In a sermon titled “Above the Madness,” Rev. Cecil Murray of First AME Church (FAME) in Los Angeles admonishes his congregation not to partake of the toxic stew of hatred and rage that had bubbled up in some communities after the terrorist attacks of 9/11. As the choir hums the hymn “Healing for the Soul,” Rev. Murray says, “You’re caught up in madness–don’t let the madness be caught up in you. You’re caught up in poison–don’t let the poison be caught up in you.”
During his 27 years as the pastor of First African Methodist Episcopal Church (FAME), Rev. Cecil “Chip” Murray transformed a small congregation into a megachurch that brought jobs, housing and corporate investment into South Los Angeles neighborhoods. After the 1992 civil unrest, FAME Renaissance, the economic development arm of the church, brought more than $400 million in investments to L.A.’s minority and low-income neighborhoods. Rev. Murray remains a vibrant force in the Los Angeles faith community through his leadership of the USC Cecil Murray Center for Community Engagement.
The Murray Archive preserves Rev. Murray’s sermons and interviews in order to inspire the next generation of pastors, activists and scholars.
Following is a lightly edited transcript of the above sermon. To quote from the sermon, please provide credit to: Rev. Cecil L. Murray, Murray Archives, USC Center for Religion and Civic Culture.
“Above the Madness”
September 16, 2001
Holy Spirit, you’re welcome in this place! Thank you for walking with us down the aisle. Thank you for calling us right now. Thank you for telling us of the good news that comes in the morning. Thank you for waking us up in our souls, healing for the soul. Thank you for Jesus. Everyone, say, “Jesus.”
Thank you for Jesus. Everyone, say, “Jesus.”
Thank you for Jesus. Thank you for life, healing for the soul. Thank you, Lord!
Thank you. My unconquerable soul, unconquerable because of purifying presence. Everyone, say, “Purifying presence.”
Congregation: Purifying presence!
Purifying presence. That presence is in the midst of us. Balcony, can you feel it?
Can you feel it in the nave? Can you feel it in the alcove? Can you feel it in the plaza? Can you feel it in the choir? Purifying presence. That purifying presence says, “You’re caught up in madness. Only don’t let the madness be caught up in you.”
You’re caught up in poison, only don’t let the poison be caught up in you. So many have said before Tuesday, September 11, “I had an eerie feeling. I had an eerie feeling that something was about to happen.” And then when it happened, so many said, “I had an eerie feeling.” And now, here in the days after, we have an eerie feeling. It could have been me! It could have been me.
And the Holy Spirit says, “It was you!”
Remember John Donne, the poet, said, “Ask not to know for whom the bell tolls. It tolls for thee!” No man is an island. No woman is an island. We are part of a peninsula! We all stand together. No one stands alone. Come Holy Spirit, healing presence. Purifying presence. We do not stand alone. We stand now in a moment. If you turn to page 311 in your pew Bibles, and our radio audience. And thank you for your healing messages. Two Kings, chapter four. We’re going to begin reading in verse 38. Please rise. Page 11, Two Kings, chapter 4, verse 38.
Elijah, Elisha now returned to Gilgal. There was a famine in the land. One day as he was teaching the young prophets, he said to Gehazi, “Make some stew for supper for these men.” One of the young men went out into the field to gather vegetables, came back with some wild gourds. He shredded them and put them into a kettle without realizing that they were poisonous. But after the men had eaten a bite or two, they cried out, “Oh sir. There’s poison in this stew!” “Bring me some meal,” Elisha said. He threw it into the kettle and said, “Now it’s all right. Go ahead and eat!” And then it didn’t harm them.
There’s madness. Take your seats, and tell your neighbor the subject of our sermon: above the madness. Tell your neighbor. Tell your neighbor. Come on.
Above, above the madness. We’re going to talk about two things. In a real stew, and delivered by God. We’re in a real stew. Some of your reserves are going to be called up. Some of us here may have to sacrifice everything we have. We’re in a real stew. Elisha returns home to Gilgal, and there is a famine in the land.
You and I are from the same hometown as Elisha. There’s a famine in the land. People are hungry for the Word of God. People are hungry for the Gospel of God. People are hungry on the inside. People have food on the outside, but people are hungry on the inside. You got up and came to church this morning. Some got up as early as five o’clock, six o’clock. You come from 14 different cities, hungry for the Word of God. There’s a famine.
