What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?

Replace the word “slave” with “African-American”, replace the actual slavery instances with the countless personal, professional, and systemic cruelties inflicted on all those who do not enjoy white privilege; and this could have been written for this year. Heed the words of Fredick Douglass.


Frederick Douglass’s 1852 Oration: Part 1, read by Walter O. Evans.

Frederick Douglass’s 1852 Oration: Part 2, read by David Blight.

Frederick Douglass’s 1852 Oration: Part 3, read by Babz Rawls Ivy.

Frederick Douglass’s 1852 Oration: Part 4, read by Erik Clemons.

Frederick Douglass’s 1852 Oration: Part 5, read by Walter O. Evans.

Fredrick Douglass


Delivered on Monday, July 5th, 1852, in Rochester, New York


Mr. President, Friends and Fellow Citizens: He who could address this audience without a quailing sensation, has stronger nerves than I have. I do not remember ever to have appeared as a speaker before any assembly more shrinkingly, nor with greater distrust of my ability, than I do this day. A feeling has crept over me, quite unfavorable to the exercise of my limited powers of speech. The task before me is one which requires much previous thought and study for its proper performance. I know that apologies of this sort are generally considered flat and unmeaning. I trust, however, that mine will not be so considered. Should I seem at ease, my appearance would much misrepresent me. The little experience I have had in addressing public meetings, in country school houses, avails me nothing on the present occasion.


The papers and placards say, that I am to deliver a 4th [of] July oration. This certainly sounds large, and out of the common way, for it is true that I have often had the privilege to speak in this beautiful Hall, and to address many who now honor me with their presence. But neither their familiar faces, nor the perfect gage I think I have of Corinthian Hall, seems to free me from embarrassment.


The fact is, ladies and gentlemen, the distance between this platform and the slave plantation, from which I escaped, is considerable — and the difficulties to be overcome in getting from the latter to the former, are by no means slight. That I am here to-day is, to me, a matter of astonishment as well as of gratitude. You will not, therefore, be surprised, if in what I have to say, I evince no elaborate preparation, nor grace my speech with any high sounding exordium. With little experience and with less learning, I have been able to throw my thoughts hastily and imperfectly together; and trusting to your patient and generous indulgence, I will proceed to lay them before you.


This, for the purpose of this celebration, is the 4th of July. It is the birthday of your National Independence, and of your political freedom. This, to you, is what the Passover was to the emancipated people of God. It carries your minds back to the day, and to the act of your great deliverance; and to the signs, and to the wonders, associated with that act, and that day. This celebration also marks the beginning of another year of your national life; and reminds you that the Republic of America is now 76 years old. I am glad, fellow-citizens, that your nation is so young. Seventy-six years, though a good old age for a man, is but a mere speck in the life of a nation. Three score years and ten is the allotted time for individual men; but nations number their years by thousands. According to this fact, you are, even now, only in the beginning of your national career, still lingering in the period of childhood. I repeat, I am glad this is so. There is hope in the thought, and hope is much needed, under the dark clouds which lower above the horizon. The eye of the reformer is met with angry flashes, portending disastrous times; but his heart may well beat lighter at the thought that America is young, and that she is still in the impressible stage of her existence. May he not hope that high lessons of wisdom, of justice and of truth, will yet give direction to her destiny? Were the nation older, the patriot’s heart might be sadder, and the reformer’s brow heavier. Its future might be shrouded in gloom, and the hope of its prophets go out in sorrow. There is consolation in the thought that America is young. Great streams are not easily turned from channels, worn deep in the course of ages. They may sometimes rise in quiet and stately majesty, and inundate the land, refreshing and fertilizing the earth with their mysterious properties. They may also rise in wrath and fury, and bear away, on their angry waves, the accumulated wealth of years of toil and hardship. They, however, gradually flow back to the same old channel, and flow on as serenely as ever. But, while the river may not be turned aside, it may dry up, and leave nothing behind but the withered branch, and the unsightly rock, to howl in the abyss-sweeping wind, the sad tale of departed glory. As with rivers so with nations.


Fellow-citizens, I shall not presume to dwell at length on the associations that cluster about this day. The simple story of it is that, 76 years ago, the people of this country were British subjects. The style and title of your “sovereign people” (in which you now glory) was not then born. You were under the British Crown. Your fathers esteemed the English Government as the home government; and England as the fatherland. This home government, you know, although a considerable distance from your home, did, in the exercise of its parental prerogatives, impose upon its colonial children, such restraints, burdens and limitations, as, in its mature judgement, it deemed wise, right and proper.


But, your fathers, who had not adopted the fashionable idea of this day, of the infallibility of government, and the absolute character of its acts, presumed to differ from the home government in respect to the wisdom and the justice of some of those burdens and restraints. They went so far in their excitement as to pronounce the measures of government unjust, unreasonable, and oppressive, and altogether such as ought not to be quietly submitted to. I scarcely need say, fellow-citizens, that my opinion of those measures fully accords with that of your fathers. Such a declaration of agreement on my part would not be worth much to anybody. It would, certainly, prove nothing, as to what part I might have taken, had I lived during the great controversy of 1776. To say now that America was right, and England wrong, is exceedingly easy. Everybody can say it; the dastard, not less than the noble brave, can flippantly discant on the tyranny of England towards the American Colonies. It is fashionable to do so; but there was a time when to pronounce against England, and in favor of the cause of the colonies, tried men’s souls. They who did so were accounted in their day, plotters of mischief, agitators and rebels, dangerous men. To side with the right, against the wrong, with the weak against the strong, and with the oppressed against the oppressor! here lies the merit, and the one which, of all others, seems unfashionable in our day. The cause of liberty may be stabbed by the men who glory in the deeds of your fathers. But, to proceed.


Feeling themselves harshly and unjustly treated by the home government, your fathers, like men of honesty, and men of spirit, earnestly sought redress. They petitioned and remonstrated; they did so in a decorous, respectful, and loyal manner. Their conduct was wholly unexceptionable. This, however, did not answer the purpose. They saw themselves treated with sovereign indifference, coldness and scorn. Yet they persevered. They were not the men to look back.


As the sheet anchor takes a firmer hold, when the ship is tossed by the storm, so did the cause of your fathers grow stronger, as it breasted the chilling blasts of kingly displeasure. The greatest and best of British statesmen admitted its justice, and the loftiest eloquence of the British Senate came to its support. But, with that blindness which seems to be the unvarying characteristic of tyrants, since Pharaoh and his hosts were drowned in the Red Sea, the British Government persisted in the exactions complained of.


The madness of this course, we believe, is admitted now, even by England; but we fear the lesson is wholly lost on our present rulers.


Oppression makes a wise man mad. Your fathers were wise men, and if they did not go mad, they became restive under this treatment. They felt themselves the victims of grievous wrongs, wholly incurable in their colonial capacity. With brave men there is always a remedy for oppression. Just here, the idea of a total separation of the colonies from the crown was born! It was a startling idea, much more so, than we, at this distance of time, regard it. The timid and the prudent (as has been intimated) of that day, were, of course, shocked and alarmed by it.


Such people lived then, had lived before, and will, probably, ever have a place on this planet; and their course, in respect to any great change, (no matter how great the good to be attained, or the wrong to be redressed by it), may be calculated with as much precision as can be the course of the stars. They hate all changes, but silver, gold and copper change! Of this sort of change they are always strongly in favor.


These people were called tories in the days of your fathers; and the appellation, probably, conveyed the same idea that is meant by a more modern, though a somewhat less euphonious term, which we often find in our papers, applied to some of our old politicians.


Their opposition to the then dangerous thought was earnest and powerful; but, amid all their terror and affrighted vociferations against it, the alarming and revolutionary idea moved on, and the country with it.


On the 2d of July, 1776, the old Continental Congress, to the dismay of the lovers of ease, and the worshipers of property, clothed that dreadful idea with all the authority of national sanction. They did so in the form of a resolution; and as we seldom hit upon resolutions, drawn up in our day, whose transparency is at all equal to this, it may refresh your minds and help my story if I read it.


“Resolved, That these united colonies are, and of right, ought to be free and Independent States; that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown; and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain is, and ought to be, dissolved.”


Citizens, your fathers made good that resolution. They succeeded; and to-day you reap the fruits of their success. The freedom gained is yours; and you, therefore, may properly celebrate this anniversary. The 4th of July is the first great fact in your nation’s history — the very ring-bolt in the chain of your yet undeveloped destiny.


Pride and patriotism, not less than gratitude, prompt you to celebrate and to hold it in perpetual remembrance. I have said that the Declaration of Independence is the ring-bolt to the chain of your nation’s destiny; so, indeed, I regard it. The principles contained in that instrument are saving principles. Stand by those principles, be true to them on all occasions, in all places, against all foes, and at whatever cost.


From the round top of your ship of state, dark and threatening clouds may be seen. Heavy billows, like mountains in the distance, disclose to the leeward huge forms of flinty rocks! That bolt drawn, that chain broken, and all is lost. Cling to this day — cling to it, and to its principles, with the grasp of a storm-tossed mariner to a spar at midnight.


The coming into being of a nation, in any circumstances, is an interesting event. But, besides general considerations, there were peculiar circumstances which make the advent of this republic an event of special attractiveness.


The whole scene, as I look back to it, was simple, dignified and sublime.


The population of the country, at the time, stood at the insignificant number of three millions. The country was poor in the munitions of war. The population was weak and scattered, and the country a wilderness unsubdued. There were then no means of concert and combination, such as exist now. Neither steam nor lightning had then been reduced to order and discipline. From the Potomac to the Delaware was a journey of many days. Under these, and innumerable other disadvantages, your fathers declared for liberty and independence and triumphed.


Fellow Citizens, I am not wanting in respect for the fathers of this republic. The signers of the Declaration of Independence were brave men. They were great men too — great enough to give fame to a great age. It does not often happen to a nation to raise, at one time, such a number of truly great men. The point from which I am compelled to view them is not, certainly, the most favorable; and yet I cannot contemplate their great deeds with less than admiration. They were statesmen, patriots and heroes, and for the good they did, and the principles they contended for, I will unite with you to honor their memory.


They loved their country better than their own private interests; and, though this is not the highest form of human excellence, all will concede that it is a rare virtue, and that when it is exhibited, it ought to command respect. He who will, intelligently, lay down his life for his country, is a man whom it is not in human nature to despise. Your fathers staked their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor, on the cause of their country. In their admiration of liberty, they lost sight of all other interests.


