All Saints' Church

Princeton, NJ

Sermons

Sermon 9/13/2020

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.”

Or

“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?

Release—Liberation-from Debt!

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.

No—you can’t.

But God can….

We can always remember-with command, we always have the love itself; the ultimate power, end, and source.

Sermon 8/23/2020

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.

Or nothing--.

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.

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 5/24/2020

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?

*Yes

*He is walking in the sky.

*Yes,  but he is in heaven with God.

*Where is that?

*Silence.

*I’m not sure;  but it is a very peaceful place.

*Is that where Granddad is?

*Yes.

*I’d like to go there to see him.

*I know

*He must be O.K. now.

*Yes, he is with Jesus.

*Jesus must be very good.

*He is.

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 .

Sermon 6/14/2020

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.

Sermon 6/28/2020

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.

We find true fulfillment  in acts that help each other, in supporting each other and becoming better people. Our lives become enriched by the people in them and by what we do for others. Ask yourself, “Is what I’m about to do going to truly help someone?” That’s what God asks of us. The rest of the minutiae just falls away. The differences between us, the differences in who we have faith in or where we pray stop mattering.

God won’t sent a giant finger descending through the clouds to be our miracle. The miracles are us, the people we meet every day.

The Stonewall Riots didn’t start a revolution because people were waiting. Marsha P. Johnson didn’t throw the first brick just to fix her own life, she did it to bring justice for all of us. Martin Luther King Junior, Rosa Parks, all the champions of civil and human rights, even today in the Black Lives Matter movements, weren’t in it for themselves, it was for justice for all of the marginalized.

They weren’t sitting on the bench waiting for a miracle, they decided to be one for others.

THAT is a kind of faith we can all get behind. It stopped all of my doubts, it secured my faith in God and started filling that empty space inside me, slowly healing the wounds.

We feel God’s love by being God’s love for others. HELPING PEOPLE. It’s not about a denomination, it’s not about a deity, it doesn’t even require you to believe in God, and to many it’s even just plain common sense. It gives us the leeway to be human, which also means growing out of outdated ideas and learning from our mistakes.

How does this relate to Pride?

As I mentioned earlier, those loud, hateful voices spewing religious rhetoric against the LGBT+ community put a terrible stigma on religion, and by relation the very notion of belief in God or any other deity. Many have suffered from not being able to find their way, and like Mike, the despair can claim their lives.

This simple message of being God’s love for others breaks through those hateful voices, giving hope for those who have been made to feel unworthy of God’s love or for those who don’t feel worth anything at all.

When we as a church community spread that message, we inspire those around us to have Pride in themselves and to be positive forces for their communities.

When I started listening to that message and acting on it, I became a better person, a better friend, a better husband, better uncle, and hopefully soon a good father.

I started believing in people again, and saw the All Saints’ community as one who does and will continue to be that inspiration and love for their community.

I even joined the staff to help reach out to the LGBT+ community, breaching through the stigmas against faith and religion to show the good we can embody as people.

I have Pride as a gay man, not because I feel that I am better or worse than someone else, but because I have faced and overcome the challenges that kept me from being the strongest and truest version of myself.

I show my Pride so that those around me know I will help them face their challenges, and to help be an example of love and compassion in a world where fear and hate are used to divide us.

I stand with Pride to show that I won’t be beaten by adversity.

I walk with Pride because I want to lead people into a future of unity and equality.

I serve at this church with Pride because I believe in what we, as a community, can do for those in need around us and the hope we can provide for them.

And I say with Pride, my name is Tommy O’Malia, I am a happily married and openly gay man, and All Saints’ Church is my home.

Sermon 5/17/2020

A sermon preached by the Rev. Hugh E. Brown, III, D. Min, MSW, LSW, Rector, in All Saints Episcopal Church, Princeton, NJ on May 17, the 6th Sunday of Easter Year A, on John 14: 15-21, during the Great Pandemic of 2020

“He will give you…..another Advocate…..to be with You.”

                                      Advocates of Solidarity

I was sharing online Spiritual Direction with one of my soul-friends this past week.

.Spiritual Direction, in my mind, is mutual availability.

My spiritual friend was reflecting on her great discomfort and outright pain with a workplace conflict. 

So often—our life experiences, most often provocative ones—offer the deepening of prayer and spirt

I won’t go into detail; this Pandemic crisis time--is provoking all kinds of emotional and spiritual challenges.

There are spiritual friends and colleagues in my parish family who are sharing some workplace anxiety during the pandemic.

Fear, uncertainty, and insecurity are petri dishes of anxiety.

As we all know, anxiety is the fuel for conflict because it diminishes our responsiveness.

We are not centered; we are not trustful; we are not open—when we are anxious.

And, my friends, we are more prone to anxiety when we feel alone.

Jesus knew this:  loneliness provokes anxiety; this, in return—diminishes—our response and availability.

That is why—just before he was to leave his disciples—he made them a promise

Please take note—dear friends—what Jesus promised.

Jesus says, “I will leave you with the Advocate.”

The Advocate; that is a provocative metaphor for the Holy Spirit.

What is an Advocate?

Is it nothing less than a person to stand up and speak on their behalf?

A person to care for them and watch out for them?

A person to move mountains and obstacles out of the way.

Another person who will speak the truth and one whom they will know—because He will abide in them.

The Advocate is responsive;  available.

Is not this the kind of Advocate we know during our “Intentional or Spiritual Eucharist” each Sunday?

Dear friends—there are so many who perceive graphic loneliness and isolation during this crisis time.

Think of those dying alone;  but also think of those who dare to enter into this condition of death—who offer hearts, hands and souls at great risk of life.

As we worship this morning—at this very second—there are sisters and brothers, beyond any faith tradition—who are risking their lives to offer a gift of immeasurable human connection to another human being; in an ICU;  or in a Detention Center or Prison;  in a homeless camp somewhere in Trenton.

Each Friday, a young adult member of St Mary’s Catholic church and her youth group to come the Breezeway doors of this parish to pick up non-perishable foods to those who can not even access a food pantry or food bank;

For those who have COVID or are in Quarantine because of it.

For those who have no access to transportation; or who are simply too depressed and anxious to make the trip.

As I write there are those across the political spectrum, who are advocating for those most impacted by this Pandemic.

Advocating especially for a more just and caring nation that may emerge;  where food security and medical care are human rights.

Our Baptismal Covenant, particularly in the midst of a national health crisis—calls us to strive for justice and peace among all people; this is a non-negotiable for Christians.

And as I write dear friends, let us be clear; Christ moves among us in all humanity; beyond any religion—Christianity included; Christ does not confine herself to Christianity;  Christ moves in all.

In this crisis, the only sins recognized by the church, repented by the Church need be exclusion and dearth….of love.

In a few more minutes into this service, we will share, as we have since Palm Sunday and Holy Week’s beginning, Holy Communion by Intention.

The rubric from the Book of Common Prayer for Communion by Intention is printed in the bulletin each Sunday:

If a person desires to receive the Sacrament, but, by reason of extreme sickness of physical disability, is unable to eat and drink the Bread and Wine, the Celebrant is to assure that person that all the benefits of Communion are received, even though the Sacrament is not received with the mouth. (BCP, 457)

In a rather extraordinary commentary on “Intentional” or “Spiritual Communion” written in the Living Church……..Julia Gatta…… the Professor Pastoral Theology at the Episcopal Seminary of the University of the South in Sewanee….writes:

Communion by Intent is no empty gesture.

It bespeaks a confidence in God’s love for all;  all humanity.

We all are not alone.

In one of his talks, Thomas Merton described the process this way:

In prayer we discover what we already have through the indwelling Spirit of God and our incorporation through baptism into Christ.

This union can, as in any love relationship, be enhanced and deepened. Hence the practice of prayer, including spiritual Communion.

“The Mass on the World” by French Jesuit priest and paleontologist Teilhard de Chardin witnesses to the depths to which spiritual Communion can plumb.

He composed this prose-prayer on the steppes of Asia on the Feast of the Transfiguration of our Lord in 1923 when he found himself without the needed elements to celebrate Mass.

He was instead moved to “make the whole earth my altar” at daybreak to offer God “all the sufferings and labours of the world.”

 As de Chardin moves from “The Offering” to “Communion” and “Prayer,” he lays bare his love for God, for suffering humanity, and for a creation shot through with the presence of Christ (Hymn of the Universe).

Dear friends in Christ of All Saints Church……

Our church buildings are closed, and they will probably remain closed until the danger has passed.

We are in new territory here as citizens of this country, as citizens of the world, and as citizens of the kingdom of God.

We have perhaps learned to appreciate the “physical presence of other Christians” as never before.

 But the economy of the kingdom of God is of a different order, and the Eucharist participates even now in that heavenly realm.

 If our situation allows us in the present constrained circumstances to receive the Sacrament, we should do so, more cognizant that ever of the extraordinary gift of Christ.

When we are united to Christ in Holy Communion, we are united to one another in the whole communion of saints, in heaven and on earth.

My Soul Friend in Spiritual Direction was actually studying, John, Chapter 15.j

But she was having a hard time thinking about herself as the one promised an Advocate.

She felt very alone; she felt very vulnerable;  she felt her professional life was under assault by another.

She felt resigned;  a bit powerless.

Then she remembered something.

Wonderful actually.

She remembered that she was not alone.

She had advocates; she has persons to speak up for her.

She had colleagues who were available to her; who cared about her.

Who would be available to  her.

What a marvelous gift!

To understand we are not alone.

Especially when we are tempted to think otherwise.

Perhaps this is the kind of Advocate Frederick Buechner wrote about his is work, Telling Secrets.

The book is about Buechner struggling with his daughter’s life-threatening eating disorder, which morphed in to full-blown anorexia and prompted her hospitalization.

Where is God in all of this, Buechner asked?

He writes:   I remember sitting parked by the roadside once, terribly depressed and afraid about my daughter’s illness and what was going on in our family, when out of nowhere a car came along down the highway with a license plate that bore on it the one word out of all the words in the dictionary that I needed most to see exactly then.

The word was TRUST. What do you call a moment like that? Something to laugh off as the kind of joke life plays on us every once in a while?

The word of God? I am willing to believe that maybe it was something of both, but for me it was an epiphany.

The owner of the car turned out to be, as I’d suspected, a trust officer in a bank.

