My wife, The Reverend Natalie Van Kirk, is Rector of Saint Barnabas, Glen Ellyn, Illinois. We have been preaching a series of sermons based upon what we have called, “Questions Our Youth Are Asking.” It has been a good service and their questions have been thought provoking. One of the most recent questions was, “What does it mean to be an Episcopalian?”
That’s been a popular question for a long time, but I’m not always sure that even we Episcopalians know how to answer it. I have heard people say that the thing they love about being an Episcopalian is that you don’t need to believe anything in particular. (I must confess I find that explanation really frustrating and it isn’t remotely true.) I have heard other people say it’s because we love a procession. (I have met people like that. I served in one diocese where a lot of people loved a procession, but they were really Baptists in almost every other way.) And then, of course, there is the famous list that Robin Williams, the comedian once offered. If you haven’t seen that list, you can Google it.
Here are my reasons:
One: To be an Episcopalian is to be a Christian.
When you have time look at the baptismal vows we repeat in the Book of Common Prayer. You won’t find that you promised to be a good Episcopalian. There’s a good reason for that. In an important way, it doesn’t matter.
You see denominations have grown up over the years around what we have discovered about the Christian faith and, based on those discoveries, every denomination does things a bit differently and thinks about things a bit differently. Sometimes those differences can be really important. But at the same time, Christians around the world have always believed that there are certain things that hold us all together that none of us can do without.
We don’t have time to talk about that this morning, but every Sunday morning we recite the Nicene Creed and that pretty well captures the heart of it all. We believe certain things about God, about Jesus and about the Holy Spirit that are necessary to our faith. We believe that certain events are game changers cosmically and historically: the birth of Jesus, his life, death, Resurrection and Ascension. And those things are outlined in the Nicene Creed and serve as a reminder of what it means to be a Christian, every Sunday of the year.
Hold to those. Begin learning what each line of that creed means. There isn’t anything more important than this.
Two: Episcopalians believe that the Bible is a God-breathed word to us, not a book of magic spells.
There are a lot of churches and preachers who treat the Bible as a book of magic. If you’ve read Harry Potter or watched the films, you already know what that looks like. Harry and his friends find a book buried in the libraries at Hogwarts and find formulas or incantations that have a certain effect, and off they go, waving wands and reciting the spells that they find in the books:
Accio! The perfect charm for lazy people who can’t be bothered to get up and fetch the TV remote.
Wingardium Leviosa! Makes things levitate.
Expecto Patronum! The Harry Potter spell to end all Harry Potter spells. (Don’t ask me what it does.)
A lot of Christians treat the Bible that way: Pray this way. Use these words. God works a miracle.
We don’t read the Bible that way. Scripture is “God- breathed.” God is in it, speaks from it. God challenges us.
Is that a simpler approach to the Bible? Does it mean that we can walk away from the will of God or explain away the demands of Scripture. No.
It means that we can never walk away from its demands without striving or struggling. “Forgive” – over and over again. Don’t murder? No, don’t hate. To believe that Scripture is God-breathed is to open ourselves up to divine possibilities – endlessly, without reservation.
Three: Episcopalians believe that worship is too important to make stuff up.
True confession: I was still a United Methodist when I came back to the United States from studying in England, but I had worshipped in the Anglican Church while I lived and studied there.
I came back to a church that celebrated communion once a quarter. At first, I didn’t realize how much my attitude toward worship had changed, and – honestly – I was where I was. I felt obliged to make the best of it. So, I led people in worship.
We didn’t have prayer book, so Sunday after Sunday it was my responsibility to keep the service going and to move us from prayers to Scripture, from Scripture to the sermon and from the sermon to more prayers. Most of that I had to make up on the fly. That was the drill and I prayed hard about it. I also think that there was a lot of real worship that happened. But it was also exhausting and, because I couldn’t know from moment to moment what we really ought to be doing, it was impossible to know for sure whether we were doing the right thing. It all depended to a degree on how I felt about it.
During those early days an older man in the congregation took notes on his bulletin during the service. As the Brits say, “I was chuffed.” He’s finding something valuable, I told myself. Then, after church one day he came up to me and showed me a copy of his bulletin. “I’ve been timing the service and I know how to shorten it.” Sure enough, he hadn’t been taking notes, he had been tracking how much time we spent on each part of the service. And what did he think the solution could be? “Let’s cut the rest of the liturgy out of the service.” Mostly, that amounted to reading the Psalms. At that moment, I realized I couldn’t be a Methodist anymore, not that kind anyway.*
You see, we Episcopalians believe that our worship is grounded in words and in actions that are as old as the church itself. What we say and what we do is based upon the wisdom of the church, and what I feel or think about the way that the service is going doesn’t depend on me. It depends upon what the church has learned about God and about worship over thousands of years. What I feel and what you feel don’t matter. What matters is the truth about God and our liturgy each Sunday offers us the wisdom of the ages.
We don’t make stuff up.
Four: Episcopalians believe that we are what we eat.
Let’s go back to that experience I had in England. When we worshipped, every week we received communion. Do you know why we do that?
The Methodist Church that I was part of believed we did it because we were remembering the sacrifice that Jesus made. We were looking back to something that happened a long time ago and we did it once a quarter whether we needed to or not. (One of my parishioners told me, “You don’t want to do it too often or it isn’t special any longer.”)**
We remember what Jesus did, too, but we also believe that when we eat the body and blood of Jesus, we also take the life of Jesus into us. We are what we eat. And the more of Jesus we eat, the more we are made to become like Jesus. To forgive like him. To love like him. To sacrifice like him.
