Sermon preached at Evensong on the Eighth Sunday after Trinity 2023

The dungeon shook and my chains fell off; I’m gonna grieve my Lord no more.

The Right Honourable The Lord Boateng CVO PC DL

Sunday, 30th July 2023 at 3.00 PM

Sisters and brothers in Christ! May I have the tongue to speak and you the ears to hear only that which glorifies his wondrous name!

We are told in the Old Testament reading today, 1 Kings 6, of Solomon’s obedience and God’s fulfilment of his promise to his people.

We learn in painstaking detail of Solomon’s construction which adorned with symbols and decorated in gold bears vivid testament to the nature of the God he worshiped and speaks to the shock and awe his temple was designed to arouse and inspire in all who beheld it.

I want on this specific Sunday, when by tradition in this Abbey Church we recall the struggle against slavery and the lives of the likes of William Wilberforce, Equiano, Ignatius Sancho, Thomas Clarkson, and others, to call to mind another very intentional construction: a ceramic medallion crafted by Josiah Wedgwood.

It is of a man—a distinctly black man—on his knees, his eyes upturned and hands held high in supplication to the heavens, with the chains on his hands and feet falling downwards. And beneath it the words ‘Am I not a man and a brother’. He sent a version of it in 1788 to Benjamin Franklin in the hope that it would inspire not just his but future generations. And not just in America or in the immediate struggle against trans-Atlantic chattel slavery, but in relation to all forms of oppression everywhere. This hope he expressed in the letter he sent with it.

The purpose was to shock at the injustice and cruelty of man’s inhumanity to man and to inspire action on the part of those who beheld it.

The man pictured on that medallion is taking the knee before that term and the action, to bring to mind the continuing racial injustice which the murder of George Floyd represents, took on the meaning it now has. We should perhaps set aside our reaction for or against that action in a sporting context for a moment and reflect on Wedgwood’s medallion and what it says to us more generally today.

We are helped in this by our New Testament reading for this service—Acts 12: 1–17—where we find recorded the promise of the freedom that is offered to Peter and, through the Church he built, to us all.

Peter faces death, as James was killed before him, at the hands of a vengeful Herod, but sleeps soundly in the certainty of God’s love and Jesus’s example. Jesus the man, the brother, but also the Son of God.

Peter finds himself miraculously set free from the chains that bind him hand and foot as if in a dream. He obeys the command given him and follows escaping his guards and the dungeon. He appears first to a lowly servant Rhoda, who is not believed but never the less persists, and she bears witness as to what has occurred to the household of Jesus’s followers.

Peter enters and bids them all to share the good news and carries on to fulfil that which he is commissioned to do. Upon that rock Christ founded the Church as Christ had promised him he would. We are here today in this great abbey church of Westminster because of Peter’s obedience and the fulfilment of our Lord’s promise.

So, what are we to do each of us individually and together in this troubled and troubling world in which injustice persists in many forms, in which inequality (the statistics suggest) grows worse? And in which our disrespect for God’s creation of Mother Earth, Brother Sun, and Sister Moon, our addiction to overconsumption and fossil fuel, our lack of care for sustaining nature has brought us quite literally to a fiery place. We face an existential threat through climate change and all the evils of conflict and forced migration which it fuels. What’s to be done?

The gospels suggest that first and foremost we must believe and then obey. His commandment is first to love our God and our neighbours as ourselves.

We are called too surely to bear witness to a miracle, in the face of incredulity even as the servant who went to the door to let in Peter did. The miracle is of God’s love for each and every one of us with all our failings and frailties and what the power of that love can do. No easy challenge, but through that love we can find peace as Peter did that night, and when we obey miracles can happen and we have held out to us the promise of the true freedom that Peter found.

The challenge then is to find practical ways, big and small, in every aspect of our lives, in our work, and in our interactions one with another to bear witness to the power of love not simply as a sentiment but as a strategy. To ask ourselves in all our actions, ‘Are we helping or hindering the coming of the kingdom? Are we fulfilling what Christ wants for each of us and our world?’

This can range from a kind word, taking the reusable not the plastic option, the small gesture to the big action, speaking up, and acting out against manifest injustice whenever and wherever we can. Conquering our fears and trusting the Holy Spirit to do its work overcoming our weaknesses and subduing the foe! Just as Christ’s angels did for Peter that night!

When we do so we take the knee in its truest sense, we kneel in love and raise our hands in supplication, yes, but also in praise. Just as those sold into slavery did to their Lord even when his very word was distorted and denied them by a fallen Church which initially denied also the call of those brave men and women, black and white, Anglican and Dissenters, who spoke out against slavery, who shared that image on Wedgwood’s medallion and asked that question. Man and brother, woman and sister, black and white, we are all God’s children! One in his eyes and one in his love!

We remember all of those brave souls in this abbey church at this special time, knowing that when we take the knee in its truest sense and turn our face upwards to our Lord, raise our hands to him in supplication and praise, we free ourselves of the chains that surely bind us, each and every one, and become agents of liberation in a troubled world—a world that longs to be free of all the hurts we have inflicted upon it by our own manifest failings and the pain and division that besets it.

In the words of the Negro Spiritual that gave voice to the slave on Wedgwood’s medallion:

The very hour that I thought I was lost
My dungeon shook and my chains fell off
My dungeon shook and my chains fell off
I ain’t gonna grieve my Lord no more
I ain’t gonna grieve the Lord no more

Or, as we are reminded in our own choral tradition by Charles Wesley, the Methodist and abolitionist who lived and died an Anglican:

Long my imprisoned spirit lay
Fast bound in sin and natures night
Thine eye diffused a quickening ray
I woke the dungeon flamed with light
My chains fell off my heart was free
I rose went forth and followed thee
My chains fell off my heart was free
I rose went forth and followed thee

So, sisters and brothers, when we turn to him and act according to his commandment fuelled by his love, we don’t have to grieve any more, for we are changing ourselves and the world. Only kneel, raise your eyes to the Lord, rise up, and follow him and you are made free, we are all made free, and free for all eternity! Thank you, dear Jesus! Thank you!