February 12, 2023 — The Rev. Canon Britt Olson

posted in: Sermons 0

If I had a funny title for this sermon, I might call it “Driving the Presiding Bishop.”  You see, I was asked to be the driver for not just one or two, but three Presiding Bishops of the Episcopal Church.  The Presiding Bishop is like an Archbishop, elected by other bishops to serve as the head of the Episcopal Church, which includes over 100 dioceses in the U.S., Cuba, Taiwan, Puerto Rico, Haiti and other geographical areas.

My first Presiding Bishop of Edmund Browning.  He was first the Bishop of Okinawa, Japan, then of the American Convocation of Churches in Europe and then of Hawaii before being elected Presiding Bishop.  I was a first year seminarian when I was asked if I would drive him to the San Francisco airport after he spoke at Church Divinity School of the Pacific’s commencement.  He was the most fun.

First he had to explain what he had in his long narrow case when going through security.  The confused and concerned airport employee asked, “A cross.  Do you mean a crossbow?”  He opened the case and showed them the Presiding Bishop’s processional cross and we were let through.  His plane wasn’t leaving for a few hours so he asked me if I wanted to join him for a walk around the airport and a bite to eat.

Bishop Browning’s theme was “No Outcasts.”  He preached and worked for the greater acceptance of women and gay and lesbian clergy.  If he had been preaching the Sermon on the Mount, he might have proclaimed:  “You have heard it said, ‘Love the sinner, but hate the sin.’  But I say to you, you may not reject those whom God has called and anointed to serve among you in God’s Church.  In the Body of Christ, there will be no outcasts.”

The second Presiding Bishop I drove was my seminary classmate and friend, Katharine Jefferts Schori, the first female prelate (Archbishop) in the history of the Anglican Communion.  She is an intensely independent and private individual and really missed being able to drive herself once she became Presiding Bishop.  During her tenure as Bishop of Nevada, she delighted in the long drives through that vast landscape, that is when she wasn’t flying her own private plane to visit congregations.

She encountered threats and opposition.  During her tenure, the Church voted to consecrate as bishop the first openly partnered gay man, Gene Robinson.  When she attended the annual gathering of the 38 Anglican prelates world-wide, seven of them refused to share communion with her.  Four U.S. dioceses voted to leave the Episcopal Church over the full inclusion of LGBTQ+ persons in ordained ministry.  If ++Katharine had been preaching the Sermon on the Mount, she might have said, “You have heard it said that ‘Our church is welcoming to all.’  But I say to you, that unless you make room in every area of power and leadership for the full inclusion of all the children of God, you will not experience the fullness that is the Body of Christ.” 

The third Presiding Bishop I was asked to chauffeur is our current one, Michael Curry.  He is the first Black man and the first person of color to serve in this role.  Unlike his predecessor, he is a raging extrovert and seems to have met nearly everyone in his tenure as Presiding Bishop.  He has a pastor’s heart and is one of the most powerful preachers I know, famous especially for the wedding sermon for Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. 

As his biography states:  “Throughout his ministry, Bishop Curry has been a prophetic leader, particularly in the areas of racial reconciliation, climate change, evangelism, immigration policy, and marriage equality. The animating vision and message of his ministry is Jesus of Nazareth and his way of radical, sacrificial love, and he regularly reminds Episcopalians they are “the Episcopal branch of the Jesus Movement.”

If he were preaching the Sermon on the Mount he might say, “You have heard it said that ‘The Church is based on Scripture, Tradition and Reason which defines its belief and practice.  But I say to you, if it’s not about love, it’s not about God.” 

It was an honor to drive all three of these individuals and to hear about the challenges they faced as well as the leadership they offered.  But I would have loved to be asked to drive the Rev. Absalom Jones, whose feast day we celebrated yesterday.  Of course, I would have needed to know how to manage a horse and buggy since he was born in 1746.  And because he was born enslaved and I’m a woman, there is no way we would ever be allowed to be in the same vehicle unless he had been driving me as part of his duties as a house servant.

Absalom Jones had a passion for learning and found a way to learn how to read.  When his master moved to Philadelphia, he was allowed to attend Quaker night school, run by abolitionists.  By age 38, he worked and saved enough to buy his wife’s and his freedom.  He continued working for his former master, but now as a paid manager of his store and property.

He was active in the Methodist Episcopal Church where his outreach grew the number of Black members to over 500.  Church leaders decided to expand seating to accommodate the growth and used the opportunity to segregate them in the new balcony.  The following Sunday, Absalom Jones led all 500 of them out of the church to form the African Church of St. Thomas, Philadelphia, a church that is still prominent in the community.

Finally, at age 56, he was ordained as the first male African American priest.  It wouldn’t be until 1977 that the first African American female priest, Pauli Murray was ordained.  Absalom Jones preached against slavery and brought a petition to the U.S. congress for the abolition of slavery.  He died at age 72, forty-seven years before legal slavery ended. 

If Absalom Jones was preaching the Sermon on the Mount he may have said, “You have heard is said, ‘separate but equal’ and ‘God doesn’t see the color of a man’s skin.’  But I say to you, unless you clean your hands of slavery and racism and act on behalf of the oppressed and distressed, you will not be able to form the Beloved Community that God intends for all persons.”

The Sermon on the Mount is not an instruction manual but a description of the life and ministry of Jesus and those who would follow him.  It describes the distinctiveness of Christian community and how it is distinct and different from the world and context of our times.  When the Church does not reflect the Beloved Community of Jesus, we may be those who work for change and repentance as many have done.  And there may be times that we are called to leave, as Absalom Jones did, in order to reform and recreate the Body of Christ as Jesus envisioned it.

St. Luke’s has experienced the blessing of reform and re-creation after the church split in 2010 over full inclusion of women and LGBTQ folk.  That blessing has come with the loss of people, prestige, power and financial security.  And yet, the community that survives is characterized by many of the qualities of Beloved Community.  We are mixed in terms of backgrounds, economics, age, gender identity and perspective.  We are here voluntarily because we have chosen to follow Jesus in this community, not because our society or family expects us to.  We strive to care sacrificially for those on the margins and to build relationships that are characterized by mutuality.

But we are not racially and ethnically diverse.  We do not fully reflect the demographics of our neighborhood and the many cultures represented.  We have welcomed BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) but most have not remained and looked for other communities where they feel more comfortable.  We say we want to be a diverse community but it has not been realized.  There is more for us to explore, more truth to tell, and more voices to be heard.  It will require intentionality and the willingness to interrogate our assumptions and even our shadow or unacknowledged prejudices.  We are restarting the Racial Justice and Equity Team and I am recommending a book of meditations for Lent by Dr. Catherine Meeks who is the director of the Absalom Jones Center for Racial Healing in the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta. 

There is more work to do, more truth to be told, more repentance to be made, more action to be taken, more healing to receive.  As we continue in this path, we long for the day when we can exclaim with the psalmist:

Happy are they whose way is blameless, who walk in the way of the Lord!
Happy are they who observe God’s decrees and seek God with all their hearts!
Oh, that my ways were made so direct that I might keep your statutes!
Then I should not be put to shame, when I regard all your commandments.I will thank you with an unfeigned heart, when I have learned your righteous judgements.  I will keep your statutes.


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