Editor’s Note: This sermon was originally delivered on 16 September 2001 in the Riverside Church of New York City.
Earlier this week, Bill Moyers interviewed me down at Channel 13 public television and asked me this question: “Jim, what will your congregation come to church to hear on Sunday morning?” And I said to Bill, “They are going to come gathering with one main question — is there any word from the Lord?” Was that right?
Those words come from Jeremiah 37, when Zedekiah, king of Judah, uncertain about the future of his people, sent for Jeremiah and asked, “Is there any word from the Lord?” And Jeremiah said, “There is.”
I too say to you, there is a word from the Lord. But I think it will be important to alert you to the fact that there are many different words that will be coming in the days ahead, so I thought it would be important to let you know how I’ve sought to discern what God is saying to me. These are the clues to the message I finally received. The bulletin itself, the spirit of the organ prelude, the first words on the bulletin: yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil. Then the first line in the Call to Worship: The Lord is my saving light, whom shall I fear? And then in the anthem from Psalm 46: Therefore we will not fear.
Seems to me I am picking up a word from the Lord: Be not afraid. It’s there — as if we might miss it — be not afraid. So then I guess maybe that’s a good place to begin. We’ve got to shake the fear that is so natural for this time. I think that it has been said that there are some things we ought to fear and fear in that regard is a gift. But paralyzing fear in the face of this disaster will block us from the transformation we need and the healing we pray for. So yes, keep the proper fears in place. But neurotic anxiety and paralyzing fear — afraid to breathe, and afraid to move out, and afraid to move on — I think I hear a word from the Lord: Be not afraid.
Now, I am so much aware that we have come to a new place. We have all heard of post-traumatic stress disorder — but this one is different. As we look into the future, we do not know what the aftershocks of September 11 will be, we do not know whether there will be new assaults against our security, we don’t know what the future holds. So we are right in the middle of both post-traumatic stress disorder and pre-traumatic stress disorder, and it is clear to me that in a place like that we are going to need special strength. So I think I’ve got a word from the Lord about where that strength will come from, as we steady ourselves between that which we know and that which we don’t quite know.
I think there are three sources of strength for this season of stress and strain and these sources are available to each of us, to our neighbors, to our friends, even available to our enemies. The first source of strength is a surprising source–that first source is the wisdom of the body. For those of us who are grieving because of very close loss, for those of us who are in corporate community and now are scrambling to determine where do we go from here, I would like to offer the wisdom of the body. How gracious God was to build into our very being the capacity to grieve, to mourn, to readjust, to adapt so that the wisdom we need to get us through is already at work in the body. It’s in there, God has placed it in there, within the human body, part of the original design, equipment that knows that life is not going to be a smooth sailing all the time. But the human being was equipped to cope. It usually takes time, and it usually is accompanied by a spirit of deep disquietude and restlessness, etc. But don’t doubt that it is a part of a process, so trust your body, trust your body to bring you through.
We know the symptoms of this post and now pre-traumatic stress disorder — a kind of despair, a longing for isolation, a sense of the bottom having fallen out of life, a feeling that I can’t go on, a not-sure irritability, an unhealthy paranoia, an immobilization, a paralysis of mind and body and spirit. But don’t be so hard on yourself. If the body says, it’s crying time, go ahead. If it says, this is time for some epic relief, some lighthearted moment, go ahead. If the body says, I don’t quite feel like going as much, don’t go as much. If the body says, now you’ve got strength, get up. If the mind says, the body doesn’t want to go, but we’ve consulted, get up anyway. Trust the body to help guide you through.
Oh I know this is true. I saw some children in the service a few weeks, just a few days ago, and I looked at those little kids and as they smiled you could see that they had lost their little teeth right in the middle here, and I said to them, “Children, the body is so wonderful. Though you have lost these teeth, guess what? They will come back.” And then I said, New York, our skyline has lost some teeth, but the body is strong, and either by natural process, or by implantation, there will be a smile again.
But we may also trust the power of the Spirit. Let me say that I know and you know that in times of trouble we get in touch with a reality not always on the radar screen of our perception, a transcending tendency and a power that is within us, born of our faith, that helps us get through these tough times. The power of our faith and the power of the Spirit, it’s in there. And even those of you who are not usually as religious, don’t worry about it. Even if you think you are not entitled, yes you are. The spirit of God is the breath of God, and in times like this the demarcation between church members and non-church members, that’s obliterated. You’ve got as much right to draw upon the power of the spirit that is within you as anybody else. So let’s make everybody welcome. Whatever transcendent dimension there is within your life, do not be ashamed, do not be afraid, you are entitled, that too is original equipment. And of course we think it’s stronger when it’s been reinforced by faith traditions, but we can all discover that the Spirit will get us through.
