Sunday, February 16, 2014

For Freedom Christ Has Set Us Free: Absalom Jones and Richard Allen (J. Barry Vaughn, Feb. 16, 2014)

Today we commemorate Absalom Jones and Richard Allen. I knew very little about them before I began to prepare for today's service, but now I'm convinced that they are not only saints but American heroes.


Born a slave in 1746, Absalom Jones saw his family split up and sold to different parts of the country in 1762. Jones had the good fortune to be sold to a merchant in Philadelphia. That city was becoming a hotbed of abolitionist ideas, thanks to the Quakers who founded it. There he worked in a grocery store by day and by night attended a Quaker school where he learned to read, the Bible being his principal textbook.


He was also converted by the preaching of the Methodists and joined a Methodist church where he met another slave, Richard Allen. Jones also met and married a woman named Mary King. Jones was industrious and saved enough money to purchase his wife's freedom in 1770. The fact that he purchased his wife's freedom before his own sounds like an act of extraordinary altruism, but in fact was profoundly practical: If his wife was free, then their children would be free. It took him another six years to save enough money to purchase his own freedom.


In 1772, Jones, Allen, and other black worshipers were forbidden from sitting on the main floor of the Methodist church they attended and told that they would be allowed to sit only in the balcony. Understandably, they left the church and founded the Free African Society, a mutual aid society that later became the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas.


Richard Allen continued to be a Methodist and was ordained in that denomination, although he later withdrew and founded the first independent black denomination in the U.S. - the African Methodist Episcopal Church.


Jones petitioned William White, the Bishop of Pennsylvania, to be ordained and to admit his church as a parish of the diocese. White ordained Jones a deacon in 1795, but he had to wait another nine years before being ordained to the priesthood.


In 1793, a malaria epidemic struck Philadelphia, then the national capital. Washington and other government leaders understandably withdrew from the city to avoid infection, but so did many of the city's other white leaders, including physicians and clergy. But Absalom Jones, Richard Allen, and other blacks fearlessly served the sick and dying.


It is estimated that 20 times more blacks than whites nursed victims of the epidemic, a fact that was crucial in gaining social acceptance for blacks in Philadelphia.


But I don't want to give you a lecture on church history or African American history or U.S. history. I don't want to give you a lecture on any kind of history. In fact, I  don't want to give you a lecture at all. I want to preach the good news of Jesus Christ.


I have no idea what it is like to be the object of racial prejudice. I have never experienced it. On the contrary, I am a white, male Southerner. So, I am likely to have been on the wrong side of racial prejudice, and I am certain that I have benefited from my status as a white, male Southerner.


I lived in Philadelphia for four years and served a parish there, as well as founding and leading a non-profit organization. My deacon was an African American woman, Elyse Bradt-Ray, who was a native of Philadelphia. At first, Elyse was a little suspicious of me. After I had been called and before I arrived, she referred to me as a "white man from Alabama." But we soon became friends. When both she and I preached sermons on Martin Luther King, Jr., Day, I kidded Elyse about referring to me as a "white man from Alabama." She responded, "Well, I meant that as a term of affection!"


However, I do know what it is like to experience prejudice and discrimination. A well-known Episcopal priest, someone whose name you might recognize, the author of several books, had an opening on his staff about the time I was ordained. Without any prompting from me a friend of mine in his congregation asked him to consider me for the opening. "Oh, I couldn't hire him," he said. "His lifestyle makes him unacceptable."


When the predominantly black St. Phillip's Church in Brooklyn, New York, first petitioned the Diocese of New York to be accepted as a parish, some members of the diocese objected to the presence of blacks in the diocese. They said, "...we question their possession of those qualities which would render their intercourse with members of a church convention useful or agreeable..."


"His lifestyle makes him unacceptable..."


I only want to make two simple points my sermon today.


