April 03, 2019
Mr. Samuel Dawes of St. Michael & All Angels and Bishop Mariann at the Seabury Resources for Aging Celebration of Service on April 3. Photo by Michele Egan
Teach us, Lord, to number our days, that we might set our hearts to wisdom.
Years ago, when our first child was a toddler, we traveled with him to Sweden, my mother’s homeland. It was the last time I saw my grandfather before he died. We traveled with dear friends who were completely enthralled with my grandparents’ way of life. “I love watching them,” one of them said. “It gives me a glimpse of what our lives could be at their age.”
It had not occurred to me before then to look at my grandparents’ life that way. Being so absorbed in the tasks of my own stage in life, I simply couldn’t imagine making the two-generation leap to be in their place.
But time has a way of moving forward, and I am now within a decade to being the age my grandparents were that summer. As I enter my sixtieth decade, I find myself wondering what those two generations behind me think of what it’s like to be this old.
I spoke last night with our twenty-eight year old son via video conference, a wonderful innovation for those of us with family far away. I had just returned from my step-mother’s funeral, a woman who, when she married my father, welcomed us into her circle of love as if we had been part of her biological family all along. The celebration of her long and lovely life was marked by deep grief, not only for her death but also the premature death of one of my step-sister's young adult sons, who was exactly our son’s age. On my computer screen, I saw his countenance change. He then told me that one of his close friends from college had just lost his younger brother who died in a hiking accident while traveling in Spain.
The deaths of two young adults were a poignant reminder to both of us that not everyone born has the privilege of growing old. For all its challenges and struggles, it is nonetheless a gift to grow old. I told him that I would be speaking to a congregation of elders this morning, people being honored for making transformational contributions in their communities of faith, and together we remembered with great affection the elders from the congregation he grew up in who had been such a positive presence in his life.
Then we talked about the fact fact that no matter our age—20, 40, 60, 80–there is always someone coming up behind us. Indeed, one of the tasks of eldership is to become the kind of people that rising generations love to spend time with, because of how we make them feel about themselves in our presence.
I’d like to explore with you this spiritual terrain of eldership and identify some of its tasks. In the words of the spiritual leader, Father Richard Rohr, “Not all grow up to be elders. Some of us just grow old.” The responsibilities of eldership don’t come upon us suddenly, but gradually over years. Eldership is like soil we must tend to whose fruits are the result of a lifetime of cultivation.
The first task I’ll mention today is finding a place inside ourselves large enough to hold the many losses of life and the grief they cause. Grief is not reserved for our elder years, but as we age, the losses occur more frequently and are compounded by other losses, as we must let go of some defining aspects of our outer identify, physical abilities, and our dreams of what life would be.
Aging is not for the faint-hearted. But the work of creating an internal home of acceptance is not ours alone. Here we can experience in profound ways the tender mercies of God and the personal presence of Christ. Christ cannot take our grief away, but He is present with us, holding us, giving us His strength, helping us carry on.
Another task of eldership leads us on the path of quiet joy: it is to look for and savor life’s small blessings as they come to us. This is the spiritual practice of paying attention to the many bits of goodness all around to us, to take them in, and allow them to fill us: As St. Paul wrote in his letter to the Philippians: “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these thing, and the God of peace will be with you.” (Philippians 4:8-9) When rising generations see us living in this way, seeking out and delighting joy, they are inspired to do the same and they are encouraged by our example to dream and live in hope.
A third task of eldership is what developmental psychologists call generativity, which is simply making a space for and giving preference to rising generations, and getting out of their way. This is the time in life when we are to care more about what others want than what we want. When I speak to congregations going through a transition in clergy leadership, I say to everyone over the age of 50 that our preferences should not be the primary agenda for the congregation’s future, even if we are paying most of the bills. Our preferences are not irrelevant, but our primary focus needs to be the spiritual questions and life needs of our children and grandchildren. I often think of the ministry of St. John the Baptist in this context, though he died a young man, for he said, in relationship to Jesus, “He must increase and I must decrease.” This is an important realization of our elder year: We are no longer at the center, but increasingly in the background, making life better for others.
