June 17, 2021
A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion . . .
If you attend an Episcopal church this Sunday, you’ll hear the story of how Jesus calmed a tumultuous sea with his words. “Who is this,” the disciples ask one another in awe, “that even the wind and the sea obey him?” Reflecting on this story at our diocesan staff meeting, several of us were just as impressed by Jesus’ ability to take a nap in the midst of the storm. What a necessary skill to cultivate, we realized, in a world in which storms keep coming.
Hazel Monae, EDOW’s Missioner for Equity and Justice, then told us of a book she planned to use in her devotions this summer, which I immediately added to my own reading list: Just Because You're in a Storm Doesn't Mean the Storm has to be in You by Pastor Kirk Byron Jones.
Before Jesus quieted the storm, he quieted himself. This placed him in a position to bring peace to the storm. Through stillness, deliberately resting our souls in God’s grace, we may bring peace to our storms, hushing their turbulent impact on us, and blessing on blessing, perhaps even causing them to offer up surprise wisdom through their contrary winds.1
The image of resting, seeking stillness, even sleeping in a storm is a good one to meditate on this summer, not as an excuse for escapism or complacency, but as God’s promise that we can live with peace at the center of our being even as we are called to purposefully engage the turbulence around us.
We also need the grace to rest in a storm whenever we’re faced with important decisions and we feel pulled in many directions at once.
For example, in our congregations we’re discovering that it’s actually harder to re-emerge from pandemic imposed restrictions than it was to impose them. Church consultant Susan Beaumont writes:
The beginning of the pandemic was overwhelming, but our focus was clear. The boundaries marking what we could not do provided clarity. Now, in-person engagement is returning, and we face another kind of overwhelm--too many options. How do we make choices when some boundaries have been removed, but not everything is possible?2
Beaumont suggests that we need to shift from a decision making mindset to one of discernment, so that we might intentionally engage the Holy Spirit for wisdom. “What needs to happen next,” she writes, “may be larger than the limits of human understanding. We need to be led by the future itself.”
Beaumont’s entire article is worth reading, yet one piece of her wisdom particularly caught my attention. At the end of whatever discernment/decision-making process we engage in, she suggests that we test our decisions with rest. “Before your choice is shared, sit with your choice in stillness and prayer...Ask yourselves if the decision reflects Holy Spirit wisdom.”
In all realms of life, testing our decisions with rest is incredibly helpful. For good reason, we often hear ourselves say that we need to sleep on a decision before acting on it. Not only does rest give the intuitive sides of our brains time to do their work, it affords the Holy Spirit space to speak to us in stillness. Rested, we can face what lies before us with greater strength and less exhaustion.
Again, think of Jesus sleeping in the storm. When he awoke, he was ready and had all of his faculties--human and divine--at full strength. In that moment, he may well have needed more rest than his short nap afforded, as if often the case for us. But as Byron Jones points out, Jesus made a practice of intentionally stepping away from the demands of his life in order to rest and pray. “Without question, Jesus was a mighty engager,” he writes. “He willingly faced life with all of its needs, challenges, and complexities. But the fact of the matter is that Jesus, the mighty engager, was also a master of retreat.”3
In order to live well and do good in a world of constant storms, we, too, need our times of rest and renewal. In some seasons of life, such rest will come only in small bits on the edges of our days; while in others, we are blessed with longer stretches of time. Paradoxically, it takes practice to rest well, especially when we have acclimated to a life rhythm of constant action and crisis response.
After all we’ve been through, this is a summer to practice rest, in whatever forms our lives allow. The storms will keep coming and the important work before us will always demand our best efforts and wisest decisions. Jesus shows us that sometimes the best way to prepare and to respond is by first taking a nap.
1 Jones, Kirk Byron. Just Because You're in a Storm Doesn't Mean the Storm has to be in You: A Meditation for Trying Times (pp. 24-25). Soaring Spirit Press. Kindle Edition.
3 Jones, p. 13.
June 17, 2021
En esto se desató una tormenta, con un viento tan fuerte que las olas caían sobre la barca, de modo que se llenaba de agua. Pero Jesús se había quedado dormido… apoyado sobre una almohada...
