A stirring UTI 34th Anniversary Lecture and Worship Celebration with Pastor Kevin R. Johnson
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It was a sermon befitting a celebration of God’s steadfast love, a stirring and inspirational message that gave powerful meaning to the Lecture and Worship Celebration marking the 34th anniversary of the Urban Theological Institute (UTI) at The Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia (LTSP).
The preacher for the September 23rd, 2014, event was the Rev. Dr. Kevin R. Johnson, the fifth senior pastor of the nationally renowned Bright Hope Baptist Church in Philadelphia. A frequent columnist for the Philadelphia Tribune, Johnson is known for his commitment to community, empowerment, and economic development. The backdrop for his sermonic message was Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church on Cheltenham Avenue in Philadelphia, where the Rev. Dr. Alyn Waller is senior pastor.
Johnson preached on Genesis 45 and 46, passages describing the story of Jacob, Joseph, and his jealous brothers. The brothers sold Joseph to the Ishmaelites, who took Joseph from Canaan to Egypt, where he was to become a ruler of the land. In the midst of severe famine and drought, the brothers later went to Egypt looking for food and were embraced by Joseph, who saw they received provisions and asked the brothers to bring their father Jacob to him so he could see him once more.
“God sent me ahead of you,” Johnson said of the message Joseph conveyed to his brothers. “I know you think you sent me here, but it was God who sent me.” When the brothers returned to Jacob, he did not believe at first that Joseph was still alive. God appeared to Jacob, saying, “Jacob, Jacob, do not be afraid to go down to Egypt for I will make of you a great nation and bring you back again if you go down there.”
Johnson described the Genesis passages by saying “they deal much with what hinders us from reaching our destiny and potential.” “God shared something inside of Joseph,” Johnson said. “Joseph dreamed dreams and visions that no one else could see. His father blessed him with a coat and his brothers were made jealous and wanted to kill him. It was not enemies from the outside he had never seen who wanted to kill him, but the folks he played with. His biggest enemies were not from the outside but the inside …” Johnson noted the brothers were cowards. They hoped casting Joseph into a pit would lead to a wild beast bringing death to Joseph. But a caravan of Ishmaelites intervened, leading to Joseph’s being sold to Israel where he was to reach “the upper echelons of Pharaoh’s palace,” Johnson said. And the brothers eventually came to the brother they had forsaken “looking for morsels of grain,” Johnson continued.
“Be careful who you step on. They may be the ones who lift you up,” Johnson intoned. “In the presence of Joseph when the brothers were identified, Joseph, who had their life and death in his hands, wrapped his arms around them.” Johnson urged those in the congregation who have been saved by God to bless and love their enemies and turn themselves over to God.
Returning with provisions to beckon their father to return to Egypt, Jacob was afraid to leave the land of promise to go to a foreign land. “He was stuck and fearful,” Johnson said. Jacob had remembered his past life as a deceiver and trickster, Johnson said, but now God was reassuring Jacob to “not be afraid. Go down to Egypt where I will make you into a great nation there.”
“Many here want to be great,” Johnson said to the congregation, making mention of seminarians present. He discussed luminaries, homileticians, he had known over the years, including notable Pastor Otis Moss, whose parents had died when he was very young. “If you want to be great, you have to be willing to go there,” Johnson said. “You’ve got to go through pain. You’ve got to go through valley experiences. Journeys to the peaks begin in the valleys. Victory begins with valley moments.” Johnson continued. The journey for Israel to become a great nation began with 400 years of slavery until greatness was delivered in Exodus I. “You don’t have to understand HOW God will do something, just know that God is going to do it.”
An impassioned Johnson reminded his audience, “If you want the blessings God has in store for you, you have to be willing to struggle through the pain of midnight, the hours of hell and hot water.” He noted in scripture that Job and Jacob both knew about that kind of pain. “The Bible tells me the righteous are never forsaken. When you go through pain God has a way of blessing you right THERE. God walks with us. Do not be afraid! I know I am not by myself but with God, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. When you slip and fall God will pick you up. When you make a mistake God will lift you up again. God has a way of blessing you when you are right THERE! God says, ‘I am not going to stop until I have completed the job.’ God is not done with you yet. Don’t be afraid to experience the pain! Give God the thanks and praise! Don’t be afraid to go THERE!”
The sermon ended with joyful applause and amens.
