delivered on July 31st, 2011
They say you can’t really get more than one point across in a sermon, and they are probably right, but I was on a tear this week and there are way too many in this one, so I figured I’d tell you what they were so you could choose which one to listen for… if you choose an early one, you might even squeeze in a nap. Here they are: everything before Moses is probably a folktale, Christians played a key role in the abolition of slavery, Anabaptists are kinda cool, we’ve got to do something about economic slavery, and children are starving right now, right here in the U.S. In fact, now that you know what I’m going to say, maybe I should just sit down and get us all to the beach that much sooner. Or maybe not…
There is a lot we don’t know about the early Hebrews. For example, despite the frequency with which we tell the stories of Abraham and Sarah, of Jacob the trickster and his hapless brother Esau, of Joseph the Flamboyant and his jealous evil brothers, in truth, everything before the Exodus is a mystery, a collection of folktales that were jumbled together. They may, in fact, represent three completely different tribal traditions that were conflated. If you study the texts closely, it even looks like Abraham did kill Isaac in one version of the story. But we begin to have some context, begin to get some consistency in the narrative, when it gets to the Exodus sometime around twelve or thirteen hundred years before Jesus. In fact, despite the attempts of many to discredit the Hebrew narrative, we have some historical basis not only for Jesus and David, but we also have pretty good reason to believe that the Exodus was a real event.
To be fair, the Red Sea was probably the “Reed Sea,” so Charlton Heston posed arms aloft before a Cecil B. DeMille spectacle is probably a bit of an exaggeration. And the tens of thousands journeying across the desert was probably a much smaller rag-tag band. But there can be no doubt that the Hebrew identity was forged in an experience of Exodus, of fleeing slavery in Egypt and settling in Palestine. Lead by a man with an Egyptian name, Moses, theirs was a tale of liberation. The entirety of the Hebrew narrative, from the Pentateuch through the prophets, is bent towards justice for the laborer and the alien, for the Hebrew people had been there themselves, had been strangers in a strange land as the text poignantly says, they knew what is was to be oppressed.
It says something about the human ability to rationalize and to project human desires onto God, that those involved in the brutal flesh trade called slavery would then use the Bible to justify their practice. The alien African was abducted, transported, and those that managed to live were subjected to labor practices that were clearly a violation of scripture. In some cases they were flat out murdered, and the legacy of slavery after it was abolished, the lingering racism, included not only wage slavery but also lynching and more and more murder. Paul’s great equality, neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female, it’s blown right out the window.
What evils do we do when we try to suppose God is on our side! We need only look at the fervor with which people claim that God is a gun-toting Zionist American capitalist to see this evil in action. I suspect God is never on “our” side in the sense we’d like to think, but that instead God is on God’s side, that is, God is on the side of creativity and love and transcendence and calls us to these things and we keep trying to trap God in our own smallness, turning what is great, beyond us, mysterious, into a small idol we can control! I’d say let them all be damned, these preachers who make God into something small and tame, but I cannot damn them, for we all are guilty of claiming we know God’s will, and those who do so most boldly are those that most need our prayers and compassion! But that is for another day, today is about the abolition of slavery, and the Christian commitment to abolition.
Slavery has existed as long as there has been civilization, at least as far as I can tell. We know the Hebrews were slaves in Egypt. We know that the Romans had slaves, that Islam tolerated slavery, and of course, we are still living the consequences of the rape of Africa, and to a lesser extent of the East Indies, when untold millions were taken into slavery. And many of you know that actual slavery, not economic slavery, but the real thing, still exists in many parts of the world. Fewer will know of brutal slave states that lasted well into the 20th century, like the Belgian king’s personal colony of the Congo, where slaughter and mutilation were the European way of convincing the native people to harvest increasing amounts of rubber. The train wreck that is the Democratic Republic of the Congo today and many of the atrocities we witness in Africa were formed in the crucible of European greed.
But it was Christians that stood up against the Congo slave state, and it would be Christians just four decades later marching in Alabama for civil rights, something we’ll celebrate in two weeks, and it was Christians, by and large, that fought for the abolition of slavery, both here and abroad. In fact, the values of the Protestant Reformation drove much of abolitionism. It was Protestant belief that individuals mattered, that people discerned the will of God in covenanted communities, that the church was the agent of grace in this world, and those beliefs were essentially in conflict with beliefs that made a person less than a real and full participant in the Kingdom of God. William Wilberforce, the great English abolitionist, was deeply influenced by the fringe non-conforming radicals of his day, what we call today Methodists… want to talk about losing your edge! Wilberforce would go on to lead the campaign to end the British involvement in the slave trade, partnering with the Quakers. The United Church of Christ represents two of the three major branches of Protestantism, the Lutheran and Calvinist branches of reform, but I feel we have much to learn from our sisters and brothers in that other branch, the Anabaptist reform, which includes the Quakers. The Anabaptists would also play a leading role in the abolitionist movement in the United States.
