Sunday, February 20, 2011

The Clear Instruction of the Word of God

Sermon preached at the Church of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene on the 7th Sunday after the Epiphany, also the Feast of Frederick Douglass: Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18; Matthew 5:38-48

You may have noticed that Frederick Douglass’ observations about “Prejudice and the Church” were of the church in the North. He found the same prejudice here as he had experienced in the South.

If Frederick Douglass is now the “hero of the day” for Episcopalians, we have an anti-hero too, a contemporary of Douglass’ named John Henry Hopkins, who was actually an Episcopalian. In 1861, on the brink of the Civil War, Hopkins published a pamphlet entitled, “A Scriptural, Ecclesiastical and Historical View of Slavery.”[1] It was paid attention to because Hopkins was one of the senior bishops in our church, and, in fact, would soon become our presiding bishop.

In his pamphlet Hopkins defended the institution of slavery, although he admitted to welcoming its gradual abolition. Among other things, he wrote

I have no more to add with respect to this most popular dogma of human equality, and shall therefore dismiss it, as fallacious in itself, and only mischievous in its tendency….Happily it forms no part of our Constitution or our laws. It never was intended to apply to the question of negro slavery. And it can never be so applied without a total perversion of its historical meaning, and an absolute contrariety to all the facts of humanity, and the clear instruction of the Word of God.[2]

If I gave you three guesses as to where Hopkins was the bishop, I bet you would be wrong. Hopkins was not the bishop of a southern diocese. He was the Bishop of Vermont. Growing up I was taught that we northerners’ hands were clean compared to the evils perpetrated by the south. I was taught incorrectly.

For our purposes there is a vitally important question: How did the church get from Jesus repeating the teaching of Leviticus, “love your neighbor as yourself” to the belief that human equality was contrary to the clear instruction of the Word of God and little white girls running away from Communion lest they receive it with a black child?

Why is this is a vitally important question for us to grapple with? It is because the church has been the teacher and purveyor of prejudice of all kinds for centuries, for the vast majority of its life. And we are not by any means over it. A Professor of New Testament at an Episcopal seminary in 1999 refused to receive Communion with me because my lifestyle was so degrading I was allowing myself to be “less than human.” Does that sound familiar?

By the way, I’m still talking about evangelism here [as I have been throughout Epiphany]. This is an evangelical problem for us. The church’s history of prejudice, judgment and hypocrisy keep untold numbers from even considering church membership. We are often told that this is the most religious country in the world, and perhaps it is. Yet a recent Hartford Seminary study found that on any given Sunday only 20% of Americans are in church. Now to be fair, on any given Sunday, half the active members of a church will be at worship, so we could generously estimate that 40% of Americans are active church members. That is still less than half. Why is that so? I believe it is largely because of the church’s reputation. And, in a sense, Frederick Douglass is still right, the grand cause is slavery.

So what happened to the church?

I allow my friend and mentor, Dr. Verna Dozier to suggest what happened. Dr. Dozier was an African-American lay scholar of the Bible and advocate for the place of lay people in the church.

In her book, The Dream of God: A Call to Return, Verna writes of God’s dream for the creation and its rejection by God’s people. She believes the people of God have had three great falls. The first is what everyone things of as the fall, the mythical story of Adam and Eve, a fall, she says, “in eternity.”

In the first fall, I usurped the place of God. There is no God. There is only I. There is no Other. There is only I. We became lonely, separated, fearful, human beings. Not the good world God created.[3]

The second great fall was the desire of Israel for a King. Verna writes

On the second try, God offered the chosen people a way of life that would testify to a new possibility for human life, absolute trust in God, but the chosen people said, no, we want to be like all the nations. We don’t want to live in the uncertainty of the risk that God will raise up leaders when we need them. We want the security of systems and dynasties and human order.[4]

The third fall Verna conjectures happened in the life of the early church.

I have always considered the third fall, the third time the people of God chose the kingdoms of this world instead of the kingdom of God, to be in the fourth century, when, in the words of an optimistic church historian, “the Church subdued the State.” I have always thought exactly the opposite—it was the state that subdued the church. The effect of the third fall was to make accommodation the mode of the people of God.[5]

The church lived for its first three hundred years as an underground movement, at various times actually in hiding for fear of vicious persecution in the Roman Empire. They were dangerous and stressful days to be a Christian. It was the era of the martyrs.

