Bishop's Writings Author: The Rt. Rev. Mariann Edgar Budde
June 14, 2018
If you attend an Episcopal Church service this or any Sunday, you’ll probably hear a priest say, just before the offering plates are passed, “Walk in love as Christ loves us, and gave himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God.” It’s a biblical passage from St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, one of his many exhortations to love.
Walking in love implies movement and assumes that we are in relationships. There’s nothing abstract about the kind of love Jesus embodies. We don’t grow in love by thinking more loving thoughts, but through concrete actions that manifest love in ways that stretch us beyond our comfort.
To illustrate this very point in his novel, The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoevsky describes a scene in which a woman seeking spiritual counsel expresses concern about her capacity to love, for she is always searching for reward and recognition. The wise counselor, Father Zosima, tells her a story about a man similarly inclined. This man emphatically declares his love for humankind in general, while acknowledging utter disdain for individual people. He dreams of sacrificing himself for others, but finds the company of those with whom he shares life endlessly irritating.
“Active love,” Father Zosima tells her, “is a harsh and dreadful thing compared with love in dreams. Love in dreams thirsts for immediate action, quickly performed, with everyone watching. Whereas active love is labor and perseverance.”
Our wondrous Presiding Bishop preached on the world stage about the power of love, and judging from the world’s response, there is an overwhelming hunger for the kind of love Jesus came to show us all. “There's power in love to help and heal when nothing else can,” the Presiding Bishop said, “Power in love to lift up and liberate when nothing else will. Power to show us the way to live.”
But what does that kind of love look like in action, where the rubber meets the road? It’s easy for me to think of ways I’d like others to grow in love, but what about me? What about you?
This Sunday, should you hear a priest speak St. Paul’s exhortation to walk in love, consider where you need to grow in your capacity to love. I promise that when I speak it, I will do the same. If we’re honest, the first thing we’ll need to do is go to our knees, confess the ways we fail to love, and ask for the grace to become more loving people.
If we truly want to grow in love--and desire is key--we do well to set an intention with as much specificity as possible. Often my desire to grow in love follows after a time when I have failed in love, or in response to situations that break my heart. Seasoned spiritual guides encourage us to bring this question to prayer--where is God at work in my life now, calling me to grow? Where is God calling you?
It could be an intention to be more emotionally present to someone we find difficult to love. Or, conversely, to be more firm with loving boundaries in relationships. It may an intention to offer our gifts where they are needed, or simply to show up in a painful situation. Criminal justice reformer Bryan Stevenson reminds us of the importance of proximity to the people who bear the brunt of social inequities if we hope to create a more loving and just society. Or perhaps we begin by acknowledging to God our internal emptiness and need to experience anew the love of Christ for ourselves.
After we set our intention, “with God’s help,” as the prayer book says, comes the hardest part of any growth process: actually practicing a specific way of love that stretches us, as practice always does, beyond our current capacity. In my experience, with practice comes failure and the chance to begin again, but also the joy of finding strength in spiritual muscles I didn’t know I had. In practice, we can experience a different kind of grace that meets us in our imperfect efforts.
Throughout the summer I’ll be writing about what Dostoevsky called love in action, ways we choose to grow in love. I close today with Father Zosima’s encouraging word to the woman seeking his counsel, reminding us all there God’s love is for us and at work in us, a faithful presence we can trust:
I predict that even in that very moment when you see with horror that despite all your efforts, you not only have not come nearer your goal but seem to have gotten farther from it, at that very moment, you will suddenly reach your goal and will clearly behold over you the wonder-working power of the Lord, who all the while has been loving you, and all the while has been mysteriously guiding you.
May God bless us all in our walking, and growing, in love.
May 24, 2018
Then the prophet Jeremiah spoke to the prophet Hananiah in the presence of the priests and all the people who were standing in the house of the Lord; and the prophet Jeremiah said, ‘Amen! May the Lord do so; may the Lord fulfil the words that you have prophesied, and bring back to this place from Babylon the vessels of the house of the Lord, and all the exiles. But listen now to this word that I speak in your hearing and in the hearing of all the people. The prophets who preceded you and me from ancient times prophesied war, famine, and pestilence against many countries and great kingdoms. As for the prophet who prophesies peace, when the word of that prophet comes true, then it will be known that the Lord has truly sent the prophet.’
Jesus said, ‘Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous; and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple—truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.’
Matthew 10: 40-42
In an extended letter written for his young son to read when he’s older, a dying pastor ponders the significance of 45 years’ worth of sermons, stored in boxes, all preached from the same pulpit in the fictional town of Gilead, Iowa.
Pretty near my whole life is in those boxes.
The quantity of writing is impressive: 50 sermons a year for 45 years, averaging 30 pages each. That’s the equivalent of 225 books, which puts him up there with Augustine and Calvin.
