Anxiety 101

Jesus said, “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth. ‘Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. ‘So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.”
Matthew 6:24-34

I’d like to begin by teaching you the refrain of a song, one that is a great antidote to anxiety in the face of challenges that seem too big for me to overcome on my own:

You don’t have to move that mountain, just help me Lord to climb it.
You don’t have to move that stumbling block, just show me the way around it.

Sometimes the gospel text for the day opens a door and the preacher has no choice but to walk through it. That’s certainly true for today, because whenever Jesus tells me not to worry,  the first thing I do is…..(exactly).

Right around the time of the 9/11 attacks, I read somewhere that those with acute fear of flying in airplanes experienced a significant decrease in their anxiety levels. Why? Because at last their fears were legitimized. All the ways that well meaning people had told them not worry about flying only made them more anxious. After the attacks, they felt vindicated. They weren’t the irrational ones; there really was something to fear.

Let me make a similar point coming from another direction by reading to you what I consider to be one of the best opening paragraphs in modern fiction. It comes from the novel A Map of the World by Jane Hamilton:

I used to think that if you fell from grace it was more likely than not the result of one stupendous error, or else an unfortunate accident. I hadn’t learned that it can happen so gradually you don’t lose your stomach or hurt yourself in the landing. You don’t necessarily sense the motion. I’ve found that it takes two and generally three things to alter the course of a life. You slip around the truth once, then again, and one more time, and there you are feeling for a moment that it was sudden, your arrival at the bottom of the heap.

Same idea; different angles. There are, in fact, things to worry about, both external and internal, the disasters that might come to us from outside and those we are capable of bringing upon ourselves. And so when Jesus, Bobby McFerrin, or anyone else says to us, don’t worry, be happy, there’s a part of us that rightfully responds, you don’t understand. Or, if you’re like me and prone to feelings of spiritual inadequacy, you might feel even worse in your anxiety because Jesus told you to stop worrying, and in this moment, at least, you can’t.

Here is my hope for today: that together we might look at the sources of our anxieties and worries head on; hold in our collective pondering the wide range of anxious responses  we are susceptible to, and do so with humility, compassion, and the best of our resources; and hear in Jesus’ words to us not a scolding admonition or simplistic platitude, but rather an invitation to re-frame our life experience through real encounters with God’s grace lovingkindness. I’d love for you to hear in his words, if you can, an invitation to bring to him all that we worry about. He can help.

Let’s begin by acknowledging that anxiety and worry are complex emotional and cognitive phenomena: Some of us more prone to worry than others. How many of you know the story of the two sisters Martha and Mary from the Gospels?  Briefly, in the story, Jesus goes to visit his friends, Martha and Mary, presumably bringing with him an entourage of followers. Martha immediately gets busy in the kitchen; Mary plops herself near Jesus’ feet, with all the men, and hangs on his every word. Feeling abandoned and irritated, Martha complains to Jesus and asks him to tell Mary to help her in the kitchen. And Jesus replies: “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things. Only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen the better part, and it will not be taken from her.” (Luke 10:38-42)

Who are the Marthas among us? And the Marys? We Marthas of the world are more anxious than the Marys; it’s just the way we are. There may also be a generational pendulum in families, or at least there is in mine–the Martha of one generation giving rise to a Mary in the next who in turn raises Marthas. There’s no judgment here: it’s simply good to know that for some of us worry is a more instinctual or habitual response to the world than for others.

Chemical imbalances in the brain also contribute to anxiety and worry. Some of us need the help that medication provides. I resisted this for a long time in my own life. I didn’t think I needed medication; I didn’t want it; the idea of medical dependency scared me. But around 10 years ago, I had a series of experiences, and in that time a good friend, who is both a priest and psychiatrist, gently suggested that I was carrying some burdens unnecessarily.  “Mariann, your life doesn’t need to be this hard,” she said. “You can get help.” And I did. I have since said the same things to others, and maybe it’s something some of you need to hear: Getting help with anxiety can be a very good thing.

There is also a lot of anxiety in the air we breath. One of my teachers called this “free floating anxiety” that attaches itself to everything. While no one is immune from free floating anxiety, it particularly affects people of privilege. I’m not sure why, but the more we have, the more we fear loss.

Before coming to Washington, I lived in one of sweetest and relatively affluent neighborhoods of Minneapolis, where the level of worry about our children was unreasonably and unnecessarily high. I don’t mean to be judgmental. I got caught up in it with regard to our sons. But objectively speaking, our children were more than okay; they were really well off. Still our worries persisted. Some of it was legitimate, most was unnecessary.

So we can hear, in Jesus’ admonitions not to worry, a reminder that there are, in fact, false anxieties, worries that we don’t need to carry. This is “the bread of anxiety” the psalmist writes of that we need not consume. (Psalm 127)  Ann Ulanov, a theologian and Jungian psychologist, describes the same phenomenon as “a false cross” we bear. A false cross, she said, is the cause of real pain. But it’s pain that doesn’t go anywhere. There is no redemptive possibility–it’s just pain. It’s like running on a hamster wheel, exhausting ourselves without forward motion.

We can learn to step off the wheel; we can get down from the crosses we don’t need to be on. And nothing cuts through unnecessary worry faster than concrete engagement with the world. The antidotes for free floating anxiety are large doses of laughter and an intentional focus on the things that matter. Jesus wants that for us: Consider the lilies, he said. Look at the birds. Help someone in need. Engage the real issues of the world Focus on the purpose of your life. Church is the ideal place for all these endeavors. How blessed you are to be part of a faith community determined to focus on the things that matter.  

So thus far we’ve touched upon temperament as it affects anxiety, chemical imbalances in our brain, false anxieties that we can learn to let go of and learn to counter with practices of joy, prayer engagement in the world, and community support for the things that matter most.

Now: let’s turn our attention on those things in your life and mine that are legitimate cause for anxiety, because there are, in fact, things to worry about.  

I had a gathering of friends at my house Saturday night: several were from out of town, only two were Episcopalians. As often happens when people learn that I’m the bishop here, one person asked me what it was like to preach every Sunday at Washington National Cathedral. I told them I don’t preach there often; that I’m in a different church every Sunday. Really, another said. Where will you be this Sunday? I’m going to one of the Episcopal churches on Capitol Hill, I said.

Suddenly the table got quiet. Wow, one person said. What’s life like for the people of that church now? There was real compassion in his voice and others expressed similar wonderment and concern. We weren’t discussing politics, and the conversation didn’t go in that direction. It was simply the assumption on the part of people who don’t know you that belonging to a church on Capitol Hill, and living in this neighborhood, would be a source of stress right now. And from what your rector has told me, they’re right.

So I’d like to hold in compassion with you whatever is going on in your life right now that are causes for genuine worry, and to consider how, as Christians, we are to respond in situations of genuine concern.

This, my friends, is the work of spiritual discernment, which is among the deepest, most important disciplines of a Christian’s life. When we’re faced with challenging circumstances, difficult decisions, uncertain futures, what do we do? How are we to live?

Many years ago a theologian named Urban Holmes defined discernment this way: “the ability to intuit God’s will by a casting a particular question the Christian faces in a given situation before the judgment of the deeper self. The result of discernment will be a willingness to risk decisions and take actions whose surety is enigmatic at best.”

In other words, through this process we call discernment, we develop a greater capacity to act in the face of uncertainty, a greater willingness to risk failure in the service of what matters most. Marian Wright Edelman, of the Children’s Defense Fund, put it this way: “I’d rather fail in the things that matter than succeed in mediocrity.”

This kind of discerning work requires us to ask important questions: How does God best speak to you? Where do you go, and to whom do you turn, when you need that kind of direction? For the most challenging life circumstances call for the best of what a life of faith and a relationship with Christ can give us.   

These are the times to lean into prayer and meditation practices, however you might open yourself to hear the still voice of God speaking to you. We need to remember what it feels like to follow our own inner compass so that we’re not as susceptible, as St. Paul said, to being tossed to and fro by every wind that blows our way. As with all spiritual practices, inner listening is not uniquely Christian. The poet and author David Whyte speaks of awakening the “inner captain,” that internal source of authority and clarity, especially needed when we attempt something difficult.

