What Do You Want? (Service of Confirmation and Reception)

James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him and said to him, ‘Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.’ And he said to them, ‘What is it you want me to do for you?’ And they said to him, ‘Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.’ But Jesus said to them, ‘You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?’ They replied, ‘We are able.’ Then Jesus said to them, ‘The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.’

When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. So Jesus called them and said to them, ‘You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.’
Mark 10:35-45

I’d like to begin by saying a specific word to those who are to be confirmed and  received into the Episcopal Church, or who will reaffirm the promises made at your baptism. As you come forward to receive the prayers from me or one my colleague bishops, we want you to know that the blessing you will receive is real, and it will remain with you. This  moment is a sacrament–an outward expression of deep internal, invisible truths. That truth for you is rooted in God’s unconditional love, Jesus’ presence in your lives, and the Holy Spirit’s power guiding, sustaining, and gifting you. You are endowed with particular gifts, each one of you, and we will be praying for you, that those gifts might find their fullest expression, for your own joy’s sake and for all the good you will accomplish as you live your lives.

I encourage you, in particular those who are in your teen age years, to consider this moment not as the end of a process of learning and growing in faith, but as one point on a life-long journey. Your experiences of God and understanding of what it means to be a follower of Jesus simply must deepen and grow over your life or it will become less meaningful for you. I’d be lying if I told you that a relationship with God and a commitment to follow the teachings of Jesus doesn’t require effort and intentionality on all of our parts. Because it does. What I promise you is that it’s worth it.

We just heard a story from the Bible in which two of Jesus’ closest disciples run to the front of the line as they are all walking down a road, to ask Jesus a question, presumably one they didn’t want the others to hear. Their lead-in statement is one that should give us all pause: “Teacher, we want you to do whatever we ask of you.” Have you ever begun a conversation like that? “Mom…Dad…Son…Darling, I want you to do whatever  I ask you?”

Coming from my lips it sounds a bit arrogant or simply naive. But, honestly when I think about the people with whom I have the kind the relationships that could even entertain a conversation that starts with such an explicit statement, or more the case, the unspoken assumption of it, what they all have in common is love. The people that I would dare to ask them to something I want, I assume that they love me. And one thing is certain about James and John: they know that Jesus loves them enough to care about what that they want.

Now if you’ve spent any time at all in church, or if you’ve read the bible, you know that there are a lot of stories and teachings that say that what we want, our desires, particularly our sinful desires, have no place in our relationship with God. There is a strong bias in faith that suggests that everything we would want is somehow bad, or counter to the will of God.

I’m not suggesting that those passages are unimportant and that we need not listen to them. All I’m pointing out is that whenever we conclude that renouncing or giving up all that we want is what the Christian faith requires, we come across stories like this one. They are all over the Bible and particularly in the writings about Jesus. These stories seem to say something else, that what we want is important. In fact, if you show up in church tomorrow–two services on a weekend!–you’ll hear, at the very end of the gospel text, Jesus say something quite similar, that this notion of what we want factors into our life of faith.

I’m reminded of a story that Jesus told (this one didn’t turn out so well) of a son who goes to his father and demands in advance his portion of his inheritance. He was, in essence, saying to his dad, “What I will inherit when you die is what I want most from you.” And the father, incredibly enough, grants his request. If you know the story, you know that the son didn’t use the inheritance wisely, but squandered it all, and came begging back to his father, asking to be treated like a hired hand.

There’s another story about Jesus and his disciples walking along a road, and a blind man, sitting on the side of the road, when he realizes that Jesus is nearby starts shouting, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” People try to shut him up, but he yells all the louder. So Jesus approaches and asked him the same question he asked James and John: “What do you want me to do for you?” The man replies, “Teacher, I want to see again.” And the story goes from there.

What I’d like to say to those of you who are to be confirmed today or received; those who are re-affirming your faith, either individually or when we all stand to renew our baptismal promises together, and to those of you who are here to support someone else but aren’t all that sure about the Christian faith, is this: what you want matters. What you want obviously matters to you. It  matters to the people who love you. It matters to God. That’s why Jesus asks the question, “What do you want me to do for you?” He wants to know what you want.

Your desires have a lot to teach you about yourself, about what’s important to you and what’s not; what makes you happy and what doesn’t; where you hurt and what you long for. All of that is really important data not only for you as you live your life, but also for those who love and want to support you. And God created you with those desires. God calls you through them, speaks to you, in and through your heart’s desire.

Which doesn’t mean–stating the obvious here–that you or I will always get what we want. It doesn’t mean that Jesus is some kind of Santa Claus, going around fulfilling the wish lists of those who are good or say the right prayers. It doesn’t mean that what we want today is what we’re going to want a year from now. It doesn’t mean that all our desires are healthy, or aren’t of balance or out of order. But there is a connection between what we want–especially the wants that lie beneath the stuff we want on the surface–and what God wants for us.

So here’s an exercise I invite you try someday, later today even: sit down with a blank piece of paper and pen, or a blank screen in front of you, and write as quickly as you can, without stopping for about two minutes, all the answers you can come with to the question, “What do you want?”

After you’ve done that, clear the screen or get a fresh piece of paper and answer in the same way, with all you can come up with in two minutes, this question:“What do you want Jesus to do for you?”

What do you want? What do you want Jesus to do for you? You might just sit for a moment now to imagine yourself doing that exercise.

You may come up with lots of answers: some personal, some relational, some trivial; some profound; some for the good of the world, some for yourself.

You may find yourself acknowledging a ride range of wants, but not seeing how those wants have anything to do with your faith. Or you might want  Jesus to open a door for you, make something happen, move you beyond where you feel stuck, to help bring resolution to a difficult situation, resolve a conflict, heal a wound, give you guidance.

You might want God to buy you a Mercedes Benz.  Do any of you know that song? “Oh, Lord won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz.” (Janis Joplin/the 1960s? I’m dating myself here.)

Who knows until you ask the question?

