Stained Glass, V: Why We Should All Be Episcopalians
Bible Text: Philippians 4:1-9 | Preacher: Reverend Dr. Jo Forrest
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Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. —Philippians 4:6
I am grateful that Bill invited me to reflect “why we should all be Episcopalian.” He knows part of the patchwork of my faith background includes a formative experience as an Episcopalian.
In my mid-20’s I could not find a Lutheran church in Montclair, NJ or anywhere close, but there was an Episcopal church truly across the street and it became my church home.
It was the first time in my life that I worshiped in a multi-cultural congregation. Montclair was and is an integrated community and this church was maybe 70% white. The new member class included a few like me…domestic, Midwest and some from India and Nigeria and some with lilting British accents, members of the Anglican Communion.
It is also the first church where I experienced significant conflict—not that prior churches were without—that would be a fairy tale—but that I was old enough and engaged enough to truly see how the sausage was made. The conflict had nothing to do with the racial and ethnic diversity; it was about raising money to fix the leaky roof.
No one expected unanimous agreement in the business of the church. But, no one argued about how we worshiped or prayed, as was occurring in other denominations, including my beloved Lutheran. Disagreement was expected in the business and agreement was vital in worship through the Book of Common Prayer.
Our Epistle is prescribed in the lectionary followed by Episcopalians.
Before I read, please join me in the Prayer for Illumination.
Lord, to whom shall we go?
You have the words of eternal life!
Help us now to hear and obey what you say to us today.
Through Christ, our Lord. Amen. (Based on John 6:68)
Therefore, my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved. I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. Yes, and I ask you also, my loyal companion, help these women, for they have struggled beside me in the work of the gospel, together with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life.
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.
One of the joys of reading private correspondence that has been preserved over the ages is to be reminded of the intimacy and love between people. Couples and families who have stacks of cherished postcards and letters are reminded of a treasured past and who they are.
We experience this joy in reading and reading a letter Paul wrote 2,000 years ago, while imprisoned. His letter to the church in Philippi has shaped our faith, comforted us in times of struggle and stands within our Holy Scripture as a witness to his wisdom for all time.
On the flip side though, preserving this private letter also immortalized a disagreement between Euodia and Syntyche. They will always be known as women who were not getting along. We don’t know why. We only know Paul praised both of them for their work for the gospel and urged each of them and the gathered community to be of the “same mind in the Lord.”
Notice what Paul does not say. In a gathering that is supposed to get along, treat each other with loving kindness, one might expect he would write, “quit it” or “cut it out.” He does not scold them for disagreeing. He does not attempt to take sides. He does not reprimand the community for allowing two women to bicker. Nor does he condemn this as a sign of weakness.
Instead, Paul wants them “to be of the same mind in the Lord” and they are to get there by praying together. Lay out all their thanksgivings and supplications to God in prayer.
For Paul, prayer is not a technique but a relationship. For the Philippians, Paul leads them to a humble posture before their creator and each other. He is redefining their point-of-view to see they are not a collection of lone Christians or adversaries. They are in a world God created, sitting side-by-side with people God created. Euodia is a child of God. Syntyche is a child of God. They are in God’s world and this God is as near as their breath.
Then Paul calls them to “rejoice in the lord,” turning their attention from the circumstances of their individual lives and grievances and desires to focus instead to the blessing of life in God who loves them through adversity.
Amid heartache or loss, or suffering, or striving to change the world to a more just, kind and loving place, we are humbled about how little we can actually do on our own. No matter how difficult it is, when we are together “in the same mind” our entire worldview changes, revealing new possibilities.
To those gathered in Philippi, Paul pleads for God’s sake and the sake of the Christian community, to remember they are in God.
The words “disagreement” and “church” seem to belong together.
In 1534 King Henry VIII of England severed ties with the Roman church protesting their refusal to grant him an annulment. Among the many grievances with Rome, King Henry sought an heir, whom his current wife was unable to provide. He was concerned about his legacy and the future of the British monarchy and wanted a new wife.
