Binding the Strong Man: A Sermon for Memorial Day 2021

REBECCA: We have six legacies for you: stories for you about six veterans of First Church, Black and White veterans who died this year. We are the anti-racism task force here at First Church, we have been reading Ibram Kendi, and Ched Myer, Michelle Alexander, and we would like to tell you about overlapping images of heroism, in the context of one of the wildest parables Jesus ever told: the parable about binding the strong man.

The first legacy is that we change public safety so that it truly is public and safe. If public safety is not bringing comfort, shelter, protection to all the citizens, then we must change it.

I would like to start with the story of Leon Dorr, a veteran who died this year, who was a radio operator in World War II in the Navy, and one of the most courageous people I have ever known. He was so eager to use his skills for communication and connection, at 14 he forged his father’s signature to get into the Civil Defense Reserves. He ended up in the middle of World War two, in the Navy, doing radio communication.

His vision was always public safety as a way of working for the people, for their protection, making sure they could network with each other.

This vision of Leon’s for public safety makes a model for us as we think about how we might defend each other in the police and fire department today. And so I have a story of a firefighter who Leon would have loved, who saved the day in New Mexico this year. A man had headed into the grocery store to grab some groceries, and came back to his car to find out that it was holding 15,000 bees, honey bees, who had swarmed in the back open window while he was shopping.

The good news is that he called the Fire department, and the fire department had an off-duty firefighter who loves bees. Jesse Johnson, 38, firefighter, paramedic, and father of two, hustled to the parking lot and brought an empty beehive, a bucket, a bee suit, and some lemon grass, which apparently smells like a queen bee. Johnson had the 15,000 bees out of the car and safely into the hive in a half hour. He said he could have done it in 10 minutes, but he really wanted to get it right.

I love this story, and I love to think that Leon would have loved firefighter Johnson, because Leon also loved bees. Leon would have given anything to bring his skills and experience to help someone – whether it was a grocery shopper or 15,000 bees. 

I also love this story because it helps me think about public safety: that we need to support every public defense department to have staff on every shift who are un-armed, who are skilled with mental health, animal health, and compassion. Some on our team want to de-fund the police. Others want to raise up the skilled staff so that their gifts shine so bright that you don’t need weapons. In the case of this grocery store in New Mexico, a gun would have been a lot less useful than the bucket and the lemongrass!

In the Gospel, we read this wild parable, that a thief cannot enter a strong man’s house unless he tie up the strong man. It is Jesus, the comedian, quoting Isaiah, the comedian. Isaiah uses the metaphor of being a sneaky thief as a way to change things. Jesus’ parable here is so strange and funny that we find ourselves scratching our heads. But the question rises up, what strong man do we need to bind up, as we make the changes that the world so badly needs? I would say the first strong man to bind is the way we think about public safety. We need more beekeepers, fewer pistols. We need fire-fighters, mental health workers, paramedics, midwives, in every town and city in the country.

EUNICE:  And then there is a second legacy: that we sacrifice ourselves for each other. This is a legacy of knowing suffering, telling the truth about it, living in gratitude for others’ love and sacrifice for you, and seeing God’s love in the presence of suffering.

Jim Teele was a veteran who died this year. He served his country in the U.S. Army during the Korean War, two years in active duty and four years in reserve duty, and relished discussion of his army experiences in later life. He was the first Black Sociology Department Chairman at Boston University. He used to ask: Why does God allow suffering to happen on earth?

My Daddy weighed this question in his preaching, and he tried to come up with an answer, but I never really liked his answer.  But here is what I see. White people did a lot to secure Black freedom. You see all the graves up in Maine, all the White boys who died in the Civil War from Maine. And you know it then. None of us gets any place without an awful lot of help. There are a lot more decent people than devilish.

This is an important legacy that Jim Teele knew: that we stand up for each other. Dr. Teele would have said this: more Memorial Days, but no more wars. Because we serve each other, and sacrifice for each other. This is our greatest calling.

The second strong man that we must bind is the strong man of individualism. Because we are social beings, in a world of social creatures of all forms. We need each other, and Jim Teele knew this better than anybody.