Looking at your lists, however you write them, you can start to order your wants in some kind of priority. I’ll give you an example. I want to have a few days of retreat this week, something that I have planned for with a few of my colleagues and have looked forward to for several months. I also want to be a good daughter to my mother, who is 85 years old. Of the two, my desire to be a good daughter is of higher priority, which became clear to me when my mother fell last week and broke her wrist. So I cancelled the retreat and I’m going to see my mother. While I was disappointed to cancel the retreat, it wasn’t a hard decision. Part of the life of faith involves putting our wants in the correct order. None of them is necessarily bad, but their order in terms of priority and importance is what we must continually discern.

So when Jesus asks, “what do you want me to do for you?” if you let it, his question drops you down a level, and then another, to the desires beneath the surface, and then deeper still. Sometimes you get to desires that are so important that you’re willing to give your life for them even if they never fulfilled.

What do you want me to do for you?

When Jesus asked James and John what they wanted, they said they wanted Jesus to share with them his greatness, so that they could sit at his side in his glory.  Maybe they thought they had earned their place next to him–after all, they had been with him from the beginning. Or maybe they simply wanted to be the first in line. Jesus knew they had no idea what they were asking, and he said as much to them. You see they are on their way to Jerusalem and he knows what’s waiting for him there. James and John are thinking it’s going to all triumphant glory, and he knows it will be a path of suffering.

And then Jesus does something for them, for all of them, that he does for us whenever we bring our wants to him: he doesn’t chastise them but instead takes them to a deeper place. He says, “You may well be great one day, but first let me teach you what greatness means. You think it has to do with sitting in places of honor. But I’m here to tell you that greatness has to do with how deeply you love and how selflessly you serve.”

That’s what Jesus does for us as well: He takes our surface desires and deepens them. He takes our ambitions, our self-focus, our need for affirmation and reveals what lies beneath them. If we allow him to, he’ll take all that we bring, and rather than chastise us, he’ll show us what we really want, at the deepest level instead of remaining distracted on the surface.

One way to get to that level of desire in your on-going relationship with Jesus is to bring to your prayer all that you want, and what you want him to do. And then save a bit of time in prayer for a final question: “Jesus, what do you want me to do?”  If you ask that question alongside the other two, you will be astonished at the answer.

I asked that question once on a retreat, and I confess I was afraid of the answer. I was expecting Jesus to come up with a whole bunch of things that I didn’t want to do. I was convinced he was going to ask me to sell all my possessions, move to a far off place, give up everything. I was convinced that Jesus was going to test and see how serious I was about following him—I’m a bishop after all. If I were serious, that’s what he’d ask of me.

And what came instead, first of all, was an overwhelming experience of love. I felt deeply loved and seen for who I was, that Jesus saw all the way through and loved me still. And what I heard was something like, “Mariann, I’m not going to ask you to do things you can’t do. I love you.” Then came an invitation to trust him, that if I put my life in his hands, not only would he show me the way to go, he would help me live into my deepest desires, which were also his desire for me.

So my friends, someday–maybe later today, maybe tomorrow, please, take a moment, sit down or take a walk, and open your heart. Tell Jesus what you want and what you want him to do for you. Then turn the question around and asks what he wants from you.

Rest assured that he wants from you pales in comparison to what he wants for you. And what he wants for you is, in fact, your deepest desire.

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Building Our House on Solid Rock: The Global Leadership Summit 2017


Jesus said, “I will show you what someone is like who comes to me, hears my words, and acts on them. That one is like a man building a house, who dug deeply and laid the foundation on rock; when a flood arose, the river burst against that house but could not shake it, because it had been well built.
Luke 6:47-48

I’ve just returned from clergy conference, an opportunity for priests and deacons to gather in friendship, consider a new idea or two, and worship without leadership responsibilities. And in a session we called “the fireside chat,” they graciously engaged with me as I shared what’s on my heart and mind as your bishop.

I’ll soon send follow up letter to all clergy, and in the next few weeks I’ll also write in my blog on a variety of issues all loosely under the theme: building our house on solid rock–the practical foundations of healthy ministry. Next week, as a head’s up, I’m going to write about the need for house cleaning, decluttering, and, among other things, replacing rusty “The Episcopal Church Welcomes You” signs. Between now and then, you might want to walk around your church with fresh eyes.

Today I extend an invitation to all who wish to join me and members of diocesan staff on August 10-11 for an inspiring and affordable two-day conferences on leadership: The Global Leadership Conference. Sponsored by Willow Creek Church, the Global Leadership Conference is simulcast at churches around the world, so that people like us can attend without significant travel costs. Moreover, the summit brings in some of the finest leaders from many fields and disciplines, with the express purpose of helping leaders improve and grow.

This year’s faculty includes: Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative; Andy Stanley of North Point Community Church; Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook; Immaculee Ilibagiza, a survivor of the Rwandan genocide and global advocate for peace and forgiveness, and many more.   

There are several host sites in our area. The one I’ve attended is First Baptist Church of Glenarden in Landover, MD. The cost is modest: if we register between now and May 23 as a group, the individual cost is $149. If you would like to register as a part of the diocesan group, please email Mitchell Sams by May 22. As the conference draws closer, the cost will rise, but never beyond $209 per person.

I have attended the leadership summit for the last two years. While I didn’t find every speaker helpful, I’ve come away each time spiritually uplifted, with insights and understandings that have improved my leadership. I’ve also gained access to a library of video presentations on leadership topics that I can review and share with others.  

Pastor Bill Hybels of Willow Creek said this at the first summit I attended: “When leaders improve, everybody wins.” He also said that one goal all leaders can set is to improve our leadership 5% a year.

Imagine the cumulative impact in our churches and communities we serve if we all set ourselves to improve our leadership, as those called not only to know and love Jesus, but also to invite others into relationship with him, to love as he loves, and to work for his kingdom on earth.

