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Friday, August 03, 2007

Wade in the Water

Note: The recent stroll down a sermonic memory lane prompted one reader to ask for a copy of the sermon I preached at the Evensong in support of Walter Righter and Barry Stopfel, on the evening before the ecclesiastical court trial began, charging Bishop Righter with heresy.

That was October 9, 1995!!! (Gee, time flies fast when your spiritual life is on the line.)

I was frustrated not to be able to find a copy of it in my computer files but then I remembered that the only copy I had was on 3.5 inch "floppy disc." Imagine! Neither my laptop nor my computer have that capability. Can you say, "techno-dinosaur"?

I have found a hard copy and, over the past few days, have been transcribing it, saving this time it on both my hard drive and zip file (and, keeping a hard copy).

It's been an important spiritual discipline. I realize now, 12 years later, that this long, hard 35+ year journey we've been on as a church has been sustained by a theology based solidly in our baptismal vows and nourished by the Eucharist.

Can there be a greater spiritual foundation for doing the work of God than the two Great Sacraments of the church?

Guided by the Word of God, nourished by Christ's Body and Blood into which we have been baptized, and led by the Holy Spirit, God willing, we will continue to run this good race until all God's children find perfect freedom in Christ.

Wade in the water
Wade in the water, children
Wade in the water
My God’s gonna trouble the water.

(LEVAS II #143)

A Sermon for Evensong in support of
+Walter Righter and Barry Stopfel+
Elizabeth Kaeton+
The Episcopal Church of St. Luke
Montclair, NJ
October 9, 1995

Please pray with me: Holy God, source of light and life, let the words of your Holy Scriptures illumine the words of this meditation, that your people may find the courage to wade in the waters of their faith, through Jesus Christ, our hope and our salvation. Amen.

Just around this time of year, ten years ago, I sat n a room with some fellow seminarians to begin a study group. We were preparing ourselves for that major “hoop” in the homestretch of the obstacle course on the pathway toward ordination: the dreaded “G.O.E’s.” As I recall, a great deal of anxiety was provoked by one question in particular. It was deemed by my group to have a peculiar deadliness because of its seeming simplicity. The question was: What is the difference between ‘the right’ and ‘the good’?

As the rest of us groaned and moaned and began to formulate answers, one of our members sat in amused silence. Finally, she blurted out, “It’s all very simple! It can be answered in one sentence.” Astonished into silence, all heads turned to hear her answer. What’s the difference between ‘the right’ and ‘the good’? Easy! God is good and the Bishop is right!

Well, that was ten years ago, and some things have changed and others have not. The question has been reformulated: God is good, but which Bishop is right? The House of Bishops seems to be a house divided against itself, and we all know the warning implicit in that biblical periscope. If I may be so bold, I’d like to offer a possible, albeit simple, solution to the complex dilemma we seem to be in: God is, indeed good, and our Bishop is Righter!

I found myself wanting to spend a lot of time in this sermon supporting Bishop Righter and Barry Stopfel by defending them against the charges of heresy. In one of my many drats, I developed a defense strategy which led me to wander into the ‘Land of Grandiosity’, convinced that Christopher Darden or Johnny Cochran, or, at the very least, Mike Rehill, had nothing on me.

That the real temptation of this situation, isn’t it? To separate things into good and bad, right and wrong, and to argue these issues in a litigious setting. A piece of our religious heritage is the virus of ‘Christian triumphalism’ which has notoriously infected missionary efforts and raised the temperature of an evangelistic fervor which blinds the sight to the integrity of every human being. The contemporary reading from Jennifer Phillips which we heard tonight speaks well to this problem.

As my sermonic legal arguments became more complex and convoluted, I found myself sojourning into the temptation of my own sort of ‘Christian triumphalism’. What saved me, as it often does, is the rich heritage of Spirituals from another group of Christians who have triumphed over centuries of Christian tyranny. I kept hearing this simple song of freedom being whispered into my ear.

Wade in the water
Wade in the water, children
Wade in the water
My God’s gonna trouble the water.

Wade in the water. Code words for the people of the Underground Railroad. A signal for people kept in bondage for over 200 years to begin the journey into their freedom. The waters of the nearby streams and rivers, though fraught with danger, provided a measure of safety from those who would hunt them down and bring them back to slavery.