We can do this inner work in many ways: For some, the work is quiet and still, a daily practice of sitting and paying attention to all that comes into consciousness. For others, such pondering requires movement—a walk or a run, anything that engages both body and mind. I read a history of Franklin Delano Roosevelt a few years back, and I learned that when he had a momentous decision before him, he would get sick and take to his bed.I am one of those who “putters” as I ponder. It doesn’t really matter what I do, but I need to be active, and I need quiet, to allow my brain to sort things out and be open to the voice of God.

The fruit of such clarifying discernment, a deeply personal experience, extends well beyond our personal lives alone–they extend broader than we realize, to each realm in which we live and work. Because one of the best things we can do for everyone around us is to learn to manage and regulate our own anxiety. Anxiety creates distortion, like looking at an object through water or listening to a radio through static. Anxiety hinders communication. When we’re anxious, we’re less creative and imaginative, less capable of speaking for ourselves or seeing more than one option, and more likely to blame others for our unhappiness.

The trick is trying not to get too anxious about the anxiety you feel. You can’t eliminate anxiety, but you can learn to deal with it, and to the extent you do, you bring a certain measure of clarity wherever you go. Here’s the thing: you don’t have to be completely calm in a stressful situation. To be helpful, you just need to be a little calmer than those around you. By being the least anxious in the room, you help clear the air, ground the conversation, and promote clarity.

The most important thing to remember is to be present, as fully present as you can to yourself, to God, to those around you, and even present to your anxiety. Of course this is an impossible stance to sustain over time; even the most mature can only manage it about 50% of the time. So give yourself some room to make mistakes, to pick yourself up, and try again.

Remember that Jesus is with you, and for you, until the end of the age; that there is a whole community of people in this church here to support you, and people like me, admirers from a distance, cheering you on.

Sing with me one more time:

You don’t have to move that mountain; just help me Lord to climb it.
You don’t have to move that stumbling block; just show me the way around it.

 

Posted in sermon

#edowlent

I invite you, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent.
Book of Common Prayer

A notice from The Rev. Scott Gunn, Executive Director of Forward Movement landed in my inbox yesterday. It begins:

We are just a week away from Lent. I can hardly wait. This year more than ever, I will welcome this great season in which we are invited to focus on returning to God, on recommitting ourselves to following Jesus.

Like Scott, I’m grateful as we approach this spiritual season. It’s a gentle challenge for us to go deeper in our relationship with Christ and wider in our love of neighbor.

All around the Diocese of Washington congregations will observe Lent, beginning with Ash Wednesday services and some with Ashes-to-Go. There will be a wide variety of Lenten spiritual offerings in the diocese, including Alpha, a course to explore the basic tenets of Christianity; many Bible studies; book groups; and prayer practices. There are also spiritual practices to be found online, among them The Five Marks of Love from the Society of St. John the Evangelist, the ever popular Lent Madness, and Forward Movement’s offering A Season of Prayer: 40 Days in the Desert. The simplest way to observe Lent, and perhaps the most meaningful, is to dedicate a few minutes each day for silent prayer and inspiration from Scripture.

Every year in Lent, I turn off the radio when I drive — a small and intentional act that creates space in my otherwise crowded life. This year, I’ll also co-host the pilot Alpha class at Washington National Cathedral, with over 100 participants from several congregations. And as soon as I read Scott Gunn’s post today, I knew that I wanted to join in A Season of Prayer. “During this time,” he writes, “we will pray and read scripture about hospitality, about wandering, and about caring for refugees. Let us all fervently pray that every person – all of whom are made in God’s image – finds a place to call home. Let us pray that those of us with homes will open them to a world in need.” Next week, I’ll have more to say about the issues our immigrant and multicultural congregations are facing and the rising anxiety and fear among immigrants in our land.

But finally, let us use the hashtag #edowlent as a way to share our experiences and draw encouragement from one another’s reflection. Throughout the season, we invite you to to post on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter a brief, personal reflection on your lenten experience that day. On the days you have an offering, feel free to share. On the days you need inspiration, come to receive. We are over 40,000 strong in the Diocese of Washington, so as Lent begins, let’s remember to be in one another’s good company and consider God’s invitation to go deeper in faith and wider in love.

 

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Loving as God Loves

“Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
Matthew 5:38

In the early 1960s, as  the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., rose to prominence at the helm of the Civil Rights Movement, he consistently advocated non-violence in response to the violence done to African Americans. He actually believed in Jesus’ words about turning the other cheek and walking the extra mile, not as passive acquiescence to injustice but as the highest form of resistance, a refusal to cooperate with evil and the retaliatory patterns of hate and brutality it breeds.

One evening, King was to speak at a rally before hundreds of people. As he appeared on stage, a man from the audience jumped up and attacked him. In the split second when King had time only to respond by instinct, he raised his arms and did not resist his attacker.  Those who witnessed King’s response realized that he practiced what he preached. He had translated his convictions into reflex, surely in response to a daily temptation to do otherwise. He had been slandered in the press; his family had been threatened; his house had been bombed; and he regularly received death threats. Through it all, his response was the same: clear, resolute non-violence.

If you’ve been in church these last few weeks, you know that we’ve been slowly making our way through Jesus’ most famous sermon, the Sermon on the Mount. (Matthew 5-7). Though the sermon begins with affirmations of blessing, it quickly moves to the realm of challenge. Some of what Jesus has to say may strike us as deeply offensive. Last Sunday I preached on the potential “trauma triggers” found in this sermon and what they have to teach us.  This coming Sunday, we’ll be confronted with Jesus’ admonition to “be perfect,” as our heavenly father is perfect.

We can debate what Jesus meant by perfection, but surely he wasn’t saying that he expected his followers never to make a mistake or to be totally free from sin. In another gospel, Jesus says “Be holy, as your heavenly father is holy.”  But what does holiness look like?

For Jesus it looks like this: that we do not respond to violence with violence, but instead turn the other cheek,  go the extra mile, give to those who ask from us, and yes, love our enemies.  It’s a tall order.  He’s asking us, in essence, to learn to love as God loves–the God “who makes the sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.

The world isn’t divided into some people for whom loving as God loves comes easily and the rest of us for whom it is impossible. Learning to love like that takes daily practice, and we do well to start small. In the words of C.S. Lewis, “If we really want to learn how to forgive, better to start with something easier than the Gestapo.”  

Holiness isn’t about grand gestures and pious prayers. We’re holy whenever we’re kind to those around us; when we don’t make life more difficult for those who struggle; when we refuse to gossip or hold a grudge. Holiness is about treating all people with the same respect and dignity, regardless of their stature in life, or even how they’ve treated us in the past. It involves guarding our tongue, so we don’t say things that needlessly hurt other people or shows disrespect to God. It means being willing to acknowledge when we’ve failed at love, ask forgiveness and try again. It’s the stuff of daily life, and our behavior today, in the words of Brian McLaren, determines what kind of person will wake up in our bodies tomorrow.  

What kind of people do we want to be? If we’re following Jesus, he’s given us a path. It’s not an easy one, but the good news is we can start small. Our daily practice is to love in ways within our power to accomplish. For that allows Jesus to lead us toward the ways of love well beyond our capacities except through his grace working through our practiced deeds of simple kindness.

 

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Trauma Triggers in Church

 

Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire. So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny. . . it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell. “It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the grounds of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.

“Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.’ But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.”
Matthew 5:21-37

In the name of God, Creator, Christ, and the Holy Spirit.

Good morning! What a gift it is to worship God with you and spend the day at St. Margaret’s. If you’re visiting this morning, on behalf of this wonderful congregation, I welcome you and pray you experience blessing here. And to the members of St. Margaret’s, I bring greetings from your 87 sister congregations in the Diocese of Washington and from your friends across the Episcopal Church. I’m grateful for the opportunity to thank you for all you are and do in service to Christ, both as part of this faith community and in your lives. I’m also grateful for Kym Lucas’ leadership here and beyond.

Shortly after the presidential election, the rector of one of the largest Episcopal congregations in the country, All Saints’ in Pasadena, California, announced that in worship, they would no longer pray for elected officials by name, in order to avoid saying the name Donald Trump.

“We are in a unique situation in my lifetime where we have a president-elect whose name is literally a trauma trigger to some people,” the Rev. Michael Kinman wrote. “This presents a challenge. We are rightly charged with praying for our leaders…but we are also charged with keeping the worshipping community, while certainly not challenge-free, a place of safety from harm.”

