From the Redwood Forest to the Gulf Stream Waters

If your high school American history class was anything like mine, it was not the most exciting.  Actually, mind-numbing boring.

Unfortunately, our teacher, Mr. Roberts, struggled with a rather severe handicap.  He was wheelchair bound.  He also struggled with a less than dynamic personality. 

He would sit at his desk and read from the textbook.  Within minutes, he had lost his audience.  Whispers and muffled giggles broke out as he droned on.  I found it the perfect time to finish the algebra problems assigned the previous day. 

He would read on until the ambient noise became so loud and behavior so disruptive, he would take this huge book and slam it down on his desk.  Heads would pop up.  Silence reigned – for a while.  He would commence reading again until this cycle of disruption was repeated. 

The betting was, how many times would he slam his book down in the course of our one fifty-minute period?

We didn’t get much flavor of the rich tapestry of our nation’s story from this class.  Mr. Roberts desiccated version captivated no minds. 

It was in my government class that I learned of the Muckrakers – why the peas in the can looked so nice and green – formaldehyde, and about the sweepings off the slaughterhouse floor that ended up in the wieners.

In Mr. Marchek’s class the following year we learned the story of unionization, about scabs, boycotts and lockouts.  About the Pinkerton thugs who beat and shot picketers.  This version of America’s story was soaked in struggle and blood.  Mr. Marchek had my full attention, and that of the rest of the class.

As we’ve celebrated another birthday, our history remains most problematic for many.  As Frederick Douglas, freed slave who became America’s most powerful orator in the mid eighteen hundreds, questioned, “What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July?  I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim.”[1]

I had never even heard of Frederick Douglas!  My teachers had taught us that the slaves on the plantations were happy and well cared for.  Of course, these teachers were all white.

Our scriptural heritage informs us of a generous God – a Spirit that invites all to thrive.  That is Torah ethic, transmitted through the prophets, the writings and down to Jesus.  It has been called “a generous orthodoxy,” one including all. 

Here the words of the Deuteronomist:

“For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing.  You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”[2]

Our Gospel lesson appointed for today from Matthew sums up this ethic.  It is a Midrash on forbearance:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’  But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes the sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous…Be perfect, therefore, as your Father is perfect.”[3]

Such hyperbole is in service of urging a kinder, gentler approach – an approach that nudges open the door to Eternal Life.

“Be perfect,” is not an injunction to moral superiority, but an invitation and summons to live into who you were created to be.  Thus, a mandate to our nation to actually live out its creeds and the bit about “justice for all” and “E Pluribus Unum.”

We who claim to follow and be grounded in Christ would do well to remember this instruction and admonition on our nation’s birthday.  These lessons are provided for sound guidance, that our nation might choose life and not death, generosity and not calumny.

I write this part of today’s sermon from Ketchikan, Alaska.  Our youngest son Christopher and his fiancée, Alexis, gave us this wonderful trip to celebrate my 80th birthday — and what a delightful present it has been.  Jai and I have thoroughly enjoyed the cruise with these two and have fully enjoyed ourselves and this great land.  It was sunshine virtually every day.

On board we celebrated Canada Day and a little bit later the 4th of July – that in Juneau with a marvelous small-town parade.  Along with the exploits of the early Sourdoughs, the heritage of some of the indigenous, First-nations culture was on splendid display.

I offered to enter Jai in the ax throwing contest in Ketchikan at the Great Lumberjack Show but she declined.  I’m sure she would’ve been a winner.

I remember my first introduction as a new priest in Petersburg to some of the cultural friction of Alaska when at the local video rentals store, the proprietor, an Alaskan Native, asked me, “Why did you guys sell the Indians’ church?” 

I learned the story of the decision of the Episcopal Diocese of Alaska to close one of the two Episcopal congregations in Ketchikan — and they chose St. Elizabeth’s to sell.  The Native American’s church.  Those parishioners were to be absorbed into St. John’s.  But no matter how much some of the St. John’s folks tried to be accommodating, because the original Tlingit people felt they had had no say in the matter, there were bound to be bad feelings.  Thus, the hostile question from the video store owner.

This 4th, as I reflected on our two national birthday celebrations, USA and Canada, a bit of humility would have seemed to be in order.  Our relations with other peoples need a lot of “perfecting,” to say the least.  We have much to learn from others.  Just days prior to the 4th, a mass shooting in Baltimore in a single day killed and wounded more people than have been harmed in all such incidents over good number of years running in Canada.  We have much to learn from this continent’s Original Peoples of the proper care and use of the land.

One of the questions I got before embarking on this journey was, how many books was I packing to read during the trip?  “A couple of hundred,” was my answer – all on my Kindle

One of those books was Annie Dillard’s Teaching a Stone to Talk.[4]  In it she recounts at one point the earliest, disastrous explorations into the frozen North and South.  Since the early eighteen hundreds the race was on to arrive at both the North Pole and South Pole.

One party, that of Sir John Franklin with 138 officers and crew set off to discover a northwest passage above Canada, through the Arctic Ocean to the Pacific.  Instead of using precious space for the needed coal for this two-to-three-year voyage, they took books – a 1,200 volume library.  In addition, they took a hand-organ “playing fifty tunes.”[5]  No extravagance was spared: “china place settings, cut-glass wine goblets and sterling silver flatware.”[6]  The officers were clothed solely in their standard, navy-issued dress uniforms.

This group of intrepid though poorly outfitted explorers was never to be heard from again – alive, that is.

Years later, the world learned of their unfortunate demise from groups of Inuit who came across the scattered remains. “Some had glimpsed, for instance, men pushing and pulling a wooden boat across the ice.” 

“Some had found, at a place called Starvation Cove, this boat, or a similar one, and the remains of the thirty-five men who had been dragging it.”

“At Terror Bay the Inuit found a tent on the ice, and in it thirty bodies.”[7]

It was not until such explorers as Roald Amundsen, traveling Inuit style, and Robert Perry, also employing Inuit dog mushers, were able to survive the harsh, unforgiving polar extremes.

There’s a lesson here, though our brief Alaskan excursion did not get us anywhere near the Arctic Circle…

If we Americans are to last into our next century, like those later intrepid adventurers, we will need to adapt, to learn from others who have been here far, far longer than our puny two hundred-some-year history.

Yes, my country’s skies are bluer than the ocean, but other lands have skies just as blue as mine.  And we all have one Creator, known by different names and revealed through different stories.   That is the working of the Great Spirit, residing in all.  I trust that you all had a Happy Fourth.


[1] On July 5, 1852, Douglass gave a speech at an event commemorating the signing of the Declaration of Independence, held at Rochester’s Corinthian Hall.

[2] Deuteronomy 10:17-19, New Revised Standard Version.

[3] Matthew 5:43-45, 48, New Revised Standard Version

[4] Annie Dillard, Teaching a Stone to Talk (New York: Harper Collins, 2007), 30 ff.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

St. Francis Episcopal Mission Outreach
2855 Sterling Avenue, San Bernardino, CA 92404

July 9, 2023 – Independence Day Propers

“From the Redwood Forest to the Gulf Stream Waters”
The Rev. Dr. John C. Forney

Deuteronomy 10:17-21; Psalm 145:1-9;

Hebrews 11:8-16; Matthew 5:43-48

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