“The Lamp of God”

The following sermon was preached for the Ascension Episcopal School 2018-2019 Opening Faculty Eucharist at the Episcopal Church of the Ascension in Lafayette, Louisiana on August 3, 2018, being the Feast of George Freeman Bragg, Jr. (Priest, 1940)

Collect: O eternal God, bless Ascension Episcopal School, that it may be a lively center for sound learning, new discovery, and the pursuit of wisdom; and grant that we who teach and work and our students who learn may find You to be the source of all truth; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Readings: 1 Samuel 3.1-10; Psalm 63.1-8; Ephesians 4.11-16; Matthew 9.35-38

Featured image: The Rev. George Freeman Bragg, Jr. (January 25, 1863-March 12, 1940)

“The lamp of God had not yet gone out…”—1 Samuel 3.3

In the Name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost. Amen.

Good morning, colleagues!

This morning’s Old Testament lesson takes place at night and the 11-year-old Samuel hears a voice calling his name. Thinking it is the High Priest Eli, Samuel asks what he wants. Eli says he didn’t call and sends Samuel back to bed. After the third time this happens, Eli perceives that God is calling the boy and instructs Samuel what next to do. “The LORD came and stood forth, calling as at other times…And Samuel said, ‘Speak for Your servant hears.’” (1 Samuel 3.10) Samuel’s prophetic ministry runs parallel to the ordained ministry of a Priest whose memory the Episcopal Church today recalls in its sanctoral calendar.

You will find in your bulletins an insert of a picture of George Freeman Bragg, Jr., who faithfully served Christ and His people in ordained ministry for 53 years. Born in 1863 in North Carolina to slaves of an Episcopal family, Bragg was, in addition to his ordained ministry, the Episcopal Church’s first major black historian. He was a prolific writer whose History of the Afro-American Group of the Episcopal Church remains the authoritative text of early black Episcopal history.

Ordained to the Priesthood in 1888, from 1891 until his death in 1940, Bragg was the Rector of St. James Episcopal Church in Baltimore, Maryland, the oldest black Episcopal church in the South. His 49-year rectorate saw the parish grow in membership from 63 to over 500, go from diocesan financial assistance to self-sufficiency, and erect not one, but two new church buildings.[1] What was also significant is that during his 49 years at St. James, just as Eli mentored Samuel in the prophetic ministry, Bragg raised up over 20 “ministerial sons”[2] for the Priesthood.

Bragg never avoided criticizing the Episcopal Church for not living up to the expectations he felt were called for by Christ in the Gospel. It was said of Bragg upon his death that though he was “diminutive in stature…he proved…a powerful voice and advocate for…equality and harmonious relations between [all] races.”[3] Now 78 years after his death, the Episcopal Church honors Bragg as a tireless advocate in his time for the full inclusion of minority Episcopalians in the Church’s larger life. His ministry exemplified God’s command “to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with…God.” (Micah 6.8)

What brings Samuel and Bragg’s stories together and where the Good News comes to us is the fact that “the lamp of God had not yet gone out.” (1 Samuel 3.3) God called these two men to serve His people in different, yet similarly dark times. In Samuel’s time, the people drifted away from concern for God’s laws and will. George Bragg, in the late 19th through mid-20th centuries, served in a denomination whose theology proclaimed the equality of all, but many of its majority treated him and others like him as lesser members of Christ’s Body.[4] Yet, in both their respective times and still today, God does not give up on His people. He made known through Samuel’s prophesying and Bragg’s preaching His Word: “Behold, I am about to do a thing…at which the two ears of every one that hears it will tingle.” (1 Samuel 3.11) And for all who completely surrender to Jesus, God’s Lamp that shines in the darkness that will never go out, He lifts away the veil of ignorance.[5]

It is in this Good News that we see our connection with Samuel and George Bragg and incorporation into God’s work. Like them in their times, we are all here at this time because God called us to be here. None of us are here by accident. As St. Paul said to the Ephesians, each of us has been called “to [build] up the Body of Christ until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God.” (Ephesians 4.12-13) Our academic teaching, coaching of sports, administrative and support work, and facility maintenance, all of it contributes to God’s commission to restore all people to unity with Him and each other in Jesus.[6] Our mutual aim should be to glorify “the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him.” (Colossians 3.17)

Moreover, when in our work God is glorified, what we teach and do will be for our students seeds of God’s righteousness.[7] The 20+ men who answered the call to ordination under George Bragg’s mentorship did so because they saw from the example of their Priest and ministerial father the truth of God’s Word. They heard and came to believe that God is love and His grace is free and unconditionally offered to all, regardless of human classifications, and to be redeemed in Jesus Christ is to “[receive] a Kingdom that cannot be shaken.” (Hebrews 12.28) God worked through Bragg’s ministry to encourage those men to say “yes” to His call, “to be Messengers, Watchmen, and Stewards of the Lord; to teach, and to premonish, to feed and provide for the Lord’s family.”[8]

Likewise, should the goal be for our work. All of us are Christ’s ministers. When our students not only hear us but see from our work the sincerity to convey God’s love to others, imagine what within their hearts God can do. They’ll be encouraged to lift their eyes upwards to Him, the Maker of Heaven and Earth, from whom our help comes.[9] And not only should we do this for our students, but also for and amongst ourselves, for we are all in this work together; all of us need each other.

Together in Christ, we can accomplish more than we can ever imagine. It is an excellent and wonderful thing to do the work of ministry. And that is what we are doing—ministry. Though it may be years before we see in our students the fruits of our labors—we may not live long enough to ever see them—we hope will come an acceptance of Jesus’ commission: “The harvest is plentiful; be laborers in God’s harvest.”

Behold, God is about to do great things among us. Let the Light that is Jesus Christ burn bright within you.

In the Name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost. Amen.

[1] Lawrence L. Hartzell. “George F. Bragg (1863-1940),” Encyclopedia Virginia (https://www.encyclopediavirginia.org/Bragg_George_Freeman_1863-1940#start_entry), Web. Accessed August 2, 2018.

[2] Women’s ordination wasn’t approved in the Episcopal Church until 1976.

[3] Frederick N. Rasmussen. “A Voice for Racial Harmony,” The Baltimore Sun (http://articles.baltimoresun.com/2000-02-19/features/0002190293_1_protestant-episcopal-church-bragg-wrote-men-of-maryland), Web. Accessed August 2, 2018.

[4] Harold Lewis. Yet with a Steady Beat: The African-American Struggle for Recognition in the Episcopal Church (Trinity Press International, 1996), p. 179.

[5] 2 Corinthians 3.16: “When a man turns to the Lord the veil is removed.”

[6] “An Outline of the Faith Commonly Called the Catechism,” The Book of Common Prayer (1979), p. 855.

[7] James 3.18: “And the harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.”

[8] “The Form and Manner of Ordering Priests,” The Book of Common Prayer (1928), p. 539.

[9] Psalm 121.1

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