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Sermons

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 2/16/20

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 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 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 1/12/20

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 would have to think about the question—how good it was.

 

She spoke of finding life in her art.

 

Her response reminded me of Jesus in our Gospel reading and his more spacious, expansive and life-giving response to questions about resurrection and eternal life.

 

If you turn inside your bulletin cover this morning, you will see two photographs.

 

They both depict the architecture of Maya Linn.

 

I thought of both as we observe yet another Veterans Day weekend.

 

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial evokes profound response;  it is so very simple;  it is so very minimalist;  concrete, black granite, with 140 portals with the carved names of 58,000 plus women and men lost in one of the most controversial and divisive wars in American history.

it is so very holy;  while living in DC, I have seen many a vet place their hands over the names of lost loved ones on that wall when I have made pilgrimage there.

 

It has become one of the most beloved memorials in the nation—universally acclaimed across boundaries—because it has become true sacred space.

 

How?

 

“God is not a God of the Dead but of the Living,” said Jesus.

 

Maya Lin—brilliantly, empathetically, innocently—focused on the living.

 

As you may have experienced for yourself (millions do every year), one approaches The Wall with no vision of its totality and enormity, just as one approaches the enormity of loss.

 

We descend down into it until we are inches away from the names of the dead, as close as one can be to someone who exists now only as a recollection or a collection of letters.

 

As we leave, the names and the memories recess and we walk upwards to rejoin the elevation of the Mall around us—a clever physical echo of the process of remembering and returning to present life.

 

When I think of the Maya Lin’s aesthetic vision, I return to Jan Richardson’s reflection on the exchange between Jesus and the Sadducees.

 

How Jesus so dramatically breaks down boundaries and so profoundly offers an expansive perspective on questions of resurrection and eternal Life.

 

She writes in her Poem, God of the Living:  A Blessing

When the wall
between the worlds
is too firm,
too close.

When it seems
all solidity
and sharp edges.

When every morning
you wake as if
flattened against it,
its forbidding presence
fairly pressing the breath
from you
all over again.

Then may you be given
a glimpse
of how weak the wall

and how strong what stirs
on the other side,

breathing with you
and blessing you
still

forever bound to you
but freeing you
into this living,
into this world
so much wider
than you ever knew.

 

When I think of Maya Lin’s work, the words of the Rev. Angel Kyodo Williams come to mind.

 

In my hands now is a simple container of Water.

 

It is from the Civil Rights Memorial; also designed by Maya Lin.

 

My wife Elly brought this water back from Montgomery, Alabama from a visit to a dear friend of our who works for the Southern Poverty Law Center at the Civil Rights Memorial.

 

Water;  primary symbol of Baptism.

 

Water—giver of Life.

 

Maya Lin’s art once again moves us beyond debates of immigration, voting rights, affirmative action.

 

It moves us to more, expansive, spacious, loving—life—giving movements and currents of the river of faith.

 

What gives life? 

 

How can our public life be truly life-giving?

 

How does resurrection bestow life-not only in the future; but the present?

 

In her poem, Wild Geese, The poet Mary Oliver writes:

 

You do not have to be good.
 

You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.

 

You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.

 

Love and Life.

 

At the Vietnam Veterans memorial as we run our hands across the names—for the sake of Life.

 

At the Civil Rights Memorial as we run our fingers through the Water.

 

And let the soft animal of our bodies—truly Love.

Sermon 11/24/19

A Sermon preached by Rachel Rim, Theological Seminary M.Div. '21

All Saints Sermon: Christ the King Sunday

The prophet Jeremiah stepped onto the national scene at a low point in Israel’s history. The golden reign of King David was long over, Israel had split into two kingdoms, and their most successful king in years, King Josiah, had been killed in battle at the height of his popularity. This context formed the backdrop to Jeremiah’s messages as he spoke the words that God gave to him—and the words that God gave him weren’t the most encouraging. In fact, they could be summed up in one simple message: the people of Israel had forsaken their covenant with YHWH. They had not lived in obedience to the One who brought them out of Egypt. They had failed to follow Torah as they’d sworn to do on Mount Sinai. Instead, Israel had gone after idols, defiled the land, and forsaken the true Living Water for broken cisterns. YHWH’s declaration in chapter 2 makes it clear his feelings about this: “Be appalled, O Heavens, at this; be shocked, be utterly desolate.”

This critique against the nation of Israel was in many ways a sociological critique, an indictment against the kings of Judah for failing to reign justly. We see this directly in our passage when God uses the imagery of shepherds to call out the kings for their failure. YHWH’s blessing upon Israel was always conditional upon covenant fidelity, and thus, YHWH has every right to speak the harsh words of judgment that he does. We can perhaps imagine the sense of anxiety in the royal city of Jerusalem: the northern kingdom had already been demolished, Judah was facing increasing threat from Babylon, and it seemed like God had forgotten his covenant with David to establish an eternal kingdom.

Those of us sitting here today are far removed from that historical context, but I wonder if we can resonate in some ways with what they were feeling. We, too, live in a time when faith in our political leaders is staggeringly thin. We, too, are growing disillusioned about the inability of government policies, military might, or technological advances to save us. When I think about our world, I would venture to say we’re living in a time of deep anxiety, similar to the nation of Israel. We read the news, look outside our front doors, look into our own hearts—and it’s not always clear we’re making much progress. I’ll speak for myself: it feels like every time I turn around there’s another story of a school shooting, or political unrest, or even a church scandal, and I realize how little hope lies in human progress.

It is good news indeed then that God has offered a much more concrete and stable object of our hope, for it is precisely into this sense of despair and futility that our text from Jeremiah reaches us. In the midst of declaring judgment upon the unfaithful kings of Judah, God suddenly breaks in with a new word in a very different tone: God Himself will gather the flock that the shepherds have scattered and bring them into safety. And He will set good shepherds over them, to care for them as the failed shepherds ought to have done. But more than both of those things, God declares that one day He will raise up a new King from the Davidic line, one who will execute justice and righteousness and whose very name will mean, “YHWH is our Righteousness.”