Register for the Global Leadership Summit as part of the diocesan group

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Walking Through Doors

 

Jesus said, “Most assuredly, I say to you, he who does not enter the sheepfold by the door, but climbs up some other way, the same is a thief and a robber.  But he who enters by the door is the shepherd of the sheep. To him the doorkeeper opens, and the sheep hear his voice; and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. And when he brings out his own sheep, he goes before them; and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice. Yet they will by no means follow a stranger, but will flee from him, for they do not know the voice of strangers.” Jesus used this illustration, but they did not understand the things which He spoke to them.  Then Jesus said to them again, “Most assuredly, I say to you, I am the door of the sheep. All who ever came before Me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not hear them. I am the door. If anyone enters by Me, he will be saved, and will go in and out and find pasture. The thief does not come except to steal, and to kill, and to destroy. I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly.
John 10:1-10

Good morning, St. Francis’ church. I’m glad to be with you in worship again, grateful to God for each one of you and the Christian community in this place. I give thanks to God for bringing Father Mark and his family to us, and for an emerging vision of God’s hopes and dreams for you as followers of Jesus, called to love and serve others as he so richly loves us all.

We’ve just heard, in a mere ten verses of Scripture, two striking metaphors for the way Jesus relates to us and to our world: First he says, “I am the door,” through which we can walk and find salvation.” And “I am the gatekeeper,” who calls us each by name and leads us, going out ahead of us. Our opening prayer this morning comes from the very next verse in the Gospel of John in which Jesus adds yet another metaphor, in the same sheep/sheepfold motif. He says “I am the good shepherd, one who lays down his life for the sheep.”

To begin, let’s remember what it means to speak in metaphors. The word itself stems from Greek, meaning “to carry something across,” or “to transfer.” A metaphor is a word or phrase used to describe something by comparing to an essential quality of something else, to see something or, in Jesus’ case, someone in light of those essential qualities. Even those who read the Bible as the unerring, literal truth of God understand the biblical use of metaphors. Jesus isn’t, in actuality, a gate or a shepherd, or light, or bread, or any of the metaphors the gospels writers use to describe him. But when we look at him in light of the essential qualities of those things, we gain greater insight into his nature and his presence.

And so to think of Jesus as a door, metaphorically speaking, we must presuppose the existence of a fence or wall, something that separates and divides. For a door serves as an opening, a passageway from one reality to another. We move through gates. So Christ comes, using this metaphor, as a door—an opening a passageway through whatever would separate us from one another and from our true selves.

Walls and fences serve an important function: they protect us from danger. We understandably fear what might happen to us should we venture past the safety of our walls or allow the unfamiliar in. Some of the walls we build are physical; some are relational; others are internal, deep within our psyches. It’s important to remember, however, that we are not born with walls. We come into the world behind whatever walls our families and culture have constructed, and we must be taught to abide them. Some of those walls, perhaps most, are essential for our safety and survival—the ones that keep us clothed and housed against the elements and protected from forces that would do us harm.

Others walls, however, are rooted in fear and prejudice and cause more damage in themselves than anything we might face on the other side of them. There’s a good deal of angst in our country these days, rightfully so, as we consider the walls that divide us. Some say our division is unlike anything we have experienced in our history.

As a student of American history, I have my doubts about. It’s clear the notion of our being the United States is one we have struggled with at every step of our relatively short existence as a nation.  

When our sons were in high school, they loved performing in musical theatre, and the head of the theatre department had a reputation for choosing new and rather daring musicals for high schools students to perform. In our younger son’s final year, the musical chosen was Rodger and Hammerstein’s South Pacific. I remember being disappointed at first with the choice. Not that I’d ever seen South Pacific but as a true American I didn’t let my ignorance keep me from having a strong opinion about it. In my defense, what songs I did know didn’t exactly advance gender relations: “There Ain’t Nothing Like a Dame,” and “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outta My Hair.”

But I soon I realized the brilliance of the music director’s choice. I had no idea how courageous Rogers and Hammerstein were in 1949 in raising the issue of racial prejudice. For in that otherwise upbeat musical there was one song that stirred the nation–do you remember? You Have to Be Carefully Taught:

You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear…
It’s got to be drummed in your dear little ear,
You’ve got to be carefully taught…
to be afraid of people whose eyes are oddly made
and of those whose skin is a different shade.
You’ve got to be carefully taught…
before it’s too late, before you are six, or seven, or eight,
to hate all the people your relatives hate.
You’ve got to be carefully taught.

The outcry against this song was immediate and fierce, particularly in Southern states, where in response to the touring version of South Pacific, some legislators called for outlawing entertainment containing “an underlying philosophy inspired by Moscow and contrary to the American way of life.” Rodgers and Hammerstein were pressured to remove the song, but they remained adamant in keeping it in, willing to risk the entire enterprise for its sake.

When Jesus offers himself to us as a door, these are the kind of walls he’d like us to walk through—the ones that divide us in destructive ways, that create unspeakable hardship for some while others remain oblivious, that allow us to live in gated communities of isolation and ignorance. Of course the best thing would be to tear the walls down completely. But notice Jesus doesn’t come saying, “I am as a sledge hammer.” He comes instead as a door, a passageway, a place of meeting—inviting us to cross over into terrain we fear and learn to engage those who are different from us.

For without doors of passage and the relationships that are possible when we pass through them, suspicion builds. When we don’t see other people face to face, they develop, as one person said recently, “mythical horns” in our minds and become, over time, less human to us. From behind our walls, it becomes easier for us to blame them for things that aren’t their fault and see them only through the lens of what they represent to us, rather than the full and complicated human beings they are, just like us, on our side of the wall.  

So when I think of Jesus in this way, what that does is encourage me is to become curious about the people I would otherwise keep in caricature, and to pay attention to the ways my speech and actions reinforce harmful divisions. And I hear him call me out into places of authentic encounter.

I wonder if you feel that call as well, and where he might be leading you.

There are other walls, too, not simply on the outside, but inside us as well. Again, we aren’t born with walls. Infants and young children have no such protection, no sense of separation between them and the outside world. Part of the task of creating a healthy ego—a sense of “I”—involves building a wall of separation between us and others, so that we learn, over time, where we end and another person begins, and establish our own core identity. This is good and essential wall building.

