Sometimes You Have to Stay
I live in an interesting town. I like to compare Easton, Pennsylvania, to Stars Hollow (fictional town of Gilmore Girls): we have festivals constantly, we love our Revolutionary War history, and we have a boutique shop for everything under the sun. We may not have Al’s Pancake World, but we do have a Mexican restaurant owned and operated by a Chinese family with stereotypical Chinese take-out containers, and I’m sure we have our own Taylor Doose running around somewhere.
Today happens to be Heritage Day, the day we celebrate the first reading of the Declaration of Independence outside of Philadelphia, which happened to be in our little town. Yep, folks, we have a town crier and everything! As part of the celebration, all of the historic downtown churches gather in an outdoor amphitheater on the banks of the Delaware River to worship and commune together. And what a perfect day for an outdoor service: it wasn’t too hot, and there was just enough cloud cover to keep us cool and comfortable.
This was my first time attending the Heritage Day service, and I wasn’t sure what to expect. I will offer a moment of humility: I am an idiot for not assuming this service would include patriotic songs. As I looked through the bulletin prior to worship, my gag reflex kicked in, and I desperately wanted to bolt: “God of Our Fathers,” “The Star Spangled Banner,” and “My Country ‘tis of Thee,” to name a few. To be honest, if I hadn’t had a church meeting following worship, I would have been out of there! I’ll save my dislike of patriotism in church for another post.
I sat there, politely not singing, through each of these hymns and each reading (from The Declaration of Independence, from The Mayflower Compact, and the Preamble to the Constitution), biding my time and looking for the nearest exit. And then we got to the reading of a letter from Abigail Adams to John Adams:
I long to hear that you have declared an independency. And, by the way, in the new code of laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make, I desire you would remember the ladies and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the husbands. Remember, all men would be tyrants if they could. If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation. That your sex are naturally tyrannical is a truth so thoroughly established as to admit of no dispute; but such of you as wish to be happy willingly give up – the harsh tide of master for the more tender and endearing one of friend. Why, then, not put it out of the power of the vicious and the lawless to use us with cruelty and indignity with impunity? Men of sense in all ages abhor those customs which treat us only as the [servants] of your sex; regard us then as being placed by Providence under your protection, and in imitation of the Supreme Being make use of that power only for our happiness.
Throughout this reading, the congregation cheered, laughed, and became more lively and engaged than at any previous point in the service. I was so pleasantly surprised . . . until the pastor who had shared that reading took a moment to APOLOGIZE TO THE MEN, reminding them to consider the historical context of the letter. Once again, I looked for the exit. Was she serious?! It would have been appropriate to provide context for each reading, but they did not do that. Nor did they apologize to the women, the queer folk, or the non-white worshippers among us for any of the previous readings that ignored our plights. Nope – she apologized to the men. I was disgusted, but I stayed.
The next reading came from A Letter from the Birmingham Jail by The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Was not Jesus an extremist for love: “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.” Was not Amos an extremist for justice: “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.” Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel: “I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.” Was not Martin Luther an extremist: “Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise, so help me God.” And John Bunyan: “I will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a butchery of my conscience.” And Abraham Lincoln: “This nation cannot survive half slave and half free.” And Thomas Jefferson: “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal . . .”
So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice? In that dramatic scene on Calvary’s hill three men were crucified.
We must never forget that all three were crucified for the same crime – the crime of extremism. Two were extremists for immorality, and thus fell below their environment. The other, Jesus Christ was an extremist for love, truth, and goodness, and thereby rose above his environment. Perhaps the South, the nation, and the world are in dire need of creative extremists.
If there were ever a reading that provided clear support to #BlackLivesMatter, it is this. Walking into this service, I was skeptical as to whether anyone would say Black Lives Matter, Philando Castile, or Alton Sterling. I wondered if our spiritual leaders would have the courage to say the hard truths that needed to be said. When I opened the bulletin, I doubted even more. It sure looked like we were about to celebrate our country without giving any credence to the tragedies we witnessed over the past week, tragedies directly caused by systemic failures on the part of our country. As I listened to King’s words, I hoped and prayed they did not miss this opportunity. And for the first time, I was so glad I stayed.
The Rev. Canon Andrew T. Gerns of Trinity Episcopal Church read the names of Philando Castile, Alton Sterling, and the officers killed in the line of duty in Dallas. And when he said the words “Black Lives Matter,” the clouds broke, and the sun shone down on our small service. I hope everyone felt the Spirit as strongly as I did in that moment. Rev. Gerns then read all of the names again to make sure they sunk in. He called us out for our fear of the other. He illuminated the dangers of driving while Black, of holding the hand of the person you love who happens to be of the same sex. He put the readings from the service into context: these are not words describing how great we have it; these are words we look to for guidance, showing us just how much work we need to do.
Today’s lectionary reading included Luke 10: 25 – 37, the parable of the Samaritan, in which Jesus teaches us that our neighbor is the one who shows mercy. Rev. Gerns ended by charging us to go and seek justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God.
As I sat there, listening to a sermon I almost hadn’t stayed to hear, I realized something. There are times when we need to leave in protest. But there are also times when we must stay, when we must listen, when we must reflect. And maybe, just maybe, God has a surprise in store for us.