There is no mountain top without difficult days, says Lamar

The Rev. William H. Lamar IV preaches Sunday morning in the Amphitheater. Jess Kszos/Staff Photographer

Column by Mary Lee Talbot

“No one wants to be asked to read this text from Revelation 6: 1-11. It is rarely read and rarely preached and it is difficult to hear,” said the Rev. William H. Lamar IV at the 9:15 a.m. Tuesday morning worship service in the Amphitheater. His sermon title was “We’ve Got Some Difficult Days Ahead,” and the scripture text was Revelation 6: 1-11.

Lamar asked the congregation, “When did you fall in love with the word of God? When you were a precocious church kid who was more than willing to climb to the summit of the mountain of boredom? You have to be more than a church nerd to come to church on a Tuesday.”

He continued, “Was it when you were a youth group nerd who loved all the church stuff, or when you were in the doldrums of life and the preacher said words that pierced your body and soul and you felt heard and seen again?”

Maybe you heard the word and it gave you a kiss and kick because you were ready to hear in your mind a word that you were not ready to say to yourself, he told the congregation. Maybe it was at the pinnacle of success, when the fire of the word showed you the illusion of your success. 

Perhaps it was through a hymn like “Great is Thy Faithfulness,” or “Lift Up Your Heads.” Lamar said that “there are the words of faith that make and mold us into who we are and who we are becoming. I love the words of those who preach, whether they are thundering or quiet, whether they shout to the heavens or whisper a word of truth.”

There are people, he said, who have not yet fallen in love with the word and they may be the wisest, because the love of the word often goes unrequited. “You are here and I am here trying to preach the beauty of the word that calls to us and the love of the word that sustains us,” Lamar said. “I can say, unequivocally, that I, William Herman Lamar IV, … am unashamed of the word and of preaching, because I found preachers who could declare the truth and not boil down the cosmic beauty of the word to ‘If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands.’ ”

He prefers “those who point to life and its possibilities, who sculpt the clay of content and context, who do not sell commercialized optimism but Christian hope, who do not deny the pain of the world, but connect it with the new world being created. I heard about the God who is victorious in vulnerability. I am in love with preaching, as James Wendell Johnson said, ‘even when hope unborn died.’ ”

Martin Luther King Jr., on April 3, 1968, told the congregation at Mason Temple in Memphis, Tennessee, that there would be difficult days ahead but he had been to the mountaintop and he had seen the promised land. He told the congregation: “We as a people will get to the promised land.” He died 24 hours later. 

“We need the kind of preaching that refuses to give people the mountaintop without the difficult days.” Lamar said. “John the Revelator refused to give his readers Revelation 21-22 without Revelation 6. And you know in your own life and history that there are no mountaintops without the difficult days.” 

In his second pastorate, Lamar received a call from a young mother whose 3-day-old baby girl, Makayla, had died. He was called to be with the parents, grandparents and great-grandparents “to master words for the difficult days ahead. They had to be marinated in hope and in life in order to be able to claw back what makes life worth living,” he said.

Since then, Lamar has had to bury other children. “I respect the fact that God does not spare us from the death of children. God will not spare you from burying your spouse or divorce or other challenges. You can hear the galloping feet of the horses in the text, the murderous and macabre rhythms of the text. This vision of John is as close as the next breath.”

The text in Revelation 6 is about the unleashing of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. 

The White Horse and its rider represent military conquest, said Lamar. “It has ridden across the world colonizing and enslaving and it has not stopped riding. America and China are making a mad colonial dash to Africa,” he said. “The rider is galloping between Moscow and Kiev. We know the gait of this rider.”

The Red Horse and its rider shatter peace and amplify war. “This is the god politicians pray to after school shootings and mass murders, who incites civil wars. This causes confusion and keeps us from human brother- and sisterhood,” he said.

The Black Horse represents economic upheaval, price gouging, usurious interest rates and unaffordable groceries. “In the text, the rider calls out prices for grain that are eight to 16 times the normal cost,” Lamar said. “This is the horse that gallops through Wall Street, that allows people who live on dividends to pay less in taxes than people who earn wages.”

The Pale Green Horse and its rider represent death, “ghoulish and pukish. It is the telos of the military conquest, economic upheaval and peace shattering work of the others,” said Lamar. “This is what happens when we refuse health care for everyone. It gallops in front of our places of worship and we do nothing to stop it. We know death; I say ‘From ashes to ashes and dust to dust’ too frequently.” 

He asked the congregation: “What do we do with all of this? I am crazy enough to preach about horses, but what do we do? Our work begins when we lament. We see the Four Horsemen in the world, but we don’t pause to cry out, to point out what is wrong. We don’t insist on a different future. We have to let the riders and horses know that we see and we know what they are doing.”

Lamar continued, “Make no mistake, I am temporarily well off, but don’t think they don’t know your address. Don’t ignore them.”

In John’s vision, under the altar are the souls of the faithful witnesses. “Coming to church does not make you a Christian any more than sleeping in your garage makes you a car,” he said. “These witnesses were not seeking death, they were seeking to be faithful. Martin Luther King did not stop because of his faithfulness. Those who are under the altar, those who were slaughtered, pray for us to be faithful.”

The witnesses cry out in lament and ask God, “How long before you judge the world and avenge our blood?” 

“I am weary of people getting shot in cold blood,” Lamar said. “How long can my heart break when I see someone begging for food they should already have? How many more Trayvon Martins and Matthew Shepards?”

He continued. “How long? Until we learn to lament, which will turn into action — but it won’t happen if we don’t acknowledge the riders — I am convinced that if we allow the church to be more than a place that tells us how to be good, if we are willing to hear about the difficult days, we might reach the mountaintop.”

Melissa Spas, vice president for religion at Chautauqua Institution, presided. Charlotte Gifford, a professor of Spanish and French at Greenfield Community College in Massachusetts and a member of the Motet Choir, read the scripture. The prelude was “Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland, BWV 659,” by Johann Sebastian Bach played by Joshua Stafford, director of sacred music and Jared Jacobsen Chair for the Organist, on the Massey Memorial Organ. The Motet Choir, under the direction of Stafford and accompanied by Nicholas Stigall, organ scholar, sang “Libera me,” from Requiem by Gabriel Fauré. Jim Evans, who served as soloist on Sunday morning with the Chautauqua Choir, was the soloist with the Motet Choir. The postlude, played by Stigall, was “Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland, BWV 661,” by Johann Sebastian Bach. Support for this week’s chaplaincy and preaching is provided by the Alison and Craig Marthinsen Endowment for the Department of Religion.


The author Mary Lee Talbot

Mary Lee Talbot writes the recap of the morning worship service. A life-long Chautauquan, she is a Presbyterian minister, author of Chautauqua’s Heart: 100 Years of Beauty and a history of the Chapel of the Good Shepherd. She edited The Streets Where We Live and Shalom Chautauqua. She lives in Chautauqua year-round with her Stabyhoun, Sammi.