A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church
A new church for a new day, in Fremont, California,
on Sunday, April 21, 2013, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scripture: Exodus 14:10-31 and Amos 5:18-24
Copyright © 2013 by Jeffrey S. Spencer
On the evening of April 18, 1775, Paul Revere set out on his now famous midnight ride. He traveled across the Charles River to Charlestown, so he could mount a horse and ride to Concord, stopping in Lexington, to warn the people that the British were sending troops through Lexington to Concord. The assumed goals of the British troops were the capture of members of the Massachusetts Provincial Congress (a congress not sanctioned by the crown), especially the leaders John Hancock and Samuel Adams, and to secure ammunitions that had been collected and stored in Concord. Hancock and Adams were staying in Lexington, at the town parsonage – a building that still stands, two doors down from the house I grew up in.
Getting the message out was so important that a second messenger was sent, William Dawes. He went via a land route. The two met up in the early morning of April 19 at the Lexington parsonage and started traveling to Concord, meeting up with a third confederate, Samuel Prescott. And it was a good thing, too. As they crossed through a corner of Lincoln (a town between Lexington and Concord), they met up with a British patrol. Revere was captured; Dawes got away, but got lost. It was Dr. Prescott who made it to Concord to warn the Provincial Congress to flee and for the Minutemen to assemble to defend the town from the British troops.
As I said, I grew up in Lexington. April 19 was a state holiday – Patriots’ Day. Every year, early in the morning, Paul Revere and William Dawes reenactors would ride into town. Kids were allowed to climb belfry hill and ring the bell, calling the reenactor Minutemen to the town green. British reenactors would march up Massachusetts Avenue, meet the Minutemen on the Green, and together they would reenact the first battle of the American Revolution, the Battle of Lexington. Really not much more than a skirmish, it lasted minutes.
In history, the British troops regrouped and marched on to Concord where, thanks to earlier warnings about the possibilities and the arrival of Dr. Prescott, the munitions and leaders had been moved and their mission ended up being pretty much a bust. The British did manage to find some things to burn, which caused enough smoke that the Minutemen who had assembled outside of town thought the British were burning the town down. They stormed the North Bridge, and the fighting began in earnest, continuing through the day in Concord and along the march back to Boston.
In my childhood, the day was all about the horses riding into town, ringing the belfry, and the reenactment on the Lexington Battle Green. It turns out that other things were happening in Massachusetts on that holiday, the most famous of which is most assuredly the Boston Marathon. Eventually, the holiday got moved to a Monday, and the Boston Marathon and the reenactment of the Battle of Lexington with it.
When I learned about the bombing at the finish line of this year’s Marathon, I was, like many of you, horrified. I was horrified by the carnage, horrified by the death, horrified by the callousness and coldheartedness. I had been in a meeting with a DOC Regional committee and was granted Ordained Ministerial Partner Standing. I was rejoicing, not just for me, but for our congregation because I think having standing in both of our denominations will help our church stay connected to both denominations. I stopped for lunch and checked Facebook on my phone. I learned the news. I turned to Twitter to learn more.
Then I turned to prayer.
Like so many of you, even as I sought to learn what had happened, even as I was reading updates, I found myself praying. The Boston Marathon finish line is at Copley Square. That’s right by Old South Church, a United Church of Christ and one of Boston’s most famous churches, and the Boston Public Library, a place I had been to many times in Junior High and High School to do research, you know, in the days before the Internet. It is so easy for me to picture the place: the bricks on the square, the pillars of the library, the bell tower of the church. And I kept thinking about the families who would be there. My brother-in-law ran in the Boston Marathon two years ago, and my sister and their kids went to cheer him on.
So many emotions – especially anxiety, grief, anger, and fear. I was okay with the grief; the loss was real so the grief is real. I was even okay with the anxiety and anger and fear. They are emotions and emotions are fine to feel. But I was also cautious of them, because I also know where those three emotions can so easily take me: hatred and revenge-seeking.
And I know that the way of hatred and revenge-seeking are not the way of Jesus Christ.
