Saturday, April 14, 2007

Amazing Grace (the movie not the song) Sermon

The scene is the dining room of an elegant 18th century English manor. One of those gathered says to the host, until tonight a perfect stranger: “We’ve heard that you’re a man who wants to see things before you believe in them,” He sweeps his plate aside, and pulls out of his carpet bag implements of the slave trade - leg and arm irons, a metal band to go around the neck. Then, Equiano, the only person with black skin in the room, unbuttons his shirt to show a terrible scar on his chest. “When you are captured,” he says, “you are branded to let you know that you no longer belong to God but to a man.”

Have you seen the movie Amazing Grace? I can highly recommend it if you have not. With a remarkable lack of gore, it portrays the effect of slavery on British society, and the small group of dedicated people who work to rid britain of legal slavery.

I’ve been reading more about this intriguing group of people since I saw the movie. Turns out that the man who brought the shackels to dinner was Thomas Clarkson, who had first learned about slavery when he was researching an essay he wrote for Cambridge University’s Latin prize in 1785. He answered the question: Is it lawful to make slaves of others against their will? All he wanted to do was win a school prize, but he threw himself into the research of it – interviewing slave ship captains and reading extensively. The effect was unexpected - he found himself overwhelmed with horror. After months of research and writing, his essay won first prize, and that could have been the end of it, but the information he’d uncovered would not let him go. Leaving the university, he describes what happened “I sat down disconsolate on the turf by the roadside, and held my horse. Here was thought that came to my mind: that if the calamities of the essay were true, it was time some person should see these calamaties to their end.”

End slavery? Impossible! Slavery was completely entrenched in society, culture and economy at the time – the very structure that had just awarded him a presitigious prize. But the idea that “some person should see these calamities to their end” would not go away and gradually it dawned on him that maybe he was that person.

Thomas Clarkson was familiar with scripture, and he certainly would have read accounts of the work of the apostles of the early church, like this one from Acts 5:27-32 (NRSV):
When they had brought them, they had them stand before the council. The high priest questioned them, saying, “We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and you are determined to bring this man’s blood on us.” But Peter and the apostles answered, “We must obey God rather than any human authority. The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus, whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree. God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior that he might give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. And we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey him.”
We’re plunked into the middle of the action here, which so often happens in the book of Acts. This is the book a bible scholar friend of mine calls the “bible’s comic book” – there’s always something going on and it’s usually fantastical. In the verses just before this, the apostles and Peter have been healing people, were jailed and then were freed by “an angel of the lord.” They immediately returned to the temple to preach, and then they were picked up again.

Then the repeat offenders then give this compelling little speech, including: “we must obey God rather than any human authority.” OBEY – how you feel about that word, which we usually use in social or legal situations, probably depends on how much power you have at the moment. We want our kids to obey us for example, but we would chafe agains saying that we would “obey” our supervisor at work. We want corporations to obey the law when it comes to paying us fairly, but when it comes to cheating on our taxes just a little tiny bit, well, maybe we’re not all that obedient.

So, obey has a social connotation for us – but what about obeying God?
Try it on for size for minute: We must obey God, rather than any human authority. The word translated OBEY is from the greek word meaning “To follow or to do first” What would it mean if we took it seriously to do GOD first? or maybe, to put it another way: “what human authority you willing to DISOBEY in order to follow God?”

William Wilberforce, the lead character in the movie Amazing Grace and the host of the dinner I described earlier, is willing to follow God, even says that he loves God, but he just isn’t sure what God wants. It takes Thomas Clarkson, throwing the shakels on the table and then Equiano, revealing his scars to make Wilberforce believe in the cause of abolition strongly enough to make ending slavery his life’s work.

That whole scene – the friends gathered in secret, the revealing of the scars to one who was uncertain, and in the end a decision of faithful action -- is like the Thomas story we heard earlier. Jesus is gone, and they are hiding in a locked room, wondering what to do next. Then the risen Christ had to appeared to all of them, all of them except for Thomas. When he returns again, in the passage we heard today, this time with thomas there, it’s because he knows that thomas needs to see in order to believe – needs to be shown the scars in order to be moved to total belief, needs to totally believe in order to be moved to action.

Say you are willing to follow God, say you are willing to put God first. What scars do YOU need to be shown in order to totally believe, in order to act?

I was surprised to discover that the book I’ve been reading to learn more about the real people in the Amazing Grace moive, compares the aboltion movement of 200 years ago to our own struggles for human rights today. The book begins this way: (Blog readers - there's longish quote here from "Bury the Chains" about the invisibility of the labor that produces our goods - if you really really really want to hear it, I can copy it for you. But really, you should read the book yourself. It's pretty great.)

Then, as now, it’s a problem of information overload. The problem is – how can you feel it – the pain of the slave in the sugar plantation, the indonesian child laborer, the chinese prisoner, the latino agricultural worker? It feels so overwhelming that instead of trying to do anything with this information, we turn the page, switch the channel, move on.

A couple of years ago, a shy teenage boy named Zach Hunter heard these statistics: 27 million peolpe are in slavery around the world, right now, today. He heard that most slaves today are prostitutes, agricultural workers, or domestics. Many of them are children, sold to pay off family debts or tricked into believing they are heading for real, paying jobs. Zach heard the defination of modern slavery: when one person controls another thru violence or threat of violence, pays them nothing and then uses that situation to make money from their labor.

Zach, a typical ninth grader, who goes to school, plays catch with his younger brother and listens to music, did not despair, as you or I might when he heard these things. He did not listen to his parents (those ultimate human authorities) who told him, “you’re too young to make a difference.” Like Thomas Clarkson, who 200 years ago sat by the road and thought: “some person should see these calamaties to their end” and then wondered if he was that person. Like Peter and his friends 2000 years ago, who bounced out of jail once and risking prison (or worse!) again spoke to those in power: We must obey God rather than human authority. Young Zach Hunter saw what needed to be done, and he decided to do it.

Zach started a movement called “loose change to loosen change” encoruaging people to give their dimes and quarters to end the tragedy that is modern day slavery. He wrote a book for teen activists called Be the Change. Zach says that he believes that with God’s help, all things are possible, and he knows this is true from his own life.

When he was younger, he had suffered from anxiety in groups so powerful that at times he would be physically sick, but he told ABC news that as soon as he started speaking about the abolition of slavery that he stopped being nervous. Now he speaks to 1000s of teens a year, often at concerts or other gatherings, about ending slavery in their lifetime. Impossible? That’s what they said to Peter and the apostles, and that crowd started a movement that we continue today. That’s what they said to Thomas Clarkson, but he did not quit until slavery was exposed and made illegal.

In speaking to a classroom recently, Zach Hunter told them the facts he’d learned about slavery, and then he told them: “you don’t have to feel bad anymore, because we’re going to do something right now.” By that statement, he said no to the human authorities that told him change was not possible and hope was meaningless. By that statement he said yes to obedience to God – a God of hope, of new life, of resurrection.

The disciples did not despair, even in the darkest hours of fear and imprisonment. The tiny abolitionist movement did not despair, even when every force they respected was arrayed against them. Zach Hunter, 14 year old boy, does not despair. And we here and now, the week after easter, knowing all that we know and believing anyway in the power of the resurrected Christ, we do not despair.

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