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Sermon 3/8/20

A sermon preached in All Saints’ Episcopal Church, Princeton on March 15, 2020, The Third Sunday of Lent on John 4: 5-52

“He told me Everything I have Ever done” (He told me the Truth about myself!)

       Bestowing Living Water: A Sermon in Light of the COVID-19 Pandemic

She had lost five husbands;  can we fathom that?

 Psychologists will tell us that it is one of the most difficult and stressful events of life to lose one spouse.

We might assume the Samaritan woman lost her husbands within a life of sin. 

If we read the story on the surface, we might think that the Samaritan woman was a fallen woman, an adulterer, or somehow, immoral. 

The story does not say she committed any kind of sin. 

In biblical times, a woman could lose loved ones, very, very easily.

We might think of the wore torn lands of Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine, Libya, you name it—and think of women who have lost more than one husband.

 Syliva Pajolous, the reporter for National Public Radio interviewed a woman in Sarajevo during the Bosnian war, which lost six husbands over the course of four years.

We should not forget that Israel/Palestine was a war-torn land in the days of Jesus;  it was two-thousand years ago;  it is today. 

In fact, the woman, as a Samaritan, was despised by Jesus’s own people, the Jews.  Jews and Samaritans despised one another. 

Jews and Samaritans both hated the Romans, who occupied both peoples.

One thing we do know;  the woman of Samaria was shunned, alone, and isolated. 

She was not only part of an outcast people;  she was outcast in her own village. 

How do we know this?  How do we know no one wants to have anything to do with her?

Why would she draw water at high noon, in the scorching heat, when the other women gather at sunrise and sunset, when the weather is cooler? 

She avoids the sneers and backstabbing by coming to the well alone. 

There is no bond between this woman and her sisters.

And what about the man she is now living with—the man correctly named by Jesus as “not her husband?”

 More likely, this man is her brother-in-law. 

You see, by law, the childless widow must be taken as a wife by the remaining brother of the deceased, so generational identity could continue. 

By law, the brother was her fifth husband.

          But, many brothers refused to take in a childless widow.  In the day of Jesus, it was a stigma to be a woman.

 It was a double stigma to be a childless woman. 

It was a triple stigma to be a childless widow. 

And, this was already living, as a Samaritan woman, in an oppressed and marginalized culture. 

Many men did not want anything to do with women lack this.  Bad luck.  Bad deal.

Chances are good that the brother of the deceased husband refused to marry the Samaritan woman. 

Or, married her in name/law only.  Put her up in a shack somewhere;  gave her crumbs to eat from the table.  But, refused to have any real relationship with her.

You see, this woman cannot be understood in terms of our modern morality. 

She had not power in the world.  She had little power over her own life. 

She was chattel, the property of men who would have her. 

It is certain that her first marriage was considered legitimate;  the second, third, and forth too. 

But, the last, it was not a marriage at all. 

She was about as alone and isolated as a person could be.

And, then, came Jesus.

I invite all of us to allow the situation of this woman to soak into our souls for a minute before we can understand what Jesus did for her.

And what her interactions with Jesus might mean for what Jesus can do for each one of  us.

In the scorching heat of the noonday sun, Jesus meets a woman who is completely powerless, and considered a “sinner” by the standards of her day. 

She has no family.  She has no community.  She has no legal rights. 

And her religion gives her no help. Indeed, her religion probably reinforced what her culture said about her.

This is what bad religion does. 

It takes cultural stereotypes and then labels persons as “sinners” or “immoral” based on them.

 The religion of the days of Jesus took lepers, took the ill, took pregnant women, took women who were widows or childless and turned them into “sinners” even though they had done nothing wrong.

 It is called ignorance.

It is ignorance masquerading in the name of religion.

 It continues today whenever we take a cultural prejudice and lift it into a religious value. 

It continues today when folks on the margins, when persons down on their luck, come to the church looking for support and find only rejection.

When the Samaritan women said to Jesus, “Sir, give me this water, that I may never be thirsty, I hear her plea as one of frustration, resignation, desperation. 

From what water did she drink for years?  And years?  No doubt, the water of self-hatred, self-doubt, self-debasement. 

That is what the label:  “sinner” or “bad,” or “geek” or “nerd,” or “whore” or “lazy” or “not one of us,” can do.

Well, the Samaritan woman was fed up with being a victim.  She was fed up with the water of self-loathing.

Jesus, by his very presence, his understanding, his dialogue, and his words, gave her the true Living Water!

Not only the gift of himself as her savior.

But the gift of everything he was about—freedom, liberation, empowerment; that is what the living water of Jesus is always about—freedom--and commitment to the freedom, justice and compassion for others.

What happened to her? 

She was forever changed by that encounter with Jesus.  She was no longer a victim but an evangelist. 

She stood in the presence of the living one, the living water, the bread of life.

It took a while before it dawned on her, but, once it did, she left her water jar where it stood.

The purpose of her mission had changed from gathering water to gathering disciples. 

She ran to the city and told all who would listen, “Come and see a man who told me everything that I have done!”

We might paraphrase, “Come and see a man who told me the truth about myself.  I am a lady;  I am a woman!  I am good!  I am strong!  And I can overcome!”

What a turn-around for this unnamed woman.  No hiding her head in shame anymore.  No!  She went out to convert the people who despised her as an instrument of reconciliation and forgiveness.

In the spring of 1996, I encountered some other unnamed women;  they are known simply in El Salvador as El Comadres—the “Mothers of the Disappeared.”

In the Salvadorian Civil War, they lost their husbands.  Some lost one husband.  Many lost more than one. 

They would hear a car pull up in the night;  the door would crash  in;  armed men would enter—some with masks.  They would both shoot and drag their husbands, their men from their homes.  Some of the women would be killed too.

What was their crime, these men? 

They taught the poor to read;  the taught the catechism to church children—or Sunday School;  the organized workers to fight for their rights.

They organized native Americans to fight for their land;  they raised questions about so many rich and so many poor.

They taught the Gospel but in a different way.  They taught that God did not will people to be poor, to be despised, to be kicked around, to be abused.

They taught that the God of the poor was on the side of the poor-and always seeks to hold the rich and the powerful accountable.

These husbands were often a lot like Jesus—giving “Samaritan Women and Men” of El Salvador hope, a voice, organized power for change.

At first these women cowered.

Then, one day, a group of these unnamed women went to the Archbishop of San Salvador—a very powerful man.  His name was Oscar Romero.

They told their Archbishop about their husbands, about what was going on in their country.

The previous told them to go home and be “good wives and mothers”--and to shut up.

The Archbishop listened to their story;  and then he stood up;  they thought he would dismiss them.

Then Monsenior Romero moved across the room and went behind his desk and got—his bullhorn—used to speak to great crowds who would come to hear him the countryside for he was rapidly becoming the people’s Archbishop.

He took the Bullhorn, blessed it in front of the women, gave it to them and ordered them into the central Square of El Salvador to plead for their husbands to plead for truth—with the full backing of the authority of the Church.

I saw that old bullhorn in the office of the Comadres in San Salvador.  The “mothers of the Disappeared.”

I saw the effects of a man, Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador, whose feast day we will celebrate on March 24th—on unnamed women who became evangelists, heroes and leaders for the Gospel of truth. 

I saw a man who became like Jesus to the woman of Samaria, a man who empowered women to change their souls, their families and their country.

That is what Jesus can do for you and for me—and for all those who need an advocate and a voice!

Who calls you and me to do what he did—take the lonely, the fearful, those cowering in oppression!

And, through our courage, strength and love……and our presence…..transform them into evangelists……the bearers of Good news!

Jesus calls you and me to take up the bullhorn!

Jesus calls you and me……..like the Samaritan Woman……. to be the Living Water of God’s love, call all our sisters and brothers to claim their power, strength, and dignity as the children of God.

I witnessed this kind of Living Water in a Grocery Store in Roanoke, Virginia this past week……when visiting my mother…..as our nation was gripped in the truth, fear and anxiety over the COVID-19 Pandemic.

As you know, we are now in a most uncertain and difficult time as the COVID-19 Pandemic hits the United States and has spread to all areas of our country;  some stores are running short of supplies due to panic buying and some hording.

In these times we witness the best and worst of the human condition.  The best is always prompted by the Living Water of Jesus.

When I was checking out in a rather long and frustrated line of customers who could not attain all they wanted on that day, I looked back over my shoulder to a rather forlorn man with a Vietnam Vet cap on; he obviously did not get all he needed.

Behind him was a woman with a full cart.

She saw the man’s cap.

“Are you a Vet?” she asked.

“Yes, Vietnam,” he answered with some genuine pride.

She continued, “Please sir—in thanksgiving for your service-take what you need from my cart; and I want to pay for all your items.”

At first… he hesitated.

Did the Samaritan women at first hesitate to accept the Living Water of Christ?

Sometimes it is more difficult to receive than to give.

Finally…..the Viet smiled….and received the gift.

I can only imagine he was empowered that day.

That, like you and me who receive living water of compassion—the compassion that always has Christ at center—for love is Christ—the Vietnam Vet was strengthened to share his own compassion with others; as did the Samaritan Woman.

That is the way of Christ dear friends—not the way of “fixing” our difficulties; but of mending, transforming and redeeming them with love—God’s  ultimate and most powerful power.

Jesus could not “fix’ a woman’s grief, pain and oppression; but he could use it, transform it; and then be present so powerfully in it—that it could be directed to service, love and bearing the cross of others.

So may Jesus do in this time—as he is always present to bestow his living water—on you…and on me.

There is no doubt a Samaritan Woman in your life today…….go and let God’s living water flow through you………to give, through your presence, the gift of empowered, extravagant life!   AMEN!

I close with the following words of our Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry, in this tie of Pandemic and Fear:

“In this time when we are all affected by the coronavirus, whether directly or indirectly, whether physically, biologically, psychologically, spiritually, and for many economically, it may be helpful to remember that we're in this together.

Jesus came among us in the first place, to show us the way to be right and reconcile with the God who is the creator of us all, and right and reconciled with each other as children of this one God who has created us all, and therefore as sisters, brothers, and siblings, one of another. 

Jesus came to show us how to be in a relationship with God and in relationship with each other, came to show us how to live not simply as collections of individual self-interest, but how to live as the human family of God. That's why he said love the Lord your God, love your neighbor as yourself. Because in that is hope for all of us to be the human family of God.

So look out for your neighbors, look out for each other. Look out for yourselves. Listen to those who have knowledge that can help to guide us medically and help to guide us socially. Do everything that we can to do this together, to respond to each other's needs and to respond to our own needs.” ~ Bishop Curry

Sermon 3/15/20

A sermon preached in All Saints’ Episcopal Church, Princeton on March 15, 2020, The Third Sunday of Lent on John 4: 5-52

“He told me Everything I have Ever done” (He told me the Truth about myself!)

       Bestowing Living Water: A Sermon in Light of the COVID-19 Pandemic

She had lost five husbands;  can we fathom that?

 Psychologists will tell us that it is one of the most difficult and stressful events of life to lose one spouse.

We might assume the Samaritan woman lost her husbands within a life of sin. 

If we read the story on the surface, we might think that the Samaritan woman was a fallen woman, an adulterer, or somehow, immoral. 

The story does not say she committed any kind of sin. 

In biblical times, a woman could lose loved ones, very, very easily.

We might think of the wore torn lands of Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine, Libya, you name it—and think of women who have lost more than one husband.

 Syliva Pajolous, the reporter for National Public Radio interviewed a woman in Sarajevo during the Bosnian war, which lost six husbands over the course of four years.

We should not forget that Israel/Palestine was a war-torn land in the days of Jesus;  it was two-thousand years ago;  it is today. 

In fact, the woman, as a Samaritan, was despised by Jesus’s own people, the Jews.  Jews and Samaritans despised one another. 

Jews and Samaritans both hated the Romans, who occupied both peoples.

One thing we do know;  the woman of Samaria was shunned, alone, and isolated. 

She was not only part of an outcast people;  she was outcast in her own village. 

How do we know this?  How do we know no one wants to have anything to do with her?

Why would she draw water at high noon, in the scorching heat, when the other women gather at sunrise and sunset, when the weather is cooler? 

She avoids the sneers and backstabbing by coming to the well alone. 

There is no bond between this woman and her sisters.

And what about the man she is now living with—the man correctly named by Jesus as “not her husband?”

 More likely, this man is her brother-in-law. 

You see, by law, the childless widow must be taken as a wife by the remaining brother of the deceased, so generational identity could continue. 

By law, the brother was her fifth husband.

          But, many brothers refused to take in a childless widow.  In the day of Jesus, it was a stigma to be a woman.

 It was a double stigma to be a childless woman. 

It was a triple stigma to be a childless widow. 

And, this was already living, as a Samaritan woman, in an oppressed and marginalized culture. 

Many men did not want anything to do with women lack this.  Bad luck.  Bad deal.

Chances are good that the brother of the deceased husband refused to marry the Samaritan woman. 

Or, married her in name/law only.  Put her up in a shack somewhere;  gave her crumbs to eat from the table.  But, refused to have any real relationship with her.

You see, this woman cannot be understood in terms of our modern morality. 

She had not power in the world.  She had little power over her own life. 

She was chattel, the property of men who would have her. 

It is certain that her first marriage was considered legitimate;  the second, third, and forth too. 

But, the last, it was not a marriage at all. 

She was about as alone and isolated as a person could be.

And, then, came Jesus.

I invite all of us to allow the situation of this woman to soak into our souls for a minute before we can understand what Jesus did for her.

And what her interactions with Jesus might mean for what Jesus can do for each one of  us.

In the scorching heat of the noonday sun, Jesus meets a woman who is completely powerless, and considered a “sinner” by the standards of her day. 

She has no family.  She has no community.  She has no legal rights. 

And her religion gives her no help. Indeed, her religion probably reinforced what her culture said about her.

This is what bad religion does. 

It takes cultural stereotypes and then labels persons as “sinners” or “immoral” based on them.

 The religion of the days of Jesus took lepers, took the ill, took pregnant women, took women who were widows or childless and turned them into “sinners” even though they had done nothing wrong.

 It is called ignorance.

It is ignorance masquerading in the name of religion.

 It continues today whenever we take a cultural prejudice and lift it into a religious value. 

It continues today when folks on the margins, when persons down on their luck, come to the church looking for support and find only rejection.

When the Samaritan women said to Jesus, “Sir, give me this water, that I may never be thirsty, I hear her plea as one of frustration, resignation, desperation. 

From what water did she drink for years?  And years?  No doubt, the water of self-hatred, self-doubt, self-debasement. 

That is what the label:  “sinner” or “bad,” or “geek” or “nerd,” or “whore” or “lazy” or “not one of us,” can do.

Well, the Samaritan woman was fed up with being a victim.  She was fed up with the water of self-loathing.

Jesus, by his very presence, his understanding, his dialogue, and his words, gave her the true Living Water!

Not only the gift of himself as her savior.

But the gift of everything he was about—freedom, liberation, empowerment; that is what the living water of Jesus is always about—freedom--and commitment to the freedom, justice and compassion for others.

What happened to her? 

She was forever changed by that encounter with Jesus.  She was no longer a victim but an evangelist. 

She stood in the presence of the living one, the living water, the bread of life.

It took a while before it dawned on her, but, once it did, she left her water jar where it stood.

The purpose of her mission had changed from gathering water to gathering disciples. 

She ran to the city and told all who would listen, “Come and see a man who told me everything that I have done!”

We might paraphrase, “Come and see a man who told me the truth about myself.  I am a lady;  I am a woman!  I am good!  I am strong!  And I can overcome!”

What a turn-around for this unnamed woman.  No hiding her head in shame anymore.  No!  She went out to convert the people who despised her as an instrument of reconciliation and forgiveness.

In the spring of 1996, I encountered some other unnamed women;  they are known simply in El Salvador as El Comadres—the “Mothers of the Disappeared.”

In the Salvadorian Civil War, they lost their husbands.  Some lost one husband.  Many lost more than one. 

They would hear a car pull up in the night;  the door would crash  in;  armed men would enter—some with masks.  They would both shoot and drag their husbands, their men from their homes.  Some of the women would be killed too.

What was their crime, these men? 

They taught the poor to read;  the taught the catechism to church children—or Sunday School;  the organized workers to fight for their rights.

They organized native Americans to fight for their land;  they raised questions about so many rich and so many poor.

They taught the Gospel but in a different way.  They taught that God did not will people to be poor, to be despised, to be kicked around, to be abused.

They taught that the God of the poor was on the side of the poor-and always seeks to hold the rich and the powerful accountable.

These husbands were often a lot like Jesus—giving “Samaritan Women and Men” of El Salvador hope, a voice, organized power for change.

At first these women cowered.

Then, one day, a group of these unnamed women went to the Archbishop of San Salvador—a very powerful man.  His name was Oscar Romero.

They told their Archbishop about their husbands, about what was going on in their country.

The previous told them to go home and be “good wives and mothers”--and to shut up.

