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17th Sunday After Pentecost - September 19, 2021

Updated: Sep 21, 2021

Before my younger daughter Holly got her driver’s license and no longer needed me to transport her, I had listened to a lot of her music. (She occasionally received a fine musical education listening to my albums, the least I could do for my child.) The songs from the musical “Hamilton” took Holly by storm. For a time, she played them constantly. While I can’t name all the songs or sing the words like she can, I found Hamilton to be common ground for us at home and in the car.

The finale of the musical asks the question “Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?” The questions hit home as the stories of Alexander Hamilton, his wife, and his sister-in-law reemerged for America with Ron Chernow’s autobiography of Hamilton and then exploded into popular culture with Lin-Manual Miranda’s musical. The musical made Alexander Hamilton the founding father best-known by many people around the world, including my daughter. Many now can recite Hamilton’s contributions to the establishment of our country and its government.

If asked, where would the people say that Hamilton falls within the ranks of the founding fathers? Who is the greatest founding father: Hamilton, Washington, Jefferson, John Adams, Madison? I am sure there are many poll results on the Internet, along with scholarly studies of who was more important than who. If you watch the Hamilton musical, you can get the impression Alexander Hamilton did everything. There is a wealth of books about Jefferson and his contributions. Both he and Washington are remembered not only with prominent monuments in our nation’s capital but also through their well-preserved Virginia mansions.

Humans love to debate who is the greatest. We are constantly comparing people. We jockey for primacy among co-workers and among siblings. Elections become a form of entertainment from which winners and losers emerge. We want to know where everyone fits in the different hierarchies affecting our lives.

Part of what makes today’s gospel enchanting is how human the disciples are behaving as they argue about which of them is the greatest. This is what humans do, particularly when they have time to kill. We would be surprised if the disciples didn’t fight over who was best. We know these arguments are trivial. We know they don’t prove anything. We also know that in the world in which we live, we can’t seem to resist them.

Jesus busts the disciples for having this contest. In their silence, we can feel their embarrassment. They were too fearful to question Jesus what he meant by saying the Son of Man will be betrayed, be killed, and rise again, but they still think one of them can qualify to be the greatest disciple. Jesus calls them together for a teaching moment. He reveals one of the most important features of the upside down nature of the kingdom of God: “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Wow, that took the fun out of the disciples’ debate. Other than possibly winning the Golden Halo in Lent Madness two thousand years later, Jesus just eliminated all the personal advantages of being the greatest in the kingdom of God.

To reinforce his point, Jesus brings a small child into their group. Holding the child, he declares, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” Now we may think this scene is pretty sweet because we dote on little children, but that is not how it was back then. In Jesus’ time, children were nobodies. There was no sentimentality associated with them, possibly a way to guard against heartache as so many children died before reaching adulthood. Jesus radically brings this nobody into the company of adult men and states that whoever welcomes a nobody in Jesus’ name welcomes Jesus, welcomes God.

We are called to live in the kingdom of God and by its rules, not the rules of the world. This call challenges us. It is the measure by which we as individuals and this church as a community is judged. Is the greatness of St. Andrew’s measured by our buildings, our annual budget, or how many parishioners attend each Sunday? Or is the greatest of St. Andrew’s measured by how we serve the homeless, how we provide disadvantaged children the supplies and books to succeed in their educations, and how we care for the sick, the lonely, and the widows and widowers in our midst? In the kingdom of God, our greatness emerges when we respond as servants, particularly when we care for those whom the world sees as having little or no value.

In all that we do, we give God, not us, the glory, for all things come from God. As St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God….Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.” Yep, they removed all the perks about being the greatest in the kingdom of God. You don’t ever get to brag about being the best servant. Maybe in the kingdom of God it is not a competition.

