The story of Revolutionary War instigator Rev. Jonas Clarke has something to do with the two scripture readings that we heard today.
Jonas Clarke was the Congregational minister in the town of Lexington, Mass, in the Spring of 1775. He had actually been the minister there for 20 years. The Congregationalists were predecessors of our United Church of Christ.
Clarke was the successor to Rev. John Hancock – the grandfather of the famous patriot. More on the younger Hancock in a moment.
Jonas Clarke was a consistent, eloquent and loud voice for liberty in that time of unrest in the colonies. His understanding of the freedom contained in the Gospels overlapped with his objections to the servitude that came with being subjects of a king from a foreign land.
So he preached, he wrote, he cajoled and he channeled the discontent among the people of Lexington and surrounding regions.
One essasy about him says: “Clark typically delivered four sermons a week which were rarely less than one hour long. Over the course of his lifetime, he wrote and preached nearly 2,200 sermons. His style was vigorous, animated, and instructive. He preached with an uncommon energy and zeal, and was said to have an agreeable and powerful voice.”
He frequently drew on the stries of the Hebrew Bible of good kings and bad kings, of the battles in the Jewish struggle for freedom.
He was preparing the people of Lexington for their own battle for liberty, even helping train the members of the militia.
On the night of April 18, 1775, a few friends had gathered at his house – a house that still stands just across the street from where Ellen and I were staying with our friends MaryAnn and Paul about 10 days ago.
One of Clarke’s friends was Samuel Adams. Despite his image in our time, Sam Adams was not known for making beer even though his father owned a malt business. He, too, was one of the rabble rousers of his era, one of the architects of the independence movement and then of the government that emerged from it. He had been baptized at Old South Church in Boston, now one of the premiere UCC congregations in the nation.
Another was John Hancock, who had spent part of his youth in his grandparents’ house where they were now gathered. A year from now, he would be the first to sign the Declaration of Independence with a signature that would stand out from all the others. (Remember what Paul told the Galatians today about writing in big letters?) And while he was a successful merchant (and perhaps a smuggler), he had nothing to do with the insurance company that now bears his name.
Arriving at the door was Paul Revere, who had ridden out from Boston to alert the colonists that the British were marching towards Lexington and Concord, perhaps with the intent of arresting Adams and Hancock, certainly with orders to seize military supplies the colonists had stored in Concord.
The farmers and townsfolk gathered a Buckman’s Tavern just down the street and spent the night preparing for a confrontation – assisted by no small amount of alcohol.
The next morning, there was the showdown on the green and eight of the local folk were killed by the Redcoats, who then marched on to Concord, where there was another skirmish. And then the tide turned and the colonists forced the Redcoats into a chaotic retreat.
No battles really were won or lost that day. Just lives were lost.
The war for American Independence had begun.
That pastor, Jonas Clarke, was right at the center of it all, even standing on the green in front of his church with his people as the shots rang out. A year later, he would say in one of those long sermons that from April 19, 1775 “will be dated in future history the liberty or slavery of the American world, according as a Sovereign God shall see fit to smile or frown upon the interesting cause in which we are engaged.”
On this Fourth of July weekend, my point is really not to focus on the stories of the War for Independence. There will be plenty of that all around us. But I think the story of Jonas Clarke has something to do with the two scripture readings that we heard today.
It’s an old story – people drawing on their beliefs to move others to action.
It’s a story that goes back to Moses leading Hebrew slaves out of Egypt.
It’s a story of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., leading the struggle for civil rights for African Americans.
It’s a story of Desmond Tutu being a prophetic voice in the liberation of South African blacks.
It’s a story Jesus was trying to teach his disciples.
The story Jesus told built on the history of Judaism. He was a Jew, after all, a wandering rabbi of his era. But he added new twists to the old story, twists that involved conquest not with armor but with love, conquest not with passivity but with engaging people in ways that could change the whole dynamic.
Go out two by two. You do not need to do this alone.
Travel lightly. Don’t let possessions become a burden that will slow you down.
Don’t let rejection get you down. It’s too easy to focus on the mean things people say to you and get thrown off your mission – a mission of bringing peace and healing in a way that overcomes demons, that causes Satan to fall from heaven like a flash of lightning.
Let me loop back to some of those I mentioned who, like Jonas Clarke, led people to freedom, but did so with a fresh understanding of the message of Jesus.
When Martin Luther King led the civil rights struggles of the 1950s and 1960s, he did so with a commitment to letting active love be the force that overturned the hatred that underlay segregation. That creative non-violence changed the nation.
When Desmond Tutu gave voice to the evils of apartheid in South Africa and helped rally the people in their quest for freedom, he engaged people with a strong message laced with love and hope.
There’s a great story of Tutu standing in the pulpit at St. George’s Cathedral in Cape Town where he was the archbishop. The white government had prohibited political rallies, so Tutu opened the church for a “congregational gathering.”
Jim Wallis from Sojourners was there and describes the scene:
“Outside the cathedral hundreds of police gathered, a show of force intended to intimidate. As Tutu was preaching they entered the Cathedral, armed, and lined the walls. They took out notebooks and recorded Tutu’s words.
“But Tutu would not be intimidated. He preached against the evils of apartheid, declaring it could not endure. At one extraordinary point he addressed the police directly.
“You are powerful. You are very powerful, but you are not gods and I serve a God who cannot be mocked.”
Do you recognize those words from Paul’s letter to the Galatians that we heard this morning?
Tutu went on: “So, since you’ve already lost, since you’ve already lost, I invite you today to come and join the winning side!”
With that, wrote Wallis, the congregation erupted in dance and song.
As Paul wrote, in time the apartheid regime reaped what it had sown and the South African black majority – who did not grow wearing in doing what is right – won their freedom.
Let’s acknowledge that in the Revolutionary War, in the Civil Rights Movement, in the freedom struggle in South Africa, blood was shed. There was no purity of action.
But what I think each of these stories tell us – whether the story of Jonas Clarke or of Martin Luther King or of Desmond Tutu – is that we should not disconnect our faith, our following the way of Jesus, from the issues of the world around us.
How we engage those issues will differ from time and place. How we interpret the message of Jesus for how to engage issues will differ among us.
But Jesus was pretty clear with his followers. Don’t just sit on a hill and listen to me talk. Take my words and live them out, share them with others, make a difference in your world.
On this weekend of celebrating freedom, let’s also take a few moments to look at how we live in the freedom of love that God offers to us. Let’s savor the time to reflect and embrace the time to act.
There’s a hymn that catches that ebb and flow a bit. It’s #516, “O Grant Us, God, a Little Space.” Let’s sing all the verses.
1 O grant us, God, a little space
from daily tasks set free.
We meet within this holy place
and find security.
2 Around us rolls the ceaseless tide
of business, toil, and care,
And scarcely can we turn aside
for one brief hour of prayer.
3 Yet this is not the only place
your presence may be found;
On daily work you shed your grace,
and blessings all around.
4 Yours are the workplace, home, and mart,
the wealth of sea and land;
The worlds of science and of art
are fashioned by your hand.
5 Work shall be prayer, if all be wrought
as you would have it done;
And prayer, by you inspired and taught,
shall then with work be one.