1776 and the Redemption of 1619

October 13, 2019

Isaiah 56:1, 6-8; Acts 2: 5-11


        It is becoming increasingly clear that the primary challenge of our era is celebrating diversity in our multi-cultural village we call earth, home to 7.5 billion people at the moment, projected to be 10 billion by 2050.

        New York has been multi-cultural like that for a century, a polygot of ethnic neighborhoods that you can still see across Queens and Brooklyn. And our challenge, how to celebrate our diversity instead of allowing it to become a source of friction and social tension, is shared by more and more people.

        Paris (20% are foreign born) and London (where 36% of the citizens are foreign born), two of our closest cities, have the same diversity we do. Amsterdam is home to 177 different nationalities. And this challenge spreads around the world. Singapore, Dubai, Sao Paolo, Sydney, Hong Kong, Dehli, Lagos, Los Angeles, Toronto.

        All of them with astonishing diversity and the same multi-cultural challenges that we face.

        So today, when we hear the promise of God that “One day, all of my people will come to my holy mountain” how much richer an image that would be. It pulls us forward into a future where everyone on earth has entrance to the playing field, a world of promise and possibility.

        Our second text, this morning, reminds us of how much wider our lens is today than 2000 years ago. These earliest disciples thought that they were living to see the fulfillment of that promise. They report that people were literally coming to Jerusalem from “all over the earth”. And they list some of the people they met. People from Parthia, Mede’s, Phrygian’s. All of these people from the ends of the earth, the one’s from modern day Iran as far away as 1000 miles.

        One thousand miles is a long way away. Back then, you could only travel 10-15 miles a day, so if you were traveling from Teheran to Jerusalem, you were looking at 3 months on the road one way. Don’t forget your toothbrush.

        Today our ‘ends of the earth’ are a lot bigger than just 1000 miles away. Today, we know you could keep going another 23,900 miles in any direction across 5 other continents that they barely knew anything about. Our world is so much bigger. There are so many more cultures than the ancient people even knew about.

        How are we going to learn to live together? How will figure out how to get along? A big part of that answer, certainly in our own country, will probably be through the spiritual imagination of redemption.

        I got to thinking about this with the introduction of the 1619 project, a very creative idea, that seeks to take a negative in American history and redeem it positively. How many of you had ever heard of the year 1619 before the New York Times ran a whole Sunday Magazine on it?

        That speaks volumes. I’d never heard of 1619. It was the first year that slaves were brought our country in Jamestown, Virginia. A year before the Pilgrims landed the Mayflower in Massachusetts, the slaves were already here. They have been part of our history from the very beginning.

A large part of what the 1619 project wants to do is simply record our whole history, not just the history of the “Founding Fathers” like it was taught when I was in college (from the point of view of the Europeans), but also to recover the experience of the slaves who were here from before the beginning as well.

        A lot of what the project is seeking to do is “enlarge our imagination” to include everybody and to see that quest as quintessentially what America is all about.

        Our “Forefathers” had a noble idea when they penned the Declaration of Independence in 1776. It was one of the most sublime passages in social and political history when they declared that “We declare these truths to be self-evident. All men are created equal and they are endowed with certain inalienable, that among them are the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”

        But like the writers of our text this morning, their world-view wasn’t all that wide. They could only see that this extended to their peers. It didn’t include women, 50% of the population. It didn’t extend to slaves, nearly 20% of the population at the time. It didn’t extend to Native Americans.

        They just couldn’t see that far. They could only see as far as their peers. It was a limited imagination.

        And that lack of imagination inflicted a lot of trauma. Slaves were not allowed to learn to read and write. Their families were fractured. They were prevented from developing independence, wealth, or stability- all the things that the Founding Fathers took for granted as ‘given’ in their freedom.

        And this trauma has echoed down the generations, through Jim Crow, through segregation and that trauma had deep personal and social effects that are manifest around us today as we all know.

        But what do you do with that trauma? How do you incorporate that pain, particularly when it is personal, when it is manifest in your family and through your neighbors?

        Rage, sure. Sublimated anger that comes out in self-inflicted wounds through alcohol, drugs, depression, aimlessness, hopelessness. These have all been tried… and found wanting.

        But in our generation, the creators of the 1619 project have pointed the way forward on a spiritually productive front, the possibility of spiritual redemption.

        In recovering the fuller history of slaves in our country, they are also recovering the voices from our past that have been crying out for a mutual recognition of our common humanity from before the founding of our country.

