Bishop's Writings Author: The Rt. Rev. Mariann Edgar Budde
July 31, 2019
Have We No Decency? A Response to President Trump
The Right Rev. Mariann Edgar Budde, Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington
The Very Rev. Randolph Marshall Hollerith, Dean of Washington National Cathedral
The Rev. Canon Kelly Brown Douglas, Canon Theologian of Washington National Cathedral
The escalation of racialized rhetoric from the President of the United States has evoked responses from all sides of the political spectrum. On one side, African American leaders have led the way in rightfully expressed outrage. On the other, those aligned with the President seek to downplay the racial overtones of his attacks, or remain silent.
As faith leaders who serve at Washington National Cathedral – the sacred space where America gathers at moments of national significance – we feel compelled to ask: After two years of President Trump’s words and actions, when will Americans have enough?
As Americans, we have had such moments before, and as a people we have acted. Events of the last week call to mind a similarly dark period in our history:
“Until this moment, Senator, I think I never really gauged your cruelty or your recklessness. … You have done enough. Have you no sense of decency?”
That was U.S. Army attorney Joseph Welch on June 9, 1954, when he confronted Senator Joseph McCarthy before a live television audience, effectively ending McCarthy’s notorious hold on the nation. Until then, under the guise of ridding the country of Communist infiltration, McCarthy had free reign to say and do whatever he wished. With unbridled speech, he stoked the fears of an anxious nation with lies; destroyed the careers of countless Americans; and bullied into submissive silence anyone who dared criticize him.
In retrospect, it’s clear that Welch’s question was directed less toward McCarthy and more to the nation as a whole. Had Americans had enough? Where was our sense of decency?
We have come to accept a level of insult and abuse in political discourse that violates each person’s sacred identity as a child of God. We have come to accept as normal a steady stream of language and accusations coming from the highest office in the land that plays to racist elements in society.
This week, President Trump crossed another threshold. Not only did he insult a leader in the fight for racial justice and equality for all persons; not only did he savage the nations from which immigrants to this country have come; but now he has condemned the residents of an entire American city. Where will he go from here?
Make no mistake about it, words matter. And, Mr. Trump’s words are dangerous.
These words are more than a “dog-whistle.” When such violent dehumanizing words come from the President of the United States, they are a clarion call, and give cover, to white supremacists who consider people of color a sub-human “infestation” in America. They serve as a call to action from those people to keep America great by ridding it of such infestation. Violent words lead to violent actions.
When does silence become complicity? What will it take for us all to say, with one voice, that we have had enough? The question is less about the president's sense of decency, but of ours.
As leaders of faith who believe in the sacredness of every single human being, the time for silence is over. We must boldly stand witness against the bigotry, hatred, intolerance, and xenophobia that is hurled at us, especially when it comes from the highest offices of this nation. We must say that this will not be tolerated. To stay silent in the face of such rhetoric is for us to tacitly condone the violence of these words. We are compelled to take every opportunity to oppose the indecency and dehumanization that is racism, whether it comes to us through words or actions.
There is another moment in our history worth recalling. On January 21, 2017, Washington National Cathedral hosted an interfaith national prayer service, a sacred tradition to honor the peaceful transfer of political power. We prayed for the President and his young Administration to have “wisdom and grace in the exercise of their duties that they may serve all people of this nation, and promote the dignity and freedom of every person.”
That remains our prayer today for us all.
July 07, 2019
It’s been quite a week in our nation’s capital, with a lot of anxiety leading up to the July 4th celebrations, and endless conversation about President Trump’s decision to highlight the four branches of the military with tanks and flyovers on the National Mall and to give a speech of his own. While extreme in comparison to celebrations of memory, it was a predictable spectacle. July 4th is an unapologetically patriotic holiday, and it always serves to highlight what we love most about our country--and we don’t all love the same things--even as we pray, in the words of our beloved anthem America, the Beautiful, that God mend our every flaw.
One of the many things I love about our country is the relationship between religious faith and public life in this country, for all its contradictions and distortions. In the United States, religious freedom is a sacred trust, and our highest spiritual aspirations are what have inspired us over the centuries to face our flaws and by the grace of God amend them.
