Summary: Black History Month and Amazing Grace Sunday: there is much to celebrate about freedom, when we review history. But we either devote ourselves to freedom (political, social, spiritual) or we devour ourselves. Newton’s story illustrates. Montgomery Hill
It’s a glorious thing to discover that you are free. Freedom tastes good, smells good, feels good. But after you find out you are free, then what? What do you do with your freedom? There are only two answers to that question: freedom either leads you to devotion; or it drives you to devour. Freedom is either a devotion to things that build, or it is a drive to things that devour. After you find out that you are free, then what?
It falls my lot, once again, to be the preacher on the Sunday when we at Montgomery Hills focus on Black History. Here I am, in all my whiteness, as the preacher for Black History Sunday. What are we to make of that?
I got excited for a moment when I first saw the Sunday bulletin. During this season, the bulletin is running vignettes of persons significant to Black History. Two weeks ago, the bulletin featured our member Willie King, and she was here. Last week, the bulletin lifted up Congressman Louis Stokes, and he was here. This week, the bulletin pictures preacher Gardner Taylor and singer Jessye Norman! Wow, if you’re here today, either of you, will you please step forward! No such luck, I suppose.
It does remind me, however, of a story about Gardner Taylor, for many years pastor of Concord Baptist Church in Brooklyn. It seems there was a young preacher who was just not getting any response from his congregation, no matter how hard he tried. He did his best every Sunday, but they sat in stony silence. No one responded; no one said anything. And so the young preacher, desperate to learn what he could do better, went to hear the prince of preachers, Gardner Taylor. Now Dr. Taylor had a habit of coming to the pulpit in a preaching robe, but leaving it open. He never used the zipper or the buttons, just let the robe fall open. Our aspiring young preacher was fascinated with that, and so went back to his own pulpit the next Sunday, put on his robe, and, when it came time to preach, rather ostentatiously unzipped it so that he could at least look like Gardner Taylor. He launched into his sermon, but again, there was no response. Not an amen, not a “preach on”, not a sound – except for one deacon, sitting on the front row, who could stand the flapping robe no longer. The deacon shouted, at a critical spot in the sermon, “It’s not the robe, preacher, it’s not the robe.”
Well, it’s not the robe. It’s not appearance. It’s not what the preacher is wearing or his age or his accent or his culture. It’s not what the preacher looks like. If on Black History Sunday, and you are stuck with a white Kentuckian instead of Gardner Taylor and a mischievous Georgia girl instead of Jessie Norman, deal with it! For it is appropriate. It IS appropriate! It is appropriate not only because the Scripture says that “God has made of one blood all nations.” It is appropriate not only because Paul in this same Galatian letter exclaims, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” It is also appropriate because in our world, where racism still abounds, some of us are identified with the problem. Some of us represent those who over the centuries have felt entitled and superior. Some of us, however polite, however cultured, still harbor deep in us seeds of racism. And that needs to be dealt with.
And so maybe it is eminently appropriate this morning that the preacher for Black History Sunday be a white southern male, some of whose ancestors were slave owners and whose deeper instincts may still involve attitudes never fully examined. Is it possible, my brothers and sisters of the Caucasian persuasion, that we could, if provoked, become a Michael Richards, spewing hateful language all over the scene? Is it possible that we too could find ourselves, like the senior senator from Delaware, staggering and stumbling over words that betray condescension and disrespect? Today is for all of us, black and white and mixed and whatever. Today is about using our freedom in love.
For the theme of today’s message is straightforward: that we who are free can either use our freedom to devote ourselves to things that build; or we can use it to devour and to destroy. Which will it be? Hear Paul again:
For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’. If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another.