Monday, January 17, 2005

"Let justice roll down...."

I have only preached once in a "black" church. It is not something I will ever forget.

As you might expect from my writing style, my preaching style is anything but fiery or inciting. I may make you think; I won't often move you emotionally. But in a pulpit exchange I took a dare against myself, and volunteered to preach in a small African American UCC church in Lake Charles, Louisiana. It was a typical black southern church: small, simple, spare. People drifted in. The service had no formal start, no formal end. I had a sermon written out, prepared, ready for delivery. I knew better than to try to be what I was not, and they were good people: kind, friendly, ready to receive whatever I might have to give.

I'd like to say I was transformed, swept up, carried away in a "Hollywood" moment into my apotheosis, my moment of glory. I wasn't, of course. But as I preached, they started responding. No one had ever responded before. Preaching is a strange art, hard to get used to. It isn't a speech: you aren't campaigning, or selling a product, or promoting a new venture, or lecturing, or teaching. Not exactly. And people in most churches, most white churches, sit stiff, and still, and quietly, and listen. You aren't used to people listening so carefully, being so aware that they shouldn't respond at all. You don't realize you aren't used to it until they do it. No one wiggles, shuffles, coughs. And it isn't because you are mesmerizing; it's because they are reverent, and listening: they are paying attention to every word. And they don't move; and they don't answer; and you don't pause.

Except that day, they did answer. Slowly, at first, and it moved me, and I spoke back to them. And as I spoke back, they spoke, and before long, we had a conversation going. Me leading, them leading, me answering, them answering. It didn't exactly flow, except for me it did. It was remarkable. When I got an "Amen!", I knew I'd said something right; it was an affirmation, not of me, but of the words I was saying, the spirit I was speaking for, and speaking in. It was a spiritual experience; at least, for me.

Why am I telling you this? Because the "conventional wisdom," the commonly accepted definition, that religion is a "personal experience," a private practice, is bunk. That is an acculturated norm of Protestantism, and it has no basis in anything except social practices that value appearance above all else, of a bourqeois middle class that will always value "order" over justice. Religion is not private, it is public. It is not personal, it is shared. If "religion is responsibility or it is nothing at all," then it clearly requires relationship, someone to be responsible to. And that someone is never merely some conveniently abstract notion of deity: that's too easy. We can shape that responsibility too quickly into what is comfortable for us. Religion is shared in part because it is not about us at all. It is about others.

Religion is also shared because the truth of the revelation is discovered by the community, not by the individual. The Bible is not transmitted by one person, but by so many people we've lost track of them. Read it carefully and you hear the Psalms echoed in the Prophets; or is it the prophets echoed in the Psalms? Names change because stories were blended together from disparate sources. New themes arise, arguing with others. The assurances of Proverbs are challenged by the vinegary despair of Ecclesiastes; the assurance of justice by the prophets is wondered at in the singular story of Job. The prophets who listen to God are set against Jonah, the one prophet who wanted nothing to do with God's message. And yet that is the "sign" Jesus says will be given to the people. It is, in other words, messy. and it is not, not ever, all about you.

The community confirms whether or not you speak the truth. The community decides whether or not you speak God's word. Somebody has to do it, and the community is the best place for that. So it has to be shared. It has to be shared, and it because it's messy it keeps spilling over its proper boundaries, and getting into the public marketplace, the communal discourse on all things. Sometimes it belongs there; sometimes it doesn't. The community has to decide that, too. Sometimes religion is matter out of place. Sometimes it's a matter of our looking with new eyes.

To make a long post slightly longer, the community in question is bounded: it is composed of it adherents, not all the members of the city, state, nation, or even neighborhood. Justice Thomas, for one, would do well to keep that in mind. Nor, ordinarily, should the communities mix. But then we have the example of Dr. King, and of the civil rights movement; and before that, of the abolitionist movement. But the confession of that community is that it does overlap with all the other communities. And that is where the friction comes in, the messiness. It is all about, and always about, boundaries.

Having brought this little church into my discussion, it would be unfair not to conclude with them; because while the topic is huge, and contains all of humanity, it is not abstract and ethereal, but concrete, and ultimately real. Those people in that church, above all, respond to the Word because it shapes who they are, and why they live. Only people who truly live the Word of God, and need the word of God, and understand the word of God, answer that way. Downtrodden people. Oppressed people. People who do not fear the day of the Lord, because they know it will bring justice. People who do not fear being swept away when justice rolls down like waters, because they will be rejoicing in the bath of redemption, in the rain of accountability. People who have been held accountable all their lives know that when that rain comes, it will be their confirmation, their vindication. And they listen carefully, for the word from Aquinas, or Augustine, or Barth, or Tillich, or Buber, or Meschach, Shadrach, and Abednego. People who have known persecution and known faith, know that the universe bends in an arc toward justice. And they welcome it.

And the people for whom the day of the Lord will be a dark day, don't understand the accounting that is coming. And will never understand; and even on that last day, will ask, in that most plaintive and pitiful cry of all the Gospels: "Lord, when did we see you?

May we be counted among those for whom that cry is one of wonder, and not of fear and terror.

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