Column by Mary Lee Talbot
“To say I am a friend of God is a bold statement. You mean it or you don’t,” said Bishop Latrelle Miller Easterling at the 9:15 a.m. Monday morning worship service in the Amphitheater. Continuing her series, “I am a Friend of God,” the title of her sermon was “You mean it or you don’t.” Her scripture text was 2 Corinthians 5: 17-19.
Easterling quoted lyrics from the song “Friend of God,” by Israel Houghton. “Who am I that You are mindful of me? / That You hear me when I call / Is it true that You are thinking of me? / How You love me it’s amazing.” The chorus goes: “I am a friend of God / I am a friend of God / I am a friend of God / He calls me friend.”
“It is a beautiful song with an encouraging message,” she said. “God does hear me when I call and loves me with an everlasting love. God will never leave or forsake me. But there is something missing: Friendship requires mutuality. What is required of me, my life, my walk with God? God always makes demands on the believer’s life.”
The Apostle Paul, in his letter to the Corinthians, wrote that a relationship with God requires a complete and permanent change in the believers. They had to change themselves and change the way they viewed others.
“So if — there is that ‘if’ again — you are new in Christ, everything old has passed away,” Easterling said.
Author James Baldwin was giving a lecture at the University of Massachusetts on Feb. 28, 1984. He told the audience that it was not enough to be a liberal, to have the right attitude, and to give money to the right causes. He told them they had to risk more, to know more.
A student asked for clarification. If those attitudes were not enough, what was necessary? Baldwin said, “commitment.”
“You mean it or you don’t,” Easterling said. “What is required is commitment.”
She continued: “If we are new, we can’t reclaim the old ways. We can’t shout on Sunday and backslide on Monday. The butterfly does not go back to being a caterpillar. The oak does not become an acorn again. And whether the chicken or the egg comes first, the chicken never goes back to being an egg.”
She told the congregation that if they are a new creation in Christ, they have died to their former selves. “You cannot resurrect your former selves. You have to live a life worthy of your call. You mean it or you don’t.”
Easterling and her husband, the Rev. Marion Easterling, would always ask their sons as they left the house: “Who do you represent?”
“There was only one answer: God and the Miller-Easterling family,” she said. “They knew who, and whose, they were. We were instilling an ethic that they could not comport themselves one way in our presence and another way in our absence.”
St. John Chrysostom, Easterling noted, brought the concept of “preach, use words if you have to,” through his own life by embodying the love of God as the love of neighbor. As Patriarch of Constantinople during the 4th century, C.E., he taught the Christians in Constantinople that they could change lives by changing their lives.
“He gave an argument from action,” Easterling said. “He urged his followers to astound non-believers by their way of life, that what they did was a visible sacrament in the world.”
She continued, “We are the only word some people will ever hear. You mean it or you don’t.”
Easterling asserted that Christians can live a Christ-centered life, or they can live by their own ego. She shared a story about an encounter with a family member whom she invited to leave her house by “the same means she had come in” if she did not like the arrangements at her house.
“That Lent I decided to pray and fast for the 40 days,” she said. “God put on my heart that I needed to call that family member and apologize. I told God that I did not start the argument. Have you ever tried to talk back to God? I needed to be reminded that my arms are too short to box with God. I had to cast aside my ego and when I called we both felt release and relief.”
She continued, “We can’t live as a new creation if we don’t die to ourselves, if we don’t alter our certainty, if we don’t make amends.”
Writer Will Campbell was invited to speak to a group of bishops about inclusiveness. The group was made up of all white men. Campbell got up to speak, looked down at them and said, “How many of you are willing to resign your position today so that women and men of color can take these positions?” When no one raised their hand, he said, “Then it is no use me talking to you if you won’t,” and he sat down.
“You mean it or you don’t,” Easterling said.
Living life in this way is not easy as it is lived in a complex reality of risk and vulnerability. She shared a story from Bryan Stevenson, executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative. A small, Black woman was gathering dirt beside the road to take it to the National Memorial for Peace and Justice. As she was digging, a white man in a truck drove by, slowed down, and turned around and drove back.
He approached her and asked what she was doing. The woman was going to tell him she was gathering dirt for her garden but “something took hold of her and she told the truth: a man had been lynched there in the 1930s and she wanted to honor his life,” Easterling said.
That truth-telling set them both free. The man stared for a while at the piece of paper with the name of the man who was lynched and then asked, “Excuse me, ma’am, may I help you dig?” She tried to give him a shovel but he dug with his bare hands. When they were finished, both of them had tears running down their faces. The woman asked, “are you alright?” He answered, “I am afraid my grandfather was there and participated in the lynching.”
“They were weeping together about that history, about this nation, weeping and wondering if reconciliation is possible,” Easterling said. “They went together to deliver the soil. This is what reconciliation requires. This is the beauty that happens when we reconcile.”
Fr. Richard Rohr, writer and theologian, has written that Christians need to do everything with humility in surrendering to Jesus Christ.
“We are not perfect, but we have to remain committed. We have to reclaim our baptism and let go of our ego. With the help of God, all things are possible,” Easterling said. As an example of this commitment and the mutuality between God and believers, she cited John Wesley’s Covenant Prayer. Wesley was the founder of Methodism.
“I am no longer my own, but yours. / Put me to what you will, place me with whom you will. / Put me to doing, put me to suffering. / Let me be put to work for you or set aside for you, / Praised for you or criticized for you. Let me be full, let me be empty. / Let me have all things, let me have nothing. / I freely and fully surrender all things to your glory and service. / And now, O wonderful and holy God, / Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer, / you are mine, and I am yours. So be it. / And the covenant which I have made on earth, / Let it also be made in heaven. Amen.”
Easterling concluded, saying, “Chautauquans, may the lives we live bring true reconciliation and hope. We are the ones we are waiting for to repair the breach. Mean it or you don’t. I pray you do; may it be so.”
The Rt. Rev. Eugene T. Sutton, senior pastor of Chautauqua Institution, presided. The Rev. George Wirth, an associate in the Department of Religion, read the scripture. For the prelude and postlude, Nicholas Stigall, organ scholar, played “Élévation” from Heures mystiques by Léon Boëllman. The anthem, sung by the Chautauqua Choir, was “O for a closer walk with God,” music by Charles Villiers Stanford and words by William Cowper. Joshua Stafford, director of sacred music and Jared Jacobsen Chair for the Organist, directed the choir, which was accompanied by Stigall. Support for this week’s chaplaincy and preaching is provided by the J. Everett Hall Memorial Chaplaincy and the Geraldine M. and Frank E. McElree, Jr. Chaplaincy Fund.