Open weekdays

9:00 am - 2:00 pm

  • Facebook - White Circle
  • Instagram - White Circle
  • YouTube - White Circle

Sermons

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 11/28/19

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 11/10/19

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.

 

He felt like a failure.  He felt the stigma so many know in life with mental illness.

 

On July 3, 2011, I had the following incident at Sibley Hospital’s psych ward.

 

I left the breakfast table after sneaking a plastic knife into my pockets. I then sent into the bathroom, sat down on the floor—and started trying to cut my wrists open.

 

I don’t blame you if you are saying, “What did you possibly think you could do with a plastic utensil.  Of course, I was not in a rational frame of mind.

 

Self-harm has many characteristics of compulsive or addictive behavior; it was the first and last time I tried to hurt myself while I was in the hospital.

 

Later I wrote in my journal:

“Things a compassionate nurse says to you when you realize you want to hurt yourself.

“You have a theological background, so think of the wind that blows where it will.

The same wind that brought you to this hurtful place is the wind of healing that is going to blow you to places of happiness and wholeness.

It is one wind and we don’t always know where it takes us but we are trusting it is all part of the process of healing.”

 

I take my medication; I don’t remember anything she said; it was beautiful; but the greatest beauty; she just sat with me; she did not punish or judge me.

 

I scribble an illustration of Jesus.

 

Christ on the Psyche Ward; if you don’t think God is a person; you’ve never needed a nurse.’

 

God does not exist in a distant place; or only at the Church altar.

 

God is curled up with one at a nurse’s station in a hospital—with a woman who was firm but kind; strong but tender, caring and powerful; her presence, not her words, lifted me out of the pit.

 

Let us pray:

Dear friends—in prayer, I invite us to a sort of preliminary dismissal:

 

*In your heart—write the name of someone who has been an Angel in the Darkness to you?

 Someone who has been searching for you with the tender but firm power of a woman-seeking a coin in the darkness?

Someone who loved you when you were lonely?  When you had messed up?

 

Silence

 

*Now, in your heart—write the name of someone that you know is now in the darkness.  Perhaps does not want to be found; perhaps is resisting you; forsaking help?  How might you write a story of help?  How might you reach out?  How might you be there?  In an appropriate and healing way?

 

Lord in your mercy; Hear our prayer!

Sermon 8/31/19

A sermon preached in All Saints Episcopal Church on the Sunday prior to Labor Day, September 1, 2019, Proper 17, RCL, Hebrews 13:1-8; Matthew 14:1, 7-14 by the Rev Hugh E. Brown, III, D. Min, MSW, LSW, Rector

“…Take your seat at the Lowest Place.”

                                      “A common Industrial Table”

 

In Washington DC, says a noted Journalist, “you are where you sit.”

 

It’s called “power seating.”

 

Says this journalist, “at business dinners and events, table position is more than a matter of who gets the first platter of roast beef.

 

An ABC-TV vice president says that a strategically placed table, “indicates to the community your prominent and important position in the industry.”

 

One major corporate firm assigns a full time PR person to make sure the firm “doesn’t place second fiddle to anyone” at power dinners and events attended by the top people in the industry.”

 

Before attending the affair, one DC executive instructs her administrative assistant to call first to find out where her table placement is. 

 

The assistant politely informs the host or sponsoring organization that his boss “would like a nice table and if she does not have one….she does not go.”

 

The executive justifies her approach this way:  “We don’t get pushy.  I just don’t want to sit with five ministers and three teachers.”

 

The above is one narrative about power and shared meals.

 

Imagination is another form of power; and Jesus knew it.

 

So—he told stories; he took action; to offer an another way of envisioning power.

 

You better believe when he ate a meal---those in power watched him closely!

 

Where would he sit?  Who would he communicate with?  Who would he spend time with?

 

One of the principal accusations leveled against Jesus—if not the central ones:  “he eats with sinners.”

 

In the days of Jesus, the Sumposiarch or President of the Banquet was assigned the task of figuring out the pecking order of the guests.

 

One’ honor and prestige rode on where one was seated. 

 

To deliberately flout the pecking order was to negate it altogether.

 

Jesus did.

 

Note the painting adorning our bulletin cover by the Flemish artist, Peter Paul Rubens.  It is an imaginative portrayal of the story through the eyes of an artist.

 

Our eyes are drawn to Jesus; seated; at the home of a Simon the Pharisee; Simon is aghast.

 

A woman has crashed the dinner;  she is ministering to Jesus.

 

She is washing his feet with her hair and tears.   This part of the story is actually told in the 7th chapter of Luke.  We will read this part of the story later in the Fall.

 

Luke describes the woman “as of the street, a sinner.”

 

Who is this woman?    What was her sin? 

 

You know what was really unimaginable?  What provoked the shock of Simon the Pharisee?  What prompted Simon’s reaction…thus inspiring…. the art of Rubens?

 

Jesus not only accepted the woman at table.  He received her ministry.

 

Right there in Simon’s home;  she was not just an uninvited guest; she was an unacknowledged minister!

 

Jesus accepted her as his minister.

 

But I want you to notice how he did it.

 

Jesus might have been watched by the Pharisees; by the powerful teachers of the law.

 

But he dined with them.

 

He broke bread with them.

 

He did not view them as oppressors; unlike the Zealots who saw religious leaders as collaborator.

 

The intent of Jesus was to challenge every vestige of “other.”

 

He worked to put the marginalized of his day at the tables of the powerful.

 

Jesus was working for healing, conversation, dialogue.

 

He wanted the insiders and outsiders in relationship to one another;  talking to each other; equal is dignity with each other.

 

Jesus lived in a way which confronted--- privilege, power and class.

 

But Jesus did not stoke fear, class war, resentment….and hatred.

 

The inclusive table for Jesus was not only for families, neighborhoods….and religions institutions.

 

The common table was also for the social order; the common table of Jesus was a new politics; but not a partisan politics; the common table was a way of organizing our social life. 

 

We might call it the common industrial table.

 

Look at the Rubens painting again. Look at the kind of social relationships Jesus lived…..for which he labored….for which he died.

 

Then imagine Labor Day observed this Monday.  Imagine what this day represents.

 

In 1911, a young social worker in New York City, like any privileged lady of her time, was having high tea with a friend.

 

They heard fire-engines; the ran across a park to an adjacent street;  fire enveloped the 8thm 9th and 10th floors of a building occupied by the Triangle Garment Company.   

 

The company made fashionable woman’s apparel.

 

The workers, many of them recent immigrants from Southern Europe, were an afterthought.

 

No fire drills had ever been held; not fire escape plan had ever been devised. 

 

There was only one fire escape, horribly built, that collapsed during the fire.

 

The young lady never forgot the image of women jumping to their death from the windows of that building

 

One hundred and forty six women died in that fire.

 

At the time, it was one of the worst industrial incidents in the United States.

 

The young social worker, activist, and public worker became a ceaseless advocate for a common industrial table.

 

Where violence had no place; but all were included; where the vulnerable were protected.

 

She became the first woman to serve in a Presidential Cabinet as Secretary of Labor.

 

Her only condition for service?  The President approved her going to a monthly retreat with the All Saints’ Sisters of the Poor in nearby Catonsville, MD.

 

She was a committed Episcopalian. A committed woman of faith.

 

She saw a just common industrial table of capital and labor—not as politics; not as government; but as an expression of faith.

 

Today, she is known as the Architect of the Social Security Act.

 

The minimal and all too often insufficient social safety net ….that we know in this nation today…. is in large measure…. the result of her Labor.