Yet there is another kind of internal wall that, while initially self protective, becomes harmful to us over time. It’s the wall we learn to hide behind, whenever we perceive it’s not safe to be real, to let others know who we are. In the words of Thomas Merton: “Most people live lives of self impersonation, never showing up in this world as themselves.”  

It’s a risky thing to do, to be ourselves in the world, to let ourselves be known, and to allow others to do the same. For that kind of connection to happen, we need to create what the Quaker writer Parker Palmer calls “circles of trust,” places where we can learn the hard work of listening without fixing or judgment, of speaking our truth without foisting it on others, of allowing space for our true selves to emerge.

If there is a door of Christ within us, that’s where it would lead us to, a sacred space of trust. In that space, we have hard internal work to do, soul work that involves learning how to take responsibility our own life and destiny, to face what Palmer calls “the demon of jealousy” that causes us to fear that another’s success will mean less goodness in the world for us, and to learn forgiveness, of others and oneself.  

What we need to look for and be open to, it seems to me, are the unexpected options, the unforeseen possibilities that occasionally cross our paths. In them may lie the kernel of grace that can move us forward without necessarily having to dismantle everything we’ve built up over a lifetime to protect ourselves. Dag Hammarskjold, the Swedish Secretary General to the United Nations in the 1950s, was known for his ability to mediate between highly polarized and conflicted nations and groups within nations. He had a saying, “There is always a third way.” Whenever we are stuck in all or nothing extremes, there may be another option, something we don’t as yet see, that can move us forward. There may another door.

Jesus also refers to himself, moving onto the second metaphor, as the gatekeeper who calls us by name and whom we follow because we recognize his voice. I’d like to spend the time I have left pondering that mystery with you: how can we hear Jesus speak to us, call us by name, and lead us where he would have us go?

I have spent most of my adult life trying to put this experience—that of hearing the voice of God, which for me speaks most consistently through Jesus—into words. I do so, recognizing the need for caution and humility here, given how easily we afford too much or too little authority to the voices both within and without. Yet I do believe that God speaks. God speaks, from within, in the still, small voice, to borrow Elijah’s language, and without, as St. Patrick said, “through mouth of friend and stranger.” The problem, of course, is that there are many voices, loud and soft, voices that conflict or agree, affirm and challenge, rise up in confusion or blend in harmony.

There will always be great mystery, the paradox of tremendous effort and sheer grace associated with discerning the voice of God in our lives. Occasionally, God speaks with undeniable clarity, through flashes of insight within or through the voice of another. These moments are rare. More often than not, when seeking to hear God’s voice, we are left, as with all important things, to consider multiple voices and consider the perspectives they bring. From there we reach our imperfect conclusions.

Yet I believe Christ speaks to us as much or more in the multitude of voices as he seems to when we hear one voice clearly. We are especially close to God when we acknowledge all the voices within and around and remember that with God, there is always a third way, a way of trust that in the midst of all we hear and understand, something of the divine will filter through. For there is something of God’s voice, when we hear it, that rings true, even when it surprises us or makes us uncomfortable. It’s that ringing trueness we strive to hear—the voice of God that connects us to our own voice and strengthens it, and gives us the spaciousness to allow other voices their due. If we can pay attention to the options that unexpectedly present themselves and listen to the many voices around and within us for that which rings true, we stand a good chance of finding the gateway toward our true selves and our place in the world, and hearing the voice of the One who comes to show us the way.  

Let me leave you, then, with a word of encouragement and gentle admonition, if I may be so bold, to listen. Listen for the voice that rings true, that calls you to know and show up in this world as your true self, and that allows you to reach others beyond the walls that separate.

Dare to trust that God is doing more than half of the work here, wanting to reach you with words of consolation, guidance, asking you to trust him as both your door and gatekeeper, as your way and guide along the way.

I invite you to pray with me, if you feel so moved:

Lord, I give you thanks for the ways you offer yourself to us as a door, a passageway to what matters most in ourselves, in relationship to others, and in our world. Help us to trust you when you call us out beyond the security of our walls. Help us to recognize your voice. Amen.

 

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Inspiration Incarnate: Bishops Baskerville-Burrows and Harris

Alternate Jennifer BB and Family-2

Pure joy. Truly amazing. Overwhelming love and gratitude. A momentous occasion. Blessed beyond measure. Still basking in the beauty.

These are a sample of the superlative words on social media describing what happened in the Episcopal Diocese of Indianapolis — the consecration and seating of Jennifer Baskerville-Burrows, the first African American woman elected to lead a diocese in our church. Even more compelling were the photographs of beaming faces, among them nine African American women clergy from the Diocese of Washington.

EDOW Clergy RepsPhoto (left to right): the Rev. Dr. Rosemarie Duncan, the Rev. Kimberly Lucas, the Rev. Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas, the Rev. Dr. Michele Hagans, the Rev. Glenna Huber, the Rev. Dr. Gayle Fisher-Stewart, the Rev. Canon Paula Clark, the Rev. Kim Turner Baker. Not pictured, but present at the consecration, the Rev. Canon Nan Peete and the Rev. Charles Wynder.

The Rev. Canon Nan Peete preached for the Sunday morning service at Christ Episcopal Cathedral.  

Nan and Rose.jpgPhoto: the Rev. Canon Nan Peete and the Rev. Dr. Rosemarie Duncan

I’ve had the privilege of working with Bishop Baskerville-Burrows on gun violence prevention initiatives and know her to be a passionate disciple of Jesus, a strong leader who loves our church, and a tireless worker for justice.   

Speaking to journalists last week, Baskerville-Burrows said:

“We are in a fragmented culture that seems to have no end to fragmentation. It’s easier now to be isolated than it has ever been. Our scriptures tell us … that we are meant for community and for belonging, and so I hear that yearning. That’s why I am hopeful about the future of the church.”

We are blessed beyond measure to have her as bishop among us.

