Cathedral of St. John the Divine Blog

Anesthetized by Sin THE RIGHT REVEREND CLIFTON DANIEL III JANUARY 19, 2018

The following is the text of the sermon given by The Right Reverend Clifton Daniel III, Interim Dean, on January 14, 2018. You can listen to the full audio on our sermons page.

Today I am going to talk about sin. Now this is not a popular sermon subject. Most sermons on this topic tend to put people to sleep. I ask your indulgence for a couple of minutes before you go to sleep. In fact, I’m going to talk about sin in a different way – I’m going to talk about sin as anesthesia. Let me tell you why.

When I was a teenager growing up in a town in North Carolina in the early 1960s, there was a civil rights march down the main street. So four of us got in a car and parked so we could watch the march in progress. We weren’t hostile. We just sat and watched the marchers go by. We could not for the life of us figure out what they were marching about. The world seemed fine to us. Of course it did, we were asleep to the realities faced by the people passing by in the march and to our own realities. We were unaware and indifferent to that stark pageant of segregation, patriarchy, oppression marching by and we were unaware of our own white privilege and sense of male superiority. From that perspective, the world looked pretty good to us. But morally, we were asleep, unaware to the world around us, anesthetized by sin.

The reality behind our sin-induced stupor on that day was that sin always puts us to sleep morally. We enter a dream-like trance toward difficult realities we face and in that trance, we become indifferent to the issues of living in this world that face us. We are entranced, anesthetized, morally asleep – however you want to put it. But in short, it’s all about sin.

There was a song long ago titled, “Breaking up is hard to do.” For my purpose today, I paraphrase it in this way: “Waking up is hard to do!” Indeed, it is. Our moral waking up is always ragged and painful and incomplete. And so, we trudge on, always thankful that Jesus came, not to condemn but to save us. Today we have some waking up to do as a nation.

I’m a citizen of the US. I’m proud that this nation has done some great and sacrificial things for the people of the world. And it has done some not so good things. It will be in God’s hands on judgement day to sort out the wheat and the tares, the good and the bad. If you hear criticism in what I’m about to say, it arises from love of this nation.

Someone once commented that the original sins of the American people are racism, white supremacy and patriarchy. I confess that I’ve taken part in all those sins and therefore claim the right to say what follows: If the words of our President this past week haven’t been enough to wake us up out of our national sleep around these issues, I don’t know what it will take to wake us up; but brothers and sisters, it is time to wake up.

Our moral decision in this moment must be to decide on which side of history we will place ourselves. Do we vote with the past or with the future?

A friend of mine from seminary days tells his story about his vote in this way: It was March 7, 1965, when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr led the march across the Edmund Pettus bridge in Selma, Alabama. The marchers were marching for racial equality, human dignity and their constitutional right to vote. The marchers we attacked and brutalized by police. That day has come to be known as “Bloody Sunday” and has become iconic in American history for good reason.

A few months after the events of March 7 and the Pettus Bridge, my friend went home for a summer vacation. When he arrived, he greeted the African-American woman who had served him and his family for many years. As they began to talk, she told him of watching the March across the bridge on television. She said, “There were a lot of preachers in that march, white and black, and they were wearing their clerical collars. It made me proud. I looked for you among the marchers, but I couldn’t find you. Where were you?” She couldn’t find him because he was absent. He wasn’t there.

Years later, in 2003, my friend was a bishop and we sat together in the House of Bishops for The Episcopal Church as we faced a momentous decision. Gene Robinson, an openly gay man, had been elected bishop of New Hampshire, but the consent of the House of Bishops had to be gained before he could be consecrated bishop. It was a controversial vote, and the tension and division leading up to it was great. The vote was a roll call so each bishop present had to declare him/herself publically by voting either “yes” or “no.” Just before the voting began, my friend told me the story I’ve just told you and ended the story this way: “Years ago I voted for the past by being absent when it mattered. Today I’m present and I’m going to vote for the future.” When the votes were counted, Gene Robinson was given consent by the House of Bishops and became the first openly gay bishop in The Episcopal Church.

It’s time for our country to wake up and decide in this day whether we’re going to vote with the past or for a different future. In 1956 MLK stood in this Cathedral and in this very pulpit and called for America to make the choice of deciding to vote for the past or for the future.

Judged by the words and actions of our President this past week and the response of some of our elected leadership, I must wonder that choice may be in doubt. Our President used vulgar words and gutter language to describe the people and nations of Haiti and Africa. In doing so as our leader, he shocked and dismayed the majority of this nation’s citizens and further inflamed a vicious few. He has called American trustworthiness into question globally and alienated many of our allies. His rash speech has inflamed diplomatic tensions and set back the progress of peace. He has made coarse remarks about how he views and treats women and furthered the very misogyny that is a source of much pain already. He pursues policies that in my view aggrandize the wealthy (I count myself as part of that number) and victimize the young, the elderly, the vulnerable poor through low wages. With the support of Congressional leadership his policies have restricted access to health care, education and immigration. Global warming goes on apace with his assent. His words and actions have deepened the racial and religious divides among us. His words and actions have led me to seriously question his moral worthiness and competence to fulfill the roles and duties of the Office of President.

As Christians or simply as decent and moral human beings, we are called to welcome the stranger, feed the hungry, heal the sick, care for the poor. The Biblical witness and common decency charge us to seek peace, enact justice, strive for peace and reconciliation and promote treatment of all people with the dignity that is their God-given due. The current administration is doing little, if anything, to fulfill that Biblical mandate.

When will we awaken as a people and say “Enough!”

We can begin by offering our apology to the people of Haiti and Africa and offer our prayers, sympathy and continuing support, especially to Haiti which recalls this week the eighth anniversary of the devastating earthquake. We can give thanks for II Lieutenant Alix Idrachel, an immigrant from Haiti, who last May graduated from the US Military Academy at West Point.

Martin Luther King said that the moral arc of the universe is bent toward justice. When will we as individuals and as a nation step up and stand on that great moral arc and lend our weight to its bending!

Let us hasten the day when, as Dr. King said, the people of our nation are judged by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin … or their gender, or sexual orientation, or religious tradition, or nation of origin.

I pray that day comes quickly. Thanks be to God for Dr. King and so many others who have bravely and sacrificially led the way to this day. Now I bid and urge us to follow in their footsteps. This indeed is what it means to awakened from the anesthetic sleep of sinfulness and moving onward along the road to becoming greater nation and creating a better world. This is the way to Make America Great again.

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