Asbury First United
Text: Matthew 16:1-4
There is a dark temptation in the assumption that the cause of freedom is really in the hands of somebody else, someone other than you and me. It is reassuring, too, to judge that the real big advances in liberty have been, are, or will be the work of somebody else.
Today we want to remember that the history of our region tells another story. Our area was populated by people who saw the expanding circle of freedom as their own responsibility. With Niebuhr they defined love as taking responsibility.
One of our dear friends has moved to the Southeastern Jurisdiction. He joins the ranks of many former parishioners whom we have diligently prepared for their later membership in the southern UMC. I celebrate the strong growth of our church in the south. One conference, the North Georgia conference, has more members than our whole Western Jurisdiction. One district, East Dallas, has more members than our whole WNY annual conference. I take pleasure and pride in southern growth. I do so in part because you and I have had a hand in it.
I look back 27 years, as we start our tenth year in ministry here in Rochester, at all folks who have gone south. Baptized in the ice and snow of North Franklin County. Pardoned and delivered of sin in the Adirondack outback. Confirmed and strengthened in the faith along the Mohawk. Given and taken in marriage by the great Finger Lakes. Taught the Scripture and the importance of stewardship on the shores of Lake Ontario. Trained and corrected in leadership in the hardy toughness of the Tug Hill plateau. Convinced to tithe by the example of northern families who have many winters on the back. And then, sent to retirement in Tampa to die, be buried, and leave their estate to the Florida Annual Conference! Let me tell you the secret of success in growing southern UM churches: retired Yankees. Where would the southeast jurisdiction be without all my former parishioners? The secret of southern success? Northern retirees!
Our friend is one such. I playfully commiserated with him about moving to Virginia. How could a Michigander do so? “Oh, it is not a problem any more, Bob. Things have changed. I mean, the south is a different place. And you can take some of the credit.”
“Yes, I know, I have marched many Methodists due south over the course of 27 years and 7 pulpits. They owe me. We bore, baptized, confirmed, communed, taught, shaped, disciplined, and directed them and they all went south to leave their estates to the Florida Annual Conference. Here is the secret of southern growth: retired Yankees.”
“No, that’s not what I mean. I mean you and others from Syracuse and Rochester have everything to do with it. The new south owes everything to your two home cities!”
“You mean the Salt City and Flower City? The salt of the earth and the lilies of the field?”
“I am very glad to take the credit, but I just do not know what you mean.”
“I mean this. The south is a different place than it was fifty years ago. Totally different, and the difference comes from Rochester and Syracuse. Two things have completely changed the southern jurisdiction: civil rights and air conditioning! Civil Rights from Rochester and air conditioning from Syracuse!”
Faith and Freedom Along the Erie Canal
The story of air conditioning we leave for another day, though we could use some more right here on a day like today.
Our region bears the distinction of having given rise to many women and men who did not leave freedom to somebody else. Its price of eternal vigilance they provided in very daily, very personal, very local, very immediate ways. In the same manner by which we take for granted Niagara Falls, so close and so grand, we take these mighty stories for granted, saving stories of freedom and faith .
We live in the land of Hiawatha (“who causes rivers to run”). Such musical names adorn our home: Canandaigua, Tioghnioga, Onondaga, Tuscarora, and Cuyahoga. The great native leader of the Iroquois showed in the 15th century the critical need for union, for space and time in which to live together. His leadership was focused on common space, on collegial relations, on counsel together, and so he is harbinger of all the examples of faith and freedom to come up along the Mohawk and the Erie Canal.
All your strength is in your union
All your weakness in discord
Therefore be at peace henceforward
And as brothers live together
This is the land of Harriet Tubman. You may want to visit her home in Auburn. Her neighbor William Seward, also from Auburn, bought Alaska, considered a folly, an “ice-box”. Our 21st century theological issue is space. Tubman grand niece, Janet Lauerson, was on my church staff for a time here on Euclid Avenue, after we both migrated down from the far North Country, not far from the burial place of John Brown. His body lies moldering under a ski lift near Lake Placid. He and Gerrit Smith, founder of Peterboro, a short 30 minutes southeast of your current seat, were not compatibalists regarding slavery. As Lincoln would later say, they felt those who most affirmed slavery should start by trying it for themselves. Peterboro, a small village of people of color, in my childhood, stood out, under its civil war statue, one hundred years later, as a beachhead of freedom. Brown, Smith, Seward and others were the chorus before which Tubman could sing out the life of freedom, following the Underground Railroad. Remember her wisdom: “When I found I had crossed that line (on her first escape from slavery, 1845), I looked at my hands to see if I was the same person. There was such a glory over everything...I started with this idea in my head, ‘There’s two things I’ve got a right to…death or liberty’…’Twant me, ‘twas the Lord. I always told him, “I trust you. I don’t know where to go or what to do, but I expect you to lead me, and he always did.”
