BISHOP CHANG: The church is a habitat for hope. And in the Eucharist we come together to celebrate that hope in the Resurrection. Bishop Curry will share with us his reflections.
BISHOP CURRY: Someone must tell the babies, "God may be invisible, but God is not dead." Someone must tell the story. Old song says it another way. “I love to tell the story, t'will be my theme in glory. Tell the old, old story of Jesus and His love.”
Oh, we must tell the story. And that's what I want to talk about briefly. I do want to thank all who have worked to bring this conference about and who have been faithful for many years to lift up the importance of spiritual formation of -- of processes and means to have Christ formed in us, that we might go forth into the world, if you will, as little Jesuses and thereby transform it.
And I want to thank you. I have enjoyed this conference I think as much, if not more, than any other and I'm ready to go back home and tell the story even more. This has been a wonderful occasion of sharing and being together in community. This has been a blessed time together and I pray that when we go forth from this sacred place we will go forth into the world to help the world end its nightmare and establish God's dream for it.
“Oh, I love to tell the story. T'will be my theme in glory to tell the old, old story of Jesus and His love.” We sometimes underestimate the intrinsic power of the gospel story spoken through Old and New Testament, the intrinsic power of the gospel to lift up and liberate and to set the captive free. And we forget sometimes that sometimes all you gotta do is just tell it. Just tell it so somebody like that little girl said, so she'll hear it, to just tell, "That's somebody else's manuscript, not mine." It's another story. To just tell it.
When I was in seminary my uncle James, who lived in the Detroit at the time but had grown up in Alabama, and was a preacher, Uncle James had a very small, tiny church in Detroit, or we used to call it "De-troit, Michigan." And I remember Uncle James was just a wondrous figure in our family life. He was the one at family reunions that everybody would pray that he would not pray? I mean Uncle James would just pray about everything. I remember one time -- this really did happen -- he was prayin' over food and he said, "Lord, I want to thank you. It's so good to be here." As the old preacher said, "It's so good to be here." And then he’d begin to get rhythmic and you can begin to feel the cadences. "Lord, I just want to thank you. I'm here with all my family, my sisters, my sister-in-law Lena over there and -- and Lilly over there -- and my wife over here, and, Lord, I want to thank you for this wonderful food, all the childrens are gathered around, all my nieces. Nieces, stand up. And nephews, nephews, stand up. I just want to thank you, Lord. It's so good to be here and you've prepared this wondrous feast for us. We got this lovely fried chick" -- he's still prayin' -- "this lovely fried chicken and these collard greens and chitlins." We weren't a vegetarian family, but he'd go through and when he finally said, "I want to say all this in Jesus's name," everybody said, "Thank you, Jesus! Thank you, Jesus!"
Well, when I went off to seminary, Uncle James was a wonderful -- my father has gone to seminary years before and -- and I suspect he had had a similar conversation with Uncle James, but when I was talking with him, I guess I came back probably Christmas or something like that and was talking with him, he said, "Now how long you gonna be in school?" I said, "Well, it's a three-year course of study." "Your granddaddy was a preacher. He was plowin' one day. Lord called him and he was preachin' the next. Now how come it takes you three years?" But he never had a opportunity for the formal education, theological education, but he always wanted to know, you know, "Who you readin’? Tell me who you readin’." And then, "Who were the theologians and who are the biblical scholars?" And he would say, "Well, no matter what you do, no matter what you learn, remember tell the story. No matter what you do in that seminary, when you leave it, you go forth and you tell somebody the story."
“Oh, I love to tell the story. T'will be my theme in glory to tell the old, old story of Jesus and His love.” Turn around and tell your neighbor, "We got to tell the story." Just turn and tell 'em. I mean turn to the people next to you ... it's really okay. Lord, don't you just love church?
