A sermon preached by the Rev. Hugh E. Brown, III, D. Min, MSW, LSW on the 5th Sunday of Lent, March 18, 2018 in All Saints’ Episcopal Church, Princeton, NJ on Jeremiah 31: 31-34, Year B, Revised Common Lectionary
“Behold! I Will Make a New Covenant….”
New Covenant: Honest Prayer
This past Wednesday afternoon, as parishioners were arriving for our weekly Bible Study, several participants noted that they had observed the students from Princeton High School who walked out of class; why did they go it? At 10:00AM?
As noted in the New York Times, “A month ago, hundreds of students of teenagers ran from their lives from the hallways and classrooms of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School where 17 students and staff had been shot to death.
This past Wednesday, driven by the conviction that they should never have to run from guns again they walked.
Joined by peers—they walked; in New York City; in Atlanta and Santa Monica; at Columbine High School; in Newtown, Conn; and in many more cities and towns, students left school by the hundreds; such was not without controversy—reminding us that we Americans are not of one mind on the issue of gun safety.
However you feel about issues of gun safety and firearm control in this land, one did feel that a new possibility had opened.
A new way, perhaps for reinterpreting our own constitutional framework for the possession of firearms; a new way of understanding the Second Amendment to the Constitution.
A new way—perhaps—of reimagining what our own national covenant—enshrined in its prelude, could mean: We the People—committed to a More Perfect Union.
I invite the congregation to imagine the word, New Covenant, used in our Old Testament lesson this morning; preached by the prophet Jeremiah; and I invite you first to experience and feel what a new Covenant of the Heart might be.
I invite you to do so by looking at a possible renewal of our own national covenant—our Constitution.
What happens when laws become more than external constraints on behaviors—or more than rules, duties and obligations; or frankly, in the case of the Second Amendment—more than license and licentiousness?
What happens when they become a matter of heart?
What happens when we so honor our National Covenant that we will march, hold vigils, engage legislatures, wave visual images, commit our time in the midst of busy lives to renew our Covenant at the local, state and federal levels?
What happens when a community like Princeton honors a student protest?
What happens when parishioners of our Diocese engaged in an act of Lamentation at Trinity Cathedral for victims of gun violence.
What happens when millions of Americans of all faith traditions, cultures, ethnicities walk, protest, even take the chance of breaking unjust laws to challenge legal segregation and the suppression of voting rights.
When they march for greater respect by law enforcement for the life and dignity of minority communities in this country?
When Princeton becomes a Sanctuary city; because its heart breaks when undocumented families are separated as slaves were separated in a nation that could not honor human rights.
That my friends Is law with heart!
But it does not stop there.
The word Covenant is enshrined the Book of Common Prayer.
We have our Baptismal Covenant.
We commit in this Covenant to the foundations of being Christians—living as Disciples—believing as Disciples.
What happens when it is done with heart?
What happens when your life is so captive to Jesus Christ that you are willing to live with the compassion, justice, mercy and forgiveness that he offered?
When you are a changed human being? When you can treat all persons with—all persons-with the kindness and respect he offered?
When-as happened this week—you are a Christian—and a public school teacher—and you defy the school administration with the potential loss of job and security to march with your students—because your commitment to Christ is beyond anything?
When-as I have seen so often—you are willing to forgive abuse—not necessarily to reconcile with your tormentor—but to move on with your life and march forward with your own defiance of Domestic Abuse?
We have our Marriage Covenant?
What happens when a vow such as “In Sickness and in Health” becomes all too real? When it becomes a matter of heart? When it becomes a matter of living and walking with your spouse through Chronic Illness?
Or, when the vows, to love and to cherish are broken? When infidelity, betrayal or simply disappointment surge into the Covenant of Marriage? When the old Marriage just die? When a new Marriage must be reborn?
Yes, please experience and feel what Jeremiah’s phrase, New Covenant of the Heart might mean.
First- what did it mean for Jeremiah?
Jeremiah’s New Covenant of the Heart is part of a larger collection of Jeremiah’s writings known as the Book of Consolation.
Jeremiah offered his ministry of prophet in, up to that time, the Darkest period of Ancient Israel; in 587 before the common era, the ancient empire of Babylon destroyed what was left of the Jewish people; the northern kingdom had been destroyed by Assyria in the late 8th century, BCE; now the Southern Kingdom fell.
Jeremiah preached to the people of the South—the people of Judah—just prior to these events; and he preached to the exiles after the Fall of nation.
His message was hard; he was seen as traitorous; only in retrospect could it be accepted as truth.
The people of God had broken the original covenant made with Moses at Mt. Sinai. Broken it so completely that only something new could emerge.
The original covenant, through shrouded in hundreds of laws, was actually based on two simple themes.
God has liberated an oppressed and enslaved people.
In turn—this people would form a relationship—or covenant with God.
That is what Covenant is dear friends—a relationship; not a contract.
Relationships can’t work apart from integrity, honesty—and truth.
Jeremiah believed that his people were living a lie.
Yes…they worshiped God; they made sacrifices in the great Temple at Jerusalem.
And, when they left worship and the religion of security—they did the following the rest of the week:
“Steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, make offerings to Baal, and go after other Gods that you have not known—and then come and stand before the me in this house which is called by my name and say, “we are safe”—only to go on doing all these abominations; your land will become a waste.”
I read the words of a modern Jeremiah this week; whether you agree or disagree—listen to the words of David Brooks of the New York Times—a journalist who dares to comment on the ethical and social issues of American society in the spirit of Walter Lippmann:
“The issue of death and survival of our nation is not about policy but about moral norms—respect for truth; personal integrity; the capacity of deliberation and compromise; loyalty to the nation rather than party or tribe.
We are unfortunately, not engaged at present in a policy revolution but a moral revolution; Other leaders of all political philosophies have stood for the idea that you can’t be a good leader or good nation unless you are a good person and a good people.
We as a nation are now reversing these priorities; it does not matter if your leaders and your people are liars, narcissists and betrayers.
It does not matter if our government is cruel to the weak and bigoted to the outsider; what matters–when your own values of what makes a nation are at stake, is to have mean and evil people in charge—and who follow-who only understand the toughness, violence and cruelty to win.
Moral nature does not matter; you can have a corrupt and bad government and a good people and nation. You can have a good nation without moral norms.
This philosophy asked for the nation’s soul—and it got it; a nation’s moral character is always putting essential things first—not taxes and not even legislation.
It is as a nation, putting a higher love over a lower love; it is going against yourself when feeling the urge to lash out in anger and insult—and instead—offering a loving and understanding response.
That is character; and that is the religion, especially Christianity embraced by too few Christians in our nation right now—who too often are selling out their souls—for politics and for money.”
Thus the hard message: Always biblical. New Life; New Covenant comes with cost; this cost—so often—is truth.
As images of those students marching this past Wednesday crossed the media, one sign in particular caught my eye: “Enough of thoughts and prayers.”
I thought to my own life when I have casually, all too casually—offered those words to others.
When they were not honest; when they were not real; when they were not heartfelt.
Yesterday, a family in our All Saint’s Congregation sent me an example of truly honest prayer in the spirit of Jeremiah.
In these days when our church and nation must raise a voice on behalf of the goodness, truth and love revealed by Jesus, I believe the following e-mail I received from Amy Ondreyka evokes the love of Jesus; it is a love exemplified by our Gospel and Jesus stretching out his arms of love on the hard wood of the cross to embrace all.
The students and young people often led the way during the Civil Rights Movement through the grace of Christ; so perhaps they are now doing.
Our family was deeply saddened by the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas H.S. We are parents and students, and we cannot imagine the grief of the families in Parkland. Too many of these senseless tragedies have occurred.
As Christians and as citizens, we can longer be idle. We are called to add our voices to those seeking change to end gun violence. Both Eva and Lena participated in school walk-outs on Wednesday to demand stricter gun laws. And next Saturday, March 24, Eva and Amy will be marching with relatives and friends in Washington to show their support. https://marchforourlives.com/
We understand the issue of gun violence is complex and may only be addressed step by step. But we must make a start, and we will work first for legislation banning assault weapons.
My friends that is a New Covenant of the Heart—profound feeling, depth of truth; devoted commitment to the liberation of others through our own liberation
“Behold the days are coming when I will make a new Covenant with the House of Israel,” said the prophet Jeremiah.
Behold—the New Covenant is moving now—in nation—in hospitals—in church—in your soul.
Says one of the students who marched last week for a more sane, less violent nation:
“We have grown up watching more tragedies occur and continually asking: “Why? Why does this keep happening?”
That is honest prayer.
As we approach the truth of Holy Week-may our own prayers always be this real and of such truth.
A sermon preached on the First Sunday of Lent, Year B, February 18, 2018, by the Rev. Hugh E. Brown, III, D. Min, MSW, LSW, Rector, in All Saints’ Episcopal Church, Princeton, New Jersey
“And the Angels Ministered To Him.”
“There is More Grace in God than Sin in Us” (William Sloan Coffin)
You might have seen it this week. I smudge of Ash on a Woman’s head; such was a photo of lamentation; an image from the aftermath of yet another tragic incidence of mass gun violence—this time at a Florida High School.
What was this woman lamenting? Had she lost a child? Had a friend lost a child? Was she comforting the bereaved? Was she in solidarity with the school’s faculty, administration and staff that had lost colleagues? Were her tears—those of anger? Those of rage? Was she experiencing what so many of us thought and felt this week as we mourned, not only the loss of life, but the devastation of public policies in the pockets of the gun lobby?
What did that smudge of Ash signify? The woman would have heard the words of the Ash Wednesday service—“Remember you are Dust and to Dust You Shall Return?” She would have heard calls to repentance– to a Holy Lent’s response to sin? There was much sin in our nation last week.
But might that smudge of Ash carry any “gospel,” good news? Might it have something to do with the presence and power of God, something to do with, “Where is God?” in response to the death of students and teachers at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School?
Might it have something to do with our Gospel story in Mark–the Markan version of the Temptation of Christ in the Wilderness?
What a Wilderness experience our nation has had this week!
Yes, the first Sunday of Lent is always about Jesus’ temptation. But look at how brief Mark’s story is. To the point. No details really. Just that it happened.
But Mark does say this. The Spirit drove Jesus into the Wilderness.
I’m not sure that God is the author of our wilderness experience.
But I do think that the sparse, brief phrase, the Spirit Drove…contains much truth.
We don’t volunteer for the wilderness.
And what are they?
What are they about? These Wilderness places?
To which we are driven?
They are places of struggle for sure.
And the struggle?
You name it: A problem; a pressure or deadline; a painful memory; a haunting fear; an unconscious belief; wilderness times could be times of guilt, resentment, fear, materialism, the need for approval. Add to the list—Anxiety.
But I would also say a wilderness time is something deeper; those who live with the chronic pain of chemical depression talk about a void—an experience of going down, down, down; those who live with chronic physical pain speak of a hopelessness, a despair, a life-denying cry, in tears of abandonment. Is life worth this?
Mark’s economy of words is like a gut punch; he was in the wilderness; tempted of Satan.
Such is a bookend to the life of Jesus; the scholar Norman Perrin speaks of the Gospel of Mark as a Passion story with a long introduction. Jesus—in the wilderness—with the Devil—one bookend.
Jesus on the cross—with the cry, “My God, My God, Have you Forsaken Me?” The other Bookend; the next great Satanic Temptation.
Along with this Bookend—“They Forsook him—And Fled;” the Disciples—All Fled; no One at the Cross—according to Mark; yes, Mark is brief; so are those e-mails and texts which are the most devastating.
And the Temptation?
In the days of South African Apartheid, Desmond Tutu once confronted a torturer; “Cry as Loud as you Want,” said this man, in the midst of beating a protester; “No One will hear You.”
The great Temptation: A Paradox.
The great Temptation: In those places of, yes, damnation—pain, despair—those Godless places—there is no God.
No God. Hopelessness; No God; Abandonment; no God; Void; No God—Depression; No God—Cries of My God, My God why Have your Forsaken me?
Satan’s Great Temptation; No God—In the Wilderness; on the Cross; in cries of Pain; in Commitment to a Psych hospital; in caregiving which seems overwhelming. No God.
And….the Angels ministered to him.
Where are the Angels?
Where were they? Who were they for Jesus?
Dear friends—here is how you know an Angel; an Angel calls you back to God’s presence; to love’s presence; yes, to all the things of God that can be present—when every boundary, every structure, every ecclesiology, every denomination, every doctrine—has been swept away; an Angel will always call you to the reality that God does not give up.
Even when we cry the lament—“You have abandoned Me!”—the Angel always responds; “That is the cry of God.”
Angels call us to those cries of God ever surrounding us: love, passion, empathy, responsibility, imagination, fierce protest, and generosity.
There were Angels in Parkland, Florida this week.
There still are Angels there.
There are Angels in the First Responders; there are Angels in those who died protecting students from harm; there are Angels in those who risked their life to protect others; there are Angels in the community of Grief.
But, and we need to say this truthfully and clearly, there are Angels among the students who are protesting.
Finally! A breakthrough in our nation’s gun laws just might be coming from the “ground up,” from those who are so tried—so tried of the murders; tried of the inaction; tired of the gun lobby.
There are, in the spirit of Jesus–who swept the Temple in Jerusalem of exploitation, abuse and sin—those who are working to sweep not, the temples of our civilization of the money changers who place the power of money and weapons over the lives of children.
There are those who are challenging the false consolation and cheap grace of only “thoughts and prayers,” with the chorus of action to change the laws and policies of this nation on behalf of gun safety.
Yes, Lent can be a time to take stock of our lives, to come up with things that tempt us, to counter these with the great spiritual practices of Lent: Fasting, Self-Denial, Prayer, Reading and Meditating on God’s holy Word.
But, Lent might also be a time to take another kind of inventory; an accounting of the Angels we have known and loves, and who have loved us, in the wilderness of our own lives; to remember as Mark remembered, those angels that show up when we are tired, thirsty—and surrounded by wild beasts—just as they did for Jesus.
Those Angels that must have been with him on the Cross.
As William Sloan Coffin once put it; “There is much more Grace in God, than Sin in Us.”
Angels always accept us like that; and remind us of that.
Where are your Angels? In those most abandoned, places of void, when life is going-down, down, down?
Perhaps in the most unlikely places.
As you leave the Church this morning, I would ask that you pick up a copy of a pastoral letter entitled, Bishops, United Urge Assault Weapons Ban, Prayer of Lamentation. We offer thanks that our Bishop, Chip Stokes, is among them.
It not only calls us to remember our Angels, but to BE Angels of Protest in this difficult time.
It says in part: We believe God is calling us to understand that we must not simply identify the social and political impediments to ending these lethal spasms of violence in our country.
We must reflect on and acknowledge our own complicity in the unjust systems that facilitate so many deaths and, in accordance with the keeping of a Holy Lent, repent and make reparations. Specifically we ask you, members of our Church and those who ally yourselves with you to:
*Contact your Elected Representatives to ask them so support legislation banning assault weapons such as the AR-15.
*Participate in a service of lamentation for the victims of the Parkland shooting and all the victims of lethal gun violence (as we are doing this morning).
*Enter into a period of discernment with us about how, through prayer, advocacy and action, we can make clear to our elected representatives that they must vote in the interests of all Americans, including law-abiding gun owners, in passing life-saving, common sense gun policies.
This Lent, my friends, who are your Angels? What are your Angels?
Perhaps those unlikely places and persons who forever remind you…
“There is More Grace in God than Sin in Us.”
This week, a friend of Elly’s gave her the following hymn written recently by a Presbyterian Minister, Carolyn Winfrey Gillette; although written before Parkland gun massacre, it’s poetry is very prescient I share two verses with you:
If we just talk of thoughts and prayers, and Don’t live our a faith, that dares, And don’t take on the ways of death, Our thoughts and prayers are fleeting breath.”
“If we just sing of doing good, And don’t walk through our neighborhood, To learn its hope, to ease its pain, Our Talk of God is simply vain.
Yes, let us be Angels of Truth, Protest and Justice.
For, to quote William Sloan Coffin again, “There is more Grace in God than sin in Us.”
A sermon preached on Ash Wednesday, February 14th, 2018, also Valentine’s Day, by the Rev. Hugh E. Brown, III, D. Min, MSW, LSW, Rector, All Saints’ Parish, Princeton, NJ
“I do not want to talk about His Divinity; but about his Humanity.” Pere Henri’ from the movie, Chocolat
Viianne Rocher drifts across Europe with her daughter, Anouk following a North Wind.
It is the beginning of the season of Lent, 1959–”fifteen years after the war.”
They travel to a quiet French village; the people there believed in Tranquility; you understood what was expected of you. You knew your place in the scheme of things; and if you happened to forget—someone reminded you.
The town is ruled by Comte de Reynaud; he styles himself the local arbitrator of morals; he even writes sermons for the local priest
The Priest’s sermon for Ash Wednesday opens something like this: The season of Lent is upon us; this is of course, a time of abstinence; Hopefully, it is also a time of reflection; above all. Let this be for us a time—a time of sincere penitence; it is a time to stand up and be counted as we mourn our sins.
So, thought good times and bad, famine and feast, the villagers held fast to their traditions, until-one winter day—a sly wind blew in from the North….
…bringing with it Vianne and chocolate shop….
..In the season of Lent…
…for Viannne opens a Chocolate Shop…in the season of Lent—in the village of tranquility…
…and Nothing will be the same again.
So begins the movie, Chocolat! Released in the year 2000, Chocolat offered, not just a drama about a more humane religion but also, perhaps a new understanding of Lent and Christianity itself.
What happens in that Chocolate shop for the people of the rather staid French village in 1959?
*A young girl forms a new bond with her grandmother, and enables her mother to become a more loving person.
*A young adult is able to leave her abusive, violent husband and claim her gifts for creativity and business.
*A village, suspicious of outsiders, is able to embrace a band of gypsies.
*And the town mayor is able to experience a genuine repentance, a coming to himself, become horrified at the violence his cold heart has unleased, owns that his wife left him because of repressed soul, and, at the movie’s close, encourages his Priest to preach a genuine, authentic sermon.
Thus, the season of Lent becomes a season whereby a French village becomes a more-life-giving, gentle, kind, compassionate and honest place.
It that the way we think of Lent?
A season in which we are encouraged to become more life-giving, life affirming, joyful, heartfelt, honest and genuinely loving persons.
To reclaim our gift for healthy sensuous life—embodied life, incarnate life?
I’m not sure we do.
What do we make of the fact that Valentine’s Day falls on Ash Wednesday? The last time that happened was in 1945.
So we see the possibility of healing, affirming and transforming healthy romantic and sensuous life and love?
Here are some things I pulled off the internet, writing by Christians and Christian bodies, priests and clergy.
Ash Wednesday falls on Valentine’s Day but Catholics are told the meat ban holds. In the words of one Catholic Bishop in a pastoral letter: “This day you fast; hold your love over steak dinner and candles for another day.”
“In view of the significance of Ash Wednesday, the obligation to fast and engage in penitent obedience is the priority of the Catholic community.” writes the Archdiocese of Chicago; the Archdiocese continues, “celebrate Valentines Day on Shrove Tuesday or the following weekend.”
This coming from an Archbishop who gave a special dispensation for St. Patrick’s Day for Catholics so they could enjoy corn beef.
I saw little difference in some statements by prominent Episcopalian clergy and laity: in the words of one Episcopal leader: “A real act of love as mentioned in First Corinthians 12-13 is absolutely marked with ashes, repentance, gratitude for the suffering our Lord and sacrifice. Ash Wednesday and Lent mark true sacrificial love; perhaps this is an opportunity to talk about what true Christian love, and that is love as suffering sacrifice is all about.”
Regardless of Valentine’s Day–Indeed, Ash Wednesday and the Season of Lent is precisely a good idea to talk about what Christian love is all about.
Perhaps Love—as seen through the witness of Lenty—is all about self-sacrifice and self-denial. Perhaps the Cross is the ultimate symbol of Christian love; for Jesus stretched out his arms of love on the hard wood of the cross.
We see this kind of love in the martyrs; in the martyrdom of the heart which truly cares—for the poor, the sick, the suffering; I saw it this week in the children of a senior parent who are now sacrificing much to care for her.
Love-Ash Wednesday-Valentine’s Day; is it not pure agape? Pure self-giving—just like Christ?
But let us be clear—if love is only about sacrifice—only about disinterested, faceless, bodiless, passionless action which represses our humanity—it will fail.
It will fail our relationships, our marriages, our partnerships, our vocations—ultimately our relationship with Christ.
And let us be clear about this—if the Christian life is only about sacrifice and disinterested love—if it only about duty, obligation and dealing with the guilt of our all too human frailty—it will fail.
If we come to Christ without passion, desire, emotion, feeling; if we come to Christ sacrificing our essential humanity, our embodied existence, our romantic and sexual feeling; if we come to Christ and perceive that our Lord wants us to live essentially as unhappy, joyless, rather cold creatures—we will indeed give our lives—not to Christ but to darkness.
Why do the worst excesses of licentiousness, infidelity, betrayal, emotional, physical, sexual abuse, oppressive power —come from those living, speaking and behaving with so-called penitence, moralism, judgement and repressed erotic and sensual desire?
There is a straight line from any repressive, so called sacrificial religion—Christian or otherwise—not sacrifice for others, but sacrifice of our humanity—to the domestic abuse and abuse of the powerless that we see in our public discourse today.
In a powerful new novel entitled, Fire Sermon-a woman reflects on her adultery as a deeply devoted Christian; how could she be both—Christian and betrayer? She remembers the words of her pastor: “Christ wants your holiness—not your happiness.”
Why can’t it be both? Is that not what the incarnation is all about? Humanity and Divinity.
When did Christianity become a religions which calls us to gut our essential humanity? To gut Valentine’s Day for fasting? To gut romantic love for some bloodless notion of love that actually resembles the inquisitor rather than Christ?
Remember our Lord’s first miracle? Transforming Water into Wine at a Wedding?
Rather than sacrifice your humanity to fasting or penitence this Lent-we might all try being a bit more light, a bit more free—a bit kinder, a bit more understanding, a bit more forgiving.
Perhaps you might want to spend a bit more time working on your relationships—with friends, with family, with your children—with one from whom you are estranged.
Or a bit more time working on yourself-to be a more peaceful, centered, kind, considerate, accepting, understanding human being.
Perhaps it might be better to come out of Lent—with a bit larger heart—and a bit diminished cold soul.
Does that mean your Lent will entail no commitment, structure or discipline? Not at all.
I encourage you to take on a spiritual practice for Lent; I encourage you to practice some self-denial, fasting, prayer, and holiness of life; but I encourage you to do so for the sake of your humanity-for the sake of your mind, soul and body—for the sake of life-not repression.
For remember the words of a prophet; what is the fast I choose, to unloose the bonds of oppression?
That is my prayer and hope for you—to loosen oppression—oppressed humanity a bit—both for you and for others. For your sake and their sake.
A spiritual director friend is now facing the words you will hear from the church as you come forward to receive Ashes; “remember you are dust and unto dust you shall return.” He is facing his morality; his call to transcend this life into the life of the pure Divine.
Are his last days about Guilt? Shame? Repentance as Regret? No, they are about repentance in the way of the movie Chocolate—Joy and Life.
“These days, I truly enjoy everything I do. Every second, every breath, and every person who crosses my path; they are now all immeasurably rich for me.”
What a beautiful way to end the season of Lent and live the meaning of the resurrection; to enjoy every moment of life—every person.
In the words of the Priest in the closing scene of Chocolat.
“Listen-here is what I think; I don’t want to talk about our Lord’s divinity; but about his humanity. I think that we can’t go around measuring out goodness but what we don’t do. By what we deny ourselves, what we resist, what we exclude. I think we need to begin to measure goodness by what we embrace, what we create and what we include.”
So—following the service—is it O.K. to have that Valentine Dinner or Romantic and Sensual time with the One You Love? Perhaps working on your marriage or intimate partnership is the most holy think you can do this Lent? For your sake; for the sake of others.
But don’t take it from me; take it from Jesus.
“I have come that they may have Life and have it abundantly.”
A sermon preached on the 5th Sunday after the Epiphany, Year B, February 4, 2018, by the Rev. Hugh E. Brown, III, D. Min, MSW, LSW, Rector, on Mark 1: 29
“You are Loved: Changing the Narrative”
Imagine that you get a text, a phone call, an e-mail from a friend.
Or, in today’s world, notice a friend’s Facebook post.
You see the words or hear in her voice: Non-curative—Stage IV Cancer.
Your friend goes to a party a few days later. She wants to continue living. A woman—perhaps a Facebook “friend”– spots her from across the dance floor. “I guess you are not dying, “she screams.
“I’m working on it!”—your friend yells back—as she says it, “reconsidering her commitment to pacifism.”
As she puts it in some ironic, dark humor, “when it comes to small talk, I’m now the Angel of death.”
The above words were written by Kate Bowler; she is an assistant professor a the Duke Divinity School and the author of “Everything happens for a reason and other lies I have loved.”
They appeared in an op-ed article in the New York Times on January 28th—last Sunday—entitled “How to Talk to the Angel of Death.”
“How might we talk and behave a bit more wisely, compassionately, empathetically to those we know living with chronic illnesses?
That seemed to be the purpose of the article.
The author was speaking, not only to the secular world; she was also speaking—Christian to Christian, person of faith to other persons of faith .
She was speaking, too, in my mind, of healing words and behavior.
Not necessarily curing but healing.
There is a difference.
Let me return to her article in a few minutes.
Jesus commences his healing ministry in the Gospel of Mark with the story this morning with the very brief account of Peter’s Mother in Law.
It takes place on the heels of his inaugural exorcism—the story we read last week; the story of Jesus casting a demon out of a man in a synagogue in Capernaum.
The New Testament School, Ched Myers argues that these two miracle stories begin what Myers calls “The First Direct Action Campaign of Jesus.”
The words, Direct Action Campaign comes from the literature of protest and advocacy.
What Jesus is up to—according to Ched Myers—with his ministry of exorcism or healing—is not simply about persons—although no less than genuine compassion for human well-being.
No—Jesus wants to challenge a social order that keeps bounds persons to oppressive and evil structures.
He agrees that demythologizing—simply casting the biblical world view aside for modernist reductionism—is the wrong interpretive framework for understanding the healing ministry of Jesus—or any of the miracles stories.
But he also argues that simply looking at these stories in a moralistic and legalistic way won’t do either.
Jesus knew that issues of moral and natural evil were beyond personal choices and individual narrative.
No—for Jesus—evil was truly a social reality.
Evil is as much about social structures as about persons.
Let me illustrate from scripture first.
In the world view of Jesus’s day—illness was about sin and impurity.
Let me be a bit clearer; if you were sick—you obviously were defective; even more, you were estranged from God; therefore, you were estranged from the circlers of religious life. You had done something wrong.
You will note that Jesus challenges this world view at every opportunity. To the demon-possessed man last week—Jesus only offers wholeness and liberation—not judgement; in this way, it is difficult not to see it as a healing story. To the leper Jesus not only offers wholeness but also restoration to table fellowship. Jesus constantly challenged any attempt to segregate based on bodily integrity.
Hhe touches a bleeding woman; he culminates his opening healing ministry in Mark’s Gospel by healing on the Sabbath—thus completing shredding the distinctions between the sacred and the sick.
As Ched Myers and New Testament scholars note, Jesus and all the healers of his period could only perceive illness and not diseases.
