Decisive Moments in Life and Faith: How We Learn to Be Brave
November 18, 2020
Bishop Mariann was invited to preach at Howard University on November 29, 2020.
In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, ‘Greetings, favoured one! The Lord is with you.’ But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.’ Mary said to the angel, ‘How can this be, since I am a virgin?’ The angel said to her, ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.’ Then Mary said, ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’ Then the angel departed from her.
To all gathered for worship at Howard University’s virtual Rankin Chapel service this day: Grace to you and peace from God our Creator and from the Lord Jesus Christ.
I am Mariann Budde, Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, DC, which encompasses all of the District of Columbia and four Maryland counties. The Episcopal churches of our diocese have roots that go back to the colonial era and slavery. If the walls of our churches could talk, they would tell stories about tobacco farming and industrialization; of bondage in the name of the Church and resistance to that bondage; of Civil War, of emancipation and the establishment of black churches and schools and support of HBCUs; of the growth of Washington, DC as a city where Blacks and Whites came in search of opportunity; of the resegregation of the Federal workforce, Jim Crow, two World Wars, and the long struggle for Civil Rights; of the immigration of peoples from all over the world, notably, West Africa, the Caribbean nations, and Central and South America.
Some of our most inspired clergy and lay leaders have been and are Howard alumni and faculty. Howard University figures heavily in the story of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, for which I give thanks to God.
I give thanks to God today for Dean Richardson for the spiritual sustenance you offer daily for so many. (Thank you, sir, for inviting me to speak.) Thanks to the Rev. Duffie and all chaplains, administrators, and student ministers, with an affectionate shout-out to the Rev. Yolanda Rolle, Episcopal chaplain at Howard. Thanks to your esteemed President, Dr. Wayne Frederick, the Board of Trustees, the faculty and staff for their visionary leadership and faithful service; for Howard alumni throughout our land. Special thanks to all Howard undergraduate and graduate students, for persevering in your education through this long season of disruption. We miss you here in Washington and look forward to the day when we can welcome all of you back.
There’s a lot of Howard pride in our congregations these days. Dr. Frederick said it well: “the Vice President-elect has swung her Howard hammer and shattered the proverbial glass ceiling into pieces that will not be put back together.” Amen and amen. Vice President-elect Harris speaks of her time at Howard as one of the most important experiences of her life: “Howard is a place,” she said, “where you didn't have to be confined to the box of another person's choosing and where students were not just told we had the capacity to be great; we were challenged to live up to that potential." She first ran for elected office at Howard, as the freshman class representative of the Liberal Arts Student Council. Howard is where her political career began.
Every Alpha Kappa Alpha sister I know is bursting with pride, as are all in the Divine Nine, for good reason. In this election, you encouraged record levels of citizen engagement and voter turnout across the nation. You recognized and acted upon in this decisive moment in decisive ways.
The title of this sermon is: Decisive Moments in Life and Faith: How We Learn to Be Brave. Some people, I suppose, are born brave. Most of us must learn to be brave. We all want to be brave when it counts, to be the one who steps up, leans in, does the right thing when it matters most. We want to bring our best when we’re called upon, to speak with clarity and conviction in a pivotal situation. But how do we become that person, so that when the moments come, we are ready?
In many Christian traditions, including mine, today is the first Sunday in the four-week season of Advent. Advent is a time of anticipation and preparation for Christmas, when we celebrate the coming of God, in human form, into our world. Jesus is, as they say, the reason for the season. But today, consider with me the importance of one young woman’s decisive moment, which made God’s miracle possible.
The angel Gabriel, a messenger from God, comes to a young girl whose name is Mary, He tells her that she has found favor with God. She is to bear and give birth to the Christ child. At great risk and under the shadow of scandal, Mary chooses to be brave. She says yes--not right away, mind you. She asked good questions first. She pondered in her heart, as was her custom. She surely struggled in ways we will never know. But when the angel assured her, with words we all long to hear, that nothing is impossible God, she said yes. It was a decisive moment and she knew it.
