A sermon given on January 15, 2012 at the Alafia River Rendezvous
Modern society loves a patriot but often leaves out one important component to patriotism, God. This morning, I would like to go back to a time when the term patriot was being defined and see, can patriotism exist without God?
It was a cold, damp night in Boston, the 18th of April, 1775. British were on the move, going to Lexington to relieve the town of its supply of gunpowder and weapons. You all know the story of that night, the famous ride and that first shot heard round the world the next day. History, however, is often embellished to serve personal interests but buried in the proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society, written some 100 years later, is the real story of what happened that night.
The Old North Church is the oldest standing church in Boston. In 1775, on the eve of America’s Great Revolution, the majority of the congregation were loyal to the British Crown and many of its church members held official positions in the royal government, including the Royal Governor of Massachusetts. King George III, himself, had given the Old North its silver that was used at services as well as a Bible. The fact that some members were also loyal to something known as the “patriot cause” was even more extraordinary. But soon, the steeple of the Church would serve a military purpose. Chosen because it was the tallest building in Boston, easily visible from many directions standing high at 191 feet and the other reason would come from within its congregation. God would begin to choose His people to step forward in the creation of our country.
Into history comes one of our first patriots, Paul Revere, a talented silversmith, engraver but more importantly an active member of Boston’s Sons of Liberty. For months he had served as the group’s messenger, carrying information as far away as Philadelphia. Revere was involved in the battle for freedom because he cared about his country. When the leader of the Sons of Liberty, Dr. Joseph Warren, learned that General Gage’s army would march on Lexington and Concord, he called once again on Revere (and a young William Dawes) asking them to ride into the countryside to warn area militia members. Dawes was to take the land route out of Boston through the Boston Neck. Revere would cut across the bay in a small boat and then ride to Lexington.
With Boston under curfew, British soldiers were on guard to arrest anyone caught wandering the streets after dark. If both Revere and Dawes were detained, their warning would not reach Lexington. A back-up plan was needed; Revere recalled the view of Charlestown from atop the Old North Church where he rang the bells as a teenager. An important point here, Paul Revere grew up going to church.
Paul Revere chose to approach an intimate friend and business associate, a man named Captain John Pulling to help. Both Paul Revere and John Pulling were members of Boston’s Committee of Correspondence. One of the principle roles of its members was to gather intelligence and track the movements of British troops within the Colonies. Pulling also had with ties to the church and Revere would ask a huge favor—to hang signal lanterns in the steeple.
John Pulling was the perfect choice. He was not only a member of the church but also a vestryman (part of the church’s governing body, like an elder). John Pulling was a passionate patriot but he also believed that God wanted our country to be free from British rule. We know this because earlier that day, the vestry, Pulling and other vestrymen, made a decision to fire their Loyalist Rector, Rev. Mather Byles Jr., for preaching against their patriot cause. A bold move for liberty. If captured hanging the lanterns, Pulling hoped he could provide a believable reason for being in the church, he was part of the “management team” and needed to be there after firing their Rector. So on April 18th, Captain Pulling was ready to go to the church and hang two lanterns from the window on the north side facing Charleston. This would be the signal that the British Regulars were coming by sea.
Robert Newman, the sexton (janitor) of the Old North, also had clear patriot allegiances but, perhaps more importantly, he had the keys to the building. He also lived just across the street from the church. Newman was generally considered to be a trustworthy young man, but had not, as yet, been very active in the rebellion. He was not able to find work and had taken a job he did not like as the church caretaker. Eager to help out, he was known to be a man of few words and right for the job of helping in signaling a secret message.
Dawes left by horseback taking the land route while Revere went to his boat in Boston Harbor and was rowed across by two friends. The men used a petticoat to muffle the noise made by the oars. Soon, 700 British soldiers embarked on their journey to Lexington.
While Revere and Dawes planned to deliver their messages to Lexington personally, using the lantern method, they would have a fast way to inform the back-up riders in Charlestown about the movements of the British; these back-up riders, about 40 of them, could also deliver the warning message.
It was about 10:00 PM when Newman opened the church door with his key and Pulling joined him inside. A third patriot, Thomas Bernard, stood guarding the door. John Pulling lit the lanterns and proceeded with the task of climbing to the top of the steeple and flashing the two lanterns that would signal the British troops were now disembarking by sea.
The lanterns, one exactly like this one here with us today, were hung for less than a minute but this was long enough for the message to be received in Charlestown. The militia waiting across the river were prepared to act as soon as they saw them. It was this kind of unselfish act, this risk, this attitude to be involved that Christ was talking about in His sermon on the mount in Matthew 5:14-16.
14 “You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. 15 Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.”
If there ever was an example to follow, it is this one. Too many of us try to leave well enough alone or just are not interested in lifting our light, taking risks. Too many of us just don’t want to get involved. But can patriotism exist without involvement, without risk? Can patriotism exist without reliance on God? Hardly not, something that our founding fathers understood and today’s leaders have seem to forgotten.
The lanterns were immediately seen by the British troops and they quickly found Robert Newman and placed him under arrest. It was Newman who would give John Pulling’s name to the British officials. Newman was released and a search for Pulling began immediately. It is this fact that the Historical Society used to determine that Robert Newman was probably not the one who raised the lanterns high in the steeple or else, the British would not have released him and pursued John Pulling instead.
