People of the Resurrection

Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “they have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” The Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the cloth that had been placed on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings, but rolled up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. Then the disciples returned to their homes. But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord and I do not know where they have laid him.” When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know who it was. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will gladly take him.” Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, “Do not hold onto me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord,” and she told them that he had said these things to her.
John 20:1-18

I greet you in the name of God who shows no partiality, but loves all humankind with an everlasting love. And in the name of Jesus, who came as God among us, showing us a way of love and forgiveness; who was tortured and then executed without once wavering from that way; and whom God raised from the dead. From the earliest days of the Christian witness, this was and remains the most important thing to know about Jesus and to pass on: that he died on a cross; that God raised him from the dead; and that through his death and resurrection, we can experience a love so deep, so broad, and so high–a love that forgives, heals and sets us free.

And if, by chance, you’re not sure if what Christians celebrate on Easter is true, or if it is true, if it matters; or if something’s happened in your life or in our world that’s caused you to doubt what you once believed; or if you’re not even in the zone but just trying to make it through the day and somehow you wound up here, trust me, you’re in good company.

For no matter how well we all clean up, or in my case, how fine the vestments I’m given to wear, even the most seasoned Christians have times when the faith we thought we had wavers, when events conspire to shake our resolve and cause us to wonder if what we’ve staked our lives on is, in fact, true. That should be of some comfort to you, given that we’re talking about the greatest mystery of the Christian faith, and that so much of what we see and experience in this world is at odds with what we profess here. I wouldn’t trust anyone who doesn’t wrestle with these things. And sometimes we’re all at as much of a loss as Mary and the other disciples were on that first Easter morning. Take note of that: their first experience of resurrection is not presented in ways that convey spiritual confidence. On the contrary, it’s a scene of mass confusion.

What brings me back, and I daresay others, and keeps us going, and in the end allows us to affirm our belief in the resurrection of Jesus as it’s told in Scripture, and that it matters, are our own experiences of resurrection–the ways we ourselves have died and been given life on the other side of death through a power not our own. It didn’t just happen to Jesus; it happens to us. And as we’re able to interpret our experiences of moving through to life through the lens of Christian witness about Jesus’ and his resurrection, it feels real to us and for us in ways that give us confidence to place our trust in Him. And when that confidence is shaken, we keep on the path, trusting that what matters isn’t the strength of our faith but the power of God revealed in Jesus.

So what I’d like to do is walk through the story of that first Easter morning and lay alongside it what it can feel like for us to move from death to life. My hope is that doing so can help answer in the affirmative two very important questions: Is the story of Jesus’ resurrection true? And if so, does it matter? And not only for us, but for the good of humankind.

The first thing to say about the Easter experience is that we are not talking about resuscitation, about coming back from the brink and carrying on as before. Resurrection is something else entirely, and the context for it isn’t a near miss, when we’re spared the worst that can happen. The prerequisite for resurrection is, in fact, the worst that can happen: devastating loss and death.

Christians around the world have just spent the last week reminding ourselves of each painstaking detail of Jesus’ violent death. We remembered how the Roman authorities and Jewish religious leaders colluded to rid themselves of this nuisance of a man; that his most ardent disciple denied three times that he even knew him; that another disciple betrayed him. Everyone close to him deserted him in the end, except for a few women who watched him die close up. All were devastated, and for some their grief was compounded by guilt for what they had done or failed to do for their friend.

Likewise for us, the starting point is deep grief in the face of tremendous loss. Fill in the blank of what that loss has been for you; I could certainly tell you of mine. If we laid our losses alongside each other, what our experiences would have in common is their finality. A dream, a relationship, a beloved dies. Sometimes we know ourselves to be responsible for we’ve lost; other times we suffer at the hands of another, or worse, we’re caught in cruel indifference of collective evil, either as its victims or perpetrators, and there’s seemingly no way out and no going back. And so we grieve, going through all that grief requires. You know: it’s exhausting, and it takes a long time to work though. We can get stuck in grief, of course, but equally dangerous is trying to rush through it, as if death were something we could bounce back from. There’s no bouncing back; we are forever changed.

The text tells us that on the first day after the sabbath, Mary rose and went to Jesus’ tomb, most likely to care for his body, for that was a burial ritual reserved for the women of that time. We recognize what’s happening here: she’s going through the motions. Grief puts us on autopilot, as we do what must be done.

But in resurrection something begins to shift, ever so slowly, and it catches our attention. The first thing Mary notices when she arrived at Jesus’ tomb was that the stone covering the entrance to it had been removed. That may sound like a small detail, but it’s a big deal. It was a big deal for her, because it was sizeable stone. It’s a big deal for us, because that stone represents all that keeps us tethered to our loss. And when it’s gone, and we feel a lightness that we weren’t expecting. A weight has been lifted; a way seems to be opening through what we thought was solid rock.

Now you’d think we’d feel exhilarated by this, and maybe we are, but we’re also completely disoriented. Rarely do we feel ready for this when it happens. We may not even want our burdens to be removed as yet, if at all.

I’m reminded here of a little story told in the novel Captain Corelli’s Mandolin about an old man who had been half-deaf since childhood, the “stone” in his life being a small pea that had lodged itself into his ear when he was a boy. When the village doctor realized what had impaired the man’s hearing all these years and managed to extract the wax-and-dirt encrusted pea, the man was at first elated, then completely disoriented, and finally fatigued by the noise all around him, most notably, his wife’s voice that he had never fully heard before. Soon he returned to the village doctor, pleading that he put the pea back.

There’s part of us that would prefer to our stone back, whatever it is, because grief has its comforts. It’s quiet; little is expected from us. With the stone gone, we’re not sure what to do. Mary doesn’t know. She runs and gets Peter and John. They don’t know, so they run around too, and actually look into the empty tomb; one “believes” as a result, whatever that means, and then both inexplicably exit the scene. They go home.

Our heroine stands on the side of this confusion and weeps. There she sees Jesus, not recognizing him until he calls her by name. And then she does what any of us would have done, what we all want to do: she tries to hold onto him as tight as she can. But he says to her, and this is the biggest step of all: you have to let me go.

There is no better way to describe what resurrection requires of us: letting go. I mean really letting go. If your fist is clenched in anger, you have to let it go. If you’re hanging onto something or someone as if your life depended on it, you have to let go now because your new life depends on it. Picture yourself on the edge of a cliff, leaning backwards away from the rock while every instinct in your body tells you to hang on. Or sky-diving the moment before jumping out of a plane. In twelve-step spirituality this moment is known as “admitting powerlessness,” a letting go experience if there ever was one. But as hard as it is, there’s a relief that comes with it. Finally, whatever is going to happen next is out of our hands.

Then comes the most amazing thing: as we’re suspended in mid-air, we feel the presence of God with us, sometimes in the form of Jesus himself. And he’s calling us, as Jesus called Mary, by name. It’s an experience of profound acceptance and unconditional love. We’re incredibly vulnerable, and yet we feel loved, and buoyed by a strength not our own. This is especially powerful when we feel personally responsible for the suffering we’ve endured or caused or others; when the burden of guilt is as strong as whatever it is that we’ve lost.

