August 19, 2018
Rev. Dr. Alan Baughcum
Day’s Ferry Congregational Church, Woolwich ME
1 Kings 2:10-12; 3:3-14, Ephesians 5:15-20
Prayer: Loving God, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be pleasing in your sight. Amen.
I like rules and mostly I think we benefit from rules to guide our behavior and protect us. But in today’s sermon I want to talk about how, sometimes, rules need to be broken.
In literature usually a king prays for revenge, power, and wealth. King Midas prayed for wealth
and was given the ability to turn everything into gold. That gift ruined him and his family.
Solomon however broke literary rules and asked for wisdom. God was pleased and granted Solomon a wise and discerning mind, so as to perceive what is right.
Solomon used his wise and discerning mind to dispense justice. When confronted with two mothers claiming the same child, Solomon did not rely on the usual rules of precedent or custom or status. He threatened to cut the child in half and give each mother half, knowing that the true mother would reveal herself by her love and anguish for the child. And so it happened. True justice was accomplished by Solomon’s creativity.
I want to share with you a couple of additional stories about rule-breaking. One of my heroes
is the late Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman. He was not a stereotypical, dour academic physicist —-interested only in the pure, intellectual of the mind! He loved the country of Brazil and was devoted to dancing and drumming the music of the samba.
Feynman really believed in thinking.That truly made him different from most people.
He also loved to teach, including teaching physics to students in his beloved Brazil.
However he discovered that his Brazilian students had a problem. They memorized their course subjects but couldn’t apply the data to practical experiments. The students became professors and had the same problem, one they passed along to their students.
Feynman did not ignore the problem. He addressed a lecture hall full of students and faculty,
including the author of the class’s textbook. After extolling the chance he had been given to teach there, he bluntly stated, “I [can not] see how anyone [can] be educated by this self-propagating system in which people pass exams and teach each other to pass exams, but nobody knows anything.”
The reaction was surprising, but gratifying. The head of the science education department
stood up and agreed with Feynman. Soon, students were standing and planning ways to change the system.
Feynman did not follow the rules. He challenged the way the educational system in Brazil worked, and encouraged it to change so that the students and teachers actually learned to think and work scientifically.
A second story: about a woman that I will bet no one here has ever heard about: Zilpha Panco Elaw.
Zilpha Panco was born in Bristol Township, Bucks County, Pennsylvania, around 1788-1790.
Her parents were part of a community of free black families, freed during the latter half of the 1700s by their Quaker owners. Freed blacks were very few in number at that time; most blacks were slaves. Her parents continued after manumission as paid servants to Quaker families.
After Zilpha’s mother died, her father placed her into service with yet another Quaker family. Zilpha married, had a child, Rebecca, and was widowed when husband died. Mother and child, Rebecca, continued in service.
Zilpha, with the support of local Quakers, opened a school and taught black children in 1825-1827. Zilpha’s school would have been one of the very few in the country available for the education of black children.
Zilpha’s religious development followed that of the Methodism of the time. She was convicted of her sinfulness in a dream and later converted in a vision in which Jesus’ appearance was translated through Zilpha’s emotions into the words “Thy prayer is accepted, I own thy name.”
Zilpha’s religious conversion apparently occurred between her fourteenth birthday, i.e., in 1802-1804, and her joining the Methodists in 1808.
As with John Wesley, this salvation experience was one of assurance that Jesus had died for her sins and that Jesus loved her. Unlike Wesley’s conversion, invisible to others at the worship service at Aldersgate in London, Zilpha had a witness to her vision — a cow who knelt as Jesus approached.
Zilpha was then baptized and united with the Methodist Episcopal Society in 1808, prior to her marriage. In an 1811 camp-meeting Zilpha had a vision during which she was sanctified and assigned by the Holy Spirit to visit the sick and families, rich and poor, and speak to them of their salvation. In 1821 a supernatural voice at yet another camp-meeting told Zilpha that it was God’s will for her to preach the gospel and travel far and wide.