I was asked by a local journalist to comment on All Saints’ decision and if we would do something similar in the Diocese of Washington. It was the first I had heard of All Saints’ decision, and in that moment all I could think of was Harry Potter and his determination not to give into fear of the one who could not be named. “Fear of a name increases fear of the thing itself,” Dumbledore had told Harry.

“We will pray for the president by name,” I said.

It wasn’t my intention to make light of trauma triggers, which are experiences that cause someone to recall a previous traumatic memory and respond to the triggering words or events with all emotional pain associated with that past experience. I know how powerful those emotions can be, and I understand the desire to create safe spaces in our congregations. I want that, too. But I also want us to be strong, and to draw upon the power of love, which as Scripture reminds us, casts out fear.

It occurred to me this week, thinking of trauma triggers, that the way we in Episcopal Church organize our Sunday worship services sets us up for a similar quandary with certain biblical passages. For as we did this morning, in our churches everywhere we read 3 Bible passages and a psalm from a predetermined cycle of readings. The reason we do this is to expose a faithfully worshipping congregation to a good portion of the Bible over a three year period. It’s a worthy goal, but on any given Sunday there are potential trauma triggers everywhere. Today is a case in point.

In a mere 15 verses of Jesus’ most famous sermon–known as the Sermon on the Mount–Jesus traumatizes all of us. This is not a passage of Scripture that would encourage anyone to draw closer to Jesus and it requires a lot of unpacking and a bit of historical context to make peace with it, although I doubt peace was what Jesus intended here.

For there are few passages more troubling in Scripture than the ones in which Jesus encourages us to cut off offending members of our bodies to avoid sin. Hyperbole, as you know, is extreme exaggeration to make a point, and if you spend anytime reading the New Testament, you know that Jesus liked hyperbole. He liked getting people’s attention, which is great, but his point doesn’t always translate across time and space, particularly when we read his words with such solemnity in church.

So let me say, in case you feel the pain of those words as I do, that I don’t believe for a minute that Jesus was actually encouraging us to do bodily harm to ourselves for the sake of spiritual purity. Nor do I believe that sinful thoughts are the same as actual deeds. His point, I think, is that sometimes it’s better to avoid situations that cause us to sin, and some thoughts are dangerous; if acted upon, they lead to real pain.

Next in line of trauma for many from these passages are Jesus’ harsh words, to our ears, about divorce. Early in my years as a rector, I watched on a Sunday morning as this particular trauma trigger affected a good portion of the congregation I served. One of our assisting priests was in the pulpit, a happily married man with three young sons whose day job was as chaplain and religious studies teacher at the local Episcopal day school. He was preaching on another text in which Jesus has harsh things to say about divorce. Speaking from his experience as a teacher and also citing certain studies, he said that, in general, divorce has a deeply adverse affect on children and that, in his experience, parents choosing to divorce often want to gloss over its impact on their kids.

If there had been social media in those days, the congregation’s outrage would have gone viral. People were furious and stunned that someone could say something so hurtful from the pulpit. This was long before legal equality, and the gay and lesbian members felt excluded from his heterosexist perspective. Divorced couples, of which there were many, felt harshly judged by a man who had no idea what being unhappily married felt like. Several people told me they weren’t sure they could come back to church. One woman wanted me to publicly rebuke the preacher. Another wanted to write her own rebuttal, which she did in our monthly newsletter.

That was a crucible experience for me and for the congregation, which I’ll be happy to tell you more about someday, or later today, if you like. But again let me say, for the record, that I don’t believe Jesus wants us to hang our heads in shame for the fragility of our marriages. Long-term intimate relationships are surely among the most humbling and audaciously hopeful human undertakings. How could we not fail at them in more ways than we dare acknowledge? Surely Jesus understands that.  

I have my own trauma trigger from his words today.  You see, if I were to leave my gift at the altar and not return until I am reconciled with my brother, I don’t know when I would be back.

I’m not speaking about “my brother” in the universal sense; I mean my flesh-and-blood brother, my half-brother to be precise, who hasn’t spoken to me for years. His name is Jim, and he’s nine years my junior. We lived together for seven years when I was a teenager and he was in elementary school. I felt very close to him then, and at a critical juncture, responsible for him as our family fell apart. In full disclosure, I failed him. I failed him dreadfully at a time when everyone else in his world did too. I knew it as it was happening, and I tried to make it up to him; but the more I tried, the more I failed, because in my immaturity I kept making promises that I was in no position to keep. By the time Paul and I were married, he wanted nothing to do with me, and I can’t say I blame him. We’ve had glimpses of reconciliation over the years, but at one decisive moment, for his own good reasons, he shut the door for good. And every time I hear Jesus say go reconcile with your brother before coming to the altar, I feel the familiar guilt.

I wish I could say that my brother is the only person who comes to mind whenever I read or hear these words, but he’s not. There are others. I’m fifty-seven years old. I’ve made mistakes in my life and hurt people deeply, and people have hurt me. Sometimes I’m able to make things right again and go on; sometimes I’m not. But I’ve learned some things about reconciliation, in success and failure, that I carry in my heart.

I’ve learned, first of all, that reconciliation requires forgiveness. If you can’t forgive another person, or if that person can’t forgive you, or you can’t forgive yourself, reconciliation is impossible. It is possible to forgive someone without reconciling. In other words, it’s possible to release another person from the burden of your hurt and disappointment, move on with your life and let that person move on too, no longer defined by the damage done, but still not be in relationship. I knew an elderly woman who was robbed by a young man she had befriended from her twelve-step group. With bruises on her arm and face, she said to me, “I forgive him for what’s he done. But I don’t want to see him again.” I knew both statements were true: she forgave him fully, and needed no restitution or even apology. But she was in her eighties and had limited energy, and she chose not to invest anymore in that relationship.

Reconciliation is only possible when those involved are ready to forgive one another and move forward together. You can forgive alone, but you can’t reconcile alone. It’s a painful realization, to be sure: if someone doesn’t want to be reconciled with you, there’s nothing you can do. In my experience, trying harder to make things right often makes things worse. You have no choice but to let that person go, at least for now. But when both parties are able to forgive and want to move forward together, reconciliation can happen, and sometimes it does with remarkable ease.   

Reconciliation also rests upon the great paradox of growth that can only be realized through suffering. I’m speaking now of the suffering of the one who was wounded. It isn’t denying or discounting the pain endured. But reconciliation rests on solid ground of maturity and compassion that living through painful circumstances affords. The biblical story of Joseph and his brothers comes to mind here: Joseph, as you recall, was deeply resented by his brothers, who were jealous of this favored status in their father’s heart and irritated by his arrogance. So his brothers threw him in a hole and slave traders carried him away. Joseph suffered greatly as a result, and yet over the years he grew through his suffering. He matured in sensitivity and compassion and he learned to use his gifts for good. Through a series of events set in motion by his brothers’ hurtful deed, he found himself in a position of power, so much so that his brothers, who had long assumed Joseph to be dead, were dependent upon him for their very survival. In the moment when he could have lashed out at them in anger, he said instead, “Out of what you intended for evil, God has brought great good.” In other words, Joseph was fine, no longer needing to carry anger at his brothers. He was grateful for how his life had turned out and the person he had become through suffering. (Genesis 37-45)

Guilt and shame have no place in a reconciled relationship. There’s no longer a need for retribution or restitution. The debt has been paid, and not by the perpetrator, but by the grace of God, serendipity of life, and hard work of the one refusing to be defined by another’s transgression. The balance of power in the relationship is completely reset and reconciliation takes place on that solid ground.

I’ve also learned that reconciliation takes a long time, and the initial work of it is done apart, as the one wounded grows stronger and heals; as the ones who have wounded also heal from the pain of having hurt another so badly. The healing required on the part of the wounding one is harder than we realize. Often the ones resisting reconciliation are those who have caused the most pain. As Karen Armstrong wrote in her memoir The Spiral Staircase, “It is always difficult to forgive the people we have harmed.” (Armstrong 2004, 146)

Yet when the work is done, and people meet as two who have grown stronger in the broken places, reconciliation is a wondrous thing. It signals a fresh start, yet with all the hard-won benefits of having come through the hardest thing and prevailed. It changes you in ways that are hard to describe, and it gives you hope for the world.