My offering today is a mediation on the relationship between faith and public life, beginning with words read aloud in Philadelphia on July 4, 1776:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. --That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, --That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness...We, therefore, the Representatives of the United States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do in the Name, and by the Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be, Free and Independent States…And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our Sacred Honor.”
Apparently just after the Declaration had been signed, Benjamin Rush, a Philadelphia physician and one of the signers, overhead a conversation between Benjamin Harrison of Virginia and Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts: “I shall have a great advantage over you, Mr. Gerry,” said Harrison, “when we are all hung for what we are now doing. From the size and weight of my body I shall die in a few minutes, but from the lightness of yours you will dance in the air for an hour or two before you are dead.” No event in American history that, in retrospect, has seemed so inevitable was at the time more unlikely and doomed to failure than the American Revolution itself. (Quoted in The Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation, by Joseph J. Ellis, Vintage Books Edition, 2002, p.5)
Fast forward to another sweltering summer day in Philadelphia, in late June, 1787. The war against Britain is over. The colonies are free and independent, but their relationship to each other is, to put it kindly, weak and poorly defined. The delegates to the Constitutional Convention have been meeting for a month, a month of deep distrust and bitter quarreling. The elder statesman, Benjamin Franklin, who has not yet spoken at this Convention, rises, at last, to address the delegates:
“The small progress we have made after four or five weeks’ close attention and continual reasoning with each other, our sentiments different on almost every question…is, methinks, a melancholy proof of the imperfection of human understanding. We indeed seem to feel our own want of political wisdom, since we have been running all about in search of it. We have gone back to ancient history for models of government, and we have viewed modern states all around Europe, but find none of their constitutions suitable to our circumstances. In this situation of this assembly, groping, as it were, in the dark to find political truth… how has it happened that we have not hitherto once thought of humbly applying to the Father of Lights to illuminate our understanding? In the beginning of the contest with Britain, when we were sensible of danger, we had daily prayers in this room for divine protection. Our prayers were heard and they were graciously answered… I have lived a long time, and the longer I live, the more convincing proof I see of this truth, that God governs in the affairs of men... We have been assured in the sacred writings that ‘except the Lord build the house, they labor in vain that build it.’ I firmly believe this, and I also believe that without God’s incurring aid, we shall succeed in this political building not better than the builders of Babel…”
Franklin ended his speech with a motion to hold prayers every morning that the delegation was in session, a motion that was almost unanimously defeated. But his point was made, and heard, that their efforts could not be successful without mutual sacrifice and a summoning of their best and most creative efforts. (Quote in The American Soul: Rediscovering the Wisdom of the Founders, by Jacob Needleman, Penguin Press, 2002, pp.63-64)
What they finally produced, the Constitution for the United States, is our nation’s most significant and enduring political document. “We the People of the United States, in order to form a more perfect Union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution…”
We owe its creation and success to the diverse personalities and ideologies present in one room all through that long, hot summer. Not one was completely satisfied with their final product. But in the end they trusted the wisdom of the collective; they were willing to compromise and institutionalize the inevitability of political disagreement. It helped that these men, political allies and adversaries alike, all knew each other well. They had shared meals together, sat together at countless meetings, and corresponded with each other on private as well as public matters. Some of them, when they weren’t working on forming the governance of the country, were forming the governance of the Episcopal Church, which had its beginnings in the same revolutionary, democratic spirit that formed our nation.
It is also true, painfully so, that our nation’s founding generation deliberately deferred for future generations the most divisive issue between them—that of slavery, so clearly incompatible with the principles of the freedom and equality. They all knew it. Some agonized over it more than others; most believed, rightly or wrongly, that the nation would not survive the debate, should it be taken up at its founding. Could they have forseen how their decision would cost untold millions of people, both who endured the lash of slavery and those who died 100 years later in the effort to end it?
In March of 1865, as President Abraham Lincoln gave his second inaugural address, he didn’t know if the nation would survive the war that slavery had wrought, and he invokes the will of God in a particularly haunting way:
“Fellow countrymen: .. . On the occasion corresponding to this four years ago all thoughts were anxiously directed to an impending war. All dreaded it—all sought to avert it…Both parties deprecated war, but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive; and the other would accept war rather than let it perish. And the war came.