At first John Pulling went back to his home and hid in an empty wine cask in the cellar. Then, later, disguised as a fisherman, he eluded the troops and embarked in a small skiff leaving Boston by sea. The skiff would be challenged by a nearby British warship at anchor, but through God’s providence, allowed to pass. You see, even the mightiest navy in the world was no match for our God.
Sarah Pulling, John’s wife can also be called a patriot. Her husband, John was now a hunted man and she too had to flee Boston. John and Sarah chose to rendezvous at an old cooper’s shop on the Cohasset shore. Because the British were looking for John, his journey would take much longer than Sarah’s. Sarah, then pregnant, would arrive first and give birth to a daughter before John’s arrival. In their haste to leave Boston, John and Sarah would abandon all their possessions and would be forced to live without resources in what would have to be called primitive accommodations at best. While the Pullings remained safe from the British, they would be in exile until the last British troops evacuated Boston about one year later.
Despite its historical significance, the “One if by Land Two if by Sea” signal was just a backup plan. It was meant to warn patriots in Charlestown, a borough across the river from Boston in case Revere himself could not make it to start his ride. So were John and Sarah’s risks of no value? Well, history tells us that Revere was actually detained by the British and did not reach Lexington until the battle had already begun. William Dawes did not make it either. He fell off his horse and the horse ran away. Upon procuring another horse, Dawes showed up late too. The message reached Lexington because of the many riders who could see the lanterns that night in the steeple. God’s providence, those lights high on the church steeple, would start 13 colonies on a path that would create the greatest nation on the earth and the freedoms we enjoy today.
So how did the Pulling’s sacrifice fare in history? I am afraid not too well. It is not the predominant story surrounding what we now celebrate as “Patriot’s Day.” Upon their return, they found that everything, their possessions and their home were gone. John had become ill during their exile and died shortly after their return to Boston. For Sarah, this already was a second marriage. Now she would be a widow again. Returning For John and Sarah Pulling is not the ending that we like in our stories. Each was willing to be used for God’s purpose, no matter what the consequence. They would give up everything and get nothing that the world values, not even notoriety for their sacrifices.
But there is more to their story. Sarah had grabbed only a few possessions, only a few things she could carry as she left that cold April night. What would you choose to take if suddenly, your very wellbeing was at risk and you had to give up everything you owned, everything, and run, run for your life? Sarah’s choice was to take her Bible and that very Bible remains in the possession of her decedents today. It was that Bible and the stories shared between Pulling’s family members that the Massachusetts Historical Society had so carefully noted. John and Sarah’s light had lived from generation to generation through her Bible and the sharing of their story.
So how does history remember this event? Well, from a worldly perspective, the statues and poems, all well-deserved, and went to Paul Revere. The plaque on the side of Old North Church and most of the history books honor Robert Newman without any mention of Captain John Pulling and no one mentions Sarah. However, I believe that God honors the Pulling’s as true examples of light shared with the world.
To close out this idea of patriotism and how it might help us this week at Alafia I must ask, how will you measure yourself against Christ’s call to keep your light high and visible? I am going to end today with a story about a Presbyterian minister named William John Henry Boetcker. He lived during the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. Boetcker was an eloquent motivational speaker and was noted for his strong opinions on serving both God and country. Quoted by Abraham Lincoln and later by Ronald Reagan, Boetcker is less well known for his message on what he called the “Seven National Crimes.” These are, in a way, the antithesis of patriotism. So here is, what I believe, what Jesus was trying to tell us, but in Boetcker’s own words: The seven national crimes are: not to think and be discerning; to say you don’t know or not to care; to be too busy to get involved; to leave well enough alone; to have no time to read and sort out the truth; and finally, to say you are just not interested.
John and Sara pulling, Paul Revere, even Robert Newman understood that they should not hide their light under a bowl. They thought about their country and they believed in their God. They knew the truth, they were never too busy. They didn’t leave well enough alone. They were not only interested in freedom, they were willing to risk their lives for it. Each raised the Light of Truth so that those around them could see.
All across this great nation, our religious freedom is under assault in ways that our founding fathers never could have imagined. We can no longer rely on our own government to protect those rights. The task belongs to us here today. Religious liberty is called the “First Freedom” for good reason Without it, every other freedom will crumble. Only by working together can we ensure that the rights which America’s founders sacrificially established as the foundation of this great nation will continue to shine, as the light high on the hill, for ourselves now and future generations to come.
For this week and for the future, do not place “your light” under a bowl. Do not be afraid to take a risk. Yes, risks are dangerous but looking at Psalm 18:28-29, we can always pray as King David prayed:
28 You, LORD, keep my lamp burning; my God turns my darkness into light. 29 With your help I can advance against a troop; with my God I can scale a wall.
You do not have to be afraid to hold your lantern high, your God will be with you. What is your light you might ask? It is the sharing with each other of your journey of faith and hope; the telling to others about sacrifices you have made for no other reason than because you trust God, have faith in Christ and love your country. Grab your lantern, hold it high, make sure your message is heard.
You can be the living patriots of today. Use Alafia to create that which does not rust or decay but lives forever. A personal faith journey like John and Sarah Pulling’s or your own journey of faith can be shared from generation to generation, assuring that the Good News and freedoms we all share today does not end with us.