Absalom Jones and Reconciliation

Commemoration of Absalom Jones

February 13, 2014

Isaiah 11:1-5

Psalm 137:1-6

Galatians 5:1-5

John 15:12-15

All Saints Chapel

Church Divinity School of the Pacific

In commemorating Absalom Jones, the first black priest in the Episcopal Church, I want to offer three snapshots from his life.

The first snapshot:

It is the year 1787 in Philadelphia, a few short years after the United States of America has been founded on the principles of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

On a Sunday morning at St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church, a mixed congregation of whites and free blacks gather for worship.

Tensions have been on the rise at St. George’s.

Two freed blacks serving as lay ministers, Absalom Jones and Richard Allen, have been actively drawing other free blacks to the church.

With some many blacks joining services and freely mixing with whites, the all white vestry unilaterally rules that all blacks were to be seated only in the balcony.

The free mixing of blacks and whites was a disruption to the perceived order of things.

Absalom Jones and others refused to abide by this act of segregation.

Instead, they knelt in prayer in their usual places, only to be picked up and physically thrown out of St. George’s.

The white leadership of St. George’s was not willing to accept the new life that the blacks of the church represented.

The second snapshot:

In 1793, an epidemic of yellow fever struck Philadelphia, killing almost 4000 people.

As tens of thousands of people fled the city, Allen and Jones led the free black community in ministering to the many sick people left behind.

The black community, laboring out of the conviction that they had a Christian duty to aid the suffering, set to nursing the sick, attending the dead, and ensuring a proper burial.

240 members of the free black community died in this service.

When the yellow fever epidemic ended and many of the white Philadelphia community returned, the black community that had worked on behalf of the sick under Jones’s leadership were wrongfully accused of exploiting the sick and robbing their houses.

Against these false attacks, Jones tried to defend his community, but it was clear that many of the leading whites in Philadelphia regarded them with enmity.

The third snapshot:

In 1794, free blacks established St. Thomas’s African Church with permission to have control over its own affairs and with Jones as its leader.

In 1795 Jones was ordained a deacon by Bishop William White, but he was not made the first African American priest in the Episcopal Church until nine years later in 1804.

Even though St. Thomas was part of the Diocese of Pennsylvania, Bishop White only permitted this if the parish did not send representatives to diocesan conventions.

Blacks could be part of the church, but they were not permitted full life within it.

These stories of Absalom Jones and the black community of Philadelphia are emblematic of the difficult circumstances of African Americans throughout American history.

Several things strike me about these stories.

First, is the persistent fact of racism,not just in United States history generally, but as part of woof and warp of American Christianity.

Second, Absalom Jones never abandons a vision of a life lived in harmony between the freed blacks and the white citizens of Philadelphia.

And finally, what was most evident in these events was the lack of reconciliation between these groups, a burden that must be born by the white Philadelphians.

Reconciliation is one of the greatest human needs.

To be reconciled is to live in harmony, peace, and justice with others.

It is the opposite of discrimination, oppression, rivalry, and enmity.

Reconciliation is at the core of the message of Jesus — it is what logically follows from a life lived as an expression of God’s love made known in Christ.

We hear this in the Gospel reading:

“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.”  [John 15:12]

Given that in overwhelming numbers those living in the early American republic were Christian, it would be safe to assume that the majority of white Philadelphians were also Christian.

All followers of Jesus Christ are commanded to love one another as Christ loves them.

This love is to be total and self-giving — “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” [John 15:13]

That total self-giving love is evident in the work of the free blacks led by Absalom Jones, who died serving others during the yellow fever epidemic.

They showed that they were the friends of Jesus by doing what he commanded them — to love other Christians completely. [John 15:14]

Jesus desires all his followers to be joined together as friends.

We are not servants of Christ, but his friends, because by his words God has been revealed to us. [John 15:14-15]

And so if we are all friends of Christ, we are certainly not to make one another servants to exploit and abuse.

The white Christian of Philadelphia missed out on a moment of great possibility when they chose to treat Absalom Jones, Richard Allen and the other free blacks as less than friends.

Certainly there were signs of God’s grace at work — Absalom Jones was ordained the first black priest in the Episcopal Church, St. Thomas church still flourishes today as a vital parish, and a precedent was set for the eventual full inclusion of all people in the ministry of the church.

But what could have happened if whites had treated blacks as friends?

In pondering this, I would offer that Jesus’ vision of friendship speaks to his larger desire that all of his followers be made one as he and the Father are one [John 17:21].

In order for friendship and unity to be real among groups that are divided there is a need for reconciliation.

In Absalom Jones’s time, what would reconciliation leading to Christian friendship and unity have looked like?

I imagine it would have started with a fully integrated church at St. George’s.

No one would have been thrown out in the streets for sitting in the wrong place.

There would have been no need for a separate St. Thomas church.