The final eldership task I’ll mention today is also a source of great sustenance and joy for us, and surprisingly hard for us to make time for: this is the season of life to cherish friendship. We needn’t explore the spiritual terrain of growing older alone. We have each other. Look around this beautiful Cathedral and see all the people with whom we can share this stage of life with, if only we dared to speak together of the things that matter most.
I’m so grateful for a growing collaboration between Seabury Resources for Aging and the Diocese of Washington that is helping us create circles of community and deep conversation among us. I urge you to cherish your friendships in church, and take advantage of those precious opportunities to speak and grow spiritual eldership together.
Let me end this by giving thanks to God for everyone gathered here today, and especially for our honorees this morning. I have been looking forward to this day for a long time. It is an honor to be among you and share this ministry with you. You are an inspiration and a blessing, reminding us all that while we are blessed with the gift of years, we are here to love, to serve, and to create within ourselves a dwelling place for Christ and a bit of respite, encouragement, and joy for others.
May we remember the gift we are to one another as we strive each day to walk in Jesus’ way of love.
Read about the Seabury Celebration of Service 2019 Honorees
March 28, 2019
Top photo: Ms. Elizabeth B. Boyd, Congregational Resources Coordinator at Seabury Resources for Aging, answers a question at the Sightlines training March 8
Bottom photo: The. Rev. Henry McQueen, rector of St. John's, Olney, with lay leaders at the North Montgomery County region's joint vestry retreat March 23
Listen! A sower went out to sow…
A mentor once assured me that God has already planted the seeds of our future into the soil of our lives. His words came back to me this week as I pondered two astonishing events in the Diocese of Washington of the past month, planned months before we began our strategic planning process, yet consistent with our hopes of greater fruitfulness in ministry and spiritual growth among our people.
On Friday March 8th, thirty people representing eleven congregations of the diocese gathered at All Souls Episcopal Church to learn how to become facilitators for an offering in elder spirituality known as Sightlines: Spirituality and Purpose for the Path Ahead. A collaborative ministry between the Episcopal Diocese of Washington and Seabury Resources for Aging, Sightlines is a six-session series that invites those of us entering our elder years to explore the spiritual challenges and gifts of what is, for all of us, uncharted territory.
The Rev. Susan Walker addresses participants at the Sightlines training March 8
The spiritual tasks of aging are not for the weak of heart. As Father Richard Rohr, author of Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life, has observed, not all of us grow up to be elders. Some of us just grow old. The spirituality of eldership is a vocation, one to be embraced with courage and sacrificial love. Sightlines creates space for deep and meaningful conversation, and provides tremendous resources for congregations, and regions, that wish to undertake this important ministry. It is also one that we as a diocese are investing significant resources into on our collective behalf, and I am deeply grateful for the partnership with Seabury Resources for the Aging. If you would like to learn more about Sightlines and other resources for elder spirituality, contact Mildred Reyes EDOW’s Missioner for Formation.
The second gathering that took my breath away this month was a joint vestry meeting on Saturday, March 23rd for seven congregations in North Montgomery County. At a North Montgomery County clergy gathering last fall, we decided to actually put a date on the calendar for such an event, months before we were in the official strategic planning process.
The Rev. Beth O'Callaghan (blue vest), rector of St. Nicholas', and lay leaders reflect on Faith Sharing Cards at the North Montgomery County region's joint vestry retreat March 23
Forty-five leaders met at St. Bartholomew’s, Laytonsville with me and Bishop Chilton Knudsen. We prayed and shared personal faith stories for much of the morning, using the Faith Sharing Cards that we have used in diocesan gatherings for the past several years. Reflecting on the experience of sharing stories, several commented how meaningful it was to go deep in conversation with another person, giving voice to our encounters with God and spiritual insights gleaned throughout our lives.
We then asked all present to reflect upon and share what they believed to be their congregation’s greatest spiritual strengths, and what they loved most about their faith community. There were many commonalities among them and a few key differences. Next, we asked each to reflect upon then share what they felt their congregation could benefit from in terms of diocesan support or collaborative endeavors. Again, there was several commonalities and a few differences.
Finally, we invited vestries to speak among themselves to identify the key issues they felt called by God to work on in the coming year. Which of those issues, we asked, are ones for you to work on by yourself as a congregation, and which ones might be best accomplished in a collaborative endeavor?
The seven vestries were unanimous in identifying two key ministry areas that would be most fruitfully accomplished in collaboration: elder spirituality and vestry leadership training.
