Jeffrey Sartain, July 23, 2017
Scripture Isaiah 55:10–13
For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven,
and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout,
giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.
For you shall go out in joy,
and be led back in peace; the mountains and the hills before you
shall burst into song,
and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands. Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress;
instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle; and it shall be to the Lord for a memorial,
for an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.
Let us pray:
Filled with your blessing, O God, we come to you. We gather, and we trust that you are meeting us. You meet us in the soul’s songs of hope. You meet us in the shared sorrow that the struggles of life bring. You meet us in the vision of the future that is not desolate but alive and lovely and good. You meet us in these and in so many ways, and so we open our hearts to you. Amen.
* * *
Thank you, once again, to Greta and to Sanford this morning. The music you bring and all it represents means so much to us.
For a couple years now and for one full year in earnest, we at Plymouth have embarked on what we call a racial justice journey—delving into issues of privilege and race. It is a hard journey, but it is also a joyful one.
Today, we are celebrating the music of the African American tradition, and when we do that we need to be honest that there have been deep divisions in this country. We can celebrate together, and we can feel warmth and love for one another and—at the same time—we can also be real about the pain and suffering that is expressed in African American music, along with the deepest kind of joy. We can celebrate, and we can be real about the ways our predominantly white culture has been and is still part of the struggle of minority communities. So, again, to Sanford and Greta, thank you for being open to us and for sharing gifts from your heart. You are a blessing to us.
We are learning a lot together as a church. More than 150 people went through a training last year and, while we had to face some hard truths, we also learned that sometimes you have to face hard things in order to heal your own soul. In this case that means healing from the scars and pain of racial divisions that keep all of us from being the people God wants us to be.
We are learning what it means to sing from our souls. And when I say we are learning what it means to “sing” from our souls, I’m not just talking about our music. I mean we are learning to get in touch with something essential to our spiritual health. We are learning to get in touch with hope. We are learning to be agents of peace. We are learning to stand for justice.
[Song: “If You Want Peace, Work for Justice”]
In 1620, when our spiritual forebears prepared to leave Europe for the New World, their pastor, John Robinson, sent them off with this historic commission: “God has yet more light and truth to break forth out of his holy Word.” In this powerful sentence, Robinson explained that God’s revelation could not be confined to scripture, to a creed or to a catechism; neither could it be attributed exclusively to a pope, a particular religious body or to a unique event or period in history. The word of God, Robinson argued, was more expansive than all of these.
That means that in our way of being Christian, in order to be true to who we are, we have to be open to becoming something other than who we have been. In order to honor our tradition, we need to become something broader than our tradition. Sometimes to be who you are with integrity means you need to change. To be who you are, you need to explore the possibility that God is calling you to be what the Bible calls a new creation.
What is that new creation?
It is an inkling, a tingling maybe, a sense of bubbling up in us that faith might be more than just good ideas. Faith may even be more that noble deeds. Even while our faith remains erudite and intellectual, it also needs to have some soul. Are you with me? We might not be ready to shout “Amen,” but we might be ready to wake up in the morning and let a song arise in our hearts—a song that resonates with the soul.
[Song: “Woke Up This Morning with My Mind Stayed on Justice”]
Have you ever washed windows on a cloudy day? When the sun comes out, you realize there was grime there you just didn’t see before. Streaks across what you thought was perfectly clear. That is the sort of revelation many of us have had in our work over the last year on learning about racial justice. We thought we were clean. We were good. We were nice, liberal, kind people. We weren’t biased; we certainly weren’t racist. That’s what we thought, so many of us. But we’ve had to face the fact that we are part of systems that oppress. We want to deny it, close the drapes, but if you are going to get clean, closing the drapes won’t help. You need a new perspective. At home when I’m washing the windows, I sometimes need to step back, you know, or move to the side, or have someone else come over so I can ask them, “Hey, does this look clean to you?” And I have to believe them if they tell me, “Jeff, you don’t quite have it yet—there is a little more work to do.”
I think that is the stage we are at right now in this work at Plymouth—we are just starting to be able to take a good look at ourselves, at our history, at our theology, at our language, at our practices and the ways we present ourselves to the world—and we are going to need help when it is time to see something we might need to change. Help from communities of color who can tell us what they see in us. Help from each other, with our own perspectives. Help from God, most of all. But we will do it, because, as I said, to be who we are, we have to be willing and ready and able to be something new!
[Song: “Be the Change You Want to See in the World”]
Dr. King wrote in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail”: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
So let us face our own flaws with courage. Let us stand with those who suffer, even if we do not always understand their suffering. Let us pray for the wisdom to do what is right and good and pleasing to God, and above all, let us do what we know all Christians are called to do: Let us love one another. The journey is sometimes hard, but we do not walk alone.
[Song: “Come, We Who Love God’s Name”]