Love, Fear, Salt, Light

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May it be so.
Let me pray for you:

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

Posted in sermon

Jesus’ Inaugural Address

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One final example to drive the point home:

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

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

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

 

Posted in Uncategorized

Meeting St. Paul Again for the First Time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From his letter to the churches in Galatia:

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

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

From his first letter to the churches in Corinth:

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

If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast,* but do not have love, I gain nothing. Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. . . For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.
I Corinthians 13

From his letter to the Philippians:

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

From his second letter to the Corinthians:

Therefore, since it is by God’s mercy that we are engaged in this ministry, we do not lose heart…For we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake. For it is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness’, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.
2 Corinthians 4:4-9

From his letter to the church in Rome:

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

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

 

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More Than One Way to Witness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Prayers and the Presidency

Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. Jeremiah 29:1-7

On the day after the national election, we held prayer services at Washington National Cathedral. We had planned the liturgy knowing that whatever the election’s outcome, half of the country would feel exiled in their own land. I preached from the prophet Jeremiah, who knew well the spiritual terrain of exile. I invited those gathered to pray the Prayer of St Francis. And I said that if asked, Washington National Cathedral would host an interfaith inaugural prayer service in January.

As that day approaches, many in our church and in our land question Dean Hollerith’s and my willingness to host an inaugural prayer service for one whose behavior and words have been so offensive and divisive. We also have been asked why we accepted the invitation for the Cathedral choristers to sing at as part as the musical prelude to the inauguration when so many other artists and performers, on principle, declined that invitation.

First, I want to acknowledge the anger and disappointment that our decisions have engendered. And to say that I’m listening, because the spiritual principles that move many of you to protest are essential for the work that lies ahead. While I do not ask you to agree, I simply ask you to consider that we, too, acted on spiritual principles. Those principles, while they may seem to conflict with yours, are also essential for the work that lies ahead.

The first spiritual principle, which always characterizes the Episcopal Church at its most faithful, is that we welcome all people into our houses of prayer. We welcome all because we follow a Lord and Savior who welcomes all, without qualification. Welcoming does not mean condoning offensive speech or behavior; it does not mean that we agree with or seek to legitimize. We simply welcome all into this house of prayer, in full acknowledgment that every one of us stands in the need of prayer.

The second spiritual principle that informs my decision is that in times of national division, the Episcopal Church is called to be a place where those who disagree can gather for prayer and learning and to work for the good of all. I am alarmed by some of Mr. Trump’s words and deeds and by those who now feel emboldened to speak and act in hateful ways. Nonetheless, I believe in the power of God to work for good, and the capacity of our nation to rise to our highest ideals. As President Obama said in his last speech, our nation’s future will be determined by our resolve to “restore the sense of common purpose that we so badly need right now.” I ask the people of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington to join me in dedication to that purpose, in faithfulness to Christ and as ones who cherish the gift of democracy.

Finally, Dean Hollerith and I decided to host an interfaith prayer service and to accept the invitation for the Cathedral choristers to sing before the inauguration itself as a gift. At a time when emotions are raw, we hope to offer a few moments of spiritual solace and the healing gift of transcendent beauty. We also want the nation to know that we are still here, as people of hope. While the inauguration is a civic rather than a religious ceremony, it is also an occasion for prayer and an opportunity to offer the balm of beauty. Please be assured that participation in the inauguration is entirely voluntary for individual members, and that the choir has worked diligently and sensitively to prepare its younger choristers and their parents for this event.

Even as we pray and work for common purpose, know that I understand how much is at stake in this moment and the importance of our collective witness. We are called to pray and sometimes to protest. We are called to seek reconciliation, but never at the expense of justice.

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Epiphany

 

Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations.
Isaiah 42:1-2

Peter began to speak to them: “I truly understand that God shows no partiality.”
Acts 10:34

Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
Matthew 3:13-17

Good morning, St. Patrick’s; thank you for your warm welcome. I feel very much at home at St Patrick’s, and I’m here a lot, thanks to your generous hospitality in hosting diocesan and community events. I give thanks for the leadership and friendship of your rector, Kurt Gerhard. You’re blessed with a gifted staff and strong lay leaders who serve here, in St Patrick’s school, and beyond, all within the context of demanding lives and vocations. Thank you for all that you are and offer as a Christian community.

So here we are, at the start of a new year and the beginning of a new era in our country. In the midst of the world’s uncertainties and our own personal challenges, of all we do not understand and cannot control, all that we fear and dare to hope for, here in church we enter the season of Epiphany. Epiphany is my favorite liturgical season and one that could not be more timely for us now, for reasons I hope to make clear.

