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Sunday, August 25, 2019


"It is not wrong to go back for that which you have forgotten"
Pentecost XI - Proper 16C - August 25, 2019
Christ Episcopal Church, Milford, DE

It’s hard to imagine what it must have been like to have lived in another country, in another culture entirely different from our own, and in another time in history. So, it is a difficult task to get our minds wrapped around what is really happening in today’s Gospel from St. Luke (13:10-17).

It’s the Sabbath, and Jesus is teaching in one of the synagogues when a woman who has been crippled for 18 years catches his eye. And Jesus, being Jesus, calls over to her, lays his hands on her and, immediately, she stands up straight and begins praising God.

These are things we have come to expect from Jesus. We have come to expect miracles. We have also come to know that he has a great affinity for getting into difficult situations whenever he’s around religious leaders. 

That comes as no surprise. 

And, as it strains both our intellect and reason to imagine being witnesses to that miraculous healing, we’ve also come to know that this is just part of who Jesus is and what Jesus does. We’re almost numb to the wonder of it all.

What is always confounding, well, to me, anyway, is the indignation and outrage and anger that Jesus did this miraculous healing on the Sabbath. I mean, seriously? Jesus does this amazing thing, this wondrous healing miracle – without even having been asked – and the only response is indignation because there are six other days when that could have been done and he chose to do it on the Sabbath? 

Seriously? Don’t these temple guys have their priorities just a little out of order?

Viewed from our comfortable, post-modern, very American lens, it can seem more than a bit ridiculous. In that culture at that time, women were considered ‘lesser children of God’ whose standing in society was entirely depending upon having a husband. 

Children had even less standing and anyone who had any illness or imperfection was considered even lower than cattle, which could at least be bartered or sold.

Indeed, slavery was normative in that culture, a factor which was not lost on future generations who looked to Holy Writ to normalize their own proclivities about the status of women and children and people with disabilities and, of course, slavery.

So, what’s up with the Sabbath? Why did the religious authorities of that day get so bent out of shape? Did this upstart Rabbi from, of all places, Nazareth in Galilee, not know that keeping the Sabbath is one of the ten direct commandments from God?

The answer, of course, is of course Jesus knows the Ten Commandments. He knows them like the back of his hand. I mean, it says so in the Bible, right? 

The Fourth Commandment is: “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.” Not only does it go on in very specific terms about how to keep the Sabbath, but we’re also told, “the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and hallowed it.”

So, of course the leader of the synagogue got upset. This is not just a social or religious custom, it is a rule that was created and blessed by God. And yet, Jesus, acting under the authority of no one except himself and for no other reason than the fact that he was deeply moved with compassion at the suffering of another, laid his hands on the woman and healed her and set her free.

Love, for Jesus, trumps rules. Compassion, for Jesus, knows no bounds of social or religious custom, or gender or age or geographical boundary.

The love of God in Jesus is unconditional. 

It is against the backdrop of this Gospel story that we come to this day in the life of the church in our day and time and with all of our own cultural nuances and influences, to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first enslaved Africans to North America.

Their story is difficult to hear. It was late August in the year 1619 when a Dutch man-of-war ship called The White Lion arrived and docked in Port Comfort, the present site of Fort Monroe National Monument in Hampton, Virginia. 

Its cargo, as recorded by historian John Rolfe, was “of the burden of a 160 tunnes  . . .the Commandors name Capt. Jope. He brought not any thing but 20 And odd Negroes, w[hich] the Governo[r] and Cape Merchant bought for victuals.”

The “20 And odd Negroes” had been captured from “the Kingdom of Ndongo” in Angola. They were packed with more than 350 enslaved Africans aboard the Sao Joao Baustista, a Portuguese slave ship that set sail from the coast of Africa, bound for what then was called Vera Cruz, on the coast of Mexico.

The ship was overcrowded and suffered horrible mortality on the voyage – of the 350 Africans originally on board, only about 40 of them survived. In the middle of the voyage on the high seas, the ship was attacked by two English pirate ships — the Treasurer and the White Lion — hoping to steal gold. 

Instead, they found human cargo. 

The English boarded the ship and split the human cargo between the White Lion and the Treasurer. Weeks later, the White Lion arrived at Point Comfort in Virginia, where its captain traded the enslaved people for food.

Among those traded: a man and woman who were later named Antoney Negro and Isabella Negro and whose baby, named William Tucker, would become the first documented African baby baptized in English North America. They were listed in the 1624 census in Virginia.

What followed was more than two centuries of brutal enslavement. By the time the Civil War began in 1860, census figures showed the slave population in the United States at nearly 4 million.

Even though this is part of our history, it’s hard for us to get our minds wrapped around the horrors of slavery. It is inconceivable to me to think that any human being could be owned by another human being – bought and sold like cattle or horses, separating children from their mothers and siblings from each other and their parents – and all for the financial betterment of the owners. 

What is even more inconceivable is that all of this was justified by good Christian men and women who faithfully read the bible. They pointed to admonishments from St. Paul’s letters to the ancient church in Ephesus (6:5) as evidence of God’s blessing on slavery “Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ,” as well as in Colossians (3:22) “Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything; and do it, not only when their eye is on you and to curry their favor, but with sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord.”

Slave Castle at Cape Coast, Ghana
In 2006, I was privileged to spend three weeks in Ghana, West Africa, as part of the faculty and student requirement at the theological school at Drew University where I served as adjunct faculty and earned my doctorate. 

I will never forget visiting the Slave Castle in Cape Coast, Ghana, not far from the thriving capital city of Accra. 

Today, the city of Accra boasts an airport, several five-star hotels, an excellent hospital and a sprawling university which attracts scholars from around the world. 