They were peace men; but they preferred revolution to peaceful submission to bondage. They were quiet men; but they did not shrink from agitating against oppression. They showed forbearance; but that they knew its limits. They believed in order; but not in the order of tyranny. With them, nothing was “settled” that was not right. With them, justice, liberty and humanity were “final;” not slavery and oppression. You may well cherish the memory of such men. They were great in their day and generation. Their solid manhood stands out the more as we contrast it with these degenerate times.


How circumspect, exact and proportionate were all their movements! How unlike the politicians of an hour! Their statesmanship looked beyond the passing moment, and stretched away in strength into the distant future. They seized upon eternal principles, and set a glorious example in their defence. Mark them!


Fully appreciating the hardship to be encountered, firmly believing in the right of their cause, honorably inviting the scrutiny of an on-looking world, reverently appealing to heaven to attest their sincerity, soundly comprehending the solemn responsibility they were about to assume, wisely measuring the terrible odds against them, your fathers, the fathers of this republic, did, most deliberately, under the inspiration of a glorious patriotism, and with a sublime faith in the great principles of justice and freedom, lay deep the corner-stone of the national superstructure, which has risen and still rises in grandeur around you.


Of this fundamental work, this day is the anniversary. Our eyes are met with demonstrations of joyous enthusiasm. Banners and pennants wave exultingly on the breeze. The din of business, too, is hushed. Even Mammon seems to have quitted his grasp on this day. The ear-piercing fife and the stirring drum unite their accents with the ascending peal of a thousand church bells. Prayers are made, hymns are sung, and sermons are preached in honor of this day; while the quick martial tramp of a great and multitudinous nation, echoed back by all the hills, valleys and mountains of a vast continent, bespeak the occasion one of thrilling and universal interests nation’s jubilee.


Friends and citizens, I need not enter further into the causes which led to this anniversary. Many of you understand them better than I do. You could instruct me in regard to them. That is a branch of knowledge in which you feel, perhaps, a much deeper interest than your speaker. The causes which led to the separation of the colonies from the British crown have never lacked for a tongue. They have all been taught in your common schools, narrated at your firesides, unfolded from your pulpits, and thundered from your legislative halls, and are as familiar to you as household words. They form the staple of your national poetry and eloquence.


I remember, also, that, as a people, Americans are remarkably familiar with all facts which make in their own favor. This is esteemed by some as a national trait — perhaps a national weakness. It is a fact, that whatever makes for the wealth or for the reputation of Americans, and can be had cheap! will be found by Americans. I shall not be charged with slandering Americans, if I say I think the American side of any question may be safely left in American hands.


I leave, therefore, the great deeds of your fathers to other gentlemen whose claim to have been regularly descended will be less likely to be disputed than mine!


THE PRESENT.


My business, if I have any here to-day, is with the present. The accepted time with God and his cause is the ever-living now.


“Trust no future, however pleasant,
Let the dead past bury its dead;
Act, act in the living present,
Heart within, and God overhead.”


We have to do with the past only as we can make it useful to the present and to the future. To all inspiring motives, to noble deeds which can be gained from the past, we are welcome. But now is the time, the important time. Your fathers have lived, died, and have done their work, and have done much of it well. You live and must die, and you must do your work. You have no right to enjoy a child’s share in the labor of your fathers, unless your children are to be blest by your labors. You have no right to wear out and waste the hard-earned fame of your fathers to cover your indolence. Sydney Smith tells us that men seldom eulogize the wisdom and virtues of their fathers, but to excuse some folly or wickedness of their own. This truth is not a doubtful one. There are illustrations of it near and remote, ancient and modern. It was fashionable, hundreds of years ago, for the children of Jacob to boast, we have “Abraham to our father,” when they had long lost Abraham’s faith and spirit. That people contented themselves under the shadow of Abraham’s great name, while they repudiated the deeds which made his name great. Need I remind you that a similar thing is being done all over this country to-day? Need I tell you that the Jews are not the only people who built the tombs of the prophets, and garnished the sepulchres of the righteous? Washington could not die till he had broken the chains of his slaves. Yet his monument is built up by the price of human blood, and the traders in the bodies and souls of men, shout — “We have Washington to our father.” Alas! that it should be so; yet so it is.


“The evil that men do, lives after them,
The good is oft’ interred with their bones.”


Fellow-citizens, pardon me, allow me to ask, why am I called upon to speak here to-day? What have I, or those I represent, to do with your national independence? Are the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice, embodied in that Declaration of Independence, extended to us? and am I, therefore, called upon to bring our humble offering to the national altar, and to confess the benefits and express devout gratitude for the blessings resulting from your independence to us?


Would to God, both for your sakes and ours, that an affirmative answer could be truthfully returned to these questions! Then would my task be light, and my burden easy and delightful. For who is there so cold, that a nation’s sympathy could not warm him? Who so obdurate and dead to the claims of gratitude, that would not thankfully acknowledge such priceless benefits? Who so stolid and selfish, that would not give his voice to swell the hallelujahs of a nation’s jubilee, when the chains of servitude had been torn from his limbs? I am not that man. In a case like that, the dumb might eloquently speak, and the “lame man leap as an hart.”


But, such is not the state of the case. I say it with a sad sense of the disparity between us. I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common. The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought life and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth [of] July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn. To drag a man in fetters into the grand illuminated temple of liberty, and call upon him to join you in joyous anthems, were inhuman mockery and sacrilegious irony. Do you mean, citizens, to mock me, by asking me to speak to-day? If so, there is a parallel to your conduct. And let me warn you that it is dangerous to copy the example of a nation whose crimes, lowering up to heaven, were thrown down by the breath of the Almighty, burying that nation in irrecoverable ruin! I can to-day take up the plaintive lament of a peeled and woe-smitten people!


“By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down. Yea! we wept when we remembered Zion. We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof. For there, they that carried us away captive, required of us a song; and they who wasted us required of us mirth, saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion. How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land? If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning. If I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth.”


Fellow-citizens; above your national, tumultuous joy, I hear the mournful wail of millions! whose chains, heavy and grievous yesterday, are, to-day, rendered more intolerable by the jubilee shouts that reach them. If I do forget, if I do not faithfully remember those bleeding children of sorrow this day, “may my right hand forget her cunning, and may my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth!” To forget them, to pass lightly over their wrongs, and to chime in with the popular theme, would be treason most scandalous and shocking, and would make me a reproach before God and the world. My subject, then fellow-citizens, is AMERICAN SLAVERY. I shall see, this day, and its popular characteristics, from the slave’s point of view. Standing, there, identified with the American bondman, making his wrongs mine, I do not hesitate to declare, with all my soul, that the character and conduct of this nation never looked blacker to me than on this 4th of July! Whether we turn to the declarations of the past, or to the professions of the present, the conduct of the nation seems equally hideous and revolting. America is false to the past, false to the present, and solemnly binds herself to be false to the future. Standing with God and the crushed and bleeding slave on this occasion, I will, in the name of humanity which is outraged, in the name of liberty which is fettered, in the name of the constitution and the Bible, which are disregarded and trampled upon, dare to call in question and to denounce, with all the emphasis I can command, everything that serves to perpetuate slavery-the great sin and shame of America! “I will not equivocate; I will not excuse;” I will use the severest language I can command; and yet not one word shall escape me that any man, whose judgement is not blinded by prejudice, or who is not at heart a slaveholder, shall not confess to be right and just.


But I fancy I hear some one of my audience say, it is just in this circumstance that you and your brother abolitionists fail to make a favorable impression on the public mind. Would you argue more, and denounce less, would you persuade more, and rebuke less, your cause would be much more likely to succeed. But, I submit, where all is plain there is nothing to be argued. What point in the anti-slavery creed would you have me argue? On what branch of the subject do the people of this country need light? Must I undertake to prove that the slave is a man? That point is conceded already. Nobody doubts it. The slaveholders themselves acknowledge it in the enactment of laws for their government. They acknowledge it when they punish disobedience on the part of the slave. There are seventy-two crimes in the State of Virginia, which, if committed by a black man, (no matter how ignorant he be), subject him to the punishment of death; while only two of the same crimes will subject a white man to the like punishment. What is this but the acknowledgement that the slave is a moral, intellectual and responsible being? The manhood of the slave is conceded. It is admitted in the fact that Southern statute books are covered with enactments forbidding, under severe fines and penalties, the teaching of the slave to read or to write. When you can point to any such laws, in reference to the beasts of the field, then I may consent to argue the manhood of the slave. When the dogs in your streets, when the fowls of the air, when the cattle on your hills, when the fish of the sea, and the reptiles that crawl, shall be unable to distinguish the slave from a brute, there will I argue with you that the slave is a man!


For the present, it is enough to affirm the equal manhood of the negro race. Is it not astonishing that, while we are ploughing, planting and reaping, using all kinds of mechanical tools, erecting houses, constructing bridges, building ships, working in metals of brass, iron, copper, silver and gold; that, while we are reading, writing and cyphering, acting as clerks, merchants and secretaries, having among us lawyers, doctors, ministers, poets, authors, editors, orators and teachers; that, while we are engaged in all manner of enterprises common to other men, digging gold in California, capturing the whale in the Pacific, feeding sheep and cattle on the hill-side, living, moving, acting, thinking, planning, living in families as husbands, wives and children, and, above all, confessing and worshipping the Christian’s God, and looking hopefully for life and immortality beyond the grave, we are called upon to prove that we are men!


Would you have me argue that man is entitled to liberty? that he is the rightful owner of his own body? You have already declared it. Must I argue the wrongfulness of slavery? Is that a question for Republicans? Is it to be settled by the rules of logic and argumentation, as a matter beset with great difficulty, involving a doubtful application of the principle of justice, hard to be understood? How should I look to-day, in the presence of Americans, dividing, and subdividing a discourse, to show that men have a natural right to freedom? speaking of it relatively, and positively, negatively, and affirmatively. To do so, would be to make myself ridiculous, and lo offer an insult to your understanding. There is not a man beneath the canopy of heaven, that does not know that slavery is wrong for him.


What, am I to argue that it is wrong to make men brutes, to rob them of their liberty, to work them without wages, to keep them ignorant of their relations to their fellow men, to beat them with sticks, to flay their flesh with the lash, to load their limbs with irons, to hunt them with dogs, to sell them at auction, to sunder their families, to knock out their teeth, to burn their flesh, to starve them into obedience and submission to their masters? Must I argue that a system thus marked with blood, and stained with pollution, is wrong? No! I will not. I have better employments for my time and strength, than such arguments would imply.


What, then, remains to be argued? Is it that slavery is not divine; that God did not establish it; that our doctors of divinity are mistaken? There is blasphemy in the thought. That which is inhuman, cannot be divine! Who can reason on such a proposition? They that can, may; I cannot. The time for such argument is past.