Not long ago, having read an account I wrote of the incident somewhere, he found out where I lived and one afternoon brought me the license plate itself,.

It now sits propped up on a bookshelf in my house to this day. It is rusty around the edges and a little battered, and it is also as holy a relic as I have ever seen.

“I will send you…another Advocate.”

We have one—always.

We are NOT (!) alone.

We are NEVER (!) alone.

Thanks be to God.

Sermon 5/3/2020

A sermon preached by the Rev. Hugh E. Brown, III, D. Min, MSW, LSW, Rector, All Saints Episcopal Church, on the 4th Sunday of Easter, during the COVID-19 Pandemic, May 3, 2020 in All Saints Episcopal Church, Princeton, NJ on the 23rd Psalm.

“Thy Rod and Thy Staff, they Comfort Me.”

                             Not a Rose Garden but a Garden of Gethsemane

A friend and colleague recently e-mailed me following his return to work from leave of absence.

My colleague wrote the following regarding his experience.

“The only thing I can say now is that the journey has been arduous and full of light; contrasting sharply to the time of the valley of the shadow;  that’s for sure; that is what PTSD is.”

My colleagues words brought to mind the words from the 23rd Psalm; words I draw from the good ole Authorized Version or King James Version of the bible:  “Yea thought I walk through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, I will fear no evil; for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.”

Some commentary on Psalm 23 illuminates some wise words of my colleague. 

In my decades as an ordained Priest in the Episcopal Church, I have experienced so many parish families requesting Psalm 23 for funerals;  it offers immeasurable comfort to many.

For Psalm 23 concludes with this affirmation:  “I will dwell in the House of the Lord, forever.”

What comes to mind for you when you hear those words?  Just remain with them in silence for a few seconds (silence).

Especially for families who have experienced their loved one’s journey through suffering—and certainly the journey though death often includes immense suffering—Psalm 23 provides deep assurance that this suffering is now over;  a loved one is now finally in peace and comfort with God.

Yes, we often associate Psalm 23 with promise of eternal life.  That is well and good.

But, what do you hear in the following words?

“Yea, though I walk through the Valley of the Shadow of death.”  Just remain in these words with silence for a few seconds?

“The Valley of the Shadow of Death.” 

Danger;  whoever wrote this Psalm knew danger;  whoever wrote this Psalm knew the risks of life in an agricultural society; where she or he experienced the risk of livestock at the mercy of predators.

She or he who wrote these words knew the risks of a society at perpetual war;  she or he knew the risks of illness;  the risk of vulnerability to robbery and assault; the risks of an early death.

My friend no doubt associated The Valley of the Shadow of Death with Trauma;  with what it like when life freezes—to  use the words of a theologian;  think trauma.

He said that is what PTSD is—akin to a Valley of the Shadow of death.

“Shadows.”  When I was a kid—the shadows were kind of scary;  at night—they seemed at times to live and breathe;  they surrounded;  the engulfed.

Now—for me—shadows are more about peace; about mystery;  a collect for evening prayer offers thanksgiving for shadows of the evening.

But more than one health care workers has spoken of the “shadow of death.” Shadows are appropriate things to fear;  when they stalk; when the follow;  when the permeate with a thick coating of heaviness and anxiety.

Are not we living in Trauma now?  I pastoral theologian shared with me this week that the Trauma all around us feels like Fog; Like Mist; it is heavy with danger; and yes, with death.

Fog—Shadow;  things of peace; ominous portents of dread too.

One ICU nurse working with COVID patients recalls the Shadow of her patient night after night—between life and death.

So--what are we promised by the Psalmist in this time of Trauma?

We are promised---presence.

Presence.

The presence of a Shepherd.

The presence of a Shepherd God.

What does a Shepherd do within biblical dialogue?

A shepherd vocation was for the provision and protection of the sheep.  In the words of one commentator, a Shepherd pastured the flock, led them in the right way, fended off predators.

I was dangerous work; it was often associated with rough customers; with what might now be called the working class.

Shepherds were the essential workers of their day.  And often the most at risk.

“Thou art with Me.”

Is that enough?

Presence?

The Presence of a Shepherd.

Of the Rod and Staff-the Shepherd’s instruments—for protection—against predators?

I think of all who are simply present in trauma.

Pandemic-or otherwise.

What is their Rod and Staff?

What is the Shepherd God’s protection?

I said earlier that my friend offered some words of wisdom in phrasing his journey of recovery from Trauma—to “Light” in the Valley of the Shadow.

The wisdom?

Remember his words, “Arduous and Full of Light.”

His he on to something here?

What might he mean by Arduous and Full of Light?

I don’t think—and I could be wrong—he means relief from suffering.

Or even liberation from Trauma.

Certainly not freedom from difficulty.

I think he does mean Presence.

Light within the Shadow.

Not simply the Shadow.

Light within the Valley.

Life within Death.

“For thou art with me;  I will fear no evil.”  What comes to mind for you when you hear those words?

What is the evil we fear?

Is it illness?

Is it Pandemic?

Is it unemployment?

Is it death?

Or is it….walking alone?

Walking in stigma? Walking in desolation?  Walking in Despair?  Waiting for no one?

What is our protection?

Oh yes, it can be recovery from illness; but not always.

It can a cure; but not always.

It can be a fix; but not always.

What is our Protection?  What is our Rod and Staff/

I offer the following Dialogue between a Chaplain and a Covid Patient—in some—hospital—engulfed by fog of war; or shadow of death.

Psalm 23: A Prayer Dialogue between Chaplain and Patient

Meditation

By Robin L Zucker

Chaplain (C): The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want.

Patient (P): There is so much that I want. I want to be well.

C: He makes me lie down in green pastures.

P: I am tired of laying here. I wish I could get out of bed.

C: He leads me beside still waters.

P: I feel like I'm in a whirlpool.

C: He restores my soul.

P: Restore my health, too, Lord.

C: He leads me in right paths for his name's sake.

P: I feel lost.

C: Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil, for you are with me.

P: Please don't leave me. I'm afraid and it is lonely and dark at night.

C: Your rod and staff support me.

P: It's seems like such a long journey, Lord.

C: You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.

P: I hope my appetite comes back.

C: You anoint my head with oil.

P: Please wipe my brow with a cool cloth.

C: My cup overflows.

P: My mouth is so dry, may I have a drink of water?

C: Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life.

P: How many days will that be?

C: And I shall dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.

P: Help me to go home, Lord.

C: Amen.

Where might we find the Rod and Staff of the Good Shepherd?

Might we—dare we—find it in the voice of a human being—who becomes a human being to another?

Might we—dare we—find the Good Shepherd God in the words of scripture read by a human who dares to stand with another in death?

Might we—dare we—find the Good Shepherd God wherever there is one who simply reads, prays, weeps and stands with another/

Dear friends, our faith does not offer us easy answers, or sentimental gestures.

It does not promise us good outcomes; hard is that to take.

In the words of an American spiritual--Psalm 23’s Good Shepherd God does not promise us a Rose Garden.

It promises us the Garden of Gethsemane;  it promises us a God who does not take the bitter cup of suffering away.

But promises us, like the Crucified God—to be with us

Where most often is this Shepherd God found?

In  you and in me.

And in the community of love called church.

We are the Shepherds.

We are the Rod and Staff of God.

We are the presence of God in the shadows and in the fog.

Oh yes, not only the Sheep—but also God—will Lack Nothing.

When we are open, willing and courageous enough-to walk into the Valley of Death—to simply be present—in the shadows—and in the fog..

Bringing—no relief from ardor-..

But light to those who suffer,

Even when the only light is within the words, “Lord Take Me Home.”

My brother Tony Pennino of our Vestry took an amazing photo of our church grounds yesterday.

Tony noted that it reminded him of “why we do what we do.”

Why we do what we do?

Being---No less than the Rod and the Staff of the Good Shepherd.

Being--- the heart, compassion, and justice of God in this time of Crisis.

Walking with all—in the Shadow of death.

Sermon 6/28/2020

A sermon preached by the Rev. Hugh E. Brown, III, D. Min, MSW, LSW, Rector, All Saints Parish, Princeton, NJ on June 28, 2020 during the COVID-19 Pandemic and Protests for Racial Justice on Matthew 10: 40-42, Year A, Proper 8

“Whoever gives a cup of cold water to one of the little ones in the name of a disciple…..”

                             Love your Neighbor: No Exceptions!

Some of you might remember a scene from one of the protests erupting after the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer.

The scene depicts not only Police taking a knee in solidarity with the protestors, but both police and protestors giving one another water in a day of scorching heat.

We don’t know if any of these folks are Christian—protestors or officers.

It does not matter.

This morning, Jesus says it does not matter;  for whenever we give a cup of cold water, whenever we welcome with hospitality—anyone who is marginalized and excluded—we do so in the name of a disciple—that is, in the name of the Church.

Jesus has inherited a rich tradition from Judaism—not only as Messiah, but as doing Messianic work—the work of the prophet of God.

This is the tradition of welcome and hospitality—a primary commandment of God;  for as it is said in Exodus, “You were strangers in the land of Egypt; I liberated you; just as you were strangers who received the gift of freedom—you are to welcome all strangers.

But Jesus went even further;  he welcomed not only strangers, but all who were considered unworthy of welcome—outsiders, sinners, tax collectors, sex workers.  He even welcomed enemies and adversaries.  None were despised to him.

In the words of a banner Elly and I would often see at Conventions of the Diocese of Washington in the National Cathedral:  Love your Neighbor—no Exceptions!

Sisters and brothers Jesus extended radical welcome—to all—regardless of religious commitment.

All who offer hospitality, welcome and inclusion are honored by the Christ of God; are allies of the Christ who always offers good news to the oppressed.

Oh yes, In our Gospel reading from Matthew appointed for this coming Sunday, Jesus speaks of welcome.

 As he will do in a later sermon during his lifetime, he will directly tie his own welcome to the welcome of others.

In so doing, he will reinforce the teaching of the great Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam): we love God AS we love our neighbor.

Neighbor love and the love of God are indelibly connected.

We can not welcome Jesus into lives during worship or otherwise, when we do not treat our siblings with dignity, respect, peace, and justice.

Our Rector and Vestry committee on re-opening has as our theme: The Way of Love. We prepare to gather again in-person as we love and as we respect the health, dignity and humanity of our siblings through social compassion, the wearing of protective covering, and the marks of public health.

In our passage from Matthew's Gospel, Jesus goes even further with the proclamation of welcome. We are to welcome prophets (those who speak for justice), the righteous or just (those who work for fairness), and those who "give a cup of cold water to the little ones."  

Later in Matthew's Gospel Jesus will say emphatically that we give HIM something to drink as we quench the thirst of our neighbors. In this Gospel from Matthew, there is thus this special accent.

Jesus commands us to welcome those who work for the marginalized, the poor and the outsiders. He especially commands welcome to those who are excluded from full human community in any way.

Can we not see how this scripture is moving in our human history as we pray and live at this present time? 

Is it not moving in those prophets and righteous ones working for a more just and inclusive world with the Black Lives Matter movement, those working for racial and social justice, those laboring for criminal justice reform, and those who have put their lives on the line for the inclusion of all?

Can we not see this scripture moving in our honor of Pride as we close this month of June and the full welcome of the LGBTQIA+ community? 

Can we not see the spirit of Jesus in a recent Supreme Court decision prohibiting discrimination based on gender expression, sexual orientation, and whom we love?

"Whoever welcomes you welcomes Me."  Yes, whoever welcomes all, no exceptions, welcomes the Christ of God.

Bishop Chip Stokes wrote in his weekly communication:

This Sunday, June 28, marks the 50th Anniversary of the first Gay Pride Parade. The parade finds its beginnings with The Stonewall Uprising.

 

In the early morning hours of June 28, 1969, police raided The Stonewall Inn, a bar in New York's Greenwich Village that catered to the gay, lesbian and trans community which had long experienced ostracism, discrimination and persecution.

The raid that morning was part of an on-going pattern of harassment and brutality against members of the gay community in New York and across the county.

That morning in Greenwich Village, persons at The Stonewall Inn had had enough. Some argued with the police. Some resisted arrest. Some threw objects at the police. Riots and demonstrations ensued and continued for the next three days. The impact of Stonewall lasted much longer.

In the immediate aftermath of Stonewall, organizations such as the Gay Liberation Front and the Gay Activists Alliance were created and began to raise the consciousness of the nation.

In 1974, renowned activist and Episcopalian Louie Crew founded Integrity-USA which has worked for full inclusion of LGBTQ persons in The Episcopal Church ever since. Louie Crew died last November, just before his 83rd birthday. With his death, the Church lost one of its true treasures.

Louie helped the church discover more fully the depth and breadth of God’s love.

In the face of incredible animosity and vitriolic hatred, Louie persisted in, and insisted on, God’s love. Louie’s work was part of the larger effort to expand understanding across the nation and around the world.

We should all celebrate the landmark 6-3 decision of The United States Supreme Court on June 15 which ruled that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination "because of sex," includes gay and transgender employees.

This decision was in keeping with our church's stated position made clear in the 2009 General Convention that the laws of the land should not allow discrimination of people "based on gender identity or the expression of one's gender identity ..." (See Resolution 2009-D012).

Precisely because we, as a church, are clear about this. and because, by virtue of our Baptismal Covenant, we are called to "respect the dignity of every human being,”

The Episcopal Church is one of only a handful of Christian bodies in the United States offering full inclusion and welcome---including full inclusion of all the sacraments—such as the sacramental rites of marriage and ordination.

This parish, I am so thankful to say, several years ago with the support of the Rector and Vestry, passed resolutions affirming the Episcopal Church welcome of our LGBTQ sisters and brothers—including full sacramental inclusion.

Clearly, full inclusion of LGBTQ persons has not been accomplished either in The Episcopal Church or in the nation.

As is true in so many areas of our common life as a church and as a nation, there is still much work to be done. Still, there have been significant advances.

Our church has been blessed and enriched by the participation of LGBTQ persons in our common life and in all areas of ministry. In all of this, we are learning every more profoundly, that God is love and love is from God.
I now invite our brother in Christ, Tommy O’Malia to offer a reflection on his spiritual journey as a brother in the LGBTQ community—but even more—as a dear brother, friend and partner of the Gospel in our parish family.

Tommy—on behalf of all our parish family—we thank you and your husband given for the manifold gifts shared with us—and especially during these difficult days of COVID pandemic.

Our parish family is a stronger, more united parish because of your family.

We offer or praise and thanksgiving to the Lord of Life for these gifts.

Sermon 7/5/2020

A sermon preached by the Rev. Hugh E. Brown, III, D. Min, MSW, LSW, Rector, All Saints Episcopal Church, Princeton, NJ on the 5th Sunday After Pentecost, Independence Day weekend, July 5, 2020

“But… I say to you Love your Enemies”

                                      The Whole Story

If you have your bulletin, you might take it out and observe the cover.

You will see overlapping images of infants at play.

One evokes estrangement, alienation;  above all--fear.

You might recall a video noted by so much of America from several weeks ago; our bulletin cover depicts this amazing visual image; it captures so much of the recent American reckoning with some shadow areas of history.

The infants are initially seen running from one another in fear; one white; one African-American; two youngsters from different worlds;  all children have attachment issues.

So, we don’t know if culture or race was a factor in the fear; no matter;  the video’s initial moments provoked one American narrative.  Or rather, provoked who is excluded from it.

The great American orator, former slave, an abolitionist Frederick Douglas gave a noted July 4th sermon during the growing crisis of possible civil war; in the sermon, Douglas said:

“I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary!  Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us.  The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice are not enjoyed in common. 

The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence bequeathed by your fathers is shared by you, not by me.  The sunlight that brought light and healing to you has brought stripes and death to me.  This 4thof July is yours, not mine.  You may rejoice; I must mourn.”

Two books given to me recently by parishioners who know my love of American history—and my own Southern heritage, reveal the truth as Douglas told it.

The book, 1619, given to me by my friend and former Senior Warden Bob Bostock, sketches, with paradoxical power, the year, in Jamestown, Virginia which initiated both American republican and democratic institutions, and American’s Original Sin. 

The House of Burgesses under the authority of Governor Sir George Yeardly met;  the first slave ships arrived.

The United States has lived with the light of freedom and democracy and the dark legacy of human bondage and oppression ever since.

Another book, The American Spirit by David McCullough, was given to me by my parish friend Adrienne Rodewald.

It contains a chapter giving McCullough’s speech at the Independence Day Naturalization Ceremony at Monticello, the home of Thomas Jefferson, in 1994.

McCullough offers words of inspiration to the new American citizens of a nation of immigrants.

He speaks of the legacy of Thomas Jefferson; and Jefferson’s gift to this nation of remarkable words and leadership in the cause of enlightenment, human freedom and the rights of humanity.

But he also points to the slave quarters at Monticello, notes Jefferson as slave-holder; and questions whether Jefferson’s words in the Declaration of Independence, “that all men are created equal,” applied to women, communities of color, or even persons lacking economic privilege; he admits that “ideally yes, practically no” would be the truth.

Our nation continues to struggle in the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, “to make real the promises of democracy.” 

In the words of another American president, our nation continues to strive, “for a more perfect union.”

For there is another image within the art of distance on your front bulletin cover.

It is an image of touch; but not in distance; in engagement; in conversation;  in embrace.

For you might remember the photo of the two Children running from each other-- was not the “end of the st0ry.”

What happened?

In an instant, prompted by goodness knows what—child inquisitiveness, parental holding environment.

Or just plain child-like fun and openness, the children turned around—and ran to one another—wrapped their arms around one another. 

Here were two prodigals embracing;  in their interwoven bodies and arms, we American—prodigals all—also embraced.

That is also our American story.    It is a reframed narrative of ever-flowing embrace—from the destruction of American slavery, to the era of Reconstruction. To the Labor Movement, the Civil Rights Movement;  the Americans with Disability Act; Black Lives Matter;  Marriage Equality.

It is also the Gospel story.

It is the story of Jesus.

Jesus knew his own story.

Do we know ours?  Fully?

Jesus knew, as a good Jew, that Israel continued multiple narratives; some exclusive, bloody, narrow, bigoted.

Some containing, up to that time, some of the most breathtaking, universal, and humanistic ideas of the age.

How to make sense of it all?

We can’t.

But we can embrace all of it.

Jesus did;  he gave his life for it.

To embrace the whole story of being Jewish; being human. Nothing excluded. No one excluded; no one.

As Tony Pennino reminded us in an Adult Forum on James Baldwin—we need to listen; listen to one another’s stories. No stores excluded.

Jesus knew that; so he told stories.

This was most of his ministry---teaching---story-telling---even when healing/

Even when in worship; even when feeding. His very life was the art of the story.

He told stories, he lived life—sharing the most radical of narratives—the love of enemies. 

Not the like of enemies; but the love of enemies.

We don’t know how Jesus wanted this great command to manifest.

But we do know that he always it was social and political thing—love of enemies.  Not just a private and individualistic thing.

Dear friends, is not the deepest manifestation of the love of enemies---the practice of radical embrace?

Like our bulletin cover?

Martin Luther King believed that the practice of radical love—of enemies and adversaries—always transformed those we fear—into friends we include.

As God did; as Jesus did;  all through the biblical story; as Jesus did in Palestine-as Light of Light, Very God of Very God.

Above all--The continued embrace of All within the American story.

No doubt the poet Langston Hughes remembered the words of Frederick Douglas.

Remembered the July 4, 1952 address given by Douglass.

Remembered that Douglas emphatically stated he did not share the American story.

Hughes would not accept exclusion—from the story.

He would not accept that the American story be degraded; its ideals a failure.

Today—we see a great movement that seeks, as did Dr. King—to tell the American story.

But more than that—to tell the American story as a story worthy of the life, teachings and way of Jesus of Nazareth.

Jesus is the more perfect union of Humankind.

And such this is reflected in the great poem by Langston Hughes, Let America be America Again.

Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.

(America never was America to me.)

Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed—
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.

(It never was America to me.)

O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.

(There's never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this "homeland of the free.")

Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark?
And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?

I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
I am the Negro bearing slavery's scars.
I am the red man driven from the land,
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek—
And finding only the same old stupid plan
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.

I am the young man, full of strength and hope,
Tangled in that ancient endless chain
Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land!
Of grab the gold! Of grab the ways of satisfying need!
Of work the men! Of take the pay!
Of owning everything for one's own greed!

I am the farmer, bondsman to the soil.
I am the worker sold to the machine.
I am the Negro, servant to you all.
I am the people, humble, hungry, mean—
Hungry yet today despite the dream.
Beaten yet today—O, Pioneers!
I am the man who never got ahead,
The poorest worker bartered through the years.

Yet I'm the one who dreamt our basic dream
In the Old World while still a serf of kings,
Who dreamt a dream so strong, so brave, so true,
That even yet its mighty daring sings
In every brick and stone, in every furrow turned
That's made America the land it has become.
O, I'm the man who sailed those early seas
In search of what I meant to be my home—
For I'm the one who left dark Ireland's shore,
And Poland's plain, and England's grassy lea,
And torn from Black Africa's strand I came
To build a "homeland of the free."

The free?

Who said the free? Not me?
Surely not me? The millions on relief today?
The millions shot down when we strike?
The millions who have nothing for our pay?
For all the dreams we've dreamed
And all the songs we've sung
And all the hopes we've held
And all the flags we've hung,
The millions who have nothing for our pay—
Except the dream that's almost dead today.

O, let America be America again—
The land that never has been yet—
And yet must be—the land where every man is free.
The land that's mine—the poor man's, Indian's, Negro's, ME—
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.

Sure, call me any ugly name you choose—
The steel of freedom does not stain.
From those who live like leeches on the people's lives,
We must take back our land again,
America!

O, yes,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath—
America will be!

Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain—
All, all the stretch of these great green states—
And make America again!

From The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes, published by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. Co

Sermon 4/12/20 - Easter Sunday

A sermon preached by the Rev. Hugh E. Brown, III, D. Min, MSW, LSW, Rector, in All Saints Episcopal Church, Princeton, NJ on Easter Day, 2020, April 12, during the Crisis of the COVID-19 Pandemic on John 20: 1018

   Do Not Hold on to Me: Social Distance as Social Compassion ( and Love!)

“While it was still dark.” (John 20: 1)

Mary Magdalene came to the Tomb while it was still dark. 

My friends-Easter is here!  We even see it in God’s creation! Bursting with life!

As I offer this Easter message, I see an Easter moment from my office window:  the florals on our Church grounds are in bloom;  Pear Trees, Dogwoods, Magnolia, Cherry Blossoms, Redbud, Daffodils, Forsythia, among others. 

The grass is greener;  the brush in our so-called front yard is growing again.

It has been, overall, a lovely beginning to Spring with God’s creation in this area.

What a contrast to so much suffering and pain around  us!

For it is also Dark; the break before Dawn.  When Mary came to the Tomb.

This past week, some areas of our nation, including the New York City and other parts of New York State attained a death rate from the COVID-19 pandemic—thought to be unimaginable; 

Millions have filed for unemployment insurance; our hospitals are overwhelmed.

Our health care professions—true heroes—along with so many others on the front lines—are fighting the war against this disease---often without the tools they need—or the protection they deserve.

The COVID-19 pandemic has touched our own parish family;  one parish family lost a dear friend.

A son has lost his mom;  we know so many who are sick within our circle of loved ones.

Stonebridge staff and residents have cases; Bear Creed Assisted Living in Princeton Junction same.

An Episcopal Bishop-Mariann—puts it this way:

“Should you wake up on Easter Morning feeling scared, strangely empty, may you take heart in the fact that you are experiencing the day as Mary Magdalene—did—in the dark.”

“On this, the four Gospel accounts agree:  for the disciples, resurrection was not a singularly, joyful experience. 

Whenever joy is mentioned, other feelings accompany it such as fear, confusion and doubt.  How could it be otherwise?  No one goes from grief to joy at the turn of a switch.”

So—where is life?  Where is Easter?

Where is the Easter Moment?

Let’s observe this very strange, almost paradoxical dialogue between Jesus and Mary Magdelene at the empty tomb!

When Mary recognizes Jesus.

What does Jesus say to her?

“Mary”

How does she respond:

“Rabbi”  “Teacher”

What does Jesus say then?

“Don’t hold on to me”  Or, “Don’t Touch Me”

Jesus and Mary.

“Don’t hold on to me; Don’t touch me!”

Talk about the ultimate……”Social Distancing.”

Or Social Compassion.

“Don’t Touch me.”

All the Gospels will eventually come to the place of Social Distance---Social Compassion; between Jesus and his Beloved Friends;  Then and Now.

“Don’t Hang on to me: “Don’t’ touch me.”

How does John interpret these words?

How might we?

Not as separation!  Not as estrangement; not even as the ultimate farewell!

No---“Don’t hang on to me”

“Rabbi”  “Teacher!”

This is a new form of relationship!  A new existence!  A new life.  A new creation!

This new life--however shared between Jesus and his beloved—will always be new—and different.

It is a new creation!  A new way of being together;

It will always be about a new way of………connection.

A new way of holding on;  a new way of communion.

Sound familiar?

So---what IS the connection?

Is it not through love? Through Social Compassion.

Is not this the ultimate Social Compassion—between Jesus and Mary

Between Jesus and the Church?

Between Jesus and you and Me?

Mary would touch Jesus again—in the Holy Spirit—through Love.

John’s Gospel here offers a different story of the promised gift of the Holy Spirit.

The Church does not wait until Pentecost.

No—for John—in this dialogue between Jesus and Mary—Jesus gives the Holy Spirit AT the Resurrection. 

Mary is given this gift of the Holy Spirt, the Love of God in Jesus WHEN she encounters Jesus in Love

We see this love in John’s Gospel as Mary Magdalene goes “bold.” 

Mary more empowered than ever in her life.

She has no business, as a woman in her time—serving as witness;  women could not serve as witnesses.

But Mary IS the first witness to the Resurrection! 

Mary become one of the leaders of the early Church; her place alongside Peter!

She was the one to proclaim Christ as Risen Lord to all the rest.

She is remembered by the Church as perhaps it most fervent early voice and force!

Did you know that Magdalene—Mary’s name—does not refer to a place?

No, the word, Magdalene is an adjective! The word, means GREAT.  Powerful!

Mary the great!

That is what the power of the Holy Spirit—in Social Compassion did for Mary.

And does for you and me.

Yes, let us think of Mary--- in her social distance from Jesus.

No—they would not ever be together again in person.

Perhaps Mary did know—what so many loved ones now know;  forever distant from a loved one. 

Even in death.

There is love.

I think of that encounter and the ultimate social distance between Jesus and Mary;  Don’t hold on to me; don’t touch me.

But the forever bond of Love.

I think of it when I read the following reflection by Simone Hannah-Clark—an ICU Nurse in New York City.

Amidst other graphic and heart-wrenching, words on caring for suffering human bodies—Simone writes this upon her return home after an ICU shift treating COVID=10 patients.

I walk into my apartment backward, leaving my shoes at the door, spraying Lysol behind me, headed for the shower.

The kids are asleep. My husband gives me a smile but knows we won’t greet each other till I’m scrubbed, head to toe.

Even then we keep our distance, sleeping in separate rooms.

But we love each other; love is always there.

Rabbi! 

Don’t hang on to me; Don’t touch me.

I thought of Love within Social Distance or Social Compassion in another way too.

This week, a parishioner with much spiritual depth passed on to me a rather amazing poem.

It was written by Kristi Bouthur

Kristi Bothur is a wife, mother, educator, blogger, and freelance writer. She has seven children - two on Earth and five in Heaven.

She and her husband Eric founded Naomi's Circle, a faith-based pregnancy and infant loss ministry, as a result of walking the road of first and second trimester pregnancy loss, as well as the journey of pregnancy after loss.

Kristi is a contributing editor of the ebook devotional Rainbows and Redemption: Encouragement for the Journey of Pregnancy After Loss and a co-author of Sunshine After the Storm: A Survival Guide for the Grieving Mother.

She believes in being real with God and with each other, and refuses to give wishy-washy answers to nitty-gritty problems.

She reaches out to bereaved parents through the Naomi's Circle ministry, through her writing on the Columbia SC Moms Blog and Mommies with Hope, and through her personal blog, This Side of Heaven.

 

She wrote the following poem for the Church as we live this Easter Life in the midst of the Pandemic.

Let us remember that the poem you are not to hear—whimsical and joyful as it is—comes from great pain.

This poetry was written by a woman—in social distance some of her children and loved ones in death-but connected by the Holy Spirit.

Dear friends—even when we hear the words from health care providers, our church leaders and public officials—“Don’t hang on to me.”  “Don’t touch me”

We can know, like Mary Magdalene did—the promised Holy Spirit of social compassion.

This social compassion forever unites us to God and to one another.

How the Virus Stole Easter
By Kristi Bothur
With a nod to Dr. Seuss 😊

Twas late in ‘19 when the virus began
Bringing chaos and fear to all people, each land.

People were sick, hospitals full,
Doctors overwhelmed, no one in school.

As winter gave way to the promise of spring,
The virus raged on, touching peasant and king.

People hid in their homes from the enemy unseen.
They YouTubed and Zoomed, social-distanced, and cleaned.

April approached and churches were closed.
“There won’t be an Easter,” the world supposed.

“There won’t be church services, and egg hunts are out.
No reason for new dresses when we can’t go about.”

Holy Week started, as bleak as the rest.
The world was focused on masks and on tests.

“Easter can’t happen this year,” it proclaimed.
“Online and at home, it just won’t be the same.”

Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, the days came and went.
The virus pressed on; it just would not relent.

The world woke Sunday and nothing had changed.
The virus still menaced, the people, estranged.

“Pooh pooh to the saints,” the world was grumbling.
“They’re finding out now that no Easter is coming.

“They’re just waking up! We know just what they’ll do!
Their mouths will hang open a minute or two,
And then all the saints will all cry boo-hoo.

“That noise,” said the world, “will be something to hear.”
So it paused and the world put a hand to its ear.

And it did hear a sound coming through all the skies.
It started down low, then it started to rise.

But the sound wasn’t depressed.
Why, this sound was triumphant!
It couldn’t be so!
But it grew with abundance!

The world stared around, popping its eyes.
Then it shook! What it saw was a shocking surprise!

Every saint in every nation, the tall and the small,
Was celebrating Jesus in spite of it all!

It hadn’t stopped Easter from coming! It came!
Somehow or other, it came just the same!

And the world with its life quite stuck in quarantine
Stood puzzling and puzzling.
“Just how can it be?”

“It came without bonnets, it came without bunnies,
It came without egg hunts, cantatas, or money.”

Then the world thought of something it hadn’t before.
“Maybe Easter,” it thought, “doesn’t come from a store.
Maybe Easter, perhaps, means a little bit more.”

And what happened then?
Well....the story’s not done.
What will YOU do?
Will you share with that one
Or two or more people needing hope in this night?
Will you share the source of your life in this fight?

The churches are empty - but so is the tomb,
And Jesus is victor over death, doom, and gloom.

So this year at Easter, let this be our prayer,
As the virus still rages all around, everywhere.

May the world see hope when it looks at God’s people.

 

May the world see the church is not a building or steeple.
 

May the world find Faith in Jesus’ death and resurrection,
 

May the world find Joy in a time of dejection.
 

May 2020 be known as the year of survival,
 

But not only that!  Let it start a revival!

 

Happy Easter people of All Saints Church.

We are the Episcopal Church of the Jesus Movement!

He is Risen.

 

The new Way and Revival of Love has Begun!

Sermon 4/9/20 - Maundy Thursday

All Saints Church, Princeton, NJ                                            Maundy Thursday, April 9, 2020

 

Quarantine  - a New Thing - By Rev. Maddy Patterson

 

            Our Maundy Thursday readings recall the first Passover, when the Israelites prepare to pass from slavery and oppression to freedom through the Red Sea.  Then we hear the institution of the Eucharist, and finally the Maundy, the mandate to do for each other as Jesus does for us.  There’s a common thread that runs through the readings:  Under oppression, if we are to survive, we must act as a community.  We must care for one another, even unto washing each other’s feet.  And as God’s faithful people, we cannot be afraid of change.

 

Moses tells the Israelites what they must do – they must shelter in place in their houses (sound familiar?) while the Angel of Death passes over them. Then they will be led by the mighty hand of God out of Egypt through the Red Sea into the desert for forty years.  But they will be free.

 

Twelve hundred years later, Jesus celebrates the Passover in an upper room in Jerusalem.  He and his disciples are also sheltering in place, for fear of the Jews because in his ministry he has said and done a number of things both to irritate and to frighten the Temple authorities.  It is here, in the last supper of his earthly life, that he institutes the Eucharist, telling us that the bread that we break and the cup that we drink are his Body and Blood. 

 

But then he does the unexpected.  Taking off his outer garment he grabs a basin and a towel and proceeds to wash the disciples’ feet.  It’s unprecedented and Peter resists.  Giotto has painted this scene in the early 14th century.  With a look of great intensity Peter says:  You will never wash MY feet.  Jesus answers patiently:  Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.

 

 

 

Now that’s new.  If I, your Teacher have done this, so ought you to do to one another.  But that flies in the face of all Peter knows, which is that there are people with authority and people without it and the first group does NOT wash the feet of the second group.  It’s not the done thing.  Jesus turns everything upside down by washing his disciples’ feet and it’s a shock to Peter in a culture based so firmly on hierarchy. It’s very confusing.  Peter can’t adjust to this new idea, so counter intuitive for someone raised under oppression, whose every action and plan is dictated by the fact that he lives under Roman rule and law.

 

When we have celebrated the Maundy together, our church leaders begin the washing, with towel and basin, and I encourage this at home as well.  If you’re home with other people, it’s a special gift to wash another’s feet, however strange that may sound.  Traditionally it’s the church leaders who begin the foot washing, but in times of oppression such as we are living under, traditions get turned on their heads.  You’ll have time during the Ubi Caritas chant to wash each other’s feet.  So in the absence of a pastor, who in your family should begin?

 

Perhaps the dominant member should be the first to serve.  There may be some disagreement about that; some may think it’s the parent or the oldest person in the family who’s the dominant member.  Perhaps, as in the case of a family I know, it’s the youngest who controls the rest of us!  Just don’t dump this job automatically on Mom; she’s been washing everyone’s feet and laundry and everything else since the dawn of time.  Where will you start?  But start somewhere.  We grow in faith when we respond with a yes to Jesus’ mandate, to wash one another’s feet.  It’s something different, out of our usual experience.  It’s a change and that’s good for us.

 

For the Jews hiding in Egypt as the Angel of Death passed over them, everything was about to change.  In a day and a night and a day, they will have left their homes behind forever, walked through certain death at the waters of the Red Sea and passed on into the desert, to be fed daily with manna from heaven.  They learned there to trust God, because when they hoarded the manna and the toilet paper, it turned rotten and fell apart.  Each day they had to trust in God’s providence.

 

And for the disciples, within twelve hours everything will have changed for them as well.  Their leader will be dead and they themselves will shelter in place for fear of both Romans and Jews.  And three days later, their lives will change again, as have the lives of everyone since, forever, because Jesus will be resurrected from the dead.

 

After the oppression of this quarantine, it is possible, even likely, that nothing in the way we worship will be the same again.  Is that bad?  Maybe not.  The churches with which I’ve spoken over the last week have witnessed a growth in virtual attendance way beyond the number they used to see in the pews. 

 

We are on the brink of great change.  Perhaps we will shelter in place for so long that traveling to a building on a Sunday morning for worship services will be a thing of the past.  Does that mean that the faith will die?  I don’t think so.  I think we’ll find new ways to worship God and to take care of our community.  Here at the Maundy, Jesus is cheering us on, telling us, to quote the prophet Isaiah:  Behold, I’m doing a new thing.  Now it springs forth; do you not perceive it? 

 

The Jews in the desert grew in faith; we can, too. 

 

The disciples after the death of Jesus grew in faith; we can, too.

 

            We are kingdom builders, called to build God’s kingdom here on earth.  We don’t have to be like Peter, falling back on the familiar way of doing things, longing for what may already be gone.  We’ve entered a virtual world and as the youth pastor, I should point out that our young people can help us.  They’re tech savvy and they’re wonderfully resilient.  How might it be if they were to lead the way, to make suggestions on how to express our faith?  For they are faithful people too, and right now we could use what they know, and the fresh way they see the world.

 

I pray that we may have the grace to embrace the coming changes, remembering the cataclysmic events in the past that took place in order that God’s people might be free. May we think first of the other, and how we may serve him or her, because we are all part of a greater whole.  And if we do so, we will cross over through this time, a menacing wall of water on our right hand and on our left to be sure, but with our feet firmly on dry ground as we move forward ever towards the Promised Land.     Amen.

Sermon 3/22/20

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

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

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

Ray stars Jamie Foxx as the great artist and musician, Ray Charles.

There is a scene in Ray when Ray Charles is having an argument with his devoted wife, Della Bea Robinson; Della is played so well by Kerry Washington.

Bea pleads, “The only thing that can help you Ray, is God.”

Charles quickly turns the argument back on her.

“Don’t you talk about God?” 

“You have any idea how it feels to go blind and still be afraid of the dark?”

“And every day, you stand and pray just a little light and you don’t get nothing?”

“Because God don’t listen to people like me.”

“Bea warns, “Stop talking like that.”

But, Charles presses on, “As far as I am concerned, me and God is even; and I do as I want.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Those feelings are real.

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

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

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

“God has to start somewhere.”

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

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

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

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

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

Yes, God Can work with our feelings.

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

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

God does care.

God does care about you…and about me…

And about All.

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

Ray Charles would come to know that.

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

We might perceive otherwise.

Especially with illness-or with disability.

Or any “bad thing” that might happen.

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

 “Who sinned?

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

“Who sinned?

“That this man is blind?”

Jesus refused “to go there.”

Jesus did not go there.

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

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

“How is it present in Illness?  Disability?

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

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

“Who Sinned?

Jesus knew  this.

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

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

We return to the Serenity Prayer.

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

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

There are good aspects of fear in our religion.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Such is hard.

Such is compassionate; such is of God.

Such is indeed Holy Fear, Loving Fear.

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

He meant something far different.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How can pain be turned to light and love?

How can God’s glory always reign?

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

That is something most of us now cannot do.

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

The spittle symbolized the life essence of a person.

In this case the Life Essence of Jesus.

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

God’s glory can reign in this time.

We cannot control so much in this pandemic.

But we can choose our response.

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

And Krista Tippett in her On Being project reflects:

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

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

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

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

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

How have I seen hope?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yes, Who Sinned is not the question.

“Where can we find God’s Glory?

The response of hope.

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

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

The Prayer of St. Francis.

Amen.

Sermon 3/29/20

In the Midst of It//Lent V//Year A//March 29, 2020// ASC//The Rev. Dr. Elly Sparks Brown

Prayer:  Hear us, O God of life and love.  Heal us and make us whole.

                We are in the midst of breaking news: daily updates on the growing number of people who have the coronavirus; a NYC hospital reporting 13 deaths in one day; people standing in line for hours to get tested, only to be turned away; desperate pleas from healthcare workers for masks, gloves, gowns, and ventilators; the Army Corp of Engineers converting the Jacob Javitz convention center into a hospital; warnings from the CDC and Dr. Fauci, the esteemed infectious disease expert from NIH, that the worst may be ahead of us; social isolation--mandates to stay at home except to go to the grocery store or pharmacy.  Yes, we are in the midst of breaking news.

          But we are also in the midst of Lent.  Today is the 5th Sunday in Lent.  Palm Sunday is next week.  Although we are to practice social distancing, we can still extend social love and compassion to one another.  For example, several people in our parish family have volunteered to shop for and deliver groceries to the homebound.  Others have a telephone, text, or email ministry to help our parish family stay conncected.  Before Palm Sunday, volunteers will leave palm branches at the doors of our homes, so that when Hugh blesses the palms next Sunday, we, too, can wave them and sing, "All glory, laud, and honor to thee, Redeemer King..."

          So here we are in the midst of breaking news on the 5th Sunday in Lent.  But today we are also in the midst of God's Word, specifically John's account of the raising of Lazarus.  Mary, Martha, and Lazarus are Jesus' closest friends. Martha sends word to Jesus that Lazarus is dying.  Getting this message to Jesus would have taken a day, then Jesus stays two more days at his current location, and finally on the 4th day arrives at Bethany.  The span of four days is significant.  Many ancient people believed that the soul hovered over the deceased body for three days before it vanished forever.  Lazarus is dead.  His soul has departed, and both sisters berate Jesus for not coming sooner..."If only you had been here...

          But Jesus is there.  Jesus weeps. The root meaning of the word "weep" refers to a violent upheaval in nature, such as a tornado.  It connotes extreme, gut-wrenching agitation.

          When Jesus cries out, "Lazarus, come out," the same word "cry" also describes the crowds waving palm branches and shouting "Hosanna."  The word is repeated in the passion narrative when the crowd screams, "Crucify." In all three cases, the cry can be compared to the loud, guttural, grunting of horses snorting in anger.

          How many tears have we shed in the past few weeks?  Sometimes tears are the only response we can muster.  We know what it means to lose a loved one.  People come to offer their condolences, to bring food, and to spend time with us.  Perhaps we have cried so much that we don't know how we could possibly squeeze one more tear out of our red, swollen eyes.  Then a certain person walks through the door and triggers our emotions.  We end up sobbing in his or her loving embrace. 

          Instinctively we know that we can trust that person with our tears, that he or she won't tell us to stop crying, or that our loved one is in a better place, or recite platitudes we tend to rely on during times of crisis and loss.  Perhaps our person cries along with us.  There is nothing more sacred than tears shed and shared.

          Ten-year-old Emily was two hours late getting home from her best friend's house.  Her mother was becoming frantic.  When she called the friend's house, there was no answer.  She tried the Mom's cell phone.  No answer.  She started walking around the neighborhood, and then decided to drive to the friend's house, but stopped herself. "Maybe I should stay home a  little longer so that Emily doesn't come home to an empty house."

          At that moment, if on cue, Emily walked through the door.  Relieved, yet still upset, Mom scolded Emily "Where have you been?  You are two hours late.  I was really worried about you."  Emily, who was sad that she had upset her Mom, told her, "On my way home, as I was passing another friend's house, I saw her sitting on her front porch steps.  She was crying because her favorite doll was broken.  So I stopped to help her fix it."  At her wits end, Mom replied, "Emily, how could you possibly have helped her fix her broken doll?"  "Oh, Mom, I couldn't fix the doll, but I sat down next to her and helped her cry."

(Adapted from day1.org/908-weeping_with_one_eye.print). 

There is nothing more sacred than tears shed and shared.

          What began with Jesus' tears continues with God's triumph of life over death.  Jesus commands the bystanders, "Take away the stone."  An audible gasp ripples throughout the crowd.  Martha, the practical sister, reminds Jesus that Lazarus has been dead for four days, and if the stone is rolled away, the stench of death will be overwelming.  But God's power to heal and restore, which flows through Jesus, transforms the grave into a gateway opening into the resurrected life.

          Jesus is not fazed by the stench of death.   Jesus reaches deeply into it, into our tombs of fear, anxiety, and the myriad stresses and distresses of daily life. For this reason, Jesus became one of us.  He descended from the stars of heaven to the scars of earth. 

          A Roman Catholic philosopher writes: "When we feel the hammers of life beating on our heads or in our hearts, God is here with us, taking our blows.  Every tear we shed becomes God's tear.  God came.  God is here.     If God does not heal all our broken bones, and loves, and lives now, God comes into them and is broken like bread, and we are nourished.  God shows us that we can use our very brokenness as a source of nourishment for those we love" (Adapted from "Shared Hells" by Peter Kreeft, Bread and Wine, Readings for Lent and Easter, Orbis Books, 2006, p. 160). 

          I would like to add, not only for those we love, but for those we do not know, the far away neighbors whom we will never meet, but are connected to us by the invisible threads of God's love.  A beloved priest in Milan did this.  He tested positive for the coronavirus.  His distraught parish bought him a ventilator and took it to the hospital, but the priest refused to use it.  Instead, he gave it to a young person he did not know.  Soon after this selfless act, he died.  Greater love than this...

          This pandemic may be one of the worst global nightmares we have experienced in our lifetime.  Yet, the worst of times awakens within us the better angels of our nature.  People sing to each other across a town square on the streets of Assisi, Italy.  Throughout our country, people are sending boxes of surgical masks to nurses and doctors.  A restaurant owner in NJ prepares meals for workers at a local hospital.  A hotel in western Ireland offers free meals and delivery to the homebound.  In NYC there is thunderous, sustained cheering and clapping as thousands of New Yorkers stand on their balconies or at their open windows to applaud the healthcare workers.  One neighborhood welcomes home a child from the hospital with waves and cheers from a parade of cars.  An NFL quarterback and his wife donate five million dollars to help feed families in New Orleans. A family gathers in front of their Mom's/Grandmom's/Great Grandmom's window on her 100th Birthday to sing "Happy Birthday."  Sunday service and Wednesday Bible study are live-streamed. Here is the triumph!

          Now, I am no Pollyanna.  There are grocery and drug store shelves stripped bare of hand sanitizers, Clorox wipes, and disposable gloves.  One manufacturer raised the price on its ventilators.  Others congregate in parks and beaches despite the warnings.  Some believe that this pandemic is a hoax.  Many face the heartbreak of being unable to be with their critically ill or dying loved ones.  Here are the tears!

          Yet, as Jesus moved from his own tears to the command, "Lazarus, come out," so does God propel us forward in the direction of renewed resilience and a heightened sense of hope.

          A dear college friend and fellow English major sent us a poem entitled "Lockdown."  Here is an excerpt. "Yes, there is fear. But there does not have to be hate.  Yes, there is isolation.  But there does not have to be loneliness.  Yes, there is panic buying.  But there does not have to be meanness.  Yes, there is sickness.  But there does not have to be disease of the soul...

          Wake to the choices you make as to how to live now.  Breathe.  Listen.  Behind the factory noises of your panic the birds are singing.  The sky is  clearing.  Spring is coming.  And we are always encompassed by Love.  Open the windows of your soul, and though you may not be able to touch across an empty Palmer Square--Sing!  Sing songs of tears!  Sing songs of triumph!

Sermon 4/5/20 - Palm Sunday

A sermon preached for Palm Sunday, April 5, 2020, by the Rev. Hugh E. Brown, III, D. Min, MSW, LSW, in All Saints Episcopal Church, Princeton, NJ, on Matthew 21: 1-11 and Matthew 27: 11-54

                                   Triumphal Entries of Love

                   “She Will Keep You Safe Beneath her Wings”

We just heard, in Elly’s powerful reading of the Passion Narrative of Christ according to Matthew, the words, “Jesus breathed his last.”

“Jesus breathed his last.”  Jesus died.

Jesus died alone;  so many, now are dying alone.

But are they?

We will return to this them as I close this sermon.

Hosanna!  Blessed is the One Who Comes in the Name of the Lord!

Hosanna!

These are the voice of song, chant, and praise that greeted Jesus as he entered the Holy City of Jerusalem!

What is their meaning for us today?

What in the world do Hosanna’s and shouts of triumph have to do with you—and me in this sacrament of the present moment?

In this time of profound pain, suffering, and—yes, let’s name it—fear?

Did you know that the word, “Hosanna” means--literally “Save Us?”

Oh!

 That is what the people wanted of Jesus!

They so wanted Salvation.

The so wanted Salvation as Triumph as the World might perceive it!

Salvation! Victory!

Military conquest;  the overthrow of oppression;  the cure of disease;  the righting of wrong with right.

Oh Jesus did some of this of course.

But neither his life, nor death, nor cross, not resurrection, nor empty tomb—brought an end to our suffering.  Or to War; or to Oppression. Or Pandemic and Plague?

We may well find a way to end this Pandemic;  we may well find a cure to the COVID-19 illness.

We may well find a way to bring our economy back to life; to find jobs, hope and livelihood for those suffering.

We trust and hope that our Church will come out of this time—stronger, more unified, more faithful; that indeed we will gather again in body—as we share worship in spirit—right now!

What is portrayed by shouts of Hosanna and Salvation proclaimed by our Gospel?

Christus Victor?  Salvation by Success?  Bu Conquest?  By Curing?  By Fixing?

Or, is the Salvation, Victory and Hosanna about something far deeper, more durable, and more real?

In BOTH the Entry of Jesus into Jerusalem; and his Passion—might we see another form of Hosanna—of Victory?

Please take your palm.

By now it is a little frayed and worn;  a bit old and used.

Its energy and freshness are somewhat spent.

Your palm is more akin to the branches and garments thrown to welcome Jesus when he entered Jerusalem for Passover.

Many of them might have already been on the ground for days.

Or carried into the Holy City by others after a time from their source of life

The florals offered to our Lord as he entered the Holy City were---well we don’t know much about them at all; and Matthew---does not mention the word, Palm. 

The author of the first Gospel simply notes that “they cut branches from the trees.”

I am drawn to the suggestion of one commentator on this text. 

The Palms were as much about the persons welcoming Jesus;  they symbolized the community he was gathering just before his death.

His disciples were a rag-tag group of Fisherfolk;  common folk, and at least one perceived as any enemy—a tax collector; all these make up his entourage.

Perhaps the crowds were not even from Jerusalem but the desperate in that anciety city?

You see it was all so unscripted!  This so-called Triumphal entry.

Unscripted.  You know what I see in the Palm I am holding?

I see a lot of unscripted life over the past several weeks.

I see a lot of warn, spent, and ragged beauty.

I see health care workers doing the best they can to save lives;  not enough equipment;  not enough protection. 

I see them caring for patients who have no visitors.

I see them caring for hurting and grieving families.

I have seen public officials scramble to find the help they need; Unscripted.

I have seen families offer support, hope, and love to one another; Unscripted.

I have seen neighbors helping neighbors, unscripted.

I have seen business owners try to do the right, kind, Christian and compassionate thing—unscripted.

The owner of Bon Appetit in the Princeton Shopping Center, still keeping his restaurant open for take-out—told me this week that he is paying his employees—not one he dismissed—out of his own personal reserves; is taking out every loan he can find.

I learned of another business owner through a colleague—an owner who painfully, tearfully had to furlough his employees;  but then offered his time and hear to prepare meals for them—and ensure the food was delivered in a timely way.

Yes--We have seen the best of or government—trying to do the right thing-unscripted.

Unscripted.

All Saints Church;  a different liturgy for Palm Sunday.