Harris and BaskervilleBurrows-2.jpgAmong the most poignant photos from the consecration were of Bishop Baskerville-Burrows and Bishop Barbara Harris, the first woman to be elected bishop in the entire Anglican communion nearly 30 years ago. As the Rev. Yolanda Rolle, EDOW chaplain at Howard writes on her Facebook page: “Bishop Baskerville-Burrows is standing on the shoulders of many women (and men) who choose daily to walk in the Will and Way of God. Women including, the Rev. Pauli Murray, the Rt. Rev. Barbara Harris, and the Rt. Rev. Gayle Harris.”

For those of us in EDOW unable to attend the service in Indianapolis, we have chance to hear the strong, inspiring words of the Rt. Rev. Barbara Harris Sunday, May 7, 4 p.m. at St Andrew’s Episcopal Church in College Park. She will preach at our annual service to honor Absalom Jones, the first African American Episcopal priest, ordained in 1804. Gifts received at the service will support the Bishop John T. Walker School for Boys

Come to be inspired and renew your commitment to racial justice.  Come to support the Bishop Walker School and to welcome Bishop Harris back to the Diocese of Washington, where she served as Assisting Bishop from 2003 to 2007.

In anticipation for Sunday, here are a few quotes from Bishop Harris’ past sermons, published in her book Parting Words: A Farewell Discourse.

My friends, we search for many things in this world. We thirst after money, power, prestige, position; we may even pray for them. But like our Lord, we are at a crossroads in the church and in society. We still have a choice, and Jesus is asking us, “Do we have a thirst for the kingdom?” Are we content to settle for the temporary thirst quenchers of life, things that will never slake the thirst of our parched, dry souls? Or do we thirst for righteousness, for peace, for justice, for the liberation of all God’s people? Do we have a thirst to merge as truly faithful Christians, to be more than we are? Each of us must answer for himself or herself. Jesus is patiently waiting for our answer.

A question for us in the face of hostility and hatred is, Do we ever astonish anyone with our witness? Or is our witness bland and tepid? Do we ever by risky, sacrificial, costly relationship with Jesus astonish anybody? Would that we might!

God does not always–or even usually–call us because we are finished products or perfect instruments for his service. God calls us, then remolds, equips, and empowers us for his service. Not only do we have this treasure in earthen vessels (as St. Paul reminds us), but when the vessel becomes cracked or marred, God like a potter, does not cast it away. God reshapes us into a new vessel.

And Bishop Harris’ signature blessing:

May you never forget that the power behind you is greater than the task ahead of you.

I hope to see you Sunday.

 

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More than Welcome: Progress on the Journeys of Faith

Now on that same day two of Jesus’ disciples were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem…
Luke 24:13

A common refrain in Episcopal churches these days, beautifully expressed at St. Mark’s, is this: “Wherever you are on your journey of faith, you are welcome here.” I love the warmth of welcome; the sense of inclusion and respect. It’s equally important, however, for us to be mindful of the spiritual guideposts of the journeys we’re on, and to remember that the point of a journey is to make progress. One of the fundamental assertions of the Christian faith is that our lives are not aimless, without purpose or direction. The gift of Christian faith, teachings and community of Christians is that they help us make sense of the journeys we’re on, so that we might walk with greater courage. We can draw closer to the One who is both beckoning us, and, as in the story of the Road to Emmaus, walking beside us. As Christians, we actually know something about the journey of faith and can help one another, not merely with welcome, but actual progression on the path.

So today I’d like to briefly describe a few of the classic, archetypal spiritual journeys described for us in the Bible–and by archetypal I mean that the stories are as much about us, the ones reading and listening, as the characters in the text. See if you recognize the terrain of one or more of these journeys from your own life. If so, God may well speak to you through the insights and metaphors of these ancient texts, with a word of encouragement or guidance. Or you may hear something that might be helpful for another person that, if the opportunity presents itself, you might share.

***

The first journey I’ll describe is distinctive in the way we respond to the invitation to take it, for we do so almost entirely on intuition. We hear a call that others do not hear, that speaks to our souls, This is sometimes described as God’s still, small voice. In the book of Genesis, the first book in the Bible, God calls Abram by name and tells him to leave his homeland. Others didn’t hear what Abram heard. And with no reported debate or protest, Abram gathers up his family and goes, leaving all that is familiar. It doesn’t make sense to us, as readers of the story, why Abram does it, anymore than we can understand why Jesus’ disciples, centuries later, would do essentially the same thing, pick up and leave everything to follow Jesus simply because he asks them to. It never makes sense to others; indeed, it often doesn’t make to ourselves what our spiritual intuition tells us to do.

On the spiritual journey guided by the inner voice of God speaking to us at the level of our deepest selves, the destination is important, but equally important is the transformation that occurs within us while we’re on the road. Abram was a different person because of the journey he took, as were the disciples, as are we when we venture out in ways that we have a hard time explaining to others, because we’re listening to a voice that no one else hears.

There can be a lot of pressure on us not to listen to that voice speaking; we can ignore it and often do. It’s also true that we need to test such inner directives, for not all the voices we hear inside our heads are of God. For those of us on the intuitive end of the spectrum of personality types, it’s especially important to have trusted persons to talk to about what we’re hearing. For our intuitions are often sound, but not always, and when they’re not, following them can be disastrous. Part of our task as Christian community is to help one another in the discerning of this kind of call and to honor it in ourselves and others. But when we hear and follow an inner call, there is nothing quite like it to give us a sense of Christ with us. I could tell you of several such experiences in my life–and suspect many here could as well. These are among the most significant spiritual events of our lives, often invisible to others, that set us on a particular path.