In other words, the nation of Israel is not done for. God has not permanently given up His people despite having every right to do so, and He has not and will not give up on us too. And how do we know this? We know it because in a tiny village in Roman-occupied Palestine, once again in the midst of despair and uncertainty, the Messiah was born as a human being. At a time that no one expected, in a way that no one predicted, God acted decisively on the side of redemption and restoration. The prophetic books in general, and Jeremiah in particular, are a testament to a God who does a new thing, who inbreaks upon our stale imaginations, who is not bound to historical or political or societal norms. For who would have thought that in the midst of righteous anger God would suddenly make such an extravagant promise? And who would have thought that the fulfillment of that promise would be the incarnation of the invisible God, as Paul writes in our Colossians text, the One in whom all things hold together? And who would have thought that the One in whom all things hold together would let himself be held on a Roman cross as the answer to both Israel’s broken covenant and humanity’s sin? In the moments when we read the news, look outside our windows, look into our own hearts, and see only reasons for anxiety and despair, we can turn our gaze to Jesus, the better shepherd and long-awaited King.

For some of us, this might sound right and good, but we struggle to see how all of this has much bearing upon our daily lives. What does this talk of failed shepherds and righteous branches have to do with the realities of financial insecurities, relational estrangement, moments of grief, poor physical and mental health? If Jesus is King, and he died and rose again to inaugurate his kingdom, why does so little seem changed, so little feel healed?

I don’t pretend to have complete answers to these questions—the truth is, many of them are my own. But I do think the truth of Jesus as King is not one that is removed from our daily lives. Some of you might know of the American philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff. In 1983, Nicholas’ son Eric died in a mountain climbing accident when he was only twenty-five. In the days and months after Eric’s death, Nicholas kept a private journal to process his grief, which he later published as a short book entitled Lament for a Son.

 

Let me read a quote from the book:

“It is said of God that no one can behold his face and live. I used to think that meant no one could behold his splendor and live. A friend of mine said maybe it means no one can behold his sorrow and live. Or maybe his sorrow is splendor.”

I think when we confess that Jesus is King, we are indeed confessing that this is a King whose sorrow is his splendor. Because a King who went to the cross, who loved until the very end even when that meant submitting to his executioners, means a King who has come close to our pain. It means a King who is powerful enough to save but also tender enough to suffer, and whose tenderness is a mark of his kingdom. When we celebrate Christ the King Sunday, we are not celebrating One who hovers far above us, omnipotent and omniscient but unwilling to entangle himself in our pain, our struggles, our complicated stories. We celebrate One who has drawn nearer to us than any other, who gave us his own Spirit as a gift, and who chose to build his kingdom on this broken soil.

If this is true—and we who gather here today have staked much on the hope that it is—then what is the appropriate response to such good news? I think it follows that if Christ is King, the kind of King who drew near to our pain and inaugurated his kingdom on earth, then we as Christ-followers are called to live in obedience to his kingdom. Augustine famously said that we are dual citizens, citizens of earth and also citizens of a heavenly kingdom; I would posit that much of our anxieties come from navigating this tension between these two allegiances. For if we are truly citizens of God’s kingdom, we have a call to live by a logic that this world does not recognize—to carry our crosses, to die to ourselves, to be willing to suffer loss for the good of our relationships. This is not appealing language—it would never work as a campaign slogan. And yet if we truly recognize Christ’s kingship, then we also recognize that what seems folly to the world is true wisdom, what seems like loss is true gain, what seems like constraint is true freedom. And thus every time we live out these commandments, we are in some mysterious sense building God’s kingdom here on earth.

I want to finish this message by confessing that although this is our call, and it’s easy to sit here at church and hear this call, it’s altogether more difficult to go out into our workplaces, our families, and our communities and carry our crosses. Some days we’re full of doubt—doubt that Christ really is King in any sense that actually matters, doubt that we can live according to the logic of his kingdom. Somedays we’re just worn out by the energy it takes to live well, to recognize a different kind of citizenship. In just a little bit, we’re going to turn to the Lord’s Table as we do every week. Many of us will take the bread and wine, or receive a blessing, and we’ll do so “in remembrance of Jesus.” I think sometimes when we do something so often, we can forget what it’s truly about, but I want to end with the thought that it’s precisely our moments of doubt and weariness that the Lord’s Table speaks into. Because the deep truth of communion is that, when we simply can’t find it within ourselves to remember Christ, Christ remembers us. I am reminded of the thief on the cross in our gospel reading who has literally no goodness he can claim and yet asks Jesus to be remembered when he enters into his kingdom, and Jesus, amazingly, says yes. When we feel no better than that thief, we are promised that Christ knows our name and the stories that come with it, and the Lord’s Table is the real-ization of that promise. The Lord’s table is a table of grace, where all are invited to come forth and be remembered by the true shepherd, Christ the King, whose sorrow is his splendor.  

Sermon 11/10/19

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 would have to think about the question—how good it was.

 

She spoke of finding life in her art.

 

Her response reminded me of Jesus in our Gospel reading and his more spacious, expansive and life-giving response to questions about resurrection and eternal life.

 

If you turn inside your bulletin cover this morning, you will see two photographs.

 

They both depict the architecture of Maya Linn.

 

I thought of both as we observe yet another Veterans Day weekend.

 

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial evokes profound response;  it is so very simple;  it is so very minimalist;  concrete, black granite, with 140 portals with the carved names of 58,000 plus women and men lost in one of the most controversial and divisive wars in American history.

it is so very holy;  while living in DC, I have seen many a vet place their hands over the names of lost loved ones on that wall when I have made pilgrimage there.

It has become one of the most beloved memorials in the nation—universally acclaimed across boundaries—because it has become true sacred space.

 

How?

 

“God is not a God of the Dead but of the Living,” said Jesus.

 

Maya Lin—brilliantly, empathetically, innocently—focused on the living.

