Homily for a Celebration of New Ministry (St. John’s Episcopal Church, Broad Creek and the Rev. Sarah Odderstol)

Blessed are those who trust in the Lord, whose trust is the Lord. They shall be like a tree planted by water, sending out its roots by the stream. It will not fear when heat comes, and its leaves shall stay green; in the year of drought it is not anxious, and it does not cease to bear fruit.
Jeremiah 17: 7-8

So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.
Ephesians 4:7, 11-16

People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.
Mark 10:13-16

Let me begin with a word of thanks to God for the people of St. John’s and for your leaders who have faithfully guided the congregation through a season of transition. You have waited a long time for this moment, and it hasn’t been as easy path. I also give thanks to the Holy Spirit for bringing Sarah into discernment with St. John’s, and all that resulted in her call to join you ministry. I give thanks for family and friends, and those who surround her on every side.

It’s my happy task to call you to faithful and fruitful ministry, as you draw closer to the One who invites you to come to him as beloved children, experience the power of his reconciling, healing love and calls you to be like trees planted by water that does not cease to bear fruit.

The beginning of a new season in ministry is a unique moment in the life of a congregation. There is so much for Sarah to learn and to do, so many tasks that are part of St. John’s everyday life. There are assumptions and expectations; challenges and opportunities some you may anticipated and others that will surprise you. Yet it’s also a time for discernment, as you clarify together your core purpose as a faith community and the particular part of God’s mission you are being invited to join.

There is, God willing, a long life of ministry ahead of you, and not everything that needs to be addressed can be addressed at once.  In this sermon, I offer for your consideration four essential tasks of this early season of ministry together.

Relationships
The first task is relational and organic. It takes time for one who has been selected as a spiritual leader to become that leader. There is no shortcut for the kind of relationship building that is the foundation of every healthy church.  St. Paul, using an image from the natural world, writes of being grafted into the life of a community much like a seedling is grafted into a stronger plant. You need time to get to know each other–you as a congregation becoming accustomed to Sarah’s voice in the pulpit, her way of leading. Sarah, in turn,  needs to come to know and love you enough to determine how best to lead.

Gentle, courageous evaluation
If only we could do nothing else but get to know each other! Yet you are not a community on hiatus. There are decisions to make, plans to put into action, budgets to manage. How can you do the necessary work well and also save enough energy for the second important task of this season: gentle, courageous evaluation?

It’s helpful to cultivate a kind of dual vision: where you’re paying attention as best you can to what’s happening and to a larger sense of purpose at the same time. One author on leadership defines this as what you see from the dance floor and what you see from the balcony looking down at all the dancers, one of whom is you. The dance floor is his image for jumping right in together for the work at hand; the balcony for the kind of vision you see only from a distance, when you step back, even in part of your mind, as you’re still out there dancing. We need both perspectives. (Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky, Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive Through the Dangers of Leading (Harvard Business School Publishing, 2002).)

A Methodist minister in Herndon, VA, Tom Berlin, suggests a simple method for cultivating this kind of dual-vision to invoke what he calls the two most powerful words for leadership: so that. Those who learn to use these two words, he says, will discover a way to clarify the intended, fruitful outcome of every ministry endeavor. (Tom Berlin and Lovitt H. Weems, Jr, Bearing Fruit: Ministry with Real Results (Abingdon Press, 2001))

There is a lot of biblical inspiration for this kind of thinking. Once you start looking for them, you see the words so that throughout the Bible:

  • “Let your light shine before others” Jesus said, “so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”  (Matthew 5:16)
  • “Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewing of your minds,” writes St. Paul in his letter to the Romans, “so that you may discern what is the will of God–what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Romans 12:2)
  • “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. (John 3:16)

Let me give you a practical  example from one pastor’s experience with a congregation that had for many years hosted a Vacation Bible School. He asked all those gathered to plan for the coming year to complete the following sentence:

Next summer our church will have a vacation church school so that….

At first very few people wrote anything at all,  struggling to come up with the purpose of the Vacation Bible School.  At last one person spoke up: “Next summer our church will have a vacation bible school so that the children of our church will experience a vacation bible school.”  “Are there any other possibilities?” the pastor asked. Another said: “Next summer our church will have a vacation bible school so that children will experience church as fun.”  The pastor responded, “I’m not sure we need a curriculum for that.”