Yet the church grew by leaps and bounds. Why? No doubt the message of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus touched many with the hope they needed in a dangerous world. But there is plenty of evidence that just as attractive were the ways that Christian people formed communities and lived together—in ways radically different from the world around them. Despite what Bishop Hopkins thought, these communities were characterized by the practice of radical equality and hospitality and generosity. Very significantly, as Paul wrote of these communities, there “was no slave or free.”[6] Slaves became Christians in droves during the first three centuries of the church’s life.

Then along came the Emperor Constantine. Constantine was faced with an aging, crumbling empire. He needed a new unifying force. He found it, but the church has not been the same since.

The story is that Constantine had a dream before a battle. A cross loomed before him emblazened by the sun. And he saw the Greek words ev toutoi nika, “by this be victorious.” The words are oftened rendered in Latin, in hoc signo vinces, “in this sign conquer.” IHS began to be put on crosses. It still is. Some say it stand for the first three letters of “Jesus” in Greek, and it does, but that is not how it began.

In 313, Constantine made Christianity legal in the Roman Empire. In the ensuing years it effectively became the state religion. And that is when, As Verna Dozier says, the church turned to “accommodation” as its chief mode of operation.

Now there are certainly instances in the church’s life since Constantine that it has bravely challenged the state and the culture. Its behavior, however, has overwhelmingly been quite the opposite. The church has allowed itself to baptize the status quo, including the unequal treatment of human beings leading to the outright abuse of some. And it usually found justification for this behavior somewhere in the Bible, even in the Gospels. A favorite verse of Christian slaveowners came from Jesus’ own lips:

That slave who knew what his master wanted, but did not prepare himself or do what was wanted, will receive a severe beating.[7]

Frederick Douglass speaks of one of his masters, that he would recite this verse while beating a slave.[8] Indeed, this master experienced a conversion while Douglass was his slave, but Douglass says

If it had any effect on his character, it made him to have been a much worse man after his conversion than before. Prior to his conversion, he relied upon his own depravity to shield and sustain him in his savage barbarity; but after hi conversion, he found religious sanction and support for his slaveholding cruelty.[9]

There are two challenges here as we seek to proclaim the good news by word and example. The first is this history, which is carried on by some of our fellow Christians. Very few if any of them support slavery and this kind of cruelty, but plenty of them still traffic in prejudice and judgment as well as being virtual agent of the state, espousing what can only be seen as a kind of civil religion. And the biggest problem is that those folks tend to control the media, which means that folks who otherwise might be attracted to Christianity believe it is in their best self interest to stay home on Sunday morning.

Second of all, it should be clear to us from the last 50 years that a completely independent Christian voice, espousing absolute human equality, is perhaps not the most popular option. It should be no surprise that the decline of mainline Protestantism—including our own church—began when large numbers of our clergy in particular—embraced the civil rights movement. Episcopal Church membership peaked in 1964, and has headed down ever since. Then there was Prayer Book revision and women’s ordination in the mid-1970’s, the first woman bishop in 1989, the bishop’s of the church finally call racism a sin in 1994 and anti-racism training begins, the explosion of openly gay and lesbian clergy in the 1990’s and the first openly gay bishop in 2003. Down, down, down, down, down.

Which may mean that we are actually in a hopeful place, despite the fact that our smaller size is causing us financial and property-related pain. We are clearer, however, about who we are. We are closer to being tools of no one but the Lord Jesus Christ and his Gospel. We can be about the work of building the beloved community unfettered.

We need to be able to say two things in our evangelism—our proclamation to the world: We, the Church, for too many generations too number, sinned, supporting and committing atrocities that were an absolute betrayal of the One we claimed to follow. But we, the Church, are waking up, we are trying to make right what was done wrong, and an absolute commitment to the dignity of each and every human being and their right to live in justice and peace is our renewed creed, what we believe is the clear instruction of the Word of God.

Let us together be a living example of this new life, no matter what the cost.

[2] Ibid., pp. 28-29. Hopkins name may be familiar to many because of his son, John Henry Hopkins, Jr., the writer of the popular hymns “We three kings of orient are” and “I sing a song of the saints of God.”

[3] Verna J. Dozier, The Dream of God: A Call to Return (Cowley, 1991), p. 61.

[4] Ibid., p. 71.

[5] Ibid., p. 72.

[6] Galatians 3:28.

[7] Luke 12:47.

[8] In Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, A New Critical Edition by Angela Y. Davis, (City Lights Books, 2010), p.p. 169-170.

[9] Ibid., p. 168.

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