Tuesday, February 16, 2010

No limits to God's love or to ours

Last Saturday, I preached the sermon at the Absalom Jones Celebration Eucharist at Grace and Holy Trinity Cathedral, Kansas City.

The Racial Reconciliation Committee of St. Andrew's and St. Augustine's Episcopal Churches, Kansas City, invited me to preach.

I was was the first white pastor or priest to be invited to preach at this annual commemoration of the first African-American ordained as a priest in the Episcopal Church.

Jones's ordination took place in 18th Century America, when slavery was still firmly entrenched, including in the North. Here is the sermon, "No limits to Love," which is based on John 15.12-15

You’ve probably seen the sportswear imprinted with the slogan, “No Fear.” This is a fit group. Your own cycling or running jerseys might say just that.

Well, as worthy as that slogan is, I’d like to see a very different one printed on shirts, on banners, even on the signs outside our Episcopal Churches.

Instead of “The Episcopal Church Welcomes You,” our signs should say something weightier:

How about? “No Limits to Love.”

After all, isn’t that how Jesus loves?

In the gospel reading today, God the Son commands his followers to love one another as I love you. He says perfect love is this: that a person is willing to lay down his or her life for friends.

We’re to love as Jesus loves, working actively for the wellbeing of the others, and Jesus loves with no limits.

Look at him:

He never sends anyone to the back of the bus. Never restricts the right to vote. Never segregates schools and lunch counters. Never tells people of color, “You can’t sit in that pew. Sit in that balcony.”

Jesus loves with no limits--even when it means the whip, spit in the eye, a crown of thorns, death on the cross.

Supremely, on the cross Jesus shows us love that has no limits. There, he offers his life for us, while we were yet sinners. And in doing so sets us free from slavery to the Devil, our sins, eternal death.

Jesus’ cross is our Emancipation Proclamation. It is our freedom papers.

The Good News, in Jesus, is that God’s love is not limited to the few, but is lavished on all: people of every color; gays and straights and transgendered persons; rich and poor; Republicans and Democrats; Barak Obama and Sarah Palin.

The saint whose life we celebrate in this Eucharist today, blessed Absalom Jones, an African American slave, who worked for years to buy his and his wife’s freedom-- Absalom Jones knew the gospel and lived it.

And when he saw God’s love limited, he acted.

One Sunday, a white man asked Jones to sit in the balcony of St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia, where whites and blacks had worshiped in the same pews side by side from Sunday to Sunday.

Jones and a fellow Christian, an African-American named Richard Allin, said, “No.”
They left St. George’s, followed by all the other blacks of the congregation.

Richard Allin remembered, “…we all went out of the church in a body, and they were no longer plagued by us” (PBS, “Africans in America, Part 3: Narrative: The Black Church.”).

In 1787, Jones and Allin organized the Free African Society. They built a congregation and, eventually, a church.

And with the support of Bishop White of the Diocese of Pennsylvania, their church was admitted to the diocese as St. Thomas African Episcopal Church, Philadelphia.

Jones said, “We are now encouraged through the grace and divine assistance of the friends and (of) God opening the hearts of our white friends and brethren…to arise out of the dust… and throw off that servile fear, (which) the habit of oppression and bondage trained us in” (PBS, “Africans in America”).

Jones, first as a deacon and then as the first black priest of the Episcopal Church, served St Thomas—preaching, teaching, organizing, pastoring his people. And speaking out against slavery and every other limit to God’s love, until his death in 1818.

May we do the same in our own time, as the followers of Jesus who carry on his ministry, actively working for the good of the other, whoever the other is.

And inspired by Absalom Jones, and empowered by the Holy Spirit given to us in Baptism, we must act when we see love limited by a narrowness of vision that says, “Care for needy people here, not in Haiti.”

We must act when we see love limited by lack of education, too few jobs, denial of health care; limited by illness or disability; limited by gender, sexual orientation, age or race.
We must act whenever we see a limit to God’s love and God’s children pushed out of the pews and into the balconies of church and society.

We must act and, yes, even suffer taunts and spit in the eye; the club, the fire hose, the snarling dogs; the loneliness of jail; the cruel death of the cross.

After all, that’s the way Jesus lived, the way Absalom Jones lived, the way those Freedom Riders and marchers lived in the American South of the 1960s.

And that’s the way we will live as Jesus’ followers, keeping his great commandment and loving all others and bearing the fruits of love: a world where “No limits to love” is not a slogan but a reality.


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