A sermon preached on the 5th Sunday After the Epiphany, Year A, Matthew 5:13-20, by the Rev. Hugh E. Brown, III, D. Min., in All Saints’ Episcopal Church, Princeton, NJ on February 5, 2017
“You are the Salt of the Earth; You are the Light of the World”
Cracks for Light
This past week, as I have done during the past two years of my Internship for my Master of Social Work at Princeton House–I was with a group of Young Adults—most Heroin addicts—sharing their struggles.
As I listened, the struggle was not so much with Sobriety as with something far deeper. Their question was not so much about what they were to do—but who they were.
The more profound question was not sobriety but identity.
One by one—they spoke of what persons said about them—unfortunately–especially their families.
Then one young lady spoke of how they had intervened earlier in the week—to literally save the life of one of their peers who was on the verge of being discharged while still suicidal. Because of their persistence and love—she found a bed in a rehab; small victories; they happen.
She continued, “I sometimes think about giving up; they I know that God wants me here; God wants me to get better; God believes in me.
I’m His—no one else’s.
Princeton House is a secular place—but as I listen to so many there—particularly young people—their primary struggle is often not with their drug of choice—but with their spiritual journey; who they are; to whom do they belong.
As I listened to their stories I thought of an e-mail I received from a very kind parish member with a quote from the great composer and musician Leonard Cohn:
“Ring the bells that still can Ring; Forget your perfect offering; there’s a crack in everything; that’s how the light gets in.”
When I think of Jesus’s own words about Christian identify—I think about cracks—and light.
Two weeks ago—he called some very ordinary folk—Peter—Andrew-James-John. They left everything to follow him. They left their father; their vocation; they risked something; the lived some loss; can’t imagine that there were not some “cracks” in their lives at that point.
Last week—Jesus spoke of the persons Jesus calls “Blessed” or good; they are the merciful, those single-minded persons devoted to God; those whose quest for justice was as strong as the pangs of hunger or the quench o thirst; those who are peacemakers.
We know that behaviors of mercy, peacemaking, devotion, justice—create cracks.
And this morning—Jesus speaks of Christian identity as Salt and Light. And he speaks of identity as Law and Righteousness.
The great scholar of Matthew’s Gospel—Douglas Hare notes that, in context, all of these marks of Christian identify are not marks of a spiritual elite.
They are marks of differentiation from the world. They are about life—not fundamentally doctrine, thought or beliefs.
I would go further—they are about cracks; cracks to let in the light.
There is a Palestinian proverb about the uselessness of impure salt—good for nothing;-all the sodium chloride leached; the point is actually unmistakable; Jesus uses the plural for you as in “You are the Salt of the World—but if Salt has lost it’s taste….”
Thus the words are directed, not at individuals—but the Church. If the Christian community has so adapted itself to the world—it has lost its calling.
In the religion of Ancient Israel—God was the only source of Light for daily life. Torah or law was seen as the mediator of this Light.
Christians believe that this role of mediator of God’s life is now with Jesus. So how is the Church the light of the world?
Not as it mouths theological platitudes—but as it lives. The church’s life in the world is to reflect God’s light; when persecution comes, the church must not be hidden—but visible.
Salt and Light; our world endures cracks—suffering–crisis, oppression, injustice, exclusion; we are to be God’s visible presence of mercy, peacemaking, devotion, and justice.
Christian identify is not just “being for Christians.” It is being for all humanity; in the days of Jesus it meant the embrace of Gentiles, Romans, Samaritans, the excluded—the sick, the disabled, women; children—even one’s enemies.
When Jesus told a parable in response to the question, “Who is my Neighbor?” a story about the so-called religious types ignoring a wounded man on the side of the road—the neighbor was not just the victim—but especially one considered an enemy of Jesus and his people—the Samaritans.
Jesus closed this parable of the so-called Good Samaritan in Luke’s Gospel with a rather different question from that with which he began: he closed with, Not Who is my Neighbor but who PROVED Neighbor?
The questioner could only respond with shock: I suppose the one who demonstrated Mercy; And Jesus Said, Go—and Do Likewise.
The sermon the Mount begins with the Blessings for the Merciful—and the Peacemakers; it ends with extending mercy towards all. It ends with embrace; not defensiveness and fear.
Demonstrated in the Cracks—which let in the light.
In Berlin, in 1938, the pastor Martin Niemoller preached a sermon precisely on the biblical text we heard in our Gospel this morning: Salt, and Light. Pastor
Niemoller began by reading a long list of 72-73 names, of pastors, church members, teachers, professors, scholars, forbidden to speak or evicted, or arrested by Nazi authorities.
He initiated his sermon with the phrase, “No one in Germany can say whether the number is complete and each of us has a foreboding that it might became larger still.”
What was the principal charge?
These women and men had denounced the so-called German Christians—those Christians who openly embraced Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party—as “selling out the Gospel for the sake of nationalism.” They were accused of treason.
Pastor Niemoller said that of Salt: The problem with which we have to deal is how to save the Christian community at this moment from the danger of being thrown into the same pot as the world.
That is to say, it must keep itself distinct from the rest of the world, by virtue of its saltiness.
Everything will be quite different—we are told—when you as a Church cease to have such an entirely different flavor—when you practice preaching which is the opposite of what the world around you preaches.
You must really suit your message to the world.
You must bring your creed into harmony with the present.
Pastor Niemoller said of Light: It is only during these days that I have realized—that I have understood what the Lord Jesus Christ means when he says: “Do not take up the bushel I have not lit the candle for you to put it under the bushel in order to protect it from the wind.”
Away with the Bushel! The light should be placed upon a candlestick. It is not your business to worry about whether the light is extinguished or not by the draught.
We are only to see that the light is not hidden away.
It has come to this—we are being accosted on all sides, by statesman, as well as by our neighbors down the street who tell us, “For God’s sake—don’t get involved in politics—don’t speak so loudly, or you will land in prison.”
“Don’t speak so plainly—say what you have to say in a more obscure fashion; no it is the silent, light-drained church which says, “I don’t care for what purpose the church exists—don’t bother me.”
“It is no business of ours what goes on in our nation; we don’t care about who is put to death as long as it is not our own.”
To this I give the words of Christ the light: “he that findeth his life shall loose it and he that loseth his life for my sake shall find it. I don’t know if I shall be back in the pulpit next week.
But it is our duty to speak—to keep what Martin Luther calls the “poor flickering candle of the Gospel alive.”
Martin Niemoller, a founder of the Confession Church, was imprisoned by the Nazi’s soon after this sermon; from 1937 to 1945 he resided in various German jail cells-narrowly escaping execution.
He never denied his initial Anti-Semitism and more narrow vision for Christian resistance as the protection of the Church; his embrace of the Jesus who practiced non-violence and love of enemies was gradual.
But such a devotion to the cross of Jesus manifested in Niemoller’s work of civil rights, arms control, interfaith tolerance, refugee rescue and many other forms of light in the cracks of human oppression.
And, eventually, finally–this embrace of the compassionate Jesus manifested itself in a poem.
This poem became a hallmark of Christian resistance to evil the world over.
But more than this—the poem is a mark of Christian embrace of all under threat by the forces of hate and fear. It is about the questions, “Who is My Neighbor? Who Proved Neighbor to the wounded?”
Engraved into the conscience and wall of many Holocaust Memorials, from Washington DC to New England, to Jerusalem, the verse reads:
“In Germany, when they came for the Communists, I did not speak up because I was not a Communist.
When they came for the Trade Unionists, I did not speak up for I was not a Trade Unionist.
When they came for the Jews, I did not speak up because I was not a Jew.
And then they came for me; And there was no one left to speak for me.”
The poem exists in various forms—but the point is clear—Christian faith is tested in the “cracks” of persecution, conscience, oppression, hatred and fear.
As Dante once noted: “The lowest levels of hell are reserved for those who refuse to speak or act in times of moral crisis.”
So, what is our Christian identity? How are we Salt, Light, and Righteousness?
How are we indeed light in the cracks of hate?
Marwan is Muslim; he lives in the city of Mosul, where Isis had decimated the population and destroyed churches, schools and homes. Marwan has many Christian neighbors. When he entered the ruins of a church with one of his Christians friends, he couldn’t accept the fact that people who claimed to be Muslim had reduced the church to rubble.
Marwan had to do something but what? He then got an idea; he would work with his friend to salvage scraps of metal and wood to build a cross for the ravaged church. Our of the wreckage of war, Marwin, a Muslim, helped his Christian friend to construct a cross—a symbol of hope in a world of hate.
So who is my Neighbor? Who Proved Neighbor?
The one who showed mercy? Sisters and brothers–Go and do likewise…
A sermon preached on the 4th Sunday of Epiphany, Year A, in All Saints’ Episcopal Church, Princeton on Matthew 5:1-11 by the Rev. Hugh E. Brown, III, D. Min. on January 29th, 2017
The Humility Leap
“Blessed are the Poor in Spirit”
One Sunday, as they drove home from Church, a little girl turned to her and said, “Mommy, there’s something about the preacher’s message this morning that I don’t understand.”
The mother said, “Oh, what is it?” The little girl replied, “Well, he said that God is bigger than we are. He said God is so big that he could hold the whole world in His hand. Is that true?”
The mother replied, “Yes, that’s true honey.” “But, Mommy, he also said that God come to live inside of us when we believe in Jesus as our Savior. Is that true, too?”
Again, the mother assured the little girl that what the pastor had said was true. With a puzzled look on her face, the little girl asked, “”If God is bigger than us—and he lives in us, wouldn’t he shine through?”
Perhaps that is a good way to think about those 8 so called “blessings” that open what so many spiritual guides throughout the ages have termed, “The Sermon on the Mount.”
The word, “Blessing” here translated does not refer to human emotions or personal qualities but primarily God’s favor for certain human actions and situations.
They, like the rest of the Sermon on the Mount, are not a comprehensive manual or rule book but a series of illustrations, or examples, or case studies of life when God does indeed rule a human soul—or marks a human identify with God’s light.
But we must be careful here—lest we lose the power of Jesus’s message.
For– there is a beautiful three part structure to the Beatitudes that avoids the twin interpretative trap of sentimentality.
The first four of these blessings—to the poor in spirit, to those who mourn, to the meek, and to those who hunger and thirst for righteousness or better translated, justice—are not virtues to be attained–but human conditions for liberation.
The word poor is the first beatitude stands for those who have no hope in this world, period.
I want to return to this theme of dispossession in this world in a second for it may unlock the meaning to all of the beatitudes and indeed the Sermon on the Mount.
The word, Mourn stands for those who have no joy in this world—period. They lament that reality that God’s reign of love, peace and justice has not come—for persons or nations.
The word, Meek is not so much translated as gentile or humble but as “humiliated, powerless, doormats, oppressed. They wait for their rightful share of the resources of the earth.
Fourthly, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness are not the spiritually pure; but they are those who long for vindication, for God’s desire to make things right.
In short, the first four beatitudes speak to the reversal of circumstances for those who are unfortunate.
Contrary to popular homiletical treatments, being poor in spirit, mourning, being meek and hungering and thirsting for justice are not presented as virtues to be attained for God’s favor.
They are undesirable conditions that characterize no one when God indeed shines through our world.
For such persons—the Poor in Spirit, those who Mourn, the Meek and the Hungry and Thirsty, the coming of God will be a blessing for when God truly rules and shines, the world will change and all will be set right.
What about the second four of the beatitudes?
They are not just virtues—Mercy, Purity of Heart, Peacemaking, Suffering/Persecution for the sake of Righteousness.
The word Mercy is best translated as Healer—favoring the removal of everything that prevents life from being as God intends—from poverty, to exclusion, to disease, to debit.
The Pure in heart are not those who refrain from impure thoughts; but refers to those with single-minded devotion to God—to the undivided heart; they are those with integrity.
The Peacemakers are agents of God’s shalom—those who work for the well-being of a broken world. The word here refers to right relations between persons; a good translation is reconciliation.
Finally, the 8th blessing describes persecution for righteousness. It is not here about God’s activity but about human activity when we are participating in God’s work for justice and righteousness.
Thus, the people describe in the first four blessings lack justice. The people described in the second four blessings are those with single-minded dedication to the actions of God which bring justice to those who do not have it.
Dispossessed, humiliated, lacking honor, powerless—suffering for the cause of God’s right. Giving up, at times, their honor for the sake of the dishonorable; becoming wretched for the wretched of the earth.
Just like Jesus.
In the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his work, The Cost of Discipleship—Having reached the end of the Beatitudes, we naturally ask if there is any place on this earth for the community which they describe.
Clearly, there is one place and one place only—and that is where the Poorest, Meekest and most sorely Tried of all men is to be found—on the cross at Golgotha.
The community which is the subject of the beatitudes is the community of the crucified. With Him, it has lost all, and with him it has found all.
Thus the thundering climax: Blessed are You
Suddenly, Jesus’s words are about those other people any more but about ME.
Why would YOU be reviled, and persecuted and lied about? Because are committed to righteousness/justice and because of this commitment you will end up just like Jesus—being unjustly persecuted.
But even more—like the Poor in Spirit of the First Beatitude—Dispossessed; Lacking Hope in this world; With Hope ONLY in the Work, Righteousness, Justice, Mercy, Shalom and Reign of God.
In the words of that great Hymn, ALL my Hope on God is Founded.
With this, we return to the Opening Blessing—Poor in Spirit.
What does it mean to be Poor in Spirit? To live, as the child said in the opening illustration, to live a light shining with God?
Does it mean—like Bonhoeffer who gave his life resisting Nazi rule—that we become martyrs?
What does it mean for you or me to be truly “dispossessed,” “powerless,” humiliated, dishonored—indeed “crucified” for the sake of Jesus?
How is this call to “poverty of spirit” a call for all of us?
Perhaps is above all—about Humility.
And by the great word–Humility-– the scriptures do NOT mean self-effacement, hiding the light of genuine gifts, surprising talents, or disingenuous displays of self-negativity.
In a recent book entitled, The Road to Character, David Brooks offers this illustration regarding humility:
About once month I run across a person who radiates an inner light. These people can be in any walk of life. They seem deeply good.
They listen well. They make you feel funny and valued. You often catch them looking after other people and as they do their laugh is musical and their manner infused with gratitude.
They are not thinking about all the wonderful work they are doing. They are not thinking of themselves at all.
When I meet such a person, it brightens my whole day. But I confess I often have a sadder thought. It occurs to me that I’ve achieved a decent level of career success. But I have not attained I true generosity of spirit or a depth of character. I’m working on it.
As Christians we must move beyond Humility from a human point of view.
In reality, we are Poor in Spirit as depend on the mercy and grace of God in Christ.
So, how do we hear the Beatitudes through the lens of humility?
*You cannot mourn without appreciating how insufficient you are to handle life in your own strength.
*You cannot be meek unless you know you have needed gentleness yourself.
*You cannot hunger and thirst for righteousness if you proudly think of yourself as already righteous.
*You cannot be merciful without recognizing your own need for mercy.
*You can’t be pure in heart if your heart is full of pride.
*You cannot be a peacemaker if you believe that you are always right.
*You cannot identify with Christ in the face of negative reactions from others without dying to yourself.
This past Thursday, the television story, Grey’s Anatomy depicted three women physicians entering a prison hospital for the criminally insane.
Their task? To assist a woman in childbirth experiencing a complication that could threaten her health and the health of the baby.
The woman who they were assisting? A violent, aggressive young woman who had badly injured her attending physician, required handcuff for her bed to strap her down and who threatened one of the women with death if they continued look at her in a disrespectful way.
The episode of Gray’s anatomy illustrates, among other things—the destructive nature of our criminal justice system—which turns mental illness into a criminal offense—rather than an opportunity for healing.
It is amazing that so many, including unfortunately, many Christians, who demand tough criminal justice—and just about “tough” anything– are walking the ways of a secular culture lacking any semblance of health or mercy—rather than the ways of Jesus who defined mercy in his Beatitudes as the very light of God.
During the course of the delivery, the young woman cried for her mother to come hold her hand during the childbirth.
The mother was at the prison to claim the child. She refused to see her daughter.
The mother told one of the visiting physicians that her daughter was “perfect:” she grew up in an affluent neighborhood and went to the best schools; the mother did not know “what happened.”
Her daughter was now “unrecognizable.”
She would not see her; she only wanted her granddaughter.
So the three physicians held her daughter’s hands as she gave birth under unrelentingly painful circumstances.
Those three women became the true family, if only for a moment to a woman shamed, condemned, dishonored—Poor in Spirit, Mourning, Powerless, Hungry and Thirsty for Righteousness which Christ taught us is only Love. Yes, for Christians Righteousness, Justice is Love.
