Column by Mary Lee Talbot.
“In 1956, an African-American preacher named Howard Thurman decided to leave his work in San Francisco to be the dean of Marsh Chapel at Boston University,” said the Rev. Marvin McMickle at the Friday morning 9:15 a.m. Devotional Hour. “He had gone to San Francisco with a vision to build an intentionally racially integrated church from the ground up. He had a Pentecost vision, of going back to that first church in Jerusalem where people from all places came together.”
McMickle’s title was “Are You a Contagious Christian?,” and his text was Matthew 13:13-16.
“In the midst of this work, he got the invitation to Boston,” McMickle said, “He said, ‘Should I stay with the work that I started or move on to the opposite side of the country?’ He moved to Boston on this basis: ‘I want to put myself in a place where I can have the maximum contagion. I want to be where whatever there is of God and godliness in me has the highest possibility of rubbing off, of being caught by someone else.’”
Thurman decided he could to that better in Boston.
“Maximum contagion — isn’t that the perfect metaphor for a Christian — to take some gift of grace, fruit of the spirit, and want to be in a place where what I have will have the highest possibility of rubbing off. I would like to be contagious, to walk in Thurman’s footsteps,” McMickle said. “I cannot keep the joy of Jesus to myself. If I know peace in a storm, have hope or a point of view on life’s ups and downs, why not spread it around?”
We tend to think of contagion in a negative and destructive way. We think of diseases that take life.
“But we can infect people with something that will send life to them,” McMickle said.
We can have the maximum contagion that will rub off and benefit others, or we can have maximum benefit that enriches only ourselves.
“Which way do you bend?” he asked.
McMickle retold the story of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian who came to study at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. He decided he had to go back to Germany, because he felt he had no right to share in the rebirth of Germany after Hitler if he did not stand with the German people during its death thralls. Reinhold Niebuhr tried to convince him to stay in New York where he would be safer and have a brilliant academic career. Bonhoeffer was not persuaded and went back to Germany, was involved with the plot to assassinate Hitler, and was hanged in Flossenburg Prison two days before the country was liberated.
“If Bonhoeffer did not go back, we would not have The Cost of Discipleship. He believed that when God calls us, God calls us to come and die. We need to choose the course of maximum contagion to enrich the whole of society. God sets before us an opportunity to do good for others, not for ourselves,” McMickle said.
Cornel West, in his book Democracy Matters, said that Christians should be prophetic beings who shout down deliberate ignorance and challenge willful blindness.
“Christians should force the people around them to know and to see. What they do about it is their choice. A teacher asked a little boy, ‘Which is worse — ignorance or apathy?’ The boy answered, ‘I don’t know, and I don’t care,’” McMickle said.
He continued, “Which is worse — racism, sexism, militarism, homophobia, narcissism, xenophobia? I don’t know, and I don’t care. You have to let your light shine so all can see and praise your Father in heaven and have good cause to be glad that you came among them.”
He recalled the Andy Griffith spinoff TV show, “Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C.”
“In the opening sequence, Gomer could not get coordinated with the rest of the drill parade. He was physically and psychologically incapable of falling in line; he was always out of sync. That is bad for a Marine, but not for a Christian,” McMickle said. “When you encounter bigotry, don’t let it go unchallenged. Let your light shine. When someone is harassed for his or her sexual orientation, don’t let it go unchallenged. Let your light shine. When someone is judged on his or her exterior, don’t let it go unchallenged. Let your light shine.”
McMickle talked about train crossings in Chicago. There was not enough room to build overpasses, so most train crossings are at street grade. Most had arms with lights and a bell that went off long before the locomotive appeared and traffic was stopped. But in the remote areas, there was just a man in a booth who would go out with a lantern to warn traffic.
One night, the guard fell asleep and woke up to a train whistle that sounded too close. He grabbed his lantern and went out to warn the one car that was coming. He kept waving his lantern, but the car kept coming, and the car and engine met on the track, killing everyone in the car. During the investigation, the guard was asked a number of questions: Were you in the booth? Yes. Did you hear the train whistle? Yes. Did you come out and wave the lantern? Yes. Did you light the lantern? No.
“With life and death in his hands, he was waving a lantern with no light,” McMickle said. “God bends over to ask us: ‘Is there light in your lamp?’ If there is, wave it for maximum contagion so all can see God’s good works and give glory to the Father in Heaven. May God’s name be praised,” McMickle concluded.
The service ended with the congregation reading the prayer that McMickle had been using all week. He revealed that that prayer had been written by Sir Francis Drake in 1577 and was edited by Bishop Desmond Tutu in 1973. McMickle found it in a prayer book in a church in Pittsford, N.Y. This is the prayer:
Disturb us, Lord, when we are too well pleased with ourselves, when our dreams have come true because we dreamed too little, when we arrived safely because we sailed too close to shore. Disturb us, Lord, when with the abundance of things we possess, we have lost our thirst for the waters of life; when having fallen in love with life, we have ceased to dream of eternity; and in our efforts to build the new earth, we have allowed our vision of the new heaven to dim. Stir us, Lord, to dare more boldly, to venture on wider seas, where storms will show your mastery; where losing sight of land, we shall find the stars. We ask you to push back the horizons of our hopes, and to push us into the future in strength, courage, hope and love. All this we pray through Jesus Christ. Amen.
The Rev. J. Paul Womack presided. Pat Brown read the scripture. For the past 40 years, she has served as an elementary school library media specialist in Tonawanda, N.Y. Before that position, she served in various library-related capacities: music librarian, law librarian in Boston and taught the school library course at the State University of New York at Buffalo Graduate School of Library Science. The Browns have been coming to Chautauqua for more than 40 years and have been serving in the ministry of host and hostess at the Baptist House since 2007. Bud Brown is also a retired university librarian and enjoys singing in the Chautauqua Choir. They have one daughter, Christine, and two grandchildren, Lydia and Lewis, who live in Atlanta and enjoy Chautauqua each summer.
The Motet Consort played Trio No. 3, Adagio and Presto” by C.P.E. Bach. The consort includes Rebecca Scarnati, oboe; Debbie Grohman, clarinet; and Willie La Favor, piano. Jared Jacobsen, organist and coordinator of worship and sacred music, led the Motet Choir in “I’m So glad Jesus Lifted Me,” an African-American Spiritual arranged by John Helgen. The Mr. and Mrs. William U. Follansbee Memorial Chaplaincy provided funds for the services this week.