While we may not have an angel come knocking on our door anytime soon, let me suggest that decisive moments like Mary’s are part of our story, too. While our decisive moments may seem to catch us by surprise, when we take the long view of our lives we can see how we were being prepared for them. Moreover, how we live after the moment passes, as it must, is as important as the moment itself. The most decisive moments are those that change the trajectory of our lives, by all the other decisions we make in light of them.
I’d like to explore three different ways decisive moments come to us. There are more than three, to be sure, and these aren’t the ones that make headlines, like winning an election. But these are the moments that teach us how to be brave, perhaps in preparation for other more public moments when we will be needed and will need to be ready.
The three decisive moments I place before you today are: Deciding to Go; Deciding to Stay; Deciding to Start.
First: Deciding to Go. Of the three, it is the most outwardly visible. There’s no mistaking a decision to go, as we physically move from one place to another. Internally, it can feel as if we’re being summoned, even if we don’t fully understand why. As we pay attention and respond to this feeling guiding us toward a new horizon, we learn that there is more at stake in our decision than what we can see when we make it.
My first conscious experience of the summons to go happened when I was 17. I had been living, uneasily and unhappily, with my father, step-mother and younger half-brother. After years of being afraid of my parents, I learned to stop thinking about them. Instead, I focused my attention on the people of the church I had joined on my own, and on my high school friends. They became my family.
The day came, however, when my actual family fell apart. My father took me aside to tell me that he was leaving my step-mother and that he wanted me to go with him. I didn’t know then what clinical depression was, or alcoholism, but I saw their manifestations, and there was no way I was going to live with my father alone. For reasons I won’t go into, staying with my stepmother and younger brother wasn’t an option, either.
Inside myself, I knew that I had to go, and I knew where--across the country to live with my mother, whom I had left when I was a child. I knew that my mother loved me and I loved her, but you must understand that going was the last thing my 17-year old self wanted to do. Everything I loved about my life then was where I was, at school and church, with my friends and a boy who finally seemed to notice me. Many of the adults in my life were more than willing to help me stay so that I could finish high school. The minister of my church and his wife even invited me to live with them, which I did for a few months. There were all sorts of external validation to stay, but it didn’t matter. The summons to go was that strong, inside myself, for reasons I couldn’t articulate or understand.
I’m 60 years old now, and I’ve experienced that same strong inner call to go many times. When it happens, I’ve learned to listen, in large part because I remember what it felt like when my life was in the balance as a teenager and I decided to trust the voice inside. It was then I realized that a relationship with God isn’t defined by correct beliefs but rather a willingness to trust my life into God’s hands. That decision prepared me for other decisions equally hard in their time, when I felt that same feeling, that internal summons, the call and claim upon my life.
I don’t know what that internal sense of summons has felt or feels like for you, but I suspect that you do or that you will. When you hear it, pay attention: it may well be the voice of God, or an angel sent from God. There will always be other voices clamoring for your attention, wanting you to go this way or that. There will be times when you tell yourself the things you want to hear. The call from God feels different--it’s not that your feelings aren’t important to God. They are. But in the summons that precedes a truly decisive moment, how you feel isn’t the most important data point, but rather what you hear and sense God is asking of you. Listen, dare to be brave, and go.
Now consider with me another kind of decisive moment, when we decide to stay where we are. Because there is such drama and energy in going, it’s easy to underestimate the importance of staying. But there is more than one way that we’re called to be brave, and the most courageous decisions are often ones that no one sees.
My first great struggle with a call to stay came in the early years of marriage, parenting, and ordained ministry. Until then my life had been largely defined by going--moving from one place to the next, stepping out of one world and into another, facing the unknown. Yet there I was, in my early thirties, married, with a three-year-old and a newborn, working a full-time job that I was supposed to love. There was a lot to love, which made it hard to talk about how trapped I felt.
My internal struggle was a call to accept the parameters and limitations of my life and go deep. This has become a recurring theme, whenever I wrestle with the call to stay. Slowly I’ve learned that faithfulness isn’t always about taking big leaps, but walking with small steps. I’ve come to realize that those who make a real difference in their communities and the world are the ones who stay in one place long enough to bring about lasting change.