Those three women—those three physicians became the light of God’s Mercy, Purity of Heart, Peace, and Thirst–for Human touch, love and grace.
As the young women gave birth—she only looked at her child a second—gently telling her child to be better than she was—before handing her over.
One of the physicians went out to see the Mother after the delivery.
The mother without asking about her daughter, simply said, “When can I take my granddaughter home?” In a steely tone, the physician, replied, “in a few minutes you can take the child of the inmate way.”
“Excuse me”—the mother said.
“Yes,” said the physician (silence). And, by the way– are you going to abandon this little girl too when she makes a mistake?”
Do you need to be a martyr to be poor in spirit and reflect the light of God in the Beatitudes?
Perhaps we just need enough humility to accept, rather than reject a daughter—or a son—or a mom-or a dad—or a sister or a brother—or a neighbor or—anyone in our lives–who made a mistake.
Perhaps—then—God–would be big enough—and deep enough inside us—to really shine in our lives!
A sermon preached on the Third Sunday after the Epiphany, Year A, Matthew 4: 18-22, in All Saints’ Episcopal Church, Princeton, NJ on January 22, 2017, the Sunday after the Presidential Inauguration, by the Rev. Hugh E. Brown, III, Rector
**Written and spoken sermons this day are different, but we wanted to share both with you! Make sure to listen and read!**
The Sound of the Genuine: Resisting Rings of Power
“Follow Me and I Will Make you Fish for People”
There was an interesting essay on the Public Radio Show, All Things Considered, some time ago.
t was written by a public school teacher, dreading his approaching High School class reunion.
He feared the inevitable comparisons that these events bring, there people compare jobs, families, cars, anything in a desperate attempt to say, “I’m worth something to someone, or at least I’m worth more than you..”
In the Broadway play, “Rent,” the characters sing about the hours, minutes, and seconds–which make up a year–and ask the question. “How do you measure the meaning of a life?”
Especially in a community of strivers, achievers, academics, artists, and pursuers of excellence like Princeton, this is a contentious question, “How do you measure the meaning of life?”
Our identities are often caught up in what we do. The way we dress, the cars we drive, the houses we buy, the salaries we earn, the persons we know–may form a part of our identity.
But, ultimately, when people ask us, “What do you do?” they are in some sense trying to get to know a bit about who we are.
By what are we defined?
It’s no surprise that if you go into Barnes and Noble, you will immediately see, within the new releases, books on work, identify, and meaning—usually defined by American ideas of success—especially money and power.
But it is also not surprising that many folks feel trapped by their vocation. They followed their parent’s desires; they got the “good job.”
They discovered that there is no such thing as loyalty in many organizations—where commitment to employees is akin free agents to pro sports teams.
So, books like Rick Warren’s The Purpose Driven Life become some of the driving force behind vocation in both church and culture.
People are waking up to the question, “What does my life add up to.” Most are content with the answers others give—especially their culture and its narrative world of values.
Left to ourselves, we may always be content with the answer others give to the question, “How do you measure the meaning of a life?”
Many years ago the great spiritual writer, Howard University Chaplain and poet, Howard Thurman told Spelman college graduates:
“There is, something in every one of you that waits and listens to the sound of the genuine in yourself. It is the only guide you will ever have. And, if you can hear it, you will spend your entire life free from the ends of strings that somebody else pulls.”
Somehow, Peter and Andrew, James and John found “this sound of the genuine.” They found an answer to the question, “How do you measure the meaning of a life,” in a way which did not depend on strings pulled by others.
These four fisher-folk, like you and me—were tending to a career—making it the best they could.
Several years ago a Georgetown University theology professor John L. Pilch, in his work, The Cultural World of Jesus,” tried to break through the stereotype that Galilean fishermen were poor, economically disadvantaged and followed Jesus because they had not brighter prospects.
Actually–Pilch argues–through some extensive research into the economics of Palestine of the early Ist century of the common era–that the fishing industry was actually “the place of action” in the Ancient Near East in the Days of Jesus.
In the first century, fishing on the Sea of Galilee developed into a major industry. Large, extended families formed partnerships to engage in this business.
Today’s Gospel reading from Matthew might just describe a partnership between families—those of Simon and Andrew—and James and John.
Both families might well have belonged to a larger partnership.
There was actually a boat discovered in Israel in 1986 when the sea of Galilee was at a very low level and is representative of the vessels owned by such as Jonah and Zebedee—and dubbed—Peter’s boat.
So, far from poor and marginalized, Simon, Andrew—and James and John—might well have been on the cutting edge of a major new industry, obviously well connected, most likely talented and gifts, with waves of energy and entrepreneurial spirit—and…….just the kind of people Jesus would seek out to help him forge a new religious movement.
Breaking all convention, Jesus comes; normally a religious teacher in his day would be sought out by students and disciples; but Jesus comes to his future students.
He understands that these four fisherman know how to fish.
They know how to cast the net broad across the water and pull in what is trapped beneath; they know how to keep the god and toss those that are not ready, not yet for the net; they know how important it is to keep the nets strong and the boat near, and buoyant.
Yes, they know fishing.
“Follow-me and I will make you fish for people,” says Jesus.
This does not seem much of a recruitment speech.
And yet, these words commanded and inspired enough faith that these four men would leave family, career and all the world calls “meaningful” to come and follow.
These words evoked “the sound of the genuine” in these four first disciples of the master.
These words provoked a different response to the question, “How do you measure the meaning of a life?”
The metaphor of fishing has a more, raw, intense edge than we usually perceive. In Jeremiah 16:16 it is an image of Judgement. It comes closer to the meaning of Jesus in Matthew 19:28: “You who followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the 12 Tribes of Israel.”
This is the symbolism of Jesus for the disciples as guardians, faithful remnant, and 5th column for the coming Kingdom of God.
We usually associate “judgement” with condemnation and punishment.
However, throughout the scriptures, God’s judgement is much more positive and wholistic.
Judgement means that which gets our attention. It means that which opens our eyes to what is authentic, genuine, real and moral. It means that which enables us to make discriminating moral judgement on good and evil.
Peter and Andrew, James and John—were indeed called to be fishers of people; but they were being called to something much more than sighing folks up to a new religious movement. They were being called to a new community of moral accountability around a new set of norms.
What are these norms?
Look to the way that Jesus–Peter, Andrew, James and John—the other disciples,–and the way the early Christian community would live—not for themselves alone—but for the sake of others.
Jesus taught his disciples ethical norms now make plain in our Baptismal Covenant.
He taught his disciples to Judge; but not with the standards of the world—with the acquisition of power, wealth and privilege.
He taught his disciples to judge by very different standards: cooperation not competition, not for self–enrichment, but the nourishment of others, not for the tearing down of our neighbors but even the building up of our adversaries, not to ask the question, “What can I get out of this?” But to ask the question, “What can I give back?”
In the great epic by J. R. R. Tolkien, The Fellowship fo the Ring, Frodo, the Hobbit receives a call from the wizard, Gandalf to destroy the evil “ring of power,” before it is able to corrupt and destroy all of Middle Earth.
This call involves a long and dangerous journey and the likelihood that Frodo will not return alive is great.
Upon receiving this call, Frodo shouts at Gandalf, “Would that the ring had never come to me! I’m satisfied with my life as it is.”
Gandalf replies, “We cannot choose the time we live in. We can only choose what to do with the time we are given.”
Perhaps my friends, this is why the disciples not only heard, but truly listened to the call of Jesus—the call of the genuine.
Jesus made them aware of the “ring of power” in their possession—made them aware of the evil, moral decay and corruption of their world, corruption eating into their own souls—and offered them to choose a daring way—a journey towards resistance to evil.
As Frodo and is friend Sam journey towards the Mountain and place designated for the destruction of the Ring of Power—Sam asked Frodo, “What kind of Story are we in? Are we in a good Story or a bad Story?
Sam seems to asking the question, “Do we live or die?”
But Sam’s question raises a deeper issue? What is a meaningful story?
Stories can be comic or tragic. They can have sad or happy endings. But do stories have meaningful endings?
People of God at All Saint’s Church, we are now entering a very dark time in our world—a time when forces of fear, of brutality, of deception, of insularity, of terror, of brute force—all seem to be governing norms; a time when vulnerability, humility, reason, tolerance, truth, and democratic traditions are under assault, it is a time in many ways resembling and serving as a prelude to the rise of various totalitarianisms of the 1930s.
Our world seems to be in possession of true Ring of Power.
Into this world, as with the empires of the First Century, Jesus comes and summons his people, as he did Simon, Andrew, James and John with the words. “Follow me”—and I will make you Fish for people.”
“Follow-me” and I will call you to a ministry of Judgement on human sin; follow-me and I will call you to journeys to destroy rings of power and to lives of resistance to the power of evil.
“Follow me”—and I will call you to your baptismal promises to respect the Dignity of Every Human Being—where that dignity is now at risks and under threat.
In the musical, Rent, we finally hear that love is the best way to measure a life; love is the answer to the question, “Who do you measure a life?”
Such was the message of Jesus: Love in the service of justice which resists evil and brings to destruction the rings of power in non-violent resistence.
In the PBS audio essay, we hear from the public school teacher that he has devised a way to answer those people who want to measure his life by what he makes. He will say:
“I make students think that Shakespeare can be both fun and interesting.
I make students who never before could read and write, marvel at their newfound abilities.
I make young men and women eager to see how poetic words can affect our humanity.
I empower young women who receive a message that their bodies are more important than their souls and minds.
I make young people love language and what they can accomplish. In short, I make a difference. Tell me again—what is that you make?”
So—go and Make a Difference– O People of God.
Discover you own purpose in Jesus’s calling to measure a life by a commitment to resistance to rings of power and all that destroy human dignity, equality and human tolerance and forbearance.
Jesus is the one who make the difference by giving his life for the sake of others and for the freedom, dignity and justice of all people.
Follow—him; judge evil; prepare your nets.
It is time to do some fishing.
For we can not choose the time we are live in; but we can choose what do to with the time we are given.
A sermon preached by the Rev. Joan Fleming in All Saints’ Episcopal Church, Princeton, NJ on the Feast Day of the Baptism of Christ, January 8, 2017
A sermon preached by the Rev. Hugh E. Brown, III, D. Min. in All Saints’ Episcopal Church, Princeton, NJ on the 4th Sunday of Advent, December 18, 2016, Year, A, on Matthew 1:18-25
“Joseph….Do not be Afraid to take Mary as your Wife.”
We have just lived through several months of it as nation; as we gather to worship, to listen—for the Advent of our Savior in music, in art–we also listen to the fears of our world; war, massive violation of human rights, words like Aleppo; words like Charleston.
Joseph had every reason to be afraid.
His betrothed, Mary, is found to be pregnant. The Gospel of Matthew says this is by the Holy Spirit.
Of course whoever wrote Matthew’s Gospel knows this from hindsight.
All Joseph knows is that Mary is pregnant—and he is not the biological Father.
What might Joseph fear?
Perhaps honor and reputation? Think Honor killings of women today—all over traditional cultures.
In Joseph’s day, Betrothal represented a binding arrangement, whose breach was considered adulterous.
Deuteronomy 22:23-27 designated the punishment in such cases—death. By the time of Matthew’s writing, other rabbinic teachings said execution was not the only option—but it did remain the chief one.
We also read that Joseph was a righteous man.
I don’t know about you, but I imagine very righteous persons hold others accountable to law and right.
But Joseph seemed to understand righteousness in a different way—compassion.
He cared; he had heart; and, perhaps this above all—Joseph really loved her.
It is amazing how much love overcomes our righteousness; a philosopher once said the grace and mercy associated with love is the morality beyond morality.
The child Jesus would one day say as an adult, love fulfils the law; he was right.
So, Joseph was unwilling to expose Mary to public disgrace—and planned to dismiss her quietly.
But—Joseph was still acting in fear.
Not fear of honor.
But certainly fear of stigma—Mary was still—at this point-even with his compassion—an “other” to him.
Then—Joseph had a dream.
Dreams have some strange qualities; you can’t control them; you can only receive them—or not. Dreams come from the deepest recesses of the human soul; you can’t prepare for them; dreams come in poetry, metaphor and symbol.
Dreams are like art; only imagination may be the catalyst for their meaning and interpretation; dreams lead us into unimaginable journeys.
But, perhaps above all—dreams bring us messages that we don’t want to hear—but desperately need to heed; dreams can shape us; dreams can move us; dreams can heal us; dreams can save us. Dreams complete us.
Perhaps that is why the Scriptures teach that God—at times—can communicate to us only by dreams.
Only by dreams can God break through our defenses—especially our fears.
Joseph was a righteous man; that was who he was right? That was ALL he was right?
God knew better.
So God did with Joseph–what the one of the greatest 20th century healers, Carl Jung– said that ONLY God could do—what God often does.
In a dream, God took Joseph directly into the whirlwinds of the man who he was—but knew not.
Who was this Joseph?
This other Joseph? This Shadow Joseph only known through a dream?
A man of vulnerability; a man of trust; a man of hope; a man who could dream; a man who could not only give—but receive.
But not only this; Joseph was not only a righteous man; but a man who could also be truthful with the unrighteous—and, hope, trust and faith—enter into unrighteousness.
For that was Mary’s pregnancy in the eyes of her culture—not righteous; not good; Mary was and would always be in the eyes of others of her day—Other.
She is perhaps the first of the line of Saints who were always “other” and “shamed” in their day; but only now—are named by the Church as Holy; Joan of Arc—Burnt at the stake for heresy; Thomas Cranmer, the author our Prayer Book—executed penning the very language of the Prayer Book we will pray this morning.
Joseph’s dream took Joseph into the life of one deemed “other.” He took him to the margins; he took him into unrighteousness.
The unrighteousness? The Mary’s of today?
The other?—You name it—Black, White, Muslim, Jew, Asian, Latino, Latina—Unweed teen; Addict.
The other we fear—is the self we loath; the shadow we will not see or own. “The poverty we will not confront; the shame we can’t own; the vulnerability to which we will not admit.
Joseph’s dream rubbed his face and soul in his true fear.
Shame; Stigma; Other.
Joseph’s dream transformed those things—into the things of God.
Mary’s pregnancy—censure, gossip, ridicule—accusation of wrongdoing—all those things—all those things on the margins of soul, church and nation—were the things of God; the place where Joseph would find God; the place where he would participate in God’s new birth.
Rather than put away Mary—Joseph full entered into her life as her beloved.
This included entering into controversial and rather shameful reality of an unwed pregnancy that only persons of faith can claim as the work of God.
Like Joseph—so do we—enter into the full humanity of those we deem other-those on the margins—those with whom and only through whom we find God.
We do not find God in our righteousness-my sisters and brothers.
We find God in those place deemed unrighteousness, condemned and crucified in the world.
Perhaps only in dreams—we discover that those are the places where God lives in the living flames of love.
In a few minutes, we will be dedicating some pieces of new visual art for our Parish family; we are blessed to have our brother Mako Fujimura among us; we are blessed by his art—now adorning the walls of our Altar area.
The best of visual art beckons, rather than controls or directs; the best of art possesses a question-not an answer; the best of art confronts us with wholeness-not polarities; the best of art, even if disturbing or shaking us—builds us up and strengths our souls.
When I experience the painting behind this pulpit and to your left when you face the altar area, I see some of the qualities of Joseph’s dream—openness, reception, wholeness—qualities of the Holy Spirit—qualities of the flame of God’s love—qualities of tongue of fire.
When I see this painting—I see Joseph’s heart for Mary—the risk of all for the dream of God.
But the brilliant Red horizon of this painting reminds me of something else too—the red passion of solidarity with suffering; the fires of purgation, burning away the defenses which wall us off from a suffering humanity, fires which burn away all righteousness which deems another as “other.” fires which burn away, forever, our fear of the shadow side of our existence.
I would invite you know, in silence, to encounter these new paintings for our Altar area.
I would invite you, in a time of silent prayer, to bring your own fear of anything in your own humanity—before God—to be purged in the living flame of his love.
For God is with you—to receive it—carry it—release it.
Then and ONLY then…you will be able to do that for your sisters and brothers—ALL of them—All your Neighbors—ALL of them.
And—don’t’ worry—if you can’t do it now—God will find YOU—as he found Joseph.
To quote Dr. Jung once more: Bidden or Not—God will Come.
A sermon preached by the Rev. Hugh E. Brown, III, D. Min, Rector, on December 4, 2016, Year A, Advent II, Matthew 3: 1-12 in All Saints’ Episcopal Church, Princeton, NJ
“He will Baptize …with Fire”
From a Religion of Shame to a Faith of Support
“I’m a white, college educated, employed, middle class-Christian from a good family who grew up on a farm in New Hampshire.