And in the next few weeks and months a central theme will be that spiritual renewal will bring us the strength we need. Spiritual revitalization is the order of the day, and whatever happens in the international arena, a spiritually renewed America will be able to cope in much more significant ways than we ever could have imagined. This is a time that calls us all, not out of a kneejerk, “we got bad times, we need the Lord” — no, these are times that will determine the destiny of Mother Earth. I assure you in a time like that, we all have to draw upon the Spirit.
And how glad I am that I have had some trouble in my life. Because if you’ve never had any trouble, you may not have been required to call upon the Spirit. And if you’ve never been through crises and traumas, you might not know. But for those of us who have seen hard times, those of us who have been as it were in the midst of what seemed like a perfect storm, we can report to those who may not have ever, who may never had had to call upon it to say there’s a strength there, there’s a power there, trust it. Oh I know I do. I’ve told members of this congregation that in the time of my most serious struggle even here, I was able to call upon something God had placed in me forty years ago and had not explained to me why it was given. And when the trouble came, the Spirit says, “This is why I put this in you and made you learn this by heart.”
I had learned Psalm 27 by heart, and the Lord told me in the midst of struggle, I knew you would face tough times, so I put it in there. And I found myself in trouble finding strength way down inside. Didn’t even have to open my mouth. Something said, 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? When the wicked, even mine enemies and my foes came upon me to eat of my flesh, they stumbled and fell. And I recited it without opening my mouth because it was in there.
Oh, I assure you, resources for coping have already been delivered by the Spirit. It’s in there — uh huh — it’s in there. It’s in there. And God will hear our cry in the needy time.
Now there is a third source of strength that I want to share with you. There is a power in community not always tapped, but in times of trouble when people are able to come together across boundaries of ideology, of ethnicity, orientation, philosophy, or perspective or station in life — when these elements come together to form, in the absence of the families we have known, a blended family. There is a strength that comes from that coming together that is not replaceable within the course of human existence. It is unique. Almost as if Mama Eternal who has grown weary of the struggles between her children, when a great assault against any of them comes along, Mama Eternal activates the gathering power and brings upon us a spirit of healing and transformation we may never have experienced before.
I therefore share with you this strength. If instead of pulling apart from each other, specializing in blaming and shaming, isolating people to be objects of our scorn, if we can resist the temptation to breathe in something more deadly than asbestos or pulverized concrete — the virus of hate is in the air. And if we can manage to protect ourselves, or if it is already in our bloodstream, to call upon the Spirit as an antidote to hate, we will find strength to make it through.
We are hearing reports that various ethnic groups and various phenotypes and various identity groups are being targeted now. And that little-by-little folks will decide who is to be the scapegoat or which group will be the new pariah on the block. Let us be aware that Mama Eternal builds strength if we can hold together.
Which of these three strengths will bring us through? Well, let me tell you a story. I remember a Sunday long ago when I was preaching, and they called and said, “Sister Baldwin has nosebleeds and she’s really sick, come pastor.”
So I left the pulpit, joined by several members of my congregation, and we went to Sister Baldwin’s house, and sure enough there was blood all over the place. But here’s what we did — Brother Midgett from Pitt County, North Carolina, out of the old, old tradition, asked for a medicine bottle. He caught three drops of Sister Baldwin’s blood in the medicine bottle and set it up on the cupboard and said, “That’s what grandmama used to do when we kids had nose bleedings.”
Then Sister Coleman reached for a brown paper sack, tore off a piece of it, rolled it up and stuck it under Sister Baldwin’s lip. Sister Randolph went to the refrigerator and found a towel and made an ice pack. And I, the charismatic pastor, put my hands on her shoulders and I prayed for her. And sure enough, in about a minute, the nose bleeding stopped, and we went on back to church, and our only problem was, we didn’t know which method had worked.
May it be so for us. We have contributions we can make. For in the community, the collectivity of brothers and sisters, there is a power that is capable of sustaining us through the crisis, bringing us over to the other side so we can discover what new gifts and responsibilities and opportunities await us.
So now here we are today. This Sunday, we are together. Tomorrow morning, when it’s time to get up, all sorts of people will be debating, now what am I going to do today? Let me tell you what I think I’m going to do. I think I’m going to do pretty much what I did this morning. I got up and in the middle of my shower, found myself reciting my shower song. Let me tell you, you won’t be able to remember the words but the sentiment I think is right. It says: I’m going to take heart and get moving though the clouds hang heavy and grey. If I wait for blue sky perfection, I’ll be waiting till Judgment Day. Why let myself be held hostage, trapped and blocked by who knows what? Will standing still in sinking sand reverse my fate? Certainly not. I’m going to break out and risk living. Though the reasons to wait still abound, I will do what I can in the climate of now until better days roll around.
So take heart, my sisters and brothers. Give your spirit, even in these times, a holiday. Away with the reasons delaying the season because we are alive, because our body is wise, because the Spirit is present and because the community is reinforced with power from on high, in a real sense, in this moment, for this day, celebration is the order of the day. I really mean it, celebration is the order of the day.