Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Transfiguring Lives: Black Episcopal Luminaries

Scripture for the Last Sunday after the Epiphany includes II Kings 2:1-12; II Corinthians 4:3-6; Mark 9:2-9

Black History Month invites us to pay attention to our own African-American heritage as a nation and as a church, to celebrate the strides that have been made towards achieving a more perfect racial union, and to acknowledge the distance we have yet to go.

While the cost of progress has been paid by countless brave, patient, and divinely impatient men, women, and children whose names and stories we may never know, many heroes stand tall, including some who played unique roles in the history of the Episcopal Church.

One is Absalom Jones, who was born a slave in Delaware in 1746. He taught himself to read out of the New Testament. When sixteen, he was sold to a store owner in Philadelphia, where he attended a night school for blacks, operated by Quakers. At twenty, he married another slave and used his savings to purchase her freedom, later purchasing his own.

He worshiped at St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church, serving as a lay minister to its black members. With his friend Richard Allen, Jones was such a good evangelist that black membership grew so large that the alarmed vestry decided to segregate their black members into an upstairs gallery, a shameful step they took without warning. As ushers attempted to move them, the black members rightly and righteously walked out in a body.

Within a few years, African-American Christians in Philadelphia built the African Church where no one would be made to sit in the balcony, dedicating that church in 1794. They applied for membership in the Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania, and were admitted as St. Thomas African Episcopal Church, later that year. Diocesan Bishop William White ordained Absalom Jones as deacon in 1795 and as priest in 1802, the first black priest in our church.

Eleven years after Jones’s death, James Theodore Augustus Holly was born a free African American in Washington, D.C. Raised a Roman Catholic, he later became an Episcopalian and was ordained a deacon in Detroit in 1855, and a priest in Connecticut, the following year. Appointed Rector of St. Luke’s in New Haven, he founded the Protestant Episcopal Society for Promoting the Extension of the Church among Colored People, and became a friend of Frederick Douglass. The two men would work together closely.

In 1861, Holly left New Haven to lead a group of African Americans settling in Haiti. Within the first year there, his wife, his mother, and two of his children died; but Holly stayed on, with two small sons, no less able (it was said of him) to speak of God’s love to anyone who needed to hear it.

In1874, James Holly was consecrated the first Bishop of Haiti, the first black man to be raised to the office of bishop in the Episcopal Church. Four years later, he attended the Lambeth Conference, an international gathering of all bishops in the Anglican Communion, the first black man to do so, and preached at Westminster Abbey on the Feast of St. James, his namesake.

Serving the people of Haiti until his death in 1911, Holly doubled the size of his diocese and established medical clinics in areas that had never had them. For the last fourteen years of his life he also had charge of the Diocese of the Dominican Republic. Holly is credited with laying a firm foundation for what is now the largest diocese in the Episcopal Church, Haiti, with its 84,000 members, a numerical strength no stateside diocese comes anywhere near matching.

Absalom Jones and James Holly give us two key stories to tell, from the 18th and 19th centuries, stories deemed so important in our church’s history that these men are considered saints, each given a day in the year when the church remembers them—February 13th for Jones, March 13th for Holly.

I want to tell you the stories of three more African American leaders in our church, from the 20th century, stories too recent to land them in our book of Lesser Feasts and Fasts, but perhaps in time they’ll be there, with Jones and Holly.

Have you heard the name Verna Dozier? Like over 99% of the church’s members, she was a lay person. Her entire life was spent in Washington, D.C. From her agnostic father she inherited a questioning mind, and from her Baptist mother a deep faith. In time, she stopped attending the Baptist church with her mother and went with her father to hear the theologians speak at the chapel services at Howard University. She would say that, still later, "When I discovered the Episcopal Church, it was as if I had been waiting for that all my life."

For 32 years Verna taught English to junior and senior high students in public schools. On retirement, she began to lead Bible study groups for her parish. When parishioners congratulated her for beginning her ministry, she insisted that she was continuing her ministry of educating people for life. Countering the impression that a lay person’s ministry must be churchy, Dozier insisted that ministry is for all the baptized, and that most of it happens in the world. To her mind, “what happens on Monday is more important than what happens on Sunday, and if what happens on Sunday has no impact on Monday, then Sunday’s activities are a waste of time.”

The several books that Verna Dozier wrote in the 1980’s equipped the church for lay-led Bible study. We take that for granted now, but one of Dozier’s great accomplishments was to encourage the church’s people to gather in groups to lay their hands and their minds on the Bible, and not to treat it idolatrously, absolutizing selective biblical perspectives as if they were eternally binding laws, but to approach the text with three questions.