I was recovering from a life-threatening medical condition; then, my doctor confronted me with a new complication.
The complication was a disease related to the medication I was taking for awful pain. Over two and a half million people struggle with this disease in the United States.
It is an illness that has reached epidemic proportions in our country, claiming the lives of 78 people per day, with incidences of death quadrupling between 1999 and 2014 according to the Centers for Disease control and Prevention.
The Disease is called Opioid addiction.
Timothy King wrote the above words; the publication, Christianity Today, tells the story of his remarkable story of recovery from Opioid addiction.
Timothy King could be your brother in the pews this morning; he is an independent communications and digital strategy consultant; he is a journalist; he is a committed and devote Christian.
The Opioid Crisis is becoming more personal to me.
I hope the congregation knows by now that I work with those living with addiction the better part of two days each week at Princeton House—the my Internship as part of my attaining both a Master’s degree and License for Social Work in Mental Health and Family Therapy.
I have discovered Our Lord Jesus Christ powerfully present in this place—Princeton House.
I am continuing to discover something else too—the best of religion; and the worst.
Speaking of the best and worst of religion—let’s move to the message and character of John the Baptizer as depicted in the Gospel of Matthew just read.
John was truly a thundering paradox of a man—conviction and humility, morality and mysticism, radical prophet and living in the present.
Like the prophets of old, John threatened Israel with divine judgement, and summoned all to repent of their ways.
But, as the scholar Douglas R. A. Hare points out, unlike all the other prophets, John offered a sacrament of repentance—the Baptism of Water.
Now it is true that, in John’s day, his water sacrament paralleled that with a Jewish Gentile converts to Judaism; it also tracked with the ancient Qumran community—practicing water baptism as a symbol of continued purification from sin.
But this water sacrament was for the end times; a fiery judgement of God was coming; those sealed by water from John’s baptism would be saved. All others would be destroyed. That was his essential message; it is the message of much end-tines preaching down to the present day; sadly, it is a message roundly proclaimed in many Christian pulpits.
Why has John always been the “man for Advent?” We get two Sundays of his Ministry—for his story continues next week.
In much of Christian tradition and in particular in the older liturgies, Advent was associated with the last things and the coming of Christ in judgement.
Today, Advent has somewhat of a different focus in the new liturgy—that of hope, expectation and the coming of Christ in humility and service-symbolized by the babe in the manager. This is why Advent is NOT, anymore seen as just a “little Lent.
Lent is about penitence for sin; Advent is about the promise of hope despite of sin.
This being said, John’s message is powerful and truthful; it reminds us that Christianity is not about Cheap Grace.
But….! Let us be very careful here.
John’s message is NOT the message of Jesus. Indeed, in Richard Rohr’s words, “John got and he did not get it at all.”
What did John get?
He “got” that nothing in the Christian faith—and indeed NO authentic religion—absolves us of accountability. Accountability is part of the deal in God’s work.
The Episcopal Church as canon law for a reason; the American constitution and system of government grounds our nation in law; our very freedoms in democratic societies rest in self-control; our liberty resides in law.
Jesus never counsels abdication to abuse and injustice. That was the theme of last week’s sermon.
There is right and there is wrong; there are the things of God—and there are things that attack God’s work of love in this world. There is light and there is darkness; and, yes, there is good and there is evil.
John “got” judgement in this way—the discrimination choice between good and evil.
This very week, I called the mother of a patient to seek family help with the patient’s treatment; the patient has been living heroin addiction for over a quarter century.
The mother, rightly was very angry with her daughter. She described a graphic history of incarceration, theft, lying, betrayal and downright, let’s call it—dark and evil behavior.
She was also wise enough to seek help herself—and part of that help was realizing that the best way to help her daughter was to help herself—first; then to “back off” and leave her daughter to her own choices and battles—to quit what in substance abuse treatment is called enabling.
Would she have called her very, very ill daughter, in John’s words—a viper?
Perhaps rightly so; perhaps enough to realize that choices do have consequences.
It is also understandable that this mom might not have understood….that her daughter’s addiction is an illness….an illness that is truly evil and destructive—that makes a person do horrible things—things that are NOT who they are their soul and core. Perhaps, although she might not have been aware of it—this mom was angry at the illness and its evil—not her daughter.
That mother’s discriminating judgement about her daughter’s behavior might be “right on.” But do you know what she ended with? “I still love her.”
That is what John—and frankly ALL religions of fear do not get!
“I still love you.”
Of course we are sinners; but we are created good.
We are not bad people at soul and core.
The message of a truly destructive religion is this: that some people are simply bad—to be rejected—written off—thrown into the furnace of fire—or to be more relevant—the cold ice of isolation.
The clinical, scientific term for this kind of self-loathing and self-rejection is shame.
There is a difference between shame and guilt.
Guilt is about the consequence of choices we make; we can do something about these. God can do a lot with us here. Choices can be repented; choices can be changed.
Shame is far different; within perceptual framework of shame , we are simply beyond hope; we are just bad—period; or, we are just defective; of course we deserve to be punished.
The wrong is not about what we have done; but of who we are. Of course in shame we fear God. Within the framework of shame, we deserve punishment; the God of shame obviously loathes us!
As one of my patients in one of my therapy groups at Princeton House once said—“my Dad said I’m trash; I think he’s right; God’s done with me.”
Jesus knew all about shame; he died a shameful death. He knew the destructive of power of shame.
John, preaching hell-fire and damnation for unrepentant sinners– did not.
Jesus knew that destructive religion– is shame-based religion.
He spent much of his ministry challenging shame—the label, given by self or given by others—that persons were bad at their core.
He challenged the stigma and shame of things that are hard to understand as “bad” today—disability, mental illness, illness in general, poverty, religious and cultural choice—all things thought be thought “sinful” in his day.
But he also challenged the shaming of the truly stigmatized—terrorists, traitors, prostitutes, abusers of power.
For Jesus no one was beyond hope; no one was beyond redemption. No one was beyond God’s love.
Remember the words of that Mom regarding her very lost daughter—“I still Love her.”
God does love us—but perhaps–sometimes can’t help us all the time; God is not the great enabler; at times he must leave us to our choices—lost as those choices are; but God always waits for our return—in this world—or the next.
God is always there for us—even when we are not there for ourselves.
Timothy King writes this of his own recovery: “I removed the Fentanyl patch; the doctor was right. I could handle the pain—without opioids.
But not on the strength of my own will—but God’s will.
But–God works through the love and support of others.
My mother, a nurse, had been with me when my doctor named my addiction; what would have happened has she reacted with judgement instead of support.
She taught me the God—not of judgement—but of support.
Yes, that is what John the Baptist—and all preachers of fear fail to get. But that Jesus understood all too well—and that is why His way is the way of salvation.
Religions of Shame fail; they get accountability; but they push sin into the darkness of fear and stigma.
That is what the church in the name of salvation can and must do—transform a religion of shame into a religion of support.
Sin takes its deepest root in the cover of darkness. Jesus has the courage to bring all our brokenness into the light.
John was right; Jesus would bring the Baptism of fire. But he would bestow only the fires of love –which burn away all shame in the ways of compassion.
So–let us go—and do likewise!
Always—no matter the depth of sin—remember the words and ways of Jesus from the cross of mercy: I still Love you.
A Sermon preached on the First Sunday of Advent, Year A, November 27, 2016, on Isaiah 2: 1-5; Mathew 24: 36-44, in All Saints’ Episcopal Church, Princeton, NJ, by the Rev. Hugh E. Brown, III, D. Min.
“…Nor Shall They Train for War Anymore”
Preparation as Mercy
Yes, perhaps the Ad which gripped my attention is illustrative of the “commercialism” of these weeks preceding Christmas; then again, if we truly believe in the doctrine of the Incarnation, we Christians believe God can work through anything in the created order!
The new ad, which began airing in the United States on November 16, is actually set in England.
The commercial begins with an Anglican priest opening the door for his good friend, a Muslim Imam. The two older men talk, laugh and share a cup of tea; then they both try to stand; the wince at their creaky knees.
They part company; then, in good response to the digital age, the pull out their phones, tap Amazon’s Prime App—and order something.
Next, as a contemporary manifestation of O’Henry’s The Gift of the Magi, it’s clear that they bought the other identical knee pads.
The end of the 120 second ad, features both men in their respective hours of worship, kneeling in prayer.
Gary Bradley, the Anglican priest, serves as Vicar of St. Mary’s and Paddington Green in London; Zubier Mohammad services as principal of the Muslim School in Oadby in Leichester. The Ad was filmed at two churches, St. Dunstan and All Saint’s Church in London and at the East London Mosque.
Certainly–when we think of a message like this–of religious tolerance, respect, humility and grace, the words of Isaiah in this morning’s Old Testament Lesson from Isaiah Chapter 2, verses One through Five come to mind.
“They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; one nation shall not raise the sword against another, nor shall they train for war again; O house of Jacob come, let us walk in the light of the Lord.”
Such words, in good Advent fashion are an unfulfilled promise—especially in our nation today. The Southern Poverty Law Center has tracked not hundreds, but thousands of ugly incidents of outright crimes of hate directed at American citizens of color, of undocumented immigrants, of refugees, and Muslims since the Presidential election in early November.
This past week, racist and hate-filled graffiti colored a sign advertising a Spanish speaking Mass at the Church of Our Savior in Hillandale, in Silver Spring, Maryland—on the wall of the parish’s Memorial Garden.
We must understand that Isaiah’s biblical call to peacemaking is not a sentimental appeasement with oppression and evil.
It is a vision of Shalom, reconciled relationships, protection of the stranger, the widow, the orphan, the poor; it is also about justice and judgement.
Isaiah’s call to Peacemaking looks more like the tough action of two clerics crossing boundaries of difference, or something like the following.
On the morning after Election Day, At an Iowa High School Lujayn Hamad, was in the cafeteria and a boy she barely knew bumped into her: “Go back Home”—he yelled at her; Ms. Hamad is 15 and wears an hijab; similar incidents followed; another Muslim student was surrounded by heckler’s and called a terrorist. A student noted, in a loud voice in a classroom, in the absence of a Latina student—“I wonder if she got deported.”
What was the response of some Christian students?
They held a rally on the school grounds in respectful conversation with school officials, including the principal—a practicing Christian; they gathered in the cafeteria handout out safety pins to wear on shirts in a gesture of togetherness; said one student, “it’s showing solidarity and that we are not going to tolerate bigotry.” One Christian put it more directly; my faith demands this of me!
Now, we often perceive the great Advent promise of Second Isaiah’s peaceable Kingdom as ONLY Hope. In this way it is only an unrealized dream. It is only something God brings in God’s own time. Such is true; and such is rather beautiful and consoling.
However I suggest this morning that the way of Peacemaking is not only God’s future promise; the way of Peacemaking may be the Church’s Advent preparation for Christmas
Thus, we come to the theme of the Gospel of Matthew—the Advent theme usually heard from Christian pulpits: Advent as Preparation.
Now, Matthew’s Jesus makes clear we do not know the date or time of Christ’s return.
Matthew’s Jesus makes clear that the vision of Isaiah is incomplete; in Matthew, Jesus brilliantly uses four interlocking parables to illustrate the fact that we can’t know when the cataclysmic events surrounding the return of Christ will happen.
Many Christians have latched on to one of these parables—two people working in a field, with one taken, the other left.
Is this the foundation of the “rapture” and the whole tradition of what is called premillennialism in the American evangelical tradition? Is this what made the literary series, Left Behind so popular?
But, to the contrary, Matthew’s Jesus encourages the congregation to remain faithful even in the midst of conflict.
In Matthew’s Gospel, our Lord Jesus does not call his people to focus on heaven; but on earth; he does not call his people away from the world’s pain—but in profound deeper immersion in our neighbor’s suffering.
That is what it means, for Matthew to “be awake.” This is Advent for a Christian people–to be faithful to the teachings of Jesus.
What does it mean to be faithful and prepared in this day and in this time? In this period of history? In this Episcopal Church of the early 21st Century?
Perhaps—it means—to not only hope for Peace; but to be bearers of it; to not only hope for reconciliation; but to be heralds of it; to not only hope for the protection of the weak and vulnerable—but to do it!
Thus Isaiah’s vision of the Kingdom of Peace read this morning becomes our True Advent preparation.
Let me offer several suggestions based on an essay by a spiritual writer who is deeply concerned for the life of our church and nation in an unthinkable time of risk for cultural and religious minorities.
First, love your neighbor by protecting them from hate speech and attacks. Like those students from that Iowa High school, for God’s sake watch, report and confront hate speech and behavior of any kind—against all ethnic and religious groups. Teach your children and grandchildren to reject anything to do with what is called White Nationalism. Our unity as church and nation is not White European; we are nation of immigrants the world over; our unity is in Christ—perfect love. Remember that no one in Nazi Germany thought the Jews truly at risk until the shattering glass of Kristallnacht. Be prepared dear friend! Do not wait in complacency to lift your voice; until it is too late!
Second, welcome the stranger! Christmas reminds us that the Holy Family were refugees, immigrants and strangers in Egypt; remember Princeton is a sanctuary community; I offer this as my own opinion for challenge and conversation; the Christian church, including All Saint’s Parish should consider becoming a Sanctuary Church.
Our parish’s moral commitment to peacemaking should be this; we will block, interfere and obstruct any future American policy of mass deportation of immigrants who are law-abiding and hard-working members of our communities. The Lord Jesus, it is said, had no place to lay his head; those at risk of deportation should find a place here at All Saint’s Church for welcome and shelter—and indeed sanctuary.
Finally, above all, let us be a Peacemaking people of Mercy.
Pope Francis I called the this year in the Church an Extraordinary Jubilee Year—the Year of Mercy; in his book, The Name of Mercy, he described an episode from his time as Priest of a parish in Argentina.
The parish often helped out a woman whose husband had left her and who had turned to Prostitution to feed her young children; the Church did not judge her; they did not even ask her to give up her profession.
They took her exactly as she was; her repentance when it did come later—was prompted not by “get your act together” and “quit sinning” but first treating her with love; a wonderful teaching right; repentance follows love— and is the result of unconditional grace; not vice-versa.
The Pope writes, “I remember one day after I was made Bishop, it was during the Christmas holidays—she came with her children to the College and asked for me; she said she wanted to thank me. I thought it was for the food given her all those years.
‘Well yes,’ she said, it was for that; but it was especially for something else; in all those years, you never stopped calling me Senora; you always treated me as an equal human being; that is why I changed and I became a better person.
You treated me as the person that Jesus saw me to be; nothing less; and that is the person I am today’.”
Do we want to truly Prepare for the Coming of Christ—at Christmastide, or at History’s end?
Then let us be people of Mercy—People who welcome the Stranger and the Sinner.
People who are proud parents of children who hand out safety pins in a school cafeteria…children protecting another from religious persecution…..children and Christians….who are truly walking in the Light of the Lord.
A sermon preached by Kayla Peck, Seminarian Intern at All Saints’ Episcopal Church on the Feast of Christ the King, November 20, 2016
Shepherd of Israel, hear our prayer, as your Son heard the plea of the criminal crucified with him. Gather into Christ’s holy reign, the broken, the sorrowing, and the sinner, that all may know wholeness, joy, and forgiveness. Amen.
It’s around the corner. Conversations regarding how to properly bake your turkey, the recipes to those low-fat gluten-free, vegan but delicious side dishes to your Thanksgiving dinner, Thanksgiving travel traffic patterns, Christmas gift planning, and Black Friday sales.
It is that time of year.
And more than just the typical holiday frenzy that is approaching, there is divisiveness and anger in the air as we all try to understand one another in the aftermath of the presidential election. Strategies on how to redirect family discussions away from politics at the Thanksgiving meal seem – to many – more vital than ever before.
And as we enter into a season brimming with feasting in our workplaces and in our homes, in the Church we are marking the end of another liturgical year. Next Sunday we begin the liturgical year again with Advent, the four weeks leading up to Christmas in which we recall the story of the Incarnated God who came into the world in a lowly manger by a poverty-stricken Nazarene woman.
We start to retell the stories again of how Jesus loved the sinner, healed the broken, and held out his hand and his heart to the “least of these.”
But before we can talk about the inception of God in the form of us – a fleshy, heart-beating human being – we find ourselves not at a feast nor at the stable, but at the foot of the cross in Jerusalem, at a place called the Skull.
The cross for the Roman Empire was a form of lethal punishment reserved for the lowliest of lows in the ancient civilization – the slaves, bandits, and rebels. The crucified were left suspended on the cross, ridiculed by those who passed by it. It was a slow and painful death brimming with public humiliation and gory details. It was public. It was shameful. It was torturous. And it sent the message that you do not mess with the Roman Empire.Interestingly enough, Luke doesn’t really go into these details, perhaps because the writer’s Greco-Roman audience only needed to hear the word, crucifixion, and know – Ah, yes, yes. We know…Oh do we ever know…what you mean.
