Call to Worship/Psalm 100 (NRSV)
Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth.
Worship the Lord with gladness; come into his presence with singing.
Know that the Lord is God. It is he that made us, and we are his; we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.
Enter his gates with thanksgiving, and his courts with praise.
Give thanks to him, bless his name.
For the Lord is good; his steadfast love endures forever, and his faithfulness to all generations.
O God, we praise you and adore you. You are truly without beginning or ending—your reign is eternal and your being all-powerful, and yet you chose to reveal your power in the most powerless and vulnerable manner—as a baby. As you shared our humanity in Jesus, you gave the world a new understanding of power. We know now that power is not to be used for domination, but to serve others as Christ did. He transformed the love of power through the power of love. We gather today to celebrate your rule of love in our hearts as we experience it in Jesus and through the empowering gift of your Spirit. We offer this prayer of gratitude for these blessings in the name of Jesus, our Servant King. Amen.
Scripture Lesson/Ephesians 1:15-23 (NRSV)
15I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, and for this reason 16I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers. 17I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, 18so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, 19and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power. 20God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, 21far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. 22And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, 23which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.
Message/They’re Calling for Reign
The word “hope” is a much misunderstood one. For some, hope denotes a lack of certainty. More often, hope is mistaken for wishful thinking. At other times, hope is confused with having a glass-half-full kind of attitude. But hope, in the theological sense of the word, is not any of these things. Optimism bears happy thoughts but offers little beyond a momentary feeling of relief that is fragile, shallow, fleeting. In its biblical sense, however, hope is concrete, grounded in the vision of God’s promises coming to fulfillment, God’s kin-dom breaking forth. Hope looks not only to the future but offers a word of comfort and a light in the night of the present.
This past week, I was in Richmond for the final gathering of our Virginia Conference Leadership Program, a year-long learning opportunity for the personal and professional development of clergy. I was one of thirteen clergy from across the Virginia Conference selected to participate. Given the circumstances presented by 2020, our group had only met in person once last January and has been meeting on Zoom for most of our time together. While the reading and study and discussion on Zoom has been productive, there’s just no substitute for the experience of being together as a group. Even safely distanced behind our masks, one still benefits from being around others for worship, prayer, and what John Wesley called “holy conferencing” about a variety of topics related to faith, the church, and the community.
This past Wednesday morning, our group set out on a journey. Caravanning in several vehicles, we ventured through inner-city Richmond. Along the southern edge of the James River, we passed primarily through industrial areas. We saw bastions of carefully constructed concrete and rock walls and berms flanked by huge floodgates necessary to keep the angry waters of the river at bay. Our heads jarred as we trundled over uneven railroad crossings and past boarded-up storefronts that betrayed a not-so-distant past of promise and prosperity. Along the way we saw numerous brick and cinderblock warehouses each bearing the scrawl of graffiti artists emblazoning their craft in words and symbols and colors across the canvas of the dingy, urban landscape.
As we neared the wastewater treatment plant, we turned into a small parking area featuring a public boat ramp allowing access into the river. We exited our vehicles and braved the chilly forty-degree temperature, turning our collars against the blustery winds tunneling down the river from the west. We walked to the head of a narrow trail that drew us parallel to and within about twelve feet of the river. One could see the flotsam and jetsam of the river thrown up on its banks, evidence of recent storms and flooding around which required careful navigation so as not to trip and fall into the silty mud. We met our guides for the morning. The Rev. Ben Campbell and the Rev. Sylvester Turner, who liked to be called “T” for short. Revs. Campbell and Turner knew this trail by heart. After all, they were the ones behind its creation.
The Richmond Slavery Trail was founded in 1993 following years of research and work by these two pastors who have become close friends, along with local historians and others who desired the truth to be told. For over 150 years, the history of Richmond’s enslaving past was kept secret. Virginia school textbooks barely mentioned the bleak, hidden origins of European settlement at the falls of the James that is now the capital of our Commonwealth. Caught up in the legends swirling around chief Powhatan’s daughter, Pocahontas, or the proud founding of the Jamestown settlement, or the exploits of the intrepid captain Christopher Newport whose hook for a left hand inspired Disney’s Captain Hook character in Peter Pan, much of the bitter underpinning of the settlement of Virginia colony has been conveniently discarded, brushed away like dryer lint from a clean shirt. And yet, if one is attentive enough, the ghosts of Richmond’s past beckon us to hear their evocative secret, to feel the sweat and taste and smell the blood of those upon whose backs the edifices of glass and concrete and steel now stand.
