“I am calling us to be citizens of a country that does not yet exist,” the Rev. Emma Jordan-Simpson said. “The most hopeful thing for us is to pull up anchor from a world that causes our neighbors to suffer and offers our children a diminished future.”
She continued, “We need to work for a world where all can flourish, where people are hoping and fighting for that world, for a more perfect union, a world where people could be free.”
Jordan-Simpson preached at the 9:15 a.m. Wednesday, July 27, morning ecumenical worship service in the Amphitheater. Her sermon title was “A Song on the Way,” and the Scripture reading was Colossians 1:15-20.
“The people who followed Jesus to the river of transformation were a people who made decisions to resist slavery and oppression, a people who decided to be true to their ideals for all people,” Jordan-Simpson said. “Vitality surged with the hopes and dreams of people from all walks of life.”
The songs on the way to the river were not composed by one individual, but were created in community. They were born from shared struggle and hope.
“Songs were coded calls to worship,” she said. “Enslaved people were not allowed to gather alone. Thus, the song ‘Steal away, steal away to Jesus, ain’t got long to stay here.’ Other songs were coded announcements that the freedom train was here and pulling out.”
These people experienced the liberating presence of God, a god “who refuses to be bound by the pages of a weaponized Bible,” Jordan-Simpson said. “We are proclaiming good news when we proclaim liberty. That is why we can sing ‘In the morning when I rise, give me Jesus.’ Jesus is freedom, justice and mercy.”
She told the congregation, “We can tell when our theology is distorted by what it compels us to do, how we treat people and how it limits the way people dream and imagine together.”
Jordan-Simpson said there is good theology in the United States today even though it may not be in the news. There are people who operate from the depths of their faith, working together to care for neighbors and build community.
“Auburn Seminary is working with partners to map communities where people are singing a new kind of song. We call the map the ‘cartography of possibilities,’ ” she said. “Churches, synagogues, community groups are building new economies of care, of solidarity and repair.”
She continued, “These communities are songs from God telling them to move to the river, to fight poverty and injustice. They affirm the basic humanity of all the communities involved.”
Jordan-Simpson challenged the congregation.
“Will you choose good theology? We are presented with many versions,” she said. “I choose the Jesus whom my people met in the hushed hours, who walked with them when they ran for freedom, who pointed to the North Star. This Jesus is too big to control. My people believed in Jesus who said they were created to be free.”
John Piper, founder of DesiringGod.org and chancellor of Bethlehem College and Seminary, spoke at the MLK50 Conference hosted by the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention and The Gospel Coalition in Memphis, Tennessee, on April 5, 2018.
While thanking God in the speech for using King as a human instrument to attack segregation and racism, Piper then told the gathering why he questioned whether King was a true disciple of Jesus.
“Piper said that King was shaped by the ‘modern, toxic, skeptical air’ at Crozer Seminary,” Jordan-Simpson told the congregation. “King, according to Piper, was blinded to the creator of the universe, to Christ’s suffering and authority, and the bodily resurrection of Jesus. Piper said that he hoped King had become a true disciple before he died.”
She continued, “That doesn’t sound like Dr. King to me. What you can’t say is King never met God in a profound way. We know what he did with the Gospel he heard — he stood for the poor, he stood against war. He could stand with the sanitation workers and meet Bull Connor with a calm face because he met God.”
How can we justify putting down women and children, robbing people of their voices, she asked.
“We live in the good news of God through Jesus Christ who stands against death,” Jordan-Simpson said. “If we get Jesus wrong, we get the good news wrong — we preach a diminished gospel.”
The church of the Colossians met in the home of Philemon, who enslaved Onesimus. Jordan-Simpson questioned how to make sense of the letter to the Colossians that includes gender heirarchies and urges slaves to obey masters.
“In my sacred imagination, I think that, like Harriet Tubman’s Pastor Green, he said one thing when the master was around and preached another gospel under the cover of darkness,” Jordan-Simpson said. “I am choosing to read this as a subversive text.”
She continued, “We have been given a gospel of love, yet we give into the impulse to make it small and deadly. See this as a subversive song. These verses may be understood to communicate to other Christians in a dangerous time in the Roman Empire.”
It was dangerous to get caught with these letters in a time when Caesar was god. The verses of Colossians were written to subvert the world order where Caesar’s face was everywhere.
“Jesus is the image of the invisible God, the first born of creation,” Jordan-Simpson said. “That was a dangerous theology to declare in a place where Caesar was worshiped.”
She told the congregation, “We have seen God because we have seen Jesus identifying with those who are discounted, the women and children, and healed the sick. We have seen the one anointed by God. It doesn’t matter who the dictator is — the good news does not change.”
It is the power of God that holds us together, she said.
“We choose the power of God, and God’s love is revealed in Jesus,” Jordan-Simpson said. “God’s power gives us meaning and joy. We choose the power of hope and love and walk hand in hand with our neighbor to the river of peace.”
Once people are held together in God through Jesus Christ, everybody has a place. As one spiritual says: “Plenty of good room in my Father’s kingdom.” All people have a place in God’s realm.
“No one is illegal, a misfit, second-class or has asterisks on their ID card,” Jordan-Simpson said. “No one can kick anybody out.”
Rome thought that it had the last word by killing Jesus.
“The resurrection is God saying, ‘I will always have the last word,’ ” she said. “The risen Jesus calls for a world with no more bloodshed, no borders, no hierarchies of worthiness, no more dreams that have died laid in borrowed tombs.”
From such words, people are able to be changed.
“With these words, we declare our dissent from hate, fear, smallness or control,” Jordan-Simpson said. “We will preach radical love in the face of any empire. The gospel leads us all to the river to be transformed. In the morning when I rise, give me this Jesus.”
Deacon Ray Defendorf, co-host at the Catholic House of Chautauqua, presided. Melissa Spas, vice president for religion, read the Scripture. The prelude was “A Little More Faith in Jesus,” by John W. Work III, played by Joshua Stafford, director of sacred music and holder of the Jared Jacobsen Chair for Organist. The Motet Choir, under the direction of Stafford and accompanied by Nicholas Stigall, organ scholar, sang “Give Me Jesus,” a traditional spiritual arranged by Robert Lau. The postlude, “Fanfare,” by Percy Whitlock, was played by Stafford. Support for this week’s services is provided by the Alison and Craig Marthinsen Endowment for the Department of Religion.