The first is this: Prejudice and discrimination can have no place among us. Today's second reading is from Paul's letter to the Galatians. Paul wrote, "For freedom Christ has set us free... do not submit again to a yoke of slavery." There were some 5 million slaves in the Roman empire in the first century. About 10-15 percent of the population were slaves. But more than likely a majority of first century Christians were slaves. We know this because the New Testament is written in Greek, which in the first century, was the language of slaves. When Paul wrote, "For freedom Christ has set us free," he was saying that Christian baptism had abolished the distinction between slaves and free persons.  Elsewhere in Galatians Paul wrote, "In Christ there is neither slave nor free, male nor female, Jew or Greek."


They were powerful words in the first century and they were powerful in 18th and 19th c. America. They empowered former slaves such as Absalom Jones and Richard Allen to seek and win their freedom. They inspired abolitionists to work for the emancipation of all slaves and the abolition of slavery itself.


They are still powerful words. They remind us that distinctions of class, gender, and race cannot separate us, that we must look not at the color of people's skin or the size of their salaries, but instead peer into their hearts. Or as Martin Luther King, Jr., said, "I dream of a day when my four little children will be judged not on the color of their skin but on the content of their character."


The second point I want to make is this: I owe a debt of gratitude to that priest who judged me unacceptable because of my lifestyle. I would not for a minute say that everyone who has experienced prejudice and discrimination should be grateful to the person or group that discriminated against them. But being on the receiving end of prejudice and discrimination can make us stronger, better, and wiser people. It can show us what is really important. And it can point us in new directions and make us see the world in a new way.


I had desperately wanted the power and status I would acquire if I had been given a place on the staff of that priest's church. I had badly wanted his approval and blessing. And frankly, if I had gotten what I wanted, it might have led to success, both professional and financial. But even though I might have gotten what I wanted, I'm not sure I would have gotten what I really needed.


Instead of becoming an associate on the staff of a wealthy, suburban church, I went to a small rural church 90 miles away and served there for five years. It was often a difficult and lonely experience, but it deepened me. It forced me to reach down into my heart and soul and develop new skills and find new qualities in myself.  As a result of going to that small, rural parish, I had the opportunity to respond when three small black churches in my town were mysteriously burned to the ground. I brought together my fellow white clergy to respond to those burnings. We raised money. We even received $50,000 from what was then the Presiding Bishop's fund to help rebuild the churches.


Absalom Jones and Richard Allen and the black worshipers who were ejected from St. George's Methodist Church in Philadelphia were forced to go in a new direction. Absalom Jones helped found St. Thomas' African Episcopal Church in Philadelphia, a church that has been a beacon of black empowerment for 200 years. Richard Allen helped found the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the first independent black denomination in the United States.


In a sermon about Absalom Jones, Canon Harold Lewis wrote that Jones, "seeing the need for blacks to have an economic as well as a spiritual base in the community, he founded, along with Richard Allen, the first black insurance company, and acquired ... real estate. Jones, who earlier had purchased his own freedom, recognized the importance of freedom for all blacks, and through the establishment of the Free African Society, he... effectively aided the emancipation of slaves and the protection of the rights of free blacks."


Would Jones have achieved all that if he had continued to worship quietly at St. George's? I don't know.


Please don't think I'm saying that prejudice and discrimination are in any sense good things. Not at all. What I'm saying is that God can use them, and we can see the hand of God at work even in the disappointments, disasters, and sorrows that come our way.


One more thing about Absalom Jones: He was in many ways a nonviolent warrior for freedom. Jones and other blacks were among the first people to petition the U.S. government to abolish slavery, fifty years before Lincoln issued the emancipation proclamation. In 1808, the year that the U.S. Constitution outlawed the slave trade, Jones established the tradition of preaching an annual anti-slavery sermon.


In his 1808 sermon, Jones said these words:


"The history of the world shows us that the deliverance of the children of Israel from their bondage is not the only instance in which it has pleased God to appear on behalf of oppressed and distressed nations as the deliverer of the innocent, and of those who call upon his name.... The great and blessed event that we celebrate this day is a striking proof that the God of heaven and earth is the same yesterday, and today, and forever... He has heard the prayers that have ascended from the hearts of his people; and as in the case of his ancient and chosen people the Jews, come down to deliver our suffering country-men from the hands of their oppressors.


