Sermon for 7th Sunday after Epiphany - Feb. 19, 2017

Sermon for the 7th Sunday after the Epiphany, Year A
February 19, 2017
The Rev. Evelyn Wheeler, Rector

Leviticus 19:1-2,9-18; Psalm 119:33-40; 1 Corinthians 3:10-11,16-23; Matthew 5:38-48

Bp Cate is particularly fond of this passage from Matthew.  She has preached on it on numerous occasions, and regularly whenever she has come for the Ulster Project Evensong.

Here’s what she says (and I think I’ve told you this before, so I will be brief) – on the question of turning the other cheek – it’s very much one thing to strike someone with the back of the hand on the right cheek – this was at the time the MOST humiliating way to “correct them” because the right side is favored: that is, the front side of the hand is favored, and the right hand is favored, and the right cheek is favored.  It’s a great dishonor and essentially declares that the status of the person hit is so low as to be dirtier than dirt.

By turning the other cheek, the victim essentially prevents the assailant, if he should plan to hit again, to do so without moving around the victim.  Turning the other cheek is anything but asking to be victimized twice – it is a way of claiming status the other would deny you.

It’s the same thing with the question of carrying a load twice as far – a Roman soldier had the absolute authority to compel a Judean or other non-Roman citizen, to carry their pack for a mile.  That was the law.  But by continuing to carry the load, the victim shames the soldier by making a gift of his or her labor – and gifts were only given by patrons to those under them.  It’s a way of claiming status the other would deny.

And you can also guess that the giving not only of coat but of cloak does the same thing.

Submission to authority – especially unjust authority – can be a powerful act of protest.

We’ve seen that in our own history.

And since this is Black History Month, I want to cite an example of how some people responded to the oppression known as slavery.

Picture this – it’s 1851 and the Feds have just passed the Fugitive Slave Law, which not only forbade helping slaves to escape their bonds, it also made it required of every citizen to assist in the capture of runaway slaves, no matter where they lived.  Because slaves were property and it was theft to run away or to help someone run away. 

And the debate raged across the northern states – should this law be obeyed?

The war of sermons began.

A preacher in Buffalo, NY, one John C. Lord, DD, pastor of Central Presbyterian Church, on Thanksgiving Day 1851 gave a sermon entitled "The higher law" in its application to the Fugitive slave bill.: A sermon on the duties men owe to God and to governments, in which he supported the requirement of all to obey the Fugitive Slave Law without question because, he said, Christianity sanctioned slavery and because God had placed authority in the federal government to regulate it.

Even in those early years, the question of slavery was a contentious one – the abolitionists and the separatists were already angry and active on their respective sides, and the vast middle was extremely frightened of dissension and disunion.  Dr. Lord’s call was a call to reason and order in a time of turmoil and fear.

He wrote: “As citizens of this State, and of the great Republic of which it is the chief member, we are called to consider the preservation of public tranquility, the adjustment of sectional difficulties, and the continuance of the bonds of our union,” while the political disputes raged.

Dr Lord noted, “grave questions have arisen in regard to the obligation of the citizen to obey laws which he may disapprove; appeals have been made to a higher law, as a justification, not merely of a neglect to aid in enforcing a particular statute, but of an open and forcible resistance by arms.” 

He says that some preachers have advised opponents of the law to use force to prevent its execution.  Yet, he says, the law was passed by those with authority and within the authority of the Constitution.  Lord goes on to quote extensively from Scriptures – from “render unto Caesar” to “be subject to principalities and powers; obey magistrates; be ready to every good work,” and to “Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers, the powers that be are ordained of God” and other such passages that counsel the people of God to honor those given political authority over them. 

So here is the right approach, he says: “We take the ground, that the action of civil governments within their appropriate jurisdiction is final and conclusive upon the citizen; and that, to plead a higher law to justify disobedience to a human law, the subject matter of which is within the cognizance of the State, is to reject the authority of God himself; who has committed to governments the power and authority which they exercise in civil affairs.”

Dr Lord also says that slavery “is an institution of God, and sanctioned by Jesus Christ, and his Apostles; and therefore Congress has the right divine, to pass laws to protect it, and to command us by grave penalties to obey those laws; and for us to appeal to the law of God, in protestation of our rights, civil and religious, is, to contravene the revealed will of God himself, ‘to reject his authority,’ and to take the position of infidelity.”[1]

And this is true even if the government abuses its authority.

As put by an unnamed author – who identifies himself as “a minister of the gospel in Massachusetts – in a “review of Dr Lord’s sermon”, the argument Lord puts forth is this:

“The argument then of our author, reduced for the sake of simplicity to the form of a syllogism, is as follows:--

“1. In matters committed by God to governments, Christianity gives to the magistracy the right divine for doing wrong, and for committing the citizen in the name of God to execute the wickedness.

“2. To regulate domestic slavery, and protect it, is a matter committed by God to government. Therefore,--

“3. To regulate domestic slavery, and protect it, Christianity gives to the magistracy the right divine for doing wrong, and for committing the citizen in the name of God to execute the wickedness.”

Or as we may have heard from time to time, “My country, right or wrong…”

Francis Wayland, fourth president of Brown University in Rhode Island, in the same general time frame argued that citizens not only have a right, but an obligation, to question the laws that the government enacts, if they violate social and moral precepts.  In his equally long-winded fashion, he wrote:

“…every disciple of Christ is under imperative obligations to obey the civil magistrate, so long as the civil magistrate obeys the social and moral laws by virtue of which his office has been created.  While the magistracy employs itself in the administration of justice, in the protection of innocence, and the punishment of crime, and in the discharge of those duties, which, for the sake of convenience, the public has voluntarily confided to it, Christ commands us not merely to yield it our obedience but to proffer to it our cheerful and disinterested support. * * * *

Nonetheless, he said, “The Christian is at liberty to inquire whether any act of the government transgresses the limit within which its action is, by reason and revelation, restricted; and yet more, to determine, concerning every one of its actions, whether it be right or wrong.  At liberty, did I say? He is more than at liberty – he is obliged thus to inquire and to determine. He is a party to every act of the society of which he is a member.

