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Because You Were Strangers

Deuteronomy 10.12-22

Playing piano was Shane’s life. Not only did he practice hours each day, but he surrounded himself with people who loved to play and listen to piano music. Even at his high school in the small town where he grew up, a place not known for collecting piano-lovers, he and his friends ate together at lunch, sharing notes about pieces and talking about long-dead composers.

Perhaps it does not come to a surprise that this did not place him at the top of the heap in terms of popularity in his school. In fact, he and his buddies were picked on, pushed around, and made fun of constantly. They were called the Ivories – both for their love of piano and their rather pasty white complexion. It was not a term of pride, and Shane winced every time he heard the word.

But everything changed one Thanksgiving, when he was forced to play a pick up game of football with his cousins and uncles, and he was relegated to place-holder as his bigger cousins practiced kicking field goals. His uncle, who was a coach on the football team at the school, noticed something however. He was good. Really good. It seems that long arms and strong fingers were good for something other than playing piano. And before he knew it, he was the starting placeholder on the team. And when he scored a winning touchdown on a trick play at homecoming, he was all of a sudden the school hero.

Life changed quickly for Shane. Instead of hanging out with the Ivories, he found himself hanging out more with the cool kids on the football team. He got more positive attention than he ever had before, and he loved it. Until one day at lunch, when he found himself at a crossroads. Sitting with the team, he saw some of the other team members laughing at the table where the Ivories sat.  Shane felt torn up inside. Once the victim, he was now in a place of relative protection. Once the “little guy,” he was now in a place to make a difference for the other “little guy.” And, like just about every teen movie made in the 1980’s, Shane had a decision to make. Would he join the power players and make fun of the un-cool kids, or would he remember his past and his struggles, and choose to make a difference?  What would he do?  What would you do?
Anne Hutchinson sat before the Governor and the General Court awaiting her sentence. As she sat shackled to the hard wooden chair, making eye contact with members of the Court as they deliberated, her mind wandered to the events of the last few years. She had known many of the members of the court back in England, where they all suffered at the hands of the officials of the Church of England. They and their fellow Puritans had some significant theological differences from the ruling religious and government leaders, and it led to persecution and oppression of their freedoms. So, together, they banded together and left for the colonies in America. They wanted a place where they could practice their faith the way that they wanted, believe what they wanted, and where the government and the faith were not tied in unhealthy and abusive ways. Anne packed up her husband and eleven children and all the possessions that they could take on the ship and headed across the ocean to start a new life. Once they arrived, Anne was excited for what would come next. Finally able to live in religious freedom, they would grow and flourish in the ways that God had intended.

But things did not go as planned for Anne. Pretty quickly, she realized that Massachusetts was not going to be the paradise that she had imagined. She had three strikes against her. One, she was a woman. Not a good start in that time in place. Two, she was outspoken. Historian Ray Hiner rightly called her an “uppity woman.” In other words, she didn’t keep her mouth shut very well. But this outspoken woman was incredibly popular, and women flocked to her Bible studies to hear her speak. But the kicker was number three: she disagreed with the Puritan leadership theologically. Anne was an outspoken in her views of “interiority.” She believed and taught that each person had the opportunity to have a personal relationship with God, and that they answered to God and God alone. She had the audacity to believe that God spoke to every Christian. But the Puritan party line was that God demonstrated himself through works, and if you didn’t look like a Christian and act like a Christian and talk like a Christian, at least by defined by the Puritan leaders, then you weren’t one.

And so this interesting thing happened. In this place of religious tolerance in America, the Puritan leadership began practicing a pretty strict form of intolerance. Now that they were in charge, the leaders became more and more heavy-handed in their expectations, in their insistence of the ways that church and state should be one. If you didn’t look like a Christian and act like a Christian and talk like a Christian, at least by their definition, then you were subject to the powers that be. In short, now that they were free of the religious persecution of the Church of England, they quickly embraced a religious persecution of their own making.

Thus, in 1637, Anne Hutchinson found herself on the wrong end of the General Court as they discussed her fate. As the governor stood up to deliver his verdict, he found himself at a crossroads. Once the victim, he was now in a place of relative protection. Once the “little guy,” he was now in a place to make a difference for the other “little guy.” Would he protect Anne’s right to preach and teach whatever she wanted, or would he demand that she follow the party line or suffer the consequences? The story did not end well for Anne. The General Court ruled against Anne, and banished her from Massachusetts. She and her family were forced to become squatters on Indian land in New York. And in one of the skirmishes that followed, she and her family were killed. And her voice was finally silenced for good.
Religious freedom is perhaps the greatest of our Baptist principles. Over these last weeks, I have talked about several of these principles. Soul freedom – the ability to approach God on our own terms in personal relationship. Baptism freedom – symbolizing that relationship with an act that is the decision of a believer and not an infant or child. Bible freedom – the ability for each of us to open the Scriptures and listen to the Spirit’s prompting on our hearts and not just wait until the person in charge tells us what it means. And congregational freedom – recognizing that Baptists are profoundly married to this idea that we are in this together: we are all priests to each other in profound ways.

I call them Baptist principles, because I hesitate to call them Baptist distinctives as some might. Now, once upon a time, they were distinctive. Once upon a time, it was the Baptists and Baptists alone who fought for these ideas. Baptists had their babies taken away from them because they refused to baptize them as infants. Baptists were ridiculed for not having proper “priests” and clergy who lorded their power over their subjects. Baptists were drowned in twisted punishment because they dared to immerse one another when that was considered a minority practice. Baptists – and almost-Baptists like Anne Hutchinson – were banished or tortured or killed for having the audacity to say that each of us had soul freedom to approach God in personal relationship, instead of having to have our faith managed by religious and political professionals.