At a time like this, scorching irony, not convincing argument, is needed. O! had I the ability, and could I reach the nation’s ear, I would, to-day, pour out a fiery stream of biting ridicule, blasting reproach, withering sarcasm, and stern rebuke. For it is not light that is needed, but fire; it is not the gentle shower, but thunder. We need the storm, the whirlwind, and the earthquake. The feeling of the nation must be quickened; the conscience of the nation must be roused; the propriety of the nation must be startled; the hypocrisy of the nation must be exposed; and its crimes against God and man must be proclaimed and denounced.


What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade, and solemnity, are, to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy — a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices, more shocking and bloody, than are the people of these United States, at this very hour.


Go where you may, search where you will, roam through all the monarchies and despotisms of the old world, travel through South America, search out every abuse, and when you have found the last, lay your facts by the side of the everyday practices of this nation, and you will say with me, that, for revolting barbarity and shameless hypocrisy, America reigns without a rival.


INTERNAL SLAVE TRADE


Take the American slave-trade, which, we are told by the papers, is especially prosperous just now. Ex-Senator Benton tells us that the price of men was never higher than now. He mentions the fact to show that slavery is in no danger. This trade is one of the peculiarities of American institutions. It is carried on in all the large towns and cities in one-half of this confederacy; and millions are pocketed every year, by dealers in this horrid traffic. In several states, this trade is a chief source of wealth. It is called (in contradistinction to the foreign slave-trade) “the internal slave trade.” It is, probably, called so, too, in order to divert from it the horror with which the foreign slave-trade is contemplated. That trade has long since been denounced by this government, as piracy. It has been denounced with burning words, from the high places of the nation, as an execrable traffic. To arrest it, to put an end to it, this nation keeps a squadron, at immense cost, on the coast of Africa. Everywhere, in this country, it is safe to speak of this foreign slave-trade, as a most inhuman traffic, opposed alike to the laws of God and of man. The duty to extirpate and destroy it, is admitted even by our DOCTORS OF DIVINITY. In order to put an end to it, some of these last have consented that their colored brethren (nominally free) should leave this country, and establish themselves on the western coast of Africa! It is, however, a notable fact that, while so much execration is poured out by Americans upon those engaged in the foreign slave-trade, the men engaged in the slave-trade between the states pass without condemnation, and their business is deemed honorable.


Behold the practical operation of this internal slave-trade, the American slave-trade, sustained by American politics and American religion. Here you will see men and women reared like swine for the market. You know what is a swine-drover? I will show you a man-drover. They inhabit all our Southern States. They perambulate the country, and crowd the highways of the nation, with droves of human stock. You will see one of these human flesh-jobbers, armed with pistol, whip and bowie-knife, driving a company of a hundred men, women, and children, from the Potomac to the slave market at New Orleans. These wretched people are to be sold singly, or in lots, to suit purchasers. They are food for the cotton-field, and the deadly sugar-mill. Mark the sad procession, as it moves wearily along, and the inhuman wretch who drives them. Hear his savage yells and his blood-chilling oaths, as he hurries on his affrighted captives! There, see the old man, with locks thinned and gray. Cast one glance, if you please, upon that young mother, whose shoulders are bare to the scorching sun, her briny tears falling on the brow of the babe in her arms. See, too, that girl of thirteen, weeping, yes! weeping, as she thinks of the mother from whom she has been torn! The drove moves tardily. Heat and sorrow have nearly consumed their strength; suddenly you hear a quick snap, like the discharge of a rifle; the fetters clank, and the chain rattles simultaneously; your ears are saluted with a scream, that seems to have torn its way to the centre of your soul! The crack you heard, was the sound of the slave-whip; the scream you heard, was from the woman you saw with the babe. Her speed had faltered under the weight of her child and her chains! that gash on her shoulder tells her to move on. Follow this drove to New Orleans. Attend the auction; see men examined like horses; see the forms of women rudely and brutally exposed to the shocking gaze of American slave-buyers. See this drove sold and separated forever; and never forget the deep, sad sobs that arose from that scattered multitude. Tell me citizens, WHERE, under the sun, you can witness a spectacle more fiendish and shocking. Yet this is but a glance at the American slave-trade, as it exists, at this moment, in the ruling part of the United States.


I was born amid such sights and scenes. To me the American slave-trade is a terrible reality. When a child, my soul was often pierced with a sense of its horrors. I lived on Philpot Street, Fell’s Point, Baltimore, and have watched from the wharves, the slave ships in the Basin, anchored from the shore, with their cargoes of human flesh, waiting for favorable winds to waft them down the Chesapeake. There was, at that time, a grand slave mart kept at the head of Pratt Street, by Austin Woldfolk. His agents were sent into every town and county in Maryland, announcing their arrival, through the papers, and on flaming “hand-bills,” headed CASH FOR NEGROES. These men were generally well dressed men, and very captivating in their manners. Ever ready to drink, to treat, and to gamble. The fate of many a slave has depended upon the turn of a single card; and many a child has been snatched from the arms of its mother by bargains arranged in a state of brutal drunkenness.


The flesh-mongers gather up their victims by dozens, and drive them, chained, to the general depot at Baltimore. When a sufficient number have been collected here, a ship is chartered, for the purpose of conveying the forlorn crew to Mobile, or to New Orleans. From the slave prison to the ship, they are usually driven in the darkness of night; for since the antislavery agitation, a certain caution is observed.


In the deep still darkness of midnight, I have been often aroused by the dead heavy footsteps, and the piteous cries of the chained gangs that passed our door. The anguish of my boyish heart was intense; and I was often consoled, when speaking to my mistress in the morning, to hear her say that the custom was very wicked; that she hated to hear the rattle of the chains, and the heart-rending cries. I was glad to find one who sympathised with me in my horror.


Fellow-citizens, this murderous traffic is, to-day, in active operation in this boasted republic. In the solitude of my spirit, I see clouds of dust raised on the highways of the South; I see the bleeding footsteps; I hear the doleful wail of fettered humanity, on the way to the slave-markets, where the victims are to be sold like horses, sheep, and swine, knocked off to the highest bidder. There I see the tenderest ties ruthlessly broken, to gratify the lust, caprice and rapacity of the buyers and sellers of men. My soul sickens at the sight.


“Is this the land your Fathers loved,
The freedom which they toiled to win?
Is this the earth whereon they moved?
Are these the graves they slumber in?”


But a still more inhuman, disgraceful, and scandalous state of things remains to be presented.


By an act of the American Congress, not yet two years old, slavery has been nationalized in its most horrible and revolting form. By that act, Mason & Dixon’s line has been obliterated; New York has become as Virginia; and the power to hold, hunt, and sell men, women, and children as slaves remains no longer a mere state institution, but is now an institution of the whole United States. The power is co-extensive with the star-spangled banner and American Christianity. Where these go, may also go the merciless slave-hunter. Where these are, man is not sacred. He is a bird for the sportsman’s gun. By that most foul and fiendish of all human decrees, the liberty and person of every man are put in peril. Your broad republican domain is hunting ground for men. Not for thieves and robbers, enemies of society, merely, but for men guilty of no crime. Your lawmakers have commanded all good citizens to engage in this hellish sport. Your President, your Secretary of State, your lords, nobles, and ecclesiastics, enforce, as a duty you owe to your free and glorious country, and to your God, that you do this accursed thing. Not fewer than forty Americans have, within the past two years, been hunted down and, without a moment’s warning, hurried away in chains, and consigned to slavery and excruciating torture. Some of these have had wives and children, dependent on them for bread; but of this, no account was made. The right of the hunter to his prey stands superior to the right of marriage, and to all rights in this republic, the rights of God included! For black men there are neither law, justice, humanity, not religion. The Fugitive Slave Law makes MERCY TO THEM, A CRIME; and bribes the judge who tries them. An American JUDGE GETS TEN DOLLARS FOR EVERY VICTIM HE CONSIGNS to slavery, and five, when he fails to do so. The oath of any two villains is sufficient, under this hell-black enactment, to send the most pious and exemplary black man into the remorseless jaws of slavery! His own testimony is nothing. He can bring no witnesses for himself. The minister of American justice is bound by the law to hear but one side; and that side, is the side of the oppressor. Let this damning fact be perpetually told. Let it be thundered around the world, that, in tyrant-killing, king-hating, people-loving, democratic, Christian America, the seats of justice are filled with judges, who hold their offices under an open and palpable bribe, and are bound, in deciding in the case of a man’s liberty, hear only his accusers!


In glaring violation of justice, in shameless disregard of the forms of administering law, in cunning arrangement to entrap the defenceless, and in diabolical intent, this Fugitive Slave Law stands alone in the annals of tyrannical legislation. I doubt if there be another nation on the globe, having the brass and the baseness to put such a law on the statute-book. If any man in this assembly thinks differently from me in this matter, and feels able to disprove my statements, I will gladly confront him at any suitable time and place he may select.


RELIGIOUS LIBERTY


I take this law to be one of the grossest infringements of Christian Liberty, and, if the churches and ministers of our country were not stupidly blind, or most wickedly indifferent, they, too, would so regard it.


At the very moment that they are thanking God for the enjoyment of civil and religious liberty, and for the right to worship God according to the dictates of their own consciences, they are utterly silent in respect to a law which robs religion of its chief significance, and makes it utterly worthless to a world lying in wickedness. Did this law concern the “mint, anise and cummin”— abridge the right to sing psalms, to partake of the sacrament, or to engage in any of the ceremonies of religion, it would be smitten by the thunder of a thousand pulpits. A general shout would go up from the church, demanding repeal, repeal, instant repeal! And it would go hard with that politician who presumed to solicit the votes of the people without inscribing this motto on his banner. Further, if this demand were not complied with, another Scotland would be added to the history of religious liberty, and the stern old Covenanters would be thrown into the shade. A John Knox would be seen at every church door, and heard from every pulpit, and Fillmore would have no more quarter than was shown by Knox, to the beautiful, but treacherous queen Mary of Scotland. The fact that the church of our country, (with fractional exceptions), does not esteem “the Fugitive Slave Law” as a declaration of war against religious liberty, implies that that church regards religion simply as a form of worship, an empty ceremony, and not a vital principle, requiring active benevolence, justice, love and good will towards man. It esteems sacrifice above mercy; psalm-singing above right doing; solemn meetings above practical righteousness. A worship that can be conducted by persons who refuse to give shelter to the houseless, to give bread to the hungry, clothing to the naked, and who enjoin obedience to a law forbidding these acts of mercy, is a curse, not a blessing to mankind. The Bible addresses all such persons as “scribes, pharisees, hypocrites, who pay tithe of mint, anise, and cummin, and have omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgement, mercy and faith.”