        They are pointing out that the moral of the story of our collective American history is to live up to the creed our Founding Fathers so eloquently stated that “We hold these truths to be self-evident. That all people were endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

        Because we can agree that this is the moral of our collective story, we can look back and recover the voices of protest against slavery that existed from the earliest days of our history, we should be able to mutually look back at our history and be more open and honest about the extend and duration of the horrors of slavery and discrimination that were woven into the fabric of our society.

        And we can hear the plaintive cries for freedom and equality that have been nobly articulated throughout our long and damaging history of prejudice. I think of Blanch Bruce, Robert Smalls, Joseph Rainey, John Lynch, Josiah Walls. All of these men, were born into slavery and all of them became U.S. Congressmen after emancipation. I suspect only a couple of us gathered here this morning have ever heard of any of them.

        But we should. They were all enormously successful men in the most adverse conditions. And they were the first generation of free men to speak about the benefits of an inclusive view of the American Dream. They expanded the vision. They were noble.

        Their careers mostly ended in tragedy as Jim Crow voting restrictions slowly made it nearly impossible for the freed African-Americans to vote. Their base was slowly choked off. But their voices articulated the moral of the American story. They were hero’s in their time. And we will redeem their voices, their hopes and dreams by bringing them to life as inspiration for the story of the spiritual and moral leaders that helped point the way towards genuine respect and understanding that we hope to realize for our world today.

        This is what redemption is all about. The Bible has a line that says, “You meant it for evil, but God used it for good.” We tried to silence their voices and for decades they were silenced, but integrity and moral purpose have a way of vindicating themselves over time. And today, we see things very differently. We are changing, repenting. Today, we can hear these leaders with all of the humanity and the nobility that they deserve. We can redeem them.

        The story of the strides toward freedom in the experience of African-Americans, looked at through the eyes or redemption, becomes the story of the unfolding moral of the American experience. It is the story of realizing the dream of freedom, of widening the circle of our peers to recognize and celebrate more diversity.

        The moral quest has been for all of us to find our place at the table. And noble leaders were among us from the very beginning to recognize the inherent dignity and humanity of the slaves. We need to redeem more of their voices calling for freedom.

        And that call for freedom, to find a place at the table, was echoed down the generations of history. In mid-nineteenth century that noble voice calling for freedom guided the immigrant experience, even though it was very different from the slave experience. That same impulse to be respected, to be included humanely, you can hear it in the experience of Irish who came here in the 1850’s, then in the Italians and Chinese who came here in the 1880’s, then again the Slav’s and Eastern Europeans that came here in the 20th century.

It called on America to expand its range of peers. We grew into becoming a multi-cultural country, through a lot of prejudice and fear, to be sure, but we changed and multi-cultural world of New York bloomed as this 10,000,000 person experiment in expanding our imagination to include more diversity.

        And that call for freedom, to be included, to be respected with humanity, the noble aspiration of our earliest slaves, would later still find an echo in the Women’s suffragists to pass the 19th amendment, giving women the right to vote, in 1920- hard as that is to believe from our perspective today. We were widening our circle of peers to empower a whole half of humanity.

        And the noble aspiration voiced by our earliest slaves finds an echo today, in a different way still, with the Latino experience. Of course, Central and South Americans, Mexicans, they are not exactly immigrating. They’ve always been here. It was the US that took Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, California from their people who had been living there for a short 10,000 years before we got here.

        At the moment, we have about 11 million Mexicans living in the US. But, we also have about 2.5 million Americans living in Mexico. And a whole lot more American who visit Mexico on vacation. So, this is not so much about immigration as it is just living together. And the noble voices among us are asking us to broaden our imagination, widen the sense of our peers.

        People from India, South Asia… and as folks who visit the refugees that are held in the Elizabeth detention center while they apply for humanitarian relief, people literally every country in the world.

        Jesus taught us that ultimately, we are all children of God. We all deserve respect, compassion, humane neighborly understanding and acceptance. St. Paul said that where the Gospel takes us there is “No male or female, no Jew (read insider) or Gentile (read outsider), no slave nor free (no caste system that is legitimate) and if he was alive today he would say no Gay or Straight (because love is love is love).

        We have come from dysfunction but we are headed towards harmony. We’ve lived oppression but we are called towards freedom. We’ve kept the perq’s for the few but we are opening the playing field to everybody.

        As the historian Jon Meachem says, “America is not something you were born into, America is an idea”. There is room at the table, more room than we can imagine as yet. May we together broaden our spiritual imagination. May your children and your grandchildren actualize more of their potential than you would have guessed. And may they learn to harmonize in our diversity in ways that surprise and transform you. God’s peace upon you. Amen.


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