Notice in each healing instance the almost total disregard of symptoms (something essential for disease); instead there is a constant concern for meaning.
Jesus activity is best described linguistically as healing—not curing; he provides transformed social meaning for the life problems resulting from sickness.
Let me illustrate.
Over the past two weeks, I have seen three patients at Princeton House as part of the treatment team for both substance abuse and co-occurring mental illness.
In every case, the patient had lived with social realities that may be difficult for us to comprehend; in the case of one patient, it was poverty.
In the case of two other patients—both women—it was physical, emotional and sexual abuse.
In the case of two patients—both women—the sexual abuse began early—in the case of one patient at age 5; in the case of another patient—age 11; the abuse continues for years.
Much of the true healing for these patients is indeed beyond both medication and psychiatric categories—what professor Graham rightly last week called abstracting issues at the expense of persons.
The true healing for many is transformation of story and meaning; a story of “I’m not worth a life” as one patient put it to a story of “I’m resilient and remarkable fighter; I’m a child of God worth of life.”
We must often acknowledge this; another oppressive force in the lives of the two patients—both women—is the narrative of patriarchy and gender power.
They both came from families with narrative of male power in families, with male power over women’s bodies, and women’s silence in the face of abuse.
One of the Olympic athletes, living with the abuse of the hands of a pedophile masquerading as a physician tells, spoke this week of how her church was not only unhelpful, but destructive.
When she tried to speak of her abuse to those in authority, lay and clergy—she was dismissed and silenced.
This week in a powerful episode of the TV series, Gray’s Anatomy, the protagonist, a surgeon, admits herself to the ER of another hospital, convinced she is having a heart attack.
She is a woman; she is African American; the hospital will not give her the treatment she requests to fully diagnose her case.
She almost dies as a result; she rightly points to the truth that both women and minorities are apt to be dismissed and cast aside by a health care system that casts narratives of genuine physical illness as simply somatic, emotional or hysterical symptoms.
Jesus knew all of this; he knew that disease, disability and illness were all tied to poverty, social location, class and culture.
He sought—not just to treat symptoms—but to heal persons; above all, reframe stories.
This brings me, in conclusion—back to the question posed at the beginning of this sermon.
So who do we “talk to the Angel of death?” How do we offer healing to those seeking our support and love in the face of life-threatening illness.
Kate Bowler describes three types of responses that she found not only unhelpful but somewhat demeaning.
Unfortunately they are responses we are all apt to give. I have given them, sadly, myself.
I want you to note that they are all within the narrative framework Jesus always challenged throughout his ministry.
These responses—place the responsibility—morally, medically and methodologically, on the sick person—as an individual—someone, somehow who has done something wrong.
The first “bucket” of responses are what she calls The Minimizers. “Well at least” they say. “Well at least.” Well at least you don’t have this and that; well at least you are not this and that. “One friend tried to explain to me,” she wrote, “that my cancer was vastly preferable to living through the Iranian Revolution.” Another friend-a Christian wanted to remind me that “my true home was in heaven,”–which made me want to ask her if “she wanted to go to that home now!”
The second bucket of responses she calls The Teachers. “I hope you have a Job experience,” one Christian friend told me. “May God use your cancer to make you a better person.” “Or, the one so many of my Christian friends use, she continues. “God never gives you more than you can handle,” and “God will use this experience to bring something better for you.”
The worst of all—what she calls the bucket of the “true cruelty in the logic of the perfectly certain,” are the Solutions People.
They always send what she calls nutritional spiritual supplements in the form of bible quotes, or quotes like “keep smiling; your attitude determines your destiny.
As she puts it—all of these responses are really defenses for the truth that so many Christians find difficult to accept: Our bodies might simply fail us—and there is no rhyme or reason for this.
There somehow must be personal responsibility; or sin. Or, just something that I have done that is wrong or can do differently.
So—what is the true Christian response? Or human response to one living with painful, life-threatening illness—or any chronic illness for that matter. Or any inexplicable life pain for that matter.
This really stinks; perhaps more choice language.
A very caring parishioner taught me how powerful this can be.
“Yes, it just sinks. What is happening to you.”
What does a response like this do?
It shifts the narrative and the meaning.
It shifts it away from “what did you do?” “Or what is doing on with you?” Or, how can you be better, taught or problem solved?
No—it shifts it to—this thing is being done to you. This is attacking you; You are fighting this. This illness, this monster called cancer is outside of you—seeking to harm you.
Thus—the narrative does not become one of sin and guilt; the narrative is one of cancer and oppression; thus the narrative becomes a courageous struggle for life against what one scientist calls, the “Emperor of All Maladies.”
But, even more—there is the most profound response—Love. Not words—but actions.
She writes, “The impulse to offer encouragement is the perfect one; There is tremendous power in touch, in gifts, and in affirmations when everything you knew about yourself might not be true…anymore. I am a professor; will I teach again? I’m a mom but for how long? A friend knits me socks; another bakes cookies, another writes me a funny e-mail or takes me to a concert.”
When Jesus went into that synagogue in Capernaum, or into the home to heal the loved one of a disciple—I don’t think he even asked questions of sin, repentance or who did what.
Yes, I do think he saw love, beauty and hope in the eyes of those he healed—not sin; as he does for you and me; when Jesus sees you—he sees a beautiful person—above all.
I don’t think Jesus ever tried to minimize, teach or problem solve when he healed or cast our demons.
He loved. He cared; he practiced compassion.
Pretty simple when you think about it.
In the words of Kate Bowler as she lived with stage 4 Cancer:
“My sister Martha said to me, in word and deed when I was having a particularly bad day—“yes the world has changed, dear heart, but do not be afraid. You are loved, you are loved you are loved; you will not disappear; I am here.”
“Come out of Him,” Said Jesus.
“And Jesus touched her, and she was healed.”
“You are loved; you are loved. I am here.”
So is Jesus for you and for me.
So He wants you—and me—to be for one another…
A sermon preached on the Third Sunday after the Epiphany, January 21, 2018, in All Saints’ Episcopal Church, by the Rev. Hugh E. Brown, III, D. Min, MSW, LSW, Rector
“I will make You Fish for People”
Jesus looks at us: And we ‘Say our Peace.’
Simon and Andrew are net casters; they own no boat. Their fishing is limited to the use of casting nets weighed down by stones which they throw out while standing waist deep in water .
Zebedee, the father of James and John, on the other hand, owns a boat and therefore can fish anywhere on the lake, dragging long nets through the water in those areas where schools of fish have been located.
Because of superior equipment and greater maneuverability, fishing for him has become a commercial enterprise.
Obviously Jesus does not care a whit about social class in calling his first disciples; not only that—Jesus seems to be interested in forging a community of followers transcending class; he will subsequently call followers transcending social order, ideology, politics; he will call a Tax Collector; he will call a Zealot.
Yes, he will call women. Lest anyone think that the inner circle of the disciples was limited to literally 12 men (which your Rector, in keeping with many in New Testament scholarship believe to be symbolic—not literal)…….
………….I call your attention to the women around Jesus throughout his ministry from Mary and Martha of Bethany, to his mother Mary, to Mary Magdalene, to women Jesus formed in discipleship—like Canaanite Woman—like the Samaritan Woman in John; I also call your attention to the faithful disciples, not the men who abandoned our Lord; but the authentic disciples, women—who stood with him at the cross.
As we gather this morning—women from all corners of the nation are gathering once again this weekend– to demand a place at the tables of civic life; as the great African-American woman activist Shirley Chisolm once noted: “If you can’t have a seat at the table bring stools and folding chairs.”
Jesus throughout his ministry, gave women—not stools but seats at the table; we need never forget that; as Robin Williams once note in his 10 top reasons to be an Episcopalian, “Male and Female God created them, Male and Female, we ordained them.”
(It is fitting this morning that, on another occasion of women’s protest and resistance we have an all women choir and a woman directing our music this morning.
I want to take this moment to welcome Kennedy as our guest director of music and to say how honored and blessed we are to have you and your talent.)
Now- whether men or women–what most—but not all of these original disciples or followers of Jesus had in common was this: they often renounced their vocation, their source of livelihood, their families, their business, their homes, and their stations in life.
As Peter will remind Jesus during one of their more heated conversations, “We have left everything and followed you.”
It that what is expected of Christians today—to break radically when life, family, friends, job, security?
Is that something we can relate to or identify with?
For much of the church’s history—Discipleship was about what might be called “counsels of perfection,”—the withdrawal from the world, the monastic vows of poverty, chastity and radical obedience in religious orders.
For the rest of us—discipleship was about just—obedience.
Discipleship was faithful church attendance, participation in the sacraments, particularly the Eucharist, obeying the creedal statements of the Church…
Unless…you were called to ordination—where you spent several years trying to explain your “call” to ministry to various committees—who suddenly possessed the gift of discernment to decide where a candidate was really “different” and “special”—perhaps “better” than the rest of us.
“Discipleship”—from the word, Discipline—was about those in Holy Orders—held to higher standards; or about the Religious—Breaking with Life as business as usual.
Let we think Jesus, from the beginning of his ministry—was confining discipleship to a small group composing an “inner circle”—to which subsequent Christians would simply obey—we might recall that Jesus taught all persons in the public square, that Jesus, as noted had a rather large circle of original followers of all classes, races and genders, that Jesus gave the great commandments of love to all, that he washed feet as an example of all, that he gave the Great Commission that we Christians be and make disciples of all nations.
Dear friends—when you hear the stories of Andrew and Simon, James and John—those are YOUR stories; the church proclaims them that way.
When you come to All Saint’s Church on a Sunday morning—it is not the end but the beginning; you are not only to worship on Sundays but throughout the week; liturgy means literally the work of the people—in this sacred space—and in God’s sacred space in the public square for all places are Sacred with Christ.
But how—you might be asking do I practice discipleship: how might I be a true Christian—a Follower of Jesus?
We might start with a renewed, daily commitment to the Baptismal Covenant—especially the 5 core commitments following our Confession of faith in the Apostles Creed: A Life of Prayer: A life of continued Self Examination and Repentance; a life conformed to Jesus by word and action; a life dedicated to human dignity, respect and to peace and justice in our world.
But this morning—I call you and me to start- not with liturgy or action, or promise; I ask you to start with Jesus.
And I want to quote the words of the New Testament scholar Eduard Schwiezer:
“Discipleship always begins with Jesus looking at a person—and calling her. Those who are called have no special preparation, nor have they even been among those who have heard Jesus preaching; Jesus does not encounter women and men in some special religious sphere but in the midst of everyday life where they really live; men and women are made disciples by the call of Jesus which is as powerful as the creative word of God; for Jesus called his disciples by the water—symbol of Genesis—symbol of New Life; Symbol of God’s Life-Giving, Ordering Power;
This concept of discipleship is Jesus’s own creation.
Students in the days of Jesus choose a Rabbi as Teacher and Mentor because they wanted to be like him. The important part of the relationship was character , commandment and ethics.
But Jesus makes clear HE is more important than all the commands; he is called So of Man; he does not debate with his disciples; no when he says follow—it has a sound found nowhere else except in those Old Testament passage which command a person to either follow Baal—follow idols, false Gods and Liars—or Follow Yahweh”
The call to you and to me this morning is no less than that: It is a call to place Jesus above everything; not necessarily to leave everything and anything; but to render them ordinary and secondary.
It is a call beyond preparation, deliberation, and even reflection; it is a call to radical obedience—not of the Church, or the Sacraments, or the Commandments—or even the Baptismal Covenant; it is a call to obey Jesus—now—in the moment—all moments—with not baggage.
It is perhaps for this reason—nothing but the call of Jesus without preparation or deliberation– that a rock-ribbed Southern Baptist Senator from South Carolina by the name of Lindsey Graham could stand up to one of the most powerful men on earth.
And he could do so in public square-in our nation’s center of government—in the white house oval office—and “say his peace” (great southern phrase) to one of the world’s most powerful political leader–spewing words of hate, racism, and bigotry.
With Senator Graham’s courageous action, I think of what the words, “I will make you fish for people” from the lips of Jesus really mean.
As the New Testament Scholar Ched Meyers notes–this metaphor does NOT mean the saving of souls—rather the image is carefully drawn from Jeremiah 16:16 and Ezekiel 29: 4—it is a proclamation of God’s judgement upon the powerful and the rich—and the censure of an Israel that permits oppression and exploitation.
Only with Jesus, dear friends—can we denounce hated, bigotry, injustice and exclusion I the name of all that is Holy.
For only with Jesus can we “hook,” say our Peace and censure prejudice, bigotry and hatred wherever we find it—this week—and forever..
For only with Jesus can we “hook,” say our Peace and censure sexual assault, abuse and exploitation—wherever we find it—this week and forever…
For only with Jesus can we hook, say our Peace and censure those who would mock the statue of liberty with falsehoods, exclusion and shame-based language and policies directed a immigrants who, like your forebears and mind came to this nation, from impoverished and war-torn lands, tired, poor, yearning to be free.
And only with Jesus can we hook, say our peace and censure those who would deny liberty and human rights, only with Jesus can we speak truth—can think, righty, and publish truth—always mindful that Jesus would certainly agree with Jefferson and swear eternal hostility to all tyranny over the mind of man.
This morning I ask you to once again—make a personal commitment to a personal relationship with Jesus—sustained not by you—or me—or the Church—but by grace.
For on this Sunday following the national holiday for the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr—let us always remember what, first and foremost drove and inspired Dr. King to live and die as if the Arch of the Moral Universe always leans towards Justice!
During the Montgomery Bus Boycott in the early 1950s, Dr. King had what he calls “his knock at midnight.” He writes the following in a famous sermon by the same name.
“It was around midnight; you can have some strange experiences at midnight. I had just received another threatening call. “King, we are tired of you and your mess now. And, King, if you are not out of town in three days, we are going to blow your brains out and blow up your house and kill your family.”
“Now, I just sat there for a moment and thought about the beautiful little daughter who had just been born…she was the darling of my life.”
“And I started thinking about a dedicated, devoted and loyal wife who was over there asleep. And she could be taken away from me or I from her. And I got to the point I could not take it any more. I was weak.”
“And I thought, you can’t call on Daddy or Mama now. You’ve got to call on that something that your Daddy and Mama used to tell you about, THE POWER which can make a way where there is not way.”
“And I discovered that religion, that God, had to become real to me and I had to know God for myself. I got up to make myself a cup of coffee and I sat down with that coffee at the table. And I bowed down over that cup of coffee at midnight.”
“I said, ‘Lord, I’m down here trying to do what is right. I think I’m right; I think the cause we are representing is right. But, Lord, I confess I’m weak right now. I’m faltering; I’m losing my courage. And I can’t let this happen.”
“And at that moment, I heard an inner voice. That voice said, “Martin Luther King, stand up for righteousness, stand up for justice; stand up for truth. And lo, I will be with you, even to the end of the world.”
“I know I heard the voice of Jesus that night. I know I heard the voice of Jesus telling me to fight on. He promised never to leave me alone; Never alone; he promised never to leave me, never to leave me alone.”
And—with that—we can always be fishers of men and women with hook of courage—telling living, breathing and dying—to speak our piece to the evil of this world…
In a moment of silence, let us renew our commitment to Jesus and then proclaim and renew our Baptismal Covenant….in His name…
A sermon preached in All Saints’ Episcopal Church, Princeton, NJ on the Second Sunday After the Epiphany, Year B, January 14, 2018 and on the Sunday prior to the National Holiday for The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., by the Rev. Hugh E. Brown, III, D. Min, MSW, LSW, Rector
“Can Anything Good Come out of Nazareth?”
The Inner Eye
In 1962, Howard Thurman accepted an invitation to attend a lecture at a gathering of Canadian Native American leaders in Sakatchewan.
On this weekend our nation and church honors the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. it is fitting to hear some words from one of Dr. King’s spiritual mentors.
Such was Howard Thurman.
Howard Thurman is one of our nation’s unsung, but provocative spiritual writers. He taught at Moorehouse and Spelman Colleges, Boston University, and Howard University. He was Dean of the Marsh Chapel at Boston University for decades.
He believed that the deeper one went into one’s mind, heart or soul, the more one found common ground and unity among not only humans, but all creation.
Thus when he spoke to the group of Native American leaders in Canada, after his introduction, he decided to forgo a translator.
He did this despite objections that no one would be able to understand him.
He then described his experience:
“At first, the atmosphere was tense and disconcerting. It was quite clear that the men didn’t understand my words and were puzzled by the unusual procedure. My words went forth, but they seemed to strike an invisible wall, only to fall back to meet other words flowing from my mouth. The tension was almost unbearable.
Then, suddenly, as if by some kind of magic, the wall vanished and I had the experience of sensing an organic flow of meaning passing between them and me. It was as if, together, we had dropped into a continuum of communication that existed a priori long before human speech was formed into sounds and symbols….When I finished, there was a long breath of silence as if together, we were recovering our separate rhythms.”
Then, one by one, the Native American leaders approached him and reported how each understood him as if he had spoken in their own language.
I encountered this story in a remarkable essay on Howard Thurman in the book American Prophets: Seven Religious Radicals and Their Struggle for Social and Political Justice by retired Princeton professor Albert Raboteau. The book was given to me by a thoughtful parishioner as a Christmas gift.
I wanted to save it for Pentecost; as a 20th century illustration of the unity of language—and humanity– the Holy Spirit makes possible.
And then, as always for a preacher, events encroached on this plan over the past few days.
Events which provide, once again, how much fear, how much misunderstanding, how much division we have in this land over issues of culture and race.
Howard Thurman, throughout his life, preached the kind of religion that Jesus of Nazareth lived, died and rose for—the unity of all humanity in God.
This is a unity based not on creed, doctrine, politics, ideology, culture, nation or race; but a unity based on dignity created in the imagine of God.
According to Howard Thurman, how do we find it?
Through the ways of human relationship—listening, understanding, presence.
Howard Thurman would often quote Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man; we are invisible to one another—not because we are ghosts or apparitions—but, “because of a matter with the construction of our inner eyes–those eyes with which look—beyond their physical eyes– upon reality.”
He asked, “Do we know one another? Do we really know one another? Or are we a country of strangers?
John’s Gospel presents a Jesus with the vision of the inner eye—looking through the physical to reality.
It presents a Jesus who tried to know others so deeply through the inner eye that only the language of understanding was necessary for connection.
“Can anything Good come out of Nazareth?” Nathaniel said that when another suggested that Jesus just might be God’s chosen one for humanity’s salvation.
What was behind this question? Did Nazareth have a bad rep? It certainly, then and now, was a marginalized village.
Then and now, it was a hotbed of violence and terrorism—as was the entire region of Northern Israel in the days of Jesus; were there still questions of Jesus’s origin rising in the minds of some—the son of a woman with a questionable pregnancy? Was Nathaniel simply skeptical? Was their condescension, arrogance, judgement involved?
How did Jesus respond? How did Jesus treat this man who offered a rather cutting, derisive put-down of the claim of Jesus as Messiah?
“I know you Nathaniel.” Thus, said Jesus, “I know you.”
Please put aside the supernatural—and the apologetic for a second—and treat this encounter between Jesus and Nathaniel through the questions that Howard Thurman always asked—and that Dr. King, following Dr. Thurman—always held before this church and nation.
“Do we know each other? Or are we a country of strangers? Invisible to each other?”
“Can anything Good come out of Nazareth?”
That is not only the question but to Jesus in his time—about him; but perhaps the critical question of our time—confronting us?
“Can anything Good come out of Nazareth? “
Can anything good come out of that which we fear? That which we do not understand? That which is a stranger to us? That which we mistrust?
That which separates us? That which is foreign to us? That which is another nation? Another culture, Another point of view? Another philosophy? Another theology?
For Jesus of Nazareth calls to something deeper than even service or civil right—as do Dr. Thurman and Dr. King:
The call us to the response of Jesus to Nathaniel: “I know you.”
“I see you with the inner yet.” Jesus knew—as did Thurman and King—that the most difficult work is not the work of service or civil rights or even protest.
The most difficult work was the cultivation and practice of the “inner eye.”
The most difficult work was the laborious spiritual cultivation of these questions:
Do we know each other? Do we really know each other? So well–that words cease to matter.
Fifty years ago this past Christmas, Dr. King took to the pulpit of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta to preach his last Christmas sermon prior to his assassination.
“We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied to a single garment of destiny; whatever affects one directly (yes sir—came a voice from the congregation!) affects all indirectly; we are made to live together because of the interrelated structure of reality.”
Thus in the last months of his life—Dr. King began his crusade to link the three evils of racism poverty and war, culminating in Memphis, Tenn and his stand for the question:
“Can anything Good come out of Nazareth?”
Also-in 1962—as Thurman was giving his address to Native American leaders and Dr. King was leading campaigns for human equality and dignity, and civil rights—a Trappist Monk in Gethsemane, Kentucky had a revelation from what he knew was from the Divine.
It was a revelation which gave voice the great bridge between the things of the spirit and the things of human dignity and freedom—between mysticism and social action, between faith and non-violence.
Here is what Thomas Merton writes of this experience. It is perhaps, the most well-known and quoted passages in his work; from the book, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander.
“In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with realization that I loved all these people; that they were mine and I theirs; that we could not be alien to one another, even though we were total strangers; it like waking from a dream of separateness of spurious self-isolation in a special world, of so-called renunciation and holiness.
The whole illusion of a separate holy existence, in monastery or church—is a dream. Separation from the world is a fantasy.
For I saw that there are no strangers . Then it was as if suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts, the depths of their hearts, whether neither sin, nor desire nor self-knowledge can reach—the core of their reality—the person each one is in God’s eyes.
For at the center of our being is a point of nothingness which is untouched by sin and by illusion, a point of pure truth, a point or spark which belongs entirely to God, which is never at our disposal, from which God disposes our lives, which is inaccessible to the fantasies of our mind or the brutalities of our will.
This little point of nothingness and of absolute poverty is the pure glory of God in us; it is like a pure diamond, blazing with the invisible light of heaven; it is in everybody and if we could see it.
We would see these million points of light coming together in the face and blaze of a sun that would make all the darkness and cruelty of life vanish forever.”
Several years ago—my wife Elly spent some time in Montgomery Alabama with a friend; her friend is a senior staff member with the Southern Poverty Law Center; the Civil Rights Movement designed by Maya Lin serves as the entrance to the SPLC.
As you might know, Maya Lin designed the Civil Rights Memorial around a scripture verse Dr. King often quoted—“Let Justice Roll Down like Water and Righteousness like an Everflowing Stream.”
Thus the names of the martyrs of the Civil Rights movement, like Dr. King are forever bathed in an eternal stream of water symbolizing justice and compassion.
One of my most beautiful gifts is a vase of water from the Memorial—which Elly gave to me upon her return home.
For me this gift of water from the Civil Rights memorial evokes our Baptismal call to respect the dignity of every human being. In Christ, there are no strangers. We know one another—with an inner eye.
That is why we invite all to the Eucharist and all are invited this Sunday—there are no strangers; the window behind me symbolizes that truth; there are no strangers.
So—when once again the question of fear arises in our nation as it did this week:
Can anything good come out of Nazareth?
We can do even more than serve, act or protest. We can, in the name of Christ always respond:
“I know you.”
Thus when we live with an inner eye…
No one (no One!) is a stranger among us…..
Now, I invite you to a moment of silence, to the center of your being—beyond words, beyond thought…..
To that point of nothingness—that spark which belongs only to God—blazing with Epiphany light; it is in everybody—if we could just see it….
A sermon preached on the First Sunday after the Epiphany, January 7, 2018, in All Saints’ Episcopal Church, Princeton, NJ, by the Rev. Hugh E. Brown, III, D. Min., MSW, LSW, Rector
“Being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed, by another Way.”
Once upon a time, there lived a poor, Native American girl—somewhere in the upper Midwest.
She did not have enough to eat or clothes enough to keep the arctic cold, often blowing through her village– away.
Once day, a newspaper reporter came into the village where the little girl lived.
He was skeptical about religion.
“Do you believe in God?” asked the reporter? “Yes I do, said the girl.”
“Do you believe God loves you?” asked the reporter.
Again, the girl said, “Yes I do.”
“I don’t understand,” said the reporter. “If you believe in God and believe that he loves you, then why do you think you don’t have enough food or enough warm clothes to wear?”
She answered,” I think God asked someone to bring me these things. But someone said, NO!”
The Magi, the wise ones, leave Herod’s palace; it is a place of intrigue and plots; the star finds them again and leads them home. It is if the star was waiting for them to pass through the glaring lights of evil and violence; then they could see more clearly what they are following.
The star rests over the place where the child sleeps with Mary his mother. They enter, prostrate themselves in worship, and give over their hearts.
They begin to have dreams and to recognize evil and know wisdom. They are given gifts, and they learn how to go home by “Another Way.”
“Another Way.” This is the great gift to believers shared in the seasons of Advent and Christmas—now the Season of Epiphany.
Another way: Humanity as Divinity; political power in a Child; those burdened by a journey of abuse of power and oppressive taxation are showered with gifts befitting royalty; refugee status as Holy; vulnerable immigrants like a pregnant Mary and Joseph protected by the Light.
Cattle stalls as the place of divine and royal birth; God becoming human and hallowing human flesh teaching that all humanity is worthy of divine status—especially the poor and the outcast.
Thomas Aquinas once described this Other Way of God through the Incarnation: “The Greatness of God as not cast off but the slightness of human nature put on.”
Another way: Despots and Demagogues—the Herods of this world held accountable by Divine Light.
Another way: That is the challenge of Christians—to return home—life in the Incarnate Word of Christ, with God—our only home—by another way.
Originally the early church had two pivotal seasons of the year, Easter and Epiphany—the poles of light at the beginning and end of the life of Christ—the light of the world.
These were the times of Baptism, for extending the light to new believers.
This morning, in the spirit of Jesus who received the Baptism of John, we renew our Baptismal vows.
We do so as commitment to a people of Another Way.
Each January, the lectionary offers the Baptism of Christ and invites us to remember that we are part of a people committed to the God of new beginnings, new ways, who is creating new things.
The God who split the waters of the Red Sea with Moses and the Jordon River with Joshua, Elijah and Elisha—not splits the heavens to recognize His Son; for God is going back earlier, to the beginning when the earth was formed from chaos and darkness.
Another Way: But the Original Way—God’s true Original Intent—the formation of a humanity of light
Over the centuries especially in the past century, the focus shifted from Epiphany to Christmas.
The shift away from Epiphany was unfortunate for it blurs the power of the symbolism of light and its confrontation with those who are intent to take the Light way—to shutting it out, to ignoring it, or covering it up.
Like persons and social structures which deny basic human rights like food and some semblance of economic security to vulnerable children.
“I asked God to bring me these things: But Someone Said, NO”
As I give the Word from this pulpit today, our own nation is the on verge of taking basic health insurance and the light of life away from vulnerable children in this nation; as the New York times reported a few weeks ago, the failure to extend the Children’s Health Insurance program or CHIP is a matter of life and death; as we worship there is a child in Children’s Hospital in Washington, about to be discharged in her fight with cancer—because we will not act as a nation or church.
How in the world could anyone with any mind or heart for the stories of Advent Christmas and Epiphany—stories of God becoming vulnerable, overturning values of power, supporting marginalized community and celebrating the birth of a vulnerable child as God almighty—not support children in need of health care– and for that matter young people at risk for deportation?
