The Rev. Cornell William Brooks, Hauser Professor of the Practice of Nonprofit Organizations, Professor of the Practice of Public Leadership and Social Justice, Director, William Monroe Trotter Collaborative for Social Justice, Harvard Kennedy School.
By The Rev. Cornell William Brooks
Hauser Professor of the Practice of Nonprofit Organizations
Professor of the Practice of Public Leadership and Social Justice
Director, William Monroe Trotter Collaborative for Social Justice
Harvard Kennedy School
(The following is a transcript of the service audio)
Good morning. As I looked up and contemplated this skyscraper of a pulpit, I wasn't entirely sure where to go. Let me just begin with a word of appreciation to the Pusey minister and the pastor of this historic, and yet in these times, history making charge, Reverend Potts. I had the opportunity to serve on the Pusey ministerial search committee, and if any of you are familiar with committees, your mere membership allows you to take credit for things that you do not deserve. And so, I'm quite happy to be here at his invitation, and I stand with you in prayer and support of his ministry.
I extend a word of appreciation to the ministerial staff, those who are responsible for the upkeep and the wellbeing of this beautiful sanctuary, to the choir and the musicians who do so much to minister to our spirits, our bodies, our wellbeing in these troublesome times. And I'll simply say to the choir that there are two kinds of choirs I've found in ministry. There are some choirs that make preaching easier. They're so good. They make preaching easier. Then there are some choirs that are of such an extraordinary quality they make preaching more difficult. It is my lot in life to follow such a choir that has made preaching more difficult. But, I am nevertheless grateful. And grateful to all of you who thought it not robbery to be in God's house on this Sabbath day.
I'm reminded that we come to this Harvard Memorial Church amidst historic times. We find ourselves here, not by happenstance, not as a matter of circumstance. We find ourselves in this moment being called by God, being called by history, being called by situations, being called by circumstance. We find ourselves on this Sabbath day, on this Sunday morning, in this hour, here because of the voice of God in our lives. We find ourselves in this place in a morally peculiar and historically significant moment in history. We are mindful of the fact that five score and five years ago, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., on August, or rather April 4th, 1967, stood amidst the gothic glory of Riverside Church In New York City, and he spoke about the Vietnam War. His words yet reverberate and resonate in this moment.
This is a peculiar moment in history because we are ever mindful of the fact that yet later in this week, a son of Harvard by the name of William Monroe Trotter, the descendant of enslaved people at Monticello, Thomas Jefferson's home, who made his way to Harvard University, graduated near the top of his class, became a social justice pioneer, laid the foundation for the Niagara Movement, the NAACP, many of the social justice strategies that we use in this moment. We will yet celebrate the 150th anniversary of his birth in this moment.
And so we come to this place, worshiping, if you will, between two historic figures, between two milestones in history, Martin Luther King and William Monroe Trotter. And yet we come to this moment as students, as faculty, and staff, amidst our own anxieties, our own trepidation, our own fears of about the present, and fears about the future. Pollsters tell us that many of our students, and even some of our staff, and perhaps even the faculty, experience anxieties about the state of the world, the state of the economy, the state of our country. And so just for a few moments, I want to lift up a few verses of scripture that might provide some encouragement in these times. It's a simple story, but it is a story that yet speaks to us in this moment.
The word reads thusly. The boy, Samuel, ministered before the Lord under Eli. In those days, the word of the Lord was rare, and there were not many visions. One night, Eli, whose eyes were becoming so weak that he could barely see, was lying down in his usual place. The lamp of God had yet ... had not yet gone out. And Samuel was lying down in the house of the Lord where the arc of God was. Then the Lord called Samuel. Samuel answered, "Here am I," and he ran to Eli and said, "Here am I. You called me." But Eli said, "I did not call. Go back and lie down." So he went and lay down. Again, the Lord called, "Samuel," and Samuel got up, went to Eli and said, "Here am I. You called me."
"My son," Eli said, "I did not call. Go back and lie down." Now, Samuel did not know the Lord. The word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him. A third time, the Lord called, "Samuel," and Samuel got up, went to Eli, and he said, "Here I am. You called me." Then Eli realized that the Lord was calling the boy. So Eli told Samuel, "Go and lie down, and if he calls, you say, 'Speak, Lord, your servant is listening.'" So Samuel went and laid down in his place. The Lord came and stood there calling as at the other times, "Samuel, Samuel." Then Samuel said, "Speak, for your servant is listening. Speak for your servant is listening."
If I might preach for a few moments under the topic, young, inexperienced, and unemployed. Young, inexperienced, and unemployed. Now, for those of you who may be seniors at the college, this is not prophetic ministry. It's a sermon topic. It's not an economic or employment forecast. Young, inexperienced, and unemployed. This text is found in a book that represents both history and literature. It describes a particular moment in history in which the people of Israel were transitioning from a cacophonous confederation of tribes into a monarchy. It represents if you will, the passage of time between the end of the terms, the judicial terms of the judges and the arrival of Kings, the time between Samuel's birth and calling, and the reign of Saul and David. This is a story in which we find a boy, not much younger than a first year here at the college.
