Letters From Our Pastor

Journey Inward, Journey Outward

September 14, 2020 by Rev. Dr. Michael Jinkins
The lectionary has me thinking a lot about the exodus of the children of Israel.

They traveled outwardly from Egypt, where they had been forced into slavery, across the Desert of Sinai to the land God promised them. But, as we all know, the children of Israel were not able to complete their outward journey until they completed an inward journey too. And, indeed, that first generation of liberated Israelites had to pass away before a new generation could make the journey inward, become ready to assume the full burden of freedom, and complete the journey to the promised land.

Again, these thoughts have been on my mind this week.

Providentially or serendipitously or by mere chance, a book I probably haven’t thought about in twenty years or more presented itself to me as I was preparing to write this week’s order of worship: Journey Inward, Journey Outward by Elizabeth O’Connor. It tells the story of The Church of the Savior in Washington, D. C., a congregation that inspired many other churches around the country to reclaim the church’s role of a center for mission and ministry in a community. In that, of course, it is very much like our own Saint Charles Avenue Presbyterian Church.

Going through O’Connor’s book again after so many years, I came upon a passage underlined in pencil.

“God is Lord of history. He speaks in events. He does not choose the mighty, but the weak. He does not choose Rome, but Bethlehem — not a throne, but a cradle — not a crown, but a cross. In March, 1965, [God] was not different. He still looked to the lowly. He addressed the churches of America through an unlikely town and an unlikely people. He did not choose Washington, D.C., but Selma, Alabama; not the country club there, but a Negro church in a remote section of town; not astronauts who were circling the earth, but a little band of people who traveled on foot the fifty miles along U.S. Highway 80 between Selma and Montgomery. And across the country, churches which could not find life in the symbols they had, found a new and living one in that line of marchers. It might die as other symbols die, but for a time, which may still endure, it had the power of every living symbol, to transform, and change, and heal.”

Let’s hold on to that last phrase, “the power… to transform, and change, and heal.”

If we feel weary and sad by the acrimony in our world today, I wonder how God must feel. We have such promise. We do. We were created with such gifts. We have been lavished with such abilities and capacities. Why do we have such a hard time achieving justice with peace? Why is it so hard to forgive, much less forget? Why do some folks believe that to work for reconciliation means an avoidance of hard truths? Why do others feel that we must make a choice between supporting the legitimate law enforcement and the lives of black neighbors? Why must the virtue of freedom be promoted as though it can exist without responsibility to others?

A couple of days ago, I laid aside my newspaper. And gazing out the window I wondered aloud if there is any way we can go forward as a people. Later the same day I read a short essay about Gore Vidal’s classic novel, 1876. Writing in the upheaval of the late nineteen-sixties and not long after Watergate, Vidal made the case that the year 1876 was the low point in our republic. I would have put it at 1861 or 1862, probably. We did have a civil war. Or, maybe, I would have rated the years of Andrew Johnson’s administration or Andrew Jackson’s, or the Great Depression, as our low point.

There have been many times in our nation’s history when people believed there was no way forward. Thus has it ever been, that our own generation is the one that feels the lash, the hunger, the thirst, the fear felt by that ragged first generation of Israelites wandering in the Sinai Desert.

I believe deeply that our “Outward Journey” forward will depend in large measure upon our “Inward Journey” spiritually as a people. Having experienced the fifties as a child, the sixties as a teenager, and the seventies onward as an adult, I have seen us rise to moments of great challenge. You have too. We witnessed an American president stand among the ruins of the World Trade Center in New York to plead for us to seek justice, not revenge, and to bless and not scapegoat people of other faiths. That is a symbol I shall forever treasure. We witnessed a black man address a vast crowd made up of the tapestry of American ethnicity after being elected President of the United States. And for one shining moment I thought America again would show the world the way forward.

Today, as ragged as we may feel, tracked by a disease that knows no mercy, confronted with complex social issues, struggling with violence and the threat of violence, but finding ourselves also among people of good will speaking out for justice for all, I am more convinced than ever that we have enduring symbols that have the power to change minds, and that the Spirit of God even more than our symbols can journey into the human heart to transform even the most callous, the most frightened, and the most hateful soul.

God can and will transform us all. That is God’s promise, not mine.