Going deeper, white Philadelphians would have recognized their racism and prejudice for what it was.

Bishop White would have given black Episcopalians full privileges in the diocese.

Others would not have accused blacks falsely during the yellow fever epidemic.

Perhaps, there would have been common cause made to deal with the terrible American sin of slavery and racism then and not let the problem fester for decades and centuries.

So, if we can take the words of Jesus about friendship and apply it to Philadelphia during the time of Absalom Jones, what would it mean for us to apply these same words in this time and place?

How could this church today better serve Christ’s vision of love and unity today?

Where are the divisions in it which must cease?

One of the bedrock teachings about the sacrament of the Eucharist is that before Christians take part in Christ’s body and blood, they should be reconciled to one another.

This is what Paul means when he warns the Corinthians about the divisions that exist among themselves (I Cor. 11:18ff).

And Paul cares about arguments regarding the observance of the Law in the passage we heard from Galatians not because he rejects the Law but he rejects the human use of the Law to divide people against each other.

So, as people of Christ, as a church, as those gathered to receive communion, be reconciled.

Look within yourself — what people or groups do you refuse to be reconciled with?

Who is it that you cannot stand that Christ calls you to love?

Who is it that you cannot even stand to call a Christian that you must love and be reconciled to?

Work to overcome the divisions that separate you from other Christians because until you do that, God’s will for us cannot be fulfilled.

Be reconciled.

Find ways for the love of Christ to transform your relationship with others.

May the one who calls us friends bind us all together in friendship as Absalom Jones sought to be a friend to all in Christ.

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Martyrs Among Us

Eve of All Saints

Sirach 44:1-10, 13-14

Revelation 7:2-4, 9-17

Matthew 5:1-12


October 31, 2013

All Saints Chapel

Church Divinity School of the Pacific


“For the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” (Rev. 7:17)


The liturgical celebration of All Saints has always been dear to me.

I am a historian after all; and not just that but someone who studies Christian saints.

I also was raised by a mother who passed on to me many stories about my family, and she often folded into those stories tales of people’s faith.

And so, the stories of the saints that have gone before has always fascinated me.


But as I have read and prayed with the readings for tonight these past few weeks, my attention has been drawn to a particular group in the holy people of God – those who endure persecution for the name of Jesus Christ.

These past few months, my heart has ached as I have read about Christians being harassed, persecuted, and even murdered around the globe.

If you have paid attention, you would have read reports about Coptic Christians having their churches attacked during the recent unrest in Egypt.

Just the other week, four Coptic Christians were killed in a drive-by shooting as they left their church.

In Syria, ancient Christian communities find themselves caught in the crossfire in the midst of a civil war.

In early September, rebels assaulted the ancient Christian village of Maaloula, on whose outskirts sits the venerable Mar Thekla (Saint Thecla) monastery.

For me, the reality of the persecution of Christians came home with the news of the suicide bombing at All Saints Anglican Church in Peshawar, Pakistan that killed 127 Christians and wounding 170.

I noticed the news because the principal of Edwardes College, the Anglican school in Peshawar, is the Rev. Titus Pressler, someone I knew when we were both active in the Diocese of Massachusetts.

Although Titus Pressler was not harmed, many from the Edwardes College community were killed and wounded.


It is easy to label this violence as simply another chapter in a violent history of Muslim-Christian relations.

And it should be said that this violence does not represent all Muslims.

The perpetrators are extremists and radicals whom many Islamic leaders have condemned.

And we also can’t ignore that many Christians have become targets because of western, especially US, foreign policy that has become in some twisted way associated with Christianity.

The persecution of Christians is not in the end simply part of an inexorable conflict between religions or a clash of civilizations.

On a deeper level, it is a sign of the sinful, unjust nature of the world around us.

The sin of this world will always be with us as Christians.

Indeed, Jesus teaches that those who follow him in this world will constantly be exposed to sin and injustice, even to the point of death.


We hear this in the Beatitudes.

Recently, scholars have argued that the first four beatitudes should not be understood as qualities to aspire to.

The poor in spirit are not just the poor, but those so deprived that they are on the point of giving up.

It is among the utterly disposed that the kingdom of God will arrive; among them will God’s will be fully expressed.

Those who mourn are those who have no reason for rejoicing in this life; only God now can offer them comfort.

The word that we have as meek in the third beatitude is best translated as the humiliated, the oppressed, the powerless.

And to inherit the earth here means that when God establishes his reign, the powerless will get what they have not had all along – the land, resources, abundance.

Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness are those who long for God to set things right; to reverse all the injustice of this world.

These are people who despair, who have no joy, who have no resources.

They wait for God to set things right; to act justly.


In looking at these four beatitudes, it should be clear that no one wants to live like this.

These are not virtues to aspire to.

People who live like this wait upon God’s kingdom to come and reverse the way of this world.