In the introduction to another book, Twelve Steps to a More Compassionate Life, Karen Armstrong writes that one of the chief tasks of our time is to build a global community in which all people can live in mutual respect. Religion, she writes, which should be making a major contribution to this great task, is typically seen and experienced as part of the problem. It shouldn’t be so. “All faiths insist that compassion is a true test of spirituality. Each has formulated its own version of what is sometimes called the Golden Rule, ‘Always treat others as you would wish yourself to be treated.’” And yet, she writes, the world is dangerously polarized and we face an overwhelming array of global challenges that if our ethical and religious traditions fail to address, they will fail the test of our time. (Armstrong 2011, 5)

She wrote those words in 2011, and I daresay on many fronts we are failing that test. I don’t know where we are headed as a nation now, or, for that matter, as a species. It feels like a crucible moment on many fronts.

Trauma triggers are those things that remind us of all that is still wounded and unreconciled. Some of the wounds go way back, historically and personally. Others are recent offenses, born of insensitivity, ignorance, and pain bumping up against pain. All are being traumatized right now by a bully in the White House, who nonetheless has the support of many who believe, despite his behavior, that he can be a force for good. I have a hard time believing that myself, but I’m paying attention and trying to keep my head in the game, which is hard to do when there is so much to be offended by. Sometimes I wonder if that’s by design, part of a larger strategy, or have we all become so callous that we don’t realize how offensive our words and actions are to others.

What I know for myself is that I want to be on the side of forgiveness and reconciliation whenever I can. That requires me to take responsibility for my part in the pain and hurt others experience, including my personal behavior and because of my privilege and position. I need to own these things and make restitution whenever I can.

But to be on the side of forgiveness and reconciliation requires me to grow through suffering. I don’t want to be defined by trauma. I want to recognize within myself how trauma is triggered, work through that trigger on my own, and thereby have a bit more capacity to choose my response to the triggering circumstances rather simply react to it. I want to draw from strength in other parts of my narrative, as well as the love, mercy, and grace of God, so I am less vulnerable to those things that conspire to keep me small.

If you, like me, are hoping for reconciliation with one who doesn’t want to reconcile with you, I know that the path is a lonely one; but it is a path, nonetheless–of prayer, acceptance of what you’ve done, and of the other person’s right to choose not to forgive or be in relationship.

If you, like me, are in need of healing from wounds sustained by others who hurt you deeply, I know the path is a lonely one; but it is a path nonetheless–of prayer, openness to healing that comes from unexpected places, and a willingness to grow through suffering.

Perhaps we’re on both paths at once. On either path, or both, this I know: we are not alone. God’s grace is there to guide and heal us, so that, one day, here–or on the other side of death–when the gate of reconciliation opens to us, we might be loving and brave, and walk through it to meet the one waiting on the other side.

Works Cited
Armstrong, Karen. The Spiral Staircase: My Climb Out of Darkness. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004.
—. Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life. Toronto: Alfred A. Knopf, 2011.

 

Posted in sermon | Tagged

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.  

****

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.

***

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.

Posted in sermon

To Share Good News

“We speak of what we know, and testify to what we have seen.”
John 3:11

I am on my way to preach in the Diocese of Texas, just as Bishop Andy Doyle preached for our Diocesan Convention on January 28.

Bishop Doyle began his sermon to us: “Good people of the Diocese of Washington, I can only give you what I have received, and that is good news.” That good news, he said, has come to us in good times and bad; it has prevailed in times when we as a church could speak our truth with one voice and when we have been divided and railed against one another; it has prevailed when we’ve been on the mountaintop of spiritual experience but even more important when we’ve been in the valleys.

The good news Bishop Doyle has received and shared with us is this: Fruit is meant to multiply. Vines grow. Servants serve. Christians encourage one another in love. Christians are called–we are chosen for a time such as this, to give away what we have received and to watch it grow.

As I prepare to preach in the Diocese of Texas I, too, can only offer what I have received. That’s true for every preacher–we can only speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen and heard. It’s true for every Christian as we live our lives according to what bits of grace and goodness we have received and seek to share with others.

Sometimes we share from our abundance; just as often we share from our emptiness. Sometimes we share in confidence; other times in great vulnerability. Sometimes we share by disclosing the contents of our lives; other times by keeping silence and listening to what others have to say, creating sacred spaces of trust and respect.

This weekend, for multiple reasons, I don’t feel called to share “my vision” for the Episcopal Church or the issues we face as a nation, but rather to speak of the pillars upon which my life as a Christian depend. I will speak of some of the ways that Jesus has saved me in the past and is saving me now; of the times I have been allowed to walk on water because Jesus called me out of my boat; of how the miracle of the loaves and fish–inadequate offerings transformed by grace–is the spiritual foundation of my life; of what I have learned, and am learning, in my lifelong quest to remain open to multiple voices across wide spectrums of experience.

There is no question in my mind that we have been called for a time such as this, for this is the only time we have. And a lot depends upon how we live and respond to that call. But I also know that we can only speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen. We can only share what we ourselves have received. Thus it is also a time to draw deeply from the spiritual wells that sustain us, and daily receive the love, forgiveness, and mercies of Christ upon which our lives depend, so that what we share is indeed good news.

 

Posted in Uncategorized

Love, Fear, Salt, Light

Jesus said, “You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot. “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven. “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
Matthew 5:13-20

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Good morning, Calvary Church. It’s wonderful to be with you. I’m always grateful to be in the presence of spiritual giants and I feel that way among you, the saints of Calvary Church. I feel that way in the presence of your leaders, the Reverends Peter Schell and Gayle Fischer-Stewart. I give thanks for your ministry and theirs, both here and throughout the wider community.

Last fall, in anticipation of a sermon series that he planned to deliver after Christmas entitled: Unafraid: Living with Courage and Hope, a Methodist minister named Adam Hamilton asked members of his congregation to share with him, privately via email, what they feared the most. Hamilton serves a large congregation and he received several thousand responses. He organized the sermon series, which began in mid-January, according to the fears that ranked highest, addressing one fear per week. In each sermon, he describes various ways the fear in question manifests itself. He then offers coping resources from the helping professions, and finally, he speaks of the spiritual strength God longs to give us, the specific ways our relationship with God, in the person of Jesus, can help us live with courage and hope in the face of our fears.

What would you guess where the top four fears that his congregation named? Or, to ask the question a bit more courageously, what fear would you have put on that list?

The top four fears of Adam Hamilton’s congregation were:

  • Fear of loneliness, and of ending up alone in life
  • Fear of failure (the highest fear among those in his congregation under the age of 50)
  • Fear of the Other–those we do not understand, disagree with profoundly, are not at all like us, or whom we perceive will do us harm
  • Fear of the direction our country is taking

(For those interested, here’s a link to the sermon series)

I can certainly identify with all these fears. I have them all, and others I could add to the list: the fear of danger, for myself and most especially, for those I love; the fear of loss; the fear of death; the fear of missing out; of making the wrong decision when I’m torn between options. I struggle with that fear a lot.

My mother, who is 85 years young, is strong, beautiful, independent, and competent in her field of physical therapy. But at 85, she also has vulnerabilities, and right now her body is struggling with an persistent infection. Both my sister and I fear for her well being, and the danger she puts herself in by not asking for help. For her part, our mother is  afraid of losing her ability to make a meaningful contribution and she’s afraid of losing her independence, that her well-meaning but forceful daughters might come in and take over her life. Sometimes, as often happens in families, our fears collide.

When I think of my inner catalog of fears, they seem to fall into two categories: fear of things that are external and that which I fear within myself. The two are often linked: I can be afraid of things that are happening beyond my control and also of my response or lack of response to that external threat.

Now at the same time that I’ve been thinking about fear–in part because I’m listening to Adam Hamilton and in part because of things going on in my life and in the world that I’m genuinely afraid of–I’ve also been participating in a home-based spiritual retreat entitled God’s Abiding Love, which is offered twice a year by Holy Trinity Catholic Church, a Jesuit congregation in Georgetown. For this retreat, I committed to praying 30 minutes each day guided by certain Scripture readings, and meeting 30 minutes each day with a spiritual guide, who in my case, has been a wise and kind Jesuit priest.

