FOR A TIME, in the 1950’s the story goes—you could not go through the town in which I grew up without humming the Kingston Trio’s hit, “Tom Dooley.” The song has lyrics such as these: “Hang your down your head Tom Dooley, poor boy you’re bound to die, Hang down your head Tom Dooley, you killed poor Laura Foster and now you’re bound to die.” I’ve heard that song since I was a child and even the great late folk legend Doc Watson covered the song. What’s fascinating is that this song encapsulates a story of Tom Dulah, a 19th century Confederate veteran caught in a love triangle who was hung for the murder of Laura Foster on Depot Hill in Statesville.
Permit me, if you will, to take you to Depot Hill in Statesville, North Carolina. It’s May 1st, 1868 and this former Wilkes county native had been tried in Wilkes County and convicted of murder in the 1st degree. The art of capital punishment in the 1860’s was nothing short of a spectacle to behold. The town lore of my hometown states that the streets were filled with men, women, and children of all ages ready to behold the site of Tom Dulah taking his final walk up the hill to be hanged by the court’s order.
I’ve been fascinated with this story since I first heard it on the ghost tours around Halloween as a child. But I’ve become more fascinated with the spectacle witnessed at his execution sine I was in undergraduate school and studying prison literature. We certainly have come to a different understanding of capital punishment since the 1860’s, and though we haven’t abolished it as we should, we have a deeper willingness to keep those matters private to the courts and the state.
You may be wondering why I’m telling you the story of Tom Dulah today. I feel as if clergy including myself, across this country are speaking up on issues that matter. We are modern day Tom Dulahs. Sure we committed the crime of proclaiming love triumphant, no matter the cost, but we do not deserve the spectacle of hanging we are receiving in the court of pubic opinion by modern-day witch hunters.
But I don’t come today as a Tom Dulah saying the sacrifice of love wasn’t worth the cost of losing my job and my livelihood. It was, in fact, quite the opposite. The modern day church has become purveyors and spectators of the hanging of clergy. We are hanging our clergy out to dry. My Depot Hill was saying “Black Lives Matter” to millions of people on MTV as a pastor. My congregation thought I had endorsed a terrorist organization by saying those words and no longer wanted to be associated with me.
This has caused traumatic strife in my life. Professor Walton asked me to speak in this forum and lecture to the cost of speaking up and it is evident: I’m exhausted, I’m never home as a newlywed, and my health has had its rough patches. But in spite of it all, in spite of the realities of what I have faced. I look to Mark’s Gospel—For Mark’s Gospel makes it clear what good is it to gain the world and lose your soul?
WHEN I FIRST MET the Reverend Professor Peter J. Gomes I had him sign my books and I made a statement that I knew in my heart to be true: One day I will preach from your pulpit at Harvard. Every preacher worth their weight looks to that pulpit for strength, sustenance, and hope. For years it has been a place of innovation and creativity in homiletics, and I knew even in high school that I wanted to be a part of it.
Whether a preacher will tell you this or not, we all have a list. There are certain churches that we’d just love to preach from. For me, Harvard’s Memorial Church is at the top of that list. So when Peter Gomes’ successor at the Church Professor Jonathan L. Walton called me and invited me to preach I was in tears. I called my wife and my mom and I proclaimed that dreams do come true.
But then I had this sinking feeling, getting to this place had cost so much. I’ve lost friends who don’t even recognize my presence anymore, I’ve lost the respect of seminary classmates, I’ve lost faith (sometimes in God, sometimes in myself). I know that for these reasons, the pulpit of Memorial Church doesn’t look like it did when I was in high school. It’s now a sign of the cost of discipleship.
You see I thought I’d ride in here one day as a professor of homiletics on a white horse and tell Harvard what they could do better to save their souls. Now I’m more riding in on a donkey telling them that I’m lucky to have made it out of this part of life alive. But maybe that’s the lesson I’m supposed to take from such an auspicious pulpit: God doesn’t like preachers arriving on white horses with their swords drawn, God prefers them arriving on asses and sometimes being so foolish they are the ass. Because God does God’s best work when all hope is lost, when it’s early on a Sunday morning and the tomb seems insurmountable.
This hope for me is the same hope God offers all of us. We are meant to shine just as Christ did on the mount of Transfiguration. We are meant to show the world that it may be cruel but God is good. The cancer may return, the job may be lost, the child may never make it out of the womb but God’s kingdom is coming near and I am filled with certainty that it will be made right in our world. I know that doesn’t answer grave theological questions of theodicy but it gives me hope for the future and the future of the coming kingdom is that God draws near. God made us for resiliency and that resiliency will see us through to the last and final breath.
THE COST OF SACRIFICE is great but the sound of silence is worse than speaking up and failing miserably. Will we speak up when the moment is costly and the cost of discipleship is looming over us? Will we enable spectators and Twitter trolls to have the last word as they did with Tom Dulah? I’m not making excuses for a murderer, but I am not going to condone spectacular acts of execution for anyone whether figuratively or literally. We must all be called to act. We must all be called to speak up and speak out in God’s name. It may not be from Harvard’s pulpit but it will be from places that change who we are and make us into the people that God intended for us to be.
May we be bold in our resolve and in our resolutions of faith. May we be willing to walk away if it’s going to cost us our souls. I’m proud to be preaching today but I know as my confirmation mentor said when you pray to God for something you need to be specific. Sure it has been my prayer to preach from this place but it is not how I intended. But maybe that is the greatest gift of all.