February 19, 2017 — Nancy Bancroft
Readings: Exodus 3:7-12 and 16-21; Colossians 3:16-17
In today’s second reading, St. Paul, in his letter to the Colossians gives advice about how to live as members of a spiritual community. First he says, let the messages of Christ, in his words and actions really become a part of who we are. Let the values of Jesus become our values and the concerns of Jesus become ours. Then he suggests that we share our insights, our understanding with each other. This month is Black History Month, and I’d like for us to consider what we can learn from African American spirituality and worship. These are not topics of which I have any expertise so I’m borrowing heavily from Rev. Dr. Carlyle Fielding Stewart III on African American spirituality and from Rev. Dr. R. Clifford Jones on African American worship. I believe that their educational backgrounds and distinguished careers in ministry make them reliable sources for our reflection today.
Long ago, when Africans were first brought to their new land, everything was stripped from them but their spirituality. The Africans who came to America had a myriad of religious beliefs and practices, including the belief in a transcendent, benevolent God who created the universe and was its ultimate provider. They believed that God would somehow see them through the difficulty of living. How could they have survived slavery and all the troubles they’ve faced, were it not for firm belief in a higher power? It was God.
Their struggle began when they were captured and enslaved and for many blacks if not for most their difficulties continue today. Here are but a few examples. Thanks to the 15th Amendment, passed in 1869, all native-born American men, including African-Americans, had the right to vote. By 1896, twenty seven years later, a full 44 percent of African- American men were registered voters, and many even held office throughout the South. But as more and more made their voices heard, some Southern states acted to block them from voting. They started requiring poll taxes and literacy tests in order to vote, though grandfather clauses allowed poor whites to bypass these requirements. These restrictions worked. By 1940, African-American voter registration had dropped to just 3 percent in the South. In 1964, the 24th Amendment outlawed poll taxes. Yet, in 1965, President Lyndon Johnson found it necessary to sign the Voting Rights Act into law, attempting to put a stop to election practices that still denied many blacks the ability to vote. Then between 2010 and 2014 a new wave of voter restriction legislation was enacted in twenty-two states, negatively impacting the ability of African Americans and the poor to vote.
Though a 1967 Supreme Court decision legalized interracial marriage in all U.S. states, some states were slow to comply. It wasn’t until 1998 that South Carolina and 2000 that Alabama overturned their states’ laws banning interracial marriage.
Approximately 13% of the American population is African-American, but they make up 35% of jail inmates, and 37% of prison inmates.
The “Stop and Frisk” records kept by New York City police since 2002, show that of the thousands of people stopped each year, an average of over 86% were totally innocent. Fifty-four percent of those stopped were black, 29% were Hispanic while only 11% were white.
To a great degree it is their spirituality that has taught African Americans to overcome difficulties and has given them answers to problems that they faced, because it transformed them from what Rev. Stewart calls going-unders to over-comers. The first great gift of African American spirituality is the ability to face huge problems, to develop a spirit, a mind, and a will to overcome the barriers standing in the way. They have proven this time and time again. Who else has come from that pitiable and peculiar institution of slavery and discrimination and emerged from beneath its veil with some semblance of sanity and spirituality still intact?
In addition, their spirituality has conferred on African Americans a positive self-identity despite the many negative images portrayed of black persons. Fortunately their spirituality has always encouraged blacks to exceed the negative definitions. Their churches lifted them up as children of God, worthy of God’s greatest gifts and blessings.
African-American spirituality stresses not spending energy and resources blaming or depicting other people negatively, but focuses on developing their own strengths. Their spirituality teaches them to take potentially negative energy and sublimate or channel it into things which will make a positive difference in black lives and in the wider community.
How can we now benefit from the gift of African-American spirituality?
First, their ability to face, adapt to, and overcome insurmountable odds and difficulties through unswerving faith in God:
African Americans relied on God because they had to. They had two options: holding on to hope or being totally demoralized by their life situations and treatment. We don’t have their history or the same burdens; and because most of us are comfortable, safe and successful, it is so easy for us to buy into the myth that all of this good fortune is the result of our hard work and abilities rather than blessings from a loving and generous God. If we haven’t thus far, someday we will suffer serious illness, significant loss, or tragedy that could devastate us. And if we have relied solely on our own strength and resources to overcome trouble in the past, we may be less prepared to survive misfortune when our personal power and assets are not up to the challenge. We can develop the virtue of gratitude, reminding ourselves over and over again that all that we have and all that we accomplish is by the grace of God. We can consciously trust in God in the small things so that when true difficulty hits, hope in God will sustain us.
The second gift from African American Christians is their ability to retain a positive self-image. Black churches are noted for affirming individuals as “somebody” of value. This has stimulated their pride and preserved the self-respect of many blacks who would have been entirely beaten by life. We too can recognize the power of our faith community to uplift its members and friends. We can make the most of our ability to reverence, appreciate and show genuine concern for each other.
