Listen to Voices Magnifying God’s Voice Today
A sermon based on Luke 1: 26-53
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on November 29, 2015
by Rev. Scott Elliott
On the last day of my vacation in October Nancy and a friend and I drove to Cincinnati to the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center. I lack any sense . . . of direction. So I was pleased I did not end up in Toledo, but actually got to a parking lot near the Freedom Center in Cincinnati. We even found our way out the garage to the streets above and as I started to fret about where to go next I turned around and saw a huge building with the words “Freedom Center.” We made it and we high-fived at God’s deliverance to the doorstep of our destination!
I find it ironic that I worried about finding my way to a building dedicated to a glorious cause that helped enslaved Americans find their way to freedom without modern tools like maps, GPS and paved roads. I know that there are natural ways of locating direction, but it amazes me that often with only dirt trails and word of mouth directions slaves found their way to Cincinnati and then on to freedom via places like Mount Vernon and Lake Erie and Canada. And they did so while being hunted even in this free state.
Mount Vernon was a stop on the underground railroad. And this church from its beginning was openly a part of the anti-slavery movement. This church was remarkably courageous in those days facing mobs, vandalism and other threats. We were called “Presbyterian Free” when we first started which signaled to everyone we were against slavery–a very unpopular position to take back then. To step into our church in those days was to step into a rare predominately White Christian community voicing aloud opposition to the barbaric racist brutal practice of slavery where American men, women and children were literally sold, whipped, assaulted and killed as if they were no more than chattel for White Americans. While Black lives mattered equally to God they didn’t matter equally to American institutions and most White citizens.
Churches as a rule did not oppose this inequality or slavery, many churches ignored it and many supported slavery aloud, Black lives mattering to God did not matter to much of American Christianity or many Americans.
Even in Ohio where slavery was illegal there were laws and thinking that mistreated and abused Blacks lives as not mattering as much as White lives. Blacks had to carry papers proving they were free. 1 And even free Blacks were not permitted to vote or testify and there was hostile fear they’d misbehave and take jobs from Whites– because White lives mattered way more than Black lives to the culture, but not to God!
The Freedom Center is a very powerful place to step into. They have a slave pen imported from Kentucky. After force marching Black Americans in chains slave traders would stop for the night and chain the slaves in a cell. The slave pen on display is maybe as long and wide as our fellowship hall. It has window bars and iron rings are imbedded in the structure to leash slaves to. Heavy cold chains are on display. You can walk into the pen and sit on a crude wooden bench. And if you pay attention in the solemn quiet you can hear echos of the forced marched, whipped, beatened and chained Americans existence in that room still reverberating off the storied walls and mournfully singing out from the imbedded irons and shackles. It’s a room echoing with horror and hopelessness preserved so we will not forget. It’s haunting and sorrowful and so scary real you cry and sit in silence because there are no words to help fathom the God awful lawful institution of slavery permitted and promoted not so long ago in America. An institution many churches ignored or worse upheld as goodly and godly and yes, even Christian.
Slavery was planted here by White Europeans, including Britain–the same Britain our forbearers found oppressive for denying liberty . . . to Whites. In rebellion Whites declared independence and founded this nation on the premise that all are created equal and entitled to God-given rights, most especially liberty. Eventually that founding premise ripened into the Civil War. Just as Mary sang in our lesson. God brought down the powerful and lifted up the lowly; filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. God did this through human action. The result was the end of lawful slavery. Black lives began to matter more.
But Black Americans in post-Civil War America were soon treated again as lesser humans and in many places were still not permitted to vote or testify, and the hostile fears continued that Black Americans would misbehave and take those jobs thought to be reserved for Whites whose lives still mattered more in American culture and institutions. Toward Black lives there was violence, murders, mobs, threats, arrests and unequal treatment in the criminal justice system. There were barriers to neighborhoods, education, jobs, parks, eateries, and even (for goodness sake) drinking fountains. Violence, oppression and unequal treatment of Black Americans was promoted, winked at or tolerated for another century. Black lives did not matter equally.