***

In the book of Exodus, Moses leads the people of Israel on another kind of journey entirely, out of oppression toward the promise of freedom. This is the journey of liberation, with possibilities and dangers all its own. There’s the threat of Pharaoh’s army wanting to drag them back into slavery and all the costly consequences of demanding freedom from those who benefit from their being enslaved. Later, there’s the threat of their own response to the stunning realization that freedom is also a difficult path. Whenever we find ourselves on freedom’s journey, it’s painful to recognize how other human beings benefit from our being kept down, or, if we’re on the other side of that relationship, how we benefit from unjust relationships. It’s also humbling to realize how strong the temptation is sometimes to willingly put the yoke back on. A part of us would prefer the simplicity and clarity of someone telling us what to do, rather than continue on the costly road of making decisions and taking responsibility for ourselves. For those who have walked the road from oppression to freedom and sensed God’s presence with them, this is the cornerstone of their faith, and one that makes solidarity with others seeking freedom all the more urgent. For God is a God of freedom. In Christ we are set free.

For those of you in the incredibly important, transformative teenage/young adult years, there’s a pull toward liberation of a different sort as you are increasingly called by life and by God toward horizons that are yours–not your parents or guardian adults. These horizons demand new levels of personal responsibility and maturity, which comes to you in stages, not all of them clean or easy to attain. With each passing year you become freer, as you claim increasing authority for your lives. But with that freedom comes responsibility. Likewise for parents, it’s not always easy to walk the path of appropriately letting go, while at the same time being both supportive and clear in the gradual transfer of life responsibility. As a parent of young men in their late 20s, I often find myself wistful for the days when my maternal instincts could be trusted. I need to hold them in check now and wait to see what my adult children need and request, rather than what I so want to give.

***

The people of Israel find themselves on the road again several hundred years after their road to freedom, this time out of their land of promise into the shame of banishment. This is the journey of exile, on which all that they have defined themselves by is taken from them. They’re gathered up by force and marched out on their own trail of tears from Jerusalem to Babylon. One of their poets writes of that terrible time, “By the waters of Babylon, we sat down and wept when we remembered Zion. How can we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?”

The journey of exile takes many forms. We know that untold millions are forced to live as refugees around the world, far from their homes. There are thousands of people in the District of Columbia living in the exile of homelessness, deprived of any sense of belonging. There is the emotional exile that accompanies loss of any kind, particularly the loss of a defining relationship, physical capacity, or place in the world. The sense of displacement is what defines exile, and initially, we experience it as abandonment by God. But what makes the biblical experience of exile so powerful and instructive to us is that the people of Israel came to realize that God had not abandoned them at all. In fact, their awareness of God and reliance upon God was heightened by their unfamiliar and painful circumstances.

The spirituality of exile, while lean, is often so profound that in time we no longer regret the circumstances that took us on the journey we did not choose. The people who come out on the other side of exile are, paradoxically, among the most joyful, free, and powerful I know. They are utterly fearless, having faced and come through their greatest fears. They have an abiding sense of gratitude and awe of God’s love for them. They wouldn’t wish the experience of exile on anyone, but they are grateful for the person they have become as a result. Not all people who experience exile come out on the other side; that’s true for those on the journey to freedom and other journeys as well. But when we have no choice but to walk through the painful valley, isn’t it good to know that God is with us and can see us through to the other side? That’s why our role as stewards and seekers of spiritual strength is so important, why our relationship with God in Christ and the workings of grace in community are of immeasurable worth.

***

The brief, poignant journey at the heart of today’s gospel is spiritual terrain that we will all travel more than once before we’re done. In secular language, we might call it the “post trauma journey.” The disciples are clearly traumatized by the events culminating in Jesus’ crucifixion, and the reality of resurrection has not yet been revealed to them. They’re walking through the debris of their shattered world, from what they once knew to no destination in particular. No one knows where the village of Emmaus lay, and there’s no reason given for the disciples’ journey, although it’s easy to surmise. They needed to get out of town and breathe different air.

A ‘post’ time follows a traumatic event, but is still influenced by it. It is both difficult and revelatory.  Any undue pressure to return to normal may actually thwart the delicate grace of a ‘post’ time. Researchers tell us that the effects of trauma linger much longer than we previously thought, and grace appears amidst the aftershocks.

But on the Emmaus, post-trauma road, Jesus meets the disciples. The Risen Christ meets the disciples and walks with them as their companion on the road. He comes in the form of a stranger and they do not recognize him. He listens to their story of disappointment and grief. He then speaks to them through the Scriptures and they feel power of his presence through the words. He waits to be invited to join them further. Then at table, he takes bread, blesses, breaks, and gives it to them, and that moment, they recognize him. It doesn’t seem to bother the disciples that he disappears, I suspect because they sensed that it was a mystical encounter all along.

So the Emmaus, post-trauma road, like others of our faith, is not only defined by its circumstances but transformed by holy encounter. That’s the common thread of all these journeys and others like them: God is with us–sometimes out ahead, sometimes walking alongside, sometimes in ways we aren’t even aware, carrying us, making it possible for us to get through the day. On the Christian path, we can know Jesus, as closely and as personally as we’re willing to let him in. But Jesus is not a bully. He doesn’t force his way on any of us; nor does his presence and love require us to pretend to be someone we’re not, or to deny who we are and what we know. Yet what a loss it would be for any of us to imagine that we’re on our own here, when he is so desiring to be a real presence with us–as companion, friend, teacher, healer, and savior.

The truth is that we’re all moving from where we are now to wherever it is that life is leading us. Each journey has its particular terrain, with lessons to teach, opportunities to consider, and tasks to accomplish. Yet no matter the journey we find ourselves on, whether we’re walking by intuition, or toward freedom, or with a sense of destiny or doing all we can simply to put one foot in front of the other, what we can be assured of is that Christ is with us. He will speak to us, saying different things depending on where we are. He will be reassuring in times of struggle, and more directed when we’re wavering from our true path.

In all likelihood, we won’t recognize him when he speaks at first for he generally speaks through the words and actions of others. Which, by the way, elevates our responsibilities to one another considerably. We may be the one through whom he speaks to another on a given day, something to consider when deciding whether or not to show up somewhere. We can also seek Christ in this place, at this altar, or any altar where bread is blessed, broken, and shared in his name. But the important thing to remember when we meet Christ here is that he will always meets us there on whatever road we’re on, offering the sustenance we need to continue from where we are to where the journey leads.

