The Words We Say…

When you are in my line of work, you spend a fair amount of time thinking about words. I attempt to spend a bit of time every day thinking about words, specifically the words of Scripture, their ancient meanings, the ancient contexts, and what those ancient words mean today.

Because over time, words lose their meaning. Or better said, meanings evolve. Meaning evolves as time goes by. Just as human beings have evolved over time.

Quick side note: if you don’t believe in evolution, you are in the wrong church! Evolution is settled as truth in the Episcopal Church. But, this is actually a really good illustration of my point. Because, it wasn’t until 1859 when Darwin published the Origin of the Species that we had any idea of what evolution really was or that it exists.

It wasn’t too long before Darwin published Origin of the Species that humans figured out that the earth revolves around the sun. And before that, humans had to figure out that the earth was round.

It was within the last hundred years or so that science figured out that the woman is more than just an oven in reproduction.

Things evolve. Understandings change. Humans evolve. And we have come to understand more, and more of those changes that humans have undergone.

And words, cultures, meanings, those have evolved much faster than humans have.

Now, if at this point, you are thinking back over the texts for today and wondering where I am finding the inspiration to talk about words and evolution, I would like to say simply, I’m not. Because today, I’d like to spend a little time discussing the Confession of Sin. And more specifically, some words within the Confession.

I’m afraid that over time, a lot of those words have just become words. Hopefully not for all of us, but for many, we repeat these words, but don’t spend a lot of time thinking about them.

I first became aware of these words becoming just words after the Sandy Hook school shooting. As I said the words of the Confession the afternoon of the shooting, tears poured down my cheeks.

And the day following the news of each mass shooting, when saying the Confession, the same tears flow down my cheeks. I could list all of the shootings, but that would take most of the time left today and get away from my point.

My point is that I noticed these tears and decided that I should spend more time with the words. Because clearly, these words have a deep, deep meaning and impact within me, even if intellectually they had become words i merely repeated. And my guess is that for some of us gathered here today, the same is true.

“Most merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone. We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. We are truly sorry and we humbly repent. For the sake of our Son Jesus Christ, have mercy on us and forgive us; that we may delight in your will, and walk in your ways, to the glory of your Name. Amen.”

Notice, that it’s we. It’s not I. It’s not me admitting to God that I have sinned. We, as a collective group of people, we are saying to God, that we have done wrong, that we have sinned, in how we think, in how we speak or stay silent, and in how we act, or don’t act.

We admit that we love and value things more than God.

We admit that we do not love our neighbors as ourselves. And for evidence of this, look at all that is going on at our borders, and in the conflict about immigration, how we are treating those with different viewpoints. Or in the way we have come to immediately distrust those with a different political affiliation.

We say we repent, but over time the word repent has come to mean merely “I’m sorry”. But to repent, means so much more than words, it means to physically turn away from something, and back towards something else.

To forgive, is so much more than an acceptance of an apology as though nothing has happened. Forgive has become conflated with forgetting. And nothing, nothing could be further from the meaning of forgive than to forget.

These words, the way we use them, these things matter. We can’t merely say these words.

Over time, Christianity has somehow evolved away from the idea that what Christ taught is how to live in the world we are in, and towards a focus on eternal life.

But Christ didn’t merely teach us a way into Heaven. Christ taught us how to live the lives that we are intended to live, and the Confession of Sin is the way that Episcopalians stand, or kneel, in humility before their God to admit that we have strayed from God’s plan for us. To admit that we don’t stand up for our neighbors, we don’t love them as we love ourselves, hell, often we’ve forgotten how to love ourselves.

We remember how to love our things. But have somehow come to confuse accumulating things with actually loving ourselves.

Loving ourselves, loving our neighbors as ourselves, loving God, walking in God’s ways, those are things we’ve started to say, but have all too often forgotten how to do. These words that we repeat in the confession, these words have in and of themselves become things done and left undone.

The words we say, how we say them, WHY we say them, these may seem like trivial things, but they matter very much to God. Our intentions matter.

Think about the stories we tell. The Bible, particularly the Old Testament, is a story. It’s the story of the Israelite people. Each word is intentionally used and placed. Each Gospel tells the same story, but they tell the same story very differently. The Epistles are all letters to specific people addressing specific things.

These words matter. A lot.

Today is my first trip to Little Compton. And before I arrived this is what I knew: Little Compton is a particularly wealthy and very old community. The wealth of the community having been built in large part on profits either directly or indirectly accumulated as a result of the slave trade.

So I did some research on Little Compton before I came. I wanted to see how the story of Little Compton is told.

The story that Little Compton tells glosses over that this land was taken from the Natives who lived here, the Sakonnet people, and taken because the settlers of the Plymouth Colony wanted to expand their holdings. The most highly regarded founder is Benjamin Church, who is so regarded because his role in conflicts with other native tribes, the Narragansets and Wampanoags.

