Acknowledging Jesus Before Others: A Bishop’s Testimony

“Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven; but whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven. Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother,  and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household. Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”
Matthew 10:24-39

When I was in high school, the Episcopal priest of my church was the greatest spiritual influence on my life. He was the kind of preacher who made me feel as if he had been following me around all week and then was able to speak precisely the word that God wanted me to hear. He was also an intentional father figure, meeting with me regularly to talk through issues of life. He encouraged me in my personal growth as a Christian and as a lay leader in the church. He taught me about prayer, the study of Scripture; about tithing and living a life of generosity. I also confess that he intimidated me. I hated to disagree with him or counter his counsel, because it felt as if I were disagreeing with God.

I must have been on some kind of planning committee for our graduation, because somehow it came up in conversation at school that we needed a speaker for our baccalaureate service. I suggested my priest and the school agreed. When he came to school for a planning meeting, I was so intimidated by his presence that I could barely say a word. I couldn’t even make eye contact with him, much less speak directly to him in that setting.

The next Sunday in church, he asked, “Mariann, why did you ignore me at your school? Why didn’t you acknowledge me?” It hurt and puzzled him. “I thought you loved me,” he said. And I felt so ashamed. He didn’t intend to invoke shame in me–he was genuinely curious, and a bit sad, for it caused him wonder if he was as important to me as he had thought.

Jesus said “Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven; but whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven.”

I’d like to speak to you today about acknowledging Jesus.  

I’m aware Christ Church is among the many churches that have used the Alpha Course, a tremendously influential introduction to the Christian faith created by an Anglican Church in London–Holy Trinity Anglican Church, Brompton. Alpha is designed for people who have no experience, or no positive experience, of the Christian faith. At its best, the Alpha course is offered freely, with lavish hospitality. There is no pressure to become a Christian, although its approach is clearly evangelical, telling the good news about Jesus as convincingly as possible. Thus it’s also a way for seasoned Christians to practice sharing their faith in a respectful, loving way.

We piloted an Alpha course at Washington National Cathedral this spring, as did several other congregations throughout the diocese. I gave two of the Alpha talks for the Cathedral gathering, an experience has inspired me to prepare talks for all 10 Alpha questions:

Who is Jesus?
Why did Jesus die?
How can I have faith?
How and why do I pray?
How and why should I read the Bible?
How does God guide us?
Who is the Holy Spirit?
What does the Holy Spirit do?
How can I be filled with the Holy Spirit?
How can I make the rest of the most of my life?
How can I resist evil?
Why and how should I tell others?
Does God heal today?
What about the Church?

It’s going to take me awhile to prepare all these talks, but I’m starting today with you, as I begin to answer the question for anyone who might ask me, “Who is Jesus?”  

This is not the final version of what will eventually be my Alpha talk on Jesus,  but merely the beginning, as I seek to be one who acknowledges Jesus before others. In essence, I’d like to give you part of my testimony.  I would be thrilled if  any of you, in response, feel moved to share your testimony with me.

A little bit about my religious upbringing, which was spotty, to put it mildly. I was born in New Jersey; my parents divorced when I was an infant. My mother, a Swedish immigrant, did her best to raise my older sister and me alone, as she worked full time and went to college in order to be certified as a physical therapist in this country. I was christened at the Methodist Church in our neighborhood, but I don’t remember our family ever attending there. At some point my mother found  an Episcopal Church and she started attending there solely because two other divorced woman raising children alone who went to that church. Divorce was rare in the early 1960s and something of a scandal. My mother was grateful for the friendship and solidarity of these women.

I remember singing the children’s choir and attending Sunday School. I have one particularly vivid memory of lying to my Sunday school teacher about my family (I don’t remember the lie) and my mother asking me about it afterwards. It hadn’t occurred me, I suppose, that they would ever talk to each other.

The priest of that church was the same man I mentioned at the beginning of my sermon, but his influence on my life as a young child was interrupted when my sister and I went to live with our father in Colorado. How that came to be is a painful story, for which I carried considerable guilt for a long time. Suffice to say that age 11, I hurt my mother deeply, as did other significant adults in my life.

