Sermon 7-26-2015; ‘Today, Tomorrow’
Elise Boulding, The Joy That is Set Before Us, William Penn Lecture 1956, www.quaker.org
Ruthie Tippin, Pastor, Indianapolis First Friends Meeting
Weep - Laugh. Mourn - Dance. Keep - Toss. Love - Hate. The writer of Ecclesiastes charms us, and disarms us with this long list of couplets. There’s a lot of space in our lives between mourning and dancing. There’s a lot of work in our lives between keeping and throwing away. There’s a lot of distance in our lives between love and hate. There’s a lot of time in our lives between birth and death. What do we do with that space? That work? That distance? That time?
The Jerusalem Bible reads this writing as, “I know there is no happiness for man except in pleasure and enjoyment while he lives. And when man eats and drinks and finds happiness in his work, this is a gift from God.” This person sees life now… a present act. Not the past or the future, but life in the present, and understands the present as a gift. It doesn’t work to say, “I will be happy tomorrow.” There is pleasure to be found in today… in the basic necessities of life – what he eats, what he drinks. Thanks be to God. His work? He must find happiness, even in his work, and when he does, he discovers God’s gift of presence.
The very fact that he has to search for happiness tells us that it isn’t always there! What a relief! I might have thought the writer was named “Pollyanna” and not “The Preacher”. No one is happy always, or happy about all things.
Elise Boulding was a Quaker sociologist and author, and she wrote this: ‘In our world the average Christian contents himself with a more temporal happiness. For the real difference between happiness and joy is that one is grounded in this world, the other in eternity.’ The Preacher in Ecclesiastes would agree… we are grounded in this world. “All that man does is appropriate for its time, but though God has permitted us to consider time in its wholeness, we cannot comprehend the work of God from beginning to end.”
Boulding, again: ‘Happiness cannot encompass suffering and evil. Joy can. Happiness depends on the present. Joy leaps into the future and triumphantly creates a new present out of it.’
Present – Future. Mourning – Dancing. Death – Life. Washington County, Indiana was founded two hundred years ago. Quakers arrived in 1808 and founded Blue River Friends Meeting. Others had been pouring in – part of the territorial expansion of the time. We are not certain how many people of color arrived in the county, but we know that many came and lived in at least half of the townships there. Among them was John Williams. John was a freed slave who lived on a tract of one hundred sixty acres that he purchased from John Reyman, Sr. Mr. Reyman held a mortgage on the farm for a time but John paid it off rapidly. He cleared fields, built a cabin and raised sufficient grain to fatten many hogs and cattle each year until the time of his death. By any standard of the day – John Williams became wealthy. Perhaps it was his wealth. Perhaps it was the color of his skin. No one knows for sure, but it’s likely that both things put John’s life at risk. He was murdered in 1863, and no one was ever convicted of the crime.
What did John do with the space of his life? The time, cut short? The distance he traveled? The work he did – as a slave, and as a freed man? He lived in the now, for the future. He worked in the now, for the future. Even though he could not know his ending, he considered his time in its wholeness. He considered his present, a gift.
John wrote a will, with the help of his Quaker friend, Mr. Lindley, who agreed to serve as the executor and trustee of John’s estate… at the time of his death it was worth $6000.00 (Today, that would be nearly $150,000.00) John Williams directed his monies to be used for the education of young black children. Soon after his death, in 1870, the Home for Friendless Colored Children was opened in Indianapolis by Quakers at 319 West 21st Street at the crossroad with Senate Street. ‘When it opened, it was the only orphanage in the state of Indiana to care for African American children. At the end of the home’s first year, it had housed 18 children. By 1922, it had sheltered more than 3000. Although most of the children came from the Indianapolis area, the orphanage accepted children from all over Indiana. In 1922, the management of the orphanage changed hands.’ The closing balance became the basis of the Friends Educational Fund – a scholarship fund for black college students – administered by First Friends Meeting. Today, we will honor 24 recipients of the Scholarships for 2015.
John Williams never married. He never had children of his own. But, by living his life both in the present, and in the future, he has given countless children a home, an education, a future. Living his life as a gift, made his life a gift to many, many others. The happiness of his present life could not anticipate its evil end. But John made way for joy to leap forward into the future, in triumph! For 145 years, young black children have been educated.
Do you think it would have benefitted John Williams to know the ending of his life? Do you think John needed to know all that God did about beginnings and endings? Perhaps it’s enough to have a sense of the past and the future, and live in the promise of things to come… to live a life of faith in things not yet seen. To live in the space between the present we have and the gift not yet received. Let us trust that God has made everything suitable for its time… that Presence between the present and the gift.
Now, we enter that time of communion after the manner of Friends, when we continue to feast on the Word of Life that is Christ. ‘There is a time to keep silence, and a time to speak.’ I ask you to honor it…please wait in silence for a time of centering before anyone speaks. If God brings you a message meant for you alone, hold it, and use it to move you closer to God, our Inward Teacher. If God brings you a message for the Meeting, be obedient to share it, carefully and tenderly.