Last weekend I attended the American Academy of Religion’s annual meeting in Atlanta. While I had opportunity to hear some marvelous papers, and reveled in the occasion to meet with old friends and to greet new ones, by far the highlight of the weekend came on Sunday morning. After a hearty breakfast at “The Diner,” I joined two friends in a cab that took us to (the new) Ebenezer Baptist Church, the home church community of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. We arrived a bit early, and had opportunity to wander about a bit, looking at the Peace Garden and reading some touching reflections on peace written by children of various ages from many locales. We took a very quick look at the museum before getting back to the church. We arrived at 10:30 or so, for an 11:00 service. At a quarter to the hour, one of the church leaders introduced three young people seeking baptism, and while the choir sang “Take Me to the Waters,” they were baptized by immersion on confession of faith in a baptismal font located some 20 or 30 feet above the sanctuary proper. I was hereby reminded that this was not my home, which was the very thing I was hoping for. The service proper began at 11:00 with a thanksgiving hymn, followed by prayers, the Pastor’s Brief, a stewardship presentation, special music, an offering, etc. All of this moved the community artfully towards the sermon, which was altogether unlike anything I have heard.
The preacher was Dr. Raphael G. Warnock, a celebrated preacher in North America. His oratory skills were moving, his treatment of the biblical passage insightful, his engagement of justice issues jolting, and his ability to connect the text to the trials and temptations of the folk in the pew profound. The sermon began with a measured pace and a close reading of a written text. As the sermon advanced, the pace picked up, the preacher left the written text, and by the end what transpired was as much song as speech as he spoke with ringing and rolling phrases that reached for justice, pressed for peace and sang mercy. People stood and clapped when a phrase, or an idea, or an admonition hit their hearts. Certain themes brought the majority of the congregation to their feet, but never all the people. It was clear to me that standing, and/or clapping was a part of a personal engagement with the sermon rather than a required or expected response. As the sermon reached its conclusion, folk were invited to come forward to shake the Pastor’s hand in a gesture of welcome for those wishing to join the Ebenezer Community. It was really a most memorable and transformative event.
I am a little reticent to call what I experienced a sermon. Or, perhaps I should be reticent to call what I hear in most churches I frequent a sermon. The genre was so utterly other than what I know. I am aware that, to a degree, the character of my experience was formed by my being outside of my zone of familiarity and comfort. And so, I am neither romantic nor naive about what I experienced, recognizing that what transpired at Ebenezer is a product of events, and skills, and communal commitments that cannot be replicated in my context. Nor is it the case that Dr. Warnock’s sermon was “better” than what I normally hear. In fact, it seemed so utterly different that comparison seems like an evasion of the need to simply take in what occurred. The experience was one of those which seems so rich as to require a long deep breath, and willingness to sit with it for a bit. Something happened in that historic community for me, and I suspect it will take a while before I know what it was. But in the interim, I am grateful for such an unusual experience, as well as the usual experiences which allow this one to stand out so.