 

Think of her….when you know someone who is able to live with some semblance of decency because of a disability.

 

Think of her….when you know an addict who is able to attain some housing because of some income support.

 

Think of her…when you know a widow—like my sister, who has some social protection as she tries to raise disabled children.

 

Think of her….when you know a senior—like my mother--who is able to live independently and with dignity in her own home--because of her social security pension—you might offer a prayer of thanksgiving for this lady.

 

Her name is Francis Perkins. 

 

Did you know Francis Perkins has been included in both Holy Women; Holy Men;  in Celebrating the Saints? 

 

Francis Perkins, no doubt will in the Episcopal Church calendar soon.

 

Like the narrative world of Jesus—Francis Perkins welcomed all at the table; she dinned with the powerful to include the outcast at the table.

 

She did not demonize the rich; or attack the powerful; she did not patronize the poor.

 

Like the best of the Episcopal Church—she practiced civility, respect and the integration of all sides.

 

Sisters and brothers, we all know that this Labor Day symbolizes more than just some Sabbath time and final beach get-away.

 

It symbolizes the tireless work of all who want the story you heard this morning as applied to our social order.

 

For those of us who are privileged—Labor Day challenges you and me to dare accept all our sisters and brothers as angels for hospitality—our equals in the sight of good and dignity.

 

Jesus did that with a woman considered a sinner; when he accepted her as his equal and sister in God the Father—by receiving her ministry.

Like Jesus—how can we accept all—but especially our marginalized sisters and brothers—as

those who minister to you-and to me.

 

Can we dene to recognize that those seeking asylum in our nation have much to teach us?  Have much to offer us? 

 

Can we dene to recognize that those who seek refuge in our nation—even without thought of law—do so because they want to offer citizenship?

 

That they want to offer their labor?

 

To offer their stories of abuse …..so we might learn that we are all equal in experiences…. of extortion, theft, domestic abuse?

 

Can we recognize immigrants—documented or undocumented—as those who contribute much to the welfare of our nation?

 

As those who minister unto you and me—through work, taxes, education—as teachers, students, landscapers?

 

Can we also recognize their fair labor, pay and just treatment… as aspects of humanity?

 

Can we welcome strangers and sojourners in this land as angels worthy of hospitality---as those seeking to minister unto this land?

 

But not only that.

 

Can you recognize all persons--privileged or otherwise-as partners for an open table?

 

Where would we be if Francis Perkins was simply written off as a privileged white woman—with nothing to contribute—unworthy of partnership?

 

Jesus did not write anyone out of the Kingdom of God.

 

In a few moments, at the common table of Eucharist—we will welcome all; all. 

 

It is easy to get caught up in ecclesiastic and political privilege.

 

I am thankful All Saints church offers a common able here; where we do not divide humanity up into those who are baptized and those who are not.

 

We don’t divide up those who are in the club and those who are not. 

 

When we share a common table, we do in the spirit of Jesus who dared to be ministered unto by one outcast and stigmatized.

 

May the vision of our common table also be the continued vision of those like Francis Perkins.

 

May the art adorning our bulletin cover not only be the governing narrative of our Church.

 

But may it also be the Cover Art of our nation.

 

Let us pray;  from the Collect for Francis Perkins from Celebrating the Saints.

 

Loving God, on this Labor Day, we bless your name for our Fellow Episcopalian sister in Christ, former secretary of Labor, and architect of the Social Security Act, Francis Perkins.

 

We bless your name for all who, in her spirit, work for the common industrial table in our social order.   Help us to honor all those Christians who see public affairs as that place for all attaining health, dignity and decency.

 

Help us, following her example, to contend tirelessly for justice and for the protection of all in need.

 

That we may be faithful followers of Jesus in All of life; who with you and the Holy Spirit lies and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Sermon 8/18/19

 

A sermon preached by the Rev. Hugh E. Brown, III, D. Min, MSW, LSW, in All Saints Episcopal Church, Princeton, NJ, on Hebrews 11: 29—12:2  on August 18, 2019, RCL, Year C, Proper 15

“….So Great a Cloud of Witnesses”

                        And Life for me Ain’t been no Crystal Stair

Well, son, I'll tell you:
 

Life for me ain't been no crystal stair.
 

It's had tacks in it,  And splinters,
 

And boards torn up,  And places with no carpet on the floor --
 

Bare.
 

But all the time
 

I'se been a-climbin' on,  And reachin' landin's,  And turnin' corners,
 

And sometimes goin' in the dark
 

Where there ain't been no light.
 

So boy, don't you turn back.
 

Don't you set down on the steps
 

'Cause you finds it's kinder hard.
 

Don't you fall now --
 

For I'se still goin', honey,
 

I'se still climbin',
 

And life for me ain't been no crystal stair.

 

Langston Hughes wrote that poem. 

 

Perhaps he thought of his own mom;  an African-American mom in segregated America—a muse for his son’s art.

 

I found that poem in a staff in the staff lounge on the Psychiatric Wing at Princeton House Behavioral Health this past week.  It was a lounge with restrooms, a fridge;  stale coffee was a “Mr.Coffee” pot.  The pot glass was tinted.

 

The paper of the poem was ruffled; it has been there a while.

 

Was it from a patient?  Patient are mothers, fathers, sons, daughters—neighbors;  they also do their best—as parents, children-neighbors? 

 

Was it from a staff member?  Staff in psychiatric hospitals have it hard;  they are the ones who lift, do one-on ones with, bath, cloth, feed, give medication?  Health care is hard field.

 

Was it a staff member encouraging her son to remember his roots; to remember her sacrifice; and remember to sacrifice for others. 

 

Was it from a parent?  Encouraging a child.  Was it a parent reminding her child that she or he was not alone; but loved; even in a psych ward? 

 

“We have such a great cloud of witnesses around us!”  The Letter to the Hebrews is coming to a thunderous conclusion with these words. 

 

It is not really a letter—actually; but a sermon.

 

We heard last Sunday a mini homily on what faith is:  things unseen;  hoped for;  anticipated; things of trust;  things from that which only a Higher Power might give.

 

Today-we learn what faith does!

 

And one thing faith does is to encourage; not discourage;  to uplift; not put down;  to contemplate with hope; not to condemn;  to compassion; not criticize; to be positive—not negative. 

 

We believe that Hebrews was written to congregation of discouraged souls; not persecuted; but just plain tired;  life had been no crystal stair for them.

 

And one thing the writer of Hebrews tells them is that they have not only examples, but supporters;  cheerleaders, empowerers.

 

Tom Wright, a noted New Testament Scholar offers this interpretation of the Great Cloud of Witnesses.

He talks about his experience of completing a competitive race, in his native UK high school in Yorkshire Dales.

 

He writes about what happened at the end of that race:

“I had not prepared myself for the hundreds of boys, parents, and local people from the town who turned out to watch as we all came back, bedraggled but mostly happy.

 

They were cheering, waving flags, clapping and shouting and encouraging—“congratulations.”

 

Tom Wright continues:  “Those who have gone before us—from Abel and Abraham, right through to the unnamed heroes and heroines note at the end of Chapter 11:  Gideon, Barak, Sampson, Jephthah, David, Samuel, and the prophets—have not simply disappeared. 

 

They are there at the finish line—cheering us on—surrounding us with encouragement and enthusiasm—willing us to do what they did—and finish the course…..”

 

“Don’t you fall now; for I’se still goin’…..”

 

But something else needs to be said too.