I wrote almost all of it in the deepest hope and conviction. Sifting my thoughts and choosing my words. Trying to say what’s true.
But one sermon isn’t there, for the fictional pastor, John Ames, had burned it the night before he meant to preach it.
People don’t talk much now about the Spanish influenza but it was a terrible thing, and it struck just at the time of the Great War, just when we were getting involved in it. It killed soldiers by the thousands, healthy men in the prime of life and then it spread into the rest of the population . . . There was talk that the Germans had caused it with with some sort of secret weapon, and I think people wanted to believe that, because it saved them from reflecting on what other meaning it might have. . . It was like a biblical plague, and if it wasn’t a sign, I don’t know what a sign would look like.
So I wrote a sermon about it. I said, or I meant to say, that these deaths were rescuing young men from the consequences of their own foolishness, that the Lord was gathering them in before they could go off and commit murder against their brothers. And I said that their deaths were a sign and a warning to the rest of us that the desire for war would bring the consequences of war, because there is no ocean big enough to protect us from the Lord’s judgment when we decide to hammer our plowshares into swords and our pruning hooks into spears, in contempt of the will and the grace of God.
It was quite a sermon. But my courage failed, because I knew that the only people at church would be a few old women who were already about as sad and apprehensive of the war as I was. I seemed ridiculous to myself for imagining I could thunder from the pulpit in those circumstances and I dropped that sermon in the stove and preached on the Parable of the Lost Sheep. But I wish I had kept it, because I meant every word. It might have been the only sermon I wouldn’t mind answering for in the next world. (Marilynne Robinson, Gilead (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2004))
Have you ever burned a sermon, or the equivalent in our day, hit the delete button after you’d written it? Have there been paragraphs, or even a sentence that you felt so strongly about but still edited out?
Perhaps you kept in that searing prophetic truth and later wished you hadn’t, because of the unnecessary reactivity it caused (and it wasn’t even your sermon’s main point). Maybe you realized afterwards that you were playing to the crowd, allowing everyone present to cast their prophetic aspersions elsewhere. “We thank you, Lord, that we’re not like those other people.” I’ve done that.
There’s no room for judgment here, preacher to preacher. For no matter how many conferences we attend and inspired preachers we hope to emulate, the work of preparing sermons--writing from our deepest hopes and convictions, sifting our words, trying to say what’s true--is a lonely undertaking, full of risk and responsibility. We face the page or computer screen alone, and as the clock ticks toward Sunday morning, we never know for certain if our choices are the best ones.
Those who preach on a regular basis to the same congregation, or circuit riders like me who preach to different churches within a particular orbit, have more than one relationship to the people who listen to our words. While preaching is rooted in our relationship to God, our interpretation of sacred texts and understanding of their relevance to the world around us, it is necessarily informed by our relationship to those gathered in worship--how well we know and love them, how accurately we can gauge what God’s word for them might be, how we feel called by God not merely to speak to them, but to lead them.
Leadership from the pulpit isn’t simply proclamation. It’s a vocation of movement, guiding a particular group of people from one place to another. It is also public speech, spoken to and for a wider audience that may or may not be listening in. The same discerning questions apply: How well do we know and love those outside our churches, how accurately can we gauge what God’s word for them might be, how we feel called not merely to speak to them, but to lead?
The theme of this festival, Faith and Politics, and the stunning sermons and lectures we’ve been feasting on all week, offer a sorely needed corrective to the ambivalence we preachers face daily, both externally and perhaps within ourselves, about the relationship between faith and politics. We’ve been challenged here to claim our wider vocation and reminded of the temptation of false prophecy, speaking peace when there is no peace.
I don’t know how true this is for you, but for some people in churches in and around Washington D.C., we can’t speak of politics enough. If we don’t respond from the pulpit to what the President tweeted yesterday, we hear about it.
Others, of course, would rather we talk about anything but politics, and not always because they don’t want to think about hard things. For some, politics is what they deal with all week long, and on Sundays their weary souls hunger for spiritual food. I get that. It’s not that different from the parents of young children who don’t want to volunteer in the nursery. They need a break.
So some of the churches I oversee have consciously adopted a “check-your-politics-at- the-door” policy, so that everyone, no matter their views or jobs, can breathe freely in the body of Christ. They relish the fact that they can sit next to or take communion alongside those with whom they are diametrically opposed politically. Some of our most passionate workers in the vineyards of social justice, and many of our millennials, gratefully attend these churches.
Yet checking politics at the door can have the effect of silencing an entire community on a number of issues deemed too political to discuss. They don’t talk about guns. They don’t talk about the federal budget. They don’t consider the consequence of endless wars that a small percentage of our population fights while the rest of us go shopping. As time goes on, the list of taboo subjects grows. That’s a danger.