And this young man, this boy finds himself in a special place. He's sleeping. You recall that this young in had a calling on his life. He came into the world, came into being under miraculous circumstances. His mother Hannah was deemed to be barren. She had some kind of challenge in terms of having a child. And so, her son Samuel was set aside and set apart. According to the religious tradition, he wore his hair long. Right? Right? He might have worn his hair in dreads. He might not have visited the barbershop on a regular basis. He wore his hair long. He didn't touch alcohol or strong drink. I know that may offend the sensibilities of some of our students, but he could pass by a bar and not go inside. So Samuel is asleep when he hears God's voice.
And if I could just lift up three themes for you to and meditate on, three themes for you to keep in mind, three themes that might speak to you, hopefully around Tuesday or Wednesday, maybe even Thursday. And if you get to Friday and remember the sermon, I'm so happy. The first theme of which is that God's extraordinary call arrives in ordinary places. Okay? The second theme I just want to lift up here is that God can call you when you're not working. Okay. Any students ever waste time in the library or at home? No? Don't nobody raise your hand. When you're not working. Okay. I can tell this is an unusually scholarly and hardworking crowd.
But there are times when God might speak to you when you're not working, when you're playing a video game, when you're distracted with your phone, when you're watching endless cat videos or TikTok. God can speak to you when you're paying attention to TikTok. And thirdly, thirdly, God calls us to listen and to help others listen. God calls us to listen and to help others listen. God's call, his extraordinary call, can come to us when we are in the midst of the ordinary. Some people have experienced and heard the voice of God in the midst of the wilderness or at the top of a mountain top. But what happens when you are sleeping, or studying, or walking across the yard? What happens when you hear God's extraordinary voice in the midst of ordinary circumstances? It's disruptive. It's powerful. But it is not to be discounted because you didn't hear God's voice in Harvard Memorial Church. Reverend Potts is not preaching. The choir is not singing. The congregation is not on its feet. But you hear God's voice in ordinary places.
May I just lift up a little parable from history? History tells us that the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, In the opening months of the Montgomery Boycott, found himself on the receiving end of telephone call, after telephone call, after telephone call threatening assassination, threatening bodily harm, threatening his life. And yet he finds himself, well before the Riverside address, well before the conclusion of the Montgomery Boycott, well before Selma, he finds himself on the receiving end of a telephone call in which he's called out of his name. He was called the N word before we use such a term as the N word. His life is threatened on this call, and he's anxious, he's fearful, he's afraid. He feels like some of us feel when we think about the papers we have to get done.
But he's sitting at his kitchen table. Not in the library at Harvard, but he's sitting in the most ordinary of places, at his kitchen table. And at the kitchen table, once he hangs up on this verbal bigot, he prays to God and tells God, "I'm at the end of my rope. I'm at the end of my resources. I'm at," what he called, "the saturation point." Anybody ever been at the point in your life? Too much, too many troubles, too much, too many worries, too many anxieties, too many fears, too much to do, at the saturation point.
But then, King says he hears God's voice. And God speaks to him in this ordinary place, Reverend Potts, at the kitchen table. I know at the parsonage they must have a kitchen table, right? King hears God's voice at the kitchen table, and it gives him confidence. It gives him courage. It gives him peace. It gives him strength. God can speak to you in ordinary places, in ordinary times, under ordinary circumstances. And why is this important? Because only a few days later, he's bombed. His home is bombed. And he says because he heard God's voice at the kitchen table, he wasn't afraid. He wasn't fearful. He didn't experience trepidation. He had a sense of peace.
I'm saying to somebody this morning, if you're feeling worried or fearful, know that God will speak to you in ordinary places. Let me hasten on to this second point. God Will speak to you when you're not working. Notice Samuel is asleep, so by definition, not working As a matter of his circadian rhythm at that moment, he was unemployed, not engaged in gainful activity. Anybody ever study for a subject for which the professor was not particularly titillating, not particularly exciting, and maybe you slipped into a somnolent state of affairs? Right? A temporary condition of being comatose. But Samuel is asleep. Eli is asleep. But God speaks to Samuel.
You need not be engaged in frenetic activity, 24/7, 365 days a week in order for God to speak to you. You don't have to fill your calendar and your things to do lists up to the brim in order for God to speak to you. You don't have to be the most productive faculty member, most productive student, the most productive administrator at Harvard in order for God to speak to you. Again, I can tell this is not quite clear.
Students, may I lift up a little example? I told you about William Monroe Trotter. I told you that he was a descendant of enslaved people in Monticello. I told you, or I should have told you, that his father, his black father, was well to do here in Boston. He was a civil war hero. He had a position at the post office. He invested in real estate, and he had money. But Trotter worked a year before he earned the money to come to Harvard. And when he graduated at the top of his class, after having been valedictorian of his high school, his all white high school, being president of the student body, riding his bicycle across the campus of Harvard, being popular and well liked, and handsome, when he finished Harvard with his undergraduate degree and his graduate degree, guess what? He spent a year and there were no jobs. He was unemployed.
