Sermon: Family Legacies, by Pastor Margaret
“The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness,7 keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation,[b] forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, yet by no means clearing the guilty, but visiting the iniquity of the parents upon the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.”
16 Parents shall not be put to death for their children, nor shall children be put to death for their parents; only for their own crimes may persons be put to death.
2 Corinthians 5:16-18
16 We are careful not to judge people by what they seem to be, though we once judged Christ in that way. 17 Anyone who belongs to Christ is a new person. The past is forgotten, and everything is new. 18 God has done it all! He sent Christ to make peace between himself and us, and he has given us the work of making peace between himself and others.
Several years ago, during Bishop Elaine Stanovsky’s tenure with the legacy Yellowstone and Rocky Mountain Conferences, it came to Bishop Elaine’s attention that Methodism has a complicated history in this region. The first Methodist churches in Colorado territory were founded in violation of United States treaties with Native American tribes. As Bishop Elaine sought to build relationships with the tribal leaders who informed her of this regrettable fact, she was rebuffed by one Elder who practically spat the word “Chivington” at her as his explanation for why he was less interested in sitting down with Methodists than any of the other church’s with a similar past. Like a lot of folks, Bishop Elaine was unfamiliar with what turned out to be a name. Research led to discovering that one Col. Chivington had organized and led the charge of U.S. Cavalry against a peaceful group of Arapaho and Cheyenne elders, women and children camped along the banks of Sand Creek in eastern Colorado on November 29, 1864. It also happens that Chivington was an ordained Methodist pastor.
Our first two scripture readings for today, express the idea that the sins of the father will be visited upon their sons for three or four generations. Oh, not so much as to claim the life of a great or great-great-grandchild to be murdered in atonement. But still, guilt would be carried generationally. We have often had a tendency to read much of the Hebrew scriptures pronouncements about or by God prescriptively, as they were written. But what if that was more a reflection of the faith perspective of the Biblical writer than God’s actual intent? What if God was describing the impact trauma can have on people generations after the original event occurred? The Apostle Paul makes the faith claim that believers are made new in Christ and shouldn’t be judged by their appearances or their past. I believe that this grace-filled perspective IS how God relates to us, but it my observation that this frequently not how we humans relate to each other. Far more frequently, we tend to have long memories for grievances and small quantities of forgiveness we dole out grudgingly. Not exactly the Golden Rule, is it?
With these precepts of scripture and human nature in mind, Bishop Elaine led Mountain Sky Methodists on a journey of coming alongside the descendants of the Sand Creek massacre in an effort to bear witness, acknowledge harm done, and begin building the possibility of right relationships. Eventually, Bishop Elaine’s work with Tribal elders yielded the fruit of being invited to attend the annual Healing Run held close to the anniversary date of the massacre.
The Massacre site is located in the District I served as Superintendent and it was one of my responsibilities to attend anniversary events each year. Over time, I built some personal relationships, one of which was with a gentleman from Oklahoma who came every year to teach the participating young people about their history and ancestry. Early on in our acquaintance, he said something that really hit home for me, acknowledging the effort we Methodists were making. He said, “It’s good that you Methodists are here. Now ALL the people who were at Sand Creek that day have descendants gathered together. NOW we can heal.”
I was stunned by the gift he offered in that moment. For basically what he shared was the belief that we all needed healing… the tribal descendants of the massacre victims… and the faith descendants of the massacre perpetrators… and that at least part of our mutual healing could only happen by these two groups coming together in peaceful, new-life-giving ways. He believed he couldn’t be fully healed without me & that I couldn’t be made whole without him. We needed each other. It was a humbling moment to say the least, to be offered such grace, from the oppressed to the oppressor. Since then, his teaching has profoundly shaped my views of working for justice and reconciliation.
Several years ago, Jim Wallis published a book called “America’s Original Sin” which focused on how racism has permeated our country’s history and culture, greatly harming those impacted... otherwise known as ALL of us. If you’ve seen or heard the musical “Hamilton” you’ve been recently exposed to the idea that from the very beginning, this nation’s founders were not of one mind about the issue of slavery, and in many cases were bitterly divided on the subject. 250 years later and our legacy of racial sin has erupted yet again on the national scene with protests in all 50 states expressing outrage that the descendants of those sold into generational slavery are still suffering harm at the hands of descendants of slave holders.
I realize this is a touchy subject. It is never easy for us to expose and examine the underbelly of that which we hold sacred. This is equally true for our families of origin, our family of faith and our national family. It is difficult to grapple with the fact that those whom we love and wish to respect were real people with faults and failings who contributed to harm done, even as they might also have had genuinely laudable moments to legitimately honor. Not a one of us is perfect. Deconstructing our heroes in order to replace statues on pedestals with more nuanced perceptions can be difficult work that causes us much grief.
It would have been easy for me to claim that I bore no responsibility for Chivington’s actions, given that my ancestors were living in Virginia and Georgia and Alabama in 1864. I certainly heard folks in the legacy Rocky Mountain conference complain that all the work the Bishop had us doing had nothing to do with us, born long after the massacre took place. I heard some hurt and angry opinions that WE had nothing to repent of. Maybe these things were and are literally true, but that does not make them spiritual or emotional TRUTH.
