I would like you to listen for a moment to these words, which are really a kind of hymn.
“Democracy alone can bind, and ever seeks to bind, all nations, all men and women, of however various and distant lands, into a brotherhood, a family. It is the old, yet ever-modern dream of earth, out of her eldest and her youngest, [out of] her fond philosophers and poets. Democracy is adhesiveness or love, that fuses, ties, and aggregates, making the races comrades, and fraternizing.” --Walt Whitman, Democratic Vistas, 1871
The world is in the grip of a pandemic, on top of which America is in convulsions. What a month, what a week, my congregation.
The historic drama spans so many emotions—we felt sorrow, such deep deep sorrow at the killing of George Floyd, horror at the maleficence, stupefaction at stupidity, anger at mealy-mouth foot-dragging, shame that a familiar crime was happening all over again.
We felt pride, too, in the surge of people flooding the streets, the millennial, the old-timers, whites in huge percentages, and all colors—to grieve and rage at this base, cruel, senseless and too familiar act of inhumanity.
But these demonstrations which have run eleven consecutive days and nights in 30 different cities in the US and many others around the world, are just the late-breaking of a colossal wave on our democratic shore, a wave whose power started building in the aftermath of Trayvon Martin’s murder, when the black community finally managed to push the nay-sayers aside and get their movies written and produced, like 13th, Selma, 12 Years a Slave, Moonlight, I Am Not Your Negro, Get Out, and many, many more.
African-Americans also got their books published over this period like Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, Tears We Cannot Stop by Michael Eric Dyson, Just Mercy by Bryan Stephenson, The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander.
It seems these testimonies of black pain in America cumulatively have seeped part of the way into white consciousness and consciences such that three police murders in a row in Minneapolis, or three in a row in one month between Georgia, Kentucky, and Minnesota, or the ten in a row going back to Eric Garner, finally ignited the simmering outrage into a full-blown national convulsion.
Today the country is calling us out and calling us up—we are being drafted into a movement. The nation is witnessing a street plebiscite, and we should be taking very personal instruction from it. We are witnessing in real time that Eliot Church is needed in this community and the whole city around us. Prof. Gary Dorrien of Union Seminary in NYC told us at the CMM annual meeting Thursday, “The love ethic of Jesus makes you care, makes you angry. This is a moment to put everything on the line.”
Our poet Walt Whitman celebrated the Democratic Vistas of continental America in the immediate aftermath of the war to end slavery. This week has visited upon an entire nation a new glimpse of those democratic vistas as they burst into millions of peoples’ hearts and raised us to a new level of hope—real hope again.
But Whitman had something interesting to add. Democracy, he wrote, “is vitalized by religion. . . . For I say at the core of democracy, finally, is the religious element. All the religions, old and new, are there.” Whitman saw that religion brings life into every human enterprise, most especially and essentially into democracy because democracy is a religious vocation—arduous, compelling, exciting. Because Whitman saw religion at the core of those democratic values, we have another source lifting up our mission in front of our eyes.
Our silence is violence—let us find our voice, Eliot Church. Our inaction is complicity—let us put our shoulder to the wheel, Eliot. Our impatience is healthy—let it fuel us during the long haul ahead, church, because it has only just begun.
On Thursday, Rev Al Sharpton quoted from Ecclesiastes in his eulogy for George Floyd in order to say to America its time has come. (Did you watch that sermon??) Two weeks ago I said something very like that—Eliot Church’s own time has come, I said. I called it our Kairos, which is the Greek term for a special time, pregnant time, due time, past time, you might say, as Rev. Al did, out of time. The Kairos moment for us has arrived, and we are stewards of that moment.
If we are to endure, if we are to produce another generation, if we are to be effective, if Eliot Church is to find our grip again—two things, I believe, need to happen:
First, Eliot Church must undertake to right-size itself. We must use this transition time to reorganize and rebuild. Our Discernment Committee and our Leadership Council are going to use this summer to get some remediations started, the better to position us to call a settled pastor.
And second, Eliot members have to find some trust. Take heart in yourselves. Look at the confidence that St. Paul had in the fledgling little communities he started in Ephesus, Corinth, Galatia and Rome. He was addressing you by extension, another Christian community in a secular environment. St. Paul wrote of them, I have no doubt in my mind that you yourselves are full of goodness and equipped with knowledge of every kind, well able to give advice to one another. He prayed that out of the treasures of glory God may grant you inward strength and power through his Spirit, that through faith Christ may dwell in your hearts in love. St. Paul enjoined us to pursue justice, piety, integrity, love, fortitude, and gentleness. Run the great race of faith, he said, and take hold of eternal life, for to this you were called.
The French have a saying, they have many sayings, but one in particular applies to our transition time--reculer pour mieux sauter—pull back just enough to spring forward. If we pause and make the effort to re-establish a bridgehead, to use Dr. Elizabeth’s analogy from last Sunday, one day soon we will be able to provide others with the means to vault from this bridgehead into action.
Today is a day of mourning for George Floyd. So today, on our Annual Meeting Sunday, it is for us to believe in the democratic vistas that Walt Whitman could see and that people of all ages and races are seeing in this important week in America. Tomorrow Monday is two weeks since the police killing of George Floyd—Rev. William Barber and national clergy are calling for a day of fasting Monday to culminate at 5:00 with 8 minutes and 47 seconds of silence, the length of time it took George Floyd to expire.
Let us all participate in these rituals of respect and national contemplation. And let us renew our Christian vocation as a public in a community that needs us.