No one want to live like this, but Christians in Egypt, Syria, and Pakistan do.

The acts of violence that these Christians endure are a sign of sin in this world; a sign of the sin that the powerful allow.

Their hope is that God will reverse this suffering.


But not all have lived to see this reversal.

Indeed many have been martyred.

But to intentionally follow the way of Christ is to expose yourself to injustice, persecution, even death as a martyr.

This is what Jesus is getting at in the second half of the Beatitudes when he blesses the merciful, the pure in heart, and the peacemakers.

Those who posses the qualities of mercy, purity, and peace making are those committed to the justice of God that Christ proclaimed.

But the logic of pursuing the way of God’s justice for the disciple of Jesus, for the heirs of the prophets, can only lead to injustice.

“Blessed are you when people 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 in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” (Matt. 5:11-12)

If anything, to stand for the way of Jesus, to be his disciple, is to stand for God’s justice that will reverse all the perversions of the powerful in this world.

It is to stand against the sin that robs us of our humanity and that turns neighbors into enemies.


But, be ready.

For the powerful will not give up their power.

To follow the way of Jesus will expose you to harm.

And, so what about Christians that are being persecuted today?

This persecution is part of a conflict between western powers and some aspects of the Islamic world.

I think it is rooted in foreign policy and is a way of lashing out at the west.

There is sin and evil on all sides of that conflict and no party can claim absolute innocence.

And yet, Christians are dying in the very act of going to church.

In their home countries, they might be identified with the powerful west, but, what an irony, they themselves are powerless and vulnerable.

And in their vulnerability, they are like those gathered under the altar of the Lamb, like ones who have passed through the slaughter.

And in their suffering, those who survive are growing in faith.

A Roman Catholic nun has said this about the Syrian Christians who have had to flee their homes: “among the Syrian Christians, who are more and more vulnerable, there is a spiritual awakening, a renewed impetus in faith, prayer and interfaith closeness . . .we are finding a more dense, deep and unitive faith.”

Even in suffering, some Christians still pursue interfaith closeness, the hope of being reconciled to those that could easily be labeled an enemy.

Blessed are the peacemakers for they will be called the children of God.


Imagine those who have been killed for the name of Jesus Christ in the past year gathered now in this chapel.

Imagine them sitting in the pew next to you; imagine them in the aisles and in the back; imagine them gathered around this altar.

You can see their scars, but they are also robed in white.

They hold palms in their hands; their tears have been wiped away.

Imagine them speaking.

What do they say?

What will you say to them?


These are saints; these are the people of God.

These are the ones who are poor in spirit; who might have nothing left to offer God but their hopelessness.

These are the ones who mourn and have no one to comfort them.

These are the meek; who are utterly powerless.

These are the ones who hunger and thirst for righteousness; who have found no justice in this world.


And Jesus says, the Lamb says, if you will be my disciple, you will enter in this way.

You will be with them.

If you will stand for justice, you will find no justice.

Yet you will stand with them; enduring injustice.

If you stand with them, you will not only stand with those caught in what could be labeled religious conflict.

If you stand with them, you will stand for a type of justice that will demand that violence, violence on all sides, ends.

This is what our own baptismal covenant means for us.

When we promise to be a disciple of Jesus Christ with the help of God, we are called to this kind of life.

If you stand with the persecuted, you will stand for God’s justice that demands the fair sharing of resources that the powerful around the world and in our own lands refuse to share.

You will stand for God’s justice that demands that no one dies by drone strikes, by gun shots on dark corners, by the slow grinding down of poverty.

If you walk in this way of God’s justice, you will find no justice, even as you demand it, until that day when God will wipe away the tears from the eyes of the faithful.

Rejoice and be glad, for your reward, for their reward, is great in heaven, in that place where justice reigns; where no one is ever harmed; where no one makes war anymore.


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Good Seed in Rocky Soil

Commemoration of Alexander Crummell

September 10, 2013Alexander Crummell

Church Divinity School of the Pacific

Sirach 39:6-11

Ps. 19:7-11

James 1:2-5

Mark 4:1-10, 13-20

“Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seed fell . . .” (Mark 4.3-4)

Today we commemorate the life and ministry of Alexander Crummell.

Crummell is remembered in as a pioneering African American priest who steadfastly pursued his priestly calling in trying circumstances, who served as a missionary in Liberia, and who was an early voice for African American self-reliance and an influence on later thinkers like Marcus Garvey and W. E. B. DuBois.

In preparing this homily, I initially thought that Crummell was an example of the seed falling in good soil, yielding a great abundance of fruit.

In a way I think that is still true.

The seed of the gospel found good soil in Alexander Crummell and the harvest he brought in was great.

But the seed of the gospel that Crummell himself sowed fell in the hard, rocky soil of pre-Civil War America and the reality of slavery.

