Tag Archives: Discipleship

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.


Filed under Church Divinity School of the Pacific, Discipleship, Episcopal Church and Anglicanism, Sermons

Sermon on Ash Wednesday

I know this is a bit late, but here is the sermon I preached this Ash Wednesday at All Souls Episcopal Parish in Berkeley, CA.


Isaiah 58:1-12
2 Corinthians 5:20b–6:10
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

Why are we here?
That answer seems simple enough: We are here to begin the season of Lent.
We are gathered to prepare ourselves for the remembrance of Christ’s death and his glorious resurrection.
We are here to prepare as the holy people of God have always prepared when approaching the mysteries of God’s grace.

Scripture testifies that drawing near to God includes purification by fasting and repentance.

But Scripture also warns that we need to have a right understanding of this process.

We live in an age in which our focus is so highly individualized.

So when we hear the word repentance, our minds first go to personal sins.

It is appropriate to deal with these but Scripture teaches that our concern ought not to be just with how our sins touch us but even more so how they effect others.

The purpose of fasting and repentance of sins is not to make ourselves feel closer to God.

God desires our fasting and repentance to be a way to reset the entire social order

The message of Scripture, over and over, is that sin matters because it distorts our relationship with God, with one another, and with all that God has created.

God’s desire for the people of God to reset their social order is found in our reading from Isaiah.

These words are addressed to the exiles from Babylon.
They are seeking to re-establish their relationship with God as they restore their worship of God at the Temple in Jerusalem.
A fast, they believe, will draw them closer to God.
But the prophet tells them a fast alone won’t suffice.
Attending to their personal sphere alone won’t do it.
And they know it.

They ask: “Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?’ (Is 58:3a)

The prophet responds:

“Look, you serve your own interest on your fast-day,
and oppress all your workers.
Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight
and to strike with a wicked fist.
Such fasting as you do today
will not make your voice heard on high.” (Is 53:3b-4)
God will not hear the people’s cry until they repair their relationships with one another.Isaiah reminds us that God the Creator desires all creation to be in right relationship.

But the returning exiles are not in right relationship with their neighbors, and thus not with God either.
Their fast is not pleasing to God until it is accompanied by justice and peace.
Their fast is not pleasing to God until their workers are paid fairly.
Their fast is not pleasing to God until they cease fighting with one another.
This is the fast God desires from the people of God.

Scripture says it plainly:
“Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin? [Is 58:6-7]

The fast that pleases God is a just fast.
It is a fast that involves sharing what you don’t eat with the hungry.
It is a fast that houses the homeless.
It is a fast that clothes the needy.
It is a fast that purifies not only your soul but also heals society.

And the prophet is clear: if you do not counteract injustice you are complicit with it.

Will your fast be a just fast?
It is this question that drives Jesus’ words on fasting that we have heard.
Jesus does not disapprove of fasting.
We know this because he himself fasted for forty days in the wilderness.
What he opposes is the fast that is not just.
He opposes the fast that makes us feel we are holy and special while we ignore our responsibility as people of God to do justice and to make peace.
If we are satisfied with the simple act of fasting and penitence today and this Lent, Jesus tells us we have lost our way.
In the Gospels, over and over again, Jesus calls his disciples into relationship with the God of Israel and with one another.
Jesus, like Isaiah, teaches that all we have is from God the Creator.

We are made from dust, to dust we will return, all we possess comes from God.

Being from dust, depending on God for our being, we are set free to be in loving relationship with all, including those we have oppressed, whether personally or complicity.

This is a key element of what the Kingdom of God means to Jesus.
This vision of the Kingdom of God encompasses a life in which all of God’s people are in a relationship and in which no one is diminished.
All are to be loved as God loves, both your neighbor and your enemy, both those you aid and those you oppress.
The point of repentance is to not only focus on what inhibits our relationship with God, but to repent of that which harms and diminishes others.

And when Jesus speaks of the rewards of heaven, I think he has in mind rewards that bring us closer to God and to the ideal way in which we are called to live.
We are called to feed hungry and care for the needy.
When this happens, what was missing and broken in our common lives is repaired.
We are called to a fast in which we move beyond ourselves and our personal concerns to a wider circle of concern for others.
We are called to a just fast.
Our reward for taking on a just fast is that in those small mundane tasks of justice the patterns of the kingdom of God slowly become visible among us.
We will come up soon and receive ashes on our head and be told that we are from dust and will return to dust.
We are born with nothing and we will leave with nothing.
We depend on God alone for our life.
And so if we depend on God alone, what is there to lose in taking on this just fast, this fast in which we expand the circle beyond ourselves?

We are dust.
All we have depends on God.

So, feed the hungry.
Clothe the naked.
Care for the needy.
Stop your quarrels.
Make peace.

This is the fast God desires.

This is the fast that leads to the cross and to the empty tomb and to the risen Christ.
The ash on your head will mark another step on the path of living out God’s justice.

There is nothing to lose and the treasures of heaven to gain.

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Filed under Church Divinity School of the Pacific, Discipleship, Sermons, Spirituality