It’s been quite an experience, holding both fear and love together. And what this juxtaposition has revealed to me is how tied up in knots I can become when I imagine that I must respond to everything I fear alone, as if, at best, God were absent, or, at worse, fully present but quick to judge my fears and how I respond to them. But as I allowed myself to imagine being in God’s presence, daring to believe that God’s gaze was one of love, not judgment, and when I dared to ask for help, something shifted. My fears didn’t disappear, but they no longer carried the same power. It’s not that I heard God say that my fears are unfounded, or that we will be spared suffering or trial. Still, as I opened myself to God’s love and mercy, made known to me in Jesus, I was less afraid. I didn’t feel judged and found wanting, but loved. And in that love, I received strength, a bit of hope, and even glimpses of joy.

We all assume that the opposite of love is hate. But some say, and I’m inclined to agree, that the opposite of isn’t hate, but fear. Because when we’re afraid, we tend to respond to the world from a fortified place inside, and we see other people in stark categories. We’re vulnerable to manipulation and catastrophic thinking, and such thinking leads to actions that are, to say the least, less than loving.

Scripture tells us that perfect love casts out fear. I wish I could say to you that when I feel the love of God all my fears are cast out, in the sense of disappearing completely, but that’s not my experience. But God’s love does give me greater capacity to carry on in the face of fear, to respond according to the goodness I have known. God’s love picks me up when I fall, encourages me to ask for help, and allows me to receive love and grace from others.

I can’t stress enough how important it is for all of us to dwell deeply in the love of God. There is so much swirling in and around us, many things we would be made of stone not to fear, and messages designed to keep us afraid when we need not be. We need grounding in Christ, so we are not tossed about by every wind; and reassurances in the face of fear that God is with us and for us.

If you were in church last Sunday, you heard as the gospel reading some of the most familiar and beloved words of the New Testament, known as the Beatitudes: Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted; blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth, and so on. That beautiful list of blessed ones is Jesus’ introduction to his most famous sermon–the Sermon on the Mount, which we just heard more of this morning.

I hold before you the image of Jesus in our midst right now, looking at each one of us deeply and with love, and offering words of blessing. And in his blessing, he’s also calling forth the qualities and attributes that he asks us, as his followers, to cultivate within ourselves: mercy, pureness of heart, hunger and thirst for righteousness, peace–for as we do that, not only are we further blessed, we become a blessing to others.   

Today we delve into the content of the sermon itself, which we’ll do in church for the next three weeks. The sermon on the Mount is so rich in teaching that we’ll only make it through a third of it on Sundays before we move into Lent. So I urge you to read the Sermon on the Mount in its entirety, Matthew 5-7. For it is the summation, the essence of Jesus’ ethical teachings, how he wanted those who follow him to live in this world.

If you’re like me, as you read Jesus’ sermon, you will feel uncomfortable and inadequate. For no sooner does he assure us of blessing, then he challenges us to become the absolute best we can be, to live according the highest human aspirations, to exceed the righteousness of even the most devout adherents of moral excellence. Held to that standard, I fall short. I don’t even come close to his high mark sometimes, and in that awareness rush in all my fears of inadequacy and judgment. Or for a change of pace, maybe I’ll get angry that the words themselves for being so uncompromisingly clear and impossible to live by.  

Or maybe, just maybe, I’ll live in the tension between fear and love. And there I’ll remember that I am both blessed and incomplete, both loved and a sinner, and that it’s okay if I can’t live as fully as Jesus calls me to on my own. It’s good to remember that I need the grace of God working in and through me, that I will always be a clay jar, as St. Paul writes, in which we are blessed to hold the riches of God’s love and mercy, so that it’s clear that the power comes from God and doesn’t belong to me. It’s good for me to live with the daily reminder that I am a sinner of Jesus’ own redeeming, always standing in the need of prayer.  

If you remember nothing else from the sermon on the day when your bishop came to visit, remember this: that when Jesus looks at you, he sees you with love and blessing. He sees your strength and your brokenness and he blesses you. And then he says these words:  

You are the salt of the earth.
You are the light of the world.

This is not a request that you go and be salt, that you go and be light. He states that you are these things–you are salt, you are light, and so am I. We can choose to pretend that it’s not so, or refuse to believe it, based on the lies that others have told us. Sometimes we forget that’s what we are, because of all the other things that are also true about us, or because we get tired and discouraged. That’s when the forces of darkness truly have their way with us, when we lose sight of our essence as children of God, lose sight of how much God loves us and how God longs to season the world and brighten the world through us.   

Here’s the basic truth about salt and about light: it doesn’t take much salt to flavor a meal; you only need a small light to illumine the darkness. Nor is salt the only seasoning in God’s kitchen or your light the only star in the sky. That is to say, not one of us is alone. We don’t have to provide everything that’s needed. What Jesus asks is simply to offer what we have, with as much love and kindness, humility and courage as we can.  

Most of the time in the workings of grace, we won’t even know what a difference our offerings make. Have you ever had the experience of people thanking you for something you said or did and you don’t even remember what they’re talking about? Or you made your offering fully aware of its inadequacy, and you were embarrassed  by its insignificance, but you offered it anyway, and someone responds with effusive gratitude. That’s how salt works in God’s kitchen. The same is true with light: sometimes all we have is our candle, but when we offer it and others see your little light shining, they are given courage to offer their light as well. Then more light shines. I think we’re seeing that in our country now, as people who assumed that their light didn’t matter very much are deciding it’s time to raise their light up anyway. And it’s amazing how much light there can be when a bunch of us decide that’s what we’re going to do.

So dare to offer yourselves. Be a witness to whatever goodness and love that’s inside you.

Now in closing I want to speak about the future of Calvary Church and your collective witness as Christian community. I’ll be talking to your vestry leaders later this morning, but I want to say some things now.

I know this is an important and sensitive time. I’ve read the strategic plan that your leaders spent over a year crafting; I’ve gone through the data from your parochial reports and studied leading indicators. I’ve also been driving around the neighborhood and I see the changes. And I know, according to what you tell me and what’s in the strategic report, that not many of you live in the neighborhood anymore, if you ever did. There’s no sin in that; it’s simply your reality. But we have to figure out what all this means for you. I want you to know that you’re not alone. We’re in this together. I am right here beside you as together we offer our salt and our light.  

The decisions we make in the near term have significant consequences for the future. There is a whole spectrum of possibilities before us, none of them intrinsically right or wrong. I live near the Petworth neighborhood in Northwest, and there was a small Baptist church on the corner of 9th and Upshur. Like Calvary, the majority of its members live outside the neighborhood, most live outside of DC. And do you know what they did? They moved. They moved their church. And do you know what’s going up on that corner now? Condos.

Am I recommending that Calvary move? No. Do I want that? No. I’m just saying that it was a reasonable choice for that community of people, perhaps for them the best choice. May the Lord bless them mightily wherever they have decided to go.

But in your congregation’s strategic plan, there is no mention of moving elsewhere.  Not one of your leaders recommended that. Whatever your process was, you determined that you were called, as it says in the plan, to be a beacon of light on the corner of the 6th and I. Now it’s up to us to determine how that light will shine.   

I want you to know that you don’t have to figure that out all by yourselves, that I’m here. I am going pray with you and walk beside you and do whatever I can to help. Because I believe in you, I believe that you are light and salt.

But I also know, as I was saying recently to my mom, that we’re only on this earth for a season. Part of what we’re trying to figure out is what’s going to be here after we’re gone. That’s true for all of us. It’s true for Calvary Church and it’s true for the Diocese of Washington.

So let’s not do this alone. Together let’s trust in God’s abiding love; together let’s acknowledge our fears but not let them rule the day. I am confident that God’s love and the collective power of our discernment will guide us, so that Calvary Church may be a beacon of light in our time and for years to come.

May it be so.
Let me pray for you:

Gracious God, I simply want to offer my gratitude for these faithful, beloved children of yours, for their love and witness, for the legacy of Calvary church and all the generations that came before us. I give thanks for those who grew up here as children and for all who have come in recent years. And I pray that you surround them with love and that your spirit will embolden them to offer their unique gifts. May they know that you not only ask great things of them, you desire great things for them, in their lives, and work, and families, and this community of faith. We renew our commitment, Lord, to be the salt you’ve called us to be, to allow our light to shine. We offer all we have to you, and we ask you to help us live with courage and love in the face of fear, with hope and joy, and with blessings received and offered in Jesus’ name.

Posted in sermon

Jesus’ Inaugural Address

 

When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
Matthew 5:1-12

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.

Good morning Church of the Atonement and all our guests. Good morning, again, confirmands, as you prepare to take an important step in your life. Look around–you are surrounded by the love and abiding faith of this community.