The Reformers on the continent inspired Henry and the British Parliament so that the pope was removed and Henry named “the only Supreme Head in Earth of the Church of England.”
The Church of England became the first in the Anglican communion of churches. It married the liturgy and structure of the Roman church of prayer and worship with Reformation theology that invited individual reason and personal relationships with God. What they put together was a form that would continually draw them together in worship and sanction new ideas.
Formal liturgies had been commonly used before this split, but they were in Latin, written by hand and modified, ad hoc by the priest. The advent of the printing press and the desire for this new church to thrive heightened the focus on praying together. Unity within this new church body was founded on the stability of prayers drawn directly from scripture and published in the Book of Common Prayer. Throughout Britain, all those kneeling shoulder-to-shoulder, would worship each Sunday with the same words.
Enough of a history lesson. What was vital in the birth of this new tradition was their devotion to praying together with prayers that not only echoed scripture: the prayers were scripture. Praying from the Book of Common Prayer was praying to God with the Word of God. Everything about their worship was being “in” God. And the faithful adherence to the Book of Common Prayer by all individual churches and members shaped the core expression of belief and identity as a people of God.
Consider this: Jesus taught his disciples to pray with “Our Father who art in heaven…give us this day our daily bread.” It was not “My Father, who art in heaven” or “give me” or “forgive me.” Collective and common prayers instill within us a sense of community that binds us to those through the ages before us and around us.
Almost 500 years later, Anglicans and Episcopalians continue to affirm a three-legged stool of “scripture, tradition, and reason.” This final leg of “reason” leads them to honor varying and often conflicting interpretations of scripture and affirm a range of beliefs.
It also sanctioned the dissention that permeates the Anglican and Episcopal churches—continually negotiating standards for ordination and marriage and the unity—or not—to advocate social policies, demonstrate, and pursue justice.
Ben Varnum sat next to me in Divinity School and now serves as rector of an Episcopal parish in Nebraska. He coached me through some of this Episcopal polity and reflected on prayer.
Prayer is not meant to create a genie’s power of wish-granting; it is meant to convert ourselves. To live a life of prayer is to constantly be asking for our heart, mind, soul, and strength to be made greater than they are, by the God who is greater than we are. The reason we pray in response to the broken parts of the world is recognition that we are not yet large enough to repair those broken places … and it is also a yearning to grow large enough to offer that kind of healing or peace. Prayer is a voice asking for courage; it is asking of ourselves that we be changed to what God would have us be, to meet the challenges and broken things we see, whether that is a broken system of climate or a broken human heart that seeks deadly weapons, or a system that consistently allows such weapons to be too near at hand.
We can learn from the Episcopalians to pray, side-by-side with those with whom we may disagree, for the sake of a church much larger than our individual lives.
If what we learn to do in church forms how we behave in the world, then we can take this same spirit of choosing to remain in community with those with whom we disagree who are also in God’s world.
Veteran radio journalist, Celeste Headlee, authored “The Right Way to Have Difficult Conversations” for the Wall Street Journal. Historically, a radio broadcast is provocative when it explores new ideas or challenges an established norm. In a climate when more and more people are refusing to acknowledge those with whom they have fundamental disagreements, she fears the deepening divides.
“I can confidently say that a good conversation isn’t necessarily an easy one.” Despite how emotionally charged some topics may be, “there isn’t a human being on this planet with whom you have ‘nothing in common,’ no topic so volatile it can’t be spoken of.”
As an aside, it felt as though she hit me between the eyes since I was once given a refrigerator magnet that said, “you can agree with me or you can be wrong.”
Her advice begins with “first be curious and have a genuine willingness to learn something from someone else—even someone with whom you vehemently disagree.”
As an example, she shares the story of Xernona Clayton, an African-American woman who was appointed to oversee a neighborhood improvement project in Atlanta. Calvin Craig was one of the neighborhood captains and also a grand dragon in the Georgia Realm of the United Klans of America.
Over the course of a year, they met frequently to talk, face-to-face. Finally she asked him, “Why do you keep coming here? You and I don’t agree on anything.” Calvin Craig told her “she was fun to talk with.”
