A homily given to St. Titus Church, Durham, NC on Mark 3:20-35, June 10, 2018 (Please see editor’s note in sidebar.)
I am honored to be asked to offer the sermon today and thank the vicar for inviting me. To-day we especially applaud and celebrate the girls and boys and women and men who have served us well over many years. And a proper beginning would be to say to all of our present and former acolytes, torches, crucifers, altar guild members, lay eucharistic ministers, sacristans, and lectors – you have served God and us well – and we THANK YOU for your service. Let’s all say ‘thank you’. And thanks be to God for your service.
All of the roles I’ve just mentioned were important from our beginning in 1885; but they have grown exponentially over the years and now virtually everyone in this congregation performs some kind of ministry or service. That’s actually not a new thing for St. Titus. While clergy have come and gone – our status as mission or parish has changed – the diocese and national church have changed – but for as long as I have known this place and its people, strong lay leadership has been its backbone and mainstay. I remember all of those people who served with me with deep appreciation and much love. Most of those leaders from my earliest years here have died, including the long-serv-ing and wise founder of our Acolyte Guild, Dr. Cecil Patterson. But thankfully Vivian Patterson and Murphy Jenkins, two of the older-timers, are still with us. And Mother Stephanie and Deacon Sarah continue to encourage and provide for lay participation in the mission and ministry of this congrega-tion and that’s good. If you want to know ‘who’s-who’ among those who serve us now, look at p. 7 of our lovely new Directory for their names and responsibilities – and if you need help discerning ministry opportunities for yourself, turn the page to p. 8. For myself, I’m thankful to share ministry in this place where, as the great Methodist hymnwriter Charles Wesley paraphrased Ps. 146, I can “praise my Maker while I’ve breath; And when my voice is lost in death, Praise shall employ my nobler powers”.
This celebration has been almost a half-century in the making for me so you won’t be surpris-ed that my comments are part reminiscence and part homily. When I first came to St. Titus I began to learn many things about the black Episcopal presence in the Diocese of NC. So I venture to remind you that, according to the sponsoring rector of our mother parish, St. Philip’s, a “Mission for Color-ed People” was begun in the Hayti district of Durham in 1885 as ‘something of an experiment’. We were served by an Archdeacon and lay leaders until 1908. Then the Rev. Henry Delaney entered our history and was a prominent architect of who we became. He had been appointed Archdeacon for Colored Work in 1909 and later served as our first African-American Bishop Suffragan from 1918-1928. He named us after a saint and now his name identifies our adjacent educational Delaney House. He also sent the first priest-in-charge to St. Titus and that began the modern history of this congregation. The “experiment” lasted almost 100 years when, in 1972, we were admitted to union with the Diocese as a Parish. That event coincided with my first time as your parish priest. Most of the African-American Episcopal parishes and missions in the Diocese of NC have now either closed or joined with other congregations, but there is still a rich black Episcopal presence in NC. As best I can determine, there are currently 16 historically black congregations in the diocese.
In the last half-century of the 20th c. St. Titus was among the largest and most prestigious of these mostly but not exclusively black parishes. As long as I have known St. Titus, it has welcomed priests and communicants of diverse ethnicity. And to its credit St. Titus has always been on the ‘cutting edge’ of social justice issues with a dignity of purpose that has been too often missing in other places. When I first came to St. Titus in 1972 its membership included the black aristocracy of Durham – university administrators and faculty, insurance and bank executives, political and commu-nity leaders – as well as a wide swath of other good and decent people. We had a longtime reputa-tion of being a ‘spikey’ or high-church parish with smells and bells and colorful liturgies and beau-tiful music. And large lay participation in the liturgies was commonplace. I was blessed to have several men and women who were steeped in knowledge of and devotion to the traditions and teach-ings of the Anglican communion – and especially by two men who had briefly been seminary stu-dents and studied the liturgical roles and functions of lay men and women. All of these men and women were knowledgeable and dependable and they taught me a great deal. But I didn’t know everything.