The classic resurrection story of forgiveness comes a bit further in the text. It’s just as mysterious and confusing as the story of Mary and Jesus the gardener. This story is of Jesus the short-order cook. According to this account, after Jesus’ death some of disciples from Galilee decide to return and resume their former lives as fishermen, and honestly, it’s as if the empty tomb experience never happened. One morning they’re out on the water and they see someone beckoning them to shore. It all feels eerily familiar to them. They have the sense that it’s Jesus, but no one dares say anything. One jumps and swims ashore while others bring in the boat. Jesus is there building a fire, cooking breakfast. “Come and eat,” he says. And they do, not quite sure what to make of it all. After breakfast Jesus takes Simon Peter aside, the one, remember, who denied him three times. He doesn’t berate Peter, tell him how disappointed he is in him. He doesn’t say, “I told you so.” He simply asks: “Do you love me?” Three times he asks, and by the third time Peter is reduced to a puddle of tears because he knows exactly what Jesus is doing. Jesus is healing him of that most shameful memory, replacing it with an affirmation of love. Resurrection is like that: your sin is taken away; the slate is clean. And what’s more, from rising from that very painful experience, you’re given a job:

“Feed my sheep,” Jesus tells Peter. “Share with others what you have received.”

So, question number one: is the story true? Absolutely. I say that to you not merely because it says so in a book called the Bible, but because it’s written on my heart. It’s happened to me, more than once; I’m confident that it’s happened to you. Maybe in relatively small ways, but real, nonetheless, if we dare to claim it as true. I’ve also seen it in other people whose suffering by rights should have broken them completely but didn’t. If you pay attention to the people you admire going through this, and to your own life you begin to see the pattern, the form of it, the process of moving from death to life. Now this is not a journey any of us relishes; we’d all avoid it if we could. We’re talking about death first. But when death comes, resurrection follows, which is really good news. And if you’ve gone through it a few times while you’re still walking the earth, it makes the final resurrection that awaits us at the end less frightening. For we know the pattern, and the One who is calling us home.

And does the resurrection matter? Yes, it does. It matters for us. And I’m not talking about believing certain things about Jesus so you that can get into heaven. You don’t have to worry about that. I’m talking about the quality of your life right now.

And does it matter to the world around us that we are resurrection people? Yes, it does and here’s why. People of the resurrection are among the most joyful, passionate, generous, forgiving, life-affirming human beings on the planet. Think of them. Think of the people you’ve known or have admired from afar. Think of those who respond to hatred with forgiveness; who never seem to lose hope; who believe that all people matter to God. Think of the people who are more than willing to make a nuisance of themselves, as Jesus did, in oppressive societies, and like him, to challenge those who misuse their power; of the ones who are willing to walk into the most hopeless situations and say, “You know, we can change this.” They know that with God all things are possible. Think of the people who willingly go back into valley of death so that someone else might know life.

We can take our place among these, through the power of Jesus’ resurrection living in us. We can do it. WE are who we are, still in need of healing and forgiveness ourselves. We’re not yet all we were created to be. You’ve got your wounds and anxieties and I’ve got mine, and Lord knows we still live in a Good Friday world. But what is stopping us from being people of the resurrection, allowing the grace and mercy, forgiveness and justice of God to flow through us? What is stopping us? The stone is gone; there’s nothing we have to hang onto, God loves us. What else do we need?

So I’m going to give you an example of a person of the resurrection who took my breath away then wrap up with you a final image to take home.

A few nights ago, I heard an interview with Anba Angaelos, the General Bishop of the Coptic Orthodox Church of the United Kingdom. You know what happened in two Coptic churches in Egypt just last Sunday–terrible bombings in the middle of Palm Sunday services. And the bishop is being interviewed about it all.

The journalist asking questions wants to direct the bishop to speak politically and he will have none of it. He only wants to talk about the people suffering such tremendous loss. And he expressed his gratitude for the global outpouring of prayers and support for his people.

But he was also clear about what is at stake, that the goal of the Islamic State, or ISIS, was not merely to terrorize but to eradicate Christianity in Egypt. And at the end of the interview the journalist asked, “Is there anything else you’d like to say, bishop?” Bishop Angaelos said, “Yes, there is. I urge the world to pay attention to the resilience, courage, and forgiving spirit of the Coptic community in Egypt.”

“Do you forgive people who committed this crime?” the interviewer asked. Without hesitation the bishop replied, “Absolutely, I feel no need to forgive the act, which was vicious and evil. But we are all human beings living under the brokenness of sin, with the possibility of repentance. I am happy to continue forgiving, loving and hoping, because I am convinced that that is the only way to break the sinister spiral of violence that has swept across the Middle East.”

I don’t know if I could forgive like that, but I know a person of the resurrection when I hear one. Might we dare say something of the same, based on the bits of resurrection we have known, that we are happy to continue forgiving, loving, and hoping in order to break the spiral of violence and death all around us? Wouldn’t you like to live like that?  The good news is that we can.

So here’s the image to take home with you. Not long ago I was venting about my struggles with all that we’re considering here with the person I speak with for spiritual counsel. And he reminded me of something that I’ll share with you. He spoke of St. Teresa of Avila, a nun who lived in 15th century, who was instructed by her religious superiors to write a book about prayer based on her mystical experiences. She didn’t want to do it, but she was obedient and she set about the task.

The first image she received from God was that of a diamond inside her, a symbol of God’s overwhelming love for her. And my spiritual counselor said to me, “You know what makes a diamond shine so brilliantly, don’t you? The flaws and imperfections in the stone that reflect the brilliance of the light.” That’s how it is with us. All those things that you think are the worst parts of you? Those may be what God will use to bring light and healing and hope to another.

Does resurrection matter? Yes, it does. And if you want to be a person of the resurrection, what you need to remember is this: You can let go. God loves you with an everlasting love. And your imperfections may be the best part of you.

Posted in sermon

What Wondrous Love is This (Homily, Renewal of Vows)

Then Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few;  therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”
Matthew 9: 35-38

In the faith formation curriculum for teenagers called Journey to Adulthood that some of our congregations use, there’s an initial rite of passage ceremony commonly referred to as the “Rite-13 Liturgy.” Its official name is “A Celebration of Manhood and Womanhood,” which helps explain why youth leaders are eager to call it something else. But it’s a beautiful, poignant service, patterned after the Jewish rituals of bar and bat mitzvahs, and it is to take place sometime in the year of a young person’s 13th birthday. Hence the name: Rite-13.

 As part of the liturgy, those crossing the threshold of adolescence stand before the congregation and recite the 139th psalm, having spent considerable time reflecting on it as a group beforehand. Their parents have also been invited to ponder the dramatic physical, emotional, relational and spiritual changes they are about to experience in their children in light of this psalm.

I offer it here for all of us, because it seems to me that before we move toward the renewal of vows we have made, it’s good to remember who God has been for us and remains still:

Lord you have searched me out and known me.
you know my sitting down and my rising up.

You trace my journeys and my resting-places
and are acquainted with all my ways.

Indeed, there is not a word on my lips
but you, O Lord, know it altogether.

You press upon me behind and before
and lay your hand upon me.

Such knowledge is too wonderful to me;
it is so high that I cannot attain to it.

Where can I go then from your Spirit?
Where can I flee from your presence?

If I climb up to heaven, you are there.
If I make the grave my bed, you are there also.

