St. Philip's Harlem
200th anniversary celebration
4 October 2009
I travel around all over this Church, and I rarely get to go home. My husband still lives in Nevada, and that's where I vote, but I am seldom there. I did, however, get to spend 3 days there last week. It was immensely healing, in both a physical and spiritual sense. I got to spend time with my husband, run on familiar ground, go flying, enjoy the beauty of the desert and the mountains, and eat food I cooked myself. I pushed off most of the symptoms of the cold I'd been fighting for 10 days. I got a lot of work done, but I also reconnected to the center of peace that tells me I am loved as part of God's infinitely gracious creation.
What does homecoming mean for you? This community is very clearly a center of connection and healing, dignity and grace, for those who have gathered here for a very long time. Part of its gift is the continuing reminder that here, at least, we are all at home, even if life out there is not always so welcoming. St. Philip's can be a haven of peace and joy even if there is no other haven in someone's life, whether in the domestic sphere or the workaday world.
The origins and history of St. Philip's tell a great deal about the unflagging labor to create a spiritual home for those whom the larger society has too often rejected - and conflict is often a part of the journey.
Isaiah holds up the vision of a suffering servant, whose labors for divine justice, for God's dream of shalom, for peace and wholeness, persist even in the face of oppression. Your history shows that oppression and conflict are central to the realization of this home.
Elias Neau is responsible for the first evangelical effort among African Americans in these parts. He was a French Protestant, a Huguenot, rather than an Anglican, yet the English mission agency hired him anyway. He'd been confined at hard labor, serving as a galley slave for several years. This suffering servant had a burden to preach peace to others who knew the reality of slavery. Yet Elias Neau himself took part in the continuation of slavery in New York. He was responsible for the compromise (or sellout) that permitted the catechism and baptism of slaves, but only if the church conceded that baptism did not require granting freedom to the slave. Spiritual freedom was one thing; emancipation something entirely different.
Neau's work began this congregation in 1704, even though you celebrate 200 years as a named and organized congregation. Neau's work is an important part of that stony road trod by the ancestors of this community - the fathers and the mothers who brought us to this day.
Craig Townsend's history of St. Philip's, Faith in Their Own Color, shows that in spite of the clear and vigorous assurance of the some of Paul's earliest writing, "that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male and female" (Gal 3:28), it took The Episcopal Church almost 150 years to recognize this congregation as a member of the Diocesan Convention in New York. Even applying to that Convention for recognition, after having incorporated early in the 1800s, took many years and cost a lot of conflict, internal and external, some of which is recorded in the minutes of your vestry.
Getting a black man ordained was just as difficult, in the face of bishops who refused to send candidates to seminary, despite the example of Philip and the Ethiopian we heard from Acts this morning. And baptism is central, as Neau knew in 1704. Once acknowledged in baptism as the good creation of a merciful God, and brother or sister in Christ, the reasons for segregating, ostracizing, oppressing, and rejecting a fellow human being are soon revealed for the veils and shams they are.
The shameful and sinful reality is that the Church often reads the Bible through lenses that are phenomenally clouded by cultural prejudice. It is not a failing that we have yet overcome. It's generally impossible for us to recognize our own blindness. It takes one like the suffering servant to do the painful work of taking off those broken or obscured lenses. Yet Jesus will heal us, if we will only meet him on his terms of welcome, rather than our own.
In spite of the racism, in spite of riots in which white New Yorkers vandalized or destroyed the building that housed this congregation, in spite of the larger Church's reprehensible conduct toward a faithful group of Episcopalians, St. Philip's has endured - and not just survived, but thrived. You are indeed "home" to many who know no other. In partnership with many others, you have heeded those words of Jesus that Matthew records: make disciples of all nations. Indeed, the work of the spirit is abundantly evident in this place, even in the midst of conflict, both internal and external.
The reasons for painful and vigorous conflict in a particular season may seem almost impenetrable to later generations, yet that very conflict is often a sign of the suffering servant at work, preparing the way of righteousness. One hundred and fifty years ago, your vestry was involved in major conflict over the proper use of the sanctuary. Was it appropriate to use the worship space for musical offerings other than formal worship? For several years, the vestry said no. Around 1850, an organist and music director was hired, with the proviso that he could use the building for a concert once a year. The secretary of the vestry tried to change the contract to read "the basement," rather than the sanctuary, but the majority wouldn't agree with him, and he was voted off the vestry at the next election. Yet today, Jazztree is an essential part of your mission in the larger community. Blessing the goodness of gifts of all sorts, particularly the cultural gifts of the black community in America, is indeed a highly appropriate form of sharing good news. Those gifts of creativity and musical skill are given by God for the healing of creation, and bringing such concerts here is really an act of co-creation.
Where and how will St. Philip's move into its third century (or fourth, if you count from the beginning of the work)? How will you continue to make followers of Jesus, people who heal and feed and spread good news? That's what this home is for. What hints about God's call can you find in the conflict that engages you right now? There is always a tension between a community's tendency to turn inward to protect the safety and comfort it knows within, and the gospel urging to turn outward to others who need the same kind of healing sanctuary. God's dream is for a world that becomes that kind of home for all his people.
That dream is being realized right here - in feeding, housing, teaching, caring for children and elders, even in your credit union. How will you continue to reach out to others who need a home?
I spent the last two days in Wyoming, at their diocesan convention, and I met with a group of teenagers Friday afternoon. I was stunned at how quickly and easily they talked about the pain in their lives - the pain of being ostracized or bullied, the presence of gangs in their communities, the suicides among their friends and classmates, the abuse friends suffer at the hands of parents or others. These are rural white and Native American kids, but their suffering is identical to the suffering of the inner city. They want to know: Is there a place for me, a place where I am valued for who I am rather than what I own or what I look like? Why am I here?
Those are all questions about home. They are the kinds of questions that must engage St. Philip's if it will continue to be a home for the next two or three hundred years. Where and how will you continue to make this a home for all the nations? How will you continue to be suffering servants for the sake of righteousness?
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The Episcopal Church welcomes all who worship Jesus Christ in 110 dioceses and three regional areas in 16 nations. The Episcopal Church is a member province of the worldwide Anglican Communion.
The Episcopal Church: www.episcopalchurch.org
Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori: http://www.episcopalchurch.org/presiding-bishop.htm