Spring Service of Confirmation, Reception, and Reaffirmation Sermon

Spring Service of Confirmation, Reception, and Reaffirmation Sermon

Then Peter began to speak to them: “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ—he is Lord of all. That message spread throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John announced: how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. We are witnesses to all that he did both in Judea and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear, not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses, and who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead. All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”
Acts 10:34-43

At the last supper, when Judas had gone out, Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once. Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come.’ I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
John 13:31-3

I’d like to reflect upon a dimension of the spiritual life that we don’t discuss enough, and that is the arc of it, and the ebb and flow of our feelings, as we make our way in this world as a person of faith, and in particular, a follower of Jesus.

Let me begin by telling you of a time when as a young adult–in my mid-twenties–I had what felt at the time to be an important decision to make. It wasn’t a life-changing decision, but a big enough deal that I wanted to get it right. Incidentally, I had already come to the decisions that those being confirmed are making today. I knew that I was a Christian and dedicated my life to following Jesus. In fact, I was in seminary, studying to be a priest. So I was all in, as they say, when it comes to faith, and I was praying about this decision, too, and for days I wrestled with the options, feeling genuinely torn. It was an uncomfortable time, and not an unfamiliar one. I struggled a lot with decisions back then, and in many ways still do. I’m prone to second-guessing myself, making quick decisions and immediately regretting them, going back and forth, wishing that some lightbulb would go off in my head and just settle things.

So back then I went for a swim at a nearby recreation center with this quandary on my mind. Somewhere in the midst of doing laps, the lightbulb went off. Clarity came, washing over me like the water I was swimming through. It felt like a gift from God, lifting me out of the indecisive state I had worked myself into. I knew exactly what to do and I knew why. Energized, I picked up the pace and finished my workout as if competing for Olympic gold. But no sooner had I stepped out of the water and began to dry off when the familiar feelings of uncertainty returned, completely overtaking the confidence I experienced just moments before.

The first thought I had was something like, Really–are you kidding me? Then, thankfully, I burst out laughing–mostly at myself for the way I was stressing over that one decision. That’s when it dawned on me that my feelings of uncertainty, and then certainty, and uncertainty again were just that–they were feelings that come and go. At the same time, I still had the decision to make, and I realized I now had another choice: I could either trust the clarity that came while I swam or go with the rush of doubt that followed. In an act of faith, I chose to trust my experience in the water. I remember praying, “Lord, I’m going to trust this is from you and act on it.”

Let me say again that what I was dealing with at the time wasn’t, in the end, that big of a deal, but the decision to trust the gift of clarity when it came to me, even after it left and I no longer felt it, has helped me more times than I can count when the stakes were higher. It’s drawn me closer to God, because in those times, I walk by faith and do my best to keep going, even when the confidence I felt in a given moment fades away.

What I hope you take away from this story is simply this: how you feel or don’t feel on a given day about God and the importance of God in your life; and what you may or may not believe in the sense of having complete confidence that something is true–these things come and go. But what you will have–and most certainly already have had–are moments like what happened to me in the pool when you feel something, when clarity or insight or an experience that you cannot explain rationally is given to you as a gift. Sometimes it will be strong and clear enough to see you through all the times of struggle and uncertainty that follow. Sometimes it may seem to disappear completely, but that’s when the life of faith becomes real, when you decide to trust the experience, in all its plausible deniability.

Now I’m not saying that every experience of seeming clarity or insight that comes from you is of God–that would be dangerous. They need to be tested in some way. Here is what I’ve learned about them, and how to sort through the ones that are trustworthy from the ones that aren’t–and believe me, I don’t always get this right.

If the experience is of God, the feelings that accompany it are those of love and acceptance–total acceptance of who you are and what you’re going through. If it feels otherwise–as if harsh, mean-spirited or unforgiving–that’s to be rejected (think of that later in the service when I ask you about renouncing forces of evil). It will almost always be the path requiring greater courage, unless what God is trying to say to you is that you need to slow down and not try so hard to make things right on your own. Every once in a while the word or insight that comes to us requires a really dramatic response–but not always, and I daresay, not often, and they generally occur in situations of acute crisis.

One example from my life: two years ago, at what was then the most acute and frightening stage of the covid pandemic before there were vaccines and a lot of people were dying, we had just settled my mom into an assisted living apartment. It promised to be a really good place for her as she recovered from a life-altering surgery and the sudden loss of all her independence. But then her facility had to shut everything down that made life worth living there, and she was quarantined in her room. I couldn’t see her and she couldn’t leave. My husband was away; and I had no way to care for her on my own, but one morning I woke up and knew as clearly as I knew my own name that I had to get her out of there. And I did, and she lived with us for over a year. Were there times afterwards when I wondered if I had made the right decision? Of course. But I had to trust that it was the right thing to do and just do it.

Do you hear what I’m saying: The life of faith is less about the words we say in church–although I’ll get to those in a minute–and more with how we live our lives in a spirit of trust. Can we trust that God is real? Can we believe that the person of Jesus, who lived, taught, healed, upended his society with a message of radical love and justice for the poor and was killed for it, and then was raised by God so that his death was not evidence of failure but an expression of how God’s love cannot be defeated even in death, and whose living presence is with those who choose to follow him, is one to be trusted as a personal Savior, friend, and the way that God reaches us now? The ways we know this isn’t so much as we come to accept or even understand what Christians through the ages have said or wrote about him, but rather how we experience him, and the elusive Spirit of God, in those moments, as the black theologian Thurgood Marshall wrote years ago, when our backs are against the wall.

Now let me say something about all the in-between time, when those moments of clarity or spiritual connection fade or seem far off, when life is more routine, and we’re busy, juggling multiple things at once and tempted to spend way too much time on mindless activities, and nothing seems particularly dramatic or exciting.

These are also spiritual moments, when God, and for Christians, in the person of Jesus, is with us; but the experience isn’t one of an adrenaline rush. It’s quieter, and we need to pay more attention to the little things–the bits of grace and goodness that are all around us, the opportunities we have to make a small difference in the life of another, or to do something good even when no one is watching, or to go deeper in our understanding or knowledge of God through reading one of the gospels that tell of Jesus’ life, or joining a prayer group, or getting involved in a work of justice, or giving some of your money away so that someone else might breathe easier as a result.

This is the work of aligning our lives to what we know matters most, but that gets so easily crowded out by all that’s swirling in and around us. It’s how we learn to hear the voice of Jesus when he speaks really softly, and we become the kind of people that other people recognize as Christians, as a song I used to sing in Youth Group goes, by our love.

So let me leave you with a few phrases from our Scripture texts today that can guide you in all those other times when we’re doing our best to live as if the powerful moments of grace and insight are real, but we don’t feel them as strongly anymore. Consider them a way of orienting your life, or patterning it, on the life of Jesus, who came not only to reveal God in human form, but also to teach us how to live as the children of God that we are.

In the passages from the Acts of the Apostles we heard about what happened to one of Jesus’ disciples after the resurrection. Simon Peter has one of those powerful, life-changing realizations and he says: “I truly understand now that God shows no partiality.” Take that in for a moment, and imagine what it would look like for us to live our lives as if that one statement were true, if we truly understood that God doesn’t play favorites. God doesn’t see one person, or group at school, or neighborhood, or political party, or religious affiliation as more worthy than another. God doesn’t divide humankind the way that we do. What might that mean for us and how we live?

Now, hear Jesus speaking, as the Gospel of John imagines him as he is saying goodbye to his disciples on the night before his death. These are his parting words, what he wants them most to remember when they are feeling discouraged and alone. After I’m gone, he tells them, I need you to love one another as I have loved you. That’s it. That’s what he wanted, and still wants, all those who take on the mantle of Christian to do–to love as he loves, and specifically, to love others as we have been loved by him.
It’s something to think about when we don’t know what to do next–we could reach out in love to another person.

Which brings me back to what I tried to describe at the beginning–what it feels like when we experience something of that love, that assurance that we’re not alone, that we are being led, and inspired, by a presence we can never fully explain or understand, but that we are willing to trust and follow. As we do, we find ourselves becoming more of ourselves, and able to do brave things, and yes, to love others with a generosity of spirit that we didn’t know we had. I’m not saying that we do this all the time, and that we always get it right, because we don’t–and I’ll save that conversation for another time.

For now, I pray that this day, and the prayers that Bishop Shand and I have the privilege of offering on your behalf, will be occasions of real grace and love that you feel and trust. Then may you go from this church and live your life with as much courage and love as you can.

Homily in Celebration and Thanksgiving for the Life of Madeleine Korbel Albright

Homily in Celebration and Thanksgiving for the Life of Madeleine Korbel Albright

Let me begin by expressing my condolences to the Albright family and to all who were blessed to know Madeleine Albright as a colleague, mentor, and friend. Thank you for the honor of being part of this celebration of her life. It means more than I can say.

The most important words have already been spoken. What we have heard about the one who came into this world as Marie Jana Korbel, or Madlenka, as she was known as a child, is testimony to the theological adage: “the glory of God is a human being fully alive.” Drawing upon every circumstance and experience, both wondrous and harsh, Madeleine learned to live fully and well, as the Apostle Paul wrote of his own life, when she had little and when she had plenty, in times of hardship and times of joy. “I can do all things through Him who strengthens me,” Paul wrote. (Philippians 4:13) Madeleine was more circumspect about her faith in God, though it was the foundation beneath her.

I’ve spent the last two weeks reading her memoirs and some of her speeches, which has felt like a master class in life and leadership. I’d like to share some of what I’ve learned.

I was especially struck by her capacity for self-reflection–her awareness of her strengths and vulnerabilities, her ability to celebrate accomplishments and acknowledge mistakes. “Lives are necessarily untidy and uneven,” she wrote, “It is important, however, to have some guiding star. For me, that star has always been faith in the democratic promise that each person should be able to go as far as his or her talents will allow.”1

I also learned about many of you, as seen through Madeleine’s eyes. She was effusive in her praise and admiration, quick to celebrate your gifts and contributions to this country and beyond. She was generous and respectful about those with whom she disagreed, sometimes vehemently, on policy matters. She was discreet. And she had the capacity to recognize, as criminal justice reformer Bryan Stevenson so powerfully reminds us, that each one of us is more than the worst thing we have ever done, or the best thing, for that matter. We are all more than how we present ourselves publicly or are perceived by others. We are more than our role in each other’s lives, more than our opinions on certain issues, and certainly more than our affiliation in a political party, faith tradition or whatever else might separate us from one another.

Never once in her writings did she describe herself as a godly person, but as I read, I kept thinking of these words from the Benedictine nun Joan Chittister: “The godly are those who never talk destructively about another person–in anger, in spite, in vengefulness–and who can be counted on to bring an open heart to a closed and clawing world.” Chittister goes on: “The holy ones are those who live well with those around them. They are just, they are upright, they are kind. The ecology of humankind is safe with them.”2 The ecology of humankind was safe with Madeleine Albright.

She had very strong words, however, for those who, in her estimation, abused their power and caused others to suffer, particularly those on the world stage whose actions adversely affected millions, and she did all in her power to defeat them.

Speaking of power, Madeleine wrote that her political career began when she served on the board of trustees of Beauvoir, the early elementary school here on the Cathedral Close. “In life one thing leads to another, and in Washington one personal recommendation does too.”3 She described her time serving on the Cathedral’s leadership board, known as the Chapter, during a time when this nave was being completed. At a service when the expanded nave’s cornerstone was laid, she read a lesson from the pulpit, “tasting a bit of my childhood dream of becoming a priest” she wrote, though The Episcopal Church had yet to ordain women. She claimed to have learned as much about politics on the Cathedral Chapter as she did working in campaigns–which you know is true.4 But I daresay she also learned as much about faith in the political arena as she did in church, because that is where her faith was lived.

I’d like to dwell a bit longer on Madeleine’s understanding of power. By way of illustration, let me share a moment seared in my memory that some of you may also recall. It was on the day of President Obama’s second inauguration. We had gathered at St. John’s Church, Lafayette Square for a private prayer service for the president and vice president and their families, with other invited guests. I don’t know if Madeleine was there. The preacher was Andy Stanley from Northpoint Church in Atlanta. He stood at the pulpit, looked at the president, and then at all of us, and asked, “What do you do when you know that you are the most powerful person in the room?” He wasn’t just speaking about the power of the presidency. From parents to presidents, we all know what it’s like to be the most powerful person. And what do we do with our power? Good preacher that he was, Stanley reminded us of what Jesus of Nazareth did on the night he shared a final meal with his disciples before he was arrested and subsequently executed. He was clearly the most powerful person in that room, and he assumed the role of a servant, washing his disciples feet.