As I have said often from this pulpit over the past 10 years, we are not only a part of a faith Community, we are also a part of a social order, like it or not; and the moral choices we make in relationship to that social order matter are basic to our Christian commitment; we will be held accountable by God to our social choices as well as our individual choices; individual and social ethics, virtue and social justice are part and parcel of our Commitment to Christ.
Your choices as a citizen outside the ways of this church are as important to your Christian life and salvation as worship and sacraments within it; never forget that.
Jesus spent most of his public ministry, in public space, challenging the social order of his own day; thus should we– in his name– through our Baptism.
This morning in a few minutes, we will be asked as we were asked at our Baptism o and we affirmed through our Sponsors at Baptism or our own wills as Confirmation: Do you renounce evil? Do you renounce Satan? Will you respect the dignity of every human being and peace and justice in our world?
Just as Nathan challenged David, the Magi challenged Herod, and Jesus challenged Pontius Pilate—God commands that we challenge evil, darkness and injustice in our world.
The Director of Episcopal-Lutheran advocacy for the state of NJ said a few weeks ago in our Adult Forum: “Never, ever underestimate the power of one letter written to a public official—one phone call to someone in political power—in impacting the social policies and structures of this land.
“I think God asked someone to bring me these things; but someone answered ‘No’.”
Yes, there is Another Way.
A twelve year old girl –from Beersheva in Israel/Palestine, used those words, Another Way, when she introduced a poem shared at the funeral of Yitzahk Rabin, former Prime Minister of Israel—one of the 20th centuries great peacemakers; it is called, “I had a Box of Paints”
I had a box of paints
Each color glowing with delight.
I had a box of paints with colors
Warm and cool and bright.
I had not red for wounds and blood.
I had no black for an orphaned child.
I had no white for the face of the dead.
I had no yellow for burning sand.
I had orange for joy and life.
I had greens for buds and blooms.
I had blue for clear, bright skies.
I had pink for dreams and rest.
I sat down.
For the rest of the liturgical year, we are called to honor the Child called the Prince of Peace.
Peace—not simply the absence of conflict; or decades old demilitarized zones of never-ending cold war—quickly transformed into red for wounds and blood.
But Peace—Shalom, Salaam—the presence of the original intent of God in Genesis–renewed at our Baptism—the parting of the Heavens of—light, and life.
Do reaffirm your renunciation of evil? Do you renew your commitment to Jesus Christ? Then depart….Then take a box of paints…And Paint….Peace.
For there is–Another Way!
A sermon preached on the First Sunday of Advent, December 1, 2017, by the Rev. Hugh E. Brown, III, D. Min, MSW, LSW, Rector of Al Saints’ Parish, Princeton, NJ
“You have Hidden Your Face from Us”
Laments from the Ruins
There is a legend about a Rabbi who never ate or slept.
Another Rabbi, his curiosity aroused, set out to question his non-eating, non-sleeping colleague.
“Is it true you never eat or sleep”, the Rabbi asked his new friend.
“Why didn’t you eat or sleep?”
“Let me explain.”
“One day my father drove us into a thick forest; Abruptly, my father stopped, got out of the carriage, and went into the woods. He was gone a long time and I was starting to worry.”
“Finally, he emerged from the woods with another man by his side. This man was radiant and fire was shooting from his eyes. He looked deeply into my father’s face and said, “Are you Sure?”
“My Father nodded ‘yes.’”
Then my father returned to the carriage and drove off. He never looked back.
But–I did—and I saw that beautiful young man was weeping.”
My father was driving wildly, but I kept grabbing his arm and demanding an explanation.
Finally, he told me.
“That was the Messiah.”
“What did he want?”
“He wanted to know if he should come now and make everything right.”
With a heavy heart I had to tell him, “No, not now because no one is waiting for you.”
Both Rabbis stood in silence.
“I have lived with the experience all my life,” said the Rabbi who did not sleep or eat.
“If you have seen the face of the Messiah and knew that he wasn’t coming because no one was waiting for him, would you eat or sleep or live like anyone else?”
“Could you ever fall asleep and miss his arrival!”
We have seen the face of the Messiah.
His name is Jesus of Nazareth.
In the scriptures, through the power of the Holy Spirit, We see him preaching Good news to the Poor; we see him binding up the Broken-hearted; we see him setting the captives free; we see him healing the marginalized; we see him teaching about mercy, forgiveness and compassion, we see him on the cross, forgiving his enemies, we see him in the power of his resurrection, offering life to those who thought life was over and gone.
Is this the Jesus we are waiting for? The one who comes to make things right?
The one who is coming to set a violent, destructive, aggressive, unjust world aright through the power of love?
For if we see Jesus—expect him—truly today—his love and work echo the words of Isaiah this morning in Chapter 64.
For in Isaiah, Chapter 64—the prophet cries a powerful prayer known in the Bible as a Lament.
“You have Hidden Your Face from us.” Or, “Where? Where are You? “
“Where are You?” Lament; Prayer; Lament, always a prayer of devastation. Lament, one of the most provocative styles of prayer in the Bible.
Jesus offered a prayer of Lament—on the Cross; “Why have you Forsaken me?”
Isaiah’s prayer of Lament was prompted by disappointed, dashed hopes of promise.
This Isaiah, who we know as Third Isaiah, was preaching to a people returning from exile after war.
This returning people were refugees; they had expectations; then these migrants saw more occupation; more war; more oppression.
“Where are you?” “You have Hidden your Face.”
Writing from Prison in December of 1944, the first week in Advent, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a leader of the Confessing Church in Nazi Germany–wrote during a particularly devastating bombing in Berlin:
“I must say something quite personal to you; during heavy bombing, especially last night.”
“The landmines fell on a nearby factory and windows were blown out, bottles and medicines burst out of the cupboards and fell on the floor in the dark.”
“There seemed no hope of getting out…I found myself…..thinking of a particular Christmas scene…
….the Holy Family is depicted with the manger amidst the ruins of a broken down house—how could he, four hundred years ago, against all the traditions of his time, show a scene like that.”
“But it is really my experience now; how do we celebrate the coming of Christmas amidst the ruins all around us?”
Dear friends–we will miss the Messiah if we do not begin with the prayer of Lament; if we do not begin with the question, “Where? Where are You?”
Where and how do we find Jesus amidst the ruins all around us?
We will miss him if we search anywhere but the bombings in Berlin, windows blown out, and the Holy Family amidst the ruins.
You will not be awaiting the Messiah if you do not enter the pain and suffering of this world; you will not be awaiting the Messiah if you do not look for Him in your own pain.
So—my friends—do look for him in the ruins; don’t shut him out; dare to ask, as Isaiah did—“Where are You?”
For God’s sake’s Advent is the time to do that! Dare to Lament! Dare to pray Isaiah’s prayer of Lament!
This is not easy spiritual work; it is not easy prayer; but be bold—and ask..
Where are you? In unemployment? In depression? In the burdens of responsibility? In cancer? In end-stage illness? In Divorce? In Prison?
A woman named D wrote some poems from the Santa Clara County Jail; she is incarcerated for heroin possession; she is in danger of losing her child.
She lives in a nation that fails to see the Messiah in the ruins of addiction—and continues to treat the Opioid crisis as a moral issue, not a public health crisis.
She lives in a nation continuing to frame addiction as simply moral choice and individual responsibility rather than social problem of immense complication.
My friends in Christ, the treatment of addiction is more than, “Just say No!”
Actually, as a church, let’s say No to the real addiction issues:
*Just say no to incarnation rather than treatment
*Just say no to addiction as a moral problem rather than an illness
*Just say no to public policies which deny treatment to the least of these.
*Just say no to insurance companies who limit care for addiction and mental illness.
*Just say no to pharmaceuticals pushing Opioids without education of risk and are no better than the street buyers and sellers of illicit drugs.
Oh how we pay as a nation for failing to lament!
But D does—Lament:
“I am from the front yard. I am from gunshots, running from cops; I am from a broken home.
I am from a tissue of powder that smokes—and that if you hit it-it would choke; I am from where the fear of God is not number one.
I am from soups and beams were what we had and if you cried, you got slapped.
I am from the drug task kicking the door; I am from the gunshots at our house, cops coming in, someone hit.
But that’s not the end of my story.
I am to a loving wife; I am to showing my wife that I am worth her love; I am to being better than I was.
I am to God’s loving hands; I am to never hurting my family again and making up for what I have done.
I am to better days where people see people not color or race; I am the best I can be– not and until I meet God.”
Do you want to truly expect the Messiah?
Not Miss Jesus?
Then pray to Jesus like that; in lament; in honesty; in humanity; in raw petition? In humility. Pray from the heart. Pray with open hands.
Not in pretension; not in pride; not in judgementalism.
No pray– in Lament—among the ruins, from the ruins—to the God of the ruins…
For when we all truly meet the Messiah at time’s end—he will not ask:
*How much money did you make in your lifetime?
*How many friends did you make? (or Likes on Facebook?)
*How much progress did you make in your career?
*How many conversions did you make?
*How orthodox was your faith?
*How often did you believe the right things?
For what does the lord require of you?
“To do justice; to love mercy; and walk humbly with your God.”
In the ruins…from prison… “I am to God’s Loving Hands.”
A Sermon preached in All Saints’ Episcopal Church, Princeton, NJ on November 26th, 2017, the last Sunday After Pentecost/Feast of Christ the King, by the Rev. Hugh E. Brown, III, D. Min, MSW on Matthew 25: 31-46
“As you did it to the least of these.”
Lord, We know that You’ll be ‘comin’ through that line today
Twenty blocks from the White House, the doors of the Sojourners Neighborhood Center open early for the Saturday morning food line.
Just before they open those doors, all the volunteers join hands for a prayer. Most of the volunteers come from the food line themselves.
Mrs. Mary Glover, a sixty-year old African American woman prayers, “Lord, we know that you’ll be comin’ through this line today—so Help us to treat you well.”
“I was hungry and you gave me food; As you have done it to the least of these, you have done it to me.”
Washington DC, like so many areas of our own state of New Jersey, and if truth be told, like Princeton—is a tale of two cities.
When I worked for Jim Wallis and the Sojourners Community in the mid-1990s, the community lived and worked in what was then known as the 14th street Riot Corridor.
It was so named because it had never fully recovered from the King riots of the 1960s.
Such is not the case now; that area is much improved.
Even so, such a neighborhood is far from what Jim Wallis used to call “official Washington” with its marble, monuments and malls.
But I came to know that Washington too.
For four years, following my time at Sojourners, I served as Associate Rector of St. John ‘s, Lafayette Square—right across from the White House.
I came to know the people of the St. John’s Parish family.
Through them, I came to know some of the heart of “official Washington.”
Like many urban parishes, St. John’s had all sorts and conditions of folk.
But, like All Saints Church—most who attended regularly were persons of profession stature–educators, medical professionals, corporate executives, investors and the like.
Unlike our own parish family, it had its share of DC public officials.
Upon my arrival at St. John’s Church–I remember a conversation with a White House staffer, a brilliant and caring lady named Jan.
“Please remember one thing about ministry here,” she told me; “you will be working among the most lonely persons in the world; persons who find it so difficult to trust; persons who fear for their sense of self every day; on the outside there is a lot of bravado; on the inside—many a tender soul; never forget that.”
And I remember walking through Lafayette Park with another St. John’s Parishioner, a cabinet member of a former administration—known for his compassionate public policy—a man named John.
We passed a homeless man hold a sign; John stopped; he turned around—looked.
He said, “I have to confess when I see one of those guys—I want to turn the other way; I can help them with law and policy; but I have a hard time even looking them in the eye; they scare me to death; there is not a day I fear that I may be like that; not a day.”
So–I learned to ask a question about the 25th Chapter of Matthew—that momentous passage heard this morning that closes the ministry of Jesus before his passion, closes our season of Pentecost, and serves as our bridge into Advent.
It was Not a question I asked before I had the experience of serving BOTH powerless of Washington DC AND the powerful.
It is question which might help to bridge that great divide–A chasm, as we gather this morning—that is literally taring our nation and church apart.
The question is this: What if you—are the Christ of the Breadlines? What if I am that Christ? What if WE are those coming through the doors of the Sojourners Neighborhood Center?
What if Mary Glover said to you—to me: “You are coming through that line today?” What if you are the Christ needing food? What if I am the Christ needing water? What if you are the Christ incarcerated?
What if You; what if I; am the crucified and vulnerable Christ—begging for help?
NOT the helper; but the Christ in need of help.
Yes, of course Matthew 25 completely reverses the logic of this world; the way we treat the least of these will be regarded as the way we treat him.
What if you and I are the least? Can we go there?
Or do you run from your vulnerability and imperfection–and treat such with the revulsion of hell?
There is a style of prayer used by St. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits; it is called Active Imagination; usually we practice this style of prayer using the Scriptures; we imagine ourselves with Jesus; we place ourselves into the scenes.
I want you to practice Ignatian prayer with me this morning using your life as a text for reflection.
So, let’s get real; and let’s bring “this home.” Can you imagine yourself as a parent of a child with chronic illness—and no health insurance to treat it?
Can you imagine yourself as a young college student, who came to this country as a child because your parents did not want you to die from guns and gangs—and now at risk for deportation?
Can you imagine yourself at Social Services of Mercer County applying for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families because you could not pay rent or buy good?
Can you—for goodness sake, imagine yourself at the HomeFront Family Shelter because your partner beat you in front of your children—and then beat them too? Those abused women and children are the guests we served over two weeks last month; when we built our Pergola and Meditation area. Those folk are among the most marginalized and at risk in our nation.
Can you imagine yourself at WomanSpace because your partner unleashed a torrent of emotional abuse to you day in and day out—to the point of your thinking about taking your life?
Can you imagine yourself in the shopping line at MacCaffrey’s using Food Stamps while others behind you looked on-often with suspicion and unfriendly expressions?
Can you imagine yourself in the Winners circle—our 12 Step Group—because you realized that you were about to lose everything to Alcohol; to Percocet; to Heroin?
Can you imagine yourself at Princeton House, at Carrier Clinic, because your life is out of control; and you are so angry you want life to end?
I know how you might imagine yourself; as you might imagine those above; weak; “milking” the system; responsible; doing something wrong; at fault; screwing up.
But can you imagine yourself in these questions as Christ?
For–Christ was weak; Christ was a failure in this world; Christ was alone; Christ was abandoned; Christ was angry; Christ was depressed. Christ was a refugee.
Dear Friends—I think Carl Jung was so right; though not a Christian, Dr. Jung knew the spirit of Christ; for Carl Jung always taught that the shadow we see in others is only the shadow we reject in ourselves.
In truth we might not reject the vulnerable out of pride or meanness.
Those at risk just scare the hell out of us.
Do you want a good spiritual challenge from your Rector as enter this season of Advent?
Find a good Spiritual Director; find a good soul-guide; or for goodness sake if necessary—find a good Therapist.
Or simply—find some quiet time for reflection and prayer—Ignatian or otherwise.
Then use this sacred space to deal with everything in you which shuts Christ out; which keeps Christ’s incarnation from taking hold in you; which keeps Christ’s being, promise and love from being yours; Which keeps Christ’s birth of love from arising in you.
Imagine every shame you can in your life; the imagine Christ entering it carrying it.
Imagine yourself in that bread line, arms outstretched, needing to be fed– with Mary Glover saying to YOU—“Christ is coming through that line—help us to treat YOU well.”
Treat All of you well—my sisters and brothers in Christ; Christ loves and lives in ALL (!) of you;
No matter how at risk, no matter how vulnerable; no matter how in need; no matter how poor; no matter how much you have screwed up; no matter what brings you to the bread line to be feed by as in Task or a Family Shelter—Christ is in you.
You must not only know it but live it; you must live as if your life depends on it; as if other lives depend on it; because they do.
Sadly, we live in a world growing in contempt, hostility and fear of the weak, the vulnerable, those at risk; this contempt is rooted in fear of weakness and vulnerability.
Thus, we risk contempt of the very women and children of a family shelter we spent countless hours serving—building a space of peace, inclusion and dignity.
Do we want see them-the guest of the HomeFront Family Center as Christ?
Then find the vulnerable, at risk Christ in your own soul—the Christ of the Breadlines; the Christ of the Shelters; the Christ of the Cross.
For in truth YOU may be coming through that Line today.
In the hope that others may treat you well.
A sermon preached on All Saints’ Sunday, November 5, 2017 in All Saints’ Episcopal Church on Matthew 5:1-12, and on the occasion of the Baptism of Roland Patterson by the Rev. Hugh E. Brown, III, D. Min, MSW, LSW, Rector
It is often said that the personal is the most political; we might also say that the personal is the most theological.
That was Martin Luther’s great insight—right? Was that not the great religious and Christian revolution we observed this past All Hallows Eve with the memory of Luther’s Thesis—nailed to the Wittenberg Door?
That, when all is said and done—Christ is personal; Christ is for you; Christ is for me; by name; with grace; in love.
I talked to my Mom late last week; it has been over a year since my Dad died; it could talk about All Saint’s Sunday by talking about my Dad; by speaking of the way he lived.
On one level, to be a Saint is to live as if those lovely and terrifying words of Jesus in Matthew Chapter 5 were commandments of Christ for an exemplary life.
I could talk about my Father as an Administrator for the Roanoke Public Schools in the years of desegregation and busing to achieve racial inclusion; I could talk about the ways that, although a conservative gentleman opposed by nature to sudden social change—he did everything in his power to support the welcome of students of all races and cultures in the public school system.
And I could talk about the man who took time from a busy professional schedule to serve as a Pack-master for my Scout Troop; and to help his son with a science project for the school fair. “It works doesn’t it?”—the judge said as she looked at my attempt to construct the workings of the inner ear.
Yes it did; and only because Dad knew a few things about mechanics; and took some time with his son. What did M. Scott Peck once say—the Art of Love is really about the art of “Paying Attention?”
You see—perhaps that is what might be most terrifying about being a Saint. It is possible; for you and for me.
The novelist Graham Greene, like the short wrote artist, Flannery O’Connor, writes with a prophetic edge around themes of grace and faith; in his work, The Power and the Glory, he writes about a priest; lost in the wastelands of selfishness and laziness. He has been caught by the Revolutionary Mexican government and is about to be executed.
Graham writes, “Tears poured down is face. He was not at the moment, afraid of damnation—even the fear of pain was in the background. He felt only an immense disappointment because he had to go to God empty-handed—with nothing done at all. “
“It seemed to him at that movement that it would have been quite easy to have been a saint. It would have needed only a little self-restraint and a little courage. He felt like someone who has missed happiness by seconds at the appointed place; he knew that, in the end, there was one thing that counted—to be a Saint.”
As Frederick Buechner once noted in his remarkable sermon, To Be a Saint: “To be a Saint is to live with a courage and self-restraint; but it is more than that.”
“To be a Saint is to live, not with hands clenched to grasp, to strike, to hold tight to a life that is always slipping away the more tightly we hold it; but it is to live with the hands stretched out to give and receive with gladness.”
But, as the New Testament scholar, Douglas Hare points out, the Beatitudes of Matthew are not just entrance requirements for the Kingdom of Heaven, imperatives demanding obedient action.
The Beatitudes are also God’s promises, albeit in paradox.
“Blessed are the Poor in Spirit.”
“Blessed are those who Mourn, for they shall see God.”
When I spoke with my mother last week; she talked about the good days and the bad days. Over a year later—still some very bad days; more than likely, always, some very bad days.
I asked her how she did it; how she continued to go on—when the days were very bad; when living was hard; when all she wanted was to go home and be with Dad. When the house felt so empty; when the void was to vast.
She told me that she really had not known her God until these past two years; oh she knew God; as a good Episcopalian—through the Prayer Book, the Liturgy, the Sacraments; good works.
But she told me that it is only now, when, without God she can live another day—sometimes—she now knows God; how good God was to her; how much he loved her; how real God was. She told me how much Forward Day by Day meant to her; how she prays; when things get really bad; she prays that God will give her another day—for her children; for her grandchildren—if not for her.
Yes, the personal is the theological and the spiritual.
An anonymous write for Forward Day by Day wrote this for All Saint’s Day: “To be a parent means being exhilarated and terrified and ecstatic right along with my children; my life is bound to theirs at the heart.”
“This is why I find it so astonishing that God decided to make each of us a child of God. Multiply my own sense of connection to my children by a gazillion and I have a dim sense of God’s tender vulnerability to and engagement with each one of us. Our lives are bound to God’s—at the heart.”
That is what my Father Lived; what my Mother discovered in grief, and in loss.
What, no doubt, each and every one of us discover– who wrestle and struggle with the sorrows and joys life–Our lives are bound to God’s heart.
Yes, it is easy to be Saint—when we know that—and live that.
All our lives are bound to God’s heart; yours; mine; your neighbor’s—all neighbors—whether American, Syrian, Salvadoran, Nigerian—New Jerseyan or Virginian.
This Morning—our friend and brother Roland Patterson will be making the personal-theological and spiritual.
In a few minutes Roland will be asked, “Do YOU desires to be Baptized?”
“Do YOU Accept Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior?” Do YOU put your whole trust in his grace and love.” “Do You promise to follow and obey him as your Lord.”
I do cherish the Episcopal Church’s welcome for Children in the Sacrament of Baptism with the powerful symbolic witness of the welcome all—unconditionally—before we can decide anything.
But the Baptism of an Adult—marks the momentous promise—and challenge for Christians on All Saint’s Day.
We are challenged, continually, throughout our lives to make the personal the theological and the spiritual.
We are challenged to know Christ as my Mom—as all who live by grace—know Christ—by grace; for us; with us; in us; around us; Christ within me; Christ beside me; Christ around me; Christ Before me; Christ in Friend; Christ in Stranger.
But we are given the terrifying and amazing promise; the promise you will hear bestowed upon Roland in a few moments: “You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism—and marked as Christ’s own—forever.”
Yes, our Lives are bound to God’s—at the heart.
A sermon preached on October 29th, 2017, in All Saints’ Episcopal Church, Princeton, NJ, by Emilee Snyder, Seminarian Intern
When did you first learn what love was? Do you remember how you learned to love without any conditions or qualifications? When did you learn that love didn’t depend on how you felt, or how well someone else performed, or how well a child behaved. Just think about that. What was it that taught you what it meant to give love without condition or calculation?
Now I’m not asking when you first learned to be nice, when you were first taught not to steal the other kids’ toys or to wait your turn in line. When did you learn to love unconditionally, selflessly, wholeheartedly?
For me, growing up, I was the… energetic child. Most families have ‘em, you all know this. I was the typical rambunctious, attention-seeking, mess-making middle child. I would impulsively do exactly what my parents told me not to do and occasionally, when I was feeling really brave, I’d blame it all on my older sister. When I was around 5, I accidentally sat on a pair of sunglasses and I came sprinting to my parents with the broken sunglasses and accused my sister of snatching the sunglasses off my face and snapping them. This was, of course, much to my parents very appropriate disbelief. And so I’d go to my room ashamed, and then after a while I’d poke my head out and then run back in. And I’d do the same thing a few times over until I heard my parents say, We see you, Emilee. You can come out. We still love you. And I’d be embraced by both my parents – and usually my older sister too. Without fail. Time and time and time again.
My sunglasses incident is one of those priceless stories that’s lived on in my family and always gets brought up with a good laugh. But for me, what I remember the most is the love that welcomed me after the fact.
And I imagine you all probably have similar stories – stories of learning to love by your own experience being loved. Maybe from your parents, maybe your grandparents, maybe your siblings, maybe your spouse. Likely, a combination of many. What I’m saying is, it’s not just something you pick up one day. To offer love presupposes being loved.
Now, as self-evident as this principle may be, I find it helpful as we look at the Great Commandment to love God with all that we are, and to love our neighbor as ourselves.
In the moment of Jesus’ interaction with the Pharisees, of course, lots more is going on. The Pharisees are challenging Jesus, tempting him to prioritize one commandment at the expense of all the others. Now, the Law of Moses had 613 commandments. Surely, they thought, we’ll be able to catch him disregarding the other 612. Matthew tells us it’s a lawyer approaching Jesus, most likely an expert in Rabbinic law. They know what they’re doing. And so the lawyer, seeking to test Jesus, asks strategically, 3“Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” Prior to this question, Jesus was challenged about paying taxes. And then tested about the resurrection. His opponents are trying to catch Jesus in a bind.
But Jesus resolves it well.
“‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ 38 That, he tells us, is the greatest and first commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 He adds, that it is on these two commandments that hang all the law and the prophets.” That’s the key: all of the law and all of the prophets hinge on this. So, Jesus isn’t negating all of the Torah. He isn’t dismissing the Law and he’s avoided undermining one over the other.
Jesus is telling us, everything hinges on love. Laws and commandments drive us toward deeper love of God and neighbor. This is what the Prophets are after. This is what the Law depends on. It all hinges on love.
But there’s more. The Great Commandment says just as much about God as it does us.
We learn to love by being loved, right?
We know what it means to love God only because of God’s love for us. Because of the way God has created the world in love, sustained Israel, offered His Son, and pursued us with unrelenting grace. We can only love our neighbor unconditionally by first realizing the unconditional lengths for which God has gone for us. How are we to bestow this same love back to God and to others if we haven’t first stopped and allowed ourselves to be captivated by the love from God?
Do you see this? The Great Commandment – it’s just as much the Greatest Promise. The Great Assurance.
Now, I want to stop and say… It’s pretty easy to hear this. It’s easy to say this. It might even be easy to share it. But the most important question is, do you believe it? Do you trust it? Does your heart and your spirit and your life testify to an unconditional love from God?
Today, as a Christian community, we are celebrating a pretty momentous person – we’re recognizing the legacy of Martin Luther.
He had similar questions and concerns. On the outside, there was the preaching of God’s love, there was the promise of grace, but on the inside – beneath the words – as Luther saw it, were desperate human attempts to earn God’s love.
500 years ago this week, Luther infamously nailed his 95 Theses on a Wittenburg Church. A couple words kept coming up: indulgences. Works. Grace. Gospel.
Now, here’s my 2 minute rundown of these Theses – here’s what you need to know. In Luther’s time, repentant Christians could, for more or less, offer financial contributions to the papacy – these were known as indulgences. And they were for the purpose of lessening a loved one’s time in purgatory – this was the space a purification after one died and before they entered the fullness of all God’s glory. Indulgences originally were intended for this purpose alone. And Luther’s not objecting to this. They were a classic and key part of a rich medieval Catholic tradition.
But here’s what happened: overtime, as Luther saw it and experienced himself, there was a lot of fuzziness regarding these financial contributions. In intent, of course, they were going toward reducing a loved one’s time in this in-between space. That’s the hope. But it was far too easy to blur the line… Were they really going toward reducing a lost loved one’s time in purgatory? Or maybe are they actually going toward assuring me of my own salvation?
You can see why this slight confusion made quite a big difference. You can’t buy your salvation, Luther protested. God’s love can’t be purchased or earned. And here’s why it really mattered to Luther. Beneath this practice, beneath the confusion, was lurking distrust of the God who loves unconditionally.
Luther’s war cry from the beginning was – where can I find a just God? What must I do to be righteous? How can I be assured of God’s love?
He was plagued by religious anxiety and he saw it in those around him, as well. God was angry and uninviting, impossible to please. God’s grace felt remarkably hard to come by. Luther’s home life was steeped in constant religious superstition. Salvation was a daily battle. It was always in jeopardy. And it always stood on shifting waters.