Rather than focusing on the gruesomeness of it all, Luke draws our attention to those surrounding Jesus at the cross – the leaders, the soldiers, and the criminals.
The leaders presume that he saved others so surely he can save himself too. He will save himself IF he really is the messiah of God, the chosen one. The Roman soldiers mocked him, pointing to the sign over him that read King of the Jews. If he really is the king of the Jews, then he can save himself. Then we have one of the criminals who is suffering the same excruciating pain as Jesus and even he has the gall to join in on the mockery – if you really are the messiah then yeah. C’mon. Save yourself and while you are at it, save us too from this punishment.
We read this story now and almost chuckle at their harsh treatment of Jesus. They assume that the savior and king must prove who he is by being saved from his own death.
Oh, but on the contrary.
The suffering Christ shows that he is king by going through death.
Through the death of Christ, through Good Friday and Holy Saturday when Jesus Christ descended into hell…and on the third day rose again to conquer all kingly power, all death, all human authority.
This is how we know that Christ is King.
Jesus Christ saves not because he escapes death but precisely because he defeats it.
And he defeats it going through the lowliest and most shameful of deaths. Christ does not show his kingship through worldly thrones of power nor by proving his strength through a highly strategic political campaign. Rather, he dies the most shameful of deaths on the cross. He makes the lowliest place of suffering his kingly throne.
But if we stretch our imaginations to be at the Skull with the other onlookers – those who stood by watching this horrific scene take place – would we have known what was going on?
Would we have known that this suffering man suffered for us?
Growing up in the Church, the cross was a symbol not uncommon for me and perhaps for many of you as well. It is, after all, a hallmark symbol of our faith. We wear cross pendants as necklaces, some might have the cross tattooed on their body, and the Book of Common Prayer – the book in which we glean our liturgy and our prayers for the seasons of our lives has only one image on the front – that of the cross. And even here, we seat ourselves facing this glorious window which Fr. Hugh pointed out to us on All Saints Day a few Sundays ago.
And the only symbol on this stain glass that separates us – this body of Christ – with the world outside of this church is the cross.
We are given the opportunity to see the world, to participate in the world, to love the world through the lens of the cross. In this passage and in the cross, we see how God stands in solidarity with our fear, our suffering, and our pain and has given us grace – so that even in our brokenness we are compelled to love.
The cross is the ultimate act of love for it frees us of the captivity of our own sin and gave us the unending fuel of grace so that we may love one another.
But, how often has our lens of the cross gotten a bit too foggy?
Admittedly, in the last few weeks following the election, my lens was in need of cleaning for it was all too easy to cast blame, anger, and fear on a voter that I had not even met.
It was a voter that does not mirror any particular party affiliation because it had extended-well beyond political lines to a mythical understanding of the “other.”
Of one not like me.
And I know I’m not alone in this confession.
I can count too many social media posts that start by saying, “I respectfully disagree…” but as the response moves on, it is clear that the person is actually immensely robbing another of respect in their opposition. In fact, just the other day I was reading an article posted by the Jesuit priest, James Martin, on how we should love one another in this post-election season and the comment section to his article was filled ironically with irreverent dissent.
The lens of the cross that gives us grace which propels love – this lens is not about hatred. This lens will never perpetuate acts of hatred. It will refuse to accept racism, misogyny, and xenophobia – fear of the other.
Rather, it will listen. It is patient. Compassionate. Kind. Empathic. Bears all things, hopes all things, endures all things (1 Corinthians 13).
As we continue to live into this post-election strife – of a country split between celebration and protest – we must draw ourselves back to the cross.
Even when I did the unthinkable and imagine my neighbor to be my enemy, Christ forgave me. And it is this freedom of forgiveness that I confess to God, I praise God for the work done to redeem us, and I move forward step-by-step to love my neighbor again.
This is where I believe we can enter the story today.
Because of Christ’s forgiveness in the moment of ultimate suffering, we are given freedom. Freedom to be vulnerable enough to confess what we’ve done wrong; where we have erred or gone astray. And because of Christ’s forgiveness, we are free to love even in the places of pain. “It is love that will burn out the sins and hatreds that saddens us.”
This certainly does not mean we stop fighting for those who continue to be marginalized in our country. What this cross should do however is free us to fight for justice in a way which honors and loves our neighbor – that sees dignity in the enemy as well as the friend even if one tries to rob another of her dignity because this gift of forgiveness was not just for one, but for many.
There is one more character in this story that cannot be forgotten – a character which resembles the lens of the cross which we’ve been given. That character is the second criminal. He was suffering from the same horrendous and shameful pain as the criminal who scoffed Jesus. Yet, this second criminal acknowledges – God for who God is – the savior who came into the world to free us completely from our sin and give us eternal hope and eternal salvation.
Rather than mocking Jesus, he sees Jesus for who Jesus is and he confesses: “Jesus remember me when you come into your kingdom” (v.42).
He speaks not from a place of assumptions but a place of humility and a place that acknowledges that this Man suffering beside him holds the hope and destiny of us all.
We serve a King much more glorious than what the Roman Empire could provide and much grander than what the leaders, the soldiers, and that first criminal would have imagined. For this King meets us in our weakest of moments and still sees us, still forgives us, still loves us. In fact, we serve a King much more just and charitable than any President of the United States has ever been and will ever be.
As Paul says in Romans, “If God is for us, who is against us? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. Who will separate us from the love of Christ?” (Romans 8:31b;33-35a).
The answer is no one, though many may try, in the end no government, no human leader or king can separate us from the love of Christ. This is the King we serve. A King that enters our pain and suffering to defeat death and evil itself giving us an everlasting hope that one day Christ will come again and his glorious, just, and peaceful Kingdom will have no end. And in that gift of forgiveness, we’ve given the best gift we could ever receive – grace.
And grace – this free and radical gift – should compel us to love our neighbor – to love one another regardless if you are Republican or Democrat, a Millennial or a Baby Boomer, Hispanic or Asian, Jewish or Muslim, Female or Male.
So as we approach this holiday season – a season which can especially provoke a great deal of grief and pain for the reasons why we ourselves or the ones we love the most are not with us at the holidays feasts, or perhaps even as we gear up with strategies to shift the Thanksgiving conversations away from politics…let us drawback to the Cross and meditate on this free gift given to us so that we can freely love our neighbors as ourselves.
“May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully giving thanks to the Father, who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light” (Colossians 1:11).
Sisters and Brothers, let us put on the lens of the cross for it has equipped us to move with love for the least of these because the Savior who descended into the valley of all valleys, has leaned over next to you and has said, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise” (v.43).
Thanks be to God.
Inspired by Fr. Gordon Graham’s Lectionary Notes. http://rclnotes.blogspot.com/2016/11/christ-king-reign-of-christ-2016.html
 Dorothy Day, House of Hospitality, 267.
A sermon preached by The Rev. Gordon Graham, Priest Associate at All Saints’ Episcopal Church on November 13, 2016
A sermon preached by the Rev. Hugh E. Brown, III, D. Min, in All Saints’ Episcopal Church on October 16, 2016, Stewardship Sunday, on Genesis 32L 22-31, Year C, RCL, Proper 24
“…A Man Wrestled with Him until Daybreak.”
Why Does it Need to be This Way?
Jacob must face Esau again.
You and I must always face our Truth—Truth about our brother—sister—mother—friend. Truth about our choices; Truth about ourselves.
Carl Jung once said if we don’t confront our shadow—those place of truth we would rather not even be aware of—far less know experientially and heart-fully—the Shadow will find us.
Scott Peck once said the origin of all Mental Illness is the denial of legitimate suffering—thus replacing legitimate suffering with illegitimate; thus we deny suffering.
We deny it through passivity and passive aggression; or rage, impulsiveness and active aggression.
We replace legitimate suffering with alcohol or drugs; we replace legitimate suffering with defenses and inauthenticity.
No, Jacob did not want to face Esau; he did not want to face the suffering—of finally dealing with destructive relationship with his brother.
Yes-it is much easier to work, study, drink, get angry, blame and shame—enter the wastelands of anxiety and depression—than deal with a destructive relationship right?
No, Esau Did not want to face Truth. But, For once in his life he was honest.
Perhaps the beginning of our facing our truth, shadow and legitimate suffering is honesty.
Jacob fled. At least honest.
Perhaps, paradoxically, we need to flee to confront—in the end. Just be real about it and act on it. Action—Power—definition of power—to act—to choose.
God likes that—to choose—our prayer book catechism says that to be made in the image of God is to make choices.
Jacob fled from his home because he thought Esau would kill him.
Esau had every reason—to kill Jacob.
Jacob cheated his older brother Esau out of his birthright and became wealthy by deceiving his uncle. When he was born, it was said that he was holding on to his brother’s heel, as if to pull him back from the womb.
Yes, Jacob must confront Esau.
But I don’t think that is Jacob’s truth, shadow or legitimate suffering; that is never the truth in any destructive relationship—God or Man.
Jacob’s truth? To confront himself?
O yes, to confront God or be confronted by God.
But in my experience as man, pastor and many times Jacob—the confrontation with God and the confrontation with my Self—is very much the same.
Enter the night visitor. Who is this being who wrestles with Jacob? Is it Esau? An enemy or robber who discovered Jacob’s location? An Angel? Is it God?
But then what does it mean to Wrestle with God?
The great Jewish philosopher, essayist and poet, Arthur Waskow, in his book, God-Wrestling, puts it this way:
“Was the infamous Night Visitor who Wrestled with Jacob—Himself?” At last he was able to stand in Esau’s shoes, to turn form his fear of what Esau might do to him and to last confront what he himself had done to Esau.
At last he was able to wrestle with his own guilt—but even deeper…..
“Why does it need to be this way? That is what it means to Wrestle with God; Why does it need to be this way? Why do I (not you—no matter the you) need to be this way.
Why do I need to cheat my brother, in order to make my own way in the world? Why are we pitted so, against each other? Why should I need to win the first born’s blessing. But, if I should, why should I need to be a decent, loving person. I ought to win the first born blessing—God told my mother so; I ought to be a decent loving person. Then, why did I have to give up one or the other?
Why did I have to act indecently to win the blessing? Why couldn’t Esau and I work it out together?”
Why does it have to be this way? Of such intimate, painful wrestling with God—Faith is born.
Faith is legitimately painful; it puts into confrontation with our deepest truth and that place where only God can be found—in Struggle.
Like Jacob, we come away with a wound—a limp—forever changed—forever seared.
Like Jacob—we become Israel—those who wrestle with God; those who dare to confront the truth of legitimate suffering—rather than illegitimate suffering.
In the summer of 1981, just after college graduation I found myself at the river Jabbok; I found my way into serving as a counselor with the Hospice program of Norfolk General Hospital.
I did so after finding an Episcopal Church, listening to a lay sermon by a Mom who found the light of Christ as her daughter lay dying of cancer; her daughter died the very day that about a dozen friends joined her and she played her guitar for the last time; she was holding her guitar and they were holding her as she passed into eternal life.
She described herself-initially, in her daughter’s illness as Jacob—angry, bitter, resentful; all of this existential dread, she realized—upon witnessing her daughter’s amazing friends and amazing support—was pain—horrible grief.
She was determined that others would know the love her daughter received in her last days—and would not have to walk the way of grief—alone.
She founded an award winning Episcopal Church caregiving ministry that partnered with Hospice to train volunteers in the skills of Oncology support.
Why does it need to be this way? Why do so many—unlike my daughter—die without guitars, and music and love? Why do so many caregivers walk this journey of cancer alone?
Thus, through the question, Why does it need to be this way? Emily Harkins, mother of Lee Harkins, became Israel.
She wrestled with God; she wrestled with Death; she wrestled with Cancer; she prevailed. Yes, she came away with the wound of perpetual grief.
But faith prevailed; Life prevailed.
But did so because Emily had the guts—like Jacob—to wrestle with herself—with her legitimate suffering—sadness—grief; not the illegitimate suffering of cynicism, despair and anger.
My friends—scratch cynicism, aggression, even rage—you find pain.
Over the next half century—Lee’s Friends and Oncology Patients of Norfolk Virginia, the Agency Emily Harkins founded—touched thousands of persons. Not only did it touch patients; but it touched caregivers.
I was one.
I am convinced, looking back—that God drove me to my own river Jabbok—for goodness sake—not for the job after college in Norfolk—nor even the church—nor even an eventual call to the Episcopal Church ministry that came from the experience.
But, perhaps, God drove me to that place–because my own inner Jacob needed a good dose of truth.
My own faith was shaky; I was filled with my own resentments and guilt; where was God in the midst of all of this pain? Where had God been for me?
One day, upon receiving a new client—and wondering what the “hell” I was doing and why—I entered a room and sat down beside the bed of a 32 year old father of two, dying of advanced melanoma.
His wife was in the room with him; she smiled at me and thanked me for coming. He had only a few hours to live.
She was stroking his head; she looked at me and said, “I only hope and pray you know love like this.”
“I only hope God blesses you like this; as God has blessed me. It is good; it is all good; and then she took my hand, thanking me again and said, it is all good.”
And it was; and, indeed God blessed that day—as God blessed Jacob.
What does this have to do with Stewardship?
For what is Stewardship?
Nothing but the sharing of the gifts God has bestowed upon you—time, talent, and treasure.
But I do trust this as well—this truth about Stewardship as well.
The most profound and generous givers are not above all—givers of money, time and talent; no, the most generous folk indeed, sharer, bestow from the depth of their very selves; they are like the mother of a dying daughter named Emily Harkins who dare to ask the question:
Why does it need to be like this?
Who dare to ask this question—Why Does it need to be Like This?– from their own God-Wrestling—From their Own Self-Wrestling—from their own courageous confrontation with Legitimate Suffering—with Legitimate Truth.
Why does it need to be Like This?
From that question one courageous and faithful Mom touched the lives of thousands living with Cancer—patients and loved ones. And volunteers like me.
From that question—and the daring God-Wrestling with your own Truth—your own Pain—YOU are called by God to touch lives by sharing your deepest and most authentic self.
Find your own God-wrestling; find your own confrontation with Truth; find your pain; and you will find the center of self from which powerful, life-changing sharing flows.
There is not a person in the pews this morning without the power to share powerful, transformative, life-changing gifts.
There is not a person here who will fail to do so AS they dare to wrestle with their Truth—with their Legitimate Pain–with their God—with their deepest sense of Self.
Who dare to ask Jacob’s God-Wrestling Question: Why does it Need to be this Way?
Why can there not be more decency, truth, compassion, community, coming together….more….love in this world?
Where—Where do I need to wrestle with self –with God–to share in the Why?
Enclosed in your bulletin you will find the great Masterpiece—Jacob and the Night Visitor by the Shakespeare of Western Art—Rembrandt.
One commentator describes her experience of this art in this way:
“When I see God wrestle with Jacob-I do not see violence—but love.”
That is why you do not need fear the great wrestling match with God.
You need not fear the great confrontation with your truth—your pain—the deepest source of your gifts and your Stewardship.
For as I learned from Emily Harkins, and that nameless, compassionate wife stroking the head of her dying husband at the river Jabbok in a hospital hospice wing—it is all good; it is all good; it is all love.
That is the most amazing blessing; all good; all love.
So–Go—my friends—wrestle with God—wrestle with Self—Discover love which surpasses human understanding—and Share…..
……for It Does NOT have to be this Way!
Thanks be to God.
A sermon preached on October 2, 2016, the 20th Sunday after Pentecost in All Saints’ Episcopal Church, Princeton, NJ by the Rev. Elly Sparks Brown
A sermon preached on September 25, 2016, the 19th Sunday after Pentecost on Proper 21, Year C in All Saints’ Episcopal Church, Princeton, NJ by the Rev. Hugh E. Brown, III, D. Min., Rector
“Besides all this, between you and us, a great chasm has been fixed…”
Overcoming the Chasm: Alex to Omran: “He will be My Brother”
A primary symbol in the Gospel story just read from St. Luke is “The Chasm.”
We will return to the historical context the symbol, Chasm” from the days of Jesus; however, like the story from Luke’s Gospel, we see “Chasms” all around us today; we see chasms of race, class, culture, gender; values, and our very interpretations of our faith.
We seem chasms of experience and perspective across great social issues raised in this Presidential campaign—immigration, criminal justice and law enforcement, marriage and family.
If you are like me, we have the temptations to remain on our own side of the Chasm; we talk to people like us; dine with people like us; communicate with people like us; perhaps cyberspace and the power of the Internet has only deepened the chasm.
