(A sermon preached at St. Peter’s Church, Lewes, Delaware, July 7, 2019.... Preaching then and now and standing with and for captive refugees.)
Let us pray:
Grant, O Lord, we beseech thee, that the course of this world may be s peaceably ordered by thy governance, that thy Church may joyfully serve thee in all godly quietness; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (Collect 5th Sunday After Trinity, Book of Common Prayer 1662)
July 4, 1776 was a Thursday, just as it is this year. The priest of St. Peter’s, Lewes, probably used the collect we just prayed in services that day. The news of the July 2nd resolution of the Continental Congress, “Resolved, that these United Colonies are and of right ought to be, free and independent States, that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved,” had no doubt reached Lewes. The Declaration itself had probably not, but the news of the fact of the Declaration probably had reached Lewes. The collect, calling for quietness and peaceful order would have been quite timely.
The Declaration advertised itself to be, “The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America.” But of course, as far as the whole people go, it was not unanimous at all. The Declaration was of a hope, not a reality. The difference between these brave statements and the reality of a new governing entity called “The United States of America” rested on a successful war and a twice organized government. The difference was years of blood, sweat and tears, and a time of very sharp disagreements.
There were plenty of people in the colonies, now declaring themselves to be states, who were against this happening. The conflict of strong opinion was universal and local both, and the birth of the new nation torn from British control was accompanied by great violence.
I have often wondered how at that time the priest of this parish dealt with the variety of opinions in the congregation about independence, revolution, and the looming war. What was preached? How?
In 776 the priest of St. Peter’s, Lewes, was The Rev. Samuel Tingley. We know about him from the “Brief Annotated History of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church,” which is part of the packet of materials for the Open Door Campaign. You can get a copy from the office, along with a pledge card for the Campaign. The Campaign, as you know, is about continued growth of this church. Mr. Tingley was a prime cause for our being a strong parish now.
An ardent Tory supporter of King George III.” His time in Lewes was probably made easier by the fact that Sussex County was mostly Tory. But the Committee of Correspondence in Delaware was having none of that sort of talk. The propaganda effort in support of Independence required forceful action against detractors of independence. Overt support to the King could lead to very violent response from those supporting the revolution.
Somehow Mr. Tingley survived as priest here until shortly after the war ended. He left in 1783. He survived in part by changing the prayer for the King to a prayer for “those whom Thou has made it our special duty to pray for” and by not “claiming overt allegiance to the King.” He appeared, in other words, to have exhibited considerable caution in expressing his political views. To his credit, Mr. Tingley did the other really important thing: he was faithful to his congregation. He stayed and ministered. He was one of the few clergy in all of Delaware who remained through the war. When it was over St. Peter’s remained a viable parish in a Diocese that was otherwise close to collapse.
Like then, these are times of disunity, fracture, and astounding differences of political and social opinion. In such times, then and now, clergy who preach are under considerable duress. The possibility of being pilloried or tarred and feathered (or their modern social media equivalents) are real. The vultures of various causes are sometimes ready to pounce. It’s a great time for preaching, but not so much for the preacher.
Some of us preachers have been here before. I cut my preaching teeth during the Vietnam war. Not an easy time! Over the years I have come to understand the duty as preacher this way:
Clergy who preach in the Episcopal Church derive their commission from three sources: (i) prophetic call that comes to everyone born of the spirit to attend the workings of the Spirit within and proclaim what is called forth from them by God, (ii) Ordination to proclaim and preach the Word of God, i.e. to preach Christ crucified, and (iii) license to preach in a particular Diocese and congregation.
That three-fold commission comes only to a few of us. I preach and most of you don’t. Which gives me, as preacher an amazing ONE UP position. The full weight of authority – God’s spirit, call and the churches license – are with the preacher. So, as a general rule, the Preacher preaches and the congregation listens.
Of course the congregation can get their opinions into the larger societal mix by making life difficult for a preacher they do not want to hear more from, but that generally outside the service – in the vestry, in the coffee hour, in the parking lot, by the grapevine, now on social media of the internet, and in the larger body politic.
But not in the moment. In the moment of the sermon it is hard for anyone to get in much more that an a positive AMEN or an negative grunt or stony stare and the occasional walk out. (And don’t think we preachers are not aware of such commentary.) Why do you think I am reading this carefully, rather than walking about as I usually do?
As a result of this strange dynamic, where I get to speak and you do not, I believe the preacher needs to be careful not to misuse this position. She or he should not opine in sermon or homily on political preference for this or that person in authority, on specifically who people should vote for, or on the support of or resistance to specific court judgements or legislative actions by government. Instead the preacher should appeal to and direct us to God’s Spirit present in us, believing that there are sufficient pointers and guides in Scripture, the faith we have received, and our ability to reason, that would lead us to right action for the good of all. That is, here, in the Church, in the context of the Word of God and the Sacramental presence of Christ, “we preach Christ crucified.” (I. Cor 1:23).
Or, in the context of today’s lessons, we preach healing, not as magic, but as the product of simple and humble trust, we preach that God is not mocked, and that all our boasting is nothing and the New Creation is everything. We preach Jesus, who said,” Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you; cure the sick who are there, and say to them, `The kingdom of God has come near to you.' But whenever you enter a town and they do not welcome you, go out into its streets and say, `Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet, we wipe off in protest against you. Yet know this: the kingdom of God has come near.' "
As Preacher I do not believe I am here to cure political and social ills, now matter how you or I might perceive them. If I want to do take on dealing with those ills, I do so in the body politic. Many of you know I do that “out there” already.
Here, in the Church, I am commissioned to bring the Good News of God’s healing presence, grace and love. There is no place for bombast and great show, no place for personal opinion, no place for mocking God, no place for cruelty. We are here to repeat Paul’s plea, ““Let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest-time, if we do not give up. So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith.”
So, how does this work out in practice?
Well, we preach all the time that we ought to care for the widow and the orphan, for the weak and the lame, for the foreigner and outsider among us, not because it is politic but because it is God’s spirit speaking through us, informing us that God has a preference for the poor and poor in spirit. And we preach noting that “nothing matters but the New Creation.”
So today I believe I am compelled to proclaim that we need to stand with and for those who are held in detention at our borders in hard conditions. It is the Word working in us that calls us to this. And I believe we must stand with and for them because we are called, as Paul admonishes us this morning, “whenever we have an opportunity, (to) work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith.“
When you hear the Word, however it is presented to you, you will know what to do. And when you know, you will also be given grace to know how to do it. Mr. Tingley go it right, praying for the King is one thing, but better to “pray for those whom Thou has made it our special duty to pray for.” So let us now pray for, and work for the release of all those who are bound in captivity, especially those “whom Thou has made it our special duty to pray for.” That would be particularly the children. And may our prayers be echoed in actions.
I believe strongly in the power of Christ, working through the Spirit, to bring us all to that New Creation, and that that power will be sufficient for God’s good pleasure, for God’s justice and mercy both.