Broadly speaking, the word “epiphany” describes the experience of being surprised by a sudden insight that brings clarity to something that we’ve been struggling with or previously could not understand. An epiphany is something revealed or clarified, so important that it can turn your life around. It’s a new lens given us, through which we can see, if only for a moment, as God sees.  

I love Epiphany because there are few things more precious to me than clarity–when I can see the way ahead, or know what to do, or have sufficient light to take even one step forward with confidence. As bishop, I feel a particular responsibility to lead with as much clarity as I can. Yet clarity does not come easily for me; it never has. It involves a lot of internal struggle, pages and pages of notes that I eventually throw away; conversations with a lot of people, including several in this room; and then, on blessed occasions–all the sweeter for the struggle that preceded it–an experience of illumination. I continue to be humbled by the process of seeking and receiving clarity, and the mystery of it, for it requires such effort and yet it always feels like a gift when it comes. So while I love stories like the one of Jesus rising up from the water, seeing a dove and hearing the voice of God, clarifying for him his core identity and vocation in life, I have no illusions that such moments come without considerable struggle.

The season of Epiphany, which follows Christmas, focuses on the revelation of Jesus—who he is, what his life discloses about the nature of God, and where we might find him now, should we be inclined to look. The Scripture readings in Epiphany are among the most beautiful in the Bible, the best passages you could hope for if you wanted to deepen your understanding of the Christian faith or open yourself to the experience at the heart of Christianity, or to renew that experience if your faith has gone dry. That experience, as best I can describe it, is one of encounter; of being met, embraced, even, by a mercy and love that can sustain you in times of trial, give you courage when anxiety conspires to keep you small, and be a source of joy in the midst of sorrow and struggles. It’s an experience of blessing, as Jesus was blessed, with an assurance of your belovedness.

This is the starting point and the end of all spiritual experience: knowing ourselves as beloved–not for what we’ve accomplished or earned, but for who we are, as we are. We are beloved–not perfected. We are blessed, but not immune from suffering and disappointment, and loss; unconditionally loved in and through everything about us– all that is good and hard, all that is exhilarating and tedious about being human. Our life in and with Jesus starts and ends in this foundational experience: knowing we are loved and we are blessed. “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” he said at the beginning of the his most famous sermon, “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

Starting today in church and in coming weeks, we’re given passages from the Old Testament that the first followers of Jesus used to help them both understand and give expression to what they experienced in Jesus. So we’ll hear a lot from one source in particular, the prophet Isaiah, and a haunting series of passages from Isaiah that describe a mysterious Suffering Servant:

Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations. He will not cry or lift up his voice or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed he will not break and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice. . .I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness, I have taken you by the hand and kept you; I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness. . .

This is what our spiritual forebears saw and experienced in Jesus, and what they felt themselves called to in following him: a life of redemptive suffering; of bringing light into darkness and freedom to those in prison. And they realized that in Jesus something broke open that had once seemed closed, that God was not tribal, but universal; that the love and forgiveness, mercy and justice of Jesus was not just for some, but for all. As the Apostle Peter said in his first public sermon after Jesus’ resurrection, describing his own epiphany–his moment of clarity coming to him after considerable struggle: “I truly understand that God shows no partiality.” Think of the implications of that one, breathtaking insight: God shows no partiality.

In coming weeks, if you make it to church, you’ll hear two versions of Jesus’ call to his disciples, allowing you to consider what it’s like when you’re called to something or to follow someone so important that you’re willing to leave other things behind, all that doesn’t make the cut when you start asking yourselves what’s truly important. Then there will be several weeks when we’ll read through that most famous sermon of Jesus—the Sermon on the Mount. It begins with what’s known as “the Beatitudes,” a series of blessings he pronounces: “blessed are the poor in spirit; blessed are those who mourn; blessed are the merciful; blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness;” and more. But after words of blessing there follows a concise, comprehensive articulation of Jesus’ moral and ethical teachings. Prepared to be challenged: you hear Jesus’ demanding and uncompromising call to practice love, justice and reconciliation.

