Who Do We Trust at a Time Like This?
This year’s celebration of our neighbors who celebrate God in myriad ways will feature keynote speaker Dr. James Lawrence, Dean of the Center for Swedenborgian Studies of the Graduate Theological Union and for former pastor of the SF Swedenborgian “Wedding” Church in Pacific Heights. Opening ritual led by Cantor Sharon Bernstein of Congregation Sha’ar Zahav.
To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul.
O my God, in you I trust;
do not let me be put to shame;
do not let my enemies exult over me.
Do not let those who wait for you be put to shame;
let them be ashamed who are wantonly treacherous.
Make me to know your ways, O Lord;
teach me your paths.
Lead me in your truth, and teach me,
for you are the God of my salvation;
for you I wait all day long.
Be mindful of your mercy, O Lord, and of your steadfast love,
for they have been from of old.
Do not remember the sins of my youth or my transgressions;
according to your steadfast love remember me,
for your goodness’ sake, O Lord!
Good and upright is the Lord;
therefore he instructs sinners in the way.
He leads the humble in what is right,
and teaches the humble his way.
A PDF of the sermon as distributed at Calvary is available for download and printing.
It is an honor to speak to the Calvary Presbyterian congregation on interfaith Sunday. I served for 13 years at the Swedenborgian Church just six blocks west of Calvary Prez. The picture behind me is of the sanctuary in that church, one of the handful of nationally landmarked houses of worship in San Francisco, the first public building in style of architecture known as Bay Region Tradition or California Arts and Crafts.
Church of the New Jerusalem is the incorporated name of the church as well as the name that was on the sign out front for the first seven decades after opening in 1895. In the mid-Sixties, however, the congregation adopted the public branding of the Swedenborgian Church, which is the typical name historians use for the movement that stems from eighteenth-century scientist and religious reformer Emanuel Swedenborg. Swedenborg considered himself to be a part of the Reformed tradition—in his day the two broad Reformation rivers of Lutheranism and Calvinism still flowed together under the banner of the Reformed tradition. Swedenborg lived and died as a Swedish Lutheran, but at the same time he was harshly critical of his church for being too weak on deed compared to creed, and as for creed, he had a few things to say about that, too. He wrote a lot of books aiming to change people’s minds and hearts about some things, and he passed away without ever mentioning a new ecclesiastical organization. But his enthusiasts grew rapidly in England, and they felt ignored in their various denominations, and finally in 1787 quite a number separated from Anglican, Methodist, Congregationalist, Baptist, and even Presbyterian churches to form a new church, which from England spread to the United States by 1795 and today exists in more than a dozen countries.
Despite the big arguments of doctrine that characterized nineteenth-century American Christianity with scads of schisms among the major Protestant denominations—arguments in which Swedenborgians participated with gusto—we nevertheless consider ourselves to be emphatically ecumenical and interfaith—in fact, it was a Swedenborgian who conceived of and presided at the first interfaith event in the history of religions, which was the Parliament of the World’s Religion at the 1893 World Columbian Exposition in Chicago, and we treasure being since 1966 one of the member communions of the National Council of Churches of Christ—and we never miss a session.
When Rev. Victor Floyd, a former student of mine, reached out to me to consider being this year’s preacher on interfaith Sunday, he laid down the challenge of offering a sermon that might inspire the congregation to action through the intersectionality of Swedenborg, the Reformed Tradition, and Social Justice in 2020—all in less than 15 minutes! So, I’ve taken care of the intersectionality of Swedenborg and the Reformed tradition and also of interfaith commitments, but what about a call to action for social justice in such a moment as we’re experiencing today in America?
Our moment now feels the most pitched since the Sixties and the civil rights protests. The Viet Nam War is over, but the issues of racism remain painfully present. Despite the long expanse of time since the Emancipation Proclamation, we have not adequately healed from the horrific violence the white race exacted on the black race in American slavery, and we have not achieved an adequate system of justice that treats all social locations the same.
So I do have a challenge for my Presbyterian sisters and brothers about all of this, a challenge as Christians, and it has to do with that slavery history, with Christian repentance, and with Christian courage that seeks the truth that can yet set us free.
I experienced an awakening about all of this while preparing for an academic conference a few years ago on the history of slavery spending a year and a half researching “where were Christians really on the slavery issue in ante-bellum America?” Because it was clear that in the three peaks of anti-slavery work that started in the period of the war for independence based partly on a more egalitarian vision of society, then again with the Second Great Awakening starting in the early 1820s, and thirdly during the Civil War itself—in these three peaks of anti-slavery work the religious voice was the prevalent one only in the middle peak during the Second Great Awakening. Political visionaries dominated the other two peak phases, and I wanted to explore why Christians did not lead the way.
