Sermon, Homecoming Sunday Proper 23, Year C
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church Foggy Bottom
October 9, 2016
The Rt. Rev, Mariann Edgar Budde
Recommitting to God’s Work in a Kairos Time
These are the words of the letter that the prophet Jeremiah sent from Jerusalem to the remaining elders among the exiles, and to the priests, the prophets, and all the people, whom Nebuchadnezzar had taken into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon. Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.
Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7
On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, they called out, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” When he saw them, he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were made clean. Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan. Then Jesus asked, “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” Then he said to him, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”
Good morning, St. Mary’s Church!
Before I begin, let me say that it’s a privilege to be with you on Homecoming Sunday. On behalf of all of us gathered in this historic and beautiful sanctuary, I’d like to thank St. Mary’s leadership, your new elected senior warden, Mrs. Beatrice Hendricks, and members of the vestry; your worship leaders, among them the esteemed Dr. English and Mr. Tilghman, and other servants of the Lord in this place. A hearty welcome to Father Bernard Anderson, called now to serve as your priest. And I’d also to take a moment to acknowledge and thank Mr. Herman Gloucester, who has served in diocesan leadership for the last six years, and offer special thanks to your outgoing Senior Warden, Mr. Windon Ringer, for his years of faithful leadership. Mr. Ringer, would you stand please and receive the thanks of your community?
Welcome to all who have come home to St. Mary’s from wherever your lives have taken you–we’re glad that you’re here. You are part of this extended spiritual family; we’re proud of you and honored by your presence. And finally, welcome to our guests. If you have come St Mary’s for the first time this morning, you have joined us on a special day and you grace us with your presence.
I’ve had a homecoming experience myself of late, of a slightly different sort. The occasion of our son’s wedding where we were blessed by the coming together of four generations on both our son and new daughter’s sides of family. There were friends they had known from as early as kindergarten and from church. I felt the blessing of those deep connections, people who knew our son and new daughter their entire lives and watched them grow, celebrating their successes and supporting them in their struggles. And I pray that each of you, be it at this Homecoming or some other occasion, may know something of that deep connection. We know that in this sanctuary people have prayed, celebrated, cried, and supported since the earliest days of emancipation. We are blessed by their memory and their gift to us.
Homecoming Sunday is also an occasion for inspiration, and over the years you have been privileged to hear many inspired preachers and august leaders. I’m humbled to be your preacher today, and pray that God may use my offering as a blessing. Please know how honored I am to serve as your bishop.
African American theologian and newly appointed Canon Theologian of Washington National Cathedral, the Rev. Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas, makes a compelling argument in her most recent book, provocatively titled, Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God that “this time in the life of our country is a kairos time.” You may recall that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. also spoke of kairos time during the Civil Rights Era. Kairos is a Greek word, rich with spiritual overtones, that speaks of time not simply as chronology, one moment following another, but as, on occasion, decisive moments in our personal lives and human history with the potential for far-reaching impact.
Now kairos time, as Dr. Brown Douglas points out, is often a chaotic period, typically a time of crisis. However, she writes,
it is through the chaos and crisis that God is fully present, disrupting things as they are and providing an opening to a new future–God’s future. Kairos time is therefore a time pregnant with possibilities for new life. It is God’s time, time bursting forth with God’s call to a new way of living in the world. It is God’s calling us to a new relationship with our very history and sense of self, and thus to a new relationship with one another, and even with God.
It sounds wonderful, but remember that the context is one of crisis and and disruption in our land, and we see this on many fronts, but perhaps none so charged and urgent as those which have exposed the wide fissures across racial, socioeconomic and generational lines. Speaking specifically about and for African Americans, Douglas writes, “Within the context of the stand-your-ground culture wars that have violated the freedom and imperiled the lives of black people, prophetic black voices have emerged to hold the nation accountable for its own self-proclaimed history.”
Dr. Brown Douglas is herself one of those voices, challenging us with her incisive scholarship and deep Christian faith to examine the myth of Anglo-Saxon exceptionalism and to appreciate and draw strength and resilience of black Christian faith, a faith that emerged, paradoxically, when African Americans were legal chattel and yet affirmed the liberating and life-giving presence of of God in their lives, and claimed as their own a gospel, as we heard read today, that is not is chained, but offers freedom in the name of a free God, through Jesus who walked freely between the boundaries that separated people and offered his healing presence to all.
We are surrounded by such voices, including St. Mary’s own, Mr. Colbert King, who writes each week in The Washington Post, words of conscience and morality, calling us to our better selves. Yesterday he reminded us that two years have passed since the disappearance of young Relisha Rudd from the DC Shelter for Families, highlighting the tragic and shameful vulnerability of homeless children in our city. “Relisha Rudd’s life mattered,” he writes, “and she has never been found. . . And there are more than 1200 children living in overflow shelter motels in Washington, and more than 300 boys and girls in the D.C. General facility. It’s all unfolding before our very eyes.”
There is the spiritual witness of African American churches across the country, among them no more powerful than Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina. Always a place of conscience and community service, the church came to national prominence through the tragic killings of their pastor, Clementa C. Pinckney and 8 others when gathered for Bible Study, and as their members, in response, chose the path of forgiveness and nonviolence of Jesus.
