The Drinking Gourd

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Mark 6:1-13

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There is a dark temptation in the assumption that the common hope of freedom is really in the hands of somebody else, someone other than you and me.  It is falsely reassuring to judge that the real big advances in liberty have been, are, or will be the work of somebody else.

Today, in this week of Independence Day, we want to remember that the history of our nation tells another story.  Our land was populated by people who saw the expanding circle of hope as their own responsibility.  With Reinhold Niebuhr, they defined love as taking responsibility.

For the week past, we have been as a family at home, in the farmlands of the Empire State, due west. On the Fourth of July we sat in a boat, three generations watching, as fireworks adorned the sky, north, south, east and west.  And then, the quiet, and the dark.  And then the firmament, the black sky dotted with bits of white.  And there, the ‘drinking gourd’, the Big Dipper, the constellation whose outer stars point to the North Star.  The way home, the way north, the way out, the way of hope.  Our forebears have left us some travel tips on the journey of hope.  Walk with me for a few minutes, due west.  Here is a Sunday morning summer vacation trip, free of charge, and lasting only twenty minutes, a remembrance of hope, perhaps hopeful for us, just now, in our own time of trial.  I am taking you back home with me this morning.  I want you to ‘meet the folks’.

Once a southern Methodist preacher paid this complement.  “I mean this, about your area.  The south is a different place than it was seventy years ago.  Totally different, and the difference comes from Rochester and Syracuse.  Two things have completed changed the southern jurisdiction:  civil rights and air conditioning!  Civil Rights from Rochester and Air Conditioning from Syracuse!” The story of air conditioning we leave for another day.

Our land has given rise to many women and men who did not leave freedom to somebody else.  Its price of eternal vigilance they provided in very daily, very personal, very local, very immediate ways.  In the same manner by which we might take for granted Niagara Falls, so close and so grand, we take these mighty stories for granted, saving stories of hope and freedom.

Due west is the land of Hiawatha (“who causes rivers to run”).  Such musical names adorn this geography:  Canandaigua, Tioghnioga, Onondaga, Tuscarora, Susquehanna.  The great native leader of the Iroquois showed in the 15thcentury the critical need for union, for space and time in which to live together.  His leadership was focused on common hope, on collegial relations, on counsel together, and so he is harbinger of all the examples of faith and freedom to come up along the Mohawk River and the Erie Canal, as Longfellow rhymed:

All your strength is in your union

All your weakness in discord

Therefore be at peace henceforward

And as brothers live together

This also is the land of Harriet Tubman.  You may want to visit her home in Auburn.  Her neighbor William Seward, Lincoln’s opponent and ally, also from Auburn, bought Alaska, considered at the time a folly, an “ice-box”.  Tubman’s grand niece, Janet Lauerson, was on our church staff for a time in Syracuse, after we both migrated down from the far north country, not far from the burial place of John Brown.  Brown’s body lies moldering under a ski lift near Lake Placid.  He and Gerrit Smith, founder of Peterboro, a village for freed slaves, a short 15 minutes north of our July 4 fireworks, were not ‘compatibalists’ regarding slavery.  As Lincoln would later say, they felt those who most affirmed slavery should start by trying it for themselves.  Peterboro, a small village of people of color, in our childhood, stood out, under its civil war statue, one hundred years later, as a beachhead of freedom.  Brown, Smith, Seward and others were the chorus before which Tubman could sing out the life of freedom, following the underground railroad.  Following the Drinking Gourd.Remember her wisdom: “When I found I had crossed that line (on her first escape from slavery, 1845), I looked at my hands to see if I was the same person.  There was such a glory over everything…I started with this idea in my head, ‘There’s two things I’ve got a right to…death or liberty’…’Twant me, ‘twas the Lord. I always told him, “I trust you. I don’t know where to go or what to do, but I expect you to lead me, and he always did.”

You will expect to hear something of Frederick Douglass, on this trek, who is buried in Rochester. His cemetery plot is across the street from Strong Memorial Hospital.  As one patient said one day, looking through the window, “it gives you something to think about”.  Douglass printed a journal, the “North Star” in Rochester, and so developed a voice for a new people in a new era.  80 years or so later, at Syracuse University, it was Professor Roland Wolseley who developed the first national program in Black Journalism, across the mid to late 20thcentury.  Wolseley was formed in the faith under the great preaching of the best Methodist preacher in the 20thcentury, Ernest Freemont Tittle, when Wolseley’s young wife was Tittle’s secretary.  Wolseley was our pastor parish chair, and measured sermons according to their likeness or otherwise to those of Tittle.  Wolseley lived around the corner from the Carrier Dome and therein a moving tribute to Ernie Davis, a kid from Elmira, who, a century after Douglass, and in the lifespan of Wolseley, gave tragic, courageous, and lasting embodiment to the hope of racial justice, harmony and integration.  He also played some football.   The voice of Douglass rings out against the harmonic background of Tittle, Wolseley, Davis and others.  In the North Star, Douglass wrote: “The whole history of the progress of human liberty shows that all concessions yet made to her august claims have been born of earnest struggle…If there is no struggle, there is no progress.  Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet deprecate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up ground, they want rain without thunder and lightening.  They want the ocean without the awful roar of its mighty waters.” Or maybe we should give the honor to his ally Sojourner Truth: “That…man…says women can’t have as many rights as man, cause Christ wasn’t a woman.  Well, where did your Christ come from?  From God and a woman.  Man had nothing to do with it!”

Susan B. Anthony did not leave the project of freedom to others.  I wonder what sort of dinner companion she might have been. Her constant consort with governors and senators across the Empire state made her an early Eleanor Roosevelt.  Think a bit about where we have traveled in hope under the Drinking Gourd.  Pause and slake some thirst by remembering real progress in history.  Our grandmother grew up in Cooperstown and graduated from Smith College four years before she had the right to vote.  Our mother was born only eight years after full suffrage.  Yet today, my wife is a musician and teacher, my sister is a corporate attorney, my other sister a teacher in medical care, and across a life in ministry my top colleagues have been female.  I scratch my head to imagine a world without their voices.  For instance,  Syracuse produced Betty Bone Schiess, one of the first women ordained to ministry in the Protestant Episcopal church.  One of the Philadelphia 11.  We study her in Introduction to Religion.  One rainy day when my daughter Emily was 13 and had the flu, we met Schiess, at the druggist.  The pharmacist called her name.  I clamored over to investigate whether it were she, the famous Schiess.  “Who wants to know?” she replied.  As she left, after good banter, she turned in her slicker and totting an umbrella, and looking at us, pronounced this blessing:  “One day you will be a Methodist bishop”.   At first I thought she was speaking to me. But no.  “Thank you very much”, my daughter replied.  Think of Schiess when you visit the birthplace of suffrage and feminism in Seneca Falls.  Susan B. Anthony’s witness stands out among the witness of so many others:  your grandmother, your mother, your sister, your wife, your daughter, your pastor, Betty Bone Schiess, and so many others. Who can forget her motto: “Failure is impossible” (on her 86thbirthday, 1906).  And her challenge: “Cautious, careful people, always casting about to preserve their reputation and social standing, never can bring about reform. Those who are really in earnest must be willing to be anything or nothing in the world’s estimation.”

Sometimes the freedom train derailed.  Exuberance can produce minor collisions.  When we get so focused on the speedometer that we forget to drive the car safely, then trouble arises.  Woodstock pales by comparison with the communal experiments in this region during the nineteenth century.   The Shaker Community and the Oneida Community perhaps can bracket our recollection. Under Mother Ann Lee, and starting in farm country near New Lebanon, in the Albany area, just across the Massachusetts line, the shaking Quakers firmly addressed the matter of sex.  They forbade it.  Like the desert fathers and Qumran communities of old, they took Paul at his word and meditated fully on 1 Corinthians 7.  Women and men came together only once a week, on Sunday morning, for ecstatic singing and dancing, hence their name.  This made church attendance somewhat more than casual liturgical observance.  However, the practice did not amplify the community itself:  infant baptisms lacked the requisite infant, and so were infrequent. Consequently the Shakers moved to Cleveland where they blended into Sherwood Anderson’s new Ohio, returning to the old ways of hard work, monogamy, and frugality.  In short, they became Methodists.  Hear, again, the Shaker tune:

Tis a gift to be loving

Tis the best gift of all

Like a gentle rain love falls to cover all

When we find ourselves in the place just right

‘Twill be in the valley of love and delight

 

When true, simplicity is gain

To bow and to bend we shan’t be ashamed

To turn, turn, will be our delight

‘Till by turning, turning, we come round right

Now, the Oneida’s. You may want to read again Without Sin, the history of their somewhat different experiment.  Just a few miles west of New Lebanon, the Oneida community set out to find heaven on earth, the end of all oppressions, and even the hope that, as John H Noyes read from Revelation, “death itself will be no more”.  Although I went to High School in Oneida I do not recall a full lesson on the matter of stirpiculture, the heart of the Oneida experiment. The Oneidas practiced “complex” marriage, in which every man was married to every woman and vice-versa. Procreation was planned, through a deliberated, committee process. (For those of you for whom this is more information than you require, I apologize) Three hundred in number at their greatest growth, the community produced bear traps and then silver, continuing, in some fashion, until just a few years ago.  Of all the utopian experiments, the Oneida project is one of the most fascinating.  However, after word got out about the doings and practices in Oneida, clergy in Syracuse banded together and ran them out of town, first to Canada and then to the Midwest. Noyes died on the trip, and the community disappeared, except on your dinner table, in wedding gifts, and in quality restaurants.  Let us be charitable and remember their hope, their love of freedom, as Noyes expressed it, even if we cannot affirm his methods: “I am free of sin and in a state of Perfection”

God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself.  The faith of Jesus Christ and the freedom of Jesus Christ we celebrate today. Our forebears were disinclined to leave the pursuit of freedom to others.  They seized freedom in their own hands and by their own lives.  They did not wait on others.  They did not pause to seek a secret blessing.  They did not wait until some ethereal sign emerged. They did not expect some magic insight.   And it is their hope of freedom that is our greatest remembrance of them.

They followed today’s dominical teaching of Mark 6. (Notice, today, that here Jesus fails in preaching but succeeds in pastoral leadership.)  When you journey toward hope, keep your friendships in good repair (6:7), travel light (6: 8), keep faith close which is the confidence that better things can come out of worse, waste no time (6:10), when rejected shake the dust from your feet and move on (6:11).   And keep the main thing the main thing:  Jesus Christ is come to guide us true north, guide us by the Drinking Gourd, guide us on the journey of hope, and we are not there yet. Of course not. It is hope that we seek.  And hope that is seen is not hope.  Who hopes for what he sees?  We hope for what we do not see, and wait for it with patience.  Real love is taking historical responsibility on the journey of hope.

 In earshot of our Lord’s teaching, in remembrance of the freedom and hope of our forebears, there is no avoiding a very personal question:  as a Christian man or woman, what are you going to do to continue to expand the circle of freedom in our time?  Where is your Polaris, your North Star, your Drinking Gourd? Where is your tribal council to create?  Where is your slavery to escape?  Where is your North Star to publish?  Where is your franchise to find?  Where is your libertinism to avoid?  Where is your hope to share?  Are you to celebrate independence by singing and smiling only?  Or will you lift a hand?

From the rear of Marsh Chapel, if the windows could speak, you would hear our 16thPresident, himself a beacon of hope:

(Gettysburg Address, recited)

May it be so:

Follow the drinking gourd,

Follow the drinking gourd,

For the old man is a-waiting for to carry you to freedom,

Follow the drinking gourd.

Left foot, peg foot, traveling on,

Follow the drinking gourd.

The Reverend Doctor, Robert Allan Hill, Dean.

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