Once the Buddha gave a sermon without using any words. He stood before a gathering of hundreds of people and simply held up a single flower. Only one person understood what he was trying to say but that person reached enlightenment immediately. This wordless sermon is called the Buddha’s flower sermon and to be honest there are some Sunday’s when I wish I could get away with that…but I can’t (or at least I am too chicken to try.)
So this morning I am going to be speaking about the Buddha and the black church…but as usual it may take me a little bit of time to get to my point. So be patient. You may not know this but the song from our prelude Ella’s Song began as a spoken word statement when the civil rights leader Ella Baker told a group of activists that “Until the killing of black mother’s sons becomes as important to the rest of the country as the killing of white mother’s sons, we who believe in freedom cannot rest.” Later Sweet Honey in the Rock set these words to music and created harmonies to carry the message.
So if a spoken word statement can be turned into music maybe the opposite can happen. Maybe the words of a song can become spoken words that call us to work for freedom and justice, and so I say in the words of the song.
Lift every voice and sing
Till earth and heaven ring
Ring with the harmonies of Liberty;
let our rejoicing rise,
high as the list’ning skies, let it resound loud as the rolling sea
These words come from the hymn we sang earlier this morning, Lift Every Voice and Sing, which is often referred to as the Black National Anthem. The song was originally a poem written by James Weldon Johnson. Johnson’s brother set the poem to music and it was performed for the first time on February 12, 1900 by 500 school children in honor of Abraham Lincoln’s birthday. It quickly became the official song of the NAACP and an anthem of the civil rights movement and a familiar hymn in many churches.
And I believe this song offers a great example of why if Buddha were to come to America today he might go to a black church. For the first Noble Truth of Buddhism is that “life is suffering. ” This hymn reminds us that the spirituality of the black church is grounded in a profound experience of suffering. As the poet wrote,
Sing a song full of faith that the dark past has taught us,
Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us;
facing the rising sun of our new day begun,
let us march on till victory is won.
When we were kids one of the first words we learned “Ouch!” It is a very powerful word. Through this single word we are able express our feelings of pain to another person. However, as we grow older we too often lose our vocabulary to talk about suffering.
All to often when people come up to us and ask, “How are you doing?”we answer, “fine,” when we are anything but fine. We may be crying on the inside, holding back the flood gates, smiling through the pain… and when this happens we need the Buddha and the black church to remind us that its okay to admit that life is suffering, that life is hard, that times get tough.
The scripture tells us that “rain falls on the just”and the participants in the Women’s March yesterday know this to be true. We live in a world were sometimes it rains on our parade. Everyone who has ever organized a movement for social justice knows this is a thing.
And there are other situations as well when we become aware that life is suffering. I remember once when I was at the General Assembly of our denomination we were in the middle of an excruciatingly long business meeting when the moderator announced that the meeting would be extended another thirty minutes and at that exact moment a baby in the audience cried out,“Waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhh!” And that baby spoke for all of us. Because that baby understood the first Noble truth of Buddhism that life is suffering. We too can be honest about how we feel.
Nevertheless, whether we like it or not, the Buddha would remind us not only that “life is suffering” but also that our efforts to escape suffering often compound our suffering. This is why we have such large opiate addiction problem in our country and so many other addictions. Escapism does not ever lead to a successful escape. So ultimately the spiritual question becomes not, “Will we suffer?” but “How will we suffer?” And is there a basis for hope in the depths of this inescapable suffering. As the poet wrote,
Stony the road we trod,
bitter the chast’ning rod,
felt in the day that hope unborn had died;
yet with a steady beat,
have not our weary feet,
come to the place for which our fathers sighed?
And our mothers sighed as well, Ella Baker would remind us. This song is written about the bitter history of slavery in our country, that is it’s appropriate historic context. However, in this song there is also an invitation to us all to take the reality of suffering seriously; to stop pretending that everything is ok. That’s why this is not just a great African American hymn, It is quite simply one of the best hymns ever written!!