After some time and deeper reflection the group came up with this: “Next summer our church will have a vacation bible school so that our children will come to know and love God more and that we will reach children in the community with God’s love whom we have not reached before.”

That was a purpose they could be inspired by, get excited working toward and inviting others to join in. It was also one that could afterwards be evaluated by standards of fruitfulness: did the children of our church have an experience of love; were we able to reach children in the neighborhood? If not ,why not? What might we do better next time?

The purpose was no longer to have a vacation bible school. That was a means to a greater purpose. If the vacation bible school no longer fulfilled that purpose they were free to consider something else. The focus became less about the  activity but the outcome.

Weathering a storm
The third task is hard and yet extremely important: weathering a storm together. I don’t know what the storm will be, and unless you’ve already experienced one, neither do you. But I know that one is coming, because they always do. There may well be more than one.

Remember this: how we handle ourselves in a storm has a greater lasting impact than the storm itself. while you’re going through it. There’s no choice, when the storm comes, but to go through it, however if you can all remember that’s what you’re doing, it can help create enough distance for prayer and reflection. It will also encourage, when the storm passes (for it will pass) a post-storm evaluation. What did we learn about each other? About ourselves? What mistakes did we make? How did Christ reveal himself to us in the storm? How might we plan for the future so to avoid the conditions for that kind of storm to resurface?

Drawing closer to Christ
I’ve saved the most important task of this early season for last.

In this season, I urge you, as your bishop and friend, to deepen your relationship with Christ. Create at least one new avenue exclusively devoted to that endeavor in your common life, and think as broadly as you can about that, so that as many people at St. John’s grow deeper in a loving relationship with Christ as are able. I’m not talking about another evening class or mid-week service for your 10 most faithful attendees, but a whole church, multi-generational effort.

I have all sorts of ideas about that, and there are others who can be of help in this. No doubt the Holy Spirit has already planted this yearning in your hearts, and ideas and possibilities are bubbling up within and among you. Pay attention to them. Give time and energy to them, so that you might draw closer to Christ, hear his unique call for each one of you and as a community, and have something of spiritual value to invite others to share.

I am persuaded that the future of St. John’s, and all our congregations, depends on that kind of spiritual renewal and deeper experience of God’s love in Christ. Without it, we are running on our own energies, and our energies aren’t enough. Without it, we create a church in our image, according to our preferences, rather than open ourselves to the call of Christ to join in his redeeming work. But know that you needn’t do this alone. We are all in this holy work together. Now is our time, so that the Episcopal Church we love may take its humble, fruitful place in God’s mission of reconciling, healing love.

Let’s pray together: Loving God we are so grateful to be here, at this moment in the life of St. John’s, and we pause to give thanks to all those whose faithfulness and love sustained this community over the years of its life. We also give thanks for Sarah, for her love for you and the gifts you have endowed her with for leadership. And we thank you for her family. Bless this moment, Lord. Guide Sarah and the people of St. John’s to a place of deep trust and affection; help them to live into these first months and years with open and discerning hearts; be with them through whatever storms they might face, and through it all, in worship, study, retreat, service, times of quiet prayer, may they draw closer to you and serve your mission of love for others. In your name, Amen.

 

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Homily for A Celebration of New Ministry St. James’ Episcopal Church, Potomac and the Rev. Meredith Heffner

As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. ‘This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name.’
John 15:9-16

Let me begin with a word of thanks to God for the people of St. James’, for your leaders who have faithfully guided the congregation through a season of transition. I also give thanks to the Holy Spirit for bringing Meredith Heffner into discernment with St. James’ and all in that process that resulted in her call here. I give thanks for family and friends, and those who surround her with love on every side.

It’s my happy task to call you to faithful and fruitful ministry as you draw closer to the One who invites you to abide in his love, embrace his presence in your life as you would the closest of friends, and has appointed you to bear fruit that will last.