Si vas a una iglesia episcopal este domingo, escucharás la historia de cómo Jesús calmó el mar tempestuoso con sus palabras. “¿Quién es este que incluso el viento y el mar le obedecen?”, preguntan los discípulos entre ellos con asombro. Mientras reflexionábamos sobre esta historia en nuestra reunión del personal diocesano, muchos de nosotros también nos impresionamos de la habilidad de Jesús de tomar la siesta en medio de la tormenta. Qué habilidad necesaria para cultivar, pensamos, en un mundo en el que las tormentas continúan apareciendo.
Hazel Monae, la Misionera para la Equidad y la Justicia de nuestra diócesis nos contó sobre un libro que ella está pensando usar en sus devocionales durante este verano; y yo inmediatamente agregué el título a mi lista de lectura: Que estés en una tormenta no significa que la tormenta esté en ti por el Pastor Kirk Byron Jones.
El autor escribe:
Antes de que Jesús calmara la tormenta, él se calmó él mismo. Esto le posibilitó traer paz a la tormenta. A través de la tranquilidad y del descanso intencional de nuestras almas en la gracia de Dios, podemos traer paz a nuestras tormentas, acallando su turbulento impacto en nosotros, y bendición tras bendición, quizás incluso logrando sacar sabiduría de ellas a través de los vientos en contra.1
La imagen del descanso, de buscar la tranquilidad, incluso de dormir en medio de la tormenta es una buena imagen para meditar durante este verano, no como una excusa para el escapismo o la complacencia, sino como una promesa de Dios de que podemos vivir en paz en nuestro ser, incluso aunque somos llamados a conectarnos intencionalmente con la turbulencia a nuestra alrededor.
También necesitamos la gracia de descansar en medio de una tormenta, cada vez que debemos tomar decisiones importantes que sentimos nos empujan en diferentes direcciones.
Por ejemplo, estamos descubriendo en nuestras congregaciones que es realmente más difícil salir de las restricciones impuestas por la pandemia que decidir tomarlas. La consultante eclesial Susan Beaumont escribe:
El inicio de la pandemia fue abrumador, pero nuestro enfoque estaba claro. Los límites que marcaban lo que no podíamos hacer nos ofrecían claridad. Ahora, vuelve la interacción en persona y enfrentamos otro tipo de preocupación - hay muchas opciones. ¿Cómo tomamos decisiones cuando algunos límites no han sido levantados, pero todo es posible?2
Beaumont sugiere que necesitamos hacer un cambio de una mentalidad basada en la toma de decisiones a una de discernimiento, para que podamos conectarnos intencionalmente con la sabiduría del Espíritu Santo. Ella escribe: “Lo que necesitamos que suceda puede que sea más grande que los límites de nuestra comprensión humana. Necesitamos ser guiados por el futuro mismo.”
Vale la pena leer el artículo completo de Beaumont, pero una parte de su sabiduría atrapó mi atención. Al final de cualquier proceso de discernimiento/toma de decisión en que estamos, ella sugiere que debemos poner a descansar nuestras decisiones. “Antes de compartir tu decisión, siéntate con ella en calma y ora… Pregúntate a ti mismo/a si la decisión refleja la sabiduría del Espíritu Santo.”
En todas las áreas de la vida, es muy útil probar nuestras decisiones en calma. Por una buena razón, frecuentemente nos escuchamos a nosotros mismos decir que necesitamos dormir primero y tomar una decisión después. No es solo que el descanso da a la parte intuitiva de nuestros cerebros tiempo para hacer su trabajo. Es también que le da espacio al Espíritu Santo para hablarnos en la calma. Descansados, podemos enfrentar lo que está frente a nosotros con más fuerza y menos cansancio.