THE CHURCH RESPONSIBLE


But the church of this country is not only indifferent to the wrongs of the slave, it actually takes sides with the oppressors. It has made itself the bulwark of American slavery, and the shield of American slave-hunters. Many of its most eloquent Divines, who stand as the very lights of the church, have shamelessly given the sanction of religion and the Bible to the whole slave system. They have taught that man may, properly, be a slave; that the relation of master and slave is ordained of God; that to send back an escaped bondman to his master is clearly the duty of all the followers of the Lord Jesus Christ; and this horrible blasphemy is palmed off upon the world for Christianity.


For my part, I would say, welcome infidelity! welcome atheism! welcome anything! in preference to the gospel, as preached by those Divines! They convert the very name of religion into an engine of tyranny, and barbarous cruelty, and serve to confirm more infidels, in this age, than all the infidel writings of Thomas Paine, Voltaire, and Bolingbroke, put together, have done! These ministers make religion a cold and flinty-hearted thing, having neither principles of right action, nor bowels of compassion. They strip the love of God of its beauty, and leave the throne of religion a huge, horrible, repulsive form. It is a religion for oppressors, tyrants, man-stealers, and thugs. It is not that “pure and undefiled religion” which is from above, and which is “first pure, then peaceable, easy to be entreated, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality, and without hypocrisy.” But a religion which favors the rich against the poor; which exalts the proud above the humble; which divides mankind into two classes, tyrants and slaves; which says to the man in chains, stay there; and to the oppressor, oppress on; it is a religion which may be professed and enjoyed by all the robbers and enslavers of mankind; it makes God a respecter of persons, denies his fatherhood of the race, and tramples in the dust the great truth of the brotherhood of man. All this we affirm to be true of the popular church, and the popular worship of our land and nation — a religion, a church, and a worship which, on the authority of inspired wisdom, we pronounce to be an abomination in the sight of God. In the language of Isaiah, the American church might be well addressed, “Bring no more vain oblations; incense is an abomination unto me: the new moons and Sabbaths, the calling of assemblies, I cannot away with; it is iniquity, even the solemn meeting. Your new moons and your appointed feasts my soul hateth. They are a trouble to me; I am weary to bear them; and when ye spread forth your hands I will hide mine eyes from you. Yea! when ye make many prayers, I will not hear. YOUR HANDS ARE FULL OF BLOOD; cease to do evil, learn to do well; seek judgement; relieve the oppressed; judge for the fatherless; plead for the widow.”


The American church is guilty, when viewed in connection with what it is doing to uphold slavery; but it is superlatively guilty when viewed in connection with its ability to abolish slavery. The sin of which it is guilty is one of omission as well as of commission. Albert Barnes but uttered what the common sense of every man at all observant of the actual state of the case will receive as truth, when he declared that “There is no power out of the church that could sustain slavery an hour, if it were not sustained in it.”


Let the religious press, the pulpit, the Sunday school, the conference meeting, the great ecclesiastical, missionary, Bible and tract associations of the land array their immense powers against slavery and slave-holding; and the whole system of crime and blood would be scattered to the winds; and that they do not do this involves them in the most awful responsibility of which the mind can conceive.


In prosecuting the anti-slavery enterprise, we have been asked to spare the church, to spare the ministry; but how, we ask, could such a thing be done? We are met on the threshold of our efforts for the redemption of the slave, by the church and ministry of the country, in battle arrayed against us; and we are compelled to fight or flee. From what quarter, I beg to know, has proceeded a fire so deadly upon our ranks, during the last two years, as from the Northern pulpit? As the champions of oppressors, the chosen men of American theology have appeared — men, honored for their so-called piety, and their real learning. The LORDS of Buffalo, the SPRINGS of New York, the LATHROPS of Auburn, the COXES and SPENCERS of Brooklyn, the GANNETS and SHARPS of Boston, the DEWEYS of Washington, and other great religious lights of the land, have, in utter denial of the authority of Him, by whom they professed to he called to the ministry, deliberately taught us, against the example of the Hebrews and against the remonstrance of the Apostles, they teach “that we ought to obey man’s law before the law of God.”


My spirit wearies of such blasphemy; and how such men can be supported, as the “standing types and representatives of Jesus Christ,” is a mystery which I leave others to penetrate. In speaking of the American church, however, let it be distinctly understood that I mean the great mass of the religious organizations of our land. There are exceptions, and I thank God that there are. Noble men may be found, scattered all over these Northern States, of whom Henry Ward Beecher of Brooklyn, Samuel J. May of Syracuse, and my esteemed friend on the platform, are shining examples; and let me say further, that upon these men lies the duty to inspire our ranks with high religious faith and zeal, and to cheer us on in the great mission of the slave’s redemption from his chains.


RELIGION IN ENGLAND AND RELIGION IN AMERICA


One is struck with the difference between the attitude of the American church towards the anti-slavery movement, and that occupied by the churches in England towards a similar movement in that country. There, the church, true to its mission of ameliorating, elevating, and improving the condition of mankind, came forward promptly, bound up the wounds of the West Indian slave, and restored him to his liberty. There, the question of emancipation was a high[ly] religious question. It was demanded, in the name of humanity, and according to the law of the living God. The Sharps, the Clarksons, the Wilberforces, the Buxtons, and Burchells and the Knibbs, were alike famous for their piety, and for their philanthropy. The anti-slavery movement there was not an anti-church movement, for the reason that the church took its full share in prosecuting that movement: and the anti-slavery movement in this country will cease to be an anti-church movement, when the church of this country shall assume a favorable, instead of a hostile position towards that movement. Americans! your republican politics, not less than your republican religion, are flagrantly inconsistent. You boast of your love of liberty, your superior civilization, and your pure Christianity, while the whole political power of the nation (as embodied in the two great political parties), is solemnly pledged to support and perpetuate the enslavement of three millions of your countrymen. You hurl your anathemas at the crowned headed tyrants of Russia and Austria, and pride yourselves on your Democratic institutions, while you yourselves consent to be the mere tools and bodyguards of the tyrants of Virginia and Carolina. You invite to your shores fugitives of oppression from abroad, honor them with banquets, greet them with ovations, cheer them, toast them, salute them, protect them, and pour out your money to them like water; but the fugitives from your own land you advertise, hunt, arrest, shoot and kill. You glory in your refinement and your universal education; yet you maintain a system as barbarous and dreadful as ever stained the character of a nation — a system begun in avarice, supported in pride, and perpetuated in cruelty. You shed tears over fallen Hungary, and make the sad story of her wrongs the theme of your poets, statesmen and orators, till your gallant sons are ready to fly to arms to vindicate her cause against her oppressors; but, in regard to the ten thousand wrongs of the American slave, you would enforce the strictest silence, and would hail him as an enemy of the nation who dares to make those wrongs the subject of public discourse! You are all on fire at the mention of liberty for France or for Ireland; but are as cold as an iceberg at the thought of liberty for the enslaved of America. You discourse eloquently on the dignity of labor; yet, you sustain a system which, in its very essence, casts a stigma upon labor. You can bare your bosom to the storm of British artillery to throw off a threepenny tax on tea; and yet wring the last hard-earned farthing from the grasp of the black laborers of your country. You profess to believe “that, of one blood, God made all nations of men to dwell on the face of all the earth,” and hath commanded all men, everywhere to love one another; yet you notoriously hate, (and glory in your hatred), all men whose skins are not colored like your own. You declare, before the world, and are understood by the world to declare, that you “hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal; and are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; and that, among these are, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness;” and yet, you hold securely, in a bondage which, according to your own Thomas Jefferson, “is worse than ages of that which your fathers rose in rebellion to oppose,” a seventh part of the inhabitants of your country.


Fellow-citizens! I will not enlarge further on your national inconsistencies. The existence of slavery in this country brands your republicanism as a sham, your humanity as a base pretence, and your Christianity as a lie. It destroys your moral power abroad; it corrupts your politicians at home. It saps the foundation of religion; it makes your name a hissing, and a by word to a mocking earth. It is the antagonistic force in your government, the only thing that seriously disturbs and endangers your Union. It fetters your progress; it is the enemy of improvement, the deadly foe of education; it fosters pride; it breeds insolence; it promotes vice; it shelters crime; it is a curse to the earth that supports it; and yet, you cling to it, as if it were the sheet anchor of all your hopes. Oh! be warned! be warned! a horrible reptile is coiled up in your nation’s bosom; the venomous creature is nursing at the tender breast of your youthful republic; for the love of God, tear away, and fling from you the hideous monster, and let the weight of twenty millions crush and destroy it forever!


THE CONSTITUTION


But it is answered in reply to all this, that precisely what I have now denounced is, in fact, guaranteed and sanctioned by the Constitution of the United States; that the right to hold and to hunt slaves is a part of that Constitution framed by the illustrious Fathers of this Republic.


Then, I dare to affirm, notwithstanding all I have said before, your fathers stooped, basely stooped


“To palter with us in a double sense:
And keep the word of promise to the ear,
But break it to the heart.”


And instead of being the honest men I have before declared them to be, they were the veriest imposters that ever practised on mankind. This is the inevitable conclusion, and from it there is no escape. But I differ from those who charge this baseness on the framers of the Constitution of the United States. It is a slander upon their memory, at least, so I believe. There is not time now to argue the constitutional question at length — nor have I the ability to discuss it as it ought to be discussed. The subject has been handled with masterly power by Lysander Spooner, Esq., by William Goodell, by Samuel E. Sewall, Esq., and last, though not least, by Gerritt Smith, Esq. These gentlemen have, as I think, fully and clearly vindicated the Constitution from any design to support slavery for an hour.