But if it were, in the kingdom of God, who would rank as the greatest founding father? I submit for your consideration not Washington, Jefferson, or the others, but Robert Carter, III, a name of which you likely have never heard. Robert Carter does not have a famous book or a musical about his life. Although the patriarch of one of the wealthiest families in Virginia, his manor house, Nomini Hall, does not survive as a symbol of his life like Mount Vernon and Monticello. Built in 1730, Nomini Hall burned down in 1850, was restored, was destroyed again by fire in 2018, and burned yet again a year later while being restored. Robert Carter is buried in an unmarked grave there. It is as if history wants Carter forgotten. In fact, those who wrote the history, the ones who “tell your story,” to quote from the Hamilton musical, likely did not want Carter’s story remembered.

For Carter left a legacy measured not in mansions, famous documents, or political offices, but in the lives of hundreds, then over the centuries, thousands of people. In 1791, Carter quietly walked into a courthouse and delivered a deed of gift in which he declared his binding intention to free 511 slaves, starting with the oldest and adding their children as each child reached adulthood. It was by far the largest liberation of African-Americans before the Emancipation Proclamation more than seventy years later. At the time of Carter’s action, slaves were not only the means by which the Virginian and other colonies’ economies operated. Slaves were an enormous portion of the wealth of men such as Carter. Carter was already known to be the most humane to his slaves of any person in his region. With the stroke of a pen, Carter was casting away much of his fortune. The only statement of his reasoning appears in the deed of gift he filed, in which he wrote, “I have for some time past been convinced that to retain them in Slavery is contrary to the true Principles of Religion and Justice and that therefor (sic) it was my duty to manumit them.”

Other founding fathers who owned slaves, men such as Washington, Jefferson, and Madison, expressed doubts about the morality of owning other human beings. These men, however, failed to emancipate their slaves because they determined slavery’s abolition to be impractical. At best, overthinking and at worst, self-interest kept these great men from following Robert Carter’s example. Carter’s neighbor, George Washington, freed his slaves only after his death. His friend, Thomas Jefferson, freed only ten of the over six hundred human beings he owned. Far less eloquent than Jefferson, Carter lived out his belief of what it means for people to be free, while Jefferson’s beautiful words in the Declaration of Independence and his enslavement of his fellow man remain in painful contradiction.

More than just freeing his slaves, Carter implemented a plan to allow them to succeed. The former slaves got to choose their last names so they could keep their families together and pass down wealth. Carter make sure that the freedmen had skills that could earn them income on which to live. He created a market for their goods by buying those goods himself. He provided legal help so the freedmen could buy or lease land. Critically, Carter spent a lot of time, effort, and legal fees to ensure his heirs could not undo this drastic loss of family wealth after his death. You can imagine some of those heirs were upset Carter greatly diminished the family’s wealth and standing in the world.

Carter’s work proved successful and his little-known legacy lives on. Thomas Duckenfield is a Washington, DC attorney and government contractor. Tom was my classmate until fourth grade and again in college, as well as being a fellow cadet in Army ROTC. Tom’s genealogical work uncovered two lines of his mother’s family being freed by Carter by 1800. Being freed, the generations of these families enjoyed two parent-households, education, ownership of land, and good jobs, all decades before other African-Americans had those opportunities. Through his deed of gift, Carter enabled Tom’s ancestors to have stability and wealth, as well as common ties to the other families freed by Carter, many of whom became interrelated.

Carter created a model for how the issue of slavery could have been resolved peacefully. He chose to be a servant to his slaves, to elevate those whom his society condemned. Because his act was bold and successful, news of it likely was suppressed. As Jesus taught his disciples, the kingdom of God can be a threat to many in the world. Although Carter was once dismissed to the margins of history as an eccentric wealthy landowner, the descendants of those freedman, like my friend, are telling his story.

Our stories may not be told, but we get to write our own histories, sing our own songs. We can choose to be greatest in the kingdom of God. The difference we make being a servant to all is the greatest impact we can have on others, far greater than any titles or awards. It is a difference that can affect generations, far beyond what we will ever know.

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