My heart rejoices, for these are resources the wider diocesan community can readily provide. Most important, the leaders of seven congregations in the northern part of our diocese know that this is fruitful ministry they can undertake together. The clergy and wardens agreed to meet to determine next steps, as well as to take this good conversation into the North Montgomery County Becoming Good Soil Discovery Session scheduled for April 25th.
The Rev. Linda Calkins, rector and St. Bartholomew's, and lay leaders present the parish's stunning new labyrinth
We ended our day outside offering prayers of blessing for St. Bartholomew's stunning new labyrinth, which the congregation offers to their community and all of us for times of spiritual retreat. I drove home filled with gratitude to God and for the North Montgomery County leaders. Let me also say what a tremendous blessing it is to work alongside Bishop Chilton, whose ministry among us includes pastoral oversight of the North Montgomery County region.
God has indeed planted the seeds of our future among us. May we continue to nurture the soil of our congregations and our lives.
March 24, 2019
Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian; he led his flock beyond the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. There the angel of the LORD appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed.
Good morning, St. Dunstan’s. Let me begin by saying how glad I am to have the opportunity to be with you in these last weeks of your good rector’s tenure. Jeff was among the first clergy to greet me when I came into the diocese nearly 8 years ago, and I, like you, have been deeply blessed by his ministry and friendship.
The title of my sermon today is, “There are Burning Bushes Everywhere.” Moses, as you heard, had an experience of God while contemplating a burning bush that he came upon in the wilderness while tending his father-in-law’s flock of sheep. Moses said, "I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.”
Picture the terrain of your life from God’s perspective. Imagine the equivalent of burning bushes everywhere, those things that if you stopped to notice and engage might have the power to change you, and change the course of your life.
In your mind’s eye, see yourself walking that terrain every day. What would it take for you to stop and notice? If you’ve ever walked down a garden path with a young child, you know what it’s like to notice everything, to see each leaf and fascinating bit of dirt as if for the first time.
About the burning bush, Rabbi Lawrence Kushner writes:
The ‘burning bush’ was not a miracle. It was a test. God wanted to find out whether or not Moses could pay attention for more than a few minutes. When Moses did, God spoke. The trick is to pay attention to what is going on around you long enough to behold the miracle without falling asleep. There is another world right here within this one, whenever we pay attention. [Lawrence Kushner, God was in This Place and I Did Not Know: Finding Self, Spirituality, & Ultimate Meaning (Woodstock VT: Jewish Lights Publishing, 1991)]
Pondering this evocative image of a burning bush as a means that God uses to get our attention, it occurs to me that there are at least three different kinds of burning bushes, with distinct things to say to us. No doubt there are more than three, but for today consider these:
First, the burning bushes of everyday miracles, what Rabbi Kushner calls the garden variety everyday mystical experiences. The Irish poet John O’Donohue once said that the most amazing thing about our lives is that we are here at all, that we exist. Life itself is a burning bush and cause for wonder and gratitude.
Cultivating a spirit of gratitude opens us to the miracle of our lives and the small flames of countless burning bushes that require absolutely nothing from us, but are simply there to give us sustenance. At a Thanksgiving Day worship service two years ago, I challenged the girls at National Cathedral School to take up a 30-day gratitude experiment. For 30 days, I asked them to write down 3 things they noticed each day for which they were grateful, and what changes did they notice in themselves, if any, as a result of this practice. “Try not to miss a day,” I said, “but if you do, simply start again.” I also assured them that they didn’t have to pretend to be grateful for hardships and disappointments, but perhaps in the midst of the harder times to see if they might look around and name three things for which they could be grateful: a supportive friend; good food; a hot shower in the morning.
All the 4th graders at National Cathedral School made the gratitude experiment a class project. After 30 days, they all wrote me letters describing their experience, which I treasure. Here is a sampling of what they wrote:
I was inspired to be more grateful and it worked. I found myself happier, more joyful, and less worried.
I liked writing the gratitudes because I learned that even if you are in hard times, you should try to find joy. I noticed that it was good to appreciate what you have.
I learned that writing positive things every morning gave me a more positive attitude. I liked that I learned how grateful I am.
I found that each day writing my 3 gratefuls helped me calm down and get a good night sleep.
