We are like a stray line of a poem, which ever feels that it rhymes with another line and must find it, or miss its own fulfillment. This quest of the unattained is the great impulse in man which brings forth all his best creations. Man seems deeply to be aware of a separation at the root of his own being; he cries to be led across it to a union; and somehow he knows that it is love which can lead him to a love which is final.
. . .
Dr. Benton’s stellar message last week led me to the video cassette, Conversations with Howard Thurman. There he stated that he was always on his own scent. He was aware that there was an essence, a God residue, a divine spark, a universal deposit, a cosmic embodiment in him and all of us. And if he could not pick up his scent, this universal scent, in you, there was something wrong with his sniffer (his nose). He was responsible for working on his sniffer because the scent was in you. Notice he did not say that you (the other) had been deprived of this spiritual deposit. Instead, he indicted himself. His management of his life blocked the scent from resting in him.
The blockage was due to separation into walls of defense, fear, deception, and hatred. It was due to labels of race/ethnicity, national heritage, gender and sexual identity, class and social stratification, and differences in ability to perform certain tasks. We are self and socially quarantined. This could be easily seen during the “lockdown” caused by COVID-19. Long associated with punishment for prisoners, the term became normalized. Sadly, we have been locked down long before COVID-19 and even before modern-day prison punishment. It began when individuals first began to isolate themselves from others, to cut themselves from the ties that bound them in community that is so important to communal living, civilization, the general welfare, and the common good.
Estranged we are from each other. Thurman pledged himself to dismantling the alienation. For healing and wholeness, wellness, could not exist without the creative encounter with the other. This was true not only in relation to the other selves, but also to that divine self, and natural self.
When individuals joined Fellowship Church committed to living this new venture in spiritual alchemy, they found newness, wholeness, and refreshment that made new demands of their lives. Buds and shoots appeared in their souls. A woman confronted the owner of the segregated building where she lived to either let her newly found Black friends visit or she herself would have to find another place to live. The separated life she had lived before Fellowship Church transmuted into another life that rejoiced in the aliveness of living with others across previous impermeable barriers.
Quoting from the Biblical book of Job, Dr. Benton put this profound message before us: At least there is hope for a tree: If it is cut down, it will sprout again, and its new shoots will not fail. Its roots may grow old in the ground and its stump die in the soil, yet at the scent of water, it will bud and put forth shoots like a plant.
Just the “scent” of water is enough.
So, what is going on in the gospel of John at this pool called Bethesda? The folklore was that an angel went down into the pool at a certain time and stirred up the water. The first person who stepped into the water after the stirring was healed of whatever disease they possessed. There was a man there with a certain infirmity who had been waiting for thirty-eight years to step into the water after the stirring. The story is about Jesus healing this man. The question Jesus asked of him was: “Do you want to be made well?” That seems a bit impertinent to me. Of course, he wants to be healed why do you think he’s at the pool? Actually, the question is profound. This man had been there thirty-eight years. I’m sorry, mister. You would think that he would have found some way to get into the pool before thirty-eight years had elapsed. He complains that no one helps him. Did he not have a relationship with someone who would help him? I would have been pushing somebody out of the way to get to the pool. Jesus is confronting him. First, decide that you really are committed to this. Do you really want this healing and new life? Then gather your strength and act on your commitment. Commitment and action are critical to defining who you are.
There are a lot of people who know that their current situation does not sustain their capacity as offspring of the All-Pervading Presence. They are concerned about poverty, greed, ecology, racial/ethnic and gender equity, immigrants, education and so many other issues. But they have not the energy or commitment to act and have learned to live in their siloes, accepting armchair compassion. A scent of common heritage and belonging whiffs through the air without allurement.
Our ancestors escaping the dehumanizing effects of slavery knew the extraordinary nature of water. They knew it would erase their scent to those who sought to erase them and yet scent the hazardous miles ahead. Escaping the plantation, running toward freedom, they would sing: “Wade in the Water, God’s Gonna Trouble the Waters.” The water would advocate for and facilitate their freedom. It does the same for us. Just the scent of our common ground is nourishing.
