Sermon: Change Agents in a Strange Land

Absalom JOnes

[Given February 8, 2014 for the Celebration of Absalom Jones by The Rev. Fr. Marcus Halley – Grace and Holy Trinity Cathedral – Kansas City, MO]

“How could we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land.” – Psalm 137:4

Come, Holy Spirit.

Take our hearts and think through them.

Take our mouths and speak through them.

Take our hearts and set them on fire. +

I want to put a tag on this text and share with you for just a moment from the subject “Change Agents in a Strange Land.”

Absalom Jones was a man intimately familiar with what it meant to be a pilgrim in a foreign or, as the King James Version calls it, a strange land.

He was born as an enslaved African-living-in-America – strange land.

He was a Black member of a Methodist Church deeply steeped in the racial mores of the day – strange land.

He became the first Black priest in a Church that was only willing to grant its Black membership second-class status – strange land.

He knew what it meant to be a pilgrim traveling through this strange land.

Yet despite these nefariously nihilistic and demonically destructive forces, Jones was able to be a change agent in a strange land.

So what lesson can we draw from Jones? If we pay attention to this brother’s story, perhaps we can discover that our own vocation as 21st Century disciples of Jesus Christ is to become change-agents in a strange land.

What do you mean by strange? Well, I’m glad you asked. To those of us with the high ideals of heaven hanging in our consciousness, the world we live in is very, very strange. We’ve heard tales of a home far beyond the skies, a land bright and fair so far away, where the Tree of Life sheds its sweet fragrance of love and light, peace and joy, grace and welcome, community and abundance through the air of that heavenly city.

Yet, this strange land offers us a contrary condition. Instead of love and light, we are offered hatred and darkness. Rather than peace and joy, we are surrounded with violence and upheaval. Unforgiveness and closed-off-hearts stand in the place of grace and welcome, and the world knows more division and scarcity, than community and abundance.

In the face of this reality, how are we to sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?

We sing, knowing that singing is a subversive act of transformation. Brother Absalom Jones  knew that our lives as disciples of Jesus Christ ought to compose a symphony of struggle and a requiem of resistance to evil in all of its forms. He knew that if we dare to sing the Lord’s song in a strange land then what is strange has no other choice but to change.

The Lord’s Songs change strange lands in three ways: The Lord’s Songs soothe our souls. The Lord’s Songs shift our world. The Lord’s Songs speak into our tomorrows.

So first The Lord’s Songs Soothe our Souls

The first step in transformation is recognizing the fundamental pain that is at work in the world. We cannot strive to change a world that we do not know is in need of change. In the Hebrew Bible tradition, this was called a lament – an act of worshipping God that recognized the sheer magnitude of the pain present in the human experience.

In asking “How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?” the community of exiled Israelites in our Psalm were lamenting their current condition. By the rivers of Babylon, not the River Jordan, they sat down and wept.

Wept – because of their shattered traditions.

Wept – because of their broken communities.

Wept – because of their fracturing faith.

Wept – because all that they had ever known had been taken from them.

I don’t know if you’ve ever been in a place when all around is broken and falling apart and all you could do is weep.

There is something about weeping and lamenting that soothes the human heart. The plaintive songs of enslaved Africans living in America hovering like a guardian angel over cotton fields and tobacco plantations bore witness to this transformative testimony of tears.

They would sing,

I’ve been ‘buked an’ I’ve been scorned, children

I’ve been talked about, sho’s you’re born

Children, dere is trouble all over dis world

Dere is trouble all over dis world

If we ever want to be change-agent in a strange land, we must name, out loud and with honesty, what is wrong with it. We must name out loud, that we are malcontent with the malicious miseducation of our children. We must name out loud, that we are not satisfied with the state of American Criminal “in-Justice” system that warehouses the potential, the hopes, and the dreams of far too many, especially people of color. We must name out loud, that we are definitely in a state of dis-ease at the state of our healthcare system that makes wellness a privilege and disenfranchises poor, the elderly, those who are most sensitive.

It is in the naming of the strangeness that we open ourselves to the journey of transformation. It is only in naming what is broken, that we can then cry out…

Oh, fix me.

Fix me, Jesus, fix me.

Not only do The Lord’s Songs soothe our souls, but The Lord’s Songs shift our world.

