All Means All
A Sermon on Galatians 3:28
Today we will commission one of our members and Youth Representative to the Vestry, Christopher Wright! We are sending Chris off to do lay mission work in Honduras. As we prepare to pray for Chris and the others who leave on Tuesday, I'm thinking about someone else: Verna Dozier. Verna was the first African-American member, then later a senior warden at St. Mark's Episcopal Church on Capitol Hill. Verna is known for saying, "I may be wrong, but I BELIEVE it!" I am thinking about Verna, now of blessed memory, because the first book she wrote, in retirement, a book about lay ministers was called The Authority of the Laity. I am thinking about Verna, a high school teacher and a student of Shakespeare, a Biblical scholar, theologian and lay preacher, because I believe that, if given all our marvelous scriptures today, and considering the missionaries to Honduras, Verna might well have chosen the shortest lesson to preach on: seven verses from Paul's letter to the Galatians. In fact, it might have been just one verse she would have lifted up for us, just one verse on which she might have preached. Here it is: There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.
It is this one verse that first grabbed me years ago. It captures me still. It is this one verse from all our scriptures on which I will preach today. It is this one, core Christian concept I lift up for all of us: that we are all one, each and every one of us, when we decide to follow Jesus. No matter who we are, no matter how different we are from one another, ALL of us are one in Christ. Today, Christopher's story and Verna's story make me think of my own story. It's not just my story. It's the story of a church in Memphis, a church in which I served twice – first as a teenager; then, thirty-five years later, as a priest.
In 1968, two years after I left for college, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. As the civil rights era took shape, people took sides. Some clergy took the side of African Americans, and it cost them their jobs. At Church of the Holy Communion, the Rector was asked by his vestry, "What would you do if a black family came to our church?" Without hesitating, the story goes, the rector replied, "I would invite them in and ask them if they would like to sit in the front pew." Not long afterward, the rector was asked to resign. Time passed. An African American became mayor of Memphis. In 2002, I returned to Holy Communion as one of their clergy. When I left to be rector here at All Saints', they conducted a search there. A young priest was chosen to succeed me as their next Associate Rector for Pastoral Care and Social Outreach. As it turns out, Ollie Rencher is the first African American priest to serve that parish. I asked to meet with Ollie on one of my trips back to Memphis. When we shared breakfast, I decided to tell him, in a moment of pride, that when I had heard the news about him serving there, I had said to myself, "YES! It took a BLACK guy to replace me!" Ollie and I laughed about it. It was, I hope, laughter from God.
Sisters and brothers, God calls us, here, today, to be one in Christ. We who seek to follow Jesus, all of us, together, are called to be family, a family made up of what Desmond Tutu once described as the rainbow children of God. For human beings, even Episcopal Christians, it takes us awhile to actually BE one in Christ. The church is indeed an institution which measures change, not in terms of years or decades, but in centuries. And in the 20th century, a change did happen. Today it is a normal thing to have people of a different color or race or ethnic background to be members in most Episcopal churches, including All Saints'. Someday, you will probably call a person of color to be one of our priests. After all, here at All Saints', the scripture "all of you are one in Christ Jesus," means all are welcome here. At All Saints', we might say, all means all.
Or does it? Over the years, we Episcopalians have needed to confess our corporate sins, what some would call the "isms" of our human condition. Nearly twenty years ago our House of Bishops declared racism a sin of our church, a sin of which we all needed – and we continually need – to repent. Another "ism," ecclesiastical sexism, is also still alive. The stained glass ceiling has been cracked open a bit. We do have two women holding the highest positions of authority in our church. But just ask any woman or person of color serving as a priest or deacon, senior warden or missionary whether we are done repenting those sins.
Thank God for our progress! Fifty years ago our reading of Galatians 3:28 would still have led most of us to believe that white churches should remain white. Twenty-five years ago "we are all one in Christ Jesus" would still have meant that, while women might be able to serve on vestries, many churches would still think they couldn't possibly serve as their priests, let alone their bishops. Today, many are still not convinced that "all means all" when it comes to sexual orientation. I wonder: what will our challenge be tomorrow?
As you think about tomorrow, let me tell you what happened yesterday. Yesterday, at the Cathedral of the Incarnation in Baltimore, three women were ordained by Bishop Rabb to the transitional diaconate. They will serve as deacons for a short time, six months or so, and then they will be made priests. One of these women, Jessica Knowles, has agreed to be the new Assistant Rector for Formation here at All Saints'. Her primary responsibility in her first year with us will be the spiritual formation and Christian education of our children, youth and their families. Jess will begin sharing ministry with us on July 6.
Now, you may have had this kind of response when looking at her photo on our website: "She's so YOUNG!" Yes, she is. Jessica has never known a time in her life when women could not be priests. The gifts she brings to us will be known over time. But the one gift we know about from day one, a challenge and an opportunity Jess gives us, as we seek to be one in Christ, is her age. The wisdom of age will be challenged by the innocence of youth, and vice versa. Perhaps no one will be invited to confess the sin of ageism more often than me.
I have learned that, as people age, we become less able to do things we used to take for granted. We discover that we are treated differently by those who are younger. Sometimes this different treatment honors us. But many times we feel less honored or important, more forgotten and neglected. Ageism happens – at work, at school, even at church – everywhere we go. And if we are honest, we will admit that younger people do challenge us. They remind us older folk of who we were, who we never were, who we might have been. Sometimes, they seem so noisy, impatient and disruptive! At the least, they bring us new and different attitudes. Jessica Knowles will bring us new ways of thinking about what it means to be one in Christ. Some of that new thinking may even remind us of the old things we learned twenty-five or fifty years ago.
In our passage from Galatians, Paul also says that "the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came" (3:24). Paul suggests the law of Moses was like a kind of schooling or parenting of the children of God – until they came of age, until they were ready to become grown-up, fully functioning adults. Sisters and brothers, if we are all God's daughters and sons, all children of God, the question is: Do we really want to grow up and become adult children of God? How willing are we to let Christ come into our lives? How ready are we to become a stronger Christian family, to build up the body of Christ here at All Saints', in a way that honors and welcomes all of us, regardless of difference? How might we become who we say we are – one in Christ? How might God make us a family?
There is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female. Today we might add, no longer Honduran or American. Tomorrow, I pray, there will no longer be younger or older. May there only be Verna and Chris, Jessica and Ollie, you and me – all of us together, all of us children of God, all of us growing up together as Christians, all of us one in Christ Jesus. May it be so! AMEN.