 

These witnesses—Moses, David, Jephthah, Gideon---were not perfect.

 

Even Jesus was not perfect; he was human.

 

He was sinless on the Divine level.

 

But he lived on the earth as a human being.  

 

Even Jesus could be unkind; he could be prejudiced;  he could be mean; rude; and perhaps even dogmatic. 

 

But he had the courage to change; to transform; to forgive; to heal; to empathize.

 

That is what separates the saints often from those who do not quite even run the race; much less reach the finish line.

 

The saints know they are not perfect; that they must rely on God, their Higher Power.

 

And the grant imperfection, healing, grace and forgiveness to others.

 

I want you to look at the bulletin cover;  a man is on his journey to the divine;  the cross in the background; he is shedding garments.

 

He is shedding regrets;  he is shedding resentments; he is shedding a past perhaps he wants to undo; he is shedding old baggage; he is shedding old sin.

 

He may be an addict; he may be oppressed; he may have grown up with abuse;  he may have grown up with alcoholism; he may have committed crimes.

 

He may write a letter to his son—with encouragement.

 

He might say:

 

“Life ain’t been a crystal staircase; it still is not.

 

I have plenty of baggage to shed.

 

I’m still going from strength to strength In the heavenly kingdom.

 

I know what it is like to fall short and sin.

 

But I don’t give up and don’t you.

 

Don’t let anything, anyone; don’t’ let your circumstances—difficult as they are—turn you around. 

 

Shed the baggage!  Quit beating yourself up!  You made mistakes?  So did I?  You can change? 

 

So did I?  You did some bad things? So did I?  You have given up on yourself?

So did I  I know what it is like to  sit down on the steps because it is easier there;  I know what it is like to not want to get up!

 

I’m with you;  don’t give  up.  Keep your eyes on the prize.”

 

Here is the way Hebrews puts it this morning:  “What we must do is this—we must put aside each heavy weight, and the sin which gets in the way so easily.”

 

I recently read a story about a 70 year old senior who found love again.

 

She never expected it; she was in an abusive marriage for years. 

 

Sadly, she knew she let her children suffer from abuse.

 

She found the courage to leave; but by then it was too late; a lot of damage had been done.

 

She wanted to reject him; before he rejected her; when he found out the truth about her past.

 

Funny how some of our worst moments are those that defensively protect us against rejection; we make the first move; rather than trust the love that is in front of us.

 

Perhaps we do that with God Too.

 

So—she wrote him—the truth; about her failings.  About how she was a monster.

The truth.

 

Jesus was all about truth; and how truth—initially is so powerful that it indeed divides, smashes and destroys.

 

Divides for the sake of healing; and love.

 

I don’t think Jesus’s words about division and family this morning are about meanness and disruption.

 

I don’t think his words in the Gospel are about how he divides families because he forces choices between him and loved ones.

 

Jesus is talking about truth which brings family baggage and sin out into the open; which creates opportunities for settling debts and damage; Jesus

 

That is how Jesus concludes his hard words about family conflict;  a call to settle differences—before it is too late! 

 

Jesus is after family reconciliation; but sometimes hard truth needs to be told to get there.

 

So our 70 year old friend—in love again—not only wrote her love with some truth.

 

She also wrote one of her daughters.  She apologized; she spoke truth; she apologized for not protecting them; for not having their backs; for the abuse they endured.

 

Her daughter wrote back;  it too, was a hard letter.

 

She said that she was not ready to forgive her Mom; not quite yet.

 

And then she started to have dreams.

 

“I had a dream about going to the Ballet.

 

When I woke up—I realized that I was the ballerina in the dream—and you were the teacher.

 

And, I remember the time when I was maybe eight or nine and you took me to a ballet class.

 

I was dying to go to and they said I didn’t have enough experience.

 

I cried; and you hugged me and said, “Come on; I’ll teach you—and we went into an empty studio and pretended to do ballet for what seemed like hours.

 

I remember that moment with you; I was laughing and dancing and wishing each moment could last forever.

 

Mom—I remembered you at your best.

 

I remember now positive memories.

 

I want you to know that.

 

I may not want a relationship with you—right now;  but your words mean this to me:  I can finally get my life together;  if you can; so can I.

 

So your letter was a gift; perhaps it will yield more fruit later; I hope so.

 

I understand you now have a shot at a new life—even at 70.

 

You were not always your best with me.

 

But I know you can be—your best.

 

Go for it Mom.

 

As I can……..I will be with you.”

 

And the next time her Mom received a kiss from her new love—at age 70;  she accepted it—and returned it.

 

And still does.

 

Oh people of God.

 

We are on that stairway to heaven—to wherever the Holy Spirit may take us; for the Holy Spirit always wants the best for us.

 

We have a lot of baggage to shed along with way; in this life-and the life to come.

 

One day—you might write that letter to your son or daughter—or your niece; you may be there witness.

 

You already may be—their witness—among the great cloud of witnesses.

 

You will always not be at your best.

 

But there are moments—when you have been—at your best—by grace.

 

The Great Cloud of Witnesses—write letters of revelation to us; in scripture; in experience.

 

The may be witnesses of old in the bible.

 

But they also might be close to home—even among the two—or the three—in families.

 

They are our cheerleaders; our encouragers.

 

For-- there is always the moment of the ballet.

 

The Dance; the dream.

 

So—be kind to yourself; kind to others.

 

More accepting;  more encouraging.

 

For—as the Witnesses from the Cloud might say:

 

Don't you fall now --
 

For I'se still goin', honey,
 

I'se still climbin',
 

And life for me ain't been no crystal stair.

Sermon 8/11/19

 

A sermon preached on August 11, 2019, in All Saints Episcopal Church by the Rev. Hugh E Brown, III, D. Min, MSW, LSW, RCL, Year C, Proper 14, Hebrews 11:1-3; 8-16.

 

“Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”

Faith:  AS IF!

Hope is believing in Spite of the Evidence, and then watching the Evidence Change!

A noted Christian spiritual author and witness to social change writes:

“On the morning of my mother’s 75th birthday, my sister Marcie went into serious labor.

 

Both went to the same Chicago hospital.

 

One upstairs;  one downstairs.

 

They were two women on a mission.

 

As my mother labored for her life with each breath…..my sister labored to bring forth new life.

 

It seemed as if we had already lost mom twice to illness, but she was determined to hang-on—even this time.

 

My sister had two previous difficult deliveries;  not this time.

 

Her labor was smooth and quick.

 

She knew what she had to do.

 

The doctor who delivered the baby commented that he had never seen a woman, in this instance, so in touch with her own body.

 

At 1:35PM, Kaylee Ruth was born on the first floor.

 

Her grandmother, Phyllis Ruth, was dying on the 5th.

 

As soon as they could, the doctor and nursing staff wheeled Marcie and the baby into Mom’s room, where we were all anxiously waiting.

 

The jubilation of the hospital staff was overwhelming.

 

As my mother opened her eyes, and held her new granddaughter, she smiled and said, “I’m very happen;  I’m so very happy.”

 

Those were her last words;  she very peacefully went to sleep and the ventured into a coma.  She died nine days later.”

 

The spiritual writer Jim Wallis told this story in the spring of 1995 to a somewhat dejected and cynical staff in inner city Washington DC.

 

He did so right after the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City.

 

After the story, Jim looked around the room, gazing at his staff.

 

He quoted the Letter to the Hebrews you heard this morning:

 

“Faith is the Assurance of things hoped for;  the evidence of things not seen.”

