Sword of the Spirit

Updated: Jul 31

Second Sunday After Pentecost

1 Kings 19:1-4, 5-7, 8-15a; Galatians 3:23-29; Luke 3:16-21

The Rev. Cameron Partridge

June 19, 2022

Good morning, St. Aidan’s. Today is the second Sunday after Pentecost. Having celebrated Trinity Sunday last week, we step fully into what some churches call “ordinary” time. It is more technically “ordinal” time, simply meaning that each Sunday is numbered after the day that marked the beginning of this season. While other times of the year such as Advent, Lent, and Easter are Sundays “of” those seasons (Epiphany is a special case), we are now in the Sundays not “of” but “after Pentecost,” even as the spirit of Pentecost hovers over us in these light-filled days. Our readings between now and the start of Advent won’t tell an overarching seasonal story. Instead, week to week, we will make our way through a whole range of stories (some of them dramatic enough for a summer vacation novel). Meanwhile, today’s readings, along with several prayers, draw both from those assigned in the Sunday lectionary for this day and from resources for observance of Juneteenth prepared for our diocese by our local chapter of the Union of Black Episcopalians.[1] Today, together with people across the church and beyond, we are invited to hear the good news of God proclaimed in the context of Juneteenth. In this moment, that Good News meets us as a word of liberating hope and of searing challenge to continue the work of racial justice that remains before us.

June nineteenth, 1865 is the day when Union Major General Gordon Granger came with his troops to Galveston, Texas and shared the Emancipation Proclamation issued by President Abraham Lincoln to those who had been enslaved. That Proclamation itself had originally been made on January 1, 1863, and this was two and a half years later. In the spaces of the South still under the control of the Confederacy, the impact of that Proclamation had been limited, and even though the Civil War had now ended as of April of 1865, two months earlier, those who had been enslaved in Texas were only now receiving that news as well. Presiding Bishop Michael Curry has commented,

Over the years, I have heard many explanations for why it took from January 1 of 1863 to June 19 of 1865 for news of the Emancipation Proclamation to make it to Texas. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that so many had a vested interest in covering up the news, especially throughout the Confederacy. In spite of that, the news got there anyway. Slaves heard the word Freedom applied to them with ‘All slaves in the rebellious states shall be henceforth, and forever, free.’ Even though the Emancipation Proclamation didn’t have the force of law, it was a sword of the Spirit. Slaves through the Confederacy escaped and joined the Union Army.

We in the Diocese of California voted in our Convention of 2020 to make this day a Feast Day not only here in the Bay Area but potentially in the wider church to remember this sequence of events, to hear the gospel hope and challenge embodied in it.[2]

The Presiding Bishop’s image of the word of Freedom as a “sword of the Spirit” lifts up the good news of liberation at the heart of the gospel assigned for Juneteenth. It is the real launching of Jesus’ ministry in Luke’s Gospel. He steps forward to read from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah, declaring, “the Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because [God] has anointed me to bring good news” – liberation to the poor and to those imprisoned, the opening of the eyes of those who cannot see, the freeing of those who are oppressed. Jesus declares the year of God’s favor even as the world trumpets unending doom, the impossibility of true liberation. Jesus not only utters Isaiah’s words. He sits down and as the eyes of everyone in the assembly stare at him, he says unequivocally, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Today. Not simply in the future, not lodged in yesterday. But right there in the present. Jesus’ ministry activated that prophecy, took it up, made it real not only then and there but also now: God in Christ joining the marginalized in the midst of suffering and injustice; God in Christ breaking the yoke of oppression and urging us to join in that breaking; God urging us to believe the divine dream of justice and peace for all people and all creation is in fact possible, is in fact able to be enacted concretely even as continuing systems of slavery seek to deny that possibility every day; God energizing the liberation from captivity, sending us out into the world to join in that Spirit-filled current.

