A Friend asked me to recall what had been my "sermon" at an unprogrammed Quaker Meeting I attended out of town this past Easter Sunday, and with some trepidation I will try to set down what came to me at that time.
I smile when I say "sermon" and tend to say it in a self- deprecatory mode. It reminds me of my evangelical youth, when I would hear them because someone was assigned and paid to deliver it. Sometimes it was inspired and instructive, but often tedious and formulaic. It also may bring to mind the almost-deadly seminary class in preaching, which my classmate Jesse Jackson flunked because he didn't outline and write out what he had to deliver. (The seminary later repented, so to speak, by giving him an honorary B.D. degree.) But when I now say "preaching," the associations with the word tend to be more positive, connoting the lively experiences I've had in the Black church, where the spontaneity and congregational participation are much closer to the soul than the intellect, and no one is likely to fall asleep. Perhaps each of us have had this experience in our own Meetings for Worship. And perhaps these sorts of "sermons" don't have to stay just within our Meeting. Anyway, I'm glad to share the following:
As I've reflected this morning on my years as a worshipper among Friends, I've discerned several periods that I've moved through. I'm seeing this in terms of struggles, in dialectic terms of what is encountered and contended with.
In my earliest period, as with many of us here, I first came among Friends as one who wanted to share their struggle against mass organized violence. I had immense respect for Quakers as those who, with a small minority of other faithful Christians, had maintained a testimony against war, in simple obedience to the Teacher who gave us his Sermon on the Mount. I was honored to work among Friends in peace education work in AFSC, and in supporting the witness of conscientious objectors.
Soon thereafter I became aware of Friends' consistent and expanding witness against other forms of social oppression: my worship life incorporated the testimonies against racial and sexual inequality, the testimonies on the economy and for the life of simplicity. These foci remain important for me as a Friend, knowing what we must stand against and finding strength as a community for building alternatives in the social order.
But as I matured within this school of the Spirit, the awareness of struggle moved INWARD. Increasingly I've found that there are many negativities that life presents us with, for which we need salvation. There are many dimensions to that "ocean of darkness" which is overcome by God's "ocean of light." My own inward struggles have been against meaninglessness, disconnectedness, drift, hopelessness, despair, loss of a sense of worth or purpose or direction. Humankind invariably must contend against distortions in the sense of self: either an inflated, hubristic sense of self-importance, or the debilitations of low self-esteem and devaluation of one's abilities and responsibilities. And then there are the illnesses of body and of mind, which can sap life and hope from us. I need not extend the catalog, for each of us can make our very personal list of what it is from which we need liberation, for which we need salvation.
It is Easter, and around the world today there are people of faith singing some version of the hymn with which I grew up, "Christ the Lord is risen today: Hallelujah!" When faced with this fact, Quakers either gladly affirm this and join in the universal Christian celebration, or they find they have problems with expressing their faith and religious experience in these terms. If Easter is predictably a crisis, it is just as predictably the occasion for our expressing our sense of hope and promise in the least-common-denominator language of affirming the welcome beauty of the new flowers. [I had put in my lapel a daffodil picked from the woods outside the Meetinghouse!] At least in the outer realm of biology, we can see the renewal of life which is given again and again to us. And I believe we may gladly affirm refreshment of the spirit from any worthy source, and joyously accept that the True Source underlying all being is what sustains us.
But when we look at what mocks life, what devalues our sense of being, is it not the inevitable fact of Death? That our hearts will, without a doubt, stop ticking is part of the package given to us, no matter how much we try to distract or postpone or deny. The threat of personal non-being constantly undercuts our sense of dignity and worth, even as it may call forth courage to face an uncertain future. Are we able to unite with the clarion, triumphant Easter declaration in the classic Christian phrases, "Where, O Grave, is now thy victory? Where, O Death, is now thy sting?"
Although we Quakers try not to be too particular or uniform in giving verbal testimony to our faith, I believe that our experience can lead us to make these joyous proclamations. For Christ has not only "come to teach his people himself," but also is the name we may give to the inward assurance of the ever-present sense of the unconquerable Divine Caring which will not let us go. Quakers speak not in terms of propositions but rather of experience -- "this I knew experimentally..." -- and we need not be shy about the work of God in our lives.
Whereas I first sought out Friends because we could genuinely sing together "We SHALL overcome," I now join with Friends in saying that "God HAS overcome." For me, the Easter message, which must be personal if it is to be valid, is that Death does not have the final word. Cruelty and abuse and degradation do not have the final word. Nor do suffering or anomie or depression or oppression, or any of the other "principalities and powers" which would negate life. Rather, our testimony to the whole world has been that we "live in that Life and Power" which not only takes away the occasion of war, but which also resurrects our flagging spirits and distorted selves and communal brokenness. God's salvation is now, and comes not only to us as individuals, but also may restore and rebuild us as communities of the Spirit.
May we be able, Friends, to live with radiant joy that sense that Barclay had when he first came into "the silent assemblies of God's people," that they had among them "a secret power" for which he hungered to be united. And this is a Light which must not be hidden under a bushel, but which is entrusted to us to shine forth to the whole world, a contagious and redeeming and exhilarating sense of God's power within and among us, for the transformation of this world.
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