Sermon – August 27, 2017

Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 16
August 27, 2017

(Matthew 16:18-19)
Rev. Jane Mayrer

Tell us, O Lord, what we need to hear, and show us what we need to do, to be followers of Jesus Christ. Amen.

Today we hear what is commonly referred to as “the confession of Peter” as told by the author of the Gospel of Matthew. Peter’s recognition and acknowledgement that Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of the living God, was a pivotal point in Jesus’ ministry. All four of the Gospels – in one way or another – depict Peter as the first disciple to come to this realization about Jesus’ identity. But only the Gospel of Matthew expands upon what this means for Peter. Jesus says to him, “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”

These couple of verses have born a heavy weight of scholarly inspection over the centuries. Some question whether Jesus even said this, since no other Gospel writer includes these words in their account. These scholars think that Matthew added this bit to support his particular community of Christians and to bolster Peter’s authority. And even those who assume Jesus did say this to Peter, are not sure what Jesus meant. There seems to be general agreement that “keys of the kingdom of heaven” refer to Peter’s authority as a leader of the community. There also is agreement that the term “bind” means to forbid, and the term “loose” means to permit. But as to what action is forbidden or permitted, “question has arisen” – as the footnote to the NRSV somewhat understates.

I have always felt a certain discomfort with these two verses from Matthew’s Gospel, I suppose because – as I understand it – they are the foundation upon which the institutional church is based. Peter, as leader of the church in Rome, was the first Pope, and the church established in Rome became the one true, holy, and apostolic church, with the power to forbid and permit, to declare sin and to forgive sin. That’s a lot of power for an institution run by humans to have.

One problem is, what happens when the church – the institution – itself is sinful: when it engages in sin, condones sin, is silent about sin, is complicit in sin. Consider the Roman Catholic Church and its long history with sexual abuse of children, and others, by priests. Clergy, acting as spiritual leaders of the church, engaged in sinful acts. They were forgiven by other spiritual leaders, quietly moved from one location to another location, and allowed to continue to engage in the same sinful acts. The institutional church first refused even to acknowledge the allegations of victims, then covered up and silenced those allegations.

Well, as my favorite theologian, Barbara Brown Taylor observed in her book, Speaking of Sin, we like to single out wrongdoers, because that frees those of us who have not been caught for anything to enjoy a bracing sense of innocence. But, as another wise person has observed, none of us are innocent. When we point a finger at someone else, three fingers are pointing at us. So, before we become too comfortable, or judgmental, let us look at our own Episcopal Church and its accommodation of sin – the sin of slavery.

And slavery is a sin. The evil of slavery is obvious from even the sparsest description, such as we have in today’s reading from Exodus. The purpose of slavery is to exert power and control over a group of people. “A new king arose over Egypt … who said to his people, ‘Look, the Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we. Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, or they will increase and, in the event of war, join our enemies.’ Therefore, they set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labor.” The mechanism of slavery is to so demean the enslaved that they are deprived of their humanity. “The Egyptians became ruthless in imposing tasks on the Israelites, and made their lives bitter with hard service in mortar and brick and in every kind of field labor. They were ruthless in all the tasks that they imposed on them.” The result of slavery is that humans, deprived of their humanity, become expendable. “Then Pharaoh commanded all his people, ‘Every boy that is born to the Hebrews you shall throw into the Nile, but you shall let every girl live.”

It’s hard to understand, now, how any Christian church in the pre-Civil War United States could read this account of slavery without being compelled to condemn and repudiate slavery. Some, in fact, did. But others were silent. And in the south, it was not slavery, but slave rebellion against a master that was regarded as sin.

In Maryland, it seems that the issue for the Episcopal Church was not whether to free slaves, since the economic welfare and social status of the church was deeply embedded in slavery, but rather whether to evangelize them and make them Christians. Mary Klein and Kingsley Smith note in their research on the history of racism in the Diocese of Maryland, that Episcopal clergy were expected to convert slaves, but “were frustrated in their efforts to catechize slaves because many masters feared the consequences of education, and some thought that once a slave was baptized, he or she would have to be freed.” The first American census, in 1790, showed that the overwhelming majority of clergy and lay delegates to the Convention of the Diocese of Maryland owned slaves, including Thomas John Claggett, the first Bishop of Maryland and the first bishop consecrated on American soil.

Thanks be to God, the Episcopal Church has finally owned up to our shameful past. In 2006 General Convention adopted a resolution explicitly acknowledging and regretting “the Episcopal Church’s support of the inhuman system of chattel slavery and Bible abuse that was used to justify a sin that dehumanized a people created in the image of God.” The following year, the Diocese of Maryland went beyond expressing regret and apologized “for the Anglican Church in Colonial Maryland and of the Episcopal Church in the state of Maryland for their role in the slavery of African Americans and in the subsequent racial injustice.” [This was by resolution adopted by Diocesan Convention in 2007.]