You will expect to hear something of Frederick Douglass, buried in Rochester. Our cemetery is across the street from our famed Strong Hospital. As one patient said, looking through the window, “it gives you something to think about”. Douglass printed the “North Star” in Rochester, and through developed a voice for a new people in a new era. At Syracuse University, it was Professor Roland Wolseley who developed the first national program in Black Journalism. Wolseley was formed in the faith under the great preaching of the best Methodist preacher in the 20th century, Ernest Freemont Tittle, when Wolseley’s young wife was Tittle’s secretary. I think you should look in the Carrier Dome at the moving tribute to Ernie Davis, a kid from Elmira, who, a century after Douglass, and in the lifespan of Wolseley, gave tragic, courageous, and lasting embodiment to the upstate hope of racial justice, harmony and integration. He also played football. The voice of Douglass rings out against the harmonic background of Tittle, Wolseley, Davis and others. In the North Star, Douglass wrote: “The whole history of the progress of human liberty show that all concessions yet made to her august claims have been born of earnest struggle…If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet deprecate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up ground, they want rain without thunder and lightening. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its mighty waters.” Or maybe we should give the honor to his cohort Sojourner Truth: “That…man…says women, can’t have as much rights as man, cause Christ wasn’t a woman. Where did your Christ come from? From God and a woman. Man had nothing to do with him!”
Susan B. Anthony did not leave the project of freedom to others. I wonder what sort of dinner companion she might have been. Her constant consort with governors and senators across the Empire state made her an early Eleanor Roosevelt. My grandmother grew up in Cooperstown and graduated from Smith College four years before she had the right to vote. My mother was born in Syracuse only a few years after full suffrage. My wife is a musician and teacher, my sister is a corporate attorney, my colleagues in ministry are female. I scratch my head to imagine a world without their voices. Syracuse produced Betty Bone Schiess, one of the first women ordained to ministry in the Protestant Episcopal Church. One of the Philadelphia 11. We study her in our Lemoyne College Introduction to Religion. One rainy day when my daughter Emily was 13 and had the flu, we met Schiess, at the druggist. The pharmacist called her name. I clamored over to investigate whether it were she, the famous Schiess. “Who wants to know?” she replied. As she left, after good banter, she turned in her slicker and totting an umbrella pronounced this blessing: “One day you will be a Methodist bishop”. Thank you, my daughter replied. You may visit the birthplace of suffrage and feminism in Seneca Falls. Anthony’s witness stands out among the witness of so many others: your grandmother, your mother, your sister, your wife, your daughter, your pastor, Betty Bone Schiess, and so many others. Who can forget the motto of Susan B. Anthony: “Failure is impossible” (on her 86th birthday, 1906)? “Cautious, careful people, always casting about to preserve their reputation and social standing, never can bring about reform. Those who are really in earnest must be willing to be anything or nothing in the world’s estimation.”
Sometimes the freedom train derailed. Exuberance can produce minor collisions. When we get so focused on the speedometer that we forget to drive the car safely, then trouble arises. I want to talk to you about sexual experimentation, that is, a long time before the summer of love. Woodstock pales by comparison with the communal experiments in our region during the nineteenth century. The Shaker Community and the Oneida Community perhaps can bracket our discussion. Under Mother Ann Lee, and starting in farm country near New Lebanon (Albany area), the shaking Quakers firmly addressed the matter of sex. They forbade it. Like the desert fathers and Qumran communities of old, they took Paul at his word and meditated fully on 1 Corinthians 7. Women and men came together only once a week, on Sunday morning, for ecstatic singing and dancing, hence their name. This made church attendance somewhat more than casual liturgical observance. However, the practice did not amplify the community itself: infant baptisms lacked the requisite infant, and so were infrequent. Consequently the Shakers moved to Cleveland where they blended into Sherwood Anderson’s new Ohio, returning to the old ways of hard work, monogamy, and frugality. In short, they became Methodists. Here again the Shaker tune:
'Tis a gift to be loving
'Tis the best gift of all
Like a gentle rain love falls to cover all
When we find ourselves in the place just right
‘Twill be in the valley of love and delight
When true, simplicity is gain
To bow and to bend we shan’t be ashamed
To turn, turn, will be our delight
‘Till by turning, turning, we come round right