 

And Jim continued, “This is what faith is…the hope of life in the very midst of death.”

Faith;  not apart from death; but life in the very mist of it.

 

The image on the front bulletin cover conveys this theme; with its interplay of light and darkness;  shadows and illumination.

 

I thought of this story often this past week.

 

Our nation reels once again from terror; dozens dead; one in a genuine act of domestic terrorism prompted by hate;  another attack—perhaps, prompted by the same.  El Paso; and Dayton.

 

Within these circumstances of life—Hebrews calls us to faith…..

 

………….the Faith that life always exists in the midst of death.

 

Faith is living AS IF life were being born in the midst of death.

 

Let us note the examples of those listed in Hebrews as exemplars of faith.

 

Abraham and Sarah;  Isaac and Jacob.

 

They acted AS IF.

 

To quote the New Testament scholar Tom Wright:

 

“Abraham acted--as if--God were making a new world possible, and it was true.  He was out of step with his time.”

 

But Abraham did move;  he walked;  he left;  he ventured; he became the ultimate migrant.

 

Abraham acted as if God was going to provide; as if God would keep his promises.

 

This is the faith that enabled Abraham to obey—to move—when called; that empowered Sarah to laugh-not in mockery, but in joy—when an angel told her she would give birth to a son despite senior years.

 

In this Hebrews prefigures Luke’s Gospel and the faith that empowered a young, Jewish peasant girl in a tiny village to believe an angel who told her she would give birth to the Son of God. 

 

We celebrate the feast day of Mary of Nazareth this Thursday

 

So—how do we live this faith in the very midst of a world……. where violence, hate, passivity, government inaction, excessive greed……seemingly have the last word?

 

The literary artist Toni Morrison died this past Monday at the age of 88.

 

Over a five decade career she chronicled the African American experience in stories that spanned from 17th century plantations to the Jim Crow-era.

 

But her work…..while absolutely giving voice to the context , violence and racism of the African-American experience…..was above all……about the human condition.

 

She once wrote that her work was about:

 

“The resources available to us for benign access to each other, for vaulting the mere blue air that separates us, are few but powerful:  language, image, and experience.”

 

“This language, image, and experience thrusts us into one another’s worlds, commanding us to be worth one another’s attention.”

 

Language: Image; Experience—living --as if we—you and I—are connected across time and circumstance.

 

Living AS IF we are worth one another’s attention.

 

We remember, for example, her work Beloved.

 

Who has not mothered with a ferocity that surpasses imagination; who has not been haunted by such ferocious love in all of its power and all of its potential darkness?

 

Did you see the image of the little girl from Mississippi this week

 

Wailing for her parents who had been arrested in an ICE raid?

 

How did you feel;  what did you think? 

 

Perhaps there was some Beloved in you at that point. 

 

Some ferocious capacity to mother;  deep compassion that met the darkness?

 

Did you feel that child’s pain?  Did you connect with her trauma?  Across culture?  Across Race?  Did that image of that wailing child move you?

 

In that moment—could you just feel the Canaanite woman who demanded Jesus heal her child—across nation-race-religion—culture?

Jesus listened;  to that woman.

 

That child became his child.

 

Can that little girl from Mississippi—traumatized and abused by our very nation—become your child and our child?

 

It matters not a whit were you stand on the policy of immigration.

 

Like Jesus, who reached across the divides of culture wherever he found them—and gave his life for doing so?

 

Can you, through language, image, and experience—imagine if—live if—that little girl—crying for her faith and mother, separated from all love and family—was your child? 

 

That imaginative connection to that little girl in Mississippi….

 

This is Toni Morrison’s challenge to engage in Living Faith!

 

Toni Morrison’s work –Language, Image, Experience—lives the AS IF of faith;  faith endures in the midst of trauma.

 

What is said of the character, Sethe in Beloved can be said of Tony Morrison’s AS IF faith: 

 

“She is a friend of my mind; she gather me man;  The pieces I am, she gather them and give them back to me—in all the right order.”

Toni Morrison’s life was, in the words of one commentary:  “Gathering the pieces of a country broken under the weight of its own history—and meld them into a new story.”

 

Recreating new stories.  Commanding one another’s attention.  The AS IF faith of Abraham;  Moses, Jesus, Paul—The Letter to the Hebrews.

 

I saw the faith of Toni Morrison in a therapy group at Penn Medicine/Princeton House this past week.

 

A patient, brave beyond words, living with trauma that  you and I can only imagine through connections across experience—began sobbing uncontrollably—not only because of her illness—but because she had suddenly realized how much her mother loved her; how much anguish she had caused her mom.

 

“O God—she said—as if in prayer—how I wish my mom were here;  how much I could tell her that I love her; that I am sorry; that I am sorry for the fight we had just before I came here;  O God how much my mom loves me.  O mom I wish you were here; I miss you so much.”

And, at that moment, a patient……different in race, culture and experience…..suddenly lifted up from her chair.

 

She almost ran across the room;  hugged that patient with all her might—sat and held her hand;

 

She told her, “I’m a mom;  I know your mom forgives you; I know your mom loves you; I will be like your mom today; you are not alone;  I will be your friend as long as you are here.”

 

A little girl in Mississippi cries for her mother.

 

A patient living with mental illness cries for.

 

One receives love.  One can.

 

If you and I become a friend of her mind—gather her pieces—and give them back in the right order…….

 

…….If she can become worthy of our attention.

 

If YOU can be her new birth of light and hope—in a world of death and darkness.

Faith is the assurance of things hoped for—the conviction of things unseen.

Sermon 8/4/2019

 

A sermon preached by the Rev. Hugh E. Brown, III, D. Min, MSW, LSW, Rector, in All Saints Episcopal Church, Princeton, NJ on August 4, 2019, Year C, Proper 13, Ecclesiastes, 1:2, 12-14; 2: 18-23. (and 9:6)

“Whatever it is within your power, do with all your might.”

                                                Striving to be Healers

(First, let us offer a moment of silence, concluded by the Prayer Attributed to St. Francis from the Book of Common Prayer in response to the two horrific mass shootings in both El Paso, TX, and Dayton, Ohio—and praying for a more peaceful, non-violent, loving and safe nation)

Can you remember when you first learned that life was not always “fair?” 

 

We no doubt experience thoughts of innocent and unjust suffering in the wake of the two terrible mass shootings, continued gun violence, and perpetual rise of White Nationalism and hate in our nation.

 

On a personal note--although I was very young--not quite four years old--when I lost my grandfather to inexplicable cancer---I can remember vividly some of the conversation through tears, grief and anguish around me.

 

My grandfather was an Episcopal Priest;  he devoted his entire life to the Church; he was approaching retirement.  Why this? 

 

Why now?  Why did God permit something like this?  What had he done to deserve it?  My grandfather, as faithful as he was-asked these question;  my mother still does.

 

What might we do when faced with such a meaningless turn of events?

Albert Camus wrote a great novel in the mid-20th century, soon after the end of the Second World war.

 

It was entitled, The Plague.

 

One character in the Novel--a Priest named Paneloux---illustrates one response to innocent and seemingly meaningless suffering.

 

The Priest always told his congregation that life was simple; God rewarded the good and punished the wicked.

 

Then, an outbreak of bubonic plague hit his northern Algerian community.  Paneloux told them that it was the judgement of God.

 

Then, the Priest was called to the home of a child he had come to love and was loving and wonderful.

 

The child succumbed to the plague;  he was innocent.  The Priest knew it.

 

The Priest soon fell ill—and died too.