It’s an honor for me to worship God with you. I cannot tell you how proud I am to serve as your bishop, and to have as a colleague and friend your rector, the Rev. Jocelyn Irving. I am in awe of you, Jocelyn, and I want your people to know that. Your faith, your love for Jesus, the clarity of your vision, your unfailing devotion to your family, and to your commitment to your own self care are examples to us all.

I am also impressed with the work you all have done since my last official visit, which was when you were just beginning the strategic planning process that is now in full implementation. We are proud as a diocese to support a part of that plan with one of our first congregational growth grants. The clarity of your proposal to provide employment opportunities to the young people of Southeast Washington, and your own engagement and commitment to the project, makes it a model that we now hold up to other congregations seeking diocesan support. You are a witnesses to the power of Christ to transform lives, and I give thanks to God for you.  

Yesterday we gathered as a diocese at our annual convention. Your clergy and lay delegates were there–thank you for that. I spoke of our collective strategic efforts to invest in the vibrancy of our congregations, for we need to be not only faithful but fruitful in our efforts, and to be  witnesses for Christ and his love at a time such as this.

We didn’t choose this time, but it’s ours, and on our own watch troubling things are happening. As you said, Rev. Jocelyn, in your opening remarks, we need to be where Jesus needs us.

On our watch, our nation has elected a president who seems determined to lead through fear and threat perception, which only encourages and legitimizes the worst in human behavior. It’s dangerous for everyone, and it is in direct opposition to Jesus’ gospel of love.

The list of alarming actions and statements from the president’s first week in office take our collective breath away, but nothing is more insulting to me as a Christian than for President Trump to declare that the some of the most vulnerable refugees on the planet here are not welcome because they are of the Muslim faith, and that instead, Christians are to receive favored status. That should offend all Christian Americans, for it flies in the face of everything Jesus has taught us. As your bishop, I will to stand with other Christians and interfaith leaders on Tuesday to say that such a policy is morally bankrupt. As people of faith and compassion we are called to welcome the stranger, for we were once strangers in the land of Egypt. We are called to welcome the refugee, for Jesus himself was a refugee, when his parents fled their homeland to save their young son’s life.

Jesus needs us to be stand firm and to say that we will not ruled by fear.

I’ve heard it said that the opposite of love is not hate, but fear. Jesus’ gospel is rooted in love, and Scripture assures us that perfect love casts out fear. We need not respond in hate to anyone, for Jesus meets us in the places where we are afraid with his love, and courage, and strength. We need to call on that love, courage, and strength for the days ahead.

So dwell with me now in these extraordinary words of Jesus from the fifth chapter of the Gospel of Matthew.

In the way that Matthew organizes his telling of Jesus’ ministry, the lists of blessings known as the Beatitudes is Jesus’ opening statement of an inaugural address that we now call the Sermon on the Mount. In the chapters leading up to this sermon, Jesus was baptized by John and he heard the voice of God speak to him: “you are my beloved; with you I am well pleased.” He then felt God’s spirit lead him into the desert for 40 days of prayer, temptation, and the testing of his call. He left the desert, strengthened by the Holy Spirit, and called his first disciples. Then he traveled around the region of Galilee with them, doing such wondrous things that people began to seriously take notice. There was something extraordinary about him, something so clear, so  loving and strong, that it was as if holiness itself were walking among them.

In that context, as Jesus sees the crowds following him, he climbs a hill. While the crowd gathered around, he motions for his disciples to sit down. Then he begins to speak–his first public address. It lasts for three chapters, as Matthew records it. I commend the Sermon on the Mount to you in its entirely, as an antidote to all that we’re hearing from our president right now. We’ll read portions of it for the next three weeks in church, but it is so rich in teaching that we’ll only get through one chapter. So read it on your own, and you receive in the essence of Jesus’ ethical teachings, how he wanted his disciples to live in this world.

And if it doesn’t make you personally uncomfortable in some places, you’re not paying attention. Jesus challenges all of us to be the best we can possibly be, to offer the highest of human potential. It’s so challenging, in fact, that we quickly realize how incapable we are of living as he  calls us to on our own. We need the grace of God working through us to be able to forgive as he calls to forgive; to love our enemies the way he challenges us to do; to turn the other cheek or offer our coat when someone asks for our shirt. We have to rely on his grace and his forgiveness when we fail, and then get back up and start again.

For all it’s challenge to us, Jesus begins this sermon with words of blessing. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, those that mourn, the merciful. . .”  Ponder with me the power of blessing: what it feels like to receive and to offer blessing. There are few powers given us with more healing, life affirming potential than the power to bless. For to speak a word of blessing is to call upon all that is good to surround the one we bless. In blessing, to quote a great Irish poet, John O’Donohue, “we draw a circle of light around a person to protect, heal and strengthen.”

Listen to O’Donohue’s words on blessing: “To be in the world is to be distant from the homeland of wholeness. We are confined by limitation and difficulties. But when we bless someone, we are enabled somehow to go beyond our present frontiers and reach into the source.” That is to say, a blessing invokes our future wholeness and brings it back to us.

You know how in storytelling, we use the word “foreshadow” to describe something that represents or symbolizes a part of the story yet to come? How usually in the first chapter of a story, something happens to “foreshadow” what’s to come, usually something difficult? What O’Donohue says is that a blessing fore-brightens the way. Not foreshadows, forebrightens. When you offer blessing, you’re doing what Jesus did, surrounding someone with a circle of light, and healing, and protection.

Now about the list of people of that Jesus called blessed in Matthew 5. This list of blessings is often read at funerals. In fact, I just preached on these words at a funeral last week for an extraordinary woman of God, a lay leader at our Cathedral, who died suddenly. It’s often read at weddings. It was the text my husband and I chose for our wedding over 30 years ago. And we read this list of blessings every year in church on the Feast of All Saints, when we remember those who have gone before us who inspired by their examples of faith and love.

And one way to read this list is as if it were describing different groups of people, as if Jesus were here blessing us and saying “blessed are the poor in spirit” meaning these people to my right, and “blessed are those who mourn,” over there, and the “blessed are the meek,” in the back corner, and “blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness” down in front. Each blessing is distinct and we can determine which one fits us best. That’s one way to read the text.

But another way is to read the list of blessings as all the qualities of being that Jesus calls us to cultivate within ourselves. We have the potential for each one, and as we nurture and cultivate these qualities and attributes–recognizing our own poverty of spirit, striving to be merciful, seeking peace, and so on–not only are we blessed in the ways Jesus promised, we become a blessing to others wherever we go.  

And how do we cultivate these qualities of blessing? I suspect that you already know.  Let me give you three examples to illustrate the same point:

When I was 22 years old, I took a job as a caseworker in a social service agency run by the Methodist Church in Tucson, Arizona. I met with people seeking financial assistance and emergency housing. This was in the early 1980s, and not only were Central Americans streaming across the Mexican border fleeing the brutal civil wars in their countries, people from the northeast and midwestern states were also arriving in droves. Many had lost their jobs because industries in the Rust Belt were leaving their communities for cheaper labor abroad. In response, thousands packed up their cars and drove to warmer climates. It harkened back to the Dustbowl era, when farmers who had lost their land to the banks headed west. People would arrive in Tucson with no money, no family, and they had no place to live except in their cars, some of which had broken down.

Some of the people seeking our help had brought a lot of their suffering on themselves. They had made mistakes; their family relationships weren’t great; there was a fair amount of drug and alcohol abuse. And I confess to you that sometimes I would sit across my desk, and in my 22-year-old arrogance I would feel morally superior. I sat in judgement and wondered to myself who of the many who came to us were worthy of the money we had to give. (I’m not proud of this, mind you.)  

But remember, I was 22 years old, and in those years, I also made some pretty big mistakes. More than once, I put myself in a vulnerable place and was spared the worst consequences of my actions only because I had a safety net to catch me, something that the people who came to us for help didn’t have. I didn’t know the term white privilege then but that’s what it was, although there were plenty of white people on the other side of my desk.

Suffice it to say, there were days when I came to work knowing my poverty of spirit, knowing my need for mercy. And on those days, I had greater capacity to be merciful, to look into another’s eyes as one person poor in spirit to another. That’s when my entire countenance changed. Just as Jesus said that we grow in forgiveness by being forgiven ourselves, we grow in our capacity to be a blessing when we are in touch with our own need for blessing and mercy.  During that time, I was also in the presence of people who embodied a hunger and thirst for righteousness, who were committed peacemakers, who were willing to be persecuted for righteousness’ sake, and I wanted to be among them. Their example of blessedness inspired me.