The Archbishop listened to their story;  and then he stood up;  they thought he would dismiss them.

Then Monsenior Romero moved across the room and went behind his desk and got—his bullhorn—used to speak to great crowds who would come to hear him the countryside for he was rapidly becoming the people’s Archbishop.

He took the Bullhorn, blessed it in front of the women, gave it to them and ordered them into the central Square of El Salvador to plead for their husbands to plead for truth—with the full backing of the authority of the Church.

I saw that old bullhorn in the office of the Comadres in San Salvador.  The “mothers of the Disappeared.”

I saw the effects of a man, Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador, whose feast day we will celebrate on March 24th—on unnamed women who became evangelists, heroes and leaders for the Gospel of truth. 

I saw a man who became like Jesus to the woman of Samaria, a man who empowered women to change their souls, their families and their country.

That is what Jesus can do for you and for me—and for all those who need an advocate and a voice!

Who calls you and me to do what he did—take the lonely, the fearful, those cowering in oppression!

And, through our courage, strength and love……and our presence…..transform them into evangelists……the bearers of Good news!

Jesus calls you and me to take up the bullhorn!

Jesus calls you and me……..like the Samaritan Woman……. to be the Living Water of God’s love, call all our sisters and brothers to claim their power, strength, and dignity as the children of God.

I witnessed this kind of Living Water in a Grocery Store in Roanoke, Virginia this past week……when visiting my mother…..as our nation was gripped in the truth, fear and anxiety over the COVID-19 Pandemic.

As you know, we are now in a most uncertain and difficult time as the COVID-19 Pandemic hits the United States and has spread to all areas of our country;  some stores are running short of supplies due to panic buying and some hording.

In these times we witness the best and worst of the human condition.  The best is always prompted by the Living Water of Jesus.

When I was checking out in a rather long and frustrated line of customers who could not attain all they wanted on that day, I looked back over my shoulder to a rather forlorn man with a Vietnam Vet cap on; he obviously did not get all he needed.

Behind him was a woman with a full cart.

She saw the man’s cap.

“Are you a Vet?” she asked.

“Yes, Vietnam,” he answered with some genuine pride.

She continued, “Please sir—in thanksgiving for your service-take what you need from my cart; and I want to pay for all your items.”

At first… he hesitated.

Did the Samaritan women at first hesitate to accept the Living Water of Christ?

Sometimes it is more difficult to receive than to give.

Finally…..the Viet smiled….and received the gift.

I can only imagine he was empowered that day.

That, like you and me who receive living water of compassion—the compassion that always has Christ at center—for love is Christ—the Vietnam Vet was strengthened to share his own compassion with others; as did the Samaritan Woman.

That is the way of Christ dear friends—not the way of “fixing” our difficulties; but of mending, transforming and redeeming them with love—God’s  ultimate and most powerful power.

Jesus could not “fix’ a woman’s grief, pain and oppression; but he could use it, transform it; and then be present so powerfully in it—that it could be directed to service, love and bearing the cross of others.

So may Jesus do in this time—as he is always present to bestow his living water—on you…and on me.

There is no doubt a Samaritan Woman in your life today…….go and let God’s living water flow through you………to give, through your presence, the gift of empowered, extravagant life!   AMEN!

I close with the following words of our Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry, in this tie of Pandemic and Fear:

“In this time when we are all affected by the coronavirus, whether directly or indirectly, whether physically, biologically, psychologically, spiritually, and for many economically, it may be helpful to remember that we're in this together.

Jesus came among us in the first place, to show us the way to be right and reconcile with the God who is the creator of us all, and right and reconciled with each other as children of this one God who has created us all, and therefore as sisters, brothers, and siblings, one of another. 

Jesus came to show us how to be in a relationship with God and in relationship with each other, came to show us how to live not simply as collections of individual self-interest, but how to live as the human family of God. That's why he said love the Lord your God, love your neighbor as yourself. Because in that is hope for all of us to be the human family of God.

So look out for your neighbors, look out for each other. Look out for yourselves. Listen to those who have knowledge that can help to guide us medically and help to guide us socially. Do everything that we can to do this together, to respond to each other's needs and to respond to our own needs.” ~ Bishop Curry

Sermon 3/22/20

A sermon preached on March 22, 2020, the 4th Sunday of Lent, in All Saints Episcopal Church, Princeton, by the Rev. Hugh E. Brown, III, D. Min, MSW, LSW, Rector,  on John 9: 1-41

Love in the Midst of Pandemic: Not Who Sinned?  But Where find God’s Glory?

I don’t know how many of you have seen the movie, Ray.

Ray stars 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; Della 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?”

“Because 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 as I want.”

Of course, Ray Charles, through the loving support of his wife—and caring friends—learned to use his disability to create some of the most moving musical art known to humankind.

He had a seminal influence on American Jazz, Rhythm and Blues, and American Gospel music.

But Ray Charles offers a true Prayer of Lament with the words, “God don’t listen to people like me.”

Like so many who offer prayers of Lament—prayers of resistance—prayers of protest—Charles eventually came to celebrate the power and love of God.

It seems that faith that is tried in the fires—Can—let me repeat-Can-be refined and transformed into something strong, awesome, and transforming.

Before I move on—let me also affirm—dear Friends—that Lament prayers don’t need happy endings to be Holy—and Blessed—and Good.

This week—I am sure many of you have Lamented!

Perhaps offered prayers of Protest;  prayers of Resistance even to God.

“God don’t care about people like me.”

Those feelings are real.

Jesus knew them on the cross and cried to God—Why have you forsaken me?

God—takes all our prayers—into his heart—and honors them.

St. Francis once said—“Always be honest with God with your prayers.”

“God has to start somewhere.”

“Be real with God;  if the pray is not of God—God will correct it; bless it; and then redirect it.”

“But you got to give God something to work with.”

That is why Lament prayer is so powerful; it is real.

It offers God truth in our lives—light and dark—to work with.

And God can do marvelous things when we are real; for as John’s Gospel says, the Truth will Make you Free.”

Yes, God Can work with our feelings.

But as the great financial writer, Michelle Singletary, said this week…….“remember….your feelings are not your facts.”

So—what are the spiritual facts the church embraces?  Or the spiritual truth?

God does care.

God does care about you…and about me…

And about All.

God not only cares;  we see in the Incarnation of Christ;  especially the presence of God on the Cross—Suffering for Humankind—that God loves us passionately, totally, completely—selflessly---with amazing power we can comprehend.

Ray Charles would come to know that.

But it can be hard—a truly “severe mercy” in the words of C. S. Lewis—to accept.

We might perceive otherwise.

Especially with illness-or with disability.

Or any “bad thing” that might happen.

In most religious discourse in the days of Jesus—illness;  disease; infirmity; disability—were indeed signs that God did not care.

 “Who sinned?

That was the response of the religious leadership of the days of Jesus—all too often embraced—by the wider religious community—and heard in the question of the disciples.

“Who sinned?

“That this man is blind?”

Jesus refused “to go there.”

Jesus did not go there.

His response was clear:  The question is not, “who Sinned?”

It is—“How is God’s power present in Disability?”

“How is it present in Illness?  Disability?

“For God’s sake—How is it present—in a Pandemic?

Even in COVID-19, Listen to Jesus, “God’s power can be Present.”

“Who Sinned?

Jesus knew  this.

He knew the truth:  We label, stigmatize…..and cast aside those who suffer with the word, “Sin”—in……a feeble human attempt to control what can’t be controlled.

It is easy, dear friends—to blame, judge, and stigmatize—in uncontrollable times.

We return to the Serenity Prayer.

“God give us Serenity to accept the things that can not be changed;  courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

Dear friends—when we try to control what cannot be controlled—the root is always fear.

There are good aspects of fear in our religion.

There is holy fear in the reverence for God; we can call it awe.

There is wise fear in avoiding and participating in the things that are foolish, unwise, bad and downright evil; one psychologist calls it “The gift of fear.”

There is appropriate fear in protecting ourselves for our sake and for the sake of others.  We might call it—loving fear.”

Fear is not always bad and Jesus knew that;  he once said, during the worst of the persecution of his movement-when he lost his own life—that he “lost not one of his disciples.”  He always seemed proud of that.

My friends, there are some things happening with the Pandemic right now that we can control—things we can do to change outcomes.

We can be afraid…..on behalf of ourselves ……and our loved ones…..and do the things that wise religion and science will tell us is healthy and loving.

We can live or relationships now in ways that do not harm one another.

We can do what needs to be done to protect our loved ones—by loving ourselves.

We can heed the wise counsel of experts in the fields of public health.

We can practice social distancing as a form of love—of wisdom—of mercy.

Such is hard.

Such is compassionate; such is of God.

Such is indeed Holy Fear, Loving Fear.

But when Jesus counseled, “do not be afraid.”

He meant something far different.

Fear “fear”—Jesus meant the kind of destructive anxiety, distress intolerance, stigma, and evil social distance that comes through shaming and blaming.

The evil social distance that comes with the question, “Who Sinned.”

Unfortunately, we have seen some of this “Who Sinned?” social distancing and destructive fear this past week as our nation and world grasped the true risk of this pandemic. 

We have seen it in some destructive selfishness, the spreading of misinformation, the minimizing of science, the blaming of the government—past and present, the lack of concern for others out of ignorance or stupidity or political ideology.

Jesus knew this as the true spiritual blindness and named it this morning.

The friends—Jesus forever taught that God did not send disability, illness, plague—and pandemic to punish;  he forever taught, as he did when he healed the blind man—that God difficult times and difficult circumstances for his Glory—which is always his Love.

Jesus forever taught that the question is never, “Who Sinned?”

It is—how can God make known his  power and love here?

How can pain be turned to light and love?

How can God’s glory always reign?

When Jesus healed the blind man—it is true—too—he gave his glory and compassion in physical touch. 

That is something most of us now cannot do.

But the Jungian therapist John Sanford point out that the “spittle” Jesus made and used to heal the blind man—in ancient religion—was a symbol of “Living Spirit.”

The spittle symbolized the life essence of a person.

In this case the Life Essence of Jesus.

My friends, in the power of the Holy Spirit-we have the Life Essence of Jesus among us.

God’s glory can reign in this time.

We cannot control so much in this pandemic.

But we can choose our response.

Which is to always seek God’s glory; to practice God’s love.

We have been blessed to witness the Glory of God in so many ways over the past week.

 

Rebecca Solnit writes her work on the great disasters in human history.

“There’s a way a disaster throws people into the present and gives them this supersaturated immediacy that also includes a deep sense of connection.

It’s as though, in some violent gift, you’ve been given a kind of spiritual awakening where you’re close to mortality in a way that makes you feel more alive.

You’re deeply in the present and can let go of past and future and your personal narrative, in some ways.

You have shared an experience with everyone around you, and you often find very direct but also metaphysical senses of connection to the people you suddenly have something in common with.”

And Krista Tippett in her On Being project reflects:

I heard of many creative examples of individuals and communities reaching past themselves and toward neighbors and strangers alike….such as a group of University of Minnesota students providing childcare and running errands for healthcare workers now on call around the clock.

And all the music!  Artists like Yo-Yo Ma and John Legend are performing online as offerings of comfort, and neighbors in Italy and elsewhere are singing togetherfrom their balconies.

Stories like these, of people supporting each other across social distance, are what come to mind for me now when I hear Solnit ask:

“What if everything we’ve been told about human nature is wrong, and we’re actually very generous, communitarian, altruistic beings who are distorted by the system we are in but not made happy by it? What if we can actually be better people in a better world?” If nowhere else, the hope of this moment lives in witnessing the beautiful and kind ways so many are rising to the challenge of hope.

How have you seen hope manifest in your community in the past few weeks?

How have I seen hope?

In so many in our parish family who have offered their love for service.

In a family in our parish who has had to upend their living arrangements to protect a member of their family who would be at risk of dying from the illness.

I have seen it the eyes of a young couple of our parish, who, with their parents, a sister, and a friend—exchanged wedding vows in the All Saints Church sanctuary this past week.

This past Monday, I was honored to officiate at the Wedding of Georgia Travers and Jeff Aziakou.

This, in the words of Ann Lamott, was the couple’s Plan B;  the COVID-19 epidemic altered all that they had planned.

Yet, as Georgia and Jeff exchanged wedding vow--……

……….vows which expresses God’s agape is sickness and in health…..

……..vows which enabled Georgia to have her wedding in her home church, at the altar where she was confirmed…….

………….vows which were shared in the context of devotion in a world of pain……in the words of the Book of Common Prayer…….

,,,,,,,,,,,I have never, ever felt the power more of “my their marriage be a sign of God’s love in a Broken World.

Georgia and Jeff choose the scripture from Ist Corinthians, as their wedding scripture;  Faith, Hope and Love Abide- But there greatest of these is Love.

Yes, dear friends—there is much in this pandemic we can’t control; much to fear.

But—also-there is so much reason to hope, trust and live—the Glory of God in Love.

Yes, Who Sinned is not the question.

“Where can we find God’s Glory?

The response of hope.

So,  I close wirh the prayer Georgia and Jeff asked me to provide at their wedding.

May this be our response to the Pandemic—or wherever we find suffering within our human family:

The Prayer of St. Francis.

Amen.

Sermon 3/1/20

A sermon preached by the Rev. Hugh E. Brown, III, D. Min, MSW, LSW, Rector, All Saints Parish, Princeton, NJ, on March 1, 2020, the First Sunday of Lent on Matthew 4: 1-11

“IF you are the Son of Man!”

                   “What we Embrace, Create, and Include”

Is it possible to find Chestnut Trees in the Desert?

We will return to this question in a Moment!

Have many of you seen the movie, Chocolat?

Chocolat is a film about a woman and her daughter…. who open a chocolate shop in a small French village…..and shake…. up the rigid morality of the community.

The open it in Lent.

By the end of the movie…….in town repressed by shoulds, oughts, and ifs……the abused find liberation………those who are dying finally find life…….those who are shunned are welcomed…….those who are unloved……find that they can be loved and love again.

Quite a different way of looking at Lent right?  A season of Love?

 

 

At the close of the movie—the village priest, transformed by the joy found in the embrace of the chocolate shop…..

……. says this……

I don’t want to talk about the Divinity of Jesus or what he did not do;  I want to talk about his humanity---what he did—his goodness…and love…his humanity…
I think we can't go around measuring our goodness by what we don't do - by what we deny ourselves, what we resist and who we exclude.

I think we've got to measure goodness by what we embrace, what we create and who we include.

 

In her Ash Wednesday sermon….Elly asked the question:  How do we think of Lent?

One way—to think about what we don’t do.

 

That is also the way we might think about the strange story of the Temptations of Jesus in the Wilderness?

What Jesus did not do;  denied himself; resisted; excluded.

 

He was tempted by hunger-to eat.

But is the message to embrace starvation? 

Or to embrace the disconnect between mind and body?

 Or to embrace what Martin Luther King called the heresy of only caring about soul but not about poverty which damns?

 

He was tempted by Glory—and a Temple Drama.

Henri Nouwen calls it the Temptation to be Spectacular—Don’t put God to the Test

But is the message—to play small?  To be falsely humble?  To play down our strengths?  Or to refrain from trust in God?  Especially with the large things?

 

He was tempted by Power—the Kingdoms of the World

But is the message—to be powerless? To be run over?  To not engage the powers of this world? Not to lead?  Not to govern?

 

I like Walter Wink’s idea of What Jesus did NOT do a bit better….

It’s all around Jesus’s NO (!)  to “If you are!” 

Prove Yourself.j

We know that language all too well---right?  Prove yourself!  So did Jesus!

Especially Prove Yourself to be Messiah—the way Everyone in Israel thought the Messiah should be.

He did not become Moses—who fed the people with Mana

He did not become like Ezekiel or Malachi’s vision—the Priest of the Temple

He did not become like David—the Royal Ruler

He took another way entirely—and was not always sure what he was doing.

 

I like that way of looking at the Temptation/Wilderness Story of Jesus.

It makes Jesus more human.

 

But what if we looked at the Temptation stories in a different way?

What did Jesus embrace?  Create?  Include?

 

I think this conversation can yield some fertile fruit?

And I would commend  you this Lent to ask a truly transformative question.

“What can you embrace, create and include this Lent?

 

What was Jesus really about in the Wilderness?

He was on the way to embracing, creating and including a whole new way of life.

A whole new way of being Messiah; claiming his vocation.

Not the way of Will, Dramatic Show and Spectacular Results—and Power over others---all the stuff the devil came at him with when he said.

“If You”

And a whole new way of, perhaps-relating to his Heavenly Father…

Trust-..

That this was not about Jesus; but about God; God through Him.

Perhaps that is how he was the Second Person of the Trinity—Divine..

Not because he was perfect.

But because he was fully united to God; and to the Human God intended him to be.

 

Jesus—he could have embraced Fear;  and not embraced his new calling.

Instead he found purpose.

Jesus—he could have created Glory—and not been faithful to God.