The beginning of a new season in ministry is a unique moment in the life of a congregation. On the one hand there is so much to learn and to do, so many tasks and responsibilities that are part of St. James’ everyday life. There are assumptions and expectations on both sides of this new relationship, challenges and opportunities, some that you had anticipated and others that will surprise you. Honestly, it’s hard to know where to begin.

Yet on the other hand, this is a time that follows a lengthy period of prayer and assessment on both sides. There’s been a time of meeting, sharing, testing the feel of a life together, and ultimately, a call extended and a call accepted.   

Now you are here. God willing, there are many years of ministry ahead of you. Not everything that needs to be addressed can be addressed at once. What is most important in the first two two years of life together? What comes first?

1. Relationships
The first task is relational and organic. It takes time for one who has been selected as a spiritual leader to become the leader. There is no shortcut for the kind of relationship building that is the foundation of every healthy church. St. Paul, using an image from the natural world, writes of being grafted into the life of a community, as a seedling is grafted into a larger plant. You need time to get to know each other–as a congregation, you need to become accustomed to Meredith’s voice in the pulpit, her way of leading. She needs to come to know and love you enough to determine how best to lead.

2. Gentle, Courageous Ministry Evaluation
If only we could do nothing else in the first two years but get to know each other. But that’s only one of several first tasks. For it’s not as if you are a community on hiatus. Ministry is on-going: there are decisions to be made, priorities to set, budgets to manage. You need to be about that necessary work and yet also use the gift of this time for the second important set of tasks in this season: gentle, courageous ministry evaluation. 

In these first months and years, it’s helpful to cultivate a kind of dual vision, where you’re paying attention as best you can to what’s happening and a larger sense of purpose and calling at the same time. One author on leadership defines this kind of vision as distinguishing what you see when you’re dancing on a dance floor from what you see from the balcony looking down at all the dancers, one of whom is you. The dance floor is his image for jumping right in together for the work at hand; the balcony for the kind of vision you see only from a distance, when you step back, even in part of your mind, as you’re still out there dancing. We need both perspectives, he says. In the first year or two of a new ministry, it’s especially important to both actively engage and save a little bit of time and energy for reflection and evaluation. (Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky, Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive Through the Dangers of Leading (Harvard Business School Publishing, 2002).)

A Methodist minister in Herndon, VA, Tom Berlin, suggests a simple method for cultivating this kind of dual-vision, and that is to invoke what he calls the two most powerful words for leadership: So that. Those who learn to use these two words, he says, will discover a way to clarify the intended, fruitful outcome of every ministry endeavor. (Tom Berlin and Lovitt H. Weems, Jr, Bearing Fruit: Ministry with Real Results (Abingdon Press, 2001))

There is a lot of biblical inspiration for this kind of thinking. Once you start looking for them, you see the words so that throughout the Bible:

“Let your light shine before others others” Jesus said, “so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”  (Matthew 5:16)

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” (John 3:16)

“Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewing of your minds,” writes St. Paul in his letter to the Romans, “so that you may discern what is the will of God–what is good and acceptable and perfect.” (Romans 12:2)

Let me give you a practical  example from one pastor’s experience with a congregation that had for many years hosted a Vacation Bible School. He asked all those gathered to organize the upcoming summer’s VBS to complete the following sentence: Next summer our church will have a vacation bible school so that….

At first very few people wrote anything at all, struggling to come up with the purpose of the Vacation Bible School. At last one person shared what she wrote: “Next summer our church will have a vacation bible school so that the children of our church will experience a vacation bible school.” “Are there other possibilities?” the pastor asked. Another chimed in: Next summer our church will have a vacation bible school so that our children will experience church as fun.” The pastor’s thought was, “I’m not sure we need a curriculum for that.” After some time and deeper reflection the group came up with this: “Next summer our church will have a vacation bible school so that our children will come to know and love God more and that we will reach children in the community with God’s love whom we have not reached before.” (Story told in Bearing Fruit.)

That was a purpose they could get inspired to work to accomplish and invite others to join them. It was also one that could afterwards be evaluated on the basis of fruitfulness: did the children of our church have an experience of love?  Were we able to reach children in the neighborhood? If not ,why not? What might we do better next time? For the purpose was no longer to have a vacation bible school. That was a means to end. If the means no longer served that end, they were free to consider something else. So that helps shift our focus from the activities of our church toward their intended outcome, one that can be measured in terms of fruitfulness.

3. Weathering a Storm
The third task in the early season ministry is perhaps the hardest: weathering a storm together. I don’t know what the storm will be, and unless you’ve already experienced one, neither do you. But I know that one is coming, because they always do. There may well be more than one.  

Remember this: how we handle ourselves in a storm has a greater lasting impact than the storm itself. There’s no choice, when the storm comes, but to go through it, but if you can all keep in mind that how you handle yourself through it matters more than the storm itself, you will cultivate enough emotional space for needed prayer and reflection–and when the storm passes, because it will–for evaluation. What did we learn about each other? About ourselves? What mistakes did we make? How did Christ reveal himself to us in the storm? How might we plan for the future so as to avoid the conditions for that kind of storm to resurface?

4. Deepening Our Relationship with Christ
There is one last task I’d like to mention, saving as it were, the best or most important for last:

In these early years, I urge you, as your bishop and friend, to devote yourselves to deepen your relationship with Christ and create at least one new avenue exclusively devoted to that endeavor in your common life. Please think as creatively and broadly as you can, so that as many people at St. James’ grow deeper in a loving relationship with Christ as described so beautifully in the gospel text in your bulletins. I’m not talking about another evening class for your 10 most devoted attendees, but rather a comprehensive, multi-faceted approach that will reach as many of your community as possible.

I am persuaded that the future of St. James’, and all our congregations, depends on that kind of spiritual renewal and commitment to a deep, transformative encounter with God’s love as revealed to us through Christ. For without it, we are running on our own energies, and our energies aren’t enough. We create a church in our image, for our purposes, according to our preferences, rather than seeking to be his faithful witnesses and doing what he asks of us in this time and place.

I have all sorts of ideas about how to go about this, and there are others who can be of help. And surely the Holy Spirit is hard at work among you, placing this yearning in your hearts, and that all manner of ideas and possibilities are bubbling up within and among you. Pay attention to them. Give time and energy to them, so that you might draw closer to Christ, hear his unique call for each one of you and as a community, and have something of spiritual value to invite others to share.  And don’t imagine that you are doing this alone. We are all in this holy work together. Now is our time, so that the Episcopal Church we love may take its humble, fruitful place in God’s mission of reconciling, healing love.

Let’s pray together:
Loving God we are so grateful to be here, at this moment in the life of St. James’, and we pause to give thanks to all those whose faithfulness and love sustained this community over the years of its life. We also give thanks for Meredith–her love for you and the gifts you have endowed her with for leadership. Bless this moment, Lord. Guide Meredith and the people of St. James’ to a place of deep trust and affection; help them to live into these first months and years with open and discerning hearts; be with them through whatever storms they might face, and through it all, in worship, study, retreat, service, times of quiet prayer, may they draw closer to you and serve your mission of love for others. In your name, Amen.

 

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Building Our House on Solid Rock: Messages We Don’t Intend to Communicate

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

Rusty TEC Sign

It’s said that we only have one opportunity to make a first impression. That’s something I think about when I drive past our small, often rusty “The Episcopal Church Welcomes You” signs. For there isn’t one congregation in the diocese that describes itself as unwelcoming. Yet might our appearances communicate messages we don’t intend?

What poorly-kept signs unintentionally communicate is that our church is tired, and that we aren’t expecting anyone to pay attention to us, much less visit on a Sunday morning. Sadly, in some of our churches, that message is reinforced when people visit for the first time, not by how we treat them, but what our environment communicates.

In his book, Deep and Wide: Creating Churches Unchurched People Love to Attend, Andy Stanley tells of a time when he attended a mid-week bible study at a friend’s church:

The group met in a medium-sized assembly hall…The first thing I noticed was the smell. The room smelled old. The second thing that caught my attention was the clutter. Stuff was scattered everywhere. Sunday school literature. Bibles. Hymnals. Umbrellas. The blinds on the half-dozen windows were all pulled to varying heights. There was a bulletin board with a half-dozen flyers randomly tacked to it. The wall color was bad. The carpet needed replacing.