It helped me feel better about myself, to think about what I have, not what I don’t have that some people do.
I noticed my cheerfulness not only affected me but others and brightened their days.
All this from the practice of paying attention to the small burning bushes of daily miracles and giving thanks.
There is another kind of burning bush, the second of the three for today. It has some urgency to it, for it is born of someone else’s need for help. The call of this burning bush isn’t necessarily for you in particular; it calls out to anyone with eyes to see and ears to hear. In other words, its invitation is open ended, as if God were asking, “Is there anyone out there?”
I think of Jesus’ story of the Good Samaritan in this light. You recall that a man was robbed and left for dead on the roadside. Three men encounter him. Two of them, a priest and a Levite, pass by--not because they didn’t see, but because they chose to act as if they didn’t see. They were busy, important men, after all. They had no room for a wounded man. But another man, a Samaritan, did stop to help, not because God was calling him in particular, but because he saw the need and had room--or made room--to respond.
The priest and the Levite could just as well been the ones to offer mercy, but they didn’t. The Samaritan did. He saw the burning bush, took notice, and responded. God needed someone and the Samaritan took it upon himself to be the one.
If we live our lives with no margins at all, there is no space for us to respond to this kind of burning bush. Think of how God needs us to tend to the margins of our lives, the space that allows us to respond to the open-ended burning bushes, born of need. It’s important not to squander that capacity, and to be aware of what a gift it is. Imagine how grateful God is when we see a burning bush of need and respond because we can and we choose to do so.
The final burning bush calls to us as the second one does, but it’s invitation is not open-ended; it’s not for anyone. It has your name on it, or mine.
The example of Moses is instructive here. God wasn’t trying to get everyone’s attention with the blazing bush that was not consumed. God was speaking to Moses, and God deliberately chose fire as the means to get his attention because of the fire that had once burned so fiercely inside him.
Remember that Moses was born a Hebrew slave who had been taken from his parents and raised in a place of privilege, as the adopted grandson of some ruler who oppressed his people. Growing up, Moses saw injustice all around him, and it burned inside him like a consuming fire. One day, he saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew slave and in his rage, he killed the Egyptian. He then tried to engage his fellow Hebrews, but they wanted nothing to do with him. Fearing for his life, he fled to another country, and he settled there, eventually married and had children. He mellowed quite a bit in the ensuing years, under the wise tutelage of his father-in-law, Jethro. By the time he encountered the burning bush, Moses was living a comfortable life in exile.
But God needed him. God needed Moses for a particular task, to lead the Hebrew people, Moses’ own people, out of slavery into freedom. God needed Moses’ passion for justice, as well as his hard won wisdom. And so, God spoke to Moses in the language of fire, the same fire that once burned inside him.
In the words of Eric Law:
Moses’ passion for what was just and right had gotten him into trouble before. His rage had burned and consumed him, causing him to lose sight of his calling and to hide in Midian as a shepherd. Encountering the burning bush reignited his passion for justice. But this time, the bush was not consumed. God promised Moses that his passion would bring about life for many. His passion, his fire, instead of consuming would take his people to a new land of freedom. The burning bush was the symbol of his original calling, with which Moses needed to reconnect. [Eric Law, Holy Currency Exchange: 101 Stories, Songs, Actions, and Visions of Missional and Sustainable Ministries (St. Louis, MO: Chalice Press, 2015).]
From time to time God calls to us, getting our attention with some manner of burning bushes meant for you and for me alone. Through them, God calls you or me, just as God called Moses, for a particular task at a specific time.
It doesn’t happen every day, but when it does, there’s generally a reason, born of our life experiences. The connection runs deep, to a core truth that is often connected to suffering and pain. For that is one way God redeems and repurposes our lives, allowing vocation to emerge from our broken places, so we might experience healing and even gratitude where we once felt sorrow and shame.
Today I Invite you today to consider the varied burning bushes of your life and mine:
Take note of every miracle variety of burning bushes, those that require no response from you other than gratitude. Cultivate the practice of gratitude, rooted in awareness of the blessings that surround you on every side.
Keep watch for the open-ended burning bushes that call out to you because you are in a position to respond. They will present themselves at an inconvenient time, but the world is held by those who respond.