***

Now I’d like to say a word to my progressive Christians friends. Sometimes in the name of inclusion, we downplay or discount the priceless gift of Christ’s presence and love. When I was in seminary, which was during the height of the so-called culture wars in our church, I heard people say that the choice we needed to make was between Jesus and “the gay and lesbian agenda,” between the Bible and the culture’s call for acceptance of that which the Church had taught for centuries as unacceptable. But I was among those who said, that is not the choice at all. It’s because of Jesus and how we hear him calling us; it’s because of what we read in Scripture that we affirm the full inclusion of all people, including those who are gay, lesbian and transgender.

Similarly now I find myself in conversation with leaders of the Episcopal schools in our diocese, many of whom feel we must choose between our Christian identity and our welcome of children of other faiths, between teaching the Christian faith and learning from the faith traditions of others. Again, I say that is a false choice, for it is because of our Christian faith that we welcome children of all faiths; that in faithfulness to Christian teachings we strive to learn from the insights of other faiths. That’s what Christians are called to do.

***

In closing, there’s is a final journey I’ll mention, as reflected in the disciples’ decision, after their encounter with the Risen Christ, to return from Emmaus to Jerusalem. They had a spiritual encounter and they wanted to share it with their friends. Don’t be afraid, when you’ve been touched by the mystery of God, the presence of Christ, the power of the Holy Spirit, to speak of it–humbly, graciously, and with respect for others. As our presiding bishop would say to us if he were here: Don’t be ashamed of Jesus. Never hesitate to ask for what you need as you make your way through the terrain of the particular spiritual journey that is your life. People of St. Mark’s, as you extend your arms of welcome, as is your vocation and charism, do not forget the other gifts this community has to offer: hard won spiritual wisdom, ancient and contemporary insights; your unique witness to the living presence of Christ, with food for the journey and light to guide the way.

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Not All Become Elders: The Spiritual Terrain of Aging

 

Seabury senior celebration 2017

Sermon for the Seabury Celebration of Service, Washington National Cathedral. April 26, 2017.

I begin with a word of thanks to the leaders at Seabury Services for organizing this annual event and a hearty welcome to our friends of the United Church of Christ with whom we are blessed to share this celebration. Thanks, as well, to congregational leaders who have nominated this year’s honorees, and, finally, let me congratulate the honorees themselves. We are grateful beyond measure for your faithfulness in ministry.

I appreciate the opportunity to reflect with you on matters of real importance–of increasing importance for me, personally, and as your bishop, as I take stock of the spiritual concerns in our common life.

Let me begin with a text, taken from Psalm 90:

Lord you have been our refuge from one generation to another.
Before the mountains were brought forth, or the land and the earth were born,
from age to age, you are God.
You turn us back to dust and say, “Go back, O child of earth.
For a thousand years in your sight are like yesterday when it is past
and a like watch in the night.
The span of our life is seventy years, perhaps in strength even eighty.
Yet the sum of them is but labor and sorrow,
for they pass away quickly and we are gone.
So teach us to number our days,
that we may set our hearts to wisdom.

How do we go about setting our hearts to wisdom?

Two vignettes to set the stage:

The first is from a conversation I heard recently between a radio journalist I admire, Krista Tippett, and Richard Rohr, a 73 year-old Franciscan priest, also worthy of great admiration. Rohr is the author of many books including one entitled, Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life.

Krista Tippett began an exchange by saying:

There is a true progression of life that comes with age, which is about an accumulation of experience, but this is not necessarily chronological. Everybody doesn’t become an elder. Some people just get old. It’s also possible to be old and childish. And there’s an important swath of the young among us who are, even at a young age, seeking a fuller and farther vision of who they want to be that is distinct from what they want to do.  

Richard Rohr agreed. “Some of the young people today feel like old souls,” he said. “And some of my generation feel like old fools.” ((https://onbeing.org/programs/richard-rohr-living-in-deep-time/

We all get older; not all become elders. Nor are all the young immature; many have a wisdom beyond their years. There’s also a certain youthfulness that can come with age, which is what we mean when we say someone is “young at heart.” It’s not the same as being immature, which is what happens when we try to avoid the realities of aging. Rather it is the freedom that comes through an acceptance aging and the surprising discovery of a second youth.

Now, the second vignette which brought home to me something many of you already already know:

At my first diocesan convention as your bishop, we invited Dr. Lisa Kimball from Virginia Theological Seminary to address us, her expertise being the spirituality of teenagers and young adults. But she also challenged us to consider the other end of the spectrum.  She told us that the fastest growing demographic in our country consists of people over the age of 70. “The spiritual terrain of those years,” she said, “is under-explored and under-valued. This requires our immediate attention as a Church.” I’ve never forgotten that.

So what is the spiritual terrain of eldership?

I’d like to suggest a few markers, at the risk, as they say, of bringing coals to Newcastle. I count on you to tell me if I’m at least in the right ball park as I speak of these things. I do so with some urgency, not merely for those of you already in your 70s and beyond, but for those of us who are right behind you, and for all people, really, no matter our age, as we seek to set our hearts to wisdom and find ways to live with meaning and joy.

Richard Rohr, again, has this to say: “There are at least two major tasks to human life. The first task is to build a strong ‘container’ or identity; the second task is to find the contents that the container is meant to hold.”

The first task we often take for granted as the purpose of life; it is the work of identify formation, job seeking, establishing relationships, determining where to live and what you’re going to wear. These are all the external parameters of our existence. The second task is less about surviving successfully in this world, and more, as Rohr likes to say, about  “the task within the task,” or getting clarity about “what we are really doing when we’re are doing what we are doing.”  (Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life; Jossey-Bass, 2011.

What we’re really doing when we’re doing what we’re doing.

The New York Times journalist David Brooks, in his book The Road to Character describes this same task a bit differently. This is his preamble:

About once a month I run across a person who radiates an inner light. These people can be in any walk of life. They seem deeply good. They listen well. They make you feel funny and valued. You often catch them looking after other people and as they do so their laugh is musical and their manner is infused with gratitude. They are not thinking about what wonderful work they are doing. They are not thinking about themselves at all.