Otra vez, piensa en Jesús durmiendo durante la tormenta. Cuando se despertó, él estaba listo y tenía todas las facultades - humanas y divinas - en plena fortaleza. En ese momento, quizás él necesitaba más descanso que esta breve siesta, como también sucede con nosotros. Pero como Byron Jones dice, Jesús intencionalmente se alejó de las demandas de su vida para descansar y orar. Él escribe: “Sin lugar a dudas, Jesús fue alguien que se conectaba con la realidad poderosamente. Él enfrentó la vida a voluntad con todas sus necesidades, retos y complejidades. Pero de hecho, Jesús fue incluso un maestro del retiro”.3
Para vivir bien y hacer el bien en un mundo de constantes tormentas, nosotros también necesitamos nuestro tiempo para descansar y renovarnos. En algunas estaciones de nuestra vida, ese descanso vendrá en pequeñas dosis al terminar el día; mientras que en otras seremos bendecidos con tiempos más largos de descanso. Paradójicamente, lleva mucha práctica descansar bien, especialmente cuando nos hemos acostumbrado a un ritmo de vida de constante acción y respuesta a las crisis que nos rodean.
Después de todo lo que hemos pasado, este es un verano para descansar bien, de cualquier forma que tu vida lo permita. Las tormentas continuarán apareciendo y el trabajo importante que debemos hacer siempre demandará nuestros mejores esfuerzos y las más sabias decisiones. Jesús nos muestra que a veces la mejor manera de prepararnos y de responder es tomando una siesta.
1 Jones, Kirk Byron. Que estés en una tormenta no significa que la tormenta esté en ti: Una meditación para tiempos de pruebas (pp. 24-25). Soaring Spirit Press. Kindle Edition.
3 Jones, p. 13.
June 13, 2021
So we are always confident; even though we know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord— for we walk by faith, not by sight.
2 Corinthians 5:6
Jesus also said, ‘The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.’ He also said, ‘With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.’
Let me begin by saying how grateful I am to be in worship with you! It’s thrilling to be worshipping in person with other Christians, and yet it’s good that, as a result of the pandemic, we have developed skills and acquired tools that allow us to gather in other ways. With you, I am praying for your good rector, Cricket, giving thanks to God for the resources of our diocese and your generous spirits that allow her to take this time away for needed rest and healing. It’s been a challenging time for her and for all. Yet there is such hope in the air and in this gathering. A word of special thanks to your vestry leaders and faithful staff for all that you have done and are doing to care for the congregation.
As we emerge from this long season of trial and hardship, reclaiming parts of our lives that we had lost, learning how to integrate challenging truths that have surfaced in this time, we face the future with both uncertainty and hope, cumulative grief and gratitude, exhaustion and the release of pent-up energy. In the words of the Apostle Paul, we are still walking more by faith than by sight. Perhaps it has always been so, but it seems especially true now.
Thus it's important, in the midst of all that we are called upon to accomplish this summer, to take whatever time we can to catch our breath and take stock of our lives. For those of us who feel called to follow Jesus, this is a time to ask ourselves what he might be saying to us.
Today I ask you to consider not only what Jesus asks from us but also what He wants for us.
I realize that it’s risky to generalize about what we’ve been and are still going through, given the particularities of our experiences. Yet as people of faith, surely there are spiritual wells from which we all can draw refreshment and inspired words that can serve as channels for God’s grace and healing. We are blessed with such words this morning.
But before I turn to the Scripture text, I’d like to share a story that illustrates what is on my heart to say.
The American writer Annie Proulx wrote a novel in the early 90s entitled The Shipping News. The book’s main character is a thirty-six year old newspaper reporter from New York state whose name is Quoyle. In the early chapters, Quoyle's parents, who had never cared for him well, commit suicide. Then Quoyle’s wife, whom he desperately loved despite her infidelity and cruelty, dies in a car accident on her way to Florida with another man. Utterly bereft, Quoyle decides to accept his aunt’s invitation to move with her to Newfoundland, their ancestral home. There she and Quoyle and his two daughters establish a home together.