Let me list a text that arises, if you will, out of the pathos of desolation, that we have wrestled with, and that speaks a daring word of hope even in the midst of hell, "Comfort, oh, comfort my people," says your God. "Speak tenderly to Jerusalem and cry unto her that she has served her term and her penalty is ended, that she has now received from the Lord's hand double for her sins." Now a voice cries out, "In the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord. Make straight in the desert, a highway for our God. For every valley shall be lifted up and every mountain and hill shall be made low, the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places a plain, and in this the glory of the Lord shall be revealed. Oh, that all flesh shall see it together." "Now get you up, up on a high mountain," the text says, "Get you up upon a high mountain. Oh, Zion, herald of good tidings, lift up your voice with strength, oh, Jerusalem, herald of gospel, of good tidings, lift it up, be not afraid, declare, behold, here is your God." Oh, that sister toward the end of the video, "God," she says, "somebody must tell the babies God is invisible, but God is not dead!"
Now there's a story behind this text. There's a story behind every text, otherwise, Christian educators and preachers wouldn't have a job, I mean. But there's a story behind this text imbedded in the history, if you will, of the Hebrew people. You may remember it. I don't need to rehearse it in great detail, but you may remember that -- that well over 600 years before Jesus was born, the armies of Babylon began a march of conquest in the ancient Near East and in the course of this march of conquest they began to amass territory and to conquer other peoples and in the year 612 B.C.E., Before the Common Era, they defeated the Assyrians in the series of battles and thereby amassed the territory that had been part of the Assyrian Empire and made it part of their newly rising Babylonian Empire. They continued this march of conquest a few years later and you may recall that in the year 605 B.C., at the Battle of Carchemesh, they met and defeated the armies of the Pharaoh of Egypt and thereby, in defeating the Egyptians, amassed much of the territory that was part of the Egyptian Empire into this newly rising Babylonian Empire. Their march of conquest continued as the years went on. They began to amass more territory in the ancient Near East and gobbling it up slowly, but surely until finally you may remember in the year 586 or 585 B.C. they besieged the city of Jerusalem itself, having razed the countryside, having desecrated it, they breached the walls, if you will, of Jerusalem, entered the sacred city and desecrated the temple that King Solomon had constructed long before. They desecrated the temple and took the sacred vessels out and not only did they take and steal the sacred vessel, but they stole the sacred people. They took folk and exiled them, exiled them in a land not their own. They wrenched them from everything they knew and suddenly placed them in a land that they did not know. For them, this began what we know as the Babylonian exile, the Babylonian captivity, the Diaspora. This was a time when desolation was the watchword, hopelessness filled the air. This was a time when hope was dashed on the altar of reality as it so frequently is. This was the period, however, and it is a strange paradox, indeed, of Israel's greatest creativity. It was in this period that much that we know as the scripture was chronicled and written down. It is in this period that later generations would look back and begin to reflect on their own experience and realize that the experience of exile was their experience as well and they would being to sing, as Bishop Turner told us the other night, "Oh, did my Lord deliver Daniel? So why not everyone?"
They looked back and, see, I'm doin' something 'cause I don't want to get in trouble with the scholars here. Like the Book of Daniel. Now I understand that Daniel was not written in the context of the exile, literally, but it was written in the context of exilic experience. Y'all with me on that one now? See, they didn't teach you that in seminary, but that's what's goin' on! See, when you’re in exile, sometimes it feels like you're in the lion's den. When you're in exile, you see, sometimes you feel like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego in the fiery furnace.
When we were kids, we used to say -- I probably shouldn't say this, but in vacation Bible school we used to say, "Shadrach, Meshach, and a bad negro." Well, young people will, you know, make the story their own!
But the experience, you see, the exilic experience, that experience of dislocation is like climbing a mountaintop hoping to see a promised land and only seeing a valley of dry bones. Or exile was when one of the poets captured it all in the words of the 137th Psalm, "By the waters of Babylon we sat down and we wept when we remembered the Zion, when we remembered home -- that's for our harps, they hung them upon the lyres, for our captors required of us a song saying, "Sing us one of the songs of Zion." But how? How? How shall we sing the Lord's song ... in a strange land? But if I forget the old Jerusalem, may my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth. May my right hand wither. May it not be able to speak or work if I forget Jerusalem above my highest joy.