Epiphany culminates with the second Epiphany in Jesus’ life (his baptism being the first), sometimes called the Transfiguration. This is when Jesus climbs a mountain with his three closest disciples and has a mystical encounter with two great prophets of ancient Israel: Moses and Elijah. Just as at his baptism, he hears the voice from the cloud calling him beloved. He’ll need to remember his belovedness, for he also sees how his life is going to end and why. When he comes from the mountain he makes his way to Jerusalem and all that awaits him there. And we are called to walk with them, and so begins our journey in Lent.

So if you take nothing else away from my time with you today, remember this: your bishop encouraged you to show up in church every Sunday in Epiphany so that you might be surrounded with beauty and spiritual strength; receive new insight, enabling you to live with greater calm and confidence in the midst of uncertainty, and with joy in the face of anxiety and fear; and be challenged to grow in faith and in love. There’s a lot going on in our world, in the country, in our families, places of work, and within ourselves. There’s a lot coming at us all the time. It’s like we’re living in a whirlwind. But we need not, as St. Paul once wrote, “be tossed to and fro by every wind.” There’s a better way to live. Jesus shows us a better way.

So let’s go back to the Jordan and meet ourselves in Jesus’ baptism. All four biblical accounts of Jesus’ life agree that this was a profound mystical experience for him. All agree on the basic storyline: He came to be baptized by John; the images are of light, skies opening, a dove descending. A voice from heaven speaks: “You are my Beloved. With you, I am well pleased.”

Where they differ is in describing how he came to understand what had happened to him. In the first gospel to be written down, that of Mark, upon rising out of the water, Jesus immediately sees the skies open and the dove descend. In that moment he hears the voice saying, “You are my beloved.” Although he was in a crowd, the experience was private–no one else saw the dove or heard the voice. Have you ever had an experience like that–a private experience in a public setting? In Matthew, the version we read today, his epiphany was a public experience. Others also saw the dove and heard the voice. They, too, knew that something big was happening. In the last gospel to be written, it wasn’t Jesus who had the experience, but John the Baptist: “I saw the dove descending on Him,” John proclaims, “and I heard the voice from heaven say, ‘This is my Beloved.’” And in the gospel of Luke, the baptism is described as something that happened off-stage, and Jesus doesn’t realize its significance until later, when in prayer he saw the dove and heard the voice.

I love it when the Bible is ambiguous and multi-layered in its storytelling. For these varied accounts, taken together, describe nearly every way we might experience epiphanies of our own: privately or publicly; first hand or mediated by another; as it’s happening or later, upon reflection. Personally, my epiphanies are more like ones described by Luke. I almost always need time to reflect on what’s happened in my life. But all are ways we might experience such moments, clarifying who we are, what we are to do, and who God is to us.

The take home message is this: God will give us the clarity we need to make our way in this world. It won’t come easily, without struggle, but it will come. And we have a better chance experiencing such moments if we open ourselves to the possibility of being met by God, seeking experiences that can be occasions of revelation. Remember that Jesus went to be baptized. So pay attention to that kind of impulse nudging you to show up somewhere, to seek someone out, to turn off your device of choice and listen for the voice that speaks in silence.

Remember that beginning and end point of all spiritual encounter is blessing, blessing and belovedness. Now that’s easier to imagine and accept when life is new and fresh and full of possibility: which is why, I suppose, we baptize babies and cry at weddings.  Our elder son was married recently, and my mother said to me, watching him and his beautiful new wife, full of wistfulness, “Oh, they are so happy. It’s too bad that life must happen to them.” It’s harder to remember that we’re beloved and blessed when we’re tired, in a rut, overwhelmed, sad and anxious. But blessing and belovedness are true in those moments as well–perhaps especially so. It takes a bit of effort, and the support of others, to live a life of blessing and belovedness when we don’t feel it.

I close by asking a question that I heard James Ryan, Dean of Harvard Graduate School of Education, pose as a “bonus question,” at the end of a commencement speech in which he proposed five essential questions that we can ask ourselves in order to live a creative and meaningful life. If we continually ask ourselves those five questions (which I won’t tell you but you can read about later) he said at the end of our lives we are far more likely to answer affirmatively the bonus question. It comes, he said, from a poem by Raymond Carver entitled “Late Fragment,” and the question is this:

And did you get what you wanted from this life, even so?

The haunting phrase, even so, acknowledges everything that we struggle with: all the fear, anxiety, disappointment and uncertainty that make up a human life. And did you get what you wanted from this life, even so?

The poem goes on to answer:  

I did.
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself beloved on the earth.

