The Rev. Dr. James Forbes in Marquand Chapel: “Yes, I want to be made whole”

On April 4, the 43rd anniversary of the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Marquand Chapel reverberated with words from the civil rights era and music of social justice written by Yale Divinity School’s own Mark Miller, lecturer in the practice of sacred music.

The worship service was aptly named “Let Justice Roll,” and the sermon delivered by the Rev. Dr. James Forbes, one of the nation’s preeminent preachers, was on the subject of victimization.

ForbesServing as bookends to the service were two pieces written by Miller, who is appointed with the Institute of Sacred Music.  The opening song was “God Has Work for Us to Do,” with text by Carl Daw, including the lines “Till all the jails are empty and all the bellies filled; till no one hurts or steals or lies, and no more blood is spilled.  God has work for us to do.” The closing anthem was “Let Justice Roll,” with words from King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail quoting Amos 5:24: “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” The anthem was written for use at New York City’s Riverside Church for a musical celebration in 2000 of King’s ministry.

As his text, Forbes chose the passage from John 5:1-9, the healing of the lame man on the Sabbath.

“God wants us to walk humbly,” said Forbes, senior minister emeritus of Riverside Church.  “But suppose you can’t walk?”  The inability to “walk,” he noted, can be interpreted not simply in physical terms but psychologically as well, as in a paralyzing “depression of spirit.”

King, Forbes said, “gave his life to make it possible for people at least to be able to walk, to get up.”  Indeed, he added, among the enduring images from the civil rights era are images of “people walking together, some unnamed, others clergy, like Rabbi Heschel joining with Dr. King, or Harry Belafonte.”

In the passage from John, Forbes suggested, the lame man has what he termed a “spirit of victimization,” characterized, Forbes said, by “a sense of hopelessness, powerlessness, locked into negating circumstances with no exit . . . convinced that one’s claims to the good life will always be considered invalid.”

But the Gospel has an answer, Forbes noted:  “Jesus shows us how to be in this ministry of helping to liberate people from the spirit of victimization and the way he does it is that Jesus doesn’t just say to the man, ‘Rise and take up your bed and walk.’

“The text makes it sound like he says these words and, instantly, bam, it happened.  But in addition to these words Jesus does a probing and finds the soul, and in the corner of the soul, sleeping for fear, is the answer to the question.”

People do want to be made whole, but the response is often hidden, in Forbes’s judgment:  “The answer is yes, I want to be made whole. . . Sometimes the ‘yes’ is hidden, so Jesus shakes the yes up and brings it by the heart and then it goes to the brain and the brain is so filled with the sense of yes that it sends out an all points bulletin in saying, ‘Get ready for the freedom march!’”

Forbes concluded, “So, brothers and sisters, our ministry is a ministry of liberation from the spirit of victimization and the way we do that is to become convinced that in every human being no matter what their condition there is a ‘yes’ in them.  And our job is to find it and to empower it so that it can walk, so that if I need to use my hands, if I need to use my feet, it is my job to help people to say, “Yes, yes, yes . . . “


Posted: 05/02/2011, revised 05/03/2011