Woke Faith: To God Be The Glory

Sunday, January 14, 2018

A sermon preached by Rev. Frederick Davie on Sunday, January 14, 2018 at Foundry United Methodist Church in Washington DC. 

Scriptures: 1 Samuel 3:1-20John 1:43-51


I want to thank your pastor Ginger Gaines-Cerelli for the invitation to speak at this historic church.  I thank her for her leadership and this church for your faithful witness to an inclusive and compassionate world -- leadership and witness needed now more than ever.  I also owe a debt of gratitude to Rev. Dawn Hand, your executive minister, who so warmly welcomed me this morning, and whose family I have known my entire life. I also bring you greetings from Union Seminary and our President Dr. Serene Jones, who introduced me to your senior minister.  And even though Ginger, Serene and I are graduates of Yale Divinity School, I want to encourage anyone here who is considering seminary, to come to Union in New York City.  Thank you for this opportunity. Let us pray.


On the morning of Doug Jones’s victory over Roy Moore in the recent Alabama US Senate race, I listened to NPR, as I do most mornings.  In one story about that election, a reporter visited a gathering of young African American voters celebrating Jones’s victory. The first speaker of that group started her remarks with “giving honor to God...” And following a few more remarks from the speaker, the group started to chant “Woke Vote…Woke Vote…” It seems that woke vote had been the rallying cry in some quarters in Alabama as canvassers and organizers rallied their fellow Alabamians, especially black Alabamians, to go to the polls and vote.


To be woke, in modern vernacular, as many of you know, is to be conscious.  Conscious of the world around, conscious of your place in it, and conscious of all you bring, especially your internal stuff -- that spiritual, psychological and emotional stuff we bring to the worlds, micro and macro, in which we find ourselves.  To be woke is to understand at many levels the dynamics that swirl around us, to be able to respond in ways where we don’t shut down ourselves, growing sullen, quiet and offended; nor should we shut down others. To be woke is to understand the complexities beyond our particular milieu, to see and experience life and the world beyond our particular station and status with empathetic eyes and compassionate souls.


As I listened to those young people on that news report giving honor to God as their source of inspiration that sustained them during their days of organizing and advocacy in the public square, I had my own epiphany – a recognition of something divinely inspired.  I had my own encounter of being woke.  The insight was and remains this: it is faith in an eternal and loving God that is, for those of us who are believers, just about the only thing that will keep us woke and see us through dark and troubled times.  Let me say it again, for those of us who believe, faith in an eternal and loving God is just about the only thing that will keep us woke and see us through dark and troubled times.


Think about woke faith represented in the scripture lessons for this epiphany Sunday: the call of Samuel in the Old Testament reading and the call of the disciples, at least some of them, in the reading from the gospel of John.  This is the time of the liturgical year where we celebrate and commemorate the manifestation of God in our midst, highlighted in many Christian traditions with the magi or Wise Men who visit the baby believed to be God made manifest in human form. A mystery so divine, so loving that it requires a response from those who had heard and experienced it.  Epiphany is a time of Woke faith, when we are intensely aware that something extraordinary has occurred in our midst, something otherworldly that requires something of us.  The season of Epiphany.  A time of intense woke faith.  “Speak, Lord, your servant hears” is what Samuel said after being instructed by Eli. Woke faith.  Come and follow me is Jesus’ message to the disciples and their message to others.  Men declaring their allegiance to one they believed to be the Son of God, perhaps even God in every sense, declaring it so, picking up  where they are, turning around, waking up, and following this man called Jesus.  In the Book of Samuel, we hear the story of this little boy Samuel answering the call of God to become a prophet of God, a prophet sprung from Divine Love; a prophet to his people. Woke faith.


As I continued to listen to that report about those young African American organizers in Alabama, and their praise of God and chants of “woke vote,” I thought about the faith of the folks who had preceded them.  I thought of my enslaved ancestors, who had every right to be woke and to give up on God.  Theirs was a heavy burden.  You know of the horrors.  We have read of the horrors of slavery in books; seen them depicted in movies, on stage, mini-series on TV.  When slaves could have simply turned their backs and lost faith in everything, they did not fold, because surrender for them was not an option, as the late Derrick Bell wrote in his book “Faces at the Bottom of the Well.”   Even though my slave ancestors labored in anguish under the cutting lash of the whip and the merciless weight of oppression, surrender was not their final answer; faith in an everlasting God was their answer to the horrors of oppression.  In the midst of their often unimaginable and unspeakable circumstance, they remained woke.   You can hear it in the words of Harriet Tubman, who risked her life to free more than three hundred of her enslaved sisters and brothers.  Tubman said: "I always tole God," she said, "'I'm gwine [going] to hole stiddy on you, an' you've got to see me through.'" Theirs was a faith in a God of deliverance, a God of love and a God of justice.  Theirs was a woke faith.


It was this same faith that gripped the man we remember and commemorate this weekend: Martin Luther King Jr.  Dr. King was a very young man when he stepped out to lead the Montgomery bus boycott, barely 26 years old.  He was 28 when he because the president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference; a position he held until he was assassinated 11 years later. For all of his humanness, Dr. King had a consciousness of God we rarely see in our midst, a woke-ness if you will, so woke, that his faith and his response to God compelled him to make the ultimate sacrifice of his life so that I and many others might live a bit more freely.  This type of faith is a challenge to all of us, not just this weekend, but for every day we take a breath on this earth.