There is no mention of slavery. There has been a fair amount of research done on Little Compton and slavery, but the main narrative of Little Compton leaves out these parts of its history.

In 1904, Little Compton resident Roswell Burchard gave an address and said of Little Compton “When however, we come to line these stories up against the measuring stick of history, we find that like many of the oft-told legends, they do not coincide with the facts.”

The way we tell our stories, the parts we avoid, the parts we acknowledge, this is important in understanding what is most important to us. But this is also how we line up against the measuring stick of history.

The story we tell, the way we tell it, it avoids that this nation was built on a foundation of white supremacy, of white Christian supremacy, and that it was literally built with the blood, sweat, and lives of native peoples, and African slaves.

With that in mind, how different does the confession of sin feel today?

How different does it feel to think about the things we think, or avoid thinking about? The things we do, or don’t do? Those things we acknowledge or ignore? The people and causes we stand up for, or the moments we choose to remain silent?

We say the confession, but how do we live it out? Have we repented for the sin of slavery? Have we truly returned to the path of God in response to the sins committed in the colonization of this very land?

We say the confession; how do we come together to discuss these sins, and figure out how to heal the harm and return to the will of God?

I don’t have an exact answer to this. But my instinct is that we must educate ourselves about the real stories, our histories, and then come together to talk, to heal, to learn. These conversations will be difficult, but they must happen. Visit the Little Compton historical society, where they have a more full history of this lovely town. Check out what the Center for Reconciliation is doing and become involved in what we’re doing over at your Cathedral.

We must use our words as more than just things we say. Let’s engage our words to be the things we say and create the things we do, rather than allowing our words to represent the things unsaid, and undone.

Otherwise, our words are just words.

Christians, gathered followers of Christ, hear me, we are called to be more than mere words. Every part of us is called to follow Christ, our hearts, our words, our actions, our beliefs. All of us, mind, body, and soul, we are all called.

God wants all of us. All our hearts, and all our minds, and all our bodies. Our words are one of the ways we show our hearts and our minds.

We as Christians need to find words and a way to truly repent, to truly return to the path of God, because how we say the words of the confession show the intentions of our hearts.

God sees our hearts. What do you want God to see?

The 0’s and 1’s of Equality

I happily returned to an Episcopal Church this week, to St. Paul’s, Pawtucket! And I was able to honor the amazing Pauli Murray (seriously, google her)!!!

This week, I learned about Binary in a mathematical sense. Basically (I think), everything is broken down into 1’s and 0’s. And it is the combination of those 1’s and 0’s that make up everything. Roughly. I think. I’m a great priest and was a decent lawyer, but math was never my strongest subject. But I did check with the amazing math person, who says this is correct.

In the world today, there are a lot of things that have been broken down into binaries, but in the sense of if you’re not 0, then you must be totally 1. There’s a constant sense of us v. them: black v white; gay v straight; male v female; cisgender v transgender; citizen v migrant; republican v Democrat; good v bad; strong v weak. The world and people tend to be viewed this way, instead of in the more accurate sense that each human, each of us is a unique combination of 0’s and 1’s. We are all made up of the same stuff, the same 1’s and 0’s.

In this world it seems like we’re all different, but we’re not. We’re all made up of the same stuff, just individually organized and packaged!

As the world has started to evolve, and communication has made the world seem smaller, it makes it seem like we’re all so radically different. And so what I think is happening is that we are tightening our circles around “us” and “them.”

We are focusing on what makes us different, instead of how we are the same. At the same time that people who have always felt a bit different, like outsiders, and marginalized, we are starting to see that there are a lot of people like us.

And so we are celebrating our differences, embracing the unique patterns of 1’s and 0’s that make up each of us.

It makes it seem like we’re breaking out of our binaries. And in some ways, we are. We are now embracing our uniqueness rather that trying to squeeze into boxes designed around someone else’s unique makeup.

The world has been organized around the boxes acceptable boxes to those in power. But what this organization system is now reacting against is that humans can’t easily be categorized! We’ve always been made up in unique combinations.

We just talk about it now.

As uncomfortable as it may be for many, and I admit there was a learning curve for me as well, both for how I understand and view myself, and also a learning curve in recognizing that the world, and humans, are not only one of 2 things, but instead are instead a combination of things. This view of the world, one that recognizes that the world and humans are not us and other, this is getting closer to the will of God.

Because the will of God is for us to honor and respect each human, not despite our differences but because of them.

And we have come a long, long way. Work remains to be completed, but to be sure, we have come a long way.

And on this day, this day that the Episcopal church has set aside to celebrate and remember the Rev. Dr. Pauli Murray, this day is a perfect day to talk about binaries, and the will of God.

