All Saints' Church

Princeton, NJ

Sermons and Updates

Sermon 8/11/19

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

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

Faith:  AS IF!

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

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

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

Both went to the same Chicago hospital.

One upstairs;  one downstairs.

They were two women on a mission.

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

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

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

Her labor was smooth and quick.

She knew what she had to do.

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

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

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

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

The jubilation of the hospital staff was overwhelming.

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

I thought of this story often this past week.

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

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

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

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

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

Abraham and Sarah;  Isaac and Jacob.

They acted AS IF.

To quote the New Testament scholar Tom Wright:

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

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

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

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

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

We celebrate the feast day of Mary of Nazareth this Thursday

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

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

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

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

She once wrote that her work was about:

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

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

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

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

We remember, for example, her work Beloved.

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

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

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

 How did you feel;  what did you think? 

Perhaps there was some Beloved in you at that point. 

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

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

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

Jesus listened;  to that woman.

That child became his child.

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

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

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

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

That imaginative connection to that little girl in Mississippi….

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

A little girl in Mississippi cries for her mother.

A patient living with mental illness cries for.

One receives love.  One can.

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

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

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

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


Sermon 7/28/19

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

                             Prophetic Intercessors Before God

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

 

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

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

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

The cries of injustice from Sodom have reached God.

God is about to respond?

What will God do?

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

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

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

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

More than that—a different kind of God. 

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

So he engages with God;  he prays.

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is Abraham’s prayerful question to God?  

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

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

“To do this thing.”

As one commentator on this text notes:

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

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

Then Abraham gets down to specifics;  how many? 

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

Abraham stopped at 10; Why?  Why not One?

Is the One who saves none other than God alone?

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

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

What is truly at stake is the principle.

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

Normally we think of the innocent perishing with the guilty.

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

It is about the innocent saving the guilty.

This is the “Righteousness” of God.

Not Death;  Not Damnation;  Not Fire and Brimstone.

But Grace; but Mercy; but Forgiveness.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not God?

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

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

We find it in much of the bible! 

Moses, Jeremiah;  Job;.

Jesus.

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

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

No of course not.

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

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

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

To his people?  To our Cries? 

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

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

Gerhard Von Rad writes this: 

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

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

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

I don’t think I am alone.

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

Do we expect to stretch our understanding of God? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They did their best.

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

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

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

And then it  hit me: 

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

I asked Dad if I could do this.

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

And so I did.  And so he ate.

Following dinner—I got back to the car.

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

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

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

Not this time.

I will not tell you this prayer.

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

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

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

Might not be right;  might not be his will.

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

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

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

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

Did it impact God? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

What was her response?   She laughed.  In response to Sarah’s laugh--one of the Lord’s angels bearing this promise said:  =/*9

‘; +

“Is Anything to Hard for the Lord?”

“Is Anything too hard for the Lord?” 

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

And life is never the same.

 


Sermon 7/14/19

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They were just like you—or me.

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

                                                                                                                                    3.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

                                                                                                                        4.

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

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

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

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

He did.

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

“I don’t have a mother,” he replied.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

                                                                                                                                    5.

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

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

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

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

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

There is another way.

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

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

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

Amen!

 


Sermon- 8/4/2019

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

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

                                                Striving to be Healers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was entitled, The Plague.

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

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

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

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

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

The Priest soon fell ill—and died too.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Teacher writes:

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

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

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

“All is Vanity.”

Who else in the bible talks like this?

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

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

Perhaps the rabbis wanted to make it difficult to find.

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

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

Many persons found it threatening to faith.

It should not be.

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

And all those questions center around one theme.

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

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

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

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

We might called this failed perspective:  Faith as Avoidance.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Frankl survived the Holocaust in a Concentration Camp. 

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

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

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

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

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

The perspective on meaning, offered by Frankl offers this:

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

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

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

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

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

He cried out, “Thank God for another human being!” 

Can you show me the way back to town?” 

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

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

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

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

Or ways.

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

Through our Choices.

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

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

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

We might call him, “The Teacher.”

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

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

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

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

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

For Camus writes:

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

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

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

Strive their utmost to be healers.”

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

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

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

 


Sermon 7/7/2019

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

                             Freedom in Love: Interdependence Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In the words of one perceptive commentary:

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

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

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

In short, we’re freed into interdependence. 

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

Yes, our freedom depends on our interdependence.”

 

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

What does Paul see? 

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

What does Paul see? 

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

What does Paul see? 

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

What does Paul see? 

*The Christian body caring for one another.

And what does Paul see? 

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

For Paul the only nationalism is the human family.

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

True Freedom is the Freedom to Love.

 

Listen to these words:

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

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

That is, to the law of Christ.

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

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

My fidelity is not my own; it belongs to those who sin; and I am obligated to serve them by offering it to God, and for them, by sustaining and excusing them, and thus with my respectability, veiling their shame before God and humanity.

Thus, my wisdom belongs to the foolish; my power to the oppressed; thus my wealth belongs to the poor, my righteousness to the sinners.

It is with all these qualities that we must stand before God and intervene on behalf of those who do not have them, as clothed with someone else’s garment.

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

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

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

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

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

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

What might we see? 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do we see—dear friends—as God sees? 

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

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

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

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

Not a word!

How does God see the world?

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

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

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

Bearing One another’s Burdens.

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

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

That is what I learned from Sesame Street.

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

Do we see as God sees?