Summary: Celebrates the literary insights of James Baldwin, who had died shortly before; the privilege of redemptive suffering on the part of a person or a people participates in the suffering of Christ and of His victory. Includes readings from Baldwin’s writing
Nothing is more full of mystery than this – that the suffering of .a few who are oppressed and injured acts to redeem the many, including the oppressors. And yet nothing is more true than this – that from time to time a person, a people, a race receives the awesome privilege of suffering in such away that the world is changed, never to be the same again. And the will of God proceeds because the blood of martyrs is spilled.
Centuries ago a sovereign God chose for himself a people who were slaves. They had had to work under the whip of taskmasters; they had toiled day after day, year after year under the burning sun. Their backs had been flogged until they were great unhealing sores. The works of their hands were monuments to human genius, and yet because they were slaves, men saw only the creativity of their overlords and not their genius. Their sons were taken as field hands, their daughters were abused for the pleasure of the masters and then thrown away like so much Monday morning garbage. It seemed they were no people, with no future and no inheritance.
But I say, nothing is more full of mystery than this – that the suffering of the oppressed and injured acts to redeem. From time to time a people receives the awesome privilege of suffering in such a way that the world is changed, never to be the same again. And the will of God proceeds because the blood of martyrs is spilled.
And so a God of might and power reached down into Africa. And this God heard the cries of a people and said to them, "Your cries have reached my ears, and I will bring you out.” This God acted in the midst of a suffering people called Israel and the world was changed, never to be the same again. He chose them and they knew the awesome privilege of suffering in such a way that the world is changed, never to be quite the same again.
From time to time throughout the world’s history come those moments in which because of the anguish of one person, one group, one people, those patterns we had thought were so fixed and firm are brought into upheaval, and a mighty God moves forward his will. The majestic and powerful cadences of the Book of Revelation read history that way. Whatever else this passage may mean, surely it means this – that the world you and I see and think of as fixed, unchanging, unyielding: it isn’t. This world is not fixed, this world is subject to the power of a God whose will moves on. Even the very mountains, so solid, so firm, can be moved when he wills it. Listen: Revelation 6:12-17 … My Lord, what a morning, when the stars begin to fall … and the sky is vanished and every mountain removed from its place … but just as powerful as that image is, just as stupendous as the picture of the very mountains collapsing is the social upheaval this passage tells. “Then the kings of the earth and the great men and the generals and the rich and the strong … AND the slave as well as the free … hide among the rocks of the mountains, calling ‘Fall on us, hide us from the wrath of the Iamb.’" The slave as well as the free, the lowly as well as the great, the oppressed as well as the oppressor, all together seeing the mountain-shattering work of the crucified Lamb.
My Lord, what a morning, when the very stars begin to fall!
Beginning in the 1940’s and then building into a torrent of works, a prophet arose on the scene of our history to interpret it. Some critics liken this prophet to the Biblical prophet Jeremiah, who showed us so much of his own tortured soul as he struggled to speak God’s truth. But this prophet has become a primary interpreter of the black experience. James Baldwin penetrated that experience so profoundly that he could give images and ways of understanding it not only to black Americans, but also to many others who, once they tasted a paragraph or two of his language, could not escape it.
Now you will understand that this morning I am not excusing the crudeness of Baldwin’s language, except to say that he has his ear open to the streets, and he does not see his task as prettifying the ugly. He is reporting authentically. Nor do I excuse his sexual lifestyle, nor do I affirm his emotional rejection of Christ, nor are any of us happy with his denunciations of so many institutions in the black American experience; none of these things do we have to agree with in order still to see that here was a prophet. Here was one who spoke the great themes, the greatest of themes: that the suffering of the oppressed and injured acts to redeem, that from time to time a people receives the terrible privilege of suffering in such a way that the world is changed. My Lord, what a morning, when the stars begin to fall! My Lord, what a history, when the very mountains are removed and the strong and the weak, the master and the slave, find themselves under the wrath of the Lamb.