What was immediately clear to Stanley was that the people who met in this room had done so for so long they didn’t see it anymore. It wasn’t that they enjoyed clutter; they no longer saw it. But as a visitor, he noticed it immediately.

The real tragedy, Stanley writes, was the environment communicated messages the church wasn’t aware of:

  1. We aren’t expecting guests.
  2. What we are doing here isn’t that important.
  3. We expect somebody to clean up after us.
  4. We don’t take pride in our church.

This is the second post in a series on the foundations of healthy parish ministry. It’s point is simple: our environments matter, and when we stop seeing them they can communicate messages at odds with what we want to convey to those who might enter our doors.

I invite you to walk the perimeter of your church grounds and throughout your building with the eyes of a visitor. Walk into your worship space, as if for the first time. What might a visitor see that we, in our familiarity, overlook? I am in a different church nearly every Sunday and I see things each week that as a rector for 18 years I stopped seeing. I’ve seen everything Stanley writes of, and more.  

I know for most of our churches, resources are limited. But cleaning up clutter doesn’t cost much. It would be a great summer project, cleaning and throwing things away.

My heart sinks when I walk into many of our parish libraries. The books look old and unread, like cast-offs from previous generations. What they unintentionally communicate is that there isn’t anything interesting or new to read about the Christian faith; that the faith is as tired and boring as the books on display. I long for all our libraries to be places of warmth and invitation, with some of the best Christian writings and audio/visual materials on display. It wouldn’t take much to throw out the book that hasn’t been opened in the last 20 years, and ask each member of the congregation to contribute books they have read and found helpful in their walk with Christ.  

What if we threw out the old furniture and raised funds for a few welcoming chairs and good lighting? And if we highlighted in photographs not only the past, but our present ministries, with faces of children, elders, and all in between?

Of course, we must do more than clean for our parishes to thrive. But we only have one chance to make a first impression. Or as Stanley writes, “Our environments are the message before the message.” So why not take some time this summer to evaluate what our parish environments are communicating and see what small changes we could make?

We could start by replacing all the rusty “Episcopal Church Welcomes You,” signs in the Diocese.  If you need help with yours, let us know.  

 

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Follow Up from Clergy Conference

Clergy Conference

Dear Colleagues,

Thank you for our time together at clergy conference. It was a blessing to be with you, and I’m especially grateful for the ways you engaged with the Rev. Dr. Ruthanna Hooke in her sessions, and with me as we discussed matters of importance to the ministry we share.

As promised, here are some of the materials we shared and an invitation to participate in on-going endeavors, all in the spirit of our continuous improvement as leaders.

Ruthanna preached at our opening worship and has graciously shared her text with us.

In the first session, I introduced you to the work of acting coach Patsy Rodenburg, and in particular, her views on the importance of presence when standing before others. We watched a brief video, The Second Circle, in which Rodenberg describes three circles of energy, and then discussed how others experience our presiding and preaching depending on which circle we’re in.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ub27yeXKUTY]

 

During our evening conversation on Tuesday, I mentioned my yearly practice of attending a local live simulcast of the Global Leadership Conference. If you and any from your congregation would like to join me, the conference is an affordable, accessible engagement with some of the most thoughtful, creative leaders from multiple disciplines. More information about attending the summit as part of the diocesan group is available here.

I also mentioned that on my sabbatical next year, I plan to spend some time in the non-Episcopalian churches that are thriving within our diocese. If there is a particular church near you that you’d like me to study, please let me know as I will be forming my list between now and next March.

On Wednesday morning, we spent time discussing the planning of meaningful, engaging worship. Last year’s General Convention authorized the use of experimental liturgies for the principal service with the bishop’s approval. I told those present that I have no problem with you experimenting with liturgical styles, provided you remain true to our core doctrine of faith, tell me what you’re doing, and commit to an evaluation process, so we might learn from your experiences.

We also talked about the value of advanced planning for preaching, a discipline I have long wanted to adopt. The Rev. Sue von Rautenkranz shared with us a planning calendar Episcopal Church educator Sharon Pearson created that we can use if we want to think ahead for next year.

