All Saints' Church
Baptism and Beloved//Feast of Jesus' Baptism//1-10-21//Year B//ASC
Prayer: Thank you, O God of living water, for claiming us as your own forever by water and the Spirit.
Dip, dunk, drench, dampen, drizzle--these are a few of the verbs we associate with Baptism, depending on the faith tradition of our birth, and our own experiences throughout the years when friends and family members were baptized. Probably, most of us were baptized as infants; although some may have experienced the waters of rebirth as a teen or an adult.
There will never be enough sermons, Bible studies, or sacramental preparation classes to fully unwrap and expose the meaning of Baptism. Although this sacrament is grounded in the presence of a steadfast God who claims us as God's own forever, it is a livng, organic, divine gift. What Baptism meant to us ten or twenty years ago will be nuanced differently today when we renew our Baptismal Covenant.
Do we have pictures of our Baptism? Is our certificate of Baptism filed along with other important documents? If we received a candle or a white robe when we were baptized, have we kept it along with other important milestone souvenirs? If we know the date of our Baptism, or when our children were baptized, do we celebrate its anniversary every year? Most importatnly, do we believe that being baptized makes a difference in our lives in terms of shaping our values, setting our priorities, and treating others like we want to be treated?
A writer in the Living Church reflects: "We, the sons and daughters of God, who have emerged from the waters of Baptism, bear in our bodies, minds, and souls the sanctifying presence of Christ. That is why Baptism and the gift of the Holy Spirit often evoke inward and outward responses" (p. 28, Dec. 20, 2020)
An inward response--opening our hearts and minds a little wider to the Spirit's promptings. An outward response--wearing a mask and social distancing--a concrete, outward response to the Golden Rule.
Jesus' Baptism was a pivotal, monumental moment for him. Note the choreography of his Baptism. As Jesus ascends from the water, the heavens are torn apart, and the Spirit descends like a dove upon him. Yet, something else happens, which is the crux of the event. God proclaims, "You are my son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased." WOW! Jesus carries within him this divine reassurance as the Spirit drives him into the wilderness. Emerging from this desolate place 40 days later, recalling God's words, Jesus launches his ministry of teaching, preaching, and healing his way into human hearts.
However, God's reassuring words are not only spoken to Jesus. They are also spoken to us--God's beloved daughters and sons. Do we believe that we are beloved? Or is the state of belovedness for everyone else but me? Does a false sense of humility, the spectre of shame, or the burden of guilt prevent us from living into our birthright? Christ has claimed us as his own forever. How dare we refute his claim!
Artist and poet Jan Richardson, writes: "Beloved...comes holy to the heart aching to be new. Comes healing to the soul wanting to begin again. Beloved...Keep saying it and though it may sound strange at first, watch how it becomes part of you, how it becomes you, as if you never could have known yourself anything else, as if you could ever have been other than this: Beloved" (from The Painted Prayerbook, 2015).
When we renew our Baptismal Covenant in a few minutes, let us focus on the blesed assurance of being God's beloved ones. Let us ask the Spirit to keep churning up within us what the Spirit implanted in our souls when we were dipped, dunked, drenched, dampenend, or drizzled upon!
A Lutheran pastor comments, "We have the assurance through Baptism of being children of God, filled with the Holy Spirit, even when it seems as though everything and everyone is spewing out contrary messages like, you can't do that...don't rock the boat...who do you think you are? But it is important to remember: our Baptism is not what we have done, but what God has done in and through us" (www.crossmarks.com/brian/mark1x4.htm). I would add, what God continues doing in and through us!
I wonder...what would our lives and our world be like if each of us, baptized by water and the Spirit, truly lived into the reality of being God's beloved? If we truly claim our status as God's beloved ones, how would it impact our lives and the lives of those around us? What difference might it make in how we live, what we believe, what we do or what we leave undone? What would it mean to live in the assurance of God's love?
A UMC pastor from Nashville, TN remembers a woman named Fayette who walked into her church one Sunday. Fayette lived with mental illness and lupus and was homeless. She joined the new member class and learned about Baptism. The pastor told the class, "Baptism is a holy moment when we are named by God's grace with such power that it won't come undone." This teaching sparked Fayette's imagination. Along with the pastor, Fayette and the class started a new call and response ritual. Fayette would say, "And when I am baptized, I am..." and the class would finish her sentence, "Beloved, a precious child of God, beautiful to behold."
Finally, the day of Fayette's Baptism arrives. Dunked under the water, Fayette rose sputtering out thewords, "And now I am"... the response reverberated throughout the room..."Beloved, a precious child of God, beautiful to behold." "Oh, yes!" Fayette shouted as she danced around the parish hall.
A few months later, the pastor received a call from the county hospital. Fayette had been brutally assaulted and beaten. As the pastor approached her room, she heard Fayette say, "I am beloved..." When the pastor entered her room, Fayette turned to her and said, "I am a beloved, precious child of God, and..." She stopped mid-sentence and looked at herself in the mirror--hair sticking up, blood and tears streaking her face, clothes, dirty and disheveled. Then she continued, "I am beloved, a precious child of God." Turning around again to face the pastor she declared, "And God is still working on me. If you come back tomorrow, I'll be so beautiful, I'll take your breath away!" (The Painted Prayerbook, Jan Richardson, 2010).
Beloved..."With you I am well pleased," God proclaimed as Jesus rose dripping wet from the water...Beloved..God repeated this message on the Mount of Transfiguration as Jesus was making his way toward Jerusalem...Beloved...you and me, daughters and sons of God claimed forever by water and the Spirit, christened with the name Beloved.
In a time of pandemic, food and financial insecurity for many Americans, and political upheaval, it is more important than ever to affirm God's claim on our lives, and to live into our belovedness--like Fayette did when she looked into that mirror and saw something beyond her tangled hair, bruises, and tears. She saw the blessed assurance of God's claim on her life--an assurance that empowered to say, "I am beloved, a precious child of God, beautiful to behold!"
A sermon preached on the Second Sunday after the Epiphany, the weekend of the National Holiday of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Sunday before the Inauguration of Kamala Harris as the first African-American Woman as Vice President of the United States, January 17, 2021
“Samuel, Samuel, Samuel.”
Listening to Eli: Interpreters of Hope
Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the Lord under Eli; the word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.
Samuel; He is to be the last judge of Ancient Israel before the Monarchy.
He is the last of the old confederation leaders before God’s new life given through the great kings of Israel—Saul, David, Solomon.
He is the end of one story; he is the beginning of another; he will see the destruction of an old way of life; he will initiate a new hope.
But—the word of the Lord was rare; visions were not widespread.
As Samuel was born, the people of Israel are at risk; their faith is tired; the hopes, on hold.
We see corruption and abuse of power throughout the land; we see civil conflict; we see idolatry.
We see what one biblical scholar calls, moral amnesia—the forgetting of God’s covenant of justice, law, and peace.
God’s word, indeed, seems to be silent in times like this.
But………God’s Word is still Heard……..in times like this.
“Samuel, Samuel, Samuel”
Samuel thought he heard his mentor Eli calling.
That’s often how it starts; when God’s word of newness, of a new age; of a new world; is being born.
We hear the Word of God; but we hear it through our mentors….teachers, forebears of promise.
God speaks; but God’s Word begs interpretation; prompts search for meaning.
The story of Samuel is incomplete without interpretation, intervention, and the active imagination of his mentor and teacher—Eli.
We might call Eli—an Interpreter of Hope.
The Word of God calls for interpretation.
The Word from god cries out for clarification, for relevance; for personal impact and direction.
God’s word molded, shaped, emblazoned with personal and collective meaning.
“Samuel, Samuel, Samuel”
In the depression era south, a young Samuel heard the Word of the Lord.
He heard this Word through an Eli-an Interpreter of Hope.
His father, an African-American pastor—was stopped by a white police officer.
The white officer addressed this black pastor with the language of racism-- as “Boy.”
The Pastor was unafraid.
Taking a risk that future African-Americans would avoid at all cost--this pastor opened the car door, stepped out, stood up; and pointed to his young son on the seat behind him.
“That’s a boy; I’m a man; I’m Dr. King; why don’t you come to my church and learn some manners; it might do you some good.”
The father of the boy would be known as Daddy King; Martin Luther King Sr.; he would be the pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta for decades.
He would also eventually become the pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta.
He would, in turn, become an Eli to many younger Samuels of faith and justice; this circle of Samuels includes a gentleman named Raphael, the current pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, GA, newly elected the United States Senate.
He said he would never forget his Father’s example and courage.
But more than that
He later spoke of his own call from God; his own Word from the Lord; his own passion for a new humanity; a new world; and a Beloved Community for all.
All this—he said—was his Word from God---interpreted—forged by his Dad; his Eli.
We celebrate his national holiday on Monday.
We honor his Memorial on the National Mall in Washington DC—directly across from the Jefferson Memorial.
Such as juxtaposition always holds American accountable to biblical truth expressed in our Declaration: All men and women are created Equal.
For the Rev Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. would always consider his Father—an Eli.
His Interpreter of Hope.
But he had another.
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. also described----among his many Eli’s---a little girl as an interpreter of Hope.
Perhaps his foundational interpreters of Hope.
Sisters and brothers----our Eli’s-- are not necessarily older mentors.
They can also be young interpreters of God’s Word.
Martin Luther King described a young child as such an Eli.
He spoke of this child during his final sermon given in Memphis, TN the night before his death on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel:
You know, several years ago, I was in New York City autographing the first book that I had written.
And while sitting there autographing books, a demented black woman came up. The only question I heard from her was, "Are you Martin Luther King?"
And I was looking down writing, and I said yes. And the next minute I felt something beating on my chest.
Before I knew it I had been stabbed by this demented woman. I was rushed to Harlem Hospital.
It was a dark Saturday afternoon. And that blade had gone through, and the X-rays revealed that the tip of the blade was on the edge of my aorta, the main artery.
And once that's punctured, you drown in your own blood—that's the end of you.
It came out in the New York Times the next morning, that if I had sneezed, I would have died.
Well, about four days later, they allowed me, after the operation, after my chest had been opened, and the blade had been taken out, to move around in the wheel chair in the hospital.
They allowed me to read some of the mail that came in, and from all over the states, and the world, kind letters came in.
I read a few, but one of them I will never forget.
I had received one from the President and the Vice-President. I've forgotten what those telegrams said.
I'd received a visit and a letter from the Governor of New York, but I've forgotten what the letter said.
But there was another letter that came from a little girl, a young girl who was a student at the White Plains High School. And I looked at that letter, and I'll never forget it.
It said simply, "Dear Dr. King: I am a ninth-grade student at the White Plains High School."
She said, "While it should not matter, I would like to mention that I am a white girl. I read in the paper of your misfortune, and of your suffering.
And I read that if you had sneezed, you would have died. And I'm simply writing you to say that I'm so happy that you didn't sneeze."
Dr. King would say that this letter from his young Eli would awaken him to the possibility a new world ---of racial reconciliation and genuine humanity.
That little girl was indeed an interpreter of hope.
He would say she was the inspiration for one of the great interpretive texts of American History—a text of American scripture; a speech given at the Lincoln Memorial in August of 1963.
Dr. King would say this little girl helped inspire his dream.
In the late fall of 2001, just have the September 11th Terrorist Attacks, I was giving a children’s homily in a church in Prince George’s County, Maryland, one of the most diverse suburbs in the nation, just outside Washington DC.
The children were all African-American; for, at the time, I was serving an historic black church.
I was speaking about the promise of common humanity in both the bible and the constitution just before Thanksgiving.
A little girl—now a non-profit director and activist for racial justice—raised here hand; “Rev. Brown—I’m not sure that’s true; is it really true that we are all equal? Sometimes, I’m not a believer in Dr. King’s dream; it seems—so far---away.”
On this Wednesday, we will welcome the first African-American woman as our Vice President.
To that little girl, still fighting now, for Dr. King’s Dream—may you always be our Eli; may you always be our Samuel.
May we today—this very day—in a time of crisis, fear, and division—listen to the Eli’s and Samuel’s of this land who both share and receive the voice: “Samuel, Samuel. Samuel”
“Samuel, Samuel, Samuel!” Can we hear the Word today?
As Christians, as Americans—our future—our truth is not the hate and violence we heard at the Capital last week.
But in this Dream from Dr. King—from an Eli—from an Interpreter of Hope—for this very Day!
A sermon preached on the 3rd Sunday of Epiphany, Year B, January 24th, 2021 in All Saints Episcopal Church, Princeton, NJ, by the Rev. Hugh E. Brown, III, D. Min, MSW, LSW, Rector on Mark 1:14-20
“I will make you fish for people.”
Jesus calls his first disciples, according to Mark, with the words, “I will make you fish for people.”
The New Testament scholar, Ched Myers writes that no biblical expression is more misunderstood than these words from our Lord in the Gospel of Mark: “Fishers of Men and Women.” Or, to use the translation from the NRSV this morning, “Fish for People.”
Myers writes that the words, “I will make you Fish for people,” becomes the grand expression of missionary work—and the saving of souls.
While this is a true interpretation, it is far too limited.
We need remember the Old Testament, Jewish, and prophetic meaning the phrase, “Fishing for People.”
For we read in Jeremiah, Chapter 16:
“I am now sending for many fisherman, says the Lord; and they shall catch those who rule my people Israel.
For my eyes are on their ways; they are not hidden from my presence, nor is their inequity and their sin, because they have polluted my land with the carcasses of idols and the abominations of injustice.”
Or, in the words of our Inaugural Poem, written by Amanda Gorman:
To compose a country committed to all cultures, colors, characters and
conditions of man
And so we lift our gazes not to what stands between us
but what stands before us
We close the divide because we know, to put our future first,
we must first put our differences aside
We lay down our arms
so we can reach out our arms
to one another
This past week, the hymn, Amazing Grace moved over this nation as a Bach-like Fugue.
Movement after movement of this great hymn challenged the American people with both healing and prophetic challenge.
The Hymn--Amazing Grace; Written by the Slave Trader John Newton.
Newton demonstrated the genuine meaning of Repentance given by Jesus in Mark.
Repentance is a transformed life; literally, a life turning from one way around to another way.
Newton denounced slave trade and slavery; converted to Christ; and became a pastor; and a voice against Slavery.
Among those he pastored and mentored; the great late 18th and early 19th century English reformer, William Wilberforce.
By decades of work and force of sheer will and courage, Wilberforce brought forth legislation in the British parliament that ended both the slave trade….and Slavery.
We recently shared The film of the same title in our Virtual Coffee Hour.
The film, Amazing Grace, brings to life the passion, the Jeremiah like prophetic work of William Wilberforce.
The film also evokes the relationship between John Newton, repented former slave trader……and now Christian pastor…..and his disciple, William Wilberforce.
In a dramatic encounter between the two men—John Newton challenges Wilberforce with all the prophetic passion of the words, “Follow Me—and I will make you fish for people:
“I am haunted each day by 20,000 ghosts; beautiful, African Names. We called them with grunts and noises; we were the apes; they were the humans.
Wilber—destroy their stinking ships; blow them out of the water; I can’t help you now; but do it; you can do it.”
And then Newton tells Wilberforce, “I remember two things clearly; I’m a great sinner; and Christ is a great savior.”
And, now nearly sightless, Newton declares, “I once was blind, but now I see. I wrote that didn’t it? Now it is true.”
Grief, loss; suffering; owned and embraced.
We will never know why Simon, Andrew, James and John, left everything to follow Jesus.
But we know what happened to them.
What happens to all who choose to follow—Jesus.
To use the words of our Inaugural Poem and Amanda Gorman.
We will not be turned around
or interrupted by intimidation
because we know our inaction and inertia
will be the inheritance of the next generation
Our blunders become their burdens
But one thing is certain:
If we merge mercy with might,
and might with right,
then love becomes our legacy
and change our children's birthright
Later in Mark, the disciples will all forsake Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane; and flee.
And Christ, will forgive and save.
For I am a great sinner; and Christ is a Great Savior.
Last Monday, Dr. King’s national Holiday—was also a Holy Day in the Episcopal Church calendar: The Confession of St. Peter.
Yes, Simon, to be called Peter…..Fisher of men and women.
What would his primary confession be?
Was that confession really when he called Jesus…..Messiah? Not knowing what he meant.
But was Simon Peter’s true confession……the time he truly confessed?
In the temple courtyard? And then truly repented!
Peter became a leader of a suffering church for a suffering and crucified savior; learned the meaning of grief and suffering and pain.
Peter’s true confession like Newton’s: I’m a great sinner; Christ is a great savior.
Tomorrow is another Holy Day in the Church; the Conversion, the Repentance of St. Paul.
Paul---murderer of the early Church when Saul; murder, blind eye turned to the murder of the apostle Stephen.
Paul, he himself admitting, the least of the Apostles. Because he persecuted the Church of Christ.