Instead he found his being as Messiah in service and Love.

 

He could have included a way that was violent, and exclusive and nationalistic.

Instead, he included all—and loved all.

And taught that the true unity with God is unit with All.

Jesus embraced Romans and Jews;  he embraced Samaritans;  he embraced women; he embraced children; he embraced Gentiles; he embraced the scorned and the stigmatized;  he embraced forgiveness;  he created and included loved to the end.

When the Devil came after him again the Garden—and on the Cross; he did nothing but love in pain…….and create and include… Hope…

In 1942 a Jewish family in Amsterdam went into hiding.

The Nazis had moved into their country.

And they had moved against the Jews—with forced separations, pogroms, and—then as we know all too well—a Final Solution.

In hiding….

A 13 year old daughter in that family started a dairy.

Her name was Anne Frank.

In your service leaflet—you will see a two-sided insert.

On one side—the Frank’s hiding place—a secret annex atop a hidden staircase.

We might call it—Anne’s urban wilderness.

On the other side, the Chestnut tree that Anne loved to gaze at through the attic window.

We might call it—The choice to….embrace, create, include….

Anne wrote—

“Our chestnut tree is in full bloom.

It’s covered with leaves and is even more beautiful than last year.”

She wrote this in May of 1944.

In her desert and wilderness exile in the Middle of God knows where in Amsterdam, Anne choose….

Choose to Embrace, Create and Include.

A former American president Writes this about Anne Frank..

Now, years since the first publication of her diary in 1947, Anne Frank endures as one of the great messengers of our common humanity.

Through her courage, her hope, and her unshakable faith in the goodness of people—despite the grave injustices visited upon her and her family throughout her brief life—she continues to give a voice and a face to the six million Jews who lost their lives in the Holocaust.

Her short life left a long legacy, touching and inspiring generation after generation of people she never met.

I will never forget visiting the Anne Frank House when I was just 23 and thinking that I had already been alive eight years longer than she had been allowed to live.

Like millions of people who have been moved by Anne Frank’s story,

I have tried my best since then to live my life in a way that redeems the years she could not have.

In this deeply troubled time when so many people around the world are divided by religious, racial, and ethnic differences, the lessons of Anne Frank’s life are more important than ever.

We would all do well to remember the wisdom of a young girl who taught us that we are all diminished…..

…….when any person suffers unfairly because of who he or she is……and that our differences make life more interesting…

……….but our common humanity matters more.

(President Bill Clinton, from his introduction to Anne Frank: Her Life and Her Legacy).

 

The Sunday after next, March 15, Princeton Pro Musica under the direction of Ryan James Brandau…….. and including singers from our own choir and parish family will present……..Annelies—Music by James Whitbourn.

 

This great piece of contemporary music is based on Anne Frank’s, The Dairy of a Young Girl.

 

The American Premiere of this Music was at Westminster Choir College.

I hope you might consider attending.

 

In this spirit, I also want to extend my and our heartfelt gratitude to Kevin O’Malia and the All Saints Choir—for creating a new Partnership with our Jewish sisters and brothers of Temple B’nai Shalom.

 

In his most recent writing, Rabbi Eric Eisenkramer reminds us that the word, Temple, means Home—a place where each of  us is welcomed and embraced.

 

Oh How we need this!  How we need Anne Frank’s embracing, creating, including spirit!

 

In the desert—Jesus became that kind of Rabbi, Leader and Messiah—and Human being.

He truly, as John’s Gospel puts it—became the Temple of God’s Embrace.

 

We are also invited –to use St. Paul’s language—to be Temples of the Holy Spirit—

Temples of Embrace…

 

A Person of embrace.

Would Jesus have become this kind of embracing human being without the desert? 

 

We wonder.

This Lent—we face our own Desert; our own Wilderness.

So does our nation.

We can choose to measure our goodness by what we don’t do.

Or, to measure it by What We Embrace, What We Create, What we Include.

Jesus did.

So did Anne.

And so we ask,

Is it possible to find Chestnut Trees in the Desert?

Is it? Is it?

Sermon 2/26/20

Ash Wednesday

Ash Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2020, All Saints Church//The Rev. Dr. Elly Sparks Brown//"From Dust to Dance"

Prayer: O God of ashes and promises, embolden us to walk through the open door of this day (night) and enter a Lent that is alive with possibility.

                A ballerina, who is also a Lutheran pastor, tells this story.  "Prior to a ballet performance, I follow a strict ritual of dusting my pointe shoes with rosin, a crystalized tree sap.  A pointe shoe's toe box is formed by layers of hardened glue and satin.  This binds the foot, enabling the dancer to channel the strength of her ankles and feet to rise up onto the tips of her toes and balance there.  But the toe box also makes the shoes quite slick.  The rosin dust helps offset this...I apply it to my shoes as if my life depended on it.  A shallow, plastic box of amber crystals of rosin hides in the  wings on either side of the stage, ready to be crushed into friction-creating dust that keeps me from falling on my face.

          As rosin dust holds my feet fast, the dust of Ash Wednesday stops me in my tracks by disrupting any illusions I may have about my grandeur, my permanence, and my indispensability" (Adapted fromThe Christian Century, Feb. 26, 2020, p. 18).

          "Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return."  Sobering words, harsh words, Ash Wednesday words bluntly confronting us with the reality that to be human is to be mortal.  

          The dust-formed cross smeared on our foreheads, the minor key hymns, the prayer book language of sin and repentance, and the startling statement in the Litany of Penitence that "we have grieved your Holy Spirit"--such is the choreography of the dance of Lent.  In the words of our ballerina/pastor, "The dust-formed cross confronts our desire to avoid facing the gravity of our humanity and the eventuality of our death...In fact, it seems like the dust wins since it holds power over our plans, our personae, and our perceptions.  The cross reminds us that we are not God.  We are dust and unto it we shall return" (Adapted from The Christian Century, Feb. 26, 2020).

          What is your perception of Lent?  Has it remained the same or changed throughout the years?  For many Christians, Ash Wednesday launches a season of doom and gloom, summoning us to wallow in guilt, to grovel in shame, and to blitz through the pain of Holy Week as quickly as possible, perhaps by hurling ourselves from Palm Sunday's "Hosanna" to Easter's "Alleluia"!  But wait, aren't there a few steps in between?  What about washing feet and breaking bread in the Upper Room on Maundy Thursday? What about keeping vigil at the foot of the cross, like Mary, Mary Magdalene and the other women, clustered around Jesus' pierced feet, on that first Friday we have come to call "Good"?

          As seriously as we take sin and repentance, this is only one side of Lent's multi-faceted gem stone.  Can we experience Lent in a more positive, life-giving way this year?  Can we imagine Lent as God's gift to us, a gift that God sets before us today (tonight)? Can Lent be for us a time of liberation? 

          Some of us follow the tradition of giving up something for Lent, like fasting from a favorite food or drink, a hobby or an enjoyable past time.  If this practice makes Lent more meaningful for you, then please do it.

          Pope Francis presents us with another way of fasting or giving up something as a spiritual discipline.  Here are his guidelines. "Fast from hurting words and say kind words. Fast from sadness and be filled with gratitude.  Fast from anger and be filled with patience.  Fast from pessimism and be filled with hope.  Fast from worry and trust God.  Fast from complaints and contemplate simplicity.  Fast from life's relentless pressure and be prayerful.  Fast from selfishness and be compassionate to others.  Fast from grudges and be reconciled.  Fast from words and be silent so you can listen"  (Adapted from pietrafitness.com).  Here is the gift of Lenten liberation at its best! 

          A priest who works on the staff of Episcopal Relief and Development states, "Ash Wednesday is a reality check, a day to step up and look at how we can return to the Lord...to reconnect with who we are and who we can be because God loves us" (Adapted from the ERD booklet, p. 5, 2012).

          Another spiritual writer remarks that Ash Wednesday's reality check helps us to contemplate life's essence from dance to dust, but always back to dance.  This is God's promise.  The dust-formed cross spans the whole gamut of life, from jubilant dances of joy, satisfaction, and peace, to those dry dusty times when all we can do is hope that someday we will remember the choreography and start moving.  Henri Nouwen tells us, "We already know the little steps...We don't need to know the big steps to take the little ones.  We ony have to take one step at a time."

          We return to our ballerina/pastor who shares with us how the dust-formed cross is actually a sign of new life.  "The dust on our forehead is not smeared in grief and despair.  It is carefully placed in the shape of our salvation.  The dusty cross hearkens back to our anointing at Baptism when a cross was drawn on our foreheads, followed by the words, "You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ's own forever." God's promises stick to our dust and hold us in hope forever."

          Safe dancing depends on dust...The cross-shaped dust of Ash Wednesday makes the eternal promises of God visible."

          "Rallying us to right beginnings, Wednesday of blessed assurance summoning us to a re-alignment of spirit stretching beyond the Church's invitation to a holy Lent, and the smudge of mortality smeared cross-shaped on foreheads waiting and wrinkled.  Seizing these forty days and nights as a steppingstone to a stunning epiphany of sin's residue erased; abolved with cremated remains of Palm Sunday's triumph. Remember the dust" (from "A Remembrance of Dust," ESB).

          Remember how that friction-creating dust keeps us from falling on our face.  Remember the dust-formed cross as a sign of of salvation.  Remember and cherish God's promise of new life--a promise made visible by a cross of dust--a promise that sticks to our dust and holds us in hope forever.

Sermon 2/23/20

A Sermon by the Rev. Hugh E. Brown, III, D. Min, MSW, LSW, Rector, in All Saints Episcopal  Church, Princeton, NJ on February 23, Last Epiphany, Year A, on Matthew 17: 1-9, the Transfiguration.

“Listen to Him.”

                                      The Omega Point

Yes, they were afraid.

Peter, James and John had good reason to be afraid.

When they went up on the Mountain-Top… to be with Jesus.

Six days before the Mountain-top moment, Jesus described what might await them;  he envisioned the cost and sacrifice of following him.

Peter had named some truth they all knew but might have been loath to say:  Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah.

Jesus was the one who would be restore Israel to its greatness as a nation, liberate it from oppression, and usher in even more than that—a new era of peace and justice.

That should have been cause for celebration.  They got it.

Or, did they?

Jesus did not respond as Peter and the rest expected;  he asked them to keep this good news about Messiahship……..quiet. 

Jesus told them the unexpected about discipleship.

Jesus, said this, “Take Up Your Cross;  lose your Life; and Save it.”

So, Yes, they were afraid.

Another Gospel, that of John—implies, at points, the disciples were ready to bag it up—and do elsewhere.

 “Do you also want to go away?”  Asked Jesus to the 12—perhaps to the inner circle named here—Peter, James and John.

They might have-wanted to go away; to run.

But they did not.

Instead, they did something commended by every master of the Spiritual Life.

They were counter-intuitive. 

The followed Jesus more deeply; followed him up a Mountain.

God knows……Jesus might not have wanted that.

He wanted perhaps, has he often did—to go alone—to go up a Mountain-figuratively or spiritually.

And he did.

Was he trying, as a good Jew, to do what Moses did when he Moses needed the presence, yes, the voice of God?

That voice that gave Moses the Law.

Or do as Elijah did—not on a mountain—but retreating to a cave? 

To receive the presence of God—to be confirmed in his ministry as Prophet?

No one followed Moses to the mountain-top; no one followed Elijah to the Cave.

No one saw and experienced their encounters with God.

But Peter did.

He would later talk about it;  a letter attributed to him and certainly containing his spirit—a letter you heard this morning says as such.

I’m sure it was not easy to talk about; never has been; it could very well be that the only reason that Matthew received this story—this story on the Mountain top with Jesus—was that Peter remembered it—and one day—told it.

That is often the ways of the mystics, yesterday and today—the way of mystical experience of you and me;  we don’t talk about much;  we might not share it at all; or only among those we trust.

I have a dear friend who had a dramatic experience of God in the National Cathedral.  I know about it; perhaps a few others; not the world.

So—you better believe the disciples were afraid; but they were there with Jesus; they were on the mountain, with Jesus; they still were drawn by some inexplicable force—to Jesus.

That the spiritual masters….. are right.

It is when we want to flee from God; to reject God; are mystified with God; have no idea what God in Christ is doing with us---that we go to the Mountain-top.

The depths of the spiritual life are indeed counter-intuitive.

For—on that Mountain—literal or spiritual…..

……..Perhaps as Peter, James and John were ascending the cliffs….

…….It is at that time……they had an experience so overwhelming, so life-changing—that it would take them to Jerusalem, to the Upper Room, to Golgotha, to the Empty Tomb—and to the Lakeside in Galilee with Resurrection.

They never looked back. 

Oh, they would have pitfalls, failures and misunderstanding. 

But they never gave up; and Jesus, they would learn, would never give up on them.

The mountain top moments do not take us away from our difficulties—with God; with life.

They completely change them; transform them; offer life to them.  Offer transcendence; largeness; peace; healing; salvation.

Our world is never them same.

But—at least for Peter, James and John—within the Mountain-top ---there was one moment-- in the bizarre experience of sound and light with Jesus-- that was clear, lucid, compelling.

“Listen to him.”

Him alone.

O there are worthy voices for whom to listen; Moses—the Law;  Elijah—the Prophets. Voices of the religious life of duty and inspiration.

There are not so worthy voices—anger; fear; hurt; disappointment; better loss of expectation;  grief over new directions and courses chosen and not chosen. 

Voices directing hurt, suffering and accusation our way.

But this is never the predominant voice;  “Listen to Him.”

Listen to one, unified voice.

What is that voice?

What is the nature of that voice beyond all others?

The French paleontologist and Jesuit priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, in his work, the Phenomenon of Man writes,

“There is an inexorable evolution point of unity. Of oneness that he called the Omega Point—a place of  universal consciousness and a convergence with the Divine;  this is the center-the point of Goodness.  It is nothing but pure Love.”

“Listen to him.”

The voice of Jesus-Nothing but pure Love.

There have been two significant psychological, clinical and therapeutic breakthroughs in the treatment of mental illness over the past 50 years.

The researcher, developer and pioneer of one of the them:  Marsha Linehan.

She created a true scientific achievement in the health-care world with Dialectical Behavior Therapy or DBT.  She created DBT for those at risk for suicide; for those who lived with some of the deepest emotional disturbance; for those whose lives were truly chaos—with no unifying voice of health.

DBT has saved the lives of countless persons; and it has deeply impacted the field of healthcare; those who work with issues of emotional distress and addiction use her work daily.

Only in the past few years, has Marsha Linehan told her own story; her own story of recovery from the true hell of mental disturbance and its stigma.

She has just published her memoir.

Later in Lent, I will be talking more about this true spiritual autobiography:  Building a Life Worth Living.  But for now, let me share Marsha’s own Mountain-top moment.

One especially cold January evening at the Cenacle Retreat Center in Fullerton Park in Chicago, in 1967, while I was in my Junior Year at Loyola, I was in the small anteroom of the chapel.

A wood burning fire was in the grate.  I was sitting on one of those overstuffed sofas, deep in a trough of bleakness and misery, as bad as I had ever experienced.

A nun stopped, looked kindly at me and said something like, “Can I do anything to help you?”

I felt that no one could do anything for me, that there was no help for me.  I said something like, “No Thanks, I’m fine.”

I was in despair, but I felt deeply that no one could help me.

Then I went into the chapel, knelt at a pew, and gazed at the cross behind the altar.

I don’t recall what I was saying to God at the time, if anything, but as I gazed a the large crucifix, all of a sudden the whole of the chapel became suffused with a brought golden light, shimmering all over.

And, I immediately, joyfully knew with complete certainty that God loved me.  That I was not alone.  God was within me.  I was within God.

I leapt up and ran out of the chapel, and up the stairs to my room on the second floor.

When I was back in my room, I stood still for a moment/

I cried out, “I love myself.”

The minute the word, “myself” came out, I knew I had I had been transformed. 

If anyone had asked me  up that that point, “Do you love yourself?”  I might have responded, I love her.

After I had descended into the hell of mental illness as a young adult, I thought of myself spoken in the third person, as if there were two of m, somehow, split.  Since that time, even in recovery, and even without hospitalization, I remained split.

I now knew I had been transformed.

I was finally, after years, me again.

I had finally crossed the line; I would never go back.

Many years later, when the New York Times profiled my research and clinical work, and I told this story, Sister Rosemary Duncan, one of the nuns at the Cenacle Center wrote to a friend of mine.

Sister Rosemary was struck by the similarity of Marsha’s experience and the experience of the founder of our order Saint Therese Coudere.

St. Theresa who had a vision of God’s pure goodness.  It was a miracle of grace.

Although I was flattered by the comparison, all I know is that my enlightenment experience changed my life. 

I never, ever, even with continued emotional challenges, went back to being out of control and unable to function again.

Although I did not remember it at the time, I told my spiritual director right after the experience:

“I am going to dedicate my life to helping people driven to suicide.  I was once in hell;  I am going to spend the rest of my life going back into hell to get people out.”  And I did.