Other churches here see themselves primarily through the lens of speaking truth to power, and they do so from their particular place on the political and theological spectrum. People tend to self-select in these churches, seeking alignment with prophetic voices they agree with. Now I am the first to acknowledge the church’s responsibility for strong prophetic preaching, and judging from the response outside church, there is real hunger for spiritual courage that speaks directly into the moral crises before us as a people and a species.
Yet prophetic preaching also has its dangers. We can all think of examples of religious leaders whose political speech makes us cringe, because we believe they’re wrong. But even when we know we’re right and feel compelled to speak from that place of rightness, there are risks. “From the place we are right,” writes the poet Yehuda Amichai, “flowers never grow in the spring. The place where we are right is hard and trampled like a yard.” (“The Place Where We Are Right,” The Selected Poetry of Yehuda Amichai (University of California Press, 1996).) “When we imagine ourselves to be the good ones,” said our former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, recently, “we don’t see how we ourselves are implicated in the very injustices we decry.” (From a lecture Rowan Williams gave at the conference, Balm in Gilead: A Theological Conversation with Marilynne Robinson. Wheaton College, April 5-6, 2018.)
Pastor John Ames, God bless him, in the midst of a social crisis of biblical proportion, chose one Sunday morning to be pastoral, not prophetic. He clearly had strong prophetic sensibilities, but in that moment he chose not to preach the sermon he knew was right. In hindsight, he wondered if he had lost courage, and perhaps he had. He had the sense that his young son, when he grew to be a man, would have been most impressed by the sermon he never preached.
How I love John Ames in his struggle, for he gives voice to the excruciating process spiritual leaders must go through when we have make a judgement call, never knowing if the choice we make is the one most pleasing to God.
It’s my observation that every preacher with a pulse and a conscience feels the tension between the pastoral and prophetic. But if we widen our perspective, perhaps we can see how both have a legitimate place within the larger arc of spiritual leadership.
Before going further, let me clarify terms.
When I speak of pastoral sermons, I’m not talking about false prophecy. I mean those sermons that declare there is, indeed, a balm in Gilead. A pastoral sermon is rooted in the assurance of God’s unconditional acceptance, and it provides space for someone to experience the potentially life-transforming grace of God as we’re speaking. We need to not disparage pastoral sermons. In fact, if we don’t start with a pastor’s heart, it calls into question how well we know ourselves to be unconditionally loved by God and saved by grace through faith.
In contrast, prophetic sermons are those that speak a difficult truth that some of those listening do not want to hear. More pointedly, prophetic speech gives voice to a truth that everyone listening already knows, but some have chosen to bury deep beneath conscious awareness and therefore beyond expectations of accountability. That pushing down of awareness, the willful choosing not to know something already known, helps explain the sometimes violent reaction to prophetic speech. Rarely does anyone respond to another speaking a difficult truth in love by saying, “Thank you for pointing that out to me.” Multiply that resistance when speaking to a group, or a nation, and we can appreciate what prophets are up against. Prophetic preaching is never easy for those who love.
Consider the prophet Jeremiah who grieved every word he felt compelled by God to speak. He lived at a time, as Walter Brueggemann reminds us, when “his world was literally coming unglued by internal neglect and external threat.” To Jeremiah’s alarm, nobody else seemed to notice. He not only saw what was happening, he had a sense of why it was happening and what God was going to do to save his chosen people--which was nothing at all. So when another prophet, Hananiah, assured the now astonished and beleaguered Israelites that the Babylonian occupation would be short and there was no need to make drastic adjustments, Jeremiah was stunned. God has spoken the exact opposite to him, that exile would be long and the people would need to make their peace with suffering. But Jeremiah publicly states that he prefers Hananiah’s prophecy to his own out of love for his people: “Amen! May the Lord fulfill the words that you have prophesied!” Time will tell, he said. History proved Jeremiah right, which is one reason Hananiah doesn’t have a book in the Bible named after him. He spoke peace when there was no peace.
Finally, when I speak of leadership from the pulpit, I mean the particular vocation of inspiring, coaxing, cajoling a people to move from where they are to where God is leading them, from the people they are now toward the people they could by grace become. Such leadership takes into account our collective complicity in the ways things are, and offers not only a vision for the future but also a redemptive path to get there.
As a spiritual leader, I may not always be the prophet. More often my task, and perhaps yours, is, as Jesus said, to welcome the prophet, that is, to hear and take in the truth of the prophet’s word, and then, with a pastor’s heart, lead a people toward God’s preferred future.
A few things, then, as I’m coming toward the end, to remember about what leadership from the pulpit requires:
First, it takes time--our steady reliable presence over years. Before they will follow us, people need to know that we will be with them on whatever journey we believe God is calling them to take. We can preach a prophetic sermon once and move on. But we can’t lead from one sermon or even one season, or two, or three. This is ministry for the long haul. If we’re in a short term assignment, or we know that we’re on our way out, our capacity to lead prophetically is limited.
