–Rev. Dr. Rebecca Pugh
John 15:15: I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends.
Today I will speak about equality.
I want to start with a story about my tenth grandmother Ots-Toch. She was born in 1600, was a keeper of the Longhouse, and enjoyed the leadership that the Iroquois women held along the Mohawk River where many villages were located. She lived in a town called Canajoharie, in what is now New York, at the base of a large waterfall, where the water had carved a large circular hollow out of the stone. I visited it, and the hollow is about 25 feet across, and this was how her home town got its name: the pot that is carved by the water moving in circles is called Canajogolegue in Haudenoshonee.
According to the records saved by oral historians and her children, Ots-Toch was “Wild and savage like her mother,” which I have always been proud to know about her. Because, you see, she was there in her village at the start of colonialism in this land. And she did not think much of colonialism.
It is the wildness and savageness of Ots-Toch that I am grateful to preach about today. I think of all our mothers, some of them well-behaved, some of them wild. I think of how the wild ones got criticized for it, and how the well-behaved ones got celebrated but also ignored. And I think about how all of them, wild and sweet, were endangered by this same colonialism. I think of what they went through, to guard themselves and us against the hardships of the world. This is important to me this Mothers’ Day, especially as I reflect on our Scripture for the day, this passage about equality from Jesus’ farewell discourse.
Ots-Toch, like her mother, likely had two batches of children: the pure blood ones of the village, with her local husband, and the mixed-race ones, with her Dutch husband Cornelius. Cornelius joined the Iroquois clan in about 1630, moved in, and they invited him to stay for the rest of his life.
It is so fascinating to me that this grandmother of mine held fast to the spiritual tenet of independence, against the huge pressure of Dutch colonialism. She welcomed her husband, but refused to change her ways for him. And it is fascinating to me that she was a part of the Iroquois women’s teachings which inspired the founding of Democracy in America, by her leadership in the Longhouse. The Longhouse’s work, led by Iroquois women, was to discuss the political and civil matters of the community, deliberate on how best to govern, to choose leaders, and to encourage the community to vote. A study of the Longhouse egalitarianism gave influence to the early drafters of the US constitution. American Democracy was born, as well as with its Platonic and Biblical influences, with its strong Iroquois influences. And it was a political system that spoke to the high ideal of equality.
In the scripture passage that churches are reading aloud all over the world this week, Jesus describes equality. The Mohawks would not have known about this Christ-wisdom when Ots-Toch was a leader of their matriarchal society. But two streams of thought, in two different parts of the world, came up with the same idea. I love it when this happens.
Equality was not the first thing the Christian evangelists thought of when they came to what they named the New World. Not to mention that what they named the New World was not a new world; the Iroquois culture was some 15,000 years old by then.
Yet the message that Jesus put forth to the early church here in John 15:15 was a very compelling one: no longer servants but friends. The colonialists, however, were even more interested in their business interests than they were in equality. They were caught up in trapping and trading. They found it to be so lucrative, they could hardly remember that Jesus had preached about human rights in his last sermon before he died. Their hope for land was so full of their hope for wealth, that they forgot the true message of the Gospel.
Jesus says he is not going to call us servants any longer, but friends now. In other words, Jesus dissolves the old names of servant and slave, decries them forever, and instead, declares that people are equal, all of us, in our relationships with each other and in our relationships with the land.
I am struck by the realization of what this means as I reflect on my Iroquois grandmother Ots-Toch. A lot of Christian religion has been about people trying to submit, to surrender, to sublimate. But it is clear as we read this Scripture that that model of religion, For Jesus in 33 AD, and for John who wrote it down in 110 AD, was not the only one. The Bible has two very strong rivers in it, and they are running perpendicular to each other.
The submitting your will model of religion, which has served some people so well, in recovering from addiction, committing to a community, living not for ourselves but for a greater power: that model of surrender has been amazing for people who needed help with overcoming an alien force that had a grip on them, like a deep grief or post-traumatic stress or alcoholism. We are a lot better off, surrendering to God who gives us spiritual power to live a clean life, if we need help with that.
But there is this powerful equality model of religion which is also in the Bible, and it stands in contrast to submission. It is about not being a servant but a friend. Jesus taught equality, having learned it in his travels in Egypt and in his studies of Second Isaiah. He offered people the chance to live, freed of servanthood.
Ots-Toch always refused to surrender. She always insisted that people were equal. She was so concerned about people’s equality that, when the Dutch invited her to get Baptized, she only could see the surrendering model of Christianity, and refused. She never did renounce her traditional ways. All she could see of Christianity was that it was taking land, taking up guns, taking over rivers, trapping animals for their fur.
But here we are on Mothers’ Day with this theology of not servants but friends. People are reading this verse in churches all over the world today. Friends, not servants. Equality, not hierarchy.
In my studies, I find that the Christian church was only ever completely good at this in its first 300 years. And then we were good at it in small pockets, like the churches in Assisi under Francis and Claire, and the churches in Manhattan under Dorothy Day, and the churches in Georgia under Fannie Lou Hamer, and the churches in Alabama under Martin Luther King, and the churches in Nicaragua under the Theologia de la Liberacion. But the big picture of the churches for the last 1700 years, has been about taking land, taking prisoners, taking slaves, trapping animals.
This church in Ipswich is on land that we never had a deed to. The First Church in Ipswich took this land without negotiating it as far as I can tell in my research, in 1636. We built a fort here, together with a church in one same building. A fort in a church! Cannons beside church pews! We have come here to worship, whether it was the God of equality, or the God of land-grabbing, ever since. Ironically, the forebears of the First Church in Ipswich took this land because we justified it with Scripture, not because we believed Jesus’ words about equality.
