In final sermon, Harper says to wake from spiritual slumber to spiritual work of ‘urgent’ now


The Rev. Lynn Casteel Harper, minister of older adults at the Riverside Church in New York City, delivers her sermon “The Gift of Wisdom” on Sunday in the Amphitheater. DAVE MUNCH/PHOTO EDITOR

“Do you have the time?” the Rev. Lynn Casteel Harper asked the congregation at the 9 a.m. Friday morning worship service in the Amphitheater. “I think this phrase is on the way to extinction. We were once able to ask strangers, but now we have our own timekeepers in our hand.”

Harper’s sermon title was “The Fierce Urgency of Now.” The Scripture reading was Romans 13:11-14.

She continued, “We have never been better equipped to know what the time is. But there is time and then there is time. There is knowing and then there is knowing. Paul is calling the Roman Christians to a larger framework — what is called for in response to the current moment.”

The Christians in Rome were at the heart of an empire that believed “might made right.” It was a brutal regime that rewarded the wealthy and powerful and let the poor go hungry, Harper said.

“The Roman Christians had a high and risky calling,” Harper told the congregation. “In the face of the politics of brutality, they practiced the politics of gentleness. In the face of the military, they wore the armor of light and love. Paul urged them to wake from sleep and live as Christ’s followers.”

She called “Do you know what time it is?” an arresting phase. The Roman Christians knew their calling and needed to shed their fear in order to live with the fierce love of Jesus. “While Paul thought Jesus was returning soon, and literally, we know that we need to live not as the unwise, but live in the way of insight,” she told the congregation.

On April 4, 1967, one year to the day before his assassination, Martin Luther King Jr. gave a sermon at the Riverside Church denouncing the Vietnam War. Some of his aides did not want him to veer from the subject of racism, but King understood the intersection of racism, materialism and militarism. 

“He understood ‘the fierce urgency of now,’ ” Harper said to the congregation. “There is such a thing as being too late. In the invisible book of life, did we want nonviolent coexistence or violent destruction? Now is the time for us to face this fierce urgency. We have choices in how we care for the earth, for the vulnerable. We are a nation with vast power, and, like the Roman Christians, we have a high and risky calling.” 

Harper urged the congregation to practice the politics of gentleness and to put on the armor of light and love, to wake from a spiritual slumber. “We can hit the snooze button or meet the day. This fierce urgency is not from panic, but grounded in trust, faith and wisdom that we know what time it is.”

When Harper arrived in Chautauqua, she was a bit put off by the Miller Bell Tower ringing every 15 minutes. “My first thought was, ‘I hope this doesn’t go on all night. We don’t need any loud, old bells.’ I have come to cherish the bells, because they provide an opportunity to mark literal time, but feel it deeply as a community, four times an hour to stop and pay attention to the now.”

The bells awake Chautauquans from spiritual slumber to their high and risky calling, Harper said. 

“When I heard the carillonneur play ‘God of Grace and God of Glory’ on the bells,” Harper said, “I thought of the words Harry Emerson Fosdick, the founding pastor of the Riverside Church, wrote: ‘Grant us wisdom, grant us courage for the facing of this hour. … Grant us wisdom, grant us courage for the living of these days.’ ”

As the pandemic grinds on, as the people in Haiti and Afghanistan suffer, as people in this nation face troubles, Harper said, “Grant us wisdom, grant us courage. I am grateful to our God to share this appointed time, this week with you as we seek to live truly, deeply, urgently. Thanks for sharing this brief leg of the journey. The bell is tolling, calling us to fierce urgency. May the good, gracious and wise God be with you until we meet again.”

The Rev. Mary Lee Talbot presided. Sue Tannehill, who was part of the committee to create the new Quaker House at Chautauqua, read the Scripture. For the prelude, Joshua Stafford, Jared Jacobsen Chair for Organist and director of sacred music, played an improvisation. Members of the Motet Choir sang “Come, Let Us Anew,” music by Mack Wilberg and words by Charles Wesley. The postlude was “Toccata,” from Symphony No. 5, by Charles-Marie Widor. Support for this week’s services was provided by the Edmund R. Robb-Walter C. Shaw Endowment and the Randall-Hall Memorial Chaplaincy.

Tags : morning worshipRev. Lynn Casteel HarperRomans 13:11-4spiritual slumberurgentWeek Eight

The author Mary Lee Talbot

Mary Lee Talbot writes the recap of the morning worship service. A life-long Chautauquan, she is a Presbyterian minister, author of Chautauqua’s Heart: 100 Years of Beauty and a history of the Chapel of the Good Shepherd. She edited The Streets Where We Live and Shalom Chautauqua. She lives in Chautauqua year-round with her Stabyhoun, Sammi.