The Other Side of the Pulpit (Interfaith Version)

I went to church this morning as part of my day job.  I was invited to the Southside Church of Christ as the Director of the South Central Alliance of Churches.  The Southside Church of Christ graciously provides the office space for the SCAC.  I have been working in their building for seven months, but any time I was in their sanctuary was when I stole away from my office to meditate at the beginning or the end of the day.
I was one of a number of people invited to be there today, including State Senator Wendy Davis, The Superintendent of the Fort Worth ISD, the Chief of Police of Fort Worth and leaders of local neighborhood associations.  We were all recognized during the call to worship at the beginning of the service and told we didn’t need to speak today, in fact we weren’t going to be allowed to speak.  That got some laughs.  Then we were told that we had been invited so that the congregation could thank us and pray with us and for us for all the good work we do.  It’s been a long time since I have been so warmly welcomed.

The Southside Church of Christ is in the middle of a sermon series for August called “A Light to the City.”  It’s a missional series speaking to what their congregation is called to do in the neighborhood.  The preaching pastor, Steve Cloer, gave an amazing call to mission in the city, and I will recap that, but first I want to share some other impressions of the service.   I let myself encounter and feel how the morning was speaking to me.  I found myself incredibly moved and touched a number of times as all the connections I made with the music, the scriptures, the sermon and the hospitality made it seem like the service was crafted to reach me.

The first thing that blew me away was how welcoming the congregation was. No less than a dozen people I didn’t know (and two or three I did) introduced themselves and thanked me for being a guest and taking part in the morning’s service.

The second thing that moved me was the music.  The Church of Christ uses no instrumental music. It was all a cappella. I can’t remember when, if ever, I have heard a congregation sing the way the Southside Church of Christ did this morning. I knew that out of conviction they didn’t use instruments.  They’re also not big on dancing. I learned from working in the building that there isn’t dancing at weddings.  I have to confess I had begun to think of these practices as something straight out of the movie Footloose.  When the congregation began to sing, however, it took my breath away.  A person called a worship leader led the singing from the pulpit. It reminded me of being in synagogue with a good cantor.  He started the songs and the words and score were on the screen high about the front of the sanctuary.  A mighty sound rose up out of the congregation. Virtually everyone was singing full voice.  I saw no choir. It sounded like sitting in the middle of a huge concert choir.  Unison, men’s parts, women’s parts, call and response, echoes.  As the service went on different songs showcased different arrangements.

The service began with a number of songs, including one with a text taken from Psalm 42.  The lyrics also spoke of living water. I  preached recently at First Jefferson Church in Fort Worth and spoke about how Unitarian Universalists need to be unafraid to pray, meet people of other religions where they’re at and bring them the living water of our faith.   Later in the service they sang a song called God of This City (see the video  below for the contemporary version with guitars and such).

In the fall of 2010, as one of the organizers of the Unitarian Universalist Christian Fellowship Revival, I brought The Reverend David Owen O’Quill in to lead worship and he used a version of this song with slightly altered lyrics to match his Univeralist theology.  That song has always stuck with me from the morning he used it in worship at Horizon UU Church in Carrollton, TX. I haven’t heard again live since then.

The scripture reading grabbed me around the soul and wouldn’t let go.  The reading chosen for the service and the sermon was Isaiah 61:1-7.

The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me,
because the Lord has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim freedom for the captives
and release from darkness for the prisoners,[a]
2 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor
and the day of vengeance of our God,
to comfort all who mourn,
3     and provide for those who grieve in Zion—
to bestow on them a crown of beauty
instead of ashes,
the oil of joy
instead of mourning,
and a garment of praise
instead of a spirit of despair.
They will be called oaks of righteousness,
a planting of the Lord
for the display of his splendor.

4 They will rebuild the ancient ruins
and restore the places long devastated;
they will renew the ruined cities
that have been devastated for generations.
5 Strangers will shepherd your flocks;
foreigners will work your fields and vineyards.
6 And you will be called priests of the Lord,
you will be named ministers of our God.
You will feed on the wealth of nations,
and in their riches you will boast.

7 Instead of your shame
you will receive a double portion,
and instead of disgrace
you will rejoice in your inheritance.
And so you will inherit a double portion in your land,
and everlasting joy will be yours.

This is the passage Jesus quotes at the beginning of his public ministry in Luke 4:16-21.

16 He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17 and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:

18 “The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
19     to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”[a]

20 Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. 21 He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”

This passage from Luke was the reading used at my ordination in 2007.  Yes, we read the bible at my Unitarian Universalist ordination.  This passage from Isa/Luke is the reason I went into the ministry. It was the call to do these things that beckoned, that left no alternative.  Following the mandate to proclaim good news, proclaim freedom, and set the oppressed free has led me to some daring choices, including resigning from a congregation that seemed interested in anything but doing these things.  It has led me to work in one of the poorest neighborhoods in Fort Worth with people living on the edge of homelessness, making so little money I am truly afraid that it is possible for me to join them in the anxious and evil place of being destitute, hungry, and homeless.

And then Steve Cloer, a man I know mostly from friendly conversations in the hallway or over lunch began to preach.  His message was about the mission and call of the church. He spoke about Isa 61 being a blue print for what a healthy, livable city looks like.  He talked about how many people, organizations and magazines publish list of the most livable city in America. He told us that different lists use different measures of livable – how affordable the city is, how clean and how environmentally conscious, the state of the schools or the lack of crime.  All well and good, he said, but nowhere is there a livable list based on mercy, justice, hospitably to the stranger and alien. It was good stuff any Unitarian Universalist could get behind.  Steve then talked about how different people think different things can bring about this mercy, justice and compassion.  He said he didn’t believe in the ability of politics to bring about this livable city nor did he have faith in education to do it or law enforcement or even social services.  He spoke about how Jesus quoted Isaiah and with that reference began his ministry of healing, compassion, justice and inclusion.  He talked about how only continuing that ministry could bring about the livable city of God that Isa proclaims.  He talked about the place of the church in the city and its role in setting this example and working with politicians and educators and police and social services to ensure the proclamation of the good news, recover of sight, freedom to prisoners and the oppressed.

His language was different than a typical Unitarian Universalist might use. There were plenty of references to Jesus and God. Yet, what he was preaching was the Beloved Community and the role of the church in creating it.  I was in his house of worship and it was my job to translate. I can do that. My tradition is a tradition of translation.  I wondered as I listened (and silently cheered him on) how many of my colleagues, not to mention people in our Unitarian Universalist pews, would have stayed with him past his language and his approach to be able to hear the passionate call to not only his church, but all people of faith to be a servant to the city and heal its wounds, protect its weak and remember its forgotten.

After the service came perhaps the biggest surprise of all. Half the church must have come to the center aisle, which is where all of us “dignitaries” were sitting and it became a receiving line.  Person after person thanked me for the work I did in this city. It was  all I could do to hold back the tears.  The thanks was genuine, especially on the part of the people I know from the congregation who staff their food pantry and clothing ministry and manage the community garden and others who see me in their church every day.  One person said to me, “I don’t know how you do it? Day after day the need is so great. I don’t know how you do it.”

I don’t know either. I’m tired and poor and struggling and absolutely love what I do. The only answer really is that I do this, and I get through it because

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

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