Because the Civil War did not end prejudice and bigotry, oppression and injustices, Black Americans had to fight to get significant change for decades after that war. In the 1950s a civil rights movement began in American Black churches and by the mid-60s more and more Americans joined in, not just Blacks but Whites and Browns and Yellows and Reds and more churches including this one. God through loving action through instruments of peace in humankind again brought down the powerful and lifted up the lowly; filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. The result was more rights for the well being of Black American adults and children–and as a consequence, the nation . . . you and me. Black lives began to matter more. Real steps toward peace were taken.
Peace in the Bible, “shalom,” means well being. Today is the First Day of Advent. We lit a candle for Peace. Peace is the ultimate aim of God for creation, all creation. Peace is the ultimate goal of Jesus’ Way. And according to our reading from Luke that way began in vitro. Jesus in the womb leaps, and one could say kick starts Mary singing a song called The Magnificat. A song so profound and provocative it’s been banned by dictators for inciting action to bring down the powerful and provide well being to the lowly. It’s been banned to stop God’s work and call in humankind as Mary so wonderful set out.
Mary sings she is empowered to magnify God. She sings that the lowly are looked upon with favor by God. She sings they are blessed. She sings that God sides with the oppressed. She sings that the lowly are lifted up. She sings that the hungry are fed.
When Mary sang her song, when Jesus was born, and all through his life and beyond it, violence and oppression and a near enslavement of Jews in Palestine was promoted, winked at or tolerated by Rome’s citizens and institutions.
There were all sorts of protests and revolts against Rome’s oppression in Palestine. Some historians think Jesus’ father may have been killed by Rome in response to such a protest near Nazareth. 2. John the Baptist was executed because he protested. Jesus was executed as revolutionary. There were revolts and protests up to and including the destruction of the Temple.
Protests against Roman oppression were not unlike protests against slavery that led to the American Civil War. There were some 270 American slave revolts in America –the most famous led by a Black person was Nat Turner’s revolt. But the one that most folks remember as fueling the Civil War was led by John Brown a White person.
The Civil War also had roots in Whites helping to educate the population about the evils of slavery. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin is the best example, but churches, like ours, also provided anti-slavery education and action. It took Whites getting on board en masse via education to lead to care that led to action to bring about the great upheaval of the Civil War and the end of the brutal enslavement of Americans. When the privileged White majority stopped promoting, winking at or tolerating slavery, efforts to end it were finally successful.
But you know what? It was voices of the oppressed and actions by the oppressed that kept singing out– like Mary– magnifying God with their souls until God’s voice was heard in them. White Americans helped for sure, but it was the Black American voices crying out that had to first be listened to–and at the start it was mostly only Black Americans helping Black Americans.
There are many exhibits at the Freedom Center. An exhibit that has stuck with me as much as that awful slave pen is an exhibit of a hat that sits in an acrylic box on a wall beside a 19th Century photo of it’s owner stately posing in that very hat. The photo is of Frederick Douglass. For me there was so much power being close to a personal item from this man whose soul so greatly magnified God in our culture.
Most Americans know enough about Frederick Douglass to think of him as having something to do with fighting slavery. He was in fact a rare voice, an actual American who, while enslaved, illegally learned to read and write and educated himself on a great many things. Frederick Douglass was so articulate that after he stole himself away from slavery he went on lecture circuits all over New England and Europe demonstrating not only against the evil of slavery with blood curdling stories of brutality, but also proving in his own person– the obvious truth– that Blacks are equally capable of intellect and feelings and passion . . . that their lives matter as much as White lives. That proof defeated the lies that Black Americans were less human and needed to be enslaved. Frederick Douglass proved what God intended all along, that Black lives matter equally.
Most Romans would not have agreed that Jewish lives in Palestine mattered equally, any more than most Whites of Antebellum America would have agreed Blacks lives matter equally. Roman institutions oppress Jewish lives. American institutions oppress Black lives.
We look at Mary and Jesus as fully human and fully entitled to be so blessed as to magnify God in their soul and be looked upon with favor and lifted up. And not just by God, but by an entire religion for over two thousand years! But that is not how the privileged Romans who occupied Palestine saw it. Peace in the Roman Empire institutionally was for Romans, not Jews – just as peace in the serene plantations and the rest of Antebellum America was for Whites, not Blacks.