Fellow-citizens! there is no matter in respect to which, the people of the North have allowed themselves to be so ruinously imposed upon, as that of the pro-slavery character of the Constitution. In that instrument I hold there is neither warrant, license, nor sanction of the hateful thing; but, interpreted as it ought to be interpreted, the Constitution is a GLORIOUS LIBERTY DOCUMENT. Read its preamble, consider its purposes. Is slavery among them? Is it at the gateway? or is it in the temple? It is neither. While I do not intend to argue this question on the present occasion, let me ask, if it be not somewhat singular that, if the Constitution were intended to be, by its framers and adopters, a slave-holding instrument, why neither slavery, slaveholding, nor slave can anywhere be found in it. What would be thought of an instrument, drawn up, legally drawn up, for the purpose of entitling the city of Rochester to a tract of land, in which no mention of land was made? Now, there are certain rules of interpretation, for the proper understanding of all legal instruments. These rules are well established. They are plain, common-sense rules, such as you and I, and all of us, can understand and apply, without having passed years in the study of law. I scout the idea that the question of the constitutionality or unconstitutionality of slavery is not a question for the people. I hold that every American citizen has a right to form an opinion of the constitution, and to propagate that opinion, and to use all honorable means to make his opinion the prevailing one. Without this right, the liberty of an American citizen would be as insecure as that of a Frenchman. Ex-Vice-President Dallas tells us that the constitution is an object to which no American mind can be too attentive, and no American heart too devoted. He further says, the constitution, in its words, is plain and intelligible, and is meant for the home-bred, unsophisticated understandings of our fellow-citizens. Senator Berrien tell us that the Constitution is the fundamental law, that which controls all others. The charter of our liberties, which every citizen has a personal interest in understanding thoroughly. The testimony of Senator Breese, Lewis Cass, and many others that might be named, who are everywhere esteemed as sound lawyers, so regard the constitution. I take it, therefore, that it is not presumption in a private citizen to form an opinion of that instrument.


Now, take the constitution according to its plain reading, and I defy the presentation of a single pro-slavery clause in it. On the other hand it will be found to contain principles and purposes, entirely hostile to the existence of slavery.


I have detained my audience entirely too long already. At some future period I will gladly avail myself of an opportunity to give this subject a full and fair discussion.


Allow me to say, in conclusion, notwithstanding the dark picture I have this day presented of the state of the nation, I do not despair of this country. There are forces in operation, which must inevitably work the downfall of slavery. “The arm of the Lord is not shortened,” and the doom of slavery is certain. I, therefore, leave off where I began, with hope. While drawing encouragement from the Declaration of Independence, the great principles it contains, and the genius of American Institutions, my spirit is also cheered by the obvious tendencies of the age. Nations do not now stand in the same relation to each other that they did ages ago. No nation can now shut itself up from the surrounding world, and trot round in the same old path of its fathers without interference. The time was when such could be done. Long established customs of hurtful character could formerly fence themselves in, and do their evil work with social impunity. Knowledge was then confined and enjoyed by the privileged few, and the multitude walked on in mental darkness. But a change has now come over the affairs of mankind. Walled cities and empires have become unfashionable. The arm of commerce has borne away the gates of the strong city. Intelligence is penetrating the darkest corners of the globe. It makes its pathway over and under the sea, as well as on the earth. Wind, steam, and lightning are its chartered agents. Oceans no longer divide, but link nations together. From Boston to London is now a holiday excursion. Space is comparatively annihilated. Thoughts expressed on one side of the Atlantic are, distinctly heard on the other. The far off and almost fabulous Pacific rolls in grandeur at our feet. The Celestial Empire, the mystery of ages, is being solved. The fiat of the Almighty, “Let there be Light,” has not yet spent its force. No abuse, no outrage whether in taste, sport or avarice, can now hide itself from the all-pervading light. The iron shoe, and crippled foot of China must be seen, in contrast with nature. Africa must rise and put on her yet unwoven garment. “Ethiopia shall stretch out her hand unto God.” In the fervent aspirations of William Lloyd Garrison, I say, and let every heart join in saying it:


God speed the year of jubilee
The wide world o’er!
When from their galling chains set free,
Th’ oppress’d shall vilely bend the knee,
And wear the yoke of tyranny
Like brutes no more.
That year will come, and freedom’s reign,
To man his plundered rights again
Restore.

God speed the day when human blood
Shall cease to flow!
In every clime be understood,
The claims of human brotherhood,
And each return for evil, good,
Not blow for blow;
That day will come all feuds to end
And change into a faithful friend
Each foe.

God speed the hour, the glorious hour,
When none on earth
Shall exercise a lordly power,
Nor in a tyrant’s presence cower;
But all to manhood’s stature tower,
By equal birth!
THAT HOUR WILL, COME, to each, to all,
And from his prison-house, the thrall
Go forth.

Until that year, day, hour, arrive,
With head, and heart, and hand I’ll strive,
To break the rod, and rend the gyve,
The spoiler of his prey deprive–
So witness Heaven!
And never from my chosen post,
Whate’er the peril or the cost,
Be driven.


Trinity in Community

Originally posted on May 31, 2016

This is the sermon I presented for 22 May 2016 – Trinity Sunday.

The readings for this Sunday follow the sermon.

Listen to this sermon here.

I noticed something interesting in our lessons for today.

In every one of our lessons, the congregation, the community of believers is being addressed.

In our reading from Isaiah, Wisdom is speaking,

” To you, O people, I call, and my cry is to all that live.”

Wisdom is not speaking to an individual person, she speaks to all of us, to all that live.

In our reading from Romans, the Apostle Paul is speaking to everyone who lives in Rome. In Romans chapter 1 verse 7

” To all those in Rome who are loved by God and called to be saints”

Paul goes on to list all the people in Rome he is speaking to,
Jews and Gentiles, Barbarians, and Greeks.
The congregation of believers,
the entire Christian community.

In our reading from the gospel of John, Jesus is speaking to his disciples, and through them to all of us who are here today. Jesus is talking about how the spirit of truth, the holy spirit, who will speak to us individually, however, Jesus is addressing this message to the group,
to the congregation,
to the people who will become the Christian community.

When I was growing up, I thought of my relationship to God as that of a one-on-one personal relationship. My understanding of what it was to be a Christian was that it only involved Jesus Christ and myself. That if I believed in Jesus, and God our Father and Creator, that I was a Christian. That I would be guided by the Holy Spirit in prayer. But look at what Paul wrote to the Romans in our reading for today.

we are justified by faith
we have peace with God
we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand

Paul does not use I anywhere in this passage, because he is speaking about and to his brothers and sisters in Christ, the Christian community.

What I had not understood for so many years was how important the Christian community, the community of believers, is in our relationship with our Creator and God. All the theology I’ve been studying in the past several years has stressed that the surest way for a Christian to lose their way is for them to spend too much time by themselves.

Even the people that you would think were all on their own, like the holy hermits of the desert, or contemplative Christians: our brothers and sisters in abbeys and monasteries, live in community.

To become a Christian, all we need to do is to believe in the risen Christ, who was sent by the Lord God our Father and Creator. But to really live in Christ as a Christian, we are called to do more.
To study scripture,
to pray for understanding,
to listen in stillness for that quiet voice of the spirit of God,

And there is yet another thing that keeps us on the right path:
For our own Christian formation we should also live in a community with our brothers and sisters in Christ.

It is in the community that those insights we gain from our study and prayer and contemplation can be tested.
It is the community that grounds us and can help us when we let either our imagination or our fears get the better of us.
It is our brothers and sisters who mirror our beliefs and actions back to us, so that we are able to see ourselves as we are.

It is easy for me preach about community, but it is sometimes incredibly hard to live in community. Especially when that community is helping us to see our own faults. Is it not those people who are most like us, who irritate us the most?

(pause)

So what does all this have to do with the holy Trinity?

The last time I was scheduled to preach on Trinity Sunday two years ago, I was given this book by my mother-in-law, “What are they saying about the Trinity”, by Fr. Joseph Bracken. Fr. Bracken was a Jesuit priest on the faculty at Xavier University and he also preached at my wife Darlene’s church, St. Dismas in Waukegan, while she was growing up. By the time I received this book, I had already written my sermon, so I just put it aside.

This year, I was assigned Trinity Sunday again, so I finally read and studied Fr. Bracken’s book. I was astonished to find that among the more recent theories about the nature of the holy Trinity, many modern theologians are discussing the interactions between God’s persons as a community. That the experience of God in three persons by the first Christians has lead to a new understanding, a new modern philosophical realization of God as a community. Here is a quotation from one of these modern theologians, Juan Luis Segundo also of the Society of Jesus from his book “Our Idea of God”.

“For, as long as God has thus been conceived as a being totally independent of his creatures, human beings have tended ……, to imitate God in seeking their own self-fulfillment in terms of self-sufficiency and independence of others. If, however, God is understood to be a society of three persons who are sympathetically involved with men and women in history, then human beings will perhaps recognize more readily that they too have a basically social orientation, that the perfection of their nature lies in interdependence with others for the achievement of common goals, not in some unattainable ideal of independence and self-sufficiency.”

The perfection of our nature, lies in our interdependence with others.

That independent, self-sufficiency is unattainable and unrealistic.

That, perhaps, our belief in the holy Trinity, our God as a community of persons, should make us think, should make us aware, of how much we depend on other people.

That we do not have to go it alone.
That God created us to live in community with each other.

When we realize that our strength comes through cooperation;
with our neighbors,
with our family and friends,
with our brothers and sisters in the church.

It is truly wonderful that we continue to find new insights in the most holy Trinity.

The Spirit of truth continues to speak to us.

It is just as Jesus said in our gospel reading.

“I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you.”

Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit: as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be for ever.

Amen.

Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31

Does not wisdom call,
and does not understanding raise her voice?
On the heights, beside the way,
at the crossroads she takes her stand;
beside the gates in front of the town,
at the entrance of the portals she cries out:
“To you, O people, I call,
and my cry is to all that live.
The Lord created me at the beginning of his work,
the first of his acts of long ago.
Ages ago I was set up,
at the first, before the beginning of the earth.
When there were no depths I was brought forth,
when there were no springs abounding with water.
Before the mountains had been shaped,
before the hills, I was brought forth–
when he had not yet made earth and fields,
or the world’s first bits of soil.
When he established the heavens, I was there,
when he drew a circle on the face of the deep,
when he made firm the skies above,
when he established the fountains of the deep,
when he assigned to the sea its limit,
so that the waters might not transgress his command,
when he marked out the foundations of the earth,
then I was beside him, like a master worker;
and I was daily his delight,
rejoicing before him always,
rejoicing in his inhabited world
and delighting in the human race.”

Romans 5:1-5

Since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.

John 16:12-15

Jesus said to the disciples, “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.”

Trinity Sunday

Originally posted on June 16, 2014

I was privileged to give the sermon at my church for Trinity Sunday.

The readings are at the bottom of the post.

I wrote three completely different versions of this sermon for this Trinity Sunday.

The less said about the first version of this sermon the better.

The second version of this sermon was all about paradox and mystery, it mentioned Lady Gaga, and the building of the Pyramids of Egypt – but after I read it to my wife Darlene – she said that’s great, but what does that have to do with the Trinity?

Nothing gets past Darlene.