“One eighth of the whole population were colored slaves, not distributed generally over the nation, but localized in the Southern part of it. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was, somehow, the cause of the war... Yet neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration of which it has already attained...
“Each looked for an easier triumph… Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any man dare ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces; but let us judge not that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered; that of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes… If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offences which, in the providence of God he wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offence came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a Living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope—fervently do we pray—that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bondman’s two hundred fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn from the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago so still it must be said, ‘the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous all together.’ With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan—to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.”
The nation did survive, even without Lincoln to guide it. Still another war raged on, however, for America was not able to live at peace with the nations it encountered on the soil it claimed as its own. Surely the genocide of the native peoples of this land is as great a stain on our nation as that of the slavery, but it is a sin largely to us, for we do not know what our ancestors destroyed. In 1909, Chief Plenty Coup of the Crown Nation conferred with his tribal council on achieving peace between all the great tribes of the United States. At the age of 63 years, Chief Plenty Coup had witnessed the forced removal of Native Americans from their homes, the undermining of treaties by the US government, and the steady encroachment of white settlers on Native American land. But as the Crow Nation prepared for a meeting with the chiefs of the other Indian nations, Chief Plenty Coup knew that the end for his people had all but come. It was time to build a legacy of peace between the Crows and the other nations.
“The ground on which we stand is sacred ground. It is the dust and blood of our ancestors. On these plains the Great White Father in Washington sent his soldiers with long knives and rifles to slay the Indian… A few more passing suns will see us here no more, and our dust and bones will mingle with these same prairies. I see as in a vision the dying speak of our council fires, the ashes cold and white. I see no longer the curling smoke rising from our lodge poles. I hear no longer the songs of the women as they prepare the meal. The antelope have gone; the buffalo wallows are empty. The white man’s medicine is stronger than ours; his iron horse rushes over the buffalo trail. He talks to us through his ‘whispering spirit.’ We are like birds with a broken wing.Before our red brothers pass on to the happy hunting round, let us bury the tomahawk. Let us break our arrows. Let us wash off our war paint in the river. I will send my runners to the lodges of the Blackfeet in the north, to the fiery desert of the Apaches in the south. I will send them east to the lodges of the Sioux, warriors who have met us in many a hard battle. I will have outliers build smoke signals on the hills, calling the chiefs of all the tribes together, that we may meet here as brothers and friends in one great last council, that we may eat our bread and meat together, and smoke the council pipe, and say farewell as brothers, never to meet again.” (From In Our Own Words: Extraordinary Speeches of the American Century, Robert Torricelli and Andrew Carroll, editors, Kodansha International, 1999, p.25)
Twenty chiefs accepted Plenty Coup’s invitation, and in September 1909, the Last Great Indian Council was held in the valley of Little Big Horn in Montana. All agreed to terms of peace.
These are but a few of the great voices of our America. I could go on, to read the words of those who continued the struggle for justice African Americans during the long era of Jim Crow, lynchings, and the Great Migration; those who fought for women’s suffrage and worker’s rights, those who resisted the Nazis, welcomed immigrants, and worked for Civil Rights, those who considered it their patriotic duty to question the foreign policy of our government even as they were accused of betrayal and even treason. We have much in our history to make us both proud and ashamed, to both humble and inspire us. Never should we be persuaded by those too hardened and cynical to see our nation’s goodness; never should we be seduced by those who cannot see, much less repent of our sins. As with each person here, our country is a combination of all that defines human existence, sin alongside saintliness, with a good deal of mediocrity and quiet heroism all around.
I close with excerpts from the sermon that Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. preached the night before he was killed. Against the advice of many, King had traveled to Memphis to stand in solidarity with the city’s sanitation workers who were on strike for better pay and working conditions. The last part of his sermon is well known, for he seems to know that death is near: God has allowed him to go the mountaintop, he said, and there he saw the Promised Land. “I may not get there with you,” he said, “but I am here to tell you that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land.”
