Sunday Sermon

This week’s sermon is an excerpt of one delivered this morning at the Episcopal Church of St. Paul in Chatham, NJ, by the Rev. Elizabeth Kaeton:

… I want to say a bit more about “presence.” I have deliberately and quite intentionally chosen to be with you on this historic day in the life of the church. I was supposed to be in New Hampshire for the consecration of Gene Robinson as bishop in that diocese – the first to be able to be an HONESTLY gay bishop in the church. Have the tickets. Had the hotel room reservation.

In the end, I couldn’t go. Why? Because we, as a community, are as much united in our grief as in our joy. Because, in the end, it was more important to be here with you – my family in God. Because if I believe in the power of the resurrection and the community of Saints, I understand that my physical presence there in New Hampshire, while important, is not as critical as the presence of my spirit and prayer, which will be joined with “the great cloud of witnesses” that will surround Gene, the diocese of New Hampshire, the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion today.

On one level, making that decision was very easy. I need to be with my family in God on this important day in the church. On another level, if I’m painfully honest, I admit to being deeply conflicted about not physically standing in solidarity with Gene Robinson. I’ve been privileged to have worked many, many years on the fields of justice with Gene and so many, many others – those who have passed on and those who are here present – and I would love to be there to see the fruits of our labor. To celebrate and cheer and allow myself to be dizzy with joy.

What allowed me to let go of my ambivalence and inner conflict was recalling an amazing scene from the movie Amistad. I will end my reflections on the Sunday after All Saints Day with this story, in which I hope you have another lens with which to see the glory of God.

The slave ship Ta Cora was sailing from Sierra Leone to Havana, Cuba, where it transferred its “human cargo” to another slave ship, La Amistad, en route to America. One of the slaves aboard that ship was a man named Cinque, a resident of Sierra Leone, who had been kidnapped from his home in the Mende Tribe, taken from his wife and son, and sold into slavery.

Cinque is the leader of the slave rebellion on the ship and that situation of “insurrection, murder and treason on the high seas” eventually comes to trial. The central issue is one we would never even entertain in today’s courts of law: Who owns the “cargo” – the human beings who were kidnapped into slavery? The year was 1839. It’s hard to imagine that 164 years ago we actually considered some human beings as less than human. Then again, the killing effects of Apartheid still linger in South Africa. And, the new “chemical slavery” infests our cities and fills our jail cells with a disproportionate number of African-American men. How far have we really come?

The Amistad case is tried and won but, in the politically charged era before the Civil War, President Van Buren appeals the case to the Supreme Court. Former President John Quincy Adams is enlisted to defend the case. In a riveting scene, Adams is preparing Cinque for his appearance before the Supreme Court
and ends by asking Cinque about the state of his soul.

Cinque’s response is quite remarkable. Through an interpreter he says, “I am not going in there alone. I am going in there with my ancestors. I will call into the past, far back to the beginning of time and beg them to come and help me. I will reach back and draw them into me and they must come. For, at this moment, I am the whole reason they had existence at all.”

“For, at this moment, I am the whole reason they had existence at all.” I believe, with all my heart, that part of the awesome role Gene Robinson is fulfilling this afternoon is echoed in these eloquent words of the slave Cinque from Sierra Leone. For this reason, at this moment, Gene is the whole reason I have had existence at all. For this reason, in this moment, Gene is the whole reason the impulse of justice and reconciliation has had any existence at all.

Gene will not be alone this afternoon. He will be surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses. We, and they, will be summoned in prayer by the great throng of those who have come to stand in solidarity with him. We – those of us near and far, those of us who have passed on and those yet to come – will all be present in that place. For, at this moment, at this awesome time in history we who are knit together in the mystical sweet communion of saints are the whole reason any of us have had any existence at all. Some of us don’t yet know that. Some of us rebel against that. But, in the Realm of God and the communion of
Saints, that reality has never had more truth.

I leave you as I began – with these words of hope written by Paul Simon, which were inspired by the hope he saw in the hearts of South Africans who were fighting the evil of Apartheid. They are words that resonate deeply with the words from the Book of Revelation just as easily as they do with the reality of
the conflagration in Southern California and the consecration in New Hampshire. I leave them with you as prayer on this Sunday after All Saints Day, a day of miracle and wonder, wherein, as Jesus said to Martha, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?”

“It’s a turn-around jump shot, it’s everybody’s jump start.
It’s every generation throws a hero up the pop charts.
Medicine is magical and magical is art.
The boy in the Bubble and the baby with the baboon heart. . .
And I believe these are the days of miracles and wonder.
This is a long distance call.
The way the camera follows us in slo-mo,
The way we look to us all.
The way we look to a distant constellation
That’s dying in a corner of the sky.
These are the days of miracle and wonder.
And don’t cry, baby, don’t cry.
Don’t cry.”

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