The Rev. Cara Spaccarelli and I decided we would spend a few days working together on a year-long preaching schedule this summer. All are welcome to join us. We’re meeting first on Thursday June 29th, from 10:00 a.m. to 3 p.m. Then we’ll spend a few weeks on our own thinking about resources and themes to further develop and meet again for two days, July 12 and 13, from 10:00-3:00 p.m. For now, we’ll plan on meeting at Church House. Please let Mitchell Sams know if you are interested in participating on June 29, July 12 and 13, or both.

Cara also invites all clergy and their spouses to a dinner at her home on Saturday June, 10 from 5 to 8 p.m. so clergy spouses can get to know one another. Please RSVP if you plan to attend.

Finally, we shared thoughts on various programs to encourage deeper faith among our people and create points of entry for those exploring the Christian faith. For many, the Alpha Course  is a helpful tool. Dean Randy Hollerith and I will be working over the summer to craft presentations for use at the Cathedral and our congregations. Other resources in discipleship include Sparkhouse, Forward Movement’s Transforming Questions, and a new series from Pastor Adam Hamilton (a United Methodist pastor and author) Creed: What Christians Believe and Why and more.

Our goal as your diocesan team is to create a strong library of useful tools and serve as a clearinghouse of materials, so that you and your leaders can find meaningful resources. Together, we can deepen our culture of spiritual growth and create entry points for those new or returning to Christian faith.

One final thought on resources having to do with money. In the Episcopal Church, most of our work with financial stewardship focuses on helping our people learn to give and to live generously, but we spend almost no time on helping our members live with money and manage money well.

So we are searching for good resources and ways to facilitate money conversations not rooted in church budgeting, but on home budgeting. All Saints’ Church in Chevy Chase offered such a class this past year that was well received, and I know that St. John’s Lafayette Square has held budgeting sessions for their young adults. The Strategic Financial Resources Commission would love to know if you’ve done work in this important area, so that we can learn from one another. Email me with your experiences and resources that you’ve found helpful.

One resource recommended by many is the Financial Peace University. I will be taking the course this summer online for myself, so that I can learn more about it (and consider again my own relationship to money). Two churches in Central Montgomery County, Christ Church in Kensington and Church of the Transfiguration, will be offering the course this summer. We will evaluate the course afterwards and let you know the results.

It was a full conference! We are blessed by the gift of one another. Again thank you for our time together, and for the privilege of serving as your bishop.

Faithfully,

Bishop Mariann

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The Most Important Things We Say

 

Jesus said, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going.” Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.”
John 14: 1-8   

In the name of God, Amen.

Happy Mother’s Day to the mothers in our midst. I’m awed to be standing near the table of photographs that many of you brought of your mothers, many of whom are no longer with us. I give thanks to God for them and for you, the gift of life we pass on, one to another.

In keeping with the theme of this sermon, which I speak more of in a moment, and in light of Mother’s Day, I’m reminded of a writer whose mother had died. As he was still working through his grief and loss, he had a dream one night that his mother wrote him a letter from heaven. In his dream he was so excited to hold the letter in his hands. It made him laugh out loud–it was so like her, he thought, to reach across even that boundary. But just as he was about to open the letter to read it, he woke up.

Such disappointment! But then he realized that he already knew what she would say. So he sat down and wrote a poem with the contents of her letter (see below).

***
This is a time of year when I attend and sometimes speak at a lot of services that have one thing in common–they all end in tion: confirmation; ordination; graduation; celebration.  Perhaps some of you have taken part in such services or will in the coming weeks. There’s some of that energy here today as we celebrate both Confirmation and Reception.

Another thing these services have in common is that the person speaking attempts to give words of inspiration and meaning, the best they’ve got to share for those whose celebratory moment is at the center of the gathering.  

What I invite you to think about today are those moments when we take the time to say the most important things to one another. On Mother’s Day, for example, we take time to make our mothers feel special and appreciate. In a more everyday kind of way, many people, when finishing a phone call with a family member or close friend might say? I love you.  

A friend of mine used to work as a chaplain at an assisted living/elder care facility, and he took it upon himself to encourage everyone there to write a love letter to their families. It wasn’t their will. It was a letter in which they shared their most important life lessons and hopes for their loved ones.

