Follow the Blessing

Sermon for 6 Epiphany (Year C), February 13, 2022
St. Andrews Episcopal Church, Madison, CT.

When I was in the Navy, I was once stationed at The Pentagon with a small team who had tremendous political power because we were the ones who allocated the money to all of Navy’s programs. I was responsible for shipbuilding and submarine programs worth billions of dollars and I was completely lost in this assignment at first. A person would be my best friend in one meeting, and then my sworn enemy in another. Finally, in my struggles and confusion, someone pulled me aside and said "Listen, just follow the money. If you know who is getting the money and whose ox is getting gored, you will understand the politics of every situation… just follow the money." Suddenly, I understood.

"Follow the money" explains a lot… all kinds of politics, even the "culture wars" get opened like a book once you understand this principle. People order their lives by following the money… they make career decisions, choices about life partners and friends, who to embrace and who to exclude, maybe even decisions about faith, spirituality, and beliefs based on "follow the money". I have… and by every measure I can think of in American society, I am successful; I have wealth, I am never hungry, I am a pretty happy person, and I’m fairly popular. And… according to today’s gospel; I am cursed… woe to people like me, Jesus says. When you hear THAT Gospel proclamation, it can sure suck the air out of the room.

Jesus turns "follow the money" on its head. Instead, he seems to be saying "Follow the blessing", and he tells us where to go to find that blessing. "Hang with rich, full, happy, and popular people if you want to follow the money, but If you want to understand the Kingdom of God… if you want to know where to find God’s justice in action… if you want to see things with God’s eyes and not just your own, you need to come alongside the ones who are experiencing poverty and hunger and weeping; the ones who are hated, excluded, reviled, and defamed." Jesus seems to be saying, "God has a preferential-option for the poor, and if you want to follow the blessing, that’s where you need to go."

"Woe to you who follow the money" Jesus says. That doesn’t sound like good news to MY ears. In fact, THAT’S the problem right there. We can get so wrapped up in money and success that it blinds us and stops up our ears. In our self-satisfaction and success, we can’t even see the poverty, hunger, sadness, and isolation all around us. Let me tell you something frankly and transparently; for me, being a white man IS what "normal" is, to the point that when I hear black people describe the impossible grind and friction of their lives in a white-privileged society, I can’t even imagine it. My daughter married a black man. They both love to run, and one day she was driving them to a park for a jog, and swung into an adjacent neighborhood to park. Her husband was beside himself. "We can’t park here" he said. "I’m sure it’s no problem", she responded. "No, you don’t understand… if I get out of this car as a black man in THIS neighborhood, someone is going to call the cops and I might get killed". "Oh…" she said as that revelation washed over her. It wouldn’t have occurred to me either… it is so completely out of my experience, living in a society that is regulated for the comfort and thriving of white men. Following the money blinded me, and I’m not alone in this.

Today is the feast day of Absalom Jones, the first black man to be ordained as an Episcopal Priest, who died on this day in 1818. He grew up as a slave in Delaware. At 16, his master sold off his mother and six siblings, and that was normal for slaves. Slaves were property, and no family ties, not even marriage made the slightest difference. Can you imagine their weeping on that day and over the years afterwards? Later, he married and eventually he bought his wife’s freedom, and some years later, his own.

And it’s here in his story that I want to bring us back to something Jesus says today. "Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man." There are two ways to read what Jesus is saying here. One way Christians often read it is that, as Christians, we can expect to be oppressed… we’re the ones who are going to get excluded BECAUSE we are Christians and we will be blessed by this. Another way to read it is that CHRISTIANS could the ones who might do the excluding IN JESUS’ NAME. Oh friends, there are not really a lot of Christians being oppressed in America today, but there sure seem to be a lot of Christians staking out the boundaries of God’s love in the name of Jesus. And that’s just what happened to Absalom Jones.