 

As you may have experienced for yourself (millions do every year), one approaches The Wall with no vision of its totality and enormity, just as one approaches the enormity of loss.

 

We descend down into it until we are inches away from the names of the dead, as close as one can be to someone who exists now only as a recollection or a collection of letters.

 

As we leave, the names and the memories recess and we walk upwards to rejoin the elevation of them all around us—a clever physical echo of the process of remembering and returning to present life.

 

When I think of the Maya Lin’s aesthetic vision, I return to Jan Richardson’s reflection on the exchange between Jesus and the Sadducees.

How Jesus so dramatically breaks down boundaries and so profoundly offers an expansive perspective on questions of resurrection and eternal Life.

 

She writes in her Poem, God of the Living:  A Blessing

When the wall
between the worlds
is too firm,
too close.

When it seems
all solidity
and sharp edges.

When every morning
you wake as if
flattened against it,
its forbidding presence
fairly pressing the breath
from you
all over again.

Then may you be given
a glimpse
of how weak the wall

and how strong what stirs
on the other side,

breathing with you
and blessing you
still

forever bound to you
but freeing you
into this living,
into this world
so much wider
than you ever knew.

When I think of Maya Lin’s work, the words of the Rev. Angel Kyodo Williams come to mind.

 

In my hands now is a simple container of Water.

 

It is from the Civil Rights Memorial; also designed by Maya Lin.

 

My wife Elly brought this water back from Montgomery, Alabama from a visit to a dear friend of our who works for the Southern Poverty Law Center at the Civil Rights Memorial.

 

Water;  primary symbol of Baptism.

Water—giver of Life.

Maya Lin’s art once again moves us beyond debates of immigration, voting rights, affirmative action.

 

It moves us to more, expansive, spacious, loving—life—giving movements and currents of the river of faith.

 

What gives life? 

 

How can our public life be truly life-giving?

 

How does resurrection bestow life-not only in the future; but the present?

 

In her poem, Wild Geese, The poet Mary Oliver writes:

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees

for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body

love what it loves.

Love and Life.

At the Vietnam Veterans memorial as we run our hands across the names—for the sake of Life.

At the Civil Rights Memorial as we run our fingers through the Water.

And let the soft animal of our bodies—truly Love.

Sermon 10/27/19

A sermon preached by the Rev. Hugh E. Brown, III, D. Min, MSW, LSW, Rector, in All Saints Episcopal Church, Princeton, NJ on October 27, Year C, Proper 25 on Luke 18: 9-14 (in memory of  the Hon. Elijah Cummings)

“I thank God I am not…..”

                             “We Were Locked up Together”

A story is told of the actress Diane Keaton came in for lunch one day with a regular, weekly, customer.

 

The Oscar nominated Keaton was greeted by her waitress Glenda.

 

Glenda is a big girl who has just spent a long stint in a California State Prison.

 

Glenda is tattooed, a felon, a gang member, and on parole.

 

Glenda does not know who Diane Keaton is.

 

She hands the movie star her menu, and Keaton asks her waitress, “What do YOU recommend?” 

 

Glenda rattles off three dishes she particularly likes and Keaton makes her pick.

 

I’ll have that second one.  That sounds good.

 

It’s at this point that something suddenly dawns on Glenda.

 

“Wait a minute,” she says, bouncing her finger at Diane Keaton’s direction.

 

“I feel like I know you.  Like…….Maybe we’ve met.

 

The actress quickly and humbly seeks to deflect Glenda’s notice.

 

“Oh….I suppose….I have one of those faces….that people think they’ve seen before.”

 

Glenda ignites a burst of recognition.

 

“No……wait……now I know……WE WERE LOCKED UP TOGETHER!”

 

This story is told by Father Gregory Boyle.

 

Gregory Boyle is a Jesuit priest who leads one of the most significant, well-regarded, and established faith-based programs to both reach and transform the lives of Gang members—of all genders.

 

Father Boyle took Glenda’s phrase, “we were locked up together” describes ……..the title of his most recent book……..The power of Radical Kinship.

 

The book’s mantra for healing violence of soul and body:  We Were; WE Are Locked up…. Together.”

 

We are in this….Together.

 

This is far from the world Jesus offers in the story from our Gospel just heard.

 

This story offers two characters across lines of division.

 

In the days of Jesus, the Pharisees were religious reformers, dedicated to fulfilling the commandments of their religion; dedicated to integrity, commitment, and sacrifice.  They were the “good folk.”

 

In contrast, Tax Collectors were considered by the religion of Jesus to be criminals, traitors and oppressors.    They were the “bad folk.”

 

Jesus—as he is apt to do in his stories—turns out world—thinking, feeling and intuition—upside down and inside out.

 

Jesus does not get into social analysis.  He does not get into ethical analysis.

 

My experience is that Jesus does something truly amazing with this story.

 

No—Jesus offers a way out……of an us vs. them, good vs. evil, right vs. wrong, virtue vs. sin view of reality.

 

On the one hand—this story is about prayer.

 

On one hand—this story is about humility.

 

On one hand—this story is about being might right with God by Faith.

 

But this story,….. in my experience…..is more about human connection; human empathy; human understanding.

 

It is indeed about, “We were Locked up Together.”

 

The story asks the question:  what makes shared communities of love and empathy---difficult or impossible?

 

Or possible? 

 

It might begin by challenging the world-view of who should be the hero of the story—but is not:  The Pharisee.

 

We might think that the character of the Pharisee represents all that might be good about religion.

 

Including Stewardship;  he gives a lot; he tithes.

 

But he’s also mean.

 

Let’s say that.

 

Religion can make one mean.

 

“Thank God, I’m not like that…..”

 

“I’m superior to you.”  Morally, Spiritually, Financially, Artistically, Educationally

 

Oh the temptation to do that.

 

The way to the good life is more goodness; more virtue; more perfection.

 

But that is the challenge of Jesus to us this morning!

 

The way out of a world of hatred, division and abuse is NOT more virtue.

 

It is about trust in a God …..who knows we are not virtuous..