Does anyone here remember the royal wedding held in Westminster Abby that featured a black preacher, Bishop Michael Curry of the Episcopal Church of America? The English did not know what hit them. There was a preacher in the pulpit expressing emotions, feeling his feelings, letting them show. Those members of the Church of England looked shocked and surprised – talk about a white wedding!
The Anglican Church is not the only place where this can happen. There is a story about a visitor to a rather staid New England Unitarian church who shouted “Amen!” in the middle of the sermon unsettling the whole congregation. Later he shouted, “Hallelujah!” once again ruffling feathers. A little bit later he shouted, “Glory!” causing an usher to approach the man and ask, “Is there a problem?” to which the man replied, “There’s no problem. I’ve got religion!” causing the usher to say, “Well, you didn’t get it here.”
I love this story even as I reject is a description of who we are today or where we are going because we too have religion. Can I get an Amen?
Many of the images of the Buddha, show him silent, still, meditating so it may be hard to imagine him shouting “Amen” or “Hallelujah” but I bet he would be very comfortable in a church where people could say, “Ouch!”
Now here is a difference between Buddha and the black church. An adherent of Buddhism is not required to have faith in God. The Buddha tried to avoid speculative metaphysical matters. He said that too often theologians and philosophers are like someone who has been shot by an arrow who says, “Before I can remove this arrow I need to know the name of the bird that produced these feathers. I need to know the kind of tree that provided the wood that made this shaft. I need to know the variety of metal used to create the point.” We would be silly to insist on answers to all these questions before removing the cause of our suffering.
So a Buddhist is not required to believe in God but if a Buddhist were to believe in God it might be the God of which the poet spoke,
God of our weary years,
God of our silent tears,
thou who has brought us thus far on the way;
thou who has by thy might,
led us into the light,
keep us forever in the path, we pray
Now there is a scripture that tells us, “Suffering breed perseverance. Perseverance breeds character. Character breeds hope and hope will not disappoint.” And yet many of us can relate to a story Reid Frank told me about leading a girl scout troop on a rainy overnight camping trip when one of the girls shook her fist at heaven and said, “Enough character already.”
Theologians often speak of redemptive suffering. This is the suffering that breeds perseverance and character and hope. However, there are many other kinds of suffering that simply wear us down and wear us out. Theologians may not have a term for it but I think we can all agree that there are many forms of non-redemptive suffering. The kind of suffering that makes us all want to say, “Enough is enough.”
I believe we who attend a historically white church have a lot to learn from historically black church especially when it comes to understanding the role that suffering plays in our spiritual journey.
My friend Johnny Skinner, minister of the Mount Zion Baptist Church, frequently says two things that I have committed to memory. He says, “The scripture tells us to be grateful in all circumstances. It does not tell us to be grateful for all circumstances.” And the second thing he says is this, “You do not have to take the Bible literally in order to take it seriously,” and the Bible is full of stories of suffering and hope, and we can draw strength from these stories that help us to overcome difficult circumstances. We can say,
Just like Daniel in the Lion’s Den we shall overcome. Just like Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego passing through a fiery furnace, we shall overcome. Just like Paul and Silas went to jail with no money for their bail, we shall overcome. And drawing wisdom from a more modern prophet we can say just like Ella Baker we shall overcome because we who believe in freedom cannot rest.
We can say as the poet said,
Lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met thee,
least our hearts, drunk with the wine of the world, we forget thee,
shadowed beneath thy hand,
may we forever stand,
true to our God,
True to our native land.
Like that Native American leader who was confronted by jeering high school students yesterday in Washington DC, we shall overcome.
We shall find strength for the journey. We shall make a way out of no way. We shall draw wisdom from the Buddha and the black church and sing, “We shall overcome.”
(Rev. Chris Buice gave this sermon on Sunday January 20, 2019 at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church.)