I see the emergence of this faith in the students who come to Union never having opened a bible or as much as sung a hymn.  We have many students who come as spiritual but not religious.   They come because after all their advocacy and protests, something stirs within them.  Something woke them up and something woke up within them.  I have heard them say they are looking to be grounded in this world but not of it.  They’ve had their epiphany---their faith awakened within them.  After occupying Wall Street and insisting that black lives really do matter, through marching, lying down in the middle of major highways, or sitting in at statehouses and on Capitol Hill, spending nights in jails, these students come to us. They were woke. Many of these students come to us looking for the faith and sustenance that carried Martin Luther King through the trials and struggles of trying to make a dream real.  Woke faith.


And I dare say we need woke faith in this age as much as we have ever needed it before.  I came of age in the civil rights movement.  I came of age when there was much hope in my young heart for continued racial, economic and social progress even in this midst of strife.  There were elections along the way and circumstances that befell from time to time to test that hope, but there was always a sense of progress.  Always a sense we were moving forward.  And clearly we have.  The work of Martin King and the thousands who have heard a similar call to action has not been in vain.  The success of people of color in the US is remarkable given where we started.  We still have deep and seemingly intractable issues:  the overrepresentation of black and brown people in prison; underfunded and poorly staffed schools; limited access to healthcare, particularly in many southern states, with little to know access for new medicines to retard and treat the spread of HIV infections.  The killing of unarmed black men by law enforcement, even while we had the nation’s first black president, destabilized the nation.  But the progress of black and brown people in America is real.  I feel like I embody this progress.


Yet, something is desperately wrong in these United States of America today.  Not just for black or brown folks, folks from those (expletive) nations like Haiti, El Salvador and of the continent of Africa, but for everybody.  If there was ever a people who needed to be woke and hear afresh the message of the Almighty it is many of those who live and labor blocks from here.  From 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue right up to Capitol Hill, something is wrong.  Too many folks over there ain’t woke.  Scripture says the people who lived in darkness have seen a great light.  Way too many leaders from the Hill to the White House don’t seem to have seen any light at all.  Everyday some new revelation has the feel of plunging us deeper into darkness.  Trampling on the basic standards of fundamental human decency.  Shredding of environmental regulations, gratuitously destroying healthcare for the weak and vulnerable while grotesquely shifting massive amounts of money to corporations and people who have many times more than they will ever need.  Tweeting transphobic and homophobic changes in military policy with little regard for military commanders and even less regard for disrupting the lives of loyal Americans serving in our armed forces. Mysogyny unfettered. Erecting obstacles at every turn to keep people from participating in the democratic process.  That so-called and now defunct voter fraud commission defined fraudulence by its very mission. It all makes implicit bias and microaggressions seem down right civilized.

No. Not woke.  But demonic, diabolical, deliberate walking in darkness, destroying God’s creation and God’s creatures while popping corks of celebratory champagne, clinking bottles of beer in fits of glee, and shamelessly smiling before the cameras.  Something is desperately wrong.

In his final speech 50 years ago this year, the night before he died, Dr King said:  The nation is sick. Trouble is in the land. Confusion all around. But I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough, can you see the stars. And I see God working in this period…in a way that men, in some strange way, are responding--something is happening in our world. The masses of people are rising up…the cry is always the same--"We want to be free."

Yes, in this darkness some are woke enough to see the stars. I have a sense that we are here this morning because we have a notion that whatever is wrong out there, or within us, or perhaps out there and within us, there might be a few woke answers in this place, some enlightened direction, a word from the Lord, even a call from God asking us to follow.  Søren Kierkegaard, the Danish philosopher, puts it like this:  "Can there be something in life that has power over us which little by little causes us to forget all that is good? And can this ever happen to anyone who has heard the call of eternity quite clearly and strongly? If this can ever be, then one must look for a cure against it. Praise be to God that such a cure exists – that is, to quietly make a decision. A decision that joins us to the eternal. It brings what is eternal into this time. A decision that raises us with a shock from the slumber of monotony. A decision that breaks the magic spell of custom.  A decision that disrupts the long row of weary thoughts. A decision that pronounces its blessing upon even the weakest beginning, as long as it is a real beginning.  A decision that is the awakening to the eternal." 


So what is our decision this morning? This is always the question of people of woke faith.  What will be our experience of walking with God? Will we wake up our spirits, minds, souls and psyches?  Will we wake from the slumber of paralyzing monotony and the enslaving spell of custom?  Will we authentically, profoundly, consistently stay woke? Will we hear anew the words of Dr. King as he quoted the prophet Amos when he said “let justice roll down like rushing water and righteous like an ever-flowing stream”?


Fifty years ago, on the last night of his life, Dr. King preached his final sermon.  He said: “Well, I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn't matter with me now, because I've been to the mountaintop.

And I don't mind.

Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!

And so I'm happy, tonight.

I'm not worried about anything.

I'm not fearing any man!

Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!!”


 Woke faith…to God be the Glory. Amen