In 2018, Dr. Marsha Linehan was featured in a special issue of Time Magazine, “Great Scientists:  The Geniuses and Visionaries Who Transformed Our World.”

In her memoir she also writes this:

 “Mystical experience is common—not rare; I’ve learned this through listening to the stories of so many patients I have worked with.

They may be transformative—as mine was;  or more modest; such as experiencing oneness.

Oneness; oneness with your own self; oneness with nature; with the mountains above, with the ground you are walking on, with the trees above and below.

Especially with the person you love.”

“Listen to him.”  “Listen to him.”

Know that you are one With God; one with All.  Know with complete certainty that God Loves you.

And you will never look back!

Sermon 2/16/20

Reflection, All Saints Church - Sermon Preached by Lynn Atkins

 

Sunday, February 16, 2020

 

Picture it: Red Bank, NJ…1995. A 13-year-old boy walks into a church sanctuary with his younger, 11-year-old brother in tow. We sit down and prepare to hear our first classical concert ever. The artist that evening is a person we are both well familiar with: Our Grandfather.

I’ve been really blessed in my life to have a Grandfather who actively pursued music in his life for over 50 years. He truly is my balancing rock on this road with music. At any rate, the concert is a tour de force: Classic arrangements of hymns, Songs from Vaudeville and Early American Musical Theatre, and a staple he is well known for: African American Spirituals.

It’s important that I mention at this point, that I had never heard a spiritual…or any form of classical vocal music at this point. Music, to my young adolescent ears was the songs of my Middle School Chorus room, or the Middle School Concert Band arrangements I had heard while learning how to play Trumpet.

 

So, as one might imagine for a quiet kid from the Jersey Shore who was familiar with the music of Anita Baker, Journey, Bon Jovi, and Bruce Springsteen, it was a great surprise to hear the old negro dialect, to hear verses speaking of children without mothers, stealing away to Jesus…To hear audience members say “amen” and “tell the story”, oh…and my personal favorite, “Sing it, Brother” to my Grandfather. It was also my great surprise to hear and witness the deafening silence after hearing a song about a deep river. I never imagined that just seven years later, we would share a stage, and I would receive the same exclamations and praise.

 

The African American Spiritual is not just a song, it truly is an experience, an impassioned representation of the struggle of a people moved against their will. These sacred songs are the story of a people who found themselves in captivity…who did not speak common language, yet forged together what they could from the little elements of education and culture they could understand and built a new language for their children and the distant ancestors that I am so proud to represent.

This morning, for a little while, I hope to help you understand this particular genre of music. The method of singing it, how it was passed down, Its place in history as well as its place in current western style classical music literature.

I would first tell you that no one person holds the answer to why spirituals are so magnetizing. I can share with you these words from the pen of the African American Composer and Arranger Harry T. Burleigh, written in 1917 in the first publishing of his book of Negro Spirituals:

 

“The plantation songs known as spirituals are the spontaneous outburst of intense religious fervor…they were never composed, but sprang to life, ready-made, from the white heat of religious fervor during some protracted meeting in camp or church…Success in singing these folk songs in primarily dependent upon deep spiritual feeling. The voice is not nearly so important…it is a serious misconception of their meaning and value to treat them as minstrel songs, or to try to make them funny by a too literal attempt to imitate the manner of the Negro in singing them by swaying the body, clapping the hands, or striving to make the peculiar inflections of voice that are natural with the colored people.”

 

Burleigh’s clear rejection of the concept of Blackface, a early 20th Century performing practice of painting ones skin black in performance to portray or imitate a negative depiction of the African American in daily life, sets the stage with the performance of these spirituals.

The notion that one does not need worry about the voice, in my opinion and the opinion of my dear colleague Rosephayne Dunn Powell, a noted performer, conductor, and composer, agrees with. She writes to the National Association of Teachers of Singing in 2005 that, “Preparing the spiritual for performance is essentially the same for Blacks and non-blacks, especially for those less familiar with these songs.”

 

The concept of understanding the spiritual on a more fundamental level, by not just knowing the musical mechanics of the song by counting beats and accurately singing pitches, but through understanding the text of these songs, is further expressed by Lourin Plant, a well-known performer of the genre. She states that, “a commanding knowledge of the spiritual and America’s racial history is fundamental.” 

 

Take, for example, “Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child,” A spiritual with several different iterations and variations, from Choral settings to solo and duets, this spiritual, in its truest, most literal textual definition, portrays the sorrow of a child whom has lost a parent or parental figure. With the understanding of the situation behind the situational effects of slavery between the late 16th Century up to 1863 with the Emancipation Proclamation and ever further dealing with the Black Codes and Jim Crow Laws which carried up through the Mid 20th Century, the text can easily also portray the sorrow of the African who has been pulled away from their homeland or even their …from what they know and understand.  If you take a moment to reflect upon the text, you can hear the clear meaning and significance of the prose:

Sometimes I feel like a Motherless Child,

A Long way from home.

Sometimes I feel like I’m Almost Gone,

A long way from home.

True Believer…

A long way from home.

John Carter’s arrangement of the text is quite straight forward and gives this recitalist room to express the pain, frustration, and conflict that I personally feel in the moments I perform the setting.

 

Perform “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child”

 

While John Carter’s arrangement is of a contemporary nature, more traditional arrangements, yield the same type of emotional conviction. It is quite possible that another voice might have truly felt this text: Absalom Jones.

I would be remised if I didn’t comment on a very important moment for our wider Episcopalian community celebrated just a few days ago. The Feast Absalom Jomes, celebrated on February 13, honors the first African American priest ordained in our denomination. Born into slavery in Delaware in 1746, Jones moved with his master to Philadelphia during his younger years. Learning to read and write with the permission of his master, he heard his call similarly to other African Americans through the word of the churches in their area that they attended…seated in the balconies of the churches their masters attended.

In 1787, along with Richard Allen, Jones created the Free African Society as a non-denominational mutual aid society which helped freed widow and orphan slaves wrestling with sickness and other needs. During this time, the ground work was made to create the first black congregation of the Episcopal church free of control by Caucasians in Philadelphia, Fr. Absalom had a huge impact upon this action.

The resulting parish, the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas, was consecrated and opened on the 17th of July in 1794. In 1795, Jones was ordained a deacon of the church. In 1802, he became a priest of the parish. The current parish is located in Overbrook Farms section of West Philadelphia.

 

It is not lost on me the great influence these compositions have I furthermore agree and submit that even the arrangements of spirituals by composers who are not of the race, Aaron Copland, for example, have set, with remarkably wonderful results, songs of the African American Spiritual tradition...as I plan to demonstrate to you later in this service.

Every now and again as I think back on that 13-year-old boy, I wonder if he ever thought his life would become what it is. A vocalist who specializes in the music of Bach as well as the music that acts as the backbone to the African Americans continuing attempts to find equality here in the Americas.

Growing up with a Catholic Mother and a Southern Baptist Father, one might imagine that becoming an Episcopalian is a bit of a reach! Regardless the circumstances, however, I have been entrusted with a legacy that I am only too proud to uphold: the performance and the advocation of this sacred collection of repertoire: the music of my ancestors.

Sermon 2/9/20

A sermon preached by the Rev. Hugh E. Brown, III, D. Min, MSW, LSW, Rector, on February 9th, the 5th Sunday of Epiphany, Year A, Isaiah 58: 1-12 in All Saints Episcopal Church, Princeton,

 

“You shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.”

                                      

Cutting the “God Talk.”

You might remember those words were the theme of Presidential inauguration address in January of 1997.

 

The President used these words from Isaiah, Chapter to call for national unity, reconciliation, and the overcoming of division.

 

Alas—within a few years, the nation was embroiled in what was perceived to be partisan division, an acrimonious impeachment and trail of the President, and, in a subsequent election, the fraying of national geography into areas of Red and Blue.

 

You also might recall that many on all sides evoked the name of God for their political views;  for morality, for prayer, for public policy; for one side or the other in the impeachment wars and the cultural divide.

 

Little has changed.

 

Those voices of the bible we hear Sunday after Sunday would not be surprised—including the voices of the book of Isaiah.

 

The bible, from first to last page proclaims the human situation as riven between the capacity for great good and profound evil.

 

Today, yes, our nation has just endured more partisan divides; another impeachment trail; and continued geographical and ideological divisions.

 

Whoever wrote or edited the 58th chapter of the Isaiah most likely did not  have in mind--the healing of national division.

 

Oh—there was plenty of national division in those days and the prophet. 

 

Many voices of the Old Testament—and indeed the entire bible—were addressed to the nation-- as public words.

 

Because of our Protestant Heritage of individualism and conscience derived from the Reformation—we too often hear the message of the bible as addressed to you and me—as individuals; or as read as individuals.

 

Such is certainly part of the truth of biblical interpretation.

 

I have often come away from bible study—or a sermon—or a lecture given by a faith-based scholar—with what I considered a “personal word.”

 

Yes, well enough.

 

But I must also understand this word to be—not just about me; but about me in relationship with others.

 

These relationships of biblical address include a family; a faith community; and yes, perhaps at times most of all—as citizen.

 

I have scoured many an Episcopal Education resource over the past several decades for confirmation preparation—and other teaching moments.

 

The last time any significant Episcopal resource includes at least a chapter on Citizenship was the Church Teaching Series of the 1950s.  In that series, there was a whole book devoted to it. Not since; especially in times like these where perhaps it is most needed.

 

Isaiah was addressing you and me.

 

But in Chapter 58 Isaiah—or rather who we know as Third Isaiah—was addressing the nation.

 

Scholars believe that the Book of Isaiah contains not just one voice; but three.

 

The Third Voice—we believe—was written after the people of Israel had returned from exile and were attempting to rebuild their nation,

their religion, their worship and their identity.

 

These were the days of Ezra and Nehemiah and the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem/

 

These were the times of the confrontation of Jews with fellow Jews who were not taken to Babylon, had remained in the land, had intermarried with non-Jews; and had developed alternative patterns of faith and worship.

 

These were the days when there was great debate-and yes, division around the sort of nation a restored Israel was to be.

 

Isaiah 58, we believe is not only the voice of Third Isaiah—but the voice also of one who believed that Israel’s identity was not simply about nationalism and conquest.

 

And it was not simply about right worship, right believe and right ethics.

 

No—Israel had a mission—to the nations.

 

Israel had a vocation on behalf of the human family beyond simply being the chosen people of God.

 

That vocation—nothing less than the healing, repair and reconciliation between God and humankind.

 

When Isaiah writes, “YOU” will be called Repairers of the Breach—his words are addressed to Israel—as a nation—not necessarily to any individual.

 

And the breach?

 

Not between parties within a nation; geographies within a nation; or ideologies with a nation.

 

The fundamental breach is between God and Humankind.

 

And the fundamental sign of that Breach?

 

Is it not the fundament dislocation between life and worship?

 

Let me use more choice language:  Watch the God Talk!

 

Or even sharper:  Don’t Talk about God;  Walk with God.  Don’t “talk the talk” but “walk the walk.”

 

Or at least—evoke the language of God with care—with humility and with compassion.

 

Third Isaiah uses some beautiful language here about the true fast.

 

We are anticipating Lent a bit here; when the things of abstinence in the spiritual life have most been associated with Lent

 

But we think of fasting as also symbolic of the entire structure of worship.

 

Sisters and brothers!

 

Worship is a dangerous thing; it is a good thing; a right thing; for some of but not all—it is the most essential thing; isn’t worship about praise to God!

 

But look at so much of the language of worship-even this morning;  it can be too often be about us; even ore darkly—about a justification of us and the we live, move and having our being.

 

It can be too often about the celebration of our way;  our way of prayer; our personhood; and all too often about a celebration of “us” vs. them.”

 

Yes, worship can be dangerous.

 

Isaiah knew too well that religion can be the heart and soul of estrangement between God and humankind.

 

You heard correctly; religion can divide humans from God.

 

It can divide when we evoke it for nationalistic, partisan, even religious turf fights between nations and peoples.

 

To return to the language of the Serenity Prayer, Third Isaiah knew that we humans have little control over the great energies of nationalism, populism, religious xenophobia and partisan warfare.

 

But he also knew this.

 

We DO have control over how we respond to them.

 

And one way to do so?

 

Cut so much of the God-Talk; cut so much of the religious talk; get religion out of the public square as much as possible; its too often poison.

 

Please hear me right.

 

Isaiah did not talk about removing faith from the public square.

 

But the text from Isaiah 58 seems to be clear that Isaiah did call from eliminating “religion” from politics—with religion defined as evoking

 

God’s name for the baptism of everything but God’s will, justice, loving-kindness and humble walk with the Divine.

 

No, we can’t control the national agendas of partisanship.

 

But you and I can control this:

 

We can focus on doing God’s will. We can focus on the essentials of faith spoken so well by the prophet Micah==to do justice; love kindness; and walk humbly with your God.

 

We can focus on sharing your bread with the needy; on healing those who are broken; on advocating not for partisan politics—but all at risk persons.

 

“If you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted……then shall your light rise in the darkness—and your gloom be like the Noonday.”

 

Oh yes, my gloom-and I think our gloom this week was great/

 

Especially when we witnessed voices from all sides of the political spectrum evoke the name of God for their decisions. 

 

I dare say no more by way of example.

 

I realize my own Jeffersonian views of the Wall of Separation between Church and State are coming through here—and I hope I am being faithful to the scriptures.

 

But I believe we can all identity with Isaiah’s call to make religion about faith and life;  not necessarily God-talk and nationalisms of power.

 

So—my friends—might we cut the false worship and arrogant God-Talk?  Might we speak not of fasts of show (Jesus would say a lot about this later)—but fasts of service and love?

 

Might we speak of God a lot less? And do God’s will a lot more?

 

This week, in the gloom of all of the religious-based politics—I received a very lovely letter from the Trenton Rescue Mission.

 

All Saints Church, through the Rector’s Discretionary Fund-gave to the Trenton Rescue Mission This year.

 

I can’t tell you how many homeless patients I have referred there as a social worker at Princeton House.

 

The Trenton Rescue Mission was founded in faith; it is not only a shelter but offers numerous programs for those who live with addiction and mental illness—two of the major factors that land those on the streets.

 

The letter said this:

 

Last year alone, we offered 82,548 warm meals; a place to sleep to 1,302 homeless persons; provided 31,132 days of counseling through our residential addiction treatment programs, and helped 130 individuals attain housing.

 

Whenever someone shows up at our door, we never turn them away.

 

We ask just two questions:

*What is your name?

*Are you hungry?

“Is this not the fast that I choose? To lose the bonds of injustice?”

When our nation—when  you and I--through citizenship—let THIS light of living and lived faith-- shine in the darkness—then…

……..our nation will truly be “a repairer of the Breach!”

Sermon 2/2/20

A sermon on the Feast of the Presentation, February 2, 2020, by the Rev. Hugh E. Brown, III, D. Min., Rector, in All Saint’s Episcopal Church, Princeton, NJ on Luke 2:22-40

“A sword will pierce through your own soul.”

The beginning of February offers us a lovely feast day—and a truly meaningful occasion in the life of the church.

 

We rarely celebrate because this day because it does not often fall on a Sunday.

 

Yet, the Book of Common Prayer—in keeping with our catholic heritage, marks today as one of the most important holy days of the Church year.

 

The Church titles it “The Feast of the Presentation;  in some traditions it is called Candlemas.

 

Candlemas refers to the theme of light;  the fundamental scripture for this day is the Song of Simeon or the Nunc Dimittis;  the central theme of this scripture, in Simeon’s words: 

 

“For Mine Eyes have seen your salvation which  you have prepared before the face of all people.”

 

“To be a light to lighten the Gentiles, and to be the glory of your people, Israel.”

 

Thus--as observed in many churches and as we shared today---we have a Candlelight Rite to proclaim one of the church’s most important messages:  Christ reveals God’s love to ALL humankind; not just one religion or one people.

 

In many Christian traditions, Candlemas also became the occasion for Christians to bring candles to Church to be blessed.

 

In times for most of human history—when candlelight—was the only evening illumination for homes—Candlemas became a powerful winter feast day of God’s protection, security and hope.

 

In some Christian churches, the Feast of the Presentation marks the official close of Christmas.

 

It does so by bringing a finale to the infancy narratives of Jesus.

 

There are only two stories in the bible—both in Luke—of Jesus following his birth in Bethlehem.

 

One story describes Jesus giving his parents heartburn by going off alone in Jerusalem during the Passover.

 

His parents found their son Jesus teaching in the temple and putting all who heard him in awe.

 

This day bids us remember Mary and Joseph’s visit to the Temple to present their child Jesus on the 40th day of his birth, as Jewish law required.

 

I offer this meditation by Frederick Buechner on Simeon and the Presentation:

 

“Jesus was still in diapers when his parents brought him to the Temple in Jerusalem, “to present him to the Lord.”

 

As the custom was, and offer a sacrifice and that’s when old Simeon spotted him.