In their introductory comments, Ben and “T” shared much of this history with us. The trailhead where we were standing was once a part of another settlement called Manchester. It was here, in these brackish waters, that boats would drop off their cargo below the rapids preventing them from journeying further upstream. It was here that their human cargo, half-starved, and traumatized after months at sea in ships where they were stacked like cordwood in stalls twelve inches by forty-two inches, would feel the cool, North American soil between their toes for the first time. It was here, under the cover of darkness so their families and the general public would not see, that the enslavers would disembark their “human capital,” driving them under yoke and chain toward the Mayo Bridge where they would cross over the James to the auction houses along the banks of Shockoe Creek.
As we prepared to place our footsteps in theirs, Rev. Turner instructed us to maintain our silence. Previous groups had been encouraged to walk hand in hand, simulating the coffle in which the enslaved had to journey linked to one another under the strain of wood and iron, something that we were unable to do given our need for social distancing. As we started our silent journey down the narrow corridor between the trees and the river’s edge, I felt a shiver in my spine. It didn’t originate from the cold wind that was biting at my ears. It was something that came from the inside. There was something very strange happening here, something indefinable, something I could only describe as “holy.” Like Moses stepping aside on the mountain of the Lord to see the bush that was aflame but not consumed, it was as if we were entering into a sacred space untouched by the ravages of time. And, like Moses, there was a part of me that wanted to take off my shoes and feel that same, tear-watered soil upon which the enslaved had trod. And so, we silently made our way west, the skyline of Richmond drawing ever closer with each step of the way.
The apostle Paul well knew the deep presence of mystery in our life with God. In this week’s passage from Ephesians, the apostle Paul, bound in his own shackles and chains in a Roman prison cell, prays quite specifically for his friends to be illuminated here and now, praying that God will give them a spirit of wisdom and revelation as they come to know God. He prays that the eyes of their hearts will be enlightened. So that you may know, he writes, what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power (18-19).
Paul is talking about a “knowing” that is tied with resurrection. He is talking about a hope that is bound together with the life of the risen Christ. In verse 20, Paul writes: God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead. He makes clear that Christ, in turn, is putting his power to work in us, and not just for someday in the future, but also for now: that this hope is active in our lives as we press into the mystery that attends us. Even as Paul writes about the risen Christ being seated in the heavenly places, he also bears witness to a Christ who wore our flesh and abides with us still, hoping for us when our hope is shattered, breathing new life into us, encompassing us in the embrace of a community that holds us with hope.
Eventually, we emerged from the wooded area along river and followed the path as it led us to the crest of one of the flood walls formed of rock and earth. We beheld the Richmond skyline in all its glory against the azure sky. I could see the traffic on the I-95 bridge, the engines of commerce making their way to markets both north and south. My thoughts wandered to the dichotomy that was presented in the scene before me. Here was evidence of humanity’s constant pursuit of more. Each tower represented political and economic power. The Federal Reserve Bank. The Monroe Building that houses hundreds of state offices. VCU Medical Center. Richmond City Hall adorned with its tall, orange antenna. Bank buildings and others. Behind the I-95 bridge loomed a billboard inviting us to take a chance on the 192 million-dollar Powerball prize. Looking upon these towers of babel, if you will—evidence of all our power and technology piercing the November sky—made me think about those who came here neither as tourists nor invited guests, but who had been taken against their will, transported to another continent, and treated like animals. In the layers of rock and earth underneath these spires of human ingenuity lay the inescapable truth that 300,000 human beings were traded as property in Richmond’s auction houses, making it the second largest slave trading center in North America, second only to New Orleans.