First, what does the passage say, what do its words mean, what are the key concepts? Second, why did the early Christian community preserve this passage? What issues were they dealing with, and how did these words help them make sense of their lives? Third, what does the passage mean to you and to the church today? Verna taught the church a method of Bible study that literally brought the good book home to people.

Here are samples of her own words. “We wax dewy-eyed over love in the New Testament, but we ignore justice in the Old so we don’t know what we are talking about when we talk about love. Love is justice in action.”

“The important question to ask is not, ‘What do you believe?’, but ‘What difference does it make that you believe?’”

“The church missed its high calling to be the new thing in the world when it decided to worship Jesus instead of following him… Worship is setting Jesus on a pedestal, distancing him, enshrining (enshrouding) him in liturgies, stained glass windows, biblical translations, medallions, pilgrimages to places where he walked—the whole nine yards. Following him is doing what he did, weeping over a situation that was so far removed from the dream of God and spending his life to make it different. Following is discipleship.”

Horace Clarence Boyer grew up in a family that took discipleship seriously. That was in Winter Park, Florida, in the 1930’s and 40’s. His family’s church was in the Holiness/Pentecostal tradition, and Gospel music was always in the air. Horace and his brother, James, formed the Gospel-singing Boyer Brothers and toured the nation, making recordings for national labels.

After serving in the Army in the late 50’s, Horace earned his master’s and doctorate from the Eastman School of Music and began teaching at colleges in the south before joining the Department of Music and Dance at the University of Massachusetts in 1973. Before he retired in 1999, Boyer directed the Voice of New Africa House Workshop Choir, a fifty-voice choir drawn from the five colleges. As a solo vocalist, he toured internationally, and as a lecturer he visited many campuses, including a stint as the Cesar Chavez-Rosa Parks-Martin Luther King Professor at the University of Michigan. From 1985 to 1987, he was named Curator of Musical Instruments at the Smithsonian Institution, distinguished scholar-at-large of the United Negro College Fund, and director of the famed Fisk Jubilee Singers.

In the last decade of his life, Horace visited us here several times, performing with and without his brother James in Gospel concerts under the auspices of the Williams Jazz Festival, and on occasional blissful Sundays leading us in worship. It was returning home from his last visit here that he and his wife Gloria hit a patch of ice up in Windsor and the serious injuries Horace sustained that night sadly silenced his rich singing voice.

Internationally recognized historian of Gospel music, Boyer injected this vibrant musical tradition into the Episcopal Church, helping thaw God’s frozen people and showing us that in addition to sitting, kneeling, and standing, Episcopalians can sway and clap and dance to the glory of God.

I will never forget the Sunday several of us took the Boyers to lunch. Water Street Grill was full of people that day, and we must have been ten or twelve at tables right in the middle. Horace decided to show us how black choirs traditionally process. Up he got, swinging his arms from side to side in rhythm to a tune he hummed, and out he went around those tables in a sort of dance step that must have made choir fun.

One of us (I think I’ll claim the credit) asked him how he found his way to the Episcopal Church. “It was Johann Sebastian Bach,” he answered. Walking to lawn mowing jobs as a boy, Horace would pass an Episcopal Church in Winter Park, doors open as the organist practiced, and out into this young boy’s soul flowed Bach. This was the 1940’s, and Horace would not have been welcome to enter that (or any other white) church, but he would walk real slowly by to catch music he had never heard before. On his own in the Army, not many years later, he took instruction in the Episcopal Church, the Christian tradition that gave him Bach and to which he gave back Gospel.

Barbara C. Harris was a cradle Episcopalian born in Philadelphia in 1930. By the 1960’s, she was chief public relations executive at the Sun Oil Company, and a devoted member of the Church of the Advocate, Philadelphia, the center of the black protest movement in that city, drawing Barbara into voter registration campaigns and the Selma march with Martin Luther King, Jr. The Advocate was also where the famous “Philadelphia 11” were ordained, our church’s first female priests, in a decidedly renegade defiance of a decision to ban women’s ordination until a wider consensus could be won. They won it, and Barbara was the crucifer at that service. By 1980, she was a priest herself.

Parish rector, prison chaplain, industrial consultant on public policy issues, respected voice of progressive Christianity, Harris became the first woman to be made a bishop in the Episcopal Church in 1988, when the Diocese of Massachusetts elected her Bishop Suffragan. Even though the Lambeth Conference had, earlier that year, resolved that the ordination of women as bishops was the prerogative of each national province of the Anglican Communion, Barbara’s consecration sent some conservative priests out of communion with the church, and those voices were heard in protest at most ordinations of women, as was witnessed here when Susan Crampton was made a priest in the 1980’s.