Since that time, our Diocese has been engaged in researching our Episcopal history of slavery and its legacies of segregation and racism. I mentioned the paper written by Mary Kline and Kingsley Smith pertaining to the Diocese’s history. Parishes are also delving into their own histories of involvement with, and complicity in, slavery. This effort is supported by the Research and Pilgrimage Working Group of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Three years ago, in 2014, the first Trail of Souls Truth and Reconciliation pilgrimage was held to commemorate the abolition of slavery in Maryland in 1864. Sites visited on that pilgrimage included Clover Hill, where the Diocesan offices are located, which was built with slave labor; All Hallows’ Church in Davidsonville, where the first African slave was baptized in 1699; All Saints’ Church, Sunderland, which was built by enslaved people, and where proceeds from the sale of a slave girl were used to purchase a silver chalice; Grace Episcopal Church, Silver Spring, which has a burial ground for Confederate Soldiers; and the slave cemetery at Claggett.

The second Trail of Souls pilgrimage will be held this November, on November 4th. St. Luke’s will be one of the pilgrimage sites, along with Old St. Paul’s, Emmanuel Church, and Memorial Church in Bolton Hill – all white parishes founded before slavery was abolished in 1864. So that St. Luke’s can participate as a pilgrimage site, I have been researching our own records to learn about this church’s experience of, and relationship with, slavery. Some of this history has already been written about and is referred to on our website. Some is contained in the church history written in 1947, when St. Luke’s celebrated its 100th anniversary. Some I found reading the earliest Vestry minutes. Some is extracted from information recorded in the first church registry. Here is what I have discovered.

St. Luke’s was incorporated as a church in the Diocese of Maryland on St. Luke’s Day, in October,1847. At the time, it was worshiping in a small building located at the corner of Hollins Street and what is now Arlington Street. In 1851, the land upon which our church now sits was donated to St. Luke’s, for the purpose of constructing a church building, by John Glenn and his wife, who were members of Old St. Paul’s. John Glenn was a judge on the United States District Court for the District of Maryland. He, and his family, owned a vast amount of real estate west and south of the City of Baltimore (some of that property became Glen Burnie). They also owned slaves. John Glenn himself owned a slave farm, Hilton, near Catonsville.

The first stained glass window just around the corner there is dedicated to the memory of Ann Jane Steuart, the wife of George H. Steuart. George Steuart was born into a family of slave owners. They were strong supporters of the institution of slavery. The family’s town residence was a substantial estate and mansion located in West Baltimore, called Maryland Square, just a few blocks west of here. George inherited both the family property- land and human – and the family’s attitudes.

George Steuart was an influential member of St. Luke’s Church, instrumental in its founding, both financially and personally. He was elected to the first Vestry in 1847, and re-elected thereafter until 1862. Minutes of the annual meeting of the congregation, held on April 21, 1862, at which members of the Vestry were elected, state, “The Rector alluded to the obligations which the Congregation were under to the Steuart family, especially to the late Mrs. Steuart, for their active effort, and the liberal contributions in the foundation and support of the church, and expressed the desire that the family should be represented in the meetings of the Vestry with more regularity than the state of health of General Steuart for some years past had permitted. He therefore suggested that the name of his son, Thomas E. Steuart, Esq., should be substituted for his.”

More than illness was involved in General Steuart’s absence. George Steuart was a supporter of the Confederacy. His oldest son (also George H. Steuart) had resigned from the United States Army and joined the Confederacy. Both George Sr. and George Jr. had made strenuous efforts to persuade Marylanders to succeed from the Union, and to use the state militia to prevent the occupation of the State by Union soldiers. But those efforts failed. Union officers occupied Baltimore in May 1861, and soon began arresting Confederate sympathizers. General Steuart fled to Charlottesville, Virginia. Maryland Square, the family mansion, was seized by the U.S. army and used to house troops. An army hospital was built on the grounds to care for Federal wounded. Meanwhile, Gen. Steuart, aged 71, was deemed too old for active service in the Confederate army. However, he spent much of his time following the army and was present at, or near to, a number of battles, including Gettysburg. Son George Jr. fought with the Confederacy until the end, and surrendered with Gen. Robert E. Lee at Appomattox. Another son, William James, died from wounds received fighting for the Confederacy in the Battle for the Wilderness. The Vestry minutes tersely note condolence to Gen. Steuart upon the death of his son.

I suspect that the membership of St. Luke’s at this time reflected the general population of Baltimore – a combination of white slaveowners and those who did not own slaves, of white Union supporters and supporters of the Confederacy. The church records also show the presence and participation of African Americans, both free and enslaved, again reflecting the African American community in Baltimore.