Years later, Craig held a press conference to announce he was leaving the KKK to dedicate his life to building a nation where “black men and white men can stand shoulder to shoulder in a united America.”
This encounter showcases a skill in difficult conversations. Headlee advises “to resist the impulse to constantly decide whether you agree…the purpose of listening is to understand, not to determine if someone is right or wrong, an ally or an opponent.”
She concludes, “The point is to get into the habit of viewing others as fallible human beings who are just trying to make it in a very difficult world.”
Jesus came into a very difficult world, saw the hurt in humanity and pursued, over and over again, those on the other side.
We don’t need to look too far for those difficult conversations. We know how to avoid them. If we believe we are all children of God and live in God’s world, nothing is too profane nor off limits. This includes our family and friends.
God calls us to love each other. How do we do respect the gift of human life and protect the 2nd amendment? We need to listen to each other talk about guns.
God reminds us we were once aliens in a foreign land—immigrants. My life is filled with immigrants; both with legal residence and those who reside in my heart but may never have a green card. I will listen to you talk about border walls if you care to hear my hopes and fears. God would condone such a conversation.
Jesus devoted his life to healing and equipped us to do so as his hands and feet. Perhaps we begin by praying together for the wound within our country to heal between the warring factions around health care? Let the “amen” then lead us to action.
However large or small our circle of life, for the sake of our future we need to listen and speak.
Paul encouraged the early Christian community to be “in the same mind as the Lord” for the sake our world.
For the sake of the unity of the church, we can learn from the Episcopalians to pray together through scripture, regardless if we agree on personal confessions of faith, social justice, or how to fix the leaky roof.
For the sake of our community, we need backbones, patience, and a reminder to see the divinity in another so we can pursue difficult conversations that enable us to remain in community.
For the sake of our circle of friends and family, we remember to start with God’s commands.
Finally, in our individual lives, when we wrestle between culture’s “shoulds” and what God might call, for the sake of our very lives, we can go back to Paul’s advice “to be in the same mind.”
George Herbert was a rising English statesmen in the 16th century. He graduated from Cambridge, served as a “Public Orator”—a plumb position for anyone of ambition—and elected to Parliament while very young.
Stunning his friends, he gave up his political ambitions to be ordained in the Anglican Church. His friends objected, suggesting that the life of a pastor was beneath his dignity and skills as a scholar and statesman.
In 1629 Herbert became the rector at an English village where he spent the rest of his short life as a beloved pastor to this small flock. He composed poems and a “little book,” as he called it. It contained “a picture of the many spiritual conflicts that have passed betwixt God and my soul, before I could subject mine to the will of Jesus my Master: in whose service I have found perfect freedom.”
Today scholars esteem Herbert as one of the most skilled and important poets of his day. One has become a dearly beloved Anglican hymn—in 47 hymnals across widely differing denominations.
Come, my Way, my Truth, my Life:
Such a way as gives us breath;
Such a truth as ends all strife,
Such a life as killeth death.
Come, my Light, my Feast, my Strength:
Such a light as shows a feast,
Such a feast as mends in length,
Such a strength as makes his guest.
Come, my Joy, my Love, my Heart:
Such a joy as none can move,
Such a love as none can part,
Such a heart as joys in love.
May it be so. Lauren F. Winner, “Prayer that echoes God,” The Christian Century, Vol 134, No 18. (August 30, 2017), 27.  Scott MacDougall, Ruth Meyers an Louis Weil, “Revising the Episcopal Church’s Book of Common Prayer (1979): Liturgical Theologians in Dialogue,” The Anglican Theological Review, Vol 99, No 3, (Summer 2017): 1562–1634.  Benedict Varnum’ Facebook page posting “thoughts and prayers,” Accessed October 3, 2017.  Celeste Headlee, “The Right Way to Have Difficult Conversations,” The Wall Street Journal, September 8, 2017.  Richard H. Schmidt, “George Herbert – Poet Parson,” Glorious Companions, Five Centuries of Anglican Spirituality (Grand Rapids: William Eerdmans, 2002), 59-79.