Ephesians 5:21-6:9 Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.
22 Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife just as Christ is the head of the church, the body of which he is the Savior. 24 Just as the church is subject to Christ, so also wives ought to be, in everything, to their husbands.
25 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, 26 in order to make her holy by cleansing her with the washing of water by the word, 27 so as to present the church to himself in splendor, without a spot or wrinkle or anything of the kind -- yes, so that she may be holy and without blemish. 28 In the same way, husbands should love their wives as they do their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. 29 For no one ever hates his own body, but he nourishes and tenderly cares for it, just as Christ does for the church, 30 because we are members of his body. 31 "For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two will become one flesh." 32 This is a great mystery, and I am applying it to Christ and the church. 33 Each of you, however, should love his wife as himself, and a wife should respect her husband.
1 Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. 2 "Honor your father and mother" -- this is the first commandment with a promise: 3 "so that it may be well with you and you may live long on the earth."
4 And, fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.
5 Slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, in singleness of heart, as you obey Christ; 6 not only while being watched, and in order to please them, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart. 7 Render service with enthusiasm, as to the Lord and not to men and women, 8 knowing that whatever good we do, we will receive the same again from the Lord, whether we are slaves or free.
9 And, masters, do the same to them. Stop threatening them, for you know that both of you have the same Master in heaven, and with him there is no partiality. (NRSV)
I don't know how many of you got a chance to hear David Pesci, the author of this book, Amistad, when he spoke at the New Milford Public Library a few weeks back. If anyone was worried that they would be subject to a dull lecture from Mr. Pesci, they were very pleasantly surprised. He gave a lively, energetic talk - with almost no reference to notes or to his own book. It was obvious that in his research he had become fully immersed in the story of the Amistad and was able to speak as if he had seen the events with his own eyes.
I had given a sermon on the topic of the Amistad a few weeks before, but Mr. Pesci's talk filled in a lot of gaps in what I had read and presented. I want to look at one question in particular, but first let me review the basic outline of the story for those who might not be familiar with it.
The Amistad was a ship. It was carrying people being sold as slaves from one port to another in Cuba when the Africans on board attacked the crew and took over the ship. They demanded to be sailed back to Africa, but they were tricked, and ended up being seized off the cost of Long Island, brought into New London, charged with murder and piracy, imprisoned and brought to trial in New Haven. This was all in 1839.
Local citizens who were against slavery formed an Amistad Committee to help the Africans and press their case in court. Their lawyer was Roger Baldwin, grandson of Roger Sherman, a deacon of this church. There were some complex legal questions but, essentially, the court in New Haven ruled they were free people. The decision was immediately appealed and the case went to the US Supreme Court where former President John Quincy Adams represented the Africans. They won their case there, as well, and most returned to Africa.
After their victory, the Amistad Committee merged with several other anti-slavery organizations to form the American Missionary Association, which still exists today as part of the United Church of Christ Board for Homeland Missions, an agency of our church we support with our regular giving.
The story of Amistad was largely forgotten except by the American Missionary Association, the United Church of Christ, and those enthusiasts who make a habit of remembering and retelling stories of local history. That was until Steven Speilberg decided to make a movie about this strange and remarkable tale, and then Amistad burst onto the front page once again.
One element of the renewed interest in the Amistad story is a plan to built a replica of the original ship and sail it to different ports throughout the United States as an education museum. Today, in fact, at 2:00, there is going to be a celebration at Mystic Seaport for the laying of the keel, and churches in the United Church of Christ are being asked to observe this as Amistad Sunday.
One part of the story I didn't quite understand at first was this: if the ship Amistad was originally seized off the end of Long Island, why did it come to Connecticut? Why not just go to Long Island, or New York.?
David Pesci explains this question in his book. The scene is this: the USS Washington has secured the Amistad; the commander, Lieutenant Thomas Gedney of the U.S. Navy is standing next to Executive Officer Richard Meade and orders the navigator to plot a course for port.
"Aye, sir, New York?"
"No, New London."
Executive Office Meade turned his back on the navigator and whispered, "New London?"
"I know," says the commander, "it's a little farther away. But I mean to claim salvage on his ship for us and for the crew."
"We can do that in New York as well as in Connecticut," says the executive officer, "I don't understand the difference."
The commander smiled. "How is salvage calculated?"
"It's a percentage based on the aggregate appraised value of ship and cargo."
"Right," says the commander. "That means if we tow her into New York, we lay claim to the ship and whatever is in those crates in the hold. But if we tow her into New London, we can immediately increase the cargo's value by a substantial sum."
"Slavery is still legal in Connecticut."
A smile broke across Meade's face and then they both began laughing like men who had just found themselves standing in a pile of gold.
In other words, they only brought the ship to Connecticut because here slavery was still legal in 1839 and the Africans could be valued as property - very expensive property. It didn't work out that way, but when they looked at those men, women, and children, they didn't see people. They saw dollar signs.
Why would slavery have been legal in Connecticut in 1839? Why would it have ever been legal here, in a state founded by Bible believing Christians who left their homes in England to find freedom for themselves.
