It’s tempting to return to ‘normal,’ V. Rev. Kelly Brown Douglas preaches — but that’s not the right question

Guest Column by Welling Hall

“When will we return to normal?” the V. Rev. Kelly Brown Douglas asked in her sermon titled “A Soul-full People: Asking the Right Question” at the 9:15 a.m. Friday, Aug. 19 ecumenical worship service at the Amphitheater. This sermon served as the coda to the journey of interrogating what it means to be a people with soul in a nation with a warring soul. 

The question of returning to normal has been on the hearts and lips of many. A desire for normalcy in a world that has been interrupted by masks, protocols and new procedures is understandable. Douglas feels the restlessness of the Chautauqua community that has been disrupted by violence at the Amphitheater and deeply desires to return to normal without the inconvenient protocols of security. 

“I have asked myself the question,” Douglas said, “but it is not the right question.” 

We should not clamor to return to normalcy in a nation with a warring soul, torn between a pledge to uphold liberty and justice for all, and the dehumanizing legacy of slavery. A normalcy defined by injustice, brutality, incarceration and disparities between the privileged and the unprivileged is ripe for violence. 

Douglas said that the right question to be asking is not about a return to normalcy but rather, “How can I inherit eternal life?” 

She examined the morning’s Scripture, Mark 10:17-31, about the rich young man who wanted to participate in God’s caring and just future. These are the questions, Douglas said, that we should be asking. 

“How can I be on that side of history?” she said. “How can I participate in the world that God is making new?” 

The question to be asking is how we can be partners in creating a world of equality, justice, freedom, and security for all.

Turning to Scripture, Douglas looked at what happened in the story in Mark. The rich young man ran to Jesus with a certain urgency. In a style common to the Gospel of Mark, the author emphasized that the man ran. He clearly heard the call to be a part of the good news that Jesus was preaching. He desired to be a part of God’s kingdom. 

Douglas talked about the meaning of kairos, a Greek word that means an opportune moment when the time is ripe for crucial and decisive action. 

“Chautauqua community,” she said, “this is our kairos time.” 

Kairos time can be chaotic; it is time when God is fully present. 

In 1985, South African bishops published the Kairos Document in which they stated that God had issued a challenge to South Africans to take decisive action to end apartheid. 

Douglas said that God is calling us with urgency to determine what kind of nation, what kind of community, what kind of people, we will choose to be.

The rich young man in the Gospel of Mark asked, “What shall I do to inherit eternal life?” 

He was not ready for Jesus’ answer. At first Jesus turned to the Ten Commandments, reciting commandments to foster life-giving relationships, trusting in God and living a values-oriented life. Douglas said that she could imagine the rich young man retorting with a quality of self-righteousness, “Well, I have been doing all those things for a long time.” 

Jesus did not condemn the rich young man. Instead Jesus tells him that he has missed the point. 

“You have to sell what you own and give the money to the poor,” Jesus said.

This is too much for the rich young man. Mark’s Gospel describes him as going away shocked and grieving. Douglas said that the rich young man wanted to hear which rules he should follow to make him worthy of inheriting eternal life. He had a checklist, but he did not want to be accountable.

Douglas said that inheriting eternal life is not about meeting norms of social acceptability; Jesus’ point is that we must not benefit from wealth and privilege and expect to see the kingdom of heaven. She said that to inherit eternal life we must be connected to a transcendent reality, accountable to the outcast, working to build just relationships and a just community.

Giving up his wealth and privilege was too much for the rich young man. It was a real stumbling block. Douglas said that sometimes the words of Jesus are taken to be spiritualized or generalized metaphors, but the rich young man knew exactly what Jesus was talking about and that is why he went away grieving. He knew that it was too hard to give up his privilege. 

“Jesus meant what he said,” Douglas said. 

His world and our world are both defined by a wealth gap and by dehumanizing and demoralizing injustice. As a society, as a nation, we are not accountable to the poor and the outcast. Referring to Howard Thurman, Douglas said that we should not be engaged in giving to charity, but in working for justice and changing the conditions that give rise to poverty and inequality. As Christians, she said, we should not hope to return to and sustain an unjust normal. 

Douglas said that Christians should not give up their wealth as an act of charity, but should give up their allegiance to a white supremacist ideology that privileges the rich and penalizes others, that comforts some while making others uncomfortable. 

Douglas said that it is impossible to keep riches borne of injustice and inherit eternal life at the same time. Jesus told the rich young man that he needed to dig deep into the reality of his own warring soul. 

“Chautauqua community,” Douglas said, “if we want to inherit eternal life in God’s just future, we must examine deeply our own warring soul.” 

She asked what the privileges of wealth and comfort are stumbling blocks for the congregation, and that are too hard to give up. It is easy to see that we are all in favor of God’s life-giving community coming, Douglas said, but it is evidently too hard to give up the things that will make God’s future real. 

Douglas called the congregation to recognize the truth of our own warring soul that stands as an obstacle to the loving justice of  God. She cited theologian Katie Cannon who talks about “doing the work your soul must have.” 

This work may seem impossible for some, Douglas said, as it did to the rich young man who went away grieving. We may be very comfortable with the way things are. This is why Jesus said that it was easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the gates of heaven. It will not be easy for those who have benefited from the normalcy of injustice to give up their privilege. Yet impossible things are possible in partnership with God.

“This is our kairos time,” Douglas said again. 

This is the time for the nation to choose either eternal life with God or a legacy of injustice. In a nation with a warring soul, she said, we the people, you and me, we are the nation. Inasmuch as the nation’s soul is warring, so is our own. 

Douglas cited James Baldwin, who once wrote:

“The time has come, God knows, for us to examine ourselves, but we can only do this if we are willing to free ourselves of the myth of America and try to find out what is really happening here.”

Privilege, comfort and security are normal for some people in a nation with a warring soul, Douglas said. She concluded by saying that a safe nation, community and people is a just nation, community, and a people — without a warring soul. We can achieve God’s just future only by asking the right questions. 

The Rev. Paul Womack, pastor of Hurlbut Memorial Community United Methodist Church, served as liturgist. Joshua Stafford, director of sacred music and Jared Jacobsen Chair for the Organist, played the Prelude, “Melody,” by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, and the Postlude, Toccata from Symphony No. 5, by Charles-Marie Widor. Rowland Bennett, longtime Chautauquan, read the Scripture. The anthem, sung by the Chautauqua Motet, was “Total Praise,” by Richard Smallwood. Support for this week’s chaplaincy and preaching of the V. Rev. Kelly Brown Douglas is provided by the Gladys R. Brasted and Adair Brasted Gould Memorial Chaplaincy.

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