Camp Calumet Sermon: “No John Trumbull”

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Matthew 10:24-39

And that’s your Gospel reading. When I’m all ready to preach some peace and love for staff week and confirmation camp at Calumet, Jesus goes all “not peace but a sword” on me. Whoa Jesus.

’Til I moved to New England, I lived most of my adult life in Atlanta, the capital of hip hop. So naturally, when I need a little help, I turn there.

So – some of you may be familiar with a little musical called Hamilton. For those of you who don’t know, it’s a hip hop musical based on exactly what you’d expect a hip hop musical to be about: the life of a real OG, our nation’s first treasury secretary Alexander Hamilton. Written by American actor, rapper, and playwright Lin-Manuel Miranda, it’s all at once dream-like and a painfully realistic, clear-eyed journey through the Revolution and our nation’s founding.

Now, those of you who are Hamilton superfans will know of another release called the Hamilton Mixtape, in which legendary hip hop and R&B artists had all kinds of fun performing the numbers, adding lyrics, adding their own spin. And the Mixtape also included some deleted numbers from the show.

The first track on the album is one such number. Called “No John Trumbull,” the number was supposed to open the second act, after the Revolution has been won, and after the audience has been left with American pride running through their veins, thinking of how nice and romantic that whole Revolution thing was, similar to a painting by John Trumbull, the artist who captured the famous painting of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. 

After the Revolution, the real work of governing begins for Alexander Hamilton and the other Founding Fathers. In what was originally meant to open that second act, legendary artists the Roots give us this short number:

You ever seen a painting by John Trumbull?

Founding fathers in a line, looking all humble

Patiently waiting to sign a declaration, to start a nation,

no sign of disagreement,

Not one grumble?

The reality is messier and richer, kids.

The reality is not a pretty picture, kids.

Every cabinet meeting’s like a full on rumble.

What you’re about to witness is no John Trumbull.” (1)

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John Trumbull’s depiction of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776.

We romanticize history, but history is messy. It’s no romantic painting, No John Trumbull. Living together is hard. Governing and leading is hard. Messy. I’m from Alabama. I’m not sure, but there’s a decent chance that my ancestors may have owned and abused other humans in the horror of American slavery. Then there was segregation and the KKK. American history, as any Alabama student who’s paying attention knows, is not pretty. It’s complicated. It’s messy. It’s real.

Good thing we have the church, right?

[Cough]

We spend a lot of time talking about peace and love in the church, and so we should. But we get to feeling too good about ourselves and we often confuse love with being nice. We paint ourselves a John Trumbull — clean lines, nice. Always getting along.

No sign of disagreement, not one grumble.

The reality is messier and richer, kids.

The reality is not a pretty picture, kids.

We try so hard to make out like the church is nice. We like being nice. We’re in New England, for God’s sake, the most polite place since… well, the first England, where the Founding Fathers came from. Being nice seems uncomplicated. Everyone likes you, and people don’t get mad at you too often. And we imagine the early church as this nice place where people shared everything and people loved each other and there was no conflict, no sign of disagreement, not one grumble.
The reality is messier and richer, kids.

The reality is not a pretty picture, kids.
Then there’s the stereotypes about Jesus: meek and mild, nice guy, carries sheep, stares peacefully into distance. We see it in paintings a lot.

But this Gospel reading is no John Trumbull.

Jesus, meek & mild, and talking about how he didn’t come to bring peace, but a sword.

And try as we might, the modern church isn’t always nice either. Some of you, unfortunately, know this first hand. If you don’t, ask your pastor their craziest “person who wasn’t nice in their last call” story. Or don’t. Because it’s similar to opening Google and typing “my dog swallowed ….” and waiting for Google to fill in the predictive search. The possibilities are endless and pretty gross.

Some folks think we’ve fallen from grace since those first days of the early church as described in Acts. As nice as that is to think, you’d be wrong there too. Paul is all over the Corinthians for being first century jerks, where everybody had their favorite teacher and they wouldn’t listen to anyone else. “I follow Paul! I follow Apollos!”

If you read those epistles closely, you’ll see that, long before Ms. Beatrice came for the property committee over the color of the carpet, Theomestros came for Agatha over eating meat dedicated to idols.

The reality is messier and richer, kids.

The reality is not a pretty picture, kids.

‘Kay. I get it. No more Reverend Nice Church. So if we’re not a nice church, what kind of church are we?

Assuming Jesus really meant all of this stuff, which I feel like is generally a good idea, it would seem that being nice isn’t an option, but we know that Jesus has also called us to love one another.

And real love is no John Trumbull. It’s messier and richer, kids.

Love often isn’t nice. Love is hard.

Sometimes you have to deal with difficult people or tell people what they don’t want to hear or speak your truth and trust the other person to still love you anyway. Love can get messy, but it’s also real — more beautiful than any painting.

In the church, you will find bickering and anger, but you will also find people who are trying their hardest to follow Jesus and to welcome everyone in and to seek justice and really love one another. And that’s hard stuff.

The truth is that real love, real justice, takes work. Too often when we’re nice, we don’t want to rock the boat. But the truth is that sometimes that boat needs rocking. The world is imperfect, and people are getting hurt every day, and we’re called to stand up and do something about that, because defending vulnerable people is what love looks like — and that can be hard. We’ll disagree on who and what and how to rock what boat and when.

Every council meeting’s like a full on rumble

What you’re about to witness is no John Trumbull.

The difference between niceness and love is the difference between a painting of a nature scene and the beauty you see around you in this place. One is beautiful, with no bugs or humidity, but it’s also only a shadow of the real thing. The other one is actual wilderness, where the weather isn’t always nice and where you can be uncomfortable and sometimes even get hurt — but it’s deep, and real, and beautiful, with real water and real trees and real fresh air. You can touch the trees and feel the breeze. It’s difficult for me to stand on the shores of Lake Ossipee and not feel something, even if it’s hot, or there are bugs. It’s real.

This week in confirmation camp we’re talking about the ways that God shows up here at camp and back home in your church — we call it Holy Things, things like water and fire and and table —  the ways that God shows up in the midst of our mess and still calls us beloved, makes us new, makes us whole.

Paraphrasing Martha Whitmore Hickman, we are not perfect. [We’re not even always nice.] Instead, we are loved. And that’s real.

If you want, I can talk to you about the mess and the pain that I’ve seen in church and the ways I’ve gotten hurt. I’ve had my heart broken by church people a few times. But I can’t talk about that without talking about the love I’ve found in the Church, and not just in some far away spiritual sense, but in a real sense, the kind I can see and hear and touch and taste: in Bread, Wine, Water, and Words, and in these messy people we call the Church. In real people who wrapped their arms around me and told me that I was loved and good enough when the world had told me otherwise. Those who made my baptismal promises real, more than just words on a page. I am loved. So are you.

We’re not perfect, but God keeps showing up among us.

The reality is messier and richer, kids. And it’s more beautiful than any John Trumbull.

It’s messier because we’re sinners. It’s richer because God has made us saints.

And so let us, beloved, gather around this table where God shows up and makes all things new. It’s no picture perfect painting. It’s much messier, and richer, than that.

What you’re about to witness is no John Trumbull. It’s better. It’s love. Amen.

1. “No John Trumbull,” Hamilton Mixtape, 2016. If you’re a Spotify user, you can listen here. [Caution: some songs may not be appropriate for small children.]

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