In this week’s column I reflect on part of our baptismal liturgy, and on the experience of marching on Saturday in Denver.
During the Interregnum in England (1649-1660) use of the Book of Common Prayer was outlawed. The Puritans comprised a majority in Parliament and rejected anything they regarded as “excessive”. On their list was the Book of Common Prayer. Forbidden from using the BCP, Robert Sanderson, bishop of Lincoln, created a baptismal liturgy for the English church. Following the baptismal covenant, Sanderson included a question: “Wilt thou then obediently keep God’s law and commandments, and walk in the same all the days of thy life?”
At some point between the 1662 Book of Common Prayer and our current BCP, published in 1979, that one question grew into five. Found in our BCP on pp 304-5, the five questions elaborate on what exactly one needs to do to “keep God’s law and commandments.” The final question reads: “Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?” We answer, “I will, with God’s help.”
When I ask the congregation that question, it always feels so theoretical to me. Martin Luther King devoted his life to answering that question but for the rest of us I suspect it feels like a much larger assignment than we know how to tackle. And yet, if everyone really undertook this assignment, it literally has the power to change the world. And, it has the power to change us as well.
On Saturday January 21st I participated in the Women’s March in Denver with a group from St John’s. Organized by a parishioner, our contingent was just one of a number from St John’s, and one of a number from our diocese. Indeed, we tried to connect with the other Colorado Episcopalians but missed the rendezvous time because the waiting line for a bus out of Boulder was about an hour long.
I agreed to march with some reservations. I had no interest in marching in protest of anyone or anything. I wanted to march in support of something—specifically the baptismal vows by which I endeavor—and usually struggle—to live. I didn’t want to be part of something marked by anger or violence. I wanted instead to represent Christ.
Happily my fears were unfounded. At no time during our long wait in line for a bus, or riding the bus, or walking through the streets of Denver for a couple of hours did I witness or hear angry behavior. Our group dipped in and out of the crowd of 200,000 and we consistently found our fellow marchers to be peaceful, law-abiding, polite to one another, and friendly. It was, frankly, not what I expected.
I carried a small stack of signs that read, “Episcopalian women marching for the dignity of every human being.” I gave four away to people who liked them. Three people approached me to tell me about their relatives who serve as priests in the Episcopal Church. We met Episcopalians from Golden and Grand Junction, and ran into not one but three sets of parishioners from St John’s. I think many shared my amazement and delight that the day was so peaceful and positive.
I serve a church that at first glance might seem to be wholly comprised of liberal Democrats. Nothing could be further from the truth. There are many in our parish who are people of faith and faithful Republicans. I have dear friends who are people of faith and faithful Republicans. I think sometimes many of us misunderstand the concept of “the kingdom of heaven” and think it means a state of being where everyone agrees with us. Nothing could be farther from the truth. The kingdom of heaven Jesus came to inaugurate is not a state of uniform thinking but rather a state of uniform respect and caring, a place where everyone defends the right of everyone else to live in peace with the basic needs of life met; a state of mind where everyone wishes nothing bad to happen to the other—both those others with whom one agrees and those others with whom one does not. That wishing that nothing bad happen to the other is part of what it means to have Agape love, and Agape love is the kind of love God has for us.
In that spirit then, I intend to pray each day for our new president and for all men and women in positions of power. I may disagree with the positions those in power take, and when I do I will exercise my right to make my voice heard. But I will still pray for them that God will work in them (just as I pray God will work in me), and that nothing bad will happen to them. I will endeavor to practice agape love. (If you wish to undertake this practice too, I suggest prayer No. 19 on page 820 in our BCP.)
I will endeavor to practice agape love for those with whom I may disagree because something happened to me during the march—something I did not expect. The march changed something inside of me. I've never before felt connected to all humanity--not for lack of wanting, just never felt it. I've certainly felt connected to parishes, families, friends, classmates, and so on, but all humanity? No, I never did, until Saturday that is. Participating in the march lit something within me that is still burning. I finally understood in my heart Paul's teaching about all of us being one in Christ.
I invite you ponder the fact that as Christ followers we promise to pattern our lives on the Son of God who invited all sorts of people to eat and drink at one table. Pharisees and Sadducees disagreed with each other, as did Jews and Greeks. Nobody cared for lepers, and women of questionable repute were likewise shunned. And yet Jesus gathered them all together at a common table, to show them that once politics and bad behavior were stripped away, they really were all one. He wasn’t trying to make Sadducees out of Pharisees, nor Jews out of Gentiles. He simply wanted them to understand that if we dig down deep enough there is a common humanity which connects us all. Period. No exceptions. Jesus likewise understood that when we sling hate at another, it diminishes not the other, but us.
We don’t learn to agape love overnight. It takes us a lifetime. As the Chinese philosopher Lao wrote, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”  That single step can be the recitation of a single prayer—that small, and yet that significant. Recall the words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5: 43-46): “You have heard that it was said, 'You shall [agape] love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I say to you, [agape] love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward have you?”
Like many of Jesus’ teachings this one is fine in theory and damned hard to live in practice.
I believe we’re up to the challenge.
Take a single step.