August 25th (the day of the sermon) was a day of commemoration for the first “20 and odd” enslaved Africans brought to America 400 years ago. They began to establish the English Colony at Point Comfort, Virginia. Several were then transported to establish and build the Jamestown Colony. To commemorate African ancestors and their descendants who have had a large share in building what became the United States, bells will ring across the nation. Trinity Church bells rang for four minutes, one minute for each 100 years. This sermon was inspired by the texts for the day and this special act of Commemoration.
Sermon preached at Trinity Church, Newport RI
Sunday August 25th 2019
The Reverend Alan Neale
“Free Birds or Caged?”
A few words from the poem Caged Bird by Maya Angelou
The free bird thinks of another breeze… and the trade winds soft through the sighing trees
And the big fat worms waiting on a dawn-bright lawn… and he names the sky his own
But a caged bird stands on the grave of dreams… his shadow shouts on a nightmare scream
His wings are clipped and his feet are tied… so he opens his throat to sing
The caged bird sings with a fearful trill… of things unknown but longed for still
And his tune is heard on the distant hill… for the caged bird sings of freedom.
Here Maya Angelou describes poignantly and perfectly the two societies of caged and free, of those who experience de facto awful fear and those who lives are filled with awesome wonder.
This is the dichotomy well expressed in our epistle Hebrews 12 – the awfulness of Mount Sinai that dared not even be touched and the awesomeness of Mount Zion, the heavenly Jerusalem. The scene around the first is ominous for the eye and ear with burning fire, darkness, gloom, windstorm and noise of trumpets. The scene around the second is truly winsome with angelic choir, warm community, and the joy of forgiveness and acceptance.
I think that much of our lives as individuals, families or nations is spent in this dichotomy, either submerged by captivity or enhanced by freedom. We are at our best as we work for freedom and at our worst as we settle for captivity within ourselves and for others.
For eighteen years the woman in Luke’s Gospel 13 had been crippled, “bent over and quite unable to stand up straight”. But her captivity was soon to end as with a word Jesus calls her to him and announces, “Woman you are set free.”
This is indeed the ministry constantly, avowedly of our Lord Jesus. The same Lord Jesus who at the beginning of his ministry proclaims “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release for the captives…” Luke 4:18.
For any confined by resentment, fear, shame, anger… Jesus stands before them, maybe even some of us, and aches and yearns to set them, set us free.
When the doleful prophet Jeremiah admits his sense of inadequacy (a damning captivity often imposed upon us and, so wretched, at times accepted by us as true) the Lord propels him from captivity to freedom. This dynamic brings to mind the athlete Joe Namath who once said, “Until I was 13, I thought my name was ‘shut up’).
Listen to this exchange (Jeremiah 1:6-8) “6 Then I said, “Ah, Lord GOD! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.” 7 But the LORD said to me, “Do not say, ‘I am only a boy’; 8 Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, says the LORD.”
Friends, this transition from fear to courage, from bondage to emancipation is most particularly experienced and most securely possessed as we give ourselves to worship. Listen to these words from Hebrews 12:28 “28 Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us give thanks, by which we offer to God an acceptable worship with reverence and awe; 29 for indeed our God is a consuming fire.” It is our best efforts at worship that will secure for us freedom and allow the consuming fire of God to wrestle dross and trash from our lives. It is this authentic worship that both comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable; it is this authentic worship of which Abp. Donald Coggan when he said, “We are here to feed the sheep not entertain the goats.” Bible commentator Bryan Whitfield writes, “The goal of our worship is not entertainment, nor do we consume worship as a commodity. To worship God is to encounter God, to hear God’s voice, to be transformed. True worship does not leave us as we are, at ease with illusions of our own power and significance. Rather, it makes us aware of the impermanence of all human lives and institutions as we bow in awe before the permanence, might and splendor of our God… who is a consuming fire.”
Today, at Noon, the nation marks 400 years since the arrival at Point Comfort in Virginia of “20 and odd” captive Africans. It was their forced labor which helped establish the first permanent English colony in North America. From their landing at Point Comfort several were transported to historic Jamestown. To commemorate African ancestors and their descendants who have had a large share in building what became the United States, bells will ring across the nation. Seven churches on Aquidneck Island will participate… chiming will last four minutes, one minute for each one hundred years.
In today’s Gospel Jesus vigorously names the leaders as “hypocrites” for the shameful way they offered freedom selectively – generously affording it to their animals and inhumanely refusing it to the woman.
The leaders, Luke tells us, were put to shame; the rest rejoicing at the wonderful things Jesus was doing.
Lord, we want to be redeemed from shame and heartily rejoice at your commission… “to set the captives free.”
The Rev. Alan Neale