To Be an Episcopalian
The Rev. Sara Cosca-Warfield
Scripture: 1 Corinthians 1:10-18
I’ve had the great joy and privilege of meeting weekly with our dear music director, Kathy Douglass, who has decided that she would like to be confirmed next Sunday when Bishop Michael Hanley visits.
The meaning of confirmation has evolved as the Christian community has evolved. At first, it was a way to formally initiate children who had been baptized as infants into the capital-C Church. Before confirmation, they weren’t able to take communion. They needed to demonstrate their belief before they were welcomed at the table.
Obviously, that’s not something we do here. I try to say it multiple times during a service: ALL are welcome at God’s table, no matter how old you are, no matter your stated belief, no matter anything really. This table is an open invitation to God’s love.
But I do think there’s an important place for confirmation in our lives of faith. A lot of us came from traditions that are a lot different than The Episcopal Church. Traditions that approach the Bible very differently, that value sacraments and rituals very differently. Traditions that don’t have confirmation.
As I understand it—and believe me, there are many and sundry ways to understand it even just within the Episcopal Church—confirmation is how a person who has been baptized formally steps into and commits to their Christian community—in this case, The Episcopal Church.
So Kathy and I have been talking a lot about what it means to be part of The Episcopal Church.
It’s actually been really inspiring. We’ve gotten to articulate things we experience in worship and in this community that we’ve felt but haven’t really been able to put words to. We’ve talked about what brings us together as Episcopalians and why that seems to give us so much life.
And I say we because it hasn’t just been Kathy. I learned a lot of this stuff in seminary, but to see how all these intellectual ideas come to life, particularly in this community, has been amazing for me. It’s been a confirmation of sorts of the path I’ve chosen.
So what have Kathy and I been talking about? What is it that unites us as Episcopalians?
Well, before we get into that, I want to talk a little bit about Paul. Whatever you think about Paul and some of his theological choices, no one can deny he was a compelling leader. Was he the master of the humble brag? Yes. The originator, perhaps. But at the end of the day, Paul did something extraordinary: he brought together people in Roman society who had no business coming together, and he brought them together around the Gospel, the Good News of Jesus Christ.
In today’s letter to the Corinthians he writes: “What I mean is that each of you says, “I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apollos,” or “I belong to Cephas,” or “I belong to Christ.” Has Christ been divided?”
Today, we could just as easily say, ‘I belong to Bishop Michael Curry’ or ‘I belong to the pope” or “I belong to the Bible.”
We could say, “I belong to Bernie” or “I belong to Warren” or “I belong to Trump.”
But then there’s Paul, staring out at us from across the centuries to ask, “has Christ been divided?”
Can you imagine, in this climate, Catholics and fundamentalists, progressives and conservatives, coming together in the same room and finding common ground, sharing a love deeper than our divisions?
I can’t, actually. Not right now.
Because right now, the only thing uniting most of us is a deep and desperate need to be right.
When I was a street chaplain in San Francisco, I met weekly with a man named Richard. Richard has paranoid schizophrenia. His illness is severe, but he works so hard to manage it. When we met, he would stop multiple times in the middle of our conversations for reality checks:
“When you were two minutes late, I wondered if a man on the street told you to keep me waiting. Did that happen, or is that my paranoia talking?”
A huge way that he manages his illness is going to church—a fundamentalist church. Richard can quote the Bible backward and forward to you, and I very much disagreed with some of his interpretations. He argued that people should submit to laws and government authorities no matter what, quoting, “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and render to God the things that are God’s.”
At first I battled with him. Jesus, I argued, stood up for the oppressed, even against the authorities. And of course I stand by that, but eventually I realized that all my arguing wasn’t out of care for Richard. It was out of my need to be right.
Because what I began to realize in my conversations with Richard was that his schizophrenic brain needed rules, needed strict order, needed a very black and white take of the world to survive. The way he read the Bible gave that to him. His fundamentalist community gave that to him.
I don’t agree with his theology, but I saw first-hand the peace his faith gave him.
At the end of each meeting, we shared communion. He broke the bread in the way of his tradition, and we shared cherry juice or water or whatever we could find that day. I wasn’t ordained yet, so he said the words of institution, and we ate and drank together. Then he would say, “okay,” and I would say “amen” and he would leave.
One time after communion I noticed a tear welling up in the corner of his eye, and I asked, “what’s that tear about?” and he said, “it’s just nice to have communion with someone every week.” When he left, I cried.
And so I return to the question Kathy and I were digging into: what unites us as Episcopalians?
It’s not doctrine. There is no single doctrine, no words all of us must believe in the same way, in order to be an Episcopalian. Yes, we say words at our baptism, we say words in our worship, but there is no requirement that we all believe those words in the same way.
And even if there was, that’s impossible. Salvation, redemption, grace—they all mean something a little different to each of us based on our own lives, our own experiences. They mean something different to someone managing schizophrenia than to someone who doesn’t struggle with paranoia or hallucinations. They mean something different to someone in recovery than to someone who has never experienced addiction. They mean something different to someone who grew up in poverty than to someone who grew up in relative comfort.
There is truth in every single way people approach their belief, but no one way carries the entire truth. No one way is the “right” way. Words only get us so far when it comes to unity.
There is only one thing that unites all Christians: Jesus. And at the end of the day, it is not the words we say about Jesus that change us—it is our experience of Jesus that changes us.
We come to church on Sundays because we want to make room in our week for an intentional experience of Jesus, and the only way we can can experience the fullness of Jesus is together.
Coming together in worship is what unites us Episcopalians. It is our willingness to pray the same prayers together, hear the scriptures together sing together, come to this rail together, trusting that even if they mean different things to each one of us, God’s truth is revealed in our gathering.
I’ve been trying to figure out how to end this sermon, because in a way it feels like it’s just getting going. But I think that’s the feeling worship is supposed to leave us with: yes, with this feeling of fullness and joy of experiencing God in this beloved community together; but it also leaves us with longing and anticipation. A desire to know what’s next.
Because worship is just the beginning: it’s where we get to practice looking for and finding Jesus in each other so that we can look for and find Jesus when we leave this place.
May it be so.