Now, the Oneida’s. You may want to read again Without Sin, the best selling review of their somewhat different experiment. Just a few miles east of here the Oneida community set out to find heaven on earth, the end of all oppressions, and even the hope that, as John H Noyes read from Revelation, “death itself will be no more”. Although I went to High School in Oneida I do not recall a full lesson on the matter of stirpiculture, the heart of the Oneida experiment. Our own time, due to new technology, approaches the horizon of a new eugenics. Ask any pregnant couple about the number of tests available today, and what choices they must make. The Oneidas practiced “complex” marriage, in which every man was married to every woman and vice-versa, and sexual relations were freely permitted as long as the men practiced ‘continence’ to avoid pregnancy. Procreation was planned, through a deliberated, committee processed, but nonetheless free-love sharing of the marriage bed in the hope of producing a better race, a finer human being. (For those of you for whom this is more information than you require, I apologize) Three hundred in number at their greatest growth, the community produced bear traps and then silver, continuing, in some fashion, to this day. Of all the utopian experiments, the Oneida project is the most fascinating. After word got out about the doings and practices in Oneida, clergy in Syracuse banded together and ran them out of town, first to Canada and then to the Midwest. Noyes died on the trip, and the community disappeared, except on your dinner table, in wedding gifts, and in quality restaurants. Let us remember the love of freedom, as Noyes expressed it, even if we cannot affirm his methods: “I am free of sin and in a state of Perfection”
I conclude this pastiche with an unlikely name. When we were at Union Seminary in New York the faculty there, both regularly and rightly criticized the inadequate theology of the Marble Collegiate Church. I remember James Sanders sternly referring to this famed congregation as the “First Church of Marduke”, not an accolade. Of course you know that for fifty years, a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan, and a proponent of the power of positive thinking held forth, without notes, from the Marduke pulpit. His son in law, Arthur Caliandro, does so today, with notes. You may not trust his theology. I myself am a critic, schooled as I was in the dour, German realism of Tillich, Niehbuhr, and company. You may find it too shallow. Everybody has their criticism of Norman Vincent Peale. Even Adlai Stevenson had gripes. When attacked, Marduke Stevenson defended his Christianity on the basis of the Apostle to the Gentiles, all this in 1956, and rounded out his peroration thus: “Sir, I find Paul appealing, but Peale, appalling.” You too may find Paul appealing and Peale appalling. But hold one thought. Peale preached right here. I mean right here. In Syracuse, University Church. He found here a happy people. He found here a positive people. He found here a hopeful people, an optimistic congregation. Why, they were so good to him that he relaxed and fell in love and married an SU coed, Ruth. Forrest Whitmeyer knew them both well. It was that native buckeye spirit married to that native orange soul, and it produced the power of positive thinking, itself a form of faith and freedom not to be forgotten. The Peales, Ruth and Norman both, did not leave the project of freedom to somebody else. It is biblical and faithful to remember Peale’s seven most important words: “You can if you think you can.”
God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself. The faith of Jesus Christ and the freedom of Jesus Christ we celebrate today. Our forebears were disinclined to leave the pursuit of freedom to others. They seized freedom in their own hands and by their own lives. They did not wait on others. They did not pause to seek a secret blessing. They did not wait until some ethereal sign emerged. They did not expect some magic insight. They preferred deliverance to discernment. And it is their love of freedom that is our greatest remembrance across this region.
We close with Jesus’ warning. The clergy and lay leadership (scribes and Pharisees) came seeking a sign. This is the only place in the New Testament in which the word “discernment” is used (with one technical exception in 1 Cor. 11). They seek some higher, Gnostic insight, some discernment. They want to figure things out ahead of time. They want to know how to judge, to pull apart, to discern. They want a spiritual elixir. Who wouldn’t? What one of us has not looked for a sign? It is as natural a religious sentiment as one can imagine.
How staggering, startling, then, is Jesus condemnatory response. In the one appearance of “discernment” in his teaching, Jesus roundly rejects such an approach. He senses a retreat from real life, a fleeing from freedom, a hiding out from history—perhaps an apocalyptic gone bad. Did you hear his response? You need no more signs than the morning and evening sky. We have the same folklore: “red sky in morning, sailors take warning…” No, you know how to read nature, and you can just as easily read history. Poverty unabated means revolution to come. The greatest cause of war is war. 1% of the people holding 50% of the wealth means trouble. Justice delayed is justice denied. You need no sign. Just read the signs of the times. You get only the sign of Jonah, that prophetic exemplar of universal deliverance, global freedom. No sign. Fussing with discernment is avoiding deliverance. Real love is taking historical responsibility.
In earshot of our Lord’s teaching, in remembrance of the freedom and faith in this region, and especially on this happy day, there is no avoiding a very personal question: as a Christian man or woman, what are you going to do to continue to expand the circle of freedom in our time? Where is your tribal council to create? Where is your slavery to escape? Where is your North Star to publish? Where is your franchise to find? Where is your libertinism to avoid? Where is your hope to share? Are you to celebrate independence by singing and smiling only? Is discernment all you care about? Or will you lift a hand?
Give me your tired, your poor
Your huddled masses yearning to breath free
The restless refuse of your teeming shore
Send these, the lost, the tempest tossed to me
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.