“We have been on a long journey this week,” said the Rev. Michael-Ray Mathews at the 9:15 a.m. Friday, July 15, morning worship service in the Amphitheater. “In this final verse of ‘Lift Every Voice and Sing,’ we find the final prayer for this week.”
Mathews’ sermon title was “May We Forever Stand,” and the Scripture reading was Colossians 1:1-14. He again sang from “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 / May 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.”
The Apostle Paul’s Letter to the Colossians and his disciple Timothy begins with a formal salutation.
“It is a musical prelude to the hymn to Christ that follows these first verses,” Mathews said. “It reminds me of the formality of public speaking in the Black church.”
It was tacitly understood that when his grandmother stood in church to introduce her visiting family, she would begin by giving thanks to “God who is the head of my life.”
She would say, “I am glad to be in the house of the Lord who has brought me a long way.” Then she would introduce her daughter, Mathews’ mother, Juanita.
Juanita would then stand and acknowledge “God who is the head of my life,” and that it was good to be in the house of the Lord. She would introduce herself, Juanita Mathews, and her children, and say that God had brought them a long way. She would bring greetings from her home church in Los Angeles and give a shout-out to the pastor of that church.
“This church greeting and the words of ‘Lift Every Voice and Sing,’ are part of Black formalism, which began in the 19th century,” Mathews said. “This formalism is a routine, dignified way of being and doing, an expression of grace and identity away from the violence of White supremacy.”
This formalism is distinct from respectability, which was defined by the eye of white supremacy.
“As Baby Suggs, holy, (from Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved) encouraged her people to walk, talk and stand with dignity, Paul also told the Colossians to walk, talk and stand with dignity. Paul was supporting them with prayers,” Mathews said. “Paul encouraged them to live lives worthy of the Lord, and they would be made strong from God’s power and they could endure with patience.”
Paul told the Colossians that they were part of something bigger than their own community, the movement of justice and liberation.
Mathews said he will be 54 in three weeks and has lived five years longer than his father. He has worked for over 25 years in faith-based organizing. He has given four eulogies for family members in the last four years.
“I am doing what people in the middle stage (of life) do — take account of our journey. We question our purpose and calling, our commitments and priorities,” he said. It is a time in life to “honor our faith in ways the world does not.”
Mathews is taking time to reflect on music and masculinity in his life.
And so, he sings a lot.
“When I am asked if I am a singer, the little boy inside shouts, ‘Yes, I love to sing,’ ” Mathews said. “But the pseudo-humble adult in me answers soberly, ‘Yes, I do sing.’ This is not the same as claiming my identity as a singer.”
He continued, “I am in love with music, the lyrics, the movement, modulation, the poetry and wordsmithing. I am conscious of breathing, of moving from the deep chest voice to the middle to my head voice.”
“Lift Every Voice and Sing” is a very challenging composition. The music moves from very low notes to very high notes.
“What I miss is singing it in community where we can breathe together. Yes, I am a singer,” he shouted.
Mathews then turned to reflections on masculinity. He is one of 17 men featured in the book I Wish My Dad: The Power of Vulnerable Conversations between Fathers and Sons, by Romal Tune, and edited by his son Jordan Tune, to be published in October 2022.
The men Romal and Jordan interviewed for the book shared the lessons they had learned in relationships with their fathers.
“Each discussed the joy and pain of the relationship and the healing that is still unfolding,” Mathews said.
Mathews has worked for 30 years since the death of his father to reconcile his relationship with him.
“I struggled growing up. I did not feel my value was appreciated, that I was too effeminate, not man enough,” he said. “I am a survivor of sexual abuse.”
Mathews’ relationship with his father was part of his own identity as a father, and his relationship with his own son.
“In reconciling with my father, I have had to forgive and be forgiven. I have worked to become a better father, son, friend and leader,” he said. “It has been 30 years and three therapists. I am not done, but I am grateful to be true to myself.”
Mathews called this the spiritual work of doing justice “out yonder” and within.
“I have to reconcile the patriarchy in me in working for justice with women. I have to reconcile the homophobic and transphobic parts in me in working with LGBTQ people. I have to take back what white supremacy took from us,” he said.
Progressive, white people need to heal the unseen damage done on white bodies and souls by white supremacy.
“They have to reconcile with the mostly unseen psychic and spiritual damage and get back what whiteness and white supremacy took,” Mathews said.
“We have to be true to God and ourselves,” he said. “We have to take back what American exceptionalism and triumphalism have done with a new imagination to be citizens of the United States and the world.”
In her book May We Forever Stand: A History of the Black National Anthem, Imani Perry quoted critic Keith Cartwright on the patriotism in the last line of “Lift Every Voice and Sing” saying that patriotism does not belong to the United States but to an alternative, imagined community.
“The song is reaching for somewhere else, where freedom was possible,” Mathews said. “Cartwright called it a ‘meditation on the theme of freedom.’ ”
The native land in the song “is the Beloved Community,” Mathews said. “The native land is sacred resistance, something bigger like the Colossians were called to.”
There is something bigger in the aspirations of Chautauqua, he said.
“Chautauqua is part of something much bigger,” Mathews said. “You are passing the baton in a transgenerational relay race.”
Mathews called Chautauquans to lift every voice, to face the rising sun from the lowest point, to strive for the place for which people sighed, to stay forever on the path toward healing and justice, “to discover your true selves, to be true to your true native land.”
“Walk tall, stand with dignity with the God who is your head. Love your flesh, love it hard. We are part of something bigger than you and me. Amen,” he said. Many in the congregation stood and applauded.
The Rev. John Morgan, senior pastor of Williamsburg Presbyterian Church in Williamsburg, Virginia, presided. The Rev. Cynthia Strickland, a retired Presbyterian minister and president of the Presbyterian Association of Chautauqua, read the Scripture. The prelude was George Shearing’s “There is a Happy Land,” played by Joshua Stafford, director of sacred music and holder of the Jared Jacobsen Chair for the Organist. The Motet Choir sang “Here Within This House of Prayer,” music by Milburn Price and words by Timothy Dudley-Smith. Stafford directed the choir and Nicholas Stigall, organ scholar, provided accompaniment on the Massey Memorial Organ. Stafford played “Toccata,” from Symphony for Organ No. 5, by Charles-Marie Widor, for the postlude. This week’s services were supported by the Jackson-Carnahan Memorial Chaplaincy and the John William Tyrrell Endowment for Religion. Unless otherwise noted, the morning liturgies were written by the Rev. Natalie Hanson, interim senior pastor for Chautauqua. Music is selected and the Sacred Song Service created by Joshua Stafford.