In a place known for not much happening, a lot happens to Quoyle in Newfoundland, which makes for a long and complex novel. Most significantly, Quoyle establishes a relationship with a woman named Wavey Prose, whose son, Harry, has Down's Syndrome. They are friends for a long time before Quoyle realizes that he's fallen in love with Wavey. You see--and here’s the point of my telling you this story--it doesn't feel like love to him, because it doesn't hurt. Love in his experience had always been painful, and this relationship was astonishingly comfortable and supportive. “It may be,” Proulx writes, “that love sometimes occurs without pain or misery.”1
Sometimes, after a stretch when life is really hard, we can forget what it feels like when life is easy, or like Quoyle, perhaps we’ve never even allowed ourselves to consider that we needn’t struggle all the time. For people of faith, when our primary or most dramatic experiences of God are of the grace that gets us through times of sorrow, struggle, and grief, we forget, or never learn, that God also comes to us in joy, and serendipity, ease. The same Jesus who said, “Those who want to be my follower must take up their own cross,” also said, “Come unto me, you that are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”
I don’t mean to minimize for a moment the grace that gets us through hard times, when we are not spared and we have no choice but to go through the storms that come. I simply want to hold up, as Jesus does for us today in his teaching, another dimension of what God is like, another way that grace and love come to us that actually make our lives easier and lighter. With this grace we learn, ever so slowly, to trust that life doesn’t have to be hard all the time.
Now to the biblical texts: From the Gospel of Mark, we’re given two of Jesus’ Kingdom of God parables. Here’s a tip: Whenever you hear or read Jesus say, “The Kingdom of God is like,” you can substitute, “This is what God is like,” or “This is what the presence of God in your life feels like.”
The first parable, one of my favorites, focuses on the miracle of how seeds that are scattered on the ground sprout and grow. The one who scatters the seeds has no idea how the growth occurs, only that it does. And no matter how much you may actually know about how a seed becomes a plant, the fact that it does so, seemingly on its own, is nothing short of miraculous. That’s what the Kingdom of God is like, Jesus says. That’s what the presence of God is like within you.
Think about it: How many times in your life has something wonderful happened that you cannot fully explain or account for by your own careful planning or brilliant endeavors? It was far beyond what you could make happen on your own and yet it happened for you, as miraculously as seeds coming up from the ground.
As a parish priest I did my share of preparing couples for marriage, and when I would ask them to tell me how they met, more often than not there was wonder in their voices as they spoke. No matter the details, how any love relationship begins feels like a gift that often catches us by surprise.
It’s a similar experience when I talk to people who describe how they discovered their life’s work, be it their profession, an artistic expression, or fabric of relationships for which they feel particularly called. For many--perhaps for you--there is an element of wonder: how on earth to account for the gift of being able to do what we do? Yes, whatever our vocation, there is hard work involved, but in truth, it often doesn’t feel like work and it doesn’t feel hard in the sense that there’s nothing else we’d rather do.
My point is this: Sometimes grace simply shows up and carries us. Sometimes love surrounds us on every side. Sometimes things happen for good that we didn’t make happen.
And sometimes, when we’ve been through a really hard ordeal, we can forget what it feels like to be on the receiving end of such blessings, or that we can’t bring ourselves to embrace them, for it feels like we’re negating the pain we and others have endured.
This isn’t a question of either/or, but of both/and. Sometimes life is hard. Sometimes it doesn’t have to be.
I had a foundational spiritual experience in my mid-20s, when I was living and working in Central America. Simply being there was the hardest thing I had ever done up to that point in my life. One day, after I had been there a few months, I remember taking a walk with tears of frustration streaming down my face. I looked up to the sky and cried out, “Is it always going to be this hard?” In my heart, the answer came to me, almost immediately--yes. It made me laugh out loud, because it was so clear and unequivocal. But then I heard “But I will be with you.” A settled feeling came over me, as I felt the companionship of God. With that, I knew that I could go on.
To be honest, I’ve spent most of my life accepting that hardship was mine to accept. I expect most things in life to be hard, and that God’s grace, when it comes, doesn’t spare me from hardship, but is there to see me through. I believe that to be true and I thank God for sustaining grace. But it’s not the only truth.