I should note that the Slave Castle is right across the street from the Anglican Cathedral where I was later privileged to concelebrate Eucharist with Bishop Daniel of Cape Coast. 

I remember standing in one of the slave dungeons which was in a cold, dark and dank stone enclosure, which served as part of the foundation of the building. Just above the room where the slaves were kept, shivering and languishing in their own filth, was the chapel. 

Yes, the chapel. Apparently, the good Portuguese and later the Swedish, Danes and then Dutch and British Christians who were officers and traders and their families who lived there saw absolutely no incongruity – no hypocrisy – between what they said they believed and the people chained to the wall just below their feet who would soon be sold to their profit. 

Apparently, they all went about their normal day-to-day life completely detached from the unfathomable human suffering they were consciously inflicting.

It’s as difficult for me not to judge those slave traders as it is for me not to judge the leaders of the temple in ancient Israel who condemned Jesus for showing mercy and compassion in healing that woman who was bent over with a crippling disease. 

That judgment is ultimately between them and God, the same God they worshipped and to whom they prayed; the same God who said to Jeremiah (1:4-10), “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you.” 

Apparently, they believed those words only applied to them. Apparently they believed those words did not apply to those whose skin color was not the same as theirs.

Symbols for Sankofa
While in Ghana, I learned about a Ghanaian concept known as Sankofa, which comes from the language of Akan tribe – one of 9 major tribes in Ghana.  

Sankofa translates to mean: “It is not wrong to go back for that which you have forgotten.”

I think, sometimes, we get so caught up in the details on the surface of stories – especially Gospel stories – that we forget there is a deeper meaning. 

Yes, the human heart has a capacity for evil, but it also has a capacity for mercy and compassion. 

Jesus echoes the prophet Hosea (6:6) when we hear him say in Matthew’s Gospel (9:13) “But go and learn what this means: 'I desire mercy, not sacrifice.' For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”

In the sprit of Sankofa, it is good for us to go back and remember that Jesus calls us first to love. 

Love is the only law of the Realm of God, and compassion is its highest value. Love, for Jesus, trumps rules. Compassion, for Jesus, knows no bounds of social or religious custom, or gender or age or race or geographical boundary.

The love of God in Jesus is unconditional. This is why Jesus did not hesitate to break the laws about the Sabbath with an act of deep love and compassion to heal the woman bound for 18 long years in the slavery of her infirmity. 

It is when we forget the unconditional love of God as revealed in Christ Jesus that we diminish our capacity for love and increase our capacity to do evil. 

God desires mercy, not sacrifice. Jesus came not for the righteous but for sinners like you and me who need to go back, from time to time, for that which we have forgotten, so that the future we build together will be stronger for the lessons of wisdom we will learn.

At 3 PM today, churches and people of other faiths across America will ring for a full minute as we remember the 400th anniversary of those “20 and odd Negroes,” among them Isabella and Antoney and their son, William Tucker. 

Michael Curry, our Presiding Bishop, has invited all Episcopal Churches to accept the invitation of the National Park Service and commemorate this event as a part of our ongoing efforts of racial healing and reconciliation, which General Convention has designated among three programatic and budgetary priorities, along with evangelism and creation care.

A special ceremony will be held in the State Park at Ft. Monroe, Virginia, the landing point of the first enslaved Africans in the English Colonies in 1619 as well as the site of the first emancipation policy decision during the Civil War. 

Thus, Ft. Monroe marks both the beginning and the end of slavery in the United States.

We will be ringing our church bells at the end of this service and joining in prayers specially written for this commemoration. I will invite you then and again at 3 PM to pause and lament the centuries of suffering and wrenching grief of slavery and racism in our land and ring a few bells in your own homes, if you've got them. 

The seeds of the sins of slavery and racism were planted 400 years ago and have spread through the active participation and complicit passivity of nearly every American institution. 

As we grieve, may we dedicate ourselves to addressing systemic racism and the multigenerational impact of enslavement and discrimination faced by all of the African diaspora.

“It is not wrong to go back for that which we have forgotten.” 

I want us to go back to the song we sang before I read the Gospel. 

While there is some controversy about the origins of this song, it is believed that the song “This little light of mine” originated in the slave plantations between the late1600 and to late1800. 

The light referred to can have multiple meanings: the light of the love of God, the light of Christ, the light of the Gospel, the light of the divine spark within us, the true light that is already shining in the darkness.
Under the influence of Zilphia Horton, Fannie Lou Hamer and others, it became a Civil Rights Anthem of the 1950s and 60s. It was a code of sorts, which conveyed a strong message about the importance of unity in the face of adversity. 

The song tells of the light in each individual and how, whether standing up alone or joining together, each little bit of light can break the darkness. 

I want us to sing that song again, and this time, sing it as our commitment to let the light of the Gospel – the light of Christ – the light of the love of God – shine. 

Sing it in celebration of the light in the woman bent over which attracted the healing power of Jesus in that Temple. 

Sing it in memory of Isabella and Antoney Negro and their son William Tucker and the 12.5 million Africans who were sold into slavery – 500,000 of them to these United States. 

Sing it as your commitment to the Law of Love and let the light in you break the darkness of individual and systemic racism. 

This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine.

Everywhere I go, I’m gonna let it shine.


“You may choose to look the other way
but you can never say again that you did not know.”
—William Wilberforce, speech to British Parliament, 1791

1 comment:

Lindy said...

Fantastic sermon!
You did a lovely job of weaving together the reading for this morning and the commemoration of the beginning of slavery in our own country. And I love the bit about going back for something lost. Great concept. I only wish I'd been there to hear it in person.