Tag Archives: Roshan Bliss

My Triple-Great Grandfather Owned Slaves* [OR What’s Under Your Fig Tree?] 

sermon image: Arrington James, 8, grabs the hand of a freed slave figure at the African-American history monument at the South Carolina Statehouse, in Columbia, South Carolina, on Monday, Jan. 16, 2017. (AP Photo/Jeffrey Collins)

* Many thanks to my colleague Roshan Bliss for his guidance on telling the story.

Pastor Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on January 14, 2018

[sermon begins after the Bible reading]

John 1:43-51 The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.” 44 Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. 45 Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” 46 Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.” 47 When Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him, he said of him, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” 48 Nathanael asked him, “Where did you get to know me?” Jesus answered, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.” 49 Nathanael replied, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” 50 Jesus answered, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.” 51 And he said to him, “Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”

1 Corinthians 6:12-20 may be read at the end of the sermon

Psalm 139 may be read at the end of the sermon

[sermon begins]

I want to know what happened under that fig tree. Apparently, so do a lot of people throughout time.  Not surprisingly, Bishop Augustine of Hippo in 4th century Africa decided it was sin.[1] This was his go-to move for most things. He had epic struggles with his own sin. Take a look at his book Confessions some time. His point about the fig tree is well taken though. First he asks if the fig tree signifies anything.  Finding that Adam and Eve dressed themselves in fig leaves after doing what God had asked them not to do, St. Augustine concludes that Jesus knows Nathaniel’s sin.[2]  Thus exposed, Nathaniel comes to faith in the blink of an eye.  First he questions, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”[3]  Then, Jesus announces the fig tree sighting. “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.”  Suddenly, Nathaniel goes all street preacher as he shouts, “You are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!”[4]

St. Augustine is arguably one of the most influential Christian thinkers through the last two millennia.  Martin Luther, from whom Lutheran Christians derive their name, was an Augustinian monk. His own challenges with sin are no secret. Now, I’m game to talk about sin along with the best of them.  I’m committed to calling a thing what it is and sometimes that means acknowledging our darker natures. But I also think that this makes for a quick turn to condemnation. Condemnation that takes shape in the church as finger-pointing and accusation.

Take today’s reading from 1 Corinthians, for example.  The word translated “fornication” comes from the Greek “porneia.”[5]  It’s also translated “sexual immorality.” The word is vague enough that interpreters throughout time tend to put their cultural spin on defining its meaning.[6] Paul’s explanation is his letter to the Corinthians points at the 1st Century practice of visiting prostitutes.[7]  He’s making a distinction between the behavior of Corinthian men who were not-Jesus-followers and men who were Jesus-followers. Jesus-followers who were free men of Corinth and slaves to Christ. Paul’s argument seems pretty straight forward. And yet, I grew up in a different Christian tradition that winged around the words “fornication” and “sexual immorality” as the end-all-be-all of whether or not Jesus had any other interest for me or other people. My experience of the church at that time was that it had its finger out in condemnation. We can see how this happens. Look at Augustine again. Fig tree equals sin. Therefore, Jesus knew Nathaniel’s sin. Therefore, the body of Christ on earth sees and identifies other people’s sin. Before you know it, the church is off and running as sexual-immorality-sin-sniffer-outers and no one measures up…even the church by the way.

Please hear me clearly.  There is sexual sin that hurts ourselves and each other. Absolutely.  Some of the individual confessions I hear in my office are about sexual sin and the hurt people inflict through them. Paul’s words to the Corinthians are important for us to hear.  It’s the distortion of that message by the church that is concerning. The distortion between what’s make or break for whether or not Jesus is for us or against us. It’s a distortion of the gospel. If there’s anything that the cross teaches us, it’s that Jesus finds us in those dark places and offers us a way out of them. Here’s a thought in that regard.  It’s possible that Nathaniel’s story under the fig tree, the one that Jesus knows about, is of a different nature entirely.  The story that God knows about our whole story.

As the Psalm reading from today describes what God knows:

“O Lord, you have searched me and known me. You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away. You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways.”[8]

I’ve been wondering lately about how our story fits into God’s call to us. Not just because of Nathaniel’s leap to faith – although his story has given me a way to think about it. It makes me wonder how the different parts of our story work into the call. Many of you know my religious background and church refugee status that led to my call to the pulpit. Added to this call is Martin Luther King Jr. Day tomorrow and my experience of call as a person of faith to work in the breach between Black and White people in this country. There’s a lot in the mix there for me.  When I moved to California from D.C. at 9 years old, my very first friend Kim Gammel was Black and so was my fourth grade teacher Mrs. Gaines.  In sixth grade, my teacher Mrs. Lake – an amazing, strong Black woman – assigned the novel Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry about racism in America during the Great Depression.[9]  I spent four years at John Muir High School in Pasadena. It was 10% White kids and predominantly Black and Latino kids with an additional minority of first and second generation Asian and Armenian kids.

