2022 Black History Month Sermon Series Lifting Up the Lives of Black Presbyterians
Preached February 6, 2022
United Presbyterian Church, Peoria, IL
Scripture: Isa. 6:1-13 and Luke 5:1-11
Watch Video of the Service
Today we celebrate the life and ministry of Rev. John Chavis, said to be the first Black minister ordained by the Presbyterian Church in the early days of the United States.
Early on, there were claims that he studied at Princeton, but later research showed that he was never permitted to enroll publicly. It turns out he was brought to study under John Witherspoon on a bet that Black people couldn’t be educated. After 3 years of being tutored, he enrolled in formal, public education at Washington College (later Washington & Lee). It is believed that he was the first Black man to receive a college degree in this country, earning his credentials in 1799, but it’s uncertain whether he ever obtained a diploma.
Rev. Chavis felt a calling to preach to what he called “his own people,” but enslaved people were not allowed to worship in white churches. The Presbytery in Virginia, where he was under care had significant resistance to licensing and ordaining him, requiring him to take many examinations but finally after more than three years, he was licensed.
He had a deep commitment to education for everyone, teaching prominent white students as well. when Black children were denied entrance to Day schools, he opened a classroom that started at sundown and lasted until 10PM for them. These same children would return to work at sunrise the next day. Over the course of his career as an educator, he taught a supreme court chief justice, A senator, A governor of NC, and other notables at least one of whom even boarded at his home
After his ability to preach and teach was stripped away in 1832, he wrote a sermon on the atonement, hoping it would be published in a pamphlet and provide some income. This was a hot topic for Presbyterians in that time. But because he advocated that salvation was possible for ALL people, including Black people, the Presbytery refused to authorize its publication. A few months later, Rev. Chavis self-published in order to share his vision of God’s grace.
Out of concern for his own safety and the risk to his teaching work, he couldn’t publicly support abolition, but his private letters to US Senator Charles Mangrum urged the senator to change his position regarding states rights and slavery. Even though his political positions were private, it is suspected that his death was connected to others who were murdered for their work to improve and support Black lives.
He never laid down his call. And even in the midst of the complex paths he had to navigate in order to follow Jesus, he kept at it to the end.
Even in the best of times, Being a pastor – a preacher is not an uncomplicated career choice and deciding to become a pastor as a 2nd or 3rd career?
I mean, it’s not logical – Who in the world says: Hey! I have an idea – let me take up a career that will put my whole family under a microscope (including my husband’s job search, my squirmy first grader’s behavior and my 4th grader’s dedication to all things ballet); that requires me to write a weekly speech that is open to 50 to 1000 critics and based on a document that is at least 2000 years old. And please oh please, God, you know how much I love a 60 hour work week.
And you know what happened when God said to me: Who will go for us? I raised my hand and jumped up and down like the 3rd grader who knows all the answers and can’t wait to tell! I’m not sure what that says about me – but I know what it says about God and how inspiring and compelling God’s mission for justice and wholeness is for me and for so many of us.
Keeping all that in mind, we turn to Isaiah and his call story. There are some patterns here that are worth noting because I propose to you that Isaiah’s call process is not something that is isolated for a very few. When Isaiah pulls up a chair and starts to tell HIS story, He’s clear about What time it is. He’s clear about when this momentous thing happened to him and that’s important.
“Remember that time that time King Uzziah died and I saw a vision of angels and such…?”
This is important because it puts a stake in the ground – here we are. Crucial turning point – milestone, a MOMENT. We all have these. We remember
“when I got sober”
“when my last child graduated high school”
“when we bought the house”
“when my auntie… my grandma…,my dad… my role model died.”
For Rev. John Chavis, that stake in the ground was the need he saw in those around him, particularly Black people like him, to grow as human beings and to find the healing of God’s grace.
For the first disciples of Jesus, it was much the same. And while for Isaiah, it was important that he ground his work in the political environment where he found himself, for the disciples, it is crucial that we see Jesus calling them out of their everyday work context.Isaiah was already out there – speaking about God’s vision and trying to shape the view of the recalcitrant, unruly people of God when this vision comes on him. He’s not a newbie – not just thinking about godly things for the first time. He’s been at it a little while. The disciples were called – not at the beginning of the day when they have a lot of energy and are just getting started – but as they’re pulling up, exhausted and frustrated at the end of a very long and very unproductive day. Their calls happened when they already living what they THOUGHT was their life calling.
Isaiah and the disciples had one thing in common. When they were summoned by God, God didn’t ask them: who is ready to go? Who has the skillset to go? Who is in the right stage of life to go? God didn’t even command Isaiah to go. God just asks for help. God simply says: whom shall I send? Who will go for us? And in that moment, Isaiah has to come to terms with the reality that there is not much he can do… He cant claim his own holiness and he can’t lean on the holiness of those around him… so he simply says what he’s feeling: “Woe is me!” And then he proceeds to take up the work.
For Simon and the other fishermen, the call came mid-career. They had already committed to the family business, as it were. Ironically, even after hauling in this huge catch of fish, even after seeing the amazing opportunity they had to make a good profit when it looked like they would come up empty-handed, these three men now do the most unexpected thing. They pull up the boat on the shore, loaded down with the miraculous catch, and they walk away from it, all of it.
For Rev. John Chavis, his call to preach and teach was directly linked to his understanding of what it meant for him to take up his own cross and follow Christ. Even when the powers and principalities around him, including the Presbyterian Church, tried to prevent him from speaking, he found a way to share God’s word.
I think everyone here would like to be able to respond as Isaiah did – we WANT to be able to walk away from whatever it is that holds us back and YES to Jesus like the disciples did. We want to find the courage to risk our livelihoods, our relationships in order to share God’s message of justice, but let’s get real. When we stand in the midst of the awe and wonder and joy that God’s power evokes in us, it doesn’t take long for us to remember our lack of strength
When we catch a glimpse of the hem of God’s robe – in whatever form that takes – maybe in the birth of our child, or in the blessed passing of a loved one or in the glory of a sunrise or the inspiration of a poet’s song – we can easily be flummoxed by our most human and mundane selves – messy, cluttered, chaotic, and mostly noted by our distinct LACK of readiness. But we can learn from these stories of complicated calls.
Isaiah sees God’s glory; he hears God’s voice; and his response is basic: “WOE IS ME!!”
The disciples come home at the end of a very long day, worn out from trying, and face their worries about their commitment to what is as yet an unknown future with Jesus.
Rev. John Chavis, because of the color of his skin, has to face every obstacle that white supremacy can put in his way.
But notice what comes next… God heals the brokenness. God provides abundance. God made a way.
And God is still calling out… who will go for me…
Friends, before you respond with your worries and rationale, know this: God has already embraced our fragility, our weakness, our failures, our tendency to worry, to gossip, to cast blame, to argue, to procrastinate to declare that we are not enough. And God doesn’t walk away from us because we’re not good enough, not strong enough, not ready enough.
Instead, God welcomes us as partners. Our first discipleship task is to understand our call to serve is really just a call to live the life that God has already embedded inside of us, we’re more than halfway there.This isn’t a call to live Isaiah’s life, or Simon Peter’s life, or Rev. John Chavis’ life. It is a call use the skills, the resources, that God has already provided – for this time, in this context, with the people around us.
God simply stands on the beach, showing us the miracle and waits for us to follow.