The question that follows me as I move through the world as an African American Anglican priest, who identifies deeply with Black culture, is how did such an anomaly occur? How did I move from the Black Baptist tradition of my childhood to a form of ancient Christianity as mediated initially through the Church of England, but which has been given fresh vigor through the revivals of East Africa and other parts of the Global South? Was I disgruntled with my upbringing? Was there some fatal flaw in the heritage that formed me? God forbid. I remain convinced that the Black Church is the glory of American Christianity, a light that shines in a history too often darkened by compromises of the gospel for the sake of greed and power. The Black church is not perfect, but it is a modern miracle.
Any telling of my story will eventually climax with the events of this night (Maundy Thursday) over 15 years ago. I tell this story now to remind us of the importance of what we do this night and to testify to the power of the liturgy to do gospel work if we trust the wisdom bequeathed to us.
This story begins in college. College, for me, was largely an experience of disorientation and separation from what I knew. the University of the South (my college of choice) took me far from the Black Baptist tradition. The school and the surrounding town were largely white with no real opportunity to experience the kind of worship that could speak to my soul like the gospel choirs I knew. In addition, it is much easier to ignore God in college than to seek him out. Therefore, I did what most college students foolishly do. I let a few religion courses and my own desires create insurmountable theological problems. Apparently, these theological problems could only be solved by adopting a moderate form of religion that neither inspired a transformation of life nor provided comfort in times of trial. It never ceases to amaze me how modern biblical and theological scholarship managed to construct a form of Christianity perfectly suited to the modern temperament. I speak of a Christianity in which we can know very little about God and what we do know is that God doesn’t want us to take any of this too seriously. Put simply, I drifted with the current of the culture replacing the received wisdom of the church with fleeting opinions of an increasingly decadent and confused society.
But all bills eventually come due. I found that while the culture could distract me from my melancholy, it could not bring me true and lasting joy. I wouldn’t have been able to put it in these words at the time, but I felt, in my bones, a deep alienation from my creator. When I found myself without a distraction, my soul would cry out.
What changed? To make a long story short, I discovered that college was not about me finding God. I was not the hunter; I was prey. The questions that I had for God were not nearly as important as the questions he had for me. I was Job face to face with the one who made all things. In the presence of that God, I could only repent and follow him in earnest.
Stories like this often end here at the moment of encounter. But I had a problem. How would I live? How does one live for God from one day to the next, week after week, year after year? What does a full Christian life look like? How do I step inside the Christian story in such a way that it gives me strength? I had always believed the story, but Christianity remained somehow outside of me. It was a thing that I looked to for encouragement not a life that I lived.
My senior year in college can be summarized as a search for a life. It is this search that led me to the Anglican tradition. At the University, we had an annual event around Christmas time called Lessons and Carols. It consists of a series of readings of that move through the biblical story climaxing in the birth of Jesus. That service and the Mass on Christmas Eve stirred me in a way that I still find hard to articulate. The incarnation drew near becoming more comforting and troubling at the same time. It was as if Jesus showed up on Christmas saying that he wanted his holiday back.
Despite this encounter I still wasn’t terribly interested in becoming a part of the Anglican tradition. Many of the Episcopalians that I met were lulled to sleep by the beauty of their tradition, but weren’t set on fire by the actual content of the theology that the liturgy espoused. I had friends in my neighborhood who were dying. I knew people who were suffering. If the God described in these prayers existed, then there was real work that we had to do and quickly. I felt as if I was consistently being told that things weren’t that urgent, when I knew that they were. Therefore, I backed away.
Nonetheless, I continued to attend the services, and the liturgy did its work. The prayers, confessions, and creeds started to shape the spiritual architecture of my soul. Eventually Lent came along with services like the stations of the cross. I began to do strange things like fast and pray the daily office. Keep in mind that I had no idea what any of this was. I am not sure that I had heard the word Lent before these events. I found myself at a spiritual feast that filled a hunger that I didn’t know I had. I found myself on a Lenten pilgrimage that would change my life. I say this because I have been rather bad at Lent in the intervening years, failing in my commitments as often as I kept them, but that Lent was a different thing.
