Sermon – June 7, 2015

Categories: Church,Sermons

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This was a Union Service in the Park with the First Baptist Church and the United Church of Christ, First Congregational or Norwich, NY at 10:30 a.m. followed by Sharing a Meal.

Click here to download a copy of this sermon.

Norwich, June 7th, 1863

with Bob Oehme, Rev. Mr. Joe Connolly, Rev. David Spiegel

BOB OEHME
These words are from the work known as Exodus in the 14th Chapter: “And you, Moses, lift up your staff; stretch out your hand over the sea and split the sea in two, that the Israelites may pass through it on dry land.” — Exodus 14:16.

I need to ask you to use your imagination and paint a picture in your mind of what I am about to describe. You are here in Norwich, right where you find yourself now, except for one thing. The year is not 2015. The year is 1863. The date is the same as it is today. It is June the 7th. As it happens June the 7th, 1863 was also a Sunday. And because you should be thinking that you are here in 1863, not 2015, I ask that you put any modern sounds you might be hearing, like cars or horns or ringing cell phones out of you head. This is 1863. There are no cars or cell phones.

In 1863 the Chenango County Courthouse is already 26 years old. In 1863 the building in which the members of the First Baptist Church worship today, this building right here, is 18 years old. From this time in 1863 right to the present day the building in which they worship will be and is across the way from the building in which the Congregationalists worship. The worship space of the Congregational Meeting House is the brick building you see today, located on the same footprint as the current worship space. But the building is smaller than the current structure. The structure at that time consisted only of what today is the worship space. The rest of the building will not be added until 1874. Originally, the structure in which the Congregationalists meet from 1819 to 1860 was a building made of wood with the same footprint as the brick church. It burned down in 1860 and was replaced the following year by the structure in which their current worship space now resides.

Now, let me also review some American history. It is, after all, June 7th, 1863. The Emancipation Proclamation was issued by President Lincoln on January 1, 1863. But the proclamation did nothing to offer citizenship to the people who had been enslaved.

The Fourteenth Amendment which granted citizenship will not be passed until 1868. The Citizenship Clause of that Amendment states (quote:) “All persons born or naturalized in the United States and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.” This wording reverses by means of Amendment the Dred Scott decision by the Supreme Court, a decision which declared African Americans were not and could not become citizens of the United States or enjoy the privileges of citizenship. And, indeed, that court decision necessitated the Amendment.

More history: it being June of 1863, the Battle of Gettysburg is still three weeks in the future. Gettysburg is often described as the turning point in the war. In fact, the day after the Battle at Gettysburg ends, the Vicksburg garrison surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant.

Before these several events had come to pass, things had not been going particularly well for the Union. When these two incidents are considered the eventual outcome of the War becomes much clearer. But again, at the beginning of June 1863 these events are still a month in the future.

That’s probably what you need to know to paint a picture in your mind of what is about to take place. And what is it which is about to take place? The pastor of the First Baptist Church in 1863, the Rev. Mr. Amos Benedict, who will be played by Rev. Mr. David Spiegel and the Pastor of the First Congregational Church in 1863, the Rev. Mr. Samuel Scoville, who will be played by Rev. Mr. Joseph Connolly, are about to meet here, between the two churches. They sit on a bench and have a little Bible Study between them.

There has been a significant amount of cooperation between the two. In 1861 they had cooperated in a blessing which sent the Norwich contingent of the 114th Regiment of New York State Volunteers off to the conflict. (SLIGHT PAUSE.)

There is one more thing to note: we did not have a big enough budget to buy elaborate costumes, so you need to imagine these two pastors in period clothes. And now, a talk about Scripture between these two pastors.

JOE
Mr. Benedict! Mr. Benedict! My, but it is good to see you. Have you looked at the passage we wanted to discuss?

DAVID
Why, yes, Mr. Scoville— the 14th Chapter of Exodus. And I am happy to engage about it. But I think it was you who chose this passage.

JOE
And why not? I think this passage is at the heart of the current national conflict.

DAVID
Is it?

JOE
Well, of course it is! These words may be ancient. They may be from Scripture. But we need to see these sacred words with modern eyes.