 

Years before, he’d been told he wouldn’t die till he’d seen the Messiah with his own two eyes—and time was running out.

 

When the moment finally came, one look through his cataract lenses was all it took.

 

He asked if it would be all right to hold the baby in his arms, and they told him to go ahead but be careful not to drop him.

 

“Lord now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word, for mine eyes have seen thy salvation,” he said.

 

The baby continued to play with the fringes of his beard.

 

He parents were pleased as punch, and so he blessed them too, for good measure.

 

Then something about the mother stopped him.

 

His expression changed.

 

What he saw in her face was a long way off, but it was there so plainly he couldn’t pretend. “A sword will pierce through your soul,” he said to the baby’s mother—Mary.

 

He would have rather have bitten off his tongue than said it;  but in that holy place he felt he had no choice.

 

Then he turned her back the baby and departed in something less than the perfect peace he’d dreamed of all the long years of waiting.”

 

Yes, this baby, this Jesus, is light.

But it is light which disturbs, and challenges.

 

There is a little-known poem by William Butler Yeats, the great bard of Irish disturbance on Mary’s holding the child Jesus in her arms at the Presentation:

 

“The three-fold terror of love;  a fallen flare

Through the hollow of an ear;

Wings beating about the room

 

The terror of all terrors that I bore

 

The Heavens in my womb.

 

Had I not found content among the shadows.

 

“Had I not found content among the shadows.”

Please return-in a moment of silence—to the way we began this service.

 

Please return to the experience or darkness, shadow—with minimal illumination.

 

The Christian Church, in its theology, spirituality and life—honors both darkness and light.

 

Think Good Friday AND Easter.  Think Death and New Life.

 

But sadly, The Church has often focused on Light—to the exclusion of Darkness.

 

What do I mean by this?

 

Too often—many have shared with me—and I have experienced this too—that the Church relegates much associated with Darkness to the margins.

What that means is that much associated with darkness is excluded from our conscious awareness and our intentionality.

 

How often in my journey as a Priest—have persons told me how hard it is to bring painful experiences to life—in the church.

 

How often persons have told me that it is so hard to speak of their own inner darkness—which is part of our humanity.

 

How often have persons felt stigmatized, shunned, and excluded because of life in the darkness.

 

When grieving (get over it!), when suffering grievous loss (buckle up!), when weak (man or woman up!), when living with chronic disability,

when aging, when genuinely oppressed.

 

How often the church—by only emphasizing the light—engenders triumphalism, aggression and victory---over truth, reconciliation and comprehension.

 

How often we don’t want to talk about difficult things in the Church.

 

What would it have been like for Mary to hear that a sword would pierce her heart?

 

Our church does offer examples for the interplay between light and darkness. 

 

I cite one from last Sunday.

 

A member of our congregation—Pam Muscente—offered flowers in honor and memory of her deceased son’s 38th Birthday.

 

Pam’s son took his own life; he also lived with both addiction and mental illness.

 

Since becoming a member of All Saints Church, Pam has bravely and compassionately worked with me and our staff to bring events to All Saints Church.

 

These events raise awareness of issues of suicide awareness and prevention.

 

They also raise awareness of mental health issues that put any of us at the risk of suicide—drug and alcohol abuse; mental illness;  the overwhelming stress of modern life;  and frankly, the isolation and shame—based culture of so much of meritocracies like Princeton.

 

Within the last year, I received a question from a former parishioner about suicide;  the parishioner’s daughter lost a friend to suicide.

 

The question from the daughter:  Was Suicide a Sin?  What her friend in Hell?

 

Sisters and brothers—suicide is part of illness; it is a public health issue; it is not a moral issue; it is a result of clinical distress; not moral distress.

 

It is often the last vestige of depression.

 

There is a moving scene from the movie—Good Will Hunting.

 

A therapist, played by Robin Williams—is treating a young adult.

 

The young man’s destructive behavior is destroying his life—one filled with promise.

 

Beneath his dark behavior is profound shame.

 

This shame is rooted in family abuse and neglect that the young man could not control.

 

Finally—his therapist confronts him—looks him in the eyes and, with passion and conviction says, “It’s not your fault.”

 

“It’s not your fault.”  “It’s not your fault.”

 

Sisters and brothers—life-threatening and life-ending behaviors resulting from mental illness and addiction are no one’s fault.

 

Please hear this—all you---or all of you with loved ones wresting with the consequences of mental illness and addiction.

 

“It’s not your fault.”  “It’s not your fault.”

 

The Church needs offer wisdom, and hard-headed rationality to the worst of religious-based stigma.

 

And compassion.

 

Let us honor—not only the light-but also the darkness on this Feast of the Presentation—this Candlemas.

 

One year ago—our brother in Christ-the Rev. George Rambow—was ordained an Episcopal Priest; today marks the anniversary of his

Priesting here at All Saints church.

 

I close by offering the commendation and charge to Father George as he initiated his Priesthood.

 

Such I think is a good charge for the Priesthood of All Believers.

 

The poet and hymn writer Rosalind Brown composed this commendation.

 

My Lord Jesus,

 

You laid aside your rightful reputation

 

And gave no heed to what the world might say;

 

Served as a slave and laid aside your garments

 

To wash the feet of those who walked your way.

 

You touched the leper, ate with the rejected,

 

Received the worship of a woman’s tears:

 

You shed the pride that keeps us from the freedom

 

To love our neighbor, laying down our fears.

 

Help us to follow Jesus, where you lead us,

 

To Love, to serve, our own lives laying down;

 

To walk your way of humble, costly service,

 

A cross its ends, a ring of thorns its crown.

Draw us to you, with your love transform us;

 

The love we’ve seen, the love we’ve touched and known;

 

Enlarge our hearts and with compassion fill us.

 

To Love, to Serve, to Follow you Alone.

Sermon 1/26/20

A sermon preached by the Rev. Hugh E. Brown, III, D. Min, MSW, LSW, Rector, in All Saints Episcopal Church, Princeton, NJ on January 26, 2020, the Third Sunday of Epiphany, year A, Matthew 4: 12-23.

“Follow Me”

                                      Fisher Kings of Conscience

 

Many of you are admirers of the late actor Robin Williams. 

 

Of all Robin Williams many meaningful movies, comic or dramatic---perhaps my favorite was The Fisher King.

 

Without going into detail, The Fisher King stared both Robin Williams and Jeff Bridge.

 

The Fisher King offers a vision of change!  Change to a new human being;  a new humanity.

 

A typic 1990’s radio shock jock--a narcissistic, misanthropic, mean-spirited and rather evil guy---transforms before our eyes…..

………into a man with empathy and loving kindness.

 

In so doing, he provides profound healing…. for an unexpected friend living with mental illness.

 

The name……The Fisher King…..comes from the Arthurian legend.

 

The Fisher King describe the mythical search for the Holy Grail on the part of a King living with wounds and frailty.

 

Thus---the movie examines several journeys—to health, to compassion, to decency, to friendship, to commitment.

This my friends is discipleship;  hearing a word of summons and command from within the soul to a new hope for humanity;  hear this (!) and we will leave all to follow it!

 

The Gospel stories of Discipleship and call are not history lessons. 

 

The Gospels are not historical narratives; they were written decades after the death of Jesus; they are intended for proclamation.

 

Andrew, Simon Peter, James and John—they are not characters from the distance past.

 

Their stories are our stories.

 

We are in their position; in their address by Jesus; in their decision to respond; in their challenge; in their experience of command.

 

And how are we addressed?

“Follow Me.”

 

Matthew’s Gospel does Jesus address his fist disciples without any preparation;  nothing; nada,

 

As we saw last week, John the Baptist commends Jesus to his own disciples;  John has credibility;  and more probably, John’s disciples would know Jesus the man—if not the Jesus the Messiah.

 

In Luke’s Gospel, Simon, James, and John have just seen Jesus perform a miracle—his first in Luke—a great catch of Fish

 

In Matthew?

 

No attempt whatsoever is made to prepare for the event.

 

Jesus simply summons with irresistible authority,  and Andrew, Simon, James and John—respond with radical obedience.

 

Why?

 

Beginning in Matthew, Chapter 5—we begin the Sermon on the Mount.

 

This is the inaugural address of Jesus according to Matthew.

 

This is the new world commanded of Simon, Andrew, James, and John.

 

This is the new world We—in their stead-- are commanded to enter.

 

It is a world where we, no matter our station in life—break with business as usual.

 

In Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount, we learn what it is to be blessed; to be merciful; to practice non-violence; to offer forgiveness; to reconcile, to be faithful. 

 

We learn the blessings of vulnerability, of peacemaking.

 

We learn what the disciples DID with Jesus; not what was in their minds.

 

This is what Jesus taught; this is how he lived.

 

Read Chapter 5 of Matthew’s Gospel friends—and you will hear in the words, “Follow Me”—why those first fisherman followed Jesus!

 

This is how the disciples lived with Jesus;  how they walked with Jesus; how they were at risk with Jesus. 

 

The disciples of Jesus—with Jesus—were living in the new age:  radical love.

 

This is an age where any hate is wrong; where stigma and discrimination are not hallmarks of religious liberty—but sinful degradations against human dignity; where women and men are equals in every way—including leadership in the Church; where enemies are to be converted to love—not killed.

 

It is an age Where to be a peacemaker is to be a child of God;  where evil is to be resisted with love;  where truth-not the lies of Satan—where guides.

 

And yes, like the Shock Jock in the Fisher King—I think the disciples were confronted---head on—by command and summons…..to break with business as usual.

 

I think, like a Fisher King—we learn from Jesus ---to journey with our wounds and with our imperfection—to work, live and die--for a new age.

 

When Nazi Germany annexed Austria in 1940, a catholic, father, citizen and businessman named Franz Jagerstatter—was at prayer.

 

Deep within his heart and conscience—he later wrote, I heard a very simple question:  “How is it possible to raise one’s children to be true Christians nowadays—when one is supposed to explain—what used to be sinful—as good.”

 

“How can the church term, good—the sinful turn on those of other cultures and religions?

 

“How can the church term, good—the predatory raids and arrests on those deemed ‘inhuman?”

 

“How can the church term good—predatory wars on other nations—war the church says is evil=-but now says are wars of good and

righteousness?”

 

That was the event of what he termed his “night experience”—and his break from a church and a religion which could baptize Nazism..

 

He entered a lay religious community dedicated to St. Francis of Assisi.

 

He still received orders to enter the Nazi army.

 

He refused to serve; and was executed.  He was 36 years old.

 

In 2005 Franz Jagerstatter was beatified by the Roman Catholic Church, the second of three steps towards canonization or sainthood;  he was proclaimed a martyr.

 

He never left his job, family or religion.  But he—like all of us have been-- or will be—or are now receiving—was commanded by the sheer presence of Jesus Christ.

 

He was commanded to enter into a new world;  even if this new world was the night, the simplicity, the awe of dream, imagination, and conscience.

 

The great spiritual writer, Howard University Chaplain, and poet Howard Thurman wrote:

 

“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 hear it, you will spend your entire life free from the ends of strings that someone else pulls.”

 

Why did the Disciples “Follow-Him?”

 

Drop their nets?  Enter into a new Age.

 

They listened.

 

They went deep—as Fisher Kings—into the depths of conscience.

 

Do that—my friends—this week—this Epiphany.

 

Respect the light of conscience.

 

Go the lake-side.

 

As you enter the depts of divine consciousness—of the still waters of conscience—away from the ordinary lake-sides—you will discover the genuine.

 

You will discover sound of the genuine in yourself.

 

People of God—we are not at the lake-sides of a very dark time in the annuals of the human family—and of creation itself.

 

This is a time where the forces of fear, brutality, deception, disinformation, anger, insularity and brute force

 

This is a time…..when to use the words of our Epistle from St. Paul….everyone is being Baptized—not of Christ—not of his way of love—but of identity politics, cultural tribalism—not of I thou—but the worst of I-It.

 

This is a time where authoritarian politics, ethnic nationalism reigns—where reason, tolerance, and democratic traditions are under assault.

 

We live in a time when all our Lord lived and died for—is at stake.

 

In the words of once voice from this past week in our Nation’ Capitol---a voice who truly broke through all the discord of polarized politics:

 

“When truth and right no longer exist--we are Lost.”

 

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for the things that are right;  for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.”

 “Follow Me”

 

Do you hear those words, at this moment—in your conscience—in the Sound of the Genuine.

 

Will you—Will I—Drop all—and Follow Him?

 

Truth and Right might very well depend your Decision.

 

 

 

Let us pray:

In the words of Albert Schweitzer-from The Quest for the Historical Jesus.

He comes to us as One unknown, without a name, as of old, by the lakeside,
 

He came to those men who knew Him not. He speaks to us the same words: "Follow thou me!" and sets us to the tasks which He has to fulfill for our time.

 

He commands.

And to those who obey Him, whether they be wise or simple,…

…….He will reveal himself in the toils, the conflicts, the sufferings which they shall pass through in His fellowship…

……..and, as an ineffable mystery…

………they shall learn in their own experience Who He is.”

Sermon 1/12/20

A sermon by the Rev. Hugh E. Brown, III, D. Min, MSW, LSW, Rector, preached in All Saints Episcopal Church on The First Sunday After the Epiphany, the Baptism of Our Lord, Year A, Matthew 3:13-17 on January 12, 2020

“You are My Beloved…..”

                                                You Count!

Whenever I think about Baptism, I remember the great short story—The River-- by the 20th Century American writer, Flannery O’Connor.

 

The River tells the story of a little boy in the rural South of mid-20th century America.

 

Without going into detail, the story describes a caretaker who accompanies the boy to a “river-healing by a wild-eyes Southern preacher.

 

The boy comes from family riven by addiction and dysfunction.

 

The preacher spots the boy and the following dialogue happens:

 

“Listen have you ever been baptized child,” asked the preacher?  The boy only grinned.

 

“I suspect he ain’t ever been Baptized,” his caretaker said.

 

“Swang him over here,” the preacher said, and took a stride and caught the boy.

 

“Have you ever been Baptized?,” the preacher asked again.

 

“What’s that?”  the boy murmured.

 

“If I baptize  you, the preacher said, you’ll go to the Kingdom of Christ.  You’ll be washed in the river of the suffering of Jesus, son; and you’ll go deep into the water of life.  Do you want that?”

 

“Yes, the boy through.  “I won’t have to go back the apartment;  I’ll go under the water and be O.K.”

 

“You won’t be the same again,” said the preacher.  “You’ll count.”

 

Suddenly, the preacher said, “All right, I’m going to Baptize you now.”  The preacher plunged the child’s head into the water.

 

He held him under while he said the words of Baptism and then he jerked him up again and looked sternly at the gasping child.  The child’s eyes were dark and dilated.

 

“Son….you count now,” the preacher said.  “You did not count before.”

 

The little boy was too shocked to cry.  He spit out the muddy water and rubbed his wet sleeve into his eyes over his face.

 

“You count.”  “You’ll go under the water.”

 

That is what he remembered.

 

When the sitter took him back to his apartment—smelling of alcohol; and shouts and anger—he remembered.

 

Writes Flannery O’Connor, “He imagined all of this was a much better place-the river—where  you count. 

 

The Kingdom of Christ—where you count.  Down below the river was the place—where you count.

 

So—one day, the boy walked back to the River—that wild, dirty river with its dangerous currents and undertow.

 

The boy intended not to fool around with preachers anymore, but to Baptize himself and to keep on going this time until he found the Kingdom of Christ in that river.

 

He did not waste any time.  He put his head under the water at once and pushed forward.  Then—he plunged into the water again---and this time, the waiting current caught him like a gentle hand and pulled him swiftly forward—and down.

 

For an instant, he was overcome with surprise;  then he was moving so quickly—and knew he was going somewhere—and, for once, for the first and last time, all of his fury and fear left  him.”

 

Flannery O’Connor once said that she had to scream to get folks to hear

 

Scream what?

 

She was Roman Catholic;  part of the mid-20th century Southern renaissance; her works stands with such Southern visionary writers as Alan Tate, William Faulkner, Walker Percy, and Harper Lee.

 

Her theology-in the minds of many—stands with Karl Barth,

 

Many traditional Christian voices believe that Flannery O’Connor was screaming a message of salvation—in this story—and in so many others.

 

The little boy’s death was not tragic—or a suicide;  it is a celebration of eternal life—a message the boy “got” more than any preacher; it is a message that true religion and true salvation is found in the depths of the rivers of heaven;  that this world is of no count; the boy got this; the preacher and caretaker did not.

 

It is heaven for which we yearn; heaven—not the travails of earth.

 

That’s what Baptism is all about right—Salvation?  Something we Christians have but no one else does!

 

Others believe that the story screams a message of grace.

 

Grace is found in God alone;  even in muddy rivers with dangerous currents that take you to the only place God dwells—the Kingdom of Christ.

 

That’s what grace is—right?  Something only of God; the boy was suffering in this world;  he was realized into the true freedom from sin, death and hell?