Second, to lead well through preaching, we need to have some sense of where our people are on the spectrum of spiritual maturity. There’s little to be gained in preaching about Christ’s call to share in his sacrificial love if they don’t know that love for themselves. To lead, we may have to start further back with the basics of faith. Again, this is long term work, the fruits of which we may not live to see.
We also need an appreciation of context and background. If I’m going to preach with any hope of leading people in the realm of gun violence prevention, an issue God has placed on my heart, context matters. I need to speak one way in southern Maryland, where there is a high percentage of gun owners suspicious of what I’m going to say before I open my mouth and where there was a high school shooting the week after Parkland. I need to speak another way in Southeast Washington, the neighborhoods in Washington that have witnessed the lion’s share of D.C.’s record number of gun deaths this year, most of which were noted in a small paragraph in the back pages of the newspaper.
Third, leadership through preaching assumes a prophetic word that has, in fact, come to us, and that we’ve heard it for this particular community at this moment in time. It’s not leadership to speak prophetically in the abstract, or so broadly that there’s no discernible step for the community to take. We have to get specific. When we do, we aren’t standing apart from our people, as if we were speaking words that didn’t apply to us. We stand under the same judgment and call from God. Simon Sinek, a behavioral researcher and author of the book, Start with Why, said on recent podcast, “The best leaders are actually the best followers. They see themselves as following a cause bigger than themselves It's the rest of us who choose to follow them.” (Simon Sinek, “How do Great Leaders Inspire Us to Take Action,” on The TED Radio Hour. National Public Radio, May 18, 2018.)
Remember that as leaders we don’t have to be first in giving voice to a prophetic truth. Our job is to listen for it and receive it, first for ourselves, then for others. More often than not I overhear the prophetic word spoken by someone else.That’s certainly been my experience this week. But once I am convicted by a truth another has spoken, it becomes my job to lead, step by step, those in my orbit according to its light.
Spiritual leadership is a painstaking process of incremental faithfulness over time. There will inevitably be times when we’ll feel discouraged and inadequate. This is not work for the faint-hearted or overly-ambitious. Guiding people on a path that’s actually going somewhere requires dogged persistence, often walking by faith and not by sight. It’s easier to be right than it is to lead.
Two weeks ago I attended the funeral for an Episcopal bishop who served during decisive decades of struggle in our church and society. His isn’t a household name among progressive Episcopal leaders. He was never out in front during the years when our church was deeply divided on the issues racial justice of the 1960s, the push for women’s ordination in the 1970s, and the full inclusion of gay, lesbian and transgender people in the decades since. Throughout his tenure, we were arguing about theological issues at the heart of interfaith dialogue. As we engaged with Jews, Muslims, Hindus and others, how were we to understand the doctrine of salvation through faith in Christ?
There were big fights in our church and the country at large.
Bishop Ted Eastman was, at heart, a pastor, teacher, and reconciler. He took seriously a bishop’s vocation to guard and preserve the unity of the church. But he became persuaded by the prophetic voices within the church and society, and he realized that his ministry, like it or not, would be defined by how he led in the tumultuous era in which he lived.
Which is to say, Bishop Eastman welcomed the prophet and allowed to prophetic truth to change him. Then he painstakingly went about the work of leadership--guiding, cajoling, encouraging the people under his care toward becoming a church that fought the evils of racism, embraced the gifts of women, fully accepted and celebrated gay, lesbian, transgendered people in the church, and approached interfaith dialogue in a spirit of humility and mutual respect.
Bishop Eastman was not among those heralded for their prophetic courage. For he led, as it were, from the middle, with the firm conviction, to quote Daniel Berrigan, that we will walk into the Kingdom of God together or not at all. Those more impatient for change were frustrated by the slow pace of his leadership; those believing the church was heading toward apostasy felt he had succumbed to cultural forces antithetical to the gospel. Yet he held steady in the middle and created a space for the Holy Spirit to work.
At his funeral, three African American bishops were present whom Bishop Eastman had supported in their early years of ministry, among them our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry. “He always had our back,” they told me. He did more to promote diversity in the church than anyone will ever know. Think about that for a moment: Ted Eastman’s leadership in his day helped ensure Presiding Bishop Michael Curry and many others could lead in ours.
And in the midst of the rage that often came his way by those opposed to the direction he was leading, he was, these three bishops told me, always gracious and respectful.
Which leads to the last quality of spiritual leadership through preaching that I’ll highlight here: it creates hospitable space for those who disagree. Respect for others who disagree and even attack in retaliation sets a particular tone in leadership, it creates space to bring along as many as possible. We many never convince those most opposed to what we believe is right, but the way we treat those at the most extreme allows others to move and grow in their understanding of what it means to follow Jesus.