It was soon after my ordination as priest, and just before my first Christmas midnight mass (12-24-72) at St. Titus, that a large cast of liturgists, servers, and sacristans was gathered in the sacristy to review assignments and be certain that everything was properly arranged for the service. After prayers and we were lined up – just before we processed into the nave – one of the acolytes tugged on my vestments and asked, “Who is the thurifer, Father?” With all our planning we had forgotten to fill that role, and in the excitement of the moment (and as the new guy in charge) I had a ‘senior moment’ at age 42. For the life of me couldn’t recall the role a thurifer performed. Too late I re-membered that he carried the censer and boat for the incense! But to camouflage my embarrass-ment I said we were too late to appoint a thurifer. So we processed and that Mass was performed to the glory of God without another unchoreographed blunder. But during the refreshment time after-wards I felt another tug, and here was that same acolyte who looked me straight in the eye. “This was a beautiful Christmas Mass, Father,” he said, “but it’s just not the same without a thurifer”! Ouch! – my priestly pants were down! Had we been standing on carpet I could have crawled under it. But Ps. 127 is right: “Children are a gift from God; they are his reward”. So at my first Christmas mass at St. Titus we had bells but no smells, and from that time forward the formation and proper outfitting of our acolytes became a primary focus for me and maybe part of my penance. I wish I could remember that kid’s name – he’s well grown up by now – but if he’s here, as many former aco-lytes are today, and he remembers this episode, I hope we can meet again and I can apologize.
Now to look briefly at today’s gospel. The people we honor and celebrate today, children and adults alike, serve us regularly Sunday after Sunday, so they are exposed to lots of sermons and that is a reason to think they may know a good deal about the Bible and Christian teaching. Years of listening to and reflecting on sermons would serve them well today when the gospel from Mark in-cludes what I think is the most intriguing and puzzling (and yes, I’ll say it: misbegotten) saying ever attributed to Jesus. It’s also among the list of sayings that I wish had never been attributed to Jesus. But it occurs in both Matthew (12:30-32) and Luke (2:8-10), and it’s alluded to in the Epistle to the Hebrews (6:4-8, 10:26-29), and four repetitions in 3 gospels and 1 epistle claim a sort of credibility. Maybe most of us have never heard a sermon on this saying. Have you heard of the unpardonable sin? Have you heard a sermon about it? I have not ventured to talk about it in a sermon more than once or twice – but now I’m going to try again.
Let’s begin with this: most of us have probably heard about the sin against the Holy Spirit that’s called a blasphemy. Maybe it’s better known as the unpardonable sin. What gets my serious attention in this excerpt from Mark’s gospel is the naked claim that there is some specific sin that is unpardonable – that will not be forgiven. It gets my attention because one of the great comforts of being a Christian is the assurance that God is willing to forgive all our sins. The universal Christian understanding of sin is that it’s very, very bad – but owing to the sacrifice of Jesus we say that all our sins can be forgiven and that the gates of forgiveness are always open. The biblical scholars and the-ologians I respect tend to agree that the simple problem in this story is that we have two attributions to Jesus in a single sentence that are just simply irreconcilable. They are mutually contradictory. One says that no sin, not even blasphemy, is unforgivable – and the other says that a sin against Holy Spi-rit is unpardonable. This is how Mark quotes Jesus’ saying: “Truly I tell you, every sin and every slander can be forgiven – but whoever slanders the Holy Spirit can never be forgiven; he is guilty of an eternal sin”.
It’s in his account of the outset of Jesus’ public ministry that Mark attributes this saying to our Lord. It immediately follows his baptism and temptation in the wilderness and his preaching that “the time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near – repent and believe in the good news”. But preaching and teaching was not all Jesus did: he also healed – a man with an unclean spirit, a lep-er, a paralytic, a man with a withered hand, and many people at Simon’s house. It’s understandable that his fame spread as people were amazed at his miraculous works. They said, “We have never seen anything like this before”. And even unclean spirits recognized Jesus for who he really was.
