A sermon preached by Christopher L. Webber on October 30, 2016, at All Saints Church, San Francisco.

I was ordained on October 20, sixty years ago, but on October 20 this year I was flying east to take part in a special program and couldn’t celebrate anything, so I’m very grateful to Fr. Schmidt and All Saints Church – all of you – for making it possible for me to celebrate my anniversary belatedly here today at this altar. Thank you.

October 20 is not a red letter day or even a black letter day in the Prayer Book. It is simply the first date that was available 60 years ago when the Bishop of my diocese decided he wasn’t well and cathedral_of_the_incarnation_-_garden_city_nyreluctantly would have to delegate the ordinations that year for the first time to his suffragan. Many years later I looked beyond the Prayer Book calendar to see whether October 20 had anything at all to recommend it. And therefore I learned from a google search – not available 60 years ago – that it’s the birthday of Christopher Wren, John Dewey, Mickey Mantle, and Jelly Roll Morton. I kept looking, and I did finally find one name associated with October 20 more significant in terms of faith. That name is James W. C. Pennington who died on that date in 1870. October 20, as they put it in the early church, is his birthday in heaven and he is part of that great cloud of witnesses, the communion of saints, that we will celebrate on Tuesday and next Sunday, All Saints Day, your special day.

Now, James W. C. Pennington is a wonderfully Anglican name, a name like one of those great English missionaries who went out to Africa in the 19th century, but Pennington was not English, he was American, and he was not a bishop but a fugitive slave and maybe you know that because I spoke about him here a while ago. If you were here that day, you may remember that Pennington was a fugitive slave who decided at the age of 20 that he had been beaten too many times and so he escaped, running for his life, until he got into Pennsylvania and came to the home of William Wright, a Quaker, and another member of the communion of saints – (not all saints are Anglican). William Wright took Pennington in and gave him work to do and paid him for it for the first time in his life. And Wright began also to teach Pennington reading and writing. Eventually Pennington made his way to New York City and found schools to continue his education. Eventually he went to New Haven where they let him audit courses at Yale Divinity School, To make a long story short, Pennington was ordained in 1838 and became pastor of a Congregational church in Hartford, Connecticut. Meanwhile he had been a delegate to the first full-fledged national black convention. He wrote a textbook on black origins to prove that all human beings have the same descent and intellect and are subject to a common law. He wrote an essay on prejudice and recommended methods for dealing with it. He became deeply involved in the Underground Railroad and efforts to prevent escaped slaves from being returned to the south. He traveled to England and Scotland and Germany and he was given an honorary doctorate by the University of Heidelberg. He helped integrate the NY City trolley car system and he continued to write and preach and work for civil rights until his death on October 20, 1870, exactly 88 years before I was ordained.

James W. C. Pennington died and in spite of my best efforts is not remembered. That doesn’t matter. None of us will be either. I’ve talked occasionally with priests frustrated because they serve so small a parish and I ask them a question: Who was Archbishop of Canterbury when George Herbert was Vicar of Bemington? I looked it up once, but I can’t remember the name. George Herbert was Vicar of Bemington for three years and died at the age of 39. He wrote hymns that we still sing and his book on pastoral ministry is still read. But he died unknown in a tiny community that is known now only because George Herbert was there because faithfulness matters; not fame. Faithfulness is what matters and ministry where we are.

James Pennington once said, “When you have made of man a slave by a seven-fold process of selling, bartering and chaining, and garnished him with that rough and bloody brush, the cart-whip, and set him to the full by blowing into the eyes of his mind cloud after cloud of moral darkness, his own immortality still remains. Subtract from him what you can, immortality still remains; and this is a weapon in the bosom of the slave which is more terrible and terrifying to the slaveholder than the thunder of triumphal artillery in the ears of a retreating army.” “Immortality still remains.” Whatever may happen to us, “immortality still remains.” This life, wherever we live it, is the prelude to eternity. We measure that prelude in years and decades and celebrate the passage of this time with anniversaries and looking back but I suggest – and I’ll come back to this – that we should also look forward. We are here for an eternal purpose, whether we are Archbishop of Cantervbury or Vicar of Bemerton or a fugitve slave – here for a purpose, every one of us – point one – and point two: priesthood gives that purpose a focus.

But what is priesthood? Why is a priest a priest? I served as an Examining Chaplain a lot of years in several dioceses. Examining Chaplains are to priests as the state board is to doctors and the bar exam is to lawyers. So there are canonical exams for seminary graduates and after passing my own I got put on the board myself to test others and spent maybe forty years in that position in three different dioceses. Some of those exams are oral and I would often find myself asking simple questions like, “Why do you want to be a priest?” And the answers were often not about priesthood. Candidates would say, “Well, I like to counsel people or I like to teach or I want to provide leadership in a congregation.” And then I would ask, “How is that different from being a social worker or a therapist or a teacher?” If that’s what it’s all about, it’s no wonder so many Episcopalians refer to the clergy as “ministers.” But that misses the meaning not only of the priest’s ministry, but of yours.

Why do we use the word “priest”? When I asked a candidate for ordination that question, I was looking for some reference to sacrifice, making holy, something about sacraments, something about the gift of grace, indeed, the very concept of gift: priesthood as gift, priesthood as related to God’s gift of grace, a free gift as they say in the ads – It’s redundant – ads often are – but it makes a point: the free gift of grace.

So today is the heavenly birthday as they say of James Pennington. And it’s the anniversary of an ordination. But it’s also an ordinary Sunday – which brings up a third point: we ought to look at the readings we heard a few minutes ago. We should always consider the readings, so I looked up the assigned readings weeks ago to see what connections might be there and I found first of all a reading from the prophet Isaiah with the phrase, “incense is an abomination to me.” My first thought was, “Maybe I’d better have my celebration somewhere else!” But that’s not the Bible’s last word on incense, fortunately! Text is important, but so is context. We need to notice that one of the psalms says: “In every place incense shall be offered to me and a pure offering for my name will be great among the Gentiles.”