Fast forward about 20 years from that day in Central America. I’m now serving as a parish priest. I’ve been married for those 20 years, and we have two adolescent sons. I’ve hit a wall in my vocation. Truth be told, I feel stuck and even trapped. Life is really hard.
One day I was sitting around with a few clergy colleagues, all of whom were struggling in some way. I shared the story of my spiritual experience in Central America, how God told me in no uncertain terms that life would always be hard, but that God would be with me to see me through.
A bit later, one of my colleagues around that table, who was also a mentor, took me aside and said, “Mariann, I heard what you said about life always being hard. And I want you to know that life doesn’t always have to be hard. I think you need help. Please ask for help. Things can be easier for you with help.”
Her words were a revelation to me. Listening to her, I felt that same settledness that I experienced in Central America and I resolved to seek help. When I did, my life got easier. Through my colleague and friend, it was as if God were saying to me that I didn’t have to carry the weight of the world on my shoulders and make everything happen on my own. Neither do you.
The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how.
Now let’s consider Jesus’ second parable, which also involves seeds, this time the smallest of seeds that when planted produces the largest shrub in which birds can come and build their nests. This parable is a clear invitation to consider the grace and goodness of small things, tiny blessings that we can easily overlook or underestimate.
The late Henri Nouwen, author of many uplifting spiritual books, has this to say about small blessings in his book Gracias!
Our salvation comes from tender and vulnerable beginnings, hardly noticeable. . . Somehow, I keep expecting loud and impressive events to convince me of God’s saving power, but over and over again, I am reminded that spectacles, power plays, and big events are the ways of the world. Our temptation is to be distracted by them. . .
When I have no eyes for the small signs of God’s presence--the smile of a baby, the carefree play of children, the words of encouragement and gestures of love offered by friends--I will always remain tempted to despair.2
The temptation to despair, which we would be made of stone if we didn’t succumb to from time to time, is eased by the small blessings that come to us. Jesus invites us to pay attention to the bits of goodness scattered in the soil of our lives. Nurture them, he says to us, so that they might take root in you and grow.
Jesus, of all people, is not suggesting that we ignore the hard truths and the big issues before us, or that we minimize the grief and loss we’ve endured. But he wants us to trust the mystery of goodness and the persistent God-created life force that is at work in the world even when we can’t see or feel it. He wants us not only to believe, but to know in our being, that goodness and love will prevail in the end.
In the coming weeks, I invite you to be on the lookout for small blessings. Watch for them, and take time to savor each one. Consider keeping a blessing journal by your bed and each night before you fall asleep make note of the day’s gifts to you--those mustard seed size gifts that came your way. By the summer’s end, who knows what they will grow into?
Pay attention as well to the goodness and grace that seems to carry you forward, or open doors, or ease tensions, or work things out without you needing to do very much at all.
I’m reminded here of a line from the movie Shakespeare in Love in which the manager of the Globe theatre says something about life in the theatre, which is also true of life in general:
“The natural condition is one of insurmountable obstacles on the road to imminent disaster.”
Someone then asks him, “So what do we do?”
“Nothing,” he replies, “Strangely enough, it all turns out well.”
“I don’t know. It’s a mystery.”3
Grace is a mystery. From time to time, by grace, things work out without our doing much of anything at all.
May this summer be a time walking by faith, of small blessings, heart healing and moments when you feel carried by grace, and restored by goodness.
Remember that what Jesus, your Savior and friend, wants from you pales in comparison to what He wants for you. Amen.
1 Annie Proulx, The Shipping News (New York: Scribner Books, 1993).
2 Henri Nouwen, Gracias! A Latin American Journal (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1993), p.62
Bishop Mariann's Response to Department of Justice Request to Dismiss Civil Lawsuits Against from President and Attorney General
June 07, 2021
I am deeply disappointed that the United States Department of Justice has asked a federal court to dismiss the actions brought against the government by protestors who suffered physical injuries and violations of their First Amendment rights on June 1, 2020. It would be a sad day for justice in this country if a doctrine designed to protect officials against personal liability for good faith exercise of their duties could be used to avoid accountability for an abuse of office in carrying out an unprecedented violation of First Amendment rights, particularly against individuals protesting the murder of an unarmed man by a police officer and the exessive use of violence against people of color throughout our nation.