That isn’t something you need to wait until you’re nearing the end of your life. You can write a letter to your children or grandchildren as they pass an important milestone, or whenever you want to give someone a blessing. It’s such a gift to say what’s in your heart, and give a word of encouragement to someone who is beginning a journey that you’ve already gone through. It doesn’t matter if you’re 16 or 66: there’s someone behind you, about to go through what you’ve already experienced. What do might you say to them, in wisdom and encouragement?  

I remember one Christmas when our older son, who was in college at the time, struggled with what to get his younger brother for Christmas. He didn’t have much money, so he was scavenging around for silly–and cheap–things that he could wrap up and put under the tree. I suggested that he might write down for his brother, who was senior in high school that year, all the things he could tell him about life in college. He thought about that for awhile, decided it was a good idea, and then asked a couple of his friends for their thoughts. And on Christmas morning, he presented his brother with a list of advice about college. Actually, there were two lists–one that we, their parents, were allowed to read, and one that we weren’t.

My invitation to you–no matter your age or time in life–is this: sometime in the next few days, take the time to write down something of importance that you have learned in life and what matters most to you. Think of it as your love letter to those closest to you. Or imagine yourself speaking to someone about to enter a stage of life you have lived through–what might be helpful for them to know? What words of encouragement or love do you have to offer? And what  if those words were to be your last?

Several years ago a computer science professor named Randy Pausch gave what’s known in academic settings as a “last lecture.” This is when a teacher is asked to distill all his or her core convictions and essential knowledge into one presentation, and then speak as if giving the last lecture of his or her life. (TED talks are the latest version of this idea). It was particularly compelling for Randy Pausch, because at age 46 he had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.

He began by saying that his father always taught him that when there was an elephant in the room, it was important to name it. So he showed a slide of a recent cat scan of his liver and pointed out ten tumors. “The doctors told me I have three good months left,” he said. “That was a month ago; you can do the math.” He then showed a second slide of his family’s new home in Virginia. “I’m not in denial,” he said. “My family and I have moved to Virginia, so that when the time comes, my wife and three young children will live near family who will provide love and support.” He said this all this quite matter-of-factly. “If I’m not morose enough for you when facing death, I’m sorry. But I can’t do anything about the cards I’ve been dealt. All I can do is decide how to play the hand.”

The title of his lecture was, “Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams.” He spoke about the importance of overcoming obstacles, enabling the dreams of others, and seizing every moment of life. He listed his childhood dreams one by one and described how he had gone about realizing or attempting to realize them. On his list of childhood dreams: playing in the NFL; authoring an article in the World Book encyclopedia; being Captain Kirk; winning big stuffed animals; being a Disney Imagineer. Some of his childhood dreams he, in fact, realized. Equally important, he said, was what he learned from pursuing the dreams that he didn’t accomplish.

Pausch, for example, never played professional football. But what he learned playing football as a child and adolescent prepared him for life more than anything else. In playing football, for example, he learned the importance of focusing on fundamentals, getting the fundamentals of the game down, for without them, none of the fancy plays work. He learned the importance of being pushed hard by coaches and critics, for when, he says, “you see yourself doing badly and nobody’s bothering to tell you about it anymore, that’s a bad place to be. It means they’ve given up on you.” He learned the importance of building self-esteem through the process of facing, time and again, what you can’t do, and working at it until you can.

Finally, in playing football he learned that there is more than one meaning of a head fake. A head fake on the field is when a player moves his head one way, so that you’ll think he’s going in that direction, but then move in the opposite direction. “Watch a player’s waist,” he coach would tell him. “Where his belly button goes, his body goes.” The second kind of head fake, he said, is the really important one–the one that teaches people things they don’t realize they are learning until well into the process of learning them. Kids on the football field think their coaches want them to master football skills, and they do. But what they’re really teaching them are skills for life.

Pausch’s lecture was full of deep insight and one-liner advice: Remember that brick walls give you a chance to show how badly you want something. Not everything broken needs to be fixed. Always tell the truth. Being earnest is better than being hip. Don’t complain, just work harder. Don’t obsess over what other people think of you. Look for the best in everybody. Show gratitude. A bad apology is better than no apology. Experience is what you get when you don’t get what you wanted, and experience is often the most valuable thing you have to offer.

