I want to begin by playing just two minutes of a video from a Bruce Springsteen concert. It’s from the recent tour where he revisited The River album. This is the intro song, the “Call to Worship” if I dare say it that way. The song is: “Meet Me in the City Tonight.
Did you catch that question? Three times Bruce asks his “congregation:”
- Are you ready to be transformed?
- Are you ready to be transformed?
- Are you ready to be transformed?
- Let’s go!
In fact I think this is OUR story too. Bruce, he stole it. Or more accurately, he took care of it when the established Christendom Church abdicated it and we suffered from temporary amnesia and we forgot who we are and whose we are. We domesticated the Gospel and started worrying about what we needed to hold onto for dear life and what could never change (over our dead bodies!) rather than remembering daily that we are committed to the new thing God is doing in the world so that we might have life and have it more abundantly. The work of following Jesus is always an invitation to be made new - to be transformed.
You don’t need me to tell you this. We all live with it and all of us in this room are quite familiar with the challenges and also the opportunities. But to be more specific, I am really talking primarily about the white North American mainline Church. Jemonde has reminded us of another narrative. In one sense, the story of St. Ambrose is unique. But in a much deeper sense it is a kind of case study of the black church experience in this country. Jemonde’s ministry at St. Ambrose reminds us that racial justice and evangelism – sharing the good news – are two sides to one coin. Our work is to listen and to remember and to be transformed together.
I serve as Canon to the Ordinary in the Diocese of Western Massachusetts, which is basically the central and western parts of the Commonwealth: Worcester County, the Pioneer Valley, and the Berkshires. We are learning, with God’s help and the leadership of our bishop, to let go of that old narrative and to embrace the Jesus Movement.
Think about what a gift to us the liturgical calendar is. Advent focuses on two transformative figures: John the Baptist out there by the River asking if people are ready to be transformed, and holy Mary whose yes allows the Word to become flesh and dwell among us. If the Incarnation isn’t about transformation I don’t know what is. From there to the Journey of the Magi, to Cana in Galilee (where water is transformed into wine) to the call of those two sets of brothers by the Lake, and ultimately to the Mount of the Transfiguration, we are in the transformation business.
When we stand in front of our congregations to say “Alleluia, Christ is risen!” and everyone enthusiastically responds that “The Lord is risen indeed, alleluia” we do well to remember that the Paschal Mystery is all about what it means to go down to the River and to organize our lives around the Baptismal Covenant as a counter-narrative to the dominant culture’s narrative which says that there is nothing new, that the rich get richer, that we are doomed to repeat the sins of the past over and over again, and that there is only fake news to report. We insist that God is doing a new thing and that the poor are blessed and that reconciliation is the work of Easter and that we are witnesses to the good news we are called to share with all the world. Even if we are a little bit afraid of change, we can remember that there are angels all through the Bible, those one-hit wonders who keep singing, “do not be afraid” again and again. Let’s go! Are you ready to be transformed?
The Baptismal Covenant doesn’t give us the option to choose to share the good news or to do justice. It’s all of one piece. We promise both to proclaim by word and example the good news and to strive for justice and peace among all people.
At the heart of our Eucharistic liturgy is an insistence that as bread and wine are transformed that we may become what we behold as we are re-membered and re-commissioned to be the living, resurrected Body of Christ. The work of anamnesis is transformational work.
When Jemonde and I chatted last week, he mentioned a conversation he had with the Chief of Police in his community, who happens to be a black woman. (She also happens to be a member of St. Ambrose.) After one of the far too many shootings we’ve had in this country, she said to her mostly white male officers, “Well, I know what they’ll be preaching on at my church on Sunday.” Those white cops were surprised, as many in our congregations in Western Mass still are when our clergy speak up on Sunday morning. While some hear this as good news, there are others who will greet the preacher at the door and say, “you are getting too political.” A few of them may even call the Bishop’s Office to complain although fortunately I work for a Bishop who has the back of his clergy and is already out front and leading on these issues.