Where can I possibly find a God of love, he pleaded.
When I was first exposed to Luther, this was the war cry of my own heart. I wasn’t trying to buy my own salvation necessarily, but the same fear haunted me: what more must I do to receive the love of God? Yes, I know God loves me, but… but have I done enough? Have I prayed hard enough today? Have I loved well enough this week? God’s love was on the other side of my own achievement. His grace was dependent on my doings.
Eventually, Luther had a breakthrough. The Gospel – it’s not about us. It starts with God. We can’t earn that love. We can’t achieve it. All we can do is receive. And then we can achieve. And then we can return love towards God and love towards neighbor. And that’s when we can fulfill the Great Commandment. But it’s a received love first.
As I was preparing this message, I was shared a little gem of insight, I think it gets to Luther’s point exactly. Our word for believe in English, it comes from the German word belieben. But it German, it doesn’t simply mean ‘to believe’ with our brains. It means ‘to hold dear.’ ‘To cherish.’ Almost ‘to love.’ It’s about believing something so much and deeply that we cling to it with gladness.
I will never forget sitting in my Reformation History class and hearing the struggle and the breakthrough of Martin Luther. Because, for the first time, I believed that love. I trusted it. I clung to it.
I think Luther would ask us all today – do you believe in this love? Do you trust it? Because this is the love that makes possible all other loves. And this is a love you can believe in.
A sermon preached on the Feast of St. Francis, observed, October 1, 2017, in All Saints’ Episcopal Church, Princeton, NJ, by the Rev. Hugh E. Brown, III, D. Min, Rector
“For I am gentle and lowly in heart; and you will find rest for you souls.”
Jellicles Do, And Jellicles Can
The Franciscan monk and poet Murray Bodo once wrote the following verse in a work he entitled, The Descent of Mount Subasio:
It is beginning to cloud
Over Mount Subasio and
Two vague birds are flying
Past my window and the
Chickens in the yard above
Are cackling their prophecy
Before the silence of rain falls
And solitude begins.
I hear the wind
Under the door
And the dog
Barking in the yard
With childhood ghosts
This time, and place removed
Always in Assisi,
You are looking up
(But) the mountain was always below the surface
Of the mesa, and ascent
Was descent into dream.
The Mountain is below the surface; Ascent was and is descent.
Francis of Assisi, born in 1182, not only taught, but lived the paradox of assent to the life of God through descent into the depths of creation. And not only the to those things which appeal to us; but to those things which repel us.
Perhaps the literary artist Henry Miller best captures the paradox of discovering that the mountain is actually below the surface.
Who could feel sorry for St. Francis because he threw away his clothes and took the vow of poverty? He was the first man on record, I imagine who asked for stones instead of bread. Living on the refuse which others threw away he acquired the strength to accomplish miracles, to inspire joy such as few men have given the world; the Canticle of the Sun captures his spirit; let us go and let be! Being is burning; in the truest sense, and if there is to be any peace it will come through being, not having.
St. Francis found Christ in the beggars and the lepers outside the walls of Assisi.
For those of us who are not called to the radical way of a life of poverty embraced by Francis—and not everyone is or can be—how might we not only find, but live—the Mountain below the surface, the peace which comes through being and not having?
For the Francis believed that all could become Saints; all could find the God of Sinai; the God of the Trinity; the Resurrection of Christ.
How? Francis, according the Murray Bodo, believes and tells his brothers that we don’t become saints because we fail to overcome sin; but that we are unwilling to overcome shame.
Overcoming Shame, for Francis is a willingness to embrace that which we mistakenly believe is unworthy, or unclean, or insignificant, whether it be in ourselves or others—from the woman living on disability, the child with autism who finds meaning in bagging groceries, the mentally handicapped man at MccAffrey’s who gives the joy of Francis, when, in broken and disorganized speech, provides a huge smile and insists on taking your cart.
For St. Francis it is the insignificant, that truly reveals the Mountain of God.
That marvelous Anglican poet and Cat lover–T. S. Eliot–imagined as the heavenly choir of the good Lord-as a Community of Cats dancing at the Jellicle Ball in his work, Old Possums Book of Practical Cats.
Can you sing at the same time in the manner of a king?
Duets by Rossini, and Waltzes by Straus,
Jellicle cats are queen of the nights
Singing at Astronomical Heights
Handling pieces of the Messiah
Hallelujah Angelic Choir
Jellicles do and Jellicles can.
On this day of Animal Blessing at All Saint’s Church in honor of Francis—when as Francis did in the Canticle of the Sun–uniting the four elements of the universe reconciling—we unite Cats and Dogs and all creatures in the peaceable kingdom.
Today, indeed, I invite you to the great vision of Franciscan spirituality—embracing the good outside the walls—through the windows—resurrection and joy in cross and suffering—within the insignificant.
The Thursday before last—upon entering the Breezeway Front door—a teacher in our Preschool came running up to me: I have a question—do you know where they came from?
And I looked out the back Breezeway doors into the Butler Courtyard; beyond all the laughing, enraptured children, behind the glass door—eyes transfixed—at a true Jellicle Ball; five beautiful black kitties—young—perhaps six weeks old.
They were running; playing; one hiding; drinking the milk the children and teachers had put out for them; they were found in our kitchen.
Someone had found a way into the church and left them? Why here? Why All Saint’s Church.
Or, did Someone else bring those beautiful animals to a place of sanctuary and mercy? Did it have something to do with the Mountain below the surface and the Canticle of the Sun?
Because I know you might be wondering and thinking to “the end game,” I will tell you, yes, all five of those lovely black kitties, our “Jellicles” were adopted by families of our Princeton Learning Co-op.
But I will also share something else too; those insignificant little beings brought out the best of all who cared and yes, loved them that do; for those who went to Concord Pet and got them some good food; to those who went to Maccaffrey’s and got them litter (speaking of the God of Francis embracing all things!); to Jocelyn Colao, our Parish Administrator who at one point had two of them curled up on her desk-and three of them together, huddling and embracing each other in her chair.
There was a sense of true holiness that day; a sense of wistfulness when they departed.
The writer Ann Lamott, a Franciscan in very sense of that word, in her new book, Hallelujah Anyway: Rediscovering Mercy writes, “I’m not sure I even recognize the ever-presence of mercy anymore, the divine and the human; the messy, crippled, transforming, heartbreaking lovely, devastating presence of mercy; But I have come to believe that I am starving for it—and my world is too.
Francis knew that was the intersection between divine and human, Father, Son and Holy Spirit and World—the need not only to receive—but to bestow mercy.
I think we all—all who cared for those lost, lonely and frightened little cats—learned anew—that our hearts indeed flow to the mercy of God—and yes, without a life of mercy—attuned to the insignificant—we spiritually and physically starve.
I also recognized this Franciscan paradox of the Divine in the Insignificant-in a recent NY Times article by Nicholas Kristof entitled, How to Win the War on Drugs.
On a broken-down set of steps, a 37-year-old fisherman named Mario mixed heroin and cocaine and carefully prepared a hypodermic needle. “It’s hard to find a vein,” he said, but he finally found one in his forearm and injected himself with the brown liquid. Blood trickled from his arm and pooled on the step, but he was oblivious.
“Are you O.K.?” Rita Lopes, a psychologist working for an outreach program called Crescer, asked him. “You’re not taking too much?” Lopes monitors Portuguese heroin users like Mario, gently encourages them to try to quit and gives them clean hypodermics to prevent the spread of AIDS.
Decades ago, the United States and Portugal both struggled with illicit drugs and took decisive action — in diametrically opposite directions. The U.S. cracked down vigorously, spending billions of dollars incarcerating drug users. In contrast, Portugal undertook a monumental experiment: It decriminalized the use of all drugs in 2001, even heroin and cocaine, and unleashed a major public health campaign to tackle addiction. Ever since in Portugal, drug addiction has been treated more as a medical challenge than as a criminal justice issue.
After more than 15 years, it’s clear which approach worked better. The United States drug policy failed spectacularly, with about as many Americans dying last year of overdoses — around 64,000 — as were killed in the Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq Wars combined.
In contrast, Portugal may be winning the war on drugs — by ending it. Today, the Health Ministry estimates that only about 25,000 Portuguese use heroin, down from 100,000 when the policy began.
The number of Portuguese dying from overdoses plunged more than 85 percent before rising a bit in the aftermath of the European economic crisis of recent years.
Even so, Portugal’s drug mortality rate is the lowest in Western Europe — one-tenth the rate of Britain or Denmark — and about one-fiftieth the latest number for the U.S.
The reason we do not become saints, according to Francis, is not that we fail to overcome sin; but that we do not overcome shame.
This is the violence that prevents mercy.
Embracing the insignificant and lost-extends mercy.
Anne Lamott opens her book Hallelujah Anyway: Rediscovering Mercy with a very Franciscan poem by Naomi Shihab Nye; it is entitled Famous. It reads in part:
The river is famous to the fish.
The tear is famous, briefly to the cheek.
I want to be famous to shuffling men
Who smile while crossing streets,
Sticky children in grocery lines,
Famous as the one who smiled back.
I want to be famous in the way a pulley is famous,
Or a buttonhole, not because it did anything
But because it never forgot what it could do.
“For I am lowly in heart; and you will find rest for your souls.”
My friends in Christ; That we can do. Jesus knew that; Francis knew that.
For Jellicles Do; and Jellicles Can.
A sermon preached by the Rev. Hugh E. Brown, III, D. Min., Rector, All Saints’ Episcopal Church, Princeton, NJ on September 24th, Year, A, Proper 20, Matthew 20: 1-16
“Why are you envious because I am generous?”
Not what you deserve……but Need……
The City Council of Herndon, Virginia had a problem; it was the year 2005, and many day-laborers, many of the Latino and Latina, were congregating on street corners and shopping parking lot areas; they were waiting for work.
Local employers would send their representatives to get them, pick them, and take them to places of employment; many were undocumented.
The Council was concerned for the laborers; many were victims of unfair employment practices (Princeton has some laws to combat this in our community!). But they were also heedful of complaints from motorists around matters of safety. Traffic congestion might provoke an accident waiting to happen.
But, the Council was also facing what is now a virulent conversation in this nation over immigration policy; simply put, many Herndon residents resented the presence of those who were violating our immigration laws.
The Herndon City Council, as a suburb of DC and in a relatively progressive area, eventually did pass ordinances making things safer and most just for the day laborers to live and work in Herndon.
But we might disagree with that decision; and the point of the opening illustration for this sermon is not to take policy sides in the immigration debates.
The illustration speaks to a context truth of the story you just heard in our Gospel reading from Matthew; it is one of the most controversial Jesus ever uttered.
It is about treatment of day laborers yesterday and today.
But it is about something more—the great Christian notion of unmerited grace; as you know by now, my own hermeneutic, or method of interpretation places less emphasis on heaven and more on earth.
It places less priority to eternal salvation and more priority to Christian discipleship and life—particularly to our social relationships and social witness.
I need to make that clear from the outset—or we will be talking past each other.
I bring to stories like this—the heart, not such much of a theologian, but a pastor; not so much as a church worker but as a social worker.
So, speaking of interpretation as social context—let’s look, first at the social world of Jesus for this story.
The story describes the social world of Jesus as a parable, not an allegory.
Let’s just go there first; parables are not allegories; the parables of Jesus attempt to both deconstruct and construct our world view; they shake us up with a provocative message; they do not necessarily give answers but questions.
In allegories, characters stand for certain meanings or symbols.
If we treat the Gospel story just read as an allegory—perhaps we might see the Landowner as God, the laborers hired first are the opponents of Jesus—namely the Jews; the laborers hired last are the true believers—Christians who will inherit the Kingdom. Somewhat anti-Jewish is it not?
But if we treat the story as a parable—challenging dominant cultural narratives—with new visions of what the world can be under God’s reign—we deal with the social reality of Jesus; his world was radically divided into haves and have nots.
The Boss was definitely one of the haves; the laborers are some of thee “least’—those “nickled and dimed” to use the words of Barbara Ehrenreich-the share-croppers, migrant farm workers, and laborers, who, frankly, do much of the lawn and manual work in our nation today.
The world described in today’s story from Jesus is a harsh world for workers; it still is. It is a world of winners and losers.
A world of extreme class division; today, we would use the phrase, income inequality; like today such is also mixed with culture, race and gender for a truly toxic brew.
I was participated in a Bible Study with a group of Christians in Washington DC called the Sojourners community–who intentionally worked for more just conditions for the poorest citizens.
One member of the Bible Study—a Poet, told the story of being asked by a homeless man for change when she was getting out to get gas for her care in an urban station.
It suddenly occurred to he: “I am in the position to make a choice for this man; I realized, regardless of his situation—I had, in that moment, financial power over him. Is this a world any of us want to live in?”
First and foremost—I think Jesus would ask us in this parable—is such the world we want to live in? Where vulnerable and poor people congregate on street corners looking for what is often low-paid labor and at risk-working conditions?
Now—we Americans might come back—well—it’s a lot worse in other places! We have democracy and prosperity—and a shot at a better life?
Really? I spoke with an Priest of this Diocese, a Rector of an urban church—who, for much of his ministry in the US—worked in the Mississippi Delta.
He has been an advocate for single mothers, at-risk children in abusive situations, addicts—those living with AIDS/HIV.
He spent the bulk of his life in Africa—in Uganda; he told me that the poverty in the United States—as well as our lack of opportunity for so many of our citizens—was much worse than he experienced in the developing world!
Let’s keep the social injustice in the context of Jesus—and our own context, in mind for the story of the Day Laborers in Matthew’s Gospel.
Let’s now move to the message—or at least one interpretation of it; you may have another.
Was this Employer or Boss being “unfair.” Was he actually being cruel? What in the world does the Employer, and through his voice, Jesus, mean when he says, “are you envious because I am generous?”
Such is enshrined in the phrase, “You get what you deserve.”
In our American culture, we have such a mixed legacy in helping the poor; even Christian do.
We often live by that phrase; and another one, “God helps those who help themselves.” Thus, we link generosity to those who are deserving; who work; who help themselves. Is this really Christian?
I’m not sure Peter could help himself when he betrayed Jesus; I’m not sure a little girl could help herself when Jesus healed her; a blind man could help himself when Jesus restored his sight.
The other day, I was in a store in the check-out line and some folks in front of me where talking about bankruptcy law—and legislation—passed in the last few years, making it harder for folks to deal with their debt.
The store clerk happened to overhear the conversation and gently reminded those folk that 70 percent of persons filing for bankruptcy actually have chronic health issues and can’t pay medical bills.
Many, too, have medical insurance of some kind. She then described her own struggle to pay her medical bills when a cancer diagnosis hit her.
One the guys in the line—came back with: “We all pay our dues and you pay yours and I pay mine and we call get what we deserve.”
And she asked him, “And I get what I deserved?” “You must have done something to get sick! Everything happens to us we can control!”
No we can’t—Control everything.
In this vein, I think of the NYT writer Nicholas Kristof—a practicing Catholic Christian; he wrote a scathing article —“Something are beyond our choices,” in response to a national value system that seems to equate social compassion with merit.
Some things are beyond our choices; we are all responsible for one another—not just ourselves; and not just our families but for all persons.
Perhaps Jesus knew that the story of a boss overturning all presumptions of merit and “desert” can question the brutality of the phrase, “We call get what we deserve.”
No this boss did not behave fairly according to the rules of “you get what you deserve.’ He was not fair; he was just.
According to Jesus—justice is not about what folks deserve.
It is about what they need.
Jesus is talking—not about politics-nor even about ethics here.
He is giving us an alternative spirituality; Jesus places restored human relationships and restored human well-being over who gets what and who deserves what.
For let’s be real; any human community—any human relationship—can not exist in a strict—fairness based system; human relationships exist where there is grace, generosity, forgiveness and yes, vulnerability and need.
Marriages can not exist where spouses only get what they deserve; no marriage can last a day without grace and mercy.
At least no real marriage can. Churches can’t exist when persons only think about reward and merit. Nations can’t exist where only strict deserving-based justice reigns and human need ignored.
Some find it really hard to live in a world where God places need above fairness—or at least transforms fairness with need and compassion.
Les Miserable had the character of the virtuous, Godly and utterly fair police Captain Javier—choosing to end his life rather than be forgiven by his enemy.
Amadeus gave us the character of Salieri, who lost his integrity, and finally his mind, because he could not understand how God could gift a genius like Mozart—a nave and libertine, over his own righteousness and virtue.
The parable leaves us a question—will even the oppressed and abused—accept a world of compassion and grace? The Day Laborers in this story are complaining about a world of mercy—a world of unlimited generosity.
I did not finish the story of my colleague and poet friend from Sojourners. She refused his request for change; she knew him; she knew he would use, or so she thought—the money for the booze that impaired his life.
She offered, as always, her help to get him into treatment; she wanted to be ‘fair’ to him. She said she just knew what was best for him. She said later she was in a hurry—and she had forgotten that Jesus commanded we give to the poor—without asking anything from them; without any conditions.
In any case, she got into her car—after getting her gas. He came up to her again. “Oh no!” she said to herself. He just wants to keep begging. So she started to find her purse for some change after all.
Then she looked at him again; he handed her a sandwich. His sandwich.
He had been able to attain change from someone else; he wanted to do something to thank her; she realized that had been his intent all along; he needed the money to buy her something—to show gratitude—to build a world of mercy.
He later did indeed seek treatment for his alcoholism at a local Salvation Army program. He now serves on staff there.
He and Rose often tell this story to challenge stereotypes of homelessness and addiction.
But they also tell it to show what God intends the world to be—a place of limitless mercy—respect for human dignity—and a spirituality of mutual care.
You get what you deserve.
No, thank God—in Her World—you Get what you Need.
And perhaps, surprised by Joy, Generosity and Grace as well.
A sermon preached in All Saints’ Episcopal Church, Princeton, NJ by the Rev. Hugh E. Brown, III, D. Min., on Matthew 18: 15-20, Year A, Proper 18 on September 10, 2017, the 14th Sunday After Pentecost
“If a member listens to you, you have regained that one.”
I want to talk to you this morning about an idea called Restorative Justice; you might have heard about this concept from the realms of public policy and the media.
But the idea is actually rooted in the scriptures of the Jewish and Christian faith; in many other traditions as well.
Restorative Justice: What does it look like?
The following story is not from a Church context: but from a public school in the United States; for we often find God moving– in our schools and other areas of public life.
A freshman named “Hope” left her cell-phone unattended at Pittsfield Middle School; her classmate, “Brandon,” saw his chance for a little fun.
He grabbed the device. Off a windowsill in their Spanish class. He then proceeded to send very angry and rather hateful text messages to people in her contact list.
Her mother received such a message-and she lived in another state after her parent’s bitter divorce. Their relationship had been strained for many months; you can imagine how upset her mom was.
And her Dad?
In the following days—the school could have done the usual and simply disciplined Brandon with exclusion from classes or suspension—or given Brandon’s history of difficult behavior—expulsion.
Instead, the school–working the principles of restorative justice—offered hope another option—for both Hope and Brandon.
Would she like to take her case to the school’s new justice committee? It would involve a face-to face encounter with Brandon—mediated and supervised with a teacher and 2-3 other students?
To repair as much as possible this whole situation with Brandon.
To come to some reasonability accountability—for both her sake—and her offenders.
Restorative Justice. It focuses on healing and rehabilitation. It contains a strong human rights emphasis. It challenges systems of justice based on simple punishment; it challenges our society’s history of mass incarceration.
It takes account of the victim; not just the offender; it offers the victim the opportunity to hear and offender’ accepting of responsibility; it offers the opportunity for the offender to be incorporated into the larger community.
In our Gospel passage just heard—we hear, in your Rector’s view, a Gospel foundation of Restorative Justice.
We usually hear this passage on so-called Church discipline—read as a “three strikes and you are out directive.”
The purpose is to “discipline” often to punish.
Someone sin against you? Or against the community? Treat them, the offender as a wrongdoer; ultimately a deal-breaker; treat them in a spirit of fear.
Talk to them first—confront them; bring some witnesses to accuse them; then finally get the whole church involved with the possible goal of expelling them from the community.
All of this—note—is a focus on the offender with the goal of retribution or punishment.
But what if the goal of Matthew’s famous directives regarding sin in the church was not about reparation?
What if it was about restoration? About repair? About relationships? About honesty in community?
About ultimately, reconciliation when things get real and face to face regarding hurtful actions Christians can and do to one another for none of us is perfect and all are human.
Let’s look at the context first—the entire Chapter of Matthew 18.
Chapter 18 of Matthew begins with a challenge to power in the community? Who is the greatest? One like a child? Certainly living as a child means humility; but it is more; it is also living in a way which reflects the virtue of equality and dignity; children has little dignity in the days of Jesus. But they did in the eyes of Jesus.
And just before that we hear the Parable of the Lost Sheep in response to the Pharisees complaint that Jesus welcomes and spends far too much time with sinners.
Directly following this passage on Jesus’s “canons” for Church discipline—we hear the great parable of the unmerciful servant—about a manger who received, but could not below, mercy. Then we hear Jesus’s command to Peter to give not 7 times but 77—numbers for infinity in the ancient world.
The message here—Forgiveness is the philosophy and way of life of the new Community of the Holy Spirit.
So what is the ultimate goal of Jesus when we sin against one another?
Right relationship; not punishment.
We need even see the phrase, “treat them like tax collectors and sinner,” in the context of repairing relationships. How did Jesus treat tax collectors and non-Jews? He ministered to them; sought them; helped their family members. He never gave up on them; he never gave up on anyone.
“Can we talk? I’m a little concerned about you; I found your words or actions—painful and hurtful; can we talk?
Such may be some of the most difficult words spoken; in Christian community or otherwise.
What if, first and foremost—our goal in addressing hurtful and sinful behavior was Restorative Justice—repair of relationships; reconciliation.
As discussed in our Bible Study last Sunday—when we are hurt—we are often angry—rightly so.
And while anger is a healthy and legitimate emotion—it is all too often expressed and shared with the intent to hurt back when we are hurt.
What if each of us were spiritually and emotionally healthy and mature enough to be aware of our anger and other inner conflict—so we could reflect–before act? Before we engage in retribution?
I am more and more convinced that each and every Christian should have a therapist or spiritual director; or both. Each and every Christian should have some professional relationship, spiritual relationship or soul friend to journey with God around our inner and emotional life?
Because, without a healthy inner core of Christian values—but not only values, health awareness—we can’t begin to engage with one another with the honest and with the Christian purpose for reconciliation demanded by Jesus through his words in Matthew on this day.
To use Paul’s language in Romans, Christian justice is love; restorative justice is ultimately about love; and love begins with self; with our inner life.
I value Carl Jung’s well known phrase: “We sin our of our unawareness.”
Do you want to engage in the work of Restorative Justice? To practice Justice in love, in community, with truth? With repair?
Take care of your soul; attend to your inner life; seek an intentional relationship where your first question—“Can We Talk?” is a conversation with the God deep within? For my friends-that is where we find God most powerfully always—within the Soul.
Restorative Justice begins with Soul Work—beings with love and justice for your Self.
I must close with one word of about accountability; for that is ultimate the deepest challenge to all I have said here. What happens if you say, “Let’s Talk” and the other says. “No Way.”
Let’s be real; many find issues with accountability in our churches and congregations; look at the reality of scandals related to abuse—and to financial misconduct.
Look at the way women who experienced domestic violence were silenced by pastors and theologies who demanded they “forgive” and “be reconciled” to the abuser even at the cost of safety?
This morning, our reading from Exodus, beyond all questionable theology regarding collective guilt, the punishment of the innocent and the portrait of God—is a clear call to accountability for abuse of power and sin.
Our Jewish sisters and brothers read this text through issues of freedom and liberation. And Freedom has a price; and Oppression has a price.
We bear in mind the existential reality of accountability in matters of abuse power; people get hurt—offenders and abused alike.
But what does accountability look like in justice transformed by love? In the vision of Restorative Justice?
How do we hold one another accountable in a Christian spirt which seeks relationship—not retribution?
Frist, Christians—including me—all too often—seek the nuclear option for retributive justice as a FIRST option—not the last; we do so with the cold shoulder, with avoidance, with shunning and with backstabbing.
We engage in procedures of “discipline” with the goal of following the rules and not honoring relationships and people.
We do so, often out of unawareness, to hurt-not to restore; to act in anger—rather than transform our anger into loving action. I
I think we all do this; you and me; particularly when we lack soul maturity as noted above.
Second—as suggested in a brilliant article by Elaine Ramshaw, Professor of Pastoral Care at Luther Seminary—entitled Power and Forgiveness in Matthew 18—we need to be aware of issues of power in our communities.
In the words of Ramshaw, “We must keep in mind—Jesus’s words about living as a child. Not just child-like in some spiritualized sense. Not to simply live with the virtue of humility. But we need to attend to the literal child whom Jesus has moved from the center of the margins of our attention—to the center.
Issues of Justice through love, with accountability look far different when we keep power dynamics in mind.
Restorative Justice: After hearing from both Hope and Brandon, Pittsfield student mediators asked Hope would she needed to hold Brandon to account for what he did.
She said she wanted Brandon to apologize; her peer mediators asked him to write letters to all he had hurt when using Hope’s phone. He engaged in a face to face apology—in person with Hope’s father; by Skype with Hope’s mother.
Hope also apologize for not being mindful of a school policy to put her cell-phone away during class.
Now both Seniors in High School, they both serve on the Restorative Justice Mediation Committee. While not friends, they respect each other; The speak; the work together. As Brandon said, “When you’re mad at another person, and your walking down the hallway, you don’t want to look at them. When you talk it out-as the Restorative Justice project wants you to do—a real miracle happens; the good relationship you had is restored.”
“The Good Relationship you had is restored.” The Miracle of Jesus. The Miracle of Restorative Justice.
A sermon preached on September 3, 2017 in All Saints’ Episcopal Church, Princeton, NJ by the Rev. Hugh E. Brown, III, D. Min., Rector on Exodus 3:1-25, Year B, Proper 17
“I am There, Wherever I May Be.”
“Where is the Blood of your Sister or Brother Crying for you?” (Pope Francis)
It is said–by so many–that Jorge Mario Bergoglio knows the “smell of the sheep.”
He also knows their blood.
When he was Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Bergoglio would intentionally spend a good deal of time in what were known as the Curias Villeros—the Shantytowns.
One day, the Archbishop was visiting such a parish; he was performing a Baptism with the Priest; while at the altar they both saw a thief fleeing at the door of the shed that is the church. His pursuer grabbed him and began beating his head with the butt of a pistol.
Bergoglio and the Priest immediately placed the newborn back in the arms of his mother; they then ran towards the kid getting his with the weapon. The kid, his head bloodied, was rescued and taken to the local hospital.
A large pool of blood was left at the entrance to the church, “blood infected with AIDS.” Together the Archbishop put out gloves on and began to clean it up.
As the world now knows, Archbishop Bergoglio is now Pope Francis.
Pope Francis said this in the early months of his tenure, “I see clearly that the thing the church needs most is the ability to heal wounds, to warm the hearts of the faithful; it needs nearness and proximity; we must change the imperial church.
“I see the church as a field hospital; it is useless to talk about sin when the people are seriously injured. You have to heal the wounds! Heal the wounds. And you have to start with the ground up.”
We have witnessed this kind of Church practiced by all humanity–regardless of religious affiliation–in the waters of Houston following Hurricane Harvey.