Well, the reason it was legal was precisely because those men and women did believe in the Bible. It was the Bible that told them that the slavery of Africans was legal, moral, acceptable, and ordained by God. It was a bad idea from a good book.
Lent is a season of self examination and repentance. Perhaps if we take some time to consider how our forbears could get such an idea from their reading to the Bible, how they could have such a blind spot in their moral vision, we might learn something about ourselves - something about the dangers of using a good book to support bad ideas - ideas that allow us to dehumanize, ostracize, or marginalize people who we judge to be different from ourselves.
Let's just look for a minute at what the Bible has to say about slavery. The key story in the Old Testament is found very early in the good book - Genesis 9:18-27. It occurs right after the great flood and the saving of Noah and his family:
Genesis 9:18-27 The sons of Noah who went out of the ark were Shem, Ham, and Japheth. Ham was the father of Canaan. 19 These three were the sons of Noah; and from these the whole earth was peopled.
20 Noah, a man of the soil, was the first to plant a vineyard. 21 He drank some of the wine and became drunk, and he lay uncovered in his tent. 22 And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father, and told his two brothers outside. 23 Then Shem and Japheth took a garment, laid it on both their shoulders, and walked backward and covered the nakedness of their father; their faces were turned away, and they did not see their father's nakedness. 24 When Noah awoke from his wine and knew what his youngest son had done to him, 25 he said,
"Cursed be Canaan;
lowest of slaves shall he be to his brothers." 26 He also said,
"Blessed by the LORD my God be Shem;
and let Canaan be his slave.
27 May God make space for Japheth,
and let him live in the tents of Shem;
and let Canaan be his slave." (NRSV)
Here it is, the proof text for one race being subject to another. And Canaan, the son of cursed Ham, was viewed as the father to the Philistines and the ancestor of all Africa. For his father's sin, Canaan and his descendants are cursed to serve other races and are always to be regarded as suspect and to be restrained.
Slavery is not a strange notion to other figures in the Old Testament. Listen to this boasting of the greatness of Joseph, the Joseph of amazing Technicolor dream-coat fame, also recorded in Genesis: Genesis 47:20-21 So Joseph bought all the land of Egypt for Pharaoh. All the Egyptians sold their fields, because the famine was severe upon them; and the land became Pharaoh's. 21 As for the people, he made slaves of them from one end of Egypt to the other. (NRSV)
A millennium later, the people of the New Testament also were no strangers to slavery - it was quite common in their world. Neither Jesus nor the Apostle Paul condemn the practice, although Paul argues that no one consider themselves better than anyone else when they are one people united in Christ. But he also argues that everyone should accept the lot in life they have been given and not break free. Listen to this passage from 1 Corinthians 7:17 ...let each of you lead the life that the Lord has assigned, to which God called you. This is my rule in all the churches.... Let each of you remain in the condition in which you were called. Were you a slave when called? Do not be concerned about it. ...In whatever condition you were called, brothers and sisters, there remain with God. (NRSV)
Paul knows that in the eyes of the Lord there may be no distinction between slave and free, but there certainly is in the eyes of the world, so let the slave remain a slave and the free man free. He makes this even more clear in the letter to Titus, a passage which echoes our morning lesson from Ephesians: Titus 2:9-10 Tell slaves to be submissive to their masters and to give satisfaction in every respect; they are not to talk back, not to pilfer, but to show complete and perfect fidelity, so that in everything they may be an ornament to the doctrine of God our Savior. (NRSV)
We will not find in Paul, nor in the Gospels, nor in the Old Testament or in any book of scripture a condemnation of slavery.
So the good book accepts slavery. The curse of Noah's son Ham gives justification for the subjecting of one race or tribe to another, and Paul warns against tampering with a lawful social and economic institution. These were the sources of authority for the good people who read the good book and found in there a bad idea - the treatment of people as less than human, as different, as property, as slaves.
It took well more than a millennium from the time of Christ before the issue of slavery came in range of the moral vision of the church, and that was only as a result of the atrocities committed by the Spanish and Portuguese against the indigenous peoples of its New World possessions. The Spanish saw the opening of the New World as a gift from God, like God opened the promised land to the people of Israel. The natives were like so many Canaanites, ripe for removal, rape, or murder. But the violence was so great that a backlash developed, and it was given a voice when the missionary bishop of Chiapas, Mexico wrote a book entitled: "In Defense of the Indians."
The Bishop wrote that the Biblical texts used to justify the enslavement of the Indians were all historically conditioned and overruled and superseded by the biblical principles of love and charity towards neighbors and enemies as exemplified in the teachings of Jesus. The Bible, he said, could not be used to justify actions contrary to the moral law of Christ. It was an argument of biblical principal against biblical practice, and although, at the time, it did not carry the day, it established a beachhead of moral persuasion which would be picked up two hundred years later by the founders of Methodism, John Wesley and George Whitefield, and used against the slave trade to North America.