But here is what I yearn for as a precursor to Sunday morning not being the most segregated hour of the week: predominantly white suburban congregations that will eagerly anticipate with the same clarity that the Chief of Police in Raleigh, North Carolina does about what will be preached and what must be preached on a Sunday after a national tragedy that is rooted in fear and racial animas and injustice. That they will know it’s never “too political” to speak truth to power. It’s just called euangelion: good news. It’s what it means to be part of one Body.
In his Letter from Birmingham Jail, you will recall that Dr. King began by challenging the notion that he was in Birmingham as an “outside agitator. He’s addressing liberal white pastors who say that they agree with the goals in theory, but in practice they want to take it slow and not rock any boats. King offers not just an explanation but a theological rationale for being in Birmingham:
So I, along with several members of my staff, am here because I was invited here. I am here because I have organizational ties here. But more basically, I am in Birmingham because injustice is here. Just as the prophets of the eighth century B.C. left their villages and carried their “thus saith the Lord” far beyond the boundaries of their home towns, and just as the Apostle Paul left his village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to the far corners of the Greco-Roman world, so am I compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my own home town. Like Paul, I must constantly respond to the Macedonian call for aid.Personally I find it helpful the way that Walter Brueggemann frames this challenge of keeping the prophetic voice alive in our Church. Bruggemann says that we preachers are scribes. We stand with our congregations – with the baptized – when we say things like, “I don’t know about you, but old Amos sure has something to say to us today about what’s going on with wealth disparity in this nation!”
Alas for those who lie on beds of ivory, and lounge on their couches,and eat lambs from the flock, and calves from the stall;That’s not class warfare! These aren’t Democratic talking points. That’s the Word of the Lord! That’s our story. So we scribes hold these texts up; we need to read them with our congregations and mark them and learn them and inwardly digest them because they are ripped from the headlines and because they tell our story. What on earth was Jesus up to if it wasn’t this, when he went into the synagogue that day preaching Isaiah or up on the mountain to say “blessed are the poor?”
I see it as part of my job in diocesan work to encourage and then protect the prophets in our congregations, both ordained and lay, by reminding us all that when we say “Jesus is Lord” we are always making not just a personal confession but a political statement. I’m not called to be a prophet most days. Part of my job is to help the trains run on time. And I’ll be honest – I don’t think the job of most rectors is to be prophets all the time either. But it is our job (and more than that, it is our calling) to preach the gospel and to devote ourselves to the study of Scripture. Not just to the gospel pericope of the day. To both testaments which contain all things necessary for our salvation. To be scribes for the kingdom who make the words of those eighth century BCE prophets, as well as John the Baptist and Jesus of Nazareth shed light on our own work.
Bishop Rob Wright of Atlanta recently wrote these words on his blog:
Dr. King argued “the great tragedy is that Christianity failed to see that it had the revolutionary edge.” That revolutionary edge means we bring our calls for “personal piety as the true measure of Christianity into balance with the Social Gospel that has a word to enliven the masses.” The revolutionary edge means less obsession with institutional maintenance. Less devotion to “order and more devotion to justice.” Edge means forsaking “pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities” that are long on “emotion and short on reason.” King’s faith was personal and public, deep and urgent, steadfast and informed. So must ours be.Let me return to King, then, and I’ll wrap this up. I stopped short of the lines you may remember best in that letter, which go like this:
…I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.I see part of my job in diocesan work as helping to remind congregations that think they are independent franchises that the boundaries of our hometowns are not boundaries by which the living God can ever be limited and to help us all become more cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. The challenges that God’s people at St. Ambrose in Raleigh face under the leadership of their rector, Jemonde, matters to the people of Western Massachusetts and is a part of the sacred unfolding story that helps us all to remember who we are and what we are called to be about in the name of the living God, as part of the Jesus movement.
We transform heart and minds as well as social structures because we are in the transformation business.
Are you ready to be transformed? Let’s go!