The third lesson that we can receive from African American spirituality is the ability to take negative thoughts and feelings and potentially destructive energies and turn them into positive action for the betterment of ourselves and the wider community. When state and national news anger and demoralize us, we can think creatively about what we might do to help the situation and then take action.
What can we learn from African American worship? Anybody who has observed or participated in a black Christian worship service will admit that there is an undeniable difference between the way American Blacks worship and the worship of other racial and ethnic groups. While the varied cultures of the Christian world each have their beautiful and distinctive ways of worshiping, there is something uniquely enriching about African-American Christian worship. It embodies underlying patterns of thought and experience that do much to commend it to Christians everywhere.
First, it is integrative. Traditionally, African American worship has been inextricably woven into the stuff of their lives. Community is a grounding principle of Black worship. That is, African-American Christian worship focuses on the communal sharing of reality. What happens to one happens to all. Worship, understood by African-Americans, is an encounter involving God, the worshiper, and the broader community. Worship is not primarily the expression of one’s private devotion to God, but is rather a community event. It is the invasion of God into the gathered community, empowering them with the divine Spirit to keep on keeping on even though the odds might appear to be against them.
Martin Luther King, Jr. asserted that at its core, and best, Black worship is a social experience in which people from all walks of life affirm their unity and oneness in God. Always a divine and dynamic happening, it is experienced as a response to the Holy Spirit’s call to the believer to cast off his or her cares and enter the divine presence. As God’s presence is felt anew, praise, adoration, thanksgiving, submission, and commitment are offered. This sounds a lot like Union Church.
African-American worship is holistic. African Americans want to know God personally rather than to know about God. And in their worship God is known and understood as the One who sides with the weak and oppressed. For Blacks, a God who does not care does not count, and they believe that a sovereign God continues to intervene in history in very concrete ways. This God holds out hope for the personal and communal transformation of humankind.
Another characteristic of African-American Christian worship is liberation. African-American worship is a celebration of freedom in which people enter and experience the liberating presence of the Holy Spirit. Scripture passages like our first reading are not only histories of the past. Words like “I have observed the misery of my people”, “I will be with you”, “I will bring you up out of the misery”, and “you will not go empty-handed” speak to the heart in the present.
African-American worship not only comforts and liberates, but empowers for current and future struggles. Historically, the Black church has functioned as an agent of social cohesion, an agency of economic cooperation, a forum for political activity, and, generally, as a haven in a hostile world. The goal is to herald the new heaven and earth, to actively establish the kingdom of God within the individual and the larger society. Personal transformation and societal transfiguration are key words because invariably the intent is to enable hearers to envision themselves as dynamic agents for positive change. God is a God of progress and change and believers must be equipped to implement changes which will establish a more wholesome existence.
African-American worship is Celebration. Many participate in the prayer moment with utterances of “Yes, Lord,” “Please, God,” and “Come, Holy Spirit.” Whatever their responses, African Americans are almost always involved in the prayer moment, designed to create a sense that the burdens of life will be made lighter, if they will not be removed altogether, and to offer strength for the journey ahead.
Though this style of prayer is not part of the white, New England experience, we would do ourselves a great service if we opened ourselves up a bit more and allowed ourselves, body, mind and spirit to be fully impacted by our worship experience. When our deacon welcomes us each week and invites us to prepare ourselves for worship we would do well to make every effort to put distractions aside, consciously lower our defenses and as our bulletin invites us to do each week, become like open vessels, desirous to be filled.
Perhaps the most tangible transmitter of African-American spirituality, the power of African-American worship is in the music; and like the Psalms much of the content of Negro spirituals is lament. A person who laments may sound like a grumbler or a complainer, but lamenting is something different. A lament involves deeper emotion because lament is true asking, seeking, and knocking to comprehend the heart of God even as our hearts hurt. A lament involves the energy to search, not to shut down the quest for truth. A lament uses the language of pain, anger, and confusion and moves toward God. Many of the displaced African slaves used music as lament to cry out both against and to God, as they wrestled with God to understand their situation. It was through their lament, these “songs of sorrow,” that their eyes were opened to see God’s profound hatred of evil and their situation, and his equally profound love for his people. It was through their lament that they found mercy and restoration. Dare we lament?
A central truth about our scripture reading in Exodus today is that Moses, in leading the Hebrews out of Africa, had to prepare them to develop a spirituality that would sustain them through the wilderness of hard times. It was a faith that allowed them to overcome the challenges of their daily encounters. And so it has been for African Americans. We can learn much from a people who have been strengthened though their relationship with God and supported in their faith community. They can be both an example and an inspiration for us to value and nurture our own spirituality and our communal bonds with each other. In our services we can expect to be comforted, liberated, challenged, affirmed and even exalted. And by our participation and contributing our talents, we can ensure that our worship provides all of this.
Today we express our gratitude for a people who inspire us by their trust in and faithfulness to God, who model for us the best of community life, who show us that strength need not be expressed violently to be successful and that regardless how difficult our situation, we always have something worth celebrating. Let us learn from our noble African American sisters and brothers so as to benefit personally and enrich our church.