The first baptism of an African American recorded in the St. Luke’s registry is that of Martha Ellen, child of Hezekiah and Hillary Primus, born August 26, 1846 and baptized June 26, 1847. The first death of an African American recorded in the St. Luke’s registry is also Martha Ellen. She died at ten months of age, and was buried on July 7, 1847, in a private burial ground belonging to the Stephenson’s. And that is all we know about her or her parents. What can we infer from this slim information? Can we infer that Hezekiah and Hillary Primus were slaves owned by the Stephenson family? Or that they were free African Americans who worked for the Stephensons? Some of the African Americans whose names are entered in the parish registry are identified as “servant of” someone, or “former servant” of someone. Mr. and Mrs. Primus are not so identified.

Also from the parish registry: Clara Butler, born in May, 1842, daughter of Isa and Angela Butler, was baptized March 11, 1860. Her sponsor is listed as Mr. D. Orleans. She was confirmed April 21, 1861, and here she is identified as the servant of D. Orleans. She was married to Richard Troupe at St. Luke’s Church at 6:30 p.m. on November 4, 1862, “Rev. Rankin and the Congregation present.” Who was this woman? The notation that she was married in the church with the Congregation present stands out as unusual. But what to make of? I don’t know.

The most explicit indication of African American ownership that I’ve located in the parish registry relates to Eliza Butler, who was baptized on May 20, 1861. Her parents are not named. Mr. and Mrs. Oliver are listed as her sponsors. A note says that Dr. Oliver is her owner.

The Rector of St. Luke’s, the Rev. Charles W. Rankin, took his obligation to minister to the African American communicants of his congregation seriously. In 1855, he organized a “servants’ class’ for their instruction. This grew into a “colored Sunday School that met at the church “three times every Lord’s Day, and had an enrollment of one hundred twenty scholars.” [I’m quoting from the church history written in 1947.] According to the church’s parochial report for 1864, the Sunday School continued to grow and at the beginning of the Civil War almost 300 persons were enrolled.

The diverse membership of St. Luke’s, both African American and white, raises the question of how they worshiped. This leads to what I think of as the enigma of the gallery on the west wall of the nave, below the rose window. The original design of the church specifically did not include a gallery. For financial reasons, the structure was built in two phases. The first phase of construction was completed in in 1853, and the congregation moved into the building from its location on Hollins Street. When, in 1857, the church was ready to proceed with the second phase of construction, a different architect was hired. This man, John W. Priest of New York City, proposed significant alterations to the original design of the church, including the placement of a “light gallery” across the west wall. The advantage would be threefold: it would relieve the blankness of the wall, it would provide space for a vestibule underneath that would allow for a double set of doors and help alleviate loss of heat in the winter, and it would “afford accommodation for colored persons,” the common practice in those days. Mr. Priest’s plans were approved, enlargement of the space proceeded, and the Rev. Rankin reported progress to the Vestry. When he reported that the gallery had been built, he noted that now “the blankness” of the west wall was relieved and there was now a vestibule. He did not say a word about accommodation for the “colored” worshipers of St. Luke’s. Why, I wonder?

One inference is that Rev. Rankin simply did not think it worthy of mention. But, where had the African American communicants of St. Luke’s been worshiping when there was no gallery? Certainly, they had not been sitting among the white congregation, and probably they had not been sitting at the back of the church, either. Having the African American communicants worship with the white communicants following the completion of a gallery would have been a significant change in the way things were done at St. Luke’s something that would have occasioned mention. My guess is that the African American congregants worshiped at one of the several services held on Sunday afternoon, and that the church did not see any reason to change this practice after a gallery was built.

I’ve gone on at some length here, and I apologize for that. To me, it seems that St. Luke’s was no different from the other Episcopal churches in Maryland that accepted, accommodated, and benefited from the sin of slavery without talking about it. But I want you to hear our church’s history, so that you can draw your own conclusions.

And this brings us back to where we started. What kind of community was Jesus envisioning when he said that his church would be built on a rock with the authority to bind and loose on earth as in heaven? I think that Barbara Brown Taylor gets it right. The church is a community that reminds us of who we are and what we are created for. Taylor says: “The church exists so that God has a place to point people toward a purpose as big as their capacities and to help them identify all they ways they flee from that high call. The church exists so that so that people have a community in which they may confess their sin … as well as a community that will support them to turn back again. The church exists so that people have a place where they may repent of their fear, their hardness of heart, their isolation and loss of vision, and where – having repented – they may be restored to fullness of life.”

And that is precisely what we here at St. Lukes, along with other churches in the Diocese of Maryland, are seeking as we honestly face up to and own the place of slavery in our past, confess it, repent it, and seek to make restitution for the wrong done. Our country’s history of slavery is the root from which the racial hatred now being expressed so openly and violently is rooted. White people must openly acknowledge and accept this. The church, confronting that evil honestly and fearlessly, offers another way, a way that leads to forgiveness, restoration, wholeness – a way of salvation.