But then I shifted my view from the panoramic to the telephoto, casting my gaze upon the two aging clergymen who were leading us along the path. An African American preacher and a Caucasian one, clergy colleagues, co-laborers in Christ, pursuers of justice and truth, and best friends who took it upon themselves to tell a story, a sad story, yes, but an important one that should never be swept under the carpet of arrogance or ignorance. Against the forces who desired to take the easier, more comfortable path of denial, these two men boldly fought to bring their dream into reality. Through all the uncomfortable conversations and the numerous obstacles placed in its way, the Richmond Slave Trail quietly tells the story, reminding us that one cannot face the future without reconciling the past. While the truth may sting for the moment, the greater truth lies in the potentialities of God to work through the pain.
Hope is not always comforting or comfortable. Hope asks us to open ourselves to what we do not know, to pray for illumination in this life, to imagine what is beyond our imagining, to bear what seems unbearable. It calls us to keep breathing when beloved lives have left us, to turn toward one another when we might prefer to turn away. Hope draws our eyes and hearts toward a more whole future but propels us also into the present, where Christ waits for us to work with him toward a more whole world now.
The Slave Trail passes over the Mayo Bridge and into the Shockoe Bottom area of Richmond where a dozen auction houses once stood. There, in the shadow of the towering Monroe Building stands the reconciliation statue, one of three identical statues now standing at important points of the transatlantic slave trade—Liverpool, England, the port city of Cotonou in the country of Benin on the west coast of Africa, and Richmond, Virginia. Across the street from the reconciliation statue is the site of the Lumpkin Slave Jail. Also known as “the Devil’s half acre,” Lumpkin’s Slave Jail was a holding facility active from the 1830s through the Civil War. Robert Lumpkin was a notorious and prominent slave trader who bought and sold slaves throughout the South and turned Lumpkin’s Jail into the largest slave-holding facility in Richmond for well over twenty years. And yet, it was here, from Richmond’s smoldering ashes that a proverbial phoenix would rise.
In 1867, Mary Lumpkin sold the land to Nathaniel Colver, a Baptist minister looking for a place to establish an exclusively black seminary. The Colver Institute, later Richmond Theological Seminary, and finally Virginia Union University, made use of these buildings. The land went from being called “the Devil’s half acre” to “God’s half acre.” And I am proud to say that it is from the seminary at Virginia Union University, one of the nation’s great, historic black colleges and universities, that I earned my Master of Divinity degree. Now, my friends, that is what hope looks like.
Lord, as you hung on a cross, your first thought was for others. You forgave the ones who ridiculed and tortured you. You accepted the criminal who hung beside you. And it was you who made a mockery of the sign they placed above your head. For little did they know that they did indeed gaze at a king.
We don’t need signs and labels to recognize your power and authority, Lord. It is because we have seen the unlikely become reality; because we have witnessed you in the unexpected, and because we believe in truths honed by a carpenter’s son, that we dare to hope, Lord, that your kingdom has come among us and continues to come, day after day, among the poor and the lonely, the sick and the weary, the angry and the abused, the warmongers and the peace seekers.
And so it is for those and others whose lives are touched by grief and greed, injustice and injury, emptiness and endlessness that we pray now, trusting in the goodness and the grace that retrieved lost sheep and wayward sons; that consoled grieving mothers and weeping women at a tomb; that fed aching stomachs and eager minds; that soothed the open wounds of untouchables and the throbbing scars of hatred; that laid open itself to pain, rejection and abandonment so that we might know healing, acceptance and belonging.
And if we catch only a glimpse of your mercy among the hardness of life, if we can sense your presence only for a fleeting moment in the busyness of life, if we can witness that wholeness happens among the brokenness of life, then we will know that your kingdom has come and we pray that your will be done. This day and always, for Jesus’ sake and in his name—for it is he who taught us to pray:
The Lord’s Prayer
Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.
Thy kingdom come; thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.
And lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.
For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever. Amen.
Commission & Blessing
Brothers and sisters, the same power that raised Jesus Christ from the dead and seated him in the place of honor at God’s right hand—this same power is at work in each one of us who believe!
Go now, and embrace the hope to which God has called us.
Recognize Christ in friend and stranger, and as Christ has been gracious to you,
so be gracious to those in need.
And may God give you a place of rest on rich pasture;
May Christ Jesus be the shepherd king who binds your wounds;
And may the Holy Spirit give you wisdom and reveal to you the fullness of the One who fills all in all.
Go in peace to love and serve the Lord. Amen.