Independence Day—for whom? Mark 11:20-25 As Jesus approached Jerusalem during the Passover festival, he cursed the fig tree on the Mount of Olives for a specific reason: not out of petty spite, but because he was expressing his dismay at the spiritual barrenness of Israel, as had the prophets before him, basically saying, everything may as well be dried up and dying, whether it be this little tree or a valley of dry bones. He could not stand the thought of a people’s soul, the soul of the “tree” of Israel, being spiritually barren and guilty of the crimes that necessarily follows from that barrenness. When the disciples pointed out to Jesus that the fig tree actually had shriveled up, Jesus cites a common proverb about the power of prayer, which is more than the power of positive thinking—it is the power of faith. But the clincher here is the post-script: whenever it is that you may pray, be sure to forgive your debtors and ask forgiveness for your own sins. I pray for our souls’ transformation and the remaking of this nation, and I pray this in Jesus’ name. The face of George Floyd is now on posters, tee-shirts, huge murals everywhere. He stares back at us—imperious, impassive, serene, collected, confident—as if to say to us, My children, you have let it happen once again. You’ve let it happen once again, he seems to be saying, Yes and you know it. And here we are, another Independence Day weekend in America, more speeches although without the parades this year. Independence Day indeed!—for whom? Frederick Douglass asked that very question in 1852. Douglass had turned down an invitation to give an Independence Day speech, because American freedoms were not extended to everyone, former slave that he was—but he agreed to speak in protest on the next day, on July 5, 1852. Born into slavery himself, and freed in 1838 at the age of 20 not by any declaration of independence but only by his own wiles and the encouragement of a freed black woman in Baltimore whom he later married, Douglass said that “above your national, tumultuous joy, I hear the mournful wail of millions whose chains, heavy and grievous yesterday are today rendered more intolerable by the jubilee shouts that reach them.” It was in Rochester, NY, the city of his residence and the site of his national abolitionist newspaper, the “North Star,” where Douglass enumerated over the course of his 1½ hour speech before an audience of 600 people, the individual crimes of slavery and the national corruption of soul at the root of them. The speech was greeted by a tumultuous standing ovation of the all-white audience. Today, the murder of George Floyd represents in microcosm the million punitive daily strokes that send little boys and girls to bed each night wondering what their parents got them into. I pray for our souls’ transformation and the remaking of America, a nation that cannot seem to find the door, a nation grasping and groping in night sweats, the guilty dreaming of release and redemption. I pray for our souls’ transformation and the remaking of America, and I pray in the name of Jesus who told us to pray for forgiveness of our sins and for the repentance, expiation, reform and renewal that go with it. We are talking about sin here, not only crime—crime, like this crime of murder, arises from the heart where sin resides. The crime was against a man, the sin is always against ourselves. Of all the stupid sacrifices—not one but two lives lost in the same 8 minutes and 46 seconds! Think of the love foregone, heights forsaken, hopes erased. Yes, we witnessed the self-immolation of the white man and nation right along with our ongoing crimes against the black man and nation. One tragedy is that it didn’t have to be, if America had been following Jesus. The other tragedy is that it had to be, because so much of America believes only in itself and its personal freedoms. Churches are not just complicit in that tragedy, we partake of it, we own it, we experience it, we grieve daily over the tragedy, just for being American. As Douglass put it in his speech, the churches of that time “are not only indifferent to the wrongs against the slave, they actually take sides with the oppressors.” Since then, every Christian denomination has formally denounced racism but with quite uneven commitment and results. Individual churches have not all figured out the role they want to play in the national soul’s transformation and the remaking of America. If only every church had simply followed our Christian vocation—to resist oppression, work for justice, and to love like Jesus. There it is—and you can read it on our own front lawn today in the memorial there to black women and men killed by white police. That profession, that declaration of intent, just needs more fleshing out for our present time, for 2020, granted that during this pandemic it is harder than ever to find the right handle to grab and the most effective lever to push. We must promise to keep informed, form smart alliances, enter