Of Sermons and Such

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.

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10 thoughts on “Of Sermons and Such

  1. Mary says:

    Sounds delightful and inspiring

  2. jannatwrites says:

    It sounds like an interesting experience. I can see how it would be difficult to really compare two greatly different styles. I’m more reserved, so the sermons where the audience actively engages make me a little uncomfortable…. maybe awkward is a better word.

    • agjorgenson says:

      Yes, they are so totally different. I too am more reserved, but for some reason the feeling I had was that it was okay to just sit and watch. It was really quite interesting…

  3. shoreacres says:

    I had to smile, because what you describe is a form of worship which was my normal fare for a time, while I was in seminary. Bethlehem Lutheran Church, in Oakland, was pastored by Dr. Will Herzfeld, whose sermons, I daresay, could match anything you heard in Atlanta.

    It was both a strange and comfortable time for me. I began worshipping at Bethlehem because I missed Liberia, and being in a black congregation eased that transition a bit. But I also loved the liveliness and sheerly confrontational aspects of worship: the great music, the responsive congregation, the dynamic preaching.

    I’ll never forgot something Will liked to say: “Call me if you need me. Call me if you don’t need me.”

    • agjorgenson says:

      Sounds like quite the character, this Dr. Herzfeld! How nice for you to have had this experience. I’ve never been to Africa, but if worship there is anything like in a black congregation, I think I would like it very much.

  4. dianerivers says:

    What I loved about this account was your openness to something completely different and outside your normal context, and the way it you allowed it to affect you in such a positive way. Wonderful insights!

  5. […] and so very carefully weighed words, which were as potent as could be. It was the exact opposite of my experience at Ebenezer Baptist church a few weeks ago, but in a way it was the same experience. I felt God in that place and in that time in the […]

  6. Mei Sum Lai says:

    The whooping preaching skill is unique in African American Preaching. I personally love it very much. My classmates in Chicago helped me understand how it works. I just love it.

    • agjorgenson says:

      Whooping preaching… I never knew it was called that! I love it too, but am glad I don’t have to do it. I don’t think I have either the skill or the stamina! But perhaps it would be easier with an African American congregation.

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