And he sowed in the thorn-choked patches of post-Civil War America where the promise of freedom for African Americans gave way to Jim Crow laws and deep-seated institutional racism.

These were the fields Crummell labored in.

His life is worthy of commemoration because he tended the seeds of the gospel in places

where the evil one threatened his harvest and yet he brought in much fruit.

Listen to his story and you will see what I mean.

Crummell sought ordination and was initially admitted to General Theological Seminary in New York, but with the school fearing the loss of financial support, he was told he could only attend if he did not live at the school, did not eat in the refectory or sit in the classrooms.

That is, he could be a student only if he didn’t act like a student.

Crummell turned them down.

He read for holy orders and was ordained in 1844 as a priest in Boston.

Crummell however could not find a permanent position ministering to African American congregations inthe Northeast and rarely received diocesan support that would enable him to fully live out his vocation.

Eventually Crummell went to the African country of Liberia as a missionary of the Episcopal Church, serving there for 20 years.

He imagined Christianity as a great civilizing force that would transform Africa and lead it to higher levels of morality and spirituality.

He envisioned a church headed by Africans for Africans that merged Euro-American technology and learning with African culture.

As well, Crummell hoped that African Americans would emigrate to Liberia to both

escape the racist structures of America and contribute to the transformation of their new home.

Eventually Crummell was forced to abandon his work in Liberia.

He could not secure enough funding from the Episcopal Church and the waves of African American immigrants never materialized.

Returning to the United States, he served as rector of St. Luke’s in Washington D.C.

where he found his new mission in fighting for the rights of African Americans in the Episcopal Church.

Southern bishops, in a resolution known as the Sewanee Canon,sought to segregate African Americans from their local dioceses and place theminto separate missionary dioceses meant for African Americans alone.

Crummell helped establish the Conference of Church Workers among Colored People

in 1883, the forerunner for today’s Union of Black Episcopalians.

Through his leadership this group successfully beat back the racist Sewanee Canon at General Convention and saved the Episcopal Church from further shame.

Given these highlights from the life of Alexander Crummell, the parable of the sower is an appropriate text to use to think about his life.

Crummell sowed the seed of the gospel to inspire Africans and African Americans to lives of greater discipleship, leadership, and creativity.

All the while he sowed his seed in the rocky ground and harsh environment of racism and neglect not just in American society but in the very power structures of the Episcopal Church.

All Crummell ever wanted was to be a priest and for his congregations to have a full share in the life of the wider church.

To do this he had to persevere against what W. E. B. Du Bois, in his essay on Crummell in The Souls of Black Folk, describes as the temptations of hatred, despair, doubt, and fear of failure.

Crummell’s life forces us to both thank God for the grace of perseverance given to the saints but also to ask what we will do when obstacles arise as we sow our seeds of the gospel.

Crummell, writing in the language of his time, tells us that steadfastness and a firm sense of vocation are necessary when confronting hardships.

He says in a sermon titled “Keep Your Hand on the Plough,” that “A man’s thought and interest are demanded there where his work lies; and nowhere else. It is the duty of every man to find his proper sphere. His only appropriate position is therein; and there to keep himself; there to make his activities; there to put forth his energies. It is this finding ones place and keeping it which is integrity, character, honesty, and humility.”

Integrity, character, honesty, humility.

Crummell possessed these qualities in abundance.

They are qualities we too must cultivate in our vocations.

What will we do when our seed falls on rocky places?

Crummell’s life makes us look at this parable with fresh eyes, and realize that even the rocky places need cultivation and care.

Of course, those rocky places are all around us.

The rocky places of a self-absorbed culture.

The rocky places where violence and profit margins are easier than peace and justice.

The rocky places where the Gospel is ignored, the Spirit resisted.

The rocky places where a person, or a church, would rather die than change.

The rocky places where racism abounds, even in nations that claim equality under the law.

You have been in rocky places.

You might be in one now.

You certainly will find yourself in one in the future.

In order to do work in the rocky places, it is good to attend to the teachings of the Letter of James.

To do work in these places takes faith, which in its testing produces endurance.

This testing brings one’s faith to a place of maturity and fullness.

I imagine this was the faith of Alexander Crummell.

He worked in those hard and rocky places, and nonetheless worked at nurturing the faith of others in those places.

This takes me back to the image of that seed falling in the rocky soil.

I want to offer a midrash on this parable.

A midrash is a Jewish way of interpreting Scripture that offers another reading to get at the truth of a story.

Here’s the midrash.

There was seed sown in rocky soil and the seeds grew.

A worker came to the field every day and watered the plants but the sun caused them to wither.

One night while the worker slept, the master of the field came and replaced the rocky soil with good soil.

And the plants grew and bore fruit tenfold, twentyfold, and a hundredfold.

And the worker came to the field and rejoiced.

