The Sea Its Limits

Next Sunday is June 19th. Juneteenth. It was the day in 1865 that Union soldiers, led by Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger, landed in Galveston, Texas with news that the war had ended and that all slaves were free—2 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, and a month after the Civil War ended. It’s also known as the second Independence Day.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the Civil War lately. I was at the Chautauqua Institution in New York during a Ken Burns interview. It was after his big documentary series that aired on PBS about the Civil War. When asked what lesson he learned after doing all this research, Ken Burns said, “I learned that the scariest thing about the Civil War is we might still lose it.”

I think about how our own church split during the Civil War. We don’t have a lot of notes from that time. We weren’t the only church to have done this, many churches did this and many denominations. A group of church members camped out in our sanctuary. They were abolitionists who wanted our church to take a stronger stance on slavery. To be more active in the movement for the liberation of slaves. They asked for money to go start their own church, and that is what they did. I can imagine the other side saying, “Well, that’s political. We don’t want to stir the pot. It’s a black issue, after all.” And those who didn’t want to get involved dug in their heels.

Whenever a hard line is drawn in the sand, there always seem to be others who will take the other side. No matter the issue. So the church divided. Yet after the Civil War, the two congregations came back together. As did many other churches. All save one denomination. The Baptists divided into Northern and Southern denominations, and that division continues to this day.

Slavery was a massive issue in our country. It is in the Constitution. It shaped state lines and impacted when territories became states. It shaped census numbers as black folk who were slaves were counted as 3/5s a person. It impacted daily lives then and now.

It all came to a head in the Civil War, but it didn’t end following the war. Jim Crow and segregation took another 100 years until the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s. We’re still working on ending segregation and institutional racism. Things are changing and progress is being made. We have roads named after Confederate generals. We have schools named after Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson. There were statues put up of these generals. Many of these statues have been taken down and the schools renamed. I for one, thank God. They should have never been put up in the first place. People who succeed from the Union don’t get statues in the town square, but relegated to the pages of history and in museums as a warning to future generations of what not to do.

I think of the first battle of Manassas, where my construction company in Washington, D.C., the first place I worked after college, had its headquarters… After the first bloody battle, the Confederates put up a monument. The Union army burned it down. As they should have, and we can follow in their footsteps. The Union won. My ancestors fought on that side as did Medina citizens, and there is a memorial at Spring Grove that stands for that history. A great reminder that we were on the Union side and any statue to the Confederacy is an affront to that statue. The Union was on the side of Abe Lincoln and of ol’ glory, the flag we have right here in our sanctuary.

Christ set our example. In his first sermon in Luke 4:14-28. He reads his mission statement from the Prophet Isaiah: The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

Our abolitionist ancestors used that verse in their fight to free the oppressed. It inspired the lyrics of the Battle Hymn of the Republic which we sing every Memorial Day, “As He (meaning Jesus) died to make men holy,
Let us die to make men free.”

It is vital we remember our history. We don’t learn history just from statutes, but from books and documentaries. From parks and the park rangers who tell the stories of what happened on the hallowed grounds of Manassas, Gettysburg, Antietam and more. We learn history from celebrations like Juneteenth, Memorial Day and Independence Day where we tell the stories of what happened on those days.

It is good, at least in my opinion that those Confederate statues are gone. However, it is not good that other statues were also vandalized. Like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and other founding fathers who were slave owners. It might be an atribtraty line, but they set up this country. And yes, they owned slaves. They couldn’t imagine a world without it. They were trapped and couldn’t see beyond their limits. There is a thin line between knowing and celebrating the wrong parts.

Does not wisdom call out? Does not understanding raise her voice?

In our quest for ideological purity or rage at the injustices of the past, we can get carried away. We cannot put our values on the founding fathers or even the era of the Civil War. They had their own values. History speaks. Both the good and the bad. We must learn from all parts of history. Because if we’re honest, we’re just as trapped as they were.

We cannot act like we are enlightened here in our age over our barbarous past. That our ancestors were just idiots who occasionally got it right and we are the more intelligent, all-seeing, all-knowing beings who are light years ahead of them. We are limited. Just as they were. Just as the sea is. As vast as the sea is, there is a boundary to it. A limit.

And we are limited. Wisdom knows this. In all the talk of statues, here’s an interesting trivia. Do you know what founding father does not have a statue in Washington D.C.? I’ll give you a hint, he is also the founding father who never owned slaves. Any guesses? John Adams.

All the rest owned slaves. Even Hamilton, often portrayed as an abolitionist had house slaves, research in 2020 has found.[1] As much as I would like to think I would be an abolitionist if I were alive in the 1700s or around the Civil War, maybe I would have thought of it much like those in our church did who thought it was a political issue “out there” and didn’t impact my daily life.

We’ll never know, as we’re not living then. We’re living here and now. And if we’re honest, we just as limited as our ancestors. The question isn’t “would I own slaves back then?” but “am I contributing to slavery now?”

And the fact is…. I am. If I own a smart phone, I’m involved and implicated. The cobalt that powers my phone is mined by children as young as 7. There’s no way to truly know, as phone manufacturers won’t tell us if their cobalt supply chain are tainted by child labor but given that 60% of the world supply comes from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, odds are we have it.[2]

We’re limited. We’re trapped in systems we don’t like. Last weekend saw 13 mass shootings leaving a dozen dead and 70 injured.[3] I doubt any of us would say that mass shootings are a good thing. I doubt any of us would raise a statue commemorating a mass shooter. I think it is safe to say that all of us gathered here are uniformly against mass shootings. We might have different ideas to solve the problem, but we can find agreement that we’re against it. Against grocery stores, malls, graduation parties, churches, and elementary schools being shot up. Yet we’re also powerless to stop it.