Those of us who grew up in the Christian church learn our basic theology along with everything else. I don’t remember when I learned the word ‘rutabaga’. While still very young, I’m pretty sure I knew that it was something that you could eat – that is if you were hungry enough – but I really did not know what it was. Later on as you grow up you fill in the details. The Trinity is another word and concept that I absorbed as a child – learning what it was about from the context of how and when it was used.

The Trinity is something to do with God.

The Trinity is mysterious – The idea of the Trinity is a logical paradox.

It turns out that the Trinity is not that complicated an idea, it can be stated very simply. In fact, we define and affirm our belief in the Most Holy Trinity every Sunday when we recite the Nicene creed with it’s three sections for the three persons of God.

How and why did the first Christians arrive at this understanding of the nature of God?

There is a latin phrase “omne trium perfectum” which means that everything that comes in threes is perfect, or, every set of three is complete.

We human beings really like to group things into groups of threes.

The past, the present, the future.
The executive, the legislative, the judicial,
The poor, the rich, the middle class.
Heaven, Earth, and Hell.
Small, medium, and large – or for people who go to Starbucks (trademark): tall, grande, and venti.

Grouping objects and events into groups of threes was as natural for the first Christians as it is for us today. I believe the theology of Holy Trinity was inevitable from the experiences of the first Christian community – the Christians who had known Jesus Christ as a man.

These first Christians were for the most part Jews and Samaritans who were very familiar with the God of Abraham, Jacob, and Moses – God the Father, and Creator. In our lesson today from Genesis we are reminded of the traditional story of how God created the heavens and the earth. These first Christians’ view of God was that of a parent; rewarding them for good behavior, punishing them for bad behavior, helping them when they get into trouble. In one of the commentaries I read preparing for this sermon – I learned about something else God had done which I’d never noticed before.

From Genesis chapter 3 verse 21:

” And the LORD God made for Adam and for his wife garments of skins, and clothed them.”

Earlier in Chapter 3 of Genesis, we have the story of the fall of man and woman – the original disobedience to God. Adam and Eve while hiding from God had made some leaf aprons to cover themselves, and I had always thought that in the story of the fall, Adam and Eve were still wearing their leaf aprons as they were driven from the garden. I had never realized that after God had pronounced punishment – to the serpent, to Eve, and to Adam that God then took time to make clothes for Adam and Eve.

God the Creator of the Universe, and Chief Justice, then switches roles to God the Father who even when his children fall from His grace, still loves them and provides for them even as he sends them on their way into the world.

The first Christians were very familiar with God’s first Aspect in the Holy Trinity: Creator and Father. These early Christians had became a Christian community, because they came to know Jesus Christ as a man during his ministry.

Who did they think he was at first?

A prophet like the great prophets of old, like Elijah, or Moses.

Only some during his ministry seemed to recognize his divinity – like John the Baptist, or the Samaritan woman at the well, or the Centurion who commanded the detachment of soldiers at the Crucifixion.

Even after all the miracles, and signs, the disciples of Jesus were definitely still in the dark as to his divine nature, the Word made flesh, at the Last Supper. What a difference we see in the Apostles between the time Jesus was condemned and crucified and Jesus Christ’s Ascension into Heaven as related in our Gospel reading.

On the initial sightings of Jesus they are unbelieving, but later as they are given proofs that Jesus has actually risen, that having died Jesus is once again a living breathing man – most come to believe.

This first community in Christ had experienced the incarnation of God as a Man, a man as all men and women are meant to be, in full communion with everything that is good – one being with God. This first Christian community now had new stories of Jesus Christ, a personal savior and redeemer to add to their existing body of stories of God as Creator, and Father.

50 days after the Crucifixion, a group of about 120 believers in Jesus from all over the Jerusalem region had gathered together – it was the Jewish Feast of Weeks – to celebrate Moses receiving the law from God at mount Sinai. These 120 believers became the first Christians when the Spirit of God descended from heaven onto all of them like a rushing wind, causing them to hear the word of God in their own languages. The event we have come to know as Pentecost. The Holy Spirit came to everyone: Jew and Gentile, Men and Women, all those present, not just the original disciples. Only the disciples had been told by Jesus of the promise that he would send the gift of God’s spirit – although they had no idea what form it would take – so to everyone present it was a bewildering experience, and perhaps to many even a frightening one.

This shared experience of this Christian community in this event; this happening: the receiving of the Holy Spirit, along with their stories of Jesus Christ, their savior, and God the Father, I believe naturally developed into this first and greatest of Christian theological ideas – the Most Holy Trinity. The Holy Trinity was a natural response of ordinary people who had directly experienced extraordinary events. The Holy Trinity was not something that scholars invented, it wasn’t based on esoteric theories or some arcane analysis of Jesus’ words. The first Christians simply grouped these three ways of experiencing God – and formulated the doctrine of the Holy Trinity.

I am grateful for the many scholars and theologians who have studied the Holy Trinity through the ages. I have only begun to scratch the surface of this massive body of scholarship. As I am only an amateur theologian, there are only two additional points about the Most Holy Trinity that I feel qualified to make.

As fallible, human beings, we must never embrace these ideas about the nature of God like the Holy Trinity so strongly that we raise them up like graven images and worship the ideas – the theology about God – rather than God Himself. These ideas, are just tools, created by imperfect men and women through centuries of prayer, and thought. These ideas, we might even call them theories, about God are to be used prayerfully, and in humility to bring us closer to God and to each other.

If we use them to exclude each other,
If we use them to condemn each other,
If we use them to, in any way, hurt our fellow men and women we are not living as Christians in the way that Jesus Christ taught us to live.

To make my second point about the Most Holy Trinity – please bear with me – I need to do a Trinitarian analysis of an ordinary person. There is only one person I know well enough to use as my example – myself.

I have three major roles in my family.

I am Doug, the father of Olivia, my daughter.
I am Doug, the son of John and Carol, my parents.
I am Doug, the husband of Darlene, my wife.

I have these three roles in my family – as one person – however, I am not completely defined by these three roles.

I am also Doug the systems engineer who works for Optionshop in Chicago.
I am also Doug the dyer of cloth.
I am also Doug who has many other interests, aspirations and dreams.

If this relational Trinitarian description of Doug the man is incomplete, how can any description of the Most Holy Trinity – that we fallible human beings are capable of making – completely describe the immensity, the perfection, the eternal, limitless goodness that is God?

There is a legend about a Theologian of the Church St. Augustine of Hippo.

St. Augustine spent 30 years working on his treatise De Trinitate [about the Holy Trinity] – he lived from 354-430 AD. This legend – which is not part of his official biography – has non-the-less circulated for hundreds of years.

Bishop Augustine of Hippo dressed in his episcopal robes was walking by the seashore, pondering with difficulty the mystery of the Most Holy Trinity. He approached a small child running back and forth between the sea and a pool on the beach with a seashell full of seawater. Augustine asked the child what he was doing.

“Can’t you see?” said the child. “I’m emptying the sea into this pool!”

“You can’t empty the sea into this tiny pool.”, Augustine said.

The child replied, “I will sooner empty the sea into this pool than you will manage to get the mystery of the Most Holy Trinity into your head!”

Upon saying that, the child, who was an angel according to legend, quickly disappeared, leaving Augustine alone, with the mystery of the Most Holy Trinity.

God is too big, too powerful, too wise, for us to comprehend. Yet at the same time God is as personal as our fellow men and women we meet every day. To me, this is the true mystery of the Most Holy Trinity – how this immensely powerful being also is so immensely humble and respectful to we lowly, limited, human beings. Allowing us to make our own mistakes, always hoping that we will return to His fellowship, only providing His help to us when we ask Him, in Jesus’ name.

The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.

Genesis 1:1-2:4a

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.

And God said, “Let there be a dome in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.” So God made the dome and separated the waters that were under the dome from the waters that were above the dome. And it was so. God called the dome Sky. And there was evening and there was morning, the second day.

And God said, “Let the waters under the sky be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear.” And it was so. God called the dry land Earth, and the waters that were gathered together he called Seas. And God saw that it was good. Then God said, “Let the earth put forth vegetation: plants yielding seed, and fruit trees bearing fruit of every kind on earth that bear fruit with the seed in it.” And it was so. The earth brought forth vegetation: plants yielding seed of every kind, and trees of every kind bearing fruit with the seed in it. And God saw that it was good. And there was evening and there was morning, the third day.

And God said, “Let there be lights in the dome of the sky to separate the day from the night; and let them be for signs and for seasons and for days and years, and let them be lights in the dome of the sky to give light upon the earth.” And it was so. God made the two great lights– the greater light to rule the day and the lesser light to rule the night– and the stars. God set them in the dome of the sky to give light upon the earth, to rule over the day and over the night, and to separate the light from the darkness. And God saw that it was good. And there was evening and there was morning, the fourth day.

And God said, “Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the dome of the sky.” So God created the great sea monsters and every living creature that moves, of every kind, with which the waters swarm, and every winged bird of every kind. And God saw that it was good. God blessed them, saying, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the waters in the seas, and let birds multiply on the earth.” And there was evening and there was morning, the fifth day.

And God said, “Let the earth bring forth living creatures of every kind: cattle and creeping things and wild animals of the earth of every kind.” And it was so. God made the wild animals of the earth of every kind, and the cattle of every kind, and everything that creeps upon the ground of every kind. And God saw that it was good.

Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.”

So God created humankind in his image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.

God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” God said, “See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food. And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.” And it was so. God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.

Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all their multitude. And on the seventh day God finished the work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation. These are the generations of the heavens and the earth when they were created.

2 Corinthians 13:11-13

Finally, brothers and sisters, farewell. Put things in order, listen to my appeal, agree with one another, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you. Greet one another with a holy kiss. All the saints greet you.

The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.

Matthew 28:16-20

The eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

Listening in Profound Silence

Originally posted on August 11, 2014
I was privileged to deliver the sermon at my church yesterday.
(Readings are below)

Listen to this sermon here.

It took me quite some time to discern the common thread in our readings today. But since we are in the season of Pentecost, I should have known that our readings would have something to do with prayer and being in communion with the Spirit of God. All of our readings this Sunday, present to us, examples of prayer and discernment with the Spirit; from several different points of view.

The most obvious example of prayer and discernment is in our Gospel reading from Matthew. A typical day in Jesus’ ministry on earth. After a long day of preaching and teaching, Jesus sends the people and his disciples away and secludes himself to pray. What could be a more typical a passage in any of the Gospels? But notice how long Jesus is praying in this passage – He prays through most of the night into the early morning. My impression is that Jesus often prayed into the early hours of the morning. It was probably the only time of day when he could be alone, when it was quiet; that time of stillness, to reflect and to allow the Spirit of God the time and space to speak to him.