 

Did Paneloux die of a broken heart when his whole philosophy of life collapsed with this child’s death?

 

Our Old Testament lesson this morning is taken from the Book of Ecclesiastes.

 

This book is also known by the Hebrew word, Qoheleth, or “Teacher.”

 

Ecclesiastes is ascribed to an known King—which most take to mean Solomon, the patron of Wisdom in Ancient Israel.

 

However, mot scholars believe that Ecclesiastes was written either during or after the exile of the Israeli people---when the people of Israel were struggling with inexplicable loss and suffering.

 

The Teacher offers his own perspective when he encounters meaningless and discouraging aspects of life.

 

The Teacher writes:

 

“I hated all my toil in which I had toiled under the sun, seeing that I must leave it to those who come after me—and whether they will be wise or foolish.

Yet, they will be the master of all for which I toiled and used my wisdom under the sun.  This also is vanity.”

 

Indeed, says the Teacher, “I saw all the deeds that are done under the sun; and see, all is vanity and a chasing after the wind.”

 

“All is Vanity.”

 

Who else in the bible talks like this?

 

One religious scholar refers to the Book of Ecclesiastes as the most “dangerous’ book in the bible.

 

It is a small book, barely a dozen gages long in some editions, tucked all the way back in the Old Testament.

 

Perhaps the rabbis wanted to make it difficult to find.

 

There is a Jewish tradition that tells us about the origin of this Old Testament book.

 

When the sages met to fix the canon of the Old Testament---to decide which ancient books would be part of the Hebrew bible and which were not—there was a fierce debates about the book of Ecclesiastes or The Teacher.

 

Many persons found it threatening to faith.

 

It should not be.

 

It was included in the Canon of Scripture because it raised disturbing and important questions.

 

And all those questions center around one theme.

This theme was espoused as clearly as anyone, by the American Protestant Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr:  there is no easy correlation between righteous action and righteous reward.

 

Or to use the more famous phrase of the late Rabbi Harold Kushner, “bad things indeed happen to good people.”

 

So, what might be the response of faith to life when it appears capricious, meaningless, in the words of the great philosopher Jean Paul Sartre’—truly “Nausea.”

 

The Teacher—throughout The Book of Ecclesiastes challenges one perspective on the problem of meaningless suffering with all his intellectual might.

 

We might called this failed perspective:  Faith as Avoidance.

 

Sometimes the worst of religious faith attempts to avoid the truth that sometimes indeed—Life is Vanity; Life is Unfair; Life can Stinks-for no rhyme or reason.

 

Faith can be unhealthy when it easy answers to difficult questions; when it asks us to turn off our minds in conformity with pat answers—glib comebacks which are often no better than lies.

 

As Rabbi Kushner once wrote in a commentary on Ecclesiastes in a book entitled, When All You Wanted is Not Enough: 

“From children, we expected obedience; and perhaps from spiritual children;  But not from adults.”

“Do we want to have an adult faith?  Do we want to feel complete and whole?  Do we want to feel as we are learning how to live and find meaning? 

True religion should not say to us, “Obey!  Confirm!  Reproduce the past!” 

 

True religion—deep faith--should call upon us to grow, to dare, to choose wrongly at times, and learn from our mistakes.

 

God does not say to us, “I will be watching you to make sure you don’t do anything wrong.” 

 

He says, rather, “Go forth into an uncharted world, where you have never been before, struggle to find your own path, and not matter what I will be with you.”

 

I wish you had more of Ecclesiastes to be read;  for this morning’s passage is only a start;  Ecclesiastes is indeed a profound and moving book.

 

It is indeed part of the “Wisdom tradition” of the bible.

 

In this wisdom book, the teacher challenges bad and inauthentic faith.

But he also offers several positive responses to life’s meaninglessness and capricious times.  Time does not permit us to explore all of them.

I invite you to take some take on a hot Sunday to dig out your bibles and read Ecclesiastes—and be challenged and moved.

 

I offer only one of the Teachers’ “takes” when the innocent suffer and you might perceived that all is in vain.

 

It is a passage from the 9th chapter of Ecclesiastes, verse 6:

“Whatever it is within your power, do with all your might.”

 

Here—The Teacher stands with one of the greatest teachers of 20th century psychology and spirituality—Victor Frankl.

 

Frankl survived the Holocaust in a Concentration Camp. 

 

Amidst the insanity of the Concentration Camp, these persons choose integrity, truth, love—and hope.

 

He wrote in Man’s Search for Meaning that Freedom of Choice is our greatest gift and no tyrant, cancer or psychopath, can ever take choice away.

 

The teacher stands with one of the great human perspectives on meaning.

 

“Whatever it is within your power, do with all your might.”

 

It has been one of the most helpful perspectives I have ever encountered in both my own, and others, struggles with tragedy, difficulty, suffering, and grief.

 

The perspective on meaning, offered by Frankl offers this:

There is no depth of darkness, evil or pain that can ever take one thing away:  Our Capacity to choose our Response in any given set of circumstances.

 

A spiritual writer, working in the perspective once said, “Life is not a problem to be solved once, but a continuing challenging to be lived each day.”

 

“Our quest is not to find an answer, but to find ways of making each day a truly human and humane existence.”

 

A Hasidic story tells of a man who went for a walk in the forest and got lost.  He wandered around for hours trying to find his way back to town, trying to find one path after another; but none of  them worked out. 

 

Then, abruptly, he came across another hiker, walking through the forest. 

 

He cried out, “Thank God for another human being! Can you show me the way back to town?” 

The other man replied, “No, I’m lost too, but we can help each other in this way.

 

We can tell each other which paths we have already tried and been disappointed in.”  We can do this together.

 

The Priest, Paneloux, in Camus’s novel, the Plague, responded to life’s vanity with a broken and despairing heart.

 

The teacher was probably heading in that direction and then found another way.

 

Or ways.

 

One very active, engaged and hopeful way—behind simple interpreting the world—changing the world.

 

Through our Choices.

 

“Whatever it is within your power, do with all your might.”

 

Or, as some say, “Keep your eyes on the prize; Hold On.”

 

For there is another character in the Camus’s novel.

 

We might call him, “The Teacher.”

 

He is a physician; he choose; he acted; his name is Rieux.

 

In the face of the plague---the physician, Rieux, simply choose to stand with those who were sick.  Simply choose for humanity.

 

He did not look for meaning; he choose it;  he lived it.  He created it with his heart, love and compassion.

 

Rieux stands, no doubt, for all in late 20th Century occupied France during the Second World War who choose, in the depths of evil, light over darkness.

 

And he stands, in personal or human tragedy today—to make the concentration camps of illness, death and oppression—places of hope and goodness.

 

For Camus writes:

“The plague bacillus can never go away for good;  it can lie dormant for  years and years in furniture, and linen-chests; ti can bide its time in bedrooms, cellars and trunks, and bookshelves; one day, it will rouse up its rats again and send them into our cities..

Nevertheless, the plague can also be a record of what had to be done;  and must be done again.

In the never ending fight against terror and its relentless onslaughts, by all who, despite personal afflictions, and unable to be Saints, but refusing to bow down to fear and pain…

Strive their utmost to be healers.”

 

“All is vanity.”  The world can be insane and evil.  Then, Oh people of God…  Choose.  Choose what you can’t change.

 

Choose what you can.  Know the difference.  Refuse to bow down to fear and pain.  Strive to be healers.

 

“Whatever it is within your power, do with all your might.”