When I was a child, water was important, not only for physical purposes but spiritual ones also. When anyone joined the church, there was a ritual of baptism. Those gathered would sing: “Take me to the water to be baptized.” The one baptized was embarking upon a new life, a journey, in which even their hands looked new as did their feet. The ritual was an affirmation of something that had already happened in the person’s life. It symbolized the dedication to a way of living consistent with that of Jesus.
Recently, there was a commemoration of the 1963 March on Washington. The power of the initial march is still with me. How Dr. King pulled many of us together across lines that traditionally had divided folks! How the scent of freedom and the general welfare permeated the air both in Washington and far, far beyond its boundaries. The gathering this year, I understand, was also deeply moving. Tens of thousands of people marched to commemorate, commiserate, and pledge themselves to continue to struggle for job, justice, and beloved community.
There was another march on Washington of which I would like to remind us. It was the Million Man March on October 16, 1995. Called by Minister Louis Farrakan, The National African American Leadership Summit, The Nation of Islam, and other civil rights were the lead organizers. A purpose was to "convey to the world a vastly different picture of the Black male” and to unite in self-help and self-defense against economic and social ills plaguing the African American community. Another purpose was to instill pride in being a Black man and taking responsibility for the future.
One day after the march, Fellowship Church member, Pat Nacey, was at a bank. Turning to the Black man behind, she inquired if he had attended the march and if so, how had it impacted him. He replied that he had and for the first time in his life he voted in an election.
Spike Lee’s excellent film about the march, Get on the Bus, captures brilliantly the motivation of some of the travelers. Much of it was about recovering love with the scent of the gathering enticing them to make the sacrifice to be with other brothers. The unifying changed the mind of a homophobic traveler as he engaged with a gay couple. A father with a son on probation persuaded the judge to allow his son to accompany him on the march. The judge agreed with one huge stipulation. They would have to be handcuffed together for the entire time. The father had not been there for the son and now was trying with great difficulty to be the father the son needed. As the film ends, we see the handcuffs off and on the ground.
The character who moved me most was Jeremiah, played by Ossie Davis. He once had an important well-paying job with his own office. The business downsized, then was sold. He lost his income, prestige, and eventually his family due to his turning to alcohol. We learn that all his possessions were in the paper bag that he carried. However, he was impelled to take the trip. He does not make it to Washington. He has a heart attack and dies a few miles before arriving in Washington. It is revealed that he knew about his heart disease and medically should not have undertaken the trip. His soul, however, was aligned with the scent of freedom, unity, restoration, and lured him. After he passed, a prayer was found in his pocket. His newly found bus family decided to read it.
That's the prayer he wanted to say.
This is what he...
This is what he wanted to say.
I think brother Jeremiah would
want us to bow our heads.
"We made it, Lord.
From all across this nation,
we black men made it.
And we thank you.
None of us is perfect...
...but we seek perfection.
And we especially want our wives,
mothers and daughters...
...to understand that we are trying...
But we still need your help.
Sometimes we felt that
you had given up on us...
...left us abandoned...
...forsaken and betrayed.
And we may have gone astray
from time to time...
...but we're still good people...
...and we're still your people.
We're still your sons.
So here we are,
1 million black men strong...
...like the Prodigal Son when
he comes back home to his father.
He wasn't looking for a handout, Lord,
he was looking for a job."
"Make me as one of the hired
servants, " that's what he said.
That's all he asked.
And that's our prayer,
as we stand before you today.
Not a handout, Lord...
... but a job...
... and a second chance.
It says to us in the 14th Chapter,
of the Book of Job...
... these holy words:
"For there is hope for a tree,
if it be cut down...
... that it will sprout again...
... and that its tender shoots
will not cease...
... though its roots may
grow old in the earth...
... and its stump may die
in the ground.
Yet at the scent of water...
... it will bud and bring forth
branches like a plant."
... we don't ask for much.
Maybe water is something
we no longer deserve.
We ask instead from you...
... just the scent.
... of your living water.
Thank you for listening, Lord. Amen.