By November 1791, Absalom and his colleague in ministry Richard Allen had greatly increased the number of black congregants at St. George’s Church in Philadelphia, much to the growing consternation of the white members of the parish. Rather than rejoicing over the numbers of people brought to Jesus by these two children-of-God, the white members had the church sexton collar Absalom and Richard during a Sunday service and attempt to remove them forcefully to the balcony where they wanted to isolate all their black members. They did this in the name of Jesus, and you can bet that "follow the money" had something to do with it. All the black members of that church rose up as a body and "followed the blessing" out of that place. You know, you can almost imagine all the blessings of that church following Absalom and his flock out the door, and woe taking up residence in its place.

Absalom was eventually ordained as a priest in The Episcopal Church and his congregation settled at St. Thomas African Episcopal Church in Philadelphia. And before we pat our Episcopal selves on the back for that, you should know that neither Absalom nor his congregation were allowed to participate in the governance of the Episcopal Church. Still isolated, in the name of Jesus, not because they were bad Christians, but because they were black. St. Thomas’ was, and still is, a place of deep deep blessing as a result.

Friends, what hope is there for people like ME who find themselves weighed in the balance and found to be woeful? Every hope.

First, we can open our eyes and ears and be intentional about noticing the ones God is blessing. If you are in middle school or high school, you can be on the lookout for the poor kids, the hungry ones, the sad ones, and the unpopular ones. You’ll find them if you look. You’ll see them quietly on the margins… in the places where the popular kids won’t go… maybe sitting alone in the cafeteria. If your a senior citizen, you can look for similar people, and maybe the sad ones will really stand out because getting older can be a time of deep grieving for all the loses that seem to accumulate with age.

And then, having seen these blessed ones, we can come alongside them… we can feel compassion and empathy with them. We can sit with them in their sadness and isolation. We’re not there to FIX them, and this is important, we are there to BE WITH them… to share in their poverty, hunger, sadness, and isolation… to become LIKE them in that way, if only in a small way. And do you know what will happen? It’s the most amazing thing… their blessing will FLOW into our woe. That’s exactly what happens, because that is what blessing does; blessing doesn’t accumulate or get stored; it flows. After Shariya blesses you at the end of this service, I’m going to send you out into the world with the idea that you will pass that blessing on to others! That’s the whole idea! THAT is the reason we have to "follow the blessing"… the Sprit designed it this way so that the woeful-ones HAVE to go to the blessed ones, because through THEM, God’s blessing flows to the woe, so it can heal and flow it to others.

And then; a miracle! Blessing softens our hearts and eases our woe… our eyes open wider… and we begin to see things. We see the things that we were blind to before, we hear things like we have ears for the first time. If we are lucky, we are given the gift of splagch-NI-zomai, a Greek word for the deep, gut-wrenching, heart-breaking, tear-welling compassion that Luke says the Good Samaritan felt when he encountered the broken man in the ditch, or that the father felt when he saw his young prodigal son returned home over the horizon. And THEN, with our intestines churning and hearts breaking, we can follow the Spirit’s call to work on God’s mission of healing other woes in the world. You remember the church that kicked Absalom and his people to the curb? Well, racial reconciliation is at the heart of what St George’s Methodist Church does today… their woes were healed by coming alongside the blessed-ones, and were given the gift of splagch-NI-zomai; gut-wrenching heartbreak.

Here at St. Andrews, we have an opportunity coming up to do just this kind of work in Sacred Grounds. We can come together, listen to what black people are trying to tell us about their daily lives, sit with them in poverty, hunger, sadness, and isolation even in the smallest way, and FEEL their blessing flow into our bodies, healing the woeful parts that need healing, and coming from a people so oppressed, so hungry, so impoverished, and so rejected in the name of Jesus, that they are living fountains of God’s blessing. And then, we might have our eyes and ears opened, and with guts wrenched and hearts broken, follow the Spirit’s promptings to pass that healing along to other woeful places. I hope you will join me in this; I pray you will follow the blessing. Amen.