Sermon 7/14/19

A sermon preached on July 14, 2013, in All Saint’s Episcopal Church, Princeton, NJ on Luke 10:25-37, Proper 10, Year C, by the Rev. Hugh E. Brown, III, D. Min.

         What kind of People Worship Here?  Who is Their God?

Note:  The work by the Rev Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. shaped this sermon:  “Three Dimensions of a Complete Life” in A Knock at Midnight, edited by Clayborne Carson and Peter Holloran, pp. 61-79

 

“But WHO is my Neighbor?”  A man came to talk with Jesus about some very profound concerns.  And then the man gets to the heart of the matter and asks Jesus, Who is my neighbor?

 

The man wanted to debate this question with Jesus.  This could have become a very abstract theological and philosophical discussion.

 

But, then, Jesus does something amazing.  He often did this with his teaching.

 

Jesus pulls the question out of the thin air and placed it, in the words of Martin Luther King Jr., on “a dangerous curve between Jerusalem and Jericho.”

 

He takes the conversation from a “head trip” to a “foot trip.”  He talked about a certain man falling among thieves.

 

Two men came by and they just kept going.  Both were supremely religious men, some of the most holy you would meet or know.

 

But, finally another man, a man not described as religious but as a member of another culture, religion and race—a Samaritan of all people, helped the wounded man.

 

Now there are many ideas about why the Priest and Levite passed and did not help the wounded man.

 

Some say they were going to a “church service” and running late—and could not stop because they needed to at the Synagogue.

2.

And there is another idea—that they were involved in Priesthood and there was a priestly law that--if you were going to administer the sacraments, the rituals of their tradition---you could not touch a human body 24 hours before worship.

 

There is another possibility:  Perhaps they were going to organize a Jericho Road Improvement Association.  And they may have passed by because it was better to deal with the overall problem rather than stop to help one individual.

 

But, if we use our imaginations, there is yet another possibility.

 

The Jericho Road is a dangerous road.  A friend of mine was in the Holy Land some years ago.  He rented a car and drove from Jerusalem down to Jericho, a distance of about sixteen miles.  You get on that Jericho road—and it’s a winding, curving, meandering road, very conducive to----robbery.

 

And my friend said, “Now I can see why Jesus used this road as the occasion for this story of a wounded man and who helped him.”

 

“You start out of Jerusalem, and you are twenty-two hundred feet above sea level, and, when you get down to Jericho sixteen miles later—I mean, you have sixteen miles from Jerusalem—you’re twelve hundred feet below sea level.”

 

“During the days of Jesus, that road came to the point of being known as ‘The Bloody Path.’”

 

Why did not our Priest and Levite brothers help the wounded man?  Religious or not, Holy or not, they might well been-----Afraid!

 

They were just like you—or me.

 

Even a man of great courage--Martin Luther King, Jr.--used himself as an illustration for the tensions in this story.    Right after the Birmingham campaign of 1963 and surviving jail time in that protest, King started on the road from his home, outside of Atlanta, to his Father’s house in Atlanta—about three or four miles. 

                                                                                                                                   

3.

You get there by going on the Simpson Road.  The Simpson road is a winding road. It was late at night and a gentleman was trying to flag MLK’s car down. 

 

He felt he needed some help.  He knew he needed some help.  And he was honest and said he kept going.  He was not willing to take the risk.

 

Martin King said the first question he asked on the “Jericho Road” of Atlanta was:  “If I stop and help this man, what will happen to me?”

 

And that is the first question asked by both the Priest and the Levite most likely:  “What will happen to me?”

 

But Martin King believed that the first question the Samaritan asked was:  “What will happen to this man if I do NOT stop to help him?”

 

And Dr. King’s question in the midst of the great Civil Rights movement was not what will happen if I act?  But, it was the question, “What will happen if I don’t act.”

 

And what is remarkable too—this critical spiritual question, “What will happen to this wounded man if I don’t act?” was given by an Enemy of the wounded man and his people!”

 

The persons who asked the critical compassionate question, was a the stranger, the “other” and the adversary.

 

This story calls us to not only ask what Martin King called the most urgent question of Life:  “What can I do for others?”

 

It calls us to cross boundaries, prejudices, lines and divisions in the care of others.

 

This story calls us to become like the Samaritan and understand that compassion for others become compassion for ALL—especially those outside our circle.

                                                                                                                   

4.

Who are the “wounded” on the side of the road that we fear to help, not only out of fear for our needs and our survival--but also out of fear of “otherness” or “difference?”

 

A story is told of a would-be robber in Washington DC walking into a yard where people were having a cookout.  We should note that the family was African-American and the robber was non-Hispanic white.

 

The African-American family froze in silence as the pointed a gun a one woman.

 

“Why don’t you point the gun at me rather than her?” another woman quietly said.

 

He did.

Then the matriarch of the family, the grandmother asked him very calmly, “What would your mother think if she saw you doing this?”

 

“I don’t have a mother,” he replied.

 

Moved to compassion, one person said, “I’m so sorry.”  Others nodded their heads in agreement.

 

Then the hostess offered him beverage and food.  He looked at her for a moment, and then dropped the gun on the ground and started eating.

 

The man apologized repeatedly and then said, “Can I have a Hug?”

 

One by one, the guests came forward with tears in their eyes, embracing the man.

 

Then the whole group wrapped their arms around him;  he continued to cry.

 

Then he smiled, turned, and walked away—without the gun.

 

It turns out, without going into detail, that this was a life-transforming moment for a man who became one of the most noted child social-workers and youth leaders in the Washington DC area.

                                                                                                                                   

5.

“Who is My Neighbor?”  Perhaps she is the one who shows compassion and mercy.

 

Let us contrast this story with a narrative of gun violence, anger, fear, animosity and vengeful retaliation leading to death and tragedy.  This is the story moving in the nation’s consciousness this week:  the shooting of an unarmed black youth by a man of mixed rice, in a neighborhood of families, in a diverse community in Florida.

 

No matter what you think of the verdict, this story calls out for dialogue around issues of gun violence, race relations, and at-risk youth.  It asks important question about racism and fear of difference.  On all sides.

 

Jesus’s story of compassion across boundaries of differences challenges and upstages the violent struggle between George Zimmerman and Trevon Martin at very turn.

 

A kid is dead in a story of fear and walls of mistrust leading to violence.

 

There is another way.

 

The story of the Good Samaritan shows us a way out of the “other” story of fear—into a story of compassion and understanding.

 

Jesus, leading and teaching His church in the power of the spirit, calls us, the people of God, this day, to lead humanity out of the vicious circle of violence into a realm of love only God’s grace can create.

 

Perhaps it may begin with a Cookout—or a gesture of faith and trust—or an outstretched hand--in our Neighborhood--right here in Princeton.

 

Amen!

Sermon 7/28/19

Sermon by the Rev. Hugh E. Brown, III, D. Min., Rector, preached in All Saint’s Episcopal Church, Princeton, NJ on July 28, 2019, Yea C, Proper 12, on Genesis 18: 20-32

                             Prophetic Intercessors Before God

“Will you indeed destroy the innocent with the Guilty?”

St. Francis of Assisi once counseled, “Be real with God;  God will correct any misunderstanding.”

 

The scripture from Genesis just heard describes this kind of honest prayer.

 

Abraham and God dialogue;  converse;  confront;  maybe even fight a bit.

 

The cries of injustice from Sodom have reached God.

 

God is about to respond?

 

What will God do?

 

Abraham has a sense of what God is about to do.

 

It is in keeping with the ancient middle eastern tradition that the guilty perish with the innocent;  that the ties that bind also create the fabric of punishment for sin.

