Monday, May 12, 2008

Seven Reasons Why I'm an Episcopalian

Readings for the Day of Pentecost are Acts 2:1-21, I Corinthians 12:3b-13, and John 20:19-23.

I want to thank our Gospel readers today. Christopher, father of Ben, our baptismal candidate, read in Latin, a language he will teach here at Williams next year, a language his wife Amanda teaches at Williams, as well. Elizabeth read in Shona, one of three official languages in her homeland, Zimbabwe. And Elvy read in svenska, Swedish, her native tongue.

We think of language as being a function of the mind. But the human heart also moves to language beyond words, and Mothers’ Day invites us to celebrate dimensions of love communicated to us through the mothers we know. In relationship with them, in struggle with them, our ability to speak love has been shaped and influenced. By taking part in a baptism today, we may catch the ways, the images, the language by which the mothering love of God is expressed.

“In our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power,” marveled the international pilgrims gathered in Jerusalem, hearing the Galilean apostles. Unlike our readers today, those apostles were not learned people. Like those pilgrims, however, we affirm these languages as ours because they are among the many that belong to members of this congregation. When our neighbors in these pews join the psalmist in praying, “May these words of mine please you,” those words may not be in English, but in Korean, Spanish, Norwegian, German, Japanese. This is a good day to acknowledge that when we meet here for worship, we meet at a crossroads as did those pilgrims in international Jerusalem.

I met with a band of pilgrims here, Wednesday morning, about two dozen adult students in the Osher Life-long Learning Institute, headquartered at Berkshire Community College. County residents come together to pursue whatever interests them, and for this bunch it was applied religion. Six North County pastors, including our local rabbi, were invited to lecture, each describing the origins, development, and practice of his or her religious tradition. On Wednesday they came here, and I was their lecturer.

And they were my questioners. I’ll guess that between a quarter and a third of them were Jewish. Only a couple of them had ever been in this building before. I believe that most came from central and south Berkshire County. That this course was centered on the North County may have been due to the fact that the Wednesday afternoon course this term is at the Clark.

In preparing for this, I couldn’t imagine at first speaking for a whole hour as requested—I’m trained to speak for thirteen minutes-- but once into it, my cup ran over and I had to drain it off. My audience members also shortened it with their eagerness to ask questions, but as we neared the final ten minutes I asked if they wouldn’t mind if I ended with a portion I hadn’t gotten to and really wanted to, a section I’d called Seven Reasons Why I’m an Episcopalian. If you get the sense that you’re about to hear them, you’re right.

Reason #1: Bobby Ouelette. I was eleven or twelve, and my good friend Bobby was enrolled by his parents in the vacation Bible school at our local Episcopal Church. He told me that if he had to go, then I had to go. I loved it. I wasn’t born into this tradition. I’m an Episcopalian because I was brought into the community of a church with a very active youth ministry. I wasn’t yet a teenager, but I was treated as a living member of the Body of Christ with valuable work to do for him, and I was expected and helped to find it. And I’m an Episcopalian because in college, another crossroads time in my life, I sought and found a fellowship of Word and sacrament and friendship and service both on campus through its chapel ministry, and off-campus through the nearest Episcopal church where I met the woman whom I married. She’s the cradle Episcopalian, not me. What I found in her, in her family, and in her congregation made me all the more certain I was in the church where I belonged.

Reason # 2: Consistently, in every community I’ve belonged to in the Episcopal Church, I’ve been encouraged to take the Bible honestly—to let it pry me open and then pour out on me the good news that I am not the captain of my salvation but Jesus Christ is, and holds me, as he holds you, in eternal love. The Episcopal Church has encouraged me to take the Bible honestly, seriously, joyously, without requiring that I take it literally when to take it literally misses the point of God’s love. The Anglican way is one of vigorous thinking and curiosity, encouraging an informed and imaginative reading of the Bible. I’m a student of literature, and am grateful for a church that urges me to be fearless about the contradictions and moral tempests I find in the Bible, which aren’t to be explained away but to be heard, worked with, and understood. One of the best things my church did for me in my early teens was to urge me to read the Gospels and meet the Jesus of Matthew, of Mark, and Luke and John. As you come to know the Word made flesh, all other words can be judged in his light, the keepers kept and the baggage of the past left in the baggage room.