And then it happened. Almost as swiftly as they were enslaved, if you will, they were set free. Cyrus of Persia -- I want y'all to know I did go to seminary -- Cyrus, the emperor of Persia, came to the throne and he began a march of conquest and he now did to the Babylonians as the Babylonians had done to other folk. He knocked 'em off the mountain and conquered them, if you will. Life is like that. That's a lesson in itself -- 'cause the truth of the matter is, you know, you be takin' a mountain today and somebody knock you off that mountain and you in the valley! And we who are Christians know this. You can ride into your Jerusalem on Palm Sunday and the crowd can shout, "Hosanna to the Son of David," and by Friday, "Let him be crucified." Oh, if you've got a God in the mix of it, Easter's always comin'. If you've got a God, no matter what they say on Palm Sunday, no matter what they do on Good Friday, you can rise above it like Maya Angelou says, "And still, like dust, I rise."
Oh, the very nature of life and existence is that it is mountaintop one moment and valley the next and long, boring stretches and plateaus in between. That's life. All of the great philosophers in history have taught us that. Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, Frank Sinatra. I remember how my daddy used to like Frank Sinatra. Frank used to say it this way, (Singing) "I've been a puppet, a pauper, a poet, a prince, a pawn and a king. I've been up and down and over and out and I know one thing. Each time I find myself down on my face, I pick myself up and get back in the race. That's life. That's life." Right!
And the truth is that is the nature of existence. Isaiah says it this way. "The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God endures forever."
Somebody must tell the babies, "God may be invisible, but God is not dead." And so it happened that Cyrus of Persia conquered the Babylonians and in conquering the Babylonians, he decided to offend them. He decided to do what the kids used to call kind of "in your face"? To kind of get back at the Babylonians, he set free everybody the Babylonians had enslaved, which meant that the Jews were suddenly free, free to go home, free to be the people God created them to be, free to be the children of God that God intends all of us to be. As they were going back home, one of their poet/prophets said it this way. "The mountain that was once Babylon has been brought down low and we who were in the valley of the shadow of death, we have been raised up and the crooked way has become freedom's highway and in this the glory of the Lord has been revealed and all flesh shall see it together." If you look in the Hebrew, the tenses are confusing in this passage. They alternate between past and future, present and future. It is not clear whether the poet is speaking from the present moment of liberation and redemption or speaking out of the desolation anticipating that moment of redemption and liberation. Did y'all get that one? Because the truth of the matter is he was just tellin' the story. He was tellin' the story of a God who is greater than time and history. He was tellin' the story of a God who calls out mountains and Creation with the blast of his nostril. He was just tellin' the story until they could find their way back home. And he said, "You see, every valley shall be exalted, every mountain and hill made low. The crooked shall one day be made straight and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed." Did you see it? The glory of the Lord is in the story.
When mountains that aren't supposed to be mountain in the first place are brought down, then God is glorified.
When valleys that aren't supposed to be in the valley of the shadow of death are raised up, then God is glorified!
When the crooked way is made freedom's highway, God is glorified!
When the world is reshaped, when the landscape of reality is reshaped and reconfigured from the nightmare we have often made of it into the dream that God intended for it, when we beat our swords into ploughshares and our spirits into pruning hooks, when justice rolls down like a mighty stream and righteousness like an ever-flowin' brook then God is glorified.
Let somebody praise the Lord not just with your lips, but with your life.
Praise him by feedin' folk who are hungry.
Praise him by makin' for justice!
Praise him by wagin' reconciliation!
Praise him by makin' for peace!
Praise him by proclaiming the liberating and life-giving good news of Jesus Christ.
Oh, I love to tell the story. You see, when life is reordered from what it often is to what God intends it to be, then in those moments God is glorified. And when God is glorified, as Vicky taught us yesterday, God is glorified when God's light begins to shine, when God's love begins to rule, when God's way becomes the way. Oh, tell the story.
Some years ago I was listening to a radio program -- I don't know I woke up in the middle of the night and turned on the radio – and it was an interview with Alex Haley. This was probably in the late '80s, I would guess. And it was an interview with Alex Haley and the interviewer was talking with him about translating the book Roots into the film. So that the process of taking a living story and translating it into film. And it turned out to be a fascinating interview and he talked about many aspects of the book and sort of how he came to write it and that kind of thing, but over and over in the course of the interview he kept saying, "You know, we underestimated the power of story." Now he wasn't speaking religiously at that point, but the power of story to engage us at deeper levels, and to find us finding ourselves at the root of the matter, 'cause, see, when we stop swimming on the surface and get down deep, we may discover commonality we never thought was there.