But the Jerusalem Scribes said that Jesus was demon-possessed. In the NT ‘unclean spirit’ and ‘demon possession’ are synonymous – so these phrases literally translate as ‘Jesus is out of his mind’. And this is a truly puzzling part of Mark’s story. I don’t want to believe that Jesus was ‘out of his mind’ – but I do think there is the implication in Mark’s account that Jesus was genuinely put-out, exasperated , angry, even revolted by their shocking accusation. And I think that may be why he harshly responded to the Scribes. Remember that he identified himself as one with the Father – that he never claimed the power to perform miracles for himself but always accounted for his miracles as shared work with God. So the logic is impeccable: whoever disgraces me humiliates my Father. Whoever casts aspersions on Jesus similarly curses his Father.
So he ‘turns the table’ on the Scribes by saying that whoever blasphemes against God’s Holy Spirit cannot be forgiven. And it was at this point that his family, hearing that he was accused of being non compos mentis, rushed to rescue him from his enemies. In the end, this entire section of Mark’s gospel is a riddle wrapped in a mystery and the text simply confounds explanation. I wish that Mark had not attributed this internally contradictory saying to Jesus. And that’s my take on it.
I personally tend to look for resolution of conflict when wrestling with stories like this one. And I sometimes wonder whether there are people I know – or people I know about – who feel no guilt for their horrible behavior – have no remorse for their sins – who say and do terribly hurtful things – and refuse to ask anyone, including God, for forgiveness. Can’t you call some of them by name? History is full of them and every generation has its share of misotheists – God-haters – people who love the darkness because their deeds are evil – people who show no evidence of remorse or give any indication that they want forgiveness for their sins. I even wonder sometimes whether I myself fit that pattern and don’t acknowledge that I commit sins that I refuse to recognize as sins.
At the end of the day – after wrestling with questions like this as best I can – I come to a con-sidered opinion. And this is my opinion – the love of God is irresistible – so whatever power God has invested in you and in me is insufficient to resist the power of God’s mercy and grace. So we say that God’s love is irresistible. Or, as James Weldon Johnson put it in God’s Trombones, “Young man, your arm is too short to box with God”. And I invite you to notice that everything we do and everything we say in today’s liturgy witnesses to our belief in God’s irresistible mercy and love.
A traditional answer to human imperfection is some kind of transhistorical purgatory. It’s a way to acknowledge that even the best among us are sinners and require a bit of purifi-cation before we can be admitted to the perfect presence of God. That makes sense to me as an extension of the training, the catechesis, we have received in our lifetime that directs us to the love and mercy of God. And I suspect that it’s exactly this kind of affection and devotion that inspired our large company of acolytes, torches, crucifers, readers, and others to volun-teer their service to God and us in these special ways. So if you also wrestle with whether there is an unpardonable sin, here are a couple of things I do that I can recommend to you. Pray that God will help you to discriminate between what is good and what is bad – and pray that you will have the moral strength do what you discern is good and refuse to do what you discern is evil. And pray that God will help you love other people – particularly people you find unattractive and unlovable. And pray, as the vicar will soon do in the absolution, that God will forgive us all our sins – including the ones we don’t recognize as sins. And for sure be certain to thank God that he sent his Son not to condemn the world, but that the world through him might be saved.
Rev. Harmon Smith, Ph. D.
Emeritus Professor of Ethics, Duke University
Harmon Smith is an Episcopal Priest, Emeritus Professor of Ethics, and an avid golfer.
Dr. Harmon Smith is an excellent preacher, teacher, and priest. We publish this very personal homily he gave at St. Titus Church in Durham, NC for many reasons. Chief among those reasons is the apparent love we get to see of a priest toward his former parish. As The Rev. Dr. Fr. Smith takes his time in the introduction, his reflections on the “unforgivable” sin are worth the wait.
Some have asked why we leave the hyphens in the text. Dr. Smith insists. That is why. He says it is how he says it and wants us to see it that way.
In his 85+ years of life, we have always known The Rev. Dr. Fr. Smith to be a man of substance, integrity, and strong faith. We salute his ministry, especially his dedication to civil rights in the Southern United States over his 8 decades of life. Please join us in celebrating his homily in the intimacy of a community of faith centered around Jesus Christ, with this priest as his symbol.