When I meet such a person it brightens my whole day. But I confess I often have a sadder thought: It occurs to me that I’ve achieved a decent level of career success, but I have not achieved that. I have not achieved that generosity of spirit, or that depth of character.

A few years ago I realized that I wanted to be a bit more like those people. I realized that if I wanted to do that I was going to have to work harder to save my own soul.  ( The Moral Bucket List, The New York Times Sunday Review, April 13, 2015) 

In the second task of life, we’re talking about soul-saving work, the terrain of deep meaning, of eldership– how we become not only wise, but caring, generous, self-giving and–did you hear it?–joyful.

Let me list a few milestones of this particular terrain.  

The first is a shift from what we might call the work of attainment and accomplishment to that of letting go. Of course the process of letting go begins early in life, for with every milestone of accomplishment we must let something else go. I remember coming across an essay our elder son wrote when he was in 7th grade. As he entered adolescence, he had begged us for a room of his own, because his younger brother was driving him crazy. So we worked to configure our small house to give him his own room on the first floor, away from the rest of us on the second floor. And he was elated. But what he wrote about was how, at first, he missed the companionship of his brother and being part of the family as we all settled in for the night. He quickly got over it and came to relish the privacy and distance. But even at that age, he recognized that getting what he wanted also meant that he had to let something go.

And as you know, the process of letting go continues and never gets easier. I, for one, think it gets harder. Rohr calls these “the necessary losses” of life.  

The poet Mary Oliver describes the loss this way:

To live in this world
You must be able
To do three things:
To love what is mortal
To hold it
Against your bones knowing
Your own life depends on it;
And, when the times comes, to let it go.
To let it go.
(“In Blackwater Woods” by Mary Oliver, from American Primitive. © Back Bay Books, 1983. )

We don’t walk far into the terrain of eldership without learning a lot about letting go.

A second milestone of the spiritual terrain of eldership, related to the first, is the wisdom gained through suffering. Not suffering for its own sake or actively pursued, but suffering as it comes to us and in the recognition and acceptance of suffering as an inevitable dimension of life. Simply put, the longer we live, the more we will suffer. We needn’t be embittered by suffering; nor need we passively accept it. But there’s something that happens to us when we accept suffering, allowing it to expand our hearts, that enables us to live without being broken by the suffering we experience. This is a spiritual task of enormous significance.

Hear this:

In a game of cards or tennis there may come a moment when you see cannot possibly win. The same can happen with your hope of a happy marriage or a brilliant career. Can you go on playing still, with no expectation of a win? Yes. This is the way you should have played from the start. Not for the victory, though you should strive for that, but for the game itself. . . John Donne and George Herbert were ambitious men. Both hoped to serve the state in some high capacity. Both were disappointed. Both became clergymen. A cynic might conclude that they had settled for second best. But can a second best turn out better than the first? Can defeat be met in such a way that it yields a greater prize than victory? Most of us are destined for failure, which is a form of suffering. How to use our suffering, how to turn the lead of our defeat into the gold of something else, is the object of religious alchemy. Not the only one; but the one most of us are interested in.  (Sydney Carter,  quoted in: An Almanac for the Soul: Anthology of Hope, edited by Marv and Nancy Hiles.) 

Can you feel the significance of this? Turning the lead of defeat into the gold of something else–these are the hard-won gifts of wisdom that come from a life courageously lived.

Just a few more milestones:

Delighting in the strength, beauty and accomplishments of youth. Celebrating in others what we can no longer do or have, which requires us to accept the realities of physical limitations and that some paths in life do eventually close to us.

As I was leaving Minnesota, I went to say goodbye to a friend dying of cancer He held my hand, his eyes sparkling with tears, his face beaming: “You are embarking on such an adventure,” he said. “I am so happy and excited for you!” This was his deathbed blessing for me.

Which points to another milestone of spiritual eldership: the active contemplation of what lies beyond the great mystery of death, a discipline of great courage about which an entire sermon could be preached.

And the last milestone I’ll mention today that runs through all I have spoken of for us: daily disciples of service to others, doing what we can, offering what we have. We do this through mentoring and coaching; through gestures of support, increasingly behind the scenes; through generosity and acts of kindness. Through it all, our presence is more important than what we do, as we gracefully cheer others on.

Teach us Lord, to number our days, that we might set our hearts to wisdom.

I put all this before us, friends, to say, as is often said, “aging is not for the faint hearted.” The spiritual tasks of aging are even more daunting than the physical changes that occur. But the fruits of a life well lived are of tremendous value for everyone in our fabric of relationships.

I believe that as a church we could do much better to explore this terrain with one another, that collectively we have been, as Dr. Kimball said, sorely neglectful of how we might have honest, courageous conversation about this great adventure called aging. We can do better in our support one another through it. So I gently put before us a collaborative challenge, that we might create circles of meaningful conversation for some of the most courageous work that we are called in this life to undertake.

For as we age, we are called to embody our mortal bodies as fully as we can, accepting the necessary losses, inevitable suffering, and regular experiences of defeat of life, allowing God’s grace and power to transform them into pearls of wisdom to be cherished and shared. Each experience of letting go and passing on prepares us for the day when we will let everything go, when at last, God calls us home.

I look forward to working in partnership with Seabury, the clergy of our diocese, and all of you in this great work of cultivating the terrain of spiritual eldership. We are here today not merely to honor those who provide good voluntary services, but to honor the most courageous, spiritually fearless among us, from whom we have so much to learn as we walk as companions on this path.

More to come. For now, thank you for allowing me to reflect on these things with you and for allowing your lives to be an occasion of joyful celebration.

In the name of God. Amen.

 

Posted in sermon

People of the Resurrection

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in sermon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And so we sing:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in sermon

Easter Message: A Love that Refuses to Die

Easter Message Cross (1)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Posted in reflection

How Can I Have Faith: Pivotal Circumstances

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Posted in reflection