Has anyone here today heard of Pauli Murray?

It’s okay if you haven’t. It’s quite common for the women important in various movements to be less well known than their male counterparts. But Pauli is a person worth knowing about. Or else, honestly, she wouldn’t be a saint.

I’m going to jump ahead in the story of Pauli’s life. To when she was in her late 60’s. In 1977, Pauli was one of the earliest women ordained in the Episcopal church. She was ordained in the National Cathedral, next to our very own Canon to the Ordinary (and honestly the best boss I have ever had), Linda Grenz.

Pauli was the first African American woman ordained in the Episcopal Church.

Pauli is considered to be the first lesbian ordained in the Episcopal Church, even though she wasn’t able to be out at that time. But sexuality isn’t the full story of what Pauli represents.

Because what we know now, but what we didn’t know then, is that Pauli was also the first transgender person to be ordained in the Episcopal Church.

Pauli grew up and lived in a world where gender and sex assignment, those were binary things. It was a world where the word transgender didn’t exist. Where gender, which is cultural, and sex, which is biological, were conflated into the same thing. Pauli’s was a world where if you believed or behaved in a way contrary to the gender assigned at your birth, you were considered to have a mental illness, and often people who struggled with gender identity ended up in mental institutions. As Pauli did at various points.

But I’m getting ahead of myself, and making Pauli seem far to one dimensional.

And Pauli Murray was so much more than 1 dimension.

Pauli fought, scraped, and demanded her right to live, to be a black woman, to be a black woman from the south, and for her right to be educated. And she was very, very educated.

She struggled through her undergrad degree, worked for human and civil rights, became a good friend of Eleanor Roosevelt, went to Howard Law School, became very active in civil rights and nonviolent resistance, and while at Howard, Pauli’s senior thesis was the first to challenge the separate in separate but equal – and was referenced in Brown v Board of Education. Pauli became a Dr of law, Wrote what then became a seminal paper on housing discrimination and different ways to challenge discriminatory housing laws and practices. Pauli then worked as a professor at Brandis. And at each step and stop, she was badly discriminated against because of her race, gender, or both.

She was an early member of the National Organization for women. She was an incredibly active member of the Civil Rights movement, and hers was a voice that constantly pointed out the important work black women were doing in the movement, but that women were not in leadership within the movement.

And throughout her life, Faith was incredibly important to Pauli. A lifelong Episcopalian, Pauli often sought and found refuge and strength for the battles of her life in her faith.

Pauli became part of the movement for the Ordination of Women in the Episcopal Church, and while her voice wasn’t the loudest or the best known, her presence was felt. Pauli was discriminated against in Seminary, both for being a woman, and for being black. It didn’t seem to matter that Pauli was an important figure in civil rights and women’s rights. In seminary Pauli once again became only a black woman. Not a black woman who was better educated and more accomplished than even her professors.

Pauli’s sexuality and gender identity were so deeply buried and unacceptable at the time that discrimination for those were not overt issues. Other than raised eyebrows & whispered comments that followed an unmarried woman at the time.

And then, even after being ordained, Pauli struggled to find a church that was willing to have her, and non that were willing to pay her.

Pauli’s struggles, and battles, they aren’t widely known. But the reverberations of her work, and struggles, those are still widely felt today.

And Pauli’s importance, as we move into a world that is finally dealing with the fact that life and people are not easily categorized, cannot be understated.

Especially for us as a church.

The church model that we operate out of was developed in the 50’s and 60’s. And the world has simply changed a lot since the 50’s and 60’s.

Look at this world today, we are no longer merely white and black. We are no longer gay and straight. We are no longer men and women.

But what we are, and what we have always been, are the people of God.

It is time for us as a church to learn to appreciate the beautiful rainbow of humans that exist on this planet. And I mean rainbows of all different kinds!

The colors of our skins! Our sexualities! Our nationalities. The languages we speak. Our gender expressions. Our immigration status. Our religious beliefs.

This is the time to do this. The movement has started, and just as the Corinthians reading says, it’s time to finish what has already been started. We must seek to accomplish equality!

And the best part is, when we do this difficult work, when we learn to see and value everyone, it doesn’t put any additional pressure on us. It doesn’t change our position in the world. It doesn’t harm us in anyway. Instead, just as Paul said, our abundance will match their need. Our love and acceptance will create a balance of love in this world.

It will take effort. But God is with us. This is the will of God.

It is time to get out of our own ways and find a way to be in line with the will of God. If we do this, then we will find the reconciling love of God, and offer true freedom to others, and especially to ourselves.

We will find the freedom of life in the knowledge that while all things may be made up of 1’s and 0’s, all things are a unique blend of 1’s and 0’s.

And we are all beautiful.

Amen