So we look again at Isaiah and realize that it’s not the incense that concerns him but the people offering it: “Cease to do evil,” he tells them; “learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.” Hold the incense till you’ve got the justice piece in place. Incense is only a symbol – it’s a symbol of prayers ascending, but it’s a false symbol if those offering it live lives of evil, fail to seek justice for God’s people. To paraphrase Shakespeare:
“Incense flies up, our prayers remain below;
prayers without deeds will ne’er to heaven go.”
I think we would be justified in adding a word to Isaiah’s words and read it as “Your incense is an abomination. Learn to do justice first and then, only then, offer incense. Priesthood is representational. Who does the priest represent? The oppressor or the oppressed?

Priesthood has to do with justice. Priesthood is representational. The worst flaw in the Book of Common Prayer is in the Eucharist where it speaks again and again of the priest as “the Celebrant” as if the priest alone were celebrating the liturgy. But no priest can stand at the altar without a congregation. If I came here on Friday to take my turn at the altar and there was no congregation, I would say Evening Prayer and go home. No congregation; no celebration. Priesthood is shared. I can’t represent you at the altar, if you are not there in the pew. Celebrating the eucharist is a corporate function. We do it together or not at all. We do it as a community or not at all. We do it as a all-saintscommunity involved in ministry or not at all. The oldest records speak of the priest at the eucharist as “the presider” or “the president.” The priest is empowered to preside, to represent, to act for the congregation as the President represents and acts for the people of this country. But the President is not “the American” and the priest is not the Celebrant.

The congregation together celebrates the Eucharist and we act out our common priesthood as a congregation that takes Isaiah’s advice: “

Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow. And I would add: vote – vote ten days from now for the candidates who understand that priority and will act on our behalf, candidates who will represent us and all Americans to seek justice in concern for the poor and the oppressed. Then – and only then – our prayers can be like the bowls of incense in the Book of Revelation that are the prayers of the saints rising up before the throne of God.

Priesthood has to do with sacrifice and offering. The priest stands at the altar to represent a priestly congregation, a congregation that goes out into the world to do justice and comes here to offer ourselves with Christ as a living sacrifice and be renewed for our common ministry. And in that offering each of us has a role to play. Someone will be the organist – and I’m jealous of the ability the organist has to produce such great sounds, but it’s not my role. Nor is it my role to sing in the choir or do the Old Testament reading or lead the intercessory prayer or bring up the offering or prepare meals for the soup kitchen or keep the books. Those are all necessary roles in our shared priesthood – some I could probably do myself if it were my role, others not. Sometime I’ll tell you about my brief career as an organist. But together these various roles enable us to fulfill our shared priesthood and celebrate – celebrate – the liturgy. Point four.

A purpose, a focus, a concern for justice, a shared ministry.last supper

Let me end by returning to point one: an eternal purpose.

The church I attended until I was seventeen had an altar in the basement – undercroft is the fancy term but it wasn’t fancy – and behind the altar was a picture of a priest at an altar and an acolyte – probably there was a congregation behind them but you didn’t see the congregation because your viewpoint was close up to the altar. What you saw was a larger congregation behind and above the altar, an immense host in shades of red and blue and gold, some with angelic wings and some in martyrs robes and some in ordinary dresses and suits – and it reminded us of that unseen infinite congregation that no one can number that surrounds and upholds us – “all those who rejoice with us, but upon another shore, and in a greater light, that multitude which no man can number, whose hope was in the Word made flesh, and with whom in the Lord Jesus we are for ever one.”

I remember a celebration of the eucharist I was involved in early in my priestly ministry in Brooklyn. Once a month I would go to a fourth floor walk-up apartment – the home of a retired truck driver and his wife who was confined to the apartment with multiple sclerosis. Several neighbors would come and we would gather around the kitchen table and celebrate the eucharist and I was never more aware of the words of the preface that we sing or say whenever we celebrate the eucharist: “with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven, we praise and magnify thy glorious name . . .” There we were, with angels and archangels, and sometimes in the midst of it all the cuckoo clock would go off. It’s the real world and our most pious thoughts can be brought suddenly to ground. So that’s a favorite memory and there are many more.

Sixty years is a lot of years and I could keep you here a long time with the memories – but it’s not so long in the light of eternity. As children we look forward to what we might be as grown ups – be a fireman or a policeman or president of the United States – and when we leave college we narrow it down to a career with microsoft or as a psychiatrist or plumber or astronaut or priest. And all too suddenly we retire and begin to look back – but why do we do that when the greater part of life still lies ahead? Immortality still remains. Eternity still remains. And those other faces beyond the altar may be more familiar now – parents and friends, the bishops who ordained me, priest colleagues, Asian, African, and Anglo in Long Island and England and Japan and Australia – there’s a one-time fugitive slave and a truck driver in Brooklyn and a botanist’s wife in Westchester – and many more surrounding us at the altar in the communion of saints. And gathered with them, knowing more of them every year, we can look ahead with more clarity and with a sense of more familiarity. But here or there, there will be worship – the Bible is clear about that – music and worship and priestly offering – yes, and incense, and thanksgiving, great thanksgiving for the shared gift of priesthood, for the gift of life, for the gift of love, and the promise of life and love and joy here and now and forever.

  • The picture of a church is of the Cathedral of the Incarnation, Garden City, where I was ordained.
  • The picture of a priest and others at an altar was taken a few weeks ago at All Saints, not today, and the priest is not I – but the service today looked a lot like this.

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