I am incredibly privileged to preach now and then at St. Luke’s, one of the oldest historically black Episcopal churches in the United States, and a church with an incredible legacy of service to the community and the world. I preached there recently on the first Sunday in Lent, a day on which we read one of the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan. On that Sunday, the choir sang the spiritual, “Wade in the Water.”
As we entered Lent, the images and songs from that Sunday kept following me. I kept thinking about Jesus immersing himself in the muddy waters of the Jordan for our sake–not needing cleansing or baptism himself, but choosing to immerse himself into this world of sin for our sakes. And I kept hearing that hymn, “Wade in the Water.” It commemorates the Israelites’ deliverance at the parting of the Red Sea, and it also commemorates the deliverance of African Americans from slavery. (In fact, one visiting lecturer to a liturgical music class taught us that spirituals like this actually gave escaping slaves hidden instructions via hymn: to escape, one should “wade in the water”–walk along the river’s muddy, watery edge.)
These images came back to me powerfully when my senior class at the Berkeley Divinity School went on pilgrimage March 2-9 at Canterbury, Kent, England. We have studied Anglican historical and theological traditions for two years now, but I can’t say they really felt like my cultural traditions. I grew up in an Italian Catholic culture in a very religious family; ritual and prayer and Catholicism suffused our lives. I was often suspicious of quasi-royal church hierarchy, pageantry, and closed systems in which certain questions simply were not even allowed (by the Church).
As a convert to the Episcopal Church, and thus the Anglican Communion, I found so much that I liked: more democratic discernment and dialogue, openness to change, variety in worship, international communities struggling to remain in communion and to serve together in mission. The churches of the Anglican Communion are working things out constantly, and while it isn’t always pretty, at least it is engagement. But how could I ever get comfortable with the bloody origins of Anglicanism in the vicious reign of Henry VIII? And what was I, a feminist and postcolonial liberation theology buff, supposed to think about the Anglican Church’s sometimes violent colonial actions, participation in slavery, etc.?
And on top of all of this, how was my Franciscan soul supposed to handle the amazing privilege I had been given: an all-expenses paid trip to Canterbury, talks with the dean and archdeacon and canons of the Cathedral, private tours, a brief chat with the Archbishop of Canterbury? I was very, very far away from the homeless community on the New Haven Green.
I was having thoughts like this as I listened to an enchanting cathedral choir of men and boys. I was gazing at Gothic arches and stained glass windows, grateful for the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, almost crying at the beauty of it, but also embarrassed at the richness around me. And I felt conflicted because Canterbury Cathedral is an amazingly intimate, friendly community despite the history and stature of the place. It is not simply a museum to past glory, but rather a community intentionally working its vocation as host to pilgrims. I sensed that hospitality, and I enjoyed it, but I also felt uncomfortable with the privilege associated with it.
Apparently, I wasn’t the only student wondering about these questions, but in this blog, I keep to my story. The realization I came to is that we all, Christian or non-Christian, are wading in the water of humanity, our feet muddied by the sin we cannot avoid, our calves bathed by the grace of God. There is simply no way to be a Christian, no way to be a human being, without touching the sinful ground upon which we walk. I also believe that there is no way to be human without having at least access to the life-giving, warm waters of God’s grace.
And so, it would be impossible for me to find any stream of Christianity without some shameful history. (Heck, the Franciscans, led by the beatified Junipero Serra, enslaved Indians at the missions in California.) I think it would be impossible for me to find any stream of any religion without some mud in it. And even if I did find such a pure stream, I would immediately muddy it, because I also contribute to the muck of this world. Thank God there is a church that wants me anyway.
Coming to this realization (again) gave me peace about my chosen vocation and my chosen Church: the one that recognizes my vocation and strives to respect and lift up all voices–however imperfectly.
This realization has not brought a deep, quiet peace, such as I experience after long meditation periods. It is more of a troubled peace that senses the murky, swirling mess at my feet. God’s gonna trouble the waters, but we will come out on the other side. More on Canterbury, Coventry, and the English countryside later….