The Rev Gurdon Brewster, who recently died, was for many years campus minister at Cornell University as well as a gifted Sculptor. His work is on display at Union Theological Seminary, the College of Preachers, and one was even given to Pope John Paul II by our presiding bishop Frank Griswold.
While at seminary, in 1961, Brewster was invited by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to be an assistant minister during the summer, at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. While there he lived with Martin Luther King Sr. and worked in the church with its youth group and youth groups from around the city. He returned again in 1966 as an assistant for the summer with his family, his wife, Martha, and two daughters. He has written about his experiences in a memoir entitled, No Turning Back.
Mystical substitution: this is the moment of the church’s birth at the foot of the cross on Good Friday. When Jesus gives his mother and his beloved disciple to one another, a new family is created. In her deepest sorrow, a sorrow like no other, Mary becomes a mother to St. John and St. John becomes, mysteriously, but definitively, her son. Out of death, life anew.
This power of suffering love to bind us to one another across any and all boundaries is what we celebrate today. When Daddy King, the son of a sharecropper, and Gurdon Brewster, a young white man born of incredible privilege, met that summer of 1961, such a mystical substitution began to take place. Because Gurdon stayed at the foot of the cross of racial violence and was baptized into the beloved community of Ebenezer Baptist, serving at table for Daddy King that summer while King’s wife Alberta was ill, their love for one another was born, flowered and grew.
And when, years later, after the death of his own son Martin Luther King Jr, and his wife Alberta, Daddy King came to that same cross in the Eucharistic feast at Cornell, he shared this most mysterious of Holy Week truths. “Brewster is like a son to me.” Impossible the world might say. And yet we know such mystical substitution to happen in the church again and again and again. So we call one another brother, sister, mother, daughter, son. This is the church.
And this is the power of love at the foot of the cross–the river of sorrow that can divide us is the river of Jordan into which we may be baptized with Jesus and in that river of peace be made brothers and sisters, no matter how far apart we may seem to be in the eyes of the world. And this is why the world needs the church, gathered at the foot of the cross, to proclaim this good news, this Good Friday. For this day and the mystery of love it holds, we give thanks and praise.