This is the sermon I preached to the General Board of Examining Chaplains of the Episcopal Church and the readers of the General Ordination Exams.
We were gathered the week after the shooting in Parkland, Florida.
The sermon was preached on the day commemorating Frederick Douglass.
When I arrived jet-lagged from the snow-belt yesterday, Duncan Ely, the Executive Director of the General Board of Examining Chaplains, asked me if I would preach at the Conference Eucharist today. At first I was daunted by the idea that I had to produce a sermon text in twenty- four hours while at the same time read multitudes of General Ordination exams. But suddenly I realized that this occasion to preach allows me the chance to speak to a topic I have needed to address.
I know we are all daunted this afternoon, struggling to know how to face the aftermath of yet another school shooting, this time in Parkland, Florida. But in my own personal struggle to know what to say to my Diocese of Western New York, I am heartened by the high school students of Parkland who are standing up and speaking out about evil. A real, inspired Children’s Crusade has risen up before us, as has happened a number of times before, even in the history of the Christian Church. Children have changed the hearts and minds of people in past centuries, and would that it could happen again in our own time.
How fitting then that today we commemorate Frederick Douglass, the young liberator of the nineteenth century, in The Episcopal Church. The New Testament reading assigned for today speaks that “It was fitting that God, for whom and through whom all things exist, in bringing many children to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfected through suffering.”
And the collect for today speaks of “Frederick Douglass, whose impassioned and reasonable speech moved the hearts of a president and a people to a deeper obedience to Christ….to be outspoken on behalf of those in captivity and tribulation….”
Born into slavery in 1818, Frederick Douglass can be a model for the children of 2018, two hundred years later. As a child of eight he was separated from his mother and given away to his owner’s brother and sister-in-law. At the age of fourteen he had the experience of conversion to Christ in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, and their traditions of spiritual music sustained him to start a movement among young people for freedom. Even in his teens and twenties, the power of his clear use of the English language, like the power of the speeches of the Parkland teenagers, caused him to be sent on speaking tours throughout the North. The more he became known for his speaking the more threatened he was to be recaptured by slave-catchers and returned to the South, and he was protected by a circle of young African-American men and women who traveled with him. Finally, he sought refuge in New York City in the 1850’s where he founded his journal THE NORTH STAR. The 1850’s were perhaps the worst years of American history, but THE NORTH STAR “moved the hearts of a president and a people,” and it was a force toward Civil War and ultimately the abolition of slavery. I believe that the message of the Battle Hymn of the Republic, that God was acting through these events, to be true and Biblical. And, I believe God can act again.
Children have changed the hearts and minds of many in days gone by, and may it happen again. We must move from helplessness to something more.
This prayer was composed by Canon Cathy Dempesy-Sims of Western New York as we in my Diocese needed help to face another time in our nation not unlike the 1850’s and 1860’s in which Douglass was one of those who wrought an indelible transformation from slavery to freedom.
Let us pray:
“Good and gracious God we are at a loss.
We do not know how our children keep getting killed at school while we seem incapable of making the madness stop.
We ask your urging to prod us out of helplessness into action, out of hopelessness into faith, out of fear into courage.
We pray that we, together with our elected officials, will find a way out of partisanship and into unity, out of blame and into responsibility.
We pray all of this through the One who emptied himself in order to free all, even Jesus Christ our Lord, who together with the Holy Spirit lives and reigns with you, now and forever.
I invite the Diocese of Western New York to join me at the March for Our Lives, Buffalo on Saturday March 24 from 1:30 to 3:00 pm in Niagara Square.