The teargas, flash grenades and other tactics employed that day injured innocent people and led to the forcible eviction of clergy and others gathered on the grounds of one of the churches of my diocese solely to allow the former President to use images of our church and its Holy Scriptures to convey a message antithetical to the church’s teaching. The Rule of Law means little if those injured by these egregious actions are denied the opportunity to challenge their constitutionality fully and fairly. Even a President is not above the Constitution.
The Rt. Reverend Mariann Budde
Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington
June 05, 2021
’Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’ And I said, ‘Here am I; send me!’
Isaiah 6; 8
Each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift. The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ. We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming. But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knitted together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.
Ephesians 4;7; 11-16
Jesus said, ‘I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.
This I know: that I am not only among friends who are thrilled to be together, in this sacred space, to give praise and thanks to God, but also, that I am among those who have deep affection and admiration for at least one of the three to be ordained priests today.
It is a privilege to be here with you in person and those present online. Having walked alongside Catherine, Hope, and Doug in the last few years, I know how grateful they are for you, their family, friends, teachers and mentors. “I was planted in really good soil,” Hope said yesterday, and she was, as were Catherine and Doug. Thanks to all who helped them become the magnificent human beings that they are, and for encouraging them on the journey of discernment and preparation for a life as a priest, a life under this particular vow and dedication.
I speak now to you, Catherine, Hope, Doug: You come from different backgrounds and have had distinct life experiences. You have different temperaments and personality traits.You attended vastly different seminaries and have been shaped by them. Yet by virtue of the timing of your call and formation process, you have walked these last years together. I loved being in your company, watching and listening to you engage and encourage each other along.
I want to say publicly what I told you yesterday when we met with Canon Phillips: we are grateful and proud to be the diocese from which this particular call in your life emerged. On behalf of all in the Diocese of Washington and all who will experience your priesthood wherever your vocation takes you, thank you for saying yes, and for walking the path so faithfully and toward this day, even when it was hard. I have no doubt that you will have long and fruitful ministries--probably not exactly in the way you imagine, because there is much beyond your knowledge or control. But I am confident, in the words of the Apostle Paul, that the One who has begun such a good within you will see it through to completion.
In preparation for today I’ve been thinking about the qualities and attributes that make for a long and fruitful ordained ministry. I’ve been ordained for over 30 years, and for those years I’ve also been a student of what it takes to be a faithful, compassionate, and effective leader in the church.
For when we hear Jesus say, as we did just now, ‘I am the good shepherd’ it’s important to remember, as the priest who preached at my ordination sermon reminded me, that as priests, we are not the shepherd. We are one of the sheep following Jesus, the Good Shepherd of all. The quality of our leadership depends on the quality and depth of our followership. At the same time, as priests we assume roles associated with the shepherding of souls and are granted certain authorities that we dare not take lightly. We are to be a credible expression of what it looks like to follow Jesus.
To be clear, these attributes and qualities for a faithful, fruitful priesthood are so foundational that if you didn’t have them already, you wouldn’t be here. So I am not going to say anything that you don’t already know and isn’t already true about you. My hope is simply to encourage you to pay attention and to nurture these core attributes and qualities, for left untended, like all things, they can grow stale. We either grow in our walk of faith and leadership or we drift. And no one drifts upstream. As Doug said yesterday, today isn’t only the culmination of one journey but the beginning of another.
So here we go:
Quality and attribute number one: A love for Christ and His Gospel.
At some point in your life you fell in love with Jesus and felt called to walk in His Way of Love in this world. That love, as you know, is mutual. He loves you. He loves you as he loves everyone in this Cathedral and every human being on the planet. It's an incomprehensible, unfathomable love. Your love and mine, in response to his love, is fickle and distractible. As with all love, we either grow in our capacity to love Jesus or we don’t. Growth in love requires attentiveness and intentionality and those stakes-in-the-ground moments when we know we’ve crossed a new threshold.
