Texts: Amos 5: 21-24; Luke 19: 1-10

Interrupting the Elements of Worship

            I’d like to begin this morning by repeating words from the book of Amos.  They’re some of the most famous, if also some of the most difficult words in all of the Bible.  “I can’t stand your religious meetings,” the writer has God say.  “I want nothing to do with your religion projects.  I’ve had all I can take of your noisy ego music,” God continues.  “Do you know what I do want,” God asks?  “Justice – oceans of it.  Fairness – rivers of it.  That’s all I want.”

            Hard words from the prophet Amos.  Hard words for a community of faithful people to hear, or read.  Hard words for anyone who takes religion and its practices seriously.  Especially hard for me, having decided to think with all of you about each of the individual components of our worship services, asking what they have to do with our lives.  Through inspiration or folly, I don’t know, I’ve been laboring to suggest that what we do on Sunday morning matters, and that what we do week by week, in the prelude and hymns, in the introit and the call to worship, are actually doing important work for us.  I’m trying to persuade you of the beauty, the integrity, and life orienting meanings that inhere in every aspect of our worship services.  Our worship, in other words, isn’t ancillary to our identity as a community.  It’s central to who we are.

            But I’ve had some nagging doubts along the way.  Maybe you have too.  Maybe it’s the fact that, save for a few famous examples, we have few records of Jesus spending much time within religious communities, or going to worship services.  Maybe it’s that for the Apostles, their primary work occurred outside of worship, not within it.  We can find a few trusty passages about gatherings of believers, but there are no accounts of Peter or Paul crafting liturgies or worship services.  Maybe it’s that, coming from both a Presbyterian and now Congregationalist background, I’m attuned to the ways people can become trapped in their churchiness, in their worship services.  Maybe I’m especially aware of how ministers have a propensity to do that.  Maybe I’ve just absorbed the words of the prophets, who convey a healthy skepticism about this activity we call worship, and the way it distracts from other important work having to do with our commitments to human equality and responsibility before others.  Or maybe I’m just worried that some of you are finding it all a little tedious.  Well, then, this one’s for you.

            There comes a time and a place when the interruption of worship is necessary if we are to discern the voice of God.  There are times when the interruption of solemn assemblies and when the disruption of pious words are indispensible theological and moral practices.  It’s not only that God might be discerned afresh because of the interruption.  Sometimes, God is the interruption.

            What I’d like to do today is to tell the story of a very important interruption that occurred during a worship service at the Riverside Church in New York City.  And I’d like to tell you not only about the interruption itself, but about how that interruption reverberated after it happened, and how it’s still reverberating now.  It’s powerful enough that it may, in fact, interrupt our own worship here in Old Lyme.  But let me tell you the story.

The Riverside Church is situated on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, and it has long been a leader in the realm of progressive Christian ministry.  It was built in the early 20th century with money donated by John D. Rockefeller, and it has produced some of the most prophetic preaching of the previous century, from Harry Emerson Fosdick, William Sloane Coffin, and James Forbes, among many others.  The interruption in question took place on Sunday, May 4th, 1969.  As communion was being celebrated, James Forman ascended into the pulpit and demanded to be heard.  Forman was the secretary of SNCC, the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, and he was there representing the National Black Economic Development Conference.  In the ensuing moments a struggle of wills took place.  Ernest Campbell, then the senior minister of Riverside, attempted to win back control of the service by instructing the organist to play over Forman’s words.  Forman, meanwhile, proceeded to read a document prepared for the occasion called “The Black Manifesto.”  It wasn’t that Campbell objected to Forman’s presence, or to the reading of the document.  He had met with Forman the previous day, and they had agreed that Forman would present the Manifesto at the conclusion of the service.  Forman, however, believed the content of the Manifesto actually required an interruption if it was to be properly heard, and reckoned with.  Which is to say, prophetic words, delivered in the spirit of Amos, arrest the flow of worship.  Neither Amos nor the Manifesto can be framed as supplements, afterthoughts to the flow of worship.

And so what was contained in the Black Manifesto?  It is, in essence, a demand that predominantly white Christian churches, like Riverside at the time, begin to acknowledge, and thereafter to rectify, their historic role in the degradation of black life.  The kidnapping of hundreds of thousands of Africans was aided and abetted by the Christian church.  The forced labor and forced reproduction of those Africans was aided and abetted by the Christian church.  The profits derived from that labor laid the very foundation of the United States, and it was all done with the blessing of the Christian church.  The wealth of predominantly white Christian churches was inextricably tied to the profits of enforced black labor, and Forman stood in the Riverside pulpit to demand an accounting.  Specifically, he demanded that the white Christian establishment provide the National Black Economic Development Conference with half a billion dollars, which, on his accounting, would amount to around $15 for every black person in the country.  The aim wasn’t to give money to individuals, but rather to accomplish a wholesale investment by white churches in the lives of people of color – for the creation of land collectives, educational institutions, media outlets, labor unions, job training, business investment, and community infrastructure.  (That is, by the way, how we should always understand reparations – as investment in a community’s social infrastructure, rather than as a payout born from guilt).  The demands were large, but, the Manifesto reasoned, when measured against the immense historical wealth generated by black labor, they were exceedingly modest.

I do not envy the role assigned to Ernest Campbell, the senior minister.  To his immense credit, he took a good deal of time to formulate a response.  In fact, it wasn’t until ten weeks after the interruption that he made a full reply.  Which is to say, he wasn’t reactive.  Campbell gave himself the time and space necessary for a full consideration of the Manifesto’s contents.  He absorbed the criticisms, and he thought about them deeply.  How many of us can say the same when faced with stinging criticism, and powerful demands?

When he did finally respond, it was a sermon for the ages, entitled “The Case for Reparations.”[1]  It deserves to be rediscovered by people of faith, especially those of us in predominantly white churches.  Campbell begins by describing Zacchaeus, a man short of stature and beloved in Sunday School classes everywhere.  But Zacchaeus was a tax collector, which shouldn’t be mistaken for something like the IRS.  He worked as an agent of the occupying military power of the day, Rome, and he was employed to shake his neighbors down for money that would support that occupation.  He had license to use intimidation or force to do so, and it would also have been customary to add a sum on top of that tax for himself.

But something about Jesus interrupts him.  Jesus bids him come down from the tree he is perched in, for he, Jesus, wanted to visit with Zacchaeus.  They walk together, and while we don’t know what happened on that walk, we know that by the end of it, Zacchaeus sees his job, and money, and people in an entirely different light.  “Half of my goods I give to the poor,” Zacchaeus says.  “And if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold.”  Most important of all is Jesus’s response to Zacchaeus.  “Salvation has come to this house,” Jesus says, “since he also is a son of Abraham.”

In other words, Zacchaeus prepares to make reparation, and Jesus blesses the effort.  Campbell notes that the word “reparation” should not be feared, for it has a long pedigree in Scripture and jurisprudence.  Thus, the book of Exodus, chapter 22: “if a man steals an ox or a sheep, and kills it or sells it, he shall pay five oxen for an ox, and four sheep for a sheep.  He shall make restitution.”  Thus, Roman law insisted that the one who stole must repay fourfold.  Forgiveness without reparation becomes an indulgence in cheap grace, Campbell notes.

It is from that theological foundation that Campbell formulates his response to the Black Manifesto, noting that racism in the United States is sometimes personal, but always systemic.  It dates back to slavery, but has been perpetuated and confirmed by us to our political, social, and economic advantage.

            Campbell notes several areas of failure on the part of the dominant white society.  Here are several, all of which remain true some fifty years later: we have sinned as educators, he argues, by inadequately teaching the history of this country’s minority groups, and the heinous acts they have been exposed to.  We have sinned as jurists by convicting or sentencing disproportionate numbers of black men especially, but all people of color, to be incarcerated.  We have sinned as parents by passing on to our children the myth of white supremacy, enforcing it by innuendo or lifestyle choice.  We have sinned as financiers by restricting the flow of capital to the black community.  We have sinned as legislators by catering to racist pressures and indulging interests designed to unnecessarily complicate elementary matters of right and wrong.

We could and should add to Campbell’s list: there is the sin of affluent communities blocking affordable housing in those same communities.  There is the sin of undercutting efforts to enable poor people, who are overwhelmingly people of color, from accessing affordable health care.  There is the sin of creating stop and frisk laws that disproportionately persecuted and imprisoned people of color.  There is the sin of undercutting public education, and of rigidly enforcing boundaries that prevent children from accessing quality education.  To cap it off, we should add that we have sinned as ministers by preaching reconciliation without an equal commitment to justice, and we have sinned as a church whenever we understand faith as something merely inter, or intra-personal, rather than involving the social, systemic, or corporate dimensions of life.

And so Campbell makes his case for reparations.  He knows the objections better than anyone.  Indeed, he was slammed with them.  “Must we use that word?  What about other peoples who have been wronged?  Where does it all end?  Isn’t it backward looking to focus on the sins of the past?”  And on and on.  He dispatches them all.  Yes we must use the word, for otherwise we’ll do what we’ve always done, which is to give a few gifts and then congratulate ourselves on our generosity.  Yes, it’s appropriate to address wrongs committed toward a particular people.  Singling out one wrong doesn’t cancel out any others – they all deserve to be reckoned with.  To the question of focusing on the sins of the past, Campbell argues that doing so actually points the way to the future, by articulating the work that still needs to be done.

So why tell you about all of this now?  Why bring this particular interruption from fifty years ago into our worship?  Well, for one, because the predominantly white churches such as ours need to be interrupted from time to time if we are to hear the voice of Amos or the voice of Jesus, to say nothing of those whose voices speak to us from the margins of our history, and of our society.

But it’s also true that the interruption, the Manifesto, and Campbell’s sermon all remain stunningly contemporary.  Last June, Congress held a standing room only hearing on reparations, with Ta-Nahesi Coates as its star witness.  Coates has been a powerful advocate for reparations, most notably in an essay published in The Atlantic back in 2014.  Knowing what we know about Congress, there will not be a response anytime soon from that particular body.  But many other institutions are also taking up the question again, and they’re responding.  Georgetown University has agreed to pay reparations on behalf of those whose ancestors were sold off to fund the university.  Princeton Theological Seminary has created a substantial fund to pay for the education of the descendants of enslaved people, and to publicize its own historical links to the practice of slavery.  The Virginia Theological Seminary, an Episcopal institution in Alexandria, has created a similar fund as reparation for depending upon slave labor on its campus prior to the Civil War.  Those are simply a few of the institutions that have taken up the question of reparations. 

Is that a conversation we should begin in this church?  There’s ample evidence, after all, of our own complicity in the institution of slavery.  Our first minister owned at least one slave, as did many of the early members of this community.  The parsonage attic once served as slave quarters, a fact I consider most every time I pass by the door to the attic.  There are numerous graves in the Duck River Cemetery just down the road that mark the lives of freed slaves.  Some questions: just how much of the wealth that made this community what it is depended upon slave labor?  Just how much of the construction of the historic homes in this region depended upon slave labor?  Just how much of our church’s prominence was built from capital amassed through the labor of black bodies?  Is that the Lenten conversation we should be having?  Is that the worship that God asks of us? 

I confess that I don’t know where exactly it might lead us.  Nor am I unaware of the strong currents of feeling that stir at the very mention of the topic.  In the case of Riverside, it led that congregation to create a large fund for the investment in social justice ministries.  And it led to ever greater outreach to and inclusion of people of color in that church.  But there, as everywhere, reparations remains an unfinished project.  The interruption of worship – by Amos, by James Forman, and by so many others – continues to reverberate. 

In a time when thinly veiled white supremacy parades as a legitimate political option, in an election year when racist tropes are sure to be circulated in order to stoke old fears, I’d like to believe the churches have a powerful role to play in advancing the cause of racial justice.  As Zacchaeus says to Jesus in Luke’s Gospel, “If I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold.”  I wonder: what do we make of such an interruption?


[1] Over the next several paragraphs, I’m drawing upon Campbell’s sermon itself, found in the volume Christian Manifesto (New York: Harper and Row, 1970), pgs. 96-104.