In so many ways from boats to hands and hearts—we see neighbors entering into the smell, blood, tears and lives of their neighbors.
I thought the words of Pope Francis: Nearness and Proximity; we might also say intimacy—as I thought about the story of God and his prophet Moses in Exodus.
There is a rich tapestry of meaning to God’s revelation to Moses in Chapter 3 of Exodus.
But this morning, we focus on a question: Who are You?
That is the question Moses put to God
Strange question; given that God had already revealed much.
This God reminded Moses that he was the God of the Ancestor; the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
But that was not enough for Moses; nor, offered Moses to God—would it be enough for the people.
“Who do I tell the people this God is?”
In response, God utters the name he would like to offer both Moses and the people.
The name consists of the repeated verb, “to be.” The most common translation is that given in the NRSV, read this morning: “I Who I Am.”
Other translations include, “I will be what or who I will be Be.” Or, “I will cause to be what I will cause to be.”
The problem with all those translations is that this strange phrase, “I am who I Am,” is taken to mean—“None of your business.” “You can’t control me.” “Don’t dare name me.” Perhaps summarized in the retort: “None of your Concern!”
But God’s revealed name to Moses is a bit different from a remote, Imperial God whose name is no business of God’s people..
The Old Testament scholar Bervard Child’s translates it as: “I am there, wherever I may be; I am really there.”
The question is more like the Child’s question on the eve of the Passover; it is not a quest for definition but a search for meaning.
“I am there, wherever I may be. I am really there.”
We read this past week of the story of a mother and daughter,
They were found by rescuers in the waters of Houston flooding; the mother had died; the child, though suffering from hypothermia, was still alive; the child said, as only a three year old can—that “mommy was saying her prayers” and that is the last she remembered her mother saying.
“I am wherever I may be.”
Wherever? In prayers answered; or unanswered? In loving suffering? In meaning or meaningless? Or questions.
Not only in natural disaster do we hear this promise—“I am there, wherever I may be.”
AS Moses discovered—we hear it in the cries of slaves and the oppressed, wherever they may be.
We hear it in the cries of a Third Grade teacher—beloved by her students—a so-called “dreamer.”
This teacher came to the US as a child from Latin America; she now teaches all children—of all races and cultures and languages; she is now under the threat of deportation his week. She was asked, “What would you like to tell the President of the United States?”
Through tears, her voice cried out, “Please see my humanity!”
Thus, I offer another interpretation of the words, “I Am who I am”
This from the scholar Terence Fretheim in the Interpretation Commentary on Exodus: “I Will be God for You.”
God is not only who God will be.
God is a God who is faithful—to You!
God is the kind of God who Is.
God is this kind of God: “I have seen; I have heard; I know.”
I quote further the words of Fretheim here: “God knows the sufferings of his people in Egypt; God knows their afflictions.
God is not some distant monarch dealing with issues of his subordinates. God does not look at sufferings through a window. God knows suffering from the inside.”
This is the God who was with Jesus, who suffered on the Cross—right?
This is the God Moses needed to know if he were to take God’s word to Pharaoh; not only the God of his ancestors; but the God who knew them; heard them; saw them; above all, was with them.
Anthea Butler, professor of religious studies at the University of PA wrote a column this week entitled The Cheap Prosperity Gospel.
It described a Church in Houston, known as a “MegaChurch.” This church is known for a message expressed in tweets like this by the pastor during the Hurricane: “God’s got this.” “Don’t drift into doubt and fear.” “Stay anchored to Hope.” Not very many of these tweets offered prayers.
This church remained closed inaccessible because of “flooding.” When confronted by muckraking journalists, the pastor did indeed finally open the church which could shelter 16K people; why didn’t they do so earlier? Response: “The city did not ask us to become a Shelter.”
Sounds like they didn’t “See, Hear, or Know!”
But I was not drawn to the column in judgement of a pastor colleague or his church. What I was drawn to was the underlying image of God and foundational theology underlying the so-called prosperity Gospel.
For Professor Butler argues that the Houston Church’s hesitant response to those suffering from natural disaster is all too often—the response of too many Christians to suffering:
She writes, “Natural disasters like Hurricanes, or economic disasters like Poverty, or personal disasters like addiction are often the worst kind of crises for a theology with this core believe—all too prevalent in Christian circles.
This theology tells us:
“If you think the right things and do the right things—God will reward you. If you don’t, do the right things or think the right things—you will face unemployment, poverty, sickness or death (and hell).”
Many Christians like “winners.” They worship “success.” They want “winning narratives.”
And, unfortunately, they lack compassion for people who are not successful, or winners, or who fail to follow “the rules.” Such persons are not of God but judged by God.
As a Congressman, immersed in the Prosperity Gospel recently said, “people who lead good lives” and are “Godly people” do not have “pre-existing medical conditions.”
As I have said often in response to so-called “orthodox” calls to repentance; I totally believe in the doctrine of repentance and amendment of life; I just don’t want Christian inquisitors to use the doctrine of repentance as a weapon against the poor and the vulnerable and as support for the Pharaohs of the status quo.
As we learned at Princeton House, it is often hard to talk to addicts about change when they have no housing, no food, and no support. And no friends.
Pope Francis prefers very specific destinations: Places of Suffering. He preaches a clear doctrine; To know Christ is to be with the poor; not help; not give; but accompany.
At Assisi, early in his pontificate, he arrived at the Institute for Disabled Children early in the morning, around 7:30AM.
For more than an hour, he caressed, kissed, and hugged a hundred children with multiple disabilities.
As Francis told the director, children and adults marked with disability often “don’t speak; don’t hear; don’t vote.
Hence they are the forgotten people.
The Church’s mission: To bring the Forgotten—the Assurance of the Love of God.
The God of Moses; the God who Sees, Hears and Knows.
Just before leaving, the Pope was stopped by an Autistic Child. The Pope sat down on the floor; his vestments became rumpled; his skullcap fell off.
He gently followed every gesture of this child.
Like many Autistic children, this little boy rocked back and forth and clapped his hands.
The Pope kept following the child’s rhythm.
The Minutes passed. The Pope stayed with the child.
Nearness; Body to Body.
“I am, wherever I am.”
“I will be God—for You.”
“I have seen; I have heard; I will come down.”
Says Pope Francis; God is asking each of us today; above all he is asking the Church: Where is the blood of your sister or brother who cries out to me?
A sermon preached on August 13, 2017, Year A, Proper 14, I Kings 19: 9-18, by the Rev. Hugh E. Brown, III, D. Min, Rector, in All Saints’ Episcopal Church, Princeton, NJ
And after….A sound of sheer silence….
What isn’t there—Has Presence
When you have a health issue come up, a good physician completes two preliminary asks.
First, she or he engages you; she or he might ask about your life and background, your interests, your family, your job.
The point is not to make small talk; it is to build trust; to build an alliance for the purpose of healing; you begin to have confidence in this physician; he or she knows her or his stuff; but she or he also cares about you.
She or he is generally interested in you. In truth, this engagement between physician and patient does not happen as much as it did in the past.
That is too bad; because evidence dictates that one of the most important parts of the healing process is the physician-patient relationship.
Second—a good physician performs an Assessment; not just an Assessment of the physical complaint; but an Assessment of what we might call the bio-social environment.
Where does not he patient live? What are her or his relationships like? What is this history of medication? What is the health background?
You and I often complain of those tedious, sometimes redundant forms we fill out upon our first visit to a new physician; but they are necessary; my Primary Care Physician here in Princeton correctly diagnosed some life-style changes are stress and exercise as the basis for some beginning issues around blood-pressure.
Good medical practice is about preliminary work prior to treatment planning—for everyone’s sake.
What is true for physical health described above is also true for Mental Health.
In my clinical social work training at Princeton House, I found that Engagement and Assessment were critical to any effective work.
If a patient did not trust me—we did not get anywhere.
If the Assessment was not done with care and comprehensiveness, I would miss important parts of what might make for an effective treatment plan.
Over the course of two years at Princeton House working with patient Addiction treatment, I discovered one of the more powerful bits of needed information during an Assessment.
Perhaps data far more powerful than the history of the Addiction; or the clinical data around “how much” and “how often.”
One of the crucial Assessment questions: What gives your life meaning and purpose?
Patients who easily and passionately responded this question often made rapid progress during inpatient treatment.
Patients who had trouble envisioning any kind of life purpose often struggled in treatment.
The noted psychiatrist Victor Frankel survived a Nazi Concentration Camp during the Second World War.
He observed that it was not the most physically or even emotionally strong who survived the trauma of abuse.
But the persons who had some kind of purpose-any purpose—generally did.
And by purpose—I mean devotion; real commitment.
Certainly there were patients I worked with, living with addiction, who spoke of their families, their jobs, their faith—as a kind of purpose.
But they did so half-heartily; or they did so as a kind of crutch.
They wanted to get their job back; or get their family off their back; or get their spouse to take them back; or get the law off their back; or get their children back from Child Protection.
But they did so for the sake of another; or for the sake of care or love. Their focus was exterior directed; not interior directed. And it was often rooted in self-preservation.
But there were other patients whose hearts and imaginations were fired with rededication and recommitment.
You could just sense how much they loved and cared.
Their passion and purpose in life was their family, their faith, their community—their Higher Power as they understood it.
Life Purpose—an essential piece of any Mental Health Assessment. Perhaps any piece of overall health assessment.
That’s what we might take away from our Old Testament lesson from First Kings—the importance of meaningful and purpose.
How important it is for life with God; how important it is for life in general.
Real meaning; real purpose; real devotion; the kind that truly takes you out of this worship service this morning, your heart, imagination, mind, heart and soul on fire with passion, commitment and awe.
Nor for the sake of obedience; not for the sake survival; but for the sake of true salvation—not as escape from some kind of punishment—but for the sake of the core meaning of salvation—Salvus—the Latin Word for Healing.
The Prophet Elijah is not only on the run from Ahab and Jezebel, rulers of Israel who have become symbols of despotic authority and tyranny; he is not only in hiding.
In the words of Old Testament scholar Richard Nelson, he is a broken and disappointed man.
Nelson also points out that while psychological portraits of biblical characters are filled with possible error, the description of Elijah is a good diagnosis of depression.
The person who is depressed sits alone, contemplating the idea of death. Elijah is isolated, self-pitying; he is suffering from great stress. He can see only the darkest side of a situation.
Elijah is a burned out prophet.
The great question and tension of this story; will he continue in his prophetic call? Or give it up?
The good news is that Elijah, like Job, has enough strength left to complain.
How many patients who live with addiction utter the complaint: “I don’t want to live like this anymore.”
But not Elijah’s language: I, I, I—ego driven. “I alone am left.” That actually was not true; as we will learn there was a vigorous, if small, faithful protest remnant in Israel.
And more good news: God heard Elijah’s complaint. And responds.
As a pastor, I’ve never really understood the utility of a “person never complaining.”
We come to physicians with complaints; often addicts have complaints that might overwhelm the average person—legal—medical-family—profession.
And the Old Testament is filled with the great people of God daring to complain. Elijah is not the only one; Abraham; Moses; Jeremiah; Isaiah; Jesus.
And God responded to Elijah.
And more good news. Even God did not get it right—for a while.
God’s goal was to get Elijah out of his funk.
At first it did not work.
He did what we usually think will get someone’s attention; and how God usually got one’s attention—what the scripture scholars call a theophany.
A theophany is a revelation of God in shock and awe; yes, earthquakes (remember the death of Jesus and what happened in Jerusalem), wind (remember Pentecost—the sound of a violent wind) and fire (remember the Burning Bush and Moses)—are all ways the bible describes God’s response to God’s people.
But this time—the pyrotechnics don’t work.
But something finally does—does work—to get Elijah out of his cave-end his isolation, and recommit to his call from God.
It might be translated a number of ways in the original Hebrew: “A still small voice.” “The Soft Whisper of a voice.” “The sound of a gentle breeze.” Or this morning, “A sound of sheer silence.”
We often think of this as the fourth and most powerful language of God here in this story. God is not revealed in the fireworks of nature—but in a quiet word.
As John Greenleaf Whittier wrote in that lovely him: “Speak through the earthquake, wind and fire, O Still small voice of calm.”
But notice something in this text; and this is often why we really need to focus on the text of scripture—not our presuppositions of it—nothing is said about God’s presence in the fourth event.
The fact is that while God is associated with the first three events, nothing is said about God’s presence in the fourth event, one way or the other.
The contrast is not between God’s absence in Earthquake, Wind and Fire—and presence in silence; the contrast is that between theophany and quiet calm.
How does God finally reach Elijah? How does Elijah discover his meaning and purpose—his Call from God?
God seems to get out of the way.
Or better yet; God does not speak.
Yes, God does provide a new commission to Elijah.
But before that—God—just is; God is just present.
Perhaps God leaves from for choice; perhaps even ambiguity.
Looking back at my work with patients at Princeton House, it was often not the theophanies of treatment plans, interventions, dramatic words, and flash techniques that enabled patients to recover their own sense of purpose and commission for life’s call—to recover lie’s meaning.
It was the quiet work of listening; nothing conveys, respect, dignity, grace and commitment than the work of listening.
Even the Lord God had to rediscover that with Elijah.
And you and I need to rediscover it when we are called to attend to family, friends, co-workers, fellow church members—who, like all at times, live with burn-out, depression, and who have lost meaning and purpose.
Our temptation is to use Earthquake, wind and fire—our dramatic words and interventions to talk them out of it.
But no—we find out, like the Lord God—that there is nothing to transform another’s spirit than to get out of the way—and just listen.
The same holds for our national and international life too.
This week, we have witnessed a lot of fire and fury—from all sides of the international order; but not a lot of listening. Not a lot of tending to another’s perspective. Not a lot of respect by attentive presence.
We have witnessed much fire and fury around the great dialogue regarding our nation’s history; how do we honor it? Shape it? Transform it? How might we both honor and change our nation’s heritage?
We often try to silence other perspectives.
Might we try to honor the silence between perspectives—and listen?
Might out nation rediscover and recommit to our values, our call, and our own commission by ceasing the earthquake, wind and fire—ceasing the bluster, threats and coercive power—cease the quest for dominance and silencing over others–and begin to listen again—honoring silence as receptivity—rather than brute force.
And might you—and I—simply—simply get out of the way—as God did perhaps with Elijah?
Get out of the way—and listen.
Thereby offering a transformative space—for another to recover their spirit—meaning and purpose.
For, Margaret Atwood once wrote: What isn’t there has presence…..
Let us pray: (Collect for the Presence of God, p. 832)
A sermon preached on July 23, 2017, Proper 11, on Matthew 13: 24-30, 36-43, the Seventh Sunday after Pentecost, in All Saints’ Episcopal Church by the Rev. Hugh E. Brown, III, D. Min., Rector
“Let both of them Grown Together Until the Harvest.”
It is very easy to divide the world into categories, separating ourselves from others.
It is especially tempting to do so when we think we are right; and other is wrong.
Dividing the world into spheres of good vs. evil, friend vs. threat, angel vs. demon, holy vs. satanic, American vs. “other,” orthodox vs. heretic is seductive because, although such is far from healthy, physically or emotionally—it is certainly safe.
Or at least safe in some of the worst ways—closed, walled-off, guarded.
I have a friend who I find a very peaceful and nurturing compassion—until he begins to talk about recent political events.
Suddenly I observe his body becoming so hard it resembles something brittle and breakable. He is aware of this and is actively working on ways to life with a more open heart.
I talked to friends this week who have closed their Facebook Accounts and do not plan to return to extensive involvement with Social Media.
They have done so because of the incessant argument and conflict—particularly over religious, cultural and political affairs.
Lajos Brons, a Japanese philosophy professor from Nihon University has written about what he calls, “dialectic illiteracy.”
We might understand this as our inexperience I having conversations that embrace and seeming contradiction.
As a result, situations and issues can easily lose the rich diversity and deep complexity that God has created.
According to the weekly witness of the Lutheran-Episcopal Advocacy Ministry of New Jersey, “situations and issues can easily lose the rich diversity and deep complexity that God has created. “
Thus, dialectic illiteracy leads us to engage the world in simple, either-or terms such as good and bad, and link “bad” with “things and people who are different than me and mine.
This morning, we hear Jesus again describing Christian life and discipleship using agricultural imagery.
Last Sunday, we hear him use the image of a farmer scattering seeds as a metaphor for grace, trust and promise for God’s abundance and gifts beyond our understanding.
Today, we hear another story of seeds growing in the land.
Weeds and life-giving Wheat are growing together.
Framers know this reality; so do gardeners in our parish listening today.
It is difficult, if not impossible to separate a field of growing plants into good and bad, and keeps the entire crop healthy. Attempting to remove one will harm the other, making it also difficult if not impossible to grown a field of wheat for harvest.
Rather, one must wait until harvest time to divide the crop into produce and weeds.
What is Jesus trying to teach here?
This story is more than a story of salvation, heaven and eternal life.
And it is more than a description of a Church made up of Saints and Sinners—a Church where you never know who is saved and damned—a Church where we put up with the “weeds” in our midst. Until God takes care of them and punishes them through eternal damnation.
Rather–this parable also depicts a world of where spiritual health, indeed salvation– is about dialectical literacy—the ability to live, embrace, and indeed, find God and God’s life—in the midst of contradiction.
Until the time when God reveals all in truth—at the resurrection—at the harvest—at eternal life—God’s people are not to engage in “othering” or sinful attempts to organize the world into good and bad.
No, we should embrace a life of living in the tension of contradiction.
As Anglican Christians and as American Episcopalians within the world-wide Anglican Communion, we should know about living with dialectical literacy.
Our very Christian lives are centered on what Anglicans call the Via Media—embracing BOTH our Protestant and Catholic heritage.
When we worship on any given Sunday at All Saint’s Parish, we live with both our Word and Sacrament, Liturgical and Evangelical, Pulpit and Altar; we embrace past and tradition, but we also honor reason, and science; we live in the world, but not of it.
Each Sunday, we share confession in the Nicene Creed which is nothing but contradiction and paradox: Jesus as both Divine and Human; God as transcendent and incarnational.
Perhaps even more deeply, we live with clear teachings of the English Reformation that we are both saint and sinner; and we live, on this side of eternal life, as both—always.
Is it possible to truly embrace a life of dialectical literacy within Christian discourse on public affairs?
Might we live in the tension, for example of embracing BOTH a healthy business climate, AND providing workers with family leave, a living wage and earned sick leave?
Can we embrace both law enforcement AND relationships of good will and trust between police and neighbors?
Don’t we see the poison and pathology of dialectical illiteracy regarding law enforcement within the fear and “otherness?”
Don’t see that living with dialectical illiteracy might have resulted in the needless, tragic death of a beautiful woman in St. Paul, Minnesota this past week– who was doing nothing but trying to help another person in need; and perhaps the needless career ending– and perhaps even life-destroying—violence unleashed in fear and “othering?”
There is an old Hasidic tale that tells us much about Jesus’s wisdom in his parable of the weeds and wheat.
A pupil comes to the Rabbi and asks, “Why does Torah tell us to ‘place these words upon your hearts?’ Why does it not tell us to place these words, in our hearts?”
The Rabbi answers, “It is because as we are, our hearts are closed, and we cannot place the holy words in our hearts. So we place them on top of our hearts. And, there they stay, until one day, the heart breaks, and the words fall in.”
You see, Jesus knew something else about God’s revelation of the harvest; it is not necessarily at the resurrection of our individuals, or at the closing resurrection at the Kingdom of God at history’s end; it is also right now.
The harvest and the mystery of God’s way with all people—might be revealed—in an instant.
Billy Graham, the great American evangelist, tells the following story about his first trip to preach in the old Soviet Union and lead a crusade there.
“I handed my passport to a uniformed Soviet official. He looked at my picture; then he looked at me. And he looked at my picture, and he looked at me. Maybe he recognized me.
Maybe he just knew I was a Christian from the way my passport was worded. Maybe he just felt something.
The look he gave me was, I think, the most hateful stare I have ever received in my life—as an evangelist, that I had experienced; it was icy rage; it was raw hatred. I just stood there, shocked.
Finally, after quite a long period of time, several minutes at least, the official handed me back my passport and told me to go on.”
“I went to the transit lounge of the airport, where my traveling companions were waiting for me. I was very upset.
I felt as though the man’s energy had poisoned my being. I had absorbed his hatred; I felt myself reacting to it.”
“So, as I have always done in situations where I felt unable to do what I knew God wanted me to do—I began to pray—right there on the spot. I told God, “Lord I can’t lead this crusade for the love of Jesus when my heart is full of anger and malice.”
“Lord, help me.”
“I thought of the parable of the weeds and wheat.” I wanted to rid myself of the weed of hate—and, if I was honest, of the “weed” that God has seemingly brought into my life—this Soviet official directing all manner of hate against me.”
“But the Lord had other plans. In an instant following my prayer, I had a thought, a thought I knew was from God.
I thought if being exposed to this hate could make ME feel so terrible after 10 minutes, what would it be like to live inside that hate and resentment ALL the Time!”
“Then I felt it; the compassion I needed from God to go on with the trip and crusade.
I felt compassion for him; I did not get rid of the man and his hate; I just embraced both; I started to feel intense empathy and solidarity with him.
And with all who must live with such hate and fear; he was no longer a threatening enemy—a weed to be chopped off. He was my brother—needing salvation; needing God’s grace and love.
I knew God had provided a teacher for me—a teacher about the kind of fear and hate I would embrace on this trip; I was able to forgive him; I was able to forgive myself for the animosity I felt for him—which was not of Jesus but of Satan.”
“We all prayed for him in that airport; and then I told this story in every crusade in the Soviet Union that first summer.
And thousands and thousands of persons bathed that man—and all who with fear and hate; and I can’t tell you all the people who came forward with fear and hate in their hearts—And turned their lives over to Christ—not only for salvation—but for healing of soul.”
This morning, we all leave with both weeds and wheat in our lives; might we embrace a bit more of the way of dialectical literacy?
Might we live in life’s contradictions and paradoxes, embracing a more universal, wholistic, and grace-filled way of living? The Poet Mary Oliver writes well of a life undivided—a life embracing all, honoring both weeds and wheat:
“And therefore I look upon everything
as a brotherhood and sisterhood,
and I look upon a time as no more than an idea,
and I consider eternity as another possibility.
and I think of each life as a flower, as common
as a field daisy, and as singular,
and each name as a comfortable music in the mouth,
tending, as all music does, towards silence,
and each body a lion of courage, and something
precious to the earth.”
A sermon preached on July 16, 2017 on Matthew 13, 1-9; 18-23, Year A, Proper 10, 6th Sunday after Pentecost, in All Saints’ Episcopal Church, Princeton, NJ, by the Rev. Hugh E. Brown, III, Rector
“A Sower went out to Sow”
Between the Sowing and the Harvest
“One does not expect to get from life what one has already learned it cannot give; rather one begins to see more clearly that life is a kind of sowing time and the harvest isn’t here….”
Vincent van Gogh wrote those words to describe some of his imaginative vision behind a series of paintings he created in the 1880s which he called “Wheat Fields.”
These paintings offer themes that inspired van Gogh throughout his all too short life: the connection to nature, the appreciation of labor; the sharing of comfort.
One of those paintings, inspired by the work of the great artist and naturalist Jean Francois Millet, van Gogh entitled, The Sower.
You have it in your bulletin as an insert this morning; if you look closely, you will see a perpetual image that haunted van Gogh in this series—the Haloed Sun. Van Gogh wrote that that the great Sun always symbolically depicted the Divine.
He wrote that the Sower stood for the human striving for the Kingdom of God.
If you gave at the figure of the Sower—you might note that the energy is far from constrained; like the Sower in the parable read from Matthew’s Gospel this morning, the Sower seems to embody the very meaning of the word, Parable, literally “to throw alongside.”
As one commentator notes of the parable, “The sower seems to just throw the seeds our there—aiming perhaps for the good soil, while doing little to ensure that is the case..”
I want to stay with this focus on the Sower in the parable read this morning.
I want to do so because our minds might naturally move to the later part of t he parable—the reality of the Field or the Soil.
Just as in the van Gogh painting, our attention might drive to the beautiful but terrifying landscape; for both the author of the parable of the Sower and the great painter knew well the pitfalls of Sowing—and Farming.
For, in addition to rocks, depth of soil, and weather conditions described to threaten the harvest, Jesus could have gone on to describe the scorching wind of Palestine known as sirocco, the farmer’s bane–locusts, and enemies of the seeds such as worms and vermin.
.For, yes, on one level, this story of Jesus is a morality tale of discipleship.
I can read this story—and this very week—think of the ways I have put worldly concerns over my commitment to Christ; I can think of ways my faith has lacked depth; I can think of ways in which circumstances have tossed me hither and yon because my faith has lacked substance.
Many scholars think that Jesus used this parable to foretell the difficulties of persecution; to clearly proclaim that the Jesus Movement would grow miraculously because of the firm commitment of a tiny remnant.
However—we might want our energy to move more towards the beginning of the story.
This is the section of the parable that so moved van Gogh.
What inspired van Gogh?
Yes the symbol of the Sun; yes, the image of the Sower.
But beyond this—the Contrast.
The Contrast between The Sowing and the Harvest.
The Hope; the Expectation; the Possibility of Failure; the very Meaning of Success; the Promise of Abundance.
In van Gogh’s words, “Life is a kind of sowing time and the harvest isn’t here.”
One of the greatest biblical scholars, Joachim Jeremias, put it this way: To human eyes, much of the labor of the Sower may seem futile and fruitless, resulting in frequent failure; but Jesus is full of joyful confidence; God’s hour is coming—and will bring with it a harvest beyond understanding.
Or in the words of our Master in Mark, Have you no faith?
As the congregation knows, I have am drawn to the work of van Goah—not only for the beauty of the art—but the circumstances of van Gogh’s life.
Van Gogh lived with life-long depression; it is an illness which eventually took his life through suicide; mental health professionals know such much more in the early 21st century—about the effective treatment for depression and other forms of mental illness.
It could very well be that had such treatments been available, van Gogh might have blessed the human family with even beauty through the visual arts—thought the corpus he left is more than enough.
But I can only imagine that van Gogh’s always lived in the contrast between Sowing and the Harvest—with the rising and falling of the setting sun and its promise.
Like the parable no doubt, we all live with the reality that our life and labor may be in vain; or we live with the truth that we really won’t see the fruits of the harvest;
I remember the first week I spent at Princeton House for my Internship for Clinical Social Work.
I left very discouraged; of course I did not know what I was doing; but then, I discovered, as any physician, of body or soul will tell you, that healing is an art—not a science, and the best physicians can never really know what we are doing.
But what discouraged me above all is that I would never know the fruits of my work; the clinical social workers at Princeton House do not follow patients after the leave the hospital. We only know if they return—in relapse.
And what fruits I did encounter seemed indeed rather less than abundance. Certainly less than even-thirty fold—not approaching one-hundred fold.
I brought this discouragement to my supervisor, an experience Licensed Clinical Social Worker—or LCSW.
He told me that the only sense he ever made out of inpatient clinical work in Mental Illness—was in his words, the planting of seeds.
He was never after the “cure” because, in the work of addiction, there is no cure—only management of chronic illness; he was not even after the recovery—because, within only a few weeks with patients—we did not know what recovery even looked like.
But he was intent on planting the seeds—whatever they may be.
What did that look like?