At the end of his lecture on realizing childhood dreams, Pausch asked his audience, “Did you figure out the head fake? This lecture it’s not about how to achieve your dreams. It’s about how to lead your life. If you lead your life the right way, the dreams will come to you.” He asked again, “Have you figured out the second head fake? This lecture wasn’t for you. It was for my kids.” (You can watch his lecture on YouTube here. It was later published in expanded form: Randy Pausch with Jeffry Zaslow, The Last Lecture (New York: Hyperion Press, 2008)

We just heard Rev. Cassandra read a passage from the Gospel of John that is the beginning of what we could rightfully title as “Jesus’ Last Lecture.” The setting is at the last supper, the night before his death. He’s already shared bread and wine with his disciples, telling them that whenever they break bread together in the future, he will be with them. He’s wrapped a towel around his waist, taken a basin and pitcher of water and washed each one of the disciples’ feet, saying to them, “Do you see what I have done for you? I have given you an example, that you might serve others as I have served you.”

Then he sits down and speaks to them—three chapters’ worth of wisdom and assurance. They are some of the most inspiring passages of Scripture. It’s hard to read in one setting, for each sentence is enough to ponder for a day, or a lifetime.

The passage for today starts with a word of encouragement: don’t let your hearts be troubled. He wants to assure them that even though terrible things are about to happen, he is going to be fine, and that God is still God. I’m going away but I’ll never leave you. I’m going away but you know where I’m going.

The disciples are completely and totally confused. They have no idea what he’s talking about–they don’t know where he’s going; they certainly don’t know the way. And then he says to them: don’t worry. Just keep your eyes on me. I’ll get you there.

This is one of the great head fakes in the Bible. We’re reading a passage about Jesus speaking to his disciples, preparing them, it seems for his departure, for a life without him. But what he’s really describing is how they will experience his presence with them after his death.

And did you catch the second head fake? The words weren’t written for the first disciples. They were written for us. This is who he is for us and what he offers us now.    

There’s also a bit of a head fake to this sermon. All the while I’ve been encouraging you to consider what you have to say, what it would be like for you to take time to think through, write down, and share what’s most important for you. But what I really want you to take away from this sermon is the importance of finding those words of encouragement and wisdom for yourself.

Never forget, above all, that Jesus’ words are for you. Keep your eyes fixed on him, listen for his word, and no matter what, you’ll be all right.

****

Farewell Letter

by David Whyte

She wrote me a letter
after her death
and I remember
a kind of happy light
falling on the envelope
as I sat by the rose tree
on her old bench
at the back door,
so surprised by its arrival
wondering what she would say,
looking up before I could open it
and laughing to myself
in silent expectation.

Dear son, it is time
for me to leave you.
I am afraid that the words
you are used to hearing
are no longer mine to give,
they are gone and mingled
back in the world
where it is no longer in my power
to be their first
original author
nor their last
loving bearer.
You can hear
motherly
words of affection now
only from your own mouth
and only
when you speak them
to those
who stand
motherless
before you.

As for me I must forsake
adulthood
and be bound gladly
to a new childhood.
You must understand
this apprenticeship
demands of me
an elemental innocence
from everything
I ever held in my hands.
I know your generous soul
is well able to let me go
you will in the end
by happy to know
my God was true
and I find myself
after loving you all so long
in the wide
infinite mercy
of being mothered myself.

P.S. All your intuitions were true.

(“Farewell Letter,” by David Whyte, in Everything is Waiting for You (Langley, Washington: May Rivers Press, 2003) p. 23.)

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who knows until you ask the question?

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

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

What do you want me to do for you?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dh-AfqZPQp8]


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Walking Through Doors

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Inspiration Incarnate: Bishops Baskerville-Burrows and Harris

Alternate Jennifer BB and Family-2

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

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

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

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

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

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

Speaking to journalists last week, Baskerville-Burrows said:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And Bishop Harris’ signature blessing:

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

I hope to see you Sunday.

 

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More than Welcome: Progress on the Journeys of Faith

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

***

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

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

***

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

***

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

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