But today, these ideas are hardly distinctive. Your average Disciples of Christ member is just as likely to believe in the power of church autonomy as Baptists do. Your average Lutheran – who would have once been appalled at the lengths to which Baptists interpreted the idea of priesthood of all believers – would now be pretty close to the place that most Baptists are today in recognizing the importance of shared priesthood. And I still remember the day in Presbyterian seminary when a class full of up-and-coming Presbyterian pastors admitted – almost to a person – that they thought that they idea of believer’s baptism is really more Scriptural and logical than infant baptism anyway.

Now, some of these denominations are still not as radical in their institutional and outspoken commitment to these ideas, but for the most part, there are more similarities than true distinctives today. In other words, we won. The Baptists won. What was once our distinctive has now become the norm:
• We won because of Baptists like Thomas Helwys, one of the guys that our Smyth and Helwys SS curriculum is named after, who stood up to King James and told him that he had no right to govern in matters of faith. He lost – he spent the rest of his life in prison. But in the long run, because of his words, we won.
• We won because of Baptists like Roger Williams, the guy for whom our gym is named after, and near-Baptists like Anne Hutchinson. Roger Williams created Rhode Island as a place with no state religion (a unheard-of concept at the time) and true religious freedom.
• We won because of Baptists like John Leland and Issac Backus, who helped to convince James Madison that religious liberty must be a part of the new Bill of Rights he was creating.
• We won because of Baptists who had a significant voice in the Great Awakenings and helped to form the religious culture of the last 200 years.
These Baptist ideals have become the norm in our society. Now, historians might argue about whether Baptists led and changed all of these faith ideas, or simply rode the wave of ideas that were changing anyway, the point is that these Baptist principles are pretty well-received throughout our culture and beyond. We won. No longer the victims, we have become the ones with the influence and impact.

But some of us have lost our way. Given the opportunity to sit at the cool kids table, we have turned our backs on those who are still victimized and oppressed. Following in the footsteps of the Puritans and others, we have failed to fight for religious tolerance as soon as we became safe from religious intolerance. Offered the opportunity to step into the seat of power, we have forgotten what it is like to be powerless at the mercy of those in that seat.

See, it turns out that often times, when people talk about the importance of religious freedom, they mean religious freedom for them. When they talk about separation of church and state, they mean to separate the state and other churches. Meanwhile, if the political powers are in the same corner as their church, their faith, their ideology, then that’s all well and good. And so, for the Puritans, what that meant was that they were big proponents of religious freedom, until they got it, and then they didn’t like it so much.

And for certain Baptists, as soon as they became the dominant faith of the culture, religious freedom has become less important, or even anathema. I can’t count how many times a day I see a Facebook post or blog explaining how we need to give teachers the right to lead students in state-sanctioned prayers at school. Or use state funds for vouchers for religious charter schools. Or allow the government to tell people what religious clothing they can wear. And many of these folks are Baptists, arguing for this marriage of church and state! Descendents of a legacy of those who fought and died to make sure that the government could not govern the faith of its people, they now fail to provide that separation for others.

What I don’t see is Baptists making those kinds of arguments in Utah. Or Haiti. Or Saudi Arabia. Places where they are still the religious minority. Where the marriage of church and state has disastrous implications for their faith and their lives. You only hear these arguments in safe Baptist places, where a safe Baptist culture dominates, where it becomes easy to let religious authority and political authority drift together and discrimination and oppression of the minority faith creep in. Because you are not the minority in question.

I’ll admit that some of you got this sermon already last Wednesday night. In what I thought was an appropriate final event as our interim Associate Pastor, Pastor Joe led a presentation on religious freedom and his work with the Baptist Joint Committee. Since I have known him, Joe has been passionate about this topic, and his passion showed last Wednesday night. And in the line of the night, Joe proclaimed that whenever the state and the church begin to become too close, both suffer. It usually ends poorly for the state. And it always ends horribly for the church.

That’s Baptist. That is why Joe and others with the Baptist Joint Committee fight for the rights of Muslims, and Sihks, and Hindus, and atheists. Not because they share the same theology. But because they share the same history. The history of a minority faith surrounded by a majority culture. And because they have chosen not to forget.

Today’s passage in Deuteronomy makes this command from God a clear one. It was likely written on the back end of the Exile of the Israelites. The terror of losing their land and their Temple to an oppressive government was still fresh in their minds. In that context, the writer of Deuteronomy reminds the people of where they came from. “You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” In other words, the way you treat those who come into your land as a minority should have a direct correlation to your memory of how hard it was for you to do the same. The way we treat those outside of power in our world is directly related to how clearly we remember when we were in the same place. How easy it is to forget.

How easy it was for the Israelites to forget how hard it was to come into a place where they were the minority!

How easy it was for the Puritan leaders in Anne Hutchinson’s day to forget how hard it was to suffer at the hands of the Church, as soon as they became the ones in charge!

How easy it was for Shane to forget the pain and embarrassment of the Ivories, once he was in the relative protection of the football table.

Today, our decision is pretty clear. We won. Once the victim, we are now in a place of relative protection. Once the “little guy,” we are now in a place to make a difference for the other “little guy.” Once the minority, we are no longer. And as you stare across the cafeteria at those who were once in your place, the cry rings out: What will you do?

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