Column by Mary Lee Talbot
The Rev William Lamar IV was leaving Washington D.C., the capital of the American empire, via auto. It is a city he loves and loathes. “Traffic was as slow as cold grits. It moved at a glacial pace like frozen molasses,” he said.
Church had started at 10 a.m. and was over by 11:24 a.m. and he was on the road at 12:17 p.m. “marching, marching, marching on a beautiful vacation,” he said. “Willie ‘When I Die Roll Me Up and Smoke Me’ Nelson was on the radio and I was singing along to ‘On the Road Again.’ Then I got a phone call from a congregant, the last person I wanted to have a conversation with.”
Lamar preached at the 9:15 a.m. Monday morning worship service in the Amphitheater. His sermon title was “Take Your Scroll,” and the scripture reading was Revelation 5:1-14.
The caller was “a well-respected, bespoke-wearing, published preacher who worshiped online and had retired 10 years before,” Lamar said. “He was calling to critique, offer suggestions, review, whatever euphemism you want, the sermon for the day.”
The retired preacher said the guest preacher did a great job, except he did not give a clear or convincing claim for Jesus’ centrality to the faith. Lamar thought to himself, “I was not preaching that day so the critique was easier to hear. This man was retired and his time in the pulpit on Sunday was past. He was like an armchair quarterback, sure he knew how to win the Super Bowl.”
But Lamar admitted, “He was right about the preacher and about me. If we talk too much about Jesus at Chautauqua, will people consider us to be conservative evangelicals with a malfunctioning GPS that brought us to Chautauqua?”
In seminary, Lamar said when people talked too much about Jesus, they were given books to make them more urbane and theologically adept. “The name of Jesus has been chewed, digested and excreted by those who are far away from his message.”
The name of Jesus has been used for profit, to justify the conquest of lands and people, and the commodification of human life. “The name of Jesus is attached to every depredation of human life to this very day,” he said.
The capitalist who refuses to pay a living wage, or provide healthcare for workers, still gets communion in the name of Jesus. White nationalists storm state and national capitols, defecate and urinate in the hall of Congress and pray in the name of Jesus. The name of Jesus has been jingoized Lee Greenwood-style to say that God loves America more than any other country.
“The name of Jesus has been militarized because Jesus surely totes an assault-style military weapon and blasts all border-crossers and milquetoast, tree-hugging, Chautauqua-attending, eggheaded, critical race theory-expounding, LGBTQIA+ loving, limousine liberals to smithereens,” Lamar said.
He continued, “Is it just me or are there others who have grown weary of the way the name of Jesus is deployed around the globe? Is the sum total of faith to call upon the name of Jesus and sing saccharine, theologically bankrupt songs, buy religious kitsch? Can we resist the fascist, homophobic calls to ‘Make America Great Again,’ an America that never existed for all?”
Lamar continued to ask questions. Does Jesus show up at 9:15 a.m. in the Amp when he is present in the scripture text or do we disappear him because of fear or sophistry? Have we ghosted Jesus?
“Jesus is surrounded by hijackers and mercenaries, but it is his perichoretic dance with the first and third persons of the Trinity that makes possible a new heaven and a new earth,” he said. “What will we do? I don’t have a rhetorical answer for our frailty. I don’t have a self-help answer from Christian books that clutter our shelves and our souls. We make it impossible for the improvisational Spirit to transform our lives.”
John the Revelator saw Jesus in a poetic, phantasmagorical vision. “Are we still the church if Jesus is not the center of our vision?” Lamar asked. “Revolutionary justice is who Jesus is. As the rock group the Police said, ‘Every breath you take, every move you make …’ ”
In a vision of blinding beauty, John saw a scroll in the right hand of the enthroned one, a scroll “that has belts and suspenders around it, the seven seals that protect the purpose God has for creation,” he said. “In John’s theopoetic vision, the scroll holds the destiny of the world. We must fall into the mystery in order to exert energy. As James Brown said, you have to ‘break out in a cold sweat.’ ”
The world does not need more words; the world needs more co-laborers who will build new worlds, who will “walk into the New Jerusalem with hammers and nails and work with God to build new worlds,” Lamar said. “We have to stop doing the American church thing – ceding away ethical responsibility. We double our prayers while we wait for someone else to break into a cold sweat.”
Who is worthy to open the scroll? John wept because there was no one in heaven or on earth who could open it. In the vision, one of the elders points to the Lion of Judah.
“That lion was a brutalized, executed, lynched lamb, like Emmett, like Bonhoeffer, like Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robbins and Cynthia Wesley. Like St. Oscar Romero,” Lamar said.
He continued, “To be worthy, we have to hate weakness in the church. The Lamb, crusted with blood, walked over to the throne and took the scroll. He had taken on his destiny, met his destiny.”
Heaven is waiting to sing on our behalf, Lamar said. “We have to go to heaven and take our scroll with our name on it. We can’t outsource this. God has a scroll with your name on it. Unleash the destiny that God has for you and for me. The new heaven and new earth will not come until you take your scroll. Your scroll is waiting; the destiny of the world is in your hands.”
The Rt. Rev. Eugene Taylor Sutton, senior pastor for Chautauqua Institution, presided. Melissa Spas, vice president for religion, read the scripture. The prelude was “Hózhó,” by Connor Chee, played by Nicholas Stigall, organ scholar, on the Massey Memorial Organ. The Motet Choir sang “Ye Choirs of New Jerusalem,” by Charles Villiers Stanford, under the direction of Joshua Stafford, director of sacred music and Jared Jacobsen Chair for the Organist and accompanied by Stigall. Stafford played “Festival Toccata,” by Percy Fletcher, for the postlude. Support for this week’s chaplaincy and preaching is provided by the Alison and Craig Marthinsen Endowment for the Department of Religion.