How many of us consult perspectives across chasms of experience and disagreement? Sometimes we don’t even choose the chasm; our preferences and choices to it for us.
When I was home for a few weeks in August with some stress around putting caregiving arrangements in place for my mom following my father’s death, I decided, one evening, to go on You Tube and watch what I consider to one of the great political speeches in American history—the address by President Bush to a joint session of congress after the 9/11 attacks.
I did so because I needed some heroism and inspiration—and I considered that speech such
For me, President Bush offered a truly heroic vision of rallying the nation against the forces of hate, without succumbing to hate itself—and in which he noted something that has not been true in the years since—“that the state of our nation is indeed strong because we are suffering together.”
The very next day, when I pulled up my AOL account—what did I see?
I was besieged by campaign advertisements for Donald Trump’s Presidential Campaign! I also begin receiving e-mail from the Republican National Committee—and the Trump Campaign—along with a host of organizations which, for those who know me, what not be exactly my cup of political tea.
I decided to leave them there; I was simply curious; I suppose I could go back on You Tube and pull up the 2004 Convention speech of President Obama—and bring organizations and politics much more to my liking with my Web mail and other internet stuff.
But I began to discover something strange; I found myself with much more common ground with those I had just written off as misguided at best—to evil at worst.
I began to try to understand the perspective of those who have lost everything in a new world economy; the perspective of those who genuinely care that we have lost some of our fundamental American values; that free speech and religious freedom is threatened by ideology.
That there is much to be afraid of; that perhaps we have not been faithful to our faith values in drawing clear lines between good and evil—right and wrong. I certainly disagree with some of the solutions; but perhaps we could find some common ground over the questions.
So, let’s return to the story from Luke’s Gospel to see if we might make some sense of chasms and how these chasms might be overcome with some hope and grace in Christ Jesus.
So–What was his problem—this Rich Man, called Dives in church tradition? That he ended up in hell? This is an obvious problem right? Not so fast!
It is not clear from the story he IS in hell; it is not clear that the fundamental issue in this story is avoiding eternal damnation.
In Jewish and Christian understanding of the first century AD, the resurrection of the dead with judgment and vindication will happen when the Messiah returns—Not at the death of each individual.
This parable is about life in THIS world, not heaven—and about truths of the Kingdom of God here on earth.
The Rich Man’s “torment” has as much to do with the soul killing indifference to the realistic portrayals of earthly wealth and poverty in the parable.
If you have been to Jerusalem—you know the spot—the Jaffa Gate, one of the seven large entrances in the 16th century wall surrounding the Old City. The gate is well known to tourists since it leads into the Christian quarter and to David Street, Jerusalem’s tourist street par excellence.
The are lots of beggars there. The long paved walkway leading to Jaffa Gate regularly is peopled with folks sitting on the ground, hands outstretched, as they call softly to passerby.
Jesus would have known such gates. Many believes that such a place was the context of many of his great parables on wealth and possessions—the Rich Fool, the Dishonest Manager, The Rich Young Man with the illustration of the Camel and the Eye of the Needle—and this one—about a rich man and a poor man.
Lazarus would have been well known to Jesus at the Jaffa Gate.
There are such gates all over the world—and within the United States today. Is the American economy today a vast Jaffa Gate?
O.K.—so the issue in this story is not the chasms of the afterlife but the class and economic cleavages in this one.
So, what is the man’s problem? Is it wealth? Jesus had a lot to say about the dangers of excessive wealth and accumulation of possessions.
But, as our lesson from First Timothy clears teaches, money and possessions are NOT evil or un-Christian.
In the words of First Timothy, we should always be ready “to share, and to be generous.”
There are very wealthy and powerful persons who are “good guys” in the New Testament. Among them we find Joseph of Arimathea, who offered, at what must have been great risk to his life, his own land for the burial of Jesus.
Throughout the New Testament the spiritual and moral issue not the mere possession of wealth but what we do with it! Money and possessions are depicted as good gifts and a source of blessing to others.
The great reformer John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, said such clearly within his great sermon on wealth: “Make as much as you can—SO you can share as much as you can.”
If the Rich Man’s problem is not the threat of hell-fire and damnation or about wealth per say—what is it?
Let’s return to the image of the The Chasm.
What was the Rich Man’s problem? Did he ever see Lazarus? Really see him?
Did he ever really try to cross the chasm—not so much “to help” as in offer some grace in charity—and perhaps not so much “in solidarity” to offer the organization of justice—although both are Gospel and noble; certainly both can be done in paternalism and superiority too.
But did he really see him? Did he try to engage him? Speak with him; ask him what the problem was?
Probably not; according to the story—the Rich Man could see nothing but an inferior—an “other,” a slave, a servant, someone “across the chasm” of supremacy—to the very end; even in Hell—he wants Lazarus to do something for him. Even in Hell—he literally can’t cross the Chasm.
I can go to Princeton House and work with those who live with substance abuse; I can spend hours with them; I can do all the clinical work right and the social work process right—and follow all the right things to “help” and never cross the chasm. There will always be and “us vs. them.”
The other day, I was reading through a patient chart before a counseling group I did with Young Adults; I noted something that really jarred me—“Conviction of Animal Abuse.”
Now, you guys know how much I adore animals and pets.
For goodness sake, I cancelled a meeting last week and almost freaked out to get one of my cats to the Vet when he became ill.
I went into that meeting trying my best to “bracket” what I read about that patient, from the treatment I needed to give her.
I was prepared not to like her; frankly I went in kind of afraid of her; I came away with awe at the way she cared for her fellow patients—with such deep respect.
I was awed by the way she has survived horrendous abuse; did she abuse an animal? I don’t know; but there was so much more to her than that. Addiction will make you do terrible things—awful things—things that are not you.
Can we really see our sisters and brothers for the totality of who they are? Especially that they are human—no matter what? Jesus did.
he saw women—men—some who did terrible things; and he called them to be his disciples; and he healed them; he befriended them; he died for them; he forgave them.
He crossed the Chasm described in this story; and I think one way he did it-was to constantly return to the message of Moses and the prophets—that God is a God of grace and mercy—who chooses us often despite our past, our mistakes, our imperfections.
And especially, I think Jesus crossed the chasm because he saw the totality of persons—especially that we all are always made in God’s image and in God’s love—no matter what.
Over the next few weeks, I want to offer you some ideas within our parish family you have some opportunities to cross the Chasm and engage others of difference—with culture, values.
We have witnessed, over the past week, chasms of difference over perspectives with law enforcement and racial justice.
We have witness the tragedy of the death of African-Americans in encounters with police; there are often chasms of difference over issues of race and criminal justice.
On Monday, October 3—and then continuing throughout October, Not in Our Town, a Princeton organization dedicated to dialogue and conversation on issues of cultural and race in our society, will sponsor a series of conversations at the Princeton Public Library on racial literacy; more information will be coming. One of the powerful notes about this series is that African-Americans and White meet, converse, get to know each other, and talk to each other across boundaries of difference and difference perspectives.
On October 13, the Center for Theological Inquiry will begin a 6 part series on Public Questions: A Series of lectures on Theology and Public Life.
A sheet outlining the speakers and lecture titles is in the rears of the Church sanctuary; I invite your participation. Certainly these speakers will address issues spanning the Chasm of understanding around Public Policy for people of faith.
On October 30 following the 10:15AM service, we want to invite our Parish Family to a “Pakistani Lunch” in the South Room of our Church building.
You might remember that a dear friend of Joy Kulvicki, came to All Saint’s Church last Spring for Two Conversations on being a Muslim woman in American society.
Joy’s friend has graciously offered to come to All Saint’s Church with friends of her Mosque to organize a lunch in the Pakistani tradition for us—but even more important—to encourage conversation and friendship across the true chasm of Muslim/Christian understanding.
Did you know we have a talented and thoughtful play-write in our Congregation?
Our own Tony Pennino has written a play entitled, Chokehold; Chokehold’s context is the continuing “chasm” of understanding between Black Lives Matter activists for racial justice—and white views of law enforcement—providing the human dimension on all sides of this issue.
The play is running in New York City at The Theater at the 14th Street Y through October 8th; reviews have been outstanding.
One of the reviews notes that “this play captures the unmitigated sorrow and helpfulness that has gripped so many in this country day after day we witness the continuing racial strife and unfulfilled promises that haunt our history as a nation.” You might want to check it out; I know it would mean a lot to Tony if we have “All Sainters” in attendance.
“He will be our Brother,” Alex a boy of six years writes to President Obama; he is asking that 5-year old Omran, the shell-shocked, injured little boy wounded in an airstrike in Aleppo—come to live with the boy and his family.
Alex continues in his letter, “We will give him a family—and he will be our brother; Catherine, my little sister, will be collecting butterflies and fireflies for him. I have a friend from Syrian, Omar and I will introduce him to Omar. We can all play together.”
The video of Alex and his letter to Omran has now been watched by more than 7 million times. One respondent really summarized what is means to cross the Chasm—“Alex simply thought of another human being.”
So did Jesus—simply think of other human beings.
Writes Alex to Omran, “please simply tell him that his brother will be Alex, who is a very kind boy—just like him. Thank you very much; I can’t wait for him to come.”
Said President Obama in response to the letter, “These are the words of a six year old boy—a young child who has not learned to by cynical or suspicious, or fearful of other people because of where they came from, how they look, or how they pray. Imagine what the world would like, imagine the suffering we could ease, imagine the lives we could save, if we were more like Alex.”
Alex, 6 years told.
Crossing the Chasm?
Not for Jesus.
Not for Alex.
With Christ’s grace and love—not for you and not for me.
Thanks be to God…
The 18th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 20C, Luke 16:1-13, Preached on September 18, 2016 by the Rev. Hugh E. Brown, III, D. Min. in All Saints’ Episcopal Church, Princeton, New Jersey
“For you cannot serve God and Wealth” (Luke, Chapter 16)
Christian Shrewdness: From Squandering to Scattering
We officially began our Fall Stewardship program in another month—on October 16.
I would imagine when you hear the term, Stewardship, you might think of the Fall Annual Fundraising Campaign for parish Operations—and it is partially that.
Between October 16 and November 20, we will be challenging this congregation to raise approximately 400,000.
We do so—not because of institutional survival or power or prestige– but because of our God’-given mission and our thanksgiving for God’s gifts bestowed to you, to me, to this community through this parish—gifts of pastoral support, spiritual renewal, music, the arts, education…and so much more.
But Stewardship is not primarily about fundraising; it is about giving—period.
It is about the spiritual practice of giving; but it is even deeper than that—it is about sacrificial giving—about radical generosity—Gospel generosity.
It is about something Jesus taught and lived—again and again—the God-given natural , innate life of giving.
We are taught in our Episcopal Church catechism that we are made in the image of God; this is more than ontology; it is action.
To live the divine image is to be generous—with so much of our lives—but especially with our wealth and possessions.
This theme of wealth, possessions and generosity will govern the scriptures you hear again and again over the next few weeks.
Even the scriptures on taxes and divorce to be heard in the next few weeks might be seen in the light of Stewardship, Wealth—generosity; in the days of Jesus, men were using divorce for monetary gain; in the days of Jesus the tax system was used to enrich and plunder.
I would encourage you—as we will shortly with our very strange Gospel story this morning—to prayerfully engage these scriptures upcoming over these next few weeks—all the way through November until Advent. I would challenge all of us to have them challenge, provoke, and even change us.
God is a God of amazing generosity; are we? Are we serving as Stewards, Managers of Wealth for the purpose of giving; there is no other Christian purpose to wealth—but sharing—giving; accumulation of wealth for the sake of accumulation is sin.
Profit without sharing and distribution is sin. And sin leads to death—in this life—and the life to come. Are we managing our wealth for the purpose of generosity—and not only for the sake of our family—but for the human family?
In relationship to wealth and possessions—how are we treating—not only our immediate family—but our employees? Our co-workers? Our colleagues?
For, as we shall see from the story this morning—the central issue in story told is not dishonesty—or even shrewdness—but debt; more especially, it is about debt as a metaphor for forgiveness-and generous giving.
So—let’s move to the story.
Jesus’ story just read from the Gospel of Luke is a simple story in characterization: a boss, a subordinate, some merchants or tenants.
The plot is simple. The boss accuses the manager of incompetence; the manager acts.
His behavior is morally ambiguous but, upon discovery by the boss deemed not wrong but praiseworthy; the actions of both the boss and the manger are also commended by the storyteller as guides to shrewd living and restored relationships.
The storyteller further cites the behavior as a guide to handling wealth and possessions in a way which is liberating rather than enslaving.
I would invite you to enter the story—prayerfully; one way to engage the story in prayer is through an exercise called active imagination; this spiritual practice is rooted in the Roman Catholic and Jesuit tradition—the tradition of Pope, Francis the First—also a practicing Jesuit.
St. Ignatius Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits developed this prayer practice to engage the scriptures using mind, heart and soul.
To use the practice, we place ourselves in the story as a active participant.
But we do it with a twist; we imagine this story as moving in our lives—right now.
So–Imagine you are the “manger” in the story and let’s practice a little active imagination.
…Remember or imagine a situation where you were you literally had your back up against the wall…against overwhelming power.
…The Power could be a superior, perhaps an illness, perhaps a relationship that was spiraling out of control.
…Perhaps the power was something you did—or said—and wish you could take back.
You have some choices in relationship to that power.
You can choose to save your skin and act with impunity—only in your self- interest. You meet power with power. Such is the way of the world. You simply do what you need to do to protect yourself.
Or, you do something which might seem crazy, strange, and irrational; you do something which is not of this world; you do something which totally challenges power and conventional wisdom; you throw caution to the wind.
Even as you are up against the wall—you release the clinched fist or the crossed arms over the chest; you give, you release, you surrender, you relinquish, you do not take….you give.
You do it wisely, lucidly, even cunningly, in the spirit of the definition of “shrewd,” offered by Webster’s dictionary: “one who acts in a sharp, penetrating, searching, artful way.”
You turn a competitive, win-lose scenario with perceived overwhelming power into a decision for power, for relationships, for wholeness and for a win-win ending.
Imagine what this might be like—a risky decision in unfathomable, difficult circumstances to act with love, generosity, and cunning—to love both yourself and your neighbor?
Let’s return to the story.
Is the manager in the parable from Luke “dishonest?”
The story only says that charges were brought to boss against his manager, that he was squandering his employer’s property. Was he? Did somebody or group want the boss to think he was? Did the boss unfairly accuse him?
There are two references to “dishonesty” in the parable. Might they refer to accusations of dishonesty rather than in his dealings with his tenants and his boss?
Jesus’s parables were meant to shock, awe and provoke thought which shook the foundations of perception and imagined the world in a different way.
But is the “shock” in this parable the commending of dishonesty?
Or, is it commending a truly amazing idea of what it means to be shrewd.
Are the actions of the manger in this story “dishonest?” Or, are they about a visionary graciousness and generosity when one’s very life is threatened? Instead, are these actions about a risky choice for life and possibility when conventional wisdom would call for sheer survival, cover-ups or calculating, naked self- interest?
The New Testament scholar William Herzog argues that–far from being dishonest–the manger was holding the boss accountable his usurious lending actually—lending which was prohibited by the Torah. The manager here forgives debt.
In the parable, the bold, generous actions of the manager, though a bit problematical and deceptive perhaps, ultimately worked for the benefit of all.
When our backs are up against the wall, when we are attacked or threatened in mind, body or spirit—what if we acted counterintuitively?
By being not less but more generous; not less but more connected to others; not with pure self-interest vindictiveness, and fear—but with risky compassion—for all—bosses, co-workers and subordinates alike?
What if imagined and lived in a world where being shrewd was something truly extraordinary? What if we imagined a world where being shrewd was not cold calculation of interest.
What if “Christian Shrewdness” was about wise, thoughtful, life-giving, generosity of spirit?
Could it be that cold-self-interest and/or fearful survival is actually foolish-, unwise, rather stupid?
The spiritual leader Richard Rohr, a Franciscan Priest, tells the story of leading a retreat for a group of men, all of whom had recently suffered a heart attack.
Most of these men were achievers and strivers in the world of professional life and many of the guys believed that the kind of relentless and dog-eat dog world of American style economics was slowly destroying not only their spirits, but also their bodies.
Rohr gently suggested that the Gospel was ultimately about a win-wine scenario between God and humanity.
An obviously successful man came up to Rohr afterward and said, “But, Father that would make life totally uninteresting!”
It seemed to take away this man’s whole motivation if life could not be framed in terms of some type of win/loose contest—where he saw himself as the ultimate insider and winner.