 

That’s what Baptism is about right? 

 

God alone; not humanity; not earth; nothing of this world.

 

I think Flannery O’Connor is screaming a far different message—heard in the words:

 

 “You Count.”

 

That is what the boy heard.

 

That is what he gave his life for.

 

“You Count.”

 

O how that hurting little boy wanted to believe the words, “You Count.”

 

He believed them so much he literally died to attain them.

 

 “You Count!”

 

Did his parents ever see him?  See all the loneliness and hurt? 

 

Did his so-called Christian caregivers ever give him the love he desperately needed?

 

Did the preacher demonstrate one ounce of genuine love, authentic faith and compassion beneath all the religious ritual and hallow religious discourse?

 

“You Count.”

 

That is what Jesus heard in the Baptismal waters!

 

“You Count.”

 

“You are my beloved son—with whom I am well pleased.”

 

Why WAS Jesus Baptized?

 

Why was the sinless one Baptized with a rite of forgiveness to sinners?

 

Why—when John asked, “Why in the world are you doing this Jesus? I need to be Baptized by YOU!”

 

Only Matthew has this dialogue between John and Jesus at Jesus’s Baptism.

 

And Jesus replies to this question, “Why” with, “To fulfill all righteousness.”

 

You know how I interpret this?

 

I don’t think Jesus was following the messianic script, the scripture script, the morality script, the “look this is what God wants me to do script.”

 

I interpret his words to John—look my friend John—“I have to do this.” I gotta do this.  For my sake; not just for Israel; for God; for the Kingdom.”

 

I think Jesus needed to hear those words, “You Count.”  “You are my beloved.”

 

He needed to hear them—and I think he always remembered them—and continued to hear them. 

“You are my beloved.”

 

He needed hear them because he would always be at risk—on the margins-what my friend Mako Fujimura calls the Border Stalker; he was always misunderstood; never quite fit in with what folks expected..

 

But he needed to hear them for this reason.

 

You count.

 

All count;  Jesus was to stand with the outsiders—victims of abuse and assault; those living with social stigma; those of other cultures and religions; those excluded; those who are refugees—those as sinners and condemned.  He was all of these things

 

And why are WE Baptized? 

 

Church membership?  To get purse?  To get “sinless.?

 

To get Baptized and become Christians to be part of a tribe who could not care less about abused children and hypocritical religion? 

 

Who only yearn for eternal life?

 

Who only care about exclusive doctrines which set is apart from the world’s pain and sin and death?

 

Jesus entered the river Jordon with all those who did NOT COUNT.

 

But God called Jesus Beloved.  No matter his past.

 

And God calls us Beloved.  That is the message “screaming at us” through scripture; through the Baptism of our Lord.

 

You are beloved!

 

Baptism does not make us into something we are not;  it does not mark us with a tribal rite of admission;  it reminds us of who we are—always.

We are God’s beloved;  never forget that;  never forget to live it; to share it; to mark others with it in words, deeds and a life of the love of Jesus for All!

 

This very day, we know, among us right here in this Church……there are stories of spouses, partners, child, sisters, brothers, parents, friends, neighbors……who need to be heard—who need to hear the words, “You Count; You are beloved.”

 

There are those right here in these pews—and especially outside the doors of this church who have made mistakes……look for a second chance,……pushed to the margins because of difference……and are told each and every day….. that they DO NOT COUNT!

 

To them we offer today—You are God’s Beloved!

 

This very week—in word and deed—in war and peace—in the fires burning creation—and in the shut gates among borders—the Church is all too like the preacher in Flannery O’Connor’s story.

 

The church, all too often, practices empty rituals, with dearth of compassion, authenticity and the love of Jesus.

 

It need not be so.

 

“You count;  You are my beloved.”

ALL count; all are my Beloved.

 

For all are in Christ; all humanity; not just some; not just Christians.

All.

 

As we begin another year; as we mark another Epiphany and Christ’s revelation to All Persons; as we remember our Baptism and that we are all God’s beloved—we know this…

……The rivers are raging.

 

And, right now—there is a little girl; or little boy of any nation, age, culture, race or social background…

……….about to die in muddy waters….

………..looking for the Kingdom of Christ….

………..yearning for the words, “You are Beloved;  you Count!”

Sermon 1/19/20

A sermon preached on January 19, 2020, the Second Sunday after the Epiphany, and the observed Feast Day of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on the occasion of his National Holiday, by the Rev. Hugh E. Brown, III, D. Min, MSW, LSW in All Saints Episcopal Church Princeton, NJ, Year A, John 1: 29-42

“Where are you staying?”

                                                “Somebodiness”

I have had many years of what I might call, “soul conversations” as an ordained priest.

 

These conversations are beyond the surface, somewhat superficial places you and I can be when interacting with others.

 

The conversations cut to the depth of psyche, heart, and being.

 

They are about critical, life-giving or life-preserving realities of life.

 

They can happen in many settings of ministry from spiritual direction and counseling, to life-crisis events, to hospitality hour after church, to greeting folks as they come or depart for worship.

 

If truth be told, the most blessed part of the life of any priest (or for that manner, clinical or therapist) or ordained leader are these kinds of conversations.

 

In the opening chapter of John, we actually see such a soul-conversation among John the Baptist, Jesus, and several prospective disciples—who are currently disciples of John. 

 

Two disciples are named—Andrew and Peter;  another is not.

 

John’s story of Jesus calling his first disciples makes the most sense to me.

 

In the other Gospels, we are puzzled that Jesus just approaches them out of the blue when they are working with their Dad in the fishing industry.

 

They drop all and follow Jesus.

 

What gives?  They do not even know him.

 

In John’s story of Jesus calling his first colleagues---these three first disciples are already (!) part of John’s movement; they all know each other because they are tied to John. 

 

The first disciples, like Andrew, Peter here in John—already know about discipleship and radical commitment.

 

They just don’t know who Jesus is.  Or don’t recognize it yet.

 

They take in an interest in Jesus because John commends it.

 

John has some credibility.

 

And in tis way, John’s Gospel, in my experience is also historically true to life.

 

Sisters and brothers—do not the deepest transformations of life happen in conversation?

 

In dialogue, and in interactions with others in communities of transformation?

 

And not just dialogue with the divine.

 

Dialogue with fellow humans while about the things of the divine.

 

Whether extraordinary or ordinary, the dialogue—like that in John—often starts in the following form:

*Commendation-- the Good, the Right Way, the Best Way, the true Life:  Here is the Lamb of God!

*Inquiry of Meaning:  What do you seek?

*Response:  Where are You Staying?

 

 “Where are you staying?”

 

Now—that might be a curious question.

 

What lies within those words—Where are you Staying?

 

Much more than-where do you live (Jesus never had a set a residential home—right?  He was indeed a wandering Aramean; an Abraham; a Moses; an Elijah)?

 

Or, where are you from (Jesus was born in Bethlehem, immigrated to Egypt, migrated back to Nazareth in Galilee, and then lived all over Capernaum, finally dying outside the walls of Jerusalem).?

 

Where are you staying?

 

What really prompts this question?

 

For this is THE great question of personal and social transformation and change; perhaps the great crisis question of life or death.

 

Where are you staying?

 

Can we trust you?  Can you welcome me?  Can you accept me?  Can you see me?

 

Do we not know this?

 

That the bonds of hospitality, welcome and what one of the greatest of the human spiritual guides in American history calls “unconditional positive regard” is THE most life-giving issue!

 

It makes all other movement in the spiritual life possible!

 

No family, no organization; not government; no social order functions without trust; without regard; without a positive response to the question. “Where are you staying?”  “Will you welcome me?”

 

With three simple words, “Come and See,” Jesus offered the hospitality that changed the lives of Andrew and Peter—and all who were touched by Jesus.

 

Where are you staying?

 

Martin Luther King knew that was the ultimate question.

 

The only real question.

 

There were good and true questions about laws,  policy, government, planning a movement, tactics and politics.

 

But in sermon after sermon, speech after speech, jail and freedom, family dinner table, prayer and fasting, home and plane flight—death on a Memphis Balcony, Dr. King’s ultimate question that moved a nation was “Where are you staying?”

 

Will you accept me?  Really accept me? Really offer me hospitality?  Really respect me?

 

Not in pity; but in compassion—as in companion—as equal; with dignity.

 

He knew that all Americans were asking this question.

 

He understood the dynamics of blame and scapegoating by the best and worst of us.

 

That it was fear, insecurity, dearth of hospitality, understanding and welcome—even and especially among oppressors—that was as much of the problem as oppression.

 

If you go to the National Mall to see the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, you will note the architecture.

 

The Memorial is a living vision of one of the seminal quotes and visions of Dr. King.

 

That the Lord hews (or cuts) out of the Mountain of Despair a Stone of Hope.

 

Thus, you can look through cut stone to see the Jefferson memorial on the other side of the tidal basin.

 

Jefferson—author of the words, All Men are Created Equal.

 

Jefferson—also slave-owner.

 

The United States—always striving for a more perfect union.

 

Martin Luther King—always walking, marching and leading a nation that perpetually expands the meaning of ALL are created equal.

 

Where are you staying?

 

Where America?

 

Do all hear the words of Jesus, “Come and See?”

 

All!

 

Black and White, Rich and Poor; Gay and Straight;  Latino and Latina; Rural,  Urban;  Working Poor  in Appalachia;  High Tech slaves in Silicon Valley.

 

Dr. King wrote:

“Nobody is a nobody;  everybody is a somebody;  Somebodiness is never earned or conferred; it is innate;  it is a right; it is divine;  it is ontological;  My somebodiness derives from God and thrives on your somebodiness; the two are interdependent and mutually inclusive;  my nobodiness disparges and degrades your somebodinesss;  you can’t rightfully claim to be a somebody when  you cause or tolerate my nobodiness.”

 

You see Dr. King new this:

 

Oppression is rooted in the false notion that acceptance for all will be the diminishment of some.

 

He knew the question of Andrew, “Where are you staying?” reframes the question and the narrative.

 

Radical Acceptance is built on the foundation of mutual inclusion.

 

The only diminishment stems from exclusion.

 

My respect is rooted in your respect.

 

Oh can we frame all the false, exclusive narratives which pit one person’s or one group’s well being against another!

 

Where we see another—not as a threat—but one who uplifts and empowers my own somebodiness?

 

But, perhaps the ultimate life with the question, “Where are you staying?” lies with God.

 

With our relationship with God.

 

Can I trust God?  Can I find acceptance with God/

 

Is God good?

 

John the Gospeller knew that; Jesus knew that. Peter would come to know that as he found his identify, his somebodiness, as The Rock,

 

As the Stone of Hope—cut from the Mountain of Despair—as the leader of the new Christian movement.

 

Dr. King had to know that too.

 

That his ultimate question, Where are you staying?”  --was that of God?

 

In his book, Stride Towards Freedom—his work on the Montgomery Bus Boycott…..his great campaign which ended segregation in Montgomery, Alabama public transportation….Dr. King wrote of what he called his Midnight Coffee Experience:

 

“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.”

 

Lord—we ask:  Where are  YOU Staying?  Never Alone!.......Come…and See!

Sermon 1/5/20

Sermon by Jacob Zeller

 

The triumphant language of Isaiah 60 is easy to get swept up in.

 

It feels as if it is the climax of a movie.

 

I think of Peter Jackson’s masterful portrayal of JRR Tolkien’s Return of the King, where Aragorn receives the crown and the white tree of Gondor is there, fully restored to its former glory.

 

In fact, I find that image quite apropos. That darkness of Mordor, a seemingly unstoppable threat, destroyed and overcome by the light of the King, a true and proper king, whose concern is not of themselves, but of the kingdom and those in it.

 

This image, no doubt, would have been very welcome to the struggling Israelites. Scholars have determined that Isaiah 60 was written during or just after the return from Babylon. Exiled for 70 years, they had come home, but things weren’t quite right.

 

The temple had yet to be rebuilt. Oppression and false worship still abounded, and justice was not being done.

 

They were leaderless and longing for a righteous king. Indeed, darkness covered Israel.

 

Isaiah is giving a glorious image, one of deliverance and protection from the harshness of the world around them: “For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the LORD will arise upon you, and his glory will appear over you.”

 

The promise to Israel is clear: though the world plunge into utter despair, the Lord will preserve and deliver them.

 

It is not hard to see how this vision of Isaiah would be comforting to a distressed people.

 

Listen to everything God’s promise entails. “Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.”

 

So bright will the light of Israel be that other nations will come, eager to be a part of it.

 

This is a recapitulation of the great assurance of God to Abraham that through him all nations will be blessed.

 

Moreover, “your sons shall come from far away, and your daughters shall be carried on their nurses’ arms.” In the exile, families were separated, in some instances entirely lost.

 

How wonderful it would be, after years in a place far from home and cut off from family, to have a long lost son or daughter return.

 

But this is not all. Isaiah promises wealth and security.

 

No fear of starvation or foreign conquest shall enter into the minds of the people of Israel anymore.

 

And most importantly of all, “All the flocks of Kedar shall be gathered to you, the rams of Nebaioth shall minister to you; they shall be acceptable on my altar, and I will glorify my glorious house.”

 

Isaiah is promising there will be a renewed and vibrant worship of God, and God will accept their worship.

 

Throughout Scripture we see proper sacrifice and worship of God is something the Israelites repeatedly fail in accomplishing.

 

Unworthy gifts and false worship have resulted in disastrous situations. Of all the great things given in this prophecy of Isaiah, this is the most significant.

 

Israel will be preserved from the darkness with the end result being proper worship of God in a glorified house.

 

Isaiah 60 seems like such a grand affair, one that will be fulfilled with much pomp and circumstance.

 

Yet the actual culmination of this promise takes place in a little town, barely on the map and completely unheard of, centuries later.

 

It is only known now because of the great effort of those in the first century to archive it.

 

Even then, questions surround it.

 

Our passage in Matthew, chapter two in particular has a rather special dimension of the nativity story.

 

Three wise men embark on a journey to see this newly born king of the Jews.

 

The historical accuracy of these men is highly questioned and their inclusion is baffling.

 

The Bible does not offer their names, though the Christian tradition holds that they were named Balthazar, Gaspar, and Melchior.

 

In fact, Matthew 2 is the only chapter in the Bible that even mentions the magi; the Gospel of Luke focuses on the visit from the shepherds.

 

So what is going on here?

 

Why the inclusion of these mysterious wise men, who give their gifts, say their peace, and depart without nary a mention evermore?

Notice the gifts that they give. Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh. Expensive gifts, exotic, from far foreign lands where the cost of importing them alone would have been a fortune.

 

They are fit for a king, and given to a child. Notice the connection to the prophecy of Isaiah.

 

Isaiah 60, verse 6, says “They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the LORD.”  

 

Isaiah’s prophecy depicts other nations coming to Israel because of the LORDS light shining out in the darkness.

 

These nations offer gifts so that they too might be preserved from the dark.

 

Matthew is intentionally referencing this prophecy, and the message being delivered is quite clear: this is the moment of the promise being fulfilled.

 

The magi were not Jews. They were foreigners.

 

They are the other nations spoken of in Isaiah 60.

 

They are flocking to Jesus,

 

They are flocking to the light, and thus is the reason for the magi being in this Gospel story.

 

The prophecy of foreign nations coming to the light of Israel, offering gifts, and praising the one true God, is fulfilled in this moment.

The mysterious inclusion of these three magi reflect a mysterious truth one Paul knew well and devoted his life to making it known.

 

In Ephesians, Paul says that the mystery “is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the Gospel.”

 

Remember the chief promise of our passage from Isaiah!

 

The promise of preservation from the darkness the freedom to worship God correctly, and to have such worship accepted.

 

This promise to Israel is extended in the coming of Christ to even the Gentiles!

 

To those who are not a part of the elected nation of God.

 

They too are brought in and partake in this worship of the one true God.

 

Thus does the most formal definition of the word epiphany make sense: “the manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles as represented by the Magi.”

The most fascinating part of all this is the claim that Paul makes in verse eleven of Ephesians chapter 3. “This was according to the eternal purpose that he has realized in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

 

The gentile inclusion in the coming of Jesus Christ is an eternal decision and purpose of God.

 

God is and was always working to reconcile all people back to Godself in the person of Jesus Christ.

 

The incarnation of the Word, the full assumption of our nature that would welcome in every tribe, tongue, and nation was not something that God did arbitrarily or as a reaction.

 

It was something that God eternally determined Godself to do.

 

It was something God always knew God would do.

 

And why? For the sake of all humanity.

 

In the assumption of human nature, God, in the person of Jesus Christ, took on the sins of the world, took on that darkness, and brought us life.

 

We need not fear the darkness of the world. It is conquered.

 

We need not fear the power of sin and death, God was always and is always working to redeem us and reconcile us back to Godself.

 

And this is revealed to us by God’s actual coming and entering into this world. This is what we celebrate today in the feast of epiphany.

As we enter into 2020, it certainly does feel like darkness is closing in around us.