Jesus shows us how important it is to have this time for prayer and reflection by His example.

We see something similar in our reading from first Kings. The prophet Elijah was fleeing for his life from King Ahab and especially Queen Jezebel. Elijah was the sole remaining priest and prophet in Israel, all the rest of the priests having been killed by their majesties Ahab and Jezebel. Elijah finds refuge in a cave high up on a mountain. He must have been relieved to have found this hiding place, this place of safety, this place to reflect, this place to pray, this place to wait and to discern what God wanted him to do next. Elijah is told that God is going to visit him just outside this cave on the mountain.

A mighty wind storm sweeps past. Elijah does not even go outside, because he knows that God is not in the mighty wind.

Then an earthquake shakes the mountain, again Elijah does not bother to go outside, because he knows that God is not in the earthquake.

A fire then sweeps over the mountainside, and again Elijah does not stir from his cave, because he knows that God is not in the fire.

Only when the sheer, profound silence settles over the mountain does Elijah get up and cover his head, as is the Jewish custom when in prayer, and go to the mouth of the cave because God is in that sheer, profound silence.

It is in this profound silence, when we are calm, when we have emptied our minds of our concerns and our worries, when our thoughts are quiet; that we may be able to hear the Spirit of God speaking to us.

What is our prayer life actually like?

Again from our gospel reading, we read that after Jesus was finished praying he walks across the water through a violent storm to where the disciples were struggling to keep their ship afloat. They see Jesus out in the storm, walking on the water – they hear him over the sound of the storm – and think they are seeing and hearing some sort of ghost across the water. Peter asks Jesus to command him to walk across the water, and Jesus calls to Peter to join him.

This passage about Peter crossing the water feels like many of my experiences with prayer. How often have I started to pray, to attempt to walk across that gulf that separates us from God – only to start to sink, to be distracted by

the violent storm that sometimes is the world around me,

the violent storm that sometimes is my own thoughts and fears,

and finally as I am going under I call out to be saved:

O God, make speed to save me!

O Lord, make haste to help me!

Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy upon me!

For 1500 years, Christians have prayed these three, simple, prayers to our Lord: to be saved, to be helped, and for Jesus Christ to show us His mercy.
As fallen human beings, I believe we all have these problems in prayer; I certainly do.

It seems that, most Christians since the time of the apostles have had these problems in prayer.

That is why, we must continually practice prayer, and through trail and error find out what works best for each one of us, at each stage of our lives; to help us in listening to the Spirit of God.

In all our examples of prayer, reflection, and discernment up to this point – we have concentrated on that journey of faith that we travel alone, in our personal relationship with the living God.

Paul in our reading from Romans, takes our discussion to the next level.

But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent?

What in the world is Paul talking about here? John Gill, the first Baptist theologian, in his commentary on Romans 10 verse 15 really helped me to understand the meaning of this passage.

Ordinary mission is of [people] to be pastors and teachers …. for whom Christ sends forth into such service, he bestows gifts on them, fitting them for it …. and it also includes a call unto it, which is …. by the Spirit of God ….. and the inclination of the heart to this good work which he forms; and which arises not from a vanity of mind, and a desire of popular applause, ….. but from a real concern for the good of souls, ….. being willing to deny themselves, and forsake all for Christ.

Paul’s 4 questions in our reading from Romans, are about how we are to call and select our ministers; our leaders and teachers in the community of Christ. Paul is laying the organizational groundwork for growing Christianity from a small group of believers to an organization – a Church. He is asking how we should listen for; and experience; the Spirit of God, when we believe we are being called to ministry in that larger Church organization.

It has been more than two years since I started my own discernment process. Feeling a call to ministry; I met with my discernment committee here at St. Martin’s and we feel that this call is to diaconate ministry in the Episcopal Church. I had no idea what discernment meant before I started this process. I thought that it would involve an objective, logical analysis of the needs of the greater church, the needs here at St. Martin’s, and how my skills and talents could be used to meet those needs. I was thinking about church ministry in terms of getting hired to do a job, or fill a position or role – as in a business.

I had (and still have) a great deal to learn about discernment!

However, I have learned what discernment is not.

Discernment is not about what you want.

Discernment is not about your talents.

Discernment is not about what the church needs.

Discernment is about listening to the Holy Spirit and letting God direct you to where you should be.

Discernment does not end after you are called to some ministry. Discernment continues. The proper place for you today may not be where God needs you next year.

As I started to understand what discernment is about, I was surprised by how familiar it turned out to be. It seems I have been in discernment all along, I just did not know what I was doing, and I have been using it for trivial things. All this time, in my work when I have been stuck on some network or programming problem. I clear my mind, to either not think about anything at all, or to think about something completely unrelated to my current problem. And then suddenly, from out of nowhere, I will receive an idea about how to approach that particular problem, or how to put together a solution. The artist waiting for inspiration, or the engineer waiting for that technical insight are in discernment. They are opening themselves; allowing their own divine nature to commune with the divine nature which is present in everything in the universe around us. When we are inspired, we manage; for just that brief instant to hear God’s voice, the Spirit of God, speaking to us.

I have found that in discerning what God wants me to do – I am discovering what I am capable of becoming:

I am learning who I am.

God as our Father and Creator, knows us far better that we know ourselves.

It is a startling and humbling experience to be 51 years old and to be finally learning who I am.

I’d like leave you with this thought.

Discernment is for Everyone.

Not just those people, who are the clergy.

Not just those people, who are on the vestry.

Not just those people, who are being called to ministry.

Not just those people, who are working on revising our mission or vision statement.

Everyone.

We should all be trying to be present and aware of God’s spirit speaking to us in our reflections, our thoughts, our feelings, and our prayers.

We should all be finding time, each day, to listen to that sheer, profound silence; allowing the Spirit of God the time and space in our lives, so that we may hear the quiet voice of God.

1 Kings 19:9-18

At Horeb, the mount of God, Elijah came to a cave, and spent the night there. Then the word of the LORD came to him, saying, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He answered, “I have been very zealous for the LORD, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.”

He said, “Go out and stand on the mountain before the LORD, for the LORD is about to pass by.” Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He answered, “I have been very zealous for the LORD, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.” Then the LORD said to him, “Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus; when you arrive, you shall anoint Hazael as king over Aram. Also you shall anoint Jehu son of Nimshi as king over Israel; and you shall anoint Elisha son of Shaphat of Abel-meholah as prophet in your place. Whoever escapes from the sword of Hazael, Jehu shall kill; and whoever escapes from the sword of Jehu, Elisha shall kill. Yet I will leave seven thousand in Israel, all the knees that have not bowed to Baal, and every mouth that has not kissed him.”

Romans 10:5-15

Moses writes concerning the righteousness that comes from the law, that “the person who does these things will live by them.” But the righteousness that comes from faith says, “Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?’” (that is, to bring Christ down) “or ‘Who will descend into the abyss?’” (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). But what does it say?

“The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart”

(that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); because if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved. The scripture says, “No one who believes in him will be put to shame.” For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. For, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”

But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!”

Matthew 14:22-33

Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea. But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”

Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”

Paradox

Originally posted on October 24, 2016
I was privileged to preach at my church yesterday.
The readings for today are at the bottom of this post.

Listen to this sermon here.

I really like the parable from the gospel reading for today.

I like it because it contains several paradoxes, depending on how you approach it as a story. One of the definitions of paradox, from the Merriam-Webster online dictionary is:
a statement that is seemingly contradictory or opposed to common sense and yet is perhaps true.

Paradox to me, represents ideas and situations that surprise us,
it is like a person surprising us – but only after we feel we know them,
it is a puzzle or problem that takes some time to work out.

It is from the paradoxes in our lives that we learn and grow.
How boring it would be, if everything just behaved exactly as we expect it too?
These paradoxical surprises are, for me, what makes life so interesting.

One paradox presented to us in the parable of the Pharisee and the the Tax Collector is that the religious man who does everything he can to live his life according to the law of Moses,
who fasts twice a week,
who tithes one tenth of his income,
who often prays in the temple,
is not as justified or forgiven in the sight of God as a Tax Collector who is genuinely remorseful and humble.

How can this be?
How could this Tax Collector,
a man who works for the local Roman authorities,
a man who some might think is a traitor to his own people,
just because he is humble,
and recognizes his own faults,
who beats his breast and pleads for forgiveness,
how could God – hear this man and forgive him?

But as Christians we know that God listens to everyone.
We know that God forgives everyone.

This is such a simple story, but it has such power.
It contains the living heart of the good news of Christ Jesus, that we,
no matter how good we try to be,
we all have sinned and come short of the glory of God.

That we can be justified or forgiven,
that God is ready to grant us forgiveness, if we would just ask for it.

There are many paradoxes that contain a trick.
Sometimes a word or phrase,
sometimes the situation as it is presented, and this trick contains the paradox.

In this parable with the Pharisee and the Tax collector, the trick is that we are told the inner thoughts of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector. Something that we typically have no way of knowing.

The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, `God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.

Whereas the Tax Collector
standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, `God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’

We all fall short in what we should be doing.
We all fall short of what we should be.

The biggest difference in God’s sight between the Pharisee and the Tax Collector is that the Tax Collector is aware that he is a sinner,
the Pharisee thinks that he is good and that he does not need God’s forgiveness.
The Pharisee is not asking for forgiveness because he is unaware that he needs to do so.

Jesus addressed this parable to a particular audience:
Jesus told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.

I believe, Jesus was addressing this parable to an audience of pharisees, the most religious of his fellow Jewish people. The word pharisee means ‘separated one’, the pharisees organized themselves into communities apart from both other Jewish people and gentiles. They felt that to truly practice their faith, they had to keep themselves separate from others.

If Jesus were telling this parable today, who would he be addressing?

This is not a parable for thieves and rogues.
The thieves and rogues of this world know that they have sinned against God and their neighbors, they know they are in trouble. If they pray, they pray for forgiveness, healing, and help for themselves.

Once again the surprising, paradoxical nature of this simple parable becomes apparent when we imagine Jesus telling this parable today.
This is a parable for church folk.
This is a parable for the faithful.
Jesus would probably be telling it to us.

How many of us are as faithful as the Pharisee in this story?
He fasts twice a week!
(point at my own stomach)
Maybe I should be fasting every week?

He tithes a tenth of his income!
Speaking for a moment as your Treasurer, during the Fall season, when we are asked to estimate what we can give back to God for next year.
I have got to say that this Pharisee is a better man than I am with regard to his support for his temple.

