The Deacon's Bench

When I was growing up, my parents had a big wooden console stereo in the living room. My father had a pretty extensive record collection – everything from the Firestone Christmas Records to the 101 Strings and the original cast recording of “My Fair Lady.” But in his later years he got some classical music records, and even some 8-track tapes. And among them, I remember, were recordings by Luciano Pavarotti.

My father was not an expert on music or art. He was a restaurant supply salesman whose life revolved around selling dishes, silverware and soap. And his father was a coal miner from Pennsylvania who never went to high school.

Once in a while my mother would persuade my dad to take her to a symphony concert. It was always a good opportunity for him to catch up on his sleep.

But he was enamored with Pavarotti. And of course, so were millions of others. When he sang, there was something transcendent.

Thursday, reading Pavarotti’s obituary in the New York Times, I found this quote, from an interview he gave to the BBC in 1998. He was talking about his fundraising efforts for the people of Bosnia: “I care about giving people a place where they can go to enjoy themselves and to begin to live again,” Pavarotti said. “To the man you have to give the spirit, and when you give him the spirit, you have done everything.”

Pavarotti did that. Great music does that. My father understood it: glorious art like that speaks to the spirit, and takes us beyond this world.

And that, I think, is part of the message from today’s scripture. It directs our thoughts and our hearts beyond the concerns of the here and now. It speaks to something yet to come. It speaks, like music, to the spirit.

“The corruptible body burdens the soul,” the book of Wisdom tells us. “The earthen shelter weighs down the mind that has many concerns.”

We are weighed down by deadlines to meet and decisions to make – with work and worry, with news about the war and Fred Thompson and taxes and taxi cab strikes and mortgage rates and foreclosures…and in the middle of all this, maybe your daughter comes home and announces that she wants to have her navel pierced.

Yes. The “earthen shelter” weighs us down with many concerns.

Jesus understood that. But what He has to say about it sounds shocking: the best way around it is to renounce everything. You have to hate your family and pick up your cross if you want to be His disciple.

The gospel tells us that great crowds were following him when he said that.

I wonder how many stayed around after that?

But at the moment he delivered those words, Jesus himself had already given up everything – he had turned away from family, and from possessions, and was journeying to Jerusalem. He was about to surrender the last thing he had: his life. And he was warning everyone around him to be prepared to do the same.

Commentators tell us that Jesus was not being literal – but was using a kind of hyperbole, exaggerating to make a point.

His point: the road will be hard. The cross will be heavy. Be prepared for the journey to come. Your commitment has to be complete. And nothing – not your family, not your possessions, not even your life – can hold you back.

That is the true price of discipleship. But the reward is something that can’t be measured. It is something, like a Pavarotti aria, that transcends our limitations.

Pavarotti’s most famous aria was Nessun Dorma from Puccini’s “Turandot.” I won’t torture you by singing it. Those of you who have heard me sing know why my career at the Met never panned out.

Anyway, I’m ignorant about opera, and always wondered just who this Nessun Dorma lady was and why he was singing about her.

Thanks to the people at Google, I found out.

The title “Nessun Dorma” means “Let no one sleep.” In the opera, the princess Turandot has declared that no one will sleep, they will all spend the night trying to find out the name of the unknown prince, Calaf, who has challenged her to name him.

Calaf sings of his certainty that no one will guess who he is.

And the lyrics at the end cry out: “Vanish, oh night. Set, stars. Set, stars…at dawn I will win. I will win!”

Christ likewise calls out to us to join him on his journey to Jerusalem, where night will vanish, and he will conquer death. He summons us to something greater – and asks us to give of ourselves, until there is nothing left to give.

It is a great summons, and a daunting one. But we take hope from the words of the psalm today: “In every age, Lord, you have been our refuge. Prosper the work of our hands.”

We ask God to prosper the work of OUR hands, and to give meaning to what we do.

“When you give man the spirit,” Pavarotti said, “you have done everything.”

We pray this morning that God may give us HIS spirit, a spirit of hope, and transcendence, so that we can be worthy to be called Christ’s disciples — carrying our crosses, and carrying on the work He began.

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