Tough Words


Rev. Dr. Joyce Antila Phipps

Old First Church

August 27, 2017

Text: Luke 14: 25-35

      Jesus certainly had never practiced Dale Carnegie’s approach to winning friends and influencing people. This morning’s text begins with words setting a framework for this parable on planning ahead that are jarring, to say the least. “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.” So much for the traditional idea of family values. What kind of call to discipleship is that?

      But, not just in the early church when families were so divided that one would turn another into the authorities for being a Christian, but at the very founding of our Nation families were divided and not just on the question of independence from Great Britain. The time is the early 18th century and the place is the colony of Rhode’s Island.  

      Established by the Baptist Roger Williams in 1636 as “Providence Plantation” from land granted to him by the Narragansett tribe, the small colony grew quickly peopled by dissidents like Anne Hutchinson, William Coddington, and John Clarke. It struggled against the attempts of the Crown to bring it under the Massachusetts Bay Colony governed with a heavy hand by Edmund Andros, who ended up deposed as a result of England’s Glorious Revolution in 1688.  

      Newport and Providence became centers of shipping and of discord on the question of the slave trade. By the 1720s, ships were being outfitted to be part of the triangle trade of “Bibles, rums, and slaves,” sung of in the musical 1776. And it was James Brown who decided to use this trade to build a fortune against the pulpit importuning of his Baptist pastor father who called upon the people of Providence to “refuse Eror and Chuse Truth . . . residing in the man of God” rather than “Eror” em-bodied in “the merchant man.”

      James’ two sons Moses and John followed their father and became slavers, as the outfitters of such vessels were called. In the summer of 1764, Moses and John sailed with their Brother Joseph to Newport to supervise the preparations of the ship Sally, ready to put out for the east coast of Africa.  At that time, summer was the time to sail to Africa because of the winter storms that could easily destroy such ships.

      They had figured out that going to the coast of Guinea called the Windward Coast would be quicker and secure a greater profit because they would then get the first and best pick from the African chiefs who sold them the slaves.

      During this time, the Brown brothers also held slaves, not unusual for that time. Most were household slaves, unlike those working the plantations in the more rural south although some also worked in the country houses of the wealthy of New England. They were preached the Gospel and the more adept also learned how to read and write.  

       The ship’s log indicates that there were other slaving ships in the region but the ship’s captain, one Esek Hopkins, the younger brother of Stephen Hopkins, the governor of the colony from time to time and a signatory to the Declaration of Independence, bringing the far superior New England rum, managed in the end to secure a sufficient number of slaves to return. The return, however, was not as smooth as the departure.

       They left Africa in May with more than 100 slaves in the hold. Men were shackled and women carefully watched. Sailors on these slaving ships always had the constant fear of a slave revolt since the numbers in the hold outnumbered the men on the ships. On August 28, in response to such a revolt, Hopkins turned his guns on the slaves massed on the deck, killing at least 12; some others jumped overboard. By the time the Sally reached Antigua and St. John’s Bay, 88 of the original number had died, some from disease and others from starvation.

      Several more perished before the sales began.

Moses began to wonder what all this loss of life was about, and in the wake of his first wife’s death, several years later decided that losing her was God’s judgment on his slaving days, especially the loss of life on the Sally. Much like John Newton, it took him a while to get to this point. When he decided that the trade in human beings was against God’s law, however, he took his new found belief and split off from his family citing the very passage we read earlier.

       Quakers had also been an early presence in Rhode’s Island, sometimes called “Rogues’ Island” and the “sewer of New England” by Cotton Mather who hated its openness to all kinds of religions, including Quakers and Jews. And the much maligned group became the center of the anti-slavery movement in the colonies. It was not a sudden process, for men like Stephen Hopkins, a Quaker, also held slaves, but as the belief grew that every human being had the light of God in him or her, the obvious conclusion was that holding slaves was wrong.

       Moses’ first wife had been a Quaker and following her death he left his Baptist heritage and assumed both the plain black dress and beliefs of his newly found religion. And he formed the first abolitionist society in the colonies. His work to end the slave trade was the final straw and broke him off from the rest of his family–brothers and cousins–not to mention much of his community.