Paul’s true conversion on the road to Damascus: I’m a great sinner; Christ is a great savior.
The week in between last Monday and tomorrow, between the Confession of Peter and the Conversion of Paul—is significant for the Church.
It is the Week of Christian Unity.
Yes, the language of Unity was over Church and Nation this week. We heard much conversation this past week—about Unity; about Healing; About Coming Together.
Unity. Not cheap Grace; Not avoidance of conflict; Not Temples of the Lord.
In the words of a Hymn; Amazing Grace; from the Reflecting Pool at the Lincoln Memorial; to the Capitol Steps.
In grief, suffering, repentance.
The hymn, Amazing Grace lighted the fires of real unity…authentic healing…..this past week.
By the Lincoln Memorial reflecting pool this past Tuesday night.
Surrounded by 400,000 ghosts.
And 400 candles.
A nation finally—perhaps breaking Royal Consciousness; ending numbness.
Numbness; 30,000, 100,000, 200,000, 250,000, 400,000. All lost.
Numbness, 1,000 per day, 2,000 per day, 3,000 per day, 4,000 per day, lost.
Finally, a ritual of grief.
In the homes of our parish; and in our sanctuary too.
400 lighted candles at the Lincoln Memorial—where Dr, King spoke words of healing and unity—this past Tuesday night, January 19.
In the spirit of Newton, Wilberforce, Simon Peter, and St. Paul, we can all cry as a nation—we Are sinners, Christ is a great savior.
Yes, social sin; all of us.
All the hospitals; all the ER’s.
But not only there.
All the homes with no access to good medical care.
All the homes surrounded by emotional, physical and sexual violence.
All the homes where so many go forth to food banks.
All the homes where essential workers can no longer say home.
All the homes, threatened by fear, where fear destroys with a gun from a law officer whose job it is to protect and serve—all.
All the homes, so filled with despair—that it would summon journeys to the nation’s capitol and provoke treason, destruction, anger, hatred-and death-the worst.
All the ghosts.
And then…..Amazing Grace.
I once was lost; but now am found.
Through many dangers, toils and snares.
And we wept; like Peter in the courtyard; like Paul when the scales fell.
As a nation, we had not grieved or wept for almost a year-at the loss of 400,000.
And the loss of so much; the loss of George; of Brianna.
The loss at Mother Emmanuel Church in Charleston years ago—when another President sang, Amazing Grace.
But last Tuesday night.
We were not numb.
We repented, perhaps with the words, I’m a great sinner; Christ is a great savior.
Lori Marie Key offered her voice at the Lincoln Memorial.
The voice of a nurse; the voice singing a hymn for her fellow nurses as the tended to, mourned the loss of, and stood in solidarity with the 400,000 ghosts.
Just before she sang it—she said:
“I’m signing for the families who have lost their loved ones to COVID.
You know, I’m singing so they knew—even thought that was a hard time and may still be a hard time—God’s grace is sufficient.
Let’s try, tonight, to build people’s spirit.”
Yes, all will be O.K.; All will be well. Lady Julian or Norwich said as much—during a 14th century Pandemic. All Manner of Things Will be Well….
But…..All Will be Well…..When………
We become true and real Fishers of People.
When …….we live with passion; compassion; and mourn; and grief; and be real.
When we embrace the suffering of our sisters and brothers.
When face our own suffering and pain for the sake of others.
When we know the words of John Newton: I am a great sinner; but Christ is the greater savior.
When we dare sing, Amazing Grace.
As Amanda Gorman shared in verse on Inauguration day in her poem:
Let the globe, if nothing else, say this is true:
That even as we grieved, we grew
That even as we hurt, we hoped
That even as we tired, we tried
That we'll forever be tied together, victorious
Not because we will never again know defeat
but because we will never again sow division
For there is always light,
if only we're brave enough to see it
If only we're brave enough to be it
The Disobedient Magi
All Saints Episcopal Church, Epiphany 2021
In a New York Times op-ed entitled, “A Crisis Reveals What Is in Our Hearts”, Pope Francis recounts a time, when he was 21, when he was deathly ill; so ill he was bedridden in a hospital. He tells of a nurse, Sister Cornelia, who saved his life. But not because she did what she was told. When he was admitted to the hospital, a doctor examined him and prescribed two medications to treat him. But when the doctor left, Sister Cornelia doubled the dose of the medication, knowing that the young Pope-to-be was on the verge of dying. In reflection of her actions, Pope Francis says, “Because of her regular contact with sick people, she understood better than the doctor what they needed, and she had the courage to act on her knowledge.”
Obedience is thought to be a virtue, often one of the highest virtues. It strikes me that obedience is not the central act in the story of the Magi; disobedience is. When the Magi approach King Herod, they are given a directive by him- "Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage." The Magi leave, follow this astounding star, and finally find this child in his mother’s arms. But on their way back, they do something unexpected. They encounter a message, in a dream, of Herod’s intentions. And so, in simple nonchalance, they return to their home country by a new route.
What makes the disobedience of the Magi good? I think the answer to this question is simple. Their disobedience saved Jesus’ life. It would’ve been easier, and maybe even advantageous for them to obey this murderous leader. I mean, it’s never a bad thing to have a king think well of you, or to feel in your debt. Their disobedience might have even cost them; I’m guessing they didn’t travel back to Judea until this King Herod had died, if they returned at all. We can see the terror that King Herod’s emotions can wreak on Jerusalem earlier in this passage, as he throws Jerusalem into terror with his own fear. Vindictive political leaders often have this effect on people. We will find, in just a few verses, that this fear is justified when the King realizes that he has been tricked by the Magi, and orders a massacre of young children.
The story of the Magi reminds me of another story in the Old Testament about the birth of an important man in the salvation history of Israel, Moses. The king of Egypt, Pharaoh, was afraid of how numerous his slaves, the Israelites, had become. So, he ordered the two Hebrew midwives, Shiprah and Puah, to kill all the baby boys they take part in delivering. Instead of choosing to be obedient to the powers of death, Shiprah and Puah disobey their king; lying to his face. Civil disobedience to political powers that kill seems to be a recurring theme in the salvation history of Israel; Jesus will fulfill this role of disobedience to death at a cosmic level by foiling the power of death itself. Resurrection, the power of new creation, becomes the ultimate act of disobedience against the powers of death and all those who wield them. Faithfulness to God is disobedience to the powers of death.
Sister Cornelia, the wise nurse of the young Pope, seems to be tuned into a larger cosmic truth; one that people who are in healing professions often are. Life is more important than obedience. Healing is more important than submission. That doctor, I’m guessing, was not as violent as King Herod and Exodus’ Pharaoh, but death finds its power in both negligence as well as intentional acts. We can see, so starkly, in the world around how inaction brings the same consequences. We have 346,000 deaths, at least, in America to prove that.
As this new year begins, there is only one thing I can think of that every single person I know needs; healing. We need healing in about every way imaginable. But I am not a nurse, so I cannot aid in the physical healing that needs to take place. But what I do know is that there is no such thing as a single kind of healing; A physical wound affects our spiritual, as well as political wellness also. If a political wound is healed, it impacts the physical and spiritual realms where that harm had manifested. Even if we cannot work as nurses do in hospitals, ICUs, and long-term care facilities, maybe we can find another way to bring about life.
When I think of who the spiritual nurses around us might be, my first thought is of clergy and chaplains. Like with nurses, we might be tempted to say that this too is out of our reach. But then I am reminded of the call for all Christians to be priests. Just as Father Hugh, Mother Elly, Father Karl and Mother Joan bring us the healing and life-giving body of Christ in the Eucharist and in prayer, we are also called to bring Christ into the world around us; to be God’s Priest-People in a world that is dying for disobedience to death. But this is not an easy call to take, certainly not in a time like ours where fear and trauma reign supreme. It is not a call we can take up out of entitlement, or because we want power over someone else.
What do you think it takes to be spiritual nurses, to be a Priest-People in a traumatized world? First, we must follow the example of the Magi, Shiprah, Puah, and Jesus and renounce our allegiances to the powers of death and all who wield them. Sometimes that is the power of systems, like white supremacy, homophobia, ableism or transphobia, that has the ultimate goal of the death of people. Often, these powers of death work through people, such as Herod or Pharaoh. The policies and actions of the Herods and Pharoahs today still bring death. But these ploys only succeed because others join in, or let it happen around them.
It also means we must learn to be brave at the sight of spiritual pain. Can you imagine a nurse who fainted at the sight of blood? It is the same as when Priest-People cower at the first sight of spiritual pain. Just as Sister Cornelia’s regular contact with the sick gave her the wisdom and bravery to act to bring life instead of death, so will the Priest-People need to be familiar with the spiritually sick so that we might know how to bring life and healing. Our tools would not be heart monitors and pharmaceuticals, but prayer and compassion.
Maybe this sounds unrealistic to you. We all carry our own spiritual suffering at one point or another, and the task of helping to heal might sound like a pipe-dream. However, we do not heal by our own power or skill, but through the power of the Holy Spirit. Maybe we don’t feel skilled enough to do anything that we feel comfortable calling “healing”, but there are life-bringing things we can do. We can listen to the stories and frustrations of people who are suffering, without trying to fix them or prove our wisdom with unsolicited advice. When we are faced with anger, in ourselves or others, we can lean into curiosity about what spiritual wounds might be causing such a reaction. And maybe the simplest and hardest of everything, we can pray. Maybe the kind of praying where we ask for things from God, but maybe also the kind of praying where we can listen to what God is saying. There is one person who knows exactly what it is like to face death head on, whose cosmic disobedience changed everything, and he is ready for us to join in.
HOMILY FOR THE FEAST
HOLY NAME OF JESUS
Rev. Karl F. Morrison
All Saints’ Church
Princeton, New Jersey
Early in the morning these days, when I wake up, I have been much taken by the moon–very large, and bright as a search-light, colorless and clear. Last week, I saw it right on the horizon. This morning it was as high as it could get in the night sky. For as long as there have been sky-watchers, people have been fascinated by the moon–especially by the difference between its constant changefulness, by its movement through phases from dark to full and back again, and its vagrancy across the sky. By contrast with the sun, which is always full and has a steady path, the moon’s vagrancy has been read as an omen of things to come, a preview of life’s game of luck, possibly of catastrophe. The December lunar manifestation is called, quite naturally, the Cold Moon. Shakespeare contrasted the “cold, fruitless moon” chanted to by cloistered nuns with life-affirming, sweet perfumes distilled from vivacious women.
There is a connection with the Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus in the changefulness of the moon, and it begins in the familiar hymn, “How sweet the Name of Jesus sounds/
In a believer’s ear!/ It soothes his sorrow, heals his wounds,/And drives away his fear./It makes the wounded spirit whole,/And calms the troubled breast./’Tis manna to the hungry soul,/And to the weary rest./,,,/Weak is the effort of our heart,/And cold our warmest thought,/But when we see Thee as Thou art,/We’ll praise Thee as we ought...?/Till then we would Thy love proclaim/With every fleeting breath,/And triumph in that blessed Name/Which quells the pow’r of death.”
This hymn was written in 1779, by John Newton (1725-1807), the author of that far more famous, and frequently sung, hymn, “Amazing Grace” (1772), published in the same collection as “How sweet the name of Jesus.” As it happens, Newton wrote another hymn about the moon, describing his own spiritual changefulness (“On the Eclipse of the Moon,” 30. July, 1776). This hymn remained unpublished and, apparently unsung, during Newton’s life. “The moon in silver glory shone,/And not a cloud in sight,/When suddenly a shade begun/To intercept her light./How fast her light withdrew!/A Circle tinged with languid red,/Was all appeared in view./...Assist me, Lord, that I ma try/Instruction to obtain./...How punctually eclipses move,/Obedient to thy will!/Thus shall thy faithfulness and love/Thy promises fulfill./Dark, like the moon without the sun,/I mourn thine absence, Lord!/For light or comfort have I none/But what thy beams afford./But, lo! The hour draws near apace/When changes shall be o’er;/Then I shall see thee face to face,/And be eclipsed no more.”
In this homily, I wanted to suggest to you that the Feast of the Holy Name has experienced a changefulness in mind and heart–that is in the collective consciousness, self-knowledge, and motivation, something quite like an eclipse of the moon. It used to be among the greatest feasts in the whole year. It was the only sequel from Christmas, the point on the tree from which all the major feasts of the Church year following the Nativity itself branched out. For, since circumcision was part of the naming of male children according to the Law, the slight bloodshed in his circumcision was thought to give proof absolute of Jesus’s humanity, just as other events in His conception, gestation, and nativity were thought to certify his divine nature. The witness of the Magi certified Jesus’s divine mission to all humanity, all flesh, Gentiles as well as Jews.
During the Church year, the early Christians absorbed Christ’s story through reliving it in liturgy. In their collective worship experience, the Feast of the Holy Name was, the point at which all the strands of Christian narrative began to diversify and spin out into Epiphany, Passiontide, Easter, and Ascension. Indeed, the eclipse of the Holy Name at the beginning of this unfolding narrative is analogous to the eclipse of the feast of the Ascension, also once among the greatest and now among the most ignored.
If we have silently laid them aside because we have no need of them, could the reason also be why exorcism too has fallen our of the Order for Baptism, except for a quick renunciation of the Devil and all his works? Have we no longer any dread of devils and the demonic?
There is another analogy between the eclipse of the moon and John Newton’s hymns. He wrote of it in the hymn on the moon’s eclipse, in the heart-rending last stanza. There, he came out with what inspired, or compelled him, to write about what he saw of himself when the unclouded silver glory of the moon suddenly plunged into pitch darkness, with only the profile of the moon outlined by a thin blood-red circle. He was writing about his own mental changefulness oscillating between bright, cloudless, sunny moods suddenly falling into the agony of dark nights of the soul, grief-stricken by a sense of abandonment. Had God forsaken him, or had he forsaken God? The terrible memory of those eclipses remained after change of phases moved on.
John Newton, the author of “How Sweet the Name of Jesus Sounds,” was a priest when he wrote his hymns, but, for much of his adult life he had been a roustabout and a slave trader. In the many twists and turns of his life he reverted occasionally to the devices and desires of his slaving, and the dreams. He had all-too-vivid flashbacks, familiar now as post-traumatic stress disorder. In some, he could relive episodes when he worked hard to dissuade other men whose fellow slavers were tempted to abandon their work on Gospel reasoning. In memory as in real life, he cajoled and urged them to lay aside their religious scruples. He found those moments especially anxious and abundant in a guilty man’s hopeless self-condemnation. But Newton’s repentance for his career in slavery came gradually, over rather a long space of time, as his life, and career as a priest moved through stages.
It did not come with what he first considered his conversion to Christ (1748), nor nearly twenty years later (1764) when he took Holy Orders. His great “Amazing Grace,” with its sharp remembrance of times when he spiritually blind, and when he went through traumas of many toils and troubles, was written sixteen years before he repudiated his career in the slave trade (1788). His deeply personal hymn comparing the darkness of spirit, depression, into which he at times suddenly fell, with the moon’s eclipse amidst its changeable phases, came twelve years before his decisive act of remorse, the pamphlet, Thoughts upon the African Slave Trade.” This short memoir became a classic in Abolitionist literature and a major document in Wilberforce’s staunchly resisted campaign for the abolition of slavery in Great Britain. That booklet appeared forty years after his personal conversion to Christ.
Late in life, Newton realized his blindness to opposition between the Christ of Scripture and the Christianity of the Established Church to whose obedience he had bound himself. Then, suffered and compounded his conscientious trauma of guilt.
Without the guilt, Frederick Douglass, having escaped slavery himself, and been called to the ministry of the African Methodist Church, saw and pilloried the opposition between Christianity of Christ in the Gospel and the “hypocritical Christianity “ in his homeland (1848). He escaped the conscientious trauma of guilt, but not the trauma of a slave. His religious pilgrimage and inner struggles were of a kind quite different from Newton’s. The struggle between Christ in the Gospel and the Christianities in civil society continues in various phases both in the United Kingdom and in the United States.
In a curious way, the story of the eclipse of the Feast of the Holy Name leads to other slave-holders and traders, the Society of Jesus, housed in Georgetown University, and in their acts of repentance and reparation for those dealings (2019). Indeed, the staggering magnificence of the Jesuit home church, Il Gesu, including its opulent displays of silver and gold, owed much to the bondage of native populations in Spanish colonies of the New World.
In the adult forums, we have thought about other moments when communities judged their own consciences themselves, in the movement of reform proclaimed and advanced by Pope John XXIII as “bringing the Church up to date” (aggiornamento), and other movements of conscience associated with the Worker Priests and Liberation Theology. (Elliot Van Hove framed these discussions.)