It started with the first covenant. God promised to Abraham that he would have many children, and that he could occupy the lands of Palestine as his homeland. That proved to be a disaster for the Palestinians, and the use of that theology, which became the 19th century manifest destiny, is a disaster for tribal peoples still. This was a terrible problem for the village of Canajoharie where my 10th grandmother Ots-Toch lived. And it was the same here on this land.
In Ipswich, it was a disaster for the Pawtucket people, who the settlers called Agawam. The Pawtucket were banished further and further away from the river. Agawam means “On the other side of the marsh”. It was theirs, their hunting grounds. This land was their spring planting grounds, watered faithfully from the lands above us here, which we still call Spring Street.
The local people would move from spring home to summer cottage to autumn camp to winter sheltered resting place, based on hunting and fishing and farming needs. So when the colonialists got here and saw empty villages, they wrongly assumed the people had abandoned them. They had found people’s summer cottages in winter time, or people’s harvest fields in the summertime when they were away fishing at castle hill. There also were two deadly diseases introduced by Europeans, which became a kind of biological warfare for the colonialists and in some cases decimated some 90% of the local inhabitants.
It is devastating how colonialism got mixed up with Christianity. Because Jesus said that people would not be servants, but friends. But for 6/7th of Christianity, the greed has been a lot more powerful than the equality.
Which is a sacrilege, given how hard Jesus tried to leave us with peace. It was after Palm Sunday, and Jesus had ridden into Jerusalem, welcomed as this brand-new kind of leader, not based on taking, but on giving. Jesus had blessed all the people of the city: Jews and Greeks, rich and poor, and everybody else. The rulers were starting to get worried because they didn’t much like equality; they were counting on usurious taxes to pay for their wars. They wanted to keep expanding their territories. Then Jesus washed people’s feet. Tom Lenhart preached for us about how counter-cultural that was, to take people’s filthy feet into his hands, a true friend, not a master with servants or slaves. Then he said he likely would be killed soon. Well, they were getting dependent on all that love! All that wisdom! All that equality! They did not want him to go. So he gave them a mandate on his way. He said something to the effect of: “You can do this for each other! I don’t call you servants! I call you friends!”
I would say this is one of the secret passages in the Bible, and one that the colonialists would have hoped that Ots-Toch never would have heard about.
It is the true passage on equality, which Jesus told the people hurriedly because he knew he was likely to get executed by the Romans that same week.
It is this secret passage that did not get studied by the people who went confiscate the land of my 10th grandmother Ots-Toch. They wanted to take the land and the resources, and it seemed like a good idea to take them in the name of the Bible. So they said they had come to Christianize. But they had really come to capitalize. Some of them had pure hearts. But a lot of them had pure greed.
But today churches all over the world are reading this passage: friends, not servants, on the US Mothers Day. Mothers’ Day began in 1870, as a declaration by our Boston Feminist leader Julia Ward Howe. Though she was an imperfect peacemaker herself (not believing in equality among races, though she worked much of her life for the abolition of slavery) she called for change from her place of deep pain.
Imperfect in her voice, she somehow wrote a treatise declaring we had to stop war, once and for all, given how much suffering it caused, and how it hurt everybody equally. She was looking at the Franco-Prussian war, and the US Civil war, and how much people had lost lives, siblings, children.
She believed women across the globe could get together and resist men’s impulses to land-grabbing and death. In some ways, she was a modern Ots-Toch, calling her own longhouse gathering to change the society, in the middle of Boston common.
I hope today that Julia would have understood equality in more expansive ways than she did in her day. I am still grateful that she did it.
For my 10th grandmother Ots-Toch, she herself called a gathering of the longhouse to work for peace two hundred years earlier. I will be thankful to her for that forever. I am also thankful to her for her willingness to embrace a multi-cultural family, because that is how I got here. I am one of those children from Ots-Toch and Cornelius.
But the Bible is complex. It has the most beautiful peace. It has the most difficult covenants. It teaches equality so perfectly. It has been used to take people’s land. I used to think I could explain all of this, and all the homophobia and misogyny and racism and violence in the Bible, by studying the history of it, and putting it in context. But the Palestinians in Exodus 12 are still furious, the same way modern Iroquois are today. There is no true historical study that would allow me to justify the colonialism and racism of the Bible.
Because the Bible is like a series of layers of bedrock. It has equality in it, but not in every place. It also has land-grabbing, as it was used on this Pawtucket land, and as it was used at my 10th Grandmother’s land in the Mohawk River valley, as it was used for Abraham against Palestine.
All of that is true. However, I think that this passage: I don’t call you servants any longer, because servants do not know what the master is doing, but I call you friends: gives us one good lens for looking at the rest of the Bible. It tells us we can see each other as equals, and that that should always be our first step.
With that lens, we can ask God and ourselves what some of the other parts of the Bible are doing, and if they are working for equality or inequality. Because if they are working for equality, that is great, and that is in the spirit of the goodness of God. If they are working for inequality, we have to turn away, and for the Christians among us, we must keep seeking this hurried message Jesus gave before he died.
For the indigenous among us, we keep seeking the message of the Longhouse, that people can come together in silence and song, and contemplate the village’s troubles and needs, listen to the women directing us, and follow them with our votes, as best and as faithfully as we can.
In conclusion, I would like to offer the song from the Arapaho, from the plains of Colorado and Wyoming. It is a vision of holiness all around us, the Great Spirit calling us, encircling us, blessings us as equal children of Creation: to cherish each other, not that anybody is better, but that we are all equal.
I circle around. I circle around. The boundaries of the earth.
The boundaries of the sky. Wearing my long wing feathers as I fly.