That’s how we cultivate qualities of blessing, when we know our need for blessing ourselves and receive blessing, and when we are inspired by another’s power to bless, so that in a state of humility we can offer what we have received.

Yesterday at Diocesan Convention, we were debating a resolution that called us to reaffirm, in light of President Trump’s election, our church’s commitment to social justice. The resolution called us to stand with those who are particularly vulnerable in our communities now, and it named particular groups of people, including Muslims. Someone questioned whether we should be that specific–shouldn’t we stand for social justice in general and not start calling out particular groups?

The rector of Our Saviour Episcopal Church in Silver Spring came to the microphone. He reminded the convention that his church was the one that had been vandalized with the words,  Trump Nation Whites Only, spray-painted on their sign and memorial garden wall. Our Saviour is a multi-cultural church, serving immigrants from around the world, including Spanish speakers. Among the many who came to express their solidarity with the people of Our Saviour, he said, were members of an Islamic Temple in Silver Spring. “The Imam and many of the temple’s leaders stood alongside us and came to worship with us the following Sunday. They continued to check on us to see if we were okay. And on Christmas Eve day,” he said, “our Muslim community arrived with over 500 Christmas cards, personally signed, and I gave one to each family in our congregation. I am proud and eager to stand in solidarity with our Muslim neighbors now in their hour of need, because they stood so faithfully and lovingly with us.”

One final example to drive the point home:

In a short film that you can watch on YouTube, the scene opens with a young man, presumably of Middle Eastern descent, sitting alone in the waiting room of a doctor’s office. Then a family enters the room–mother, father, and young girl. When the girl sits next to the young man, her mother quickly takes her by the hand and moves her as far away from him as she can. They all sit in silence, and the parents are clearly uncomfortable and hostile in their eye exchange with the young man. The doctor’s office opens and a nurse beckons them in, all of them together. The parents eye the young man uneasily as the the little girl runs to receive her doctor’s embrace. The young man stand off in a corner while the parents sit down in front of the doctor’s desk. “Is something wrong doctor?” the father asks. He looks at the young man and back at the doctor, as if to say, “what is he doing here?” The doctor replies, “Oh no, there is nothing wrong.” He goes and puts his arm around the young man and says. “I wanted you to meet Jafar.” He looks back at the young girl. “He is Anna’s bone marrow donor.” The girl beams, and her parents first look at each other then down at the ground in shame then meet the gentle gaze of the now smiling young man.

To be a blessing, we all need to remember our need of blessing, so that we can receive it and then share what we have received. We’re the ones called to do this now. This is our watch.

I am confident that we are up to this good and important work. And I know that we’ll fail sometimes, but that will just serve to remind us how much we need blessing ourselves. Then we’ll pick ourselves up and begin again, in faithfulness to the one who loves us all, died for our sins, and promised us a place in that land of light and joy and wholeness. Our blessings now, received and given, forebrighten the way.  

 

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Meeting St. Paul Again for the First Time

After he was in prison for some time, Paul was permitted to state his case before King Agrippa. Paul said to the king, ‘Indeed, I myself was convinced that I ought to do many things against the name of Jesus of Nazareth. And that is what I did in Jerusalem; with authority received from the chief priests, I not only locked up many of the saints in prison, but I also cast my vote against them when they were being condemned to death. By punishing them often in all the synagogues I tried to force them to blaspheme; and since I was so furiously enraged at them, I pursued them even to foreign cities. ‘With this in mind, I was travelling to Damascus with the authority and commission of the chief priests, when at midday along the road, your Excellency, I saw a light from heaven, brighter than the sun, shining around me and my companions. When we had all fallen to the ground, I heard a voice saying to me in the Hebrew language, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? It hurts you to kick against the goads.” I asked, “Who are you, Lord?” The Lord answered, “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting. But get up and stand on your feet; for I have appeared to you for this purpose, to appoint you to serve and testify to the things in which you have seen me and to those in which I will appear to you.I will rescue you from your people and from the Gentiles—to whom I am sending you to open their eyes so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.” ‘After that, King Agrippa, I was not disobedient to the heavenly vision,but declared first to those in Damascus, then in Jerusalem and throughout the countryside of Judea, and also to the Gentiles, that they should repent and turn to God and do deeds consistent with repentance. For this reason the Jews seized me in the temple and tried to kill me.
Acts 26:9-21

For I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel that was proclaimed by me is not of human origin; for I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.

You have heard, no doubt, of my earlier life in Judaism. I was violently persecuting the church of God and was trying to destroy it. I advanced in Judaism beyond many among my people of the same age, for I was far more zealous for the traditions of my ancestors. But when God, who had set me apart before I was born and called me through his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, so that I might proclaim him among the Gentiles, I did not confer with any human being, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were already apostles before me, but I went away at once into Arabia, and afterwards I returned to Damascus. Then after three years I did go up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas and stayed with him for fifteen days; but I did not see any other apostle except James the Lord’s brother. In what I am writing to you, before God, I do not lie! Then I went into the regions of Syria and Cilicia, and I was still unknown by sight to the churches of Judea that are in Christ; they only heard it said, ‘The one who formerly was persecuting us is now proclaiming the faith he once tried to destroy.’ And they glorified God because of me.
Galatians 1:11-23

Good morning. I am Mariann Budde, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, and it’s a privilege to worship God with you, the members of St. Paul’s, K Street and all guests and visitors today. I hold your rector, Richard Wall, the associate clergy and lay leaders of St. Paul’s in high esteem, and I give thanks to God for your collective witness and ministry.

Each week I worship in one of the 88 congregations in the Diocese of Washington, which allows me to experience the depth and breadth of the Episcopal Church throughout Washington, D.C. and four Maryland counties, and across that diversity to discern common themes–where we are strong, as Episcopalians, where we struggle, and where each congregation’s distinct call to follow Christ might fit into a larger witness.

And in each place I seek to bring a word of encouragement, to do what I can to support you and your leaders, and to commend each person–each one of you here today–in your personal life of faith.  

There are many claims on all of our lives, many demands on our time and energy. I urge you to take a bit of time each day to pray, reflect on Scripture or other sources of inspiration, and to seek Jesus’ guidance for your life. God’s love for us is strong and true, and God’s grace is real. But we need to do our part.

Spiritual practices are those things we do that help us become the kind of people who can hear God’s voice, feel the presence of Christ, and be open to the Holy Spirit’s guidance. Our practices are what we can do to help narrow the gap between the person that we are and the person God calls us to become. Or, in the words of Brian McLaren, “spiritual practices are about surviving our twenties, forties, or eighties and not becoming a jerk in the process. About not letting what happens to us deform or destroy us. About realizing that what we earn or accumulate means nothing compared to what we become and who we are.” And like most things that take time to cultivate, the fruits of our practices may not be evident to us until we need them most. And if we haven’t cultivated them in small ways over time, it’s hard to play catch up.

We’ve come to the end of what was one of the more challenging and fascinating weeks to be a resident of Washington, D.C. and her surrounding communities. There’s a lot of energy swirling around and, indeed, within us. You may be aware of the controversy surrounding decisions the Cathedral dean and I made regarding participation in inaugural events and the prayer service at the Cathedral yesterday, and also around the decision of one of your sister congregations, St. John’s, Lafayette Square to host a private prayer service for the president, vice president, and their families. There was strong criticism when the identity of the preacher for that service became public, because his is the kind of Christian witness the vast majority of Episcopalians, including me and all the people at St. John’s, do not espouse.

I don’t want to say more about these things here, although I am certainly open to further conversation. I simply want to express my gratitude to you, because in midst of all that I needed to deal with and think about in the past week, you gave another task. As your preacher on the Feast Day of the Conversion of St. Paul, I needed to spend time thinking about your patron saint, and in particular, his conversion that changed the course of his life and arguably, the world.

I confess I’ve had a hard time focusing on much of anything this week, but knowing I would be here today, I picked up a book I’ve wanted to read for a long time: St. Paul: The Apostle We Love to Hate, by the brilliant world religions scholar Karen Armstrong. It was exactly what I needed to read, and I cannot commend it to you highly enough. You will never think of your patron saint in the same way again, and his life story, as told by her, will be a source of great inspiration.