You’ll see from Barbara Harris’s photo that she has a commanding presence. Typical of the stories told about her was the evening she arrived to serve at a Boston meals program, straight from a state event, wearing her full length mink coat and flashing bright red fingernails. The guests that night loved being served by not just a bishop, but a hot bishop.

From all these heroic figures in our church’s past, we have inherited something of their spirit. God has shone in their hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ whom they proclaimed. And his is the transfiguring light that shines through their stories.

(Absalom Jones’s and James Holly’s biographical sketches in "Lesser Feasts and Fasts", Church Publishing, 2006, were used in preparing this sermon. Verna Dozier’s biographical sketch in "Glorious Companions: Five Centuries of Anglican Spirituality", edited by Richard H. Schmidt and published by Eerdmans, 2002, was also used.)

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

He Didn't Even Ask

Scripture for the 6th Sunday after the Epiphany includes II Kings 5:1-14; I Corinthians 9:24-27; Mark 1:40-45

Every November for the past I-don’t-know-how-many years, I’ve gone to my primary care physician for a physical. And like clockwork, he would ask me what I was doing for exercise. This moment wouldn’t be quite as awkward as the prostate exam, but close, because I would usually have little to report.

And it wasn’t as if he kept raising the bar higher, from year to year. “Even walking briskly for a half hour a day would make a difference,” was pretty much what he would urge.

Well, this past November, he didn’t ask. He didn’t even ask. At the moment, I welcomed what I took to be his oversight, relieved that I could skip that moment of shame. But as time went by, I would occasionally return to that puzzling moment when…he didn’t even ask.

At some point, this registered as an uh-oh moment. That’s something like an Aha moment. Awareness is breaking through. But while an Aha moment often stirs surprise and excitement, an uh-oh moment can seem somehow ominous.

So I resolved to start walking as many times a week as I can manage. This resolve happened to coincide with the new year, but it wasn’t a typical new year’s resolution. This one had, well, the added impetus of one simple fact: he hadn’t even asked. If my own doctor had given up, it was time for me to act.

It’s not much, lacing up at the Field House and walking a brisk couple of miles on the most forgiving walking surface I’ve ever felt. Not much, compared to the athletes who are working out, practicing, and competing in the great open center of the Field House as I hoof along around the perimeter, and around, and around. Not much, compared to what some people do by way of regular work-outs, like my wife, who alternates between a morning routine of kickboxing and an evening routine of spinning.

Yes, not even that had motivated me to get out there and do something. Not until… he didn’t even ask.

Now, I tell you this story in part to report that I have a whole six weeks of experience to go on, as I relate to St. Paul’s metaphor of gymnasium events requiring self-discipline. I’m hardly punishing or enslaving my body, those four days a week that I walk (I will even confess that I have lost my scruples and drive down to Spring Street, thereby losing for all time my license to criticize Williams students who do the same) but I do get a small sense of Paul’s extreme language at around the 17th lap, definitely the 18th, especially as I push my pace. The thing is, with the exception of finishing up before the public walking period is over, there’s no race—and every time, I win a sensation of well-being that has me pretty well hooked.

In our first lesson, we met a man who was surprised by how easy his course of treatment would be. Who knows how long Naaman the Syrian army commander had suffered not just the physical symptoms of leprosy, but the social consequences of it too. It’s an isolating disease. Society shuns the leper. Maybe it was somewhat different for a hardened mighty warrior: perhaps just his presence already intimidated people and caused them to keep a healthy distance. Still, this was a man at the pinnacle of power, in high favor with his king, lacking nothing… except his health, which we know is nearly everything.

Notice who it is in his story who possesses the knowledge he needs: a young slave girl whom the Syrians had captured in a raid on their enemies in the land of Israel. He’s at the top of the power system, she’s at the bottom. He’s at the center, she’s at the far edge. But in this story of illness and healing, everything is turned on its head: Naaman is kept at a distance by everyone, and this little girl who is treated like property holds the saving knowledge that will bless her master with healing.

“I know someone in Israel who can make him whole,” she reports to her mistress, Mrs. Naaman, telling her about the prophet Elisha. There follows a comic horse opera, as the King of Syria sends a mule team of costly gifts to persuade the King of Israel to arrange for Naaman’s healing. That request terrifies Israel’s king, who is positive his enemy is going to declare war the moment he hears that the health care system in Israel is no better than the one in Syria.

“Not so!,” declares Elisha, the man of God who claims he knows just what to do for Naaman. “Send him to me.”