Any change of conscience under its own judgment, like John Newton’s, or reform, like the churches’ careers in the history of slavery, raises the question of crisis and eclipse in the process of change, whether through humanity’s abandonment of God, or of God’ s abandonment of humanity. It would be possible to trace still other moments in this eclipse by the unfamiliar and generally unprecedented acts of corporate remorse enacted for the Church as the “penitent Magdalene,” such as the apologies of popes and others to the Jews of Rome, the victims of sexual abuse by clerics, prelates, and convents of nuns. Indeed, the mid-twentieth century began a continuing movement that centered on a phenomenon that Edward Gibbon called “Christianity’s poisoned chalice,” an ambivalent, changeful nature that could inspire or kill. It was aptly symbolised by a chalice and serpent, an emblem of St. John the Apostle, and, for that matter, of pharmacists and the Guild of Pastoral Psychology.
The feast of the Holy Name, established in the Episcopal Church in 1959, had a glorious, but not altogether smooth, origin. The problem was its twinning with the Circumcision in the narrative of the Nativity of Christ. The risk was jeopardizing everything that turned on believing that all humanity was one flesh, a principle that social discriminations and norms cancelled out.
Thus, the entire account of Christ’s conception, gestation, birth, and family situation entailed re-appraisal in the light of modern experience, scientific advances, and societal controversies over physical aspects of the reproductive process, and, as it happens, over racism, not least interracial marriage. Scientific advances advancing the one-flesh theory were not the least of the counters that put the Feast of the Holy Name and its one-flesh humanity in the middle of a game against historical discriminations for which it was entirely unsuited. The conflict, one continuing crisis in self-recognition, slightly transmuted through time, is still burningly alive.
In the process, there have been many changes regarding the human body, not only in genetics, but in other once-essential articles of faith such as the resurrection of the dead.
But I believe it is still true that the more we know the more we become aware of the infinity beyond the limits of our knowledge, and the absolutely essential rule of loving one another.
A sermon preached by the Rev. Hugh E. Brown, III, D. Min, MSW, LSW, Rector, All Saints Parish, Princeton, NJ in the Online Liturgy for December 27th, 2020, the First Sunday After Christmas Day
“The Word Become Flesh”
The Vulnerable Baby as God’s Answer to Human Horror
Many put up Christmas decorations early this year.
A spiritual write shares this experience:
“My cousin in Dallas put the lights up on her family’s house on October 7th. They are a bulwark against the gloom, whether it’s the shorter days, the chaos of the news, or the loneliness of ongoing social distancing. This year, decorations feel like an act of resistance.”
Before the Light, there is Darkness.
In John’s Gospel we read, “The Light shines in the Darkness.”
A friend of mine shared a piece in the New Yorker entitled, Why I Read King Lear each Advent. Mark Labberton, of Fuller Theological Seminary writes:
“Revisiting Shakespeare’s dark exploration of the dissolution of family, friendship, personality, and nation has become part of my annual rhythm.”
Why as I Christian do I read this?
“Because seeing the darkness is as crucial as seeing the light.”
He continues, “Lear’s lens on the human being has been ground in such a way as to make it possible to see our troubles acutely, undistracted by hope.”
“Reading the play each Advent exposes my raw, ongoing questions and perplexities.”
“It also prepares me for the quiet shock of a vulnerable baby as God’s answer to human horror.”
The last line gets my attention.
Not so much the reminder of darkness. Especially this year—thankfully coming to a close.
Rather--Advent and Christmas remind us of something even more true, deep, assuring, consoling, and empowering.
“The Vulnerable Baby as God’s answer to human horror.”
Do we ever stop to imagine the implications of this truth?
The vulnerable baby as God’s answer to human horror?
Do we think about the ramifications of God’s Word in the Beginning?
That God’ Word IS the Vulnerable Baby in the Stable?
That this Vulnerable Baby—God’s Word—Is the Beginning…and The End?
That this WORD, This Child in the Stable reveals the human core and essence?
That the Universe, our Humanity, is of God’s essence—Light, Love, All-Inclusive; All Good?
Oh no—not original darkness; nor original sin—is our humanity?
No our humanity is not original sin.
It is original blessing; original love; original Light.
Yes, decorations are an act of resistance indeed.
Because my friends—when we create beautify in the face of ugliness---this creative imagination takes us back to…..our true, spiritual, center, essence….our and divine core…. in human…..church….world….and universe.
Henri Nouwen writes this of the mystery of the Incarnation—the vulnerable baby as the answer to human horror:
“Where is God?
God is where we are weak, vulnerable, small and dependent. God is where the poor are, the hungry, the handicapped, the mentally ill, the elderly, the powerless,
How can we come to know God when we our focus is elsewhere, on success, influence, and power?
I increasingly believe that our faithfulness will depend on our willingness to go where there is brokenness, loneliness, and human need…
I realize that the only way for us to stay well in the midst of the may “worlds” is to stay close to the small, vulnerable, child that lives in our hearts and in every human being.”
Often, we do not realize that the Christ child is in us; when we discover him, we can truly rejoice.”
My friends, within the Darkness of these days…..
………let us be reminded…..of the Christ child within.
Let us celebrate the truth that the vulnerable child is the answer to human horror.
Let us rejoice that this Christ child is also within us!
Let us contemplate this on the Sunday after Christmas.
The Christ Child within us—the devotion of health care workers…the hands held in death
The Christ Child with us--the Face-time with loved ones….the kind words exchanged before entry into eternal life.
The Christ Child within us--our friendships, our families, and community at All Saints Church.
The Christ Child with us--made public in social protest and acts of resistance through the Black Lives Matter movement.
The Christ Child with us—as all those devoted elections officials who actually created----contrary to lies, deceit and misinformation--one of the most secure, representative, and participatory elections in American history.
The Christ Child--within the hearts of those prophets who call us to account for racial, cultural, and economic injustices.
The Christ Child—within all who offer us the vision of a world reborn and renewed beyond this pandemic.
The Christ Child—within--not only in communities of faith--but in the wider arena of history and humanity.
For indeed the Word became Flesh and dwelt among us.
In all humanity.
All humanity; even as revealed…as Karl Barth knew so well….. in the Newspaper.
Noted in the Trenton Times--several weeks--is the following Story.
Teaching can be a thankless job at times, but one group of students from the College of New Jersey recently found the perfect way to express their gratitude to their professor.
Earlier this month, Adam Shrager logged onto Zoom to teach his statistics class and was surprised to see that all of his students had turned off the video function.
"Usually, in this class, solidly 90% of the students keep their cameras on the entire class.
Sometimes they even send me a note apologizing that they will keep their camera off during a particular class for one reason or another," the 54-year-old told TODAY.
"Logging in and seeing no faces at all was very strange. All I could think was that my internet was slow or something.
Or, even that the Zoom platform not working at all!
This was the last class before the final exam.
Shrager works as a high school teacher by day.
He was concerned that he and his students would end the semester on the wrong note.
Suddenly, though, the adjunct professor's students began to turn their cameras on in unison.
Each of them was holding up a unique sign that thanked him for his dedication to his craft.
"As their cameras clicked on, and I started reading the signs, I was overcome and truly moved. Even a bit teary. It was incredible and sweet," Shrager recalled.
Some signs simply read "Thank you" and others featured creative statistics references like "You are in the 99th percentile of my all-time favorite professors."
One of Shrager's students captured the heartwarming moment on camera and shared it on TikTok, unbeknownst to him.
The post quickly went viral and has since been viewed 5.7 million times.
The next morning, Shrager received an email from one of his high school students informing him that he was going viral,
"The fact that they did this for me is something I will never forget.
"As soon as I entered and saw everyone with their cameras off, I knew the moment was going to be beautiful!”, wrote one of Shrager’s students.
Yes, perhaps that author of Shakespeare in Advent named the truth:
We need to know the Darkness before the Light.
We need the Camera’s off before the Beauty.
But we also need to know this
Light is stronger than darkness; overcomes the Darkness.
The Light is within you and me; it is stronger than sin; stronger than evil; stronger than death.………
Yes, the Christ Child is within you; within me; always available to enlighten our path; to resist in beauty; to overcome oppression through vulnerability.
For, when the camara is turned off…..when things are dark….we can know…
any moment can be beautiful….
…any moment can be a possibility of gratitude.
…any darkness can always be the Prelude—to the Art of Love.
A sermon preached on Christmas Day, within the online Liturgy of All Saints Parish, during the Great Pandemic of 2020, by the Rev. Hugh E. Brown, III, D. Min, MSW, LSW, Rector
“She gave Birth…”
“I’m not going away.”
You might remember the protest movement and renewed hope for racial justice in aftermath of the death of George Floyd, Brianna Taylor.
One thing we might not remember; the presence of our churches and clergy, often in protest areas.
These Christian folk and congregations not only were part of the protests—in the spirit of Jesus of Nazareth who proclaimed Good News to the Poor and Freedom to the Oppressed.
But these persons of faith often sought to mitigate the anger and vengeance which can be the darker side of protest movements and justice work.
We offer thanksgiving that the overwhelming number of protests were peaceful
But not all were—peaceful.
Persons of faith tried to live out the words of Cornell West that “Justice is what Love Looks Like in Public.”
They protected businesses when looting—even if rare—happened.
They provided services, food, supplies—and encouragement to all sides; church folk tried to bring folks together.
They spoke out for non-violent resistance.
And, yes, communities listened.
Former Archbishop of Canterbury and profound Spiritual writer, Rowan Williams one wrote of his experience in working with so-called “Child Soldiers” in the Congo in the mid-1990s.
They had been brought out of the bush, pried out of the grip of militias.
But something miraculous happened.
At twenty-one or twenty two—some were completing their secondary school work.
All had been assured of a safe place to live if they managed to get away form the militias.
Many had been reunited with their families.
They had advocates and helpers in their communities.
How had this happened?
They had one answer—the Church had not given up on them.
At great risk, writes Archbishop Williams, members of local Christian communities had kept contact with them, sometimes literally gone in search of them, helped them escape, and organized a return to civilian life.
The message: They did not give up on us.
My experience with inpatient substance abuse treatment confirms this truth.
So many patients “make it” into recovery because of someone—or some community—who did not give up on them.
What is the message of Christmas—according to Archbishop Williams?
God told us that he/she was not going to give up on us.
The miracle of Christmas?
It is not necessarily the supernatural—from virgin births, to stars, to magi.
It is not necessarily the sentimental adoration of a baby in the stable.
No—it is the amazing work of God in entering our full human situation—from vulnerable child, to at risk family, to refugee parents, to homelessness, to forced travel imperial oppression to unjust taxation, to the murder of the innocent.
It is the work of God in become fully human within the pain and suffering of human life—from the the unjust killing of marginalized and stigmatized persons from communities of color—to the homelessness and murder of those living with mental illness.
The miracle of Christmas is the miracle of the Incarnation—God with us—Emmanuel.
As Rowan Williams writes:
“I’m not going to go away” is one of the most important things we can ever hear—whether we hear it from someone at our besides in illness; or over a shared meal in a time of depression; or at a moment when se wonder what’s happening to our neighborhood or society.
This is the heart of what Christians say about God.
And it’s the real justification for any local church or any national church being there.
When folks are pushed by all sorts of destructive forces into seeing themselves as hopeless, as rubbish, so that what they do doesn’t matter anymore, it’s this that will make the change that matters.”
“I’m not giving up.”
“I’m not going away.”
Don’t you know?
Mary might have felt that way—in the stable—in the manger—when her child was at risk.
O yes, the Angel had told her that God had chosen her for this.
But I am sure she never bargained for a forced journey during imperial oppression; to giving birth under almost impossible circumstances without proper care and in a place apart.
The Angels appeared, yes to the Shepherds.
But my guess is that they also appeared to Mary; that Gabriel was there again.
Don’t you know? Didn’t you know?
God is not going to leave you?
So many have known that over these past few months?
Amidst success but especially failure.
For there are so many who never cease believing in the possibility of change.
From the streets of Minneapolis, to the streets of Kenosha, to the streets of NY and Washington.
Is that not the true miracle?
Of the Angels?
Never giving up on impossible possibilities and the promise that “nothing is very impossible with God.”
I hope, as we speak, those in the mangers and stables of human existence—wherever they may be—can hear the words, “I’m not giving up; I’m not going away.”
I hope-if you need to hear these words this morning-you will hear them.
For Mary needed to hear them.
Needed a reminder of the music of the Angels in that stable!
May we all know our Divine nature amidst the all too human sufferings of life.
May others know this—because of you—and your word, however conveyed:
“I’m not going away!”
A sermon preached on Christmas Eve, within the Online Service of All Saints Episcopal Church, Princeton, NJ, during the Great Pandemic of 2020, by the Rev. Hugh E. Brown, III, D. Min, MSW, LSW, Rector.
“….And she laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the Inn…”
Some Sleepy Beast Who…Warmed Me the Best It Could All Night
It is the Glad Season.
Hope is born again in the faces of children.
It rides on the shoulders of our aged as they walk into their sunsets.
Hope spreads around the earth. Brightening all things,
Even hate which crouches breeding in dark corridors.
In our joy, we think we hear a whisper.
At first, it is too soft. Then only half heart.
We listen carefully as it gathers strength.
We hear a sweetness.
The word is Peace.
It is loud now.
Louder than the explosion of bombs.
These words were written by the poet Maya Angelou.
In evoking the paradox of peace as authentic power, the poet offers witness to what another poet describes as The Mood of Christmas.
This Christmas Mood widens the paradox of peace into the grandeur of what we Christians celebrate tonight: the meaning of the Incarnation.
Incarnation; God with us; Emmanuel; God as fully human.
Authentic divinity as humanity.
Through the Incarnation, we learn what is most human is also most divine.
We learn, this night, this Christmastide—the nature of God; the work of God.
What do we learn?
God lives; God is born—everywhere.
But we see God’s birth especially in what we the powers of this earth consider no power at all.
Born in imperial decrees of oppression and surveillance.
Born in places apart.
Born where there is no room.
Born where there are stables; and mangers.
Born where there is risk.
Born where evil threatens Holy Innocent.
Born where stars lead those deemed outsiders to the most sacred chambers of the Holy; where the Holy is simple, pure, and good.
God is born in vulnerability; an infant.
Born in an infant soon to be a refugee.
Born in a child soon to be raised amidst resistance, repression, and bloodshed.
Born in a Galilee area known for its Zealots and its Jewish Lives Matter.
And, God is born in stillness; tenderness;
Often, over this past difficult year, in answer to the question, “Where is God?”…
……..I have found myself drawn again and again to the promise of the Incarnation.
Where is God? This very night?
In the new stables of health care centers.
In the new mangers of ICU beds
Where is God? This very night?
In stables of the Rescue Missions and the Salvation Army Recovery Centers.
In the mangers of the beds of psychiatric hospitals.
Where is God? This very night?
In the stables of homes where folks are struggling for their next meal.
In the mangers where children of the almost 8 million families fallen into poverty—are being born.
Where is God this night?
In the Mangers—where—this very night—Children receive comfort.
In the Mangers of St. Jude’s, of Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia; of Children’s Hospital in Washington DC.
Or a Child—in a manger—in a bed at Penn Medicine—tonight.
And where is God this night?
Also—in the Cry of a Donkey.
For God’s incarnation includes all creation.
Were there animals in the manger with the Holy Child?
Did they comfort him?
The donkey is the animal most commonly seen in the Nativity.
Many scholars believe Mary rode to Bethlehem on a donkey, and, as a result, many artistic representations show Joseph leading Mary into town as she rides on the back of a donkey.
Donkeys were a common mode of transportation for the poor in biblical times.
I value our Christmas Drama included in our Christmas Eve service from this past year.
We continue to thank Pastor Maddy Patterson for her imaginative leadership of our Christmas Drama year after year!
But, this year in person--I miss one of the true stars of the show—our Dazzle—the Donkey from Von Thune farms.
Dazzle has been visiting our parish for Christmas eve for the past fourteen years/
I will never forget my niece, Abbigail—now in her early twenties—leading Dazzle into the Sanctuary when Abbey and her family were able to stay with us in Princeton during our very first Christmas here.
Dazzle is always part of the choir when she comes; the best call and response congregation a preacher can know.
But also—my dear friends, in Dazzle, I observed Incarnation.
Her eyes conveyed the sweetness, tenderness, mercy, compassion, child-like vulnerability.
When I saw Dazzle-that beautiful animal—and her loving eyes—I thought of what might be possible.
In a stable; in a manger; when an animal comforts a child.
For, tonight, God is comforting, singing—to the children of the world.
Even to the children of parents and grandparents in the COVID wards tonight; and in the ICU’s struggling for breath.
This year especially, I think of a poem by Mary Oliver.
Entitled Christmas Poem, the verse imagines God in all creation; and offers a vision of compassion and tenderness.
Says a country legend told every year:
Go to the barn on Christmas Eve and see
what the creatures do as that long night tips over.
Down on their knees they will go, the fire
Of an old memory whistling through their minds!
