130th Anniversary Homily

By the Very Rev. W. (Will) H. Mebane, Jr

It’s better to give back than go back

My dear sisters and brothers, as the patron saint of this parish might say to the early churches in Christendom, I greet you in the name of Jesus Christ. The honor bestowed upon me to serve as your guest homilist on this august occasion is an awesome responsibility. As a former canon and now dean of a cathedral, I’ve grown used to preaching in front of bishops and dignitaries but today is different. Today, I am called upon to preach in the place where I was baptized and trained for Confirmation in The Episcopal Church.

There is a saying that “you can’t go home” but I know from other return visits to St. Titus’ that the old adage is not always true. The fact is, the good people here have never failed to make me feel welcome and loved since I showed-up as a confused, frightened and inquisitive teenager in search of counsel.
Who could ever have imagined that I would be standing before you some 45 years later as your preacher for the 130th anniversary celebration of St. Titus’ Episcopal Church? The magnitude of this responsibility was underscored when I had the chance to speak just last weekend in Buffalo with your bishop [and soon to be bishop to all of us] the Rt. Rev. Michael Bruce Curry. And while it is sincerely an honor to be so chosen, I know there are far more deserving and proficient orators that could have been selected from among others who have ministered and been ministered to at St. Titus’. Nonetheless, I have accepted the assignment and now simply ask you to join your hearts with mine in this simple but earnest prayer.

There is a saying that “you can’t go home” but I know from other return visits to St. Titus’ that the old adage is not always true. The fact is, the good people here have never failed to make me feel welcome and loved since I showed-up as a confused, frightened and inquisitive teenager in search of counsel.

Who could ever have imagined that I would be standing before you some 45 years later as your preacher for the 130th anniversary celebration of St. Titus’ Episcopal Church? The magnitude of this responsibility was underscored when I had the chance to speak just last weekend in Buffalo with your bishop [and soon to be bishop to all of us] the Rt. Rev. Michael Bruce Curry. And while it is sincerely an honor to be so chosen, I know there are far more deserving and proficient orators that could have been selected from  among others who have ministered and been ministered to at St. Titus’. Nonetheless, I have accepted the assignment and now simply ask you to join your hearts with mine in this simple but earnest prayer.LORD, send your Holy Spirit to dwell among us. Let my presence decrease so that yours may increase. Let me not be a clanging gong or crashing cymbal but a trumpet blaring your truth. May all that is thought, spoken, prayed and sung here this day be to give honor and glory to you. This we pray humbly in the name of Jesus Christ our Savior. Amen.

I want to acknowledge the members of the planning committee for this celebratory weekend. A word of special thanks goes to your vicar, The Rev. Stephanie Yancy, for allowing me to occupy the pulpit this morning. I need to also extend heartfelt appreciation to Mary Hawkins and Julia Williams Davis for their tireless efforts to ensure that my preparation for today could be accomplished without stress or strain.
Finally, I want to thank members of the Durham High School Class of 1970 for making the effort to be here this morning in order to support their classmate. One of them has consistently reminded me that my task today is to offer a homily and that it is supposed to be “short, sweet and to the point.” So, I guess I should better started.

The theme chosen for this anniversary is “St. Titus’ Episcopal Church: Celebrating 130Years of Giving Back.” So, taking a cue from this morning’s Reading from the Old Testament, I have titled my homily, “It’s better to give back than go back.” [Repeat]

This Lesson from Hebrew Scripture is among what have been called the “murmuring” or “complaining” stories. Moses had been appointed by G_D to lead the chosen people from Egypt to the Promised Land. It doesn’t take long for the people to start to complain to Moses about his leadership and this god he is insisting they follow. In less than 40 days they have forgotten about the oppressive lives they had been forced to endure in Egypt. How quickly have the memories of their enslavement and being forced to make brick without straw disappeared. Being beaten, whipped, raped and even killed now seem like better options to them than following Moses.

“If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we used to eat in Egypt for nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic; but now our strength is dried up, and there is nothing at all but this manna to look at.” (Numbers: 4:11) Notice, if you would, that there is no meat among the list of food items they profess to crave – cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions, and garlic. G_D’S chosen people are so unhappy with their circumstances that they would prefer to go back to Egypt. How quickly we forget!

It seems that every congregation I have served has always had a “Let’s go back to Egypt committee.” There is a usually small but vocal group that is so dissatisfied with where things are headed that they long for “the good ole days”; even if those days were filled with heartache, discouragement and struggle. How quickly the “Let’s go back to Egypt committee” can turn on the leadership G_D sent and that was initially accepted by them. Now, I’m sure what I am describing is unfamiliar to my sisters and brothers here at St. Titus’. Undoubtedly, the people that have worshipped here over the past 130 years have been content and
unhesitatingly supported those sent to serve just as Moses had been among his people.

The truth is the past 130 years in the life of St. Titus’ has not been without challenge, disappointment and struggle. Fear – that emotion built on False Evidence Appearing Real – has on occasion found its way into the life of this place dedicated to spreading the Good News of Jesus Christ in the City of Durham. There had to have been times when it seemed the best course of action would have been to turn back from the trajectory that had been set and return to the way things used to be.