As an antidote, I wasn’t ready for Jesus’ words about loving our enemies and praying for those who persecute us. So I turned to the words of Fred Rogers (better known as Mister Rogers): “When I was a boy, and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’”
And I turned to the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” And these words that I choose to hear with inclusive ears, “When evil men plot, good men must plan. When evil men burn and bomb, good men must build and bind. When evil men shout ugly words of hatred, good men must commit themselves to the glories of love.”
Holding on to these words became all the more important to me as the news broke late Thursday night and early Friday morning of the shootout in Watertown. Watertown is just two towns away from Lexington and it is the home of one of my oldest friends and his family. So much of the action of the next 24 hours took place within Steve’s neighborhood. It would have been so easy for me to drift into hatred and revenge-seeking. Those words of light and planning and building and binding and committing to love kept me grounded and helped me to pray. That and Steve’s regular updates on Facebook, letting me and the rest of his friends know that he and his family were okay.
There are some other words I’ve been living with this week, words from Amos and Exodus. The story from Exodus tells about the Hebrews crossing the Red Sea to safety. It’s a story about an oppressed, enslaved people being freed. We hear it and cheer for the good guys, for the underdog. The great might of Pharaoh washed away as the Hebrews pass through the waters of freedom.
And I can’t help but wonder how the Egyptians would have told the story. I image the headlines. “Slaves revolt, demanding an end to society as we know it.” “Fleeing slaves hunted by noble army.” “Our brave armies drowned by capricious Hebrew God.”
Amos tells us that God wants not our piety, but justice rolling down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. Does the definition of justice and righteousness really depend on which side of the Red Sea you’re left on? The Hebrews’ tale speaks of God creating justice, of God wielding righteousness by killing of Egyptian soldiers. And that’s not the God I know and love.
Here’s what I’ve come to believe about this story. Whether based on some historical event or simply a story spun around a campfire, the story became an attempt to speak about God’s love for this particular people and an attempt to speak of God’s desire that they be free and whole. In other words, the story is incomplete because it limits God’s love to one people.
Assuming that it is based on some historical event, the original storytellers saw God acting on their behalf and gave thanks to God for it. That’s nice. In fact, it’s a very human thing to do. No doubt some people are looking at some of the events that unfolded in the Boston Metro Area this week and are seeing God at work on their behalf. But to do this limits God and to do this limits God’s love.
The justice and righteousness we are called to bring forth like a gushing, never-ending stream of water should be for all people. The scandalous truth is that, while I find it difficult to do so, God loves Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and his brother Tamerlan. The scandalous truth is that God loves not just you and me but also each prisoner at Guantanamo Bay, even the ones who wanted nothing more than to see each one of us dead, and God loves each person who committed torture in the name of the United States of America.
When I was planning this sermon series, my thoughts about this sermon where headed in a very different direction. I hope you’ll come to the Second Saturday Documentary in May.[*] If you do, you’ll get enough of what I was planning on talking about today. Events have taken this sermon in a different direction, and
I have found myself reflecting on the image of the waters of freedom, but have noticed that they are transformed. They are not the violent waters of the Red Sea crashing in on Pharaoh’s army. They are the waters that we pass through to bring us – all of us – to freedom.
For some reason, perhaps it was the Holy Spirit, I started thinking about The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. For Huck and for Jim, the waters of the Mississippi were waters of freedom. For Huck, it was freedom from an abusive, alcoholic father. For Jim, it was freedom from slavery and dehumanization. Yes, this freedom was founded on escapism, and, yes, it turns out that Jim had been “free” for most of the journey because his owner died, freeing him in her will. But on the River, Huck and Jim were their own men. On these waters of freedom they found their own wholeness.
And that’s one of the things God offers us in the waters of baptism. In baptism, we pass through the waters of freedom into a new life, transformed and freed for love and holy work. In baptism, we pass through the waters of freedom into a disciple’s life of calling forth and bringing forth the waters of justice and righteousness.
This has been an emotionally draining week for me, and perhaps for you, too. So, today, I want to wade in the waters of freedom. Today, I want to let the currents of justice and righteous flow around my ankles. Today, I want to splash around in the joy of life, to remember by baptism, and to remember God’s call to a life that is more than piety, to a life that seeks justice and righteousness and freedom for all God’s children.