Sermon + Sunday, September 9, 2018
Pastor Nathan Pipho + Trinity, Worcester
Lectionary23B … Isaiah 35:4-7a; James 2:1-17; Mark 7:24-37
In the name of Jesus. AMEN.
I highly recommend a new biography about the famous abolitionist Frederick Douglass. The book is entitled, Frederick Douglass: American Prophet, is written by D.H. Dilbeck, and is available at the Worcester Public Library. The book explores Douglass’s Christian faith over the years on his journey from slave to a leading abolitionist.
The biographer suggested that Douglass’s faith was deeply influenced by his experience of “Christian” slave owners. Don’t be fooled, his experience was not a good one. He described Christian slave owners as, “invariably the vilest, meanest, and basest of their class.”
Early in his life, Douglass was sent to a slave owner who had earned a reputation for correcting the behavior of “problem” slaves. After repeated physical assaults, and one particularly harsh beating, he ran away. He was, however, advised by an older slave to return which he did on a Sunday morning.
He arrived just as the slave owner and his wife were leaving for church. To Douglass’s surprise, the normally brutal slave owner was polite and even courteous. He didn’t punish him for running away, instead he welcomed him back and gave him a few light tasks to do.
The very next day, however, first thing in the morning, the slave owner snuck up behind Douglass and attacked him. Gone was Sabbath niceness and politeness – it was time for punishment.
It was this jarring dissonance – between a professed righteousness on the Sabbath and in places of worship on the one hand, and abject brutality extended by these same slave owners on the other, that made Douglass suspicious of the American Church.
His suspicion was further reinforced when Douglass was transferred to another slave owner who was not a religious man. This non-religious slave owner did not go to church but he did not abuse his slaves either. He treated Douglass and other slaves with a restraint and moderation he had not known from Christian slave owners.
Douglass wrote: “Christianity practiced by masters was a mere covering for the most horrid crimes; justified the most appalling barbarity; sanctified the most hateful frauds; and provided a secure shelter under which the darkest, foulest, grossest, and most infernal abominations fester and flourish.”
What kind of dead piety could worship God on Sunday …and then physically beat, and injure, and kill, and perpetuate a system of slavery on Monday?
In his many years pondering that question, Douglass suggested that slavery endured in American because: “We are too religious as a nation. Americans substituted religion for humanity – substituting a form of Godliness, an outside show, for the real thing itself.” Like the scribes and Pharisees of Christ’s day, American Christians put on a facade of righteousness.
After I read that, I was haunted as I sat in worship last Sunday in the church in Iowa where I had grown up. I was haunted by the question: What are the ways today, unknowingly, unwittingly, unconsciously, we practice a Sunday piety that gives way to a Monday cruelty?
What are the ways we participate in oppressive systems that demean, degrade, and violate human dignity?
I suspect many of our Catholic brothers and sisters are wondering the same thing about their church. How could priests – those called to shepherd the flock – abuse and violate children – the most trusting and vulnerable among them? How could church leaders – those in even greater positions of trust & responsibility – allow for a systematic exploitation and abuse of the children in their care?
What systems of economic injustice do we participate in that profit some and oppress others? What systems do we participate in that pollute the air and atmosphere – changing the climate and affecting generations to come? What systems do we support that divide up the peoples of the earth into the haves and the have nots?
What’s remarkable about Frederick Douglass, is that even after his experience of “Christian” slave owners, and in fact, he didn’t believe one could be called a Christian if one owned slaves, even after he experienced the galling and torturous hypocrisy of so-called Christians – he remained a Christian!
While he was appalled at the Christianity of the church, what one of his eulogizers called “Churchianity,” he found hope and liberation in the Christianity of Christ. For Frederick Douglass, Christ was a prophet of freedom who called our attention to the least among us. If Christians actually followed Christ, and reflected that discipleship in public policies, slavery would be instantly abolished and a new freedom and equality between the races and all classes of people would be the result.
Christ was a prophet revealed God’s liberating work. Christ proclaimed good news to the poor and release to the captive. Even if Christians did not make Christ the center of their daily lives, Christ was at the center of the abolitionist movement working through both religious and non-religious people for freedom.
All of this, is a way we can understand the classic warning we hear from James in our Second Reading today: “Faith without works is dead.”
Faith that is unconnected with daily life …
Faith that yields to sin and systems of sin …
Faith that offers no rebuke, no protest, no argument against people and systems and forces of destruction …
That faith is no faith at all … that faith is dead.
In light of the experience in this country where Christians defended slavery … in light of the recent Pew survey where just 25% of White Evangelical Protestants, and just 43% of white mainline Protestant Christians, agreed that the U.S. has a responsibility for refugees, a galling disregard for the scriptural commands of Jesus Christ to care for the least among us and to welcome the stranger, a shame further reinforced by the fact that 65% of those with no church connection felt that the U.S. does have a responsibility for refugees, more than any white Christian group and an uncomfortable prophetic echo of Frederick Douglass’s experience that the non-religious slave owner was the most charitable … in light of the painful reality of systemic sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic Church …
Might we say that Christianity of the Church, or to use the term of Frederick Douglass’s eulogizer – Churchianity – is dead. Churchianity as lived out by the church is no salvation from sin and perhaps even leads us further into sin! Churchianity faith, with its Sunday politeness and Monday cruelty, is death.
And, might we say, like Frederick Douglass, that faith in the living Jesus Christ, faith in the Christianity of Christ, is very much alive and leads to the healing that we read about in Isaiah this morning and in the Gospel this morning.
Frederick Douglass would not have met Peter Claver. Peter Claver lived 250 years before Frederick Douglass. Today, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America joins the Roman Catholic Church in venerating Peter Claver.
Peter Claver was Spanish by birth, but his adult ministry was in Columbia – primarily with slaves. His ministry with slaves was active and relational – he went right on to slave ships to minister with Africans and he went from plantation to plantation offering consolation. When he traveled he never slept in the houses of plantation & slave owners, he slept instead in slave lodgings.
His ministry was not just personal, but public. He also advocated for the human and civil rights of the slaves he ministered with. City magistrates considered him a nuisance for his persistent advocacy on their behalf.
This was faith active in love. This was faith alive in Christ and alive in relationship with those who Douglass believed Christ always calls us into relationship with: the poor, the oppressed, the forgotten, the displaced, the suffering …
The Christianity of Christ, alive in Peter Claver, was the hope of Frederick Douglass. Even as the Christianity of the Church participated in slavery, and then in his final years participated in either by commission or omission, the establishment of Jim Crow laws, Jesus Christ remained alive and active in those who would work for a society of equality and justice.
Friends in Christ, we have a choice today:
We can, like so many throughout history, practice Churchianity. We can turn inward and focus on institutional survival and what is safe, and smart, and rationale, and comfortable, and tidy, and orderly. We can seek to preserve and defend what we have. It is a wide road well-traveled.
Or, we can take the narrow road chosen by fewer people and practice the Christianity of Christ. We can turn our focus outward and be the presence of Jesus Christ in the world announcing good news to the poor, release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind.
With a faith active and alive in love, we as individuals, and we as a congregation, can let the oppressed go free, proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and can give ourselves away for the life of the world.
It is the choice between death and life.
Guided by the witness and action of Frederick Douglass and Peter Claver, and in the name of Jesus Christ … let’s live!