 

Not the best.

 

Not superior to anyone or anybody.

 

The point of Christianity is not to become persons of virtue.

 

It is to realize that our lives are all messed up—we have no control over this mess—and only our God can return us to sanity.

We were—we are locked up together?

We are all in this mess together.

 

We are all in this together; the only way out-is together.—and with God.

 

 “God have Mercy.”

 

“Christ Have Mercy.”

 

“Lord have Mercy.”

 

Jesus offers us this vision:  Radical Kinship;  Christian Community; Human bonds—are not forged in moralism.

 

But in Mercy and in Grace.

 

In my experience—Jesus is not pitting the Pharisee and the Tax Collector against each other.

Jesus is asking us to see both characters as tied together in the great human need for God’s grace.

 

Mercy—given and received;  unites.

 

Mercy unites across sin, division, class---across incarceration; across politics; even across virtue and vice.

 

Jesus died on the cross in mercy;  and he told stories before he died to show us the power of mercy—and the Radical Kinship such mercy creates.

 

This week we  did glimpse, however fleeting……. the possibility of “radical kindship.”

 

The congressman Elijah Cummings—respected across all sides of the political spectrum—became the first African-American to rest in state in the national Capitol Building.

 

Elijah Cummings lived a life of service, compassionate, integrity.

 

He lived as a powerful political figure.

 

He also lived and loved alongside of a marginalized area of Baltimore. 

 

While holding political power….Elijah Cummings  held a dying man in his arms—comforting him with the assurance of God’s love—while witnessing a shooting when stopped at a gas station in Catonsville, outside of Baltimore.

 

Indeed-in that moment, Congressman Cummings and a dying, forgotten man—lived the possibility of the Pharisee and Tax Collector as friends, colleagues, in relationship.

 

Where power and mercy meet..

 

That is the spiritual meaning—dear friends-of the phrase, we are all locked up together.

 

The story of Elijah Cummings offers the possibility of Pharisee and Tax Collector united across chasms of ideology, belief and politics.

 

So did his funeral service this week in the Capitol Building.

 

One of his best friends on the hill, Republican congressman Mark Meadows, across the aisle of party and belief said this as he offered the Eulogy for fellow Democrat Elijah Cumming:

 

"He's called a number of things — a father, a husband, friend, chairman.

For me, I was privileged enough to be able to call him a dear friend," Meadows said.

"Some have classified it as an unexpected friendship, but for those of us that know Elijah," he continued, "it's not unexpected or surprising."

Perhaps this place and this country would be better served with a few more unexpected friendships," he said.

 "I know I've been blessed by one."

 

But it was a former President of the United States who caught the spirit that might counter the spirit of moral, political, spiritual and cultural supremacy.

 

Who caught the spirit of what makes for a world of “We are all Locked up Together.”

 

President Barak Obama said this:

It has been remarked that Elijah was a kind man.

And I was thinking, I would want my daughters to know how much I love them, but I would also want them to know that being a strong man includes being kind.

That there is nothing weak about kindness and compassion.

There is nothing weak about looking out for others. There is nothing weak about being honorable.

You are not a sucker to have integrity and to treat others with respect.

I was sitting here and I was just noticing the honorable elijah e. cummings.

But---There is a difference if you are honorable and treated others honorably…… outside the limelight.

On the side of a road…..in a quiet moment…….counseling somebody you work with….. letting your daughters know you love them. “

As I close, you might think-on this Stewardship Sunday—that I have not spoken of Stewardship.

 

But Oh yes, I have!

 

Yes—above all—the Bible has!

 

Stewardship—contrary to some thinking—is not fundraising.

 

It is not about the Church’s need to get.

 

I hope your grateful heart for this place will overflow in giving to it—your money—your time—your gifts.

 

But above all—Stewardship is about your need—my need to give.

 

To Share.

 

To offer to others.

 

Not to make yourself superior to others.

 

But to find your soul.

 

Because giving makes you whole; me whole.

 

Because giving and sharing is all about “Being Locked up Together.”

 

But giving Kindness.

 

Offering words of consolation to the dying.

 

Offering words of remembrances to political adversaries.

Offering surprising friendship to natural enemies.

That’s Stewardship.

 

As Mark Meadows gave;  as Barack Obama gave;  as Elijah Cummings lived and gave.

Sermon 9/29/19

A sermon preached on September 29, 2019, on the Feast of St. Michael and All Angels, by the Rev. Hugh E. Brown, III, D. Min, MSW, LSW, in All Saints Episcopal Parish, Princeton, NJ on Genesis 28: 10-17 and Revelation 12: 7-12

“Surely, the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it.”

                                                            Tattoos

 

The poet Wallace Stevens writes this about Angels:

“God and all the Angels sing the world to sleep, Now that the moon is rising in the heat.

And Crickets are loud again in the grass.  The Moon

Burns in the mind on lost remembrances.”

Are Angels those godly messengers that burn our mind with lost remembrances?”

 

Jacob has a dream; he sees Angels.

 

He does not try to interpret it; he does not need to do so.

 

As a good man of the ancient near East, Jacob would have been familiar that “thin space” to use a poet’s term……where the staircase to heaven meets the earth.

 

Where God’s messengers—God’s Angels-- supervise the daily affairs of life.

 

All he realizes about the dream—is this:   “Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it.”

 

And Jacob places a stone to mark the event.

 

Oh Jacob—do you actually realize what you have done?

 

You thought you had a blessing.

 

You stole your brother’s blessing—and birthright.

 

You thought that God’s blessing was about the power you see all around you—first born—property; fealty, power glory. 

 

Yes, Jacob—you used your cunning and smarts to get what you wanted.

 

But the Lord burned in your memory the truth that God is not in the glory—but in the struggle; not in the power but in the journey;  not in the outcomes but in the process, not in the success only but also the failures.

 

God was indeed in this place;  God is indeed in your heart all along Jacob.

 

God was even in the deceit and the mess.

 

The Angels teach us that.