DAVID
You won’t get an argument from me on that account. We do need to see these sacred words with modern eyes. But are they really at the heart of the current conflict? Let me tell you what I don’t see in these words. What I don’t see is the pain we’ve endured over the last two years. We have lost a lot of fine young men. Indeed, there are times when the struggle has seemed lost.

JOE
Well, Mr. Benedict, you won’t get an argument from me on that, either. There are times when the bloodshed, the lives lost, lead me to ask the question why: why must we endure all this? Have we been somehow faithless? Have we somehow offended God?

DAVID
I don’t know. I do know just last month the Union army had a 2 to 1 advantage over the Confederate troops. But still Stonewall Jackson halted the Union advance against General Lee near Charlottesville. Our General Hooker lost 17,000 troops. 17,000 soldiers! 17,000 souls! I can’t begin to imagine. And that also means there are 17,000 families somewhere, all across this nation, who mourn. And it was not just our side who paid a steep price. General Jackson and General Lee lost 13,000. That’s a total of 30,000 souls! 30,000 lives lost over the course of just a couple of days.

JOE
(SLOWLY.) Yes, I… I… don’t know what to say about this. The toll of this rebellion has been horrific, unbelievable.

DAVID
Well, for me this brings up a serious question: ‘what hath God wrought?

JOE
Yes. I think that’s an important question. However, I want to suggest God hath not wrought the devastation and bloodshed we have already seen. This is not the will of God. God does not want to see people die by acts of violence.

DAVID
(Slight pause.) Is God not in control?

JOE
Is God in control? Of course God is in control. That’s not the issue. That’s not why there has been so much violence. The bloodshed is a result of the fact that we humans always believe we are in control. We do what we can to wrest control from God. And that, my friend, is the issue. We humans, we who think we are in control— we are the real cause of this appalling, horrendous, shameful violence.

DAVID
(SLIGHT PAUSE.) So, when will we learn to forge plowshares out of swords?

JOE
Yes, that is exactly why I wanted to look at this passage from Exodus 14 with you. I don’t think this passage is about war at all and I’d like to discuss it with you to see if you might think the same.

DAVID
What do you mean it’s not about war? Quote: “Then I will harden the hearts of the Egyptians so that they will come after you; and so I will glorify myself at the expense of Pharaoh and all the army of Egypt, the chariots, the chariot drivers. The Egyptians shall know that I am Yahweh, when I glorify myself over Pharaoh, the chariots, and the chariot drivers.” If that is not about God and about war, even about God sanctioning war what is it about?

JOE
I think it can be taken that way. And, indeed, I think there are many people who say this is about war and perhaps there are many people who think this passage condones war. And I think there are many people who would even say this passage claims God condones war. But does it? You see, what I find interesting is that our enslaved brothers and sisters take great solace in this passage. If they find solace in this passage do they think it points to a different place, a place which is not about war?

DAVID
Actually, I am well aware our brothers and sisters who suffer the bonds of slavery do take solace in this passage. And I have oftentimes wondered the same thing. I’ve wondered why that’s the case. Why would an enslaved people take solace in a passage like this? It’s so…. so…. violent.

JOE
Well, let’s try to see these words from their point of view. I think this is how they might see it: just like the Israelites in Egypt, the people who are enslaved have come here from another land. And just like the Israelites in Egypt, the people who are enslaved here, on this side of the Atlantic, yearn to be free. Hence, I think the way these words are speaking to them and the deeper the meaning they find in these words embodies the promises made by God.

DAVID
Huh. (VERY LONG PAUSE. THEN IN AN EXCITED VOICE:) Oh, yes! Oh, yes! I see! I see! Yes! Yes! Yes! And what are the real promises of God? The real promises of God have little to do with war and bloodshed. The real promises of God have to do with deliverance. The real promises of God have to do with rescue. The real promises of God have to do with salvation— the saving grace of God. Therefore, real promises of God have to do with freedom.

JOE
And that is exactly what those trapped in slavery can see in this passage: deliverance, rescue, salvation, freedom.

DAVID
(SLIGHT PAUSE AND A SIGH.) So, is the human condition so hopeless that we are to be forever trapped in struggle? Does the human condition mean some will be denied the deliverance, the rescue, the salivation, the freedom that is clearly the will of God for all people?

