The other day I started thumbing through sermons preached over the last 43+ years of my ministry. One caught my attention. It was delivered to my Disciples of Christ congregation in Burbank, CA, on April 9, 2000 – 17 years ago. Hear some of its words:
“The title of my sermon today is ‘The Greatest Story Ever Told: Comin’ Forth to Carry Me Home.’ The latter words are taken from a Black Spiritual, ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,’ and reflect the aspirations of the black slaves in Pre-Civil War America to break out from the old covenant of slavery and degradation and into the new covenant of hope and promise. Slave music was a unique blend of African tunes, of protestant hymns, and of Revival songs, and of the emotions and feelings that were part of life in servitude.
Listen to the words of some other songs:
“O Lord, O my Lord! O my good Lord, keep me from sinking down.”
“Got nowhere to lay my weary head.”
“My trouble is hard.”
“Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen, Nobody knows but Jesus.”
“Lawd, I can’t help from cryin’ sometime.’
“In his book, The Peculiar Institution, Kenneth M. Stampp tells the story of a former slave who recalled the ecstasy he felt when he learned that there was a salvation “for every man” and that God loved black men as well as white [that goes for women, too!]. ‘It seemed,’ said the slave, ‘to see a glorious being, in a cloud of splendor, smiling down from on high,” ready to “welcome me to the skies.”
“And so, just as with the slaves, God is calling us to break out of the old covenant into the new. God is sending God’s chariot our way, offering us a ride from the dark and dusty chambers of servitude to a mansion which is already prepared for us. May we have the courage to jump on board, learn from the former, and move toward the new.
“But I must caution you – all real growth comes with pain. I saved an editorial cartoon representation of it yesterday from our own hometown newspaper, The Leader, in the Community Forum Section. Did you see it? [The cartoon is in two sections with angry mobs in both. One side reads: “SCHOOL, SEGREGATION FOREVER, KEEP ‘EM OUT. ALABAMA 1963.” The other side reads: “CHURCH: PROTECT MARRIAGE, PROP. 22, NO GAYS AT THE ALTAR. CALIFORNIA 2000.”]
“I hope the day will never come when folk stand outside the church doors to keep people out. It does not matter what Proposition is on the ballot or what cherished beliefs are being questioned. God’s church is a place of sanctuary and is for all. God’s Christ was pierced for our transgressions and was crushed for our iniquities. Christ became a ransom for all. As the Apostle wrote: ‘As all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ [1 Corinthians: 15:22].
“The Greatest Story Ever Told is that even in the midst of our dividedness on many issues, here at this place all are welcome – black and white, Hispanic, Asian, and indigenous, male and female, straight gay, and transgender, child and adult, mentally healthy and mentally ill, physically strong and healthy, physically and cognitively challenged. You name it. You are welcome here. And it is not so much because this is the type of church or the type of people we are. Let’s not pat ourselves on the back. It is because of the type of God we have. No, it is because of the God who has us, all of us, all of the time.
“I am reminded of that piece of graffiti found on the wall of St. John’s University: “Jesus said unto them: ‘Who do you say that I am?’ And they replied: ‘You are the eschatological manifestation of the ground of our being, the kerygma in which we find the ultimate meaning of our interpersonal relationships.’ And Jesus said: ‘What?’”
“It does not take lofty theological concepts or complex exercises in logic to get it. God loves you, whomever you are. All are welcome!”
I believe these words today just as much, if not more so, than I did when I penned them many years ago. The gospel message only gets better with age. Stay tuned to find out what welcoming embrace God will send our way in the future.