If Our Congregations Could Talk
by Louise Westfall
Please pray with me: Gracious God, your Word is light and life. Sharpen our spiritual sight to see, and tune the ears of our hearts to hear, in these ancient words of Scripture, your Word for us. Then help us live by its light, and scatter the darkness of our present age. We pray in the name of the Word-made-Flesh, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
At one church, it was customary for the pastor to begin the service by saying “The Lord be with you,” and the congregation to respond “And also with you.” One Sunday, however, the sound system malfunctioned, much to the pastor’s dismay. After tapping it several times, she cried out in frustration “There’s something wrong with this thing!” To which the congregation dutifully responded, “And also with you.”
Well. It’s true that this preacher doesn’t always get it right, but the perils of malfunction stand in sharp contrast to the warm relationship between Central and Peoples. We treasure those bonds and are deeply grateful for worshiping with you again today. Thank you for this visible expression of unity. May the Lord continue with us, as we remember the life of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and recommit ourselves to fulfilling the dream – God’s dream — for which Dr. King gave his life.
The Scripture reading for today is considered the first sermon preached by Jesus in the early days of his earthly ministry — or at least the first one anyone thought to set down in words. In a way, it constitutes Jesus’ inaugural address — the place where he lays out the priorities, values, and strategies that will shape his mission going forward. Let us bring the truth of our lives to the reading, which includes the dysfunction and brokenness of our community, its untapped potential, silenced voices, and deferred hope. A reading from the good news according to Luke in the fourth chapter at the fourteenth verse. Hear God’s transforming word! [Read Luke 4:14-21]
I’m always a little puzzled that the lectionary designers end the reading where they do, with Jesus’ electrifying words, Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing. Everyone loved this hometown young man, who drew from the old prophetic tradition to hint that he too is a prophet. It’ll take next week’s reading to finish the picture, because when Jesus begins to describe how to apply this teaching in present life, the crowd becomes enraged and tries to throw him off a cliff.
We always run the risk on this particular weekend to applaud Dr. King’s soaring, visionary language without attending to the ways they need to be applied in 2019, when our country is still deeply divided along racial, political, and socio-economic fault lines.
I saw a remarkable movie recently If Beale Street Could Talk. Based on a novel by James Baldwin, it tells a story of race in America through the eyes a young couple, Alfonzo “Fonny” and Tish — in love, starting a family, navigating school and jobs — whose lives are suddenly upended by the retaliatory arrest of Fonny by a white racist cop for a crime he did not commit. The mass incarceration of men of color and the criminal injustice system described in the novel (set in the mid-1960s, but chillingly contemporary) foreshadows the disheartening end: despite the unconditional support of family, the good-hearted efforts of a white attorney who takes his case, the shortage of judges, the length of time before a case gets heard, and the lack of money for sustained representation result in Fonny copping a plea and serving a sentence of indeterminate length. We see him in the last scene, with his wife and now 5-year-old son, in the jail’s visiting center. The little boy draws a picture which his mother says is always the same: A house, two stick figures and a little boy holding a sign which reads “Welcome home, Daddy.”
Working for social justice and renewal, serving our neighbors in need -- these aren’t optional for the Church, something we add on after the bills are paid, the new members received, and the Bible study guides ordered.
If Beale Street Could Talk … there is a Beale Street in Memphis, center of the blues and barbecue and Black culture. But Baldwin used the name symbolically, to represent the segregation (both legal and de facto) embedded in the landscape of American life. Every black person born in the U.S. was born on Beale Street, he wrote, born in the black neighborhood of some city … When I was growing up, I was trying to make a connection between the life I saw and the life I lived. There are times when you wonder what your role is in this country and what your future is in it. I’ll tell you a story if I may, of darkness laced with light, a story that has not stopped being true in the years since it was first told.
Or even to this day. If Beale Street could talk … we would be reminded that “race” is an invented category, a social construct designed to garner power for the privileged few. It was used to justify slavery in our nation, and even now we live with its dire consequences. Today the US makes up about 5% of the world’s population and has 21% of the world’s prisoners. African Americans are incarcerated at more than five times the rate of Whites [statistics reported in an NAACP Criminal Justice Fact Sheet, 2016]. Bryan Stevenson who has worked and sacrificed on behalf of those incarcerated for capital crimes through the Equal Justice Initiative he founded, cuts to the heart of the matter when he writes: We are all implicated when we allow other people to be mistreated. An absence of compassion can corrupt the decency of a community, a state, a nation. Fear and anger can make us vindictive and abusive, unjust and unfair, until we all suffer from the absence of mercy and we condemn ourselves as much as we victimize others. The closer we get to mass incarceration and extreme levels of punishment, the more I believe it’s necessary to recognize that we all need mercy, we all need justice, and … we all need some measure of unmerited grace. [Bryan Stevenson, Just Mercy: A Story of Redemption]
We are all implicated, friends. And we are all in need of God’s grace. So we return to Jesus’ sermon and the call to those who would follow him: proclaim good news to the poor, sight to the blind, and release to the captives and those who are oppressed. Working for social justice and renewal, serving our neighbors in need — these aren’t optional for the Church, something we add on after the bills are paid, the new members received, and the Bible study guides ordered. This is our mission statement, our credo, our sermon and our song.
Oh, if our congregations could talk …
I think they would have much to say about the ways this scripture is fulfilled. I think they would have much to say about actions and attitudes and a spirit afoot that would give us hope and courage to keep on.
If our congregations could talk …
And we can! We can talk with each other, right now, today. So let’s rearrange ourselves a bit so that we can have conversation, both Peoples and Central folk.
First Question: introduce yourself and briefly describe who you are and why you’re here today.
Second Question: Say something about your congregation that characterizes its identity and mission. What is most compelling for you?
Third Question: What have you heard today that could lead to an action our two congregations could take together to fulfill this text in the year ahead? [please jot these down and get them to me following the service]
Howard Thurman, the great civil rights leader, preacher and mentor to Martin Luther King, Jr. put Jesus’ challenge firmly before us. May we hear it, and fulfill it, today and all the days ahead.
When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
Then the work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost, To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry, To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations, To bring peace among brothers,
To make music in the heart.
Thanks be to God! AMEN.