Fire of Love and Justice
May 30, 2018
By Rev. Jim O'Hanlon
Getting to church 45 minutes early on a Thursday night should get you a seat but not when attending the "Reclaiming Jesus" event with its amazing diversity of speakers and urgent call to truth-telling. National City Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) filled every seat on May 24th. Next door, Luther Place was taking the overflow for still more people to watch the service live streamed. These people had traveled to Washington D.C. from across the country and beyond; many were attending Luther Seminary's annual Festival of Homiletics for the week.
Tony Campolo, Baptist minister and author, James Forbes, the former pastor of Riverside Church, Walter Brueggerman, the renowned Old Testament scholar, Richard Rohr, the Franciscan and author and Episcopal Bishop Michael Curry and many other faith leaders were gathered by Jim Wallis, editor of Sojourner's Magazine. "Reclaiming Jesus" called together these and others who were concerned about recent trends, concerned about church leaders who are too sanguine about our nation's rising racism, misogyny and blatant attacks on the rule of law, assaults on the profession of journalism and the scapegoating of immigrants, refugees and the poor.
I was participating in the week's preaching festival with 1,700 colleagues and on Thursday night many more people had showed up for this service. Speakers each took one of the principles of a declaration which had been published on Holy Week (reclaimingjesus.org). Each declaration was met with loud applause and often the gathering leapt to its feet to emphasize the urgency we feel, the rising danger we see for so many American values.
Michael Curry received a standing ovation, clearly the assembled preachers wanted to show their admiration for his sermon for Harry and Meghan, a wedding of a couple, British and American, who provided an occasion for The Most Reverend to preach on verses from the Song of Solomon (2:10-13, 8: 6-7). While it's a good text for a wedding, I'm not sure how many ministers would use it for their preaching; it has no mention of God or religious traditions. Many people take it to be an allegory of love between us and God. There are certainly many instances where nuptial imagery is used throughout the Bible but to me this book makes more sense as a love poem than as a revelation of God's love; the selected verses were chosen carefully for this occasion to leave out references to breasts, for example.
The bishop focused on the text's use of the imagery of fire; it was the vigil of Pentecost after all. Bishop Curry wanted his assembly of beloved to notice that the text uses fire to emphasize the power of love. Some people might have taken that verse to be a reference to the burning of loins but maybe that says more about our society's puritanical legacy than the text itself. It's not a platonic song but it also has an elevated understanding of love
Those of us assembled in D.C. that night were imagining we were in the glow of the wedding, five days later and an ocean away; that wedding sermon became the occasion to speak about a reexamination of what God's command to love would look like for communities and nations. At the wedding he related a description from the French Jesuit Pierre Teilhard de Chardin on the enormous leap in technology when people learned how to harness fire.
Teilhard de Chardin is a part of my roundabout and surprising journey to ministry. Annie Lamont writes about her journey as being a series of random, floating lily pads. I look back and I see the Jesuit's ideas as an important departure along the way, one lily pad that connected to a very specific series that followed. In the 1990's I was working for a man by the name of Mario Cuomo and he spoke of his faith alot for a politician, especially for that time. He loved the French Jesuit for his fresh and positive embrace of the world and it did nothing short of renew his faith and provide for a sense of vocation. Like me, that faith had been formed with a pessimistic spirituality and a dark view of humanity and of public affairs and politics.
Teilhard de Chardin lifted up John 3:16 in a way that combined with his own vocation as a call to both theology and geology and he focused on the first five words of that famous verse, often called 'the gospel in miniature.' In particular, he focused on "the world" as the object of God's love. It's no small pronouncement from the evangelist who speaks of "the world" with a stark dualism informed by our Lord's public trial and official execution. Love for this world was a notable image for a young Catholic like Cuomo when he heard it, and for me as I was still a Roman Catholic when I heard it from him.
In the time of Cuomo's public career, the 1970s- 1990s, American politics was not looked upon with the same idealism and admiration that was common before Watergate and the American intervention in Vietnam. Why would someone like Cuomo, whose faith was a strong part of his identity, get his hands dirtied in the arena of such deception and corruption? Often asked about this dilemma, he would cite de Chardin. If he had been a Protestant he might have been drawn to Reinhold Niebuhr who offers similar inspiration for public servants, as seen in the recent book by the fired FBI director James Comey.