The people of faith who gave us this courageous hymn understood the power of the image of water. They knew well the sacred stories of creation when God troubled the waters. They saw themselves in the story of Moses leading his people out of the bondage in Egypt. For them, the parting of the waters, leading them to safety and freedom on dry land, was not some quaint piece of mythology. It was a very real hope and a promise to them that God would raise up leaders who would take them to the freedom God had promised them. So it is no coincidence that one of the verses of this song goes:

See that band all dressed in red?
(God’s gonna trouble the water)
Must be the children that Moses led.
(God’s gonna trouble the water)

These people of faith were singing this song for their lives. They knew that before the creation of the new order of freedom, God was gonna have to trouble the waters. They knew full well the words of Genesis: “In the beginning God created heaven and earth. The earth was without form and voice, with darkness over the face of the abyss, and a mighty wind swept over the surface of the waters.” It seems that before there is creation, even the creation of freedom from the chaos of slavery and bondage, God’s gonna trouble the water.”

Sisters and Brothers in Christ, we are not here tonight to argue good and bad, right and wrong, and to triumph “our side” over “their side.” We are not here to sacrifice the tenets of our faith on the altars of legal expediency. Rather, we are here as midwives to a new order of creation with which the Body of Christ has been laboring long and hard.

Within the placental waters of our Baptism, the voice of Jesus calls to us from the womb of creation to deepen the commitment of our partnership with God in Christ. We are being called not only to support Walter and Barry, but to stand in solidarity with the poor in spirit (those who know their need of God), with those who mourn; with those who hunger and thirst to see right prevail, and with those who have suffered persecution for the cause of right.

We are called, each one of us, to serve those whom Jesus himself called “beloved.” And, by our vows of Baptism, we pledge to seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as ourselves; and to strive for justice and peace among all people, respecting the dignity of every human being.

This is not a simple matter of being obedient to the “laws” of our Baptism. It is a much higher calling than that. This is about keeping the vows made for us in our Baptism as infants and which we re-affirmed for ourselves at Confirmation.

If we are not about this high calling, if we are not about living fully into the chaos of the mystery of our faith, then we have no claim to the priesthood of all believers. We are impostors and frauds, no better than the Levite and priest who passed by the man going down from Jerusalem to Jerico who fell into the hands of robbers, leaving him half dead. In the history of this church “that man going down from Jerusalem to Jerico” have been and are African-Americans. They have been and are, still, women. And, they have been and are gay and lesbian people of all colors, many of whom are here tonight.

The good news of tonight’s scripture is that Jesus gives us a choice of the role we are to play in our community of faith. We can be helpless victims, half-dead on the road. We can be the priest who was obedient to temple laws. We can be the Levite who was obedient to cultural imperatives. Or, we can be the Samaritan who considered all these things and acted on faith. As the church considers the choice of its own action, I call us to remember the powerful words of one of the saints of the Catholic Worker Movement, Brendon Walsh, When they come for the innocent without crossing over your body, cursed by our religion and your life.”

Look like you better wad in the water.
Wade in the water, children.
Wade in the water.
My God’s gonna trouble the water.

The living waters of our Baptismal faith await us. There are no easy answers, no simple solutions there. This isn’t about being wrong or right, wronger or Righter or Spong or McKelvey or Stopfel or McHugh or Kaeton. Our very identity as Christians is on trial here. This is not about following laws. This is about following the imperatives of Christ.

The only way to accomplish the imperatives of Christ is jump into the waters of our faith. But know this, for it is what was known and understood by those courageous travelers of the Underground Railroad: It is our feet, these feet, your feet, wading in the water, which troubles the water.

If we are God’s agents on this fragile earth, our island home, then the message from an old Baptist preacher I once heard is true: “Our extremities are God’s opportunities.” The moment you put your faith into action the waters of creation begin to be troubled. If I have learned nothing else in my privileged service in the urban arena, it is this: When you stand in solidarity with those who are oppressed, when you seek Christ in the ‘anawim’, the outcast and serve them with the dignity due to one of God’s creation, you invite the same persecution which has been visited upon them.

You see, it’s okay (in fact in some circles it’s very trendy) to serve “them” as long as “they” stay “those people”. As soon as “they” become “us”, as soon as we begin to live out and act our beliefs of equality, especially in creating access to avenues of power and authority within the structures of the institution, Oh Lord, the waters, they do get troubled! Clearly, Bishop righter knows this well. He’s in some hot Baptismal water now!

In the waters of our Baptism, we are all one. Either that’s true and we live it with integrity, or it’s false and we confess ourselves impostors. We either have full access to all of the sacraments of the Church, or we have none. We can not become “cafeteria Christians,” picking and choosing which bits of spiritual food we will serve to those who hunger and thirst for the true, full presence of Christ. I ask you, are we or are we not assured of our worthiness in Christ at each and every Eucharistic banquet?