When I served as Protestant chaplain at Georgetown University, I was very honored to be invited by the University Chaplain to be the religious rep from Protestant ministry to a newly created commission.
The purpose of the commission was to examine all of Georgetown’s investments in light of Catholic Social teaching for the common good. It was an eye-opening experience.
I saw so-called “tough money managers” make truly shrewd decisions in light of Christian principals—sacrificing short term gain for long-term advantage to the University—not only for the rate of return but for the ratios of compassion; these decisions were for the purpose of truly moving away from win-lose scenarios of organizational interest vs. the common good, of self-interest and the human interest, of capitalism and human-moral capital.
In these meetings, I saw prominent members of the Washington DC financial and political community—before the Financial Crisis—move money out of organizations—clearly practicing usurious, unscrupulous, risky lending practices—targeting the poor, minorities—all for the sake naked self-interest and accumulation of wealth.
I saw them agree to organizations which saw a win-win situation between a market economy and the common good.
Based on some of these meetings—some of the most powerful conversations I have experienced in my life—I learned that there were Christian practitioners of finance and wealth management.
These were practitioners who believed there was no fundamental conflict between a market economy and goodness—between capitalism and justice.
Perhaps in early November—at the close of our Stewardship campaign—we would not only have been out fundraising goals….but even more deeply the spiritual goals…. of becoming a more generous, just, good and compassionate people and parish.
So….whose debt can we forgive—this very day?
The 17th Sunday after Pentecost, preached on September 11, 2016 by the Rev. Gordon Graham, Priest Associate, in All Saints’ Episcopal Church, Princeton, New Jersey
A sermon preached in All Saints’ Episcopal Church, Princeton, NJ on August 14, 2016, Proper 15, the 13th Sunday After Pentecost, by the Rev. Hugh E. Brown, III, D. Min., Rector on Luke 12: 49-56
Challenging Family Abuse
Let me begin by repeating a part of the Gospel just heard.
“Do you think I have come to bring peace on the earth? No, I tell you but rather division! From now on five in one house-hold will be divided, three against two and two against three.
They will be divided; father against son and son against Father.
Mother against daughter and daughter against mother.
Mother in law against her daughter in law; and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”
The above words are some of the most controversial ever uttered by Jesus; they are also some of the most misunderstood and frankly, some of the most dangerous.
Fundamentalism, across traditions, often uses sentiments like this to provoke religious violence.
We have seen the awful specter of faith-based terrorist movements encouraging “true believes” to desert “unbelieving” or “lax-believing” mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, for the battlefields of “true faith.”
Don’t just think ISIS—or the American KKK; think religious—even Christian cults like the People’s Temple and Jim Jones; or religious movements like Scientology.
But let us ask this question: Is Jesus intentionally dividing families on the basis of faith?
The great New Testament Scholar John Dominic Cross offers this interpretation.
“Imagine the standard Mediterranean family with five members—mother and father, married son and his wife, and unmarried daughter—not a nuclear family but an extended family living under one roof.
Jesus says he will tear it apart. The usual explanation is that families will become divided as some accept—and others refuse—faith in Jesus as Lord and Savior.
But notice something.
Notice where and how emphatically the axis of separation is located. It is precisely—between the generations.
But why should faith split along that axis?
Why might faith not separate say, women from men or even operate in ways far more random?
The challenge of Jesus to the traditional Mediterranean family has nothing to do with an attack on the family per say—nothing to do with faith splitting up families.
No, the challenge and yes, the attack from Jesus is on POWER.
It is on the Mediterranean family’s axis of power which sets father and mother over son, daughter and daughter in Law.
This helps us to understand all of the examples. The family, for Jesus here, is the society in miniature, the place where we first and most deeply learn how to love and be loved, hate and be hated, help and be helped; abuse and be abused.
It is not just a center of domestic serenity; since it involves power, it invites abuse of power.”
Jesus did not attack the family.
Any more than he attacked his religion, his temple, his religious leaders, the Roman Empire.
He attacked abuse of power—wherever found; including the family.
Yes, as hard is the subject is to talk about–Jesus attacked family abuse.
The ideal family of Jesus, contrary frankly, to many, many families—is an open accessible family—accessible to all under God.
Concludes Crossan: “The family for Jesus, is the Kingdom of God; if found in the biological family—fine; if not, we re-create it in the Christian family; a real, true, Christian family negates the terrible abuse of power that is power’s dark specter and lethal shadow.”
The ideal family is a place of love—not power.
It is a place, not of coercion and punishment—not of arbitrary authority—not of shaming and blaming—but of the fruits of the spirit—generosity, encouragement, empowerment and yes, especially, the words, “I am proud of you; you are awesome; you are beautiful; you are smart.”
Now—if Jesus was attacking abuse in his own day—his words are just as relevant, alarming and needed in our day.
The number of American troops killed in Afghanistan and Iraq from 2001 to 2012 was 6,488; while truly terrible, the number of American women who were murdered by current or ex male partners during that time was 11,766.
Although men can be victims of abuse (and there are many!) women are much more likely to be victims of intimate partner violence with 85 percent of domestic abuse victims being women and 15 percent men. There are 3 women murdered every day by a current or former male partner in the US.
And– it’s not just Intimate Partner Violence—that is family abuse.
I am blessed to study Social Work in a small group—not in a lecture hall. Our group meets around a table; we have conversation about our journeys and stories as much as we speak of the academic content of our work-although we certainly do both.
Approximately half of my small group for my Master of Social Work studies are Child Protection Workers; many have been both emotionally and physically assaulted because they go into dangerous homes to investigate and intervene in potential child abuse and neglect.
Lest you think that they only investigate the homes of the poor—one of my cohort members was physically assaulted in in one of the wealthier homes of Princeton by a father who dared not admit the abusive terror he was inflicting on his wife—and very young son; only marks on the child alerted a very smart teacher in one of our local schools– to report it.
Child abuse cuts across class, race and culture; sadly, it also cuts across religious traditions—even Christianity; this should not be a surprise; those with behavioral disturbances find a home in houses of worship where there is too much avoidance of conflict– and not enough accountability.
Anyone who has Christian responsibility for the care of our children in congregations, within the Episcopal Diocese of NJ, clergy and lay, is mandated to have the training, Safe-guarding God’s Children.
This training not only gives practical requirements for the appropriate care of our children and youth, and best practices to avoid risk—it also provides the red flags and signs of both Domestic and Child Abuse.
In addition to taking this training—which is actually recommended for all in our parishes—ordained, staff and lay….there are concrete steps we can take in the name of Christ to address the issue of family abuse.
First—let’s reimagine our very image of God; the hymn (whose music is very lovely and a favorite in parishes–#574—Before thy Throne, O God, we Kneel) is very timely this morning; although the music is lovely, did you note the theology? It is about the punitive, punishing God who does not” spare the rod” or “spoil” His people? Is the God we teach to our children? The God of abuse?
I think not. We teach the God revealed by Christ—the God whose very essence is love. Jesus challenged the abusive image of God throughout his ministry.
Jesus welcomed children—the disabled, the mentally ill, the poor, and vulnerable women—all subject to abuse in his time; he spoke out for them. He advocated for them.
So should we; our parish has as one of our primary outreach partners—a marvelous agency called WomanSpace.
Womanspace provides shelter and advocacy for the abused and their children.
They are always looking for volunteers for their hotline; we are blessed to be their partner and I invite any in our parish to be involved in their work.
Third—look for signs of family abuse—whether intimate partner or vulnerable child/young person—and act—intervene—report.
Always remember the “three don’ts”—the three core signs of an abusive family wherever you find it—home or church: —Don’t Talk; Don’t Trust; Don’t Feel.
Those who live with the trauma of abuse in families of any form of course demonstrate the physical signs of abuse—strange injuries, falls or accidents resulting in bruises, cuts, and other physical marks.
But, there are other, emotional signs of abuse; the abused avoid contact at all costs with others—verbal and physical, are withdrawn, anxious, and afraid, trust no one, especially those in authority, and don’t feel appropriately because they never have been given permission to feel anything.
The abused often either have either no feelings at all– or lash out with overwhelming emotions like anger and rage—covering the more real and genuine feelings of sadness, fear, vulnerability—and utter, profound loneliness.
Let us be clear—abuse is emotional as it is physical; let’s face it–we hurt our intimate partners, our children—our young people—with words as well as with body, first and whip.
Let us also be clear about this; when we hit our intimate loved ones—with words or body—we sin; we sin in the deepest ways which only God’s grace can forgive. Corporal punishment is sin; verbal punishment is sin. Withdrawal of love through stony silence is sin; that’s not my word as your Priest; that is not even the word of the Church; that is the word of God in Jesus Christ.
This past Thursday–as I always do when I lead a counseling group at Princeton House for Young Adult living with Addiction—I go around the group and ask what each person needs to maintain sobriety and recovery from their drug of illness.
The first young lady immediate began to tear up and said, “I just need my Mom and Dad to understand; yes, I have given them every reason to dislike me; but I do need them; when the dropped me off here—the last words they said to me were—“Sarah—stop being a worthless—screw-up; we are kicking you out unless this works this time.”
At that moment one of her peers came over to sit beside her—and just held her and cried with her.
With all due respect to the beautiful hymn opening the service this morning—God does not punish us with the rod of physical or emotional abuse; God understands; God loves; and God does not abuse. Instead She weeps with us.
Imagine this God; imagine a new world free from Abuse!
A sermon preached on July 3, 2016, in All Saints’ Episcopal Church on the 7th Sunday After Pentecost, Proper 9, Revised Common Lectionary, Luke 10:1-11, 16-20, by the Rev. Hugh E. Brown, III, D. Min., Rector
“Remain in the same House, eating and drinking whatever they provide. The Kingdom of God is very near.” (Luke 10:7, 9)
One very wise interpreter of the Gospel text we just heard about Christian mission describes this passage as..
…..An Owner’s Manual for Missionaries. (Janet Hunt, A Manual for Missionaries–retrieved from http://words.dancingwiththeword.com/2013/06/an-owners-manual-for-missionaries.html).
There’s some good stuff in the Manual….
….The Work is urgent; the harvest is ready; it won’t be easy; you will feel at times like wolf prey; you don’t need to take much with you to do this. No cash, or credit cards; no change of clothes; no extra pair of shoes; in fact, no cell phone, no Facebook page.
….We also learn that you will have companions with you; this work is never meant to be done alone; you do have a script—but short—simply declare peace wherever you go….
….You will ned to be able to simply accept the gifts of those who welcome you….no shopping around for someone or something more to your taste.
….You are not in charge of how people respond; Jesus is coming; you are simply preparing his way; he will take care of the rest.
(above illustrations from Janet Hunt with Web site referenced previously)
It would be wonderful to reflect on all of this….
But another very wise scholar of the New Testament suggests that the word, “humility” summarizes all of this Lukan “Missionary Manual.”
Humility, in the biblical context, is not self-deprecation, dismissal of your talents, or unctuous and inauthentic denial of compliments and praise; in fact, to accept a genuine compliment might be one of the most gracious marks of humility; it is the acceptance of a gift.
And that is the mark of biblical humility—receptiveness.
Thus, it is in the charge of Jesus—“eat and drink what is provided for you” that we find the real essence of “missionary work.”
Think about that! Mission as Receptivity—Humility.
I normally don’t think of it that way. Generally, we think of Missionary work as somewhat paternalistic, obnoxious or even rude; in the context of this passage, it would be the authority—given to the disciples, to enter a village and “tell them what is what.”
But that is not the authority over the “unclean spirits,” the forces of evil and darkness—that Jesus grants.
No, the authority over evil finds its center—not power over folks—but power with folks.
It is not about the authority of giving—but about receiving.
It is remarkable really; here are the 70—going out to all the places that Jesus is to visit, neophytes to mission work, filled with great power to heal and exorcise, and what is Jesus concerned about?
Most of all—it is about receiving. Peace not given but returned; Dust shaken as to let go if rejected; going two by two—not solo—so as to receive companionship.
And, especially receiving table hospitality.
Sara Miles, author of Take this Bread: A Radical Conversion , and a contemporary spiritual writer, shares her experience of being a reporter in South Africa in the 1990s; the violence associated with the Apartheid Regime was reaching a crescendo.
She was covering a protest that had turned violent; she noticed a little boy as he faced a semi-circle of gigantic police tanks; she heard breaking glass; the shooting started..
Sara writes, “I stumbled. A Grandmotherly woman in a flowered skirt standing at the door of her shack beckoned urgently to me. “Come here,” she said. I’ve seldom been as visibly an outsider as I was in Alexandria that day: a foreigner, the wrong color, someone whose very presence meant danger for the people around me.
The woman calmly motioned me to sit down at her kitchen table, under a print of Jesus, a calendar, a broken clock.
She took some spoons and mugs off a shelf.
Then, she smiled at me, pouring the hot, dark tea from a banged-up kettle. She stirred sweetened condensed milk into my cup, humming under hear breath. “Here my dear, drink it,” she said.
I had no idea that was settling upon me in that moment, as I sipped my tea and traced my finger over the pattern in the linoleum—was—not simply drink or food; it was the peace of God.
And, at that moment, I knew the woman’s offer of peace was stronger than anything I was afraid of. The gunfire and the shouting were still there, outside, but in that kitchen, some other power prevailed. (Sara Miles, Like Lambs Among Wolves: Gospel Reflections on the Temptations of Violence, retrieved from http://www.journeywithjesus.net/Essays/20070702JJ.shtml)
In the days following my Dad’s death—my family received trays of food; flowers; visits; e-mails; cards; I want to thank this parish family for the outpouring of lovely notes and the manifold gestures of support.
One gift in particular made me think of this Gospel; one of my mother’s neighbor’s thoughtfully came to the house the day of Dad’s funeral; we did not expect this kind of offer; she wanted to come because she desired the house to be occupied while we were at the service; always a good idea-she said—to have someone in the house during a family’s attendance at an event so public—when it would be known the family would not be at home.
My mother took the telephone call the day before the service with her offer of time; we all knew she would have to walk almost two blocks with a cane; our initial impulse was to turn her down; mom simply did not want her to have to expend this kind of energy.
But our neighbor, Joan, insisted; it was raining that morning; umbrella in one hand, cane in the other, Joan quietly, slowly walked that journey of compassion to our home; when she entered, there were tears in her eyes and Rose and my mother embraced; “you have no idea, Jody,” Joan said to my mother, “how much it means to do this for you; thank you saying yes.”
“This is the way I can help; and I want to help. You have done so much for me—as when I lost my own husband; I need to give back; this is my way; thank you.”
I must way, as my sister and I observed Joan and my mother embracing before that service—with the terrors of grief and sadness surrounding us—we felt, not just compassion—but indeed—the peace of Christ.
“Remain in the same house, eating and drinking whatever they provide. The Kingdom of God is very near.”
Yes, when we dare to receive the gifts of others—whatever they may be—whether tea from a broken kettle–or time from a friend who is willing to walk two blocks for your support with a cane and an umbrella—the Kingdom of God is, indeed very near.
And Christ peace descends.
Think about that—the peace and kingdom of God—when you simply…..receive…. the gifts offered.
Such receptivity may be the most powerful love one can bestow.
Elijah’s Mantle, Year C, June 26, 2016, Proper 8, preached at All Saints’, Princeton, NJ, by The Rev. Elly Sparks Brown
Prayer: (From the Prayer attributed to St. Francis, BCP, p. 833): Lord, make us instruments of your peace. Where there is hatred, let us sow love…”
“My face has the color of autumn and yours, the color of spring. Unless these two become one, roses and thorns cannot grow. Roses and thorns appear to be opposite. The gardener laughs at those who see them as opposites.” These words, written by the 13th century Persian poet Rumi (1207-1273), set the stage for our reflections on the lesson from II Kings.
In March, 2009, a Council of Sages, representing several religious traditions assembled in Geneva, Switzerland. Led by the internationally known scholar of world religions, Karen Armstrong, the council gathered to reflect on the Golden Rule, which is the basis for the all the major historical religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Confucianism, etc.) The task was to draft a “Charter for Compassion” to “restore not only compassionate thinking, but more importantly, compassionate action, to the center of religious, moral and political life.” The Charter states, “One of the most urgent tasks of our generation is to build a global community where men and women of all races, nations, and ideologies can live together in peace…the Golden Rule has become an urgent necessity. (http://charterforcompassion.com/about) Rumi was right. If compassion undergirds and shapes our lives, we are able to harmonize what the colors of autumn and spring represent, and accept that roses and thorns co-exist in mutual inter-dependence. Harmonizing and accepting are crucial to the existence, survival, and flourishing of local and global communities. To help us connect this spiritual reality to our lives, we explore Elijah’s mantle.
