Sermon for Sept. 4, 2022, 13th Pentecost: Don't know much about history (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)
“I am the church. You are the church. We are the church together. All who follow Jesus – all around the world – yes, we’re the church together!” This little ditty, one of our more popular Family Sunday hymns, expresses an ideal community in which God’s people are bound together by a simple, shared love of Jesus. In this church there are faces and bodies of all colors and configurations, people of all ages, diverse voices singing and laughing together, and all are doing God’s work. This is the Beloved Community.
We are fortunate that many of the people who enter the doors of Grace Martinez experience at least some of these attributes. We are a loving, welcoming people, attempting as best we can to do what God asks of us. Still, many of us struggle with carrying the sense of love and community we feel in here to our lives out there. We try not to be different people when we are “the Church” and when we are ourselves, but the pressures and prejudices we meet in the world seem to conspire to make us lose the focus on love, kindness, and peace that we find in this place.
This is the age-old struggle of human identity. So much of how we behave depends on who we perceive ourselves to be – and so much of who we are is influenced by the people and things we surround ourselves with. Higher ideals are all very well when you are housed, fed, and in good health, but ethics seem less important when you are fighting for your life. God understands this. That’s why we have stories and teachings that help us to remember how to behave - and especially how to love one another.
We call that gathered wisdom our “religion,” and for thousands of years human beings have depended on religions to help shape both our societies and our individual behavior. Because there is an obvious overlap between what people believe about the world – who created it and why and how we’re supposed to interact with it and each other – religious thought shifts and changes as we learn new things. That is why science and religion are obviously compatible. We assume that God knows everything about the world he created, and we know that we don’t. The more we learn about God’s creation, the closer we can become to God. Although our tradition says that God initially created humanity to live in blissful ignorance, once we made the choice to attempt to become more like God, learning became a crucial part of being a functioning – and good -person. If God did not want us to learn, she would not have granted Solomon wisdom or sent Jesus to answer the questions of doubting fisherfolk.
Learning demands change. The refusal to learn and change – willful ignorance- is opposed to God’s will. Yet human beings often equate firmness with faith. We think if we change what we believe then our faith is weak, or we have proven ourselves wrong. Yet scripture is full of instances in which both God and God’s people changed for the better. Abraham argued with God not to destroy the world -and God changed their mind. The Syrophoenician woman convinced Jesus to extend his healing powers and love beyond his own tribe. Andeach and every Sunday we repent of our sins without, perhaps, remembering that the word “repent” means to “turn around” – to change.
One of the most complex – and beautiful- things about The Episcopal Church is that it has changed in the course of its 235-year history. Those changes have been the result of prayer, study, and the church’s interactions with the larger world. Understanding those alterations is the reason we do these historical liturgies: by enacting what we used to do we can see the modifications that have occurred, think about why they happened, and consider whether they need to be changed again. We can also notice the myriad of things that have not been altered and consider why that is.
So, let’s do that. We can start by observing the differences, especially since some of those are pretty obvious. In today’s 1892 Prayer Book service, what do we notice? First, that the minister (which is what he is called) does pretty much everything, with limited assistance from the congregation. Secondly, the minister has a tremendous amount of authority. He prays on behalf of the people – and there is a great deal of focus on penitence and prayer. There is also, however, an assumption that people will worship outside of church or during the weekday worship services. If they don’t they run the risk of being unable to receive Eucharist when it is made available. This is interesting, since our church recently decried a Roman Catholic bishop for denying the Speaker of the House communion in her home church because of her politics. We are proud that this is not something we do. But simply by reading today’s service we find out that we certainly did do this. The authority of the church in the 19th century was powerful and extended beyond its walls. Supporting the social mores of the time, the church was extremely patriarchal; we had “vestrymen” instead of vestry members, the minister, of course, was a man, and God is our Father. This patriarchal mindset both pre- and post-dates the 1892 Prayer book. Patriarchy is one of the longest-standing traditions of our church and one of the hardest to break – and we’re not done yet!
Some of the most potent differences, however, are those that we cannot see – like how the changes in church architecture and furnishing, which became grander as the century went on, were displays of church wealth and power. We do not see the behind-the-scenes battle between those who would honor our Protestant heritage over our Roman Catholic – or vice versa, although some of us continue to use the terms “high” and “low” church to describe them. Most importantly, we don’t see the devastating effect of the Civil War on Episcopalians, who fought on both sides of the conflict. We do not remember that in 1892 people of color would not be sitting among us, children would be beaten for making noise, and the front pews would be taken up by the highest pledgers.
These differences make us the church we are. Our willingness to change our liturgy to reflect our learning and experiences with the world demonstrate our desire to do God’s will. This ethos is also demonstrated by what hasn’t changed in our worship. We still hear the word of God (although not that of our Hebrew siblings). Through the interpretation of scripture, we understand that, although the people are not “ministers” in the service, we are still to be ministers of God’s Spirit. We still consider and illuminate the words and actions of Jesus, who in today’s gospel is once again in the midst of the people showing the power and humility of God by healing those in need. We ask forgiveness for our sins and ask for God’s help in our daily lives. And we continue to believe in the God who created us, loves us, died for us, and dwells among us.
As a people, we have not always gotten things right. In fact, we have often gotten a lot wrong. But we have continued to believe - and we have continued to meet to share that belief. We have continued to idealistically, imperfectly, and sometimes cluelessly be “church.” That is the core of who we are: “I am the church. You are the church. We are church together.” Love God. Love your neighbor. Change the world. AMEN.