LYNN: There is a third legacy: that we make sure everybody can participate. Richard Smith offered a legacy of making sure everyone is included: ushering folks into church, making sure everybody could hear, welcoming everybody without exception. He served as the usher captain of First Church Ipswich, and he died during the Covid quarantine. 

When he was a young man, Richard Smith enlisted in the National Guard, then the United States Army. There he served as sergeant first class in the Airborne in Korea. His work as a veteran was always so moving to our church. He was always making sure the church was a place where everybody could understand what was being talked about, and everybody had a place. As an usher, he would welcome you into the sanctuary, bring you to your seat. He always made sure you knew how glad he was that you were here. He would turn up the volume of the microphones if he thought you couldn’t hear. And he did this for decades.

This legacy of inclusion was valuable to our church, and is valuable to our world, as we think about a truly anti-racist society. We need to make sure everybody has a welcome seat, a hearing aid if they need one, a warm kind smile when they stand in the doorway. This is what Richard would have wanted us to remember.

The third strong man we must bind is the strong man of closed doors or exclusion. We must wrestle this devil to the ground and tie it up! 

SHANNON:. This is the fourth and fifth legacy: a legacy of making sure that everybody has enough. 

Let me talk to you about Ed and Eddie Paquin, two veterans who died in First Church this year.  Ed and Eddie left a legacy of searching for ways to make sure other people had beauty and good food and plenty. Even though they did not have a lot of resources themselves, they believed in equality and sustainability so fiercely, they did all that they could to make sure people with less than them had enough.  

Ed Paquin left school at the age of 17 to serve an enlistment in Alaska with the U.S. Air Force in 1946. He was always so creative, with beautiful painting, cooking, so many generous offerings.  When he wanted to make sure people had enough money, though he did not have many extra resources himself, he took up his metal detector and went coin collecting at the beach, so he could give money away. 

Eddy Paquin was his son. He died of Covid-19 this year, and yet he left a legacy to the church, so somebody hungry could have enough food. He was a part of the National Guard, in the 1970’s, here in Massachusetts.  

This is the fourth strong man that we must bind:  the strong man who has commandeered most of the goods and wealth in this land. And who is to bind this strong man? And what shall be done about all the wealth stolen, lives taken, lives demeaned? It is up to us, to right the wrongs done by one set of people against another set of human beings. 

It is especially important because slave owners were given reparations at the end of the Civil War, and yet that formerly enslaved persons, meant to receive 40 acres and a mule, were instead often tricked by former slave owners into working as sharecroppers. Now is a high time for reparations.

BETH:  The sixth legacy is this: That we fix broken things, broken laws, broken assumptions.  

There are broken parts of the nation: that prisons are so unequally populated with Black and Brown and Indigenous people, even though the crime rates of the diverse races are equal. That the legal system cracks down unequally on Black and Indigenous and People of Color. That the life spans of Brown and Black people are shorter than life spans of White people in this country. That we have only offered unequal access to good neighborhoods, good schools, good food.  

Donald Sawyer died this year. He was a veteran of the Navy. He learned a skill in the Navy, and then brought it home to his life here in Massachusetts: to be able to fix anything at all, with a few tools, a roll of duct tape, and some creativity. What we need now is the tools, a little duct tape, and a lot of creativity to mend the broken parts of the country. Because at Donald’s funeral, the Navy was there:  Katrina and Keisha, two Black women in their beautiful Navy uniforms with their crisp white caps, folding the flag for him. And now as his legacy, we need to mend this country and make it a safe and fair place for them and their families. Donald had a pair of pliers on his funeral urn, as his family and community laughed about his ability to fix things. It is a good legacy for us.

The sixth strong man that we must bind is the strong man of our own superiority. We wondered: how do we overcome this idea that we are better than other people? We wondered: Is the strong man separation? What separates us? 

Let us get out our tools, and our duct tape, and our pliers, and bind up that strong man, tape up that strong man, fasten down that strong man, bind him up right now. Let us mend the world.

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