The Pharisee in this story is a fine, upright, church going man!
He represents the very best, most righteous among all mankind, just as the Tax Collector represents the thieves and the rogues.
This Pharisee also in the privacy of his mind, in his thoughts and prayers,
this good man the Pharisee despises his fellow men and women, and regards them with contempt.
Both of these men of the parable, like every one of us, has sinned, and fallen short of what we all should be.

According my favorite Science Fiction writer, Roger Zelazny, in his novel “Lord of Light”
A sermon is a warning
The warning in this sermon is very simple.
That we must always remember that we cannot save ourselves.
Our good works can make us better neighbors,
better parents,
better friends,
better members of our congregation,
and help us to spread the idea of the kingdom of heaven here on earth.

But, if we fool ourselves into believing that we are good, that we we don’t need God’s help and forgiveness,
Our self-righteousness,
our pride in ourselves,
our regard of others with contempt,
will separate us from God our Father, and this belief condemns us.
for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.

I believe, that it all begins with humility.
Practicing humility, helps us to keep our egos in check.
Humility helps us to be honest with ourselves, to know our limitations and our faults.
With our own faults firmly in mind, we may then pray to God for help, for strength, for support and guidance.

I will close with a paradox, the paradox of salvation.

Humility and honesty before our Creator helps us to remember that we have sinned.
Humility before Jesus the Christ, allows us to accept God’s grace of forgiveness, which is always available to us.
Humility helps us to maintain that inner silence necessary to hear the small quiet voice of the Spirit.

Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit: as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be for ever.

Amen.

Joel 2:23-32
O children of Zion, be glad
and rejoice in the Lord your God;
for he has given the early rain for your vindication,
he has poured down for you abundant rain,
the early and the later rain, as before.
The threshing floors shall be full of grain,
the vats shall overflow with wine and oil.
I will repay you for the years
that the swarming locust has eaten,
the hopper, the destroyer, and the cutter,
my great army, which I sent against you.
You shall eat in plenty and be satisfied,
and praise the name of the Lord your God,
who has dealt wondrously with you.
And my people shall never again be put to shame.
You shall know that I am in the midst of Israel,
and that I, the Lord, am your God and there is no other.
And my people shall never again
be put to shame.
Then afterward
I will pour out my spirit on all flesh;
your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
your old men shall dream dreams,
and your young men shall see visions.
Even on the male and female slaves,
in those days, I will pour out my spirit.
I will show portents in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire and columns of smoke.
The sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes.
Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved;
for in Mount Zion and in Jerusalem there shall be those who escape,
as the Lord has said, and among the survivors shall be those whom the Lord calls.

2 Timothy 4:6-8,16-18
I am already being poured out as a libation, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.
From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have longed for his appearing.
At my first defense no one came to my support, but all deserted me. May it not be counted against them!
But the Lord stood by me and gave me strength, so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed and all the Gentiles might hear it. So I was rescued from the lion’s mouth.
The Lord will rescue me from every evil attack and save me for his heavenly kingdom. To him be the glory forever and ever. Amen.

Luke 18:9-14
Jesus told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: “Two men went up to the temple to pray,
one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, `God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves,
rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.
I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying,
`God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you,
this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”

An Invitation to Dinner

Originally Posted on August 28, 2016
(I have made some minor edits from the original sermon for clarity)

I was privileged to give this sermon three years ago.
The readings are at the bottom of this post.

Listen to this sermon here.

In our gospel lesson for today, Jesus gets invited to a dinner party at someone’s house.

Not just any dinner – but the Sabbath meal.

Not just any house – but the house of a leader of the Pharisees. A leader among the most traditional and conservative of the priests in the city of Jerusalem.

Most of us who have had some success in our careers, get opportunities like this. We get invited to the Boss’ house, and we make polite conversation. We admire his or her home, we accept a seat at the table, we watch how much we drink. We don’t express our opinions too forcefully.

We just try to make a good impression.

Jesus does not act the way we usually do.

(pause)

Over the last two Sundays, our gospel readings have shown Jesus as the revolutionary, the firebrand, who came to bring fire to the earth!

Who said

Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!

Who rebukes the leader of a synagogue with

You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?

All too often, when I see some problem with our country, or our community, I feel this outrage!

Something must be done about this right now!

I sometimes then waste my limited time and energy confronting people, rather than finding some way to work with them.

In our gospel readings of the past couple of weeks, Jesus seems to be feeling this outrage, this need for action.

But Jesus knows when to be forceful, and when to use a different approach.

A leader of the Pharisees invites Jesus, this wild, rough, Galilean prophet, the son of a carpenter from the countyside, invites this Jesus to his home for the Sabbath meal.

Jesus could have been loud and reactionary. He could have blamed the Pharisees present for many of the problems with their society. But, Jesus does not see the Pharisees as his adversaries.

Jesus ministered to everyone, even the Pharisees.

Everyone.

Can you imagine Jesus at this Sabbath dinner?

Jesus is the special guest, with all these high status religious leaders. He could claim if not the best seat, at least the second best seat at that table. Maybe, one of the Pharisees, has not gotten the word and has already claimed the seat reserved for Jesus. The other Pharisees are whispering to this man, you should move to another seat, we want Jesus to sit here so we can question and watch him closely.

Jesus is watching these men, with the love and regard he has for everyone.

Jesus then speaks,

When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, `Give this person your place,’ and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, `Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.

After Jesus said this, I wonder if there was a sudden rush for the seats at the foot of the table?

Jesus, once he has their attention, also gives them a bit of his revolutionary, kingdom of God stuff, which he addresses directly to the leader of the Pharisees who invited him to this dinner.

When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid.

I am sure, that Jesus’ tone was friendly, but this message is a rebuke, because this is exactly who the leader of the Pharisees had invited to this dinner.

But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.

I wonder how the leader of the Pharisees received this message from Jesus?

It seems that Jesus was not invited to dinner again.

We do not see in the gospels that Jesus regularly attended the sabbath dinner at a Pharisee’s house.

How are we to spread the message of the good news of Christ Jesus?

How are we to move our society towards the kingdom of God?

(pause)

It is very easy for us to demonize people who do not agree with us. We disagree about some issue, and we label them as liberals or conservatives, progressives or libertarians. Once we have labeled them, they in turn label us. Their and our positions on issues harden as our hearts harden, so that even if we talk to one another, we are shouting slogans at each other, rather than listening to each other in the give and take of a conversation.

We start to see these people as our adversaries, as an obstacle to be overcome.

As I was writing this sermon, I remembered two people who lived lives of protest. Who creatively and courageously worked to bring about the kingdom of God. Who also consciously and consistently refused to see the people who disagreed with them as adversaries or opponents to be overcome, but saw them as neighbors, friends and collaborators who had not yet joined with them.

John Woolman was born in 1720 in the colony of New Jersey. As a young man he learned how to tailor clothes, and how to run a business. He was a Quaker, and came to a personal realization that slavery was wrong, and that he must do something about it.

With the support of his local Society of Friends meeting, he traveled to Quaker and other church meetings throughout New England for over 30 years, speaking against slavery, asking everyone who owned slaves to free them. In 1772 he traveled to England presenting the case to end slavery to the Yearly meeting of British Quakers. This one man, working throughout his life to convince his fellow Quakers to end slavery, led to the Quakers getting slavery abolished in Pennsylvania in 1790. Converting people who owned slaves on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line to give up the institution of slavery; convincing them to free their slaves by talking to them one on one.

Mahatma Ghandi was the other person who came to my mind as someone who creatively and courageously protested British rule, seeking freedom for the people of India.

Ghandi felt very strongly in the worth of every person he met. So when he was invited to a gathering where there was a servant present waiting on himself and the other guests. He would take the serving tray from the servant, thank them, and serve the other guests himself. Ghandi would do this at meetings with Indian leaders to remind them that the people were not protesting just for the Indian leaders to replace the British ones. But that those Indian leaders should see themselves as public servants of a free India. Ghandi’s act of service to others is a great example of a personal act of protest and awareness.

Before we protest, before we work to change anyone elses’ opinions on the great issues of our day,
we have our own inner work to do.
In our hearts and in our minds, we should know that these people, our neighbors,
who disagree with us,
who we are protesting,
who we are confronting, are not our adversaries.

These people are our brothers and sisters.
We are all the children of God, our Father and Creator.

We should strive to strike that balance, as Jesus did, delivering our message of protest to the powerful, in a creative way.

With the resolve of John Woolman, pleading for the dignity of all people for over 30 years; never giving in or giving up.
With the moral force and firmness of our own conduct and example as Mahatma Ghandi did throughout his life.
Courageously seeking to convert,
always seeking to speak to our common humanity.
Always listening to that small, still voice of the spirit.

Jeremiah 2:4-13
Hear the word of the Lord, O house of Jacob, and all the families of the house of Israel. Thus says the Lord:
What wrong did your ancestors find in me
that they went far from me,
and went after worthless things, and became worthless themselves?
They did not say, “Where is the Lord
who brought us up from the land of Egypt,
who led us in the wilderness,
in a land of deserts and pits,
in a land of drought and deep darkness,
in a land that no one passes through,
where no one lives?”
I brought you into a plentiful land
to eat its fruits and its good things.
But when you entered you defiled my land,
and made my heritage an abomination.
The priests did not say, “Where is the Lord?”
Those who handle the law did not know me;
the rulers transgressed against me;
the prophets prophesied by Baal,
and went after things that do not profit.
Therefore once more I accuse you, says the Lord,
and I accuse your children’s children.
Cross to the coasts of Cyprus and look,
send to Kedar and examine with care;
see if there has ever been such a thing.
Has a nation changed its gods,
even though they are no gods?
But my people have changed their glory
for something that does not profit.
Be appalled, O heavens, at this,
be shocked, be utterly desolate,
says the Lord,
for my people have committed two evils:
they have forsaken me,
the fountain of living water,
and dug out cisterns for themselves,
cracked cisterns
that can hold no water.

Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16
Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.
Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured.
Let marriage be held in honor by all, and let the marriage bed be kept undefiled; for God will judge fornicators and adulterers. Keep your lives free from the love of money, and be content with what you have; for he has said, “I will never leave you or forsake you.” So we can say with confidence,
“The Lord is my helper;
I will not be afraid.
What can anyone do to me?”
Remember your leaders, those who spoke the word of God to you; consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.
Through him, then, let us continually offer a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that confess his name. Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.

Luke 14:1, 7-14
On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the sabbath, they were watching him closely.
When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable. “When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, `Give this person your place,’ and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, `Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
He said also to the one who had invited him, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.
And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”