I am persuaded that true leaders create an environment where people of strong convictions can change their minds and change course without being shamed. That requires a degree of nuance and gentleness that prophets are not generally known for. That’s all right; it’s not a prophet’s vocation to be subtle. But leaders needs a broad repertoire of skill and many tools in their toolboxes, in order to help others move closer toward wherever prophetic speech is beckoning them.
One day, like John Ames, you will look back and consider your life’s work. I’m here to remind you that the significance of your ministry isn’t to be found in one sermon that you did or didn’t preach, but in the larger arc of your life and leadership, the fruits of which you will never fully know. I have come to bless and encourage you in the lonely and important work of leadership from the pulpit.
Let me leave you with a few questions to ponder.
First of all, how would you describe your primary vocation?
Not everyone called to ministry is called to leadership. Scripture reminds us that some are called to be pastors; some prophets, others teachers and evangelists. Some are called to lead.
Are you among them?
Having some sense of your primary vocation frees you to focus your energies, which will strengthen your voice in the pulpit. If you are called to lead, it is incumbent upon you to develop a broad set of homiletical tools. Because leadership from the pulpit is a vocation not of proclamation only, but of movement, leading people through the messy process of transformation.
If you are called to spiritual leadership, where are you in the ministry arc for the community you’re serving now? Are you in the early stages, the season of full engagement, in transition, or near the end? Knowing where you are helps define the scope and possibilities for leadership, and will inform your preaching. If you’re in the early stages, you have a lot relationship and trust work to do. If you’re in transition or near the end of your time, your abilities to lead prophetically are limited, and attempting to do more than is possible is actually harmful.
How do you assess the fruitfulness of your work as evidenced in the spiritual growth of the people who follow you? How are they growing in love of God, love of self and of neighbor? How comfortable is your community with proximity to suffering? Where are they getting stuck? Where are you getting stuck? To whom might you turn for help?
I can’t stress enough the importance of seeking out support and guidance, accountability partners and sources for your own inspiration. Most of the clergy I serve imagine they are in this work alone. I feel that way sometimes as their bishop. This can be lonely work, but we are not alone. Look around: there are kindred souls everywhere and utterly surprising relationships across the boundaries that we imagine separate us from others.
Remember that as a leader, you are first and foremost a follower. Remember who it is that you are following. The One who has called you to this work is faithful.
If I may, I’d like to pray for you:
Gracious God, I hold before you these your faithful followers whom you have called to lead others.
I ask for them your continued blessing, that they may know that you know how hard they strive to preach from their deepest hope and conviction, trying to say what’s true, to speak what they hear from you.
May they see that you see how they pour their whole lives into their work, Lord.
Help them to see just a bit of what you see. Give them a vision of where you are leading us all.
Inspire them with not only words to speak, but greater capacities to lead.
Strengthen their resolve, revive their spirits, protect their hearts, shield their joy, so that by their courage and persistence, their faithfulness in following you, others may catch a glimpse your kingdom, your beloved community here on earth, and how you are leading us there.
Bishop Mariann preached this sermon at the Festival of Homiletics at National City Christian Church on May 24, 2018.
A Letter from Bishop Mariann Budde regarding a communication from the Presiding Bishop, Reclaiming Jesus: A Confession of Faith in a Time of Crisis
May 18, 2018
Dear Clergy Colleagues,
Blessings to you on this Pentecost weekend. May your celebrations on Sunday be filled with a palpable manifestation of the Spirit's power.
During my sabbatical, I've had time to consider the many ways the Holy Spirit, working in us, accomplishes far more than we can ask for or imagine. I'm grateful how in the past seven years, I've experienced the Holy Spirit at work in and among you, and I look forward to being back with you soon. In the meantime, know that I am praying for you, that you might experience in new ways the Holy Spirit moving through your lives and ministries.
I write with a Pentecost invitation, and challenge, from our Presiding Bishop.
While the headlines regarding Presiding Bishop Curry have focused of late on his role in the royal wedding in London, he has been quietly at work for months with other Christian leaders calling themselves "the elders," on an initiative that they have named Reclaiming Jesus.
Today he wrote to all bishops in the Episcopal Church asking us to share with you the first fruits of this work.
First a bit of background: On Ash Wednesday, Presiding Bishop Curry gathered with leaders from across the spectrum of Christian denominations, among them, Richard Rohr, Amos Brown, National Baptist, Walter Brueggemann, Barbara Williams-Skinner, Tony Campolo, Jim Wallis, Cynthia Hale and others. They came together to pray and share their concerns, in their words, "for the soul of our nation and the integrity of faith."