There’s a famine in Gilgal. Elisha remembers what you and I remember about Gilgal. Choir, are any of you old enough to remember, when the neighbor from next door would come and knock at the back door and ask you for a cup of flour? A week later, you’d go and borrow a cup of sugar, some salt. Anybody remember what cornmeal is? Anybody here know where hot water cornbread comes from? Oh, and when you cook some, you cook twice as much, and you took the other portion next door to Miss Suzie.
Didn’t have any money. What’d Peter tell the man begging? “Silver or gold have I none. But such as I have, I give to you.” In the name, not of Peter, in the name of Jesus–rise up! This is nine centuries before Jesus. Elisha is the son in the ministry of Elijah, ninth-century prophet. Elijah, so close to God that he’s one of the three men, along with Enoch and Jesus, who was translated to God. They’ve just went to heaven.
Elisha says there’s a famine in the land. People don’t love beyond themselves. Everybody, I love me! I love me. I love myself from me. People don’t love beyond themselves. People don’t reach beyond themselves. People don’t look out beyond themselves. They only look out for themselves. There’s a famine in the land.
But don’t you give up. Don’t you dare even think about giving up. You remember that in the midst of bad times, you have a good God. Good God, don’t let bad times make you bad! Good God! Don’t let mean times make you mean. Good God, don’t let messy times make you messy. Good God, don’t let negative times make you negative. Good God, don’t let cynical times make you cynical. In bad times, we have a good God!
Elisha calls one of them Gehazi. Gehazi’s Elisha’s right arm. His right-hand man. Elisha is there with the students of Elisha. He says, “Gehazi, go make some stew. Go make some stew.” Well, wait a minute. Now you said student. There’s a famine in the land. Things are falling apart, and you’re talking about student and school? Yes. Elisha has some ministerial students. They called them the sons of the prophet. A prophet always has sons, and he teaches them the Word of God. Don’t you see the point? Even though you’re starving for the bread, you’re also starving for the bread of life. Don’t ever set aside the Word of God for the word of man or woman when you’re starving. Stay under the Word!
Gehazi doesn’t argue with Elisha because Gehazi understands you cannot live by the word alone. Nine hundred years later, Jesus would teach you cannot live by bread alone. Caught up in a materialistic society, but here we learn you cannot live by the Word alone. These so-called Word churches that don’t feed anybody, don’t clothe anybody, don’t house anybody, don’t transport anybody, don’t lift anybody–just stay in church for three hours, hollering about the Word, and then close the church door when homeless people sleeping on the church steps. You’ve got to have more than the Word. The Word must become flesh!
Gehazi, Gehazi make a stew. Not make a mess. Some of us are real mess-merchants. We are caught up in the madness of mess! Some of us don’t do anything but create mess everywhere we go. We come to the choir, we create mess. We come into the ministry, we create mess. We on the stewardess board, we create mess. We on the usher board, we create mess. We get up with a bad attitude and give everybody else our mess. We’re on the parking lot, we create mess. We on the job, we create mess. We in the relationship, we create mess. Everywhere we go, we just create mess! Mess. Tell your neighbor, “Don’t be so messy!”
Gehazi, Gehazi sends out one of the disciples to get some herbs, some vegetables. Goes out in the field, and he gets some wild gourds. Everybody, say, “Gourds.”
He brings them back and puts them in the kettle of hot water. Any of y’all remember what a kettle is? Anybody remember them big boiling-pots in the backyard that you wash clothes in, and then you have a big kettle with fire running and wood that you bought from the wood man, and then the ice that you bought from the ice man, and then the mail man? And there was also a saving man—Jesus–when nothing was in the pot. You had the bread man. Puts it in the kettle. Ain’t no meat! This is meatless stew. When you ain’t got nothing but wild gourds, what do you eat? When you ain’t got nothing but oatmeal, what do you eat?
When you can only afford a Ford, what do you buy?
And when I say a Ford, I mean a Ford! When you can’t afford to buy a home, what do you do?
Rent. And then you come on and see our home folks that’s in the bulletin. Why are you paying rent when you can own your own home? But the point is, take what you have, and work with it. Take what you have. We are caught up in insanity! That’s what you have right now. You’ve got insanity, in the world. Take what you have. Don’t let it take you!