In 1827 she began her first journey as a preacher. Zilpha’s preaching travels in America
began and ended with preaching trips that took her to the slave states of Maryland and Virginia
and to the District of Columbia. Zilpha preached to slaves and their masters, black and white,
a truly extraordinary phenomenon in a time and place where it was illegal to teach or preach to slaves. After all, slaves newly freed in Christ might soon prove unwilling to remain as slaves to their earthly masters. During the next thirteen years, until 1840, Zilpha also preached in Pennsylvania, New York, Conn., Mass., R.I., and, yes, Maine.
Zilpha had first been told by a “voice” in 1828 at the end of her initial journey as a preacher
that she would go to London to preach. In 1840 she left her family in Nantucket and traveled to London. Zilpha preached the length and breadth of England from London and Canterbury in the south and east and to Manchester and Liverpool in the west and as far north as Berwick-upon-Tweed (on the border with Scotland). She had planned to return to America in 1845 or 1846
but became ill and died in London.
Zilpha is one of my heroes because she was a black woman who preached at a time when religion was forbidden to blacks in the south and women preachers were pretty much out of bounds everywhere.
Zilpha commented humorously in her autobiography on her experience in meeting with the peace and anti-slavery societies in England. To me it captures perfectly the reaction, as I imagine it, of religious men to her ministry. She wrote: “It was really an August assembly;
their dignity appeared so redundant, that they scarcely knew what to do with it all.”
Zilpha is one of my heroes because she broke the rules of her time. She had the courage,
to me, a son of the South, the unbelievable courage to preach in county courthouses in the South in slave-holding states.
A final story: early in his novel Les Miserables, Victor Hugo described the downward descent of Jean Valjean. Once a prominent young man, he fell on hard times and stole a loaf of bread to feed his starving family. He was sentenced to five years in jail, later extended to nineteen years of hard labor in the galley ships of France. The awful experience changed Valjean. Hugo writes
“Jean Valjean entered the galleys sobbing and trembling; he left hardened. He entered in despair; he left sullen.”
Upon being released no one would talk to Valjean or help him or give him work or shelter. Bitter and worn out, Valjean came to the house of an old bishop who greeted him courteously
and treated this forlorn man in rags as an honored guest. Valjean did not understand
his host’s graciousness and generosity. He stole two fine silver plates from the bishop’s cupboard
and fled. The next day the police arrived at the bishop’s house with Valjean and the silver.
Then something very strange happened. The bishop did not follow the rules. He did not stand on his rights, and demand that Jean Valjean be punished. Facing the man who had responded to his generosity with thievery, the bishop astonished everyone when he said, “I’m glad to see you.
But you must have misunderstood. I gave you the candlesticks, too, which are silver like the rest and would bring 200 francs. Why didn’t you take them along with your cutlery when you departed?”
Hearing the bishop’s words, Victor Hugo writes, “Jean Valjean opened his eyes and looked at the bishop with an expression no human tongue could describe.” The police had to release Valjean from custody. They left and the bishop handed Valjean the candlesticks, called him “my friend,” and hugged Valjean warmly before sending him out with a blessing: “Jean Valjean, my brother, you no longer belong to evil, but to good. It is your soul I am buying for you. I withdraw it from dark thoughts . . . and I give it to God.”
Valjean reacted by weeping. It came to him how low he had sunk. As he wept, he began to understand the possibilities that the bishop’s mercy had opened to him. He began to regain his humanity. The bishop had given him a gift, his own true God-given self. Gratitude for what he had been given lifted Valjean up into a whole new life.
So, I encourage you to be wise and follow the rules. Follow God’s commandments and the laws of our nation and our community.
But rules are rules, and they are not God. Don’t follow the rules so rigidlythat God doesn’t have a chance to break through with freshness and love.
Be wise and occasionally make room for creativity, as did Solomon in his court 3000 years ago.
Be dedicated to mindfulness and wisdom by standing up for true education and real learning, as did Richard Feynman in that mid-20th century science classroom in Brazil. Be discerning and make room for grace as did the French bishop in Les Miserables.
You will be displaying God’s wisdom and thereby lighting the path to God for those who might not otherwise know the joy of walking with our Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer. Amen.