When you find yourself in those rocky places, remember Alexander Crummell.

Keep your hand to the plough.

Tend to the seeds of the gospel.

Trust in God.


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Living Together

A sermon preached at the end of Church Divinity School of the Pacific’s Student Orientation


1 Thessalonians 3:6-13

Ps. 90:13-17

Matthew 24:42-51


“How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy that we feel before our God because of you?”[1 Thess 3:9]


This time has been in the making for so long and in so many ways.

You all have been individually called out by God to lay claim to your particular gifts and to lay claim to your vocations.

The continual discernment of the mystery of your lives has led you now to this place here in Berkeley at Church Divinity School of the Pacific.

All of us have individually followed paths that have led us to this particular community of faith lived out in this community of learning.

We have all arrived here as strangers and we have learned how to grow together as a community.

And now this week, you who have come through orientation have been gathered together as people who were once strangers but now have become friends in this community of followers of the way of Jesus.


The passage we heard from I Thessalonians offers us a window into the creation of one of the earliest Christian communities we know of.

As you will learn later, First Thessalonians is the earliest letter we have from the Apostle Paul and so also the earliest written Christian document.

In this passage, we hear the joy experienced by the earliest Christians as they came together to worship the God of Israel in gratitude for the reconciling work of the risen Christ.

We hear of the mutual longing of Paul and the community in Thessalonica to see one another.

We hear of the joy that each gains in their fellowship and a desire to grow in faith that is uniquely gained by living in community.

Paul’s words teach us that a key component of living together in Christ is a mutuality and reciprocity that leads not only to love for one another but also to growth in faith.

This communal growth not only exists for the sake of the present but it is also directed to the future.

Our passage ends with this exhortation from Paul:

“And may he so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.” [I Thess 3:13]

Here Paul’s words remind us that what we do together matters.

God cares deeply about how we shape our common life together.

We hear Paul with our modern ears that God will judge us individually for what we have done.

And we recoil.

But remember this – Paul did not think like a modern person.

He thought as a Jew of the ancient Mediterranean world.

And so he thought not of individual entities but of communal realities.

How we live as community is what God will judge in the age to come.

And life in community is hard.


We hear about the difficulty of community life in the passage read from Matthew 24.

The context of this passage is Jesus preparing his disciples for the coming of God’s reign that will be signaled by the return of the Son of Man.

It is important to know that the Son of Man refers to a heavenly figure in Daniel 3 who in Second Temple Judaism was identified as the messianic agent of God’s restoration of Israel.

In Matthew, Jesus is identified as the heavenly, messianic Son of Man.

And we hear a parable by Jesus about faithful and unfaithful household slaves.

This teaching is similar to others Jesus offered in which he used the economic and social realities of his time to exhort his disciples to work carefully with what has been entrusted to them.

I don’t think this parable means that the good slaves are Christians and the bad ones are non-Christians.

I think he is asking his disciples to imagine themselves as a household devoted to serving God by following the teachings of their master Jesus.


This parable is not about us and them.

It is about us.

And it asks a hard question — Are we ready for the Son of Man coming among us at an unexpected hour?

When he comes, how will he find us?

Will he find us treating one another well and nourishing one another or will he find us beating up on each other? [Mt 24:45, 49]

It is not an abstract question about when Christ comes again.

It is about how we choose to live together now, in this community, at CDSP.

We here are part of the household of God, following the way of Jesus.

We’re an intentional community – we have chosen to live together.

And we will be held accountable for how we live together and with one another now.


This truth reminds me of something that Mark Richardson has spoken of as a desire he has for life together here at CDSP – that we learn to cultivate the habits of ethical living and the ability to engage in moral conversation that leads to deeper life in Christ.

Moments and opportunities will come for us to follow Jesus and to show we are ready for the coming of the Son of Man.

These moments will emerge as we live together in this place in community.

Our time in this community will be determined in part by how we choose to be open to living side by side as members of the household of God, brought together as followers of the reconciling Christ.

This kind of living together is what Paul writes about in First Thessalonians.

It is a community in which the workers within the household attend to and care for one another.

It is a community that gives thanks for one another.

It is one in which the love of God serves as a common bond among us, even when we disagree or disappoint one another.


So we are here together facing this new semester, gathering together again as a community.

Let us care for one another.

Let us give thanks for one another.

Let us love one another.

Living this way, together, we will be ready when the Son of Man comes among us, now and in the day to come.


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Calling Upon the Cloud of Witnesses

In light of today’s decision by the Supreme Court, let us call upon the great cloud of witnesses who testify to what living in truth, justice, and freedom truly is.