Together they drafted a statement: Reclaiming Jesus: A Confession of Faith in a Time of Crisis. Throughout the Easter season, they worked to refine their message and provide resources to accompany it. They wanted it to be more than a statement, but the beginning of a process of discernment, prayer, reflection and, action for us all. Now they are preparing for a public launch of this initiative at Pentecost including a prayer vigil and service on Thursday, May 24th in Washington.
The elders have invited other Christian leaders to co-sign the confession of faith, provided that we would share the statement and supplemental resources with the clergy and congregations in our charge, which I am glad to do, for the concerns they raise are ones that I share.
Much of the language of the confession is in the form of renunciations, rejecting the forces of wickedness that rebel against God and demean humankind. There is also a bold affirmation that being a disciple of Jesus propels us not only to a personal journey of salvation but a public life committed to the Kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven. I am committed to both the personal and public dimensions of being Jesus' disciple, which is why I signed Reclaiming Jesus. I am well aware that statements are insufficient without corresponding action, as we are called to join in creating a world aligned with God's dream for humankind.
The prayer service, to which all are invited, will be held on May 24, 7 p.m. at the National City Christian Church, 5 Thomas Circle, Washington, DC, 20005. Following the service, the elders will lead a candlelight procession to a prayer vigil at the White House. You can find more details about the service and vigil here. Here, too, is a short video which in just over a day has been viewed by almost half a million people. Surely that is an indication of the hunger in our churches and beyond for this expression of Christian leadership.
I will pray and process with the Presiding Bishop and those gathered on May 24th and invite you to join us, either in person or live stream. If you resonate with the concerns expressed in Reclaiming Jesus, please share it with the people under your spiritual care. May we all be open to the Holy Spirit life-giving power, this Pentecost and always.
Faithfully in Christ,
The Rt. Rev. Mariann Edgar Budde
Bishop of Washington
March 01, 2018
Jesus said to them, ‘Come away with me. Let us go alone to a quiet place and rest for awhile.’
This will be my last weekly post before the start of my 3-month sabbatical. I’m grateful for the opportunity to step away from work in order to rest, pray, and study. It’s a tremendous privilege to serve as your bishop, and the gift of time apart to prepare for the next season of my episcopate means more than I can say.
My sabbatical plans include an 8-day silent retreat, a conference on the writings of Marilynne Robinson, and time with our family over the Easter holiday. Mostly, however, I will be at home, riding my bike, catching up on reading, and studying churches from other faith traditions that are our neighbors in the diocese and are thriving.
I’ll focus my studies on two key areas:
How other churches create opportunities for people to come to know and receive Christ as their Savior, and how they encourage lifelong spiritual maturity and growth among their membership.
How other churches help people develop a healthy relationship to money.
These are among the common denominators we can observe in growing, thriving congregations. They do not assume that all who worship with them know what it means to be a follower of Jesus. They also invest significant resources in creating a culture that encourages, and indeed, expects spiritual growth among their people. Regarding financial stewardship, these congregations do not assume that all their members have a healthy relationship to money, and they work to establish that solid foundation as part of Christian discipleship.
When I return, I hope to further develop these areas of ministry within the collaborative relationships of our diocese.
During my absence, the diocesan staff will continue their good work among you, ably led by Canon Paul Cooney. Bishops Carl Wright and Chilton Knudsen have graciously agreed to serve as bishops on call, to be present both sacramentally and pastorally as they are needed.
I’ve asked members of the diocesan staff to share stories of good news and fruitful ministries from around the diocese in the weekly e-news. If you have a good news to share, contact Keely Thrall. Look for your e-bulletin each week, and be prepared to be inspired!
May God bless and keep you all in the days and weeks ahead. Know that you remain in my heart and prayers.
February 25, 2018
Jesus began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life?
I speak to you in the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen. Good morning, Church of the Redeemer. It’s wonderful to worship with you in this stunningly beautiful sanctuary, to stand alongside my good friend and colleague, your rector, Cricket Park. If you are a guest today, I welcome you on behalf of this congregation. I serve as the bishop of this diocese, which takes me every Sunday to a different Episcopal church across four Maryland counties and the District of Columbia. I bring you greetings from those who worship in those 88 congregations.
If you’re the note-taking type, I invite you to take out your bulletins, or a piece of paper, and pen, or a smartphone app, because in a few minutes, I’m going to invite you to write something down to reflect upon during the coming week.
The central theme, and title of this sermon is The Ultimate Paradox of Faith:The Way of the Cross as a Way of Life.
First a story to remind us all of the meaning of paradox:
When our sons were in high school, we spent one family vacation mountain-biking in Costa Rica, which was every bit as adventurous as it sounds. It was also a lot harder than I had anticipated. Nothing in my years of tooling around on paved roads had prepared me the terrain there. Riding uphill was exhausting; riding downhill was terrifying. Staring down vertical trails covered with enormous rocks and marked with huge holes, I would ride my breaks all the way down.
Our tour guide gently tried to teach me basic mountain-biking skills. “I know it doesn’t seem logical,” he’d say, “but the safest way to ride down a steep, rocky trail is to accelerate. You need speed to carry you over the rocks safely.” Intellectually, I knew that what he was saying made sense, but I could never get my body to believe that I wouldn’t be killed if I pedaled my way downhill.
Such is the nature of a paradox. It’s something that goes against our common sense--a statement that seems contradictory, unbelievable, or absurd, but is, in fact, true.
We live with paradox daily. Our perceptions tell us that the earth is still and mostly flat, but the truth is that we live on a sphere spinning through space. In relationships, our instincts may be to rush in to help those we love in whatever way we can; but the truth is that there are times when doing so is not the most loving thing, that love at times dictates holding back, creating space, allowing those we love to find their own way. (I am the parent of young adult men. I know whereof I speak.)
Conversely, our instincts sometimes tell us to pull back when a situation becomes too painful, when in fact what is needed is deeper engagement even when it hurts. Thinking of the marvelous feats of athleticism we have been privileged to watch in the Olympics these past two weeks, I once heard an athletic trainer tell a group of aspiring young athletes that if they wanted to excel in their sport (and fill in here any other endeavor you would want to excel in), they would have to find “a new definition of fun,” one that included long, demanding hours of training and the sacrifices such training demands. That is truth in paradox—when what doesn’t seem true on the surface, in fact, leads us to a deeper truth or way of being to which we aspire.
Applying these insights into the realm of faith, we begin by simply acknowledging that the paradoxes of faith are many. They are, as the Prayer Book describes them, mysteries of faith, those things that on the surface seem impossible or contradictory, or at the very least counter-intuitive, and yet we come to believe, and even to know, that they are true. Surely Jesus gives us the ultimate paradox in his stark assertion that those of us who want to save our lives must lose them, and those who lose our lives for his sake and the sake of the gospel will save them.
Reading again the gospel text for this morning, Jesus sounds like the Buddha in his conversations with the disciples this morning, beginning with the matter-of-fact assertion that he must undergo great suffering. After rebuking his friend for trying to reassure him that suffering could never be his fate, he goes on to say that anyone who wants to be his follower must suffer as well, deny themselves and take up their own cross. It doesn’t make sense: how do we lose our lives in order to save them? How does suffering lead to good? And who would want to follow someone who's good news is linked to a cross?
What’s striking about Jesus’ words is the presupposition of suffering, an acceptance that suffering is not only a part of life, but an essential part of the spiritual path. He assumes that everyone has a cross to bear, and so the only question is whether we will rail against it or choose to carry it with some modicum of grace, accepting it as our own and finding the life it brings.
Now, certainly there is some suffering that is avoidable, and thus should be avoided. There is nothing to be gained by needless suffering, senseless suffering, or what some psychiatrists call false suffering, that is, the pain we experience as a by-product of avoiding something else. Carl Jung once wrote that neurosis is always a substitute for legitimate suffering. In other words, sometimes we’d rather choose one form of suffering that isn’t necessary in order to avoid of the cross that is ours to bear.
How, then, can we distinguish needless suffering from the suffering of our own particular crosses? How indeed.
One distinction might be in the fruits of suffering, whether or not the suffering takes us anywhere or keeps us spinning in place like a hamster on a treadmill. Is it suffering that makes us more of who we are or confirms our fears and keeps us small? The kind of suffering Jesus endured and that he encourages us to embrace always has redemption of some kind on the other side. In contrast, the pain of false suffering, while real, is pain that goes nowhere. “Choose your pain,” a wise person said to me at an important crossroad in my life. “Whichever path you choose will involve pain. The question is, which pain carries the promise of life?”
There’s a fair amount of language in the Scriptures that refers to a process of dying to self in order to live for Christ, or sacrificing self, as Jesus says today, in order to gain eternal life. But remember what someone told me in my early twenties, “If you don’t have a self to give, then there isn’t much sacrifice involved.” It’s important to remember, when we are tempted, particularly in youth or stages of immaturity, that if we rush too quickly to the part of faith that involves sacrifice without knowing who we are or what we have to offer, then we’re simply avoiding the hard work of becoming a self in the first place.
So with all those caveats firmly in place, let’s move now to the hardest way to determine whether a cross is ours to bear. It’s the one that comes to us and we must accept, no matter the sacrifice required, because we have no choice. These are the crosses thrust upon us and the only question is that of our response. The Benedictine nun Joan Chittister writes that "the will of God for us is what remains of a situation after we try without stint and pray without ceasing to change it."