Other prophetic voices speaking today with powerful impact include Michelle Alexander, whose myth-shattering work, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness brought to the surface truths most Americans simply didn’t see or want to acknowledge. The starkest of those truths is that more African Americans are under the control of the criminal justice system today – in prison or jail, on probation or parole – than were enslaved in 1850. Moreover, discrimination in housing, education, employment, and voting rights, which we assumed had been addressed by the civil rights laws of the 1960s, is now perfectly legal against anyone labeled a “felon.” Given that more people of color than whites are made felons by the entire system of mass incarceration, racial discrimination remains as powerful as it was under slavery or under the post-slavery era of Jim Crow segregation.
Another voice of conscience is Bryan Stevenson, founder of Equal Justice Initiative and author of Just Mercy: A Story of Redemption and Violence. Stevenson and his colleagues have overturned countless death penalty convictions for juveniles, and he argued successfully before the Supreme Court that such sentences are not only unconstitutional but immoral.
But Stevenson’s work goes beyond the criminal justice system, to address the deeper flaws in American society, rooted in slavery’s legacy and all that followed. Reflecting on the recurring news of police shooting African American men, Stevenson said, “These police shootings are symptoms of a larger disease. Our society applies a presumption of dangerousness and guilt to young black men, and that’s what leads to wrongful arrests and wrongful convictions and wrongful death sentences, not just wrongful shootings. There’s no question that we have a long history of seeing people through this lens of racial difference. It’s a direct line from slavery to the treatment of black suspects today, and we need to acknowledge the shamefulness of that history.”
Are you with me friends? This is the chaos, this is the confusion out of which the kairos moment of God is rising. One sign of kairos is the intense and rising interest in our history–all the stories never told–as evidenced by the long lines of people waiting each day to enter the new National Museum of African American History and Culture. Black churches, as you well know, played a big part in that history. It was, therefore, especially fitting that President Obama marked the opening of the museum two weeks ago by ringing of a church bell from an 18th-century black church in Virginia, in an echo of bells rung to mark the emancipation of the slaves.
That bell could been from St Mary’s church. “The story the museum will tell,” the President said, “is America’s story. It is one of suffering and delight, one of fear, but also of hope, of wandering in the wilderness, and then seeing, out on the horizon, a glimmer of the Promised Land.” You know that story, for it is yours.
Consider that day in 1865, when 28 black men and women took the first steps toward establishing an Episcopal church specifically for black people in Washington, DC. Though there were free blacks living in the city and more newly freed slaves coming everyday, racial discrimination permeated DC houses of worship, restricting seating and access to the sacraments and consigning African American to countless indignities and insults. These men and women had had enough, and they set their sights high. By 1874, St Mary’s had attained autonomy and independence from its sponsoring congregation. And when, during a time of crisis when many leaders followed St Mary’s first priest to start a new church, those who remained in Foggy Bottom chose, as in the words of the prophet Jeremiah, to seek the welfare of those of the city surrounding them, to serve the children and young people there, and thus find renewed blessing and strength as a community of faith.
The theme for this year’s Homecoming Sunday, chosen by your spiritual leaders, is “Rededicating Ourselves to God’s Work.” I would simply add to their clarion call the reminder that we are rededicating ourselves to God’s work in a kairos time. As you answer the call, St. Mary’s, remember that there is spiritual power behind you now, that in a kairos time, seemingly small actions can have tremendous consequences. For the Holy Spirit is at work in and around us all.
But remember, too, as Brown Douglas said, that things are often messy and chaotic in kairos time. And the temptation will always be to step back, and to remain asleep, as Dr. King once warned, during a great revolution. The Spirit is at work whether we engage or not. Whether and how we, as church, show up is of incalculable importance.
And so I say to you, as your bishop and sister Christ, that this is indeed a kairos time, and for us in the Episcopal Church, it is a time to over-invest ourselves in rising generations, over-invest in our children and grandchildren. Look around and see that those generations are sorely underrepresented in our worship, in our communities, and now is the time to do all we can to correct the imbalance, not for our sake, but for theirs. It is time for us to follow Jesus’ example and empty ourselves for the sake of our children and young people, be they in homeless shelters, languishing in failing educational environments or languishing in prisons, be they in our homes, extended families, and neighborhoods. We don’t have to remake ourselves to reach the rising generation, but simply empty ourselves and be fully present for them, for their sake, not ours.
Let me close with again with words from Kelly Brown Douglas that especially spoke to me as a parent.
She writes that her mother would sing to her and her siblings the song: “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” She would sing this song because she knew that the world they were growing up in would not always treat them in a loving way. She wanted them to know that no matter how others treated us, Jesus loved them—and that was all that mattered. And when she became a parent, she, in turn, told her son every day, “You are a beloved child of God. There is nobody above you, except God. You are cherished and loved. You are strong and good.” She did that knowing that far too many voices would try to tell him otherwise.
No matter what else you decide to do in rededicating ourselves to God’s work, never forget to remind yourself each day that Jesus loves you, as you are, for who you are. And make the commitment right now to say and do all you can so that the children and young people in your life and communities know that they, too, are beloved of God.
If you do that, and follow where the Spirit lead you in love for rising generations, St. Mary’s will continue to be “a beacon of justice, peace, and hope, anchored in the faith, trust and joy founded in the love of God through Jesus.”