Sunday, February 20, 2011

The Clear Instruction of the Word of God

Sermon preached at the Church of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene on the 7th Sunday after the Epiphany, also the Feast of Frederick Douglass: Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18; Matthew 5:38-48

You may have noticed that Frederick Douglass’ observations about “Prejudice and the Church” were of the church in the North. He found the same prejudice here as he had experienced in the South.

If Frederick Douglass is now the “hero of the day” for Episcopalians, we have an anti-hero too, a contemporary of Douglass’ named John Henry Hopkins, who was actually an Episcopalian. In 1861, on the brink of the Civil War, Hopkins published a pamphlet entitled, “A Scriptural, Ecclesiastical and Historical View of Slavery.”[1] It was paid attention to because Hopkins was one of the senior bishops in our church, and, in fact, would soon become our presiding bishop.

In his pamphlet Hopkins defended the institution of slavery, although he admitted to welcoming its gradual abolition. Among other things, he wrote

I have no more to add with respect to this most popular dogma of human equality, and shall therefore dismiss it, as fallacious in itself, and only mischievous in its tendency….Happily it forms no part of our Constitution or our laws. It never was intended to apply to the question of negro slavery. And it can never be so applied without a total perversion of its historical meaning, and an absolute contrariety to all the facts of humanity, and the clear instruction of the Word of God.[2]

If I gave you three guesses as to where Hopkins was the bishop, I bet you would be wrong. Hopkins was not the bishop of a southern diocese. He was the Bishop of Vermont. Growing up I was taught that we northerners’ hands were clean compared to the evils perpetrated by the south. I was taught incorrectly.

For our purposes there is a vitally important question: How did the church get from Jesus repeating the teaching of Leviticus, “love your neighbor as yourself” to the belief that human equality was contrary to the clear instruction of the Word of God and little white girls running away from Communion lest they receive it with a black child?

Why is this is a vitally important question for us to grapple with? It is because the church has been the teacher and purveyor of prejudice of all kinds for centuries, for the vast majority of its life. And we are not by any means over it. A Professor of New Testament at an Episcopal seminary in 1999 refused to receive Communion with me because my lifestyle was so degrading I was allowing myself to be “less than human.” Does that sound familiar?

By the way, I’m still talking about evangelism here [as I have been throughout Epiphany]. This is an evangelical problem for us. The church’s history of prejudice, judgment and hypocrisy keep untold numbers from even considering church membership. We are often told that this is the most religious country in the world, and perhaps it is. Yet a recent Hartford Seminary study found that on any given Sunday only 20% of Americans are in church. Now to be fair, on any given Sunday, half the active members of a church will be at worship, so we could generously estimate that 40% of Americans are active church members. That is still less than half. Why is that so? I believe it is largely because of the church’s reputation. And, in a sense, Frederick Douglass is still right, the grand cause is slavery.

So what happened to the church?

I allow my friend and mentor, Dr. Verna Dozier to suggest what happened. Dr. Dozier was an African-American lay scholar of the Bible and advocate for the place of lay people in the church.

In her book, The Dream of God: A Call to Return, Verna writes of God’s dream for the creation and its rejection by God’s people. She believes the people of God have had three great falls. The first is what everyone things of as the fall, the mythical story of Adam and Eve, a fall, she says, “in eternity.”

In the first fall, I usurped the place of God. There is no God. There is only I. There is no Other. There is only I. We became lonely, separated, fearful, human beings. Not the good world God created.[3]

The second great fall was the desire of Israel for a King. Verna writes

On the second try, God offered the chosen people a way of life that would testify to a new possibility for human life, absolute trust in God, but the chosen people said, no, we want to be like all the nations. We don’t want to live in the uncertainty of the risk that God will raise up leaders when we need them. We want the security of systems and dynasties and human order.[4]

The third fall Verna conjectures happened in the life of the early church.

I have always considered the third fall, the third time the people of God chose the kingdoms of this world instead of the kingdom of God, to be in the fourth century, when, in the words of an optimistic church historian, “the Church subdued the State.” I have always thought exactly the opposite—it was the state that subdued the church. The effect of the third fall was to make accommodation the mode of the people of God.[5]

The church lived for its first three hundred years as an underground movement, at various times actually in hiding for fear of vicious persecution in the Roman Empire. They were dangerous and stressful days to be a Christian. It was the era of the martyrs.

Yet the church grew by leaps and bounds. Why? No doubt the message of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus touched many with the hope they needed in a dangerous world. But there is plenty of evidence that just as attractive were the ways that Christian people formed communities and lived together—in ways radically different from the world around them. Despite what Bishop Hopkins thought, these communities were characterized by the practice of radical equality and hospitality and generosity. Very significantly, as Paul wrote of these communities, there “was no slave or free.”[6] Slaves became Christians in droves during the first three centuries of the church’s life.

Then along came the Emperor Constantine. Constantine was faced with an aging, crumbling empire. He needed a new unifying force. He found it, but the church has not been the same since.

The story is that Constantine had a dream before a battle. A cross loomed before him emblazened by the sun. And he saw the Greek words ev toutoi nika, “by this be victorious.” The words are oftened rendered in Latin, in hoc signo vinces, “in this sign conquer.” IHS began to be put on crosses. It still is. Some say it stand for the first three letters of “Jesus” in Greek, and it does, but that is not how it began.

In 313, Constantine made Christianity legal in the Roman Empire. In the ensuing years it effectively became the state religion. And that is when, As Verna Dozier says, the church turned to “accommodation” as its chief mode of operation.

Now there are certainly instances in the church’s life since Constantine that it has bravely challenged the state and the culture. Its behavior, however, has overwhelmingly been quite the opposite. The church has allowed itself to baptize the status quo, including the unequal treatment of human beings leading to the outright abuse of some. And it usually found justification for this behavior somewhere in the Bible, even in the Gospels. A favorite verse of Christian slaveowners came from Jesus’ own lips:

That slave who knew what his master wanted, but did not prepare himself or do what was wanted, will receive a severe beating.[7]

Frederick Douglass speaks of one of his masters, that he would recite this verse while beating a slave.[8] Indeed, this master experienced a conversion while Douglass was his slave, but Douglass says

If it had any effect on his character, it made him to have been a much worse man after his conversion than before. Prior to his conversion, he relied upon his own depravity to shield and sustain him in his savage barbarity; but after hi conversion, he found religious sanction and support for his slaveholding cruelty.[9]

There are two challenges here as we seek to proclaim the good news by word and example. The first is this history, which is carried on by some of our fellow Christians. Very few if any of them support slavery and this kind of cruelty, but plenty of them still traffic in prejudice and judgment as well as being virtual agent of the state, espousing what can only be seen as a kind of civil religion. And the biggest problem is that those folks tend to control the media, which means that folks who otherwise might be attracted to Christianity believe it is in their best self interest to stay home on Sunday morning.

Second of all, it should be clear to us from the last 50 years that a completely independent Christian voice, espousing absolute human equality, is perhaps not the most popular option. It should be no surprise that the decline of mainline Protestantism—including our own church—began when large numbers of our clergy in particular—embraced the civil rights movement. Episcopal Church membership peaked in 1964, and has headed down ever since. Then there was Prayer Book revision and women’s ordination in the mid-1970’s, the first woman bishop in 1989, the bishop’s of the church finally call racism a sin in 1994 and anti-racism training begins, the explosion of openly gay and lesbian clergy in the 1990’s and the first openly gay bishop in 2003. Down, down, down, down, down.

Which may mean that we are actually in a hopeful place, despite the fact that our smaller size is causing us financial and property-related pain. We are clearer, however, about who we are. We are closer to being tools of no one but the Lord Jesus Christ and his Gospel. We can be about the work of building the beloved community unfettered.

We need to be able to say two things in our evangelism—our proclamation to the world: We, the Church, for too many generations too number, sinned, supporting and committing atrocities that were an absolute betrayal of the One we claimed to follow. But we, the Church, are waking up, we are trying to make right what was done wrong, and an absolute commitment to the dignity of each and every human being and their right to live in justice and peace is our renewed creed, what we believe is the clear instruction of the Word of God.

Let us together be a living example of this new life, no matter what the cost.



[2] Ibid., pp. 28-29. Hopkins name may be familiar to many because of his son, John Henry Hopkins, Jr., the writer of the popular hymns “We three kings of orient are” and “I sing a song of the saints of God.”

[3] Verna J. Dozier, The Dream of God: A Call to Return (Cowley, 1991), p. 61.

[4] Ibid., p. 71.

[5] Ibid., p. 72.

[6] Galatians 3:28.

[7] Luke 12:47.

[8] In Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, A New Critical Edition by Angela Y. Davis, (City Lights Books, 2010), p.p. 169-170.

[9] Ibid., p. 168.

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.