While the application of our faith in the public sphere is, I think, complicated and dangerous, it's important to note that the church's much diminished position in America changes that calculus. In one sense it means we could find ourselves more easily seduced by the opportunity to have a politician take note of us and even share their spotlight with us. On the other hand, we might lean-in to a prophetic identity since we are less identified with the status quo and those who benefit from it in an increasingly secular society. We were reminded during this week that there really is no neutrality when we faced with injustice. If we are preaching and we ignore today's issues we have chosen to side with those who are comfortable and ignore those who suffer.
Today, stories that inform our moral imaginations are much more likely to come from screenplays than scripture and the spirit of the times is much more likely to be articulated by songwriters than from sermon performers. John Lennon's song "Imagine", with its disdain for religion's role in exploitation and violence, has become a go-to for public occasions that call for solace and inspiration. Alicia Keys provides many of today's generation with an anthem for their values with her recent song, "Holy War:"
"If war is holy and sex is obscene
we've got it twisted in this lucid dream
Baptized in boundaries, schooled in sin
divided by difference, sexuality and skin..."
The leaders of the Women's March, Black Lives Matter, and the Me Too movements, and even students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, hold more prominence in the moral discussion in our society than Wallis' group of what he called "Elders." (Curry said that among the Elders he's part of the youth group but grey beards like his were predominant.)
At the wedding, Bishop Michael Curry reread a portion of the text from Song of Solomon and then began his remarks by quoting, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr:
"We must discover the power of love, the redemptive power of love. And when we discover that, we will be able to make of this old world a new world, for love is the only way.... Someone once said that Jesus began the most revolutionary movement in all of human history. A movement grounded in the unconditional love of God for the world and a movement mandating people to live that love. And in so doing to change not only their lives but the very life of the world itself."
Curry emphasized that this love represents:
"Real power. Power to change the world. If you don't believe me, well, there were some old slaves in America's Antebellum South who explained the dynamic power of love and why it has the power to transform. They explained it this way: They sang a spiritual, even in the midst of their captivity. It's the one that says "There's a balm in Gilead... You just tell the love of Jesus, how he died to save us all."
Much like Lennon, he lifted up a moral vision:
"just stop and imagine. Think and imagine a world where love is the way.
...When love is the way - unselfish, sacrificial, redemptive.
When love is the way, then no child will go to bed hungry in this world ever again.
When love is the way, we will let justice roll down like a mighty stream and righteousness like an ever-flowing brook.
When love is the way, poverty will become history.
When love is the way, the earth will be a sanctuary.
When love is the way, we will lay down our swords and shields, down by the riverside, to study war no more.”
At this point Curry used an old African American idiom and then leaned on the lectern in a way that embodied what appeared to be a break with formality and an injection of familiarity:
"When love is the way, there's plenty good room - plenty good room - for all of God's children. Because when love is the way, we actually treat each other, well... like we are actually family.”
"And let me tell you something," he said in closing, "old Solomon was right in the Old Testament: that's fire.... Dr. King was right: we must discover love - the redemptive power of love. And when we do that, we will make of this old world, a new world."
The reference to a "New World" on the occasion of this notable development in Anglo-American relations must have struck a chord in old England although he may have meant a for Biblical reference.
His sermon was unexpected because of its lively presentation before a stodgy Church of England crowd. A reference to Meghan's African American roots, which he shares, was expected, but the eloquence, the vision of a world of love, captured everyone with its beauty. Employing moral imagination more than moral denunciation, he did not use the word 'justice' but he was painting a picture of what Cornel West meant when he said "Justice is what love looks like in public".
With church elders (and religious voices of any age) not having the same attention in our public discourse these days, the folks gathered at National City Christian Church felt a tingle of excitement at the opportunity Bishop Curry employed so well. The prospect for prophetic voices and a spirit of Christian liberation has energized many and boosted the spirits and activism for those who gathered in a candlelit procession down the Capital’s streets with a banner that announced we were "Reclaiming Jesus."
The Wedding service is worth watching for the tender moments between the bride and groom, Harry's earnestness and Meghan's irrepressible but composed smile. Not to be forgotten was the new world elegance and faintly discernible pathos of the bride's mother, Doria Ragland. Even amidst this cast of British and American Royalty (Clooney and Oprah), preachers are not alone in seeing the sermon as a highlight of the occasion; it's worth watching. Here's a link
Also, check out the declaration and the service for "Reclaiming Jesus"