The Old South Church in Boston



Sermon by the Rev. Dr. Nancy S. Taylor

February 13, 2005
First Sunday in Lent

Matthew 4: 1-11
Jesus in the wilderness

What has become of poor Saint Valentine? Look at what we have done to a perfectly good saint!

How did it happen that a man who courageously defied a cruel emperor has been all but forgotten and his memory replaced with, or should I say misplaced by, pink hearts, red roses, gooey chocolates, greeting cards and expensive candlelit dinners?

There are many legends about Valentine, but also a fair amount of history. Valentine, a Christian priest, lived in Rome during the reign of the Emperor Claudius II, also known as, Claudius the Cruel.

Under Claudius, Rome was an aggressor in many bloody and unpopular campaigns. Indeed, his campaigns were so bloody and unpopular with his own people that Claudius began having trouble recruiting soldiers. He concluded that the reason for this was that Roman men did not want to leave their lovers, fiancées, wives or children. Claudius, therefore, issued a decree indefinitely canceling all weddings and engagements.

Valentine, who apparently had a soft spot for people in love, disobeyed this decree and secretly officiated at weddings. For this deed of kindness, he was apprehended, condemned, beaten to death and then beheaded in the year 270 of the Common Era.

The practice of recognizing Valentine’s Day is ancient, dating back to the fifth century when Valentine was made a saint with February 14 as his feast day.

Today, however, Valentine is barely remembered. We have all but forgotten the story of this martyr, whose Christian faith inspired him with courage and kindness to defy a cruel and unjust emperor.

The story of Valentine is the story of a Christian who chose to orient his life to God and to the ways of God, not to the empire and its ways. For Valentine, it was a matter of remembering who he was and whose he was. For this, he was killed.

The story of the temptation of Jesus is also a story in which some of the most difficult and challenging elements have been all but forgotten in favor of an easier to swallow version. The domesticated version, the palatable version, goes something like this: a young man faces a rite of passage. He is being tested and the question is: is he worthy, will he pass the test?

He goes out alone … much as young men have from earliest days across many cultures. He fasts and prays. Then the temptations come and, one by one - he faces them down, overcoming his own desires, his own ego, and the lure of power. He emerges from the ordeal a worthy individual.

The real story, however, is not unlike Valentine’s story. It is a contest between the ways of the empire (the ways of the world) and the ways of God. The empire is represented in this story by the devil.  The devil tempts Jesus with the empire’s goods and its rewards, but they can only be achieved by adopting the empire’s methods: manipulation, abuse, coercion and violence.

Jesus rejects the way of the empire and he offers another way: the way of love, of mercy, forgiveness, grace, and peace.

Christianity, in the name of its founder, offers this other way … the Christian is called to live out and witness to this other way: a way of being human that was, in the first century, and is today, a remarkable departure from the status quo, from the ways of the empire. Following Jesus, the early Christians, a minority community empowered by an ethical mandate unlike any the world had ever known, stood tall against the world’s greatest empire … witnessing to it, challenging it, and changing it.

They did so, and many of them died doing so, because they were vigilant in remembering who they were and to whom they belonged.

In the history of Old South Church there is an extraordinary story … and, as is often the case, there is the popular version and palatable version, and then there is the whole story.

On our Old South website and in some of our publications, you will see a verse from a poem by John Greenleaf Whittier. The poem is called: In the Old South, and the verse we like to show to the world, goes this:

As long as Boston shall Boston be
And her bay tides rise and fall,
Shall freedom stand at the Old South Church
And plead for the rights of all.
Here we are, Old South, immortalized in the words of a great poet of the people, a Quaker and an abolitionist. He sings our praises, congratulating this church and congregation for our advocacy on behalf of the rights of all. It gives you a warm feeling all over … I know it did me. It makes you feel proud.

That is, until you know the story behind the story. The whole story, as it turns out, is especially appropriate for this first Sunday of Lent, as it involves sackcloth and ashes and a call to repentance.
The story takes place in the mid-seventeenth century, an era during which there was tremendous conflict between Puritans and Quakers. The Puritans (those who were our predecessors, our faith ancestors at Old South) accused the Quakers of “troubling the world by preaching peace to it.” For their part, the Quakers accused the Puritans of not caring for the poor and destitute, of being too accommodating to slavery, and of failing to practice equality. The Quakers also accused the Puritans of classism: of showing more regard for the wealthy and educated … and a consequent indifference to the sufferings of those who were less well endowed with this world’s resources.

