel of John, right at the beginning of chapter 11, and it reads:
Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. 2 Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill. 3 So the sisters sent a message to Jesus,a “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” 4 But when Jesus heard it, he said, “This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” 5 Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, 6 after having heard that Lazarusb was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.
The second is from the Gospel of Luke, chapter 10:
38 Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. 39 She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. 40 But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” 41 But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; 42 there is need of only one thing.l Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”
Mary, Martha, Lazarus – y’all know that new-ish country song, “Famous Friends?” The guy who sings it – Chris Young, I think – tells about his hometown crew, folks who were big time in their little town, famous, even on their home turf, but that no one else would’ve ever known. Well, Mary, Martha and Lazarus – they were Jesus’ hometown crew. His famous friends no one else had ever heard of. At least not until Jesus’ followers started writing about them.
Bethany was also the place where an unnamed, but some folks believe perhaps a Mary, anointed Jesus’ feet with fine oil, the place where Jesus cursed a fig tree (that’s a whole ‘nother sermon and maybe you can ask one of the religion professors about it, students), and, the one place mentioned as a spot where Jesus spent the night during the week before his crucifixion.
Bethany, was, for Jesus, and for those who knew and loved him best, home.
I was a sophomore here at Berry before I worked up the nerve to ask my advisor if I could join the Concert Choir to fill some of my elective hours. She said I sure could, and so, I, having not really sung since I’d left high school, showed up in this very chapel, first day of classes for the new school year, terrified that it would be painfully obvious that although I could certainly carry a tune, sing well, even, I was no match for the vocal majors I’d heard warming up in the hallways of the Ford buildings.
It was not easy to be a member of the Berry College Concert Choir in 1994. Harry Musselwhite cared – cares – deeply about making good music, and about doing so well, with crisp consonants and tall vowels and deep breaths that will carry you right through the most difficult line of John Rutter or Gabriel Faure. We worked. Hard. And some days it was super frustrating.
And some days, it was pure gold. By mid-semester, I knew I’d found my place. My people. And the hours I spent in this place, with those people, working through some of the world’s most beautiful music, were hours that challenged me. Shaped me. Forged me for far more than a choir concert. Because more than anything else, when we were perfecting a line from Candide, or a single note from Verdi, we were learning what it meant to be our best and truest selves in a way that only determined individuals working towards a common goal can. It was, as I reflected on it recently, rather revolutionary. Especially in light of a world that is, daily, more divided along lines drawn by politics, socioeconomics, race, gender and just about any other line in the sand you can think of.
Where is your place? Who are your people? Where is it that you know, like Jesus did with Mary and Martha and Lazarus, that there was, without doubt, a chair for YOU at the table, and space for YOU to be exactly who you are, even when everything around you seems to be falling apart? Where is it that you would choose to spend the night, right in the middle of the worst week of your life, with nothing certain and everything in chaos?
I graduated from Berry 25 years ago. Which, first, seems impossible. But, second, y’all so much has changed! There was a pay phone at the end of the hallway in the East Mary dorm when I was a student. A. Pay. Phone. You better believe I knew how to charge a call back home to my parents’ house in Winder, Georgia, on that pay phone.
But also. There’s TikTok now.
And Loretta Lynn is dead.
And so is Michael Jackson.
Also, did y’all know there was a football game here last night? And I’m not talking about Ted Lasso or the Premier League. Like, actual American football? Did anyone ask Martha Berry?!?
There’s folks that should be here, too. I know my class is not the only whose lost classmates we loved – many of them far too soon.
So much has changed….
Some of you in this room graduated 50 years ago. Some of you a year ago. Some of you are professors who’ve lived a whole career as Berry College faculty, and some of you are parents who are just glad that Mountain Day gave you an excuse to come check on your kid midway through her first semester of college.
However it is that you are here this morning, whatever connection to this place, this school, this home, has brought you here – we’ve all come by so many ways.
Some of us have come by way of heartache – life stories having not gone at all as we’d planned and dreams we once had shattered on the kitchen floor.
Some of us have come by way of sorrow – loved ones lost and relationships broken.
Some of us have come by way of cancer or diabetes or Parkinson’s or some other serious illness.
Some of us have come by way of carpool and baseball practice and juggling professional and personal lives with a triple latte in hand and a daily prayer that we’ll make it through.
Some of us have come by way of standing in the trenches of injustice and demanding that all God’s children know real equality and true freedom.
So many ways. So many stories. So many different paths we took from this place, and so many different paths that have brought us back. And I wonder how those of us returning after some time might be finding each other different.
I wonder how Mary and Martha found Jesus different when he showed up, road worn and weary at their place, knowing the fate that awaited him, and also knowing that there, with them, he was safe. Bonded in their common faith, their common desire for Jesus’ message of unconditional love and grace to be known.
We are, this morning, gathered together in a moment of reunion, come from a world torn apart by hate, by rage, by grief – we are a broken people in this country, there is no way around that fact, and I would imagine that we have come to this space with as many different ideas about why that is as there are individuals gathered here.
But I also know that what draws us here unites here. What draws us here is a mountain woman who believed that education mattered, and who was determined that even the poorest of mountain children were deserving of such an education. What draws us here is a woman who believed that book learning matters, yes, but so do the things we learn with the beating of our hearts, the things we learn with the work of our hands. What draws us here is bigger than each of us, and it calls us to a way of being in the world that, I believe, is capable of making a difference – of healing, even, some of broken places.
I mean, did it matter at all, your time here? Does it matter that you’ve known life in this place? A place that came to be because Martha Berry was brave enough, visionary enough, revolutionary enough, to speak when women weren’t often allowed to, so that the children around her could dream of a better future?
Does it matter that you call – or at least once called– Lavender Mountain home?
It does to me.
I can’t y’all how many people in my life in Louisville, Kentucky just roll their eyes when I start talking about Berry College. “We know, Julie, we know. It’s the most beautiful campus and the biggest campus and there’s lots of deer. We KNOW.”
(Although, in recent months, the fact that season 4 of Stranger Things was partly filmed here, has, I admit, earned me street cred with my teenage daughter and her friends.)
I wonder if sometimes the disciples rolled their eyes at Jesus when he said something about Bethany. “We KNOW Jesus. Mary and Martha are there, and Lazarus is the coolest. We KNOW.”
Bethany mattered to Jesus, by all Gospel accounts. It shaped him, I think, for ministry, perhaps in ways that weren’t obvious, but that were no less important.
Whatever way you’ve come here this weekend, whatever path led you home, it isn’t like anyone else’s – and yet, there is something so incredibly sacred about so many of us finding our way here.
Common ground is extraordinarily difficult to find these days. Heartbreakingly so. Every day, it seems, we find new ways to pit ourselves against one another.
And yet – here we all are this morning. On common ground.
Here we are. Home.
The real question, though, is what difference will it make when we leave again?