Doing the best that we could—treating patients with respect; being faithful to the things that evidence taught us would be helpful, and above all perhaps—offering something which we from more healthy and privileged backgrounds often take for granted—but what the sick and the suffering and addicted—rarely—rarely experience—kindness; understanding; compassion.
I remember one of the last therapy groups I led at Princeton House; one participant was a woman—heroin addict, mother, multiple relapses, child lost to the foster system through the intervention of child protection; she was hard, angry, prone to violence—emotionally and physically.
You and I might give up on her; but the Rising and the Setting Sun of van Gogh’s Sower did not.
Throughout the group she looked bored, agitated, ready to jump down someone’s throat at any moment.
Then, another women in the group took notice; “you are not saying anything.” (silence); “you look upset.”
The patient replies: “Leave me alone” (in a whisper).
The group member in reply: “I’m sorry; I just wanted you to know that you look pretty today; that’s all.”
The Young women looked up. After a few seconds, she said: “No one has said anything nice to me in a long time.”
She started to weep. Another group member put her arm on her shoulder; “that’s O.K.” We’re here. We’re here.”
Life is a kind of sowing time and the harvest isn’t here.
You want to know God?
Trust the scattering of the Seed.
And the mystery of the Harvest.
And the Hope in Between.
A sermon preached in All Saints’ Episcopal Church on July 9th, 2017, the 5th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 9, Year A, on Matthew 11: 16-19, 25-30, by the Rev. Hugh E. Brown, D. Min., Rector
“For My Yoke is Easy; My Burden Light.”
The Yoke of Mercy
As we worship this morning, the G-20 Summit is concluding; our own nation, as well as representatives of the wider international community met over these past few days for talks on the great issues facing the human family—war and peace, trade, economic security, immigration, refugees, climate change, among others.
As we worship this morning, Christians in the United States hear news of North Korean testing of nuclear weapons—and possible responses from not only our own country, but the international community.
But these are not the only issues which serve as context for us as we gather this morning.
As we gather for worship, we do so in the context of debates raging in our Christian communities throughout the world.
These debates are not the context for much of the historic worship we share this morning such as that of the Nicene Creed or Eucharistic prayers—debates about doctrine—the person of Jesus—the natures of church or sacrament.
No—they are much more about issues of faith and culture; what is the relationship of our faith to law and government? What is the extent of religious freedom? Does it entail discrimination? What is our response to religious persecution at home and abroad; what is our commitment to dialogue with persons of other faith traditions-especially our Muslim sisters and brothers?
Our church context is also close to home; our own Diocese—I hope you know, is now engaged in a series of important conversations on the future of our mission and ministry.
These conversations are of such crisis dimension that our Bishop has called a special Diocesan Convention on October 7th to deal with them. But as our Bishop has reminded us—the primary issues at stake in our Diocese are not about finances—but our Mission.
Then, there are the individual contexts you and I bring to worship:
I received a telephone call this week from one friend who is wresting over the nature of her responsibilities to a sibling. Where do her responsibilities end and begin? How is she to be of help? How far does she go? What will help her loved one? How is she to participate in that?
I think during this “Ordinary Time” when, perhaps, in our lives, we have a bit more “space” for reflection—it is good to revisit three contexts we always bring to worship: Global—Church—Personal.
I think our life energy is often in one place or the other; sometimes all three.
We often speak of needing to keep the context of scripture in mind: its historical, literary and theological situation.
We do speak, at least as Anglican Christians and as Episcopalians, of needing to bring the Liturgical context in mind—in the case of this morning the long season of Green, the Season after Pentecost, and or Ordinary Time—when both church and bible asks us to consider where the “rubber meets the road.”
But we often need to be reminded of the Social and Human contexts you and I bring to worship each Sunday. For in truth, the biblical writers viewed history—social and personal, as the primary arena of God’s movement and work.
Let me illustrate through one important image this morning: the image of the Yoke.
In the Gospel of Matthew—Jesus speaks of his unique Yoke in these words: “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentile and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.
One biblical scholar refers to this as the Great Invitation; this passage is near and dear to many Episcopalians because it was and is part of the “Comfortable Words” or “Words of Strength” shared just before Holy Communion in the Rite I service of Holy Eucharist.
For all Christians burdened by any of our contexts this morning: Global; Church; Personal—this passage is very Good News Indeed!
But what does Jesus mean here? As usual Jesus is using paradox to provoke and challenge—and comfort.
Yoke is a powerful Biblical Symbol for oppression. It is more a description of slavery than rest. A prophet during a period of Israel’s occupation before the coming of Christ known as “Third Isaiah” spoke of the Messiah, whoever it was to be, as Undoing Every Yoke.
Jesus built on that imagery when he spoke of setting the Captives free in his so-called “Inaugural Address” in his hometown of Nazareth of Chapter 4 in the Gospel of Luke.
But as the scholar T. W. Manson shares, the Yoke of Jesus is not one he imposes but one he wears.
A yoke was a wooden instrument that yoked two oxen together and made of them a team.
A good yoke is one that is carefully shaped so that there would be a minimum of chafing or movement.
The Yoke of Jesus is kind to the shoulders; yes, it is light.
But it is more than this.
Jesus may be saying, in the words of another New Testament Scholar, Douglas Hare: “Become my Yoke Mate and learn how to pull the load by working beside me and watching how I do it. The heavy labor will seem lighter when you allow me to help you with it.”
“Let me help you with it—heavy labor.”
I had to ask myself this morning: In each of my contexts: Global, Church, or Personal—do I truly ask Jesus to help me with it?”
When push comes to shove in my “Ordinary Time” do I really think about Jesus as my Yoke? As THE reality, THE truth that will lighten my Burden?
And if so—How?
We might think of the Yoke of Christ—our Partnership with Jesus—as a purely internal or spiritual matter.
We might think this way: in contrast to the Law—or to Works—we Christians believe that Christ is Lord, is our Savior; of course this will lighten our burdens.
It does; it is critical to our spiritual life to know above all, that our life is Christ’s not ours. That we are saved by Christ alone.
But the Yoke of Christ, I think is more than this; it is our accountability to the way of Christ.
This, my friends, may be more of leap of faith than simply belief.
Jesus made his way clear; it was about the weightier demands of the law—mercy—justice—compassion.
It was about gentleness and peacemaking; it was about healing.
We come close the meaning of the Yoke of Jesus in this passage from the prophet Jeremiah in Chapter 6 verse 16.
Perhaps Jesus was thinking of it; Jeremiah proclaims, “Stand at the Crossroads and look, and ask where the good way lies; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls.”
Jesus is the one who shows us the good way, and where the restless can find rest for their souls.
Let me illustrate the Yoke of Jesus with one Context: The Macro or National context.
We are now engaged in a vigorous national conversation, within which people of faith are giving strong voice; this conversation centers on two key issues (1) The Nation’s Budget and (2) Our Health Care System.
Why are these of deep concern to persons of faith? Jim Wallis of Sojourners Ministry has said it well. A budget, whether by a Nation or Family, is a moral and spiritual document. Our Baptismal Covenant calls us “to Strive for Justice and Peace and to Respect the Dignity of Every Human Being; the 25th Chapter of Matthew judges our very Christian identity by how we treat the most vulnerable and the most at risk among us.
The President of the United States seemed to agree with this during his Inaugural Address; our President spoke of a new commitment to the “Forgotten People.” I think this language was certainly in the spirt of Jesus.
Therefore, it is most distressing, to take just one example, even apart from the Health Care debate—that the President’s proposed budget would extract some 2.5 trillion from people of limited means. This is not only distressing to me as your Priest; this budget is of deep concern to our Presiding Bishop, our Office of Government Relations on Capitol Hill, and our Diocesan Bishop.
Did you know what such national budget cuts would be mean for All Saint’s Church—to move from the Global to the Church and the Personal?
If Churches would try to make up for this lost assistance—every church in this nation—including All Saint’s Church would have to raise and give away an additional 714,000 a year for the next 10 years.
Now I tell you that would be a challenge to our Stewardship Chair, our Stewardship Committee and our Annual Fund!
This is in addition to the Health Care bill, under consideration in the Senate which proposes an additional trillion dollars of cuts in Medicaid.
Now we get really personal.
We have seniors in this congregation who are on Medicaid in Nursing Homes.
Your Rector now represents this parish to the Princeton Community in clinical social work and the treatment of addiction at Princeton House; most of the patients I treat and work with are on Medicaid; if this Health care Bill becomes law—that treatment will be at risk.
We have members of All Saint’s Church and their loved ones who have gained insurance coverage and health care because of the Affordable Care Act; I know this because you have told me so.
Do we seriously believe that being “Yoked to Jesus” means the imposing the “Yoke of Oppression” on the most vulnerable in our world?
There is another way.
And that is the challenge of our Gospel.
Do we really believe, trust, that the Yoke of Jesus is more than belief?
The Yoke of Jesus is hard; but it is ultimately “rest” and “peace” and “freedom.” Because it is right; it is just; it is merciful.
In the words of the Poet William Stafford:
There’s a thread you follow. It goes among
Things that change. But it does not change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread.
But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it, you can’t get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt
Or die; and you suffer and get old.
Nothing you do can stop it’s unfolding.
You don’t ever let go of the thread.
The way of Jesus is our Yoke; our Thread.
Mercy is our Thread; Compassion is Our Thread.
Love is our Thread.
This is the way to Refreshment of Soul; Lightness of Burden.
For God’s sake, don’t ever let go!
A sermon preached on July 2, 2017, Independence Day weekend, in All Saints’ Episcopal Church, Princeton, NJ by the Rev. Hugh E. Brown, III, on Genesis 22: 1-14, Year A, Proper 8
“Do not lay our hand on the Boy….”
From fear to faith: The lives of Bluebirds—and Children
If you go the Chapel at Princeton University–and walk down the steps on the left hand side, facing the Chapel from the front–you will find the sculpture, Abraham and Isaac.
Conceived by the artist, George Segal, who taught scripture at Princeton University from 1968 to 1969, the sculpture was commissioned in 1978 by Kent State University– to create a Memorial to the four students killed by members of the National Guard during anti-war demonstrations on their campus in May of 1970.
According to the description of the sculpture on the Princeton University Web site, Segal found a metaphor for the tragedy of Kent State University in the biblical story of Abraham and Isaac.
If you go see the sculpture, you will notice Isaac as a college-aged young adult, stripped of his shirt and bound with rope.
Kent State refused the art; they interpreted the sculpture in a way we most probably would at first glance—as depicting a nation– willingly sacrificing its children on the altar of war. They found it too controversial.
Princeton accepted it; no doubt the University placed it at the chapel—as a perpetual symbol of religion all too often in the service of war and violence.
In this vein, we might remember the poetry of Wilfred Owen; Owen wrote some eternally revered verse around the destruction of so much young life during the First World War; we know this poetry most likely from the music of Benjamin Brittan’s War Requiem; wrote Owen:
“And Abram bound the youth, and stretched forth the knife to slay his son, when, Lo (!!) an angel called to him out of the heaven saying, “Lay not thy hand upon the Lad!:” But, the Old Man would not do so—but slew his son—and half the seed of Europe, one by one.”
The above verse is a gut-wrenching, perversely ironic twist on what is perhaps the primary message of our Old Testament lesson from Genesis this morning: God does not desire the sacrifice of Children.” Or Any Human Life.
Says God to Abraham—“Do not Lay your hand on the Boy.”
In the days of the Patriarchs of Israel (and for that matter—Palestine—for Abraham is the father of not one world religion but three—Judaism, Islam and Christianity)—this call of the Divine to end Child Sacrifice was not a metaphor but a literal challenge; traditional religions did offer humans as sacrifice to the Gods—or God—as they understood God.
But the theme of religious and spiritual challenge– to the sacrifice of humans to placate divine wrath—is far from irrelevant.
?How profoundly a religion of fear—based on the worship of a God of wrath—impacts the life of nations and religions institutions!
Out of fear—we indeed sacrifice our children—and not only the altar of war.
Out of fear we have burnt heretics, brutalized women, practiced genocide against other religions; out of fear, we have enslaved other cultures; out of fear we have stigmatized, judged; out of fear we have punished and excluded. Out of fear we have set our minds, hearts and souls upon so much evil.
As I write, I observe fear governing so much of public life in our nation today; out of fear will we sacrifice the lives of our children, seniors, our vulnerable, our poor—on the altar s of wealth and greed?
No! God does not demand the sacrifice of children; because God is not a God who needs to be appeased because he is fundamentally against us; God’s very being is love; God’s justice IS God’s love—and mercy!
God’s self is secure; God does not need our adoration or our devotion; God is great enough to give purely out of God’s self.
But there is another dimension to this story as well. Isaac was so much more than simply the son of Abraham; he was the promise of God’s future.
When God asked for Isaac’s life—he asked that God’s own promise be sacrificed; God’s own future.
Surely Abraham must have known that this was NOT of God.
Surely, Abraham embarked on a journey—not of fear.
But of faith.
Against and within all the violence and dark theological realities in this story—one message is clear; Abraham was willing to trust.
He was willing to trust—against all odds—that God’s promise to him held. That God was not a God of purse, naked, arbitrary power—A God who was a God of the lie.
No, Abraham’s God was consistent; Abraham’s God could be trusted; Abraham’s God was not beyond good and evil but Goodness itself.
Could this God be trusted? Can faith at times be so risky that it is almost irrational?
And I think this is something every single person in this congregation might know on some level if we have ever had any kind of personal, life-giving relationship with God.
Do you really trust God? Really, Really, Really trust God? Not believe in God as in a proposition?
But trust in God in a way which is almost life-defying?
For we can’t follow someone we don’t trust; we can’t become a sacramental partner to someone we don’t trust.; we can’t be a friend to someone we don’t trust; we can’t have a relationship of any kind to someone we don’t trust.
We can’t follow; we can’t have any relationship to God—if we don’t trust.
For so much of trust-is not what we see; but what we don’t see.
Abraham could not see how all this would turn out well—this command to go to a mountain and offer his son—and that God’s goodness, power and promise would stand.
But he did-trust. He trusted that God would keep his Word.
And something amazing happened; a new teaching—not only about the end of Child Sacrifice.
But indeed a new teaching in the history of world religion: the teaching of the end of a God of pure, arbitrary power; the end of power itself apart from goodness, mercy—truth—and love.
My friends—whenever you find power—any power—for all power is from God—apart from goodness, truth and love—whether in our families, or our churches, or our nations—it is not from God—but from the darkness.
But power and goodness together—this is very much of the light; THIS is the power of God –we can trust.
I received this week a personal story from a great spiritual mentor who trained me for the ministry of spiritual direction—Glenn Mitchell—the Director of Oasis Ministries; it is entitled: Bluebirds—Attending and Trusting what we do Not see:
We had a family of bluebirds nesting by our garden this spring. I had a front row seat to their rituals as I drank my morning coffee on the deck. When the young hatched both parents hunted food for them from their various perches in the yard. They would scan the ground from their high place, then in characteristic bluebird fashion, swoop down and snatch an insect and fly off to the nest box to feed the growing young.
I was at home when the babies fledged. It was late afternoon when I saw the last one take its maiden flight down to a rough landing in the grass. Walking out later I found two of them in different parts of the yard. As night approached they were still on the ground, hunkered down, with no parent in sight. I felt the ancient drama of all species–will these vulnerable young live to replace their parents? As I walked back to the house I couldn’t help but think they fledged too soon. Surely they wouldn’t survive the night. The next morning a walk through the yard turned up nothing. Later in the day I did see an adult with food in its bill fly out toward a white pine in the field. Perhaps one survived the night.
A week later I saw a bluebird on the ground in the garden pecking at something under a tomato plant. It looked like the paler female but my binoculars revealed that it was actually a young bird. Its presence immediately brought a smile to my face. It was stunning in its simple beauty with scaly spots on the breast and belly and with sky blue etchings to the primary wing feathers. Then I saw a second young bird nearby and a bit later a third! Seeing those three birds alive and well in my yard gave me such a shot of joy and hope. I repented my pessimism. I repented my arrogance in thinking I knew something better than the bluebirds about how to get young into the world. But mostly I felt a tug toward attending and trusting more that which I don’t see. So much life was happening in my yard that week that I didn’t see, that I didn’t know. What would it mean to have a heart for what I’m not seeing? What would be different in me if I cultivated more a spirit of trust in absence?
Dear friends, on this Independence Day weekend—let us cultivate a deeper sense of trust—in the absences within our personal and national life.
Let us not act in haste—in fear—as persons or as a nation.
The life of creation—the lives of our children—so depend on such faith.
A sermon preached in All Saints’ Episcopal Church on June 25, 2017, Year A, Proper 7, on Genesis 21: 8-21 and Matthew 10: 24-39, by the Rev. Hugh E. Brown, III, D. Min.
“Are Not Two Sparrows Sold for a Penny?”
The Hagar’s Among Us
Sparrows; what are they worth? Perhaps it depends on your perspective. Do you love animals? Do you revere creation? Do you ponder the beauty of the natural world? Or do you consider birds a nuisance? Do they get in the way? Do they make a mess? Or, do you just ignore tiny creatures like sparrows? Do you even notice them?
In the days of Jesus, sparrows were the equivalent to pay-day loans for the poor. To access the Great Temple in Jerusalem for worship—you needed animals for sacrifice. Every faithful Jew was required to makes sacrifices to God on principle Holy occasions—rich or poor.
Sparrows were the cheap means of access; Jesus uses the phrase, “two sparrows old for a penny” to refer to the animal exchanges, just outside the Temple; there– money was exchanged for the animals to make the necessary sacrifices.
Sparrows were the cheap fare. They bought the poor access to spirituality.
Jesus as we know—did not care for that system very much. One of the last acts of his ministry and perhaps the protest that got him arrested and executed was to enter those same money exchange areas and symbolically destroy them.
But Jesus makes clear this morning another reason why he never liked the Temple sacrificial system.
God cares for the least; he cares for the poor as much as the wealthy; God blesses the dignity of every human being and does not ask questions about how they got that way.
God cares for animals—otherwise forgotten. Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father—Jesus says of the sparrows. I think Jesus wept in that Temple at the destruction of so much vulnerable animal life.
Perhaps even more—God cares for the least and the lost and the vulnerable. You are of more value than many sparrows.
Imagine how powerful such words are today or yesterday; all human beings have the worth of the most vulnerable and forgotten animal; the most beaten down, the most abuse and scorned; the most ignored and forgotten—all these–are of supreme worth to God.
Like the character Hagar in Genesis, Chapter 21.
Hagar’s life might be compared to the symbol of Sparrow in the Temple Exchange—cheap, vulnerable, powerless, a throw-away—something to be sacrificed.
That is exactly what Sarah wanted—and what Abraham, very much the whimp our Genesis story—went along with—the sacrifice of Hagar.
One might sympathize with Sarah here. She was herself as protector of the promise and legacy of God. God had made a covenant with Abraham.
Abraham would be the father of a Great Nation; and yet, both Abraham and Sarah were senior folk, the bible tells us, with Sarah in her 70s and Abraham in his 90s.
Sarah, always the proactive , pragmatic and efficient one—decides to take matters into her own hands—convincing Abraham to take her maid, Hagar, as his wife. If Hagar bears a son, it will be Sarah’s baby (think surrogate mother).
This was common practice for more wealthy, infertile women in the ancient world.
However, such was also a “mixed bag” for Sarah.
Yes, she would be honored as faithful to God; but she would also be slightly diminished in status—for a woman who gave birth to a male child was considered higher in social dignity than a wife.
Hagar does give birth to a male son—Ishmael.
Sarah tries to deal with it; She fails; she succumbs to envy and jealously.
She is human after all; unfortunately, given the issues of class and race—whether yesterday or today—the “human frailty” and brokenness of the powerful and wealthy always have profound impact upon the poor.
So, we can sympathize for the sin of Sarah—and her sacrifice of Hagar in fear. But we can weep for Hagar.
What is a miracle though? So did God.
God saw Hagar; God heard Hagar; God saved Hagar and her son from death in the wilderness.
Hagar is the first woman of the Bible to receive God’s annunciation. She dares to name the Divinity of the God—who opens her eyes to water.
She protects the Father of another Great nation—Ishmael; to this day, Muslims count Ishmael among their founders; they count Hagar as among their mothers.
Carol Newsome, professor of Emory’s Candler School of Theology in Atlanta notes the paradox of the story of Hagar; the moral sympathy of the story seems to be with Hagar—even though the primary identification is with Sarah and Isaac.
Hagar then disappears from the pages of History. She is truly the forgotten woman of the Bible.
But clearly protected and honored by God. She is the true Sparrow; but cared for by God more than many sparrows.
Who are the Hagar’s today? They are the ones—like the Sparrows—we are most likely to forget as cheap, disposable and forgotten.
A contemporary Hagar is described by Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times—in his powerful op-ed on the Opioid Epidemic this past Thursday: “ I met a nurse who became dependent on prescription painkillers and was fired when she was caught stealing painkillers from a hospital. She became homeless and survived by providing sex to strangers in exchange for money or drugs. She wept as she told her story for she was disgusted by what she had become. But we as a society should be disgusted by our collective complacency, by our refusal to help hundreds of thousands of neighbors who are sick and desperate for help.”
Yes, this woman is a Hagar—and a Sparrow.
As this congregation knows well by now—for the past two years—I worked in an inpatient addiction treatment center as I received by MSW and my License for Social Work.
I saw so many Hagar’s—so many akin to Sparrows; But I saw something else too.
These Hagar’s may be in the desert, searching for life and water—discarded, sacrificed and forgotten by so many.
But they were among the lucky few who reached out for help; and discovered, like Hagar—that they were not alone.
Although many were not religious or Christian—many were; and they were not reticent to say that God was giving them living water in the desert—through their treatment.
They were also Hagar’s that you—that I–might know; they were or sons and daughters, sisters and brothers; our coworkers; our fellow church members; they were our parents, or grandparents; they were and are our cops, our fire-fighters, our correction officers. They were and are our sisters and brothers.
The problem? They sought help and received it; but they could only afford so much.
The problem with addiction—my friends—is that it is more than just the first treatment—although that is a real victory—believe me.
But the issues of addiction go deeper; they are about the first relapse, or second or third; they are about aftercare and medication; they are about counseling and therapy; they are about residential treatment facilities—that often only the wealthy can afford.
Do you know how many patients I worked with who I had to discharge because of lack of resources to—places that were not the best—and would likely fail?
Do you know how many we could treat only because of State and Federal funding—like Medicaid!!
Did you that in any given Recovery Therapy Group I led at Princeton House—of the twenty or so gathered in a room—2/3rds or more were Medicaid patients?
You see—God does see and hear the Hagar’s in the wilderness; but God does so—incarnationally—through your time, talent and treasure—and mind.
Today—as you and I worship—our nation is debating the fate of millions of Hagar’s—with the vulnerability of sparrows. That is just the truth.
The so-called national debate over health care is, on one level—a public policy, political and economic issue; there are public officials, persons of good will on all sides. I don’t think the church can offer effective counsel here—or should it.
On another level though—the debate is a profound moral issue; it is a debate around the fate of the poor of our nation; this is not only an opportunity for people of faith—it is a command of our Baptismal Covenant—to respect the dignity of every human being—Sparrows and Hagar’s alike.
It is not a debate our politics or economics—it is debate about the national soul and the kind of people– we are called to be.
The teaching of the Church is clear—God’s sympathy lies always—with the Hagar’s—the at-risk—the discarded—the voiceless.
Now—Jesus might not care much for economics or politics.
But he cared enough to go through the very center of religious and national life the Temple–with a bull-whip–when he saw poor and neglected persons being abused.
Jesus always seeks “to expel the money changers from the temples of our civilizations,” (FDR) –wherever they exist.
For God saw a vulnerable Hagar –and gave her living water.
And not only that—Jesus, God’s son-saw abuse—and went after it—and held persons accountable for it.
A Sparrow; what is it worth?
Our nation’s soul and our Church’s fate may well rest on that question.
A sermon preached on Pentecost Sunday, June 4th, 2017 within the occasion of the Sacramental Rite of Confirmation in the Episcopal Church, in All Saints’ Parish, Princeton, by the Rev. Hugh E. Brown, III, D. Min.
“All were amazed!”
Aren’t they all our Children?
During the first two years of my time as Rector of All Saints’ Church, over the summers of 2007 and 2008, our parish teamed with First Baptist Church in El Paso, TX and Mission San Juan outside of Juarez. Mexico.
What was the purpose of this teamwork?
To build homes for families at great risk outside of Juarez; at the time, the great Mexico Drug Cartel war was just getting started; in truth, we could not continue this project because of the escalation of violence.
In each of the years that a team of parishioners ventured to El Paso and Juarez for a home-building mission trip—we would close our time in worshipping with the people of Mission San Juan.
It was a Roman Catholic Church; their Priest was very gracious and always included me in the service fully as a partner.
But he also warned me and us—the service was “on the “Pentecostal side.”
But, hey it was a Roman Catholic Church so how wild could it get?
So, about 25 minutes into the service, the praise band having thrust the crowd into a frenzy of clapping and yelling, Padre Miguel suddenly left the Altar Area and came down the center aisle of the small church.
He started to touch people’s foreheads.
One by one, they crumpled to the floor—slain by the Spirit.
Then he asked for a few more volunteers to be healed and brought to Christ.
After a moment, he looked at all the folks from All Saints’ church; then he looked at me and smiled; we looked at one another with more than a bit of trepidation.
I did not know what to do to refuse this gracious offer.
So I remembered how we simply want a blessing during Holy Communion—and put my arms across my chest.
The Priest smiled—shook his said and said in laughter, “Anglos!”
After the service, as we were meeting in the clergy vesting area and removing our robes, the Priest told me:
“I would like to invite you to come to my house; my daughter has not been well and we don’t know what is wrong; we are taking her to the doctor tomorrow but we are very worried.”
Together, we journeyed to the Father Miguel’s house, laid hands on his daughter and prayed—invoking the Holy Spirit.
Father Miguel spoke more English than I Spanish, looked at me and said: “Now THIS is Pentecost.”
He continued: “Anglo—Latino; Mexican American; Catholic and Anglican; Northern; Global South.”
Then he went to his study; and he gave me a book; I still have it; it was a biography of Teresa of Avila—one of the great mystics of the church; the language was Spanish; Father Miguel’s name was in it; the book was obviously precious to him.
Father Miguel continued: “we don’t know each other’s languages very well; but we understand one another; we are all human; we are all one in Christ.” Might you accept THIS gift of the Holy Spirit?
Hey—if the Spirit does not reach us one way. The Spirit will reach us another somehow!
Today’s reading from Acts is truly mystical and miraculous; the wind and fire come out of nowhere; and enliven everyone they touch.
But I want to suggest this morning that the great gift of Pentecost, the birth of the Church, the bestowal of the Holy Spirit, and the fire of the experiential, mystical life of faith—is more about imagination, vision, and new ways of understanding.
The great Jewish philosopher and mystic, Abraham Joshua Heschel had a phrase for it—“Radical Amazement.”
On this Pentecost, might we begin to live this way—with Radical Amazement?
With a vision of a new and adventurous way of life open to new possibilities, hopes and dreams?
On this Pentecost day, might we stop stifling our imaginations, and begin to expect the great things God promises for us when we trust in God?
Can we imagine a day when we will understand one another—each in our own language? As an Anglican and a Roman Catholic Priest understood one another—finally in the language of Love?