If I take the wings of the morning
And dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,

Even there you hand will lead me
And your right hand hold me fast.

If I say, ‘Surely the darkness will cover me,
and the light around me turn to night.

Darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day.
Darkness and light to you are both alike.
(Psalm 139:1-11)

This foundational truth of God’s unfailing, unconditional, unflappable love is where we must always begin consideration of our vows, and those made on our behalf, for they are our response to a God who loves us first, foremost, and the very end. Sometimes we forget that love, or can’t feel it, or rightfully wonder how it can possibly be true given what we know about ourselves, the suffering we have endured, not to mention what we see all around us. We’d be made of stone not to have doubts sometimes; not to forget and for a time lose our way. Even, perhaps especially, those of us called to proclaim the love of God for others need to be reminded of God’s love for us.

We are the ones who have found ourselves on or were somehow drawn to the Christian path, because we experienced this love of God through the particularity of Jesus–his life and teachings, and a sense of his abiding presence with us. We know that his is a love we cannot earn. And there is a dimension of his love that goes beyond presence–it actually saves us. His love saves us from ourselves, heals us from wounds we’ve sustained and inflicted. He is with us through whatever valleys of the shadow of death that are ours to walk.

And so we sing:

What wondrous love is this, O my soul?
What wondrous love is this, that caused the Lord of Bliss
To lay aside his crown for my soul, for my soul.

And yet, it isn’t just receiving love and being saved that defines a Christian life. There’s a vocation as well, born of response.

When Jesus walked the earth, he gathered people around him and invited some to follow him. Follow me, he would say, to the most unlikely people. And from the texts we get the impression that his words are part invitation, part imperative (does it seem to you that any of them had a choice once they heard the call?), and part miracle story. Jesus needed disciples so he made disciples, and it seemed like anyone would do, anyone who heard the call and said yes. And so the movement began.

And as our Presiding Bishop says so well, Jesus came from God to show us how to live, a better way than the violent ways of this world. He came to show us what the wondrous love of God looks like, what we can count on for ourselves and others, even when we push back to the very edge of hatred. He never once wavered in his love, as the events we commemorate this week make clear. And when we did the worst thing we could possibly do in response to such love, God raised Jesus to break the bond of evil and death. It’s done. God did it, for you, for me, for all of us.

So–at some point each one of us made promises in light of this wondrous love. For most, the initial promises were made on our behalf, at our baptisms. But we wouldn’t be here today if at some point we hadn’t taken those promises on for ourselves. We promised to put our whole trust, our whole selves into the hand of this God of love, to follow Jesus and his teachings, and to live our lives inspired, sustained and guided by His spirit at work in and through us.

Baptism is foundational. At some point, we made those promises for ourselves. From there we’ve gone on to make other promises, other vows–some in relationship, others in vocation, for those of us in leadership in the church, in ordained life.

Not one of these vows can we make just once and be done with. As they say in AA, we live vows like these one day at a time. We often falter in our fulfillment of them. Oh, how we fall down. And then by the grace of God, we get back up. We renew our promises, humbled by the cost, and also of the mercy that awaits us whenever we “repent and return to the Lord.”

For that reason alone, it’s good for us to be here, good to renew the vows we’ve made, as a reminder of their daily imprint and importance, to recall the touchstone moments that brought us to make our vows in the first place, and to say them again.

But I invite you to go one step further and consider this:

What do you know now about what it means to follow Jesus that you didn’t know before?
What do you know about being a Christian, a follower of Jesus, that you didn’t know when you first said yes?

There’s a poignant story in the Gospel of John in which Jesus has just finished speaking hard words, difficult to understand (as if often the case in John). And many who called themselves his followers decided to get off at the next exit ramp. They had had enough. Jesus doesn’t seem surprised, but he turns to the 12, his closest disciples, and asks:

“What about you? Do you also wish to go away?” It was a fair question. They knew a lot more now about the cost. Others were leaving. What did they want to do?

Peter, speaking up for the group, answers, “Lord, to whom would we go? We believe that you have the words to eternal life.” (John 6: 64-68)

What does it mean to renew your vows to follow him, knowing what you know now?

For those of you who made vows to serve Christ as deacons and priests, what do you know about your vocation now? Will you say yes, with all that knowledge in your heart? I can tell you that 5 ½ years into this ministry as bishop, I know more now than I did at the beginning about what the work requires. And I will reaffirm my vow with that knowledge in my heart.

Another way to ask this question is to consider what the call is now, in this season of your life. That’s a big question, one that isn’t answered without considerable prayer, reflection, and perhaps the wise counsel of others.

But whatever bits of clarity you come to regarding this particular season will make it easier–even in the midst of all that conspires to keep us busy, to make the kind of decisions that give coherence to a life, and sanity. It also helps us accept the particularity of the crosses we must bear.

Rather than ask ourselves what we need to get done this week, month or year, why not ask, “What is God, at work in me through the wondrous love of Jesus, calling me to become? What does God need from me now?”

The answer to that question will be as distinctive as each person here is distinct, and exquisitely tailored to each one’s particular life circumstance. For some of us it will be a call to step up in new ways. For others it will be a call to let go. For some it will be a call to keep going on a particular path; for others it will involve a change of course.

For all of us in leadership, I am certain, that the call involves learning new ways of being the church in our time, new ways of leading because the enormous adaptive challenges our communities are facing now. “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few.” One of the reasons why there are so few laborers isn’t because we all aren’t working hard. We need to learn new skills. And there most certainly will be ways we are called to be a witness to the wondrous love of God at a time when there is so much suffering and hardship.

What does God need from us now? It is the particularity of your vocation and mine now that I ask you to consider, so that with whatever bits of clarity God gives you, you can be about the work that is most needed from us now.

Let me close with a word of gratitude. It is a privilege to serve among you and alongside you. I give thanks to God for you and all that you are and do in faithfulness to Jesus. I’m grateful for your kindness, affection, and prayers. I’m grateful when you’re angry with me and tell me so. Because that tells me you respect and trust me enough with your honest reaction to my work. I know that as your leader I will make mistakes. They may not be the mistakes you think I’m making, but I will make them. And I know that when a leader makes mistakes, they are costly to others. I count on you to be real with me, and also, at times, I will ask you to forgive me. And I will do the same with you.

And I invite you as you continue through this week to take the words of the 139th psalm to heart this week, as your prayer. Sing to yourself, in the car or the shower: What wondrous love is this, O my soul?

God will ask great and sacrificial things from you, without question. That’s what’s happens to those who say yes. But remember that what God asks from you pales in comparison to what God wants for you, as the one who is searched out and known, loved and called.

Posted in sermon

Easter Message: A Love that Refuses to Die

Easter Message Cross (1)

Sitting in church at a funeral for my friend’s mom, I heard as if for the first time a familiar Scripture passage, more typically read at weddings:  

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.
(I Corinthians 13)

As we enter Holy Week, I invite you to carry this simple prayer phrase wherever you are, whatever you do. God’s love never ends.

Please do not casually absent yourself from attending worship services this week, either in person or online. Spend a few minutes each day in quiet prayer. In whatever way your life allows, take time to be present with Jesus.

