January 18, 1996.
Advocates of different causes regularly criticise the Church in seeking to co-opt it to their cause. On many occasions, Church leaders are defensive in their responses to such criticism. At the 17th National Prayer Breakfast, the Rev. Sam Vassell gave an excellent demonstration of the Man of God operating in the prophetic tradition. Both the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition in their comments had put their own brand of political spin on what the Church in Jamaica should be doing. Both of them, in different ways, were attempting to co-opt the Church leaders to their cause. Rev. Vassell acknowledged the truth in what each had said but responded by calling them, and all present, back to God and the practice of true religion.
The features of Rev. Vassell’s message that struck forcibly were:
- His courage and forthright speaking to the face of the powerful in the land while not being ‘in their face’ as the Americans would say. There was no malice in his manner, just deep conviction about what he was saying.
- The substance and soundness in what he said. He spoke to the 70 percent of Jamaicans who claimed to be Christian and pointed to their departure from God’s way. He highlighted the oppression and injustice in the land and the involvement of Christians in that oppression and injustice. He insisted that the prayers of Christians were not being heard and answered because of this involvement.
- His portrayal of the purity, majesty, and holiness of God and the need for all to judge themselves against this standard and in the process to recognise the urgent need for repentance and re-commitment.
- The passion that undergirded his eloquence. There could be no question that he cared. He spoke with the heart of a pastor in the inner city of Kingston who had buried a disturbing number of young men who had been killed on the mean streets of the city. You could not help being touched by his passion.
In listening to him speak from the book of Isaiah it seemed that there was some parallel between the Ballroom of the Pegasus Hotel and the royal court of the palace in ancient Israel and the prophets appearing before kings and court to insist ‘Thus saith the Lord’. Rev. Vassell was following the example of the best in the prophet tradition. It is interesting that not only did he receive a spontaneous and prolonged standing ovation inside the hotel but immediately after he was finished speaking JBC was flooded with calls requesting videotapes of his message. Clearly, he had struck a chord that resonated beyond the confines of the Pegasus.
Some, not given to faith, may say that this was all well and good but there have been very many fine sermons and gestures in the past which have had little effect if any. For example, following the bloody elections of October 1980, the first National Prayer Breakfast saw the dramatic handshake between Mr. Manley and Mr. Seaga. This gesture promised much, but 1996 broke all records for murder and it was not even an election year. Hence, although Rev. Vassell gave a great sermon in the finest tradition of the prophet envisioning a new order, so what? The 17th National Prayer Breakfast will just be another nine-day wonder, if as long, and then people will forget all about Rev. Vassell’s stirring sermon and continue as before.
The fact is that the prophet can only pronounce the word in season and out of season. That is the limit of his power. Indeed, the Prayer Breakfast Theme, “Lord, Heal Our Land” has many parallels with the time Jesus was on earth when people were so confused and perplexed by the hatred, oppression and sectarian divisions of the times that they looked for answers from the Messiah who they urgently and earnestly expected. Yet only a few recognised Jesus as the Messiah. The many did not. Indeed, they killed Him.
However, Christianity became a world religion from the few who recognised Him, received His teaching and believed. Its hard to see why it Rev Vassell will be treated any different from his Lord. Most likely it is the few who heard the Word and repented of their ways that will make the difference after they have been crucified and resurrected!
January 18, 1996.