That’s what Jesus wants for you, for all of us. To know ourselves, as he knew himself, as beloved on the earth. Jesus is an epiphany, you know, a revelation in himself, revealing the depth and breadth of God’s love. “You are my beloved,” the voice from heaven told him, and everything about his life, death, and resurrection is meant to assure us that we are, too. “I truly understand that God shows no partiality,” Peter declared after the resurrection. In God, there is no partiality, no favoritism, no preference for one group over another.

If you don’t know yourself as blessed, or, like all of us, you need to be reminded, know that that is God’s desire for you. You can pray for it, seek ways to be open to that experience at the heart of Christianity, and be reminded by people like me that you are beloved even when–especially when– you don’t feel it.  If you do know something of your belovedness, you know as well as I what a gift it is. Commit yourself this day, and every day, to offer yourself as a blessing, so that through you, others, too, might know themselves as beloved on the earth.  

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The Middle Space

And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.
Matthew 3:17

In the midst of the world’s uncertainties and our own personal challenges, whatever they may be, we enter the Christian season of Epiphany. Broadly speaking, “epiphany” describes the experience of being surprised by a sudden insight that brings clarity to something that we’ve been struggling with or previously could not understand. In Christianity, the season of Epiphany–8 weeks long this year–places before us, Sunday after Sunday, stories of revelation and spiritual awakening. Epiphany begins with a star to guide our path, and then in the Gospel reading for this  Sunday, we hear the voice of God at Jesus’ baptism.  

The voice from heaven proclaiming Jesus as God’s Beloved Son encourages us to place our trust in Jesus and to draw closer to him as saviour and friend. But Jesus also wants us to know that we, too, are God’s beloved children, each with particular paths to walk and unique purposes in life. And that we, too, can experience epiphany–that wonderful gift of insight and clarity to illumine our path.

There are few things more precious to me than clarity–when I can see the way ahead, or know what to do, or have sufficient light to take even one step forward with confidence. As bishop, I feel a particular responsibility to lead with as much clarity as I am given. Yet clarity does not come easily for me, without considerable struggle, both internally and in community. I continue to be humbled by the process of seeking sufficient clarity. It requires me to pray, listen deeply, learn from my mistakes and failures, and pay attention to those light-bearers whose spiritual vitality, fruitfulness, and clarity of vision inspire us all.

I wish there were a way to receive clarity without the preceding struggle, but that doesn’t seem to be how the process works. Author Brené Brown describes this as “the middle space,” the unavoidable uncertainty, vulnerability and discomfort of any creative process. “You’re in the dark,” she writes in “Rising Strong,” “the door has closed behind you. You’re too far in to turn around and not close enough to see the light….Experience and past success doesn’t give you an easy passage through the middle space of struggle. They only grant you a little grace that whispers, ‘This is part of the process. Stay the course.’”

Sometimes staying the course requires us to take the next step without clarity, which may require the most courage of all. That’s what walking by faith and not by sight feels like–when all we have is our desire to be faithful and the assurance that no matter what we do or fail to do, Jesus is there with grace sufficient for the day.

May we all be of good courage and kind to one another as we make our way, as a poet once said, by walking it. Keep your eyes on Jesus, and I will do the same. Our epiphanies come in God’s time and we will be ready to receive them in proportion to our faithfulness in the middle space. “The middle space is messy,” Brown reminds us, “but it’s also where the magic happens.”

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Audacious Hope: Christmas 2016

And they shall name him Emmanuel, which means ‘God is with us.’

Matthew 1:23

Christmas comes every year — in peacetime and in war; in times of sorrow and of joy; in sickness and in health. No matter our feelings about the state of our nation and our world, Christmas comes. And with it, the clarion call of audacious hope: God is with us.

However you celebrate Christmas this year, never lose sight of the spiritual power at the heart of this season: Jesus comes to us where we are, as we are. He is not afraid of the mess we all too often make of things. For all the beauty of our celebrations, remember that Jesus was born in harsh, dangerous circumstances. We celebrate his birth not because it all happened perfectly, but because everything wasn’t perfect. Imperfection is where God chose to come, and chooses still.

The Christmas story, writes Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber, “reveals a who God has entered our world as it actually exists, and not as the world we often wish it would be. ….[We’ve lost the plot if we use religion as the place where we escape from difficult realities instead of as the the place where those difficult realities are given meaning.”

There is joy, peace and hope in the celebration of Christmas, but not sanitized living or wishful thinking. The joy goes deeper; the peace surpasses human understanding; the hope emboldens us to walk in the darkest places as witnesses to the light.

