Home Equipping Leaders African American "Plenty Good Room" Tells of the Inclusiveness of God

"Plenty Good Room" Tells of the Inclusiveness of God

The Rev. Larry D. Pickens

Scripture Focus: John 14:2

When I was a young boy, I was not particularly athletic. It took some time for my body to grasp athleticism and dexterity. Whenever we played basketball on the blacktop in the neighborhood, I was either not chosen; or I was usually the last person chosen and generally by default. I was so bad that sometimes a team would play shorthanded before they would select me to play in the game.

I remember making a little league baseball team one summer and enjoying the experience and camaraderie. But I was so bad that one day the coach told me the practice was at 3:00 p.m. on the next day. I arrived and waited and waited and waited and finally went home around 6:00 p.m. I later learned that the rest of the team was told to be at practice at noon. Well, I got the hint.

But I remember one of the most pivotal experiences of my life happened when my class made it to the intramural basketball championship in the eighth grade. Our center fouled out of the game, and we were down four points. The coach looked down the bench and looked past me. He looked in the other direction, and then looked at me again. He then asked, "If I put you in the game, will you stay out of the three-second lane?"

At that point, had he asked me if I could slam dunk, I would have said yes. This was my chance to get into the game. When I got in the game, not only did I avoid getting a three-second call, but I scored two baskets and helped our team capture the win in what was one of the most thrilling experiences of my life. I got into that game, and it changed my life forever.

There is a Negro spiritual titled “Plenty Good Room.” That song is a theological statement about the inclusiveness of God, the God who has many dwelling places:

Plenty good room (plenty good room), plenty good room (plenty good room)
Plenty good room in my Father's kingdom
Plenty good room (plenty good room), plenty good room (plenty good room)
Choose your seat and sit down.

I would not be a liar
I tell you the reason why
Afraid my Lord might call me
And I wouldn't be ready to die.

I've got a long white robe up in heaven I know
A long white robe up in heaven I know
A long white robe up in heaven I know
Choose your seat and sit down

I've got a starry crown up in heaven I know
A starry crown up in heaven I know
A starry crown up in heaven I know
Choose your seat and sit down.

I would not be a sinner (be a sinner)
I tell you the reason why (I'm gonna tell you the reason why)
Afraid the Lord might call me (I'm afraid my Lord might call)
And I wouldn't be ready to die

Well I don't want to be left behind (good news, there's plenty good room)
Choose your seat and sit down (and I don't want to be left behind)
Well I don't want to be left behind.

Our slave forebears understood God to be a Creator of the living hope. Jesus promises acceptance. Jesus’ promise is that there is plenty good room.

  • God chooses you. God chooses me.
  • Despite our imperfections, God chooses you and me.
  • Despite our failures, God chooses you and me.
  • Despite your past, despite my past, God chooses us.
  • Despite our sinful present, God chooses us by making it clear that there is plenty good room.
  • Despite our shortcomings, God makes room for us.

Jesus has the capacity to embrace those who have been rejected. His ministry gives comfort to those whom we might think should be excluded. It is good that you and I are not God. If you and I were God, we would limit the number of those who could get salvation. Some of us would only have a heaven that includes people just like us and excludes those who are not like us.

Some of us would only have a heaven that includes people just like us and excludes those who are not like us.

It is good that you or I are not God because we would be too limited in our ability to include folks whom we don’t like. We would be like the man who walks out of church with his wife following the service saying this about the sermon: “He wants me to love my enemies; I have trouble even liking my friends."

The late Emil Fackenheim, a holocaust survivor, developed the concept of what he called a "double move." For Fackenheim, a double move means to seek explanation, but also to resist explanation.

On the one hand, we want to understand Jesus' capacity to embrace the stranger and the rejected; but on the other hand, we don't want to embrace those characteristics ourselves. We find such inclusive capacity to be compelling, yet within all of us there is a fear of the unknown and a repulsion of strangers.

We think that we want to expand the radically inclusive welcome of God’s grace, but the more compelling force that drives us is to continue living within the context of our present faith, our present reality.

This is also symbolic of our encounter with the sin that we see in others. It is easier for you and me to see the failures of our brothers and sisters, and much more difficult for us to recognize our own failures. This is one reason that we struggle with God’s inclusiveness.

Deep in the back of our minds many of us will say to ourselves, “I know how I made it, but how could she, or how could he? The lyrics of the song haunt us:

There’s plenty good room, plenty good room in my father’s kingdom, so choose your seat and sit down.”

When we come face to face with the dichotomy of good and evil that is within all of us, we are challenged by it both personally and in a communal context. The fact is, Jesus realizes this dichotomy within each of us, but chooses to build community by looking for the good that is within through transforming love.

Jesus shows you and me the way to life, perseverance, and love. He is the way the truth and the life.

Our nation has historically welcomed the immigrant. However, we live in a nation where we struggle with racial profiling and immigration, which lives in tension with the Beloved Community and a faith that calls for inclusivity. The words inscribed on the Statue of Liberty met the immigrants of another age stating:

"Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shores. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me.
I lift my lamp beside the golden door."

In our spirit and history we are an inclusive nation, but in our fear and anxiety we struggle with the presence of the other.

Jesus encountered the poor, the outcasts, the dispossessed and the lepers. The social stigmas, physical conditions and cultural realities served as signs of exclusion.