We’re limited. That’s a fact of life. Even the sea has its limits. Just as our ancestors were trapped in unjust systems, so are we.

I bring all this up not to make us feel guilty or angry. I bring this up to acknowledge the hard truth of history and our present. Once we see where we’ve come from and acknowledge where we are, we can discern where to go from here. With these massive societal splits and slavery and generational poverty and mass shootings and church abuse scandals, what do we do, where do we go?

“I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear.” I love that line. Jesus has more to say but we can’t get a handle on what he did teach us. Samaritans are good guys?! We’re to welcome the outcast? Wait, we put them out there for a reason! Yet as we listen and learn and ponder about what Jesus has taught us, we understand. We get the spirit he was talking in. And then that Spirit of Truth comes and guides us in the truth.

For me, as I ponder these big questions, I’m starting to realize that I need to start smaller. While I cannot really solve child labor mining in the Congo, I can make sure I’m supporting businesses with similar values. To start local. I’m always puzzled when someone complains that Medina doesn’t have a certain chain restaurant and they have to travel to Fairlawn or Cleveland to eat at this chain. Well, most places have that chain. No one else has a PJ Marley’s or a Cool Beans or a Courthouse Pizza or a Dominic’s or any other of our local restaurants. Only Medina, in all the world, has these places. And when we spend our money there, we can see and talk to those whom our dollars are supporting.

I think the answer to the weight of the world is for us to go hyper local. We can make sure Medina is doing the right things. We can honor H.G. Blake, who was a conductor on the underground railroad. Who started his own business here, built the Phoenix Block which still stands and bears his name today. Who went into politics and ended Ohio’s Black Laws which were like the Jim Crow laws of the north. Where’s a statue to him? It’s great we named an elementary school after him. I’m proud that Blake went to church here, and he is our spiritual ancestor. I wonder what he would say to us now.

I think with all that is going on in the world, we can take a page from Blake. We can start local. We can support local. We can have conversations together, for when two or three are gathered, Christ is in our midst. I believe we have far more in common than what the talking heads on cable news and the opinion sections in the paper would have us believe. Things aren’t black and white, they’re in screaming color and we have to talk and discern together and listen to each other and learn. In learning, the Spirit of truth can enter in and guide us, if we’re humble enough to listen.

I know I can suffer from a puffed-up ego. While I take pride in my new title of the Reverend Doctor, I didn’t earn it alone. I earned it with you and for you. While that has been added to my name, Luke works just fine. Or Pastor Luke if you’re so inclined. The point of the whole doctoral exercise was to become a listening leader. To ask the right question that unlocks a great discussion so we can figure out where we can go, together. What question can I ask that helps us find unity within our diversity? How can I as your pastor and spiritual leader make sure that we… together… are operating as justly and as Christ-like as we can be?

I can’t really affect the global supply chain as an individual. I’m trapped. I’m limited. I can’t end the divide in our country. I haven’t been able to stop mass shootings despite all the blogposts and social media memes I’ve put up over the years. What I can do is talk to the mayor. I can encourage our police chief to keep training officers in community policing. I can talk with responsible gun owners and ask them what they think we should do. I can notice that there is around a three week wait to get into the affordable Mental Health Services in Medina, but I can walk into Walmart and buy a gun. I can ask you, shouldn’t that be reversed?

While I can’t solve church abuse scandals in other denominations, I can make sure they don’t happen here. Two deep leadership and background checks for volunteers. Stacie, Nicole, and the DELTS making sure our safe church policies are followed. Our Moderators are currently at work reviewing and updating our safe church policy and I’m in awe of how quickly Matt, Dan, and Alyson got to work on it and how fast consensus came. I’m on the church and ministry board to make sure the UCC doesn’t ordain bad pastors. That’s the work we’re doing locally to ensure that not only scandals are uncovered, but they don’t happen in the first place.

We can pray together and ask good questions and listen to one another’s opinions on everything. We can welcome the outcast. We can mentor young folks and pray with them. We can look after those who have been cast aside, here, right here in Medina. There’s so much work to do here, I’m unconcerned with the rest of the world as I’m so limited to change it. Heck, I can’t change myself. But I’m working on it and trying and I think God appreciates the trying. So let us try to have the hard conversations. As I’ve said before and will say again and again, sermons are not the end of a conversation but the start of one. Please let me know your thoughts. You can disagree with all of this sermon save for one thing: we are to seek to become like Christ and follow the Holy Spirit of Truth. For that will glorify Christ and they will know we are Christians by our love.

Next Sunday we can celebrate with our kith and kin in Christ, Second Baptist. Pastor Ruffin learned about Juneteenth during the pandemic and wanted to celebrate it here with us. I think it would be a neighborly thing to do next Sunday after our service but to head out and check out the party our neighbors are throwing us. Celebrating freedom. Celebrating the freedom of the oppressed. Celebrating the victory and perseveration of our republic. Celebrating their ancestors who are also part of our history as our own H.G. Blake fought so hard for the Emancipation Proclamation and Juneteenth to happen. We are connected, our neighbors and us.

We can have the hard conversations. We can look after those within the walls of this fine building and the limits of our local community. To acknowledge one another as neighbor and move from neighbor to friend and friend to family. I pray that will radiate out into the world. We are limited. Just as our ancestors were, just as every human is and has been. Even the sea has its limits. But within those limits, a lot of life is happening.

The same is true for us.

 

Works Cited

[1] https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/new-research-alexander-hamilton-slave-owner-180976260/

[2] See this Guardian article: https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2018/oct/12/phone-misery-children-congo-cobalt-mines-drc and Amnesty International report: https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/campaigns/2016/06/drc-cobalt-child-labour/

[3] https://www.cnn.com/2022/06/06/us/mass-shootings-weekend-list/index.html

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