My father didn’t attend church and was rather hostile to religion. One summer my stepmother enrolled me Vacation Bible School  and I remember loving the songs we sang.  Another summer, the year I was caught shoplifting, I wound up having a thoughtful one/one conversations with a Christian man who took an interest in me–I’m not sure how or why.

I wasn’t among the popular kids in high school, but I had a few good friends who were instruments of grace in my life. One invited me to her church on Easter Sunday. It was a church with an altar call, and at the end of his sermon, a kind young minister invited those who wished to invite Jesus into their hearts to come forward. I didn’t know exactly what that meant, but I was drawn to step into the aisle and make my way to the front. The minister gently prayed for me, his hands resting lightly on my head. I don’t remember feeling the kind of power that some people describe at the moment they accepted Christ, but I felt something. I’ve never turned back.

I attended Young Life as a teenager, a Christian gathering organized in schools. The leader of our school choir was a Christian and he invited a minister from a new church in town to recruit singers for a summer touring choir that would perform in churches from Colorado to the Mexican border and back. That sounded amazing to me. I was accepted into the choir and sang my heart out for Jesus that summer. When we came back, I joined the church.

That church also had an altar call every week, and even though I had already accepted Jesus, every time I heard the invitation, I felt as if I should go up again,  because whatever was supposed to happen to me when I became a Christian hadn’t yet happened. So one Sunday, I surprised everyone, including myself, when I came forward for prayer. Afterwards the minister suggested that I be baptized. I had been baptized as a child, but this church didn’t believe in infant baptism. So I was baptized again, full immersion in the swimming pool of the apartment complex where the minister and his family lived. I wish I could say that I rose from from the water a new person, but I was still me. I did, however, feel loved, and my commitment to follow Jesus grew.

My prayer life deepened in those years, which was a good thing, because my family life took a tough turn. I came to associate the feeling of being loved, of sensing that someone was with me even when I was alone, with Jesus. I still do. When I pray each day, both in quiet at the start of my day, and on the run–which is where I do most of my praying–I feel his presence. And if I don’t his presence when I pray, I remember what he said about being with us always even to the end of the age. I hang on to that promise.

When my dad and step-mom divorced the middle of my junior year, I went to live with the minister and his family for a time, until I could figure out what next to do. My dad was drinking a lot and living in an apartment alone. My stepmom didn’t like me very much, and I knew I couldn’t live with her, although leaving her meant  abandoning my younger half brother, a regret I carry with me to this day.

That the minister and his family welcomed me was an amazing gift. It was instructive to live with a Christian family. They were warm, loving, generous people–and very human. I noticed a real difference between the minister who preached on Sundays and the man he was at home. He wasn’t awful at home, but he was human. I realized that even he wasn’t living according to what he taught at church. I didn’t get angry about that, but I  felt confused that we couldn’t talk about the gap between who we are called to be as followers of Jesus and who we are.

Eventually I decided–or my mother decided for me–that it was time for me to return and live with her in New Jersey. She still attended the Episcopal church that had welcomed her as a divorced woman. The minister of my church in Colorado didn’t think it was a good idea for me to attend an Episcopal Church church, as he didn’t have the sense that Episcopalians believed in Jesus. I was pretty sure they did, but I didn’t know what to say.  I knew my mother believed in Jesus–in fact, in the years I had been away, her faith and love for him had grown, and also her strength. She had experienced healing in the years my sister and I were away, which allowed her to live with both joy and generosity despite the struggles of her life. I felt blessed and grateful that she was willing to welcome me home.

The priest of my childhood also welcomed me back, and he very intentionally mentored me in faith. He helped me make sense of what had happened to me, both personally and spiritually. He helped me appreciate the gifts I had received from the church in Colorado and the gifts available to me in the Episcopal Church. And my faith and love for Jesus grew.