Nor would Christmas be real if we left any part of ourselves out. Dare to believe that God wants you to bring all of yourself: every joy, every sorrow, every disappointment, every hope. This is a particularly potent moment to invite Christ into your life, for the first or the hundredth time–not the life you wish you had, but the one that is yours–and to ask him how you might help him bring peace and healing to  the world–not the world you wish we had, but the world as it is.

United Nations peacekeeper Hizkias Assefa works in some of the most violent nations of the world. It’s difficult, often heartbreaking work. When asked how he keeps going, Assefa simply replied, “I am Christian. For Christians, hopelessness is not an option.”

For Christians, hopelessness is not an option because we believe that God never gives up hope in us. The birth of Christ was not a one-time event that happened long ago. Christ is born anew each and every time one of us takes his message of love to heart and follows him in the way of love and reconciliation. You can be that Christ-bearer in the world, and so can I. What better way to live the brief and wondrous lives we’re given. For ours is an audacious hope: God is with us.

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Making Christmas Real

Making Christmas Real

The wilderness and dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing. . . Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. Say to those of a fearful heart, “Be strong, do not fear! Hear is your God.”
Isaiah 35:1-10

When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Jesus answered him, “Go and tell John what you see and hear: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”
Matthew 11:2-11

We all have chores or responsibilities that require us to show up for them whether we want to or not. If you grew up on a farm, for example, you know that cows need to be milked twice a day, regardless of how you might feel about milking cows. If you’re the parent of an infant who isn’t yet sleeping through the night or are providing care to anyone who needs care around the clock, you know that it doesn’t matter if you’re tired–you get up when the baby cries or your charge calls you because that’s needed. How you feel doesn’t factor into your decision, if “decision” is even the right word for what goes through your mind as you get up to do what must be done.

There are emotional dimensions to this same experience on all points of the relational spectrum. Perhaps you are a sibling called upon to be fully present to a brother or sister on a joyous occasion when you’re going through a tough time. Or you’re a young person, full of life, summoned to a grandparent’s hospital room for one last goodbye. Such emotional dissonance is part of life, and it’s the kind of experience that makes us better people, as we learn to be present, bringing our whole selves where we’re called to be, aware of our dissonant feelings but not acting on them, and at the same time not imagining that because of them we don’t belong.

I say all this by way of analogy for the range of emotional possibilities that are part of the Advent/Christmas season, both in and outside of church. Like other events on the calendar, Christmas comes every year, no matter how we might feel about it, whether or not “we’re ready” or “ in the spirit,” whatever that means. Christmas comes in peacetime and in war; in times of sorrow and of joy; in sickness and in health, for better, for worse. Christmas comes no matter how you feel about the state of our nation and our world. Christmas comes.

In my own circle of family and friends: our son and daughter-in-law are newlyweds and are looking forward to their first Christmas as a married couple with the blush of new love and excitement of starting of new traditions. And one of our dearest friends died last week, leaving behind a grieving husband and five heartbroken children and stepchildren. Such range is present in nearly every family.

But there is good news in the midst of real life: there’s no need to worry about how you feel as Christmas approaches. You needn’t judge yourself, or frankly, place too much stock on your side of the emotional equation. Emotional dissonance is, in part, what gives Christmas its meaning and its power. We can all simply let the season be, let the spiritual insights of this holy time speak to us, wherever we are.

Today is the third Sunday of the season devoted to preparing to receive the spiritual gifts of Christmas. As such, the day’s scripture readings offer images and words that speak to all levels of our experience.

From the prophet Isaiah, we’re given the image of flowers blooming in the desert. Now I’ve lived in the Arizona desert, and flowers are not what come to mind when I remember the desert landscape. But there are flowers in the desert, briefly, at the end of the rainy season. They are mostly small and amazingly resilient. Desert flowers are beautiful and unexpected, and in our mind’s eye they can be images of grace arising from the most inhospitable environments.

From the Gospel story we have an even more dissonant image for the season, that of John the Baptist in prison, about to be executed. He sends his disciples to ask Jesus a burning question: Are you the One who is to come, or are we to wait for another? What an unexpected question from the one who had dedicated his entire life to the coming of the Messiah, who was there at Jesus’ baptism, and heard the voice of God say, “This is my Beloved Son.” But near the hour of his death John wonders if it was all for naught.  He gives us permission to give voice to the most unsettling of doubts that surface when what we were once so sure of collapses all around us. Whatever your version of John’s question is, you can ask it, especially at Christmas. But then listen, as John listened, for whatever answer comes.