And know that there is most certainly a burning bush for you, and you alone, because of who you are, the gifts you have, the wounds you’ve endured. When such a burning bush presents itself, remember that God is calling you as you are, for who you are. Moses was utterly and completely human when God called him. And so are we.
If you are living in the midst of such a call now, may God bless you and give you strength. If you aren’t and wonder how you’ll know when God calls, remember that it will speak to you in a deep and personal way. In the meantime, practice paying attention, so that you’ll be ready when the flame appears to you, and you can respond with your wholehearted yes.
March 21, 2019
“Listen!” Jesus said. “A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seed fell on the path, and the birds came and ate it up. . . Other seed fell into good soil and brought forth grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirty and sixty and a hundredfold.” And Jesus said, “Let anyone with ears to hear listen!”
Last Saturday, 58 people representing the congregations from North Prince George’s County gathered for the first regional discovery session of our diocesan-wide strategic planning process, Becoming Good Soil. The congregation of St. Matthew’s/San Mateo provided gracious hospitality, serving us homemade tamales and fruit when we arrived, and a delicious lunch at mid-day. The regional leaders and diocesan staff had carefully arranged the tables and seat assignments to encourage conversation among congregational leaders. There were two translators among us, to ensure full participation for those whose first language is Spanish.
We prayed, asking the Holy Spirit to guide and bless our time together.
Mark Meyer, our consultant from the Unstuck Group, led us through a series of questions and group exercises. He was warm, respectful, and encouraging throughout the day. All those present were fully engaged. The energy in the room was wonderful.
We started by asking ourselves the foundational question of purpose: Why does the Church exist? The varied responses included: to become and make disciples of Jesus, to be a beacon of hope and love, to share the love of God, to serve the Kingdom of God; to build community, seek justice, grow in faith.
Mark then asked us a more practical question: How do we measure parish health? Again, the answers covered a broad terrain: growing membership, the level of engagement in parish offerings, the number of children and youth, recognition in our community, the ways we serve others. The group also recognized that some indicators of health are difficult to measure, such as the depth of our relationships, the presence of the Holy Spirit, individual spiritual growth.
Through the day, Mark gently encouraged us not to shy away from using metrics to assess health. He introduced us to a tool that the Unstuck Group uses to assist congregations in measuring health, what he called the Vital Signs Dashboard.
Over lunch, we divided ourselves into small working groups to engage the four core questions at the heart of our strategic planning process.
In our congregations and in the diocese as a whole:
What is healthy?
What is stuck?
What is unclear?
What is missing?
A scribe at each table captured everyone’s observations and insights. Then we took time to share a few common themes with the wider group. Mark invited us to name ministry opportunities in our congregations, specific outcomes we hoped for as a result of the strategic process, and what we imagined to be God’s dream for our churches and the region.
At the end of the day, Mark asked questions that I think about often:
What do you value most about being a part of this diocese?
What do you need most from your diocese?
This is the format we will use in the remaining seven regional discovery sessions. Next week two sessions are scheduled, for Central Montgomery Country and North Washington, D.C. You can find the full schedule of discovery sessions and registration here.
Please know that we invite everyone from our congregations to participate in your regional discovery sessions. You can also share your views via this survey if you can’t make your region’s session.
After all regions complete the discovery process, two leaders from each region and members of the diocesan staff will spend two days in retreat, distilling all we have learned and articulating as best we can our mission and purpose as a diocese and the most important goals for us to accomplish in the next 3-5 years.
We will bring our first drafts back to regional leaders for further refinement according to each regional context. After we complete that process and have our mission and goals articulated and approved, the Unstuck Group will work with us on issues of structure and staffing. God willing, we will have the workings of a diocesan strategic plan by late fall of this year.
As his final word of encouragement on Saturday, Mark urged the leaders of North Prince George’s County not to wait for the strategic planning process to be completed, but to work now with the palpable energy between the congregations for more fruitful ministry. To that end, diocesan staff will stay in touch with regional leaders after each discovery session to see how we might take the next faithful step in ministry together.
Heartfelt thanks to all who are wholeheartedly engaging this discerning process. You are my inspiration. May God bless our intentions and deep desire to become good soil for the Kingdom.
March 17, 2019
Then the Lord said to Abram, "I am the Lord who brought you from Ur of the Chaldeans, to give you this land to possess." But he said, "O Lord God, how am I to know that I shall possess it?"
