Year A, Lent 3 March 19, 2017 The Reverend Dr. Brent Was
“From the wilderness of Sin the whole congregation of Israel journeyed by stages, as the Lord commanded.”
The problem in our Gospel today, the conflict that makes it a good and enduring story, is Jesus including someone that His community excluded. That is always controversial. Jews and Samaritans did not mix. At Jacob’s Well, Jesus made crystal clear that He came not just for Israel, but for everyone, even this lone Samaritan woman. The lesson is that no one is excluded from Jesus’ offer of Living Water.
Who is included? Who is excluded? Ripped from the front page of today’s paper. Who do we include as Americans? Who gets included in our health insurance system? Who gets the benefit of the doubt from law enforcement? Whose dogs are welcome or not in our downtown? Inclusion. Exclusion. In these things, right and wrong are not always completely apparent.
I am going to tell you another story about inclusion and exclusion. It is about gender and how we talk about God, and of Common Prayer. Mostly, though, I think this is a story about paradox. About virtues in conflict with each other. About blindness to the waters in which we swim. Clarity is what we seek, but heavens, clarity is elusive and yet we still must live and we still must seek the Commonwealth of God and the heart of Jesus Christ. It just ain’t easy being alive.
A month ago I attended a gathering of the radical discipleship movement put on by the Bartimeaus Cooperative Ministries. There gathered a collection of Christians who share a belief that, among other things, following Jesus Christ is inseparable from the struggle for peace, justice and truth. All sorts of Christians are in the movement, “High church, low church and no church” is a tag line sometimes used. This was my third conference and I have next year’s on the calendar. I love the community there and the people and I learn deeply from Ched Meyers, the animator and convener of the organization. I am part of the community.
A few of us ministerial types were asked to help out pastoraly and liturgically, including leading daily morning prayers. I am always excited to introduce the ancient practice of Anglican prayer, that’s what I do. I knew that this was not how this group was used to praying, so I tried to set it up, saying something like, “We had innovative and creative worship yesterday: that is a deep well. Another deep well is praying like our ancestors have prayed for 1500 years, back to the time of St. Benedict.” And then I offered straight from the book, Rite II Morning Prayer, canticles and all.
It went OK. A little flat. I did notice that many were saying the word “God” in place of the “He’s” and “Him’s” (there are a lot of those in Morning Prayer), but I do the same when it is not my voice alone in worship, so I didn’t think much of it. It wasn’t great worship, but for folks who don’t know the form, it was OK.
When I finished, Ched got up to send us off to our first workshop sessions, and he spoke to the worship a bit. He expressed some discomfort, but I put it in the “form of prayer column,” which I expected and didn’t think much of it otherwise. I should have.
At the first workshop, a woman pulled me aside and expressed that she had felt excluded in the prayer due to the masculine language for God. (There is an awful lot of it in Morning Prayer, Rite 2). I told her that I was sorry that she felt that way, and that she is not alone in that feeling, and that I also don’t like the language but that that was how we, Anglicans/Episcopalians prayed. She was more upset than I would have expected, but we talked a bit and it seemed that all was well and I didn’t think much more of it. I should have.
So the end of the day comes, supper time, and the staff and chaplains were called together to discuss a pressing pastoral issue. The issue: Morning Prayer. It seemed that many folks were not at all happy with language of the prayer, the traditional, masculine gendering of God. Some were very, very upset by it, to the point of maybe leaving the conference upset. It was a very big deal.
My initial thought was, “I, I, I… I had no idea.” You know that dropping feeling, blood descending when you suddenly learn that you messed up. I should have been paying attention to the stuff earlier in the day. The language was so not on my radar as an issue, it just is how we pray.
Well, we sat in a large circle, maybe 15 of us, religious leaders in a movement that I need, one of my most important teachers among them, learning that a lot of people were very upset with me for bringing this foreign, unwanted thing into our midst. Upset because this beloved to me form of prayer was taken as archaic and offensive in its patriarchal nature, and I had to assume upset with our whole way, the Episcopal/Anglican way of approaching God. I don’t know that I have ever felt more conspicuous in my life. Anger, judgement were expressed, compassion, too, but just a lot of energy swirling around me and the 23 minutes of prayer we shared that morning.