And remember on Christmas Eve we will gather to remember the birth of a child born over two thousand years ago whose coming into the world changed the world. That child was born in the most dubious of circumstances, and we celebrate his birth not because it all happened perfectly, but precisely because everything wasn’t perfect. Imperfection is where God chose to come, and chooses still. Dissonance is expected.

Let me close with a story that on the surface has nothing to do with Christmas, but for me captures the essence of this often mixed up, dissonant time.

The story comes from the novel Crossing to Safety, by Wallace Stegner, which tells of a friendship between two couples over their lifetimes. They met when the two men, Sid and Larry, began their work as struggling English professors in the late 1930s. Both couples were young: Larry and his wife, Sally, were poor. Sid and his wife, Chastity, came from families with money. Chastity was the flaming extrovert among them and the one who took charge, at times overbearingly so. Sid was the first of the two men to secure a tenured position, but his literary career never amounted to much. Larry struggled longer, but eventually wrote several books of great acclaim. Sally was gentle and quiet, but she loved her more flamboyant friend Chastity.

At some point in her early 30s, Sally contracted polio and almost died. She remained crippled for the rest of her life. The couples raised their children together, shared summers at Sid and Chastity’s family summer home in Maine, and tried in their own ways to make a contribution during the tumultuous years of the Great Depression, Second World War and post-war era. Their friendship was not without struggle, but it remained the touchstone of their lives.

When they were in their mid-50s, the foursome traveled to Italy for an extended holiday. They rented a villa in Florence and spent their days in the routine they loved best: mornings for work and study; afternoons for excursions; evenings for leisurely dinners and a shared bottle of wine. Chastity, true to her character, organized most of their outings.

One day they rented a car and drove to a nearby town to see the paintings of a renowned artist, Piero della Francesca. They made a special effort to see his most famous painting where it hung in a small chapel over the altar. It was a depiction of Christ’s resurrection at the very moment he rose from the tomb.

Up until then, the day had been light-hearted—great weather, wonderful food, easy conversation among them. But Piero’s Christ knocked all joy out of them, as Larry, the narrator, put it, “like an elbow to the solar plexus.” It was not the face of a god reclaiming his suspended immortality, but the face of a man who until a moment ago had been thoroughly and horribly dead, and still had the smell of death in his clothes and the terror of death in his mind. If resurrection had taken place, it had not yet been comprehended.

Three of the four were moved to silence by the painting. Chastity didn’t like it and said so rather loudly. Where was the hope? And why such sadness in Christ’s eyes? But Sally stood a long while on her crutches in front of the painting, with recognition in her eyes, “as if,” her husband surmised, “those who have been dead understand things that will never be understood by those who have only lived.”

As they drove back to their villa in silence, they were hailed by a team of roadside workers. One of them had been injured badly, his right hand mangled and bloody. The couples agreed to give him a ride to the nearest town, and he got into their small car. As they drove on, he winced in pain every time the car hit a bump, which was often, and just as they were about to turn toward the next town, he motioned for them to stop. When they did, he got of the car and began walking down the road, away from the town. In their broken Italian, the four tried to persuade him to come back to the car, to no avail. Eventually, they drove on without him, feeling they had failed at something essential.

Later that night, Larry turned to Sally and asked, “Did you see his eyes?” speaking of the roadside worker. “Oh yes,” she said. “Tell me something,” he asked. “When you remember today, what will you remember best, the spring countryside and the company of friends, or Piero’s Christ and the workman with the mangled hand?” She thought for a moment. “All of it,” she said. “It wouldn’t be real if you left out any part, would it?”

My friends, Christmas wouldn’t be real if we left any part of ourselves out. And so bring all of yourself: bring every joy, every sorrow; every disappointment, every hope. Allow God to show up for you, where you are.

And remember that each person in your life and all those you meet are also the ones for whom Christ is born, ones whose whole selves are invited to show up. Through whatever gesture of kindness or generosity you offer, you may be an instrument of grace, an assurance of God’s love, the very essence of Christmas for another person, no matter how you feel.

For Christmas comes to all of us, and through all of us, ready or not.

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A Path and a Little Light to See By

In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’”
Matthew 3:1-2

Good morning, All Souls’–what a privilege to be with you on this day of auspicious beginnings. While it isn’t customary for the bishop to be present for the rector’s first Sunday, I’m delighted that my visit, scheduled months ago, coincided with Jadon’s arrival. In addition to adding my welcome to yours, I’m grateful for the opportunity to publicly thank your leaders for their dedicated service and hard work of the past year. And I’m honored to take part today in the celebration of baptism and reception into the Episcopal Church.