partnerships, use our financial power and our institutional example right on this street corner at the intersection with Exit 17 of the Massachusetts Turnpike, bordering with Waltham, Watertown, Oak Square, Brighton Center, and the rest of Newton. Already one nucleus of Eliot people has reorganized to strengthen our mission and social justice outreach and another nucleus is studying how to project our ministry into the community. But it won’t be enough to study racism without understanding sin the way Jesus did (which actually is something quite other than how many churches, mainly evangelical, understand it)—otherwise, we lose sight of our own sin. What good is our analysis of the problem of racism if we import our own sin into the solution? Can we graduate from and add to being anti-racist whites becoming freedom-bound Christians? If we truly want to “do” something, Christians first must reattach ourselves to Jesus. I pray that Eliot Church will get religion all over again somehow. I pray we will get over being so Jesus-shy, because what other basis for freedom goes deep enough into the problem of Independence and who does or doesn’t have freedom? To love like Jesus is to know that true freedom means seeking the freedom of others—spiritual freedom, emotional freedom, freedom from drugs, political freedom, intellectual freedom. Dr. Elizabeth and I encourage you and your family to spend some time on theAnti-Racism Study page of our website. There are a variety of materials there to help you understand and talk about systemic racism (including materials for children and you), reading and study recommendations and materials put together by members of our congregation about how we can be part of anti-racism work locally. Becoming anti-racist is a life-long practice and it’s one we can do together. We invite you to begin by reading How to Be an Antiracistby Ibram X. Kendi. The book is available in hardcover, ebook and audible formats at Amazon. We will announce opportunities to discuss and share questions about the book in the next several weeks!
Ultimately, I wish for you a personal thunderclap that permanently shakes up your individual souls—the redemption of our national soul is at stake. You have heard us read two stanzas of the Black National Anthem so far—the first stanza says, Sing! The second stanza says, Keep marching! The third is a prayer, like mine—for the transformation of our souls and the remaking of America. Let us pray. . .God of our weary years God of our silent tears You who have brought us thus far on the way You who have by Your might Led us into the light Keep us forever in the path, we pray Lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met You Lest, our hearts drunk with the wine of the world, we forget You Shadowed beneath Your hand May we forever stand True to our God True to our native land
--Rick Chrisman 7/5/2020
SPECIAL PRAYER by Dr. Elizabeth Windsor
Good and gracious God, you teach us through the prophets to “to act justly, to love mercy and to walk humbly with our God. This Sunday as we celebrate our nation’s Independence Day, we are simultaneously grateful for the aspirations of our founders and yet concerned for our future.
We are thankful for those who came before us paving the way for liberties that allow us to freely make choices about our work, our worship, our convictions, and our lifestyle. But we confess that we have often failed to extend these freedoms to all people of the United States. Race, class, gender and immigration status limit the possibilities of some, and give others the power to exploit and deny those who still yearn for these same freedoms.
During this time of national celebration we are grateful, yet concerned….concerned about our nation, and concerned about the future. Our nation suffers through pandemic with no end in sight, our people are divided, children remain in cages, black men and women are endangered by our policing, and our economy is in pieces.
These concerns elevate our anxiety about the stability of our government, the dependability of our employment, and the longevity of our freedom. And we confess that these anxieties often distract us from our mission to “love mercy, act justly, and walk humbly” with you.
We confess that we have too frequently taken our freedom for granted and we have too often been negligent in living up to the responsibilities of our citizenship. We also confess that our self-interests have too often taken priority over the best interest you intend for all who live in our nation.
As we celebrate this Independence Day weekend, we ask you to forgive our sin and to heal our land. We pray for the leaders of our nation, our state, and our community that they will lead with integrity, courage, and wisdom. Guide us to exercise our freedom responsibly and to pursue “liberty and justice for all” people, without discrimination, fear or favor.
O God, grant us wisdom, grant us courage as we seek a “more perfect union” with you and one another. Amen.