Can we imagine the day when we embrace the diversity of languages of humankind, heard this morning?
Can we imagine the day when we truly understand the meaning of unity within diversity?
Can imagine a day when we know the language of another through the image of God—which is always compassion?
What might this imagination entail? What is it truly like to live as a Pentecost Church?
My former mentor and guiding light of Christian social justice—Jim Wallis–likes to tell the story of a sad and terrifying incident that occurred during the tragic Bosnian Civil War –in Sarajevo–many years ago.
A little girl was badly hurt during the fighting.
A reporter was covering the war and saw this incident; he threw down is pad and pencil and rushed to the aid of a man now holding the child. He helped them both into the car and sped to the hospital.
“Hurry my friend,” the man urged, “my child is still alive.” A moment or two later he pleaded, “Hurry my friend, my child is still breathing.” A little later he said, “Hurry my friend, my child is still warm.”
Upon reaching the hospital, the young girl had died. “This is a terrible task for me,” the distraught man said, still shaking and in tears from the child’s premature death. “I must go to her father to tell him he lost his daughter. He will be heartbroken; I know him.”
The reporter was amazed. “I thought he was your child.”
The man replied, “No—but aren’t they all our children?
This is the great Pentecost question of our age.
Aren’t they all our children?
This question might be translated into the great, primary linchpin of our Baptismal promises, renewed by all the morning: “Will You Seek and Serve Christ in ALL persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?”
If we can say, “Yes,” to this foundational Baptismal promise, can we ever pit anyone against anyone? For Christ is within all humanity!
The Holy Spirit enlightens, inspirers and empowers all humanity—not just the Church. The Spirit is everywhere; in everyone!
“If we have no peace,” said Mother Teresa,” it is because we have forgotten we belong to each other.”
Father Miguel’s question to me outside of Juarez that day—is our question this morning.
“Might you accept the gift of the Holy Spirit?”
With radical imagination and amazement this will translate:
“Are they not all our Children?”
In Christ’s world they are. Such is not so much commanded.
Such is possible. Such is God’s dream.
Such is the Pentecost vison of Radical Amazement!
A sermon preached on May 21st, 2017, by the Rev. Dr. Gordon Graham in All Saints’ Episcopal Church, Princeton, NJ
A sermon preached on May 14th, 2017 (Also Mothers Day) in All Saints’ Episcopal Church, Princeton, NJ, on the 5th Sunday of Easter, Year A, on John, Chapter, 14: 1-14, by the Rev. Hugh E. Brown, III, D. Min, Rector
“In my Father’s House are Many Dwelling Places”
“Thus it was I learned that Love was our Lord’s Meaning”
When Joe Died, St. Peter met him at the pearly gates and ushered him into heaven.
“It looks like an enormous house,” Joe thought.
An Angel began escorting him down a long, seemingly endless hallway past many rooms.
All the doors were open, so Joe could see the people inside. In one room, he saw some Episcopalians making the sign of the cross, genuflecting and using incense. “High Church Anglicans,” the Angel explained.
From the next room, Joe heard sounds of Sufi chant and saw people bowed prostrate on the floor praying in Arabic. “This is where the Muslims hand out,” the Angel said.
In another room, a group of people were sitting cross-legged on the floor, meditating. “The Buddhists gather here.” the Angel said.
Further, on down the hall, a group of people celebrated Passover; “The Jews are re-living their release from slavery when Moses led them out of Egypt,” said the Angel.
Joe was fascinated by all that he had heard and seen.
As they approached the next room, the Angel, whispered, “Joe—I want you to walk on tip toe and be very quiet. “
Joe wondered why but did as the Angel directed.
The Angel explained: “In that room, there is a bunch of religious fundamentalists, and they think they’re the only ones here.” (adapted from Online Resource).
“In my Father’s house are many dwelling places.”
I often read these words from John 14 at funerals in the Episcopal Church; so many families have told me what assurance, comfort and hope they bring.
Unlike so many fundamentalist of all religious traditions who believe that their way is the only way, the families who have attended funerals for their loved ones, find these words to be ones of universal longing, and inclusive promise.
“Many dwelling place.” A dwelling place for my husband who spent the last few years battling cancer.
“Many dwelling places.” A dwelling place for my Dad who struggled with more emotional baggage than you can image. “Many dwelling places.” A dwelling place for my sister who always was there for me.
“Many dwelling places.” A dwelling place for my brother who I still have trouble forgiving.”
“Many dwelling Places.”
A Dwelling place for my husband who became estranged from the Church—but desired a Christian Burial for me.
“Many dwelling places. “A dwelling place for my friend who died of AIDS.
“Many dwelling places.” A dwelling place for my cousin who was not particularly religious but who feed the hungry and cared for the poor.
“Many Dwelling Places.” A Dwelling place for my loved one, friend, neighbor who died broken, a mess, with unresolved issues of life.
“Many Dwelling Places. A Dwelling place for my loved ones whose religion, sexuality, culture, loves, longings, and values are not my own.
But not just in Death—does the phrase, “Many Dwelling Places” ring with evocative meaning .
“Many Dwelling Places.”
I think of that phrase as I think of all the patients at Princeton House who described their “Higher Power.”
They spoke, often of their Higher Power as Christ, Jesus, God, the Lord. But they also spoke of Allah; they spoke of Yahweh; they spoke of Braham, Vishnu, and Shiva.
Some Jewish patients would not say the name of their Higher Power; such is forbidden in some quarters of Judaism.
They spoke of creation; they spoke of light; they spoke of energy; they spoke of their own 12 Step Group; AA; NA; Al Anon.
Most spoke of a power they could not understand who drove them into the hospital for healing; or drove them to their knees for prayer; this Higher Power, patients fighting addiction described as Grace, Hope, Awe, Love—especially Love.
I ask this morning: Do you—do I –believe God makes a dwelling place for all? All?
A scripture scholar Marcus Borg recalls an inter-faith worship service where a Buddhist monk read today’s Gospel. The monk finished the lesson with the words: “This gospel is true. Jesus is the way, the only way.”
The congregation gasped and fell silent. How could a Buddhist make such as statement. The monk explained, “The way that Jesus lived is the way of Taoism, Buddhism, and Confucianism. It is the sacred way of Life.”
Yes, Jesus is the way of Life precisely because he is the sacred way to what is truly life–giving in human experience—love, compassion, mercy and justice.
It is a scared way because it is found in many dwelling places—especially in the most unlikely places—like Psych hospitals and Addiction programs—in struggles of all sorts.
On this Mother’s Day, we are reminded of a marvelous, English saint whose Holy Day, Feast Day in the Episcopal Church we celebrated this past Monday, May 8th.
Her name is Dame Julian of Norwich; she lived in the late Middle Ages, in the dawn of the modern world, within the struggles of war—and the great plague which wiped out 1/3 of Europe.
She called God Father; but she also called God Mother. The believed God to be, like the best of a mother’s love—tender, beautiful, eternal—all embracing. Mother God. showed charity to the human race in the passion of her Son Jesus; it was within this spirit that Dame Julian called Christ—our “Courteous Lord.”
She was gravely ill and was given last rites when she received, on the 7th day—relief of pain and 15 visions of the Passion of Christ. She experienced these showings when she was 31 years old.
What did these “showings or revelations” contain? First, that we know the Lord’s meaning principally in “the contradictions”—illness, contrition, compassion that breaks the heart, the longing for God which is never finished.
Lady Julian writes:
“But what meaning do we know? It is this: Wouldst thou learn the Lord’s meaning? Who showed it to me? Love. What showed it to thee? Love. Wherefore showed it he? For Love. Hold thee the and thou shalt learn and know more of the same.. Thus it was that I learned that Love is the Lord’s meaning.”
Dame Julian because one of the great spiritual guides in the history of the Christian Church; she was an anchoress; she lived in a small dwelling attached to the Church of St. Julian. Thus, we really don’t know her name; only by her mystical life and vision. She was visited by countless laity and clergy for spiritual counsel.
The mystic Margery Kempe wrote of Julian: She was an expert in good counsel. She wrote of her conversations with Julian: “What did we talk about? Did we not discuss, much time, the love of our Lord. Jesus Christ?
When thinking of the life of Dame Julian of Norwich, and the great phrases of Jesus, in my father’s House are Many Dwelling Places; I am the way, the truth, the Life—I think of the poet, W. H. Auden.
Auden writes these words at the end of his famous poem, For The Time Being:
“He is the way. Follow him through the Land of Unlikeness; you will see rare beasts and have unique adventures; He is the Truth. Seek him in the Kingdom of Anxiety; you will come to a great city that has expected your return for years. He is the flesh; love him in the world of the Flesh; and at your marriage all its occasions shall dance for joy.”
On this Mother’s Day, I close with words once again from Lady Julian—a Mother of the Church; a Mother of the Spiritual Life; a voice for the Motherhood of God.
Here is Lady Julian’s assurance to each and everyone here this morning—and, indeed all of our sisters and brothers—who know God in the great contradictions and wounds of life—the Mind of the Passion—Bodily Illness; Contrition of Compassion;—will-full longing toward God.
Here is her sermon on the words, “In my Father’s House are Many Dwelling Places.”
“Our Courteous Lord, Mother God, our gave me these words: ‘I can make all things well; I will make all things well; I shall make all things well; and thou canst see for thyself that all manner of things shall be well.’”
A sermon preached on the 4th Sunday of Easter, Year A, on John 11: 1-10 in All Saints’ Episcopal Church on May 7, 2017 by the Rev. Hugh E. Brown, III, Rector
“I am the gate of Life.”
Gateways of Life rather than Gates of “No Admission”
During the time of Jesus, in the land of Palestine, during the evening, the shepherds would bring the sheep down form the hills to protect them at night when the wolves and mountain lions were hunting their prey.
At night, the shepherds would gather their sheep together and lead them into large pens.
These large pens were called sheepfolds.
These sheepfolds or sheep pends had large walls which were made out of rocks. The walls of the sheep pens were about five feet high. On top of the four stone walls were briars or prickly branches.
These briars would be used for the crown of thorns on Good Friday.
The shepherds put the prickly briars along the top of the wall. It was like our barbed wire today on the top of the walls of prisons.
Of course, given this protection, the predators could not get inside
There was a small door-way to the sheepfold.
It was about two feet wide; it was the one small, gap in the edifice.
What was the door made of? Wood? Stone? Wool? Leather?
There was no door.
The shepherd himself was the door; at night, the shepherd himself would sleep in the small opening of the rock wall. He would sleep there, with his rod and staff.
Jesus said, “I am the gate for the sheep.”
““I Am:” God spoke these words to Moses when asked his name. “I AM.” God spoke of Himself as the Gateway to Freedom in the Book of Exodus.
Jesus speaks of himself as God’s continual Gate to Life in the 10th Chapter of John.
What does Jesus mean by His self-designation: Gateway to Life?
Perhaps the following illustration might help.
Whenever I entered either Carrier Clinic—or Princeton House as a Clinical Social Work Intern—I entered through a Gate; it was a door—sort of. But it was large, perpetually locked, with an electronic key needed for opening.
These doors were locked and closed for the safety of the patients; those admitted for inpatient care in a psychiatric hospital, no matter what the condition, are often a danger to themselves—or others.
Yes, the do convey the message; Keep Out; Stop; No admittance.
But, we hope and pray the message is very diffident on the inside.
You see—in mental health care—but I dare say—in all medical care—the physician, clinical social worker, nurse, tech IS the gateway to health.
Of course, all doctors and health care workers have tools; some very powerful tools. Very powerful indeed; technology, medication.
But let’s not kid ourselves. The physician’s principal tool—is the use of self.
Inside the walls of any hospital, or the locked gates of a good, compassionate and effective mental health hospital—you find a very different kind of gateway—Persons of Healing; Persons of Wisdom; Persons of Compassion
Jesus himself was this kind of Gateway.
As persons and people of Jesus—We—the People of God—The People of the Church—are– that Gateway.
So what does it look like for you—for me—as people of God—to be—like Jesus, the Gateways to Life?
Let me first say, what I think it does not look like.
In last month’s The New Yorker, Joshua Rothman shared a fascinating interview with Rod Dreher—the author of the Benedict Option.
Mr. Dreher believes Christians in the early 21st century should begin to do what St. Benedict of Nursia did in the 6th century when, in essence, he founded communal monasticism. They should begin to withdraw from the world
Christians should live in Christian neighborhoods; attend Christian schools. Live under Christian rules of life; they should be among folks like themselves.
Mr. Dreher’s vision of what Christians should be about in our day has truly ignited a fire; if you have not heard of the Benedict option—you will; on the net; in the media; when he spoke at the National Press Club in DC this Spring—the place could not contain the folks who wanted to get in.
His vision has much appeal; he believes that to quote him in the interview, we need to “re-sacramentalize our lives” and live out the ancient Christian vision of spiritual and moral rules.
We should, in his words, “create a society within a society.” We should create a society as a true gate of “No Admission” to the world.
But is this really living as people of Jesus; is this what it means to be “gate-way to life?”
Do we use our person—do we use or common life—as Christians—to convey: Be like Us? Do we use our persons—our common life to convey the clear message—if you NOT like us—Get Lost!
Is Christianity really about such suffocating uniformity? Is it really about “cult-like” authority and obedience as traditionalism?
Is it really about shunning contact as much as possible with Muslims, Jews, Seekers, progressive Christians, humanists?
Is Christian life, as Mr. Dreher advocates for it, shunning contact with alternative families—Gay, Transgendered, Divorced, Committed Partnerships?
Does one cease to be a modern liberal and American—committed to Pluralism, Tolerance, Interfaith Dialogue, Gender Equality, and Human Rights—to be a Christian? That is what classical liberalism is—The Open Society; The Free Society?
That is what we in the West have cherished—The Freedoms so many of our sisters and brothers throughout the world—would give their lives for.
So, what DOES being a “gateway to life” in the name of Jesus really look like?
Let’s look at the life of Jesus.
He made his life’s goal to let others know how precious they were.
He was not afraid to reach out, walk with, and be with others different from himself; a Samaritan woman, and a Cannanite woman, a group of men suffering from leprosy, a woman suffering from a hemorrhage, another bent over.
He opened himself up to questions; he entered into dialogue; he allowed himself to be challenged by a poor widow, by a Canaanite woman; by Pontius Pilate, by a rich young man, by religious leaders.
He allowed himself to be ministered unto by women and invited women to be his equals, his disciples, and yes, his ministers.
Jesus did not retreat into tribalism, nationalism; Jesus did not succumb to cult-like authoritarianism; he did not live a bunker mentality of intolerance; he did not see the world through the lens of resentment—an “us vs. them” mentality whether it be identify politics, class-war, or fear of “the other.
In truth, if we believe the scriptures, one reason so many persons rejected him, did not get him or turned on them is that he refused to play the games of class, racial, cultural and political conflict.
Never forget, dear friends, the opening lines of our Catechism or Statement of faith in the Book of Common Prayer.
“What are we by nature?” “We are created in the image of God.”
“What does it mean to be created in the image of God? “It means we are free to make choices.”
“Freedom of Choice” Freedom of Thought. Freedom from Fear; Freedom from Want; Freedom to Worship.”
These are not only Christian values; they shaped the traditions Western democracy; they gave us the best of human rights, freedom of conscience and expression, social justice and the scientific method.
Beware of “thieves and bandits” claiming the mantra of Christian religion who will take us, once again, down the dark road totalitarian anger, resentment and violence in their zeal for a Christian identity in a so-called hostile world to faith.
In closing, I call your attention to a woman—a true, “gateway to life” honored in Holy Women/Holy Men in the Episcopal Church calendar this week. Her Feast Day—her Holy Day is this Saturday, May 13th.
Her name is Frances Perkins.
Frances Perkins was first women to serve in a major cabinet position in our nation.
She was the Secretary of Labor for Franklin Roosevelt. She served his entire tenure as President from 1933 to 1945.
She was the guiding vision and strategic genius– for the Social Security Act; this piece of legislation extended Western notions of freedom– to include freedom from deprivation, poverty, inequality and hunger.
She was a committed and devout Episcopalian—perpetually active in leadership in the Companions of the Holy Cross. She was confirmed in the Episcopal Church of the Holy Spirit in Lake Forest, IL as a young adult.
What was her ONE condition from FDR before she would take a job in his administration? No less than monthly retreat with the All Saints Sisters of the Poor in Catonsville, MD–for prayer, reflection and centeredness in Christ.
Francis Perkins used her person and vision—derived from Christian values of humanity, love and justice—as a true ‘gateway to life.”
Because of her commitment—not to a Christian bunker, a Christian resentment of modern society, a Christian hostility to the modern world—she worked in leadership to transform a nation.
Of course, we know the Social Security Act from our nation’s guarantee of financial security to our Senior Citizens. My mother is now able to live independently—as she would desire, in her own home—because of the Social Security Act.
I would imagine this piece of legislation-the very epitome of Western liberalism, impacts your own families in important ways.
What we might not remember is that a woman and an Episcopalian was committed to a truly modern, democratic, republican– and worldly vision of Christianity.
W we might not remember is that a Christian in the public square became, in the spirit of Christ—a gateway to life; rather a gate of “no admission.”
In closing, let us share the Collect for the Feast Day of Frances Perkins—and pray for all those who serve as the gateways to life in the spirit of Jesus. Let us pray:
Loving God, we bless your name for Frances Perkins, who lived out her belief that the special vocation of the laity is to conduct the secular affairs of society that all may be maintained in health and decency. Help us, following her example, to contend tirelessly for justice and for the protection of all in need—that we may be faithful followers of Jesus Christ—who with you and the Holy Spirit, lives and reigns, one God, forever and ever. Amen.
A sermon preached on the 3rd Sunday after Easter, April 30, 2017, in All Saints’ Episcopal Church, by the Rev. Hugh E. Brown, III, Year A on Luke 24: 13-35
We really don’t know where Emmaus is; several possibilities have surfaced. Can we open ourselves to the possibility that Emmaus is everywhere; whenever we are on the road?
Jesus always comes to us, filled with energy and possibility—and new life; we can, right now, at any venue, keep moving, chart new adventures, embrace new possibilities; because Jesus walks along beside us on the Emmaus Road.
In recent op-ed piece in the New York Times, Sheryl Sandberg, the chief operating officer of Facebook, reflects on the sudden loss of her husband to a heart attack; her children were ages 7 and 10 at the time.
When I was reading over Sheryl’s piece in the Times, I thought about the story of two strangers on the way to a place called Emmaus, reeling from grief, pain—and outright shock.
I also thought of them at the end of the story—passionate, strong, sharing the good news of Jesus to the apostles. How he was made known to them.
Yes, we certainly have, in the Emmaus story, the appearance of Jesus following his resurrection.
But I think we have something else going on than just a supernatural happening that produced wonderful, awe and faith.
Yes, we certainly have the miracle of Jesus beating death.
But we have another miracle—a far more human, ordinary, understandable miracle.
It is a story of recovery from violence, trauma and loss.
In the story of Emmaus, we see a spiritual movement of genuine new life—not so much in the life to come-but this life.
How does it happen?
I think it happened—and happens—the way it always does our perpetual journeys to Emmaus.
Let’s look at what Jesus did for these two hurting companions.
And what he does for us—through our Emmaus walks with one another.
First, he came along side of them; he walked with them.
Sheryl Sandberg writes that when her husband died, she turned to the advice of a friend. She said that the most important things was to tell my kids over and over how much I loved them and that they were not alone.
Dear friends, when pain comes, when violence engulfs, when trauma overcomes, when the crucifixions of life happen—never cease to underestimate the power of sharing how much you love someone—that they are not alone; if that is all Jesus did—it would have been powerful enough.
But he did more; he then spoke a word of healing; we don’t know all of what he said; but he did something remarkable I have often encountered in my social work training. The term is reframing; Jesus took an experience of hopelessness and terror, and reframed it into a story of life and renewal. How do we take sad stories and reframe them into stories of life?
We bestow new meaning upon them. In the case of the disciples, Jesus took them through the scriptures and enabled them to see how his suffering was redemptive; how, according to the scriptures, God could take his execution and use it for the purpose of renewal, healing and restoration.
One way that Sheryl “reframed” her husband’s death for her children was to begin to use her family’s pain to move her children through the journey of grief—to see grief as normal, O.K.; not time-bound; grief takes as long as it takes; it is an ongoing journey; my own father died last June; there is not a day that his death is not anything else than raw; but day by day—healing does come—with time—and with love.
Sheryl writes, “One afternoon I sat down with my kids to write our “family rules’ to remind us of coping mechanisms we would need. We wrote together that it’s O.K. to be sad; and to take a break from activity to cry. It’s O.K. to be happy and to laugh; it’s O.K. to be angry and jealous of friends and cousins who still have fathers. It’s O.K. to say to anyone that we do not want to talk about it now. And it’s always O.K. to ask for help. The poster we made that day—with the rules written by my kids in colored markers, still hangs in our hall so we can look at it every day. It reminds us all that our feelings matter; that we are not alone.
Like the disciples, I think our hearts often ‘burn’ with the word of God when loved ones, friends—those who care about us—enable us to reframe experiences of utter pain—in a way we can find healing and renewal—and new life.
What was the third spiritual movement of Jesus on that Emmaus road? He came home with these strangers; he broke bread with them; thus empowering the two friends to continue on.
Yes, Jesus entered their home; he entered their hears; he took the risks to share their most vulnerable and intimate moments. So many commentaries speak of the disciples inviting Jesus home with them; and these commentaries speak of the implications of hospitality; thus is true.
But we might want to think first and foremost about Jesus here; he went home with strangers; he entered their lives.
Sheryl Sandberg related in the Times article that her biggest fear for her children upon losing her husband that her children’s happiness would be destroyed by the children’s loss of their Dad. She started to talk to a friend—a child psychologist and professor—Adam Grant. Together, they have now written a new book, Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy.
What Cheryl discovered in helping her children through the death of their dad—with Adam’s help—was the concept of Mattering. The belief that other people, notice you, care about you, and rely on you. They note it is the vital question of young children: Do I make a Difference? And it is the perpetual question of us all.
Do I make a difference to others? Jesus knew how to reach out to the disciples; even those who betrayed and denied him; ran away from him; gave up on him. He demonstrated that they still mattered to him,
The Emmaus road was as important to Peter and the rest—as it was to the two friends on the journey this morning.
Sheryl writes that parents often feel helpless because its impossible to fix or cure our children’s problems and pain.
But we can do something always—something Jesus did when he came home and broke bread with those two strangers—we can always “companion.” We can always support by listening, and walking along with—and beside.
She writes, “My husband and I always had a tradition at dinner in which each of us would share the best and worst moments of our day. At least for one time of the day-we would give our children undivided attention. At first, I did not want to do this with my children after my husband died. But I discovered that my children, unexpectedly, added something; they started talking about something that made them feel grateful. It was if even in loss, they were beginning to appreciate life again.”
Sheryl Sandberg shares a lot more in the article about the difficult but so potentially life-giving work of moving families and children from loss to healing.
But you get the picture.
Her story is truly an Emmaus journey.
You see—Emmaus might not ever have happened quite like we have it in Luke.
But Emmaus always happens.
Emmaus always happens! Thanks be to God!
A sermon preached on Easter Day, April 16, 2017 in All Saints’ Episcopal Church, Princeton, NJ by the Rev. Hugh E. Brown, III, D. Min. Rector
Listening to the Voice of Jesus in the Ministry of Justice
Jesus said to her,” Mary!”
Imagine yourselves in the place of Mary Magdalene; imagine hearing your name called.
What would your response be?
In a few minutes, we will renew our Baptismal vows; at Baptism, we hear the following, beautiful promise to each of us; “you are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever.”
But mark this too—in Baptism, we live into Covenant community.
Mary Magdalene kept the faith; she stood by Jesus.
No doubt she recognized Jesus at the word, “Mary” because it was given and received with great love.
Mary risked her life to be at that tomb on the third day after the death of Jesus.
O yes, we hear Jesus call us each by name in the liturgy.
But we recognize him when we take risks to love him—not only in the Church—but in the world—loving our neighbor—as Jesus loved and died for all.
Mary Magdalene has invited us to recognize Jesus when we are not safe, when we are at risk, when we experience threats that shake us to our core.
As we renew our Baptismal Covenant on this Easter Sunday–we will be anointed with Water. What does the Water symbolize? Many things; the Baptism of Jesus; the Jordon River and John The Baptist. Our identity with Christ; our membership in the Christian Church.
But, perhaps above all, the Baptismal water reminds us of the Exodus from Egypt.
Baptismal water reminds us of the parting of the Red Sea; it reminds us that God in the Risen Christ are calls us to be a a covenant people dedicated to being a light to humanity for freedom, justice and peace.
In Montgomery Alabama, at the Southern Poverty Law Center, water flows over a large granite bolder with the words, “Until Justice Flows Down Like Water.”
These words are from Martin Luther King’s I have a Dream speech given in August of 1963—a direct reference to Amos 5:23.
This verse marks the place of the Civil Rights Memorial—designed by the great American architect, Maya Lin.
Directing your attention to the Bulletin insert, I invite you to note that water also flows over an asymmetric, inverted stone cone.
A film of water flows over the base of the cone, which contains the names of 40 persons who gave their lives in the service of the Civil Rights Movement.
All heard the voice of Jesus in the struggle for humanity; all do doubt recognized Jesus in the work of solidarity on behalf of the lost, excluded and marginalized.
For these are the promises of our Baptismal Covenant: To Seek and Service Christ in All Persons, Loving your Neighbor as Yourself; To Strive for Justice and Peace Among All Persons and to Respect the Dignity of Every Human Being.
The Civil Rights Memorial has a special meaning for Elly and me; one of Elly’s dearest and closest friends is the director of Legacy Giving for the Southern Poverty Law Center—as noted the location for the Civil Rights Memorial.
Two years ago, when Elly was visiting her friend, she was able to fill a small container with water from the Memorial, which now has a special place in my Study at the Rectory.
The Vile of water reminds me of my Baptism and being marked as a child of God.
But it also reminds me of how I hear the voice of Jesus—more clearly than anywhere else—in my work among the lost, the least, the poor, the forgotten and with those in the margins.
Each and every day I would go to Princeton House to work with those living with addiction—as part of my Master of Social Work program—I would remember that little container of water—and the baptismal promise to respect the dignity of every human being.
If there is any Easter message I would leave you this day it is this-we hear the voice of Jesus most clearly—in the world—in service to human dignity.
But there is another part of the Civil Rights Memorial.
Within the Memorial Center, in addition to exhibits and artifacts from the Civil Rights era, we come upon the Wall of Tolerance.
The Wall digitally displays the names of more than half-a-million people—persons who have pledged to take a stand against hate and work for justice and tolerance in their daily lives.
Visitors to the center have the opportunity to take this pledge.
By placing my name on the Wall of Tolerance, I pledge to take a stand against hate, injustice and intolerance. I will work in my daily life for justice, equality and human rights-the ideals for which the Civil Rights martyrs died.
This Easter Day, like Mary Magdalene, you and I will hear Jesus calling our name—as we rededicate our lives to the service of Christ.
Will you—my sisters and brothers—renew your commitment to Christ by placing your name in his service of freedom for all God’s children?
Thus–On this Easter Day, I ask our All Saint’s Parish family to rededicate our common life as a Jubilee Center and Mission Center of the Episcopal Church.
A Jubilee Center of the Episcopal Church places the work of Outreach, Justice, and Peacemaking at the Center of its Mission.
