Commemoration of Thomas Bray – February 15, 2019 – Isaiah 52:7-10; Luke 10:1-9 – Chapel of the Apostles, Sewanee
It is always a joy to have the opportunity to preach to a seminary community, even if, or perhaps especially when, the subject matter is a bit tricky.
When I first noticed that we were commemorating Thomas Bray today, it took me a minute. Then it came to me, “Oh, right, the SPCK guy.” That is, the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge. You know, like the “book depot” down in Cowan.
It turns out, Bray’s story is bigger than a book store. In 1696 he was invited by the Bishop of London to oversee the Church of England’s work in Maryland. Though Bray was only in America briefly, he founded 39 lending libraries and numerous schools, recruited priests to work in local parishes, advocated for the ordination of a bishop for the American church, and championed the need for educated clergy and laity. This is to say nothing of his work for English prison reform and the abolitionist movement.
But that’s not all. In 1701 Bray founded yet another society–this time the SPG, the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel. Among its goals: to promote Christianity abroad and to bring Christianity to the non-Christian races of the world. If that language creeps you out, good. It should.
Reading Holy Women Holy Men gives one the sense that Bray was a simple country parson who happened to have a deep concern for and understanding of “Native Americans and Blacks.” That language should make you uncomfortable, too.
Once you understand the baggage associated with evangelizing slaves and saving the souls of native peoples, the feet of those messengers Isaiah mentions don’t seem quite as beautiful.
Unfortunately, Christianity has long been a vehicle for enforcing Western ideals on people who already have their own traditions, values, and norms. No person or culture is a “blank slate” waiting for a missionary to come write down the name of Jesus.
Pausing to commemorate Thomas Bray gives us the opportunity to be honest about the somewhat sordid history of Christian mission. The Society for the Propagation of the Gospel owned slaves, mutilated their bodies, and exploited their labor.
To ignore past exploits like these is to deceive ourselves. Worse than viewing our history through rose-tinted glasses is forgetting to take those glasses off. Soon they become blinders that keep us from seeing our own sins.
We’re not in this business to ignore hard truths, past or present. We’re in this business to do the hard, complicated, often ambiguous, but powerful work of the Gospel. God has given us the Gospel of Jesus, and God has called you to proclaim it. Our past sins don’t excuse you from doing that. In fact, they make it all the more necessary.
It’s hard to be a Christian. If it were easy, we wouldn’t have to evangelize! Yet, here we are, ready to go out in the midst of wolves, even from house to house, proclaiming the peace of the Lord. Some folks think we’re crazy, but I like to think of it more as being faithful to a God who is faithful to us.
So get up, and go out to do the work that God has given you to do. When you fail, be honest about it, come back, present yourself at the Holy Table, and receive the grace of God.