Grandmother takes a little grandson to the children’s fair. He has freckles galore. Any of you all have freckles? Oh, God! You went through some things, didn’t you? There’s one booth where one of the local artists is painting pictures on children’s faces, a tiger claw. And the line is long. He gets in the line. The little girl in front of him looks at him and says, “With all those freckles on your face, there’s no room for a picture.”
Yes, you caught it! Touch your tongue. Touch your tongue, everybody. Now say, “Behave!”
Grandmother sees grandson just sort of drop his head. She stoops down and says, “Ah, I just love freckles! All of my life, I have wanted freckles. There is nothing more beautiful than freckles.”
“Really Grandma? Really?”
“Tell me one thing in the world that’s more beautiful than freckles?”
Thinks for a while. Then he looks her in the eyes with love and says, “Wrinkles!”
Take the thing you have! If you’re in a stew, don’t make it a bigger stew. We’re in a real stew! Secondly, delivered by God. Tell your neighbor on your left, “God is in the delivery business.”
Congregation: God is in the delivery business!
Oh. yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes! God is in the delivery business. God delivers us from other people’s foolishness. God delivers us from our own foolishness! God saves us from ourselves. God helps us. God saves us. God saves us from ourselves! If it had not been for the Lord on my side, tell me, what would I do if it hadn’t been for the Lord?
God saves us from our own poison! That one who went out and brought in those vegetables didn’t know that they were poison. He put them in the pot. He knows the Word of God better than he knows herbs. That’s like some of us. We know the Word of God better than we know God’s people. We come to church, expecting the church to be filled with saints. We into the Word, into the Word, but we can’t tolerate somebody who ain’t into the Word. We are holy! We are so heaven-bound, we’re no earthly good. We enter the Word, but we don’t know the herbs.
A lot of times you can mean well and do poorly by not understanding. When you make a soup, you got to know what you’re putting into it, don’t you? You have to be careful what you’re putting into it. The disciples take a bit or two. The sons of the prophets take a bite or two and you know, they spit it out and say, “There’s poison in the stew! There’s poison in the bowl! There’s poison in the pot!”
How did they know? God has given you taste buds. So, you have spiritual taste buds. Sons of the prophets, you cannot eat what everybody’s cooking up. Some of you know, “I don’t eat that ’cause I don’t know who cooked it.” How many times have you said, “I don’t eat everybody’s cooking”?
They don’t like you! They’re back in the kitchen spitting in the stew. I don’t eat, I don’t eat everybody’s cooking. You can’t accept everything that’s brought to you. When you’re hungry, you got to be careful what you eat. When you’re hungry, you got to be [wondering] who brings you what. When you’re hungry, the devil will come along and offer you some poison.
You can’t eat everybody’s cooking. Elisha calls Gehazi again. Gehazi, bring me some meal! Hey, look at that. He takes the meal, and he pours it in the mix. In the mix. In the mix. Then he says, “It’s all right now! Come and eat.” And they stuffed themselves. You remember when Elisha met the bitter waters? And he cured the bitter waters with salt. Now he meets the poisoned stew, and he cures the poisoned stew with meal. But are we talking meal? No!
We’re talking about, be sure God is in the mix! If God is in the mix, you can’t fail. We’re standing here surrounded by insanity. There’s a purifying presence. God is in the mix! If your life has a war going on in it right now, there’s a purifying presence. God is in the mix! God will take care of the poison. God–if only you put God in the mix!
Man goes to his sun deck, his favorite sunflower. “Oh, Lord!” You know us. “I don’t know what I’m going to do!” Us.
“Times are so hard.” Us. “He left me. She left me. I caught him in bed. And he wasn’t singing a solo. Times are so hard! My son has had to call himself into action. My daughter’s on drugs. I don’t have a friend. Times are so hard.” He knew that this sunflower was dying. Only good now for seeds. Its carcass would make seed for others to grow. He was despondent.
I want to tell you something, children of God. Whenever you hang your head, that’s one dimension. The other dimension is to look up. There’s a purifying presence. There is One who can lift you above the madness. That one won’t take the madness away, but that one will lift you above the madness.
He comes out the next morning, at sunrise, to have a funeral service for his sunflower. Great God from glory, that sunflower is looking up, facing the rising sun! That flower was just looking down because the sun had gone down.
Weeping may endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning! In the morning, that sunflower looked up. In the morning, that sunflower was alive! By and by, when the morning comes, I’ll rise again. Come on and stand to your feet. Ain’t no power on Earth… (singing)… Take it up a chord or two!