I’m thinking now of a time in Jesus’ ministry when, according to the Gospel of John, Jesus said some hard things that caused many of his followers, as the text says, “to no longer go about with him.” So Jesus turns to the Twelve and asks the question that moves me when I read it, “And what about you, do you also wish to go away?” Think of the vulnerability he must have felt in that moment. Simon Peter (in one of those moments when you can’t help but love the guy) says: “Lord, where would we go? You have the words of eternal life.” (John 6:67-68) They had come too far to turn back, although there were still awful moments of denial in the near future. But even then, Jesus still loved them, and chose them to be the ones to carry his movement forward. You remember how after the resurrection, Jesus would ask that same Simon who had denied him three times, “Do you love me?” “Three times he asked, “Do you love me.” With tears in his eyes, Simon says, ‘yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” (John 21:15-17) Of course Jesus knew. He wanted Simon in his shame to know that Jesus knew. Jesus knows that you love him, too. But this is a love to invest in your entire life and beyond.
The second quality and attribute essential for a faithful and fruitful priesthood is like unto the first, for it is the second half of the Great Commandment: to love other people as you love yourself, and as Jesus would later say more pointedly, “love others as I love you.” (John 13:34) What did Jesus say to Simon after asking him if he loved him? “Feed my sheep.” In other words, love as you have been loved and forgive as you have been forgiven.
You have such love in your hearts already. The task before you is to grow in your capacity to love. Such growth comes through on-going relationships and learning from failure. It comes through genuine curiosity about the life experiences of another. As we all know, sometimes love comes so easily that it seems to pour out from us. At other times it is excruciatingly hard. Easy or hard, Scripture could not be more clear that love is the call. “If we say we love God, and do not love our fellow human beings, we are liars. For if we cannot love another human being whom we can see, we cannot love God whom we have not seen.” (1 John 4:20) Love doesn’t mean that we are pushovers or doormats, saying and doing what others want us to say or do. Love can be an emotion but it is not defined by emotion, but by deeds.
Those of us who wear the signs and carry the symbol of religious life have a particular responsibility to grow in love. You know as well as I that it is perfectly possible to profess the Christian faith and, as one theologian diplomatically put it, “still be a jerk.” It’s easy to claim the mantle of Christianity and still be arrogant, boastful and rude, not to mention mean, catty, and cruel. Or, conversely, to be so squishy as to stand for nothing.
The wondrous Benedictine nun Joan Chittister has particularly pointed words for those of us in the religious life, echoing, of course, Jesus’ critique of the religious leaders of his day;
The spiritual life is not a collection of asceticisms; it is a way of being in the world that is open to God and open to others. . . . It is so easy to tell ourselves that we have overlooked the needs of others because we were attending to the needs of God; to go to church instead of going to a friend whose depression depresses us; to want silence rather than the demands of children; to read a book about religion than to listen to a spouse talk about their work or their loneliness. It is so much easier to practice the privations of the privatized religion of prayers and penances than it is to make fools out of ourselves for the Christian religion of justice and peace. . . The godly are those who never talk destructively about another person and who can be counted one to bring an open heart to a closed and clawing world. 1
This is aspirational love--what Dostoevsky called love in action, as opposed to love in dreams--that requires labor and fortitude. He also wrote this: “But I predict that just when you see with horror that in spite of all your efforts you are getting further from your goal instead of nearer to it--at that very moment I predict that you will reach it and behold clearly the miraculous power of the Lord who has been all the time loving and mysteriously guiding you.”2
We will always fall short, and continually be brought up short in our efforts to love. A faithful and fruitful priesthood depends upon your capacity to grow in love, to get better at it as you live, and by your example and your teaching, to help others do the same.
The last quality and attribute that I’ll mention today is something we discussed at length yesterday: self awareness, that is, knowing who you are and growing in that knowledge by continual reflection, self-examination, and by paying attention to how others experience you. Self awareness requires a life-long commitment to what the letter to the Ephesians describes as ‘spiritual maturity,’ growing into the full measure of the stature of Christ.