Earlier in the day in the seminary’s Brossman Learning Center, Johnson stirringly evoked the verse and poetry of Langston Hughes and the powerful legacies of dynamic African American leaders as he addressed the theme, “Where is the God of Justice? Dare to Hold Onto the Dream.”
He began by asking his audience to imagine a woman on the shores of Africa, watching a ship bound for America sailing to sea with her son aboard, his having been snatched from the fields into slavery. Then he vividly described inhumanities of slave auction bidding scenarios in a southern city.
“That is how we came here,” Johnson said, “and after the second inauguration of Barack Obama, this is how far we have come.”
He noted that so often African American believers, confronted by fear and hopelessness, have “cried out for intervention and rescue” to God, questioned the watchfulness and care of God and wondered, “Where is God? Why is all this happening to us?”
“On the surface equal opportunity has come,” he remarked, taking note of such landmark legislation as Brown vs. Board of Education in 1954, and the Civil Rights Acts of 1957, 1960, 1964, and 1965. “We have equal opportunity and the right to vote. We can sit in any public theater in a section based on choice [rather than as defined by racial barriers].”
“Where do we go from here?” he asked. “We ask God where is justice when 24 percent of blacks live below the poverty line, 30 percent here in Philadelphia.” He noted the median income of blacks is less than that of whites, and said the unemployment rate of 16.7 percent for blacks is more than double that of whites in Philadelphia. “We ought to be ashamed of ourselves for living in a city where poverty runs so deep. How can we be in a place that is the birthplace of American liberty and freedom when it is not the same for everybody?” He sharply criticized the lack of sufficient support for public schools in Philadelphia and the practice of “building up corporate welfare and demonizing regular welfare.”
Johnson drew upon the example of Langston Hughes, born in Joplin, MO, and who grew up in poverty in Lawrence, KS, came east to Harlem, studied for a while at Columbia University, left to travel the world and fulfilled a dream later on to continue his education at Lincoln University in Oxford, PA, where Johnson is an officer of the board. “Hold fast to your dreams,” Johnson quoted from a work of Hughes, “for when dreams go it is like a barren field of frozen snow.”
“Dare to hold onto your dreams. There is something powerful about dreams, my beloved,” Johnson said. “A dream is the only thing we ever had when the slave trade separated us from our children, treating us like livestock and second class or no class citizens.” Citing the value of sustaining dreams, Johnson said, “Without dreams there are no possibilities. Without faith there is no hope.” Johnson explained that a powerful part of holding on to a dream is having the “powerful audacity to say ‘I’ when others say ‘you’ as Dr. Martin Luther King did amidst surrounding pressures offered by political foes, the FBI and the Ku Klux Klan. “He kept on marching, defining his vision for the future of America,” Johnson said.
Johnson urged his audience not to settle for complacency in challenging times, stopping at raising the question of “Where is God?” in troubling times, but instead to be willing to transition from being the believer of dreams to a maker of dreams. “At first pursuing a dream can be fun. We may not think that pursuing a dream comes with a cost and heartache … We pay a price to take it forward,” he said in part. “We have to go through a desert time, go through the valley to reach a mountaintop … Dream makers understand the difference between traditional investing and value investing. With value investing you may look at a stock and not see much, but see the potential …” He said a pastor of his had once seen that kind of potential in him.
He described the stories of African American pioneers Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglas, W.E.B. DuBois, and pioneering black Lutherans Nelson Trout and Will Herzfeld as dream makers, reminding his audience that “with Christ, you and I can do all things.”
The Rev. Dr. Quintin L. Robertson, director of UTI, brought greetings to the audience and noted that $665,000 in gifts has now been raised toward the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright, Sr. Endowed Chair in African American Studies. In brief remarks, LTSP Dean J. Jayakiran Sebastian praised the richness of the tradition of UTI, noting that it had played a key role in building the legacy of ecumenical understanding and biblical witness to the school’s life. He noted that he had observed how “proudly and unambiguously” UTI students have demonstrated appreciation for being part of a traditionally Lutheran school “that embraces a range of people and traditions.”
Johnson was introduced by the Rev. Dr. William B. Moore, pastor of Tenth Memorial Baptist Church in North Philadelphia. Moore chairs the UTI Committee of Advisors and is an early graduate of the UTI initiative at LTSP.
Watch the lecture and worship sermon:
View a slide show of images from the lecture (click any image to go to the gallery):
View a slide show of images from the worship celebration (click any image to go to the gallery):