Jadon and I met on Thursday morning, when we found ourselves sitting next to each other at a diocesan clergy gathering for quiet prayer. It was his first official day as your rector, and the gathering was a good way, he said, to mark the beginning of this new path of life and ministry among us.

I’d like to speak to you this morning about the Christian life, drawing upon one of the most straightforward and enduring ways of understanding this life, and indeed, all human life: that of a path we’ve chosen, or has somehow chosen us, a particular path to which we have been called.

When I was a parish priest and had the privilege of meeting with parents presenting their infants or young children for baptism, I would give them a short essay from the writer Anne Lamott entitled, “Why I Make Sam Go To Church.” In it she writes:

Sam is the only kid he knows who goes to church. He rarely wants to. This is not exactly true: the truth is he never wants to go. What young boy would rather be in church on the weekends than hanging out with a friend? It does not help him to be reminded that once he’s there he enjoys himself. It does not help that he genuinely cares for the people there and they for him. All that matters to him is that he alone among his colleagues is forced to spend Sunday morning in church.

You might think, noting the bitterness, the resignation, that he was being made to sit through a six-hour Latin mass. Or you might wonder why I make this strapping, exuberant boy come with me most weekends, and if you were to ask, this is what I would say. I make him because I can. I outweigh him by nearly seventy-five pounds.

But that is only part of it. The main reason is that I want to give him what I have found in the world, which is to say a path and a little light to see by.

I want to give him what I have found in the world, which is to say a path and a little light to see by.

One of the most startling and hopeful revelations of my life took place in my mid- 20s, which was the first time I had taken time to reflect back, in context of a therapeutic relationship, on the whole of my life. (It seemed like a long life at the time.) Doing so, I realized that my life wasn’t simply a series of random, chaotic events. There was more to my story than that. That I had a story was what amazed me. I sensed a kind of coherence and forward movement. Certain events had meaning in retrospect far beyond what I had experienced at the time. I felt the power of God’s grace, and of Jesus’ guiding presence. I knew as I had never known before that I was, in fact, on a path. It was the path of my life, for which I had some responsibility, but on which I was also being led, somehow guided in ways that I couldn’t fully understand but that I sensed God was now asking me to trust.

I invite you now to think about the path of your life, where you’ve been, how it is that you are here this morning, and what you might say if someone were to ask how you got from where you once were to where you are now. Did you consciously choose your path, or does it feel for you, as it often does for me, more like a revelation?  

If we drop ourselves into virtually any book in the Bible, we encounter people on a journey of life and faith, or we read passages written by people, like me in my 20s, looking back with deeper understanding of the path they and their people have walked.  

The first biblical passage I felt moved to memorize when I was in seminary was from, of all places, the book of Deuteronomy. It describes a liturgical celebration, an ancient version of Thanksgiving, during which the people of Israel recited the story of their path, their journey, as they made their offering of thanks. The first line sets the stage: “When the priest takes the basket from your hand and sets it down before the altar of the Lord your God, you shall make this response before the Lord your God.”

And here’s the story:

A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous. When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labour on us, we cried to the Lord, the God of our ancestors; the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. The Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O Lord, have given me. (Deuteronomy 26:5-10)

In five verses we have the entire arc of a journey, the path of our spiritual ancestors, starting with Abraham, that wandering Aramean, who who heard a call and started walking, and as he walked and wandered, a path was revealed to him and later to his progeny.  

On Christmas Eve, we’ll gather in church to remember the story of Jesus’ birth, a story of weary travelers on a journey–Jesus’ parents seeking refuge. And Jesus spent most of  his ministry walking and inviting people to join him, so much so that after he died, his first followers were known as People of the Way, his way, following his path.

So what kind of path are we on, you and me? Does it feel like a path, or more like wandering with no clear sense of direction? Is there clarity in some ways but not others?  

To be honest, I’ve always longed and prayed for more clarity on the path than I’m given, and I confess my envy of those who receive such clarity. I’m amazed by  those who knew from an early age what they would dedicate their lives to, what path was theirs to walk. Like the musicians who by age 5 or 6 knew that they had a gift and would later know without question which particular instrument was their destiny. I was also completely intimidated by the freshmen in my college dorm who knew from the first day what their majors would be. That wasn’t me.