I went. Wrapped to my eyes against the cold
I creaked back the barn door and peered in.
From town the church bells spilled their midnight
and the beasts listened—
yet they lay in their stalls like stone.
Oh the heretics!
Not to remember Bethlehem,
or the star as bright as the sun,
or the child born on a bed of straw!
To know only of the dissolving Now!
Still they drowsed on-----
Citizens of the pure, the physical world,
they loomed in the dark: powerful
of body, peaceful of mind,
innocent of history.
Brothers! I whispered. It is Christmas!
And you are no heretics, but a miracle,
Immaculate still as when you thundered forth
on the morning of creation!
As for Bethlehem, that blazing star
still sailed the dark, but only looked for me.
Caught in its light, listening again to its story,
I curled against some sleepy beast, who nuzzled
my hair as though I were a child, and warmed me
the best it could all night.
Yes, God is born tonight.
God is born, through the humanity of nurses in the COVID wards and ICU’s.
God is born through the divinity of a beloved pet, a beautiful animal.
Let us trust that the blazing star of divinity—does look only for you—and for me—no matter the darkness.
But not only that.
Let us recommit to doing no less--no more than the animals of the stable: providing warmth and solidarity to those who know no Room at the Inn.
As Howard Thurman, the great spiritual writer who mentored Dr. King, once wrote:
The Work of Christmas
When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and the princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among brothers,
To make music in the heart.
A sermon preached by the Rev. Hugh E. Brown, III, D. Min, MSW, LSW, on the Third Sunday of Advent, December 13, 2002, Year B, Isaiah 61, and John 1
“...He came to bear witness to the Light”
The Five Points of Light Program
Once upon a time, a travelling Rabbi found himself visiting the king of Egypt.
He was treated royally, and ushed into a room with the most incredible paintings.
These, he was told, were painted by an illustrious master, hundreds of years before.
They were priceless, irreplaceable.
The Rabbi noticed that one wall was conspicuously empty, and he motioned toward it.
The King explained the artist had died before he completed the paintings, and no one dared to match his skill and expertise.
The Rabbi was silent a moment, and then spoke boldly.
“I can create something for that wall that will surpass by far the other paintings. The King was incredulous.
“Allow me a few days, curtain off the area, and give me privacy. I need some things-rags, powdered silver, and the like.”
He went to work. When finished….
….He called the King in to see.
The King was stunned.
It was true—the wall was beautiful.
It was a mirror that reflected the other paintings.
Now they seemed to be alive and moving, vibrant, and so radiant.
All the paintings looked… truer.
This past Sunday, at Sundown, our Jewish sisters and brothers began the Festival of Lights, otherwise known as Hannukah.
Spread of eight days, the Festival of Lights celebrates the Maccabean revolt, the Jewish resistance against the successors of Alexander the Great; the Jewish challenge to imperial rule over Palestine-- a few hundred years before the birth of Christ.
The Jews have always viewed this festival as more than a nationalist celebration however.
Hannukah is a celebration of God’s reign of freedom and justice; and heralds resistance against all forms of oppression.
Like the Christian season of Advent, Hannukah anticipates the coming and victory of God over all forms of social evil and injustice.
According to the Gospel of John, another John--The Baptist--is the herald of Jesus, the Light of Christ.
In the words of one spiritual writer, “John the Baptist is the Point Guard of Jesus, his trumpet call, and his servant who tells the truth.”
But John is not the truth, the light—just the person who testifies to the light; reflects the light.
We stand with John this Advent.
John’s ministry is our ministry—if I may be so bold.
We are John’s children; we reflect The Light, witness and testify to the Light, and rejoice at the present of the Light in the world.
How are we bearers of the light? How might we reflect the light?
How are we the mirrors of God’s light of life?
The prophet Isaiah shows us the way.
To use the words of a former President, Isaiah Chapter 61—teaches a Five Points of Light Program.
How do we reflect God’s light this Advent? Let us listen to Isaiah!
The First Point of Light: To proclaim God’s tidings to the lowly!
The Hebrew word for lowly is very specific—all those who are the bottom rungs of society. Like Shepherds, and Prophets dressed in camel’s hair.
Where do we find the light? Reflect the light?
When we are with God in his Good News work for the lowly!
When we are in solidarity with his work of freedom from poverty starvation, homelessness, sickness, illiteracy, slavery, dehumanization, violence. That is where we find and reflect God’s light dear friends. Always.
The Second Point of Light: To heal the Brokenhearted.
In this time of difficulty, we know what it means to be Broken-hearted! We know all too well so many who are anxious, discouraged, terrified, lonely, and humiliated.
We are with God in being with our sisters and brothers who know the oppression of heart; as well as body. Of Mind—as well as physical being.
The Third Point of Light: To proclaim Liberty to the Captives.
In the days of Ancient Israel—the word captive, was especially applied to prisoners of war, refugees, those fleeing political and social violence.
Where do we find the joy and hope of God? Where do we reflect God’ light? When our hearts, church and nation are open to those fleeing persecution; as Jesus and his family were to do; for refugees.
We will reflect God’s light as people again when the Statue of Liberty’s meaning is renewed; we once again welcome the tired, the poor, those yearning to be free; when the light and lamp of liberty is once again lit for those seeking community among us.
We certainly have this hope; this joy with renewed national life this Advent.
The Fourth Point of Light: Release to Prisoners.
We reflect God’s light when, yesterday and today, we challenge incarceration as punishment; and not as renewal. When we challenge mass incarceration in any form; when we challenge the criminalization of drug abuse.
But In the days of Ancient Israel, in the Days of Jesus, the words, “prisoner” included not only those jailed for social crimes and just accountability. It especially included those jailed for political crimes.
But this word’s meaning also included those imprisoned for oppressive economic conditions and unjust social structures; those imprisoned by unjust banking systems, high interest rates, unfair housing laws, low wages, underemployment.
Finally, the 5th and most powerful point of Light.
To announce the year of our Lord’s favor; and the day of vindication of our God.
The Year of the Lord’s favor?
It was none other than the Jubilee year.
What was the Jubilee Year? The Year with the language enshrined on the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia, “Proclaim Liberty Throughout the Land.”
Liberty and Jubilee; far from only the maximizing of autonomy and personal self-determination. Far more than radical individualism and self-interest.
Liberty—true freedom—in restored human relationships.
For, according the Torah—and the heart of the Bible, every seven years in part; every 50 years in full.
Joy indeed. On this Sunday when we light a pink candle and observe Joy!
All debts were cancelled; all prisoners freed; land was to be redistributed.
All belongs to God; all is to be shared.
All is to be restored; justice is not about strict fairness; it is about shared and met need.
Justice is restorative.
This is not socialism; or amnesty; this is biblical ethics; this is God’s light.
Jesus spoke the words of the 5 Points of Light Program at Nazareth in Luke Chapter 4; when Jesus inaugurated his ministry.
But, Jesus removed the words, the Day of God’s vindication from his own Nazareth address when he quoted Isaiah,
No doubt Jesus did not want the Jubilee Year to be misinterpreted.
God’s light does not take anything away from anyone.
God’s light insures human dignity for all.
When we reflect God’s five points of light; when all are free from bondage and injustice—all of us are free.
As Martin Luther King put is so eloquently—injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everyone.
Light, be nature is shared; when it is extinguished for some; it is for all.
In her work, Caste, Isabel Wilkerson describes the divisions in our nation which set some persons over others according to class, gender, and race.
Wilkerson, is author of the acclaimed work, The Warmth of Other Suns, which detailed the history of the “great migration” of the children and grandchildren of slaves from the South to the great urban center of the North.
As an African American woman, Wilkerson describes specific experiences of Caste in American; these are the most moving parts of her book.
But she closes the book with a story.
This story is a vision of the life of the Jubilee year of Light.
This is life when we reflect God’s light.
How does this light shine?
When we envision one another as God’s envisions each one of us; as humans.
The way God became fully human—Emmanuel.
What is the way out of our great divisions?
Open our eyes; literally and symbolically—to the hidden light in each one of us.
We might call her story of this refraction of light: The Plumber.
He smelled of beer and tobacco. The years had carved lines into his face, and stubble was poking through his chin and cheeks. He let out a phlegmy cough.
I had called the plumbing company because I had discovered water In the basement, and he was the one they sent. He was standing at the threshold of my front door, and seemed not to have expected someone like me to answer.
It’s a predominately white neighborhood, with joggers and cyclists, and purposeful moms in yoga sweats pushing baby strollers, ponytails bouncing, maybe a lab trotting behind.
I was used to his reaction.
“Is the lady at home?”
“Yes, that would be me.”
“Where’s the basement?” (as in the tone—let’s get this over with and let me get out of here)
Things were not going well with this call; he seemed uninterested; would not answer questions; stood there while I was sweeping the water without offering to help; I’m sure in his world—folks like me just swept the water.
I was steaming now; he had done nothing; and yet he was to expect payment.
I looked at him.
And decided to throw a hail Mary at his humanity.
“My mother died last week; is your mother alive?”
“No, she isn’t.”
“She died in 1991; she was 52 years old.”
“My father is still alive.
“Your lucky to have your father.”
“Well, he’s as mean as they come.”
I contemplated the significance of that. What might his father have exposed
“You miss them when they’re gone, no matter what they were like, “ I said.
“How about your mother,” he wanted to know. “How old was she.”
“She was way older than yours, so I can’t complain about that. But she was sick for a long time. And you never get over it.
“I have an aunt in her 80’s who still smokes and will ask you for a taste of beer,” he said with laugh, and suddenly a soft, human expression.
“I smiled and tried to look at the positive. “So your father’s side is long-lived,” I said.
His face brightened.
He looked suddenly—interested.
“Let me get my flashlight out of the truck.”
“Once back—he trained the flashlight along the floor.”
“I found it.”
He was jubilant.
He had found the problem; an easy correction.
How different things had been a few moments before. “My mother must have been talking to your mother,” I said. “And telling her to get her boy to help her girl down there; my daughter needs your help.”
His smile beamed light.
We smiled together—in that light.
In the light; when we throw the hail Mary’s at one another’s humanity.
In the light; perhaps the festival of lights; when, despite all evidence, we celebrate the end of oppression.
When, we trust that we truly reflect God’s light when it most hidden.
Even in the prejudice and contempt of another; needing only the light of another’s respect release humanity.
Even in a basement, with a flashlight; with a home repair; and sharing broken hearts….with an unknown neighbor!
A Sermon Preached on the First Sunday of Advent, November 29th, 2020,Year B, on Mark 13: 24-37, by the Rev. Hugh E. Brown, III, D. Min, MSW, LSW, Rector
“Therefore, Keep Awake!”
Gethsemane in Advent: Keep Awake!
The Service of Daily Morning Prayer in the Episcopal Church, when offered in Advent, begins with the scripture this morning from the 13th Chapter of Mark.
“Watch, for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or in the morning, lest he come suddenly, and find you asleep.”
How do we imagine this scripture known in some quarters as-- the little apocalypse of Mark?
Do we interpret it to be a strange and unnerving foreshadowing of history’s end--the final judgement, and the coming of Christ?
Do we listen to it--as we often recite it-- in Eucharistic Prayer A of the Rite II service, to be shared later this morning?
“Christ has Died; Christ is Risen; Christ will come Again”
Do we hear it as a word about the future? Even about Jesus foretelling his own future as Son of Man—Redeeming Character—Shatters of Worlds?
We might misunderstand it to be so. Bishop John A. T. Robinson in his great work, Honest to God, said this:
Jesus speaks; Jesus is--the Eternal Now.
Keep Awake! Not a word about the future; but a call to decision in the present.
We watch for him; Now; we await him; Now; Evening; Midnight; Cockcrow; Morning; Now.
If you look at the bulletin cover, you will see a lovely painting by the American visual artist, Henry Ossawa Tanner.
Note the blue backdrop—the Liturgical color for Advent.
Note the Streetlamp—perhaps any urban setting in the bleak midwinter-to use a phrase from a hymn shared today.
Note the wintry atmosphere.
Then-observe the figures; who are they? Homeless? At Risk?
Observe the shadowy figure in the background. Who is it? Is it Jesus?
What do you see? Of what do you think?
Yes, it is Advent—perhaps.
But it is also Gethsemane. Perhaps.
Jesus at prayer—perhaps.
The Disciples; waiting; but asleep.
“Could you not keep awake?” Jesus would ask the Disciples on that Thursday night before his death; in the Garden; after the last supper.
The disciples were waiting; awaiting Jesus; but asleep.
Asleep; and so they would be—spiritually—theologically—humanly.
They would miss the coming of Jesus in his passion, death, and initially, his resurrection.
They would be fleeing from the tomb; returned home to the Lakeside—back at work again—after their master’s death.
Jesus in all of his glory—was in their midst.
The glory of the Cross; the paradoxical glory of suffering sacrifice; the ironic glory revealed in self-giving love; the unseen glory in forgiveness extended.
Not only to those who mocked Him on the cross.
But the hidden glory extended to the very disciples—most especially Peter—when Jesus forgave his denial; his cowardice; his collusion with oppression; and restored him—with the good word: “Feed.. Feed…Feed my people.”
Gethsemane in Advent.
How powerfully does this truth and indelible connection speak to us this year!
The message is this: Keep Awake!
Do not miss the coming of Jesus; do not miss his coming in the things that might be hidden.
The hidden things of love.
Martin Luther described this Hidden God so well!
God’s power, said Luther, will always manifest in this world in the things of powerlessness.
In the things perceived as opposed to strength and glory; God’s salvation will always appear as crucified love; God’s justice as mercy; God’s righteousness as forgiveness.
Advent a season of the last things of judgement?
Oh yes-if God’s final judgement is God’s love. If that judgement is the cross and all death, hell and sin is swept away!
O friends of All Saints Church—do not miss Jesus this Advent!
Do not miss Jesus this Advent in particular.
Watch for him—as in the painting—where cross the crowded ways of life.
Watch for him on the streets; in the tenements, among the homeless poor as his disciples always are---when faithful in spirit.
Watch for him as we will sing in verse 4 of that marvelous Christmas hymn-in the poverty of our heart.
Watch for him—hidden in the hearts of our Nurses, our ICU docs, our ER health care providers.
Watch for him—hidden in the chaplain in the COVID unit.
Watch for him—Hidden in that Amazon Delivery driver—ensuring your special gift this Christmas
Watch for him—Hidden in the prisoners at risk for COVID; remember he could be Jesus.
But not only there; Watch for him in the works of advocacy; for Moral Monday Caravans led by Pastor William J. Barber—to mourn all those lost to COVID.
Watch for him in the Black Lives Matter Movement.
Watch for him in all those children who were separated from their parents as they were nothing but refugees as Jesus was.
Watch for him in all the cracks in our public health system that let the most at risk and marginalized succumb to disease and death.
Watch for him-in the words of Henri Nouwen----“Be Alert, Be Alert for him so you will recognize your Lord in your husband, your wife, your parents, your children, your friends, your teachers, but also in all that you read in the daily newspapers.”
The Lord is always coming.
But, like the Jesus praying Gethsemane—his power and presence is often hidden—only manifested in the crucified areas of life.
A contemporary journalist, writing in the New York Times this past week, described her own “Keep Awake Moment”
This moment came in the words of her granddaughter.
The journalist writes:
“As Covid-19 cases in my city climb to record levels and county officials warn the vulnerable among us to shelter in place, I feel as if I’m living in the cursed kingdom of Narnia, in C.S. Lewis’s children’s fantasy “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.” In Narnia, it’s “always winter and never Christmas.”
Like Americans everywhere, my family and friends have begun planning for the holidays. Some will ignore the Covid curse in our midst and gather anyway. My husband and I are battening down for a long winter.
This Thanksgiving and Christmas, for the first time in our lives, none of our 10 children and grandchildren will be at our table.
As her mother strapped her into the car seat to drive home after one of our awkward backyard visits, my granddaughter, Eliza, looked at me and said, “Gram, are you sad?”
I thought I’d hidden those feelings.
“Yes, I’m sad,” I said.
“It’s gonna be all right,” she reassured me. “When the germs go away, we’ll be together again.”
My granddaughter’s response entered my sadness; named it; made it truth; opened my heart. Gave me hope.
I thought at that moment….
When Eliza’s old enough, I’ll tell her how the curse in the magical land of Narnia was eventually broken.
Aslan did it. Eliza’s seen his portrait hanging in my library.
Aslan is the powerful lion C.S. Lewis created to fight the curse and make the world safe again.
The Narnia allegory sprang from Lewis’s own childhood struggles with loneliness and despair.
Lewis credited his faith with restoring his hope. Aslan is the Christ figure in the chronicles.
While we’re waiting for a vaccine to reach us and end the Covid curse cast on our land…….I’ll take shelter from the cold of winter by writing daily in the gratitude journal I started in March during the first lockdown.