Margaret Brewster, a devout Quaker, believed that the Old South Church and its leaders and members represented the empire, that is, the interests of the elite, of those in power.
And so it was that on a Sunday in July of 1677, Margaret Brewster entered Old South Church meeting house during worship. She was barefoot, wore sackcloth, had ashes on her head, and her face was blackened. She stood in the aisle (this is every preacher’s worst nightmare) and delivered “a warning from the great God of Heaven and Earth to the Rulers and Magistrates of Boston (that would be you … you in the pews).”  For the offence she was later severely whipped and publicly humiliated.

But what warning did she deliver? In effect, she accused the members and leaders of Old South of being too cozy with the ways of the empire and of having forgotten God’s ways. John Greenleaf Whittier tells the whole story of this episode in his poem  … in verses which, by the way, we have not chosen to include in our public relations literature.

Here is part of Whittier’s poem . . . enough to give a flavor of the truth:

She came and stood in the Old South Church,
A wonder and a sign,
With a look the old-time sibyls wore,
Half-crazed and half-divine.

And the minister (Mr. Thatcher) paused in his sermon’s midst,
And the people held their breath,
For these were the words the maiden spoke
Through lips as the lips of death:

“Thus saith the Lord, with equal feet
All men my courts shall tread,
And priest and ruler no more shall eat
My people up like bread!

“Repent! repent! ere the Lord shall speak
In thunder and breaking seals
Let all souls worship Him in the way
His light within reveals.”

She shook the dust from her naked feet,
And her sackcloth closer drew,
And into the porch of the awe-hushed church
She passed like a ghost from view.

And now the aisles of the ancient church
By equal feet are trod,
And the bell that swings in its belfry rings
Freedom to worship God!

And now whenever a wrong is done
It thrills the conscious walls;
The stone from the basement cries aloud
And the beam from the timber calls.

So, long as Boston shall Boston be,
And her bay-tides rise and fall,
Shall freedom stand in the Old South Church
And plead for the rights of all!

If then, as John Greenleaf Whittier proclaims, this ancient church does now have a conscience, does now plead for the rights of all, does now treat all people equally, it is only because we were publicly shamed into it by a barefooted Quaker woman! That is the truth behind this verse.

When I was candidating for the position of Senior Minister, what I was most struck by, was the insistence by the leadership of this church that this is a place where everybody is recognized as, and treated like, a child of God. Over and over I heard an appeal to this theme. It is something that resonated with my deeply held beliefs. It was one of the aspects of Old South that I wanted to affirm and contribute to. However different we are from each other, we try to value and affirm each other.

Yet we, who join together in this special community of faith, have not yet achieved anything like perfection in our quest to love and regard every person as a child of God. BUT, since that moment in 1677 when we were publicly chastised, it remains a plumb-line by which we are measured, and a value to which we hold ourselves and each other accountable.

One way of doing that is to remember the whole story related by the poem …. to remember and acknowledge that this church was once publicly chastised. Our respectable ancestors in the faith held their breath and their minister held his tongue, as a Quaker woman called them to the Gospel’s demanding truth.

The season of Lent gives each one of us an opportunity to reflect on, and remember who we are and whose we are … and to stand in the truth, even if it is painful.

That is why in Lent there are so many opportunities to pray, study, and focus on the spiritual dimension of our life. To stand against the empire and to stand with God is difficult and costly. It requires vigilance, courage, honesty … and remembering: remembering who we are and whose we are.

Indeed, the entire season of Lent is intended to be an exercise in remembering: in remembering our baptism, in remembering to whom we belong … because we are so prone to forget.

In this holy season, we are invited to recall ourselves to our primary orientation, our north star, our polestar: a God whose power is manifest in weakness and who exposes the weakness of this world’s power, but in whose love alone we find our true selves.

As we begin the Lenten journey of remembering who we are as a child of God, let us tomorrow remember the real Valentine – the man who gave his life for his faith . . .and, yes, for love.


Scripture Reading
Matthew 4. 1-11
Jesus in the Wilderness

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the
devil.  He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was
famished.  The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God,
command these stones to become loaves of bread.”

But he answered, “It is written,
‘One does not live by bread alone,
but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”

Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of
the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down;
for it is written,

‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and
‘On their hands they will bear you up,
so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’”

Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”
Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the
kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, “All these I
will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.”  Jesus said to him,
“Away with you, Satan, for it is written,

‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’”

Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.

Copyright © 2005, Old South Church and by author.
Excerpts are permitted as long as full accreditation is made
to Old South Church and to the author.

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The Old South Church in Boston
645 Boylston Street
Boston, MA 02116
(617) 536-1970