Ironically in Rome the emerging church was on the side of the oppressed, but in Antebellum America the church with few exceptions was on the side of slavery in the North and the South.
Frederick Douglass in his autobiography, A Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass addressed the American church. His critique is scathing. Professing Christians, most especially Christian clergy in his experience, were the meanest most violent and brutal slave owners. He writes: “Were I to be again reduced to the chains of slavery, next to that enslavement, I should regard being the slave of a religious master the greatest calamity that could befall me.” 3
The voice of Frederick Douglass was first raised publically in the 1840s after he escaped. It took a long time for America to listen to his and other anti-slavery voices, like Harriet Tubman, as magnifying God’s voice, and then to heed that voice and to finally take action in the 1860s.
Sadly slavery’s end did not end inequality, the ensuing peace after the war was for Whites, not Blacks. Jim Crow laws soon develop to systematically oppress Black Americans. Their lives did not matter equally to our institutions, not by a long shot. Martin Luther King Jr. began to raise his public voice in the 1950s. It took a long time for America to listen to his and other anti-Jim Crow voices, like Rosa Parks, as magnifying God’s voice, and then to heed that voice and to finally take action in the 1950s and 1960s– in many of our lifetimes!
But sadly Jim Crow’s end did not end inequality, the ensuing peace after the 1960s did not end systematic institutional oppression of Blacks. Their lives today do not matter equally in our culture even though they clearly do to God–and under America’s founding principles. Today there are a lot of public anti-racial injustice voices being raised and magnifying God’s voice to take action to truly make Black Lives Matter–equally.
This week we heard loud voices lamenting the murder of American teen Laquan McDonald in Chicago and five Black Lives Matter marchers in Minneapolis. Today’s voices are crying out very real facts, facts that Black Americans are still being discriminated against by institutional America. Our institutions deny Black lives equal access to voting, education, housing, jobs, medical care, wealth and most especially justice.
I read this week that (quote)
Black Americans’ “equality index” stands at 72.2% compared to 100% for whites — meaning blacks experience less than three-fourths the quality of life of white Americans, according to the “2015 State of Black America” 4
If the color of someone skin in 2015 makes them empirically worth 28% less than others something is very, very wrong.
If we think this doesn’t apply here, John Crawford and Tamir Rice were shot for carrying air guns in this state where Whites publically open carry real firearms. At Black Lives Matter events at Kenyon this past year I heard story after story of Black American Lives not mattering; of scary police stops and racist harassment by Whites some in this county. Here . . .where Confederate flags with violent pro-slavery roots and a continuing vein of racist terror wave on public fairgrounds and houses on our streets.
Voices call out from history that Black Americans have been severely and violently oppressed by the 18th, 19th, and 20th century institutions of this nation– and that their lives have not mattered equally as a matter of course.
Voices are calling out in the 21st century from all over this nation that Black Americans lives are not mattering equally today. The facts bear this very ugly reality out. If we stop listen it’s haunting and sorrowful and so scary-real you cry and sit in silence because there are no words to help fathom the God awful injustices still going on today. Injustices many Christians and churches are ignoring or pooh-poohing.
The people raising voices against racism are magnifying God’s voice. They are God’s instruments of peace. If we cannot hear God’s voice magnified in the voices crying that out and heeding them we are not listening to God. We are not moving toward peace, toward well being. We are not being instruments of peace. And as Mary sings we can be sure that God will again show strength and scatter the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. God will again bring down the powerful and lift up the lowly; fill the hungry with good things. Indeed, we . . . we are the ones through whom God will do these things.
We – as church and as individuals– must listen to God’s voice crying out all over this nation that Black Lives Matter and we must as instruments of peace, magnify the Lord and help bring about well being for all lives making Black, White, Brown, Red, Yellow and every other life matter equally. We must do this so that we bring about what Mary sings, as well as the promise of this season: peace on earth good will to all.
1 Porter, p 23
2. Borg, Marcus, Crossan, John Dominic, The First Christmas, p. 77-78
3 Douglass, Frederick, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, p. 67, Kindle Edition.
COPYRIGHT Scott Elliott © 2015 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED