Monday, February 14, 2011

My Church is a Miracle

Sermon preached on Absalom Jones' Day at the Church of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene, February 13, 2011: Ephesians 2:13-20

For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.

Two stories.

Wednesday morning I was at a meeting of the city Episcopal clergy with the Bishop and the Canons. Sandy was there with me. The topic of race came up, in terms of our evangelical prospects in the city.

One of the clergy at the table is actually an African-American, the Rev. Deborah Brown, the Diocesan Youth Missioner, new priest and fairly new Episcopalian. One of my esteemed colleagues asked Deborah, “Well why did you become an Episcopalian? What drew you to the Episcopal Church?” She thought a moment and said what many Episcopalians say, “The liturgy. I love the worship of this church.”

Perfectly good answer. I myself have given it many times. But I wondered at the time if there wasn’t something deeper. What about the liturgy? What does it do to you that keeps you coming back?”

At some point in that conversation, I said, “You know, I think a lot of Two Sainters who are African-American might be somewhat puzzled by that question, especially if they knew they were being asked as an African-American. I think some of them would say—I hope they would say—‘Because it’s my church.’”

What I think I was getting at is my belief that one of the reasons the Episcopal Church stays a predominantly white church—87% was the statistic I saw the other day—is that white Episcopalians have a tendency to always treat black Episcopalians as “the other,” as somehow being an odd presence. It’s like we see a black person in an Episcopal Church and think to ourselves, “What’s that Baptist doing in here?” That’s what they naturally are, isn’t it?

Let’s leave that wherever it deserves to be left and move on to story number two.

I was at a meeting of the Rochester and Monroe Districts of the Diocese on Thursday. Walt Kannapel and John Bradley were there as well. We’ve done a somewhat different thing and read a book together and have been discussing it for a couple meetings.

I was in a small group talking about part of the book. Walter happened to be in it as well. One of the clergy in the group asked us, “What do you love about your church? What are you passionate about? What do you want to tell others about your church?” Every person who answered said the same thing, “the community” or “the people.”

That’s not a surprising answer at all. I’m willing to bet it is what at least a majority of you would say if you someone asked you that question. And it’s a good answer.

I was sitting there wondering what I was going to say. As it turns out we never got around to me so I was let off the hook. But I’ve been puzzling about it ever since. I could easily say “the people,” and I would be telling the truth. But something else was weighing on me. There’s more than that. We have to dig a little deeper. What about this people? Is it just because they’re nice, you have a lot of friends among them? Or is there more than that?

With those things rattling around in my head, something told me that John Harmon might have something helpful to say about all this. John’s daughters privileged me with the gift of copies of John’s writings, most from the 1960’s. And it worked. The voice must have been the Holy Spirit.

It turns out that this passage from Ephesians was very important to John in those days, along with a couple of other similar passages from Paul’s letters. John was convinced that perhaps the most significant part of the Christian message was that God has already made peace among us. We are already one. This message, he said, was the antidote needed by both the church and the world. Here’s how he began an essay in 1967. You will, of course, excuse him the sexist language.

I have discovered no other way to deal with any issue of human existence in God’s world then to begin with the shape God has already given life. For me the Gospel says that there is now a peace among men—a solidarity, a fraternity, and interdependence that makes truly human life possible. In spite of all the horrible violence of brother against brother, this unity exists. It is this, in fact, that makes the rupturing of life so horrible in its effects, because it occurs among brothers who are bound together in their very being, rather than among strangers or enemies who have no deep, mutual ties.

This unity is at the heart of the whole Biblical revelation. It is also the gift…that we celebrate continuously in the Eucharist.[1]

In God’s dream, John is saying, in God’s reality in which he has enabled us to live, there are no strangers. There literally is, as St. Paul says in Galatians (3:28), “…no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”

That unity is not something we have to create. It is something that is. It is something in which we are called to participate.

John bemoaned the fact that in the church of his day that message was almost totally obscured by the realities of the make-up of most churches. The church he saw, by and large, witnessed to segregation not peace. He used, and I do too, the word “peace” rather than “integration” for a couple reasons. “Integration” is not a biblical word or a biblical value. And it has the connotation, as most of you well know, of assuming that you will become like me. The new “we” in a situation of “integration” usually looks like whoever was in power to begin with.

So I never call this parish “integrated.” I don’t really like to label it at all. If I have time, I’d rather tell the story of the coming together. And sometimes in the diocese I do call this a parish with an African-American majority, which is about reminding people that not everyone in this Diocese looks like everybody else.

But I like the language John suggests (and it was St. Paul’s idea in the first place). This is a parish where all sorts of people are at peace with one another. I think that honors the fact that we have different identities. I don’t think in all his talk of being one Paul ever meant that individual identities would somehow disappear into some great unified human goo—like the old way of talking about this country being a “melting pot.”

No, we’re different. That’s part of our creation and our experience. It’s how God made us. But God also made us to know that our separate identities do not make us strangers or enemies. We are one: in faith, in flesh and blood, in spirit, in the love of God. We worship a God, the Book of Acts says, who “shows no partiality.”[2]

To me this is the great gift of this parish. This parish is a grand experiment in living out the primary message: we are all already one. I know that it was not forged easily twenty-two years ago. There was a whole lot of pain and fear at the table. There had to have been. Can you trust merging with a parish where you could not have worshipped within your own lifetime? I can’t imagine how difficult that was.

But here we are. It is true that what I love about this place is the people. And you and I should tell people that much more than we do (Aha! I did make it to evangelism this morning!). But we should say a little more.

My church is a miracle. We are black and white, male and female, gay and straight, old and young, church members since Jesus was a teenager and others who are still trying to figure out just what is going on. We sing songs that our ancestors have been singing for hundreds of years with a magnificent organ and we have discovered drums and even the occasional guitar and brass jazz band. And the miracle happens when we all come to the Table and get fed with the same bread and wine and we are renewed in the fact that God loves each and every one of us exactly the same. And some Sundays you can look around the room and see all the different faces and wonder how this thing holds together, and then you know how, because you can cut the respect and dignity and love with a knife.

I suppose that if Absalom Jones walked into this place he would be surprised and he might, to be honest, wonder if something had been lost in the leaving behind of a “black church,” but I have to believe in the end he would be pleased and proud, because he could no doubt see the things I just described. And John Harmon? This place brought tears to his eyes whenever we talked about it during his last year, because this is what he had been talking about all along.

Jesus proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to you who were near; for through him we all have access to God. That means you are no longer strangers and aliens. You are citizens, saints and members of the household of God of which Jesus Christ is the cornerstone.[3]

[1] John J. Harmon, “Human Solidarity, Parochial Imbalance and Urban Mission,” manuscript of what became a chapter in Renewing the Parish, Divine Word Publications, 1967.

[2] Acts 10:34.

[3] My paraphrase of Ephesians 2:17-20.

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