Anyway, he was tellin' the story of the making of Roots, making of the film, and he went on to talk about that particular theme. You may remember it. You remember the time when the overseer was tryin' to break Kunta Kinte? Remember Kunta Kinte? Marvelous human being. Strong man, Mandingo warrior, you know, proud of who he was and caught up in a slavery not his own. Exiled. Taken from homeland to a Babylon not his own, and in Babylon they worked to break his spirit. And you remember -- do y'all remember this story? You remember this? Remember that overseer wanted to break him, 'cause they gave him a new name! You remember what it was?
Toby. Gave a new name. Now if Toby's your name, that's fine. Nothin' wrong with that! But it sure does seem like a comedown from Kunta Kinte to Toby. I mean ... and the truth of the matter is, as many of you know, that the system of chattel slavery was greatly dependent upon spiritual and psychological means of enslavement. If you enslave someone spiritually, you don't need a gun. You enslave the spirit and you've got 'em. And so the system worked at crushing identity, confusing ontology, and destroying humanity. And so the system would change the name of the slave, demolishing cultural identity and past history. See if you can stop the story -- you with me now? -- you can stop the story, you can distort a new story.
As you know, my name is Michael Curry. Curry. Curry. O'Curry. A few years ago I got one of those mailings that come from these companies that "I'm going to research your genealogy?" And they sent the thing and said, "Michael Curry, we have researched your genealogy. We have, ah, traced your ancestry and, ah, we have identified where in Ireland they come from." I was quite intrigued by this and in fact, I told the Diocesan Convention in North Carolina two years ago, "I think when I have my sabbatical, I'm going to go to Ireland and find my family!" Gonna show up and say, "Guess who's comin' to dinner?"
So, as you know, part of the means of control was to change the name, which meant changing the story. You see what I'm getting at now? If you change somebody's story, you gain control over them. That's why names are so important in the Bible. That's why God identifies God's self to Moses, "I am the God of Abraham, Isaac, Sarah, ah, Rebecca and Jacob! I'm the" -- when He names, He's tellin' 'em the story and then Moses recognizes it. Change the name, you change the identity of the story. "Your name is no longer Kunta Kinte. It's Toby." You may remember the moment when the overseer gathered the slaves in the barnyard -- remember this? Gathered them all around, tied up Kunta Kinte to a hitchin' post, tore off his shirt. The overseer stepped back with bullwhip in his hand. He said (Bishop Curry makes whipping gesture), "What's your name?" "My name Kunta Kinte." (Whipping gesture) "What's your name?" "My name Kunta Kinte." (Whipping gesture) "What's your name?" "Kunta." (Whipping gesture) "What's your name?" "My name Toby." The overseer went away. Do you remember old fiddler? Oh, the old storyteller, Old Fiddler, came over, as did the other slaves around, and they took Kunta in his arms and nestled him like Mary with Jesus – Piéta. And he whispered in his ear, "Your name not Toby. Your name Kunta Kinte!"
Alex Haley went on to explain that that wasn't in the original script. As they lived the story, they wrote a new story. My sisters and my brothers, this world will call you Toby. It will chew you up and spit you out and make you think it's your fault. The world will call you Toby. Like the old folk used to say, "They call you every name but a child of God.”
The world will wrench you and spit you out. It will take our children and dehumanize them. It will take us all and wrench us all into something less than God created and yet the truth of the matter is we just tell the world, “Your name not Toby! Your name Kunta Kinte.”
Call people back to their baptismal reality, to call them back to their reality with God, to call us back to who we are, we must tell the story, tell the old, old story. Tell the story about Jesus and His love. Tell the story about a Jesus who came into this world in human flesh and touched folk who had leprosy and proclaimed the liberating life-giving year of the Lord.
Tell the old, old story of the one who took up a cross and carried it.
Tell the old, old story, how He got up from the grave and made life and creation new.
(Singing) Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine.
Oh, what a foretaste of glory divine!
Heir of salvation, purchase of God,
Born of His spirit, washed in His blood.
This is my story, this is my song,
praising my Savior all the day long.
This is my story, this is my song,
praising my Savior all the day long."