 

They take the darkest places of heart and stone—and burn into our memory:   “Surely the Lord is in this place-and I did not know it.”

 

This past week, I looked over a book by the Irish spiritual teacher, John O’Donohue.

 

O’Donohoe has written A Book of Blessings:  To Bless the Space Between Us.

 

Here are some of the unexpected “spaces” of blessing of “Burned Memories:”

*For Love in a Time of Conflict

*In Praise of Fire

*For Absence

*For a Parent upon the Death of a Child

*On Meeting a Stranger

*For Someone Awakened by the Trauma of the Past

*For the Family and Friends of a Suicide

*For Someone who did you Wrong

*After a destructive encounter

 

Do you believe that these are spaces “to be blessed?”

 

That these are places where we can say:  Surely the Lord is in this place and I did not know it.”

 

Jacob dreamed of his stairway to heaven with Angels descending and ascending; uniting earth to heaven.

 

Might Jacob have imagined the following—His True Blessing—After a Destructive Encounter with his Brother?

 

From the poetry of John O’Donohue

“Withdraw for a while into your own tranquility.

Loosen from year heart—the new fester.

Free yourself of the wounded gaze.

This is not yet able to see you.

Recognize your responsibility for the past.

Don’t allow your sense of yourself to wilt.

Draw deep from your own dignity.

Temper your expectations to the other’s limits.

And take your time carefully,

Learning that there is time for everything.

And for healing too.

But that now is not that time……..yet."

 

We have Jacob-and Angels—Burnings of Lost Memories.

 

Tattoos.

 

Do you have one?  Do you know someone who does?

 

What does it mean to you?  To someone you know or love?

 

My brother in law is a retired Navy chief.

 

I have always admired a tattoo on his arm with symbols reminding him of his commitment to his country.

 

In the spirit of Michael—Robert is a Guardian and defender.

 

When he was with Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003, I thought of those tattoos; and I thought of his family;  and how he might have drawn strength from this very alternative form of art.

 

When we think of art and Culture Care—might we include Tattoos?

 

But tattoos have a checkered history.

 

As a means of identification---they are deeply symbolic.  The Nazi’s forcibly tattooed concentration camp inmates; gangs tattoo members with symbols of violence.

 

Marginalized and stigmatized groups tattoo their bodies with symbols that reinforce problem behaviors-and shame.

 

But, throughout human societies, tattoos are also high art, invested with spiritual meaning and significance.

 

A Christian minister wrote a book on the Holy Spirit and the Tattoo in which she interviewed two women; both had beautiful tattoos of angel Wings.

 

What did their tattoos mean?

 

*For one—the Tattoo was a sacred rite of passage following a divorce.

 

*For another—the tattoo symbolized her the Angels around her daughter battling cancer

 

Tattoos.  Self-Identification;  And Angels.

 

On Friday of this past week, I worked with 5 patients at Princeton House;  most of what I did was listening—and witnessing to stories. 

 

On one level they were very difficult stories.

 

The third patient I worked with was typical of many patients I see who live with addiction.

 

His addiction journey—also very typical;  early age;  continuous use;  4 inpatient treatments; 3 outpatient treatments; several rehabs.

 

But there was more to his story too; much more;  he was a survivor; also a college grad;  director of a Sober living home.  Some years of sobriety; a family deeply frustrated with him—but also who loved him.  He was sharp, smart, kind and caring.

 

As I spoke with him, I learned something else.

 

I happened to mention to him that I could not be his attending clinician—because I only worked at the hospital a few days a week; he would be assigned someone else over the weekend.

 

He asked what I did in my “day job.”

 

“I’m a pastor.”

 

He smiled.

 

“I’m a Christian;  Methodist.  Yesterday, I said a prayer;  I did not know what to do; I prayed;  I called this place; they had a bed; they never have a bed.  It is always full.”

 

And then took off his jacket; for he was cold with symptoms of Detox.

 

He showed me his arm.

 

The art was amazing;  truly magnificent.

 

But the art took my breath away for another reason.

 

For—let’s call him Jeff—his tattoo—was a beautiful staircase;  below—were all the temptations of addiction—above—the face of Jesus-wearing the crown of thorns—but also in the light.  Up and down the staircase—were angels—surrounded by doves.

 

“This is where I want to be,” Jeff said;  up those stairs—with Jesus.

 

“I hope the angels are here with me know—leading me on—up to that place.”

 

Silence;  I just gazed at his arm for a few seconds.

 

Then I continued:  “Do you know what this Sunday is in my tradition?  In many Christian traditions?”

 

Silence and “space between us.”

 

I replied:  “The feast of St. Michael and All Angels?”

“Ah!!,” said Jeff, for new knew the lectionary of the mainline church--“the scripture for the Feast of St. Michael’s—it’s Jacob’s ladder!!!”

 

“Yes, and there are services here;  please go, “I said.

 

I went back to the office I used on Friday.

 

I printed out the text of the Old Testament lesson for this morning.

 

The story that matched his Tattoo.

 

The story of the angels ascending and descending.

 

The story of Jacob’s revelation:  “Surely the presence of the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it.”

 

And when I handed that story to Jeff—with tears in both of our eyes, I thought of Wallace Stevens and his words on Angels and “lost remembrances.”

 

“Lost remembrances.”  A prayer and an open bed.

 

“Lost remembrances.”  A place of healing.

 

“Lost remembrances.”  My addiction does not define me; I have managed a Sober Living Home;  I am a compassionate man; a child of God.

 

Yes, tattoos—blessings; angels; lost remembrances.

 

“Surely  the Lord is in this place-and I did not know it.”

 

O people of God—so you sing the world to sleep when we sing with Angels and Archangels and all the company of heaven….

 

Not only hear…

 

But in a hospital room?

 

In a sisters’ funeral?

 

When violence takes a loved one?

 

When stigma seems to have the last word?

 

Can we say, Surely the Lord is in this place? 

 

In all human struggle?

 

In depression?  In family strife?

 

When we have been wronged? When we have wronged.

 

Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it.