And I’ll hold onto the hope my own faith provides that…….even if there’s no Christmas this year…..there will be an end to this long winter.”
But--O yes, there will be Christmas this year!
Hidden in Suffering Love!
For my friends-Aslan is on the way—to break the curse of this long Winter—and make the world new again!
Or, is Aslan already here? The Lion in the Winter? Keep Awake!
A sermon preached on the Second Sunday of Advent, December 6th, 2020, within the online liturgy of All Saints Episcopal church, by the Rev. Hugh E. Brown, III, D. Min, MSW, LSW, Rector, on Mark, 1:1-8
“John the Baptizer appeared in the Wilderness..”
It’s later than it’s ever been before!
Once upon a time, a little boy was playing with his toys at the foot of the stairs in his parent’s home. Towering above him was a great, old grandfather clock that had been in the family for generations.
It would chime the quarter-hour, the half-hour, the quarter-hour again, and then the hour, striking the number of hours.
Just at the moment it began to strike the hour, the mechanism jammed, and it counted ten, eleven, twelve, and then continued past to thirteen, fourteen, fifteen, sixteen. The boy listened, for he had been practicing his new skill of counting, and looked up in amazement at the clock.
He jumped up and ran excited into the family room, where his mother and father were reading.
He shouted, “Listen, It’s later than it’s ever been before! Come and See.
“It’s later than it’s ever been before.”
John the Baptizer appeared in the wilderness……
His message: The time is Now.
It's later than its ever been before.
God is doing a new thing—again!
As one interpreter notes of John The Baptist, “The question is not “Who?” i
The question is “Where?”
Where? In the wilderness; that is where prophets often are; in places apart; as in Isaiah’s text.
Isaiah’s words were given in the wilderness of despair and exile; God’s was about to bring a new day—bring the people home to their land; but who would listen?
In the Wilderness.
A spiritual writer reflects:
“John the Baptist is the Advent adventurer, stalking through the wilderness of his time on the trail of the messiah.
He’s the original hell-fire and brimstone preacher but he also offers hope to the community he rakes over the coals.
A willingness to hope is a willingness to enter the wilderness. Hope is not a domesticated state of mind.
Let us look to those voices—from the wilderness—speaking to our wilderness.
Our wilderness as persons; as a church; as a nation.
Where is your wilderness? Where are you crying out? Awaiting the coming of God?
Where are you living the Advent message? Where do you know in life that “its later than it’s ever been?”
Let me illustrate.
Karl Barth once noted that he read the bible to see what God had done in the world.
And he read the newspaper to see what God was going in the world.
The headline of one major Newspaper proclaimed this:
“Long Dark Winter Looms Before US Gets Vaccines.”
Let’s be real.
For many, this is our Advent hope.
The coming of an end to the Pandemic; a Vaccine; a way out of this horrible time in American and human history.
And where is our wilderness? The waiting; and the continued “long, dark winder.”
Now, I want you to listen; really listen; do you hear a voice with the words, “It’s later than its ever been. The time is now.”
Listen to the words of this journalist.
“Each week, good news about vaccines or antibody treatments surfaces, offering hope that an end to the pandemic is at hand.”
And yet, this holiday season presents a grim reckoning. The United States has reached an appalling milestone; more than one million new COVID cases every week; hospitals in some states are full to bursting.
The number of deaths is rising and seems on track to easily surpass the 2,200 a day average in the Spring, when the pandemic was concentrated in the New York Metro area.”
Our failure to protect ourselves has caught up to us.
Now—I ask you; you really want to hear this truth?
Do you hear the voice of John the Baptist raging in these words?
The voice of the prophets?
You see prophets care about the things of the wilderness.
Their spirituality is history; especially wilderness history like disease and public health.
As Abraham Heschel, the great Old Testament scholar once wrote:
“What manner of man or woman is a prophet? .
Instead of showing us a way through the elegant mansions of the mind, the prophets take us into the slums.
The Prophets seem to get incensed about such petty things: what if somewhere in ancient Palestine, poor people have not been treated property by the rich?
Prophecy is the voice that God has lent to the silent agony, a voice to the plundered poor, to the profane riches of the world.”
It is a form of living, a crossing point of God and humanity; God is raging in the prophet’s words.
“Our failure to protect ourselves has caught up with us.”
Yes, God’s word is clear; it is later than it has ever been; the time is now.”
The time is now:
Sisters and brothers , the time is now.
Do we want to be people of the Wilderness? People of Advent?
Listen to the prophets of our time during this pandemic!
The voices of genuine neighbor love; the voices of humility; the voices of reason; the voices of science; the voices of common sense.
Let us be clear; for the prophets, freedom was only freedom in love and commitment.
We are only free as we are people of love.
How might we prepare? How might we heed the message—The Time is Now?
Let us remember Heschels’s words: The prophets are concerned with such petty things.
Petty things: Like Masks.
Petty things like Like Social compassion of six feet or more.
Petty Things Like avoiding crowds.
Petty Things Like practicing the Baptismal Covenant to respect the Dignity of every human being.
Petty Things: like Unemployment Assistance; and Small Busines relief.
Petty things like new forms of justice to protect those who are serving and protecting you and me.
Petty things like food; Petty things like available of tests.
Petty things like a message of hope, concern and unity for the people of God.
Petty things—like the ways of justice—and Love.
A Study by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington estimated that 130,000 lives could be saved by February if mask use became universal in the United States immediately.
Can this be our wilderness—speaking to these wilderness times?
This? Can it be right things of justice and love!
Sisters and brothers—we are hearing the voice of John the Baptist in our time!
It’s later than it has ever been.” The time is now.
This politicizing of a public health crisis must end!
Now! In the Wilderness.
We must stake steps to protect ourselves and the public,
Now! In the Wilderness.
We must confront the injustices in our nation and world ! Almost 270,000 live lost. Now, in the Wilderness.
The spiritual writer Frederick Buechner once wrote in response to the question: Where do we find God?
His response? In the things that happen to us!
So, I share some of my own Wilderness Experience with two recent Grocery Store Check-out line events.
O yes, the Check-out Line.
Advent waiting; Advent Wilderness; You never know what you will encounter—in the Grocer Line.
A few weeks ago-- I was awaiting check-out.
I saw another patron finish; she paid; she stepped to the right to begin picking up her bags to leave.
Suddenly to her immediate left—another patron rushed to the place at the counter to insert her credit card to pay her bill; she literally knocked this patron to the side.
This certainly can happen when we are in a rush. I certainly have accidently done this to others in retail and grocery outlets.
Although some of our prophetic advent message might be-- to slow down, be more peaceful; be more mindful of our surroundings; and more careful of our neighbors.
But, unfortunately, the incident did not stop there; the patron was a little surprised and startled.
She turned and asked her somewhat careless neighbor: Could you please step back a little and distance while I just get my things to leave? I just don’t want either of us to be at risk—especially my concern is for you!
I heard these words in response: “Oh Shut up!” “Shut up” “This is all a bunch of expletive!” “I’ll do what I “expletive” want.” “I’m sick of all you…expletive, trampling on my freedom. “Just Shut up.”
“Just shut up.”
“Our failure to protect ourselves as caught up with us.” A voice Crying in the Wilderness.
But that was not my only Grocery Line event.
And there was another Voice; Let’s call it the “prepare the way of the Lord voice.”
That’s in the Isaiah text too.
“I will prepare your way.” That is what John did too.
Prepare the way for one who IS—and Always will be—Love.
Love Essence. Love Incarnate; Love Being; Love in Action.
I saw another patron about to check out one day. A senior patron.
Somehow—she had misplaced her designated information for receiving a special discount.
Without missing a beat—the Grocery Check Out Attendant—Whipped out her own voucher—for twice as much as the customer—and immediately put it into the system. It’s worth? Over 100 dollars in food.
It’s true worth within the economy of God? Priceless.
From the Wilderness, the Prophets of God know this: the Economy of God is love.
The economy of God is not division and polarization.
The economy of God is not my interests vs. your interest.
The economy of God is all together.
The economy of God is abundant love.
Yes, it’s later than it’s ever been.
Yes, the time is Now.
From the wilderness—if we listen---can we hear?
“I will prepare your way!” For God is and always will be…Love.
All Saints Episcopal, Princeton, NJ
I keep hearing this metaphor, that 2020 is like a badly written movie, and I keep waiting for a period of time to pass where it doesn’t feel true. Just to name a few of the subplots that I personally think are outrageous in the blockbuster thriller, “The Year 2020: American Edition”:
A militia group plots to overthrow the governments of Michigan and Virginia, motivated largely by the effects of the pandemic shutdowns and continuing restrictions, until the FBI foils their plot. Murder Hornets. Just, Murder Hornets. One candidate for the highest political position in the nation claims, on multiple occasions, that his opponent will “hurt” God, and that there will “be no God” if his opponent is elected. Boy, that all feels like a bit much, doesn’t it? Where are the editors to cut some of this stuff out?
There are similar conflicts going on in our Gospel reading today. No, there are no hidden Murder Hornets, if that’s what you’re worried about. But we have a convergence of the economic, the political, and the religious. On the surface, we have a discussion on taxes- what was called a poll tax specifically. Now, the poll tax was the target of quite a bit of ire from the occupied Jewish people because it was a tax that served no purpose for the functioning of government; it went to build the wealth of Caesar himself.
The two groups who have banded together to trick Jesus are the Pharisees, the local popular religious leaders of the day, and the Herodians, or Jews who had made a name for themselves working with King Herod, the puppet king installed for the region of Judea. Both groups strived for independence from the Roman Empire; the Pharisees working to install a king from the line of David and the Herodians working to install a king from the line of Herod. Most of the time, these groups would be working against each other, but the threat Jesus posed brought these two groups together.
This isn’t a simple ‘gotcha’ that the Pharisees and Herodians are trying to catch Jesus in; they’re not playing the devil’s advocate to get Jesus to be inconsistent. They are trying to get Jesus out of the way, one way or another.
The first trap Jesus might fall in is trouble with the Roman Empire- if he says to abstain from paying the poll tax to their imperial overlords- he might be labeled an enemy of the empire. On the other end, if he says to pay taxes, the rebels and their sympathizers among the crowd would be furious that he would give such credence to the very power subjugating their people.
Many commentators are split on what Jesus’ words mean. One group of commentators assert Jesus is giving divine authorization to support our governing authorities, no matter who they are or how they use our taxes. Pay your dues, and also give appropriate attention to your religious commitments. As long as you maintain that balance, you’re fine.
The other guys say that Jesus is being sneaky in answering, because it is a widespread teaching in the Torah, the Psalms especially, that the earth and everything in it is God’s. According to these folks, the disciples of the Pharisees walk away amazed because Jesus so deftly avoids their traps with an even more clever answer. And while this might be partially what is going on, there are so many more layers at work here than the political question about taxes.
A denarius was a small silver coin that was generally worth one day’s wages. These coins had the image of the emperor on them, as well as an inscription that read, “Tiberius Caesar, August son of the divine Augustus, high priest”. This was a problem for many first century Jews who wanted to keep the commandment against graven images in Exodus 20. It became such a serious issue that the local government of Judea allowed them to carry smaller copper coins that bore no image or inscription to use for their currency.
By producing the denarius so quickly and easily, these disciples reveal much more about themselves than they intended to. Jesus has been concerned with the competition that economic loyalty has with devotion to God- so much so that he tells us we cannot serve two masters, both God and money. What we see added in this story is the interconnectedness of money and politics- one cannot produce the standard currency of Jesus’ day without also seeing their highest political leader and his claim to utmost religious authority also.
“Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” They answered, “The emperor’s.” Then he said to them, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
The brilliance of Jesus’ reply is that the interpretation of his response rests on your theology and your worldview. Jesus did not give them an answer; he gave them a mirror.
The point of Jesus’ reply was not instruction, but reflection. Jesus identifies the nefarious motives of these disciples, and then replies to them in a way which reflects their own hunger for power; their split devotion to the things of Caesar and the maintenance of the status quo is reflected back at them. A split devotion they are working so hard to maintain, they would even conspire to have an innocent man killed if it furthered their own plans.
However, those disciples of the Pharisees walk away amazed, and not angry or with the desire to arrest Jesus, which is how their teachers came away from their interactions. I believe this is because Jesus did not return evil for evil, or a snare for a trap. Jesus could have issued a condemnation against these men who were, very literally, trying to get him killed. Instead, Jesus’ reply left room for the amazement of his questioners.
Jesus withholds his authority to condemn in order to make a curious convergence- grace and correction together. Jesus most certainly rebukes these men and their choices, and throws in a little name-calling for good measure. But by withholding condemnation, he gives the disciples of the Pharisees a chance for redemption; to choose to act differently tomorrow than they did today.
But holding together correction and grace is not an easy task; one only has to scroll through Facebook, or listen in on a disciplinary meeting in schools, workplaces, or churches, or even peek in on a family dinner to see the complexities of this task.
If we reject correction, we can only have what Dietrich Bonhoeffer calls, “cheap grace”, a concept he popularized, but that he learned from Adam Clayton Powell Sr., a black pastor at Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem. It is grace that is given without action that shows it has been accepted. Cheap grace is forgiveness without repentance, reconciliation without apology, and faith without works.
When we reject grace, we condemn ourselves to a life of judgment. It may feel powerful for a while, but the nagging reality of our own insufficiency erodes our sense of worthiness just as it erodes the sense of worthiness we judge others to have. It may take a lifetime, but we will eventually judge ourselves to be as worthless as we judged our opponents and enemies.
Jesus’ reply also reveals the curious convergences in us- we are, at once, subjects of an empire, pawns in the games of the powerful, and yet also reflections of the very master of the universe. If a coin can bear the power of the economy and rule of Caesar, how much more do we bear the power and rule of the one whose image we reflect?
The wonderfulness of Jesus' reply is that it showed these disciples their belovedness just as much as it did their hypocrisy. It was, in fact, their own belovedness, the fact that they were made in the image and likeness of God, that makes their split devotion so stark. And this reminder of God’s relationship to us, and with us, calls us back to what God’s mission is; not the condemnation of humanity, but it’s redemption.
Maya Angelou writes, “While I know myself as a creation of God, I am obligated to realize and remember that everyone else, and everything else, are also God’s creation”. But it is so easy to lose sight of this truth without mirrors like the one Jesus holds for the disciples of the Pharisees. While it is easy to blame our current hostile political moment on the media, or our political leaders, it does not all come down to them. We have also worked for the condemnation of our neighbor over their redemption. And in doing this, we not only lose potential allies and teachers in our work for justice, whether that be racial justice, or recognition of the full dignity of the LGBTQ+ community, or the worth of people with disabilities, but we also lose sight of God's mission in the world around us.
Our psalm today proclaims this truth: “Tell it out among the nations: "The Lord is King! he has made the world so firm that it cannot be moved; he will judge the peoples with equity”. The Lord is King, Caesar is not! The Lord is King, the Economy is not. If Caesar is not king, then there is no need to work for the vision that Caesar has for our country and communities. If the economy is not king, we don’t need to sacrifice the well-being of our neighbor in order to please it.
Beloved Children of God; the good news today is that the mission of God in the world is redemption, and not condemnation. Grace is not a meaningless exercise, and correction is not a sign of our failure, but a chance to do better tomorrow. We are called to be makers of redemption in a world that is so obsessed with judgment and criticism that it cannot imagine the worthiness of their opponent, or else so caught up in cheap grace that it does not know how to join the work of God in the world.
You, and everyone around you, are made in the image of God. What can you do this week to draw each other closer to that truth? How do we practice calling out hurtful and abusive words and practices in a way that maintains the dignity of everyone involved, most especially the ones being harmed under the power of the economy, and the rule of Caesar? How can we be mirrors to our neighbors who harm others, to remind them that their own dignity, their own belovedness, is exactly the thing that reveals the belovedness of the one they wish to harm?
Holy Spirit, come, and reveal your mysteries to us today. Amen.
A sermon preached on October 25, 2020, Stewardship Sunday, During the Great Pandemic of 2020, for All Saints Church, worshipping online, Year A, Proper 25, the 21st Sunday After Pentecost on Matthew 22: 34-46
Come on Man! Love First!
“And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
As I begin this message to our parish family—I offer, on behalf of all of us—our deepest empathy and solidarity to Father Jack, Sandy, and the Belmont family upon the death of Father Jack’s daughter, Kelly.
We stand with our friends in this time of loss; I asked for, and received Father Jack’s permission to share the following experience.
A few weeks, ago, our good-hearted Parish Administrator, Sarah Nickelson texted Father Jack Belmont’s daughter, Kelly, with a supportive message of encouragement.
The message also included an offer of any support All Saints Church might provide.
Kelly was hospitalized at the time at the Penn Medicine, Princeton Medical Center in Plainsboro; she had just been moved into hospice care.
She knew she was dying; and her docs and nurses were struggling with her pain management; she was going through an unimaginably difficult time.
What was Kelly’s response to this text?
Although the precise words escape me now—but the meaning was this:
“Thank you so much for your reaching out; but I have really only one request. Please take care of my Father; please be there for him; please pray for him; he is the one who needs you right now; that is how you can support me; please support him.”
Kelly, choose love when it was most unexpected; least required.
As moving as Kelly’s story is—I have been fortunate to find it among many-- in my life as a Priest.
And not just at the time of death.
What has helped me? What has helped you—endure this season of crisis? This time of illness, disruption and, yes, loss?
Have not stories? Your family stories? The stories of so many who have chosen love when other options were more likely and evident?
Jesus knew this—the rewriting of stories; the re-narrative of existence.
“Love God; Love God with all your being; Love God with heart, soul and mind.”
“Love your neighbor—as Self.”
Jesus was on his way to the Upper Room; to Gethsemane; to the Cross on Golgotha—when he spoke these words.
Jesus spoke them after his triumphal entrance into Jerusalem with Palms; during his last weeks on earth.
In the midst of his very journey to death—to God knows—perhaps Faith that there was something beyond and something for him to trust—Jesus re-wrote, re-authored the story of his people.
That story: Love is always possible; always a gift from God; in pain; in death; no one can ever take that away from those who choose the way of Love.
The context for his words on love would become the cornerstone of the Christian message.
These words would be remembered by countless Episcopal Confirmation students as enshrined from the Rite I service of Holy Eucharist, and as prayed on countless Sunday mornings from we cradle Episcopalians.
“Here what our Lord Jesus Christ saith:
“Thou shall love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it: Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments, hang all the law the prophets.”
Jesus appealed the great Shema—Hear O Israel—the Lord is One—from Deuteronomy 7; and to the commandment of neighbor-love in Leviticus 19:18.
Jesus knew this; the rabbis had united these two commandments love of God; love of neighbor; for generations.
Yes, Jesus re-wrote—re-authored the narrative; deconstructed and reconstructed the story.
Jesus put persons first—above everything; to love God WAS to love People; and cherish, in the words of the BCP—The Dignity of Every Human Being.
Everything—worship, law, custom, ceremony, ethics—everything—was subordinate to the ultimate law of Love.
Jesus took the law—and deconstructed, reconstructed and reauthored it.
The Law is Love! Radical Love; All--inclusive Love.
This week, in the spirit of Jesus-Pope Francis spoke of Christian support for the LGBT community.
Pope Francis endorsed Civil Unions and put the Roman Catholic Church on record—for the first time--squarely behind the movement for full inclusion.
The Episcopal Church rewrote the Christian story—putting love first—years ago; it did so when it invited the gay community into full inclusion with life and sacraments.
Love First. A new story.
Jesus was not intending controversy.
He was not even teaching about commandments, ethics, morality or a new law.
Jesus was teaching something far different—when he put love first.
Love First. No Israel first; not the law First; not the church first; not even Jesus first. For goodness sake, not America first.
The last week of Jesus; not death; not execution; not despair.
The last week of Jesus—foot-washing; shared bread; Passover as liberation from sin; abandonment as forgiveness; enemies to be reconciled; women at the cross; empty tombs; upper rooms.
Cross as love; mercy; Resurrection as victory for life, inclusion, mercy and peace.
Appearance—to the ones who betrayed; forgiving, spirit filling; mission driven.
Rewrite the story; love first.
As Jesus did; as Kelly did; as so many during the past few months have done.
And why? Why could Jesus put love first?
O yes, I suppose it was because he was Divine.
But he was also human.
As human-Jesus knew this too; his heavenly Father—almighty God—was awesome.
A God of Abundance; a God of possibilities; a God so far beyond our understanding.
That is what we have at All Saints Church.
And that my friends is Stewardship!
Stewardship—not above all about possessions; about fundraising; about money; not even about giving to the Church for goodness sake.
No—it is about Love!
It is about Love first.
For God’s abundant love is stronger than death—or anything.
Stewardship; Stewards are not owners.
Stewards are servants; servants of a God of Abundant love.
That is why we can risk controversary.
That is why we can trust.
That is why, on our death-bed—we can still love.
Why—in a Pandemic-we can still Love.
In a few minutes, our Stewardship Chair and Senior Warden, Charles Colagiuri-will invite your financial gifts for All Saints Church; only your gifts make possible the ministry in this place—your gifts as stewards—time—talent—and treasure.
But when you give—I don’t want you to think—Church First; Money First; Budget First.
For goodness sake, do not think in terms of you first or when I give-me first.
No—think Love first. Service in Love First.
In this place.
For—do we trust as Jesus did—on the cross—that Love is Stronger?
Jesus no doubt was taught by his mom—taught her own message from the Angel announcing his birth: With God All things are possible.
That is why we are stewards.
That is why we give.
Let us Re-write the story.
A sermon for Thanksgiving Day, 2020: All Praise and Thanks to God
Preached with the congregation of All Saints Episcopal Church, by the Rev. Hugh E. Brown, III, Rector
“What could we possibly be thankful for in 2020?
A CBS Reporter asked this question of his kids.
It was part of a longer essay he wrote for the CBS news Web site.
If you want the complete article, Reflections on what to be thankful for amid the COVID-19 Pandemic, by television journalist Steve Hartman---I will send a copy to you; or you can easily find on the Web.
What was the response from the children?
In Hartman’s words, “I got crickets.”
That word caught my attention.
I was curious. Why did he use this intriguing metaphor?
When I think of the word, Cricket—the first thing that comes to mind in an insect that can be charming or annoying—depending on one’s perspective; these amazing creatures can offer lovely music in eventide.
Perhaps; I had a friend once who could not sleep at night once camping in the wilderness because of them; he lived in an urban area of the East Coast and reported the streets sounds were softer.
But why would he journalist use this word in relationship to a question and response/
Here is another definition of “cricket.” You might be familiar with it. One dictionary response has it: “Absolute silence; no communication; derived from the cinematic metaphor of chirping crickets at night, signalizing (otherwise) complete quiet.”
You remember that Jesus once said that unless one became as a child—one could not enter the Kingdom of God.
Perhaps the children’s response—silence—In response to a genuine lament—encompasses much wisdom.
Just this morning, an American historian was asked about his own reasons for gratitude this thanksgiving. He paused.
“Reflection,” he said;
“I am thankful for space; for new insight; for new ideas.”
“I don’t think I will come out of this time as the same person.”
“I don’t think I will interpret history in the same way.”
“I don’t think I will have the same heart or soul.”
Now we might respond to “reflection” as a reason for gratitude with some pause.
Some of us have the luxury for it; some do not.
Health Care Workers in ICU’s; essential workers—in Nursing Homes, Amazon Warehouses, Dominos Pizza Stories; UPS drivers?
Do they have space for reflection?
Actually-- many do; ask some of my health care colleagues at Penn Medicine—and they will tell you that their perspective on the justice of our health care system….
………..their observations of the great heroisms and the great sins of selfishness
………..their views on death and dying; their gratitude for the simple things—like hands to hold and proximity of loves ones at life’s end…..
…………will forever alter their lives.
Jesus often gave “crickets’ to those who asked profound questions, expecting pat answers.
So—dear friends—in response to this question: “What could we possibly be thankful for in 2020?”—what you offer is “Crickets.” Silence.
That is sufficient. That is of God.
That too—is lament; and lament is powerful; and healing.
Sometimes there are no words; sometimes, silence is all that matters.
Reflection; Good Thanksgiving day stuff.
Silence, space; for change; for transformation.
Crickets; good word for a day in which Thanksgiving is a lament; for loss; so much loss; in so many ways.
Except: that was not all for Hartman’s children.
Out of reflection—came this offering from their lips:
“Instead of saying what we are thankful for—we could say what is hard for us.”
Now, Crickets—from the Dad.
“What is hard for us.”
On this Thanksgiving day—oh yes we can.
What a thing to be thankful for: Truth.
Out of reflection; silence; can come truth.
What has been hard for you? For Me?
That we can name? Be Truthful about?
And from that truth—know we are not alone; know that the point of Christian Gospel grace is not—as Pastor Elly put it this past Sunday—Christus Victor; success; victory triumph.
Wouldn’t it be truly grace—truly gratitude—to simply offer—truth-this thanksgiving.
Things are very, very hard; but at least—by naming this—and sharing it—I don’t feel so alone.
The spiritual writer Henri Nouwen once said that God’s love might not always take away pain; sometimes, God deepens it to the point where it can be shared.
Crickets; Reflection; Shared Truth.
What has been hard? Name the Truth; know it is O.K to tell the Truth; Trust that it is O.K. to Lament; and God hears, knows, understands, and loves.
Now friends—Hartman and his children—eventually did claim Thanksgiving beyond Crickets and Reflections and difficulty.
They did not give up on Thanksgiving.
Instead, they went to a homeless shelter—People’s Place—a thrift store and food pantry in Kingston, NY.
Lots of truth; hard times; reason for Crickets.
But this too:
“I’m just grateful for being alive-one man named Gabriel said; in Hartman’s words, he did not provide his name—only—like the Angel—a Revelation:
“I’m going to have an Amazing Thanksgiving—all by myself.” “I will sit on a Park Bench and I will think about all the great thanksgivings that I’ve ha in my life and be thankful for all of them; one bad Thanksgiving out of 63 Amazing Thanksgivings—that’s pretty good odds; maybe we should be a little more thankful, for what we do have—than consistently complaining about what we don’t have.”
The Revelation: Just the substance of Thanksgiving can be healing.
And yes, truth—and Crickets; Silence; one can be in solitude; yes, even by one’s self; but not be alone; not be isolated.
Not isolated; Memories, Dreams, Reflections; Gratitude—despite;
Not isolated; life; a park bench; what we do have.
What do we have today—dear friends?
On Park Benches
Just being Alive.
How peaceful and good it is—when we just practice the substance of gratitude—and let go of what we don’t have. Let go of resentments; envy; anger; pride.
Joy in appreciation; open hands; not clinched fist.
Dear friends, I yearn one day—when we gather again in person—to share a favorite hymn—with which we will close the service today.
I suppose part of my gratitude today is hope; I remember a quote from one of my spiritual mentors; hope is believing in spite of the evidence—and watching the evidence change.
Hope is sustenance—I think.
Oh yes, as my wife Elly is beside me this morning—I am offering gratitude for what I have.
That my loved ones are safe and healthy; that we, today—can decorate our family Christmas tree.
Oh yes! I’m grateful that my favorite NFL football team with Texas star helmets—yes, the one that has only won only three games-is still in the playoff race (what a strange NFL Season for Strange times);
I’m very grateful that we can be together online at All Saints to share a Thanksgiving service.
But my hope against hope—we can be together and share a hymn one day.
The hymn was written-not before; not after—but DURING (!) a pandemic; and pestilence.
Yes, we think of it as Kevin O’Malia our talented music director will blast away with it on organ and we look forward to Turkey and Cranberry sauce—or whatever our favorite Thanksgiving meal is.
But the hymn was actually first sung by a minister and his family with scraps of food they have on the table.
It was first sung in a meager home, in a desolate refugee city, afflicted by disease and death.
The earlies projected date for the hymn is 1636; the latest—1663; thus, it was certainly written during the horrifying 30 years war—a religious civil war on the European Continent, the worst of what religion can do.
The hymn we will close the service with—is—perhaps the best.
The hymn was written a 17th century German pastor, Martin Rinckart in the walled city of Elenburg; during time of plague; and war’s assault.
The hymn: Now Thank We all our God. It is based on the biblical text of Ecclesiasticus 50:22-24;
“Now therefore bless ye the God of All.”
Why do I consider it among the best gifts of religion.
Think the word, Cricket.
Cricket? Silence? Music?
No--Not the silence of voice.
But the silence of dogma; of certainty; of success. The silence of premature meaning.
No Cricket—silence; reflection.
Not making sense of something that makes no since.
But just truth.
The truth of park benches and many thanksgivings past; and just being alive.
The truth of gratitude; of substance if nothing else.
Is God in pandemic?
Yes, of course!
Not in judgement, causality, or just plain meanness?
No—in love; in presence; in mercy; no—God—just is.
This is a hymn to use the words of the music scholar, Catherine Winksworth—of cross and comfort.
This is not hymnody—not music—with classical sophistication; not it is pastoral; it is reflected of life situations—a theology of pastoral presence.
Hymns of Cross and Comfort.
Thanksgiving; substance; no cheap grace; no banal platitudes.
The third and final stanza is not only a German Gloria Patri which offers praise to all Persons of the Trinity and offers acknowledges God’s eternal nature.
But—it is also in acknowledgement of the Park Bench; of People’s Place; of thrift stores, food pantries, shelters, food car lines in sports stadiums.
God is found there; God is in all.
Yes, let us give thanks for all we have.
And that—in truth—God Is—in all we have…
…….and all we face:
In the words of our closing hymn:j
All praise and thanks to God
The father now be given.
The Son, and him who reigns
With them in highest heaven.
The one eternal God.
Whom earth and heaven adore;
For thus it was , is now,
And shall be evermore.
What can we possibly be thankful for in 2020?
And we get…
A sermon preached by the Rev. Hugh E. Brown, III, D. Min, MSW, LSW in All Saints Episcopal Church, Princeton, NJ, during the Great Pandemic of 2020, Online, in Virtual Community, on September 13, 2020, Year A, Proper 19, Pentecost 15
“I am Free”
“How often should I forgive?”
I wanted to lead the therapy group in the smaller room—where—even with six--foot distance, there is a distinct since of intimacy.
When I was a clinical social work intern at Penn Medicine/Princeton House Behavioral Health, I loved that room on Wing 4.
The room itself was non-descript.
Institutional feel; plastic chairs; white walls. Window locked tight.
But it did have a soft rug; and the white walls were often covered with art, poems—created by the patients, offering both honesty and hope.
Honesty and hope; two qualities I would love to see more in the Church.
But always present among the ill and the scorned.
We need be, perhaps, more like that in the church—on the outside—not the inside; then maybe we will see Jesus a bit more.
So—that room; Somehow, I witnessed—even through the often angry, aggressive, avoidant and difficult behavior—behavior only understandable if one tried to understand narratives of abuse—truly magical things happen—in that room.
Things—that I could only attribute to a power greater than self; but a power only shared in the soft moments of vulnerability.
Things happening when quiet subsumed the room; and someone-perhaps for the first time in their lives—felt---care, felt like someone gave damn, felt understood—for the first time ever—felt—yes love.
I knew we would have to move the group if our numbers were greater than 5.
The numbers were---greater than 5.
So—we moved; into a larger space—the wing gathering space.
But, it did not matter.
Something came over the group in the smaller room; it carried over into the larger.
When connection happens—dear friends—it really does not matter whether it is an online platform—or a church sanctuary; I think we have learned that right?
So—I observed here; she had taken a place way towards the back of that common area of the wing; but she was still very much in the circle of sharing.
A member of the group had spoken of a painful telephone call with a parent.
“We yelled at each other; just like we always do.”
She told me, as always, that she was ashamed of me.
“I know I need to forgive her; I just can’t do that.”
And another patient.
“No one has ever forgiven me for anything; I don’t get any mercy.”
And then the spoke—the woman at the back.
“Freedom.” She said.
“What do you mean,” the unforgiving daughter said.
“I can’t talk about what I needed to forgive right now.”
“For me it was a long, long time. It was very painful; it was difficult.”
Don’t try to force it; it needs to come on its own; don’t let anyone tell you do to it—except on your own terms and times.
Women—we women—do it far too quickly and with too much pressure.
But I did.
And I’m free.
Not him; he is not free; he will never admit what he did.
But I am free.
And there it was—that soft, quiet space—where there is no need for resolution; for fixing anything; for forcing anything.
But perhaps room—where healing, where change, where understanding; where love—can grow.
God—I wish the Church can be like that. Or at least more like that.
The creation of space---healing space; sacred space; wherever it is—wherever there is hope and honesty—for growth.
What is forgiveness?
Or, we may ask, what did our Lord Jesus, the Holy One of God—mean by Forgiveness?
When our Lord was held as a child by the old man Simeon, we read that it was revealed to Simeon by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ.
A beautiful thing happens; Simeon holds and blesses Jesus and then asks, “to be set free.”
As translated in Rite I of the Book of Common Prayer in what is known as the Song of Simeon or the Nunc Dimittis, this line is a request, “Lord, now lettest thou they servant go in peace.”
In Rite II, the translation: “Lord, you now have set your servant free.”
“Now, you set free your servant, Lord.”
What do we say in the Lord’s prayer?
“Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
It is better translated, “set us from our debts,” just as we set our debtor’s free.”
Theologically, we are praying that God will free us—forgive us—as we forgive our neighbor.
But, existentially, we pray an eternal truth: we are free as we forgive our neighbor.
The freedom of forgiveness does not most powerfully happen to another who wounded us.
The release and freedom of forgiveness most profoundly and deeply happens in the heart of those offering forgiveness.
My friends, my sister patient at Princeton House was speaking the truth; she was free.
When she was able to forgive—no matter the difficulty, or the time needed, or pressure removed---she was free.
But such is also true.
Her brother patient was also speaking the truth; he was not free.
“No one has ever forgiven me; showed me mercy.”
Jesus was being real; when we do not extend forgiveness; the consequences are profound; and impactful.
“Whatever you mind on earth is bound in heaven; whatever you loose on earth is loosed in heaven.”
The story told by Jesus is more than moralism.
The story of the so--called Unmerciful Servant describes a world known certainly to slaves.
Where division between persons is the yeast of oppression.
Slavery thrives in a world where folks are divided against each other.
Perhaps only oppressed persons know the power of forgiveness; and perhaps that is why forgiveness is often proclaimed as the supreme virtue in communities of resistance.
God knows only the freedom which comes with release of pain, resentment and hatred---can provide a pathway to reconciliation and unity—which is the only power capable of resisting the oppressor.
Jesus usually teaches in symbols of contrast.
In the story outlined in our Gospel, Jesus contrasts the debts pardoned a man who could not pardon in return.
As one of the great Christian story-tellers, Fredrick Buechner, points out—the contrast is like a woman or a man forgiven a $600,000 mortgage payment.
This forgiven debtor then turns around----and demands a couple of dollars in rent from a tenant who could not pay—then evicting and tossing the guy into the street.
Do we need be reminded of the behaviors of the banks, the financiers, the malefactors of wealth during the financial crisis, forgiven billions and billions of dollars—and then often refusing to even refinance debt, let alone forgive it, for a few thousand dollars for homeowners and credit borrowers?
Do we need be reminded of the hosts of so-called Christian landlords, basking in the forgiveness of sin accorded them by Jesus Christ—then engaged in mass evictions.
Or the so-called evangelical Christians—forgiven in mercy—then caging children; and blocking refugees at the Mexican border.
Jesus, as always, uses economic and financial metaphors here for theology is often not real until it hits the pocketbook or our possession.
So, what IS forgiveness?
And what is the Debt? What is OWED by the perpetrator—of name the betrayal?
Justice. Fairness. Vengeance. Punishment. What is Owed. Name the language.
But the reality is the same.
“He or She DESERVES to hurt as I hurt.”
And beyond the language—name the emotion: Hate. Rage.
We don’t do very well with talking about strong feelings and emotions in the church
I think this is one reason Jesus told this story of forgiving and not forgiving in Matthew’s Gospel: to open the conversation about them.
Yes, we can know what it is like to be forgiven by God, by another—to be the recipients of forgiveness five times over!
But, when we are deeply wounded by another, it is as if we are indeed possessed.
Possessed by a force beyond our comprehension. It eats away like a cancer.
It turns us into mean and vicious folk.
Even a small dose of rage and hatred directed in our hearts at a perpetrator does this. It literally puts us into hell.
And it is tough to get out.
Yes, initially hate in the face of “the big- ticket items” provoking the need for forgiveness can give us strength and enable us to survive.
They can build the walls for us to cope.
Survivors of abuse can tell you that it was only hatred that enabled them to overcome feelings of powerlessness and helplessness.
Yes, God CAN use anything to get us through the tough times.
But hate or rage, needed as it may be—simply must go.
Now—here a caveat; to release through forgiveness does NOT mean continuing to stay in relationship which wounds and hurts—or even resuming such a relationship; it does not mean releasing a perpetrator from accountability by legal or moral justice.
It is from the heart—just as Jesus commanded.
It is freedom.
For her efforts to hide Jews from arrest and deportation during the German occupation of the Netherlands, Corrie ten Boom (1892-1983) received recognition from the Yad Vashem Remembrance Authority as one of the "Righteous Among the Nations" on December 12, 1967.
In resisting Nazi persecution, ten Boom acted in concert with her religious beliefs, her family experience, and the Dutch resistance.
Her defiance led to imprisonment, internment in a concentration camp, and loss of family members who died from maltreatment while in German custody.
After the war, ten Boom advocated reconciliation as a means for overcoming the psychological scars left by the Nazi occupation.
She later traveled the world as an evangelist, motivational speaker, and social critic, referring to her experiences in Ravensbrück as she offered solace to prisoners and protested the Vietnam War.
She later wrote of her own experience with the release of another from the debt of punishment.
“It was at a church service in Munich that I saw him, the former SS man who had stood guard at the shower room door in the processing centre at Ravensbruck.
He was the first of our actual jailers that I had seen since that time. And suddenly it was all there – the roomful of mocking men, the heaps of clothing, Betsie’s painblanched face.
He came up to me as the church was emptying, beaming and bowing. “How grateful I am for your message Fräulein”, he said “To think that, as you say, He has washed my sins away!”
His hand was thrust out to shake mine. And I, who had preached so often to the people in Bloemendaal the need to forgive, kept my hand at my side.
Even as the angry, vengeful thoughts boiled through me, I saw the sin of them. Jesus Christ had died for this man; was I going to ask for more? Lord Jesus, I prayed, forgive me and help me to forgive him. I tried to smile, I struggled to raise my hand. I could not. I felt nothing, not the slightest spark of warmth or charity.
And so again I breathed a silent prayer.
Jesus, I cannot forgive him. Give me Your Forgiveness.
As I took his hand the most incredible thing happened. From my shoulder along my arm and through my hand a current seemed to pass from me to him, while into my heart sprang a love for this stranger that almost overwhelmed me.
And so I discovered that it is not on our forgiveness any more than on our goodness that the world’s healing hinges, but on His. When He tells us to love our enemies, He gives, along with the command, the love itself.”
Can’t release another from debit?
From what is justly owed you.
But no longer serves you.
But God can….
We can always remember-with command, we always have the love itself; the ultimate power, end, and source.
A sermon preached by the Rev. Hugh E. Brown, III, D. Min, MSW, LSW in All Saints Episcopal Church, during the Great Pandemic of 2020, on Exodus 1:8—2:10, Year A, Proper 16 on August 23, 2020.
“She had compassion on him.”
A Tale of Five Women
During the hot summer of 1920, Tennessee hosted what became known as the War of the Roses.
Amending the United States Constitution granting women the right to vote had reached a crescendo.
The (male) politicians signaled their vote by the color of rose they wore in their lapels — yellow meant “Yes to ratification,” whereas red meant “No.”
It turned out that there were equal numbers of yellow and red roses dotting the lapels of Tennessee’s delegates.
On Aug. 18, 1920, freshman representative Harry T. Burn walked into the House of Delegates of TN-- sporting a red rose.
Twice that day he voted to keep the ratification off the docket altogether.
If Burn went against his red-rosed colleagues, he would surely lose re-election—right?
Yet, Burn carried with him a letter from his mother Febb Burn.
During a period of idle talk—Harry Burn pulled out the letter; he read:
“Your my boy; I’m counting on you; now you remember the ladies; you remember me.”
Red-rosed and all, Burn voted for ratification.
That November, despite his vote, he narrowly won re-election.
The actions of this Mom would not the first--or last time--feminine power confronted political power.
This past week, our nation observed the 100th anniversary of the ratification of 19th amendment—empowering women with the right to vote.
We not only remember white women like Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Staunton; we remember black women like Sojourner Truth and Ida B. Wells.
So—let us move to women-- mothers, sisters and midwives of the Bible.
“There arose a ruler in Egypt who knew not Joseph.”
Joseph’s family—the people of Israel—the family of a baby by the reeds of the Nile River—carries the Beloved Community of God --at this moment in human history.
What will become of this baby—this child? The Child of the Nile River Reeds? The child of the Basket?
In truth—the dream of God—as we have it in the Book of Exodus—rested on Mothering Love; on Sistering Love; on a network of women activists.
We might call the story read this morning from the second chapter of Exodus, a “Tale of Five Women.”
Yes, the women of Exodus 2 are the first liberators of the Hebrew people.
Who are they?
We find Hebrew Midwives-- Puah and Shiphrah--cleverly defying Pharaoh’s order to kill all the Hebrew babies at birth; they outwit the ruler of Egypt. Oh! As Howard Thurman, the great spiritual writer will note—deception is one of the most powerful tools of the oppressed.
We find “Holy Subterfuge” from the Underground railroad of the Ante-Bellum ere—to the Moms and Dads who sheltered vulnerable children during the era of 20th century holocaust and Fascism—to the Sanctuary Movement sheltering immigrants as we worship.
We learn of a Hebrew mother, later to be known as Jochebed; she realizes she can no longer hide her 3-month old son. She saves him the way powerless women have often had to save their sons and daughters—by giving him up.
The cries to God from mothers on the slave plantations of the 19th century---to the wailing of moms in detention centers on the Mexican border in the early 21st ---century testify to that. The literary giant Tony Morrison know the Moms of Beloved.
We encounter a sister of the vulnerable child of the basket---a woman to be known later in Exodus-- as Miriam.
This woman would celebrate her brother’s victory over Pharaoh at the Sea of Reeds, her people’s liberation from slavery, in dance and song.
In the wilderness she would eventually become among the leadership; also a victim of patriarchy there.
Miriam--the un-named sister of this story--resists murderous oppression—not in violence---but in wisdom, shrewdness, the wiles of woman, patient waiting, discernment---and, yes, love.
And, yes, we do encounter a woman of privilege.
Yet, she is also still a woman at the mercy of male rule; even more important, a woman at the mercy of her own class and political privilege.
We come to know the daughter of Pharaoh, later to be known in Hebrew Scriptures as Bithiah,
A woman of privilege, Bithiah, had a choice when she saw a baby by the Nile reeds; when she heard his cries.
She could have reported the threat and had him killed; or she could have transferred him into the Egyptian child welfare system; or she could have detained him in some kind of Egyptian warehouse.
As I write respected journalists are reporting that senior cabinet officials in the White House---at a meeting in the early spring of 2018--raised their hands in support of the now infamous human rights crime of child separation within refugee families.
In attendance was a least one woman of privilege; at least one daughter of Pharaoh; at least one mom. She raised no voice on behalf of the children in the baskets by the reeds of the Rio Grande.
But Bithiah did none of this.
What do we read? “She heard the cries of the baby; she took pity on him.”
The Hebrew word for what she did—her translated “pity,” is really the word, compassion.
It is like the compassion we find Jesus having for so many of the lost but not yet found.
Lepers; Women; Children; Foreigners; Outsides. Crowds of persons needing food.
Jesus had compassion them; “For they were like sheep without shepherds.”
If there is a word which might summarize the biblical message—it is this—compassion. To suffer with; to empathize with.
The Child in the basket of the Reeds of the Nile has a Shepherd.
How did this happen?
How did this woman move beyond murderous, callous, privilege to compassion—to empathy?
Had she lost a child?
Had she been raised by someone who taught her?
Was Egyptian culture more than the darkness described by its oppressed—with values of its better angels?
Like our own nation—were the Egyptian people a mix of both light and darkness—even with an “original sin” of slavery?
Did she simply have the character of something good and virtuous?
I think something else may have been at work.
An encounter with the sister of the basket child of the Nile River Reeds.
A sister named Miriam.
Here the words of Miriam to Bithiah:
Just one question: “Shall I go get a Nurse for you?”
The few words Miriam speaks proved critical.
The Egyptian princess, curious about the floating basket, had merely observed that the child was Hebrew.
“This must be one of the Hebrew’s children” could have meant, in light of her father’s edict, that someone needed to “dispose” of him.
But Miriam perhaps read a glimmer of pity in this woman’s face.
Without directly appealing for the child’s life—an act of treason—Miriam took a clever tack: she offered this woman in moral crisis an easy way to do the right thing. No ethical debate was necessary.
God had softened the woman’s heart; Miriam provided a practical way to obey that tug of conscience.
Neither had to speak an explicit word of treason in the presence of the others.
“Shall I go get you a nurse from the Hebrew Women?,” Miriam said.
The implication was: “You can save this child and can love him as your own.”
We, too, can use God-given ingenuity to make it easier for others to do the right thing.
Our job may be as simple as finding practical ways to educate our community—to call attention to the crying children needing justice—from Black children killed by racist systems—to Children detained in ages at Borders—to Children born of Opioid addiction prompted by Organized Money and Lies of Drug Companies.
“Here--let me offer you some information.”
That is what our “Courageous Conversations on racial Justice this August have tried to do—Lift up the Important Questions—establish connections; encourage us all to do the right thing.
Miriam said to Pharaoh’s daughter, “Can I find you a nurse?”
Ask critical questions in the spirit of Miriam dear friends!
Ask critical questions to the Daughters of Pharaoh!
“Can we see, and hear all around us as important? “Can we join God’s project for Freedom from the Exodus, to the First and Second Reconstruction, to a new Reckoning today? Can we defy unjust laws for the sake of freedom?
Can we build our own Underground Railroads for those seeking Sanctuary? Can we team together and be the network of deliverers of the new children of the Nile Reeds?”
Yes, ask the Critical questions! Not only to sisters and brothers of privilege; but to the daughters of Pharaoh within this?
We can be a conduit of freedom, justice, life!
Bithiah and Miriam forged a connection.
And liberation happened.
Bithiah lifted the baby out of the water, giving him life; giving him his name—Moses.
Jocehebed as his nurse.
A family reunited—even in oppression; for the hope of liberation.
As we witness the Wall of Moms in Holy Conspiracy and Connection protesting Police Brutality in Portland Organ, let close with this guided meditation; be still—dear friends; and pray with me:
You are standing at the edge of a River.
The Nile? The Rio Gande? The Delaware?
You notice a basket in the Water.
It floats—gently—with great vulnerability.
You suddenly become aware you are responsible for this basket.
You must be protective of it.
What is your responsibility? To it? For it?
Imagine a symbol of this responsibility in the basket.
You watch; you wait.
Now, think of those who might help you. Who can support you?
What connections do you have? Must you make?
But above all—Ask the Critical Question:
Shall I get you a Nurse?
So—my friends in Christ—What Questions Will We Ask?
Sermon for the 7th Sunday of Easter/Sunday After Ascension Day, Year A, Acts 1: 6-14, by the Rev. Hugh E. Brown, III, D. Min, MSW, LSW, Rector, All Saints Parish, Princeton on May 24, Memorial Day weekend during the Great Pandemic of 2020
“Why do you stand looking up towards heaven?”
Signs in Love; Hearts with Hands
Some of us might remember the very first time we learned of Jesus.
Or one of the first times did we.
Or the first time we thought of Jesus.
Or the first time we remembered being taught the Christian faith.
I do remember such a time.
It might not have been the first time I thought about Jesus.
But it was pretty close.
My grandfather had died only a few months before.
Although I was only about 3 years old, I recall it was a very difficult time for my mother; and my family.
It is amazing what very young children can remember.
My grandfather was an Episcopal Priest; for over 20 years, he served as the Rector of Christ Church in Roanoke, Virginia.
I don’t recall the precise circumstances, but I was sitting in the nave of Christ Church during what I remember as a summer vacation bible school program.
My mother was with me.
Perhaps I still sensed my grandfather’s presence there; or I did through my mom—who was devoted to him.
To this Day, it is very difficult for my mom to hear the music associated with Easter, especially the hymn, The Strive is Ore, the Battle Won; this hymn and other Easter hymns were played at his funeral.
I have never asked that this hymn be played in the churches I have served; although Music Directors have offered it; it is still very difficult for me to hear.
This was the first time I can recall—that I observed anything about a church; anything.
Or, remembered something associated with Jesus.
Behind the Christ Church altar, for many years, was a huge replica of the painting, Transfiguration, by Raphael. It was his last painting before his premature death at age 37.
Transfiguration by Raphael is also often depicted as a painting for Ascension; because it does seem to show Jesus descending into the clouds.
That is what I noticed when I sat in the church with my mom; looking at that painting.
I don’t recall the precise back and forth with my mom but it went something like this:
*Is that Jesus?
*He is walking in the sky.
*Yes, but he is in heaven with God.
*Where is that?
*I’m not sure; but it is a very peaceful place.
*Is that where Granddad is?
*I’d like to go there to see him.
*He must be O.K. now.
*Yes, he is with Jesus.
*Jesus must be very good.
What I took away from that early memory of our Lord—was not so much about heaven; or the sky.
It was that Jesus was peaceful and kind and good. And my grandfather was with him.
You see—my grandfather suffered much before he died; cancer is an awful disease; now and then.
And my grandmother’s alcoholism was particularly bad during this time; although before she died, thank goodness, she was better—a bit; and I have good memories of her too.
Jesus; calm, peace; goodness.
For a kind yearning for some security and stability—and who missed and still missed his grandfather—that painting by Rafael must indeed have made an impact.
I have never been particularly drawn to the story of the Ascension.
Growing up in a more Protestant, Low Church, style of Christianity, I never learned much about the many of the Feast Days associated with a more Catholic side of Christianity.
To be honest, I can associate the Ascension with a more ethereal, stairway to heaven kind of Christianity; when my own theology and passions--as person drawn to the study of Christian ethics and to issues of social justice and peace—rest with earth—not so much heaven.
Today, on the 7th Sunday of Easter, and the Sunday following Ascension Day, we read, as we did on Ascension Day, the story of Jesus, in the words of our collect, “exalted with great triumph to God, the King of Glory.”
This story is found in the Acts of the Apostles—the second of two volumes by St. Luke, continuing his Gospel.
The foundational text from Acts; “As the apostles were watching, he was lifted up, and a could took him out of their sight.”
No wonder that so many churches use Rafael’s Transfiguration to depict the Ascension with Jesus lifted to the clouds.
Despite my probably not being the only Christian who relegates this story to often disinterest—the story of the Ascension is one of the pivotal stories of Christian faith.
It has found a way into our Creeds; both the Nicene Creed and Apostles Creed read:
“He Ascended into Heaven; and is seated at the Right hand of the Father.”
The Ascension also forges the transition from Easter to Pentecost with Jesus’s ascent to his Father in heaven---but (!!) with the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles—and the forever mission statement for those in the apostolic succession and for all Christians.
For we read this too-in Acts depicting the Ascension of Jesus to God the Father.
“You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
“You will be my witnesses.”
Our primary mission statement, regardless of congregation or Diocese is this from the Book of Common Prayer.
“The Mission of the Church is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.”
We also read this within the Acts Story of the Ascension:
“While he was going and they were gazing up towards heaven, suddenly two mean in white robes stood by them. They said, Apostles of Galilee—why do you stand looking up toward heaven?”
Sisters and brothers in Christ—the great paradox of the Ascension is found in the truth that Jesus, in the words of a poet, is now given to us and to our world in a more universal way.
Jesus’s ascension, as both human and divine in the Incarnation—means a deep descent into humanity here on earth.
The Holy Spirit invites us into the depths of human transformation—both given and received.
My memory of the Raphael painting as a kid in Christ Church, Roanoke was certainly a comforting thought of heaven—and my grandfather resting with Jesus.
But it was also my knowing Jesus was with me; on earth; in that Church; kind, good, and peaceful.
Jesus, I knew, could offer me peace and calm and friendship in painful memory; but also in hope that goodness is always the most real truth.
It was almost that a voice in that Church—to a 3 year old-an angelic voice—was saying—don’t just look up to Jesus in the clouds.
Look around at the Church; notice your mom beside you; notice other kids in VBS with you; no your grandfather’s memory rests here; notice, above all—I am with you here—in the things of peace.
A poet takes the metaphor of the Ascension clouds in scripture and art to write this:
“Whilst we ourselves become his clouds of witness.”
Jesus is not just with God in heaven.
Through the Incarnation, through humanity, in the power of the Spirit, Jesus is now fully at work in our world=--through you—through me—and through all humanity—in Jerusalem, in Judea, in Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.
Today, on this Memorial Day weekend, we certainly remember those who have given their lives in the service to our nation and world.
We know them as forever engraved in the Vietnam War Memorial and the World War II memorial; we remember them in the Civil Rights Memorial.
But we also remember---during this time of Pandemic--all our health care providers first responders and so many others—have given their lives; and continue to put their lives at risk
When Rene Johnson was admitted to Catholic Medical Center in Manchester, his five children and their families quickly set up camp in the parking lot to show their support.
They couldn’t visit him inside due to restrictions, but for the past two weeks, they remained committed to waiting outside, and soon struck up a bond with the nurses treating Johnson.
The nurses would come to window and wave hello while posting updates on Johnson’s condition through signs they’d tape to the window that said things like, “We will tell him you love him. We will hold his hand.”
Johnson’s health took a turn for the worse, however, and he died on this past Sunday.
As they have been for the past few weeks, the nurses were ready with a pair of signs.
“He is at peace,” the signs read. “We are so sorry.”
For Johnson’s son Kevin, the gesture meant more than he could express.
“Words can’t tell you enough what these people did for my father. I really consider them really lucky to be able to hold my old man’s hand when I really wish I could’ve held his hand and kissed him.
They’re the heroes in this. I just can’t believe what they did for us, and I’ll just never forget it. Just thank you from the bottom of my heart.”
As a way of showing their gratitude, the Johnson family has continued to congregate outside the hospital even after their father’s passing as a means of showing support for the nurses.
The nurses responded through the window by making little hearts with their hands
When I saw Rafael’s painting in Christ Church—I did not know that I saw only part of it.
You see, if you remember the story of the Transfiguration, when Jesus and his disciples descend the mount after his moment of glory in the clouds, they come upon a boy living with a condition in need of healing.
They descend into the human condition.
Real Transfiguration is the meeting of humanity in healing and love.
Real Ascension is signs saying. We will hold his hand; we will tell him you love him.
Real Ascension is making hearts with hands…..to show support to heroes and healers …………on this Memorial Day.
For the poet writes,
We saw his light break through the cloud of glory
Whilst we were rooted still in time and place
As earth became a part of Heaven’s story
And heaven opened to his human face.
We saw him go and yet we were not parted
He took us with him to the heart of things
The heart that broke for all the broken-hearted
Is whole and Heaven-centred now, and sings,
Sings in the strength that rises out of weakness,
Sings through the clouds that veil him from our sight,
Whilst we our selves become his clouds of witness
And sing the waning darkness into light,
His light in us, and ours in him concealed,
Which all creation waits to see revealed .
Proper 6, Year A
“Sarah’s Laugh and Hope for Racial Justice”
Can you remember a time in your life when bad things just wouldn’t relent? Where you weathered storm after storm of heartbreak, or disappointment. And just when you think you’ve reached the limit, just when you think nothing else could make things worse, life shows how creative it is and another shoe drops. That what this year has felt like to me. And these past few weeks have been the most difficult ones.
I think that we find Sarah in a similar place in our lectionary today. She’s had an unreasonably rough go at life. She left her home to travel with her husband to the land that God had promised him, and along the way, when they were immigrants in Egypt, her husband lied about being married to her and she was taken away to be with Pharaoh. After that her nephew is taken captive and needs to be rescued by her husband, and after this is the first mention of her infertility. Her drive to give Abraham a son drives her to do incredibly cruel things to her slave Hagar, who does give birth to Ishmael at the cost of Sarah’s never-ending resentment toward her. When we come to our text for today, Sarah is ninety-years old. She has been trying for who-knows-how-many decades to try and have a child. Nothing she has done has worked. She and Abraham have finally given up. They’re just too old.
The Bible doesn’t go into much detail about why Sarah didn’t have children, but I know a few women who have been in a similar situation. It easy to skip over the details and just say Sarah was barren, as the Bible does, but the women I know who have a much more complex, much more heartbreaking story to tell. It is a situation fraught with unfulfilled hopes, false positive pregnancy tests and oftentimes miscarriages. And she had been bearing this broken hope through all the terrible things in her life.
Many commentators read Sarah’s laugh as a sign of her inferior faith. I don’t think that Sarah’s laugh was a laugh of disbelief. I believe it was a laugh born out of pain. A laugh that covered up years of disappointment of trying for a baby, to bring new life into the world. I think it was a laugh meant to minimize her own hope, so that when it was again left unrealized she could comfort herself in the fact that she thought it was all silliness in the first place.
I hear a laugh like Sarah’s today. I hear a laugh that tries to distance America from it’s own broken hope. America has tried to forget the false positives of new life that the Civil Rights movements tried to bring, the miscarriages of justice that we see caught on camera on our Facebook feeds, and the many that are not recorded by a bystander. We have not been able to bring new life into the country in the midst of such obvious racial terrorism. So instead, we try to cover up racial trauma, so when it inevitably fails after years and decades of trying to bring new life into this country, we can say, “it was just a silly hope anyways”. Sometimes hopelessness is easier to bear than broken hope.
It is easier to believe that the mysterious stranger is lying than that there is a new life on the way. It is easier to believe that we have already achieved racial justice than confront the reality of white supremacy in America. It is easier to believe that they must have done something to deserve what the police did to them than face the possibility of police brutality. It is easier to believe that some black folks are just lying about their traumatic experiences than realize that we have been complicit in America’s racial terrorism. It is easier to not believe than embrace a broken hope.
“The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons.”
I am continually baffled at the things I find that Jesus himself commands of us. I would like them to be something like, study theology vigorously or attend church regularly, or donate this much of your money to good causes, but that is not what Jesus asks of us. Jesus asks us to cure the sick, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons, and raise the dead. These are not reasonable demands.
There this exchange in one of my favorite books, called The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, you might have heard of it. The Pevensie children have just been taken in by Mr. and Mrs. Beaver, and they are all trying to find a way to save their friend, Mr. Tumnus, who has been taken by the White Witch. Mrs. Beaver remarks about this mysterious being called Aslan, and upon finding out that Aslan is not a person, but instead a Lion, Lucy Pevensie asks if he is safe to be around. ‘“Safe?”, said Mr. Beaver, “who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he is good.”’
When we ask, “thy kingdom come, thy will be done” I want us to know what we’re asking for. God does not ask for reasonable or safe things from us. God asks for good things from us. *pause*
So how do we bring the kingdom of God near? How can we raise George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, and so, so many others from the dead? I can’t say that I know much about raising people from the dead. But Jesus knows about resurrection. Jesus, who was unjustly detained by his government. Jesus, who was lynched on the hill of Calvary at the hands of Roman officers. Jesus is the resurrection. So let’s start there, with the resurrection of justice. It is time for us to embrace the broken hope for racial justice again.
I know many people in this congregation have been asking the crucial question, so what do we do? Let me tell you there is so much that we can do. The first thing, for white folks especially, is to talk to each other about race. Beloved, we must talk about how anti-black racism has formed us if we are ever going to address the system. What has kept us from seeing racial terrorism? What has kept us from believing black folk’s stories about their treatment in America?
I have so many stories about the times I’ve messed up trying to be a white ally. Times when I have said something wrong and hurtful, and I didn’t even realize I did, but regardless of my intention I hurt someone else. Times that I have gotten defensive and even angry when someone pointed out that what I said or believed fed into the racist systems around us, that it stopped me from understanding my part in the systems. And many, many moments where I have stayed silent when I should have spoken up because I was too afraid of saying the wrong thing. I know that what comes ahead of us is not easy. And it certainly doesn’t feel safe. But what God asks of us is not safe.
While you are working to learn about both the racism in yourself and in America’s systems, I would ask you to also be mindful of the boundaries of Black folks and other people who have suffered racism. They are in so much pain. Now might not be the time they want to educate you. Oftentimes they have to relive the racial trauma they have experienced when they talk about racism, and that is what you ask of them when you ask them to teach you about racism in America. Respect the space they need for their mourning, and the space they need for their anger. Instead, there is a wealth of Black authors, leaders, and theologians who have written books and made podcasts and videos to help us work against anti-black racism.
But talking is not all we can be doing, or all that we should be doing. In this next week, I encourage* you to learn one new thing about the systems of racism, and then do one thing about it. You can learn about how the systems of policing and punishment affect Black communities disproportionately, and then donate to bail funds for protestors who are now caught up in this system. You can learn about how COVID-19 infects and takes the lives of Black folks at a higher rate than white folks, and then support organizations that work to remedy this disparity. You can learn about events in history like Black Wall Street, or even the history of Princeton itself, where the success and flourishing of Black folks is destroyed and taken by their government. And then write to or call your local officials, your mayors, senators, and other representatives to petition to make our laws and our society safer for them.
To my friends who are listening who are have suffered from racial trauma, I know that it is not my place to instruct you, to tell you how to feel or act. But I hope you feel the Spirit of God with you this week. I hope you feel her strength in you when you choose to fight. I hope you feel her comfort when you choose to rest. I hope you can rest in the truth that no matter what anyone says, no matter what the world does to you, you are a beloved child of God. You are worth fighting for.
Hope is a heavy weight to carry. This is going to be hard. And when it is hard, I hope you remember the words that God says to Sarah when she could not bear to hope in the promise of new life again, “Is there anything too wonderful for the Lord?” Amen.
6/28 Pride Month Reflection by Tommy O'Malia
As many people know, June is known and celebrated as LGBTQ+ Pride Month in celebration and commemoration of the Stonewall Riots. Mostly when people think of Pride Month, they think of all the companies slapping rainbows on everything, or parades with the different community flags waving high. Many in generations before mine remember Pride in its various stages of growth and development, LGBT+ rights changing as the years passed.
But of course, we all also see those on the other side, those protesting against our equality and trying to marginalize the global LGBTQ+ community. Often times, these protesters cite religious texts and spew hateful rhetoric pitting God against us as people, which paints a terrible picture of religion in general. Those of us in the LGBT+ community all have our war stories, and today I would like to share mine.
I grew up the youngest in a very large Catholic family. I still enjoy the surprised looks on people’s faces when I tell them I’m the youngest of 9 kids.
We all went to church every Sunday, we did not eat meat on Fridays YEAR ROUND, and we had enough spare rosaries and holy candles to supply the entire Vatican.
When I was young, I was inspired by the way the stories were told about miracles and good deeds. My faith was strong, and religion was part of my daily life in my household. As I grew to adolescence, I started listening more to the readings and sermons to find inspiration when I was troubled, and began noticing discrepancies between the standards set for my behavior and how few people were even trying to live up to them.
One incident that stuck with me - a Priest falling asleep during confession – was disheartening, but at least I know whatever I was doing back then wasn’t all that bad.
I gave the priest the benefit of being human, where was my leeway? Where was my permission to be different when everyone else around me got to pick and choose what they adhered to from the Bible?
Disenfranchised with church, started going just to avoid getting in trouble, not because I sought enlightenment. The more I listened, the more I heard those around me devaluing other religions, alienating those who were different, and encouraging the subservience of women to their husbands.
As I started understanding myself as gay, I became less comfortable every time I stepped in the church because I knew that I didn’t belong there and would be shamed if the truth were known. My eyes opened to the hypocrisy of it all, and I felt trapped in it.
For my freshman year of college, my parents convinced me to go to a catholic college in Ohio. I decided that I would not hide my true self from friends out there, even if it put myself overwhelmingly in the minority. There were uncomfortable moments filled with difficult conversations related to my sexuality, and I can’t even count how many times it was reiterated to me that it was completely unacceptable for me to be just like everyone else except gay.
At that school, I met someone who instantly became my best friend, Mike. He was also gay, and had similar issues reconciling his faith with his sexuality. He had even undergone conversion therapy and used many means to repress his desires because that’s what religion demanded of him. We spent many hours in the dead of night talking about our faith and how we could reconcile it with who we really were.
I eventually saw the efforts as futile, and shoved the whole argument aside to just live my life in blissful indifference.
That winter I met a man with whom I fell instantly in love, Kevin, despite the fact that he told me he worked for both a church and a synagogue. As someone who was really on the fence about religions, that made for a lot of awkward conversations. But it started me down a path that I didn’t realize would really change my life.
But then the worst happened.
Despite the support we gave each other and the support of his family, Mike struggled with greater difficulty to come to terms with himself and his place in religion and with God. His numerous struggles led to a spiraling drug addiction which eventually claimed his life. It was catastrophic to us, those who loved him.
At first, after all the pain, I felt numb and my faith was reduced to the simple acknowledgement of God’s existence.
But then I felt angry – angry at those who made him feel unworthy, angry at anyone who dared call themselves Christian, proclaiming to love everyone until they find someone who’s not quite their brand of Christian and then turning their backs. I had no trust for church leaders or congregations after that. I learned to separate my faith completely from religion in all its forms, deciding that my belief in God was too important to be guided by the flawed views of other people.
Even at the church where I was about to be married, I would not officially join them as a member because I couldn’t risk trusting someone with my now-fragile faith. I simply wanted official church blessings binding my husband and myself in the eyes of God.
In my guarded soul, it was easiest to wait for God to speak to me directly than to determine if I was truly hearing him through someone else. When I was praying, and praying for real, not just the passing prayer to get out of work early, I could feel a space filling inside me and it was overwhelming every time. Sometimes there would be places where I could feel God’s presence, and that same place inside me would be overflowing.
It took me longer than I care to admit to realize that this was a God-shaped hole in me, a festering wound that I neglected by believing I could live without God as a positive force in my life. It didn’t mean that I had to base my life around religion, but that I needed to make sense of my faith.
The defining revelation of my faith was when I asked myself what I believed, and if I could go back and witness the crucifixion of Christ and confirm the accounts of the Bible, would I?
At first, I didn’t say ‘No.’ But then I realized, it doesn’t matter. The point is that the Message happened, That Message exists in the interpretations of many religions, even non-Christian, and it shaped the course of history and shapes the lives of billions.