The first part of the sermon is equally compelling. He begins with a statement of heart-breaking candor:
“I guess one of the great agonies of life is that we are constantly trying to finish that which is unfinishable. We are commanded to do that. And so we find ourselves in so many instances having to face the fact that our dreams are not fulfilled. Life is a continual story of shattered dreams... Well, that is the story of life. And the thing that makes me happy is that I can hear a voice crying through the vista of time, saying, ‘It may not come today or it may not come tomorrow but it’s good that it is within your heart. It’s good that you are trying. You may not see it. The dream may not be fulfilled, but it’s just good that you have a desire to bring it into reality.’”
He also gave an interpretation of the parable of the Good Samaritan that epitomizes how King lived his life, from those early days in Montgomery right to the end. He began by contrasting the actions of the priest and the Levite who passed the wounded man on the roadside with that of the Samaritan who stopped and offered help. “I think those men were afraid. And so the first question the priest and Levite asked was, ‘If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?’ But the Good Samaritan reversed the question: ‘If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?’ That’s the question before you tonight. Not, ‘If I stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to my job, or my normal duties as a pastor?’ The question is not, ‘If I stop to help people in need, what will happen to me?’ The question is ‘If I do not stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to them?’ That’s the question.” (The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, p.363)
For those of us called to follow Jesus, in our moment of this country’s history, it’s our question, too.
June 27, 2019
Jesus said, ‘Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs.’
Like many, I am trying to better understand and respond to reports of how unaccompanied children or those separated from their parents are being treated in US custody at the southern border and in detention centers across the country. Add to that the staggering number of people fleeing their countries and seeking refuge here, and the specter of mass deportation of those whose asylum requests have been denied, and the word “crisis” hardly begins to describe what we’re facing as a nation.
In times like these, I am grateful for the bonds that unite us across Episcopal Church and the ways we can work together to alleviate suffering and stand for justice. I draw strength and inspiration from the example of others.
Last week Bishop David Reed of the Diocese of West Texas, which shares 500 border miles with Mexico, wrote to the people of his diocese:
As the immigration crisis continues to roil and divide our beloved country, we find our souls as stressed as our legal and political systems. Our desire to act wisely and compassionately, to “Walk in love, as Christ loved us,” collides with the enormity and complexity of the issues. What we are experiencing within the Episcopal Diocese of West Texas is only a small piece of the human migration occurring worldwide, a movement of peoples that will likely be with us for many years to come.
A simple solution to this crisis does not exist, but we can be instruments of God's grace and peace. We cannot do everything, but for Christ's sake, we can do something.
A number of our clergy and people are doing something to alleviate the human suffering along the border and farther north. I commend them for the hope and healing they offer, for their persistent love in the face of suffering . . . They are seeking to serve Christ in the person standing in front of them, whether asylum seeker or Border Patrol agent. Our clergy and churches did not go looking for this ministry; they did not rally to "an issue." They are seeking to respond faithfully to those in need arriving in their communities and on their doorstep.
We can and should, and desperately need to, have informed, respectful debate on our country’s immigration laws and policies. But the time for that is not when a weary, confused, and hungry person stands before you, whether that person wears tattered clothes or a dark green uniform.
To be angry and resentful is easy, a reaction that takes little imagination. To become cynical is to reject the hope of Christ. To love and to care is much harder, requiring that we extend grace and mercy to one another and to ourselves, but acting in love and choosing to care is the life into which we've been baptized. To love and to care is the Way of Christ, and the way of the Kingdom.
Many thanks to those who have contacted me, asking for ways that we, as individuals and a diocese, can choose to love and to care. Here are but a few of the ways we can be of help to those in desperate need, and work for just and compassionate immigration policies.
1. Ministries on the Border
The Diocese of West Texas has a broad array of Immigration Ministries in towns at the US-Mexico border that would benefit from financial and material support.
The Episcopal Diocese of Texas has partnered with Catholic Charities in McAllen, Texas to provide basic needs for the 400-600 asylum seekers that arrive daily. Here are ways we can support them.