       His brother and even his Quaker compatriot Stephen Hopkins could not understand why he would remain neutral during the war for independence.  Moses had decided that in order to be a disciple he had to follow all that Jesus taught, including nonviolence and giving a great deal of his own property for the benefit of others. In contrast, his brother John, the merchant man excoriated by his grandfather, became one of the wealthiest persons in Rhode Island.

      The anti-slavery struggle became Moses’ all-consuming passion even as he knew that his brother was still sailing ships to secure human cargo.

       For a number of reasons not relevant to our text here although Rhode Island had been among the first to declare independence from the Crown, it was the last to ratify the Constitution. Moses was appalled at the three-fifths compromise and vowed that he would secure legislative action against the slave trade. This, of course, divided the two brothers even more.  

       There had been anti-slave trading legislation in Rhode Island but the laws passed by Providence and Warwick in 1652 had been largely ignored. In fact, by 1750 Rhode Island had the highest percentage of people who were enslaved, one in ten living in the colony were slaves. In 1783 Moses went to the new State General Assembly and had a law passed for the gradual eman-cipation of slaves. He worked with others in Connecticut as well to get that state to ban slavery. New Jersey was the last state in the North to abolish slavery in 1804.

       The federal legislation prohibiting the slave trade “from the United States to any foreign place or country” did not prohibit the importation of slaves; that did not come until 1804. And as Moses exulted in his victory, little did he realize that one of the first prosecuted would be his own brother John who continued his business even after promising Moses he would stop.

      Why this long narrative about two brothers who lived two hundred years ago? Because the admonition by Jesus right before the parable is one that has divided families over principle since ancient times into our own.

     Brothers and sisters, parents, and children, and even spouses have found themselves divided over what the Gospel demands. Into our own day, parents opposed the participation of their children in the last civil rights move-ment and some question their children about the current one. Siblings, too, have been sharply divided and remain so. We have one in New Jersey that makes the headlines occasionally, Brian and Steven Lonegan, the first who works for human and immigrant rights and his brother who wants to deport immigrants to preserve his idea of white culture.

       The Civil War was a terrible time, separating families. While Robert E. Lee felt obligated to fight for the South, others in his family supported the Union. The war in Vietnam also separated parents and children when young men refused the draft and their parents disowned them.

       The call to discipleship is a terrible call, forcing many of us to break with those we once loved and respected. We usually think of the word possessions as indicating wealth, but it actually means much more. It also means the possessions we have in our hearts, the loyalty to those we love when faced with a demand of the Gospel. Conflicting loyalties of the heart are far more trouble-some, much greater than mere money.

      How do we respond when faced with deep, really deep conflict between what we perceive as our call to be disciples and loyalty to friends and family?

       This passage in the Gospel tells us that there will be such conflict. It cannot simply be softened or glossed over. What do we say when we face the opposition of friends and family?

       We usually don’t think that we will have such conflicts. Although it is true we cannot select our family, we do select our friends. And, to be honest, most of the friends we select pretty much are in the same orbit of thoughts and feelings. Families, of course, are different. We’re fortunate when our families support our own thoughts, beliefs, identities, but that’s not always the case. Those differences that can lead to irretrievable break are always possible.

      It doesn’t have to be as broadly universal as the slave trade, or civil rights, or racism. It can also be as individual as sexual identity or a difference in how one reads Scripture. There are times when our old assumptions are chipped away and we find ourselves in a more than uncomfortable situation when we realize that a family member we know and love holds deep beliefs dia-metrically opposed to what we feel is the call of the Gospel.

      Sometimes we just have to do what we feel is right. When David Kaczynski realized his brother Ted was the unabomber, he felt he had to put aside his own brother and identify him as that person who had set off bombs for almost 20 years, killing three and injuring scores more. An extreme example, we tell ourselves, but still one that gives pause. We are grateful that we are not put in such a situation.

       Weighing choices such as these is extremely taxing to say the least, but each of us in our own way are faced with small decisions to live the Gospel every day. We come to God to ask for guidance when faced with our own moral dilemmas and struggles as we try to remain faithful to Jesus of Nazareth, our crucified and risen Lord.

Let us pray: You know our hearts, O God, and how we often find ourselves in conflict. Give us strength to be faithful; give us wisdom to be humble; and give us love to share with others. Amen.