You see, one of the things I learned from my Arapaho teacher was that we are powerfully shaped by who and what we belong to, whether it is membership by birth in a Tribe, or membership by conscious affiliation in a denomination. Who we are in the fullness of our being, is impacted by our networks of relational connections and belonging. As Methodists, we belong to a church that has us proclaim in our baptismal and membership vows that we will accept the freedom and power God gives us to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves. As Methodists, we belong to a body in which some of our ancestors, like Rev. Col. Chivington failed to live into that vow in a most egregious way. I have come to believe that his sinful actions sully my vow and make it necessary for me, as one of his spiritual descendants, to breathe new life into that vow as best I can by actually living into it.
I’ve been deeply affected by the historical and contemporary events of Sand Creek… it was my backyard… that land was literally under my supervision and spiritual oversight. It felt personal to me. But I understand that it likely doesn’t feel personal to you or to most people who hear me talk about it. When it comes to lessons from the past, when they don’t feel personal, it’s easier to not feel their impact.
So, let me erase a few degrees of separation and share about some folks you know. As many of you are aware, Rev. George Harper came to Montana after having served the national Methodist church as what was essentially the denomination’s lead youth pastor. During his tenure in that position, he was taken aside by some of the Southern Bishops and informed that he was going about his work incorrectly. George was holding integrated events, you see, with Black and White students and leaders gathered together. The Bishops informed him that he was to practice segregation, and from then on, he would be serving the White Methodists and they were hiring someone else to serve the Black Methodists. Well, it turns out that the Black youth leader happened to be one of George’s seminary friends. And the two of them strategized to hold “separate” youth events, that just happened to be held in the same location at the same time with the same speakers, including folks like Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. Eventually, the higher ups figured it all out & George was informed by one of the Bishops to never expect to receive an appointment to pastor a church in Alabama. Knowing the handwriting was on the wall for him with the national church, George eagerly accepted the opportunity to pastor here in Montana. Others whom you may know, like Lyle and Don Hamilton, sought refuge here from similar circumstances in Texas. Some of my mentors in ministry, like Jim Calhoun and Gil Caldwell, also made their way West having been “run out of town” in Georgia and Mississippi for speaking and working against racial injustice. What proved to be a gift to Mountain Sky churches, occurred because of the sin of racism. This is something I hope gives us pause, for it is a complicated legacy to benefit directly from something so harmful.
This brings me to my last, most personal level of my own family history. My father was an ordained Southern Baptist minister who went to seminary in Boston at Andover-Newton. A good southern boy, the Yankee theologians convinced him that segregation was a sin. Once my dad believed something was THE truth, he refused to be quiet about it. You can imagine how well his preaching went over in rural white churches in the 1950s in North Carolina! Instead of fleeing the south for points north or west, my dad left ministry instead.
On the other side of my family, my mother’s childhood church, Southside Baptist, was pastored by one of the clergy Martin Luther King Jr. addressed in his “letter from the Birmingham jail.” My mom’s family were slaveowners back in the day. One of our ancestors was General Joseph E. Johnston, of the Confederate Army. Go back far enough on my family tree and you get folks like Patrick Henry and President James Madison… but enough with the statues already… Madison was a slave owner, too.
I have a messy, complicated legacy from my family that I’ve been wrestling with isince age 10 or 11 when my mom’s extended family held a picnic. As we drove through the park looking for our gathering, we saw signs saying “Crowder Family” and naturally followed them… finding at the destination a large group of Black people, coincidentally also apparently named Crowder. I remember snippets of the conversation that followed with my Uncle Russell (who was a Yankee in-law) that it was entirely possible that the Black Crowders in the park that day could be descendants of the slaves our White Crowder ancestors had owned. And, like many another uncomfortable subject, we both knew to stop talking about it as we left the car and joined the family.
Now, with the wisdom of my Native teacher in mind, I wonder what might become possible were my White Crowder family invited to join our Black Crowder cousins for a joint family reunion. Surely it would be uncomfortable as all get out. But it might also be the genesis of personal healing and societal transformation.
Friends, we find ourselves confronted by critical choices in the national conversation happening right now. Will we allow the discomfort of others in our families of relations, faith or nation to silence us? Or will we engage in conversation, however difficult? Will we be courageous about really looking at our history, and acknowledging the ways we are connected to actions taken long before our births, that have a legacy of harm? Will we take responsibility for our legacies, stepping up to the plate through our willingness to listen, learn and participate in relationships as invited, that mutual healing might become possible? Will we cultivate the attitude that our Black, Brown and Indigenous siblings have much to share with us, so that life together in beloved community would be a mutual blessing? Will we accept the gift of New Life through Christ in the form of new wells of courage, empowering us to actively resist evil, injustice and oppression? How will we respond? What will OUR legacy be?
My prayer is that individually and collectively, we will be faithful to this calling. Amen.
The work of the church… of we, this community of faith… is to be a blessing to all those in need. Your financial support of Helena United Methodist Ministries enables us to be faithful stewards of that aspect of our legacy that has made us justice-seekers and peace-makers for generations.
Will you pray with me?
Before we leave today, I want to point you to one of the positive aspects of our messy Methodist legacy. Part of our Social Principles includes a Charter for Racial Justice, originated by UMW and adopted by General Conference for the whole church. There’s a link on the slide here and also on the church website. I invite you to read it, sit with it and pray about how to respond.
And now, as we leave this time of contemplation to re-enter a hurting world in need of healing and justice, I pray that our merciful God grants you compassion, strength and hope with which to act powerfully upon your faith. Amen.