JOE
I think this passage tells us otherwise. Quote: “Do not be afraid, stand firm, stand your ground and you will see the deliverance,…”

DAVID
Yes, but it also says this: “Tell the Israelites to go forward, march on.” I think that tells us we need to participate in the work of God, in the will of God. We need to participate in bringing the realm of God into our own time, work toward realizing the realm of God can be something which happens now. And the realm of God will be reached when all people enjoy freedom. So we need to participate in the work of equality and the work of justice. We are the hands of God. We are the voice of God.

JOE
Mr. Amos, I could not agree with you more.

DAVID
Perhaps… participation is the struggle.

JOE
Yes, perhaps participation is the struggle.

DAVID
I think there is another truth to be found here that I need to state. And this must be obvious: in the struggle we humans too often resort to violence.

JOE
I agree. On the other hand, how can peace be a possibility, how can peace be a reality, unless we see a way to victory for our cause. And our cause is freedom. Freedom is a just cause, is it not?

DAVID
I agree. Freedom is a just cause. But sometimes I wonder why we humans think violence is a means through which the peace of the Realm of God can be reached. How many times have you heard this slogan used? “Peace through victory.” I suspect the only thing victory brings is a lull in the violence. Victory does not bring any kind of peace. Only justice, only the justice of God, will bring true and lasting peace.

JOE
(LONG PAUSE.) Peace through justice.

DAVID
Indeed, not peace through violence. Peace through justice. And it is justice— the justice God seeks— which will ensure freedom for all people.

JOE
(SLIGHT PAUSE.) There are no easy answers, are there?

DAVID
It is not the job of theology to provide easy answers. Indeed, the claim of theology is this: as we become slowly aware of God we also become aware that God is not so much the object of our knowledge as the cause of our wonder.

JOE
(LONG PAUSE.) God as the cause of wonder. (SHORTER PAUSE.) My friend, I am glad we have had this conversation. You’ve helped me learn something. You’ve helped me learn the hand of God must been seen at all times and in all ways because God is the cause of wonder. You’ve helped me learn the love of God must be spread throughout the land. You’ve helped me learn victory is not a way to ensure peace.

DAVID
(SHORTER PAUSE.) Well, my friend, I am also glad we have had this conversation. You’ve helped me learn something. You’ve helped me learn the hand of God is sometimes seen in the struggle. You’ve helped me learn the freedom God offers to each one of us is precious. And you have also helped me learn the love of God must be spread throughout the land.

JOE
Mr. Amos, our talk gives me hope for the future. Indeed, I wonder if the pastors of our two churches will talk from time to time over the years about justice and freedom and peace.

DAVID
Mr. Scoville, my guess is our predecessors used to talk about these things. Perhaps they met right here, between these buildings to talk. Indeed, my guess is those pastors who follow us will continue to talk about these things, engaging one another right here between these buildings. In fact, my guess is the people of our churches will be working together on issues of justice and peace and love and freedom more than 150 years from now. (Slight pause.) Mr. Scoville— may I call you Samuel?

JOE
Why, of course.

DAVID
Samuel, I am always glad when I see you. We have such stimulating chats.

JOE
Mr. Benedict— may I call you Amos?

DAVID
Why, of course.

JOE
Amos, I am always glad to see you, since I know we are working toward the same goal: we work for the good of the people in this fair place called Norwich and we work toward our mutual goal— that the realm of God is present in this place and in this time and that the realm of God means all people will know the freedom God offers each of us.

DAVID
(SLIGHT PAUSE.) So, do you think that will be true in the future— that the pastors here will work for the good of the people of Norwich and that the real goal to work toward the Realm of God and that the reality of the Realm of God means all people will know the freedom God offers each of us? And you are, in that sense saying that in— I don’t know— pick a date, pick a year— let’s say in the year 2015— in 2015 will all this still be true?

JOE
Of course it will be true. It will be true if we remain friends in Christ, one in Christ. If we are friends in Christ, one in Christ, then all things are possible.

DAVID
Amen.

JOE
And again, amen.

06/07/2015
A Union Service of Worship in West Park with First Baptist Church, the United Church of Christ, First Congregational Followed by a Sharing a Meal.

[1] Often a sound file gets posted on the web for the sermons of the Rev. Mr. Connolly. That is not the case with this one. This being an outdoor service there was no recording facility available.

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