These crosses require us to let go of something--something that we love, or hoped for, or worked toward--and to let it go for the sake of a greater love, or, because life demands it, even though we wished for something else. And it hurts. It hurts as much as cutting off a limb would hurt, or tearing out our heart. But the paradox, the mystery of faith is this: in the bearing of our cross, when it’s ours and we know that it’s ours, and in the denying and even sacrificing a part of ourselves, God gives us more of ourselves in return, selves grounded in the love of Christ, for us and through us. I don’t know how this works. I only know that it does.
The key is to accept the cross for what it is—the hardest possible thing asked of us—and to embrace it as our destiny, even if we didn’t choose it and would run far from it if we could. In that acceptance, we join our will and our heart to God and freely choose what otherwise has been thrust upon us. We move, then, from being victims of fate or circumstance to active agents of our own transformation, and through us, the transformation of the world. We make room for Christ within, room that he occupies with characteristic humility and love, helping us to become even more of the self we were created to be, even as we’re being stripped away of parts of ourselves that we hate to lose.
Obviously Lent is a particularly fruitful time to consider your life through the lens, and the paradox, of the cross, and to consider the particular cross that is yours to accept, take up as yours as your destiny, your vocation, through which God’s grace may flow.
We’ve come to the note taking part now: I ask you to write down, or hold in your heart, and name for yourself, if you can, the particular cross that is yours to bear.
Think, too, of the people in our society or in the wider world whom you admire for doing the same thing, those who have embraced the suffering thrust upon them for the sake of a greater good. By taking up their cross they are a part of Christ’s on-going redemption of the world.
I have been traveling alongside survivors of gun violence throughout my episcopate. The Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting occurred within a month of my consecration, and like many others at the time, I thought that it would be a catalyst for a new approach to gun policy in our country. We were wrong. Over the years I have heard the anguish of those who have lost loved ones to gun violence. Many resolve in their grief to do whatever they can to ensure that others do not have to experience what they have gone through. There is a large and growing body of survivors determined to change our nation’s gun policies.
When the students of Parkland, Florida spoke last week of their resolve not to be the latest in a growing list of schools where a mass shooting took place, but instead the last such school, they tapped into a deep well of frustration, grief and solidarity across the nation. The students are not pretending to be anything other than who they are--students. They also recognize their privilege and their power to make their voices heard. In their struggle to accept the tragedy thrust upon them and to sacrifice a part of their lives, they are poised to help to stem the epidemic of gun violence.
There are countless examples across the spectrum of life experience that we point to--people who are helping change some portion of the world for the better through their acceptance of a cross they were obligated to carry.
As I draw to a close, I’d like to read to you a portion of an article that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote in the early years of his public ministry. "Suffering and Faith," was published in the religious journal The Christian Century in 1960. This was after the Montgomery Bus Boycotts and three years before the March on Washington. The editors wrote King back because in his first draft of the article, he never mentioned his own suffering, and they wondered if he might. He hesitated to write of his own suffering, he responded, but given that they had asked, he added a few paragraphs. They didn't arrive in time to be included in the main article, but were printed later.
Due to my involvement in the struggle for the freedom of my people, I have known very few quiet days in the last few years. I have been arrested five times and put in Alabama jails. My home has been bombed twice. A day seldom passes that my family and I are not the recipients of threats of death. I have been the victim of a near fatal stabbing. So in a real sense I have been battered by the storms of persecution. I must admit that at times I have felt that I could no longer bear such a heavy burden, and have been tempted to retreat to a more quiet and serene life. But every time such a temptation appeared, something came to strengthen and sustain my determination. I have learned now that the Master’s burden is light precisely when we take his yoke upon us.
As my sufferings mounted I soon realized that there were two ways that I could respond to my situation: either to react with bitterness or seek to transform the suffering into a creative force. I decided to follow the latter course. Recognizing the necessity for suffering I have tried to make of it a virtue. If only to save myself from bitterness, I have attempted to see my personal ordeals as an opportunity to transform myself and heal the people involved in the tragic situation which now obtains. I have lived these last few years with the conviction that unearned suffering is redemptive.
There are some who still find the cross a stumbling block, and others consider it foolishness, but I am more convinced than ever before that it is the power of God unto social and individual salvation. The suffering and agonizing moments through which I have passed over the last few years have also drawn me closer to God. More than ever before I am convinced of the reality of a personal God.
In the Book of Common Prayer, there is a prayer at the end of the Celebration and Blessing of a Marriage that reads: Most gracious God, we give you thanks for your tender love in sending Jesus Christ to come among us, to be born of a human mother, and to make the way of the cross to be the way of life.” To make the cross to be the way of life. It is the ultimate paradox. It doesn’t make sense, it is true.
With whatever cross you are struggling to accept, remember that Jesus is here for you to help you shoulder it. Trust that God’s grace will not only sustain you, but honor your suffering and help transform the loss you experience into a way of life. Rest assured that others will know something of grace and love because of the cross you accept and carry. Amen.