 

Oh people of God—whatever that place—of dragoons, temptations, addictions, illnesses, violence, struggle and pain—of your own battles…

 

My you know your guardian angel.

 

May you know the presence of the Lord’s everlasting love.

 

May you know St. Michael and all Angels!

 

 

Let us pray:

From John O’Donohue’s, poem, The Blessing of Angels:

"May the Angels in their beauty bless you.

May they turn toward you streams of blessing.

 

May the Angel of Awakening stir your heart

To come alive to the eternal within you,

To all the invitations that quietly surround you.

 

May the Angel of Healing turn your wounds

Into sources of refreshment.

 

May the Angel of the Imagination enable you

To stand on the true thresholds,

At ease with your ambivalence

And drawn in new direction

Through the glow of your contradictions.

 

May the Angel of Compassion open your eyes

To the unseen suffering around you.

 

May the Angel of Justice disturb you

To take the side of the poor and the wronged.

 

May the Angel of Encouragement confirm you

In worth and self-respect,

That you may live with the dignity

That presides in your soul.

 

May all the Angels be your sheltering

And joyful guardians."

Sermon 9/22/19

The 15th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 20C, Luke 16:1-13, Preached on September 22, 2016 by the Rev. Hugh E. Brown, III, D. Min. in All Saint’s Episcopal Church, Princeton, New Jersey

“For the Children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.”

                             Christian Shrewdness as Love

St. Ignatius Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits developed a prayer practice to engage the scriptures using mind, heart and soul. 

 

So—relax your body; pay attention to your breathing, close your eyes—and be in silence….

 

…Remember or imagine a situation where you were you literally had your back up against the wall…against overwhelming power.

 

…The Power could be a superior, perhaps an illness, perhaps a relationship that was spiraling out of control.

 

…Perhaps the power was something you did—or said—and wish you could take back.

 

You have some choices in relationship to that power.

 

You can choose to save your skin and act with impunity—only in your self- interest. You meet power with power.  Such is the way of the world.  You simply do what you need to do to protect yourself.

         

Or, you do something which might seem crazy, strange, and irrational;  you do something

which is not of this world;  you do something which totally challenges power and conventional wisdom;  you throw caution to the wind. 

 

Even as you are up against the wall—you release the clinched fist or the crossed arms over the chest;  you give, you release, you surrender, you relinquish, you do not take….you give. 

         

You do it wisely, lucidly, even cunningly, in the spirit of the definition of “shrewd,” offered by Webster’s dictionary: “one who acts in a sharp, penetrating, searching, artful way.”

 

You turn a competitive, win-lose scenario with perceived overwhelming power into a decision for power, for relationships, for wholeness and for a win-win ending.

         

Imagine what this might be like—a risky decision in unfathomable, difficult circumstances to act with love, generosity, and cunning—to love both yourself and your neighbor?

         

The story just heard from the Gospel of Luke is often called, the Parable of the Dishonest Manger.

         

It is a simple story in characterization:  a boss, a subordinate, some merchants or tenants. 

         

The boss accuses the manager of incompetence; the manager acts.

 

His behavior is morally ambiguous but, upon discovery by the boss deemed not wrong but praiseworthy.

 

The actions of both the boss and the manger are also commended by the storyteller as guides to shrewd living and restored relationships. 

 

The storyteller further cites the behavior as a guide to handling wealth and possessions in a way which is liberating rather than enslaving.      

 

But—to quote my friend Alan Dybvig of this congregation—“The Question Is:” Does the Manger in this story practice dishonesty?

 

The story only says that charges were brought to boss against his manager, that he was squandering his employer’s property. 

 

Was he?  Did somebody or group want the boss to think he was?  Did the boss unfairly accuse him? 

         

There are two references to “dishonesty” in the parable. Might they refer to accusations of dishonesty rather than in his dealings with his tenants and his boss?

         

Jesus’s parables were meant to shock, awe and provoke thought which shook the foundations of perception and imagined the world in a different way.

         

But is the “shock” in this parable the commending of dishonesty?

         

Or, is it commending a truly amazing idea of what it means to be shrewd.

         

Are the actions of the manger in this story “dishonest?” 

 

Or, are they about a visionary graciousness and generosity when one’s very life is threatened? 

 

Instead, are these actions about a risky choice for life and possibility when conventional wisdom would call for sheer survival, cover-ups or calculating, naked self- interest?

 

The New Testament scholar William Herzog argues that--far from being dishonest--the manger was holding the boss accountable his usurious lending actually—lending which was prohibited by the Torah. 

 

The manager here forgives debt.

 

In the parable, the bold, generous actions of the manager, though a bit problematical and deceptive perhaps, ultimately worked for the benefit of all.

 

When our backs are up against the wall, when we are attacked or threatened in mind, body or spirit—what if we acted counterintuitively? 

 

By being not less but more generous; not less but more connected to others;  not with pure self-interest vindictiveness, and fear—but with risky compassion—for all—bosses, co-workers and subordinates alike?

 

What if imagined and lived in a world where being shrewd was something truly extraordinary? 

 

What if we imagined a world where being shrewd was not cold calculation of interest?

         

What if “Christian Shrewdness” was about wise, thoughtful, life-giving, generosity of spirit?

         

If you like Elly and me--and were friends and fans of the PBS Television Series, Downton Abbey---you might have seen the recently released movie of the same title. 

 

We saw it yesterday—the Movie’s opening day.

 

*SPOILER ALERT*

 

If you decide to see the movie—you will note that the staff of the Crowley family deals with the arrogance of British royalty in a most well-mannered, totally shrewd—but completely overpowering way.

 

In fact, one theme of the movie is that we can all have one another’s backs in a most shrewd way that does not involve meanness and spite.

To quote one review, “we return to a lost time when even treachery--was “sweetly done.”

         

We can be Christians—and have another’s back.