2. Local Ministries
To donate locally, where family separation is happening as well, please consider Congregation Action Network, (formerly DMV Sanctuary Congregation Network). The network is a coalition of multifaith congregations whose primary focus is deportation defense, family support, community education and action. The Network has active clusters working locally in Montgomery, Prince George counties, DC and Northern VA. You can donate or learn more at Congregation Action Network.
- The CAIR coalition-- Capital Area Immigrants' Rights Coalition strives to ensure equal justice for all immigrants. Their Detained Children’s Program provides legal services to unaccompanied immigrant children detained by the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) at juvenile facilities in Maryland and Virginia.
If you would like to help locally, please email our diocesan Latino Missioner, the Rev. Sarabeth Goodwin or call 202-537-6441.
3. Advocacy for Immigration Reform
As Bishop Reed reminds us, to be angry and cynical requires nothing from us. And for Christians, hopelessness in the face of hardship is not an option. We cannot do everything. But in the name of Jesus, we can do something, and for the children’s sake, we must.
June 23, 2019
He said, "Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by." Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, "What are you doing here, Elijah?"
1 Kings 19:1-15
Jesus and his disciples arrived at the country of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee. As he stepped out on land, a man of the city who had demons met him. For a long time he had worn no clothes, and he did not live in a house but in the tombs. When he saw Jesus, he fell down before him and shouted at the top of his voice, "What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me" -- for Jesus had commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man. (For many times it had seized him; he was kept under guard and bound with chains and shackles, but he would break the bonds and be driven by the demon into the wilds.) Jesus then asked him, "What is your name?" He said, "Legion"; for many demons had entered him. They begged him not to order them to go back into the abyss. Now there on the hillside a large herd of swine was feeding; and the demons begged Jesus to let them enter these. So he gave them permission. Then the demons came out of the man and entered the swine, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and was drowned. When the swineherds saw what had happened, they ran off and told it in the city and in the country. Then people came out to see what had happened, and when they came to Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind. And they were afraid. Those who had seen it told them how the one who had been possessed by demons had been healed. Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them; for they were seized with great fear. So he got into the boat and returned. The man from whom the demons had gone begged that he might be with him; but Jesus sent him away, saying, "Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you." So he went away, proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him.
The late Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador, canonized by Pope Francis in October of last year, was assassinated in 1980 at the height of his country’s civil war. He is widely believed to have said to the priests under his charge, “Your life may be the only gospel that the people will ever know.”
I’m fairly certain what he meant is that when working among the subsistence farmers of the Salvadoran countryside, many who were illiterate, it wasn’t enough for priests to preach Jesus’ message. They needed to embody it, pattern their lives on Jesus, so that those who might never read about him could experience something of his love through them. St. Paul said something his letter to the Philippians: “Live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.” (Philippians 1:27) It’s a good way to think about the promises adults make--parents and godparents--in ceremonies of infant baptism. We promise to live in such a way that the children we raise will come to understand what it means to follow Jesus. Surely that is the charge for all Christians everywhere.
In my experience, however, the patterning of my life on the gospel of Jesus is as much of a revelation for me as for anyone around me. I don’t mean this abstractly, but in the most concrete terms. From time to time, a gospel story shifts from being a teaching that I’ve read and know in my mind to something else entirely. It somehow takes up residence inside me and becomes for a season--sometimes for years--a lens through which I see my life and through which I experience God. It becomes the gospel of my life.
Being spoken to by God through a biblical text is a classic spiritual experience. It’s not unique to Christians, and it can happen to us with other texts besides the Bible. But this experience of feeling one’s life somehow addressed in this way is the most important reason for those of us who wish to follow Jesus to have a regular practice of engaging Scripture. It’s not simply to gain knowledge of the Christian story, as important as that is, but in order to allow the stories and teachings of Jesus to become vehicles of our transformation. What changes is rarely a dramatic rearranging of our life’s circumstances, although that can happen. Consistent with how Jesus lived and taught, the life transformation through a steady engagement with the written and spoken word is most often an internal experience of being given new eyes and ears with which to see and hear what’s around us. A story, an image, a metaphor from his life, can give us precisely what we need at a particular moment to live our imperfect and wondrous lives with courage and even joy.
