Sermon Preached at Renaissance Presbyterian Church on 3/13/16 by Rev. Brian Merritt
I have told this story many times, but it bears repeating. When I was around 10 years old I was mesmerized by R & B music. I can remember the first time I heard Sam Cooke singing “You send me” on KLIN 1480 on the AM dial. Those soaring notes. It was not like anything this Nebraska boy had ever heard before. It was not the incessant country or rock that played and I was completely taken.
I begged my parents to take me to the small library that was closest to our house. It was a building called the Bethany Branch and literally was two rooms. The wooden card catalogs were in the center and near the front were racks of records separated into genre. I was quickly able to find the soul section.
There was no Sam Cooke, but there was a greatest hits album by a group called Smokey Robinson and the Miracles. The weird idea of a clown crying on the title of one of the songs catching my young eyes. So, I ran to the counter and checked out this album. Putting it on my parent’s record console it hissed until the incomparable sound of Smokey Robinson’s smooth voice filled the room.
Soon there followed the Temptations, Aretha Franklin, Little Richard, Otis Redding, Marvin Gaye, The Supremes, Gladys Knight and Pips, Stevie Wonder, the Jackson 5 and of course for me the penultimate, Al Green. I am sure that I drove my family crazy listening to these records in the living room over and over and over again. Soon my parents gave in and moved the entire console into my room and I would put on those bulky headphones and listen to these masters over and over again.
For some reason Al Green was the one though. He captured something free, earthy and real to me. I enjoyed hearing the hidden conversations sung in asides. The small, almost whine when he asks his lover singing, “Why people break up and turn around and make up. I just can’t see. You never do that to me, (would you baby?)”
This was certainly not the hymns I was being taught to sing in the choir at my small fundamentalist Christian School. These were songs about love, loss and longing. They were about crying, loving and joy. They were hymns in a way to me that the church was not able to provide.
My only problem was believing the lie that is often told to children by adults. It is the well-meaning lie that if you work hard you can be anything that you want to be in this life. So, I determined that if this was true I would become a soul singer like Al Green. This was the reason that I listened incessantly to his greatest hits over and over and over again. When I got my first boom box I did the same thing with the tape of his music I made putting it up against the speakers of the console’s and hitting the red record button.
This meant that I could put eight D batteries in the back and take it with me. I sang in the garage as I worked, in the back yard and in the basement. I was determined to become just like Al Green. Love and Happiness, Take Me to the River, How Can You Mend a Broken Heart, Belle, Chariots of Fire, I Can’t Get Next to You, Lean on Me… over and over and over again. Practice makes perfect, right?
So, how do you think that turned out? Do you think I ever became like Al Green? Was I the next soul sensation? “It is the 12-year-old soul singer from Lincoln, Nebraska.” It never seemed to work out the way that I imagined or hoped. I never reached the Al Green heights. I sang well, but I never heard my voice replicating those glorious notes. I just did not have that gift.
I was recently reminded of this memory through an embarrassing occurrence. Sometimes I cue up Al Green in the sanctuary at the center on Monday’s when no one is around. Then I let loose and sing. I walk up and down the isles singing and imagining that I am Al Green. The only problem was the other night I found out I was not alone. As I opened my squinted eyes I saw one of the partners standing at the door waiting for me to hit an approximate note and to ask a question.
Sadly, I am not Al Green. I am Brian Merritt. I am uniquely positioned to do things that Al Green could not. I am part of the community of friends that make up something that is far greater than I could have ever been alone.
That is what community is. It is not the amazing soloist. It is so often not the Al Green, but the sum of its parts. Paul knows that until we understand that there are no soloists in the Kingdom of heaven that we will continue to fail as community.
Service, humility, forgiveness, peace, reconciliation, love, respect, mercy and grace. These are not solo acts, but acts that bring communities into unity and wholeness. Healthy communities of faith are ones that never forget that they are a living organism of multiple parts, each important and equal.
There are too many people who believe that they alone are essential to community, when we must believe that no one is more essential than the other. Community is something we give away to each other and take from others as a gift. We must live together, in all of our maddening flaws, finitude and shortcomings. Because each of these makes us essential. We are created exactly as the part that the divine wants to fit into making the world whole. Community is not made for soloists; it is made for unity. That is the only way to make harmonious music of the world. All of us are the Sacred community, singing our awkward and strange notes to bring about the world as it ought to be.