It was in this state that I arrived at my first Maundy Thursday Service. I didn’t even know what “Maundy” stood for. It comes from the Latin word mandatum, which means command. It refers to the command that Jesus gave his disciples on this night to love one another. I didn’t know any of that at this point, I was on a journey with Jesus. When the church opened, I went. Another service, great!
I do not remember much from that first Maundy Thursday. We may have washed feet; it may have been omitted. I only remember the ending.
Sewanee has beautiful Cathedral like chapel with a plush altar.
After we took communion, the altar was stripped away piece by piece. I did not know they were going to do that. I didn’t know why they were taking the flowers, the candles, the chalices, and altar coverings away. I knew this stripping filled me with a deep sadness. They removed these items deliberately while the Psalms of Lament were heard echoing in the background.
Eventually, only cross at the center of the altar remained. The church had found her center. When all is stripped away, the hope of the world is the cross.
I closed my eyes to pray, and when I opened them the building was largely empty. I didn’t know what to do. When does the service end? How does it end? I realized then that it doesn’t. We had entered the holiest part of the Christianity calendar. I was among the disciples who fled on this night 2,000 years before leaving Jesus to his fate. He is the one who does the work. I had finally stepped inside the story.
We live in a strange season of the church’s life. We live in a time in which large numbers of Black and Brown Christians are calling attention to a wholistic gospel that includes compassion for those who are oppressed. It is a gospel that has room for all of God’s attributes: his love, his grace, his power, his compassion, and his justice. We see the gospel threatened by a nationalism that threatens to replace the cross with a flag. Our claims have raised fears in some quarters that we have some how lost the plot, that the cross of Christ will be emptied of its power if we focus too much on justice.
As I result, I spend much of my time contending for this wholistic gospel. I believe that we must continue to make this argument. But I must say this. What does Christianity offer to the world that it cannot get elsewhere? We are not the only ones who know compassion. We are not the only ones who care for the foreigner. We are not the only ones who believe that women deserve dignity and respect.
What do we offer to the world that not one else has? When you strip everything away what remains? We have what was left after the altar was stripped. We have the word made flesh and come among us as one who serves. We have Jesus, handed over for our transgressions and raised for our justification. This is why on this night we remember that the Christian is, at the start, not the one who serves the world. That comes later. We begin as those who have been served by the Messiah Jesus. We are those who have been washed by him. We are those who feed on his body and blood. We are those who live because he died and rose again. The fount of the Christianity tradition can be found here. On this night Jesus serves us. As Jesus told Peter we only have a place with Christ because he washes us.
On this night, Jesus gave us in the Eucharist a place to encounter him week in and week out until he returns in full. On this night we find the basis for all Christian love and service. We care for the poor and the needy because we were poor and needy. We have a commandment to love only because he loves us. Jesus precedes us in all things. He loves us in the midst of our failures. He loves us even though we abandoned him. But that is fine. Jesus did not need us. We needed him.
So why did I become an Anglican? I became an Anglican because the liturgy awakened in my soul the truth that lingered in the back of my consciousness and only came to full flowering on a Thursday night so many years ago. Anglicanism helped me recognize my need for Jesus. Having done that, Anglicanism provided a means of meeting that need. It gave me the bread and wine. It gave me prayers, creeds, and a calendar of saints. People ask me what Anglicanism has to offer to black and brown people. We offer them Jesus and the church he created, nothing more, but in offering that we offer everything.
I become an Anglican, then, because it gave me a place (which is not the only place) to live out the commands that Jesus gave his first disciples on this night: Do this in remembrance of me (take the bread and wine); let me wash you (receive God’s undeserved service); love one another (especially the most vulnerable).
We remember this night rightly, then, when we call to mind our deep need for Jesus and the means by which our tradition has helped us recognize this need. This is the purpose of all of this stuff that surrounds our worship. We do not believe in beautiful liturgy for the sake of beauty. We believe that beauty is a means of encountering the lover of our souls who stepped into history and served us by giving us his very self. Amen.