In college I worshipped as a Catholic, as it was the service on campus where I felt most at home. In those years, I was profoundly inspired by nuns and priests who were serving the poor and dying alongside them in Central America, and lay Catholics I met who were committed to voluntary poverty through the Catholic Worker movement. It was in college that I first learned about the Civil Rights movement in this country, and how Christian leaders–Martin Luther King, Jr. and others–were at the helm of that great work of justice. I wanted to be that kind of a Christian–brave, compassionate, willing to put everything on the line for Jesus and those whom he called the least among us.  

After college I worked for the Methodist Church for two years as a lay missionary–not an evangelist, but one working among the poor. This was in Tucson, and our ministry served both the dislocated poor of the East Coast and Midwest, families that packed everything they had in cars and drove to the Southwest in search of work–1980s version of the great Dust Bowl migration–and those fleeing violence from Central America during height of the terrible wars there. As much as I loved my Methodist colleagues,  on Sundays I found my way back to the Episcopal Church. It was in those years that I discerned the call to ordained ministry. By then I was spending most of my time with what might be called “social justice” Christians, those whose faith is guided more by Matthew 25 than by John 3.16.

I always assumed Jesus was calling me to live and serve on the margins of society, among the poor and disenfranchised, perhaps even in another country. My husband and I spent our first year of marriage in Central America, in part to test that call. But in ways that both surprised me then and make all the sense in the world in retrospect, given my upbringing and deep desire to create a different kind of family life for our children, after seminary and marriage (my husband is a practicing Roman Catholic who was discerning his own call to priesthood when we met), I found myself drawn to parish ministry. To my amazement I loved it and was rather good at it.

Rather than living on the margins of society, I have served all of my ordained ministry at the center of our society, 25 years as a parish priest (18 of them in the same church) and now as bishop of this diocese. My sense of call is to the spiritual renewal of the Episcopal Church and our collective service to Christ’s mission of healing, reconciliation and justice. I often feel as if God is asking me to stand in the gap between Christians who feel they have absolutely nothing in common with each other and help create pathways for us to learn from each other’s strengths and fill in each other’s blind spots. I also believe that as Christians we are called to love others as Jesus loved and if we did, this world of ours would be a much better place for all of God’s children.

One thing I have learned in my life’s wanderings and experiences is how many different ways there are to be a Jesus follower. That diversity of expression, worship and understanding is a gift, both wondrous and enriching. It can also be really challenging–for so many core issues are at stake for us. And there are times, as Jesus said, that feels as if he has come among us not to bring peace but a sword and that our greatest foes are among our own household. But Christians have been disagreeing with each other since the Council of Jerusalem was recorded in Acts 15, not to mention the blow up Paul had with Peter as he recounts in his letter to the Galatians.

There is always something to learn in the conflict–in some cases because one side is clearly right and just and the other clearly wrong and even evil. But more often than not, I think, the learning, the growing, the real spiritual maturity comes in the tension itself and what we learn from it about ourselves, about the truths others see that we do not and the truths that we hold, and about God who is right there with us, in the place of tension and discomfort. For the same Jesus who said, For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household was the one uniquely moved to compassion when faced with sin and suffering as Fr. Vander Wel expounded upon so compellingly for you last Sunday.

I’m convinced that much of the conflict we experience in life is not necessary, that we live in a culture that fuels conflict and exacerbates division in ways that do not serve a God of love. But I’m also struck that  Jesus also assures us in the midst of the conflicts we cannot avoid or that he asks us to face for the sake of his truth, that he is  with us in the midst of it. I hold onto that promise, and I also strive to remember that in the end, when all that is in darkness is revealed and we shall see and know fully, as St. Paul says, as we are now fully known, that what will be revealed is faith, hope, and love–and the greatest of these is love.

When I ultimately complete my Alpha talk on “Who is Jesus?” I’ll spend more time in the Scriptures, presenting “the evidence” as the founder of Alpha Nicky Gumbel puts it, that Jesus is who he says he is. But I wanted you to know something of my heart, and my faith, and that as your bishop, I would love to know something of yours.

I want you to know that I pray only the best for Christ Church, Accokeek, that your lives and ministry will thrive. And I covet your prayers, not for me alone, but for the 87 other congregations in our diocese, as we strive to know and love Jesus, and share in his love for the world Jesus died to save.

 

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