Come to the table of his last meal and experience him gently washing your feet. Then hear his commandment: “Love one another as I have loved you.”  Accompany him into the Garden of Gethsemane. Listen as he prays–first that the cup of suffering might pass him by and then that God’s will, not his, be done.  Stand by as one friend betrays and another denies him. Witness his execution and hear his prayer from the cross: “Father forgive them.” And remember, through it all: God’s love never ends.

Of the events of this week, former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams writes:

When Pilate and the High Priest – acting on behalf of all of us, it seems – push God in Jesus to the edge, God in Jesus gently but firmly pushes back, doing exactly what he always did: loving, forgiving, healing . . . You can do what you like, but God is God. And if he wants to love and forgive then he’s going to love and forgive whether you like it or not, because he is free. (The Sin and the Sacrifice: The Meaning of the Cross and Resurrection).

God’s love never ends: that’s the message of Easter morning. God raises Jesus from death as an eternal sign and promise that nothing we do can keep God from loving us. And that God can do what we cannot: bring life out of death. Weeping may spend the night, but in God, joy will come.

How to respond to such love? First and foremost, by receiving it — by daring to believe it’s real and allowing it to wash over and through you. Never be afraid to ask God to meet you in your place of need or ashamed to acknowledge before God the burdens you carry.

And then by sharing it. The only thing God wants from us, in response to love, is to share love. “I give you a new commandment,” Jesus says to us, “that you love one another as I have loved you.”

You don’t need me to tell you how urgently love is needed in our time, in our world, in realms large and small. Nor how high the cost of that love can be or how imperfect our attempts to spread it. But what better way to live?

“If we imitate the non-violent, non-retaliatory response of Jesus,” Rowan Williams writes, “we ourselves become a sign of the same divine love. We in our lives, in our willingness to be reconciled, show the world what kind of God we believe in: a God who is free from the vicious circle of violence and retaliation.”

I pray that you may know God’s love as perfectly revealed in Jesus for yourself this week. And that together we may live in ways that show the world the kind of God we believe in and a love that refuses to die.

 

Posted in reflection

How Can I Have Faith: Pivotal Circumstances

Jesus cried out with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!
John 11:43

In 1991, at the height of his television acting career, Michael J. Fox was diagnosed with young-onset Parkinson’s disease. For the next seven years Fox struggled privately with the implications of this progressively debilitating disease. He went public with the news in 1998 and retired from his popular television show Spin City two years later. Fox went on to be a passionate advocate and fundraiser for Parkinson’s disease treatment and the search for a cure. He’s since returned to television.

In his memoir, paradoxically entitled Lucky Man, Fox writes:

Coping with relentless assault and the accumulating damage is not easy. Nobody would ever choose to have this visited upon them. Still, this unexpected crisis forced a fundamental life decision: adopt a siege mentality or embark upon a journey. Whatever it was–courage? acceptance? wisdom?–that finally allowed me to go down the second road (after spending a few disastrous years on the first) was unquestionably a gift. Absent this neurophysiological catastrophe, I would never have opened it, or been so profoundly enriched. That’s why I consider myself a lucky man.”

This is my final reflection in a series, How Can I Have Faith? I’m exploring what pastor and author Andy Stanley calls “faith catalysts,” the means through which God seems to strengthen our faith.

Pivotal circumstances are those things that mark our lives forever. One way to recognize pivotal circumstances is by the sense of “before” and “after” about them. We’re going along and then something happens. “Later that summer, my father died;” or “One sunny Monday morning a soldier in uniform knocked on our door.”  “The doctor walked into my hospital room and couldn’t meet my gaze.”

Pivotal circumstances can also be joyful: “Then I saw her across the room.” “My acceptance letter arrived in the mail…” “When I first held our son in my arms…”

What makes a pivotal circumstance a catalyst for faith is the experience of grace, an encounter with God as a source of healing, strength, or love; with Jesus as a loving savior and friend; with the Spirit, as a power working in and through us or through someone else for our sake. When the experience is one of joy, we sense a greater purpose and direction for our lives. With suffering or loss, we often experience despair or a sense of abandonment at first. The grace, when it comes, is what brings us to a place of gratitude–not for the suffering itself, but for who we’ve become through our suffering.

I read Michael Fox’s memoir over 15 years ago, but one sentence has stayed with me:

If you were to rush into this room right now and announce that you had struck a deal – with God, Allah, Buddha, Christ, Krishna, Bill Gates, whomever – in which the ten years since my diagnosis could be magically taken away, traded in for ten more years as the person I was before – I would, without a moment’s hesitation, tell you to take a hike.”

I know that feeling. And even in circumstances for which I can never give thanks, both for myself or others, I am grateful for the promise at the core of Christian faith: that nothing that happens to us can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus, and that suffering, even unto death, will not have the final word.

This Sunday in church we’ll hear of Jesus’ friend Lazarus, whom Jesus calls out from his tomb. It is, in the Gospel of John, the pivotal moment when Jesus’ own fate is sealed, as the religious authorities decide that he must be put to death. It is also the pivotal revelation: that in Jesus, we, too, will rise from death. And that experience is not only waiting for us when we take our final breath. It happens throughout life, in those pivotal circumstances. Of those life-changing, faith defining moments the poet David Whyte writes, “You can feel Lazarus, deep inside even the laziest, most deathly afraid part of you, lift up his hands and walk toward the light.”

 

Posted in reflection

To See or Not to See

But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.”
1 Samuel 16:1-13

As Jesus walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the
world. . .”
John 9:1-41

Good morning, friends of St. Paul’s, Rock Creek. It is a blessing to be with you.

My sermon topic comes straight from the Scripture texts we have just heard, with their many variations on the theme of blindness and sight.

A few questions to start us off:

How do we experience/ interpret blindness? And for the word “blindness” feel free to substitute any other hardship of human experience, any form of suffering, disability, or limitation. What does it feel like, and equally important, how do you and I interpret what’s happened to us? Is it our fault? Is someone else to blame? Are we being punished?  

Here is another constellation of questions:

What is it like for us to realize that we’ve been blind in some way and we didn’t know it, that our vision had been distorted or blocked and we had no idea? There are so many things that affect our sight apart from well our eyes see. What’s it like to acknowledge, as we sing Amazing Grace, “I once was blind, but now I see”?

Exploring these questions is our task this morning. It’s a lot of ground to cover, but your rector assures me that you are intelligent people, and the texts for today give us amazing material to work with.

Let me give you my bottom line before we begin:

Judging our blindness, or that of others, is a waste of our time.
God invites us to see ourselves and others through his eyes.
Jesus invites us to see and experience him as the light of the world and source of abundant life. It’s an invitation we are free to accept or reject.

Let’s start with the matter of judgement, or blame.

We’re all predisposed to seek explanations when bad things happen. We want to make sense of our experience, and yes, to find fault. Because if we know the source of our pain, we can correct it. And if we know who is responsible, we can hold that person–ourselves or someone else–accountable. Truth be told, there is plenty of fault to go around for most of the suffering we experience.

But hear again what Jesus says in response to the question about the man blind from birth. “Who sinned?” the disciples want to know. “The man or his parents?” And in this instance, Jesus replied. “Neither this man nor his parents sinned.” No one was at fault. It simply happened that the man was born blind.

A teenage boy loses both his legs to cancer.
A child is born missing a limb.
A hurricane devastates a village.

It may be someone’s fault, I suppose. But sometimes things happen–hard, terrible things–without a satisfying explanation. We wish it were otherwise and so, I believe, does God.

Let’s look at the gospel passage printed in your bulletin. There is an important difference of biblical interpretation that hinges, believe it or not, on punctuation. Punctuation is a relatively new addition to biblical texts, and is subject to debate.

Find the part that begins with the question the disciples asked Jesus: “Who sinned?” Several of the biblical scholars I consulted this week suggest that there is a misplaced period in Jesus’ answer: The text before you reads: “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” I take that to mean that it wasn’t the result of sin that the man was born blind, but in order that God might be glorified by Jesus’ miracle.

Now read the same sentences this way, as other biblical scholars suggest: “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind. So that God’s works might be revealed in him, we must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. As long as I am in the world,  I am the light of the world.”

This way, neither the man nor his parents are at fault. But nor is it true that he was born blind so that Jesus could work a miracle and God be glorified. Instead, Jesus is saying, because I am here now, God’s love and healing can be revealed here, for him, for his sake. We must work the works of him who sent me while I am here. Do you hear the difference?

Because Jesus is the light of the world, he wants to heal the blind man. Jesus is the light of our world, and he wants us to be healed. Through his love, we can experience healing, not always the kind of healing we want, for healing is a process beyond our understanding.

It is not easy to accept suffering as a part of life; to accept conditions we would not choose for ourselves or wish on anyone else. We want to stop suffering, prevent it if we can; prevent those who cause suffering, and be restored to the fullness of life. That’s what Jesus wants for us, too. But for reasons that we can never fully understand, healing begins with acceptance of whatever it is that we’re struggling with or against. Healing begins with acceptance and letting go of judgment.  

I do not say this without some appreciation of how hard this is. I, for one, need God’s grace and the experience of his presence with me in suffering to reach that place of acceptance. And my capacity to accept suffering fluctuates: some days I’m better at it than others. Some days the best I can do is ask for help in that first task of acceptance. But the healing part is nothing less than miraculous, no matter what form the healing takes.  

Sometimes amazing grace results in full healing of body; surely we all want that. Sometimes it takes the form of strength and the capacity to find joy despite one’s limitations and even through them. Sometimes it takes the form of intense commitment to spare other people suffering that we’ve endured, so that our wound becomes a source of healing grace for others, as the light of Jesus shines in and through us.

Now let’s turn to second set of questions, that have to do with, “self-inflicted blindness,” or being blind and not knowing it, which is the most dangerous form of blindness of all.

As with every story in the gospel of John, there are several things going on at the same time in the story of the man born blind. It’s helpful to remember that the purpose of the Gospel of John, from beginning to end, is to demonstrate beyond any shadow of a doubt that Jesus is the Son of God, the way, the truth, the life and the light for all people; that he came from God to reveal to us the true nature of God and to show us how to live in God’s ways, which are the ways of love. The great sin in the Gospel of John is to reject Jesus, which is exactly what we hear the Jewish religious authorities doing in this story.

Before going any further, let me point out something that you may well know but bears repeating, especially as we get closer to Holy Week and the stories of Jesus’ crucifixion: in some passages, particularly in the Gospel of John and sometimes in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus’ adversaries are referred to as “the Jews.”

Referring to all Jesus’ adversaries as “the Jews,” is like referring to all of America’s adversaries as ….. “the Muslims.” The people in question were most certainly Jewish, but it is a mistake of tragic proportion whenever Christians hear in these references a condemnation of all Jews, which has happened, and has justified horrific acts of anti-Semitism throughout Christian history. Remember that Jesus himself was Jewish, as were all his disciples and most of his early followers. “The Jews” at issue here were the religious authorities of his day, who saw Jesus as both a nuisance and a threat. They apparently particularly hated it when he healed people on the Sabbath day; and he hated it when they judged him for it, because for him, the Sabbath was made for humankind as an expression of God’s love for us. What better day to heal in the name of a loving God?

But rather than dwell further on the sins of the Jewish authorities, let’s use their example as instruction, as a reminder of how dangerous we can be when we choose not to see. Theirs is a blindness of the heart, a condition to which none of us is immune. With heart blindness, not only are we oblivious to what we cannot see, but a part of our identity requires us to be blind in certain ways.  

Anthony de Mello tells a story about a monk who died and was buried by his fellow monks in the tradition of their monastery, in a crypt on the back wall of the chapel. After the funeral service, the other monks heard noises from the other side of the wall. They re-opened the crypt, and the monk who died rose from the coffin and told them of his experience beyond the grave, which contradicted everything their tradition taught them about life after death. So they put him back in the wall.

Are there ways we are blind to what we choose not to see, to be, like Jesus’ adversaries, heart blind? Of course. Are there ways to strengthen and amplify our heart’s vision? I think so. Perhaps the most important thing we can do is tend to our hearts. My husband and I spent a week in Ireland several years ago and as we were leaving, our guide, urged us to pay attention to how we spend our time. Ponder things worthy of your hearts he said. Read more poetry and watch less television. Spend more time in silence and less surfing the Internet. Particularly for those of us entering our elder years, he said, cultivating silence and spending time in prayer becomes more important.

That leads me to my final word on this broad spiritual theme of blindness and sight, going back to the marvelous story from the First Book of Samuel. In the search for Israel’s King, Samuel follows God’s lead and seeks out God’s chosen among the sons of Jesse. The line to remember, perhaps commit to memory from this story: The Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart. God invited Samuel, God invites us to see as God sees, to see ourselves as God sees us; to see others with God’s eyes. This is the most amazing grace of all, and it takes effort on our part, a willingness to suspend our vision and invite God to open our eyes. For me, that’s a daily practice: each day, I pray for the grace to see as God sees, and capacity to love as God loves.

You don’t need me to tell you that there’s a lot of collective blindness in the country right now. But  we can each do our small, but vital part, whenever we consciously seek to see with God’s eyes, when we invite Jesus, as the light of the world, to illumine our path, and when we accept, without judgment, suffering as part of life, and open ourselves to healing grace.

Let me end where I began and say once again:

Judging our blindness, or that of others, is a waste of our time.
God invites us to see ourselves and others through his eyes.
Jesus invites us to see and experience him as the light of the world and source of abundant life. It’s an invitation we are free to accept or reject.

May I pray for us:

Gracious, heavenly Father, we are all blind in so many ways. Help us to accept the suffering that is ours, not as a sign of punishment or source of blame, but as part of the mystery of life in this broken world. Open us to your healing presence, Jesus’ healing light and love. Heal us from heart blindness, Lord, all the ways we choose not to see. Give us your eyes with which to see, eyes of the heart to see to the heart, that we may live guided by your compassion and mercy. With your light, illumine our path. In Jesus name, we pray.

Amen.

 

Posted in sermon

Seeing Through God’s Eyes (Third in a series, How Can I Have Faith?)

MEB Chair Post

The Lord said to Samuel, “Do not look on his appearances or on the height of his
stature . . . for the Lord does not see as mortals see. They look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.”

1 Samuel 16:7

As he walked along, Jesus saw a man blind from birth…
John 9:1

If you make it to church this week, you’ll hear two biblical stories juxtaposing blindness and sight. The first invites us to see as God sees, past appearances to the heart; the second tells of how Jesus heals a man born blind while the religious authorities, who witness this miracle, choose not to see who Jesus is. It’s not a story you can read or hear once and fully understand, but in it I hear an invitation to receive the light of Jesus and allow him to open our eyes.

There are, in fact, many forms of blindness. No one knows this better than the physically blind, who must live alongside those of us who are blind in other ways, but with far less awareness of our sight limitations.

For how well our eyes function isn’t the only thing that affects what we see. Sight depends on where we stand relative to what we’re looking at. It also depends on relationship: we can’t see people clearly if we aren’t in right relationship with them. And our sight is influenced by what we’re willing to see, which makes vision, in part, a matter of intention. Finally, there is the factor of character. As C.S. Lewis wrote in the children’s story, The Magician’s Nephew, “What you see depends a great deal on where you are standing; it also depends on what sort of person you are.”

This reflection is the third in a series for Lent, entitled, “How Can I Have Faith?” I’m exploring what pastor and author Andy Stanley calls “faith catalysts,” those experiences or practices that deepen our relationship with God. He suggests five such catalysts; and last week, I wrote about two: practical teaching and providential relationships. This week, I invite you to consider a third: what Stanley calls “private disciplines,” –all the ways we show up and tend to our relationship with God, so that He can open our eyes.  

Private disciplines are born of intention and practice. They are efforts through which we suspend our own vision, if only for a few moments each day, and ask for different lenses through which to see. For me, this is the heart of private prayer. As I sit–or walk or ride my bike–I pray for the grace to see with God’s eyes. I pray for illumination and guidance; for insight and clarity. And I pray for the courage to walk by faith with whatever glimpses of insight I am given.

While there’s nothing particularly dramatic about private prayer disciplines, perhaps more than any other catalyst, they are what sustain a life of faith. The Jesuit author, James Martin, encourages us to think of our relationship with God as a friendship that we deepen through the same practices with which we tend to any relationship we value, including spending time together. “Knowing God,” he writes, quoting theologian Karl Rahner, “is more important than knowing about God.”

Willow Creek pastor Bill Hybels calls his private discipline “chair time with God.” In his book, Simplify: 10 Practices to Unclutter Your Soul, he writes,

Let me offer you a challenge: Find a spot in your home–for me, it’s a wooden rocking chair by the fireplace–and sit there for fifteen minutes a day, connecting with God. Read His Word, open up your life to Him, and listen for His whispers. When you’re in that chair and you’re in a right relationship with God, it secures your identity. It simplifies your agenda.

And I would add: it opens my eyes. Not every day. Not as clearly as I would like. But enough to keep me going.

I believe that God wants us to see–not that God abhors darkness, for as the psalmist says, “darkness and light to God are both alike.” But healing and clarity often take the form of light, inner light that enables us to see ourselves, one another, and the world more clearly. With inner light, we’re given enough to go by–not for the whole journey, perhaps, but for the steps we need to take today. “Lead kindly light,” go the words of another old hymn, “Lead, Thou, me on. I do not need to see the distant shore. One step is enough for me.”

Posted in reflection

A Little Goes a Long Way (Second in a series, How Can I Have Faith?)

Jesus said, “All things can be done for the one who believes.” Immediately the father cried out, “I believe; help my unbelief!”
Mark 9: 23-24

The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” The Lord replied, “If you had faith the size of this mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea, and it would obey you.’”
Luke 17:5-6

I stumbled into the campus chapel on Easter Sunday of my sophomore year in college. It was one of the saddest days of my life to that point, following a series of soul-crushing events. C.S. Lewis describes the initial feeling of grief as akin to fear–the same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness. I was that kind of stunned and dazed, unable to focus on anything for more than a few minutes. And while I didn’t want to be alone, I also couldn’t bear to be in conversation with anyone.

I don’t remember anything about the Easter service that morning except one piece of the sermon. The priest said that there is only one way to grasp the meaning of resurrection, and that is through the experience of death on this side of the grave –”little deaths,” he called them, that give way to new life.

That’s what I was experiencing, I realized as he spoke. Something in my life had died, and it wasn’t coming back, no matter how much I wanted it to. I had no idea what resurrection would look like, and I didn’t have the sense it would happen anytime soon. But I left chapel that day with a seed of hope planted in my heart, and with that hope, faith. Faith that life after this death could happen, that it would happen, someday.

Later that day, or perhaps that week, a friend of my mother’s called me. She had heard of what happened to me and was reaching out to express her sorrow. I thanked her, standing in the hallway of my dorm, taking, as we did in those days, on a telephone tethered to a wall. “Mariann,” she said as we were saying goodbye, “God is with you, even if you don’t feel it.” I didn’t feel it; I didn’t feel much of anything.  But what she said stayed with me. I didn’t have to feel it for it to be true. I hoped that, maybe later, the feelings would come.

In his book, Deep and Wide, pastor Andy Stanley describes what he calls “faith catalysts,” five distinct pathways through which we can experience the love of God.  His particular focus is catalysts for those drawn to the Christian faith — ways we can experience God through the presence and love of Jesus and, in response, choose to place our faith in him. Two of the five, he suggests, come to us, as it were, from God’s side. They are the ways that God makes the initiative to reach us.  The other three, he says, depend on our active participation.

One of the ways God comes to us is through other people, the particular people whose examples of faith inspire us, or who seem to come into our lives at just the right moment and say just what we need to hear when we need to hear it. They could be anyone: ­­parent or teacher, friend or stranger, mentor or adversary. The faith experience is what happens when, through the example or presence of another person, we feel the presence of God. It’s not just a human exchange; it’s the spirit of God at work, speaking through another person. That’s how I experienced my mother’s friend calling me in my time of need. Her words didn’t take the pain away, but there was something more in her words–an assurance of God’s presence that stayed with me and gave me hope.  

One of the catalysts that requires our active participation is what Stanley calls “practical teaching,” the presentation of a gospel truth that resonates deeply within us, speaks to us, and is, in that moment, both illuminating and helpful. That’s what I experienced on that Easter Sunday so long ago–an interpretation of the resurrection that spoke to my broken heart with a word of hope. I came away from church that day with a way of understanding my experience through the prism of the gospel. The gift came from the word spoken by the preacher–but if I hadn’t made my way to church that morning, I would have missed it.

I’ll write about the other catalysts in future posts. For today, I turn back to the passages that prefaced my words here. In both accounts–that of a desperate father seeking healing for his son and that of the apostles wanting Jesus to give them more faith than they had–there is a sense of longing, a desire for more, an acknowledgment of inadequacy in matters of faith and belief. And in both instances, there’s reassurance: we needn’t have perfect beliefs, or complete faith. Jesus says to us that a little bit of faith can go along way. As your bishop, I can attest to that truth.

 

Posted in Uncategorized

On Our Watch (sermon for the House of Bishops)

There was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? “Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”    

John 3:1-17

Primero, quisiera saludar a mis compañeros que hablan el idioma del cielo. Pero porque todavía estamos en la tierra, voy a predicar en inglés.

Allow me to say hello from here to those I’ve not yet had a chance to greet personally at this meeting, and add my word of welcome those who are new among us. I’d also like to acknowledge with gratitude those who travel the greatest distances, geographically and culturally, to part of this community and all those whose leadership is at the margins of the church. Thank you for all that you do in faithfulness to Christ and in our name. Finally, heartfelt thanks to all who give so freely of your time and gifts to support us as bishops. We couldn’t do this work without you.  

For me, being at the House of Bishops is a bit like putting my canoe into a fast moving stream twice a year with 200 other people, many who are up ahead and have been in the water for a long time, and others who entered the same time as I. As the current takes us along, others join in. We’re each in our own canoe, paddling as best we can; yet we’re in the stream together, navigating its waters. The stream, important as it is, is but one of many that comprise our respective vocations. Good work happens here, not for its own sake, but in service to the places our vocations find greatest expression and for the good of the whole. It’s a gift to be reminded that we are part of a larger body and that we’re not alone.

****

I received the invitation to preach today on the theme “Reconciling Leaders: Bishops in the Jesus Movement,” on January 19th, the day before the presidential inauguration. I wasn’t feeling much like a reconciler that day.

Back in November, I had stated publicly that I would take President-elect Trump’s call to unify the nation to heart, and that, if asked, we at Washington National Cathedral would host an inaugural prayer service, as has been our custom. A few days later, the dean received an invitation from the chair of the inaugural committee for the cathedral choristers to sing at the inauguration itself. The dean called me, and after consulting with the Cathedral leadership, we chose to accept that invitation as well. We did so in the same spirit of hospitality, extended and received, with a desire to witness to that which unifies even a divided country.    

As the inauguration drew nearer, hundreds of people from both within the diocese I serve and most of yours reached out to me and the cathedral leadership. There were a number of social media campaigns organized to pressure us to call off the choir’s singing, especially, as it was in the minds of many, understandably so, a legitimization of all that President Trump stands for that we as a church do not. Many people who had once considered me an ally in the work of justice felt betrayed, and this was particularly true among all the historically excluded groups we’ve been considering in this meeting. They were, in their words, dismayed, angered, disappointed, outraged by my leadership or lack thereof. Several people told me that I was responsible for driving millennials out of the church. One psychologist, observing that I didn’t change course in the face of overwhelming “new data,” opined on Facebook on the pathology of my rigid personality.

Some in the diocese who disagreed with me on the decisions I had made began to get nervous when the tone on social media turned ugly. A few counseled the Cathedral leaders and me to change course, warning that we were doing considerable harm to the Episcopal brand around the diocese and the country. And as our Diocesan Convention was scheduled for later that month, last-minute resolutions all but ensured we would debate the issues of the inauguration and prayer service on the Convention floor, quite possibly overpowering all the other strategic initiatives we had been working on for several years.

I’m not going to dwell much further on the particulars here except to say that I thought a lot in those days about the difference between intent and impact. I grieved the pain our actions caused so many. The episode was, by all accounts, a communications disaster I hope never to repeat. There were any number of ways we could have handled this differently, and better. But there we were.

What I’d like to reflect on with you here is the role of leadership in the center of that kind of storm. It wasn’t the first time it had happened to me, although it was, to date, the most dramatic. I daresay it’s happened to everyone in this room at one time or another, and it will most certainly will again.

Jesus said to Nicodemus that we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen. This is what I know.

That in the midst of a storm like that there is no choice but to ride it out, and my goal was to hang on to every ounce of grace and generosity of spirit that God could provide. Steven Covey, in his 4 quadrants of activity, talks about urgent/important work. A storm is both urgent and important. It’s not where strategic ministry takes place, but in the moment, it becomes a strategic opportunity. For how we respond in a storm will have more lasting impact than the storm itself.  

My primary task in the storm was to hold steady. Rest assured, I felt a whole range of emotions that were not appropriate for me to express publicly. How could I remain calm enough to pay attention and truly listen to those coming toward me? I had to go deep inside, in prayer and self examination. What did I believe? What was I willing to hold even in the midst of such emotion and pain? Had I completely misread the signs? I’ve publicly changed course before. Contrary to what the psychologist wrote about me, I’m not one to dig in the face of criticism. I’m the one who always assumes that I’ve missed something and am inclined to change direction in the face of disappointment or criticism. Was this one of those times?

I knew that I needed support and counsel from wise leaders. I cannot thank enough Presiding Bishop Curry and others in this room. You gave me insight, courage, and ways to respond that had not occurred to me.   

I also needed to talk candidly with the members of the diocesan leadership team, several of whom worked much closer than I to those who felt betrayed, and were among that group themselves. I needed to reach out to leaders of our African American congregations and Latino congregations, and our LGBT clergy and members. They needed to hear from me that it was okay for them to disagree with their bishop, and that I heard them.

And I needed to maintain as many relationships via social media as I could from my side: I responded to every email. I posted on Facebook, trying my best to be present with an undefended heart, moving towards those who were coming at me.

Parenthetically, I’d like to say something to you about the leadership of the Washington National Cathedral, with whom it is my privilege to work. Believe me, the internal issues of the Cathedral are legion; the sustainability questions enormous; and its place in God’s mission in the 21st century still very much a subject of important discernment. But I cannot speak highly enough of our new dean, Randy Hollerith, of the leadership team around him, and of the rising lay leadership of the Cathedral Chapter. I’m proud to work alongside them. We intend to use this experience to have a sustained conversation about the role of Washington National Cathedral in our time–in public life, in the life of the diocese, the wider Episcopal Church, and the nation.

****

Navigating my way through storms is important, for all the energy and time that they take. How I handle them allows me to do my most important work. But the storms themselves are not my most important work. Remember Covey’s second quadrant? It’s the realm of non-urgent important work, all that doesn’t get my attention unless I make it the priority it deserves.

My most important reconciling work as bishop is to do everything from my position to equip leaders and assist our existing congregations and core ministries in the hard work of adapting to the changing world around them; and, where possible, to establish new communities of faith centered around the good news of Jesus. My most non- urgent/important reconciling work is to turn the trends of decline around, create vibrant centers of Christian community where people can come to know God, experience the healing love of Christ, inspired by the Holy Spirit to live transformed lives and change the world. I say that it’s non-urgent work, but it feels urgent to me. I live in a perpetual state of holy urgency about the spiritual health and ministry capacity of the congregations I serve and those I hope to establish on my watch.

Here’s why: There are 88 congregations in the Diocese of Washington. Many are small, with a worshipping congregation under 200. Looking deeply at the trends and internal realities of each, only 12 of them, at most, are on a path of sustainability and growth; another 12-15, at the other extreme, are in precipitous decline–most of them in our most vulnerable or rapidly transitioning neighborhoods or communities.The rest, despite working as hard as they can, will most likely be, without some intervention or significant change, almost exactly where they are now 10 years from now in terms of size and capacity for ministry–this in a part of the country that is experiencing significant population growth and where other expressions of the Christian faith are thriving. I can’t bring myself to count the number of congregations I cannot, in good conscience, recommend to those who are seeking a vibrant expression of Christian community.   

There’s no doubt in my mind that the Jesus Movement is alive and well in the Diocese of Washington. I cannot say the same about the Episcopal branch of the Jesus Movement in all of its expressions. And on my watch, I will do everything in my power, redirect every resource I can, examine every assumption about how we do things and why, in order to promote greater spiritual health, joy, and capacity for ministry throughout the diocese. That includes evaluating all that it costs the diocese for me to be part of the House of Bishops. I must evaluate my efforts, and ours, based on the fruits they produce.

So I find myself saying “no” to a lot of interesting things and important work that I could do because I’m the bishop of of the Diocese of Washington, precisely because those things keep me from the real work of being the bishop of the Diocese of Washington. And I do my best not to be thrown off course for too long by the storms, but deal with them as effectively as possible, and then redirect my focus on the slow, steady work of revitalizing the church.

We speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen.
This is what I know.

Many of the issues holding us back in the Diocese of Washington are spiritual. We, like Nicodemus, need to be born again. Many of the congregations in the Diocese of Washington offer a tepid expression of Christian life, with almost nothing to offer the very people congregational leaders say they want to “attract.”

Many of the issues holding us back are structural. This is where I, as bishop, have particular responsibility. Where do we spend time, energy, and resources that are not bearing fruit? I once attended a conference led by a minister of one of the largest churches in the country, and he said something I’ve never forgotten: In his observation, the biggest difference between a small church and a large one is that a small church has a much harder time letting go of the things that aren’t working. That is certainly true of our smaller congregations. It’s also true of our diocese as a whole. So we are practicing evaluation, and learning to let go. I’m also determined to incorporate good ideas from other places, from the expressions of Christianity all around us that are thriving.

Much of what holds us back is cultural, embedded in personal preferences masked as core values.

And many obstacles are the result of institutional weakness, as congregations feel constrained as but one example, to devote their best energies to their buildings rather than the ministry the buildings exist to serve. If we don’t address these weaknesses, it doesn’t matter how earnestly we want to join in God’s mission in the world, how prophetic our calls are for justice. For our capacity to go where Jesus calls and do what Jesus needs us to do is hindered by our weakness, just as any physical weakness hinders our personal capacity to fully engage our lives.

I cannot accept this as God’s preferred future for us. And I know that you don’t either, which is what I love most about spending time with you. When we gather, I want nothing more than to learn from you, to hear about what you are discovering, experimenting with, all the new ways you’re learning of being the church.

I, for one, ache for us to spend more of our precious time together learning from each other, sharing resources, exploring common struggles, and collectively evaluating our fruitfulness by the rising health and growth of the Episcopal witness.

And so I leave you with a word of deep admiration and encouragement for each of you in the many streams of ministry that define your vocation. Whenever we enter this stream, I hope we never lose sight of the importance of supporting each other. It’s equally important that we gently and firmly hold one another accountable for the health and vitality of the dioceses we serve. We need one another to fuel the holy urgency necessary to sustain our commitment to the renewal of our church. Wouldn’t it be amazing, if on our watch, we could turn the trends of decline around?   

 

Posted in sermon

How Can I Have Faith?

Washington National Cathedral Episcopal Confirmation Ceremony

There was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” John 3:1-17

A week from Thursday, I’ll be speaking to the inaugural Alpha class at Washington National Cathedral. The evening’s question: How can I have faith?

I wonder if that isn’t what Nicodemus, at heart, was asking Jesus. Jesus tells him that no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above. But how, exactly, does that happen? Inquiring minds want to know.

At a recent celebration of the Bishop Walker School, John S. Wilson, president of Morehouse College, spoke of the two most important dates in our lives: the day we were born and the day we find out why. Without the first, we wouldn’t be here; without the second, we’d miss experiencing our lives’ deeper meaning and purpose. On the second day, we’re given eyes of faith, and with them we are born again.

Rather than hearing Jesus’ words as a litmus test for Christians (you must be born again), consider them an invitation to receive the eyes of faith, eyes that allow yourself and others to see as God sees, so that you might live as God would have you live.

It’s a big deal–this leap of faith. It’s like the difference between reading a love story and falling in love yourself; between hearing someone describe the experience of rock climbing and your  being on the edge of a cliff, trusting that the rope will hold. In relationship to God, there’s a world of difference between learning things about God and knowing God; between hearing someone else talk about Jesus and having an experience of his presence for yourself. Do you know what that’s like? If so, how do you know? If not, would you like to?

In preparation for Alpha, I’ve been reading Adam Hamilton’s most recent book, Creed: What Christians Believe and Why. In it he describes the Holy Spirit as “God’s way of working in our lives; God’s way of leading us, guiding us, forming and shaping us; God’s power and presence to comfort and encourage us.” But he goes on: “I believe that many Christians live Spirit-deficient lives, a bit like someone who is sleep-deprived, nutrient-deprived, or oxygen-deprived….As a result, our spiritual lives are a bit anemic as we try living the Christian life by our own wisdom and power.”

My sense is that we often live deprived of spiritual experience that enables us to see ourselves as God sees us, feel ourselves loved as Jesus loves us, as we’re encouraged and led by God’s Holy Spirit. These experiences are real; they are what allow us to know God and have faith.  

Maybe the question is better stated, How can I receive faith? Faith has always felt like a gift to me, but one that I must choose to receive. And the gift is one of experience–something happening that changes the way I see and experience the world.

Between now and Easter, I’ll write each week about some of the ways we can open ourselves to receiving faith, to the experience of God revealed to us in Jesus. For now, I simply ask you to consider where you go to experience grace and holiness, however you define them for yourself. Then make a date to go to those places, either within yourself and externally, in this season of Lent. Allow yourself to be changed, to be born again, to see yourself and your place in the world with the eyes of faith.

Posted in reflection

Immigrants and Refugees: A Call for Compassion

March 02, 2017

you have to understand,
that no one puts their children in a boat
unless the water is safer than the land
no one burns their palms
under trains
beneath carriages
no one spends days and nights in the stomach of a truck
feeding on newspaper unless the miles travelled
means something more than journey.
no one crawls under fences
no one wants to be beaten
pitied. . .

no one would leave home
unless home chased you to the shore

Excerpts from  “Home”  by Warsan Shire.

I understand the need for secure borders and citizen safety. But I’ve known too many people whose life stories find expression in Shire’s poem to be among those who insist that they go back to face the very dangers they fled.

I’ve lived too long in countries whose destitution and violence is linked to American foreign policy to imagine that we bear no global responsibility for the current refugee crisis.

I’ve spent too many years working to help bring sanity and compassion into our nation’s immigration system to accept extreme mandates as the best we can do as a nation. My heart breaks for those who have lived as contributing members of our communities and churches for years and want nothing more than legal status in this country, but who are now afraid to leave their homes for fear of deportation.

And I grieve the public misperception that immigrants put the rest of America at risk when crime rates among immigrants  are much lower than among the general population.

Concern for the immigrant is not merely a biblical mandate for members of the Diocese of Washington. It is a matter of pastoral care. Many who fear arrest and deportation are parents, children, leaders in our congregations, and hardworking members of our communities.

In this special immigration issue of our diocesan bulletin, we strive to tell you how our diocese is responding to the challenges immigrants now face, to give you a primer (para español, haz clic aquí) on current immigration policy and rights, and offer opportunities for you to learn more (para español, haz clic aquí), should you feel called to support our immigrant neighbors in ways large and small.

At the very least, may we all pray with compassion, and remember that no matter who we are and where we come from, we have all been strangers in need of welcome and will be again.

 

Posted in reflection | Tagged ,