For the past few weeks our lessons from Hebrew scripture have focused on the prophet Elijah. Today’s reading is the climactic moment when Elijah ascends into heaven in a whirlwind, transported by fiery horses pulling a fiery chariot. His protégé, Elisha, who has faithfully devoted himself to his mentor, pleads with Elijah to bestow on him a double portion of his spirit. This is what an elder son might ask his father about his inheritance. Elijah tells the young man this will be difficult, but if Elisha sees him ascend, his request will be granted, but if not…Elisha does see him go, and as Elijah rises, he drops his mantle/cloak on Elisha, who then tears his own clothes, causing the mantle to fall off his shoulders. Elisha picks up the mantle and goes to the bank of the Jordan where he uses it to part the water (as Elijah had done) and crosses over to the other side. Elisha is now clothed in the official garment of a prophet.
At our Baptism, the mantle of God’s love floated down upon us…”You are sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ’s own forever.” Thus, each day is a fresh start, a new opportunity to re-discover and to re-adjust the mantle of our Baptismal Covenant, and as we discern what God may be calling us to do.
What does wearing this mantle involve? Many things, like accepting our heritage as God’s beloved daughters and sons; sharing the legacy of faith with the children and young adults in our lives; walking with each other, especially during difficult times of grief and loss—as this community has done with Hugh and me during a difficult time of loss. You didn’t walk ahead or behind us, but side-by-side, and for that we are deeply grateful.
Wearing the mantle also involves widening our tunnel vision as we try to see life from another angle; advocating for and speaking on behalf of those whose voices have been ignored or silenced; creating safe spaces for our families and communities; empathizing with others to the point where we can honestly proclaim, “Nous sommes Paris–We are Paris…We are Brussels…We are Newtown…We are San Bernardino…We are Orlando—in short, to seek each day to serve the Christ incarnated in one another, even when we think that the other bears little or no resemblance to Christ whatsoever! Obviously, this is extremely difficult, but it is also the point where the Spirit enlarges our hearts and minds, and strengthens us to stretch—to grow up a little more into the full stature of Christ.
In his letter to the diocese on the tragedy in Orlando, Bishop Chip wrote: “These acts of violence come with such frequency, but they should not numb us from seeing the real human beings who are victims. They are our brothers and sisters. They are our sons and daughters. They are our mothers and fathers. They are our friends. They are us.” (Adapted from Bishop’s Chip’s letter of June 13, 2016) In her letter, the Bishop of Washington, Mariann Edgar Budde, wrote, “We have seen too many killings, shed too many tears, and lit too many candles to continue as we are.” (Bishop’s letter on edow site, June 13, 2016)
Continuing as we are is not an option for a mother in Texas, and thousands of other like-minded souls. One day Stacey Feeley found her three-year-old daughter standing barefoot on top of the toilet set. At first, Stacey laughed. What was her precocious toddler up to? She was going to take a picture and send it to her husband, who would undoubtedly “get a kick” out of it. Stacey recalls, “But the moment she told me what she was doing, I broke down. She was practicing for a lockdown drill—what you should do if you’re stuck in a bathroom–that she had learned recently at her pre-school. At that moment, all innocence of what I thought my three-year-old possessed was gone.”
In light of this incident, Stacey, without attacking the 2nd Ammendment, raised some important questions about common sense gun control that would keep us safe in our homes, schools, churches and other public places. Why on earth are there no universal background checks or registration databases? Why can anyone buy semi-automatic weapons with high capacity magazines that should only be used by the military? Why is someone on a no-fly terrorist watch list able to purchase a gun?
Stacey calls for action by challenging the politicians. “Take a look,” she said, “My child is your child, your grandchild and your great grandchild…They will grow up in a world based on your decisions. They are barely three, yet they will hide in bathroom stalls on top of toilet seats…I don’t know which will be harder for them, trying to remain quiet for an extended amount of time, or trying to keep their balance without letting a foot slip below the stall door.” She concludes, “I am not pretending to have all the answers…but unless we want our children standing on top of a toilet seat, we need to do something.” (Online post, June 22, 2016)
Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown. Equally uneasy are the shoulders that bear the mantle of living out our Baptismal Covenant in our thoughts, words, and deeds. Can we make a difference?
Recall that Buddha lived a sheltered existence for 29 years before he experienced the world’s suffering, and left home to do something about it. Dr. Albert Schweitzer went to med school, which he didn’t intend to do, but compassion for abused animals deepened his compassion for mistreated human beings. He wrote, “While at the university, enjoying the happiness of being able to study and even to produce some results in science and art, I could not help thinking continually of others who were denied that happiness by their health and their material circumstances.” (Out of My Life and Thought, p. 70) And who can forget Mother Teresa, who experienced a dark night of the soul for 40 years, but kept ministering to the poorest of the poor on the streets of Calcutta.
Now, I am not saying that we should aspire to become the Buddha or Albert Schweitzer or Mother Teresa. But we are who God created us to be, and with all our limitations and possibilities we can wrap ourselves in the mantle of God’s love and do what we can to make the world a safer, more peaceful place.
There is a Jewish proverb featuring Rabbi Samuel who died and appeared before God. Immediately he started to apologize for his life. “I tried to be like Abraham. I tried to be like Isaac, Jacob and Moses, and the other great ones of my faith, but I failed. I failed.” Then he hung his head in shame. God looked intently but lovingly at the man before him. “What you just said makes no difference in terms of where you will spend eternity, but what I want to know is this: why weren’t you Rabbi Samuel!” (Adapted from the Midrash)
We may not do “great” things, but Mother Teresa reminds us, we can
do little things in great ways. What makes us great? We are great when we love God and our neighbors as ourselves. We are great when we offer a kind word, reach for a trembling hand, and perform random acts of kindness. This is what it means to wrap ourselves in the mantle of our Baptismal Covenant that God drapes over our shoulders each morning.
Kay Ryan, winner of the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize reflects: “…In one branch of rabbinical thought the world might become the Kingdom of Peace, not through tumult and destruction…but by adjusting little parts a little bit—turning a cup a quarter inch or scooping up a bench.
It imagines an incremental resurrection, a radiant body puzzled out by tinkering with the fit of what’s available.” (The Niagara River, pp. 48-49)
In our own Christ-centered, Spirit-inspired way, let us embrace the colors of autumn and spring, and testify to the fact that roses and thorns may seem like opposites, but are not. Grounded in the Golden Rule, let us each craft our own Charter of Compassion. Let us take one step at a time toward the resurrected life that Jesus died to give us. Let us embrace the person God created us to be, while adjusting life bit by bit, and tinkering with the fit of what’s available, as we carefully and joyfully turn the cup a quarter inch!
A Sermon Preached for Proper 4, Year C, The Second Sunday After Pentecost, on May 29, Memorial Day Sunday, in All Saints’ Episcopal Church in Princeton by the Rev. Hugh E. Brown, III, Rector on Luke 7:1-10
“Never…Have I Seen Such Faith!”
Water, Water: In Fredericksburg, or Vietnam
In December of 1862, in the midst of the American Civil War, the confederate and union army lined up against each other in a town called Fredericksburg.
For four days they fought, and in the midst of the battle was a confederate soldier by the name of Sgt. Richard Kirkland.
Kirkland was raised in the low country of South Caroline, the son of a farmer, not unlike most of the young men who served.
When he enlisted in the confederate army, the enlisted as a private under Captain J.D. Kennedy’s company, (E) of the Second South Carolina volunteers, but on the days of Fredericksburg.
He was serving under General J.B. Kershaw, who, after the war, would take it upon himself to tell this young man’s story.
During the battle of Fredericksburg, the union was taking terrible losses. In the field that lie between the army’s lines lay hundreds of union soldiers who were wounded. As shots continued to ring out across the field, no one was able to go and give them aid, and for a day and a night, they lay there, begging for help.
They were pleading for just a drink of water. And yet, no one ventured into the line of fir to help them.
Until Sgt. Kirkland came bounding up the steps to find Gen. Kershaw, asking permission to go into the field, and bring water to those soldiers.
According to Kershaw, Sgt. Kirkland said, “General, I can’t stand this. All night and all day I have heard those poor people crying for water, and I can stand it no longer. I come to ask permission to go and give them water.”
With profound anxiety, the General watched as Kirkland stepped over the wall on his errand of mercy.
The General would later write, “Unharmed he reached the nearest sufferer. He knelt beside him, tenderly raised his head, rested it gently upon his own noble breast, and poured the precious life-scorched throat.
This done, he laid him tenderly down, placed his knapsack under his own broken limb, spread his overcoat over him, replaced his empty canteen with a full one, By the time his purpose was well understood on both sides, and all danger was superseded.
All along the field arose the fresh cries of “Water, Water, for God’s sake, Water.”
More piteous still, the man could only feebly lift a hand to say, here, too, is life and suffering.” (Source: civilwar.org, Society Papers, Vol. VIII, Richmond, Virginia, April 1880, No. 4).
It is fitting on Memorial Day, when our nation recalls heroic sacrifice from those in the Armed Services that the very first healing story in Luke’s Gospel we will explore during the rest of our Liturgical year—places center stage—the example of a soldier.
Not only is this the example of a soldier—it is the witness of a soldier—devoted to the merciless practice of war—instead offering the witness of mercy and compassion.
Not only that; the story would be exceedingly shocking, controversial, and perhaps even offensive to the people of Jesus.
The soldier, a Roman Centurion, would be seen by Jesus’s people, as an enemy and an oppressor.
Not unlike the way the Southern Confederates would view the Occupying Union Army. Not unlike the way Sgt. Kirkland would view the Union troops as an enemy, oppressive force.
Now, certainly there is a physical “cure” in the story this morning; the centurion’s slave is healed. And do note the word, “slave.”
Nowhere does Luke, or any other Gospel writer, including St. Paul, directly challenge the institution of slavery; nor does Luke attribute any abolitionist thinking to Jesus.
The Centurion is portrayed is a good and caring man.
But that caring does not extend towards setting the slave free or ending the practice of slavery—now seen as one of the great crimes of humanity’s history.
For the practice of Christian ethics and social justice, we do highlight this reality; those who value the status quo and oppose Christian advocacy for structural change—have a lot of justification from scripture.
Abraham Lincoln even noted that if you take scripture literally (which he never did), the “slave power” had the better biblical argument.
But Lincoln had a biblical argument against slavery too—and that was the God-given truth of human equality and human dignity. This is the light for the fire burning slavery from the land for Lincoln—so beautifully set forth in his Second Inaugural—the “lash of the whip” only atoned by the blood of the nation.
All subsequent Christian arguments against slavery DO, in part, have to do with what is perhaps the real miracle and healing in this story—and to this we return.
So—what is the real healing miracle?
One line from the New Testament scholar Sharon Ringe—changed my perspective on this story. Writes Ringe, “The story here is the ONLY one in Luke that tells of Jesus’s healing someone at a distance.
Jesus healing the Centurion’s slave—“At a distance.” Why? And even more important; does the reality of distance, far from being a problem for healing—actually is the very foundation for healing.
The Centurion did not want Jesus to come under his roof; was it humility that prompted this? Or Courtesy? Perhaps.
Did he have premonition of the future? Remember a Centurion stood at the grave of Jesus in faith and declared, “This Man was Innocent.” And in another Gospel, “Surely this Man is the Son of God.
Jesus was declared Lord of Lords and King of Kings even by Gentiles and Roman Oppressors; is that Luke’s point here—anticipating the faith of a gentile soldier a the Crucifixion?
All this perhaps.
In fact, though, the Centurion may have been pragmatic; he may not have cared about Jesus all that much; he needed Jesus to heal someone he cared about.
Perhaps, in reality, as suggested by one scholar, he kept Jesus at a distance because he knew he might get into trouble with his superiors or colleagues if it got around that he had invited a Jewish agitator into his home.
Still, he trusted Jesus as legit; he heard of his reputation.
He affirmed the humanity of this Jewish healer; the Centurion must have known of many itinerant healers; marginalized people in the days of Jesus and in any other day, have access perhaps to no other kind of healing for medical care.
The Centurion did what he had to do—but he did recognize the humanity of this Jew.
Now—that is a miracle—a real miracle—to honor distance as difference and even as adversarial difference—and still relate in faith, trust, and hope.
And Jesus; Jesus too honors distance. But still is amazed.
Yes, amazed. Amazed that a Roman Soldier can be good.
Oh yes…the friends who acted as intermediaries (where they collaborators –there were many such Jews in Jesus’s day-who made peace with Rome at the expense of Jewish justice and liberty)….mentioned that the Centurion had built a synagogue for the Capernaum community.
But then again, oppressors build a lot of nice things for their subjects to enforce supremacy.
The real miracle in this story? In the words, “I am not worthy to have you come under my roof.” In the words, I tell you not even in Israel have I found such faith.”
For Jesus did not even have to give the word for healing; he said or did—Nothing.
And the centurion’s slave was restored to health.
There was something in the distance of these two leaders—one military; one religious; one Roman; one Jewish; one occupier; one occupied—that prompted healing.
There was something in the boundaries crossed over distance—between Gentile and Jew; master and slave; oppressor and oppressed—that prompted healing.
We do not know the future between these two men (was this the Centurion at the Cross?)—but we do know, that, at this moment—distance was honored; compassion across all boundaries done.
We gravely misread this story—and its teaching—and, perhaps most important of all, its explosive potential far beyond the text of the narrative—if this story is only seen as simply a Gentile mission sermon (or God’s grace has transcended the Jews and passed on to the Gentles-including Roman occupiers) —or worse yet, that God is only concerned with healing of persons and not of structures and institutions.
No the real healing in the story is about the respect for human dignity precisely between enemies; Jesus preached love of enemies for a reason.
We will always have them; society will always be divided in conflict and among adversaries; the world will always be divided by allegiances and interests which prompt war and violence.
The power of this story rests in the healing respect and dialogue between two enemies—who perhaps remained enemies—but who found the capacity to see one another’s humanity—if for no reason out of compassion for one who is sick.
Or….compassion for the wounded on the field of battle and in need of water.
And it is only THIS healing which provides any hope that such fields of battle may cease in the future and that humanity may learn the way of war—no more—so the prayers for those of heroic sacrifice will cease—because there is no need.
On this past Tuesday, there appeared in the Op Ed section of the New York Times (Tuesday, May 24, 2016, A 21), a truly remarkable article, “Lessons and Hopes for Vietnam”—written as both a Memorial Day reflection and as a interpretive framework for President Obama’s visit to Vietnam.
What was remarkable about it—was not simply the content—although that was remarkable enough—highlighting the new relationship between genuine adversaries (still adversaries because of our different systems and visions) that resulted in 58,000 American deaths and a mission Vietnamese deaths.
What was especially “amazing” is to see the names of the three men who wrote it—all Vietnam Vets, and all representing very different, yes, adversarial political points of view—John Kerry, our Current Secretary of State, John McCain, Republican Senator from Arizona, and Bob Kerry, former conservative democratic senator from Nebraska.
As voices of angry division predominate in our land, three political adversaries write an article describing two past adversaries and enemies cooperating.
And thinking of the Centurion’s slave in the stor–The recipient of healing dialogue and human recognition between two enemies?
When I think of this–I think of these words written by these Vets in that NYT article:
How hard it would be to imagine the United States and Vietnam cooperating in any way a generation ago—much less the United States working to save the Mekong River Delta—site of some of the bloodiest conflict in the Vietnam war,–or helping to establish a new training center in the People’s Army of Vietnam, on the outskirts of Hanoi, where young Vietnamese soldiers will serve alongside American soldiers—in United Nations-sponsored peacekeeping mission.”
Yes, many in need find healing—when enemies and adversaries discover or rediscover—the image of God within.
“Never have I found such faith!”, said Jesus.
Yes, never……when swords are beaten into plowshares…!
…..And a soldier truly practices heroic sacrifice—not for the purpose of killing—but in responding when his enemy cries out, “Water-Water..”
….Even at the Mekong River Delta…in Vietnam…
A sermon preached on the Feast of Pentecost, May 15, 2016, in All Saints’ Episcopal Church, Princeton, New Jersey, by the Rev. Hugh E. Brown, III, D. Min., Rector, on Acts 2: 2-12 and John 14:25-27
“Peace I leave with you; My own Peace I give to You.”
“The Holy Spirit in the Rehab”
Imagine this moment. You are in a rehab here in Princeton; no ordinary rehab.
This rehab is called The Addiction and Recovery Unit. The location is Princeton—within walking distance from All Saint’s church; the place is called Princeton House Behavioral health.
This particular rehab is for young adults—age 18—25; it is on the front lines of an American crisis.
Throughout this nation, from urban areas, rural areas, suburban areas, wealthy areas, poor areas, towns to cities, spanning cultures and races—we see a raging epidemic. This epidemic may have taken the life of the great contemporary in the musical arts—Prince. The epidemic is called Opioid Addiction.
If often begins in pain—then prescription meds—then addiction to the same meds—then heroin. It often happens to lives that are in both physical and emotional pain.
You may know friends, neighbors, loved ones who live with opioid addiction. Some, thank God, may be in recovery; some may be in treatment; some may be in denial.
For the past year, I have worked in that Rehab in the inpatient hospital of Princeotn House Behavioral Health; I have done so through in Internship with my MSW program. It has been a Pentecost and Life-changing experience for me; this sermon will tell you how; it is not just about me; it is about the Power of the Holy Spirit for You and for the People of God wherever they be found—inside or outside of Church.
Two young people, both in their late teens sit beside each other; both are mothers; both are addicts; both are filled with shame, fear and guilt; there is only one thing that got them to Princeton House—the intervention of New Jersey Children Protection. They know they could both lose their children.
Before we judge them (and honestly that was my first instinct—not of Christ—when I started to work with them last week), we need to walk with them a bit and try to imagine their family context—violence, abuse, drugs.
Don’t think just the abuse associated with at risk neighbors filled with poverty; think Princeton; think the violence of unrealistic expectations, the stigma of being “normal;” think neglect; think perfectionism; think domestic abuse; think alcoholism; think loneliness.
Honestly—both could be my nieces; your daughters; in fact, they ARE our daughter—right; we are Christians, ALL our neighbors are our children; the social policies toward those in need would change in an instant if we could just make that perceptional transformation.
So—imagine the moment.
One of these young people—one of our daughters—says something like the following; “I don’t see any hope; I don’t think I can stop; I don’t want to take my life—though I have had the thought; but sometimes, over these past few days, I just want to get out of here; I want to get high on the way home; I know how to do that; and I want to overdose; and die.”
Imagine the moment.
So, what will happen next?
We can’t appreciate the magnitude of this day—nor the amazing grace, love and gift of God– demonstrated in an experience, revelation and renewal called Pentecost.
We can’t do so…if we cease to imagine “the Moment” before “the Sound of a Mighty Wind’ descended on a little band of fearful, hurting, divided and soul-sick persons who, nevertheless…trusted….knew Jesus was alive-and all things were possible.
Now—you might ask—what in the world do you mean?
We have had, now 50 days of Easter—celebrating Christ’s resurrection.
Yes, we have; but things are, a bit ambiguous to say the least.
ALL the resurrection stories of Jesus; all the appearance stories of Jesus share this truth. Yes, there is victory; there is hope; there is the empty tomb; the angelic message that Christ is alive; there is the truth that the risen Jesus eats, speaks and teaches his disciples again.
But—there is also this truth; Jesus seems to be gone; again; “Lord when will you restore the Kingdom of Heaven? “
And he vanished out of their sight.
Both the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles, both likely written by Luke—makes this point–Jesus has vanished out of their sight.
He did so after sharing a meal with those two unknown disciples on the road to Emmaus; and he does so at the Feast of the Ascension which we observed about a week and a half ago.
For, at this point in the aftermath of Easter, there is doubt; there is the reality of persecution; and there is the reality of God knows what risk; there is the reality of fear.
And this human situation will not change. Easter does not take away these realities. Easter—Christ Victorious—Christ arisen—will not take away the pain of the world.
There is still the question: “Lord–will you at this time restore?” There will always be the question: “Lord will you at this time restore?”
Lord Where ARE YOU?
And the Lord’s response: “But you shall receive power to be my witnesses.”
What does this mean?
What does it mean for the Pentecost Moment
In Genesis 2:7 the Spirit of God breathed life into dust and created a human being.
In Acts 2:1-4, the Spirit has breathed life into once cowardly, sinful, weak, betraying disciples—and created new men and women.
What is the Pentecost Moment? Does it have to do, first, with Life? Jesus told his disciples: I have come that they may have Life—and have it abundantly!
The Moment. What is it?
The second chapter of Acts describes it. The gift of language; not—not simply the gift of Speech! Above all—the Tongues of Fire provide a far more powerful gift–the ability to understand another’s language.
Second–The gift of understanding. Is that the Pentecost Moment?
Third–the gospel of John this morning also describes the Pentecost Moment as; the gift of Peace. The word—Peace–here in the Gospel of John–does not mean the absence of fear, war and strife; it means concord, unity and relationship; it carries a meaning close the Hebrew word, Shalom—completeness, healing, reconciliation between nations and persons. A restored creation. It means all these things on this side of the Kingdom-where there is very much pain, war and strive.
The Moment? The Pentecost Moment? Just what is it? In the words of John, The Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything and remind you of all that I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my own peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.
On the front of the bulletin cover—you see the symbol of Pentecost; tongues of fire and flame.
When I saw them—I thought of another symbol; tears.
The Moment? Pain. Tears. Grief. Loneliness; Troubled hearts.
The Moment? Understanding, the Overcoming of Divisions; the Transcendence of Judgement and Fear based on otherness—whether culture, race, language or experience.
The Pentecost Moment? Peace. Shalom. And Understanding; And Life.
So-Bringing this home–For me, for you, what just IS the Pentecost moment (?), and the Movement of the Holy Spirit (?) in the Living Flame?
Is it not—finally about Love?
Is it not Love—Love only God can give–which understands, heals, reconciles, and overcomes any estrangement—with self—with others? Love as Life, Peace, Understanding.
“I wish I could overdose and die.” Spoken by a Heroin Addict—a Child-and a Mom.
So where is Pentecost here? Where is the Holy Spirit here?
Yes—The Holy Spirit IS in–an addiction treatment rehab—concrete walls—overhead lights, soiled, carpeted floor—furniture that has seen its day; a circle of young people in plastic chairs.
One by one—four young people—surrounding her—circle her in these chairs–this young woman of Lament—this addict—this Mom—this Child of God.
Yes they were all Galileans; they all knew the hell of addiction; but what did they speak to her; what language did they use? For here, in this room, were Parthians and Medes, Elamites and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappaodocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamlphylia, Egypt and parts of Libya belong to Cyrene, visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs.
How could they hear in their own languages, God’s deeds of Power?
One said softly, “The hardest thing to do—is what you must do; Live!” He did so with the kindest eyes.
Another: “I understand; I’ve been there; when you get out of here; call me; text me; I’m here; I’ll be there whenever you need it.” He did so with tears too.
Another: “That stinks (would use another word but this is a G rated Audience); I love you.” He looked at her with profound, genuine, compassion.
Another—the other mom in the group? She simply reached out and extended her hand. She used two of the most powerful languages of understanding of all—transcending time and place—the languages of touch and silence.
Then, there was silence; a pregnant silence; Genesis silence. The Silence before Creation—and new Life.
One of the staff members came in to let us know it was time to end.
So–We stood together; and we all held hands. Suddenly, I felt all of us in that circle—tightly holding one another.
One of the young people touched the tears and face of their friend who had just expressed a moment before—suicidal thoughts; And this wounded young lady smiled for the first time; and they kissed one another’s cheeks. We all then departed.
When or if you remember the story from that rehab this morning; I would ask you to remember this—not just the sadness or the terrors of Addiction.
Though both are real. I would ask you to remember more than “there for the grace of God go I.” I would ask you to do more than think—those poor kids.
I would ask you to do more than contemplate the serious of the opioid epidemic in this nation; though I certainly ask you to do that—and to seek information—for your neighbor could be one affected in some way—wherever that neighbor me; I can certainly provide you with resources.
I would ask you to do this—to Remember what the power of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Christ—the Holy Spirit—can do through me and through you—can do any place—and anywhere—inside and outside of the Church—when “the Moments” of Understanding, Peace, Unity, Concord—and above all—Love Happen.
And I would also ask you to consider this; the Holy Spirit IS Moving in this world where courage, love, justice and truth happen—in Addiction Rehabs—as well as Church Eucharist’s.
God IS Moving in Pentecost Glory. Seek and you will find!
Let us pray: Lord, make us instruments of your Holy Spirit and your peace; where there is hatred, let us sow love; where there is injury, pardon; with there is discord, union; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair hope, where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy. Grant that we may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand, to be loved as to love. For it is in giving that we receive, it is in forgiving that we are forgiven, and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Amen.
A Sermon preached by the Rev. Hugh E. Brown, III, Rector, in All Saint’s Episcopal Church, Princeton, New Jersey on May 1, 2016 on the 6th Sunday of Easter, Acts 16: 9-15, Year C, RCL, and on the occasion of the Baptism of Henry Britt
Outside the Gate
They found a place of worship—outside the gate.
Paul and his companions, Silas and Timothy had been stumbling around–running into one barrier after another set up by God.
Barred by the Holy Spirit from going south and west into Asia, or going north into Bythinia, Paul appears backed into a coastal corner at Troas by God’s strange and repeated no.
For Paul was following his call and commission from the Lord—take the Gospel into the Gentile world.
Paul—a Jew—found himself commanded by Jesus to take the Gospel across barriers of religion, race and culture.
But Philippi would not be a Gentile place even Paul would choose.
And that, initially is precisely the point; God chooses our mission, our call, and our commission for his work; it is God’s work, not our own.
So–Paul received a vision to take the Gospel to the gentile enclave of Macedonia.
Philippi was a Roman Colony.
What did this mean?
First, it was a place where the Roman Empire was strong and powerful. It was populated by discharged soldiers who received grants of land and enjoyed special civil rights—like the freedom from taxation. Seems that Rome treated its Vets very well; perhaps we might learn a bit from them.
Second—it most likely was very anti-Jewish—even though as many Jews were, like today, living outside of Palestine. Perhaps this is why Paul and his companions could not find a Synagogue to worship in; this should remind us that the early Christians were Jews—and that Paul used the Synagogue as a place of Christian mission.
So, they found a place of worship—outside the city gate, by the river.
What was this place of worship and who worshiped there?
First, what just was this place of worship found by Paul and his Companions.
We don’t know.
We DO know that Jews dispersed throughout the ancient near east often worshipped in more informal settings-without a building.
We also know that they did build synagogues often beside rivers.
I might like to think of this place of worship as simply a “prayer meeting.” For example, when the Jews were captives of Babylon, we read, “by the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down and wept, When we remembered Zion. Upon the willows in the midst of it we hung our harps; for there, our captors demanded of us songs, and our tormentors mirth, saying, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion” (Psalm, 137:1-3)
Let’s pause here for a brief reflection.
They found a place of worship—Paul and his Companions; they did not choose the place; it was a place of likely of exclusion and struggle; it was likely a place of pain. It was a place of powerlessness in the center of power; Paul was a Roman citizen—as well as a Jew—we know that; he could have made use of his privileges to find a better place.
Instead, he went to a simple Prayer meeting—by a river.
Reminds us of the way slaves worshipped on the old Southern Planation.
The master of the Planation would often set up “chapels’ in the house—where he would bring in preachers to talk to the slaves; the main theme would always be that the slaves obey the master. The slaves always knew it was a sham.
So—in the words of the old Gospel Hymn, they would go “down to the Riverside” and worship in their own way—telling the stories that they had heard in the Chapel in the Master’s house in a new way!
They would tell the story of the Exodus from Egypt; or the freedom from sin and death preached by Jesus—which they know was not merely spiritual—but also social—freedom from bondage.
This is what it is like to worship—Outside the Gate.
Even if we worship in a beautiful sanctuary—we can pray and worship “outside the gate”– if we remember that we worship a God who cares for the outsider, the stranger, the sojourner, the persecuted, the captives, the slaves and the oppressed.
Second, Who worshiped “at the riverside?”
It is here we meet a woman named Lydia, who will be one of Paul’s most trusted companions in the future and a key figure in the early Church.
One of the key points of this story might be that the key leadership of women in the early church indeed had apostolic authority.
Indeed this was the point made by the advocates of the ordination of women to the Priesthood many decades ago in the Episcopal Church.
Paul had woman as key companions and leaders of the early Church; to uses the phrase of one of our Presidential candidates—Paul played “the Woman Card” often and well—as did Jesus who always treated women as partners and equals.
We don’t know whether Lydia was a Jew, converted Jew, or one the ancient world called “God-Fearers,” those Gentiles drawn to the worship of the God of Israel.
We do know she was a woman; we know she was head of a household; we know she was wealthy.
All of this was rare in the days of Paul within the Gentile world. Women simply did not have rights and access to power and resources we take for granted in our culture. But Lydia, it seems had great power.
She also seemed to have power of leadership of worship in this community.
If Lydia was worshipping with Jews, she would have been cross great barriers of religion, society and class.
One New Testament scholar notes that the mixing of classes is particularly interesting given the context of the Roman world where there was virtually no movement in and out of social class.
Only the Roman army (and sometimes marriage of the ranks of the socially privileged) offered much hope of movement towards the more economically advantaged classes.
The story of Lydia and Paul in Acts presents a picture of relaxed familiarity and warm hospitality between classes not missed by readers.
So—who worshipped “outside the gate?”
It was Those who crossed barriers of religion, race and class—and gender; it was those who dared to form friendship, community and relationship across boundaries.
The first person to welcome Paul—truly welcome him to Philippi—was a woman; and a woman of privilege.
And finally, WHAT happened, Outside the Gate?
Yes, we have a baptism. We don’t know what Paul preached but the Lord opened Lydia’s heart to listen.
But what is equally powerful is what Lydia does right after baptism.
She “prevailed upon” Paul and his companions to say with her—and accept her hospitality.
There is only one other place in the New Testament where this word—prevailed—is used; In Emmaus, on Easter Evening, as the two travelling disciples urged the risen Christ to stay with them that night.
And look at the radical form of Hospitality Lydia offers—as all genuine hospitality which welcomes Christ: All barriers were demolished; Male and Female; Jews and Gentile; Rich and Poor; Privileged and Powerless.
Baptism here is not separated from ALL that is outside the Gate: Solidarity with the persecuted; the Crossing of Boundaries; the end of Divisions.
Lydia might be constricted in “political” freedom—as woman, as Jew, as Christian—despite her privilege.
But Baptism empowered her to be free to love.
That—my friends—is the true freedom offered by Jesus.
This morning—we have a Baptism.
We will welcome Henry Brett into Christ’s Church—and into our parish family of All Saint’s Church.
We certainly do not worship outside the gate literally; we worship in a beautiful church sanctuary.
But we do have a sanctuary with an open window—a symbolic—open gate to the world.
This window beckons us to a life—beyond the gate—in ministry with the lonely, forgotten, persecuted, suffering; in ministry to the slaves of abuse, addiction, and despair; and in ministry which crosses boundaries of class, race and religion; in the words of a former secretary of state—the life of a Christian—beyond the gate—does not build walls but tears down barriers.
And we are reminded that Baptism always comes with the “outside of the gate’ life of discipleship in radical hospitality.
Today is just the beginning of Henry’s life in Christ; today we continue our own.
To Henry’s parents, grandparents, and to our parish family, we hear a renewed challenge, through the story of Lydia.
It is a challenge to view Baptism as beyond a ritual or even beyond as sacrament defined as that necessary to salvation.
It is a challenge to certainly see it as more than a cultural rite of passage in early Childhood.
It is a challenge to practice the way of Lydia—welcoming the stranger—as we welcome Christ.
To welcome all outside the gate—outside the walls of the church-through the window—with hospitality.
And it is a challenge to raise Henry to possess Lydia’s love, compassion and welcome of Jesus.
For in a few minutes we will all renew our Baptismal Covenant with its charge, “To seek and Serve Christ in ALL Persons.” “To Work for Justice and Peace among ALL People and Respect the Dignity of Every Human Being.”
And how might Lydia’s spirit be active in our Baptismal lives today?
In the next few weeks, we will have a new national hero on the 10 Dollar Bill in our nation’s currency—a woman-one who practiced love “outside the gate”—the former slave and abolitionist Harriet Tubmann.
She was a woman of privilege in her time—a matriarch of her family and a homeowner. And she was a Christian-Baptized on a Slave Planation-“by the Riverside.”
She became the Moses of the Pre-Civil War anti-slavery movement—truly practicing radical hospitality-freeing hundreds of slaves in her life-time—both before and during the Civil War.
Tubman was an American abolitionist, humanitarian, armed scout for the Union and spy for the United States Army during the American Civil War.
Tubman made some 13 Missions to rescue approximately 70 enslaved families and friends before the war; she was the first woman to lead an armed expedition
I close with this quote from Harriet Tubman for Henry and his family:
“Every great dream begins
With a dreamer. Always remember, you have with
You, the strength the patience, and the passion to
Reach for the stars to change the world.”
My the dream begin with Henry today!