Armstrong reminds us that Paul enters the Christian story about two years after Jesus’s death. Paul himself would proudly insist on his impeccable Jewish ancestry, his education–which locates him among the highest social strata of his time– and that he had been a particularly zealous Pharisee.

Though Paul played a passive role in the stoning of Stephen, he then went on the offensive against certain followers of Jesus. In his zeal, he entered house after house, seizing men and women and sending them to prison. He did not shrink from brute force. Some of his victims may have been condemned to thirty-nine lashes in the synagogue; others may have been beaten up or even killed.  

In his own mind, Paul was been doing his best to hasten the coming of the Messiah. But then, as Armstrong writes, “in an overwhelming moment of truth, he realized that Jesus’s followers were right. . . As if this were not enough, his violence had broken the fundamental principles of the Torah: love of God and love of neighbor. In his excessive ardor for the law’s integrity, he had forgotten God’s stern command: ‘Thou shalt not kill.’ Paul would spend the rest of his life working out the implications of an insight that was at once devastating—because it snatched Paul away from everything that had previously given meaning to his life—but also profoundly liberating.”

On the road to Damascus, Paul had a vision. It was as if scales had been removed from his eyes and he had an entirely new insight into the nature of God. “For Paul the Pharisee,” Armstrong writes, “God was utterly pure and free of all contamination. . . But when Paul saw that God had embraced Jesus’ filthy, degraded body and raised it to the highest place in Heaven, he realized that in fact God had an entirely different set of values.”

Think for a moment of the magnitude of that experience. Paul had to lay aside what he had previously believed to be sacred truth in light of a spiritual encounter that revealed to him a deeper truth. Jesus himself appeared to Paul, asking that haunting question, “Why do you persecute me?” Can you think of such a time in your life–when in light of a new experience or insight, you had to lay aside what you once believed with all your heart? It is very hard to do.  

I’m reminded of a story Anthony de Mello tells of 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 their chapel. After the funeral service, they 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 about life after death. So, they put him back in the wall.

Paul, in contrast, chose to follow the revelation given to him, at great personal cost. That’s a part of his story too easy for us to overlook–how much encountering Christ cost him.

We don’t know much about the first years after Paul’s encounter with Christ. He tells us that he left Damascus and went to Arabia for three years. No doubt he spent a lot of time thinking and praying and talking with people. He tells us that he worked, of all things, as a tentmaker, which Armstrong suggests, was a complete reversal of lifestyle for Paul.

“Unlike many of Jesus’s disciples, Paul had been born into the social elite and was able to devote his life to study, a luxury that was possible only for the leisured classes. . . But by deliberately abandoning this lifestyle and living in solidarity with common laborers, Paul was practicing a daily kenosis or “self-emptying,” similar to Jesus’s when he ‘emptied himself to assume the condition of a slave.’ Indeed, Paul said that by taking up this menial occupation, he had in fact enslaved himself. It was a hard life. Paul said that he and his fellow workers were often ‘overworked and sleepless,’ and went ‘hungry, thirsty, and in rags, wearing ourselves out by earning a living by our own hands;’ and ‘treated as the scum of the earth, as the dregs of humanity.’”

Armstrong points out few of the apostles supported themselves in this way, and some of Paul’s opponents believed that by identifying with the lower echelons of society, he brought the gospel into disrepute.

“But after Damascus, Paul wanted to transcend such distinctions.”

Armstrong goes on to tell the rest of Paul’s life story, which does not get any easier. It’s astonishing to realize, given all that he accomplished, how nearly his entire ministry was defined by struggle, conflict with other Jesus followers, hardship, and persecution. In fact, according to Armstrong, the most devastating breaks in relationship for Paul came within the Christian fellowship itself.

Last night I read the seven “undisputed” letters of St. Paul, those for which there is no controversy of authorship, in chronological order. It took me about an hour. And I was reminded of when I first started seriously reading the Bible, in seminary, nearly 30 years ago. St. Paul was, as Armstrong’s title states, the Christian writer we all loved to hate. We didn’t like his views on women in leadership, human sexuality, and slavery. I will leave the debate about those texts and their authorship alone for now, although Armstrong covers them in depth.

What I want to do in the time I have left is read to you some of Paul’s most inspiring and uplifting words, words that he wrote, astonishingly, when he was living in extreme hardship. They are some of the words that touch my heart and inspire my faith, and I pray will do the same for you:

From his letter to the churches in Galatia:

There is no longer Jew or Greek there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.
Galatians 3: 28-29

For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.
Galatians 5:1

From his first letter to the churches in Corinth:

Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many. . . If the foot were to say, ‘Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body’, that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear were to say, ‘Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body’, that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? . . If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honoured, all rejoice together with it.
I Corinthians 12

If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast,* but do not have love, I gain nothing. 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. . . For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.
I Corinthians 13

From his letter to the Philippians:

I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now. I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.
Philippians 1:3-6

From his second letter to the Corinthians:

Therefore, since it is by God’s mercy that we are engaged in this ministry, we do not lose heart…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 4:4-9

From his letter to the church in Rome:

Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honour. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. If your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
Romans 12

May God bless you, members of St. Paul’s, K Street, as you strive to be faithful to Christ’s call under the mantle of your patron saint. I urge you to spend some time getting to know him better. Allow his inspiration and his example to inspire you and give you hope. If we all lived our lives with a fraction of the passion and faith with which he lived his, the world would be a better place. For as Paul himself would remind us, God’s Spirit working in us can do infinitely more than we can ask for or imagine.

 

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More Than One Way to Witness

Each of us was given grace according the measure of Christ’s gift.
Ephesians 4:7

It had been my intention to write this week about the major themes I will address in greater detail at next weekend at the yearly gathering of clergy and lay delegates from the 88 congregations of the Diocese of Washington. These are the issues I care most about and for which I feel most accountable before God and those I serve as bishop.

But I would be remiss not to address again the concerns raised by many faithful Episcopalians regarding the participation of Washington National Cathedral’s choir in the presidential inauguration and the inaugural prayer service the following day. While some have written to support the decisions Dean Randy Hollerith and I have made on these matters, most who have contacted me are dismayed, disappointed, and angry.

Many have made the distinction between hosting the inaugural prayer service and the choir’s participation at the inauguration itself, supporting one and objecting to the other. Others didn’t object to the prayer service until they heard that there would not be a sermon, which left them feeling as if the church had surrendered its responsibility to preach truth to power.  

I feel the weight of the emotions expressed by those who disagree with my decisions and want to explain certain misperceptions. For example, it has always been the president’s prerogative to choose a preacher for the inaugural prayer service, or, in this case, not to have one. And the readings and prayers offered will themselves carry prophetic weight.

Yet I don’t expect to change anyone’s mind by what I have to say here. In truth, I’m grateful for the sense of outrage at some of the President-elect’s words and actions, because I share it. And I’m grateful for the protests that are unfolding in our nation because I believe that protest is, at times, a civic responsibility and one critical component of faithful Christian discipleship.

But I do not believe that on the weekend of Mr. Trump’s inauguration, protest is the only way to express civic responsibility informed by Christian faith. Some of us may need to be in the streets. But others of us need to show up at the inauguration and the events that follow, secular though some may be, as people of faith and witnesses to the highest aspirations of our nation. I would argue that we especially need to be present among fellow citizens whose views of the world, and of this inauguration, differ from ours.

While some faithful Christians are called to protest, others are called to extend hospitality, and to accept the hospitality of others, truly listening to those for whom this weekend is a celebration. While there are times for prophetic witness, there are also times for prayers of uplift and encouragement, meditations on shared history, and music that stirs the soul. For those of us leading the prayer service at Washington National Cathedral, this weekend is that sort of time. The fact that others feel called to march at that same hour speaks to the many ways Christians can feel called to act, in faith, for the common good.

I live and lead from the core conviction that God loves diversity, as evidenced in creation and our glorious diversity as a species. I believe that there is more than one way to be a faithful Christian, and that in most situations, there is more than one right answer. Precisely for times such as this, we are called to be a church with breadth in our witness and capacity for real relationships across profound differences. Fostering such relationships requires a far more radical kind of hospitality than we currently know how to offer. It also requires a willingness to put ourselves in places that make us uncomfortable. So that is what some of us will do.

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