Yesterday we reflected on a passage about self awareness written by Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, in small book on the Christian belief entitled Tokens of Trust3:
There are things in my life that I’m aware of, there are the things that I’m not aware of, and there are the things that I try not to be aware of, that I’m ashamed of or frightened by. But all that I am is the working out of what God has made, and who God has called into a dedicated life, a life under vows. Some of this has worked out well; some not so well. I have learned to make good use of some of what God has given me and I’ve made a mess of some of the rest, and some I just haven’t come to terms with yet but all of it is whom God has loved, and whom God has called.
To walk through life knowing that there are things about ourselves that we are aware of, some that we are unaware of; and some that we work hard to keep from our conscious awareness is the path of humility. To trust that all that we are is what God has made and God has called into a dedicated life is to walk that journey with quiet confidence. It involves expanding our awareness by allowing others, and life itself, to continually teach us about who we are in all our gifts and vulnerabilities as we daily make our imperfect offering.
The on-going process of self awareness is, at times, exhilarating, as we discover things about ourselves we didn’t know were true or possible; and other times really hard, when we dare to ask others to give us feedback. It’s important to have people in our lives who love us enough to give honest feedback about our lives and our work, so we can learn what it’s like for others to be in our presence and better understand what we’re like under pressure.
And about those things that bring us shame and that we don't want to deal with--suffice it to say that we all have them. It takes energy to keep them buried in our unconscious. We can tell when those parts of us are being disturbed by the level of our defensiveness or shame. It’s tempting to lash out in those moments or collapse into despair, neither of which is particularly helpful or edifying. They are instructive clues, however, that we’re in vulnerable territory, beyond our awareness. Then we can bring those less than helpful or edifying reactions to God in prayer and explore the mystery of who we are and whom God is called. As we grow in awareness and maturity we give God more to work with in and through us.
As I bring this sermon to a close, you may have noticed two things about my words to these soon-to-be priests.
First, nothing I’ve said touched upon the specifics of their actual work in the church. That’s because we don’t know what work will be. There is much fluidity in the work priests do these days, some of it for pay, some not. There are a few classic ministry positions that offer a living wage as well as a relatively clear vocational path, but not as many as there are people called to the priesthood. Even those positions, in most cases, require leadership skills well beyond your priestly training and sacramental notions of what a priest does. More and more positions require the capacity to lead stressed communities through processes of transformation that require our own transformation as well. Moreover, as William Temple once famously said, “It is a mistake to suppose that God is only, or even chiefly, concerned with religion.”
The qualities and attributes I’ve described will serve Hope, Catherine and Doug well no matter where their vocation takes them.
Second, you’ll notice that these qualities and attributes are not exclusive to the priesthood but to anyone, as Roman Williams wrote, who lives under vows. Yes, they have been called to this life, to this vow. But all human beings are called to a life under vows--baptismal vows for Christians and all manner of vows that we share with the rest of humanity. The great heresy of our time, as the Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggeman is known to say, is the idea that anyone can live an uncalled life, a life with no reference point beyond the self.
Hope, Catherine, and Doug: Your calling as a priest, your life under this vow, is meant to help others discover and live well under their vows, whatever they may be. For those drawn to Jesus and His Way of Love, you are to be a witness, an example, a fellow traveller and a guide on the life-long journey of becoming more like him and joining in the great Jesus movement to help realize God’s dream for all.
It’s more than you or any of us can do alone or perfectly. But you have the core qualities and attributes inside you, and you have thus far nurtured them well. So go in humility and confidence into your ministry as priests. Remember that you are not called to perfection, but to faithfulness. And be confident of this, that the One who has begun this good work in you will see it through to completion. Amen.
1 Joan Chittister, O.S.B, The Rule of Benedict: Insights for the Ages (Crossroad: New York, 2004), p.23.
2 Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov
3 Rowan Williams, Tokens of Trust: An Introduction to Christian Faith (Westminster Knox Press: Louisville, 2007).