The Levitical legal code was a basis for separating the people of God from those who were considered to be unclean. In some circles of belief, one’s color, social condition or physical malady was viewed as a sign of God's punishment for sin. Therefore, when the immigrant, the leper, the outcast, approaches Jesus, he is acting against a backdrop of a history of exclusion. In Jesus’ day, whatever distinguished a person as “other” represented a sign of exclusion, a scarlet letter of rejection; it was, in fact, a signal that encouraged rejection.

Jesus, however, confronted a people who only knew rejection; he was forced to deal with the trauma of human need. Jesus represents the theology that there is “plenty good room” for God’s people to enter into the kingdom of life.

Jesus is so inclusive that he moves outside his comfort zone.

Likewise, the gospel challenges you and me to move outside our historical and cultural identity and embrace God's call to inclusiveness. The challenge is for you and me, if only we are willing to meet it.

  • If you are willing, you can reach out to the unlovable and show them love!
  • If you are willing, you can embrace the shunned and, show him or her acceptance!
  • If you are a willing church, you can move outside of the comfort zone of your walls and encounter a world that needs to know the love of Jesus Christ.
  • If we are willing, we can embrace the sinner and he or she can experience the love of God!

In order to have compassion toward someone else, you and I must understand God’s compassion for us. We are called to live with passion, strong enthusiasm for the fulfillment of our lives and the hope that all of God’s people experience this power for living. Jesus enters our lives with an eye toward salvation. Our faith should move you and me to enthusiasm and verve.

I am so amazed at how many times we live in the doldrums of negativity, failing to realize that our faith is centered on the enthusiasm of God's love for each of us.

Our relationship with God is grounded in the hope of God's passion for us. We make God so small when, on the contrary, God’s spirit is bursting forth and trying to drag you and me into the expansive possibilities that await us.

There is plenty good room!

When you have experienced the passionate and enthusiastic acceptance of Jesus, it calls you to pass it on to someone else. When something is good, then you want to pass it on. When something good happens to you, then you feel like sharing it with the world.

So choose your seat and sit down, but then invite someone else to join you.

When the lost person feels the compassionate reach of Jesus that extends the hope of redemption and inclusion into the family of God, it is life changing. Jesus touches you and me by reaching outside his comfort zone and changing us forever. Jesus worked within the restrictive framework of his cultural and historical reality, but he reached beyond those boundaries, signaling God’s desire that we move outside our complacency––our “business as usual” mode––into a framework for inclusive mission and ministry where we go into the world to encounter the modern day lepers, the poor, the hopeless, the diseased, the outsider, the immigrant, the one who is different.

Tyron L. Inbody, in his book, The Many Faces of Christology, tells the story of taking a summer job in 1963 with a friend, working in a factory that made telephone books. The two men, both African-American, noticed that near their workstation was a brand new cold water fountain. They, however, were not supposed to drink from the fountain because it was for whites only.

He says that the "Negro" water fountain was some five to six hundred feet away from the work area, and the water there was always lukewarm.

One day Inbody and his friend decided that they were going to drink from the “whites only” fountain, no matter the cost. By late afternoon, they said that nothing happened. It was around 4:00 p.m. when their machine broke and they began to celebrate their victory as they sat on a pallet laughing.

Suddenly an older African-American man who was about 62 years old and had worked for the company for 30 years approached them. The old man asked them, "Boys did you drink from that water fountain today?" The boys said, "Yes, we drank from it." The old man said that the boss told him that if you drink from that fountain again, they are going to fire me. He went on to explain that he was three years away from retirement. The company's retirement policy stated that if you were fired before retirement, you would lose your retirement benefits. He said that he had a daughter in college and a family to support.

The two talked about the man and his unwillingness to stand up for himself. But after thinking about it that evening, the two felt bad about their treatment of the man. In fact, on the next day when they returned to work, they told the man that they would not drink from the fountain again.

Tears welled up in the old man's eyes. He told the boys they didn’t have to do that. He explained that what he wanted them to understand was that everybody has to pay a price.

“I'm old,” he said. “If you want to drink from that water fountain, go ahead. But I want you to understand that the way this system operates is that it always takes the weakest ones. You need to be aware of the price that the weakest will have to pay. If it still seems right, then you do what you have to do. But never do anything like that without being sure that you understand who has to pay the price and what the price is.”

The two young men decided that their action was not worth the price that the old man had to pay.

This is one small example of how injustice is unofficially codified within the life of our society Think about the price that the weakest among us pay: the poor, the immigrant, and the child. Remember the weakest and think about them in the context of your faith.

Jesus has already paid the price. Jesus has paid the price for those who have languished for too long seeking justice. Jesus has already paid the price and it makes you want to go out and tell everybody about how God has lifted you and me.

I'm so glad Jesus lifted me.
When I was in trouble Jesus lifted me.
Shout with joy and be glad that there is plenty good room.
God chooses you and the touch of the divine in now within you.
God chooses you in order to set you free.
Jesus gives you a chance .... no one else will.
So choose your seat and sit down!

The Rev. Dr. Larry D. Pickens is the pastor of Southlawn United Methodist Church in Chicago, Illinois.

Return to Introduction: "Plenty Good Room! A Black History Month Sermon Series Based on Negro Spirituals"