The people of St. Titus’ persevered, however, through the trials and tribulations that beset them. Fire – not once but twice – destroyed the worship space that members worked hard to acquire and that they cherished. The Depression of 1929 hit just as the congregation had taken on a mortgage and moved into a new church building. In spite of these and other challenges that followed, St. Titus’ chose to move forward and not look back. Members chose to remain faithful to G_D’S call and went about working to improve the human condition of those created by and in the image of G_D.

St. Titus’ became known for its service to youth and young people in need of recreation, guidance, nurture and love. Members of St. Titus’ led outreach programs designed to lessen the burden of refugees and disenfranchised women. St. Titus’ was a leader in the crusade for civil and human rights in places like Selma, Alabama, here in Durham, NC and within The Episcopal Church.

Priests were sent by G_D to lead the congregation in addressing social injustices and to work particularly for reconciliation among the races. These were not easy and always popular tasks but the commitment to give back and not go back motivated Titusians to forge ahead. Indeed, it was this very spirit that drew me as a young boy to this place and shaped me for work G_D called me to do. The culture of call that has existed here at St. Titus’ is perhaps one of its greatest gifts to the Church. I am just one among many formed for ordination by the blessed spirits of those that call St. Titus’ home. The Rev. Marcia Beam, The Rev. Teddra Hussey Bynes, The Rev. Joyce Corbin and The Rev. Zelda Kennedy all know of which I speak.
Permit me if you would in the remaining minutes of my time at this pulpit to share a reflection on how I personally experienced the St. Titus’ spirit of giving back.

Not long after I entered seminary, cards and notes from members of St. Titus’ started arriving at our home. Most of those envelopes contained what I called “love offerings.” One day, completely out-of-the-blue, I retrieved a letter from the mailbox informing me that I was the recipient of a scholarship from St. Titus’ in support of my studies. Scholarship money continued to come during my three years in seminary. I never knew when it would come but my wife and I can tell you that whenever it came, it was always “right on time.” There was inevitably a book, or some other necessary purchase, like lunch, that was made possible by those donations. I was never quite sure who all was responsible for my getting such generosity but I suspect the hand of Julia Williams Davis was in it somehow.

It was here at St. Titus’, like so many before and since, where I was taught by the elders of G_D that it is always best to give back than to murmur, complain and insist on returning to the way things once were.
The question I have for you today is this, St. Tutus’. How will your legacy of giving back and not going back be manifest into the future? You are needed more than ever. Some in this country, even those aspiring to serve in our highest political offices, say they want to “take the country back.” What they really mean is they want to take the country backward! What will your role be, St. Titus’, in making sure that doesn’t happen?
G_D is counting on you, as Pope Francis reminded our nation just this past week, that there is no greater expectation for any of us than to live by The Golden Rule – to do unto others as we would want done unto us. I don’t know about you all but I have been deeply moved by the visit of +++Francis to The United States. He has demonstrated in word and action what it truly means to be a follower of Christ. He is a modern day Moses. The question is whether we are willing to follow where he is leading.

That is not a purely rhetorical question for those of us that identify as Episcopalian. You see, we claim to be both Protestant and Catholic – The Middle Way between the traditions. So, it is incumbent upon us to hear and heed the teachings as we honor the Protestant reforms upon which our Church is founded. However, one need not be members of the Roman Catholic Church or The Episcopal Church to have one’s heart touched by the Gospel message Francis articulates.

Concern for the environment – the only one we have – is a mandate from G_D who created heaven and earth. Welcoming the stranger – for we were once all strangers in a foreign land – is an imperative for any who profess to be followers of Jesus Christ. Respect for life – even for those condemned to die for heinous crimes committed against society – is how we live into our Baptismal Covenant to respect the dignity of every human being. Likewise, our commitment to strive for justice and peace among all people means we must – we must – stand against all forces that seek to deny even the most basic rights – to anyone.
St. Titus’, it is your legacy that requires you to make sure people understand that all lives can’t matter until there is irrefutable evidence that Black lives really do matter. Yours is a community of salt. Salt is a preserver and you have been preserved for 130 years. Do not lose your saltiness for what good is salt if it has lost its saltiness.

Remember that it is best to give back than go back to denying civil rights to all created in the image of G_D – be they stranger from a foreign country, young or old, gay or straight, friend or foe. Remember that it is best to give back than to privilege one person’s life over that of another – be they condemned killer or member of the 1%. Remember that it is best to give back than to go back to treating the earth as one large garbage disposal

Finally, I leave you with this exhortation from another Francis – Francis of Assisi whose life we honor next week. They are words by which St. Titus’ has lived and thrived. Francis said, ”Preach the gospel at all times and when necessary use words.”

Thank you St. Titus’ for the last 130 years. May G_D shower you with an abundance of G_D’S bountiful blessings for the next 130. Amen.

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