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Taking Sides

Rev. Karen McArthur
Sun, Jul 03

Texts: 2 Kings 5:1-14; Luke 10:1-11

I have always loved this holiday weekend. As a child, I organized neighborhood parades, with the children decorating bicycles and wagons with red, white and blue crepe paper and riding around the block. When I was five years old, I remember pulling my newborn cousin in a decorated wagon; with her June 7th birthday, she would have been only four weeks old! Over the years, I’ve marched in penny whistle parades, picnicked, and enjoyed fireworks displays.

And each year on this Sunday, we’re given the chance to reflect on what it means to be a Christian in America. Each year, as our world changes, and our relationships ebb and flow, and we gain experiences directly and indirectly, our reflections change. This year is no exception. As news of terrorist attacks and violence in Turkey and Bangladesh shatter our beautiful summer days once again, we are jolted out of our complacency. Elie Wiesel, who died yesterday, once said, “We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor.” (Elie Wiesel (1928-2016), Nobel Acceptance Speech, December 10, 1986) How do we marshal the courage we need to break our silence and find new answers to life’s injustices?

Some of you know that I had the opportunity to travel to England in May with a delegation of fifteen people from my town of Dartmouth, Massachusetts to Dartmouth, Devon, along the southwest coast of England. I had never traveled overseas before, so it was an adventure for me – although certainly very tame and safe, as far as adventures go. It was nice to know that our own Frances Whistler was there on the other side in Devon – Frances lived in Boston for five years, working at BU, and was an active and cherished member of our congregation and the stewardship committee while she was here. I managed to decipher the double-decker bus schedule and rode along the narrow winding lanes to have a delightful dinner with Frances at a pub in Paignton. She sends her love to all!

The group from Dartmouth, Massachusetts traveled to Dartmouth, Devon to celebrate the signing of a Sister City agreement at a gala dinner that also marked the beginning of the Mayflower 400 UK celebration. Now, at first I found that a bit odd… that the British were celebrating the anniversary of the sailing of the Mayflower. Four hundred years ago, they were probably glad to get rid of the troublemaking non-conformists! And then, after 150 years of being England on both sides of the Atlantic, there was that whole Revolution thing… our own version of Brexit, 1776 style. Independence seems like a good idea to us now, on the other side of history, but in the midst of the turmoil, it was bewildering for all involved. Oppression is terrifying, but inaction, as Elie Wiesel said so eloquently, encourages the tormentor. Four hundred years later, well after the initial split, we and England are best of friends, and they have a whole website celebrating their part in launching this nation of ours, with a committee of the five seaport towns – one in Holland and four in England -- that played a role in the launch of the Mayflower and our Massachusetts and American history.

Since I grew up in the congregational church, I have long known parts of the story of the Pilgrims and the Puritans who crossed the ocean to escape the Church of England. But I wasn’t so aware of some of the interesting details, and I didn’t find out until after I was studying at Harvard Divinity School that I was descended from a number of them. So, whether this is the story of your spiritual ancestors of faith, or your genetic ancestors, the story of the Puritans and the Separatists is our story.

First Church here in Cambridge was gathered by English Puritans who arrived in Boston and Newtowne in large numbers in what historians call the “Great Migration.” As many as 30,000 immigrants arrived between 1630 and 1640, including our first minister, the Rev. Thomas Hooker and his family on the Griffin in 1633. After he decided that Boston wasn’t big enough for both him and John Cotton he left with almost all of the congregation to found Hartford, Connecticut. Then, our second minister, the Rev. Thomas Shepard and his family, came on the Defence in 1635. They came 100 or 200 at a time, filling the wooden sailing vessels with their families, their possessions, and even their cattle and livestock!

But ten years before this Great Migration, the people who sailed on the Mayflower took mind-blowing risks. They had no idea if they would be successful. History is written by the survivors – and so we have the story of the Mayflower, thanks to Devin’s ancestor William Bradford. But up until that point, there were as many as 145 ships that had made the voyage to the New World. They were aiming for Virginia, which at the time stretched from present-day South Carolina north to the mouth of the Hudson River and Manhattan. They were mostly men who came seeking financial gain and prosperity, but they did not stay. Many died here or along the way. The rest returned to England. Some ships came for economic reasons, others to escape the religious persecution.

These were non-conformists, risking being jailed for not conforming to the worship and belief requirements of the Church of England. They believed that the Church needed to be purified, cleansed of its excesses. They didn’t believe in kneeling for communion, or making the sign of the cross, or wearing non-secular vestments other than academic robes. They disagreed with state interference in religious matters. Some people (we now call them Puritans) believed that they could reform their Church from within, one step at a time. Others thought that the Church was so corrupt that they needed to separate themselves from it entirely. Reform or revolution? Sound familiar? It seems that our country is still echoing this question – can our political system be reformed from within? Or do we need to separate from it entirely and start over?

Back in the first decade of the 17th century, it got so bad for some of these Puritans that they fled to Holland. We call them “Separatists.” But even that was viable only for a few years. It was hard to find work, and their children were becoming more Dutch than English. The other side of the ocean seemed like a good idea, where they could establish their English communities and worship as they believed God was calling them. But it wouldn’t be easy.

