Bishop Stokes has asked all congregations to offer the Prayer for Human Family during worship as a reminder of our identity and mission as God's people in a world that seeks to find ways to push people away from one another. This prayer, found on page 815 of the Book of Common Prayer, runs as follows:
O God, you made us in your own image and redeemed us through Jesus your Son: Look with compassion on the whole human family; take away the arrogance and hatred which infect our hearts; break down the walls that separate us; unite us in bonds of love; and work through our struggle and confusion to accomplish your purposes on earth; that, in your good time, all nations and races may serve you in harmony around your heavenly throne; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
It was written by a priest at Virginia Theological Seminary specifically for this edition of the Prayer Book to be used in times of conflict. It reminds us that despite the strong feelings of divisiveness in our country, we are united as God's people. By saying this prayer before Communion, it also emphasizes the Eucharist as a Sacrament of unity.
There is a powerful story of how the Altar Rail is a place where we all are humbly gathered before God, equally sinners and equally redeemed. It takes place at St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Richmond, VA shortly after the Civil War. It was Communion Sunday (when Communion was celebrated monthly or quarterly!) and the invitation to come forward for Communion had been given. The expectation was that white communicants who sat closer to the front would receive Communion before the black communicants, who sat in the back pews. However, a former slave, well-dressed, arose and went straight to the Communion rail first.
Most of the congregation was stunned and remained in their pews. One older white man stood and made his way to the rail to kneel next to the black man. The priest proceeded to give communion to the two gentlemen, one a man who was once a slave, and the other, former Confederate General Robert E. Lee. Following Lee's example, other congregants quickly joined them. Whether a transient moment of grace or the beginning of reconciliation, it demonstrates the power of Communion and how the Sacraments reveal to us the world that God is creating through our witness.
There is a similar final scene in the wonderful movie Places in the Heart, which tells the story of relationships wounded by violence, betrayal, and mistrust in a Depression-era Texas town. At a Baptist communion service following events that have re-set their lives, worshippers pass Communion to one another. The camera pulls out showing family sharing with family, friend sharing with friend, and then betrayed sharing with betrayer, and even the living with the dead.
This is who we are as Episcopalians. Out of awareness that we each by ourselves see only in part, we seek to be a broad church, a comprehensive church, a church where we are gathered because of our differences, not despite our differences. It is not our agreement with one another that makes us one, but Christ's presence in our lives. As Jesus prayed to God on behalf of his disciples before his arrest, "May they all be one . . . so that the world may believe." (John 17:21)
Whether you are still away on vacation or able to join us each Sunday, I invite us all to take time to say the Prayer for the Human Family as a way of making ourselves available to be God to be the seeds for God's ever growing reign among us.