It’s then that Naaman has an uh-oh moment. Having heard of Elisha, the great commander of the Syrian army expected this powerful prophet of Israel’s God to do something dramatic, like make an impressive appearance, loudly invoke God’s intervention, and wave his hand over Naaman’s diseased body. But no. Elisha did none of those things. He didn’t show any such interest, didn’t have an engaging bedside manner, didn’t require Naaman to do this and that and the other… He just told him to go and wash in the Jordan River seven times.

“We have perfectly fine rivers in Syria,” grumbled Naaman. “I could have stayed home and washed in them,” he sputtered.

And we are again at a moment in his story when this high and mighty man is rescued by his servants. “Father, if the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult, like spend all your money, or give up your career, or never go home again, wouldn’t you have done it for the sake of your health? Instead, you’re being asked to let go, to let go of your need for dramatic victories and just bathe yourself in the present moment… seven times, in the Jordan River that’s right nearby. Once each day of the week, immerse yourself in new life, emerge on the seventh day in Sabbath rest and wholeness of life. Just do it, for heaven’s sake!”

Another leper visits us today, in the Gospel. And he, too, must have been surprised at how little was asked of him.

In the Middle East of the first century, society had elaborate and rigid rules for the shunning of lepers. For starters, you never touched one (from fear of contagion, but it went beyond that), making what Jesus does so compelling: the very first response he makes, before he says a word, is to break the taboo, stretch out his hand, and touch this man who has come to him for healing.

“If you choose, you can make me clean.” It has already happened through that touch, restoring him to full human community, but Jesus the Word of God uses words to seal this renewal of life: “I do choose. Be made clean!”

Jesus doesn’t ask anything of him before this stunning change of life. He doesn’t ask him anything, except to be still and say nothing to anyone; then Jesus directs him, “Show yourself to the priest and there in the temple offer what custom requires for a leper to be certified as healed and restored to the community.” I can’t help wondering if the priest had ever seen the healing of a leper. Wouldn’t he be speechless at this display of dramatic healing?

But it doesn’t go quite the way Jesus intended. The man, hungry for human contact, tells everyone he meets what God has done for him; and what resulted was a swelling of the crowd seeking that revolutionary touch of Jesus.

He didn’t ask the fellow to spread the word. He just didn’t ask. I once heard a preacher ask if this wasn’t reverse psychology: Have we had it wrong, all these years? Instead of urging our members to tell their friends what God is doing in their lives, should we insist that they say nothing to anyone?

This approach seems to have worked for my doctor and me.

Reverse psychology or not, notice the reversals that God does provide. While the leper moves from isolation into community, Jesus moves from the town out to the far country, to avoid the distraction of those fresh crowds intent on finding a wonder-worker whose gracious power they would not understand, because he comes among us as one who serves. Like the servant girl who has saving knowledge, and the man-servants who speak the truth, Jesus changes people with few words and simple humble touch.

What speaks to me from these stories is how each presents a man who needed a new lease on life, but was stuck and had to be helped to reach for it. In both cases, it is God who acts to help them, from right within their world. For Naaman, this divine leverage comes by the simple faith-sharing of a Jewish slave girl. For the Gospel’s leper, it is a poor itinerant preacher whose passing through the neighborhood brought the man face to face with something he may have never met before, pure unconditional compassion.

While it seems that little was asked of either man, one thing was: that each step out of the familiar predictable daily rut and into the new, the unfamiliar, the unpredictable. Type-A Naaman, dependent on adrenalin, the rush of combat, the use of force and intimidation, had to submit, to let himself go across the border into his enemy’s homeland where, to his surprise, he was assigned to (more or les) a week of spa treatment. But he had to choose to walk this new path.

For the Gospel’s leper, it was probably a leper colony that he was used to. Who can say what that was like, but we can assume it offered safety anad a sheltering rhythm of daily life, and this man depended on it. Now, nothing could prevent him from enjoying a much fuller life—but he had to choose to let go of the old life, and can we imagine the changes he had to embrace?

Each man had to be willing to take a new step, then another, and another—on into new life. Such will is what is required of us, whatever new lease on life we need to reach for. Without that will, how can we recognize the leveraging grace of God when it moves to get us unstuck and opens to us that new life?

There and then is the prize to be won.

Lent begins, a week from Wednesday, Ash Wednesday. Welcome a season of spring training to recognize the actions of God.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

What's a Parish For?

Scripture appointed for the 5th Sunday after the Epiphany includes Isaiah 40:21-31; I Corinthians 9:16-23; Mark 1:29-39

On this Sunday when, for the 118th time, the people of St. John’s gather in Annual Meeting, let’s consider how our scripture readings help us answer a question that fits this day: What is this parish for? As we enter our 119th year, what are our purposes?

“Have you not known? Have you not heard? The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth… (who) does not faint or grow weary; (whose) understanding is unsearchable. He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless… Those who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.”

Isaiah’s rhapsody gives us our first answer. A congregation may be useful to God in channeling to people the spiritual power they need to renew their strength for running the race and walking the walk.

In elegant language, Isaiah sings of God transcendent “above the circle of the earth”, “at the still point of the turning world,” wrote T. S. Eliot, though the astronomers expand our vision: at the still point of the myriad receding galaxies, God is the center, the breath, the energy, the unsearchable understanding, the dynamism that calls and numbers all created forms, from the stars of heaven to the creatures of earth. God is over and above all, yet God is intimately close enough to give power to the faint and renewal to the weary.

A congregation, teaching people how to wait for the LORD, channels renewal as it flows from the still point of being to the being, to the creature needing renewal.

The hymn sung by the psalmist gives us a second answer to the question what a church is for. “The LORD… gathers the exiles… heals the broken-hearted and binds up their wounds.”

I imagine that in all cultures alienation is experienced, individuals losing their sense of belonging, the fabric of society not holding. As if symbolically addressing alienation, many cultures have dances that start with one person setting the pace, joined by another and then by another, clasped hand in hand, or arm around the waist, as an undulating chain of procession navigates the room, gathering-in everyone in the dance. “Except for the point, the still point, there would be no dance, and there is only the dance,” wrote Eliot. A congregation must learn to dance out into the world with moves that draw people to step out of isolation into community, out of anxiety into trust, out of scarcity into abundance.

St. Paul, always ready with an answer, gives us our third today. He says that he is (and he means that we are) “entrusted with a commission” to proclaim the Gospel, the uniquely good news that opens us to our sharing in the blessings of the servant ministry of Jesus Christ. “For though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win
(many); I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some.”

A church congregates a ragtag army of people whose strong suits and weak links, whose questions and whose answers, whose day jobs and volunteer time, whose extroverted energy and whose introverted intuition all provide ways into the world to deliver the good news of God’s commitment to us in Jesus Christ, and to invite personal commitment to God in Jesus Christ.

Our Gospel today confirms what we already know, that the delivery system for that good news is one to one, one by one, one person at a time. A congregation’s usefulness to an intimate God will be in direct proportion to how passionately its many leaders believe that absolutely every person is to be fully welcomed into complete participation in the life of the Body of Christ. I can’t say those words without needing to confess that I and we fall short of that standard set by Jesus, but we know it is the standard to which we are held.

At the heart of this standard is the conviction that nothing can separate us from the love of God that is in Jesus Christ. And so nothing that could separate people from this parish community, nothing that could prevent their being fully welcomed, should be allowed to. No litmus tests, no dress codes, no behavioral expectations other than loving God and loving my neighbor as myself. I can’t say those words without needing to admit that I and we fall short of the standards set by Jesus, but that does not change the fact that our life together as a church is for the practicing of these standards and for growth in openness to the grace that will get us there and keep us there in the light. “Not here, Not here the darkness, in this twittering world,” insists Eliot. No, here the light.

That each and every person is of incalculable worth and value to God is shown in how Jesus’s public ministry is fully directed to the healing of Simon’s mother-in-law, who, immediately upon the lifting of her fever, rises to serve. The whole city watching, person after person, sick or troubled in mind, body, spirit, a nightlong procession one after another, from sundown until sunrise, appears before Jesus to be validated into new life, confirmed in freedom, restored to community.

In the thick of all that caregiving, it was surely a meal that Simon’s mother-in-law rose to serve. Always sustaining costly service is the meal offered at Jesus’s table, and the feeding we do upon the Word, and the lifting out of fever that sacred music brings. Eliot says,

“Words move, music moves
Only in time; but that which is only living
Can only die. Words, after speech, reach
Into the silence. Only by the form, the pattern,
Can words or music reach
The stillness, as a Chinese jar still
Moves perpetually in its stillness.
Not the stillness of the violin, while the note lasts,
Not that only, but the co-existence,
Or say that the end precedes the beginning,
And the end and the beginning were always there
Before the beginning and after the end.
And all is always now.”

I don’t understand all that, nor do I understand sacrament; but it nourishes me, by its form and pattern carries me, reminds me who and whose I am, who and whose you are to my right and my left at that table of his, of ours. Ensuring that every person find her place or his at this table, this is another Gospel answer to what a church is for.

And what that meal equips us for lies outside these walls. Where all is always now is right where God is perpetually at work in the world, calling us to that same work, one by one, and all together.

(T. S. Eliot’s words are all from “Burnt Norton”, the first of his “Four Quartets”.)