Now Is the Time
A Sermon preached by the Reverend Jered Weber-Johnson
August 25, 2019
Saint John the Evangelist Episcopal Church
Saint Paul, MN
Proper 16, Year C
Barbara ended her sermon last week with a wonderful quote from my favorite play, Hamilton. Not to be outdone, I too would like to bring wisdom from that most amazing show. But, either in an attempt to completely embarrass myself or my child who is up here in front of everyone, I’m going to sing.
“Heed not the rabble who scream revolution
They have not your interests at heart.”
Samuel Seabury, the first person ordained to the Episcopate, the first bishop and second Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, was a known adversary to Alexander Hamilton. Writing under a pseudonym A. W. Farmer, then an Anglican priest with vows of loyalty to the king, Seabury attacked the first Continental Congress as being unlawful and encouraged his readers to view the proceedings with caution. Revolution was in the air, and loyalists like Seabury sought to be cooler heads amidst the fiery passions of revolutionaries.
“Heed not the rabble who scream revolution
They have not your interests at heart
Chaos and bloodshed are not a solution
Don’t let them lead you astray
This congress does not speak for me
They’re playing a dangerous game
I pray the king shows you his mercy
For shame, for shame.”
Slow down. Consider the costs. They’re breaking the law. Of course Seabury and the loyalists are viewed now less kindly through the lens of American history. Loyalists were proponents of the status quo. Seabury and priests like him believed they were saving lives by staving off a revolution – in their eyes a revolution could only end poorly; the King would prevail. It was, to them, an inevitability that the uprising would be squashed. But, this is not the entirety of their motivation. Loyalists were also interested in preserving their own privileged status. So they preached caution and argued for a middle way. That moderating influence, for better, and often for worse, became an essential part of American Anglicanism as we experience it in the Episcopal Church.
Much further down the road in American and Episcopal Church history, that moderate approach led many within our tradition to argue for caution in engaging with the Civil Rights movement. Dr. Martin Luther King and civil rights leaders were pushing for dramatic change within American society, and it was moderates, again, many within the Episcopal Church and other mainline, predominantly white denominations, who argued for caution. In their eyes the groundswell of support necessary to make these changes, which is to say the support necessary to give African Americans their full dignity and freedom by law, just wasn’t there. To act “now” was too risky. The cause was righteous, but the timing was wrong. Perhaps, more importantly, moderate leaders in these churches feared that if they spoke out, if they lifted their voices in common cause with the revolutionaries, they risked losing their own privileged positions, their status in their communities, and even their lives. “Now” is not the time.
I was grateful this week for the work of Dr. Matt Skinner of Luther Seminary, writing on today’s gospel he reminded me of Dr. King’s book Why We Can’t Wait, that included King’s famous “Letter From a Birmingham Jail.”
“King’s ‘Letter’ issues a call for urgency. He wrote it as a response to eight local white clergymen who had criticized his activities in Birmingham and appealed for a more patient and restrained approach to lobbying for civil rights. The ‘Letter’ expresses King’s deep disappointment with ‘the white moderate,’ who ‘paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom.’”
As Skinner points out, King could have easily referenced today’s gospel lesson. In this morning’s story, Jesus heals a woman who has been crippled and bent over by a spirit for eighteen years. But, he has the audacity to do this in a synagogue on the Sabbath. For shame! Indignant that Jesus is breaking a commandment, that he is violating the Law, a leader in the synagogue repeatedly addresses the congregation — “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day!” Healing is fine. Curing the sick is worthy. Just not today. The cause is righteous. Now is not the time.
But of course, what better way to honor and keep the Sabbath than to extend healing and mercy? As the great Abraham Joshua Heschel writes in his book simply titled The Sabbath, “on the Sabbath we try to become attuned to holiness in time. It is a day on which we are called upon to share in what is eternal in time, to turn from the results of creation to the mystery of creation; from the world of creation to the creation of the world.”
The sabbath is a reminder of all that God has done and all that God has made. But, even more than this, God not only makes, but God also redeems and saves, restores and heals. In his reminder to the people of Israel why they should honor the Sabbath and keep it holy, the Deuteronomist writes, “Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day.” Is it not therefore of the highest importance to heal on this of all days? Could there be a higher purpose to the sabbath than to bring liberation and new life to this woman who for 18 years has been in bondage, bent low by this crippling spirit? Remember that you were a slave and God brought you out!
In our world today there are those who would argue against speaking up, and acting out in the cause of justice. Now is not the time. We need to respect those whose feelings will be hurt if we speak out now. We need to be careful. ‘Providing sanctuary to the undocumented is unlawful – we need to honor the law.’ ‘Speaking out against gun violence after a mass shooting is just too soon – we need more tact.’ ‘Now is not the time to discuss reparations – we should wait another 400 years.’
Slow down. Heed not the rabble who scream revolution – don’t let them lead you astray! Those who fear the changing of the status quo, who fear what it will cost them if the oppressed are truly set free, if those held in bondage are released are quick to caution and quick to advocate for restraint. They will say “now is not the time to speak out.”
As Dr. King wrote:
“Time itself is neutral; it can be used either destructively or constructively. More and more I feel that the people of ill will have used time much more effectively than have the people of good will. We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people. Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to work to be co-workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right.”
Now is the time for us to not only speak, but to act in the cause of justice. I have noticed a tendency in the church these days that many of us find it easier to speak out against injustice by targeting the most virulent and visible proponents of hate in our community – we rebuke racist leaders and decry the awful tweets and soundbites of those in power who use division and hatred so we are reactive instead of proactive. But, when it comes to taking real action, to sacrificing our own privileges and comforts so that others in our communities might be made whole, when it comes to offering real liberation to those who are long suffering and held in bondage, bent to the ground by systems and forces and spirits of oppression, that is often when we succumb to the forces of inertia and stasis.
It is not enough to rebuke White nationalism, important though that rebuke is. It is not enough to rebuke our President or any other leader who uses hatred from the pulpit of power they occupy. We must actively seek to uncover its tangled roots in the history of our own families and churches. We must hear the stories and histories of those who have been harmed, the families separated, the marriages denied, the people whose names and identities have been erased from this land so that we could appropriate it as our own. We must be willing to pay back what is owed. We can speak up. We can call our elected leaders to lobby for justice. We can rally and protest and vote like our lives depended on it. Because they do. But, this is not enough. There will be most certainly a cost – there will be work to do on this and every day.
We must follow the example of Jesus whose way is one of self-emptying and sacrifice. As Jean Vanier, founder of the L’Arche communities says,
“The Word became flesh to communicate to us human beings caught in the mud, the pain, the fears and the brokenness of existence, the life, the joy, the communion, the ecstatic gift of love that is the source of all love and life and unity in our universe and that is the very life of God.”
So this is our sabbath keeping, to follow him who loosed the bonds of the oppressed, to join him who declared the year of the Lord’s favor, to be with the One who offered freedom and liberty to all, to be a part of releasing those who are bent and bowed low by the systems of injustice in our world. It must begin in our lives, in our church, in this very place. Now is the time. Today is the day. You must speak up, act out, and give back.
You gotta rise up!