The Rev. Michael-Ray Mathews’ family celebrates communion together the first Sunday of every month. They study Scripture and then celebrate the Lord’s Supper.
“When my son moved back to Columbus because he was in love, he asked if we could continue the tradition with his beloved,” Mathews said. “We did a lectio divina reflection on ‘Lift Every Voice and Sing.’ My goal for my preaching this time is the same as when I was here in 2018 — to explore my faith, our shared public life and our faith and responsibilities in the world.”
Mathews preached at the 10:45 a.m. Sunday, July 10, service of worship and sermon in the Amphitheater. His sermon title was “Lift Every Voice,” and the Scripture text was Luke 10:25-37.
In his introduction, Mathews said he was obsessed with the text and history of “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” He cited author and scholar Imani Perry’s book, May We Forever Stand: A History of the Black National Anthem, as one of the sources for his reflections. The song is a feature of the Sympara Community, Mathews’ worshiping community, during its Juneteenth vigil.
“But what if the vigil on Juneteenth is for everyone? What if Black history is for everyone? What if Juneteenth is for everyone?” he asked the congregation. “If it is for everyone, how and why is it? And if it is not (for everyone), why and how not?”
Written at the turn of the 20th century, “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” reflects on the failure of Reconstruction and offers a vision of the future for “Black people and all people in the United States,” Mathews said. “How does it contribute to the inclusive, pluralistic democracy we envision? That is what I am going to explore.”
Mathews finished his introduction and began his sermon by singing:
“May the words of my mouth bring You praise. Let the Word that I speak be seasoned by Your love and grace. May the things I choose to say bring glory not shame to Your name this day. Let the words of my mouth bring You praise.”
Despite being the news editor of his high school paper and starting as a journalism major at the University of Southern California, Mathews said he hated to engage with the media.
“I am quick to recommend others for interviews, who are closer to the situation or have a voice that needs to be heard,” he said. “I forget my talking points when the journalist asks the first question: state your name and spell it.”
Despite his fears, most interviews go well and Mathews’ media coaches give him praise.
“I have found two saving graces,” he said. “First, I visualize my talking points. Second, I have real clarity of the question I really want to answer, the answer the world needs to hear.”
Mathews’ pointed to media masters like Congresswomen Barbara Lee and Maxine Waters, who create the space for what they want to say.
“Listen to Barbara Lee. She says ‘just let me say this,’ and puts her prophetic practice out there,” Mathews said.
In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus was doing the same thing. The lawyer who asked Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” was asking a “disingenuous question,” Mathews said. Jesus was claiming his time and answered the lawyer with a story.
The theology of being a neighbor is not to find out who is worthy but “how we show up in the world,” Mathews said. “It is about who I am and can I respond with compassion and mercy. Am I a neighbor in showing up for others in the world, to see the divine in others?”
The authors of “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” J. Rosamond Johnson and James Weldon Johnson, were Samaritans at the turn of the 20th century. Their people, after 40 years, were still despised and oppressed, lived in fear and under threat from white supremacists who thwarted their efforts to be everyday people.
“They had their rights taken away in county courts, state legislatures and even the Supreme Court,” Mathews said.
While lamenting what white supremacists were doing, the writers said to let joy resound, to count on the wisdom from ancestors for strength, hope and love.
“The ‘Negro’ National Anthem gave courage to a young Black boy who tried to sing the American song and dream the American dream so he could face the times when the great American song robbed him of his voice and the great American dream destroyed his equality,” Mathews said.
He called the song one of the “medicines and potions that sustain me and my people in a strange land.” Poetry, jazz, food and stories provided healing power and reminded him and others of their dignity and belovedness.
“If this song gave me the medicine to survive, what do I do when the strange land wants to sing the song, like the request from the Babylonians for the Jews to ‘sing the songs of Zion,’ while still in captivity?” Mathews asked.
What is lost and gained when the songs of one people are sung by captors? For Mathews, it is the Samaritan who is bridging the differences in the world, who is taking a risk for human flourishing.
“What if I can’t trust the multiracial movement for justice to love Black lives?” Mathews asked the congregation. “I am left with the teachings of Jesus, a complicated history, and ‘Lift Every Voice and Sing’ to be universally aspirational and inspire both the Black community and broader community.”
While doing genealogical research, Mathews found his third great-grandmother, Dulcey Goodman, in a record of enslaved people. He also found a great-grandfather who was registered to vote in 1867, but no record of him actually voting.
“ ‘Lift Every Voice and Sing’ reminded Black people not only of the place (where) they had been oppressed, but that they are a people of profound faith and resilience,” Mathews said.
He recalled generations of his family, their social situation, and how they sang “Lift Every Voice.”
When a Black family moved into the neighborhood of the Erie Chapel Presbyterian Church in Chicago, the pastor taught “Lift Every Voice” to the members of the congregation. The congregation then walked and sang and escorted their new neighbors to their home and prevented a mob from robbing them.
“Who was the neighbor?” Mathews asked. “The Samaritan had compassion even when the social message to ignore the injured man was clear. He put actions to his convictions.”
Mathews said that for the long haul, “We need reparations and healing. We need radical solidarity with our neighbor so we can sing together and also struggle together. We can advocate for direct action for our wounded neighbors.”
He continued, “We won’t need to memorize our talking points. We will be ready with better questions. It might sound like we are singing variations, but the harmony will vibrate with liberation and healing, as loud as the rolling sea. Lift every voice.”
The Rev. Natalie Hanson, interim senior pastor for Chautauqua, presided. Gregory “Coach” Prechtl, who is marking 35 years as McCredie Family Director of Chautauqua Boys’ and Girls’ Club, read the Scripture. Nicholas Stigall, organ scholar, played “Allegro” from the Organ Concerto in A Minor, BWV 593, by Johann Sebastian Bach, after Vivaldi. The anthem, sung by the Chautauqua Choir, was “The House of Faith Has Many Rooms,” music by Craig Phillips and words by Carl P. Daw Jr. The choir was under the direction of Joshua Stafford, director of sacred music and holder of the Jared Jacobsen Chair for the Organist, and accompanied by Stigall. The offertory anthem was “Let All the World in Every Corner Sing,” music by Ralph Vaughan Williams and text by George Herbert. Stafford conducted the Chautauqua Choir and Stigall provided accompaniment. Stafford played “Toccata,” by John Weaver, for the postlude. Support for this week’s services is provided by the Jackson-Carnahan Memorial Chaplaincy and the John William Tyrrell Endowment for Religion.