Stephen Hopkins, one of my children’s ancestors, had sailed in 1609, but was shipwrecked in Bermuda, apparently inspiring Shakespeare’s 1611 play The Tempest. Hopkins and some of the others attempted mutiny, but that failed and he was sentenced to hang. He pleaded for his life, agreed to stop voicing controversial issues, and continued on to Virginia. After two years in Jamestown, during a time in which 80% of the settlers died due to disease and starvation, he returned to England. There was a ship with 180 English Separatists that sailed in 1619 from Holland to Virginia, but by the time they reached this side of the Atlantic, 130 of them had died. Why would anyone try again? I’m in awe of the perseverance and courage of these church people!

From the beginning the 1620 trip was different – families planned to travel together – men, women and children – the “Saints” of the Leyden congregation. In Holland, the Separatists purchased a small ship, the Speedwell, sailing from Delfshaven. They planned to sail with the Mayflower, which started from Rotherhithe in London and carried a number of merchants, who were not necessarily religious, but whose skills would be valuable to the community. These were the “Strangers.” The two ships and two groups met up in Southampton and set out for the journey across the ocean, but the Speedwell, which had been fitted with a larger mast for the voyage, began to leak, so they stopped for repairs in Dartmouth – a protected cove at the mouth of the river Dart. After a week, they set out again for Virginia, made it about 300 miles, but had to turn back yet again, this time to Plymouth. They decided to abandon the Speedwell. Some people gave up their places, and others crowded onto the Mayflower. They set sail in September, and this time, they made it.

You can read all about the difficult voyage – two months across the Atlantic before they sighted land, further north than the Virginia they had planned at the mouth of the Hudson. They attempted to go around Nantucket, but the November currents were just too difficult, and they were running out of beer, so the decision was made to settle in Plymouth. Since they were not within the boundaries of the Virginia Company, they didn’t have permission to settle. So they wrote the Mayflower Compact about how they would govern themselves and went ashore. It was winter, they were running out of provisions, and half of them died.

Maybe none of this story is new to you – or maybe you haven’t heard some of the details before. The question I’ve been pondering is this: How on earth did they find the courage to stay? Among my ancestors, 18-year-old Priscilla Mullins lost her parents and her brother that first winter. Yet she stayed and married John Alden, the cooper. Susan’s ancestors were heartier, only two of her thirteen died that first winter, but there was a time when only seven people were healthy enough to care for the sick and dying. When the Mayflower returned to England in the spring with the hired crew, why didn’t they all give up and go back?

And why did hundreds of others risk their lives sailing to Plymouth in 1621 on the Fortune, or in 1622 on the Sparrow, the Charity and the Swan, or in 1623 on and the Anne and Little James? Would you get on a cruise ship if 50% of the people on the last voyage had died? I don’t think I’d get on if 10% of the passengers had had a mild stomach bug! Perhaps the survivors figured that if they made it through that winter, they could weather just about anything. Their beliefs taught them that God was with them wherever they were – in their ancestral lands or in their new homes. If they survived, it was because God wanted them to. If not, God was teaching them something.

There are, of course, many other dynamics to this story of ours: the smallpox epidemic and genocide that wiped out 90% of the indigenous tribes, the questionable ethics of purchasing land from indigenous people who have no concept of land ownership, the brutality of King Philip’s War in 1675, the ethics of indentured servants, and issues of class and race and the environment. There are never easy answers. But I think we could agree that our ancestors of faith were willing to take huge risks, to stand up for their beliefs, and to work hard to build their new community in a new world.

Naaman took risks too. Seeking healing for his leprosy, he set out from Syria in search of the prophet Elisha. But then when Elisha told him what to do to heal his disease, he responded in anger. He just wanted to be at home. “Aren’t the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Could I not wash in them, and be clean?"

There’s the resolve to seek a cure, and then there’s the courage to go through with it. There’s daring to set sail from the harbor, and then the courage to stay in the new world. The willingness to set out to cure the sick, and then the risk that the people will reject you. Jesus was clear. When you risk going to a new place, how you are received is about them, not you. Take risks, but if it doesn’t work, just move on.

What about us today? So much in our world is threatened by violence and alienation, by apathy and indifference, by selfishness and greed. How do we know what to do? And then how do we find the strength and courage to keep at it?

As we think about celebrating the upcoming 400th anniversary of the Mayflower’s voyage, whether you celebrate your ethnic or your spiritual or your political heritage, remember that it’s not about the ship, but about the people. It’s not about the arrival, or even about the journey, but about the perseverance and the willingness of the Saints to work together with the Strangers, building a sustainable English community for the first time in the New World. It was about the willingness of the English and the Wampanoag to forge alliances of mutual respect, building a peace that lasted more than 50 years. It is about the courage to take sides and to take action for what is right and necessary.

Eventually, the Puritans and the Pilgrims joined forces to establish the congregational way of life and community in Massachusetts, sowing the seeds of what would become American democracy. As we celebrate our Independence and our Interdependence this weekend, may we, like our Pilgrim, Puritan, and Wampanoag ancestors, sisters and brothers in faith, immigrants all, listen for God’s call to us. And may we find the boldness to follow God’s call to new horizons, the courage to reach out to those on the other side, and the discovery that the kingdom of God is indeed within reach. Amen!

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