Our own Mission Statement clearly notes that “we celebrate God’s work in the World.” That is symbolized by this renewed and dedicated sacred space—a transparent opening—a true altar to the world.
How have we at All Saint’s Church done this? Celebrate God’s work in the World? How have we heard the voice of Jesus calling us? How have we recognized him in the work of solidarity with the human family?
We have built homes outside of Juarez, Mexico; we have helped build homes with Habitat for Humanity in Trenton? We have renovated the property of Arm in Arm, formerly known as Crisis Ministry.
We have advocated for survivors of domestic abuse through WomanSpace.
We have advocated for tolerance and racial justice through Not in Our Town in Princeton. We have advocated for affordable housing through Princeton Community Housing.
We have built a Meditation Garden and Pergola for the HomeFront Family Preservation Center in their former location.
We provided profound support for the people of Christ Church, Tom’s River as partners in the recovery from Hurricane Sandy. And much more.
Following the service today, Stephen Hagerty, the Chair of our Outreach Ministry, will briefly convene a group of all who are interested in becoming a part of the Jubilee work of our congregation. I invite you to join Stephen for that meeting.
The first project on our agenda of our newly formed Outreach Ministry will be the construction of a new Pergola and Meditation space on the grounds of the new Family Preservation Shelter at HomeFront’s Ewing location.
This will be a project involving all the families of our parish, from seniors to children; the project has been approved and funded by our Vestry and, if you choose to make this happen as a parish—we can get started as early as this summer.
But there will certainly be other work of our Outreach Ministry from advocacy for women through WomanSpace, for the work of Arm in Arm, for Affordable Housing, to continuing Joy Kulvicki’s vision for the welcome of refugees and immigrants, to an issue close to my heart—the advocacy and service to those who live with Addiction and doing all we can to address the Opioid Crisis.
All this is Jubilee work, the ongoing work of the risen Christ to bring human dignity, respect and humanity to all of God’s children—on earth-as it is heaven.
Yes, like Mary Magdalene, we hear Jesus calling our name—to this very day.
But, like Mary we must recognize him. We must recognize him when we go tell the Good News: Christ as Risen.
Christ Has Risen as we Serve and Love like He did.
Just before his death, Robert F. Kennedy who was also a devout Roman Catholic Christian– issued this challenge:
“Few will have the greatness to bend history to itself, but each of us can work to change a small part of events, and in the total of these acts, will be written the names of this generation.”
It is from numberless, diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped. Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope.
And crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, these ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”
Like Mary Magdalene, called by Jesus—then going forth to spread his Gospel.
Like the Civil Rights martyrs, enshrined how in the baptismal waters of justice.
Like you and like me—when we place our names at the service of the Baptismal Covenant, and add our small, diverse act of courage, to those ripples and currents until justice rolls down like waters…..
Then and only then will we, like Mary—Hear him call each of us by name.
A sermon preached on Holy Satruday, April 15, 2017, by the Rev. Dr. Gordon Graham in All Saints’ Episcopal Church, Princeton, NJ
A sermon preached on Good Friday, April 14, 2017, by the Rev. Hugh E. Brown, III, D. Min. in All Saints’ Episcopal Church, Princeton, NJ
“Meanwhile, standing near the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdelene.
Said Jesus, ‘Woman—behold your Son; son Behold Your Mother.’ And from that moment –the disciple took her into his own home.”
The Christian Church—at least according to John—did not start on the day of Pentecost; no, so it begins tonight–the birth of the Church.
Where will the true Church forever be found? Is it not but at the foot of the world’s cross? Is it not but in solidarity with human pain? Is it not but a people walking with the innocent victims executed by the oppressions of this world?
We may possess glory as the world defines it—numbers, possessions, property, buildings, splendor, success, and all the vestiges of worldly magnificence. The Church May even possess the glory of evangelism, crusades, and mass conversion.
But the true Church will always be the crucified Church—standing with the crucified wherever they may be.
Extended to the Copts of Egypt–victims of a recent terrorist attack and hate crime in the name of religious persecution–to the men, women and children of Syria–suffering indescribable violence in civil war—to the victims of injustice and war throughout the human family–the new community at the foot of the cross offers witness and mutual love—just as it did for Jesus.
Thus tonight, as you hear once again, the Passion story of Jesus—I invite you to be ministers of compassionate witness.
I draw this theme—compassionate witness from the work of Kaethe Weingarten.
She is a clinical psychologist, family therapist and professor at the Harvard Medical School.
I recently encountered her work in a Chapter of a book recently published by Deborah Hunsinger entitled Bearing the Unbearable: Trauma, Gospel and Pastoral Care.
Wiengarten explores the question, “how can the experience of a shocking life event eventually lead to healing, reconciliation and wholeness?” That is not the question regarding the Jesus of long ago; that is the question for all those living, like Jesus, with the unbearable heaviness of being—of trauma, abuse, and violence.
She identifies three ways to compassionate witness. We see them all in the passion story from John’s Gospel tonight. We are invited to live them tonight. We are invited to leave the church tonight with compassionate witness engraved on our hearts.
First—compassionate witness is truth; when crucifixion happens, let us not avoid, dismiss or deny; let us not dismiss or reject; let us be real about pain.
Simply put, at the cross, three women and a man chose to stay—not run—away from pain. They stayed with Jesus no matter how terrible the situation.
In compassionate witness, one listens to another’s pain with attention and attunement.
So many do not seek help in the midst of trauma and violence because they do not trust another to listen.
If I had any “take-away” for every single person gathered tonight—it would your becoming compassionate witnesses by the simple acts of listening and attention. And not just attention to those you like or want to be with, including your circle of friends and family–but everyone—all of humanity.
Second, compassionate witness is about presence—real presence; the kind of presence which heals, transforms, and offers real relationship—a real person to another in the midst of crucifixion.
These four loved ones of Jesus at the foot of the cross did more than just “show up.” They were present. As we all know, you can show up—and not truly be there.
How do we know this—this presence on their part? We do because Jesus responded to them. Jesus, the one in profound pain—physically and emotionally responded with compassion.
It is amazing how compassionate response and witness is so mutual. Jesus no doubt experienced their love, and responded with love-“Woman—behold your son; son, behold your mother.”
Whatever else is going on here, Jesus, as he is dying commends his mother into another’s care.
How amazing (!!)—such great love in the midst of pain; such is the transforming effect of compassionate witness; not just for Jesus, but for you—for me—and for the human family.
My friends—please learn again tonight–from Jesus and his friends at the foot of the cross—the power of compassionate witness to transform the deepest darkness into love.
Third, the way of compassionate witness is simple, but powerful action. In the way of compassionate witness, one undertakes a concrete action that addresses the other’s need, either literally or symbolically.
At the foot of cross, The Beloved Disciple took the mother of Jesus into his care. Very simple; very direct; very tangible; very powerful. More on this as I close in a few minutes.
So, you might ask, “how does the ministry of compassionate witness begin?” How might I accept this invitation when I leave the sacred space on this holy night?
First—be aware; don’t avoid; don’t change the subject; don’t run from another in pain—as all but four of the circle of Jesus ran from him—at least according to John.
According to one study cited by Weingarten, students hear slurs directed against the LGBT community, against women, against minority communities, against the disabled and those living with mental health issues–approximately 25 times a day in schools across the nation.
Faculty and staff choose to intervene only 3 percent of the time. She notes that nothing contributes to the hopelessness of vulnerable students than adults, empowered to help, but choosing to be unaware and unavailable.
Second, simply listen! But really listen; really bestow perhaps the greatest gift you can to another in pain—your complete, total availability and attention.
Within my MSW cohort class over the past three years, one classmate lived through the suicide of her husband, one classmate lost a home to fire, two other classmates experienced their spouses/partners as diagnosed with cancer.
Another classmate recently experienced a daughter diagnosed with serious mental illness.
Every single one of my friends and classmates is graduating from the program, with outstanding work completed, and bright professional futures.
To the person, each of my colleagues and friends shared with one another–this past weekend in class–that they could not have done so–without compassionate listening on the part of our community forged among our class.
Let be direct tonight—far too often the Church does not offer this kind of compassionate witness; we are too preoccupied by sin and not enough by support.
We care too much for ambition and power and not enough for people. We can do better. Jesus wants us to do better.
Third, compassionate witness means undertaking a concrete action on behalf of another—literally or symbolically.
They do so like the Beloved Disciple—caring for the mother of Jesus by offering her shelter, support and surrounding friendship.
Several weeks ago, some caring members of our parish community brought my wife Elly a tiny wooden cross, made with wood from the Holy Land.
They knew that Elly had recently has surgery. They were recently travelling in the Holy Land; they reached out with a beautiful, concrete gift.
When my MSW colleague lost her husband to suicide, each one of our community took turns, to call her text her, e-mail her—each week; we teamed to do this; when we had class, we took her to lunch—every month when we met.
Weingarten writes: “Compassionate Witness is about– the simple gifts.”
A story is told of a little boy who loved a violin store—and the owners; each day, after school, he would walk by the story, often entering it and talking to the nice couple who loved the store very much; alas, the store burned.
What did the child’s mother do? She asked her son a very simple question; What would he like the store owners to know? “I’m sorry that the violins burned.”
So, mother and son together shaped a loaf of bread into a violin and gave it to the store owners.
The mother said the son never forgot that. The mother knew that her son was in trauma from the event.
She knew that an expression of care would help him. She knew it was important for him to have a safe place to talk through this event.
She did not say to him: “Chin up.” “Be tough.” “You can handle it.” “They’ll get over it.”
No—this Mother knew that healing in the midst of painful circumstances and crucifixion events entails compassionate witness—focused attention, heartfelt response and concreate action.
Like the little band at the foot of the Cross with Jesus.
We can be in immense pain—and be compassionate witnesses; compassion is concrete action—hope in doing; in offering love in the midst of pain—we heal ourselves as well.
Indeed tonight is called Good Friday because we see Love tonight-a Little foretaste of Easter tonight—even in the midst of crucifixion.
For the ministry of Compassionate Witness offered by the Church is the true Eucharist; the real bread offered for spiritual nourishment to a world in pain.
So, tonight, let us shape that bread of the Eucharist into a violin—transforming fires of destruction– into compassionate witness for healing.
A Sermon preached by the Rev. Jack Andersen in All Saints’ Episcopal Church in Princeton, on April 13, 2017, Maundy Thursday
A Sermon preached by the Rev. Hugh E. Brown, III, D. Min, Rector in All Saints’ Episcopal Church in Princeton, on March 26, 2017, the 4th Sunday of Lent, Year A, on John 9: 1-41
Illumination–Challenging Fear and Seeing Persons, Mud and Waters of Siloam
I don’t know how many of you have seen the movie, Ray, starring Jamie Foxx as the great artist and musician, Ray Charles.
There is a scene in Ray when Ray Charles is having an argument with his devoted wife, Della Bea Robinson, who is played so well by Kerry Washington.
Bea pleads, “The only thing that can help you Ray is God.” Charles quickly turns the argument back on her: “Don’t you talk about God. You have any idea how it feels to go blind and still be afraid of the dark? And every day you stand and pray just a little light and you don’t get nothing. Cause God don’t listen to people like me.”
Bea warns, “Stop talking like that.” But, Charles presses on. “As far as I am concerned, me and God is even, and I do what I please.”
Charles echoes many who live with disability—the search for God in the midst of it.
In the days of Jesus, there were some, certainly not all, who thought they knew the answer to this question.
The pat theological answer: “Who Sinned?
The notion that disability is caused by sins of the disabled, or by the parents, has its roots in Exodus 20:5 and 34:7—quoted and reiterated in Numbers 14:18 and Deuteronomy 5:9; it also has roots in the so-called Holiness Code of Levitics.
Some of this was alive in the days of Jesus; if an adult got sick, you blame his or her behavior. If a baby was born with an illness, you could fall back on Exodus 20:5: “I the Lord your God is a jealous God, punishing children for the injury of
It is true that Jesus heals the blind man in the story. But, according to John’s Gospel, rich in symbolism, much more is going on than that.
Which brings me to the primary message for this story on this day—not so much about physical blindness—but spiritual blindness. I
t is also not about the spiritual blindness of “them” those outside the Christian faith—but about the blindness of too many Christians to human need, suffering and the call to a life of Mercy.
Scholars I deeply respect like Raymond Brown speak of the profound symbolism of spiritual blindness in the text.
When they do, they direct this spiritual blindness at the Pharisees; when they describe the spiritual blindness of the Pharisees, they focus on their rejection of Jesus as Messiah.
For spiritual sight, they focus on the blind man, as implied in the text, becoming a disciple of Jesus.
Thus the focus is on a Christological point—Jesus as the Light of the World—rejected by the Pharisees—and by implication—the Jews.
Such scholarship is certainly insightful; scripture and history both point to the opposition to Jesus by religious leadership.
Scholars will also point out that the Gospel of John was likely written towards the later part of the first century, and describes the gut-wrenching tragedy of the separation of what will be called Christianity, from Rabbinic Judaism.
Religious fights are messy, prone to emotionally and physically, are immensely polarizing and hateful. We know this from our own conflict today within the Christian community over issues of interpretation of scripture and social witness.
However, I’m not sure that that Jesus would want us to focus, this morning, on spiritual blindness as a religious problem—or a faith problem.
No—the issue with the Pharisees is not their religion.
It is their fear.
Their fear blinded them to human need. T
Look at their attacks on the blind man
Their willingness to put fear over compassion is breathtaking.
What are they concerned about? Like all too many religious or church folk—they are concerned about the things that divide us too much; authority; who is in charge to do what; who claims what truth for what and whom.
Like the Priest and the Levite in the story of the Good Samaritan—the religious leaders—the religious folk of the day—put doctrine over persons and put dogma and the power to enforce dogma over grace.
Let us be clear.
When persons and the needs of persons were at stake—Jesus challenged our spiritual blindness again and again.
For we can have all the clarity and illumination in the world about religion, and the abstract things of faith—and fail to see the person in front of us crying out for the love of God.
I’ll never forget the words of an elementary school principle in a so called Christian School in Southwestern VA–to my sister when she was enrolling my nieces, both living with Autism: “We really should not have them here; we don’t have the resources.”
Of course, as she discovered, one reason that he did not want them is that he would, by Federal and State law, have to pay a few extra bucks to have them; no wonder Jesus talked about Stewardship of resources for it is amazing how money makes abstract theology or social ethics very clear very quickly.
But, like he always does—Jesus saw those Children even if a so-called Christian leader—in the spirit of the Pharisees-did not.
Beyond her imagination, my sister eventually discovered programs and persons—far too few it is true—to help my nieces; God always seemed to direct her to just the right place at right time.
God is always good to those with disability—even if we, in the spirit of the Pharisees are not.
Just this past week, a friend and colleague of mine—deeply distrustful of anything to do with the Church—told a story about her sister; her sister has a child also living with Autism; her sister was part of a Church bible Study; she was taken aside by the Bible study leader—who told her to please not to bring her child to the study anymore—that it was too disruptive—and that she should also think about finding another church of her child was disrupting services.
Now there are legitimate issues over the inclusion of those living with disability and adults—and how we do this; but not whether we should do this.
When it comes to welcome—Jesus is clear—always is.
I hope this parish continues to be a place where we don’t theologize over sin and disability; we simply welcome the disabled.
There are huge conversations within our nation right now about the nature of disability; is disability a bad thing?
Are there just degrees of normal? What is normal? For those of us who have loved ones with Autism—we know that Autism not only brings pain and suffering but immense creativity, gifts and blessings.
I think that all of our parents, grandparents and loved ones experience not only the pain of disability but also the gifts.
No matter the debates or the theology and philosophy associated with them; t he message of Jesus and our parish response should be clear—not blind.
Our parish family has reached out through the years in special way to those living with disability.
Our new addition reflect this commitment with special access to those with the disability of mobility.
Yes,–Our Church and Nation has made progress in our spiritual blindness regarding disability.
My experience also confirms we need to challenge the same spiritual blindness towards those living with mental illness—especially the illness of addiction.
Last week, I attended a series of morning lectures by professor of Pastoral Theology-Sonia Waters, who has experience, expertise and immense heart for and with those living with substance abuse disorders.
Among all of the other insightful and illuminating teaching for– in her words, “accompanying the addict into recovery”—and becoming pastors and laity of compassion—she noted this trust.
Many if not most Addicts don’t trust us; they don’t pastors; they don’t trust church folk; they don’t trust those in religious circles.
Such is my two year experience at Princeton House with those living with addiction as well; many want to believe in a Higher Power; many would love to think of something transcendent importance giving their strength and power.
I often hear within religious circles—talk of abstract theology of God’s wrath vs. God’s mercy—of “anything goes Liberal Theology” vs. Jesus-centered new Calvinist Theology—of repentance vs. accountability—and the like.
Let’s get real; fear of God; Fear of the Church; fear of you and me as religious folk—is a concrete reality for so many who need us; who need God; who need Jesus. It is not an abstraction; it is a concrete experience of pain.
No—they don’t trust us; for good reason—those who live with addiction.
For the Church-whether in Lent or otherwise is still preoccupied with the question: Who Sinned?
Professor Waters summarized the dilemma for the church all too well.
“We are doing something wrong as Christians if persons feel they have to leave Christianity to find a merciful God.”
Do we want spiritual illumination for Lent? A different kind of Lenten discipline if you are still looking for one?
Let’s get out of our church bubble; let’s talk to the “blind men and women” on the street; let’s get real; lets not talk about disability or addiction; let’s take some take some mud; let’s take the risk to touch another with compassion.
Let’s take someone by the hand and lead them to the pool of Siloam; let’s splash cool water on another’s face and wash away the mud.
Pope Francis has called the world-wide Christian Church to live with what he calls the Principle of Mercy.
Do we want to challenge spiritual blindness and create true illumination—in Lent or any other time? .
Let’s stop talking about mercy and extending mercy; let’s make the church a place where those in pain—can learn to trust.
For Lent—and always—let us continue to make this Church—the Christian church—a place where all can truly……find a merciful God.
Let this be our Lenten rule: The Principle of Mercy—indeed.
A Sermon preached by the Austin Brown, Seminarian Intern at All Saints’ Episcopal Church in Princeton, on March 19, 2017
A sermon preached on the Second Sunday of Lent, March 12, 2017, in All Saints’ Episcopal Church, Princeton, NJ, by the Rev. Dr. Gordon Graham
A sermon preached on the First Sunday of Lent, March 5, 2017, year A, on Matthew 4:1-11; in All Saints’ Episcopal Church, Princeton, NJ, by the Rev. Hugh E. Brown, III, D. Min.
“If you are the Son of God…”
You are Beautiful; You can Live!
We might presume that the story of Jesus in the wilderness is most relevant to our Lenten journey as we enter a 40 day time of spiritual baggage-clearing and soul-checking; however do we find it to be so?
For the story does not seem, at first glance, to correspond with our experience; we don’t have conversations with the devil; nor are we whisked from place to place as was Jesus; these temptations—to desert bread, jumping from buildings, and kingdoms of power—seem remote to our life challenges.
What did Jesus know of the temptations that are faced daily by the recovering addict? The substance abuser? The lonely divorcee? The struggling business owner? The overworked employee? The unemployed? The teen who covets acceptance? The Undocumented immigrant in newfound fear of deportation?
The children of the minorities in this nation living in fear of death by illegal violence or legal law enforcement racism?
So—what is the common thread between Jesus as Son of God with his tests—and the contemporary test of people of faith as children of God?
We might remember that the question Jesus received from Satan is that same question that Jesus heard when he was taunted on the cross: “If you are the Son of God. “
If you are the Son of God—prove it.
That’s what God told you at your Baptism right Jesus? You are my beloved Son.
In the Wilderness with Satan Jesus heard the taunts: “If you are the Son of God—do something powerful; create bread in the Desert—as God did in the Wilderness; you are the new deliverer of Israel; people will flock to you as the New Moses. Prove your Son-ship by Miracle.” Jesus clings to Deuteronomy 8:3; He will live by God’s word and God said, “Thou art my Beloved Son.”
In the Wilderness, Jesus hears this from Satan: “If you are the Son of God throw yourself down the Pinnacle of the Temple in Jerusalem; its teeming with people; if God rescues you—and you say you trust the word of God who will not let his Son fail—then such an amazing rescue will prove God’s stamp of approval on his Chosen one—his Beloved.”
Satan might have continued, “Jesus—if you are not the new Moses—you can be the new Aaron—the new Priest; after all the prophet Malachi said that God would send the Messiah to cleanse the temple in Jerusalem.” Jesus clings to scripture again—“You shall not test the Lord your God.” For God told Jesus “You are my Beloved Son.” To live with God’s word is listen to His Will—not in anyone’s taunt, “Prove it.”
Finally, Satan says, “If you are the Son of God”—“take the Kingdoms of the World; take power; that is what everyone expects—a new David—a new King.” Israel seethed with longing for release from Roman oppression, restoration of God’s nation, the Vindication of Yahweh’s honor.
These are no bald seductions; Satan’s taunt: “If you are the Son of God”—was a direct challenge to Jesus’s identity; a direct challenge to his Beloved-ness—his very nature in God. Mosaic Prophet; Priestly Messiah, Davidic King. These are the categories of Messiah Jesus must fulfill—IF he is truly Beloved of God.
Satan is no archfiend seducing Jesus with offers of love, wealth and carnal pleasure. His task is far more subtle. His task goes to the center of all true Satanic temptation—the rending, searing, and breaking of Jesus’s calling, status and mark as God’s beloved.
The collective expectations of who Jesus was to be as God’s beloved did not fit.
They did not fit him in the desert with Satan; they did not fit him during life of preaching, healing, liberating and redeeming folks from the collective expectations of others; they did not fit him on the cross.
As the theologian Walter Wink puts it: “The most Satanic temptation of all is the temptation to be someone other than ourselves.”
Jesus could have easily refused to listen to God’s word—“You are my beloved. You are MY Son—My Chosen; you are not to be the new Moses; the new Aaron; the new Elijah; the New David. You are to be Jesus; you will be fulfill my will for you in your own way—and through your own vocation I will grant you; listen to me; not them!
We can easily refuse to listen to God’s word and let collective religious, spiritual or even Christian expectations taunt us with “If you are a Child of God; If you are Beloved of God—Prove it.”
Let us hear our promise from God in Holy Baptism again: “You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism—and marked as God’s own forever.”
Marked as God’s own—Sealed by the Holy Spirit.
Given these two marks of identity in our Baptismal Covenant:
*To seek and serve Christ in All Persons
*To Respect the Dignity of Every Human being.
We all do often hear the subtle voice of Satan—“if you are Beloved of God—prove it!”
*If you are Beloved of God—Be Powerful; be Spectacular; be Successful; Be one who uses cunning and force.
*If you are Beloved of God—and you follow new models of Discipleship—Prove it. Prove you are God’s beloved.
*If you are Beloved of God—and you encounter wilderness test, and the crucifixions of life—Prove it—Prove you are still God’s daughter—or God’s son.
Throughout this nation today—we have neighbors, sisters and brothers, who are hearing perpetual daily challenges to their status as God’s Beloved; they are hearing the voice, “if you are God’s beloved….”
*If you are undocumented.
*If you are Gay
*If you are Trangender.
*If you are at risk of violence.
*If you are Muslim
*If you are live with addiction
*if you live with physical and mental disabilities
This past week, I was privileged to see an Amazing television series on ABC—When we Rise—the story of the movement for LGBT rights in the United States—the last and most recent struggle for Civil Rights and Social Justice in the United States..
The series begins in the 1970s with the first organizing of the gay community for legal protections for discrimination, criminalization and societal violence—through the HIV/AIDS crisis and the gay community’s fight for survival–to the 2014 Supreme Court decision striking down the Defense of Marriage Act and the 2015 Supreme Court decision make marriage equality the law of the land.
One searing scene made me think of the phrase, You Are my Beloved.
Portrayed by the Australian actor, Guy Pearce, the noted LGBT activist Cleave Jones, the visionary behind the AIDS quilt (which I had the blessing of seeing when it came to Washington DC in 1996)—was in the process of becoming a foster parent for a baby girl.
Jones had literally rescued the little girl from a father, struggling with addiction, and unable to care for the child.
Jones was the blessed recipient of the new cocktail of drugs which gave, and continue to give the promise of life to thousands of persons who live with HIV.
Unfortunately, as the caseworkers were completing the foster parent process, one of them happened to see a bottle of pills on a table as he was literally walking out the door.
“These are drugs for AIDS.”
Upon seeing the drugs, the other caseworker, ordered Jones to “give her the child” telling him, “Now this Child is a Ward of the State.” “But the drugs will not harm the child; my immune system is now near normal,” Jones pleaded.
Nevertheless the caseworkers ripped the child away from a man who had become her genuine father—leaving him devastated—wailing in agony; denying the child the man who could give her the love that no other family would likely give in our nation’s very broken foster care system.
In the background is the voice of former Moral Majority leader Jerry Falwell: “when you go against God’s nature—there are consequences.”
Sisters and brothers in Christ—far too often—and despite the clear word of God in our Baptismal covenant—You are God’s beloved—we give too many persons the message—IF you a Child of God—Prove it.
For far too long—those in the human family among us hear a silence as profound as Jesus—in the wilderness or on the cross.
It need not be so.
At Diocesan Convention this weekend, Chip Stokes,The Bishop of the Diocese of New Jersey challenged us with these words: We may have different political and theological viewpoints but when it comes to the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the protection of the vulnerable among us—this Church must brook no compromise.
Yes, my sisters and brothers—there can be no compromise in the progress we have made as nation and as church to fully live into the Baptismal promise: You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism…and marked as God’s own…
For this promise is not just the promise of Christians—but of All people—marked as God’s own.
IF you are the Son of Daughter of God.
Jesus heard those words.
And rejected them. He removed the IF; he always does.
“You are God’s beloved”—Even on the Cross Jesus heard them—and found the compassion to even embrace his enemies—out of this deep sense of God’s love.
We can do no better than the words of a young woman at Princeton House from the Addiction and Recovery program. I heard these words from her during a group therapy session I was leading for those in the journey to recovery.
At one point she looked around the group of heroin addicts seated in a circle of support and safety.
“I can’t believe it; All these Beautiful People; we Are so Beautiful; Really; Why are we here?”
“To which another responded: Maybe we are not; maybe we are worthless after all.”
“Don’t you ever say that.” Don’t you ever give up,” she pleaded.
She continued, “I was just about to give up; then my Mom called; she believes in me.”
“I was about to sign out to leave. Give up.”
“And she said, “Pray with me;” and we prayed over the phone out in that hall.”
“And I heard in my heart that God wanted me to stay; that God believed in me. That I was not alone.”
“We are good people; our Higher Power wants us to live. God wants us to live. That’s my Higher Power and I say it here.”
“I listened to HIM; please listen to HIM—and to me; You are beautiful; you can get well.”
“If you are the Daughter or Son of God—Prove it!.” That’s the voice of darkness. That’s the voice of Satan in the wilderness; that’s the voice of crucifixion. It always was; always will be.
Beloved of God—here these words: “You are my Beloved.”
Live by God’s word; you are beautiful! God wants you to really, truly live!
Thanks be to God!
A sermon preached on the 6th Sunday After the Epiphany, by the Rev. Gordon Graham, in All Saints’ Episcopal Church, Princeton, NJ on February 12, 2017
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