Blessed Martin Luther King, pray for us.
Blessed Absalom Jones, pray for us.
Blessed Frederick Douglass, pray for us.
Blessed James Theodore Holly, pray for us.
Blessed Richard Allen, pray for us.
Blessed Edward Demby, pray for us.
Blessed Henry Delany, pray for us.
Blessed Thurgood Marshall, pray for us.
Blessed James Weldon Johnson, pray for us.
Blessed Pauli Murray, pray for us.
Blessed Elizabeth Cady Stanton, pray for us.
Blessed Amelia Bloomer, pray for us.
Blessed Sojourner Truth, pray for us.
Blessed Harriet Tubman, pray for us.
Blessed Jonathan Daniels, pray for us.
Blessed Alexander Crummell, pray for us.

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Believing After Boston

Thursday in the Third Week of Easter

March 18, 2013

Church Divinity School of the Pacific

Berkeley, CA


1 Samuel 15:16-23

Ps 65:1-5

Acts 8:9-25

John 6:44-51


I had a different sermon planned for tonight.

One about community and living in relationship.

I had meant to focus on the failed leadership of Saul, the corrupt spiritual ways of Simon Magus, and the dependence on Jesus as the bread of life.

But I scrapped that sermon after Monday afternoon.


Maybe it is because I still think of Boston as my home.

Maybe it is because I have been to many Boston Marathons.

Maybe it is because my wife Jennifer lived and worked on those blocks.

Maybe it is because we were married in a church a block away.

Maybe it is because I have stood exactly where those bombs went off.


What I know is that I am worn down.

Some of you know these places and can identify with my experiences.

Many of you can’t but perhaps have other places that loom large for you, places that you would never want desecrated by violence and bloodshed.

Or you yourself have stood at similar places.

But I think we can all agree that we are weary.

We are tired.

We are worn down by the constant drumbeat of violence in our culture.


I suspect we have all found our breaking point.

For some it was Newtown.

Or 9/11.

Or the London Tube.

Or Norway.

Or shootings on our streets in Chicago or LA or Philadelphia or Oakland.

Or it was JFK.



I find myself grappling with the fact that for my generation, terrorism and violence has been a constant drumbeat.

I was born in 1973.

The decade began with the hostages at the Munich Olympics.

It ended with the assassination of Anwar Sadat after he signed a peace accord between Egypt and Israel.

The 1980s included the assassination of Oscar Romero, the Hezbollah bombings of Marine barracks in Lebanon, the Achilles Lauro hostages, Lockerbie.

That decade brought in the crack wars that devastated the city of Hartford where I grew up and many other cities and towns across this country.

The 1990s was Oklahoma City and the first World Trade Center bombing and attacks on abortion clinics.

And then 9/11, Afghanistan, Iraq, IEDs.

My best friend was a Marine who was killed in Iraq.

His name was Greg.

Among all these acts of violence we also remember the mass shootings in Stockton, Columbine, Aurora, and Newtown and hundreds of other events.

I can measure the progress of my life according to the violence around me.

I speak only for my context but I think there is something that resonates in my litany with many of you.

America has been afflicted with the sickness and sin of violence.


At the same time, there is something deeply Christian about American culture.

This is the country that John Winthrop declared to be a city on the hill and a light to the nations.

This is the country that appealed to Scripture to end slavery.

This is the country that claimed the deepest truths of Christ to end racial oppression and segregation.

And it is the country that believes in the myth of redemptive violence.

Americans throughout history have believed that violence when justly applied reflects God’s will for America as a divinely elect nation.

We even envision the violent suffering of American heroes as a sign of their righteousness.

As a people, Americans have the tendency to believe that violence redeems whatever cause we hold dear whether as victims or aggressors.

America was formed as a Christian nation and our belief in redemptive violence comes from a particular way of reading the Christian Scriptures.


This belief goes deep into the Scriptures.

We see it in the command of God to the Hebrews to practice a war of annihilation in the land of Canaan.

This is why God is angry with Saul at Gilgal in the reading we heard tonight.

God had commanded conquering Israelites to completely destroy all the spoils of war on the battlefield.

Saul instead chose to keep some of the spoil to sacrifice to God at Gilgal.

The message of this passage seems to be that God prefers the complete obedience of total annihilation over the offering of sacrifices, sacrifices that might convey Saul’s might as a leader as much as God’s glory.

The psalms speak of God and his anointed kings as victorious warriors and proclaims that the enemies of Israel deserve defeat.

The Book of Revelation envisions Christ as a triumphant king sent to overthrow the rulers of the world.

The message seems to be that violence when wielded by God and his agents redeems the people of God.


What do we do with this after Boston?

After Newtown?

After Oklahoma City?

After Memphis?

After Dallas?

The truth is, there can be a hollow feeling of powerlessness.


Yet, we are Christians.

If that name for us means anything, it means fundamentally that we turn to Christ to make sense of this world.

And yet, what Christ do we turn to?

After Boston and after Newtown, and I speak for myself, I shrink away from turning to the crucified Christ.

I shrink away because I refuse to see the violence inflicted on him as redemptive.