We hear that current in the passage from Paul’s letter to the Galatians as well. This is another instance of Paul not likely coming up with this turn of phrase but quoting it from the earliest communities of Jesus’ followers: “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:27-28).[3] Do you hear it? This is the language of worship, of creed, so formative in Paul’s experience, so enchanting that he cannot help but extend its spirit in and with his own voice. This is poetry repeated in communities gathered against the odds, in the face of Roman imperial oppression. Together they declared not “there will be” no divisive bifurcation into these various binaries, but rather “there is” none in Christ. The hierarchical divisions of Jew and Greek (or Gentile), of enslaved and freed, and of male and female, are eradicated in Christ, dispersed in the waters of baptism as together we “put on” Christ as if he were communal clothing. In baptism, our incorporation into this beloved, unruly collective, we come to embody the Good News of God together, each in our own distinct ways responding to Jesus’ Lukan declaration, “this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 3:21). This “sword of the spirit” quality in this passage inspired the first eleven women “irregularly” ordained to the priesthood in the Episcopal Church in in 1974 to use this quotation on the altar hanging in the Church of Advocate in Philadelphia. You can see the quotation in still photographs as well as video footage from the ordination that are in the in-progress documentary, scenes from which will be shown online next week.[4]

The parish where these ordinations took place is a proud example of the Black church tradition in the Episcopal Church. Church of the Advocate had hosted events of the Black Panthers and various other community organizing endeavors in their neighborhood.[5] It was headed by the Reverend Paul Washington as well as then-Senior Warden Barbara C. Harris who proudly served as the crucifier at in the Philadelphia Eleven ordinations. As you know, in 1989 she went on to become the first woman ordained a bishop in the Episcopal Church and wider Anglican Communion. Her memorial service, which took place at the Cathedral Church of St. Paul this past Sunday, lifted up this connection along the way. It also pointed to the ongoing work that remains to be done, work that Bishop Barbara was very much about, to eradicate systemic injustice of all kinds, particularly racism in our wider world and in the church. Aware of the incredible challenge she faced in her consecration as bishop, she gathered with friends on the night before that amazing event took place in February of 1989, not unlike Elijah on Mt. Horeb, visited by God in the whirlwind before being sent back into the fray, as we heard in our first reading (1 Kings 19:15). We heard about this February evening gathering last Sunday from Deborah Harmon Hines, a past Union of Black Episcopalians president and longtime General Convention deputy from the Diocese of Western Massachusetts.[6] Standing in the midst of the congregation during a story-sharing time, Ms. Hines called out to Bishop Gayle Harris, who followed Bishop Barbara as a suffragan bishop in Massachusetts and had also been present that evening. Saying, “I didn’t tell you I was going to do this,” she described how Bishop Barbara had asked the women with her to join in singing a hymn to strengthen her for the journey ahead. And then she began to sing, “I am weak and I need thy strength and power, to help me over my weakest hour…” Then Bishop Gayle lent her voice to the song. Soon the whole congregation was singing the chorus: “Lead Me, Guide Me Along the Way,” the hymn we just sang a few moments ago. I sang too as I watched on my laptop, and I bet many of those watching from around the world did as well.

Bishop Barbara’s song, igniting so many in our church and around the world, is another “sword of the spirit,” to use Presiding Bishop Curry’s phrase, galvanizing us for the work ahead, filling us with hope even in the midst of struggle, knowing the road ahead is difficult. But on this day, every day, we are called to be a people of liberation, proclaimers of hope and doers of justice. The Spirit of the Lord is upon us, calling us to proclaim good news, to be about liberation of the captives, recovery of vision, setting free of the oppressed. Me we be about that work today without delay, and as Bishop Barbara would say, may we refuse to be instruments of our own or another’s oppression. Amen.

[1] https://mcusercontent.com/55a4c86d3e04b0a68eba23b20/files/32b2b965-60e9-2298-a0a8-238f0e4192c1/Juneteenth_Liturgy_25Apr2021.pdf [2] Source for this paragraph: https://www.episcopalnewsservice.org/2021/06/14/diocese-of-california-creates-juneteenth-feast-day-amid-push-to-add-holiday-to-churchwide-calendar/ [3] Wayne Meeks, The Writings of St. Paul. A Norton Critical Edition (London: W. W. Norton & Company, 1972), 18. [4] See, e.g. the cover of Darlene O’Dell, The Story of the Philadelphia Eleven (New York: Seabury Books, 2014). See also the trailer for the in-progress documentary The Philadelphia Eleven https://www.philadelphiaelevenfilm.com [5] Paul Washington describes his ministry at Church of the Advocate in ‘Other Sheep I Have:’ the Autobiography of Paul Washington (Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 1994). Bishop Barbara Harris discusses her role as senior warden of Church of the Advocate and crucifer for the Philadelphia ordinations in the documentary The Philadelphia Eleven. O’Dell’s The Story of the Philadelphia Eleven discusses the Church of the Advocate on pp. 3-5. [6] https://www.episcopalnewsservice.org/2022/06/13/the-rt-rev-barbara-harris-first-female-bishop-in-the-anglican-communion-remembered-at-boston-memorial-service/

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