The Kumbaya Conundrum


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Some people of faith seem more stressed/mean/selfish than those outside of the church. Rev. John Weems asks, “Where is the love?”

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This Week’s Sermon Was Drawn From the Following Scripture

Acts of the Apostles 2:42-47

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.46 Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.

 

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“Kumbaya” was one of the many reasons I did not want to go to seminary and become a pastor. I had this fear that aspiring pastors primarily memorized and debated Bible verses, prayed for 15 minutes before eating a sandwich and engaged in constant judgment of one another. When they weren’t praying or judging and really wanted to let their hair down, they would stand around drinking hot cocoa and singing hymns like “Kumbaya,” I thought.

My understanding of what religious people were about was formed by a combination of popular culture and people with whom I had grown up—Father Mulcahy from M*A*S*H, the pastor in Footloose who really hated dancing and Kevin Bacon’s character who always seemed to be dancing. I was concerned about religious classmates who weren’t allowed to listen to the Rolling Stones or Red Hot Chili Peppers. I also had firsthand exposure to the struggles of my Uncle Garry, who pastored small churches in Montana and North Dakota. From my perspective, he eked out a living that seemed as sparse as Moses and the Israelites wandering from Egypt and hoping that God would provide some manna bread-flakes.

As far as I was concerned, the religious people could keep their “Kumbaya” mentality. Having watched my parents frequently work 16-hour days to run our small bowling center in Idaho and still struggle to pay the bills, I prioritized earning potential above all else. When I was about eight-years-old, my mom was crying during an especially stressful financial situation. I told her that I planned to leave Idaho to go to a good college and would make so much money that she would never have to worry again—and I would buy her a Corvette. We laugh about that now.

How do we balance the challenges of following Jesus with the realities of life today?

Our Scripture passage from The Acts of the Apostles paints a simultaneously beautiful and frustratingly idealistic picture of living faithfully.

Let’s take another look at Acts 2:42-47 together:

 “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.”

Lest you wonder, I did not first choose a point and then load up this passage like a weapon to prove it. It is part of one of the Daily Lectionary calendars many churches use to gain exposure to a solid cross section of the Bible over a three-year period. To some here, the lifestyle described in this passage is a utopian vision. You can picture yourself in Marin or down at Ojai or in India sharing everything and spending time together feeling the love. For others, the vision of this Acts community sounds like a living nightmare. You can just imagine the smells and dirty feet and some dude who keeps double and triple dipping chips in the guacamole and trying to drink from your cup.

Beyond hygiene and interpersonal relations, the passage presents some real challenges to the structure of economies and property. Biblical scholar Luke Timothy Johnson explains that at least three centuries before Jesus walked on earth, Greek philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle disagreed about how communities handled resources. Plato’s Critias describes young Athens as a community in which “none of its members possessed any private property, but they regarded all they had as the common property of all.”[1] Though Plato was a father figure and mentor to Aristotle, the protégée “with equal vigor rejected the ideal of community possessions.”[2] In Economic Thought Before Adam Smith, Murray Rothbard points out Aristotle’s argument that people would take better care of their own possessions, be more productive with them, and should not be deprived of the opportunity to engage in voluntary philanthropy.[3]

American Churches tend to be much more aligned with Aristotle’s economic sentiment than Plato’s. Yet Plato, Philo, Plutarch and others influenced today’s passage from Acts by consistently lifting up this utopian ideal of community. The picture Acts paints is based on the life and teachings of Jesus.

Why are we so quick to dismiss it as “Kumbaya” mumbo-jumbo?

Political leaders from both major parties have frequently said we aren’t going to solve our problems by sitting around and singing “Kumbaya.” In a New York Times Article nearly seven years ago, Vanderbilt University political scientist John G. Greer said, “’Kumbaya’ lets you ridicule the whole idea of compromise.”[4]

We have seen this battle time and time again—from both major parties—in the healthcare arena. Neither the Affordable Care Act nor the American Health Care Act reflects the greatest possible care. When political parties are more focused on winning than the greater good, no one really wins.

I ask again: How do we balance the challenges of following Jesus with the realities of life today? How did we get to this point?

An English professor lost his job when he was about 40-years-old. He set out from his home in Georgia with a wax cylinder-recording device searching for songs in black hamlets. In 1926, Robert Winslow Gordon met a man known only as H. Wylie who sang a song in his Gullah, Sea Islands Creole Dialect: “Come By Here.” The song originated in black Christianity and called out to God to show up during times of trial. Black people subjected to lynch mobs and oppression and hatred. “Someone’s crying, Lord, come by here.” The song continued to serve as a call for liberation for the oppressed.

By the late 1950s, white folk singers such as Pete Seeger and Peter, Paul & Mary did their own versions. The song Gordon likely stole and appropriated eventually made its way to Angola with American Missionaries and returned with what was understood to be an African word, “kumbaya.”

Library of Congress expert Stephen P. Winick says that he has found no evidence of any indigenous word “kumbaya.” It seems more likely that “Come By Here” sounded like “Kumbaya,” so it stuck.[5]

Though it still holds meaning for many in the world and I’m sure for many of you today, it has been reduced to a dismissive insult.

Ladies and gentlemen, I understand wanting to be strong and self-sufficient. We want to be strong as individuals and as a nation, but faith in Christ is not primarily a call to worldly strength. The final verse of today’s passage in Acts says, “And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.” We can too often use “saved” as the Christian way of saying that someone confessed Jesus and now has punched his or her ticket to heaven. While I do hold fast to hope that we will be embraced by the love of God after our time here, we are not called to sit around and wait for the end.

In the early church vision from Acts, a key aspect of being “saved” by Jesus was following him to the point of realizing that faith isn’t primarily about individuals. Being saved isn’t merely about you. It isn’t about me. It’s about us, and about us in relation to Jesus who lived a life of sacrifice. This community might not have “all things in common” at the moment, but we do have one thing in common—access to the selfless, Christ-like agape love that seeks to see beneath the surface to the child of God that was there before the world jaded us and we dug into our own trenches of opinion.

And I am seeing signs of this loving salvation emerging day by day.

I see it in the person among you who took the time to get to know that a homeless neighbor has fond memories of eating oatmeal as a boy, and goes out of her way to bring him an oatmeal cookie. I hear it in Michael Conley, whose heart was moved by the hills and people of Appalachia and has brought together several dozen friends from Calvary and New York to sing for justice.

If you are here today feeling like you’re struggling alone and don’t want to battle alone, please break your silence. You might have plenty of financial resources, but feel emotionally depleted, or vice-versa. Write “help” on one of the offering envelopes and throw it in the plate when the offering comes by.

As you consider your own challenges, those of neighbors you know, and those you’ll never meet, hear the tune. As you read or watch or listen to the news this week, hear the tune. Hum it. Sing it.

Calling out to God is not weak. Come by here.

“Kumbaya my Lord, kumbaya
Kumbaya my Lord, kumbaya
Kumbaya my Lord, kumbaya
Oh Lord, kumbaya.”

Amen.

[1] Luke Timothy Johnson, Sacra Pagina Series, vol. 5), The Acts of the Apostles (Collegeville, Minn.: Michael Glazier, 1992), 62.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Murray N. Rothbard. “Aristotle on Private Property and Money,” excerpted from Economic Thought Before Adam Smith, accessed at https://mises.org/library/aristotle-private-property-and-money

[4] Samuel G. Freedman, “A Long Road From ‘Come by here’ to ‘Kumbaya.’” New York Times, Nov. 19, 2010.

[5] Ibid.

 

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