 

While not to give away much of the story for all of you who plan to see Downton Abbey—I noted the following examples of Christian Shrewdness:

 

*A foiled assassination plot without rancor, scandal or hurt

 

*A woman of wealth adopting a child—seemingly born of passion-without scandal, and making her heir

 

*A most powerful royal protecting a gay man—thus saving his career and future professional life in an age of stigma directed against the Gay community

 

*A caring servant—uncovering theft—and dealing with it in a way to hold another accountable—but offering mercy, preserving reputation, and giving hope to the perpetrator.

         

My friends—we can have great wealth and power; but use it for humane purposes –share it for the common good—and offer forbearance

         

As an example of Christian Shrewdness, I cite the example of Virginia Theological Seminary.

 

This is the Episcopal Seminary which trained and formed thousands of Episcopal Clergy, including me—for the Ordained Ministry.

 

I thank Kent and Anne Kilbourne for passing on the story of this win-win way of Christian love, combined with Christian cunning and worldly wisdom—from the New York Times this past week.

 

By the time Phillips Brooks arrived at the Virginia Theological Seminary in 1856, the institution was thriving. Founded more than three decades earlier in the Sunday school room of a church in Alexandria, Va., the seminary sat on a 62-acre estate with lush meadows and views of the rising Washington Monument.

 

School officials saw the transformation as a sign of divine blessings. But Mr. Brooks, a seminarian who would go on to become the bishop of his home state of Massachusetts, saw more than the hand of God at work.

 

“There are crowds of slaves about here,” wrote Mr. Brooks in one of a series of letters describing life at the school, the first Episcopal seminary in the South. “It is one of the best places to see the sad effects of slavery on the white population, degrading them.”

 

This month, more than a century after the last enslaved people labored on campus, the seminary’s leaders announced plans to atone for that history.

 

They are creating a $1.7 million reparations fund, becoming one of the first American institutions to allocate money specifically for the descendants of the enslaved.

 

The fund will also provide financial support for black seminarians and black worshipers who experienced discrimination on campus.

 

 “We need to come to terms with a past that has an ugly side, a wicked side,” the Very Rev. Ian S. Markham, the seminary’s dean and president, said in an interview.

 

“When you’re talking about something as heinous as slavery, there’s no amount really that can actually satisfy that sin,” Dean Markham said. “It’s just too enormous. But we’re going to do the hard work, recognizing that our past is full of sin and grace.”

 

I also offer the following words from Bishop Chip Stokes who most recently wrestled with his decision to attend the Lambeth Conference in the UK.

 

For those who are not familiar with the Lambeth Conference—once every 10 years the Archbishop of Canterbury invites all the bishops of the World-Wide Anglican Communion to the UK for discussions, fellowship, community building and engagement with the important issues facing or world.

 

For example, a focus of this year’s event was the church’s response to human-made climate change.

 

But the Lambeth Conference, this year, has been unceremoniously noted for another reason cited by our Bishop; he wrote:

 

For the 2020 Lambeth Conference Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby made the decision to exclude spouses of bishops who are married in same-sex partnerships.

 

We learned of this decision when the spouse of one of our Bishops received a letter from the Archbishop coldly telling her she was not welcome at the Conference.

 

Archbishop Welby's decision was made in deference to a resolution of the 1998 Lambeth Conference which defined marriage as "between a man and a woman in lifelong union."

 

It was also made in deference to some bishops of the communion who find same-sex marriage objectionable.

 

Given that the theme of Lambeth 2020 is "God's Church for God's World: walking, listening and witnessing together" and that this is the first time in the history of The Lambeth Conference when joint programming has been scheduled for bishops and spouses, there was sad irony in the Archbishop's decision.

After prayer, much consideration and thoughtful conversation with others, I have decided to attend Lambeth.

 

In Minneapolis, at the most recent meeting of the House of Bishops--we spent some time processing how different bishops and spouses were feeling about Lambeth and how we were going to respond - see here.

A few are not attending at all. Others feel that it is important for our voices and votes to be present. I have been persuaded by the latter argument.

 

It is my hope and intention to be a witness to the faithfulness and love of our LGBTQ+ people in the Diocese of New Jersey at Lambeth 2020.

 

I will be looking for help from those in the diocese about how to make this witness most effectively.

 

Bishops, spouses and others of The Episcopal Church are also planning and considering ways that we can, in humility and faith, share the depth of our conviction about God's love and inclusion of all people in the body of Christ.

 

My friends in Christ, perhaps the ultimate practice of Christian Shrewdness is the art of inclusive love.

His Grace, Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby made the decision to exclude spouses of bishops who are married in same-sex partnerships.

 

Archbishop Welby's decision was made in deference to a resolution of the 1998 Lambeth Conference which defined marriage as "between a man and a woman in lifelong union."

 

It was also made in deference to some bishops of the communion who find same-sex marriage objectionable.

 

Given that the theme of Lambeth 2020 is "God's Church for God's World: walking, listening and witnessing together" and that this is the first time in the history of The Lambeth Conference when joint programming has been scheduled for bishops and spouses, there was sad irony in the Archbishop's decision.

After prayer, much consideration and thoughtful conversation with others, I have decided to attend Lambeth.

 

In Minneapolis, at the most recent meeting of the House of Bishops--we spent some time processing how different bishops and spouses were feeling about Lambeth and how we were going to respond - see here.

 

A few are not attending at all. Others feel that it is important for our voices and votes to be present. I have been persuaded by the latter argument.

 

It is my hope and intention to be a witness to the faithfulness and love of our LGBTQ+ people in the Diocese of New Jersey at Lambeth 2020.

 

I will be looking for help from those in the diocese about how to make this witness most effectively.

 

Bishops, spouses and others of The Episcopal Church are also planning and considering ways that we can, in humility and faith, share the depth of our conviction about God's love and inclusion of all people in the body of Christ.

 

My friends in Christ, perhaps the ultimate practice of Christian Shrewdness is the art of inclusive love.

Sermon 9/15/19

A sermon preached by the Rev. Hugh E. Brown, III, D. Min, MSW, LSW, Rector, All Saints Episcopal Church, Princeton, NJ on September 15, 2019, Proper 19, RCL, Year C, Luke 15: 1-10

                                      My God is Dark

“…Why does he eat with sinners?”

I remember witnessing my grandmother searching for something with a broom behind a stove.

 

I would make my way into the kitchen for the aromas; so—one day, I saw her, broom in hand, stove out a bit—trying to get something out behind it.

 

“It’s always so dark behind the stove; can you help me?”

 

So, I got down my hands and knees; together, together, with my grandmother’s broom—we found a tiny dime she was looking for.”

 

I handed to her and she stuffed into apron pocket.

 

“Nanny—it’s just a dime? I told her.

 

“Just a dime”? she shot back with a glare.

 

“I suppose,” she said, “that I will always be a Depression era child.”

 

She continued, “Back then, a dime was worth a meal. 

 

We saved everything.  I guess it even got worse in the war; nothing could be spared.”

 

Then, she handed me the broom with the words: “Don’t ever waste anything.  Every coin is precious.

 

When my grandmother died, and I returned to her home with my parent to set thing in order after her death……I remember going up those old rickety stairs to her bed-room.

 

I can still hear the stairs moan and groan under me as I walked.

 

I remember going into one of the bedroom closets; it was very dark in that closet; I almost needed a flashlight.

 

In the darkness was a faded jar; no telling how old.

 

There was a jar full of coins; penny’s, dimes, quarters; even a silver dollar or two.

 

I took the jar into my hands.

 

I remember hearing my great aunt, my grandmother’s sister --and long-time companion say:

“That was very special to your grandmother.”

 

“Remember those books you got every Christmas—always the history books you loved?”

That is how she paid for them.”

 

She did not have a lot; but she shared what she had.  That was what that jar of coins meant.

 

For your grandmother, “Nothing was ever lost; nothing was ever wasted.”

 

Or something like that;  I think I remember the point; if not the details.

 

Jesus told a story that included a woman with the broom –searching for that lost coin.

 

Why would Jesus tell a story like this?

 

Jesus told about a lost sheep; a lost coin; and a lost son.

 

For the parable of the Prodigal son directly follows the stories heard this morning.

 

Barbara Brown Taylor once called this series of stories: “The Lost and Found Department.”

 

They were provoked by some tensions with religious leaders.

 

These religious leaders were not bad people.

 

We can stereotype them as self-righteous and mean-spirited.

 

They were very devoted to the Jewish law.

 

Since the Jewish people were under occupation—these religious leaders…sought to maintain Jewish religious identity and hope.

 

But…. in their zeal for the “trees’ of the law…they were losing the “forest” of the center of their religious life….…God’s goodness, mercy, grace.

 

So what does the story of that woman, a broom and a coin tell us?

 

A Loving God who deems ALL valuable.

 

A loving God—where Nothing Good is lost in his way and through his will.

 

Barbara Brown Taylor writes this:

“What got Jesus into trouble with his own religion was not that he believed we should seek the lost. 

He questioned to the core—that there were certain qualities that the lost must exhibit before they could be found

Or that there are certain qualities they must exhibit before we will seek them out.”

 

Wow!

 

That really got my attention!

 

What conditions do I (?); do you (?) consciously or unconsciously, put on those you reach out to?

 

Those who may be lost?

 

What conditions do you; do I (?) put on ourselves when someone reaches out to us?

 

I need to be careful here.

 

There are many who, over the decades of my ministry……have had loved ones struggling in the darkness….

 

………behind the stoves—in the closets—who do not want the be found;  are resisting being found………

 

………perhaps, at this point in life—are not capable of being found.

 

What might the “lost and found department” mean when we—when those we love-those whom we work, those whom we engage—do not want to be found?

 

In good ole clinical terms, what is the difference between love and co-dependency; love and enablement?

 

These are questions with no clear answers.

 

But we do know is this.

 

Jesus never wrote out anyone from the story of God’s grace.

 

When others rejected his message; he did not reject them.

 

For it seems to me that he knew what my grandmother knew; there are valuable things in the dark.

 

In my experience, that is one of the preconditions I might set on seeking the lost; that there is always light somewhere.

 

Barbara Brown Taylor actually speaks to this precondition in her description of a “Full Solar Church.” 

 

Interesting phrase;

 

She writes;

“You can recognize a full solar Church by its emphasis on the Benefits of Faith. 

The Benefits include things like—a sure since of God’s presence, divine guidance in all things; reliable answers to prayer/

Members strive to be positive, firm in conviction, always helpful, and unwavering in faith.”

 

In contrast—Taylor talks about the “Lunar Church.”

 

This is a church of the lost and founds in Darkness.

 

A Church where things are not so sure, sometimes not so helpful.

 

Sometimes A Church receiving no assurance in prayer.

 

A church O.K. with difficult things that can’t be solved.

 

A church which is not controlled; a search where things just aren’t so darned clear.

 

Rainer Maria Rike’s poem comes to mind:

But when I lean over the chasm of myself-----

It seems

My God is dark

And like a web, a hundred roots

Silently drinking…

You darkness of whom I am born—I love you more than the flame—that limits the world.

 

As one spiritual mentor shared with me:  ministry is about just sitting in the darkness with one another.

 

As we begin another year of Christian Formation—children—youth and adult—might we think of our Christian Education ministry as that of a Lunar Church?

 

Where we seek, explore? Where things aren’t so clear—so assured.

 

Where we search in the darkness for coins behind the stoves and in the closets?

 

When I began working at Princeton House as a clinical social worker and therapist on behalf our parish family…as a missionary to our health care system….……my wife Elly gave me a book for encouragement.

 

It is entitled, Christ on the Psych Ward.

 

It was written by one of my successors in Protestant Ministry at Georgetown University—where I served as Protestant Chaplain for many years.

 

His name is David Finnegan-Hosey.

 

Pastor David lives with Bipolar Disorder—one of the “big Ticket” chronic diseases of the mind and soul.

 

He was hospitalized for it once; while serving a University dedicated to success, achievement and Full Solar Life.