Here’s an example from my own life with a story that you will hear in church if you happen to show up on July 20. It’s the story of two sisters, Martha and Mary. Along with their brother Lazarus, Martha and Mary were among Jesus’ closest friends. Their home was his refuge, a place where he was always welcome. On one occasion, Jesus arrived, and as was the custom, he went into the common room where men gathered for conversation while the women prepared a meal. Mary joined the men--a bold thing for a woman to do in that culture, while Martha busied herself in the kitchen. You may remember that Martha began to resent her sister for sitting at Jesus’ feet while she toiled alone. Martha complained to Jesus, and asked him to compel Mary to assist her. But do you remember what Jesus said? “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her." (Luke 10:38-42)
Several years ago, I spent the better part of a summer with Jesus’ words to Martha as my spiritual touchstone, only Jesus was speaking to me: “Mariann, you are worried and distracted by many things.” No argument there. “There is need of only one thing.” Every day I would repeat those words like a mantra: “There is need of only one thing,” and ask, “What is the one thing needed today?” It was a remarkably cleansing question.
What I discovered was that each day’s answer was a bit different. One day the answer was honesty, a deep, no-nonsense honesty about who I was and what I felt and how things affected me. Another day, the answer was forgiveness, my capacity to forgive, the people who had hurt me and myself for the wrongs I’ve done. Another day, the answer was to be fully present to my family. On another, the answer was to see the work I had begun to completion. Still another--it was summer, after all, the one thing needed was rest. On some days, of course, many things were needed, not just one, but I then tried my best to put those needs in their proper order--most important first, allowing other cares and occupations to fall into line.
I offer you that question as a good one to ask as the beginning of the summer, as well as the larger notion of living under a gospel imperative. Carl Jung once told a patient that a good rule of thumb when trying to make decisions is to tend to the next, most necessary thing. If you do that, he said, the Spirit will guide your path.
Now I confess that the rather strange story we have before us this morning isn’t one of the more readily accessible texts for this kind of spiritual meditation. On the surface, it seems to be a story of severe mental illness, which our forebears understandably interpreted as demonic possession. The man seemingly possessed wore no clothes, refused to live inside, and he heard so many voices in his head that it was as if an army of soldiers were living inside him. I’m not sure what to make of the herd of swine that were driven off the cliff.
But here is the part that spoke to me: as a result of his encounter with Jesus, the tormented man was returned to his right mind. In other words, “he came to himself,” which is exactly how Jesus describes what happened to the younger brother in his story of the Prodigal Son (just a few chapters ahead). In that story, you recall, a young man loses himself in wild living, having his persuaded his father to bankroll his freely chosen insanity. His self-destructive behavior eventually lands him penniless in a foreign land where he must hire himself out to a farmer in order to survive. It was as he fed the farmer’s pigs, and envied the pigs their food, that he “came to himself.” Restored to his right mind, he returned home to ask his father’s forgiveness.
So this week, I’ve been reflecting on the all too familiar experience of losing myself, and having a lot of competing voices in my head. “Most of us live our lives caught in a whirlwind of stories going on in our heads,” writes the Augustinian monk Martin Laird in a guidebook he wrote on the Christian practice of contemplation, “like some wild cocktail party of which we find ourselves the embarrassed host. Often, we’re not even aware of how utterly dominating this inner noise is until we attempt to leave it through the doorway of silence.” (Martin Laird, Into the Silent Land: A Guidebook on the Christian Practice of Contemplation (Oxford Press, 2006).)
Where can any of us go to find ourselves again, to be open to the presence of God that can put us in our right mind, allow the murky waters of our soul to settle and receive whatever bits of clarity might come?
It can happen anywhere--on a walk, in your car, doing laundry, cooking dinner, or when you refuse to cook because the one thing needed is elsewhere. The common denominator in the setting for that kind of clarifying experience, however, is silence. Most of us don’t have a lot of silence in our lives these days, often by our own choosing. If that’s true for you, I wonder if you might consider the spiritual practice of sitting in silence, if only for 10 minutes, everyday. It’s not that God doesn’t speak to us in the whirlwind of our lives. What’s easily lost if we don’t practice keeping silence is our capacity to sift through those many voices, or still them completely.