Running in parallel to those details of upbringing is the picture of the South Carolina governor’s mansion hanging in my grandparents’ home because my Great-Great Grandfather, Hugh Thompson, was the governor of South Carolina.[10]  He led a battalion of Citadel cadets to fire some of the first shots of the Civil War against the North’s Star of the West as it entered Charleston Harbor.  And, on top of that infamy is my Great-Great-Great Grandfather, Thomas B. Clarkson, Plantation man and owner of 300 slaves – men, women, and children.[11]

About a year and a half ago, my mother gave me a letter written by an abolitionist to my triple-great grandfather.  The letter congratulated him on his good care of the slaves. I suppose it’s good to know that he treated his slaves with some kindness. The bottom line for me is that he owned people. The odd thing is that I’ve known for many years that he was a plantation owner and it never once occurred to me that he owned slaves. Of course I’m not responsible for his choices but I am affected by them…and so are all of us here. There is always something to be learned. The legacy of slavery for all of us in this country, but especially for our Black brothers and sisters, is part of how I understand my call to the ministry of reconciliation in the second letter to the Corinthians.[12] Reconciliation understood as repairing our broken relationships between God and neighbors.

Last week, Pastor Ann asked the question, “Who do you think you are?” Through the story of Jesus’ baptism, she announced the good news that we are beloved children of God.[13]   So when I hear Jesus say to Nathaniel, “I saw you underneath the fig tree,” that opens up the question of Nathaniel’s whole story, not only his sin but everything that makes him him and ready for telling the story of Jesus though his own story.

Somehow, Nathaniel’s story moved him from the skepticism and contempt of his original question, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Nathaniel had a story under that fig tree. Jesus knew that story about Nathaniel and called him through it to faith. Apparently something good does come out of Nazareth…and from under fig trees. In the same way, Jesus calls us through our stories – whether the story is one of sin and darkness or one of family heritage or something else entirely or a combination of all those.  His call is an opportunity to get curious about our own stories and other people stories and how Jesus calls us through them…accepting us for who we are, what we’ve done, who our family was, what they’ve done, who our country is, and what we’ve done and drawing us to faith. Drawing us to faith and setting us free to tell Jesus’ story through the truth of our own story by the grace of God. Alleluia and amen.

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[1] Augustine of Hippo (354-430 C.E.). Tractate VII, Chapter 1 vv 34-51, Section 20. Homilies on the Gospel of John. Christian Classics Ethereal Library. http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf107.iii.viii.html

[2] Geneses 3:1-7 [verse 7 is the moment of fig leaf couture.]

[3] John 1:46

[4] John 1:49

[5] Peter Liethart. “Porneia.” January 14, 2015. Patheos. http://www.patheos.com/blogs/leithart/2015/01/porneia/

[6] Ibid.

[7] Valerie Nicolet-Anderson, Maître de Conférence (Assistant Professor), Faculté Libre de Théologie Protestante, Paris, France.  Commentary on 1 Corinthians 6:12-20 for January 18, 2015 on Working Preacher from Luther Seminary.  https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2338

[8] Psalm 139:1-2

[9] Mildred D. Taylor. Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry (1976).

[10] Hugh Smith Thompson (1836-1904). 51st Governor of South Carolina (1882-1886).  http://www.carolana.com/SC/Governors/hsthompson.html

[11] Suellen Clarkson Delahunty (my mother’s cousin). Information About Thomas B. Clarkson, Col. http://www.genealogy.com/ftm/d/e/l/Suellen-Clarkson-Delahunty-NC/WEBSITE-0001/UHP-0001.html

[12] 2 Corinthians 5:11-21

[13] Jesus baptism by John is told earlier in the first chapter of the Gospel of John.

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1 Corinthians 6:12-20  “All things are lawful for me,” but not all things are beneficial. “All things are lawful for me,” but I will not be dominated by anything. 13 “Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food,” and God will destroy both one and the other. The body is meant not for fornication but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. 14 And God raised the Lord and will also raise us by his power. 15 Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Should I therefore take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never! 16 Do you not know that whoever is united to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For it is said, “The two shall be one flesh.” 17 But anyone united to the Lord becomes one spirit with him. 18 Shun fornication! Every sin that a person commits is outside the body; but the fornicator sins against the body itself. 19 Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own? 20 For you were bought with a price; therefore glorify God in your body.

Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18  O Lord, you have searched me and known me. 2 You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away. 3 You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways. 4 Even before a word is on my tongue, O Lord, you know it completely. 5 You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me. 6 Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high that I cannot attain it.

13 For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. 14 I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; that I know very well. 15 My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth. 16 Your eyes beheld my unformed substance. In your book were written all the days that were formed for me, when none of them as yet existed.

17 How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them! 18 I try to count them—they are more than the sand; I come to the end—I am still with you.