Column by Mary Lee Talbot
The Rev. William H. Lamar, IV preached his first sermon in November 1994 and became a pastor in 1999.
To complete his master of divinity degree in 1999, Lamar had to write a paper on the theology of ministry. He toiled over it and turned it in to his mentor. The mentor’s final assessment was it was good and strong work.
Then he gave Lamar a word of advice. His mentor said, “Never stop reading. The shelf life of your theological education is seven to 10 years. You don’t want to do 21st-century theology with 20th-century tools.”
Lamar said, “I have come to this conclusion: Preachers who do not read should not be called preachers. They should be called something else not suited for sacred time. They should be prosecuted for malnourishing their people, giving them stones where bread is the order of the day.”
He preached at the 9:15 a.m. Friday morning worship service in the Amphitheater. His sermon title was “The New Jerusalem,” and the scripture reading was Revelation 21:1-7.
Lamar continued his rant against lazy preachers: “They should be tried in ecclesiastical court by congregants who are tired of listening to pablum. Their congregations come searching for a clarity to the problems in their lives and they get the muddy Mississippi. They get sugar-encrusted platitudes. They get a toxic theological elixir from a slick preacher who pours it into the glass.”
There are different kinds of literacy. “Reading is more than just reading words. Book-learning is prized, but there are other texts to understand, Lamar said. “I know people who cannot read books but can read architecture, clothing; they can read human beings, they can read nature and the galaxies and see the mysteries of God even as they are unfolding. They can read souls and the ancestral appearances in newborns.”
James Weldon Johnson commented on the literacy of those who wrote the spirituals. “O black and unknown bards of long ago, How came your lips to touch the sacred fire?” Lamar added: “We have to read books, the world, each other.”
As he was preparing his sermons for Chautauqua, Lamar was reading a biblical commentary. He called it mundane and expected work, but through his mining, sifting, digging and tilling, he found a jewel. He read from Revelation 21:1, “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away and the sea was no more.”
Lamar read the verse several times, emphasizing “I saw,” each time. “The earth and heaven were renewed, not burned and destroyed. Human beings will be renewed, free from death and evil. I can still see the new heaven and new earth free from indictments, gun violence, events of Chautauqua in 2022, free from challenges and pain. Do you see, can you read, amidst everything that causes pain, the new heaven and the new earth?”
In the passage in Revelation, John notes that even the sea has passed away. Lamar said that for the ancients, the sea represented chaos. “John saw and was communicating that the chaos was no more. The new heaven is not disembodied, but kisses the earth. God, the creator of the far-flung sun, moon and stars, comes to meet us, dwells with us and wipes the tears from our eyes.”
He continued, “God will wipe the tears from Mamie Till’s eyes, from the eyes of those who lost loved ones in the fires in Hawaii, from Palestinians and Israelis, from every eye.”
Lamar also had a word for death. “Yes, death, I am talking to you, the final enemy. This is your funeral. There will be no more exploitation, no mourning, crying or pain. I still see the vision of the new heaven and new earth.”
As a young preacher, Lamar thought the book of Revelation was escapist literature, not about the real world. “I thought they were fattening the frogs to delight the snakes. Now I see the unfolding vision as an invitation to participate in the new world, to live as if the new Jerusalem has already come, to live by love, to bend toward justice so that everyone lives abundantly.”
He called John’s revelation “high-octane fuel, not opioids, that catalyzes us and energizes us into the presence of God. I want to leave you with a vision to work for justice and to pray with stubborn hope.”
In the new heaven and new earth, there are no temples, churches, synagogues. The Lord on the throne and the Lamb are the temple. The glory of the Lord provides all the light that is needed.
“Here is the pearl of great price. Let the beauty of the vision energize us to live in the city that is not yet,” Lamar said. He closed his sermon reciting the lyrics from the hymn “The Holy City.”
“I saw the Holy City / Beside the tideless sea; / The light of God was on its streets, / The gates were open wide, / And all who would might enter, / And no one was denied. / No need of moon or stars by night, / Or sun to shine by day, / It was the new Jerusalem, / That would not pass away, / It was the new Jerusalem, / That would not pass away. Jerusalem! Jerusalem! / Sing, for the night is o’er! / Hosanna in the highest, Hosanna for evermore! / Hosanna in the highest, / Hosanna for evermore!”
The congregation responded, shouting “Hosanna,” and gave Lamar a standing ovation.
Melissa Spas, vice president for religion, presided. Bill Bates, longtime Chautauquan and softball umpire, read the scripture. Nicholas Stigall, organ scholar, and Barbara Hois, flute, played “Andante Religioso, Op. 6,” by Hans Hiller, for the prelude. The Motet Choir sang “And I Saw a New Heaven,” by Edgar Bainton, for the prelude. The choir was under the direction of Joshua Stafford, director of sacred music and Jared Jacobsen Chair for the Organist, and accompanied by Stigall on the Massey Memorial Organ. The postlude, played by Stafford, was “Toccata,” from Symphony No. 5, by Charles Marie Widor. Support for this week’s chaplaincy and preaching was provided by the Alison and Craig Marthinsen Endowment for the Department of Religion.