 

There is the threat of war, a patch in Australia the size of Manhattan is engulfed in flames, and frankly, there are many uncertainties that come with the New Year.

 

But let’s pause.

 

Let’s not fall into the trap of hyper-reactivity and despair because a number switched and there was bad news.

 

There is enough of that in media, whether it be mainstream, cable news, or social media.

 

Instead, let us slow down.

 

Let us be grateful. For there is much about to ponder on this day.

 

The great promise Isaiah gave to hopeless people of Israel is the same promise we know is fulfilled in Jesus Christ.

 

Though darkness appears to surround us, and the world plunges into despair, God preserves us.

 

This is the promise given to all in the coming of Jesus Christ.

 

This is the promise given to you.

 

The light of God will triumph over the darkness, and we will have forgiveness of sins, and thus, life.

 

Let this be in our minds as we embrace this New Year, and the inevitable problems it brings. Let us remember there is something greater than the darkness.

Sermon 12/24/19

A sermon for Christmas Eve and Day by  the Rev. Hugh E. Brown, III, D. Min, MSW, LWW, Rector, All Saints Parish, Princeton, New Jersey, 2019

                                                Christmas Sets the Centre on the Edge

A story is told of a Christmas Pageant.

 

A five-year old girl played an angel who announced  the birth to the shepherds. 

 

Most of the parents knew that her father and uncle had both been killed in a horrible car crash just a few months before.

 

With all the gusto a preschool girl could muster, the now fatherless angel shouted, “Behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy.  To you, is born, this day, in the city of David, a Savior who is Christ the Lord.”

 

In the words of William Sloan Coffin:

 

God is not confined to Christ.

 

Only most essentially defined by Christ. 

 

What is finally important is not that Christ is God-like……But that God is Christ-Like;  God is like Christ.

 

That is what we need to know.

 

Do know that tonight—if you know it on no other night!

 

Oh people of God—know that God is like Jesus—Like the Christ!

 

God is found in families…. who lose loved ones to unfathomable accidents--and unexplained pain. 

 

When you leave the church tonight—we hope you return; we hope you find God in communities of faith.

 

But even more—this night—look for Christ—search for Christ….

……...wherever full humanity is born! 

 

In the mangers of the world—that is where Christ is born.

 

Wherever there are vulnerable children……That is where God is to be born!

 

Wherever there are those outside the inns and rooms…..that is where God is to nr born!

 

Wherever there is beauty in creation…..that is where God is to be born!

 

Wherever we accept children for asylum as refuges—as the Holy Family were refugees…..that is where God is to be born!

 

A church sign at a local Methodist church says it well:  If you can not welcome the child at the Border; you can not welcome the child in the manger.

 

 

In the words of a poem by Malcolm Guite

Christmas sets the centre on the edge;
The edge of town, the outhouse of the inn,
The fringe of empire, far from privilege

 

Christmas sets the centre at the edge.

 

And from this day our  world is re-aligned
A tiny seed unfolding in the womb
Becomes the source from which we all unfold

 

And flower into being. We are healed,
The end begins, the tomb becomes a womb,
For now in him all things are re-aligned.

All things realigned. 

 

God is like Christ.

 

Always born….. in the humanity on the edge……At Borders.

 

…..In Prisons…….In Psychiatric Wards.

 

I’m at Penn Medicine—Princeton House—one week before Christmas. 

 

I practice clinical social work there; in addition to being a pastor here.

 

Why do I go there?  Why did I go there the week before Christmas? 

 

To find Christ on the Edge?  To find the Managers of Life?

 

I  have four patients to see.

 

One patient;  my heart sinks; the patient that any clinical social worker knows is among the most difficult to help.

 

And only two days.

 

Multiple addictions; no releases; no supports.

 

Homeless.

 

“Can you stay with a friend?  Family?  Anyone?”  I ask him.

 

 “I’ve burned all my bridges man,” he tells me.

 

“No where to Go.”  I believe him; we both hang our heads.

 

I work with the three other patients over those three days.

 

I am about to leave;  do the basics-with the homeless patient;  make some calls to rehabs;  meaningless.  After all, I have only two days.

 

I can Pass this on to another social worker—who will have a day more to work with this man.

 

A man who most likely will be sent to social services; and back to the streets;  that’s often the way addiction works among the poor.

 

Then I remember—The Salvation Army!

 

The Salvation Army!  More than a bell ringing outside a store at Christmas!

 

They run a well-respected Rehab in Trenton;  I don’t know if you know that.

You should.

I tell the patient.

The patient looks skeptical.

 

“Never thought about that.”

 

Silence.

 

“They gonna make me go to church?”

 

“Probably—I say with a smile” (he does not know he is talking to not only a social worker—but a

pastor)

 

Crap Shoot.

 

Of course-- they will be full;  they are always full!  Hard to get a bed there.

 

Of course-- they will be full a week before Christmas.

 

No way they have any room…….

 

But---perhaps…

 

I call—to leave a message.

 

No one ever answers at the Salvation Army Shelter in Trenton on the first try.

 

Too busy; too full; a week before Christmas.

 

No One.

 

I hear a voice on the other end.

 

It is the Shelter Coordinator.

 

The Shelter Coordinator NEVER answers on the first try; sometimes it takes days to connect.

 

First try.

 

“I’m a social worker at Penn Medicine/Princeton House.”

 

I describe the patient.

 

“Sir—I know this is a long shot; do you have a bed; can  you take a patient I’m working with

who…..who…..needs your help.”

 

My voice was not of a social worker only—but of a pastor---and a human beggar.

 

“Well now,” the coordinator says.

 

He continues:  “Sounds like you got Jesus needing a room at the Inn again?  “Right?”

 

“Yes, I think that is right.”

 

“He’s a Little older now.” “Right?”

 

“I can deal with that.”  The shelter coordinator says.

 

He continues: “Tell me to talk to me tomorrow—9AM.”

 

And the Shelter coordinator then says:  “We can take him.”  

 

“No way I would turn Jesus away again at Christmas.”

 

“You really can take him,” I said—my voice breaking a bit..

 

“It will be difficult.  But its Christmas…And Jesus asks us to do tough things.”

 

I hang up; I tell the patient.

 

This is the first time in two days I have seen my patient smile.

 

And I say to my patient—not as social worker; not even as pastor; but as brother, “God is Good.”

 

And the patient, “All of the Time.”

 

“I can finally sleep tonight,” he tells me.

 

Christmas sets the centre at the edge.

 

For now, in him, all things are re-aligned.

 

I wish I could close here.  . 

 

It is true -what the Angels said;  what that fatherless Angel in the Christmas pageant said, “Glory to God in the Highest.”

 

God is Good;  All of the time. That is true.

 

But I can’t close here;  For that is not the whole story.

 

As I write there are plenty of ways Jesus is amidst us—and he finds-- no room.

No room.

For-there are Plenty of ways that humanity--- is at the edge.

 

But no realignment.

 

As I write there are:

*Holy Families downing in the Rio Grande…

*Children in mangers-- in cages along the US Border…

*The infant Jesus, born in addiction—or addicted—while corporate titans, the Herods of our time, make millions from his suffering……

 

So-yes, depart this evening!  But remember these words of Mohandas Gandhi, that lover of Jesus in soul, spirit and life:

“As Long as hunger, as long as injustice remains-- Christ is not yet born—fully—in our world.”

Tonight---..God seeks birth—in you; in me.

God seeks to find us—not in the center—but on the edge.

Where—somewhere—someone—on the Edge…..realigns our hearts and souls with,  “No way I could turn Jesus away at Christmas…..”

….and our world is …..re—aligned.

Sermon 12/29/19

A sermon preached on the First Sunday After Christmas Day, 2019, Year A, RCL, John 1: 1-18, by the Rev. Hugh E. Brown, III, D. Min, MSW, LSW, Rector, in All Saints Episcopal Church, Princeton, NJ

“…All things came into being through Him; and with Him not one thing came into being.”

                                     

Original Goodness

“Christmas ought to remind us of what this whole thing is about,” writes E.J. Dionne, a columnist for the Washington Post.

 

So—what is this whole thing about?

 

I do not want to diminish the ways we can universalize the meaning of Christmas.

 

I don’t want to disparage how even secular society can translate Christmas values into life.

 

I don’t want to get into the culture wars language about the “attack on Christmas” by an “unbelieving culture.”

 

My wife Elly and I discovered early in our relationship, a love of Christmas which we share with our parish family.

 

What are the things we love that we can say are human manifestations of the divine in this season?

 

Things like generosity, light, beauty, the grace a Christmas tree, the inner child’s love of play, wonder, and surprise.

 

Oh yes, there are stresses and anxiety during this season; for those with loss; with family addiction, it can be a stressful time.

 

But, I must say, and I had more than my share of family pain at this time of year, there was just nothing like the special dishes my mom prepared for Christmas, unwrapping the ornaments for the Christmas tree, many with special meaning, having family present, even with some difficulty at times.

 

However, when we talk about “what this thing called Christmas” is about—we do think of that marvelous moment in the Christmas special, “A Charlie Brown Christmas.”

 

To Charlie’s plea, “can anyone tell me what Christmas is all about?” Linus narrates the birth narrative of Jesus from Luke’s Gospel.

 

So, what is this whole thing about?

 

We might be tempted to say---as did Linus to Charlie Brown in so many words—Jesus.

 

This is all about Jesus.

 

Yes, it is!

 

But it is more than that.

 

For Jesus always wanted “this thing” of his to be more than that. More than about him.

 

It is really about you and about me.

 

Christianity does not become real, in my experience, until it is about you and me.

 

And, by “you and me” I don’t mean “you and me” as individuals.

 

When we say that this season is about Jesus—it is, above all, about we.

 

It is about humanity.

 

It is about what humanity is, what it can become; what God intended it to be.

 

What do we learn about Jesus—this Christmas?

 

As Peter Weiner, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center put it, “the birth and life of

Jesus challenge what we normally value about human life.”

 

Even more deeply, the birth of Jesus challenges what Christians often value about human life

 

Even for Christians, writes Weiner, “this whole thing called Christianity” is about worldly power—to impose one’s will on another, to make one great again, to vanquish one’s enemies.

 

What are the human values of the Birth Narratives of Jesus?

 

To quote Weiner,

“Christmas represents the moment of God’s incarnation, when he made the broken world his homie.  But it was not an entrance characterized by privilege, comfort, self-glorification or public celebration.”

 

“No Christ’s birth, outside the inn, within a manger marks his entrance into the world in lowliness, obscurity, humility and fragility.”

 

In the words of Malcolm Muggeridge, “the circumstances of Jesus’s birth were calculated to establish his detachment from power and authority in human terms.”

 

This morning, as we continue our celebration of Christmas (remember that Christmas only begins with Christmas Day in the Anglican tradition; and lasts through the Feast of the Epiphany)—we learn from John’s Gospel a breathtaking vision.

 

I have always tried to wrap my mind around the remarkable poetry of what scholars call the

Prologue to John’s Gospel.

 

John is unique among the four Gospels.

 

John portrays Jesus’s very life as emblematic, of his remarkable connection to God.

 

His existence as a living, breathing manifestation, a “sign” to use John’s language of something beyond divinity.

 

For John, we might way that what “Christmas is all about” is Jesus life as God’s very life—a life, in the way Jesus described it, as one with God.

 

The other Gospel writes offer both a human and divine Jesus; we see this through miracles, healing, teaching—whereby Jesus is more than a human messiah; he is indeed, of God’s likeness.

 

But only John takes us towards what Christians will eventually call the Trinity, the faith in Jesus as Very God of Very God, Begotten, not made.

 

For what does John’s prologue say, “He was in the beginning with God;  through Him, All things Came into Being.  Without Him not one thing came into being;  In him was Life; and this Life was the Life of All People.”

 

In the beginning.

 

A new Genesis; a New Beginning.

 

But, within the old beginning.

 

Jesus was not only Messiah at his Baptism;  or at the Resurrection; or at the Ascension.

 

Jesus was Messiah, was very God of very God from the beginning.

 

So—if we think about this, ponder this, reflect on this, become filled with this—this thing called Christmas, we know, in mind-heart and spirit that God’s values fill the entire world; are embedded in the structures of creation, are the center of every human soul.

 

This Christmas, God was born anew into a broken world.

 

But not an alien world.

 

Let us please wrap our minds around this.

 

God’s creation;  all of it; the human family—all of it-is filled with the Light, Life, and Love of God.

 

Christmas forever reminds of what we are; what creation is; what we are to be.

 

The Life and Light of God. 

 

The values of this Christ, are the supreme values which truly govern the world.

 

The values of non-violence, vulnerability, relational power.

 

Everything we learn about God’s purpose and God’s identity from the manger—we see within the created order.

 

We see within the best of humanity.

 

Does that mean that there is not sin?

 

Does that mean that there is not an original problem of brokenness in God’s relationship with humankind?

 

No, perhaps.

 

But even more—there is an original goodness.

 

Richard Rohr writes, “The true and essential work of all religion is to help us recognize and recover the divine image in everything. It is to mirror things correctly, deeply, and fully until all things know who they are.”

 

This is what we learn from, “In the beginning was the Word.”

 

Rohr continues: “For the planet and for all living beings, to move forward, we can rely on nothing less than an inherent original goodness and a universal shared dignity.  Only then, can we build, because the foundation is strong, and is itself good.”

 

Christmas taught us the values that are about human dignity—especially the dignity of all people;  all people—those outside the Inn; those born in mangers;  those recognized only by shepherds.

 

THAT is the dignity that is embedded in creation.

 

That is the original goodness—beyond original sin.

 

And that is the vision that can change lives.

 

For as Richard Rohr writes, “I have never met a truly compassionate or loving human being who did not have fundamental and even deep trust in the inherent goodness of human nature.”

 

Do you trust, beyond all brokenness, that the universe is good, is compassionate?

 

That all persons have the Light of Life in their souls?

 

That, if we do treat one another as carrying that light-we can unleash the compassionate Life and Light within us?

Perhaps that is why, beneath all the consumerism, materialism, stress of this time of what we now call the Christmas season---we are drawn to Christmas.

 

Above all-drawn to the child in the manger.

 

Because we know that, at the depths, this IS the human purpose—vulnerability, child-likeness and love.

 

That is who we are!  The Life and Light of Christ.

 

In the New York Times, a few days ago, I was drawn to an article entitled, “An Immigrant’s Gift on Christmas Eve.”

 

It was written by a law enforcement officer—the General Counsel of the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office.

 

What provoked her love the law?  Not enforcement; not control; not power; not punishment.

 

But compassion.

 

Her mother, an Iranian refugee—was confronted by an Immigration officer in a New York Airport in the 1979 on Christmas Eve.

 

She writes:  “We could have been turned away.

 

But that nameless INS officer, almost whom I know nothing to this day—made a different decision.

 

Before him stood a young mother, traveling alone with her babies, visibly in need of refuge.

 

She told him that the children wanted to see their father.

 

That they had spent many months apart.

 

So—he granted us what is called deferred inspection.

 

I have thought a lot about that night in the years since.

 

As I child, I thought of this as a Christmas miracle.

 

But over my life course, I realize that I became a law enforcement officer, paradoxically, because the law was not enforced against me.

 

As a child, I was shown that the law could be enforced with goodness and humanity.

 

For my family’s first Christmas, America gave us safety, kept us together, and offered us a chance at a new life.

 

I wish the parents and children at our borders could expect the same gifts today.”

 

At the center of every human heart; at the center of human systems—is The Word.

 

The Word we beheld in the manger.  The Word which suffered for us.

 

The Word which redeemed all and is light and Life.

 

That last word is goodness and love.

 

Original goodness.  As Julian of Norwich wrote and prayed:

 

Know it well;  love is its meaning.

 

Who reveals this to you? Love.

What does he reveal? Love. Why? For Love.

Remain in this, and you will know more of the same.

Sermon 12/22/19

A sermon for the 4th Sunday of Advent, Year A, December 22, 2019, on Matthew 1: 18-25, by the Rev. Hugh E. Brown, III, Rector, All Saints Episcopal Church, Princeton, NJ

                                      Believe?

“She was found to be with child by the Holy Spirit.”

 

She told him this was of God.

 

Now it was up to Joseph.

 

Mary had done her part.

 

Now, Joseph had to do his.

 

For this new birth for humanity to happen.

 

For the Divine plan to work.

 

Something of God that could not be of God?

 

Could not be of God?

 

Mary, his new wife was pregnant;  they have been married.

 

According to ancient Jewish practice, marriage---agreed to by the parents--usually came almost immediately after the age of puberty.

 

But the girl continued to live with her parents for a time after the wedding.

 

Lived with her parents, until the husband was able to support her in his home or that of his parents. 

 

Marital intercourse was not permissible during the period.

 

But Mary was with Child.

 

Not only that—Mary told Joseph it was of God.

 

What was Joseph to do.

 

He was a righteous man;  would did that mean?

 

Joseph knew the law.