Reason 3: Year by year, I’ve grown more grateful for a tradition that values individual conscience, puts into my hands and yours responsibility to respond to the One by whose love we are rescued and redeemed. That responsibility is a keen Reformation commitment, an intently Protestant attitude. Yet what the Episcopal Church has put into our hands is the catholic heritage handed on by the apostles, the endlessly rich resources of sacrament and community, all under the authority of the risen Christ who has poured out his Spirit so liberally. His ministry is entrusted to each believer, each having some essential role to play in the whole priesthood of believers, because the Spirit has been given in a rainbow of manifestations, gifts, passions for the common good of the world.

Reason #4: In order to get the full wonder of God’s love for the full human race, and in order to praise God for this wonder, I need and enjoy color, beauty, variety, experimentation in music, message, art, and movement. I belong to a church that values all of these in the service of worship and faith formation. I admire in the Episcopal tradition its openness to the eclectic, the international, the inspirational, and the edgy.

Reason 5: Anglican theology has me hooked. Not because it’s a neat ordering of all the answers to all my questions—it isn’t—but because of its attitude, its insistence on being rooted in God’s action in the world, not just God’s action in the church. 19th-Century theologian Charles Gore summed this up: “The real development of theology is… the process in which the Church, standing firm in her old truths, enters into the apprehension of the new social and intellectual movements of each age: and because ‘the truth makes her free,’ is able to assimilate all new material, to welcome and give its place to all new knowledge, to throw herself into the sanctification of each new social order, bringing forth out of her treasures things new and old, and showing again and again her power of witnessing under changed conditions to the catholic capacity of her faith and life.”

Reason #6 comes clearer to me, the older I get. I am able to be an Episcopalian because in Anglicanism there’s a long history of respect for science. The scientific enlightenment that swept through Europe in the 19th century had a special haven in the many English rural parsonages where vicars proved themselves to be darned good amateur botanists and students of nature. Nothing in our approach to scripture and tradition throws evolution into question. What makes reasonable sense within human experience need not be contradictory to scripture and tradition.

My seventh reason is that the Episcopal Church remembers, often enough, that it is the earthen vessel, the clay jar, and that the treasure within belongs to God, indeed the truest treasure is God. Like every denomination, we can get enormously wrapped up in our own preoccupations and take ourselves too seriously. But I admire about our church its sense of being not a finished product, but a work in progress. Archbishop of Canterbury Michael Ramsey said about Anglicanism: “Its credentials are its incompleteness, with the tension and travail in its soul. It is clumsy and untidy, it baffles neatness and logic. For it is sent not to commend itself as ‘the best type of Christianity,’ but by its very brokennesss to point to the universal Church…” In other words, to point beyond itself to something far greater than itself. And I recall the Dean of my seminary addressing us seniors before our graduation, to this effect: “The Episcopal Church is often called a ‘bridge church’ because it is both catholic and protestant. If we do our job and help God build that bridge, we should put ourselves out of business.”

I had barely said those words when Norm, in the front pew, said, “But that presupposes that each side of the divide cooperates—will that be true?”

I told him that I am not qualified to answer for any other tradition. But I can pray. And in that praying I will be reminded that the work of reconciliation in the world is God’s work. Which means that it is ours to do, by the grace we are given.

Very much in-business yesterday in my neighborhood were members of Bible Baptist Church. I was at the back door of my garage when at the open front door appeared a fellow in his forties, two little boys about seven and nine, and behind them an older man. The first fellow explained that they had for me a packet of information, but first he wanted to ask if I’m already settled in a church.

I assured him I am, and with that they turned and left, without leaving the packet of information. “Keep up the good work!” I called out to them, sincerely.

I’m impressed by how they were honoring what Pentecost is about. I suspect that their reasons for being Baptists would have some differences from the list I’ve shared with you today. They would have been quite willing to share their reasons with people they’ve never met. Their church will grow from that willingness.

This church of ours will grow, if we are willing to share our reasons with people we do know, people who aren’t settled in a church of their own. May the Spirit of God free that willingness in us.