In order to be a change-agent in a strange world, we must not only name what is wrong with our world, what is broken, but we must believe that it can be redeemed. That’s the lesson we learn from our Lord, that nothing and no one is beyond the redeeming hand of God.

This belief challenges us. You see, there is a fine line between lamenting and languishing, between critique and complaint. We ought not to be found guilty of using our hands to point at the problem without using those same hands to fix it. Was it not Eleanor Roosevelt who said “it is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness”? When we choose to light the candle in the midst of the darkness, we who are called to be change agents in a strange world are exhibiting God’s transformational activity all around us.

It was this belief in a transformational God that led many enslaved Africans living in America to wade in the baptismal waters, waters of transformation, waters of renewal, waters of revival. Some claimed that the submission of the slaves to the Christian faith was a symbol of the servitude, but Howard Thurman, the erudite theologian, claims that “By some amazing but vastly creative spiritual insight the slaves undertook the redemption of a religion that the master had profaned in his midst.”

So when the community gathered in the thick brush and under age-old oak that spread their broad branches over southern streams like a mother hen protecting his babies, and when the community began clapping their hands and stomping their feet and beating their drums in a mystifying and divine rhythm, and when they sung…

Wade in the water children,

God’s a’gonna trouble the water.

They were, without being schooled in the theological assertions of Augustine and Aquinas, without being tutored in the classical languages of Greek and Latin, without most of them even being able to read or write, they were making a radical theological statement – that God is a God of transformation and I am being changed. You may call me slave but God calls me friend. You may call me boy but God calls me his beloved. I know I been changed! The Angels in heaven done signed my name.

If we want to change-agents in a strange world, we cannot stop at the lament, at the anger, at the sadness, at the righteous indignation, but we must endeavor to wade in the troubled and shifting waters of transformation. Dr. Frederick D. Haynes, Pastor of Friendship-West Baptist Church, told 300 graduates of Morehouse College “You ought to have a dream. You ought to be so obsessed with your ought-ness that you are never incarcerated by your is-ness. You ought to believe that tomorrow can be better than today.”

My brothers and sisters, we are not shacked to the situations of this present age. It doesn’t matter what obstacles we face, if the God above us is living within us then there is nothing that we cannot do.

The Lord’s Songs soothe our souls, and The Lord’s Songs shift our world, and lastly The Lord’s Songs Speak into our tomorrows.

Being a change-agent in a strange land means not only that we name the pain in our world and not only work towards the redemption of that pain, but it also means that we cast a vision of a brighter tomorrow.

Our lives as change-agents in a strange land must bear witness to this mystery of our faith – our work of redemption is tied to a larger work. Dr. Martin Luther King, quoting 19th century abolitionist and Unitarian minister Theodore Parker, once said “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” That reality, that truth, that destiny was the foundation for King’s dream. In daring to Dream, Dr. King was daring to sing one of The Lord’s Songs.

So when slaves would sing…

Rock’a my soul in the bosom of Abraham,

O, rock’a my soul!

They were vision-casting. They were daring to dream. They were singing one of The Lord’s Songs. My soul may be violated by slavery now, but one day my soul will be rocked in the bosom of Abraham.

So dear friends, as I meander through the final minutes of the missional missive, I want to leave you with this glorious exhortation – never stop singing The Lord’s Songs even in the strange land.

This strange land may say that hatred is our heritage and bigotry is our birthright, but The Lord’s Songs say that the “Lion shall lie down with the lamb.”

This strange land may say that we ought to live in fear, but The Lord’s Songs say that “the Lord is my light, and my salvation. Whom shall I fear? The Lord is the strength of my life. Of whom shall I be afraid?”

This strange land may say that we are not worth being loved, but The Lord’s Songs say that “nothing shall separate us from the Love of God.”

This strange land may say that there is no way that we can make a difference in the world, but Zion’s Song say that “in all these things we are more than conquerors!”

One of the great glories of the gospel is that no matter what the present looks like, we are on a tireless trajectory towards triumph. That’s the salvation in our sorrow and the power behind our perseverance. Our world may be “’buked and scorned” right now, but if we keep on believing, keeping on working, keep on praying, and keep on walking we will see a world transformed (and redeemed…) even as it is being rocked in the bosom of Abraham.

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