Well, by the time of Amistad, slavery was against the law in New York, but still legal in Connecticut. And although slavery would be outlawed in this land, attitudes about race, equality, and just what the good book says about such matters proved very immune to change. It was quite a milestone even in the 1950s to find a these sentiments written by a pastor in the Southern Baptist Review and Expositor: For sixty years I never questioned but that Peter's confession that "God is no respecter of persons" referred exclusively to differences among white Christian persons. Neither did I question that segregation was Christian, and that it referred to the separation of white and Negro people. Three years ago these views were completely transformed.... I exchanged the former views which I had absorbed from my environment, for the latter views which I learned from the New Testament. I came to understand the meaning of Paul's plea: "Be not conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is the good and acceptable and perfect will of God."
Now we find the good book being used for a good idea. The Apostle Paul is put into service again, only this time not as the defender of slavery or racial separation, but as a messenger of change, a catalyst for transformation. This transformation is what the Bible calls repentance, conversion, turning around. The work of conversion, the work of transformation - this is precisely the business of Lent and the point of forty days set aside for prayer and repentance.
Many of us are aware of our failings, our shortcomings, our mistakes. Perhaps we have a very short temper; maybe we are stealing from our work; some here may struggle with addiction, some with adultery, some with hidden lives of secrets and shame. We may seek the power of Christ to free us from destructive habits that are all too familiar to us. But that is not really the kind of transformation this sermon is about.
This sermon is about blind spots, about attitudes and beliefs and behaviors we don't struggle with - one's that seem right and proper to us, supported not only by our own inclinations but by tradition, perhaps by law, and possibly even by stories and texts from that good book we hold so dear.
What are the attitudes and beliefs that allow us to separate our fate from the other -whoever that other is. Where do we draw our distinctions. Is it between the the city and the suburb? Between the gay and the straight? Between the world of the developed and undeveloped nations? Is it between the person walking home and the person who is homeless? Is it between the mentally competent and the mentally ill? Where do we draw our distinctions? What are the moral blind spots that don't bother us but nonetheless block our full development and witness as Christian people?
I have my set of answers to those questions, but the point of this sermon is more about engaging in a process than finding easy answers. When we look at Christian attitudes towards race and slavery we should gain an insight, a caution that we are not immune from the mistake of finding a bad idea in the good book, not impervious of absorbing prejudice and distinction from our environment and baptizing it with a little holy water and being very comfortable with it. That's a danger we face.
Lent, I hope, serves as an antidote to that comfort. Lent should cause us to stir up our complacency and examine what come to the surface. That's the opportunity we have in a season of prayer and repentance.
For a prayer seeking this goal of self examination, let me suggest Psalm 19: which begins and ends with very familiar verses, and seems a suitable close to this sermon. Perhaps you want to refer to it in its full form in the week ahead, but listen now to a portion of its wisdom as we join together in a time of prayer.
The heavens are telling the glory of God;
and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.
The law of the LORD is perfect,
reviving the soul;
the decrees of the LORD are sure,
making wise the simple;
the precepts of the LORD are right,
rejoicing the heart;
the commandment of the LORD is clear,
enlightening the eyes;
Moreover by them is your servant warned;
in keeping them there is great reward.
But who can detect their errors?
Clear me from hidden faults.
Keep back your servant also from presumptuous sins
do not let them have dominion over me.
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart
be acceptable to you,
O LORD, my rock and my redeemer. (NRSV)
Let us pray:
O God whose love and compassion was made so clear to us Jesus Christ, grant us now a prayerful heart and a peaceful mind, that we might draw close to you and open ourselves in trust and devotion to your presence.
May our reflections upon your word, our songs of praise and our acts of worship, all strengthen us in faith and guide us in witness.
This has not been an easy week in the life of this church and community, as you know, O God. We have buried those we love, and their absence is an unsettling void in our midst. We have prayed for both the young and the old in their sickness and struggle. We ask your blessing to be with the families of Nick Ditullio, Norris Wildman, Philip Barksdale, Charlie Staib, Patrick Perry, and Stuart Daniels, in whose memory the flowers have been given this morning.
We pray also for your healing power to be present for Hedi Schaltegger Lowrance, Diana St. Jean, Richard Devlin, Gail Bradle, Jan Putnam, Bob Coppola, Marlana Martain, Kimberly Strain, .............................and those we name in the quiet of our hearts.
We thank you that this past week was not without its moments of joy and celebration. We rejoice with Nancy Hambidge and Michael Colavito who were married here yesterday, and with Rob Hyman who was honored for his acheivements and awarded his Eagle Scout badge. And we thank you for the joy of having the Girl Scouts here with us this morning and the opportunity to thank their leaders and find hope in the good work and guidance they generouly give to the next generation.
We ask you to be with all who are away at the Women's Retreat this weekend, and pray that this time apart might renew them and be a source of energy and vision in the life of this church.
Remind us in the week ahead, O Lord, to daily pray for ourselves, for one another, for our church, and for all people. Help us to remember that you listen more to our hearts than to our words, and simply bring to you an offering of repentance, love, and openness.
Let the words of our mouth and the meditation of our heart
be acceptable to you,
O LORD, our rock and our redeemer. Amen.