That was the prophet Elijah’s experience, as we heard earlier. There was a great wind, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, "What are you doing here, Elijah?” What, indeed. What are you doing here and what am I--not here in church at this moment, but here in our lives? In silence we can ponder such questions and hear a different kind of voice speak. Martin Laird again: “It is your noisy chaotic mind keeps us ignorant of the deeper reality of God as the ground of your being.”
Jesus offers us a way to leave the cocktail party and experience a truer sense of ourselves, and of God as the source of life, freedom, and love. That way requires of us nothing more--and nothing less--than a bit of silence and sufficient attentiveness to go beneath the noise to the place where we can, like the healed man or the Prodigal Son, come to ourselves, be in our right mind, the place where clarity emerges and wisdom speaks.
So find some place, if you can, to practice silence every day. It needn’t be long. You don’t have to sit still, although that can be helpful. You can walk, be in your car, linger a bit longer in bed before getting up. It can be when you take a shower. The important thing is intentionality and persistence even when your time of so-called silence is filled with distraction. If you add to that silence a bit of Scripture reading--not a lot, just enough to keep you connected to Jesus’ words--chances are quite high that you will come across a phrase or story that will become the gospel of your life, a light to illuminate your path.
Let us pray:
Lord, you know how noisy the surface of life can be sometimes, how we can struggle with many voices in our heads and competing pressures in our lives. It’s not easy to know what is the one thing needed, or how we can live in our right mind, from our truest self. Help us to hear your voice, coming to us in silence, in the particular word from Scripture that might guide us now. Help us to find that place within ourselves where deep wisdom resides, so that we might live with peace and clarity. If our lives are the only gospel that others see, Lord, may we embody something of your grace and love.
June 22, 2019
So the Lord said to Moses, ‘Gather for me seventy of the elders of Israel, whom you know to be the elders of the people and officers over them; bring them to the tent of meeting, and have them take their place there with you. I will come down and talk with you there; and I will take some of the spirit that is on you and put it on them; and they shall bear the burden of the people along with you so that you will not bear it all by yourself. So Moses went out and told the people the words of the Lord; and he gathered seventy elders of the people, and placed them all around the tent. Then the Lord came down in the cloud and spoke to him, and took some of the spirit that was on him and put it on the seventy elders; and when the spirit rested upon them, they prophesied. But they did not do so again.
Numbers 11:16-17; 24-25a
I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect. For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgement, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness. Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honour. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.
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.
Let me begin with a word of thanks to God for the people of Christ Church and for your leaders who have guided you through a long season of transition. I also give thanks to the Holy Spirit for bringing the Rev. Lisa Zaina into discernment with Christ Church and all that resulted in her call to join you in ministry. Lisa, as you know, was sponsored for ordination by the Diocese of Washington, and many of us have been praying for the call that would bring her back to us.
Lisa, I am one of your greatest admirers, and I am so glad that you accepted the call to be the spiritual leader of Christ Church, Rockville and serve alongside God’s people here.
The beginning of a new season in ministry is a unique moment in the life of a congregation and its new priest. There is so much for Lisa to learn and to do, so many tasks that are part of Christ Church’s everyday life. There are assumptions and expectations all around; challenges and opportunities, some you may have anticipated and others that will surprise you. It’s also a time for discernment, as you clarify together your core purpose as a faith community now 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.
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 Lisa’s voice in the pulpit, her way of leading. Lisa, in turn, needs to come to know and love you enough to determine how best to lead.
Whenever a congregation calls a new spiritual leader, its leaders are looking for someone whose spiritual gifts and pastoral presence will serve as a mantle for the community, to be its spiritual touchstone, the one who helps, over time, to establish a spiritual tone for all who worship here.
This service provides the members of Christ Church with important insights into Lisa’s core philosophy of leadership, for she was the one who chose the scripture passages we’ve just heard, and she did so with great intention. So, let’s mine them for a few clues.