Though all the major denominations became a part of the study, I focused especially on my tradition. I already knew many Swedenborgian websites were over-claiming how progressive the church was on slavery before the Emancipation Proclamation, and I soon learned that this tendency to dramatically dress up the history was shared virtually across the board with American Christian groups.
The truth as it was excavated had a big impact on me—partly due to feeling implicated by association because I’m a voice today in that tradition and especially because the real truth is disturbing. I’m one of those who feel the past is alive and that you can walk into it and be there in a real sense, and I found the truth to be illuminating in new ways where we are as a country today.
The truth is that American Swedenborgianism did hold within its communal worlds a few ardent anti-slavery and abolitionist voices but the substantial majority were passive and fell into soft forms of pro-slavery based on the idea that divine providence was in control or soft forms of anti-slavery who did not believe the time had come to overturn the social order. Scouring thousands of sermons, pamphlets, articles, reports, and personal correspondence up through the end of the American Civil War, the real record bares a predominant silence on slavery up to 1850 followed by a mixed and tepid conversation leading all the way up to the outbreak of war in 1861. Even after the war commenced when most American religious leaders and groups in the North finally swung into strong anti-slavery stands, Swedenborgians as a body in the North waited until 1864 to do so formally.
The awakening I experienced began with sadness and grief and finally shame I felt for the complex harmfulness of my forebears. And it raised plaintively the question, “How will future students of our current present tense characterize me and us in how we’re acting out our Christian faith in the world we inhabit?
I’ve been able to publish a fine-grained history that spells out the truth that is in the real record, and Jim Winkler, the General Secretary and President of the National Council of Churches of Christ, saw one of my articles on my truth-telling of Swedenborgian history on slavery and racism in America, and he reached out to me to encourage me to help this activity of truth-revealing continue. The National Council of Churches a few years ago created the ACT Now “Truth and Racial Justice Initiative.” The ACT acronym for ACT Now stands for “awaken, confront, transform.” Both Winkler and the director of the initiative agreed that they were unaware of any of the other member communions of the NCC having done such a thorough and honest reckoning of where their denomination was on the slavery issue in ante-bellum America.
Here’s the spiritual vision for such truth-seeking and truth-telling: there is something healing about a disturbing truth when it is identified, repented of, and put into reformation action. Something in a deep anxiety set below the surface is touched, and the atmosphere is changed and feelings are freed up from a former grip that they scarcely knew was there in that particular kind of way? Haven’t we all experienced something of this in our own lives—how something truthful about a situation comes to the fore and is acknowledged in a confessional way, and how the action changes the foundations of feelings and relationships? How powerful is repenting and asking forgiveness! Not always but very often the receiver of the repentant gesture is changed, too.
I believe there is still some history to be acknowledged. Yes, there is the complaint that it has been talked about too much. But, beloved, it still hasn’t gone deeply enough, and the evidence is on our streets. There’s still some truth to hit the light of day and some healing forgiveness to be sought—a forgiveness that can reach deeply when the honesty and integrity is felt by those still harmed.
My challenge is for Presbyterians to join in this initiative more fully with the spiritual conviction that laying bare the harm and complicity is important for both sides. The truth will be complex and not simple because there are so many so many actors in Presbyterian history and so many contexts, and it was a tradition that split along sectional lines in many ways. But I can promise this: most will wish that picture will look better today. It raises the question of how people in our own same faith not very many generations ago could have sinned on such a colossal scale. I can testify that having the patience and resolve to name religious complicity is a healing journey for all participants.
The closing worship song this morning is “God Leadeth Me” whose lyrics were composed by a young seminary graduate during the second year of the Civil War when things were looking very bad for the North. His name is Joseph Gilmore, a Northern Baptist who during seminary had worked on preaching out of the 23rd psalm a few times, and he was doing summer pulpit supply before he had his first charge. This time as he meditated on the psalm he became arrested by the phrase “God leadeth me.” He couldn’t get past that. That’s what he preached about: being led by God toward still waters even during the most horrific times. It is in this God we must trust. After preaching that hot summer day, he scribbled out these four verses in a half-hour.
How much work we still have to do. How hard it is to get things really right. We need to know where to put our trust so that we will be properly led, and then find the courage so that we will be actually led.