RSS Feed

Pentecost, postmodernism and language

One of the things they warn you about in seminary is How to Do Liturgical Change. There are lots of dire stories about parishes who moved their altar back against the east wall in the dead of night, parishes that to this day refuse to use the 79 BCP, Altar Guilds that went rogue and used flowers that the clergy was deathly allergic to. (Ok, that last one isn’t real, but SOUNDS like a great murder mystery, right? Get on that, Midsomer Murders.)

At my parish, I have wanted to try to experiment with the approved trial use liturgies that were approved at GC2018, and see what people thought. So I wrote this sermon to sloooooowwwwly roll out that change, and explain why, and how, we were doing this.

Stay tuned for what the parish says at our Fall check-in.

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

June 9, 2019

Pentecost, Year C

Acts 2

—I think I’ve told you this, but I promised my godmother when I was ordained, never to alter the 8am Rite 1 service, no matter where I was.  

—And so, wherever I have served, the 8am service (or the 7:30am service in one benighted place) has been Rite 1.  

—But there was one exception—in my Kansas City church, at the Rite 1 service, when I got there, we said the old form of the Nicene Creed, which includes the line “I believe in Jesus Christ, who died for us men, and for our salvation.”  

—Now, I know intellectually what “for us men” means.  It means for all humanity.  I know that.  And I also know that the reason we were still saying the old form of the Creed was because there was one particular individual who really found great meaning in it, and would have it no other way.  It was a pastoral concession to her.  

But I also know, that at 8 o clock in the morning, before I’ve had a chance to have my coffee, that my smart, intellectual brain has a hard time catching up with the rest of me.  And the rest of me does not realize that “Jesus Christ came for us men, and for our salvation” includes me too.  And it’s a really jarring feeling to feel yourself outside of salvation that early in the day.

And so, in that one spot, every week, I would skip the line.  Because I couldn’t bring myself to do it.  

Language is a funny thing, in that it allows us to communicate with each other. And yet, the vast constellations of connections and connotations we attach to words are entirely our own, and that can never fully be explicated—so, language is at once common, and entirely opaque. And the line between the two shifts, and changes over time.

Here’s an example: I was talking to some friends, a number of years ago—perhaps 7 years ago, and they asked me, quite seriously, why a person would be on the internet.  What could one do there?  I had a hard time answering.  Because again, intellectually, I know what I do on the internet: I watch movies, I procrastinate, I save my sermons in several places in case I lose a copy, I communicate with friends and family, I read things, I learn things, I…live my life?  The problem was, I wasn’t just trying to explain tasks to them—-I was trying to explain a whole new world.  A new way of being almost.  And I was having trouble finding language that worked for that.

This is one of the reasons that language shifts and changes over time.  Words that meant one thing at one time, come to mean something else, as a critical mass of people’s connections and connotations change to mean something else.  “Nice” used to mean correct.  Now, it means something like polite, kind, sweet.  And, “men” used to mean “all people” and then….it doesn’t quite.  Because we have other, better words for that purpose.

You may be wondering why I am devoting an entire sermon to language, and how it changes.  “Why is she dissecting the minute of words and what they mean?”  For one thing, I’m a writer; and I write sermons each week.  So choosing good words is a hobby of mine.  But for another—given how big the challenge is of communication, given how meanings change, and when we speak, we are evoking meanings that we might not even guess at, it’s really miraculous that we manage to communicate with one another at all.

And yet, on Pentecost, this is the miracle that the Spirit gives the disciples to announce her arrival:  a rush of wind, a burst of flame, and language.  Suddenly, all the pilgrims from all over the world could hear and understand the wondrous news of Jesus in their own language.  Suddenly, the disciples were communicating across culture, across class, across every divide that existed.  The Spirit, in a moment, gave them the words to blow past all of that.  

With the right words.

I imagine it was incredibly uncomfortable.  We know from the text, that not a few of the passers-by assumed that they were all drunk (and, you have to love Peter’s rebuttal:  No!  For it is only 9am!  BUT ALSO!!!  Peter never fails to be Peter.)

And yet, here we are.  When the Spirit shows up, the disciples are given words so that the Good News can be understood.  Even across all the incomprehensibility of the world.  

It is like the Spirit would like us to work hard at this task of communicating.  To really apply ourselves to examining our language, and to re-interpreting our words to make sure we are getting across what we want to.  From the Pentecost story, we learn just what a miracle it is when we communicate, and how much God would like us to do it, and to do it well.

In celebration of Pentecost, for the next season of church, that’s what we’re going to try to do here.  I wrote a bit about this in the Fledgling, but starting today, at the 10:30 service, we will be using a new version of the Eucharistic Prayer.  This version is official—General Convention passed it, the bishop approved it—I promise I haven’t broken any rules or invented any thing bonkers.

But it has become evident, for a while now, that our language may not be communicating the fullness of the Good news as we would wish.  The Eucharistic Prayers we use now were written almost 40 years ago.  Not to make you feel old, but that is before I was born.  

More to the point, that was before our language practice took into account the fullness of humanity.  

When the Prayer Book was written and approved, we were just starting to talk about what it meant that God was beyond, and unconfined by, gender.  Women’s ordination had not happened yet.  The civil rights movement was in process.  There was a lot we, as a church hadn’t yet lived through and processed.  

What we now know is that using masculine pronouns for God exclusively, like the BCP does, limits our vision of who God is and how God acts in the world.  It also can limit who we expect to represent God in the world.  It essentially puts God in a particular box, and while it’s not that any of the writers of the 1979 BCP had a limited understanding of God, or a faulty theology—it’s that our ways of hearing language and of talking about things has changed, in light of where we stand.  So our words about and to God need to change too.

We’re going to try this for a while, and see how it works.  This was approved for trial use at Convention, so it’s meant to be experimented with, tried out.  You may find that you hate the changes.  You may find you want more changes.  You may find you don’t recognize that they’re there at all.  

I encourage you to try it—take stock of how you feel right away saying the words, and hearing them.  What do you think of?  Does it make you think of something different?  As the weeks go on, do the prayers grow on you? Do you find yourself growing deeper into the words, praying deeper into them?  

Whatever you think and feel, the goal here is to talk about it.  Talk to me, talk to each other.  We will discuss how this feels in the fall, as we approach the end of our experiment.  

Pentecost is about the Holy Spirit being among us still, prompting us to find new words, to speak in new ways, to bridge the divides of time, culture and place, because the gospel of Christ cannot be limited even by our poor grasp of language.  With bravery, let us follow where the Spirit is leading us.

About megancastellan

Episcopal priest, writer, wearer of fancy shoes.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: