UTI Worship Celebration Preacher James Forbes Urges “Seeing Each Other Differently”
“Prophetic Ophthalmology” was the sermon title delivered by the Rev. Dr. James A. Forbes Tuesday, September 22, when he preached at the Urban Theological Institute’s (UTI) Annual Lecture and Worship Celebration, which was part of UTI’s 35th Anniversary Celebration. He appeared at Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church in Cheltenham. Earlier in the day, he had lectured at The Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia (LTSP). For his sermon title, Forbes quipped that in teaching homiletics he often advised his students to avoid using “big words” in sermon titles. But this time he could not resist.
Please do not settle for reading this inadequate summary. The sermon, delivered in profoundly animated and expressive literary style by a preacher now in his eighties, must be seen and heard online. Forbes preached on II Kings 6: 8-23. The passages describe the events of the warring Syrians against Israel in which Elisha’s servant becomes fearful when the Syrian soldiers surround them. Elisha prays that his servant’s eyes will be opened to understand that “those who are with us are more than those who are with them.” Elisha also asks the Lord to bring blindness on his foes. When the Syrians come to Samaria, the eyes of the Syrians are opened. The king of Israel then asks Elisha whether he should slay their foes. Elisha commands that instead they be fed with bread and water, and the Syrians nevermore raid Israel.
The animated Forbes said he wanted to focus on the branch of medicine dealing with “diseases of the eyes.” And his focus was bent on identifying a racial perspective.
He noted that a neighborhood shooting in New York in which an African American man was shot on his front porch in a hail of 41 bullets “was not simply knee-jerk policing.” When asked to put his hands up, the man, holding his keys to enter his apartment, was “seen” as holding a weapon, and the officer “felt threatened,” he said, even though the man in question had his back turned toward the officer. “What he saw,” Forbes said of the officer, “was reflected in here,” Forbes indicated by pointing to his head “and made into a threatening situation out there.”
Forbes told an anecdote from January 11, 1961, when for the first time he was allowed to sit at a counter in Woolworth’s to order a hot dog. Before then, he had been required to order his food at an outdoor window.
“When I sat down a white woman stood up and ran out of the store,” Forbes explained, in what for him was a “humiliating and painful moment.” He explained in his remarks on racism that he did not want to settle for “talking negative” about it. “I want to talk of what to do about it.
On the occasion of the humiliating experience, Forbes said he went home to write a poem about it, which he sent to a second white woman, Dorothy Marcus, who had been a memorable part of caring for black children like him at a church in North Carolina where he grew up. “She cared so much about us kids that I knew if I hurt like this she would want to know about it,” he said.
Thirty years later when Forbes was senior pastor at Riverside Church in New York, Marcus approached him after church, saying, “Pastor, I found something I want you to have.” It was the letter and poem Forbes had sent to her.
“Two white women,” Forbes said. “One gets up and runs. Another cares enough so I felt I could send her my poem. What’s the difference? It has to do with ophthalmologic observation. The way we see one another has everything to do with how we treat one another.”
Forbes said racism “is alive and well in the United States. It is a growing phenomenon, a disease. It affects the way we see one another, and unless we do something about it and do it soon…it will break out into something beyond the usual riots.”
Forbes noted that much of the meanness, bitterness, anger and hatred on the part of whites may well result from their finding themselves “all of a sudden down” economically as compared to the standard of living many whites once enjoyed. And they begin to live out their anger against those they wish to scapegoat for their troubles.
“The heart does not give adequate blood to the brain so that they can see what they ought to see,” Forbes said. He urged the congregation’s prayers for African American youth “who feel down and out and scorned” so that the “anger inside of them makes everything an object for retribution…There is still a power situated on high that looks down low and understands their pain, a power that sees even though the video (of events) does not capture it.
“If we want to see change in the way the nation functions we will need a radical transformation of our hearts and minds so that we see one another differently,” Forbes said. He said that to be prepared for such a transformation “we’ve got to believe that the solution for racial differences is based on everything we know how to do along with a surprise illumination from God.”
He urged his audience to “get to the doctor’s office to get your eyes worked on” to see the best they can and in order to examine and see themselves properly. And he prayed for the eyes of whites to be opened “to let them see what they have never seen before.”
He closed with a ringing recounting of the story of the blind Bartamaeus in the Gospel of Mark in an example of “Prophetic Ophthalmology.” “Jesus fixed his eyes through the power of God the great Ophthalmologist. He once was blind but now he sees.”
The Rev. Dr. Quintin Robertson, UTI Director, introduced Forbes for the sermon, identifying Forbes as “a hero of mine” during his teen years, and referencing him as “one of the great giants of the African American pulpit.”
Here’s a slide show from the UTI Worship Celebration:
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