Bitter truth can lead to transformative healing, Rev. Michael-Ray Mathews says

Every morning the Rev. Michael-Ray Mathews begins his sermon with a song. At the 9:15 a.m. Wednesday, July 13, morning ecumenical worship service he sang “Let the Words,” by Take 6.

“Let the words of my mouth bring You praise / Let the words that I speak be seasoned with Your love and grace / Let the things, oh Lord, that I choose to say / Bring glory, not shame, to Your name each day / Let the words of my mouth bring You praise / (Let them bring You praise),” Mathews sang.

Mathews’ sermon title was “Treading Our Path through the Blood,” and the Scripture text was Psalm 82. 

The psalm begins: “God has taken his place in the divine council, in the midst of the gods he holds judgement.”  

“This reminds me of the two-part pilot episode of “Star Trek: The Next Generation” where the immortal Q serves as the grand inquisitor to judge the worthiness of the human race to continue,” Mathews said. “I would love to see a mega-crossover series with Q and all the Enterprise captains in a council.”

Psalm 82 is social justice theater, the theater of the oppressed, Mathews said. 

“The Psalmist asks how long the gods will judge wrongly. ‘Give justice to the weak and the orphan; maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute. Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked,’ ” he read.

Like the prophet Amos, the Psalmist is giving a social critique. 

“Truth-telling is at the center,” Mathews said. “Evil thrives on the unjust rulings of these gods, and the Psalmist says ‘Do something about it.’ ” 

Mathews asked, “Who is speaking? Whose line is it anyway? The Psalmist seems to petition the large God in this critique of the princes of the nations. The Psalmist wants God to do something, heal the Earth, rise up from complacency because blood is crying out (for justice).”

One lesson Mathews learned as a community organizer is that people must face the brutal truth — the deep trauma that is at the heart of the lives of people with their backs against the wall, the impact injustice has on the lives of the most vulnerable. 

“We have to honor the truth to experience healing and reparations,” he said. 

In 2018, Mathews went with other Auburn Senior Fellows to Montgomery, Alabama, to The Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration. The museum encompasses the history of slavery, lynching, mass incarceration, racial bias and the white supremacy that informed this history in the United States.

Mathews spent time looking at the soil taken from lynching sites all over the United States. Most of the soil in glass jars is brown. 

“I read every jar, reading the names of the victims, the date of each lynching and the locations. I was jolted by a jar of bright red soil,” he said. “It was the same as the soil in Locust Grove, Georgia, where my great-grandmother lived. The name on the jar was Jess Jefferson, who was lynched in 1946 in the next county over. That was two years before my grandparents left for Ohio with my infant mother.”

Mathews’ family on both sides was part of the Great Migration of Black Americans out of the South from 1910 to 1970. It was a major demographic shift.  

“I wondered if there was any relationship between lynching and leaving. I was told that the family moved for better jobs and a better life. That was reasonable and probable,” Mathews said. “The first family member on my mother’s side to leave was a great uncle who had supposedly engaged the attention of a white woman. He was put on a train out of Georgia.”

His father’s side of the family left southern Louisiana, Cajun Country, for southeast Texas in the 1930s. In the 1940s, a great uncle who was a boxer moved to Los Angeles. He left because he won a boxing match against a white boxer.

“Then my father’s oldest brother went to Los Angeles. He became an anchor for his other eight brothers and six sisters to try to make it in Los Angeles,” Mathews said. “He left because he got into a verbal altercation with a white sugar cane farmer. They did not leave just for jobs; they seemed to be running for their lives.”

Mathews’ family lived the words from “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” They experienced the lyrics: “We have come over a way that with tears has been watered. We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered.”

A better understanding of the Great Migration helped deepen Mathews’ appreciation for his family and their grief, fear, and anger, as well as “our joy and peace as a people,” he said. 

“I see the genius and brilliance of the artists and entrepreneurs in my father’s family and the teachers and spiritual leaders in my mother’s family,” he said. “We have to do the work of healing with family members and develop healing to pass on to the next generation.” 

He told the congregation that to be free, they must face the truth and honor their rage.

“To rage is to express our body’s most fiery energy. It is to tap into our body’s power to protect ourselves and others. To rage is to honor and tend to our own pain so that trauma does not hijack our ability to see another’s humanity,” wrote activist, lawyer, filmmaker and author Valarie Kaur. “When we listen deeply to our rage against injustice, we gain the information and energy we need to transform the world.”

Mathews expanded on Kaur’s treatment of rage.

“We have a lot to repair, and it is tempting to skip telling the truth. Information and medicine are captured inside our stories of hope and pain,” he said. “The medicine may be bitter, but it can transform us and healing can come out of it. We can’t see the bright North Star of freedom if we don’t know what we need to be free of.”

Mathews told the congregation that they march on, even if they are not sure if they have come to the place for which they sighed. The North Star is pointing toward liberation and healing.

“This is a theology of the ‘Not Yet.’ The kingdom is nigh and not yet, healing is coming and is right now,” he said. “The Beloved Community is coming and is here. We are flying a plane while it is being built. We must do something because the pain is palpable.”

Mathews admitted that he did not really like the character Q in “Star Trek: The Next Generation.”

“Maybe space is not the final frontier; perhaps it is the soul, our collective soul,” he said. “We need to seek out new ways to live out life, to boldly go where no one has gone. As Picard would say ‘engage’ or ‘make it so;’ or Janeway, ‘do it;’ or Pike, ‘hit it;’ or my new favorite, Michael Burnham, ‘let’s fly.’ Amen.”

The Rev. John Morgan, senior pastor of the Williamsburg Presbyterian Church in Williamsburg, Virginia, presided. Melissa Spas, vice president of religion, read the Scripture. The prelude was “Adagio,” from Organ Sonata No.1, by Felix Mendelssohn, played by Joshua Stafford, director of sacred music and holder of the Jared Jacobsen Chair for the Organist. The Motet Choir sang “There is a Fountain,” music arranged by John Hudson and words by William Cowper. The choir was conducted and accompanied by Stafford. The postlude, played by Stafford, was “Allegro moderato e serioso,” from Sonata No. 1 in F Minor, by Mendelssohn. Support for this week’s services is provided by the Jackson-Carnahan Memorial Chaplaincy and the John William Tyrrell Endowment for Religion. 

The Rev. Michael Ray Mathews has opened his sermons this week singing several songs. On Sunday and Tuesday he sang “Breathe on Us,” by Billy and Sarah Gaines. On Monday he sang “Some Kiss We Want,” words by Rumi and music by the Rev. Will Burhans. On Wednesday he sang “Let The Words,” by Take 6.

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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.