Thursday, January 24, 2008

Week of Prayer for Christian Unity

Homily preached at Middle and Upper School Chapel at Saint Andrew's Episcopal School

1 Thessalonians 5:12-17; Psalm 34:1-6; Luke 8:1-7

The Lord be with you…

…and also with you
, right? Those words, I think, are encoded in the DNA of every Episcopalian and learned right after your ABC’s if you attend an Episcopal School. In fact, the saying goes (it was Garrison Keillor, I think), “You may be an Episcopalian if Obi Wan Kenobi tells Luke Skywalker, May the force be with you and you automatically respond right to the TV screen, and also with you.”

The Lord be with you…and also with you. There are so many words Episcopalians know on a cellular level, common to all Christians, common to our worship here. Our Father, who art in heaven…the word of the Lord…thanks be to God…as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be forever…

The Episcopal Church’s Book of Common Prayer contains these and many more words, providing a common language for prayer…until you come across words like the ones by which we thank God for the bread and wine of communion, rendering unto thee most hearty thanks for the innumerable benefits procured unto us by the same. Or the one that makes me think my lisp from elementary school is back, for so thou didst ordain when thou createdst me. There is nothing common in the English language about spelling a word with a “dst” at the end!

Now, before you go and tell my bishop that your chaplain has prayerbook issues, let me explain that prayers such as these, although used less and less commonly today in favor of more contemporary language also included in the book…these old prayers also contain such delightful images as we have erred and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep, and my favorite, here we offer and present unto thee, O Lord, our selves, our souls and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy, and living sacrifice unto thee. Truly lovely lines, I think, but not exactly common language these days, right?

This week marks the 100th celebration of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. During this annual event, Catholics and Orthodox and Protestants and Anglicans and all others who claim the Christian faith join together in praying for common ground to stand upon, for a common mission of spreading the good news of Jesus Christ. This week also marks the 181st annual gathering of Episcopalians in Mississippi to shape our ministries for the coming year. Sometimes, when we come together, it feels like we need a Week of Prayer for Episcopalian Unity.

The thing is, even within one church, one community, one organization, one institution, one family…wherever two or more people are gathered, we can find ourselves lacking a common language. Words that feel as natural as breathing to one person may be foreign to another. I learned this when we lived in New York, where no one knew how to spell y’all or had ever eaten grits or rotel, bless their hearts (they didn't know what that meant, either!). Even familiar words of faith can carry different meanings for different people, words like sin and salvation and made in God’s image.

Throw in a diversity of faith traditions and spiritual practices, such as we are blessed with here at Saint Andrews, and it can be even more difficult to communicate. How can we pray a common prayer when we don’t speak the same language? Never stop praying, we heard Paul say to the Thessalonians. But that’s not the issue – the issue is, how do we begin praying?

It depends on what we think unity looks like, I think. If unity means uniformity, so that everyone believes exactly the same thing, and worships exactly the same way, then we’ll never get what we’re praying for. But if unity means finding common ground in the midst of diversity, then we can begin to pray.

The prayerbook defines prayer as responding to God, by thought and by deeds, with or without words. Prayer is more than what we do in this common space, more than what we read from a book or a screen, more than what we say at the dinner table or lying in bed at night or in the minutes before the big test. Prayer is not just a thing we do – it is a way we live, open to the presence of God working in us and around us and through us.

When Paul encourages the Thessalonians to never stop praying, he is not telling them to kneel day in and out with their hands folded and their heads bowed. There are sacred times and places for such prayer in all faith traditions, but Paul wants people to know that every moment of life is sacred when it is lived recognizing and celebrating the God-given worth of all people. Try to get along with each other, Paul writes. That's prayer. Show great respect, encourage those who are left out, help the weak, be patient, don’t be hateful, be good, always be joyful, never stop praying.

There is a Christian saint who made his life a prayer in this way. In the morning when he woke up, he would clasp his hands together and begin, “Dear God…” and then go about his day. In the evening, just before bed, he would clasp his hands together again and say, “Amen.”

We may not always speak a common language of prayer when we are in this CPA turned sacred space. But we do speak a common language of prayer out there through our shared language of academics, by which many among us will solve issues of social concern, cure devastating diseases, or teach future generations. We speak a common language of prayer through our shared language of service, by which many among us will assist those whom the world has forgotten. We speak a common language of prayer through our shared language of community, by which we learn that we never stand alone, and that our combined efforts are greater than sum of our individual efforts. We speak a common language of prayer through our shared language of diversity, by which we learn that each of us brings to the table our own unique gifts and stories and languages that enrich our common life.

And so, The Lord be with you…Let us pray…Dear God…

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