From the leaders circle, it was agreed that both Ched and I would apologize to the group before the evening session. The symbol of two white men apologizing for a trespass would be powerful, it was thought. My apology was for the hurt that I caused and the reminder I gave of the feeling of alienation from God that some experienced in childhood or in the midst of other forms of Christianity. I apologized for not being mindful of the congregation I was offering prayer for, which I was not. And Ched apologized because he was in charge and whatever is done or fails to get done was his responsibility. It was a very humbling experience, first causing such upset and being called on it and then apologizing all within a group that I treasure so much. It was humiliating in a theological sense, a very appropriate feeling leading up to Lent.
Tensions decreased. Folks seemed less upset. I got a lot of feed-back about the apology from those where were offended. (And from a few folks who hadn’t been offended or were offended by the offense taken and appreciated that I offered such a “gift” from our tradition). I felt held as well as held accountable by the community.
Inside, what struck me the most was how unmindful I had been about the whole thing. Over the years a couple of parishioners have expressed to me dismay with our language for God, but not many, like two, one of them being Windy and that is a long and continuing conversation. We had an after church parish meeting about this in my first year here. Also, I haven’t been involved in much interfaith or even ecumenical worship, where these issues often arise. It just hasn’t been a big deal here. STOP!
That’s part of the problem, my problem. Being a straight white male in a culture where the default setting is nearly always straight-white-male-centric (it nearly always benefits people like me, or at least it is extremely controversial if it impedes the continued privilege of people like me). It is easier for me to not notice things like this than for, say, a woman. It is called hegemony and some few of us benefit from it while the rest suffer for it. AND I pray Morning Prayer that way almost every morning. This language, this form of prayer, it is the water in which I, we swim. A friend reminded me a joke recently. An old fish is swimming by a school of young fish and says, “The water’s lovely today, isn’t it?” And the young fish reply, “Water?” I apologized for my unmindfulness.
I did not apologize for praying that way. Okay. Here is where we come back to paradox. To competing virtues. To moral dilemma. I didn’t/won’t/ought not apologize for Common Prayer; that is how we pray, and is how we have prayed as Anglicans for 500 years, following on the preceding 1500 years of catholic worship. It is not for me to apologize for generations of our ancestors. I apologized not because we pray that way, but because that was decidedly not how we prayed there, in that context. I sinned in that community, but not against God and Church.
Central to all of this is the notion of “God the Father.” I think if I titled sermons, this one would be “Continuing to Move Beyond God the Father with an Apology for Common Prayer.” That’s the classical use of the word apology, in defense or in justification of. I notice it, in the Mass, when the plea is “Father, we now celebrate this memorial of our redemption…” It sticks out for me. Lord is the word I pray with, it is the word that comes to me when I pray, but the aristocratic, royal, patriarchal implications, when I think about it, I cringe, and that is the word I pray with and have for as long as I have prayed. I don’t like that my girls use “He” for God because God is not a He. (Not a She either, but that’s not something to argue against). In the immortal words of our own Rev. Nancy Gallagher, “If you say God is He, does that mean that you think God has a penis?” No. That is ridiculous. But beyond being ridiculous, it is harmful. It privileges men, who already enjoy systemic privileged. It aligns God with a specific portion of humanity while too often alienating, excluding another. It makes it hard and, for some, impossible to be Christian. Anything that does that is not okay. All are welcome at God’s table and it is our responsibility to make clear that path.
At exactly the same time, Common Prayer is in fact a gift from our ancestors and many, most, even, are brought closer to God in Christ with the Holy Spirit and each other through its practice.
