Hofheinz-Döring, Margret, 1910-. Endless Road, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. https://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=55314 Original source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Endlose_Stra%C3%9Fe,_Margret_Hofheinz-D%C3%B6ring,_Strukturmalerei,_1971_(WV-Nr.5001).JPG.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, the poet James Weldon Johnson, writing in the depths of the Jim Crow South in Jacksonville, Florida, in the midst of rampant racism, strict segregation and the rule of the lynch mobs, wrote a poem about the struggles that African Americans faced. Put to music within a few years, this poem became one of the most beloved songs in American music. I speak of course, of “Lift Every Voice and Sing”
Johnson used as underlying, but not explicit, metaphor the journey of the Hebrew Exiles from Egypt to the Promised Land. This was not novel for African Americans, but a key part of the black Christian tradition. Harriet Tubman was called Moses, after all. One of the songs you sang last week- not me- as I was out with Covid- sang was wade in the water, an African American spiritual that used the language of crossing the Jordan River.
The song is about a journey; “let us march on till victory is won; Stony the road we trod, bitter the chastening rod, felt in the days when hope unborn had died.”
All of us have felt those days. We’ve all had days, weeks, months, or years even, when the road was too hard to walk. When even waking up and getting out of bed made us weary, when the road was too steep and too uneven. When we stumbled and couldn’t help but believe that hope itself had died.
We might have felt this because of a change in material circumstances; we got fired from a job, or we lost our house or apartment. Maybe it was because a relationship went sour- a break up or a divorce or a ruptured friendship. Maybe it was because of a piece of news; death of a loved one or a tragedy of some sort, or perhaps a piece of cultural or political news.
Many, not all, but many of us felt that on Friday with the US Supreme Court’s decision overturning Roe v. Wade. Perhaps you felt as I did: uncertainty, anger, frustration, sadness. Maybe you didn’t; I ask only that you respect the feelings of those who are feeling those things. Especially as many of us believe this is not the culmination of a movement, but an expression of it, that will continue to reach into people’s bedrooms and lives, ending with the rollbacks of freedom to access birth control, same sex marriage, and even anti-sodomy laws.
What has become increasingly clear to me is that the road we travel on, the path of Christ, the one called “The Way” in the book of Acts before the word Christian was invented is undergirded by freedom from coercion. The freedom to walk this road is intimately tied to the freedom to not be forced to walk on this road. When decisions in our lives are not our own, when we are forced to walk a path we did not choose, it is no good road, and not the way of Jesus. When we are coerced into a particular vision of “goodness”, it is often not good at all. A gospel not freely chosen is no gospel at all.
Too often the “good news” that the people of world encounter when they hear the word Christian is not good at all; it comes at the barrel of a gun, or dangled by the offer of “civilization”, or wraps itself around the flag so tightly that a government becomes beyond critique. This vision of a coercive Christianity is anti-Christ. Jesus was killed by the coercive power of the Roman Empire who wished to impose religious values on a man that upset systems of domination that we are still struggling against.
This sort of Christianity leads to no fruits of the spirit, for the fruits of the spirit that Paul speaks of: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control, come about only because of growth by the spirit within and outside of us, not forced onto us by the dictates of someone else. Self-control must start inside the self, not because of fear of another or fear of God.
A brief aside about the phrase “fear of God”; there are two meanings to this phrase and we confuse them. One, as the Bible means it, is closer to a healthy respect for God’s power, and otherness. This is not the fear that an abuser has over their victim, or what we feel towards those who have power and no accountability. This is because love is patient and kind, and does not abuse, and as Paul reminds us, the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
We can see the difference between a Christianity of born out of fear and one that is born out of love. Christianity that rules, dominates, and terrorizes does not inspire love, but rather abuse. It does not build up those who need it most, but rather bite and devours, consumes those who have the least to give.
Yet for love- for joy, for peace, patience, kindness, generosity, gentleness, there is no law against these things. The Christianity that I try to practice- that we try to practice is based on these things; it does not force, it does not coerce, it does not abuse. It helps out as it can, when it can, yet does not devour itself, and especially does not devour others.
It recognizes wisdom as it finds her, calling from the rooftops pointing the way to the great feast. It faces rejection- as Jesus does in our Gospel reading- not with fire and flames, but with equanimity. It does not taunt, but listens; it does not gloat in its victories, but expresses solidarity with those who have been harmed and keeps its eye on the prize.
The roads we travel- of our lives, in our Christian faith- are not easy. Yet the path does not and cannot lead backwards; if nothing else, we are always different even as when we encounter the same obstacles again and again.
In one of the most heartfelt lines in American poetry and song, Johnson declares that his people have treaded their path through the blood of the slaughtered. Even as it seems like hope will never be born, the lives and deaths of those who came before us were not, and are not in vain.
For even if we have trouble seeing it, there is a bright star on the horizon that is leading us to the promised lands. It cannot help but beckon us toward it; we might have different names for it- wisdom calling from the rooftops to dine with her, or Jesus whispering our names, calling us beloved. It is the angels singing Glory to God and Goodwill toward men to poor farmworkers. It is the communion of the saints, our grandparents and aunts and uncles who have gone before us to the promised land, who could only dream of who we’ve become who call us ever forward on our paths.
Let us hear and respond to that call. Let us see that star. Let us continue on in our journeys.