"He came down into the United States, when they declared in the constitution which they framed in 1788, that the trade in our African fellow-men should cease in the year 1808. He came down into the British Parliament, when they passed a law to put an end to the same iniquitous trade in May 1807..."


When the brothers of the patriarch Joseph sold him into slavery, they thought that they had seen the last of him. "We shall see what will become of his dreams," they said. But when Joseph became the second most important official in Egypt, there was a famine in the land of his family and his brothers came to him seeking food and he rescued them from starvation. Joseph said to them, "You meant it for evil against me, but God meant it for good." (Gen. 50.20)


So let us give thanks for Absalom Jones and Richard Allen. Let us give thanks for all those who endured oppression and remained not only faithful but defiant. "Blessed are you when they revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you."
W.E.B. Du Bois once said that "the Episcopal Church had probably done less for black people than any other aggregation of Christians."


Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Reclaiming Evangelism (Rick O'Brien, Feb. 9, 2014)

Father Barry recently asked me if I would work with the parish growth committee in an effort to bring more people into our church.  As the newest member of the staff, this was a great opportunity to do some good and I was quite flattered that he would ask me to do something so worthwhile.  So of course, I told him no.  That’s right, I said no.

He looked at me a bit funny.  I could just hear the thoughts in his head, “Not counting today, how long have you served at Christ Church Father Rick?”  So I hastily added, “But I would be glad to work with the parish evangelism ministry instead”.  Father Barry smiled as he immediately understood what I was saying.

You see, I am not interested in working on parish growth, because putting it in those terms makes it about us and our needs.  Growth implies that we have needs to fill and the way to fill those needs is to bring in people to fill them.  We need more lectors, or more Sunday school teachers; we need more pledges or more young families or more people to engage in pastoral care.  We need, we need, we need.  Growth implies that the focus is on US and OUR Needs. 

Evangelism however, changes the focus entirely.  Instead of thinking about what WE need, evangelism is about what others need and how we can fill THEIR needs.  When I joined the church several decades ago, I can assure you that I never once worried about how I could fill the church’s needs.  I was interested instead in what the church could do for me.  I suspect the same is true for many of you.

Now, about 3 minutes into my sermon, I have already gone into difficult waters and brought up a somewhat taboo subject.  I have a friend who once told me that the quickest way to empty an Episcopal church is to preach about stewardship or evangelism.  And here I am doing just that.  But I don’t buy into his premise.  Yes, I fully understand that we Episcopalians are uncomfortable with the idea of evangelism.  But I think we have been sold a bill of goods and have let others take from us something that is fundamental to our belief system.  I don’t usually title my sermons, but this one is titled “Reclaiming Evangelism”.

I say reclaiming evangelism because the word simply means the preaching of the gospel.  That is what we do every day.  By the way we live our lives, by our witness to the life and teachings of Jesus Christ, by the acts of compassion that we do in His name, we preach the gospel to the world every single day.  That is what we do, because that is what we are called to do.  At the end of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus commands us to “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded of you”.  This is the great commission, and as Father Barry has been reminding us, we are a great commission church.  Jesus calls all of us to preach his gospel to all nations.  That, my friends, is evangelism.  Jesus calls us to be evangelists because he calls us to preach the gospel and to make disciples.  Even in today’s gospel, Jesus calls us to evangelism.  “You are the light of the world.  Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” 

So why then are we so uncomfortable with the word evangelism?  I think it is because the meaning of the word has been changed.  When we think of evangelism today, we don’t think about dedicated Christians spreading the word of God as we are called to do.  Instead, we think of the person on the street corner yelling at passersby, telling them that they are all doomed to hell for their sins.  We think of the guy with the megaphone yelling about wrath and eternal damnation.  We think of the people who go door to door asking if we have accepted Christ as our personal savior.  These images of intrusive, pushy, and sometimes even hurtful interactions have co-opted the idea of evangelism for some of us. 

That is a sad thing, but we have been somewhat complicit in this ourselves.  By standing in the background and allowing these people to claim title to the word evangelism, we have given tacit approval to their ideas and their methods.  It is time for us to end that.  We need to reclaim the word and the deed.  For evangelism is far too important to be abandoned to the street corner screamers.  As mature Christians, it is our right and our duty to reclaim evangelism.  Not for ourselves, but for God.  Because the message of God is too important to be left to amateurs.

So if we decide to move beyond our discomfort at the world’s clumsy attempts, how then do we reclaim evangelism?  We start by changing our mindset.  That is why I don’t want to be part of the parish growth committee.  Focusing on growth makes it about us.  Evangelism focuses on the needs of others, on their need to hear the gospel and to experience the loving power of God in their lives.  Each of us knows how wondrous it is to have God in our lives.  We draw our strength from God, from the comforting presence of the divine creator, to Jesus who knows our joys and pains, to the Spirit who breathes life into us in all that we do.  How could we NOT want to share that with others?  How could we keep that glorious love to ourselves? 

Focusing on the needs of others then begins with how we welcome people to our church home.  Each of us came here for the first time as a newcomer.  That is a critical part of evangelizing, by making the stranger feel at home.  We are diligent about this at Christ Church, but we can do better.  In March we will be hosting a seminar for ushers and greeters and anyone else who would like to participate in a conversation about welcome and hospitability.  Remember that we are welcoming people not to our house, but to God’s house.  The stakes are incredibly important.

We also need to do something very un-Episcopalian.  We need to talk to other people about our church.  We need to invite our friends, our neighbors, our co-workers to come to church with us.  This will be a challenge to us because talking about our faith is an uncomfortable concept for most of us.  But it is also vital to spreading the good news of Christ to the world.  A friend of a friend tells the story of having been invited to church by a neighbor 8 times before she finally went.  8 times!  That is evangelism.  Oh and by the way, the friend of a friend is now a deacon and serves on the staff of an Episcopal Bishop.  She has said that she wonders sometimes what would have happened if her friend had given up after the 7th invitation.

Let your light shine before others.  Go and make disciples of all nations.  Go into the world and proclaim the good news.  Our Lord Jesus calls us to be evangelists over and over again.  Let us come together without fear and reclaim that task.  Let us together be evangelists for the gospel.

Sunday, February 02, 2014

Transmitting the Blessing (J. Barry Vaughn, Feb. 2, 2014)

Yesterday I went to the Southern Mission District meeting at Grace in the Desert I had a revelation. As I sat in the meeting, something became clear to me: We are an aging church. There were only two or three people in the room younger than me, and I am 58.


"Not that there's anything wrong with that!" as they used to say on Seinfeld. But we live in a culture that worships youth. We do everything in our power to delay and even reverse the aging process. We wear youthful clothes, we go to the gym, we even go to the dermatologist. As I approach the 60 year mark in 2 years, I would like to believe that 60 really is the new 40, but folks, the fact is that 60 is just 60 - and no face lifts, skin peels, or tummy tucks will ever change that.


The Episcopal Church has generally done a really bad job of reaching out to and including young people. The Episcopal Church does not even publish a Sunday School curriculum for young people. No wonder that we are a church of people in their 40s, 50s, 60s, and 70s!


We must do a better job of reaching the young. We must include the young in our worship, our education, and even in our governance. We must listen to the insights of the young and respond to their needs.


But now that I have given you my rant of the day, I want to say a few good words for the elderly. We live in a young-obsessed culture, a culture that has little use for the wisdom of those who are rich in days.


Sadly, the church is not that different from the world at large.  Every church I've ever been associated with has wanted to attract more young families with children, but the fact is that a church can also grow by attracting people who are 40 and older. We may be a somewhat geriatric church, but we seem to think that the church should be made up mostly of young people. 


Today's gospel reading introduces us to two prophets - Simeon and Anna. Luke doesn't tell us how old Simeon is, but he says that Anna was 84 years old, so we can assume that Simeon is about the same age.


And there is much to be said for those who are rich in days.


Presbyterian pastor David Lewicki says, "...the older folks are often the ones who are the more radical disciples: they were missionaries in far-away places before the age of cell phones and the internet, civil rights pioneers, anti-war activists, soldiers for Christ in the war on poverty, openly gay before that was even an option. In their retirement, they are the soul of our church: they are the ones who keep the prayer list and pore over it and pray over the names on it and the personal tragedies, asking God for mercy upon mercy; they prepare dinners for the family where the young mother is receiving chemo; they sit quietly alongside friends when they have lost their spouse of fifty years; they attend an otherwise sparse daytime funeral for the member who suffered for years with untreated mental illness, and they sit in the pews every Sunday, whether the sermon is good or lousy or somewhere in between." (The Rev. David Lewicki, "Joy comes in the evening")


Keep in mind that this story about Simeon and Anna is only found in Luke's gospel. The writer of Luke's gospel was profoundly concerned with the marginalized, the outsiders, the people we push to one side and exclude - the poor, the hungry, the homeless, women, children, and even the elderly.


But these people seem to have a special place in God's heart, they are often the ones God chooses to be his messengers. Near the beginning of Luke's gospel, Mary sings, "God has put down the mighty from their thrones and lifted up the meek. God has filled the hungry with good things, but the rich he has sent away empty."


Simeon, and even more Anna, were outsiders. Anna was not just elderly, she was also a widow. She outlived her husband by 74 years. Doubtless, she has outlived all the members of her family.


All of us know people like Simeon and Anna. We all know older women and men whose lives have been hard, who have lost parents and siblings, spouses and even children. They have seen wars come and go, they have seen good times and bad. They know what it is like to hunt for weeks and even months for a new job and to wonder when the next pay check will come.


Sometimes these challenges embitter them, but sometimes they gain wisdom from them. Sometimes they learn the lesson that it is God who gives the increase, that those who wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint. And that is what Simeon and Anna had learned. They came to the temple, to the place of prayer, day in and day out, praying, longing, waiting for God's great promise. They were living their lives on their tip toes, straining forward so they could be the first to say, "Look! There he is!"


And they were not disappointed. When the child Jesus was placed in Simeon's arms, he exclaimed,


Now lettest thou thy servant go in peace

for mine eyes have seen thy salvation

Which thou hast prepared : before the face of all people;

To be a light to lighten the Gentiles : and to be the glory of thy people Israel.


Poet David Steele imagines Simeon pronouncing that blessing over all the babies presented to him:

When I read the blessing

And thought about it,

I began to wish he was right,

About Simeon--and those babies.

And I began thinking about our babies.

And I wished someone,

Some Simeon,

Might hold my grandbabies high--

And yours--

The born ones and the not yet

Proclaiming to them

With great conviction,

"You are the saviors of the World!"

Meaning it so absolutely

That these young ones would live it,

And love it,

And make it happen!


And that is one of the reasons that we need our elders, our wise men and women, so that they can transmit the blessing to us and to our children. For in the Bible that is one of the most important functions of the elders - to pronounce the blessing on the next generation.


In the Lutheran church the Song of Simeon is often sung following communion. That seems to me to be a wonderful place to sing, "Lord, now let thy servant go in peace according to your word. For my eyes have seen thy salvation."


We have seen and tasted God's promise. We have held the Christ child. Taking bread and wine, we have kissed him and have celebrated his promise in word and song.


We may not get all the way to the promised future ourselves, not in this life, anyway, but we've caught a glimpse of it and that's enough. We can go in peace.


But is it really enough? Are we not still called, summoned to a kind of holy discontent with the present state of affairs? Shouldn't there be more?


"Having tasted the kingdom's richness, we hunger and thirst for more of it. Having glimpsed it, we yearn to make it real, to call for God to delay no longer, to fulfill the promise, to give us today the bread of tomorrow." (The Rev. John Stendahl, "Holding Promises")


That's true, of course, But that is when we should remember Simeon and Anna who held the Christ child in their arms for only a moment,... and that was enough. For most of us, in this life, it may have to be enough just to glimpse the future, to taste God's promise for a few brief seconds now and then. And to say with Simeon


Now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace

According to thy word

For mine eyes have seen thy salvation

which thou hast prepared in the face of all people

A light to lighten the nations

and the glory of thy people Israel.