The religious fervor of the 1820’s and 30’s, known as the Second Great Awakening, saw an increasing number of Americans committed to a Christian life, and to questioning those practices of society which were at odds with scripture and the Way of Jesus. This Second Great Awakening was largely grounded in the Calvinist branch of the Protestant tradition, and our own heritage includes the Congregationalist branch of Calvinism, for which this very church is still named. It was a denomination that spawned countless abolitionists. For when they took a good look around, these renewed re-vitalized, can we say “awakened” Christians realized that slavery was a bold and open sin. We know how the story goes, and could debate the particulars for days, but the bottom line is this: slavery always was and always will be a sin under the covenant with Christ. And what would an awakened Christian see today?
One of the leaders of the Abolition movement in America and publisher of the Liberator, from which one of today’s readings is taken, was William Lloyd Garrison. Inspired by a Christian minister and grounded in Christian values, he would make anyone’s short-list of those who helped see the end of slavery in America. Of course, there were smugglers on the Underground Railroad, people who took courageous direct action to free people from slavery, heroes like Harriet Tubman, featured on the cover of our Order of Service.
The great spirituals, sung in the fields and slave shacks, drew heavily on biblical imagery of liberation, of new life. A specially powerful image was Ezekiel’s dry bones coming back to life. The very faith the white Europeans shoved down the throat of the abducted slaves provided the hope and stay needed to survive those conditions! Those with power in the 19th century failed to notice what those with power in the 21st century still fail to notice: God is always on the side of the oppressed and vulnerable, of the immigrant, the laborer, the poor. Christian values fueled the abolitionist movement as they have fueled so many movements for justice and equality.
But a sermon is meaningless if it simply recounts the past, for we are challenged with living as Christians today, and it is mighty hard to walk on the Way of Jesus when the television and our popular culture tell little but lies, promoting consumption and false values, self-centeredness dressed up as individualism, and naked greed, and don’t even get me started about the evils be done by extremists in Washington, who have clearly forgotten that God is for the poor. I pray that the Spirit will soften their hearts and bring them to repentance. Do I sound like a man on fire? Good! Jeremiah was a man on fire. As the saying goes, I have need to be on fire. I have icebergs to melt.
Our world not only has real slavery, we also have wage slaves trapped in cycles of poverty and victimization, and not just in the so-called Third-World, but right here, right now, in the United States. Of course, we may be the Third World after next week. Many trapped in poverty are not there because they are lazy, welfare queens taking a free-ride on the taxpayer’s back. Many trapped in poverty are there because of bad breaks, many suffering calamities worthy of Job.
Now, if you’ve been keeping track, I haven’t made a reference to my favorite rock band, Pearl Jam, in several weeks. Truthfully, I’ve been a little distracted musically, with a couple of new country albums out, and a new hip-hop artists I just discovered. So here is my July Pearl Jam reference. Eddie Vedder famously said…. okay, maybe not so famously since I’m the only one who knows this… he was speaking in a concert about the late Howard Zinn, and he said of himself, you get smart by hanging around with smart people. Eddie was right. I was wise enough many years ago to choose as a friend a woman much smarter than me, and as we were chatting on our mutual Fridays off a couple of days ago, she mentioned a piece of devastating news. Boston Medical Center is the public hospital serving that metropolitan area, it is where you go if you can’t afford to go anywhere else. And as you would expect during a time of economic calamity as the rich get richer and the rest of us get poorer, it has seen a dramatic uptick in patients. That’s not what is so startling. What is the disaster? Boston Medical has seen a dramtic increase in the number of children who come into the Emergency Room who are dangerously under-weight. A full 22% of the children coming in through the doors are not getting enough food to maintain a healthy weight. More than one in five. That’s not just impoverished kids who are hungry sometimes. That is dramatic and will have lifelong developmental consequences on those children and our society. All while Goldman Sachs rigs the food markets to drive prices up.
Many are there because in this so-called “land of opportunity,” they have never had one. And it is our task as followers of Jesus to secure justice. Just as we expect to be cared for when we are in need. The Christians, Anabaptists, Calvinist, Irish Catholics, those followers on the Way of Jesus who stood for abolition, they got it. In some cases they were more than a little inconvenienced. In fact, in the conflagration of the Civil War, many gave their lives. What will you give?
The scriptures tell us that in ancient Hebrew practice, those who suffered calamity, those who fell into poverty, could look forward to the Year of the Jubilee, when they got a clean start. All debts were canceled, it was a new beginning. You already got your jubilee, when God forgave your sins and offered you a way of life. You are here because you want to reject the fatal ways of the world in favor of a Living and life-giving God. You got your jubilee. The jubilee of emancipation, the jubilee of Juneteenth, but there is much work to be done, there are still those in bondage, and we are an exodus people, you are the new Moses, called to make people free.
Anybody who ever told you that following the Way of Jesus was going to be easy and comfortable lied to you. But here is the good news: we can do it together, and we will have the Spirit with us as we work not just to turn around our church, but to turn around our world. To turn around our world, to build the just and caring Kingdom of God… a world without slavery in any form… now that is good news!