 

Today—it is known as the morality of collective guilt.

 

But Abraham cares; the cares deeply for a different kind of justice.

 

More than that—a different kind of God. 

 

Or, better yet, a God who is held accountable to his own covenant of love and blessing;  a God who knows better than collective bloodshed.

 

So he engages with God;  he prays.

 

I regret that Abraham’s great dialogical prayer in Genesis on behalf of the innocent of Sodom…. is buried in mid-summer.

 

On the other hand—perhaps that is why this prayer is so relegated. 

 

It is disturbing.  This kind of prayer provokes; it shakes us up.

 

The prayer is what one scholar calls—a “Prayers of Divine Justice.”

 

Another scholar calls it a prayer of “Loyal Opposition.”

 

I like Abraham Joshua Heschel’s definition of biblical prayer:  “A Relationship of Reciprocity.”

 

What is Abraham’s prayerful question to God?  

 

“Will you indeed destroy the innocent with the guilty?”

 

And….“Far be it from thee—Far be it from thee.”

 

“To do this thing.”

 

As one commentator on this text notes:

 

“This is a weak translation;  better rendering of Abraham’s language here:  “That is profane!  That is impure;  That is  polluted!”

 

To God’s face Abraham is declaring—that is about to do something truly wicked.  It is more than simple justice;  God’s holiness and reputation is at stake!

 

Then Abraham gets down to specifics;  how many? 

 

How many for God to save?  To Forgive?  To Redeem and Heal; Not simply to Punish.

 

Abraham stopped at 10; Why?  Why not One?

 

Is the One who saves none other than God alone?

 

God alone as the Suffering servant later envisioned by Isaiah?  God alone as the one who gave  his life—the ONE who gave his life for all on the Cross?

 

But--Numbers really don’t matter.  50?  45? 40? 30? 20? 10?

 

What is truly at stake is the principle.

 

It is a vision that turns the idea of collective guilt on its head and leads directly to the sacrifice of Jesus on Golgotha.

 

Normally we think of the innocent perishing with the guilty.

 

But Abraham is challenging that God’s justice reverses this.

 

It is about the innocent saving the guilty.

 

This is the “Righteousness” of God.

 

Not Death;  Not Damnation;  Not Fire and Brimstone.

 

But Grace; but Mercy; but Forgiveness.

 

Abraham is holding God accountable to God’s own “Righteousness.”

 

Observe the fruits of this bold conversation between God and Abraham!

 

 “Abraham’s courage increases during conversation with God as God’s grace is willing!  How Abraham stretches the capacity of God’s gracious righteousness more and more audaciously…… until he arrives at the astonishing fact that even a small number of innocent women and men……is more important in God’s sight than…. a majority of sinners and is sufficient to stem the judgement!

So predominant is God’s will to save over his will to punish!” (Von Rad, Genesis)

I often hear this—“Prayer does not change God; it changes me.”

 

But is this true?  Only?  Of Prayer?  Does it only change the one who Prays?

 

Not God?

 

Is this pat statement true to the faith of the Bible?

 

We don’t just find a passionate man of faith like Abraham—arguing with God over injustice in one place in the bible.

 

We find it in much of the bible! 

 

Moses, Jeremiah;  Job;.

 

Jesus.

 

Remember the little fight with God Jesus had in the Garden of Gethsemane?

 

Does that mean that prayer is playing Carrot and Stick with God?

 

No of course not.

 

But it does mean this:  Amazing possibilities happen with the power of prayer.

 

And perhaps some of those possibilities happen with God---not just with humanity.

 

Can we seriously believe in the loving God of Jesus… if we think that God remains indifferent to our prayers? 

 

To his people?  To our Cries? 

 

The first revelation of God to Moses from the Burning Bush is this promise:  “I have seen the cries of my people:  I have heard the cries of my people:  I will come down to help my people?”

 

Do I open my heart and trust that a good God is moved and affected by my prayers.

 

Gerhard Von Rad writes this: 

“It was not, of course, the primary intention of the text to extol Abraham as the paradigmatic, prophetic intercessor.

But the narrator would scarcely feel badly misunderstood if we were to read this text from the viewpoint of intercession and it power.”

 

I have too often rarely stood before God, in Abraham’s way as the “prophetic intercessor.”

 

I don’t think I am alone.

 

When the intercessions are read in a few minutes…..when this community stands before God……pleading on behalf of this community, our nation and our world…..do we expect the God of Abraham—Isaac, and Jacob—the God of Moses—the God of Jesus……..to hear—to listen…….to come down to liberate, heal, reconcile?

 

Do we expect to stretch our understanding of God? 

 

Better yet, do we expect to Stretch God’s understanding—God’s compassion;  God’s mercy?

 

I have rarely stood before God as Prophetic Intercessor; but I have had occasion to do so.

One time was three years ago, about this time—mid-summer.

 

I received a call from my mother that, finally, Dad’s advanced Kidney Disease provoked disturbing systems of fatigue, bleeding and loss of mobility; also for the first time in life-loss of cognitive ability.

 

I rushed down the PA Turnpike (missing—for the first and only time—the exit to I-81)—uttered an Abraham prayer of accusation and frustration.

 

But got a wonderful Turnpike attendant about 20 miles down the road who directed me back to I-81—in a way which I did not lose a minute. 

 

First clue—that God might be in this thing somewhere.

 

When Dad was released from the hospital several weeks later--and still not doing well—he was transferred to a Rehab;  it was a fine rehab (many are not). 

 

They did their best.

 

One evening—when I visited—Dad was getting an early dinner. 

 

He was sitting at the table with two nice gentleman with family members helping them to eat.

 

I sat down with him; he was trying to cut some of the meat for his dinner;  I just looked initially—not really grasping the enormity of what I was seeing.

 

And then it  hit me: 

 

For the first time in my life—My Dad cut not cut the meat for his dinner.

 

I asked Dad if I could do this.

 

I will never forget his look to me—as if to tell me—that the world had changed for us both. 

 

And so I did.  And so he ate.

 

Following dinner—I got back to the car.

 

I started it; then I turned it off; I pulled down the windows for air.

 

I just sat for a minute in that Rehab Parking lot.

 

I have tried to pray with the kind of heartfelt honesty of Abraham before—and it has always been so difficult.

 

Not this time.

 

I will not tell you this prayer.

 

It was too raw, personal, with language that is not appropriate for this pulpit.

 

Abraham left the bargaining with God at 10;  So will I this morning.

 

I will tell you I told the good Lord it was probably selfish.

 

Might not be right;  might not be his will.

 

That I was not used to praying like this because I was too darned pride-filled much of the time.

 

But the prayer was on behalf of Dad;  and my family;  and for everyone’s sake.

 

Did it impact me?  Yes, it did—for the better.  That is a promise of prayer.

 

Did it help Dad?  I trust so.  I really do. 

 

Did it impact God? 

 

I trust that it did.  I trust he heard it.

 

I trust that the God of heaven and earth is so filled with compassion that he hears the prayer of a child for his father from a rehab parking lot.

 

I trust that goodness and love was as much a part of my Father’s death—as grief and death  Such was a part of God’s heart.

 

Such a heart of God…..might…..just might…..have been moved in that moment of very deep communion……when I stood (actually sat) before God.

 

Just before Abraham challenged God’s justice and compassion over the fate of Sodom……Genesis told the story of a wonderful promise of God to Abraham’s wife Sarah.

 

This promise—she would bear a child—a progeny of hope and future. 