It comes down to this: If you don’t want to ordain lesbian and gay people, then stop baptizing us. Stop nourishing us with the Bread of Heaven and the Cup of Salvation, or don’t even pretend to be surprised when we grow into the full stature of Christ! As my Seminary Dean, Harvey Guthrie, once said to me, “The world is too broken a place and our people are hurting too deeply for us to play polite games with one another.”

The only way to the gate of heaven is through the waters of our faith, and those waters are fraught with trouble. The faith we share we share in Christ is neither easy nor convenient. Often, it pus is in the midst of a tidal wave of controversy with the expectations of our culture. So it was for the travelers and builders and sponsors of the Underground Railroad. So it will be for us in our day. “Wade in the water” is still code language for social reform and cultural revolution. These words continue the signal to begin the journey toward our freedom in Christ, “in whose service is perfect freedom.”

Our support for Walter and Barry in the form of this prayer service is a revolutionary act, make no mistake. They need to be continually uplifted before God in thought and prayer, and I pray that this is just the beginning of our commitment to do just that in your private and corporate acts of worship. I’m going to call us into another revolutionary act. I want to ask us to live out our belief in the priesthood of all believers. I want us to put our bodies where our mouths have been. I want to ask each one of you to stand and extend your hands in a form of blessing for Walter and Barry. Please join your hearts and minds and souls with mine in this blessing prayer.

Holy God, we ask you to look upon your servants Walter and Barry and behold the wonder of your creation! These are your faithful servants, and we whom they serve to the honor and glory of your Name give you thanks and praise for their lives and ministries of faith. They have stepped out in faith into the waters of Baptism and have troubled those waters in the strong conviction that you are calling us into a new understanding of the ancient order of creation.

Help them to know that no matter how much trouble they stir up for our sake you will be with them. When they hit their foot on the hard rock of confrontation, you will comfort their pain. When they stumble and fall into frustration or despair, you will lift them up. Help them know that the anawim join with Jesus in calling them ‘beloved.’ Help them hear the words you spoke to Jacob as words they can live by: Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go; for I will not leave you until I have done that of which I have spoken to you.” (Gen 28:15)

By the power of the Holy Spirit, may we together, Bishops, Priests and People of God, know the blessings of God which have been promised in Christ Jesus. Amen.

Let the word go forth: The saints of God are rising up with a song in their weary throats. Pray, sisters and brothers, to be in that number. The people of God are wading in the water. The poor in spirit are claiming their inheritance. As St. Lutibelle is oft’ wont to remind us, “The meek are getting ready.” The peacemakers, even now, are beating their swords into plowshares. And, bands of angels are in their sweet, sweet chariots, comin’ for to carry us home.

Look over yonder, what do I see?
(God’s gonna trouble the water.)
You know the Holy Ghost is a comin’ on thee.
(God’s gonna trouble the water.)
C’mon and wade in the water.
Wade in the water, children.
Wade in the water,
My God’s gonna trouble the water.

And let all God’s children say, “AMEN.”


johnieb said...


I noted this as a new member of Christ Church Cathedral Parish, Hartford, which was, for a time, to be a venue for the trial, or so I heard. We had good leaders, and dodged that bullet, at least locally and temporarily, though it seems now it was to be only temporary and local.

It's good to find they were so ably supported at home, too; thanks be to Godde.

VTcrone said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Muthah+ said...

Thanks for posting this. It is quite appropo for me at this point. Maybe the folks at Madpriest need to know how to wade in the water. I do know that the Church needs to be sure that wading in the water is what is called by Christ.

Anonymous said...

What a great and magnificent homily that was/is! And to think it was almost lost!

There are so many good pithy phrases, but I particularly liked this one:

We are not here to sacrifice the tenets of our faith on the altars of legal expediency. Rather, we are here as midwives to a new order of creation with which the Body of Christ has been laboring long and hard.

Seems very timely to me.

Rowan The Dog said...

I hope these sermons are not languishing away on an archaic disk somewhere. You've posted two amazing sermons in the last couple of days. The others need to see the light of day too.



David said...

Can you preach- and all to God's greater glory!
Sister, you literally moved me to tears- an thankfully awe at the great grace our LGBT brothers and sisters are showing so wondrously in these trying times. I would second Rowan Pup's suggestion to get the Word out there. So many of our LGBT brothers and sisters witnessing through the Word to God's great grace in these trying times,though the particular lense of their LGBT lives of faith.
And a hungry world waits.
Thank-you Elizabeth.