 

According to Jewish law, there were tow ways in which a woman might become pregnant before joining her husband:

*Adultery (Deut 22:20-24) –penalty—death.

*Rape or Sexual Assault )—Innocence..

Despite the misogyny and patriarchy of ancient Palestine—the law did provide some protection and cover for vulnerable women.

 

Joseph could have been “righteous and law abiding;”  he could have been fair. 

 

Even out of great and deep love—this would have been truly “right.” 

 

To give Mary an out.

 

Perhaps she was a victim?

 

He would just “divorce” her quietly.   

 

He would thus spare her honor, her reputation, and her very life.

 

Oh-- people of God!

 

Joseph would have been the best of human beings!

 

H would have transformed the meaning of righteousness.

 

He would have brought Jewish and human law and custom to their peak…

 

….he would have been faithful to God…..

 

….If he had “quietly put Mary Away.”

 

But he did not.

 

Instead—he did something unimaginable; yesterday or today.

 

He believed Mary.

 

And he listened to an Angel.

 

But he did something more—some that only the Saints—led by Angels—do.

 

Something only—out great spiritual guides, and earthy angels ever do.

 

But something very possible for  you and for me; which makes such a miracle, by paradox, even more difficult.

 

He believed!

 

Something of God that can’t be of God.

 

But is….of God!

 

God---where there should be no God!

 

I’m not sure if God cares whether you believe that Mary and Joseph’s pregnancy of scandal was a

Virgin Birth.

 

Or sexual assault whereby she is innocent.

 

Or—just plain mystery.

 

As Martin Luther once said, “The Virgin Birth is a trifle for God. 

 

The miracle of Annunciations……to Joseph and Mary…..

……is faith.”

 

Faith and Grace.

 

Only when Joseph came to faith!

 

Only when Joseph dared to venture beyond wisdom; beyond compassion;  only when he ventured beyond anything of human flesh.

 

Only when he staked his life on something the bible calls Faith, through Grace……

 

…And Joseph…

 

Believed……

 

Not only in heart……..

 

………But in practice.

 

……He became the husband of Mary; Father of Jesus.

 

Protector of God’s dream.

 

O people of God…

 

Wisdom can take  us far into the things of God.

 

Compassion can take even more deeply into the holy life.

 

But it is Faith—like the faith of Joseph………Belief in the things of God which are found only in the ungodly places—and persons…..like Mary…

…that take us to where God intends—and places us within his Christ—and within his new Birth.

 

Several weeks ago at Penn Medicine/Princeton House, where I practice clinical social work…….in addition to my pastoral responsibilities here at All Saints Church…….I was assigned to patient we will call Gina.

 

Gina was a Transgender woman;  she was on the journey from self-identity as male to female.

 

She was a woman of faith; a believing Christian;  she told me that her gender transition journey….. was her godly intention….to life from male to female…..

 

Indeed, it was the stigma and shame directed at her……by family and friends that provoked the depression that landed her at Princeton House!

 

When I met with her and asked after all the questions I needed for her admissions Assessment:  As your social worker, what do  you need from me?

 

Gina said quietly:

“Just one thing; can you see—can you advocate for everyone to call me Gina?   This is my name now.  I know all the legal stuff has not been done; but this is the name I have now.”

 

So—I went to the appropriate persons—and made the request.

 

The response of the organization was couched in legalize—law—not as wisdom and compassion—much less faith-- but simply… legalism.

 

When I came to tell Gina that I did the best I could….but…….

 

Gina just said, “That’s O.K.—God knows.  God wants me to do this; I know that.”

 

Then she looked into my eyes:  “Do you believe me?”

 

Silence.  I did not know what to say.

 

Here was a contemporary Mary—godforsaken;  in what might be call a godforsaken place—yearning for new life to be born!

 

Before I could respond—one of the male nurses looked over; for he had overheard some of the conversation.

 

He said:  “Gina—come over here…”  “I believe you my sister.”

 

And he took out a pen—took out the paper with the names to call the patients—and scratched through it with the sounds of the parting of waters.

 

“To hell with the rules.”

 

“Gina”—welcome.  “I believe you;  And God does too.”  “That is enough for me.”

 

We all have our moments of annunciation.

 

You will have them this week;  this Christmas; this new year.”

 

You will;  in hospitals, schools, families; in work or home. 

 

On your journey to wherever….

 

As Dr. Carl Jung once said, “Beckoned or Not…..God will come.”

 

So will God’s angels.

 

“Do not be afraid to Take Mary as your wife;  for the child is of the Holy Spirit.”

 

So to Joseph.

 

So to you and me.

 

But when the Angels come:

 

Will WE believe?

Sermon 12/15/19

A sermon preached in All Saints Episcopal Church on the Third Sunday of Advent, December 15, 2019, by the Rev. Hugh E. Brown, III, D. Min, MSW, LSW, Rector on Matthew 11:2-11

“Go and tell John what you see and hear…..!”

                             We are terrified; bone tired, and filled with Love.

Are you the one who is to come—or shall we wait for another?

 

Even in prison, John the Baptist asked questions.

 

Or, we should say, John remained a spiritually, restless seeker.

 

Oh yes, some will say, “No” he was not a seeker;  he knew;  he proclaimed;  he just knew Jesus was the Messiah.

 

John knew Jesus in Mary’s Womb.

 

John would Baptize Jesus.

 

Jesus was the one who, according to John—the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world!

 

But in Prison—John….questioned.

 

Why would he doubt?

 

Why would he ask…. “Are you the one to come?”

 

John had some expectations of the Messiah—the One Who is To Come..

 

The Messiah would bring a Holy Spirit of Fire.  He would separate the evil from the righteousness.

 

The Messiah would do things dramatic;  things violent;  things of purification; things of fire; things of judgement;  things of the wrath to come; fruits of repentance for sinners.

 

Jesus was doing……different things.

 

Things like Love of Enemies;  forgiving the Oppressor—not just the oppressed; healing the servants of enemies; caring for children; touching lepers; providing peace and serenity from those we now believe were living with mental illness; including women.

 

John demanded change and godliness;  Jesus offered mercy….. to the Ungodly.

 

“Are you really the one?” John might have asked.

 

“Am I wrong?”  John probably asked.

 

Jesus responded to John.

 

Jesus might not have provided John with assurance and conviction.

 

“Go and tell John what you hear and see;  the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed,  the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news preached to them; and blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”

 

“Blessed are those who take no offense at me.”  A strange phrase.

 

But not----- if you look at it this way—as John most likely looked at it.

 

Jesus’s work is hardly the stuff Messianic expectation.

 

Unless-of course—you read the Suffering servant poems of Second Isaiah.

 

The Messiah was expected to overturn kingdoms.

 

Making new life—real life from death—for those shunned, excluded, marginalized and stigmatized—was not on the biblical messianic agenda.

 

Was John moved by this?

 

Did he think anew?  Did he believe?

 

Like John—we ask the question—Are you the One?

 

We ask it this Advent.

 

We ask it from our own Prisons; some real; some created;  some imposed;  some we can control; most we can’t control.

 

          I thought of the question, “Are you the One?” when I read a powerful lead editorial in the NYT this past weekend entitled, “The Unending Indignities of Alzheimer’s.”

 

The writer of the article spoke of his father;  spoke of his father’s battle with Alzheimer’s;  he battle with Dementia.  His family’s battle to care for his Dad.

 

Prison;  like John the Baptist;  Prison to illness; Prison to loss;  Prison to something not controlled; Prison to Powerlessness.

 

That is senior Care;  that is Alzheimer’s; that is loss of mind, loss of memory; loss; loss.

 

Oh, the person who wrote this article did not do so as a Christian;  the theme was not even religious.

 

But I found Christ all through it.

 

Or rather, the response of Jesus to John, “The dead are Raised; the Poor have Good news Preached to Them;  Blessed is He who takes no offense at me.”

 

How did I perceive this?

 

The writer of the Times article shares this:

“My father got a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s in 2016.

Like approximately four million other American families right now, my mother and siblings and I are plugging the gaping hole in our nation’s safety net as best we can.

Medicare will not cover;  Medicaid says my Dad can’t quality—yet;  not sick enough.  Assisted Living—8,000 a month; at home care; even more.

My sister has become an expert at talking my father through his rages — a common feature of dementia — and makes daily, herculean efforts to negotiate with him about basic hygiene, what he eats and how much he smokes. “

The Poor have Good News Preached to Them;  The Dead Are Raised.

“My nieces bring meals over as often as possible. And my mother prays and counts blessings — even on the worst days, when she has to lock herself in the bathroom to escape his mood swings.”

The Poor have Good News Preached to Them;  the Dead Are Raised.

“ I am currently pleading with several entities for a visiting nurse, at least. I worry about my mom’s ability to manage my father’s medications, and I think several times a day about how serious an error in that department could be.”

The Poor have Good News Preached to Them; The Dead are Raised.

 “Stop crying” I heard my Mother say to my Father say in the background.

“Everything is O.K.”

“It’s O.K., Baba,” I told him. “Cry if you need to.”

“What’s wrong?” we asked in unison.

“I miss you,” he said. “I miss you all so much.”

“We miss him, too. We would like to savor our time with him, but we’re often consumed by the work of keeping him safe.”

There are nine of us — one wife, three adult children and their spouses, two grandchildren — and just one of him. And still, we scramble.

The poor have Good News preached to Them; the Dead Are Raised.

Last week, he disappeared off the front porch without a word, sending my younger niece into a tear-streaked panic.

“He was literally right here two minutes ago,” she told my brother over the phone.

 

She had searched the yard and the street, and checked with the neighbors on either side, all to no avail.

 

It was getting dark, the temperature was dropping, and my parents’ neighborhood is not totally safe at night.

 

They were debating whether to call the police when my father emerged from a stranger’s car and ambled onto the porch with a fresh pack of cigarettes. (We probably owe somebody 10 bucks for those.)

 

 “It’s O.K.,” I told my niece, who was still upset when she recounted the story over FaceTime. “ He’s O.K. You’re O.K. We’re all O.K.”

As I said that, I realized it was only partly true. We are terrified, and bone-tired, and filled with love.

 

Filled with Love:

 

The Poor have Good news Preached to the Them;  the Dead Are Raised.”

 

IS THIS the response of Jesus to John?

 

“It’s O.K. to Cry”

 

To Scramble.

 

To say to one with Alzheimer’s, “I miss Him”

 

Is this to raise the Dead, to preach Good News to the Poor?  To Heal? 

 

“We are terrified, and bond tired….. and filled with Love.”

 

IS That always the response of Jesus of Nazareth, Messiah, Son of God, Lord of Lords to —John the Baptist?

 

To you and to me wherever we are—when we ask this Advent:

“Are you the One to Come?  Or shall we seek Another?”

 

And the response of Jesus to you—to me—in our Advent prisons?

 

“To Scramble, to Welcome your Dad home at Night when he has Gotten Lost,.”

 

“To pray and count your blessings when I loved one has mood swings?”

 

“We are filled with Love.”

 

That—Jesus—is something we know!

 

That there can be Love—no matter what.

 

OH……like John…… we want the Messiah to fix everything……to change everything…… to bring Fire and New Kingdoms…….and a New Heaven and Earth.

 

Whether caring for senior loved ones with illness…..or children with cancer at Christmas….or hoping for unity in a divided nation,,,,,,or striving, bone tired for justice…or One Day at a Time with Addiction…

 

We want baptisms by fire…

 

And…we get Baptisms….. in love….

 

We get the Crucified Messiah---who forgives and forever is with us—no matter what.

 

And we get the terror, and fatigue------and the Love.

And we get Jesus-we get the one who is to come.

 

We do not get release from difficulty.  We get the liberation of coping with difficulty;  and we get the strength to survive.

 

Yes, the dead are raised;  the ill are healed;  not cured; healed;  caregiver and the one who is cared for; healed—reconciled—in love.

 

On this Jubilate Sunday—when we light the Pink Advent Candle; when we say in our Collect that God in Christ—Stirs up things,,,,,,,,,,

….do we ponder—not the miracle of fire and brimstone;  not the miracle of the overturning of Kingdom; not the miracles of supernatural cures and fixes?

Not the miracle of any outcome!  No outcome promised!

 

But do we ponder--the miracle of “We are terrified; and we Love.”

 

“We Love.”

 

Do we take offense at that?

 

Or, like John no doubt—do we take it and ponder…and wonder..

 

And wait……

 

As we say, this Advent, “I miss Him.”

Sermon 11/28/19

A sermon preached by the Rev. Hugh E. Brown, III, D. Min, MSW, LSW, Rector in All Saints Episcopal Church, Princeton, on November 10, 2019, Veterans Day Weekend, Year C, Proper 27, on Luke 20: 27-38

“Now is he is the God, not of the Dead, but of the Living”

                                      So Weak the Walls: so much Wider the World

On the front cover of your bulletin, you will note the painting by the spiritual writer, Jan Richardson, Into the Living.

The painting interprets the following words of Jesus from the Gospel of Luke:

“Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living;
for to him all of them are alive.”

She writes:

As ever, Jesus responds to what lies beneath the trappings, exploding some assumptions along the way.

Following on the heels of celebrating the Feast of All Saints last week, it’s an especially potent point that Jesus makes here.

That in the eyes of God, there is no question of the dead versus the living, “for to [God],” Jesus says, “all of them are alive.”

Bent as he is on breaking down the walls of division, however, he cannot resist pressing against this one, the wall we perceive between the living and the dead.

With his own death and resurrection almost upon him, Jesus pushes against that wall, shows it for what it is, challenges us to enter anew into our living and into our world that is so much larger, so much more mysterious than we dreamed.

 

Thus, Jan invites us through poetry into this larger world of God.

Indeed, when I think of Jan’s art, in both poetry and painting—I think of a venerable, old book by J. B Philip’s Your God is too Small.

 

The challenge of Jesus?

 

Might we imagine God and God’s ways as ever expansive, ever mysterious, and ever transcendent?

In the days of Jesus, there were many perspectives within Judaism on questions of life, death, history and eternity.

 

The word, Israel means, the people who wrestled with God; and wrestle they did.

 

They argued;  as a Rabbi friend of mine once told me—to Jews—argument/debate—is a spiritual process; learning through debate and conversation is a spiritual discipline.

 

We might think of the debates between the Jesus and Sadducees within contemporary theological debates over the Resurrection in our own day.

 

There was once a lively exchange between emergent church guru Tony Jones and Jesus-scholar and best-selling author Marcus Borg.

 

It is about whether or not Jesus rose from the grave bodily and, relatedly, whether believing in a bodily resurrection is an essential element of Christian faith.

 

While I won’t rehash their arguments here, Jones is for it (while avoiding a literalist reading of the Bible at most other points).

 

And, Borg is dubious of it (while avowing his own belief in a more spiritual rather than material resurrection)..

 

Jesus cuts through the theological arguments—as he is apt to do—by offering new, imaginative perspectives on religious and spiritual life.

 

The question always for Jesus—as Jan Richardson imagines—and as scripture presents—is always about the pillars of faith—not the hair-splits of theology.

 

The pillars: love of God and neighbor.

 

The fundamental image;  Life

 

And Life as expansive;  God as Transcendent;  Spirit as Beautiful.

 

Life transcending present and future.

 

The text this morning references marriage.

 

It also references a woman.

 

A Vulnerable Woman.

 

Might resurrection here have something to do-not with ownership but with belonging.

 

The story presupposes traditional norms of gender roles.

 

But resurrection might mean living on even though circumstances should not allow it to be so.

 

According to one commentator.

 

The question of who a socially disadvantaged persons “belongs to” itself is a limiting question.

 

It misses the miracle of resurrection; the miracle of life.

 

Yes, resurrection might restore the physical body and social relationships.

 

But it might also mend the misunderstanding that we belonged to anyone but God in the first place.  The woman in the story also dies-claimed by no one.  Her resurrection does not depend on these men.

 

Resurrection is about how everyone is claimed by God, wrestled from the surety of death.  For to God, All are alive.

 

At the Culture Care Day conference this past Saturday, Mako Fujimura had invited an artist—Joy Ike—to perform her truly beautiful music.

 

Following one of her songs—shared with the group—a song about hanging on, holding steading, remaining faithful in the midst of difficult—a song about finding Joy—about finding Life in the midst of life’s hard edges---a very wise teacher of spirituality asked her:

 

“How do you find Joy when you don’t belong?”

 

This teacher of the spiritual life went on to describe the difficult conversations at Princeton Seminary on reparations and racial justice.

 

But note the language of this teacher---Belonging.

 

Not win or lose; nor saint or sinner;  not right or wrong.

 

Belonging.

 

That is the question.

 

That is a more life-giving question—right?

 

Belonging.

 

To whom do we belong?

 

How do we envision “belonging” in questions of inclusion and justice?

 

How did Joy respond?

 

To this question of Joy in Not-Belonging?

 

She was honest.

 

She did not give a pat answer.

 

She offered space and silence.

 

She said she