There’s a story in the Bible about a time in Jesus’ ministry when he had become controversial enough that crowds no longer followed him and the ranks of critics had grown. Many who had been part of his movement decided to leave. In a private conversation with his closest followers, he asked if they also wanted to go away. Peter spoke for the group, “Lord where would we go? We believe that you have the words of eternal life.” (John 6:66-71) They had come too far to turn back or go somewhere else. They were staying with him.
Deciding to stay, however, doesn’t always feel like a choice. It can come in the wake of disappointment, when doors close instead of open, or others are chosen for a position or opportunity instead of us. In those situations, deciding to stay can feel like failure. But sometimes failure and disappointment are necessary, or, in the mystery of grace, they nurture the soil in which seeds of new possibilities are planted. The gift of the decisive moment to stay can be an opportunity to tend to our character and skills, to savor grace in small packages, to learn how to reckon with the struggle instead of run from it, and to persevere.
Again, these are the times when God speaks from within, giving you courage to make the difficult choice, or the freeing choice, from that sense of call. The Benedictine nun Joan Chittister puts it this way: “It may be the neighborhood you live in rather than the neighborhood you want where you truly belong. It may be the job that you have rather than the position you’re pining for that is your liberation.”1 Or as I once heard Pastor Mark Batterson of the National Community Church, say, “If it isn’t Jesus calling you out on the water, best to stay in the boat.” Sometimes staying where we are is the brave choice.
Deciding to go. Deciding to stay. And lastly, deciding to start.
You know as well as I that the Civil Rights Movement didn’t begin with Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream Speech” in 1963, or with the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955 for that matter. It goes way back. Similarly, Kamala Harris' journey to the Vice Presidency had its beginnings in her freshman year at Howard, over 30 years ago. The journey toward justice is long. The journey toward our destiny is long. It begins when we decide to start, and then keep on deciding each step along the way.
I often return to the moment in Jesus’ life when, as the Gospel of Luke tells his story, “he set his face toward Jerusalem.” (Luke 9: 51). It was a decisive moment for him. He began the long walk from his hometown of Nazareth and towns and villages around the Sea of Galilee toward the seat of religious and political power. He knew that he needed to be there, and so he set his face and began the journey, step by step. Along the way, his life didn't look that different from before, as he continued to teach, to heal, to mentor his closest disciples. But his destination was always before him and it informed every step he took.
In my experience, the first step of deciding to start has often come out of deep disappointment. In the regrouping and reimagining of my life, a new vision emerges-- one requiring patience and preparation and training. The question that surfaces: am I willing to begin the journey toward a future that as yet remains elusive, and is not a sure bet?
Again, that sense of call, of summons, the guidance from within, is what propels us forward when we decide to start. It’s harder to sustain the feeling of call over time, and often our conviction wavers along the way. That’s when we need the hidden virtue of perseverance to help us keep going, as we fall down, get back up; as we get thrown off course, redirect and start again. If that’s where you find yourself now, hear my words and don’t give up. Trust the initial impulse that got you going in the first place. It’s still true, even if you don’t feel it.
Deciding to go. Deciding to stay. Deciding to start and then to keep going. These are the decisive moments that teach us how to listen to God’s voice speaking to us from within, teaching us to trust our inner compass; preparing us for other moments when we may be called upon to step out and speak up.
Rarely, if ever, do we walk onto the public stage or have a transformative in some realm of life with no preparation. God prepares us through a lifetime of smaller yet equally decisive moments when we listen to the summons to go; when we dare to listen and stay; when we realize the journey is long, as so we start, or we start again. Through them, God invites us into a relationship of intimacy and trust.
In your decisive moments large and small, public and private, I hope these words have been an encouragement to you to trust God’s wisdom, strength, power and grace to guide you. Angels will come to you, inviting you, like Mary, to say yes. Yes, I will go. Yes, I will stay. Yes, I will start the long journey toward a future on the distant horizon.
May God bless you in every moment. In decisive moments, may God give you the grace and courage to say yes.
1 Joan Chittister, O.S.B. The Rule of Benedict: Insights for the Ages (New York: Crossroad Publishing Co, 1992), p.3