Do you remember your baptism? Probably not. But when we go back over those words when others are baptized, we get a chance to reread them and they point out that we were baptized into the life of Jesus. Well, in communion or Eucharist, we take the life of Jesus into us again and again. That is also a part of what it means to be an Episcopalian. We don’t believe that we are just remembering something that happened in the past. We are experiencing something that happens to us over and over again. We are becoming more and more like Jesus.
That’s hard to explain. But maybe this will help: If your parents wanted you to be healthy, but all you ever did was remember that they wanted you to be healthy and the rest of the time all you did was eat potato chips and drink chocolate milk, then you would never be the healthy adult your parents longed for you to be. But, if you ate vegetables on a regular basis, then you would become what your parents hoped you would be and you would be healthy. It’s a bit like that with Jesus. Jesus wants you to forgive, love and sacrifice the way that he did, but it isn’t enough to remember that now and then. It’s important to take that in all the time and live like that all the time. The Eucharist or communion helps to make that possible.
When we receive the Eucharist and when we receive the body and blood of Jesus into ourselves, it will help us to become the kind of people that God wants us to be. That’s called God’s grace working within us to transform us.
Five: Episcopalians believe that what is oldy is not moldy.
Please forgive the rhyme.
We all live in a world where new is good. New cars, new houses, new clothes, new phones. Oldy is moldy. Or so we think.
But that’s not what Episcopalians believe. As I said before, we believe that we are part of a faith that is over 2000 years old.
Again, perhaps an analogy would be helpful: I had lots of ideas about what was best when I was young. I was pretty sure that I knew better than my parents what would be fun, what was best, and how things worked. But I discovered that my parents knew a lot of things that I didn’t know. They knew that not everybody is capable of being a good friend. That sometimes people could be cruel. They knew that hard work and discipline was not all that much fun when you are doing it, but they knew that in the long run hard work and discipline made things possible that you never dreamed you could accomplish. Practicing scales made it possible to play a musical instrument. Shooting baskets from the free throw line led to points.
The same is true of Episcopalians. Oldy is not moldy. We listen to the past. We know there is wisdom to be found there. We listen to our parents, grandparents, great grandparents and great, great, great grandparents. They weren’t always right. Sometimes they made mistakes. Sometimes they made really big mistakes. But they did not make those mistakes because they were old, but because they were human – just like us. And what they found out and what we believe is that they discovered things about worshipping and following God that are important and justify our attention.
Oldy isn’t moldy. New isn’t necessarily good.
Six: Episcopalians believe that “Jesus died to take away our sins, not our minds.”
That’s the theme of an old church promotion actually. Like other Christians, we Episcopalians believe that the big problem for us as human beings is that too often we want to be our own gods. That is the essence of sin, and Jesus died so that our sin would no longer control us. When we learn to let go and let God guide us, we are always better off.
But some Christians are afraid that what we learn about our world is the real threat. Some Christian leaders reveal this, telling their followers, “Don’t think too hard about the origins of the universe or the role of evolution. Don’t get too involved in the complexities of philosophy.
If you think about it, though, that can’t be true. As one of my professors observed years ago, “All truth is God’s truth” and, that being the case, a knowledge of the world that God made will always lead us back us to God. It is also worth remembering that if we had to be protected from the truth to make our faith possible, then it really wouldn’t be a very reliable faith.
So, with countless Christians from the past, we believe that Jesus died to take away our sins, not our minds. Christians have been and will continue to be great scientists, psychologists, historians, physicians, philosophers, explorers and countless others who search for the truth. Join them.
Finally — Seven: For Episcopalians, as someone once said, “Faith is a journey, not a guilt trip.”
Over the years I have met a lot of people who believe that God is out to get them – make them feel bad about themselves, make them doubt themselves, make them feel small.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
Sure, God wants us to know where, when and how we are hurting ourselves and others. We need to know that about ourselves, and it would be dangerous not to know it. When we lie, steal, cheat and hurt others, we make our lives miserable and we make the lives of others miserable. There is no hiding that and we shouldn’t. No one who hides the truth about that from us is doing us any good. They are loving us into trouble. Trouble for ourselves and trouble for others.
What God wants to do is free us to be better than we could ever hope or imagine. I will tell you a secret, most of us, including most adults, never learn just how much God hopes for us. We always let a little bit of self-doubt or fear keep us from doing everything that we could do. But it isn’t necessary.
William Wilberforce ended the slave trade without any support when he set out to change the laws in England. Martin Luther King changed the way that we think about race, in spite of the fact that many people despised and attacked him. Mother Theresa fed millions and faced off with the mayor of New York, insisting that people care for the poor and the most defenseless among us.
As Episcopalians, we believe in that kind of journey. Not a guilt trip. A journey of faith, a journey of giving, loving and freeing others.
If you do anything because you are an Episcopalian, join us on the journey.
*Much has changed in the United Methodist Church and not all parts of the church had that attitude toward liturgy, but that was the attitude in my corner of things.
**Again, this was not the attitude of Methodists everywhere and isn’t the official position of the church, but it was that way in my corner of the world at the time.