We so tried to get Palms to all of our parish families through 17 families who gave of their time and heart;  please let me know if you did not receive a palm and we will do our best to get it to you and have it blessed in the best of virtual liturgy!

May this Palm symbolize all that we share together, as ONE parish family right now; yes, certainly anxiety, emotional stress, fatigue; fear; there is so much fear.

May the lovely Palm arrangements behind me, artfully designed by Amy Johnson and Joan Jones

What do I see when I gaze at this Palm?

Yes, I see all that is dark in the world now.

But it is shared; as one.

My sisters and brothers, we are in this struggle together.

Yes, my friends in Christ at All Saints church—there is so much beyond our control now.

But we can respond, day by day—with the things—with the things a little unscripted, a little frayed, worn and tired—but with the things that make for serenity, and peace—one day a time. 

 

In St. Paul’s words.

“I may speak in the tongues of mortals and of Angels, but if I have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.  I might have faith as to move mountains; but if I do not have love, I am nothing. Love is kind.  Love is patient. 

“There abide, faith, hope, and love-but the greatest of these—is Love.”

Nothing can take love away; the love of God away; nothing.

Oh!  Where is Victory?  Where are our Hosannas and Triumphal Entries?

*A procession of cars into a neighborhood—waving not branches, but balloons and banners—to bring a birthday celebration to a friend?

*A procession of retired health care workers into an overwhelmed hospital to care for the ill

*A procession of family to a nursing home, touching their loved one through a window—on her 100th birthday—to bring love.

*Our parish families lighting candles at 7PM each evening in vigil for health care workers, joining a Zoom community to see one another’s faces—and combating social isolation.

This past week, somewhere in a hospital—in the United States—New York, California, Louisiana, Washington, Florida, Michigan, Virginia, DC—such does not matter—a mother, a father, a child, a grandparent, a friend,  a parent, a loved one—died.

Died of COVID-19.

Died of other causes—unrelated.

Died as Jesus Died; abandoned; alone.

We learned that again from Matthew’s Passion.

Jesus did die alone; apart from his friends; only his tormentors with him.

When others die alone; they are not alone;  they have Jesus; he does not care of some belief him or not; he is with them.

He forgave his tormentors.

He forgives all the ways we betray him still.

He is always there.

For somewhere, when  loved one died—they posted this poem somewhere in Cyberspace.

The poem was written by Leanne O’Sullivan;  she teaches and writes in County Cork, Ireland.

When her mother died, she could not be there.  It was too sudden.

But a nurse was there—with her mom.

She titled the Poem, “Leaving Early.”  Because that is how Leanne was with her mom’s death;  she indeed had left the room---Early.

But she also had a subtitle for the Poem.

In Gratitude for Health Care Workers.

Today—as we worship---we know Hosannas throughout our nation and world.

But we know it in the manner and text of this poem.

Which was also the poetry of Christ:  his life, death and new life.

My Love,

    tonight Fionnuala is your nurse.
You’ll hear her voice sing-song around the ward
lifting a wing at the shore of your darkness.
I heard that, in another life, she too journeyed
through a storm, a kind of curse, with the ocean
rising darkly around her, fierce with cold,
and no resting place, only the frozen
rocks that tore her feet, the light on her shoulders.

And no cure there but to wait it out.
If, while I’m gone, your fever comes down —
if the small, salt-laden shapes of her song
appear to you as a first glimmer of earth-light,
follow the sweet, hopeful voice of that landing.
She will keep you safe beneath her wing.

“She will keep you safe beneath her wing.”

Such is the meaning of this Palm; such is our Hosanna and our Victory.

Sermon 3/8/20

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

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

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

She had lost five husbands;  can we fathom that?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There is no bond between this woman and her sisters.

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

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

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

By law, the brother was her fifth husband.

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

 It was a double stigma to be a childless woman. 

It was a triple stigma to be a childless widow. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And, then, came Jesus.

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

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

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

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

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

This is what bad religion does. 

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

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

 It is called ignorance.

It is ignorance masquerading in the name of religion.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not only the gift of himself as her savior.

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

What happened to her? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What was their crime, these men? 

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

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

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

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

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

At first these women cowered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jesus calls you and me to take up the bullhorn!

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

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

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

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

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

Behind him was a woman with a full cart.

She saw the man’s cap.

“Are you a Vet?” she asked.

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

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

At first… he hesitated.

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

Sometimes it is more difficult to receive than to give.

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

I can only imagine he was empowered that day.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sermon 3/15/20

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

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

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

She had lost five husbands;  can we fathom that?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There is no bond between this woman and her sisters.

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

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

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

By law, the brother was her fifth husband.

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

 It was a double stigma to be a childless woman. 

It was a triple stigma to be a childless widow. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And, then, came Jesus.

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

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

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

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

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

This is what bad religion does. 

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

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

 It is called ignorance.

It is ignorance masquerading in the name of religion.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not only the gift of himself as her savior.

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

What happened to her? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What was their crime, these men? 

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

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

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

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

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

At first these women cowered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jesus calls you and me to take up the bullhorn!

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

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

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

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

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

Behind him was a woman with a full cart.

She saw the man’s cap.

“Are you a Vet?” she asked.

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

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

At first… he hesitated.

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

Sometimes it is more difficult to receive than to give.

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

I can only imagine he was empowered that day.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sermon 3/1/20

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

“IF you are the Son of Man!”

                   “What we Embrace, Create, and Include”

Is it possible to find Chestnut Trees in the Desert?

We will return to this question in a Moment!

Have many of you seen the movie, Chocolat?

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

The open it in Lent.

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

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

 

 

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

……. says this……

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

He was tempted by hunger-to eat.

But is the message to embrace starvation? 

Or to embrace the disconnect between mind and body?

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

 

He was tempted by Glory—and a Temple Drama.

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

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

 

He was tempted by Power—the Kingdoms of the World

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

 

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

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

Prove Yourself.j

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

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

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

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

He did not become like David—the Royal Ruler

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

 

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

It makes Jesus more human.

 

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

What did Jesus embrace?  Create?  Include?

 

I think this conversation can yield some fertile fruit?

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

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

 

What was Jesus really about in the Wilderness?

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

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

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

“If You”

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

Trust-..

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

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

Not because he was perfect.

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

 

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

Instead he found purpose.

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

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

 

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

Instead, he included all—and loved all.

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

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

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

In 1942 a Jewish family in Amsterdam went into hiding.

The Nazis had moved into their country.

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

In hiding….

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

Her name was Anne Frank.

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

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

We might call it—Anne’s urban wilderness.

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

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

Anne wrote—

“Our chestnut tree is in full bloom.

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

She wrote this in May of 1944.

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

Choose to Embrace, Create and Include.

A former American president Writes this about Anne Frank..

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

……….but our common humanity matters more.

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

I hope you might consider attending.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

Temples of Embrace…

 

A Person of embrace.

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

 

We wonder.

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

So does our nation.

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

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

Jesus did.

So did Anne.

And so we ask,

Is it possible to find Chestnut Trees in the Desert?

Is it? Is it?

Sermon 2/26/20

Ash Wednesday

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sermon 4/10/20 - Good Friday

The Emptiness that Safeguards Life - Good Friday, Apr. 10, 2020

The Rev. Elly Sparks Brown, D. Min. - All Saints, Princeton, NJ

          "The Great Empty" is a "NY Times" photographic journey of places throughout the world--everywhere from a restaurant in Myanmar to a public square in Tehran on Persian New Year to a diner in West Orange, NJ; a concert hall in Moscow; the Opera House in Sydney; Times Square in New York; a Starbucks in Seattle; the fair grounds in New Delhi; the Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco; an airport in Tokyo--all empty--no people, no traffic, no business as usual in places that most of the time are noisy, crowded and teeming with activity as people go about their daily lives.

          In the introduction to this story, a NY Times journalist wrote: "This present emptiness, a publich health necessity...suggests that by heeding the experts and staying apart, we have not yet lost the capacity to come together for the common good"  (NY Times, March 29, 2020).

          In other words, the great empty areas are filled to overflowing with people like us taking Covid-19 seriously by being apart now so we can all be together later.  "Stay home and save a life. "Health experts tell us social distancing is working, but I think we would all agree, it isn't easy.  Vitally important, the impetus behind its success is the spiritual process of self-emptying, i.e. fasting/abstaining from our normal lives. 

          This has required us to empty ourselves of what we want to do in favor of how we can act in the best interest of our families, friends, and neighbors.   If you have given up something for Lent, compare it to what you have had to relinquish recently: going out to shop, eat, or visit friends; wearing a mask and gloves when you go to the grocery and the pharmacy; working from home or going into the office when you know hardly anyone will be there; putting off visits to the dentist and elective medical procedures; limiting your time outdoors to your front porch, or a walk around your block; learning a different way of being church during the holiest week of the year; worrying about family members scattered across the country and overseas; caring for children and grandchildren because their schools and playgrounds are closed; dealing with your own fatigue, anxiety, and stress in a troubling and uncertain time.  How does all of this compare with what you gave up or took on during Lent?

          The great empty...on this holy night, we ask, "Where is the beauty, the hope, and the consolation in emptiness?

           A tale is told of a young man who joined a community of monks.  "Teach me how to pray," he begged one of the wise old gurus.  He explained his situation.  "I read the scriptures and recite the Psalms.  I say the prayers I learned as a chld.  But I don't feel God's presence.  Does God even hear me?  I have no peace.  What can I do?"  The wise monk replied, "Fill a basket with sand.  Every day for the next two weeks when you pray, pour a bucket of water over the sand."  The young seeker obeyed the monk, and after two weeks retutrned to see him. 

          "Now, my son," the monk said, "what have you learned?"  More frustrated than before, the young man said, "All I have is an empty basket.  I prayed and poured water on the sand everyday, but gradually it all ran out  of the basket."  With a serene smile on his face,  the monk told the young man, "That is what prayer is all about.  Little by little, prayer prepares a space within you--an empty space for God to enter." (Adapted from Spiritual Literacy, Reading the Sacred in Everyday Life, 1996, p. 102).

          St. Augustine talked about each of us having a God-shaped hole in our hearts that only God can fill.  Often we try to fill that God-shaped hole with other things: we work, eat or drink too much.  We seek hobbies, diversions, and material things to fill the void,  but ultimately, the water runs through the sand and we are left with an empty basket. 

          A few minutes ago we reflected on what we had to relinquish in our external lives order to follow state, diocesan, and CDC health directives.  More importantly, we also have to do some self-emptying of our hearts.  In recent weeks we have seen the love, compassion, and altruism flowing out of the hearts of nurses, doctors, first responders, small business and restaurant owners, and many others who know how to be good neighbors. 

          Our life experience has taught us that our human hearts are capable of countless and profound acts of kindness and courage.  The Golden Rule-- do unto others as you would have them do unto you--is rooted in the heart.  Love, compassion, peace-making, creativity, a passion for equality and justice, a moral compass, the desire and the God-given means to leave the world a little better than we found it--all of this and so many other God-like attributes originate and emanate from the heart.

          But we also know that greed, envy, hate, prejudice, pride, and those horrible "isms" that define and demean others--racisim, ageism, sexism--also find their home in our hearts.  Thus, we continue the process of self-emptying.  We do some Spring heart-cleaning to clear out the clutter, to muzzle the noise, to sweep away the debris of old hurts and grudges; to flush out of our hearts whatever blocks and minimizes our relationships with God and one another.

          Episcopal priest, preacher, and author, Barbara Brown Taylor, reflects: "I am convinced that 99% of us are addicted to something...The simplest definition of addiction is anything we need or depend on to fill the empty place inside that belongs to God alone."  She concludes: "The hollowness we sometimes feel is not a sign of something wrong.  It is the holy of holies, the uncluttered throne room of the Lord, our God" (Adapted from Home By Another Way, 1999, p. 67).

          Which leads us back to the foot of the cross. As we gaze upward, we bend the knee of our heart in awe at God's steadfast, unbounded love embodied in Jesus, the Suffering Servant.   Paul's Letter to the Philippians, chapter 2, is a beautiful description of how Jesus' emptied himself so that we could be filled with God's power working within us to do far greater things than we can ask or imagine "Christ Jesus...who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant...born in human likeness.  And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross" (vs. 5b-8).          

          During a Good Friday sermon a few years ago, a former dean of Washingtion National Cathedral (Samuel T. Lloyd III) preached these words.  "Yes, God's power is infinite, but it is the power we see hanging on the cross, the power of suffering love to hold, to forgive, to heal, and to begin again...God has no strategy but the cross of Christ to win us and convince us--the power of the cross to move you and me to live Christ's love in the struggle of hope and healing here and now...May Christ, the crucified victor, reign in our hearts, and heal our world" (Sermons from the National Cathedral, Soundings for the Journey, 2013, pp. 291, 292).

          "These images are haunted and haunting," wrote our NY Times journalist.  "(They are) like stills from movies about plagues and the apocalypse, but in some ways they are hopeful."  In the words of our rector from his Maundy Thursday message: "How paradoxical and darkly beautiful that the great theme of Lenten self-emptying and the great promise of Easter's new life are integrated these days."

          The Great Empty, the self-emptying of Jesus, and the self emptying related to both our internal and external worlds, gives us hope.  On this Good Friday, let us thank God for Easter's promise of new life, but especially tonight, as we gather around the cross, let us thank God for the great empty that safeguards life!

Sermon 2/23/20

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

“Listen to Him.”

                                      The Omega Point

Yes, they were afraid.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or, did they?

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

Jesus told them the unexpected about discipleship.

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

So, Yes, they were afraid.

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

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

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

But they did not.

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

They were counter-intuitive. 

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

God knows……Jesus might not have wanted that.

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

And he did.

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

That voice that gave Moses the Law.

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

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

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

No one saw and experienced their encounters with God.

But Peter did.

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

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

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

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

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

That the spiritual masters….. are right.

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

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

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

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

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

They never looked back. 

Oh, they would have pitfalls, failures and misunderstanding. 

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

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

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

Our world is never them same.

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

“Listen to him.”

Him alone.

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

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

Voices directing hurt, suffering and accusation our way.

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

Listen to one, unified voice.

What is that voice?

What is the nature of that voice beyond all others?

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

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

“Listen to him.”

The voice of Jesus-Nothing but pure Love.

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

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

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

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

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

She has just published her memoir.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I cried out, “I love myself.”

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

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

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

I now knew I had been transformed.

I was finally, after years, me again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In her memoir she also writes this:

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

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

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

Especially with the person you love.”

“Listen to him.”  “Listen to him.”

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

And you will never look back!

Sermon 2/16/20

Reflection, All Saints Church - Sermon Preached by Lynn Atkins

 

Sunday, February 16, 2020

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

Sometimes I feel like a Motherless Child,

A Long way from home.

Sometimes I feel like I’m Almost Gone,

A long way from home.

True Believer…

A long way from home.

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

 

Perform “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child”

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

Sermon 2/9/20

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

 

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

                                      

Cutting the “God Talk.”

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Little has changed.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Such is certainly part of the truth of biblical interpretation.

 

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

 

Yes, well enough.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Isaiah was addressing you and me.

 

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

 

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

 

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

their religion, their worship and their identity.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

No—Israel had a mission—to the nations.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

And the breach?

 

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

 

The fundamental breach is between God and Humankind.

 

And the fundamental sign of that Breach?

 

Is it not the fundament dislocation between life and worship?

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Sisters and brothers!

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Yes, worship can be dangerous.

 

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

 

You heard correctly; religion can divide humans from God.

 

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

 

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

 

But he also knew this.

 

We DO have control over how we respond to them.

 

And one way to do so?

 

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

 

Please hear me right.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

But you and I can control this:

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

I dare say no more by way of example.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

The letter said this:

 

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

 

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

 

We ask just two questions:

*What is your name?

*Are you hungry?

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

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

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

Sermon 2/2/20

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

“A sword will pierce through your own soul.”

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Then something about the mother stopped him.

 

His expression changed.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Yes, this baby, this Jesus, is light.

But it is light which disturbs, and challenges.

 

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

 

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

Through the hollow of an ear;

Wings beating about the room

 

The terror of all terrors that I bore

 

The Heavens in my womb.

 

Had I not found content among the shadows.

 

“Had I not found content among the shadows.”

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

What do I mean by this?

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

when aging, when genuinely oppressed.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

I cite one from last Sunday.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

It is often the last vestige of depression.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Beneath his dark behavior is profound shame.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

And compassion.

 

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

 

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

Priesting here at All Saints church.

 

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

 

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

 

The poet and hymn writer Rosalind Brown composed this commendation.

 

My Lord Jesus,

 

You laid aside your rightful reputation

 

And gave no heed to what the world might say;

 

Served as a slave and laid aside your garments

 

To wash the feet of those who walked your way.

 

You touched the leper, ate with the rejected,

 

Received the worship of a woman’s tears:

 

You shed the pride that keeps us from the freedom

 

To love our neighbor, laying down our fears.

 

Help us to follow Jesus, where you lead us,

 

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

 

To walk your way of humble, costly service,

 

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

Draw us to you, with your love transform us;

 

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

 

Enlarge our hearts and with compassion fill us.

 

To Love, to Serve, to Follow you Alone.

Sermon 1/26/20

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

“Follow Me”

                                      Fisher Kings of Conscience

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Their stories are our stories.

 

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

 

And how are we addressed?

“Follow Me.”

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

In Matthew?

 

No attempt whatsoever is made to prepare for the event.

 

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

 

Why?

 

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

 

This is the inaugural address of Jesus according to Matthew.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

We learn the blessings of vulnerability, of peacemaking.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

righteousness?”

 

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

 

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

 

He still received orders to enter the Nazi army.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

“There is something in every one of you that waits and listens to the sound of the genuine in yourself. It is the only guide you will ever have.

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

 

Why did the Disciples “Follow-Him?”

 

Drop their nets?  Enter into a new Age.

 

They listened.

 

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

 

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

 

Respect the light of conscience.

 

Go the lake-side.

 

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

 

You will discover sound of the genuine in yourself.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 “Follow Me”

 

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

 

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

 

Truth and Right might very well depend your Decision.

 

 

 

Let us pray:

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

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

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

 

He commands.

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

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

……..and, as an ineffable mystery…

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

Sermon 1/12/20

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

“You are My Beloved…..”

                                                You Count!

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

 

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

 

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

 

The boy comes from family riven by addiction and dysfunction.

 

The preacher spots the boy and the following dialogue happens:

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

“What’s that?”  the boy murmured.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

That is what he remembered.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Scream what?

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Others believe that the story screams a message of grace.

 

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

 

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

 

That’s what Baptism is about right? 

 

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

 

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

 

 “You Count.”

 

That is what the boy heard.

 

That is what he gave his life for.

 

“You Count.”

 

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

 

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

 

 “You Count!”

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

“You Count.”

 

That is what Jesus heard in the Baptismal waters!

 

“You Count.”

 

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

 

Why WAS Jesus Baptized?

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

You know how I interpret this?

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

“You are my beloved.”

 

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

 

But he needed to hear them for this reason.

 

You count.

 

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

 

And why are WE Baptized? 

 

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

 

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

 

Who only yearn for eternal life?

 

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

 

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

 

But God called Jesus Beloved.  No matter his past.

 

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

 

You are beloved!

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

It need not be so.

 

“You count;  You are my beloved.”

ALL count; all are my Beloved.

 

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

All.

 

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

……The rivers are raging.

 

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

……….about to die in muddy waters….

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

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

Sermon 1/19/20

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

“Where are you staying?”

                                                “Somebodiness”

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

They drop all and follow Jesus.

 

What gives?  They do not even know him.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

John has some credibility.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

And not just dialogue with the divine.

 

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

 

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

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

*Inquiry of Meaning:  What do you seek?

*Response:  Where are You Staying?

 

 “Where are you staying?”

 

Now—that might be a curious question.

 

What lies within those words—Where are you Staying?

 

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

 

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

 

Where are you staying?

 

What really prompts this question?

 

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

 

Where are you staying?

 

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

 

Do we not know this?

 

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

 

It makes all other movement in the spiritual life possible!

 

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

 

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

 

Where are you staying?

 

Martin Luther King knew that was the ultimate question.

 

The only real question.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

He knew that all Americans were asking this question.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Jefferson—also slave-owner.

 

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

 

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

 

Where are you staying?

 

Where America?

 

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

 

All!

 

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

 

Dr. King wrote:

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

 

You see Dr. King new this: