We Speak of What We Know

So faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes through the word of Christ.
Romans 10:17

Friends of the Diocese of Texas, I’m honored to be among you. Heartfelt thanks to your good bishops, whom I hold in highest esteem, for the invitation.

There are warm ties between the dioceses of Washington and Texas. A good number of our finest leaders, lay and ordained, hail from the Lonestar State; several are Seminary of the Southwest graduates. And some of our finest leaders have moved from Washington to Texas, including two former members of my staff, not that I have feelings about that. (Andy, when you were the guest preacher at our Diocesan Convention last month, several people suggested that I ask you not to invite more of our leaders to come to Texas.)

Seriously, we in the Diocese of Washington are among the many in the Episcopal Church who look to you, Diocese of Texas, for inspiration and guidance. I know why people are excited to come here. You are further along a path we feel called to walk, and you’ve worked out some issues that many of us are still struggling with. You’ve had the benefit of both long, faithful leadership and the energy of fresh expressions. Bishop Doyle has called you to be a learning organization, and you are. In your learning, you are also teaching and I thank you.

Part of my task today is to hold up a mirror to you, in admiration and love. You are being called out now in new and sacrificial ways, but that’s because of who you are. God is asking great things of you, but those things pale in comparison to what God wants for you. You are God’s beloved, in whom God is well pleased. Jesus is not only calling you out to join in his love for others; he also loves you. Jesus is there for you, and longs for you to experience, ever more deeply, his mercy, love, forgiveness, and grace in the places of your lives and communities where you need him most.  

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Bishop Doyle began his sermon to our Diocesan Convention by saying that he could only share with us what he had himself received.

There is, in my mind, no better definition of evangelism. We can only speak of what we know, as Jesus says in the Gospel of John, and testify to what we have seen. It is a stance of humble conviction, and I pray, one of openness to what others know and have seen, as we all see through the glass dimly.

Shortly after I was elected bishop, a retired priest wrote me a letter in which he stressed the importance of clarity in a leader. “When you are clear about something,” he wrote, “be clear. Don’t pretend otherwise.” His advice was very helpful, both as an exhortation to own whatever clarity comes to me, but also as permission not to feign clarity I didn’t have. Where I wasn’t clear, I could ask questions, seek the wisdom of others, and remind those who looked to me for leadership that all leaders are also followers, and that our faith is not only a gift, it’s a mystery.

So, Diocese of Texas, while there is no need to pretend to know more than you do and to feign a clarity you do not have, still I am here to ask, what you do know of Jesus? What have you seen to which you can testify? And what is it about this church–the Episcopal Church–that you believe is worth sharing?

I took my first conscious step toward following Jesus as a teenager. I was living with my father at the time, who had abandoned all religious practice. A friend from high school invited me to attend Easter services, and I went. Hers was a church with an altar call, and at the end of the service, the pastor stood in the center aisle and asked those who wanted to invite Jesus into their hearts to come forward. I didn’t know what inviting Jesus into my heart meant, but I knew that my heart was a lonely place. So I went forward. And the pastor prayed for me. I don’t remember feeling anything except fear and gratitude for the pastor’s gentle voice as he prayed, but something in me shifted that day. It was a beginning. From that day forward, I wanted more of whatever having Jesus in my heart meant. And I will be forever grateful to the people who first introduced me to Jesus. What greater gift is there?

Nonetheless, the first gift of faith was also my first crisis of faith. It wasn’t long before I felt I had failed my altar call. In that tradition, you only came forward once to be saved, but every week as the invitation was issued, I kept on wanting to go back, hoping that whatever was supposed to happen would happen to me. It wasn’t that I never felt the love of Jesus, but it was never enough to change me in the way I thought I was supposed to change. I wasn’t sure that I felt what I was supposed to feel.

Years later it occurred to me that one reason I love Episcopal Church is because I get to come to the altar every week. Every week I can invite Jesus into my heart and acknowledge my need for mercy and forgiveness. I’m so grateful that my incomplete, broken self is welcome each week to receive the sacramental presence of Jesus. And you know, my heart is still a lonely place sometimes. But instead of feeling inadequate about that, I now bring that emptiness, that space inside to invite Jesus in, as my offering.

Back in high school, I lived for a time with the minister of my church and his family. That gave me a window into the personal lives of those who had larger-than-life personas in church. I was relieved to see they were human, with a whole houseful of foibles and sins. I didn’t resent them for presenting themselves in public as a bit purer than they were in private, but I was sad it wasn’t something we could talk about, or that the minister ever acknowledged that side of his life when he preached.

Years later, as a newly ordained assistant priest, I worked under a rector with a similar inability to acknowledge the gap between the words he proclaimed and the life he lived. We all have that gap, friends. It’s real. In my first job as a priest, I witnessed up close what happens when a leader doesn’t acknowledge, or as they say in the UK, mind the gap by tending to the issues in his/her life. I learned there is a direct correlation between the spiritual health of a leader and that of the congregation he or she serves. It isn’t that leaders are meant to be perfect, of course. But left untended or ignored, all that we refuse to acknowledge within ourselves can seep out into the communities we serve, not to mention our families, and at times it can blow up in our face, wreaking havoc everywhere. I have seen this and know it to be true.

Leaders, it’s essential that we tend to our own lives, that we hold in humility before Christ all we wish was not true about us but is. When we make mistakes, it’s imperative that we own them, apologize, and make restitution. As we do–as we allow ourselves to be human and accept the responsibility for our lives–others will be given permission in our presence to do the same. And what a gift that is.

One more spiritual passage from my early days as a Christian that has bearing on my life and leadership now: In the church that first introduced to me Jesus, there was complete clarity about the path to salvation, and we were on it. It was a narrow path. Many other so-called Christians weren’t on it. Anyone not saved in the ways they understood salvation were not on it. Certainly those who professed other faiths or no faith at all were doomed to eternal suffering if they persisted in resisting accepting Jesus as we had.  

Even at 17, I simply could not  wrap my brain around that way of thinking. When I told the minister I was living with that I was returning to live with my mother, the Episcopalian, he warned me of the dangers of backsliding. I didn’t think it was my place to contradict him, but I also knew I stood in a different place. And in every encounter I’ve had in my life with people of different Christian expressions, other faiths, and no faith at all, I find myself in that same open posture. Jesus is my way, my truth, and my life, of that I am certain. And I give thanks every day for the Episcopal Church’s understanding of the Via Media, the Middle Way, open to truths across a broad spectrum. I give thanks for our hospitality at the altar, and how we receive persons from other branches of the Christianity into our communion with such respect. I love the openness and curiosity with which we engage interfaith conversation and collaboration. In my father’s house, Jesus said, there are many rooms. There is more than one path to that house.

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Last fall at a discipleship conference, one of the presenters, The Rev. Chris Yaw of ChurchNext fame, asked a question I wish we asked one another more often, and so I’m asking you: How is Jesus saving your life right now? For seasoned Christians like most in this room, it’s such a good question–not “Are you saved”, or “When were you saved?”, but “How is Jesus saving your life now?”  

I’ll answer by telling you the two biblical stories that are pillars of salvation for me, both both miracle stories. The first is a story of Jesus walking on the water and his invitation for Peter to join him. Apart from the frozen lakes of Minnesota, I’ve never actually walked on water, but I feel as though I do almost every day of my life. Almost every day I feel called out beyond my capacity to do things I cannot accomplish on my own. Once in great frustration about this, when I was living in Honduras and trying quite unsuccessfully to teach the Bible to a class of sixth graders who knew how to push every one of my buttons, I cried out to God, “Is it always going to be this hard?” And the answer came back immediately: “Yes.” That got my attention. And so did what came next: “But I will be with you.”

He’s more than with me: he’s calling me, every day, even today as I stand before you, to walk on water. And I’m okay with that, as long as I keep my eyes on him. Even so, I sink sometimes, but then Jesus takes my hand, helps me up, and leads me on. Andy Stanley from Northpoint Community Church in Georgia routinely asks leaders if our visions for ministry are big enough for us to know our dependence on God. “Are they God-sized visions?” he asks, “Are they God-inspired visions, that remind us daily of our need for God to accomplish them?”   

Walking on water is my first spiritual pillar, and the second is like unto it: the miracle of the loaves and fish. I live nearly every day with the sense that what I have to offer isn’t enough to meet the needs before me. I’m not being overly modest–I know that I have gifts to offer. But relative to what’s needed, what I have is like five loaves of bread and a few fish before a hungry multitude. But every day, I do my best to offer what I have to Christ. That’s all I can I do; that’s all I have. There isn’t a miracle of abundance every day, but there are some days and no one is more amazed than I. And then, to gather up the fragments afterwards, all the discarded pieces that are also of great value, not to be lost? I can go a long way on such glimpses of salvation, and I do.

As you can hear, I’ve spent most of my life wishing I had more of the internal confidence I see and admire in others, but these days I’m more at peace with the existential emptiness that never fully goes away and thus reminds me of my daily dependence on Christ. It keeps me open to the truths that other people have, even those with whom I have little in common or profoundly disagree. I’m drawn to the wisdom and knowledge that others have and am grateful to pass it along. In fact, I used to say to the congregation that listened to me preach for 18 years, “If I have an original idea, I’ll let you know.” I’m especially interested in the kind of synthesis that happens when disparate parts make up a gloriously unforeseen whole, and humbled when we recognize at last how our blinders keep us from seeing what others see.

This gives me a different confidence, the confidence that St. Paul described when he wrote:

For we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake. For it is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness’, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us. (2 Corinthians 4:5-7)

Diocese of Texas, be of good courage as you walk on water and make your offering. Be of courage, for Christ is with you. He is behind you and before you, there to comfort and restore you. Christ is with you in quiet, and in danger, in hearts that love you, in mouths of friends and stranger.  

What God asks from you pales in comparison to what God longs for you. You are God’s beloved. You are the ones Jesus calls his friends. Speak of what you know. Testify to what you have seen.

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