a call and a claim

a sermon, based on Matthew 9.35-10.23, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 2nd Sunday after Pentecost, June 18, 2017

Jesus called his disciples, before saying, “Follow me”,[1] declaring the purpose, the reason for the call, saying, “The kingdom of heaven is near.”[2]

Jesus Commissions Disciples, James Tissot (1836-1902)

This same good news he sends them out on a missionary journey to proclaim. But his accompanying instructions are hardly as appealing. A declaration dripping with danger: “I send you as sheep among wolves.” Then a mystifying, difficult (impossible?) to operationalize message: “Be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” Then a terrifying statement: “Beware…you will be beaten…and dragged before rulers.” Then a consoling, but, given what has been said, confusing word: “Don’t worry.”

Jesus, the way you treat your friends it’s a wonder you have any followers!

Now, in Jesus’ time and in the historical context of Matthew’s gospel, a half-century after Jesus when the church was under persecution, these words of warning were necessary. To go into the world with his counter-cultural, contra-status quo message of unconditional love and justice inevitably would lead to trouble with secular and religious authorities. And Christian conversion could erupt in discord within one’s family.

Moreover, Jesus’ message of hardship was part of a prophetic tradition woven into the cultural and spiritual fabric of his people’s understanding of what happens when one stands up, stands out in the name of God.

Still, what sense do we make of these biblical insights into the hard texture of discipleship?

In our day and time, Jesus’ words seem, sound alien. Mainline American Christianity, in which the Episcopal Church is firmly rooted, generally knows little about bold prophetic proclamations that provoke persecution. Verily, there have been historical moments when Christian reticence to speak in the public square from the stance of faith to the raging cultural, political, and social issues of the day justifiably has led to the charge that the church is a non-prophet organization! However, our Christian sisters and brothers in some regions of Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East can testify to the truth of Jesus’ words. To be his disciple can and does put them in direct, at times, violent confrontations with governments and the followers of other faith and secular traditions.

Nevertheless, I believe that we can attest to the vivid reality of Jesus’ warning that proclamation brings trouble, particularly in the recent past and current generations when the divisions between conservative and progressive Christians have been and are so pronounced; the right denouncing the left as so inclusive and relativistic that it stands for nothing and, indeed, is no Christianity at all and the left decrying the right as narrow and doctrinaire, far from Jesus’ all-embracing love.

Today, putting all this aside, I focus solely on Jesus’ message. For if we take it and him seriously, there is, in his instructions for the missionary journey, an unmistakable and immutable call and claim on any, every disciple, of any and every age, in any and every age. A call to us, a claim upon us to go forth into the world – and, in the concrete daily circumstances of our lives, through our profession in word and deed of God’s love and justice – proclaiming that the kingdom of heaven is near.

 

Illustration: Jesus Commissions Disciples, James Tissot (1836-1902)

Footnotes:

[1] Matthew 4.19

[2] Matthew 4.17a

Of life in the still-Christian South (a retired cleric’s occasional reflections)…

A conversation…a confession about race

Two men.

Different as different could be. Save for gender. And age. Both 60-something. And stage of life. Both retired. And, both Episcopalians, religious upbringing.

One. White. An attorney. The child of an old Southern family with roots tracing back to mid-17th century English colonists. His mother, a painter of note and an author. His father, a prominent attorney from a long, generational line of prominent attorneys.

The other. Black. An Episcopal priest. Midwestern born. His mother, an elementary school teacher. His father, a postal clerk.

Two men, largely different as the proverbial day and night, in an unlikely, serendipitous (Spirit-led?) encounter in a quiet corner of a coffee shop of a local bookstore, engaging in an unlikely, serendipitous (Spirit-led?) conversation about race…

A conversation that, once he discovered my vocation, became his chosen opportunity for his confession. “I’ve wanted, I’ve needed to share this with someone for a long time…”

He sat forward, clutching his coffee cup in his hands, first, looking down, averting his gaze, telling me of his formative years. His parents had taught him that his privileged life bore an obligation to care for those who were needy, which, he acknowledged, as he understood their instruction, meant those who were lesser endowed with the material blessings of life, which, he further admitted, meant those who weren’t white. His parents, “Good people,” he quickly asserted, did not teach him that they were “better than other people.”

Still, certain moments in his childhood were indelibly, painfully imprinted on his memory.

His nanny, “a lovely, kind lady”, who cared for him from his earliest days, wasn’t allowed to enter their home through the front door. One morning, he, then at the age of 8, seeing her approach the house and turning, preparing “to go around to the back”, opened the front door, happily welcoming her; an impertinence, his parents made clear, that prompted an unpleasant scene of his being corrected and of her being chastised…

On another occasion, he, accompanied by his nanny, rode the bus downtown. He could not understand why she had to leave him and go to the rear when there were plenty of empty seats in the front. When he asked her, she declined to say more than, “That’s the way it is.” When he later asked his parents, they simply affirmed, “She is right.”

But somehow, even as a child, he knew it wasn’t right. “What is right,” he looked up at me, his lips trembling, yet his voice firm, “is that we’re all equal because God made us that way.”

Then, as best as I can recall, he said something like this: “For a long time, I’ve thought about Jesus on the cross asking his Father to forgive those who were killing him. I finally decided if he, who died for me, could do that, I needed to forgive my parents for their ignorance. But,” he held out his hands to me, “I need to be forgiven for my silence. All these years, I’ve known what was right and I never said or did anything to make it right. I promised God I would do something, whatever I can, but right now I want you to ask God to forgive me. Please.”

Taking his hands, we said the Confession of Sin that Episcopalians pray every Sunday. Then, making the sign of the cross, I pronounced the absolution of sin. Tears rolled down his cheeks. He mouthed a silent, “Thank you,” stood, and departed.

For a while, I sat motionless; moved, stunned by the experience of his transparent honesty, his naked humility, his patent sorrow, and his evident need, and by the swiftness of our entry into the depths of our encounter and the abruptness – yet, in its own way, timeliness – of its end. I do not know whether we will see each other again. It’s doubtful, I think. But, if we do, I will say to him, “Thank you.”

Of life in the still-Christian South (a retired cleric’s occasional reflections)…

On preaching (Part 2 of 2)

“Paul, is preaching different in the South?” By many and many times I have been asked this question.

Prior to retirement, I last served an Episcopal parish in Washington, D.C.; making that tenure of nearly 17 years my immediate and distinctive frame of reference for preaching in the South.[1] It is in the light of contrast that I wrote: “(W)hat I have found, what I have felt in the bones of my soul is people’s hunger to have an experience of God through the Bible. In this, I recognize the difference of preaching in the South.”

My life and labor with the good folk of that D.C. congregation were interesting and vital, at times, taxing, yet never dull! The people, to a person, were accomplished in their varied vocations, well-traveled and well-read, intellectually inquisitive and insightful, and passionate in their engagement of the issues of the day and times. They were and are those who desire to make and do make a difference in the world for good.

A heartbeat of that community was a tolerance, verily, an acceptance of ideological difference, particularly in the welcome and embrace of skepticism. Questioning was a high and fine art, cherished for its probative value in the investigation of all things, including the Christian doctrine and biblical lore of “the faith once delivered to the saints.”[2] Within this milieu, the communal view of the scriptures[3] was more as ancient literature and less as sacred text; more as chronicles of the human quest for God and less, in the language of the Catechism, as “the Word of God (Who) inspired their human authors and…still speaks to us.”[4] In this, I make no judgment of good or bad, right or wrong. Rather, this is simply, only my observation.

In preaching with this community, I sought to make a conscious connection between ancient scripture, which I do believe is holy writ, and, I also believe, the sacred texts of our lives daily being written through our every thought and feeling, intention and action; and this in an effort to help us all make sense and find meaning in our human existence. Here, too, I make no judgment of good or bad, right or wrong. Yet, for me, this approach to preaching was something (I hasten to add not less, but rather) other than inviting folk into a shared experience of listening for the vox Deus, the Voice of God. This distinction is but one of the ways that I understand the difference of preaching in the South.

Footnotes:

[1] For years and for some, it has been a matter of debate whether Washington, D.C., is, in fact, a Southern city (or, to be precise, district). President John Fitzgerald Kennedy was noted to have said, “Washington is a city of Southern efficiency and Northern charm.” Though what he meant is open to speculation, his observation raises the consideration that Southern-ness is an expansive idea; one that can be understood in other ways than the place or the geography of the eleven states comprising the olden Confederacy or what some term the “Deep South”, generally including Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, and South Carolina. Southern-ness can encompass the historical socio-economic terms, among them, rural landscapes, agrarian-based economies, fewer large cities, political conservatism, and large English and African-American populations; this latter, through the 19th century, being visible evidence of the thriving institution of slavery. On this last count, before the Civil War, Washington, D.C., I would aver, was quite Southern; since then, not quite so and on the other counts, never quite so.

[2] The Letter of Jude 3

[3] I stress the communal view to indicate my sense of how the congregation as a whole, therefore, not each and every individual, approached the Bible.

[4] From An Outline of the Faith commonly called the Catechism, The Book of Common Prayer, page 853