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WE DO NOT LOSE HEART

 

A sermon by Rev. Richard Miller, Minister of Trinity United Church, Montreal, QC.    February 18, 2007.  2 Corinthians 3:12—4:2.

 

And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.

            Therefore, since it is by God’s mercy that we are engaged in this ministry, we do not lose heart.                – 2 Corinthians 3:18—4:1

 

            It was Easter Sunday in 1964.  I was in my first year at the Methodist Theological School in Delaware, Ohio.  On that same morning our Dean and three professors along with several other people were jailed in Jackson, Mississippi, for attempting to worship in a Methodist Church.  It seems that two of their companions were not welcome there.  I knew, of course, that one of our professors was a strategist for the S.C.L.C. – the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and that he came to Ohio after he and all the faculty at Vanderbilt Divinity School in Nashville, Tennessee, had resigned when the University suspended Jim Lawson for participating in lunch-counter sit-in demonstrations there.  But it was after Dean Dunn and company arrived back and shared what had happened that I began to realize that there was more to theology than studying books and writing papers, and that there was more to Christian life and ministry than just sitting on hard church pews and singing favourite hymns, or preparing sermons, visiting people in their homes and at the hospital, performing weddings, and conducting funerals.  I began to see that there was much more to this “call to ministry” than I had realized at the age of 17 when I recognized and responded to that call.  It was the beginning of a different life for me.

 

            In some ways it all began in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1955.  At that time the southern American states were deeply segregated places, where by law, Black people had to go to different schools, use different public washrooms, different public drinking fountains, and ride in the back of public transit vehicles.  When the first Black bus drivers were employed, comedian Dick Gregory quipped that this would be something to see – buses with 20 foot long steering wheels.  But joking aside, if all the seats in the white section of a bus were taken, a Black rider would have to give up his or her seat and stand so that the white person had a place to sit.  And on December 1, 1955, after a long day of work, a Black woman named Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat.  When the bus driver threatened to call the police, she said, “Go ahead and call them.”  The bus driver laid a charge, and Rosa Parks was jailed.  She was allowed one phone call, and she called a leader of the local chapter of the NAACP.  A boycott of the city buses was organized by a young minister named Martin Luther King Jr. – a boycott that lasted 381 days and nearly put the bus company in bankruptcy.  The laws were changed.  Rosa Parks and her husband later moved to Detroit where she worked on the staff of the local Congressman, and she and her husband founded an Institute for Self Development, that took young people to visit Underground Railroad and civil rights locations in both the U.S. and Canada, and affected the lives of thousands of young people from many countries.  Rosa Parks made a difference.

 

            In 1965 – a year after our seminary Dean and his companions were arrested in Jackson, three Unitarian ministers went to Selma, Alabama, to challenge the deeply racist practices in that small city.  One of them was the son of one of another teacher at my seminary.  One of the other two lost his life there.  In response, Martin King organized a 50 mile protest march beginning at Selma and ending at Montgomery, the state capital.  For the final day of the march in Montgomery, King wanted to swell the ranks, and we sent three carloads of students and two faculty from our school.  There were approximately 30,000 people who turned out for that demonstration, but Governor George Wallace was nowhere to be found. 

 

            And four years later in 1969 – just one year after finishing seminary, by the grace of God and the appointment of the Bishop, I was assigned to be the minister of Ebenezer Methodist Church, a Black American congregation in Huntington, West Virginia – which is also the site of Marshall University.  Nancy and I spent five years there, started our family there, and in many ways that is where most of my in-ministry formation really happened. 

 

            After coming to Canada in 1974, much of our time was spent in the mining areas of Timmins and Sudbury in Northern Ontario, but there was also a three-year stint working in the public housing community of Regent Park in Toronto – an area where 10,000 people lived in less than a square mile, half of whom were Black Canadians who were mainly from the English Caribbean.  These were people with a different history and different culture from what I knew of Black Americans, and so there was a new learning curve for me.

 

            And now today, as we observe Black History month here at Trinity, I want us to take a moment and in our minds to name the persons in our church – past and present – who are from Africa or who have African heritage.  Who were they in the past?  And who are they today?  What have they and what do they mean to us all?  . . . .  [pause]  Thank you.  You know, we have people of many different backgrounds here at Trinity, don’t we?  In broad terms, we have people who either they or their families came from Asia or Africa or Europe or Latin America.  And some of us – perhaps quite a few if we did the research – have ancestors who were among the original peoples of North America.  It might be interesting for us to set aside other days to focus on the many different histories that are part of our congregation.  We might be surprised at how much we would learn if we did that.

 

            Today, I would like to highlight some things that I have learned about Black history and the Black church.  One thing that I have learned is to eat some great cuisine.  Wonderful barbecued spare ribs, and collard greens, and sweet potato pie.  And then there are meat patties, roti and various other curry dishes.  And the list goes on.  In fact, one of our members is working at organizing a Caribbean night which will include some of that food.  We’ll hear more about that later.

 

            But even more than the food, what has influenced me the most is the music.  In Huntington, West Virginia, I was introduced to Black American Gospel music – and we listened to the renditions of Mahalia Jackson, Aretha Franklin, and many other people like that.  The Motown label was in its heyday.  From time to time our choir here at Trinity sings some of these songs – ones like ”Lead me, guide me,”  “He knows just how much you can bear,” and “Come and go with me to my Father’s House“  In Voices United, there are several spirituals, along with Thomas A. Dorsey’s “Precious Lord, take my hand.”  Dorsey is sometimes described as the “father of gospel music,” but if that is true, then the grandfather was Charles A. Tindley who first developed the style and to whom Dorsey often gave credit.  Tindley was minister of Calvary Methodist Church in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, – a church where 30 years before he had worked as the janitor.  He was minister there from 1902 until his death in 1933, and the church grew to over 7,000 members of many ethnicities.  When they built a new church, even though Rev. Tindley protested, they named it Tindley Temple.  Tindley composed forty-seven hymns., and one of them says: 

 

When the storms of life are raging, stand by me.” 

When the world is tossing me, like a ship upon the sea,

thou who rulest wind and water, stand by me.

 

Another says to “Take your burden to the Lord and leave it there.”  And his hymn “I’ll overcome someday,” was transformed into the great civil rights freedom song, “We Shall Overcome.” 

 

            During our time in Toronto in the late 70’s, reggae music became popular.  And that was also the time and place that I met the Chinese Jamaican Jesuit, Fr. Richard Ho Lung, when he brought his choir to Canada to raise money to support his work with the poorest of the poor in Kingston, Jamaica.  Fr. Ho Lung wrote the words and composed melodies based on the indigenous music of the Islands.  One that I especially like is called “Rejoice, my soul.”  I have four or five albums, and continue to listen to that music and be inspired by it. 

 

            Rosa Parks, Charles A. Tindley, and so many more in the history of the Black community and the Black church that directly or indirectly have influenced my life and ministry.  The few that I am naming are not so well known outside the Black community, yet their influence has been deep and long-lasting there and beyond.

 

            The one other person I want to name today is James Weldon Johnson, who was born in 1871, was the first African American accepted to the Florida bar, and worked in education, the diplomatic corps, and in civil rights activism.  But he is best known for his writings and poems which included The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (1912), and God’s Trombones (1927), which is a small book of African American sermons in verse.  He composed the lyrics for “Lift ev’ry voice and sing, before he was 30 years of age, and it is widely recognized at the African American National Anthem.  We do not have this song in our hymnbook, so I want to read the words for us now.

 

Lift ev'ry voice and sing,

'Til earth and heaven ring,

Ring with the harmonies of Liberty;

Let our rejoicing rise

High as the list'ning skies,

Let it resound loud as the rolling sea.

Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us,

Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us;

Facing the rising sun of our new day begun,

Let us march on 'til victory is won.

 

Stony the road we trod,

Bitter the chastening rod,

Felt in the days when hope unborn had died;

Yet with a steady beat,

Have not our weary feet

Come to the place for which our fathers sighed?

We have come over a way that with tears has been watered,

We have come, treading our path through the blood        of the slaughtered,

Out from the gloomy past,

'Til now we stand at last

Where the white gleam of our bright star is cast.

 

God of our weary years,

God of our silent tears,

Thou who has brought us thus far on the way;

Thou who has by Thy might

Led us into the light,

Keep us forever in the path, we pray.

Lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met Thee,

Lest, our hearts drunk with the wine of the world, we forget Thee;

Shadowed beneath Thy hand,

May we forever stand,

True to our God,

True to our native land.

 

            In reading the scriptures for today, I came to realize how much the people who spent their lives in slavery in North America lived out this reading from 2 Corinthians:

 

And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.

            Therefore, since it is by God’s mercy that we are engaged in this ministry, we do not lose heart.                – 2 Corinthians 3:18—4:1

 

 How they came to realize and believe that in spite of  all the persecution and mistreatment, they were made in the image of God, that they were children of the Heavenly Father, and that because of this they would not give up.  They would not lose heart.  The would go on.  As one writer put it, with the help of God they would be free in slavery until the day came when they would be free from slavery.

 

            I believe that this is an example for you and for me today.  That when our burden gets heavy, not to give up.  For if this people who were forcibly removed from their own lands, who survived the “middle passage” chained in the holds of sailing ships, who were sold at auction even here in Montreal, and who had to cope with the systematic break up of families – husbands and wives and children being sold separately, as well as even being separated from others who spoke the same language – never mind the barbaric conditions under which they were forced to live and work – if this people could sustain hope and commitment for 350 years, then surely you and I can manage to sustain hope – for life, for this church, for wherever God leads us and whatever God calls us to do.

 

            So then my friends, let me try to say it clearly.  We are each one created in God’s image, for God’s glory to shine through us.  It can be done.  And because of this is who we are meant to be, we do not become discouraged.  Because of this we do not lose heart.  And we go forward in God’s name to live our lives and to be a church where God is seen and experienced.  In us and through us.  And do you know what?  This is what really matters.  Kingdoms rise and fall.  Buildings are built and later crumble.  What matters is that we continue to serve God at all times in all ways, and that the love of Jesus Christ shines through us one and all.  This is the challenge for you and you and me this day.  How will we respond?