But guess what? God spoke to him. God called him. Because when he did get a job in the mortgage business, he invested in his money well before social impact investing well, before B Corps, and he took the money and created an online platform of the day, the black Twitter of the day. Right? He created something called the Guardian Newspaper. What I want to share with you is that when you are unemployed, and maybe if you're young and inexperienced, God will speak to you. God will call you. God will use you.
Anybody here who's a first year, second year, third year, fourth year at the college, maybe you're in graduate school getting a PhD, but you don't have 30 years of experience? Anybody here have a one page resume that you can barely fill? Only the humble need admit, honestly, an answer to that question. But God looks at Samuel. What was his resume? What did his curriculum vitae look like? How impressive was he? Would he have made it past the admissions committee at Harvard? Little Samuel, but God speaks to him.
May I suggest to you that God spoke to William Monroe Trotter? At a time where black folk were being lynched from one end of the Republic to the other, at a time in which black people were more often known by the N word than by their given names, Trotter, nevertheless, graduated from Harvard, in which ... this place in which he called an exemplar of democracy. And nevertheless, he, despite Harvard's contradictions and even hypocrisy, believes that there's a call on his life. And he changes the trajectory of American history. So if by chance, there's somebody here who's not quite certain ... You don't have to admit this aloud. You're not quite certain if you are old enough, if you are experienced enough, if you are impressive enough that God can call you, yes, he can, and does, and will.
Last modest little point here is that God calls us to listen and help other people listen. Notice that God speaks to Samuel serially, but he mishears, doesn't hear God's voice. But Eli realizes what goes on, what's going on, and he helps Samuel to hear God's voice. Anybody have a professor, a mentor, a friend, maybe somebody in ministry who's helping you to hear God's voice? Maybe that somebody's called mommy and daddy, grandpa and grandma, aunt and uncle. Somebody somewhere who believes in you, believes in your God given potential, believes that the God on high speaks to humanity.
The text makes clear that Eli helped Samuel hear God's voice, and that Samuel, not a first year, not a second year, not a graduate student, he says, "Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening." Can I give you a little footnote on Samuel's name? You know his name means God has heard me, because his mama, his ... Let me translate and transliterate. His mother felt that God heard her, so Samuel's name means God hears me. So in other words, that's like taking out your iPhone and you got an incoming call and perfect reception. But the text is about the outgoing calls, too. Incoming calls and outgoing calls, right? The outgoing call meaning God has heard me, from the vantage point of humanity. God has heard me. I've sent out a message. In this text is an incoming call from God to humanity.
I just want to simply say to you today that God wants us and calls us to listen and to help others listen. May I share with you? You don't have to be at the top of Mount Sinai. You don't have to be in the middle of a desert. You don't have to be in the middle of a wilderness. You don't have to be in a garden in order to hear from God. Many of us are circumstantially called, situationally called, historically called. You are in the midst of a global pandemic. You are in the midst of a war time. You are in the midst of troubling circumstances. You are in the midst of generationally unprecedented activism. And in the midst of this cacophony of noise and news events, God speaks to us in our times. And we are capable of doing extraordinary things.
Martin Luther king heard God's voice amidst bombings, amidst terrorism, and he lived a powerful and extraordinary life. I wanted to simply ask that each of you, no matter how busy you are, no matter what's going on in the world, no matter what you see on your phones or on television, to simply declare, "Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening." When you're doubtful, somebody say, "Speak, Lord, your servant is listening." When you're anxious, somebody say, "Speak, Lord, your servant is listening." When we read and hear of war and rumors of war, someone yet say, "Speak, Lord, your servant is listening." When we see orphans of war and refugees of war, let somebody say, "Speak, Lord, your servant is listening. I want to feed the hungry. I want to clothe the naked. I want to stand on the side of righteousness and justice. Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening."
When you find yourself doubtful about whether or not we can have the kind of impact on the world, look around this congregation, see those who are faithful, and who yet believe in God's power to come into this house and yet declare and to sing, "Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening." When you get ready to walk across the stage at graduation, and maybe President Bacow's got a piece of parchment for you. I want somebody to yet say, "Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening. I'm ready to go out into the world. I'm ready to answer god's call. I'm ready to have an impact on my time, my history. Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening."
And if you are young, inexperienced, and unemployed, I'll just leave you with these few words that were known by William Monroe Trotter and Martin Luther King. The words would be these. Lift every voice and sing, 'til earth and heaven ring, ring with the harmonies of liberty. Let our rejoicing rise high as the listening skies. Let it resound loud as the rolling sea. Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us. Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us. Facing the rising sun of our new day begun, let us march on, let us march on, let us march on 'til victory is won.