A great virtue of Common Prayer is that it is not about me. It is not about you, either. It is not about any of our individual feelings, preferences, politics – we prioritize the Common, as in community over the individual. And the community is not just here, or in the Diocese of Oregon, no, it is all 1.something million Episcopalians from Micronesia to Western Europe that make up The Episcopal Church that decide how we pray together. It is not for me to muck around with the Mass, certainly not on Sunday mornings. I took a vow before a Bishop to that effect and I take that seriously. Common Prayer is what makes us, us because we prioritize Common Prayer over common belief: orthopraxis over orthodoxy. The form of prayer, the language, the cadence, the ups and downs, crossing and bowing together in certain ways that are agreed upon is who we are, and not for the sake of it, that would be idolatrous, but for the practice that it enables or is. That tension between I and we in Common Prayer is pedagogical. Intentional, prayerful submission to a specific form is a powerful practice. Doing things that have been done this way for thousands of years is a powerful practice. It is practicing bowing down before God and that is a good thing to do. It lifts up the lowly, being in the presence of the Most High and the mighty are lowered humbly before the same Almighty. Common Prayer is a powerful practice, and is subversive to our hyper-individualistic culture, particularly for those of us on the liberal side of the tracks. I’ve got my opinions about it, but we trumps I.
Commonality and tradition, though, must not be static or it becomes irrelevant in its ossification. Our language will change, but it will take time. (Though of course it is always easier for those in power to say “Be patient!”). Our last Prayer Book lasted 51 years, ’28 – ’79. The conversations about the conversation about a Prayer Book revision have begun. We’ll have it done in another 12 – 15 years, right on schedule. There is deep and prayerful power in processes that take this long. The Roman cathedral in LA was controversial, but it was designed to stand for 500 years. That’s powerful. There is something to church time, but again, it is easier to say from my social location as an ordained, straight white male. Who is being excluded because of our process? Who is being hurt? How many little girls think God is more like the boys in Sunday School than them?
We need to spend more time considering our language for things Holy. We’re behind. My experience in California confirmed that. At the same time, one of the things that drew me to the Anglican way from another way was that we didn’t worry about the language much, we didn’t argue about words, which left us time to move forward with other things. Easy for me to say, I know, but then a friend told me a story from a Unitarian parish where two youth were caught during a lock-in having sex behind the pulpit. They called a meeting of the parents to discuss it and the pastor started, saying “this weekend, we had an incident in our sanctuary…” when someone leapt up, “It is not a sanctuary, it is the Hall of Meeting!” Is that helpful?
We have the most consistently masculine, patriarchal language of any mainline church. Be it a liberal parish or a conservative one, we all use the same spiritual vocabulary and it is decidedly masculine. That is true. It is also true that we, as a Church, have officially considered LGBTQ people full children of God since 1976 by resolution of General Convention. In 1994 we began to openly and fully ordain gay and lesbian people. In 1997 we apologized for the harm done to sexual minorities by the church, in ’09 allowed for gay and lesbian bishops, and in 2015 authorized same sex marriage and removed all prohibitions to the ordination of transgender people. Some of the folks at the conference most critical of our prayer form worship in and serve churches that do not even ordain gay people, while our little parish here hosted the ordination of a trans-man just three weeks before, and joining more than a dozen other transgender priests and deacons! The Most Rev. Katherine Jefforts-Shori was the first woman to head a major denomination in this nation and our current Presiding Bishop, The Most Rev. Michael Curry, is the first African-American to lead a predominantly white denomination. And we all say every Sunday “We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen.” Maybe it is not fair, but part of me wants to ask, “What is more important, the words that we use or the work that we do?” Part of me thinks that spending too much time arguing about language gets in the way of the doing the work of Jesus Christ and our history these past four decades makes a case for that. Obviously it is both… maybe that is the point. There is no one way. Any way will hurt some and heal others, exclude some and include others.
Like so many things, there is no one answer here, like there aren’t for so many issues facing us and our nation. Maybe that is an important task before us in these troubled times, not becoming comfortable with ambiguity or resigned to it, but learning that those are the waters in which we swim, or at least noticing that we are in that water to begin with. Thanks be to God that the Living Water of Jesus Christ is offered to everyone. AMEN