In the passage from the Book of Numbers, Moses has just finished telling God that the job to which God had called him was far too big for him to accomplish alone. In response, God took a part of the leadership spirit entrusted to Moses and shared it among 70 elders, so that no one person--not even Moses--held leadership in isolation.
I can tell you from experience that leaders who gravitate to this story are not lone rangers, those for whom the very thought of sharing their responsibilities and stature is inconceivable. Rather Lisa is among those committed to a collaborative view of leadership. She wants to share authority with those who demonstrate the gifts and passion for leadership.
It also means that Lisa knows who your Lord and Savior is, and it isn’t Lisa. Nor is it any of you.
That brings us to the second reading, from Paul’s letter to the Romans, with its gentle reminder that a relationship with the living God is meant to change us all for the better. Our particular church, the Episcopal Church, likes to say--and we mean it--that wherever people are on their spiritual journey, they are welcome among us.
Lisa has as welcoming and inclusive a heart as you will ever know. But her understanding of what it means to be on a journey of faith is that it is, in fact, a journey that leads to a destination. Our destination is to become more like Jesus--loving as he loves, forgiving as he forgives. We don’t drift toward becoming Christ-like. It requires real intention on our part, and a commitment to one another in community.
Here, in Christian community, we learn how to grow into the stature of Christ, in large measure because we have to work at loving one another--holding fast to what is good, outdoing one another in showing honor, persevering in prayer, contributing to the needs of the saints.
Finally, with the gospel text from John, Lisa is telling you how she experiences Jesus, as one who comes to her and all of us in friendship and sacrificial love. To follow him means to grow in love--to know ourselves as beloved by God in Christ and increase our capacity to love ourselves and others.
I’ve known Lisa long enough to know that these qualities and aspirations are her heart and soul. And I’ve known Christ Church long enough to know that your leaders were drawn to them for reasons that resonate deep within them and all of you. Now is the time, in this first season together, to bond together, get to know one another over time and in a variety of ways, building trust and shared experiences that will lay the foundation for many years of fruitful ministry together.
Gentle, Courageous Evaluation
If only you could do nothing else but get to know each other in this first season! Yet you’re not a community on hiatus. There are decisions to make, plans to put into action, budgets to manage. Thus you must do the necessary work well and also save enough energy for the second important task of this season: gentle, courageous evaluation.
In the first season, it’s helpful to cultivate a kind of dual vision that allows you to pay attention both to what is before you now and at the same time to a larger sense of purpose. A Methodist minister in Herndon, Virginia, Tom Berlin, suggests a simple method for cultivating this kind of dual-vision 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” 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 Tom Berlin’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 Tom asked. Another said: “Next summer our church will have a vacation bible school so that children will experience church as fun.” Tom 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 a standard 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 wasn’t to have a vacation bible school. Vacation Bible School was a means to a greater purpose. If it 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 both important and inevitable: 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
The most important task of this first season is one that Lisa’s choice of scripture passages holds before you with real clarity: to deepen your love relationship with Christ.
I urge you, in this season, to 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 Christ Church have the opportunity to grow deeper in a loving relationship with Christ for themselves. I’m not talking about simply an evening class or mid-week service for your 10 most faithful attendees, but an initiative that involves the whole church in a multi-generational effort.
I have all sorts of ideas about this: It could be a preaching series on a spiritual topic, augmented by a parish-wide book study, with small group gatherings in people’s homes and nearby coffee shops. It could be a proposed spiritual practice, such as the Presiding Bishop’s Way of Love, that all members of the congregation are encouraged to adopt and reflect upon together. The possibilities are endless, and perhaps the Holy Spirit has already planted ideas and possibilities 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 Christ Church, 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.
Will you pray with me?
Loving God, we are so grateful to be here, at this moment in the life of Christ Church, and we pause to give thanks to all those whose faithfulness and love sustained this community over the years of its life. We thank you for Lisa, for her love for you and the gifts you have endowed her with for leadership. Bless this moment, Lord. Guide Lisa and the people of Christ Church 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, service, and times of quiet prayer, may they draw closer to you and serve your mission of love for others. In your name, Amen.