“He is an intelligent moral agent, responsible to God for his actions, whether they be personal or associated, and therefore he must think about civil government, and act about it, according to the light which God has given him, all things else to the contrary notwithstanding."[2]

In favor of this view, we have scriptural backing as well – the prophets constantly reminded kings and authorities of the duty to care for the people under them, to regard their wellbeing as equally important as their own.

Just take another look at the passage from Leviticus that we read this morning as an example of this: – all those limits on our power also apply to the power of our community, and whatever form of government that we consent to.

Our Massachusetts preacher builds on Wayland’s argument as follows:

"I therefore, as a Christian citizen, look upon the civil government and the civil magistracy with as unbending an eye as I look upon any thing else. In simplicity and godly sincerity, not in the spirit of strife, or partizanship, I may pronounce my opinion upon its enactments, and measures, just as I would express my opinion in any other case.  I see in presidents, cabinets, senators, representatives and all the array of the civil magistracy nothing but men, fallible men, of like passions with myself.  Every page of the history of the past has shown that men placed in such situations have been exceedingly prone to err and to do wickedly.  I can not therefore, worship men in power.

In so far as they are virtuous men, I love them. In so far as they are able men, I respect them. In so far as with an honest and true heart they labor to discharge the solemn duties to which they have been appointed, I honor and venerate them. I will pay all due deference to the offices which they bold, and I will bow with seemly respect to the men who hold them. These men are to me the representatives on earth of eternal justice and unsullied truth; and may my arm fall palsied from my shoulder-blade when I refuse to raise it in token of respect to him who is called of God to minister under so solemn a responsibility."

"But all this veneration is due, not to the man, but to the magistrate; and it is due to him, therefore, only so long as he confines himself to the duties of his office, and discharges them with pure and patriotic intentions. I have a right to inquire whether his actions in his office conform to the principles of justice.  

“He must claim for himself no immunity from scrutiny on account of the dignity of his station. If he use the power committed to him for any other purpose than that for which it was committed; if he prostitute his official influence to pander to the wishes of a political party; if he sacrifice the gravest interests of his country for the sake of securing to himself the emoluments of office; if he trample the national honor in the dust in order to minister to the grasping selfishness of a contemptible clique, – that moment every vestige of his sacredness is gone forever.


"But this may become a yet more practical matter.  The magistrate may not only do wrong himself, but he may command me to do wrong.  How shall I regard this command?  I will regard it as I do any other command to do wrong, – I will not obey it.  I will look the magistracy calmly and respectfully in the face, and declare to it that in this matter I owe it no allegiance.  I will have nothing to do with its wrong-doing.  I will separate myself, as far as possible, from the act and its consequences, whether they be prosperous or adverse.

“It is wickedness; it has the curse of God inwrought into it, and I will have nothing to do with it.  From the beginning to the end, I will eschew it, and the reward that it offers.  The magistracy may punish me; I can not help that, I will not resist, but I will not do wrong, nor will I be a party to wrong, let the magistracy or aught else command me."[3]

So here we are – submission to authority as an act of protest, just like turning the other cheek, or carrying the soldier’s luggage an extra mile, or giving up cloak as well as coat. 

A refusal to act unjustly when the law requires it, a decision to offer mercy when authority denies it, is the greater law.

Let’s hear from one last voice – a cautionary note from Frederick Douglass, former slave and an abolitionist, in his autobiography:

“Were I to be again reduced to the claims of slavery, next to that enslavement I would regard being the slave of a religious master the greatest calamity that could befall me.  For of all the slaveholders with whom I have ever met, religious slaveholders are the worst.  I have ever found them to be the meanest and basest, the most cruel and cowardly, of all others.”[4]

It’s easy when we talk about slavery – we know which side “won” the moral argument there; and we also know it was only won through disunion and bloodshed – a wound to our nation that remains painful right up to the present time, and still infects our public discourse.

But it’s not so easy when slavery is not the issue – when the government might favor fossil fuel over windmills, pipelines over water rights, mineral extraction over nature protection, or when our representatives decide they will only represent the people who voted for them.  These are present-day issues, not the deep past, and they bite us, because we disagree about what is the higher law, what is the moral obligation, what is the sensible course, and what is owed by the people to their government or the government to its people with respect to them.  Just as our ancestors did.

That’s when Christians must look to the Scriptures for guidance.  I suggest today’s Gospel passage.[5]

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’  But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.  For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have?  Do not even the tax collectors do the same?  And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others?  Do not even the Gentiles do the same?  Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”


[1] A sermon on the duties men owe to God and to governments. Delivered at the Central Presbyterian Church, Buffalo, on Thanksgiving Day. By John C. Lord, D.D. (Pastor of said church), author of “Lectures on Government and Civilization.” New York: Published by order of the “Union Safety Committee” 1851.

[2] Francis Wayland, The University Sermons. Gould, Kendall & Lincoln, 1849.

[3] Slavery in its relation to God. A review of Rev. Dr. Lord's Thanksgiving sermon, in favor of domestic slavery, entitled The higher law, in its application to the fugitive slave bill. By a minister of the gospel, in Massachusetts. Written by special request. Accessed Feb. 18, 2017

[4] Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Published at the Anti-Slavery Office, Boston, 1845, p 66.

[5] Matthew 5:43-48, NRSV.

  January 2018  
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