For Madeleine Albright, power was an essential tool for making things happen. She felt called to positions of authority and influence, and she pursued those positions unapologetically. (The chapter in which she described lobbying behind the scenes to be President Clinton’s choice for Secretary of State ought to be required reading for every woman aspiring to leadership.) She relished being the powerful person in the room, and she used her power in service to others. When she needed to take on some of the world’s biggest bullies, she did, unflinchingly on the exterior, no matter how she felt inside. When she needed to hold back, pivot, or compromise, she did that, too, mastering the art of what our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry describes as “standing and kneeling at the same time,” which is to say, being at once strong in conviction and humble in spirit.5 She was also aware that with increasing positions of power, one’s mistakes become more costly. Her mistakes grieved her, as did her failures, but she was determined to learn from them and carry on.

I close with a nod toward the mystery of the eternal consequences of our lives, acknowledging the ancient human intuition, embedded in all faith traditions, that there is, in fact, another realm beyond this life. Still on this side of death myself, I know as much about that realm as you do, but I believe in it, what connects us in this life to that realm in those moments of transcendence and grace, of peace surpassing understanding, of unconditional love, of faith as the assurance of things hoped for and conviction of things unseen. The best way to prepare for that other realm is to live fully in this one, to cherish life until the time comes for us to let it go, and to do what we can to make life better for others.

Let me leave you with Madeleine’s closing words from Prague Winter, her exploration of her Jewish heritage and the cataclysmic events that shaped her early childhood.
As you can imagine, she had cited many examples of cruelty and betrayal in that heartbreaking book, but she wrote, “they are not what I will take with me as I move to life’s next chapter. In the world where I choose to live, even the coldest winter must yield to agents of spring and the darkest view of human nature must eventually find room for shafts of light.”6

She concluded with this:

I have spent a lifetime looking for remedies for all manner of life’s problems–personal, social, political, global. . . I believe that we can recognize truth when we see it, just not at first and not without ever relenting in our effort to know more. This is because the goal we see, and the good we hope for, comes not as a final reward but as the hidden companion to our quest. It is not what we find, but the reason we cannot stop looking and striving that tells us why we are here.

You don’t need me to remind you that we live in perilous times. And I have no doubt that Madeleine’s final words to us would be ones of encouragement, to keep looking for the truth, striving for good, and cherishing life in all its wondrous complexity and beauty. She would want us to claim our power and use it to serve others. She would want us all to follow our north star–what ultimate purpose guides us in times of grace and adversity and calls us back whenever we stray off course.7

So leave here today resolved, in words attributed to John Wesley, “to do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, for all the people you can, for as long as you can.”

As you do, the God of compassion will go with you, and rest assured that Madeleine is cheering you on.

Amen.

________
1Madeleine Albright, Madam Secretary. Kindle Version, p.10.
2Joan Chittister, O.S.B, The Rule of Benedict: Insights for the Ages (New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1992), 24.
3Madam Secretary, Kindle edition, 91.
4Ibid, 96.
5Michael Curry, Love is the Way: Holding Onto Hope in Troubling Times (New York Avery/Penguin Random House, 2020), 181.
6Madeleine Albright, Prague Winter: A Personal Story of Remembrance and War, 1937-1948 (New York: HarperCollins, 2012), 414
7Ibid, 415.

Easter: When the Veil is Lifted

Easter: When the Veil is Lifted

Peter began to speak to Cornelius and the other Gentiles: “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ–he is Lord of all. That message spread throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John announced: how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him.”
Acts 10:34-43

On the first day of the week, at early dawn, the women who had come with Jesus from Galilee came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared. They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in, they did not find the body. While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them. The women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen.
Luke 24:1-12

Good morning. What an honor to address you this morning. I pray that my words may convey something of the hope that Easter represents, and where my words falter, that the Spirit of God will speak to you directly with whatever it is your heart most needs to hear.

To set the context for what I hope to convey, let me begin with a few vignettes. They’re mostly personal accounts, but as I speak, perhaps similar or analogous memories will come to mind for you.

When I first stood on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon and then spent several days hiking down to the bottom and up again, I was completely undone by its majestic, wild, dangerous beauty. Whatever the word sacred had meant to me before, it now had to take into account what my eyes beheld at every switchback. The Franciscan priest Richard Rohr speaks of creation as God’s first incarnation, and the Grand Canyon had that impact on me–it was a revelation. As I was leaving, I remember feeling strangely comforted by the fact that the canyon would always be there, and that no matter where I was I could call the canyon to mind. I haven’t been back for 30 years, but it remains for me a mystical place of connection.

In Celtic spirituality, places like the Grand Canyon, or any location that is sacred for you, is called thin, in the sense that the veil which separates this world from all that lies beyond is transparent and porous. These are places where we can connect to the past, present and future all at once; and they confirm, at least for some of us, the ancient human intuition that there is, in fact, another realm beyond this life.

A thin place isn’t always one of beauty. Gordon Cosby, one of the most influential mid-20th century pastors in Washington, DC, described when the veil was lifted for him on the battlefield of Normandy during World War II. As a chaplain, he helped bury hundreds of young soldiers, including his best friend. At the grave of his friend, reading from Scripture he had a powerful revelation that there was life on the other side of the grave. He also realized that most of the soldiers he ministered to had little or no spiritual resources to draw upon in the hell that they found themselves in. So when he returned from the war, Cosby was determined to create a faith community where people could develop a spirituality that was both deep and wide. He called it “the Church of the Savior,” one of the first truly inter-racial faith communities in Washington, DC, dedicated to a ministry of deep spiritual growth and sacrificial service and commitment to justice.

These thin places and experiences speak to us of a dual reality of life as we know it and life beyond what we know. When we’re in a thin place, we sense the presence of that realm to which we cannot yet go, but whose reality we no longer doubt.

In late August and September of 2005, the residents of New Orleans and throughout southern Mississippi and Louisiana experienced the ravages of Hurricane Katrina. You may recall that nearly two thousand lives were lost, hundreds of thousands were displaced, and the damage to property and community infrastructure was catastrophic. Moreover our national systems for crisis management failed the impacted communities miserably, and it was clear for all the world to see that thousands of people in this country couldn’t get clean water, much less shelter or adequate food. I was living in Minnesota then, just a few hours south of where the Mississippi River begins as a tiny trickle out of Lake Istaka. The river that served as a peaceful backdrop to my life in Minneapolis was, at the very same time, wreaking havoc on countless people two thousand miles south.

Every time that I passed the river, or a tributary to it near our house, I couldn’t stop thinking about the people who were suffering at the river’s end. I could carry on my normal life, but I was somehow connected by that river to others who were experiencing incalculable hardship.

Now there are many ways we can feel that kind of visceral connection to other people who in real time are experiencing life in a vastly different way than we are. Perhaps right now you have family or friends, or you yourself have lived or served in a part of the world that is at war now, or experiencing famine, or some other hardship. And you’re here, and there’s this urgency inside you, a desperation to do something for those you love or care about–in large part because you’re fine and they are not. That disparity–and that’s what I’m asking you to think about–motivates us all to do brave and sacrificial things; it calls upon one of the noble attributes of our species. that of empathy. Empathy is like muscle; the more we exercise it, the stronger it gets. That’s not by accident. We were made that way for a reason. More on that a bit later.

One final vignette: Once, as a favor to a neighbor, I presided at a wedding for a couple that I did not know well, the sister of my neighbor and her soon-to-be-husband. It was an outdoor wedding at a city park, not at all religious, except for me, but it was lovely, as most weddings are. After the ceremony, a young woman approached me, introduced herself, and asked if we could talk. When I said yes, her eyes filled with tears. She told me that she had once dated the groom. The romantic side of their relationship didn’t last, she said; they were still friends, and she liked the woman he married. Yet she was still single, and lonely; she had dreaded attending the wedding, and it was just as hard as she feared it would be. “Still, I’m glad I’m here,” she said through her tears. “I really am. I wanted to be here for them, you know? To celebrate their joy.”

That is one of the most poignant expressions of our capacity to hold two realities at once, that in our sorrow, we can be genuinely glad for another’s happiness. It is the love of a dancer or an athlete sidelined because of an injury, who is nonetheless present to cheer on those able to fulfill the dream that is now denied them. It is the love of parents who realize that what they have to give isn’t what their children want or need, yet even in rejection, they offer their blessing.

With all those vignettes in mind, here is what I’d like to say about the meaning of this day. We will never fully understand it, but we experience its power as we hold seemingly opposite experiences together–this world and what lies beyond; our capacity to feel the sufferings of another to such a degree that we are moved to take them on as our own; being willing to share in another’s joy even when we are grieving.

Easter lands there. Richard Rohr describes the Easter mystery this way: “the body of Christ is crucified and resurrected at the same time.”1 That’s not an historical assertion. It’s a mystical one–an act or way of being that unites death to life, this world to the next, reaching down to the deepest human sorrow and raising us up to whatever joy is possible after the greatest loss.

What we need to remember when we consider all of this is that Jesus, before the resurrection, was, for those who knew him, a human embodiment of a thin place. Before he died, people in his presence couldn’t stop thinking that they were in the presence of God. Listen to how the world religion scholar Huston Smith describes Jesus:

Circulating easily and without affectation among ordinary people and social misfits, “healing them, counseling them, helping them out of chasms of despair, Jesus went about doing good . . . He did so with such single mindedness and effectiveness that those who were with him found their estimate of him persistently modulating to a new kae. They found themselves thinking that if divine goodness were to manifest itself in human form, this is how it would behave.2

And then died, a cruel and vindictive way. His followers were devastated, not only because they loved him and that he was such a good man, but because he seemed so much more than a man. “We had hoped,” one of the disciples says a bit later in the Easter narrative, “We had hoped that he would be the one to redeem Israel.”

That’s why the empty tomb became such a powerful place and symbol. It became a thin place for the women who went there early in the morning to care for Jesus’ body. They were terrified, as you just heard. They hadn’t yet encountered Christ, but his body was gone. There were these men telling them to go back to Galilee, which is where they came from, and that Jesus would meet them there. It made no sense, but the women knew that they were on sacred ground, that the veil between this world and that other realm was lifted for them, and Jesus was somehow moving freely between those two realities.

The reason we are here, friends, in this Cathedral is that for those who follow him, he still moves between both those realms. Whatever happened to Jesus on that first Easter morning, Christ is now and forever a spiritual being in the realm that lies beyond us, who is also with us in our reality with us in all its heartbreaking and wondrous complexity. That’s what Christians believe and experience. It’s what anyone can know if we let him in.

There’s another dual reality of Easter: the juxtaposition of grief and joy. There is no getting around it. So if you’re not feeling super joyful today, rest assured that you are in good company–if you noticed, the women at the tomb weren’t especially joyful, either. For it takes time for a new life to emerge for death; it takes time for grief to ease; for forgiveness to do its reconciling work.

But if you are feeling joyful, for Jesus’ sake, shield your joy. For even in times of great sorrow and struggle, there is a place for laughter and goodness, and when they are given to us, we need to savor and protect them, lest the world keep us forever anxious and afraid. In the words of the poet Gwendolyn Brooks, the first Black American to win the Pulitzer Prize, “Say to the down-keepers, the sun-slappers, the self-soilers, the harmony hushers, ‘even if you are not ready for the day, it cannot always be night.’” That was her way of saying to all those who would keep her down, “No one is going to steal my joy.”3

Which brings me back at last to the ways we are connected to one another. For while resurrection is something that only God can do, it’s also about us, how we experience death and life at the same time, too. It’s what my colleague Bishop Jake Owensby calls “a resurrection-shaped life.” By God’s grace, we, too, can be for others walking thin places, whenever we show up; whenever we reach across the disparities of human experience with a love that shows no partiality, that’s focused on doing good and offering our blessing.

So when your heart is breaking for what another is going through, follow where your heart leads–that’s resurrection working in you. Go to the places where love is needed most with whatever love you have to give–that’s resurrection in you. Wherever there is joy, do your best to celebrate and protect it, even if it’s not yours–that’s resurrection working in you. Be open to the people and places that help you believe that there is another realm of life beyond this life, and trust that when the time comes, Jesus will be there to help you cross over.

But in the meantime, you are here, as I am, and we are called to live with compassion and love, even as our hearts break. We can’t do this on our own, or perfectly, and we aren’t meant to. Resurrection is God’s best work, and it’s happening right now in all the wounded and sacred places of our lives and of this world. We can be part of it, whenever and however we choose to receive it for ourselves, and then offer what we can in a resurrection-shaped life.

May it be so. Amen.

____

1It Can’t Be Carried Alone by Richard Rohr, Daily Meditation from the Center for Action and Contemplation, April 6, 2022
2Huston Smith, The Soul of Christianity: Restoring the Great Tradition (HarperSanFrancisco, 2005), 48.
3Speech to the Young by Gwendolyn Brooks, from BLACKS (Chicago, IL: Third World Press, 1991

The Power of A Pause

The Power of A Pause

All the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” So Jesus told them this parable: “There was a man who had two sons. . .'”
Luke 15: 1-3: 11b-32
Let me begin by saying how glad I am to be back with the community of faithful at St. Mary’s Foggy Bottom, and to add my voice of welcome to our friends and guests who join us in worship. Among our honored guests–too many to call out by name–is our mayor, the Honorable Muriel Bowser. Welcome, Mayor; welcome all.

And a special word of thanks to St. Mary’s leadership: The Rev. Dr. Wes Williams; Mr. Brandon Todd, Senior Warden, Mr. Windon Ringer, Acting Administrator, and members of the vestry. Thank you for guiding St. Mary’s Church life and ministry. It has been a long and challenging season since the COVID pandemic entered our lives and forever changed them, in addition to the other events in our city and the nation’s capital seared in our memory and whose effects are with us still. You’ve also had your trials and transitions as a congregation, not all of them easy. But you are still here, St. Mary’s Church. Our city is still here. And so am I, ready to support you in any way I can.

There is no other church I would rather worship in today than the first Black Episcopal Church in Washington, DC as we anticipate the confirmation of the first Black woman judge to sit on the highest court in the land. During the nomination hearings this past week, when Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson was given the opportunity to speak and answer questions of actual relevance to her work, we heard her intelligence and wisdom, grace and grit. Her judicial and life experience make her an exemplary Supreme Court nominee–of that there is no doubt.

We saw many other things on display this week, far less noble, and worrisome indicators of what certain members of the United States Senate believe they can, and perhaps must, say to secure a presidential nomination for 2024. Many commentators have reflected the juxtaposition of Judge Jackson’s behavior with that of some of her interrogators, and how normative it is for people of color to be treated as she was this week.

Fully prepared for what was coming, Judge Jackson never once lost her composure. But there was, as Elie Mystal among others have noted, the moment she took a very long pause.

“Senator,” she began to answer a question that had no place in the hearing room. Then she sighed and paused, for quite some time. “As the silence filled the room,” Mystal writes, “I felt like I could see Jackson make the same calculation nearly every Black person and ancestor has made at some point while living in the New World.”1

There is power in such a pause. We all felt it.

Well, today is Sunday, thank God, and we’re in church. So let me turn our attention to another person known for pausing and taking his time before answering questions put to him, questions asked by those who were threatened by all that he said and did, as well as the questions that his followers asked, giving him the opportunity to help them grow in wisdom and love.

We’ve dropped ourselves into this man’s story as he’s taking the longest walk of his life–the 60-plus mile journey from the region where he began his ministry in the northern part of Israel Palestine to Jersusalm, the seat of religious authority for his people and the political power of the occupying Roman Empire. Jesus was walking to Jerusalem fully aware of the fate that awaited him there. For those of us who walked this road with him before, we also know how the story ends.

You may recall that prior to taking this journey, Jesus had a mystical encounter with his spiritual ancestors, Moses and Elijah. He had gone up a mountain to pray, taking three of his closest disciples with him. This was a pivotal moment for him, when he realized that he was not long for this world. That’s when he decided that in the time he had left, he would take his message of God’s all-inclusive love and his teachings of a way of life defined by mercy, compassion and justice for the oppressed to Jerusalem and let the chips fall where they may.

So, the Gospel of Luke tells us, when Jesus came down from that mountain, he gathered up his disciples, “turned his face toward Jerusalem,” and started walking. As he walked, he healed, he taught, and he preached as if these were the last words the world would hear from him, which, in fact, they were.

As it turns out, Jesus had a lot to say, worthy of our spending a lifetime pondering and applying his teachings to our lives. Which is why, in church, we hear his words over and over again. They never grow old for us; they always have something to say, and something different depending on where we are in our lives and whatever it is we’re struggling with, or what God is up to within and among us.

Most of Jesus’ teaching and sermons on the road were in response to questions, and many of those questions were from people less interested in his answers than in hearing themselves talk. (Not that any of us would do that). Like the lawyer who stood up to test Jesus, and asked, “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Figuring that a lawyer would already know the answer, Jesus asked him back, “What is written in the law?” The lawyer responded with what we know as the Great Commandments of Jewish Scripture: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, and strength, and your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus replied, “You have answered rightly.” But the lawyer pressed further, because that’s what lawyers are trained to do, and because he wanted to justify himself, “And who, exactly, is my neighbor?”

That’s when Jesus paused. Maybe he sighed. And do you remember how he responded? He told a story of a man who fell into the hands of robbers, and of the two religious leaders who crossed over to the other side of the road and passed him by, and of another man, of a despised race, who stopped to help. “Who was the neighbor of the man beaten by robbers?” Jesus asked. “Go and do likewise.”

Further down the road, Jesus stopped to visit his good friends, the sisters Martha and Mary. Do you remember what happened there? Martha busied herself in the kitchen, while Mary did what was unthinkable for a woman of that time. She sat herself down among the men and listened to what Jesus had to say. When Martha complained to Jesus and told him to put Mary in her place with Martha in the kitchen, Jesus paused. Maybe he sighed. And he said, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and anxious about many things. Only one thing now is needed. Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her.” Mary was in her place. Now the text doesn’t tell us what happened next, how Martha responded. Being Martha-like myself, I hope that she heeded his words, took off her apron and joined her sister where they both belonged, alongside the men, listening to Jesus.

So Jesus went from village to village as he walked toward his death, preaching at every opportunity, pointing people toward God, toward their neighbors in love, and toward their best selves. One man came up to Jesus and demanded that Jesus arbitrate in a family dispute about inheritance. Taken aback, Jesus asked the man, “Who set me to be a judge over you?” But then he paused. No doubt he sighed, and he told a story about a rich man with so many crops that he decided to build an even bigger barn so that he could store them and keep them for himself. But the very night his new, enormous barn was finished the man died, before he could enjoy any of his stored riches. “So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves,” Jesus warned, “and are not rich toward God.”

There was another time when Jesus was teaching in a synagogue and a woman approached him who was so crippled that she couldn’t stand up straight. Jesus had compassion on her and healed her, on the Sabbath. The leaders of the synagogue were indignant and they came at the woman with all they had. “There are six days on which work ought to be done. Come on one of those days if you want to be healed.” Now Jesus was angry. But he paused, and took a breath, composed himself and said, “You hypocrites. Do you not give your animals food and drink on the sabbath? And ought not his daughter of Abraham whom Satan kept bound for 18 years be healed on the Sabbath?” The crowd rejoiced and his opponents were put to shame.

Jesus kept walking. The crowds kept coming toward him, and Jesus’ tone became at once more compassionate and urgent. He didn’t have one point to make; he had many, all touching us differently depending on what’s happening in our lives when we hear them, for the first or the hundredth time. It’s why we’re meant to dwell in his teachings, and meditate on them regularly.

Turn with me now to the story we heard this morning and that’s printed in your bulletin. It’s one of three stories Jesus told in direct response to the grumbling of some Pharisees. Pharisees get a bad rap in the Bible, because they came at Jesus the most. They weren’t all bad people, but they were intense rule followers, and they held themselves apart from people that weren’t. These particular Pharisees took issue with the fact that Jesus seemed to enjoy the company of tax collectors and sinners–the very ones the Pharisees avoided so that they might maintain their spiritual purity and sense of moral superiority.

Jesus paused, sighed, and told not one, but three parables about being lost and found: first that of a shepherd with a flock of a hundred sheep, who, when one of his sheep gets lost, leaves the ninety-nine in search of the one. Second, of a woman who had ten silver coins and lost one of them, and who searches the house incessantly until she finds it.

Finally, as the capstone, Jesus tells of a man who had two sons. It’s the classic emotional triangle between parents and siblings and the perfect vehicle for Jesus to explain to the Pharisees why he was happy to keep company with sinners. The father–the obvious God figure–loved both his sons, enough to let the one determined to leave go and then to welcome him back when he was chastened by the world. He loved the more responsible and dutiful son enough to gently chastise him for his unwillingness to forgive his brother and celebrate his return or his father for being so forgiving to one who had squandered so much.

Jesus’ point is clear: true love is not dependent on the worthiness of another, but rather on our capacity to love. The wayward son was no less worthy of the father’s love; nor did the stay-at-home son earn his father’s love with good behavior. Both were loved for who they were, not what they did or failed to do. Equally significant, for both, the father went out to meet them where they were–the returning son while he was still far off; the sulking son out in the field of his self-imposed misery.

With Jesus’ words and example foremost in our minds, and inspired by the dignity of Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson this week, never forget the power of a good pause. Pause long enough when you feel under pressure, or under attack, or filled with anger, or hurt, and fear to breathe, to let Jesus in.

Pause long enough to regain your internal bearings, and allow the great wisdom of the Holy Spirit to speak to your heart. LIke the loving father, God meets us in that moment, where we are, as we are. God also gives us a strength and wisdom greater than our own with which to respond. God helps us grow in our capacity to love as Jesus loves, and loves us, our capacity to heal and forgive, our ability to withstand and maintain our God-given dignity in the face of cruelty and injustice, and to overcome evil with good.

Let me leave you with a practical suggestion on how you can access the grace and power of Jesus in the course of your daily lives, and especially in those moments when something, or someone, is attempting to throw you off course, or has managed to unnerve you; or when you feel overwhelmed or tired or scared.

Think of it as the power in a pause. Wherever you feel yourself tightening up inside, wanting to react, or to hold on, or whenever you aren’t sure what to do or say next.

Stop. Take a breath. Pause. Pray for Jesus’ to be with you, in that moment. And surrender yourself to Him. I promise you that whatever occurs to you to say or do next will have a greater intentionality and impact than if you rushed in, or if you shut down.

I’m not ruling spontaneity out of hand. There’s a time and place for that. And there’s a time and place for genuine expressions of anger. But if you take the time to pause, collect yourself, and allow Jesus in, even in spontaneous moments and in anger, you will speak and act with impactful grace and power.

In the end, it comes down to the kind of person we want to be in this world. We saw two stark examples this week. Which kind of person would you trust and choose to follow?
And what example do you want to be for those coming up behind you?

Remember, then, the power of the pause and the grace available that is always there for you. Amen.

___
1 Elie Mystal, Ketanji Brown Jackson Long Paused Explained Racism and Sexism in America, The Nation

How Much Can One Heart Hold?

How Much Can One Heart Hold?

Some Pharisees came and said to Jesus, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.” He said to them, “Go and tell that fox for me, ‘Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work. Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.’ Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See, your house is left to you. And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.'”
Luke 13:31-35

I’m so glad to be here again at last, dear friends of St. Michael’s and All Angels Church. Praise God for the technology that allows those at home to gather in worship with us, and it’s wonderful to see in the flesh those physically present in the sanctuary. What can we say to one another, when so much has happened to change nearly everything about our lives and our world in the last two years?

The first questions we typically ask one another are the most fundamental: How are you? What’s life been like for you? How is your family, both near and far?

On Friday someone asked me how I was doing–and this person truly wanted to know. I wasn’t sure how to answer or where to begin. I notice the same thing when I speak to my 90-year old mother nearly each day. Each time she pauses, in part, to decide how much to reveal, before typically saying, “I’m all right.” There’s so much more that she could say.

My predicatble answer when someone asks how I’m doing is “I’m fine,” and on so many levels, it’s true. In fact, I’m more than fine. I am blessed, because I live here and not in a war zone; I’m fine, because while I contracted COVID, mine was a very mild case and all in my family have also had mild cases; I’m fine, that I still have a job and roof over my head and food to eat. Compared to many, many people in the world right now, for whom God must surely be weeping, I am fine. Yet saying that I’m fine, or blessed, or doing well skims the surface of what life is like.

I wonder if the same is true for you.

Because so many of us are stretched thin–doing all we can for as many people as we can–there is a collective sense of weariness. We’re holding things together as best we can, but it’s a lot to hold.

Grief also hangs in the air, even in our happy moments, even if we have been largely spared, because there is so much pain everywhere. Wherever we turn, someone is suffering. We may be that someone, or we are witnesses to another’s pain. And we hold that too.

To be sure, good things have happened to us in the last two years. We may have stories to tell of adventure, new learning, and surprising resilience. Examples of incredible generosity, sacrificial love, and courage inspire us each day. Blessings abound, even in the messy places. God’s grace is real.

All these things–the good, the hard; the blessing, the gratitude; the adventure, the grief–we hold it all in our own heart. But how much can one heart hold? When was the last time you stopped long enough to consider your heart and all that it’s holding?

We’ve just heard a brief passage from the Gospel of Luke in which Jesus takes a break on his long walk, near the end of his life, from his home of Nazareth to Jerusalem, the center of religious power and authority for his people and of the occupying force of the Roman Empire. Those of us familiar with Jesus’ story know what’s waiting for him in Jerusalem. He’s headed toward the cross. He knew it, too, that his time had come, and so as the Scripture says, “He set his face toward Jerusalem” and started walking.

It takes ten chapters of the Gospel of Luke to describe all that happens on that Jerusalem road. If you were to sit down and read those ten chapters in one sitting, you’d be amazed. Jesus is really busy–teaching, healing, equipping his small band of disciples for what’s to come. In fact, there’s so much going on, it’s hard to remember that Jesus is walking toward all that awaits him in the last week of his life.

But then, when at last he sees Jerusalem in the distance, Jesus stops and rests. As he’s sitting there, some of the Pharisees, the religious group always at odds with Jesus, approach to warn him. “Go no further,” they tell him, “for Herod wants to kill you. Turn around, Jesus. Go back to Nazareth.” Jesus replies, “Go and tell that fox that I am coming.”

Then something happens that gives us a glimpse into what Jesus has been holding in his heart: He cries out in raw grief, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!”

This was Jesus’ lament, for the city and for himself. It didn’t surprise, or even seem to bother him very much that religious and political authorities were hostile to him. But imagine the pain of rejection and indifference from those he had hoped to heal and to save.

Jesus’ heart aches to the breaking point. What’s striking, and instructive, is that he allowed himself to feel it, to acknowledge the pain in his heart. He stopped long enough to let his emotions rise to the surface, and to cry out and let his tears flow. Then, when his tears are spent, Jesus gets up and keeps going. He knows what will happen if he continues to Jerusalem, but he goes anyway. He knows that while Herod would be the one ultimately to sentence him to death, the people he loves will also play a part in his demise. But he loves them anyway.

There’s a song by the acapella group, Sweet Honey in the Rock, that tells the story of a strong Black woman, the spiritual center of her family, the one everyone else goes to for strength. She’s the one who washes floors to send her kids to college, who always makes sure that there’s food on the table, and who stays up late listening to her children’s hurt and rage. Everyone turns to her.

The father, the children, the brothers turn to her. And everybody white turns to her.

But where does she turn? Sweet Honey sings:

There oughta be a woman can break down, sit down, break down, sit down.1

Hold that image of a strong black woman breaking down, crying her eyes out, alone. Then when the tears are done, watch her as she takes a breath, gets up and carries on.
She was like Jesus in his lament, and like him in her rising to carry on.

What I hope for each one of you, and for myself, is the grace and permission to allow ourselves to stop every once in a while and acknowledge all we’re holding in our hearts. It’s okay to collapse in exhaustion or grief every now and then. It’s okay to cry. Or to laugh, in those moments of happiness or joy. It’s more than okay.

We can create spaces for one another here in Christian community for that kind of safe release. We can sit in silence by ourselves and allow the mercy of Jesus to wash over us.Then when our tears are spent, our weariness acknowledged, our emotions held in the almighty hands of love, by that same mercy and grace, we will rise again and keep going. We can’t make this journey on our own, but thankfully, we don’t have to. We walk with Jesus, and we walk with one another.

___

1There Oughta be a Woman by Bernice Sanders.

What Would Absalom Jones Say to Us Now

What Would Absalom Jones Say to Us Now

Jesus said, ‘This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father.’
John 15:12-15

What better time to be at St. Luke’s, the first independent Black Episcopal Church in Washington, DC, then on the day we honor the blessed memory of Absalom Jones, the first Black person to be ordained priest in the Episcopal Church? Thank you for the honor of preaching this morning.

It is a double honor for me to be here at St. Luke’s on the day when we can announce the good news that the Rev. Kim Turner Baker has accepted the call as your next rector! It will be both a homecoming for the Rev. Baker, and a time of new beginnings for you all. I’m very happy to welcome her back to the Diocese of Washington and will do all in my power to support her and all at St. Luke’s as you draw from your heritage, seek the will of God for your lives in this day, and look to the future with hope.

With the arrival of your next priest and rector, this is a threshold movement for St. Luke’s. Indeed, it is for all of us, as we begin to emerge from yet another acute phase of the COVID-19 pandemic and imagine a less restrictive future. In this threshold time, how might we strive to be faithful to Jesus and his spirit now?

Thus today is a good day to pause and consider what our spiritual ancestors would say to us now, if they could. What would those who lived through their own times of trial want you and me to hear as we face the trials and challenges before us? I will turn our full attention to Absalom Jones in a moment, but first let me ask if a particular person comes to mind for you, perhaps a family member, or teacher, or someone you admired from a distance whose insights you cherish. What would that person say to you beyond this life by way of encouragement or exhortation today?

If you think about it, much of what we have in Scripture are a beloved leader’s parting words. The entire book of Deuteronomy, for example, was written as Moses’ last words to the Israelties, when he realized that he would not be the one to lead them into the Promised Land. It’s filled with wisdom, good counsel, specific instructions, and ends with this word of encouragement:

‘Be strong and bold; have no fear or dread, because it is the Lord your God who goes with you; he will not fail you or forsake you.’
Deuteronomy 31: 6-7

In the Gospel of John, there are three chapters known as “the Farewell Discourse,” Jesus’ final words of blessing and encouragement to his disciples from his last supper with them. The passage we just heard and is printed in your bulletin are among Jesus’ parting words.

Jesus said, ‘This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father.’
John 15:12-15

Parting words, you see, are also beginning words. They are gifts given us to take from the past into our future.

So on this day when we honor the blessed memory of Absalom Jones, I wonder what he would say if he were able to speak to us directly. What would he tell us about perserverance and of faith? What would he want to encourage in us, and how would he exhort us to live?

Last Thursday evening, the Rev. Canon Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas, Dean of Episcopal Divinity School at Union, facilitated a discussion among three Episcopal bishops to ponder that precise question.

Bishop Shannon MacVean-Brown of Vermont began by acknowledging how grateful she was that Absalom Jones lived. His life and witness was an encouragement to her and a reminder of how far we have come in this nation and how far we have yet to go.

I feel the same way. I’m so glad to know about him, grateful for this week when I immersed myself in his life and writings. He was a gifted preacher, evangelist, community organizer, abolitionist, institution builder. And while Absalom Jones wasn’t one to call undue attention to himself, I have no doubt that he would want us to remember the courageous witness of his people.

He would want us to know, for example, how the Black community of Philadelphia came to the aid of the general population during a horrific Yellow Fever outbreak in 1793. The epidemic lasted for 3 months and killed 5,000 people (10 percent of the city population). Over 20,000 fled the city and countless thousands suffered illness. Practically every White person of means left the city if they could. The call went out to Black residents of the city, asking for their help in caring for the sick and grieving and in burying the dead–under the false assertion that Black people were less susceptible to the illness (as its cause was as yet unknown). Many answered the call, risking their own lives to assist others.

We might never have known how heroic their efforts were but for later accusations by a White leader that Black residents had stolen from those they helped. Absalom Jones responded with a strong defense, giving a detailed account of what actually happened.

Hear his words:

Early in September, a solicitation appeared in the public papers, to the people of color to come forward and assist the distressed, perishing, and neglected sick; with a kind of assurance, that people of our color were not liable to take the infection. Upon which we and a few others met and consulted how to act on so truly alarming and melancholy an occasion. After some conversation, we found a freedom to go forth, confiding in him who can preserve in the midst of a burning fiery furnace, sensible that it was our duty to do all the good we could to our suffering fellow mortals.

We set out to see where we could be useful. The first we visited was a man in Emsley’s Alley, who was dying, and his wife lay dead at the time in the house, there were none to assist but two poor helpless children. We administered what relief we could, and applied to the overseers of the poor to have the woman buried. We visited upwards of twenty families that day–they were scenes of woe indeed! The Lord was pleased to strengthen us, and remove all fear from us, and disposed our hearts to be as useful as possible….

We can with certainty assure the public that we have seen more humanity, more real sensibility from the poor blacks, than from the poor whites.

A poor afflicted dying man, stood at his chamber window, praying and beseeching every one that passed by, to help him to a drink of water; a number of white people passed, and instead of being moved by the poor man’s distress, they hurried as fast as they could out of the sound of his cries–until at length a gentleman, who seemed to be a foreigner came up, he could not pass by, but had not resolution enough to go into the house, he held eight dollars in his hand, and offered it to several as a reward for giving the poor man a drink of water, but was refused by everyone, until a poor black man came up, the gentleman offered the eight dollars to him, if he would relieve the poor man with a little water, “Master” replied the good natured fellow, “I will supply the gentleman with water, but surely I will not take your money for it” nor could he be prevailed upon to accept his bounty: he went in, supplied the poor object with water, and rendered him every service he could.

We do not recollect such acts of humanity from the poor white people, in all the round we have been engaged in. We could mention many other instances of the like nature, but think it needless. It is unpleasant for us to make these remarks, but justice to our color demands it.1

Yes, I am glad to know that such a man is part of our heritage as a church and ashamed of those of my race that treated him and others so poorly.

In last week’s discussion, Bishop Rob Wright spoke of Absalom Jones’ deep faith and personal agency. “He managed to stay focused on Jesus amid the failures of the church,” Wright said. “He was determined to grow something, to invite people into something positive.”

It’s not clear how and where Absalom Jones came to faith in Jesus, but his faith was strong and compelling. He felt what Jesus said to his disciples so long ago–that Jesus was his friend, his life companion, his guide and his strength. As you know, Jones and his good friend Richard Allen, were lay evangelists and preachers at St. George’s Methodist Church, a mixed-race congregation. As the Black membership grew as a result of their leadership, White elders responded by segregating worship, requiring that Black members sit in the balcony.

Absalom Jones never wrote or spoke of the wrenching experience of being forcibly removed from a front pew while praying, but his friend Richard Allen did. Richard Allen, as you know, chose to establish an independent church, what would become a new denomination, the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME), while Jones established The African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas. In 1802, Jones was ordained an Episcopal priest.

Bishop Wright underscored the fact that Absalom Jones did not harbor contempt for anyone. Nor did he behave as a victim. He was clear simply about who he was as a child of God. He had a certain confidence about him, and a sense of urgency. With the creation of the Free African Society, an organization of Black People for Black People, and St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church, he helped instill that sense of agency and inner confidence in others.

Thus, a word that Absalom Jones would have for us today would surely be about our relationship to Jesus, an encouragement and exhortation to stay focused on him, and to ask us to take stock of what we are building and making possible for others. From where do we derive our sense of self and sense of agency? Absalom Jones would have us look to Jesus, and to claim our dignity and worth as beloved children of God and the ones Jesus calls friends.

Absalom Jones would want us to build again, to grow the church as a force for good in our communities. As your bishop, I feel a responsibility to honor the gifts and witness of the Black Episcopal Church. I dedicate the remaining years of my episcopate to the revitalization and renewal of all our congregations, with a particular focus on rising generations. I pray that St. Luke’s will once again become a vibrant expression of the Black Church, and not just St. Luke’s but all our historic and predominantly Black congregations. But as we all know, it’s going to require more from all of us than simply looking back on the past, or wishing for things to be different.

At our Diocean Convention on January 29, a resolution passed calling for a task force to study revitalization strategies for our Black congregations, with the leadership of that task force coming from those churches. We need St. Luke’s to be part of the conversation, which is, of course, not new, but now has the full attention of the diocesan leadership.

Absalom Jones invited others to join in building something positive and fruitful and life-transforming in Christ. From that core strength, the people of St. Thomas worked for the abolition of slavery, established schools, and care for their city, both Black and White.

What will we do, inspired by the same Spirit that inspired him?

Will you pray with me?

Lord, on the day we are privileged to remember and be uplifted by the life and witness of Absalom Jones, we ask for you to give us your grace and power to live the lives to which we are called. We don’t know what the future holds, and we aren’t always sure what we are to do. So please, Jesus, give us eyes to see you, ears to hear you, hearts to love you, to know you as our friend, and filled with that love, love one another and renew your church and heal your world.

Amen.

~~

1From A Narrative of the Proceedings of the Black People, During the Late Awful Calamity in Philadelphia, 1794