Tonight I am with the fearful disciples on Good Friday who thought that there was no meaning to be made of being tortured to death.

The violence inflicted on Jesus was not redemptive.


Yet, I turn to Christ.

I turn to the resurrected Christ.

His suffering death alone was not redemptive.

But his resurrection was.

His death was only meaningful in light of his resurrection.


The author of John makes meaning of Christ’s death in these words of Jesus we heard read:

“I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live for ever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” (John 6:51)

But doesn’t this seem like too easy of an answer?

Is the promise of Jesus as the bread of life enough to bind up our wounds?

How can turning to Christ as the bread of life end the culture of violence that Americans seem completely sealed in?

I admit I do not know.

I am lost.


And yet I trust that if I eat the bread of Jesus Christ I will live forever.

I eat the bread of Christ as the Israelites ate the manna in the desert — completely vulnerable.

I have nothing that can stop the violence that can befall me at any time.

There is nothing that I can do that will protect my family; that can protect my children.

We are all completely vulnerable to the violence in our land.

My only hope is to completely rely on God for my sustenance.

Weapons will not save me.

Violence will not protect me.

There is no meaning in the loss of life.

But as a believer in the Creator God, the one who raised Jesus Christ from the dead, I must believe in the inexorable power of life.

Life, health, thriving, community — these things are grounded in God alone.


The world and its wisdom is outside.

Violence and terror are its ways.

It will never save you.

Relying on God who is Life will.

We gain life by eating — eating the wheat, the rice, the fruit that God has placed here for the life of the world.

In the midst of death, come and take hold of life.

Come and eat this bread — take it, eat it, rely on it.

This bread is the power of Jesus Christ’s resurrection.

It is the power of the resurrection, rejecting all that destroys life.

Take this holy food and discover that death has been swallowed up by life.

In the midst of violence, in the midst of striving for power, in the midst of our confusion, God exists as the Life-giver.

Take the true bread that has come down from heaven.

It is the promise of life.


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Barren Branches and Flowering Branches

Thursday in Second Week of Lent
February 28, 2013
Church Divinity School of the Pacific
Berkeley, CA

Jeremiah 17:5-10
Psalm 1
Luke 16:19-31

“They shall be like a tree planted by water, sending out its roots by the stream.” (Jer. 17:8a)

If we imagine Lent as a journey through the wilderness, by now we have taken a bend in the road.

We can’t turn around and see Ash Wednesday behind us.

The memory of ash on our foreheads is not as strong.

But perhaps the words of the Ash Wednesday liturgy still echo in your ears: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

Those words call us to penance, rightly and surely.

But, remember also the ultimate referent of those words is God, the creator and source of all life.

God created all that is, setting forth and ordering all of the tremendous beauty, diversity and mystery of creation.

Remember you are made from the dust of the earth.

Remember you are made from dust that came from the stars shining above.

Remember you are dust from which plants spring forth.

Remember that when you die you will return back to the elemental realities God formed.

Remember God the Creator.

Forgetting God the Creator, the source of all being, is the essence of idolatry.

To forget God as the source of all is to break the First Commandment – “I am the Lord your God.”

When we forget this, then we forget the Second Commandment, “You shall not make for yourself any idol.”

Jeremiah addresses this forgetfulness when he speaks to the people of Israel: “Cursed are those who trust in mere mortals and make mere flesh their strength, whose hearts turn away from the Lord.” (Jer 17:5)

Immediately before in this chapter, Jeremiah has condemned the people for turning away from Torah to idols.

That turning away includes looking to foreign powers instead of God.

Israel was threatened from all sides by foreign powers – Egypt, Assyria, Babylon.

Rather than trust in God, Israel sought political solutions by turning to their own strength and by seeking alliances with other powers.

In the course of these pursuits, Israel also turned to idolatry, forgetting God’s covenant with Israel made at Sinai.

For Jeremiah, idolatry happens when the people of God move from relying on God the Creator and instead turn to their own strength.

This indeed is the origin of sin – turning away from God.

The problem is not simply in turning away from God.

Sin involves losing sight of God as the source of all creation.

Sin disfigures God’s plan for creation – that all should live in harmony and unity with God, with each other, and with all that God has created.

Jeremiah uses a striking image for this idolatry – sin is like a drought.

He declares that those who put their own agenda before God’s desire for creation will be:

“like a shrub in the desert, and shall not see when relief comes. They shall live in the parched places of the wilderness, in an uninhabited salt land.” (Jer. 17:6)

By putting other things in the place of God, sin dries up and shrivels the vibrancy of life.

Sin causes the leaves and buds and flowers and fruits to fall off the branches of our life until we are left with a broken stick.

We find a similar image of sin in Jesus’ parable of the rich man and Lazarus in the Gospel of Luke.

