Blessed and Broken

Blessed and Broken

August 3, 2014
Stina Pope

I want us to listen carefully to the prayer appointed for this morning: Let your continual mercy, O Lord, cleanse and defend your Church; and, because it cannot continue in safety without your help, protect and govern it always by your goodness.

Cleanse and defend us, because we cannot continue in safety without your help, so protect and govern it.What does it mean to ask God to cleanse and protect and govern us?

Forty years ago, the Episcopal Church was in great turmoil. Some retired bishops had gotten together, called eleven women deacons to come to Philadelphia, and they ordained them as priests. It was a great scandal. The national church had not yet officially decided it was OK to ordain women. There were great debates. The conservatives could not imagine that it was possible for women to become priests, because priests carried the image of Christ, and how could a woman do that? The liberals finally quit trying to answer questions like that. However, when the ordinations happened at the end of July forty years ago, it changed the question from “can women become priests?” to “what do we do now that they are ordained?” It was a great cleansing.

Eventually they figured it out, and it was all prefigured by a small woman in China LiTimOiwho was a deacon when the war broke out. In desperation, the bishop, who had no priests at all in the area, ordained her as a priest, seeing no other options. It was highly controversial, and at the end of the war, she resigned her license, but not her priesthood. She did not officially function as a priest again until 1971, when two other women were ordained in Hong Kong, and her orders were recognized.

Forty years ago, I started seminary. When I started, although I was attending an Episcopal church, I actually had not yet been confirmed as an Episcopalian. People asked me what I was going to do if the national church did not decide to ordain women this time around. I had no idea. All I knew was that I was supposed to be in seminary. General Convention was in Minneapolis that year, which is where I was, and I was on retreat with the seminary, but I asked permission to sit in my car and listen to the radio broadcast of what was going on. I cried when I heard that it had passed. And I knew I was lucky, my bishop was one of those who was in favor of women’s ordination. In fact, he had pushed us in the women’s caucus to work harder, and had given us a lot of help. When I graduated from seminary, although there were still several hoops that I had to jump through, there was no question about his ordaining me and the other Episcopal woman who had graduated with me.

And then the fight really began. Trying to get hired in a diocese where there were almost no assistantships was very hard. You know how it is, if you were not a straight white male, they might risk hiring you as an assistant, but not as a rector. It hasn’t changed much. So with no assistantships, no one would hire me. I did what I could, which was to ask supportive clergy to have me fill in for them when they were on vacation. I lived in Minneapolis, and one priest called from the Minnesota side of Fargo, ND. It’s a very long drive. He was going on vacation, and the supply priest he had lined up had had a heart attack. He did not think I would want to do it, but I was willing to come. Then he said, “you need to know, they voted against the ordination of women.” My response was simple. “Thank you, I won’t tell any jokes.”

When I got there, the ladies who were used to dressing Father were not quite sure what to do with me, but they managed, and then a couple of them looked out the window, and one said, “Oh look, there’s Father so-an-so, and his son, I think he’s a priest too” and I thought to myself, why did I drive all this way when there is not one but two priests that they know! During the sermon, the younger one looked out the window the entire time, and I thought “Great! He’s against the ordination of women and no one told him I would be here.” But the real teller, at that time, was whether people came up for communion. Yes, we had to deal with people who would not come for communion, because if a woman celebrated, they were afraid it might not be real. I got so caught up that I didn’t pay attention to whether the two men came up or not. After the service, they waited for everyone else to leave, and introduced themselves. Then I realized that the older man was the one who had had the heart attack. I had assumed he had died! His son had come to take him back to Canada with him, where he was a music professor – so he was not looking out the window when I preached, he was listening.

A couple of months later, the rector of that church called me. “What did you do?” he demanded.

“What?” I said weakly.

“What did you do when you came here?” “I preached, I celebrated, what do you mean – what’s the problem?”

Then he said, “They’re suddenly all pro-women’s ordination.” Without really knowing it, I was causing them to wrestle with their image of what a woman priest was, and my being there and functioning as a priest allowed them to shift.

Jacob wrestled with God and humans and was renamed, Israel, which means, he who struggles with God. We are all wrestlers at some points in our lives. Some of the time it feels like it is a big noisy wrestling match with a lot of people watching and making bets and urging you on and sometimes booing, sometimes it feels like we are wrestling with God, some of the time it is all in the confines of our minds.

Jesus took on the wrestling in our minds in a big way. This story about the feeding of the 5000 was a big story in the early Christian church. We know that because it is in all of the Gospels. It also is found in the Hebrew Scriptures, which tells us that this is something that was expected if you were a major prophet. Therefore, by doing this, Jesus was not just feeding a lot of hungry people, he was establishing himself as a major prophet.

When we look closely at this story, we see ourselves – at least I see myself! – at several points. The great master, Jesus, has been preaching, but more, he has had compassion on these poor people, and he is healing them. The disciples are aware that there is a big crowd, they are getting hungry, and that they are out in the middle of nowhere. Now it really is out in nowhere, I’ve been to this place – and so they tell Jesus to tell the crowd to go out to the villages to get food. His response startles them: You feed them! Can’t you just see them looking at each other? Jesus, they say, we only have enough food for ourselves, and it’s not much. Then, instead of sending the people away, he tells them to sit down. He takes the food they have and blesses it and breaks it, and gives it back to the disciples to hand out. Somehow, everyone gets fed, and it is not a small number of people.

So what happened? Some people say, oh this is easy to explain, once they all got organized, everyone pulled out their own food and shared it. Is that not a miracle? Sometimes people ask me if I believe the miracles in the Bible. My answer is a qualified yes. What do I mean by that? Do I believe that God is capable of performing this or that miracle? Yes, I do. And I do, because I have seen miracles. Therefore, I know that they are quite possible. So are the biblical miracles possible? Of course! Did they actually happen? I don’t know, and honestly, I don’t care. So if someone were able to show conclusively that this or that miracle did not happen (which of course is impossible!), would my faith be affected? No, it would not.

So it actually does not matter to me whether the food that all those people ate came from a multiplication of the loaves and fishes that Jesus touched or from the openness of people’s hearts. Both of those are miracles!

What matters is that I think Jesus still says to us: “You feed them yourselves. You give them what they need.”

How? How Jesus? How do we do that?”

Give me what you have. Ask me for blessing and breaking. Then start handing it out.” The first question we need to look at is what do we have? We are not the typical Episcopal church. So our answer will probably be different than others. It doesn’t matter. But we do need to look at this question. The second question is how do we do that in our context. Jesus asks us to give him what little we have for him to bless, break and give back to us to use on behalf of others. How do we do that? And finally, will we expect miracles? We should!

Let us pray:

Let your continual mercy, O Lord, cleanse and defend your Church; and, because it cannot continue in safety without your help, protect and govern it always by your goodness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.