May the Holy Spirit guide and strengthen us, that in this and in all things, we may do God’s will in the service of the Kingdom of his Christ. Amen.
Today we remember and acknowledge Cornelius Hill. He was ordained a deacon in 1895 and priest in 1903. Our lectionary guides tell us that he was:
An interpreter for Episcopal Services to the Oneida
Successfully resisted government attempts to move the nation further west
In case you don’t know or remember, while we think of the Oneida as a Wisconsin nation with a thriving gambling business, the Oneida are native to New York and were forcefully removed to Wisconsin in 1821.
It says “His wisdom and sanctity are still revered by the Oneida.”
Now, I read as much as I could find about Cornelius Hill. I read up on my Oneida history. I read biographical material and excerpts from newspaper accounts and church documents. He was a truly faithful man, a strong man, a courageous one and very intelligent one.
But, at the risk of incurring the wrath of the larger church: he was not an exceptional one. So I have to wonder how he made it into the canon of the church. How he got a Feast day and a number of “shrines” built in his honor.
A couple of weeks ago, I had the privilege of taking six middle schools from St. James Jackson, Mississippi on an urban mission trip. We took food and supplies to a location where the Night Ministry was working. The night ministry offers solace, support, food, medical supplies and as much help as they can, to people living in abject poverty, in crime ridden neighborhoods, with addiction, abuse and in the shadows of our society. I drove these children from a relatively elite section of Jackson Mississippi to 111th and State, to one of the most threatened areas of our City. At 10PM. In the summer. Over the course of the night we had several conversations that started with, “Why do y’all have fireworks in the middle of June, Miss Shay?” and ended with “What do you mean, gunfire?”
Now, we have in our culture this sort of new word, it’s not one I particularly like. The word is “Othering.” Othering. You already don’t like it, right? It is defined as “the social and/or psychological ways in which one group excludes or marginalizes another group.” When we declare a person or group to be “other” we stress what it is about them that is different from us. We create a binary: the pernicious but ever present binary: “us” and “them.” And is so doing we imply that one is superior and the other inferior, one is normal and one is exotic. One is right and one is wrong. We do this with stereotypes in our culture and media, we do it by ghettoizing our cities, and we do it and have done it in the church for millennia when we dismiss indigenous religious practice and force our language of faith, our means of worship, our language of praise, on any culture already in touch with the Holy One, the God of Creation. We in the church are so good at it that we have wiped out dozens of indigenous religions like extinct animals. And, because we are still, always and ever at work making excuses, as soon as we identified it, we white washed it with a nice emotionally neutral term: coercive evangelism. We were killing people to bring them to the right faith of God – first peoples, Muslims, Jews, Catholics, Moari, Koreans – we punished them until they did it our way, frequently at the cost of their cultures, of their livelihoods, sometimes at the cost of their lives. For Centuries. And still today. And what do we call this institutional, historical and pervasive tragedy? “Othering.”
On the way down to 111th and State, the kids in the car talked about two things: the glamor and wealth of their Winnetka hosts. They used words like “rich” and “white” and “safe” and “beautiful.” They all want to live here when they grow up. Then, other the other hand, they talked about who the people were who they were going to see at the Night Ministry site. Here they used words like “poor person” and “prostitute” and “addict” and “homeless” and “ex-con.” There was implicit in their speech a kind of cultural Calvinism that is imbedded in our society.
Calvinism is a system of belief developed at the beginning of the Protestant Reformation and articulated most popularly by John Calvin. We in the Episcopal Church don’t buy it much, but it is pervasive in our culture. In our culture, Calvinism looks like this: if you follow the rules of our culture, you will be successful and you will be rewarded. But if you are poor and suffering, in our culture, then it must mean you are doing something wrong. If you are thin and pretty, you must be eating and exercising, if you are fat or sick, you must be lazy and a Big Mac fan. If you are wealthy and living in Winnetka, it’s because you earned it with hard work and good genes. If you are poor and living on the street you must be one of those things I listed above: an ex-con, a drunk, a sinner of some kind.
But we don’t believe that about our God, do we? We don’t believe that God only saves those who worship the right way, who keep the Ten Commandments exactly, who never sin or never stumble or have no faults. No, our God is a God of mercy. Our God is a God of unconditional love. We can -and do- get up every morning and sin like heck all the way through the day and at the end of it God forgives us. God hopes we’ll try. God is waiting for us to aspire to a better life. God is thrilled when we do. But never, ever does God use God’s grace as a reward.
About the same time as John Calvin came up with his commerce of Salvation, a good Episcopalian named John Wesley articulated the idea of “prevenient grace.” We all have in us a little box of potential. It resides in our bodies at the cellular level and inside that box is the grace of God. It is the potential to be in community with God, it is the potential to accept God as the guiding light of our lives. We all have it in us. Every one of us. We have to use our free will to let it out. We don’t earn it, God gives it. Freely. From the moment of our creation. Forever.
That’s the kind of God we believe in, one who loves us completely, already and forever, not the kind who gives grace as a gold star for good behavior.
So if we don’t accept that God works that way, why do we accept that society does?
Why is it okay to believe that we are we and they are them and that is that?
Because we are afraid of the reality that there is nothing between us and them. We work hard. They work hard. We strive and sin and strive. They strive and sin and strive. We believe and they believe.
What sets up apart is the luck of birth. The privilege of healthcare and nutrition. The advantages of education, shelter and a nation at peace.
These factors that set us apart … they are man made. God has nothing to do with abject poverty. What separates “us” from “them” … is us.
You see, what I learned from those kids in their experience with the Night Ministry, what I learned, what I remember and what I hope none of us EVER forget, is that those words they were using, “convict,” “addict,” “prostitute,” “wealthy,” “educated” or “black” or “brown.” Those are earthly labels. God doesn’t see those folks as convicts and homeless people. God sees them as children. We are all God’s children. We are all made in God’s image. And we are all brothers and sisters in Christ.
We put up those walls between “us” and “them.” We created that binary. Because here’s a tip about our Trinitarian God – there are no binaries in Kingdom. There is no “us” and “them.” The Kingdom is a spectrum. The Kingdom is a rainbow. The Kingdom is a bridge between Tower Road and Sheridan and 111th and State.
So, here we are, honoring Cornelius Hill, a great leader among Oneida, a great man among all men. And we should honor him because a life lead in Christ, any life lead in and serving Christ, is worth a feast day, for sure.
But as we celebrate him today, let us take a moment to be grateful for whatever lessons we have learned about ourselves and our Creator that led us to lift up Cornelius Hill. And let us pray for more courage, more faith and more wisdom so that the day will come in our lifetimes, when earthly labels fall away and we are all free to realize our own prevenient grace.
Before I close, I would like to tell you this one thing. This sermon is, like all sermons, a composite of things I read, talked about with friends and prayed about … but this sermon in particular owes its essence to a man called “Chilly Willy” who gave it in his own terms to the children I took to his neighborhood one night a few weeks ago. He said, “We all get up every day and try and fail and God forgives us. All we have to do is ask.”