The Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost
The Right Reverend Cathleen Bascom, Bishop of the Diocese of Kansas

Exodus 17:1-7; Philippians 2:1-13; Matthew 21:23-32

 

We are people called to cross over. We are people called to create God’s Beloved Community. This is the central motion of the Judeo-Christian tradition. This is the animating dynamic of the Jesus Movement.

Anna Ellison Butler Alexander is remembered in our Lesser Feasts and Fasts this week. She was an Episcopal deaconess and devoted teacher. Anna was the youngest of 11 children, born to recently emancipated slaves in MacIntosh County, Georgia, in 1865. Her parents were devout Episcopalians and also instilled in their children a love of learning. Anna became a teacher and eventually the only African American to be consecrated as a deaconess in the Episcopal Church.

Anna dedicated herself to working for the education of African American children in poor communities. First she helped to found and to run St. Cyprian’s School, and later she founded a school at Good Shepherd Church in rural Glynn County, where she taught children to read, by tradition, from the Book of Common Prayer and the Bible.

In 1907, she was consecrated as a deaconess. However, Bishop C.K. Nelson saw her into this role in difficult times. For the Diocese of Georgia segregated in that same year, and African American congregations were not invited to another diocesan convention until 1947. However, Anna’s witness — wearing the distinctive dress of a deaconess, traveling by foot from Brunswick through Darien to Pennick, showing care and love for all whom she met — represents the best in Christian witness.

The poor white residents of Glynn County also trusted Deaconess Alexander. When the Depression hit the rural poor, she became the agent for government and private aid, and Good Shepherd Mission served as the distribution center. Locals remember that no one ever questioned her as she served the needs of both races in a segregated South. Strictly religious, strictly business, Deaconess Alexander commanded respect. White men took off their hats when she passed.

What a blow it must have been for Anna Alexander to be ordained a deaconess, and then in the same year witness all the churches in Georgia segregated – implying that before that time they were integrated – and to live through the period when Black Episcopalians were not invited back to Convention for 40 years.

Nonetheless, Anna Alexander was able to cross over these obstacles of racism and cultivate Beloved Community.

How, I ask? We answer, because of her love of Jesus Christ.

For one thing, Anna Alexander was steeped in our sacred texts. She knew well the story of the Exodus. I wondered, as she walked through what must have been sometimes threatening neighborhoods. parts of her counties, if perhaps she’d hum the beautiful Welsh hymn that tells of that great crossing in the Exodus:

Guide me, O Thou great Jehovah, pilgrim through this barren land…
When I tread the verge of Jordan, bid my anxious fears subside;
Death of death, and hell’s destruction, land me safe on Canaan’s side.

And having made it safely to her classrooms, I could imagine that she might have both the black and the white children write this opening verse from Exodus: From the wilderness of Sin the whole congregation of the Israelites journeyed by stages as the Lord commanded. I love that double meaning – from the wilderness of Sin, they were led on by God to do this in stages.

I can imagine her perhaps having a small child read from the Bible the parable that Jesus taught: “What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ That son answered, ‘I will not,’ but later he changed his mind and went. The father went also to the second son and said to him the same; and that son answered, ‘I go, father,’ but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?”

Deaconess Anna Alexander understood this motion that is in the Jesus Movement, that we are to cross over and create Beloved Community. She did what she did because the risen one was with her. The risen Jesus Christ commanded and companioned her through all that she went through in creating that Beloved Community.

In his earthly ministry, Jesus Christ continually crossed over. We see him along the Sea of Galilee. And over here he is teaching and healing and drawing people to him, and those people are Jewish. And then he would cross the sea, and over here he would be in a Gentile community, and he would teach and he would heal, and he would pour out the love of God to them.

In our gospel today, we hear of how he crossed over class lines, he crossed out of his religious institution and said to rabbis like himself, “Look. Look at the tax collector. See the prostitute. The Beloved Community is not contained within the walls of the institution. It is out there. God intends it for all.”

And in the end, of course, he crossed from death to life, so that new power would come to being Beloved Community – that he would never leave us alone, and that the community we create now is both strong and eternal. Jesus was with Anna as he is with us.

So, what about us? As Jesus called Anna Alexander, he calls you, he calls me, to cross over the entrenched racism and create Beloved Community in our time and place.

I will confess that I really was not aware of the process of segregation that happened in Anna’s lifetime. I think we just started from the Civil War and moved forward. But new research shows us that there were more segregated communities – Southern and Northern, rural and urban – in 1940 than in 1880.

She saw that process, and I hate to say it, but I think that much of that system is still with us. We’ve made great strides, and yet underneath there are these boundaries, these borders, these divisions, intended to keep the people of God apart.

And we must cross them. We must look at the infrastructure of racism today and cross over, because that is the motion of the Jesus Movement of which we are part.

I think that our Lord and Savior portrays three different realms for crossing over and Beloved Community.

The very first is our own souls. We must ask, “What inside me divides me from my neighbor? Do I have presumptions and assumptions about who they are, based on the color of their skin, on where they live, on the language they speak? And may I be so filled with love, for the love that Jesus has invited me into, despite all my frailties, may I be filled with that love, up through my eyes – that my eyes open and I see things that I have been blind to.”

Secondly, Jesus wants our religious institutions to be transformed. I ask you as the Diocese of Kansas to devote yourself to things like the curriculum of “Sacred Ground” that the clergy of the diocese have been beginning and tasting this weekend – so that we can see in our congregations any ways in which we are not making the love of Christ welcome to all people – that we may change things about how we communicate that welcome, about who we partner with in our neighborhoods, about ways we change our hiring practices and who we send to seminary, that we will look like the populations around us.

Finally, I ask you to go to your counties, to your minister neighborhoods, to the places where you live, and start by thinking about history. Was your place segregated in 1907 as Anna Alexander’s was? And what has changed? I hope you find that much has changed, but there may well be things that have not changed. Where are unjust systems still in place?

And then we must find our arenas of influence. Anna Alexander saw hers. She had education, and she had food distribution. She used everything in her power, with courage, to make those places Beloved Communities.

We each need to find our arena of influence. Where in our community is there anybody being held back from things like education, from voting? What is the housing reality where you live? Are there unspoken or spoken rules about who lives where? Does law enforcement do racial profiling? Is everyone empowered to vote? What about the industry and the businesses? Maybe some of us are on the boards – are we making sure that we reach out and let everyone in our communities know of the opportunities for employment, for education? Where are you, across the Diocese of Kansas, as Episcopalians, involved?

I ask that you open yourself to the presence of the risen Christ, to let you see what you can do to help each of us cross over and create Beloved Communities of our communities.

Guide us, O Thou great Jehovah, pilgrim through this barren land…
When we tread the verge of Jordan, bid our anxious fears subside;
Death of death, and hell’s destruction, land us safe on Canaan’s side.

Amen.