In this parable, the rich man dines sumptuously his whole life; he is blessed with many fine things.

Even his burial shows that he had the means to ensure not only a comfortable life but a seemly transition to the world to come.

His wealth would have been interpreted by Luke’s audience to mean that God had favored him.

And then comes the great reversal that is the core of Luke’s gospel.

The poor man, Lazarus, is exalted to the bosom of Abraham and the rich man is cast down to Hades.

The rich man went down to Hades not because he was rich but because he did not heed the word of God regarding his wealth.

The Scriptures of Israel that Jesus taught from held that the people of God must care for the poor in their midst.

Moses clearly taught this when in the Torah provisions are made for the poor and aliens in the midst of Israel.

Jeremiah taught this when he wrote: “For if you truly amend your ways and your doings, if you truly act justly one with another, if you do not oppress the alien, the orphan, and the widow . . . and if you do not go after other gods to your own hurt, then I will dwell with you in this place.” (Jer 7:5-7)

For Jeremiah, not caring for the poor in your midst is linked to idolatry.

They are linked because both show a disregard for God’s plan that all be in relation with God and with each other.

And when the rich man begs Abraham to send Lazarus to cool his thirst, Abraham tells him it is too late – his way of life has sealed his fate.

And neither does Abraham allow Lazarus to go back to the rich man’s brothers to warn them of their fate – the words of Moses and the prophets are sufficient.

Indeed, even if someone comes back from the dead, they will not believe.

In this world, the rich man never saw Lazarus.

He neglected Torah by neglecting Lazarus.

And that neglect shows that he placed himself before others.

That attitude of superiority in itself was an act of idolatry because it signaled that God was not at the center of life for the rich man.

And so he did not respond to God’s desire for communion among all created things.

And for that, he thirsted.

Sin had rendered him dry and without the vibrancy of life.

There was no water for him.

Sin had ruined all the comforts he had carefully laid up.

Scripture is clear.

There are two ways – a way that leads to flourishing and life and a way that leads to dryness and lifelessness.

Both Jeremiah and the psalm imagine one who follows the wisdom of God as being like a flourishing tree that has set down roots by running waters.

In contrast, to not heed God is to be like a withered shrub or chaff that the wind blows away.

I imagine these two ways as the way of the barren branch and the flowering branch.

[Pull out budding branch]

We can imagine ourselves, our society, and our planet as a budding branch.

And it can become a flowering branch or a barren branch based on our actions.

We become the barren branch when we do not obey God’s desire for us, for humanity, and for creeation even when we know words of God spoken by Moses, the prophets, Jesus. [pluck buds]
Our society becomes a barren branch when we neglect the poor right under our feet. [pluck buds]

When we are willing to be complicit in injustice. [pluck buds]

When the diminishment of others is not our concern. [pluck buds]
Our world becomes this barren branch when we consume and don’t care. [pluck buds]

When we desire products that rely on rare metals whose mining means poisoned waters for indigenous people and civil wars in corners of the world remote to us.  [pluck buds]

This has been the driest winter in the Bay Area on record.

The sunshine you enjoyed today was not good news.

It was as bad news as Hurricane Sandy was. [pluck last buds]

Like this barren branch, it is a sign of the destruction that human sin causes among God’s creation.

We have created barren branches in ourselves, in society, and upon our earth.

[Put down barren branch.]

And there is the way of the flowering branch.

Psalm 1 and Jeremiah teaches that the wise and blessed are those who trust in the Lord and delight in God’s Law.

They are like trees by streams of water, bursting with green leaves, flowers and fruit.

This is the way of flourishing: choosing the way of wisdom that places God at the center and as the source of creation.

Discerning God as source and center allows us to see the goodness and communion God desires for all of creation.
To return to this sense of God’s desire for us requires repentance.

It requires seeing the world and our lives and our society not as we want it but as God does.

[Hold up flowering branch]
Repentance brings forth the buds of the branch and causes flowers to bloom.

When we turn to God and in prayer discern God’s will for us, flowers bloom.

When we heed God’s call to care for the poor and hungry, flowers bloom.

When people make a stand for a society that is just, honest, and fair, flowers bloom.

When greed gives way to generosity, flowers bloom.

When we stop consuming and start sharing, flowers bloom.

And is it possible?

Can we imagine a way past the destruction of creation that looms on the horizon, that is indeed upon us?

Might the barren branch become the flowering branch in the desolate places we have made?

Amid the melting ice, warming oceans, and parched land?

Might the flowers on the branch bloom?

There is one who has come back from the dead to warn us.

And not just to warn us, but to give us abundant life.

[Put both branches together]

He is the branch that has sent forth new shoots from the root of Jesse.

He is the one who says, “Behold, I make all things new” (Rev. 2:15).

Blessed are those who walk in the way of the Lord for they shall bring forth fruit in due season with leaves that do not wither.

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