James Earl Massey: Steward of the Story
By Timothy George
I first heard the voice of James Earl Massey when I was a theological student at Harvard Divinity School and he was the stated preacher for the Christian Brotherhood Hour, a weekly international broadcast sponsored by the Church of God (Anderson, Indiana). In those days, homiletics was not a regular part of the curriculum at Harvard. As a young minister with a small pastoral charge, I was eager to learn all I could about the craft of preaching, especially in a multi-racial, inner-city congregation. James Earl Massey was different than any other radio preacher I had ever heard. His diction was perfect, his command of the English language was superb, and his style was lively and compelling, though never marked by ostentation. He also had a way of getting on the inside of a biblical text, of unraveling it, so to speak, not the way a botanist would study a leaf in a laboratory, but like a great singer offering a distinctive rendition of a famous song.
Music is an apt analogy for Massey's preaching. Early on he received advanced training in classical piano and had all the makings of a refined concert artist. The modalities of music-rhythm, pitch, tone, phrasing, cadence, melody, mood-also apply to the work of the preacher, and Massey is a master of them all. When his career path turned from music to the ministry, the world lost a great pianist but gained a magnificent preacher of the Gospel. For Massey, though, preaching is never a mere performance, however well honed and powerfully presented. The sermon is more a deliverance than a performance: What is said is more important than how we say it, though these two aspects can never be completely divorced.
In any event, Massey was propelled into his life's work by a palpable sense of divine calling. As a young man of sixteen, he had come to the sanctuary of the Church of God of Detroit one Sunday morning with the score of a waltz by Chopin in his hands, intending no doubt to work on his musical assignment if the sermon proved boring! In his autobiography, Aspects of My Pilgrimage, Massey describes what happened next: "But during a brief let-up in my concentration on the score, I found myself being captured by the spirit of the worship occasion. As I honored the meaning of the worship hour and opened myself to God, I felt caught up into an almost transfixed state, and I heard a Voice speaking within my consciousness: 'I want you to preach!'" In that "great listening moment of grace," the trajectory of Massey's life was re-directed. As he puts it, "The Voice that called me was so clear, and its bidding, though gentle, bore the unmistakable authority of a higher realm."
Yesterday, July 24, 2016, marked the 70th anniversary of that pivotal event in Massey's life. Seventy years is a long time to do anything in one human life, but to sustain a pulpit tenure of quality and depth for seven decades is truly remarkable. This year, Massey also celebrates two other important anniversaries: sixty-five years as an ordained Christian minister and sixty-five years of marriage to Gwendolyn Inez Kilpatrick, a beautiful and gifted woman from Alabama whom Massey met in Detroit when she moved there to live with her sister. James and Gwendolyn have shared a lifetime of love and ministry together in the service of the church.
Across the years, James Earl Massey has been a pastor, scholar, teacher, evangelist, theological educator, denominational counselor, and respected leader in the world Christian movement. These are all positions-influential positions-he has held in fulfillment of that prior calling he received one Sunday morning in 1946 at a worship service in Detroit. In each of these roles, the task of preaching has been central. The desire to do pulpit work well, to the glory of God and for the blessing of all who hear, has ever claimed the deepest passion of James Earl Massey.
Massey is the heir of a rich heritage of faith. Brought up in a home marked by warm-hearted Christian devotion, he was spiritually formed by Wesleyan theology, the Holiness movement, and the African-American tradition. The rich spiritual resources of these cultural and church traditions have informed, and are still reflected in, Massey's approach to ministry and preaching. But there is a sense in which he transcends them all. The quest for authentic Christian unity is a major motif that runs deep through all of Massey's ministry; his work has been at once both evangelical and ecumenical. For twenty-two years he served as senior pastor of the Metropolitan Church of God in Detroit, a congregation he founded in 1954, the year of Brown v. Board of Education. His commitment to human dignity for every person made in the image of God and to civil rights for every citizen of the land was shaped by Martin Luther King Jr., his colleague and friend, and by Howard Thurman, his mentor and inspiration.
On three separate occasions, Massey has presented the William E. Conger Jr. Lectures on Biblical Preaching at Beeson Divinity School. In the 2004 series, he spoke on the theme, "Stewards of the Story." In Massey's depiction of "The Story," the definite article makes a particular point. Preaching is not merely about stories, understood as a disparate collection of personal experiences, memories, recollections, and intuitions divorced from the narrative unity of the Bible read as a whole. The fragmentation and disconnection of much contemporary preaching is a reaction, or perhaps an overreaction, to certain totalizing and oppressive ways the Christian Story has sometimes been told in the past. But Massey calls the preacher back to a fresh encounter with the canonical shape of biblical revelation. The undeniable diversity found in the Scriptures does not obscure the fact that we are dealing here with one biblion: a coherent account of God's purpose for the world and for each of us. God-called preachers, Massey argues, are stewards of this amazing Story. There is great joy in such a stewardship, but it brings a burden as well. Story-stewardship implies a unique calling, a divine commissioning, a holy accountability, and a distinctive demeanor among those who would handle it well.
The unifying center of the preaching moment remains the fidelity and clarity of the message on the one hand, and the passion and integrity of the messenger on the other. Stewards of the Story are preachers who speak the truth in love "dipping and seasoning all our words and sentences in our hearts before they come into our mouths … so that our auditors may plainly perceive that every word is heart-deep" (George Herbert).
Stewards are trustees, those into whose care and responsibility something precious-in this case, something infinitely precious-has been entrusted. In the most basic sense, trustees are not "owners" of the prized bequest they have received. Rather they hold the bequest in trust, and they have a fiduciary responsibility to pass it on intact to those who will one day receive it in turn from them. Preachers of the Gospel are trustees of the Story. To discharge this duty faithfully requires not only a knowledge of the Story's content, but also the kind of wisdom that comes only through the hard work of listening, praying, serving, loving, and representing the One in whose name we speak and for whose sake we do this work.
While many people seek greatness but only attain mediocrity, James Earl Massey has been lifted to greatness while seeking simply to be faithful to his calling. Beyond his many accomplishments, at the core of Dr. Massey's being there is an essential decency, humility, and spirituality that is compelling. Never one to give himself to minor absolutes, he has modeled, with courage and compassion, the burdensome joy of a herald whose life reflects the message he proclaims. In the words of the great Howard Thurman, his life is "a great rejoicing!"