I’m also in awe of  those for whom that kind of clarity emerges at a later time in life, with equal strength. A friend of mine, in her late 30s, decided almost overnight that she was destined to become a dentist. That involved taking undergraduate prerequisite courses, then applying to dental school–which is highly competitive. Then she had to figure out how to pay for it, so she joined the Army Reserves. Then she went to dental school. All this while raising two young boys. It took her about six years. But she is practicing dentistry today.

And just this week I heard a story on the radio show, This American Life about a woman whose boyfriend had broken up with her and moved to London. She woke up one morning absolutely convinced that what she needed to do was buy a one-way ticket to London, present herself at his doorstep, and ask him to marry her. It didn’t turn out well. But when she told her story, from the perspective of being married to someone else and a mother of young children, she had no regrets. For she did what she felt she had to do.

That kind of clarity takes my breath away. And it is certainly one way of experiencing our lives as on a path, those times when we know that we simply must act. Maybe you’ve had such moments.

But there is another way of walking the path with which I am more familiar that it is far less clear, but no less compelling. It’s when we’re given small bits of clarity, not the whole vision. Something happens to set certain events in motion and we consent to it and take a step forward, with a sense that it’s important to keep going even though we’re not sure of the destination.

Quakers speak of this as the Way opening before us. It’s very important to pay attention on the way, noting the signs as we go, constantly reassessing, perhaps wandering more than we’d like, but walking by the lights we’re given. The writer E.L. Doctorow, likens the task of writing a novel to this kind of journey:  “It’s like driving a car at night,” he wrote. “You never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” He also said that writing is an exploration. “You start from nothing and learn as you go.”

Following our path is often like that: step by step, walking by faith and not by sight.  And if that is the kind of path you’re on now, the Advent season is a particularly helpful time for you to be in church. For in Advent, our biblical companions are among those who did not fully understand the path to which they had been called but said yes anyway.

Consider John the Baptist whose fire and brimstone sermon we’ve just heard. As uncompromisingly clear as he was about his message of repentance and his call to prepare for the one coming after him, he readily acknowledged that he did not know who that person was. Imagine staking your life on someone who is, as yet, unknown to you. As a sneak preview for next Sunday, John again will be center stage, this time speaking from prison as he is about to be executed. From his prison cell, he instructs his disciples to go to Jesus, who was now preaching and teaching throughout Galilee, and ask “Are you the One who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” He went to his death not knowing for certain if Jesus was the one he had been preparing for, but he was faithful to his path until death.

On the last Sunday of Advent, Joseph takes center stage, a man whose journey we often overlook at Christmas. Remember that Mary came to him while they were betrothed with the unwelcome news that she was pregnant. Being a decent man, Joseph planned to end their engagement quietly. But then God spoke to him in a dream, telling him to take Mary as his wife. And he agrees, on the basis of a dream. And in those early days and years of his parenthood, when terrifying events threatened the child Jesus, God continues to speak to Joseph in his dreams, guiding him as to where to go next.

Clarity often comes to us like that in bits and pieces. But here is the good news: a little bit of clarity is enough to take the next step. We don’t need the entire path illumined. Light for the next step is sufficient.

Moreover, we are not called to walk this path alone. Listen to Anne Lamott again describing her church:

Most of the people I know who have what I want—which is to say, purpose, heart, balance, gratitude, joy—are people with a deep sense of spirituality. They are people in community, who pray and practice their faith . . They follow a brighter light than the glimmer of their own candle; they are part of something beautiful. Our funky little church is filled with people who are working for peace and freedom, who are out there on the streets and inside praying, and they are home writing letters, and they are at the shelters with giant platters of food…When I was at the end of my rope, the people at my church tied a knot in it for me and helped me hold on.

People of All Souls’ Church, you are not alone. You are here together, walking by the light given to each one of you. That’s what you will soon promise to the ones being baptized and received, that you will do all in your power to support them in their lives of faith. Because that’s what churches do. That’s what churches are for. And together you are at a wondrous moment, beginning a new phase of life with Jadon as your rector. And you’re not alone in that either–you are part of a wider wider community in our diocese, others who, like you, feel called to walk in the way Jesus, as part of the Episcopal branch of his movement.

So, friends, if ever you you’re given great clarity on the path, give thanks and walk with confidence.

And when you’re given just a bit of clarity, a bit of light to see by, give thanks, and walk in faith that more will be given in time.

Remember that a little bit of clarity is all you need to take the next step.

Pray for that clarity, and it will come. Then step out.

As you do, the path will be revealed.

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