 

What was her response?   She laughed.  In response to Sarah’s laugh--one of the Lord’s angels bearing this promise said: 

“Is Anything too hard for the Lord?” 

 

If it is answered:  “No, nothing is impossible.”—we entrust our world to God.

 

And life is never the same.

Sermon 7/7/2019

A sermon preached on July 7, 2019, in All Saint’s Episcopal Church on the 7th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 9, Revised Common Lectionary, Galatians, Chapter 16, by the Rev. Hugh E. Brown, III, D. Min., Rector.

                            

 Freedom in Love: Interdependence Day

“Bear One Another’s Burdens:  And so fulfill the Law of Christ.” Galatians, Chapter 16)

         

I would imagine that your families have annual Independence Day rituals.  On behalf of my family to yours, I hope you had good 4th this past week.

        

For years on July 4th, my wife Elly and I have created such an annual family ritual:  we always watch the movie/ musical 1776—based on the play by same title.

For those who have not seen the movie or play, 1776 depicts the great debates during the spring and summer of that auspicious year over the question of American independence.

It reminds us that a complete break with the UK on the part of American colonies was a point of great contention.

It also reminds us, in the words of Benjamin Franklin that all great transformations of peoples are wrought with compromise.

And yes, it reminds us that the nation began was great division over the question of American slavery.

There are many things we love about drama;  the stirring rhetoric; the beautiful connection in love and friendship between John and Abigail Adams. 

Of course, I always look forward to that marvelous scene depicting Richard Henry Lee of Virginia acclaiming Virginia’s resolution on Independence.

For those who have been around All Saint’s Church a while…..you might remember the Rector enacting that scene at a talent show many years ago!

But….for me…the great power of the musical comes at its conclusion.

It is when John Adams……rightly known as the colossus of American Independence……facing a possible defeat of that conviction the following day, shouts into the night: 

“Is Anybody There?  Does Anybody Care?  Does anybody see what I see?”

Standing in the Shadows is Dr. Lyman Hall, delegate of Georgia; who responds, “Yes, Mr. Adams;  I do.” 

And Dr. Hall quotes Edmund Burke, a member of the British parliament, in justification for his decision to support the American—John Adams.

There is much meaning packed into that exchange;  but certainly one “take-away” is this:  no great work for nation, church, family, job, or humanity is ever done alone.

In the words of one perceptive commentary:

 “Maybe we would do well to celebrate our interdependence instead—especially when it comes to our faith.

Sure, we’ve been in Christ, as we certainly know; freed from sin and death; but just as importantly, freed to be in community.

We are freed into life, freed into relationships, and freed into love of God and our neighbor. 

In short, we’re freed into interdependence. 

No longer are we to be lone rangers doing our own thing without regard for others.

Yes, our freedom depends on our interdependence.”

 

In his Letter to the Galatians, Paul writes, “Bear One Another’s Burdens.”  Throughout his letter to the Galatians, Paul has been asking, the question:  “oes Anybody see what I see?”

What does Paul see? 

*One humanity around the table of Christ;  not just one religion; one culture? 

What does Paul see? 

*Love—NOT religious ceremony or ritual as the guiding force of religion; in this he was squarely within the great prophetic tradition of Judaism. 

What does Paul see? 

*Leadership as service;  as compassion; as forgiveness; as mutuality;  not domination; not force;  those who make mistakes; those who sin; those who do wrong;  they are to be reconciled; not punished. 

 

What does Paul see? 

 

*The Christian body caring for one another.

 

And what does Paul see? 

 

*A reconciled humanity; beyond nations; beyond cultures.  Or, a nation, if it is a nation, standing as light and beacon, to other nations—NOT for its own nation’s sake. 

 

For Paul the only nationalism is the human family.

 

We read last week in Paul’s great Letter of Christian Freedom—the Letter to the Galatians…..Christian freedom was about the Freedom to Love, to Serve, to be For others. 

 

True Freedom is the Freedom to Love.

 

Listen to these words:

 

If there is anything in us, it is not our own;  it is a gift from God. 

 

But if it is a gift of God, then it is entirely a debt one owes to love.

 

That is, to the law of Christ.

 

And if it is a debt owed to love, then I must serve others with it, not myself. 

 

Thus, my learning is not my own; it belongs to the unlearned;  and it is the debt I owe them. 

 

My fidelity is not my own; it belongs to those who sin; and I am obligated to serve them by

offering it to God, and for them, by sustaining and excusing them, and thus with my

respectability, veiling their shame before God and humanity.

 

Thus, my wisdom belongs to the foolish; my power to the oppressed; thus my wealth belongs

to the poor, my righteousness to the sinners.

 

It is with all these qualities that we must stand before God and intervene on behalf of those

who do not have them, as clothed with someone else’s garment.

 

But even before humanity, we must in the same love, render them service against their detractors.

And those, who are violent towards them; for this is what Christ did for us.

This is not some political or partisan invocation;  the words are those of Martin Luther!

 

From his Commentary: Paul’s Letter to the Galatians.

In verse 4 of our Offertory Doxology this morning, we will hear the words, “Long May our Land Be Bright, with Freedom’s Holy Light.”

 

IF we want some semblance of Christian perspective on the meaning of Freedom, let us take our cue from the question, “Does Anybody See what I see?”

 

What might we see? 

 

There is another family tradition, that Elly and I share on Independence Day;  to watch the Capital 4th Concert.

 

In keeping with the title, the concert is by the reflecting pool at the Capital Building.

 

The nation’s Capital Building:  a symbol of commitment to representative government.

 

This democratic ideal very much incarnates the values of service and community proclaimed by St. Paul in the name of Jesus.

 

This year, I was particularly struck by all the performers;  especially the cast and characters from Sesame Street.

 

Sesame Street was created to offer American children values of friendship across the boundaries of race, culture, and class. 

 

It was created to break any fears which separated American children from another.

As I watched the diversity of the artists of A Capital 4th;  I thought to John Adams question, “Do you See what I see?”

 

For Adams and all the founders, the new nation they were creating was more than nationalism; much more.

 

It was about a vision of a new humanity; a light to the nations;  of not only freedom as autonomy; but freedom as shared community, human unity, service, and yes, the inclusion of all.

 

The great question facing our church and nation continues to be the question of Paul; the question at the root of our founding as a nation—with its better angels;  Do you See what I see?

 

Do we see—dear friends—as God sees? 

 

Paul makes very clear in his letters….especially in Galatians…..in fidelity to Jesus….the incarnation of God, how God sees.

 

There is not a word in the New Testament—about a vision of the world as the Domination of the Strong over the Weak;  To Win at All Costs.

 

There is not a word about forging an Empire at the expense of weaker nations.

 

There is not a word about of counsel to shut our doors and close our tables to strangers, migrants and asylum seekers who come to us.

 

Not a word!

 

How does God see the world?

 

Look to Jesus!  Look to the Cross; Look to St. Paul.

 

God’s vision of Holy Light is an inclusive, welcoming, multicultural land of forgiveness, unconditional acceptance, and radical love.

 

God’s vision of the world is that of Son’s apostle—St. Paul-- who taught the Church how to live—in community—how God’s son lived:

 

Bearing One another’s Burdens.

 

God bore our burdens; God welcomes us;  God loves us.  God Loves you.

 

That is how God sees the world: Radical Embrace; Racial Love; Radical Welcome.

 

That is what I learned from Sesame Street.

 

Even more so—from the Bible, from Paul, from Jesus….

 

Do we see as God sees?