At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, "Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you." He said to them, "Go and tell that fox for me, 'Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem…"
Good morning. For those I have not yet greeted personally, my name is Mariann Budde and it my privilege to serve as bishop of this diocese. Among the great joys of my work is to walk alongside your gifted clergy, Andrew and Amanda, and your lay leaders, and to see the growth and excitement of ministry here at Grace. I have been looking forward to this day for sometime. Should you be a guest at Grace this morning, in the name of Christ and all in the congregation, I welcome you.
Let me begin with a question that perhaps you have asked when considering Jesus’ life. I wonder when Jesus knew. When did he know that it wasn't going to be enough to heal people, cast away their demons, and teach them in parables? When did he realize that he needed to become a parable, a living expression of something much bigger than what his human life could hold? When did he know that he had to die?
In Scripture, there are many answers to that question, all ambiguous, as I'm sure Jesus would have wanted. From the sources that describe Jesus as more divine than human, he always knew it was his destiny to die. From those who describe him as more human, he never knows for sure, and he resists until the end. Remember how he prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane, "Abba, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me." But even in his full humanity, the likelihood of death was always before him. As we just heard him say, "I must be on my way, for it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem." If he had to die, it would not be as a victim, but as a prophet, a parable, a manifestation of God’s redemption.
When did he know? When do any of us know? My stepmother died last week, a woman of grace and courage. About two months ago, she knew that it was her time to die. She was quite clear: no more medical procedures, no more hospitals. I was struck by how brave she was, and truly, she died as she had lived, in quiet dignity.
When do you know that it's time for you, perhaps not to die, but to be on your way, to be about something important? When have you known that what you were up against was more than you could possibly overcome or avoid? How do you know when it's time to cross over from one way of being who you are to some other way? And what do you when you know that the transformation required is going to be anything but easy?
Jesus had suspicions that he would die young. He tried to warn his disciples and prepare them for what was coming, but they never wanted to listen. It reminds me of what happens in a family when one person has something to say that others aren’t ready to hear. When it finally happened as Jesus said it would, the disciples were stunned, unprepared, and ashamed, because deep down they had known all along, yet they refused to acknowledge what they knew, thus leaving Jesus to carry his burden alone.
In family systems theory there is an assumption that when one person in a family or community knows something, particularly when what is known is painful or frightening or bound to cause a disruption in the family or community’s equilibrium, the moment he or she knows it, everyone else in the family knows it, too, on some level beyond words. When one member of the family is facing serious illness or death, for example, or is preparing to leave, or has done something wrong, or is changing in some profound way, the entire family knows. That's why speaking truth is so important, and keeping secrets so destructive. Keeping the knowledge everyone knows secret simply means that it goes into the realm of the unconscious, beyond reach, leaving everyone alone with the unacknowledged truth. Sometimes we don't want to know what is known and thus we choose to forget. We choose not to know. But the energy required to forget what we know is costly, both to the psyche and to the fabric of relationships. A great deal is lost when we choose not to know. I think that's why Jesus talked about his death long before it was obvious. He knew it was better to speak the truth, even when it could not yet be fully heard.
Related to the question of when did he know he had to die is the even more perplexing question, why? Why did he have to die? Quite apart from the obvious political answer, that he died because he was a nuisance to Roman authorities and a threat to religious leadership, there is the more haunting religious answer. He died, his followers at last concluded and three centuries later wrote down in creeds of faith, for us. He died for us and for our salvation.
Many of us struggle with what these words mean even as we recite them in worship. Clearly they mean different things to different people. I daresay the concept of Jesus dying for us, and in particular, dying for our sins, is one of the greatest attractions of Christianity for some, and the biggest stumbling block for others.
I’ve lost count of the number of people who have told me that they don’t believe in God, and when I ask them to tell me about the God they don’t believe, they describe one who demands the sacrifice of his blameless son to atone for the sins of the world. “Who would want to believe in such a God,” they ask, and they’re right. The view of why Jesus had to die, which is known in theological circles as “penal substitution,”—Jesus’ innocent death as a substitution for the punishment we all deserve—is justifiably offensive, no matter how sympathetic we might be to those who originally conceived it.
We could spend an entire year’s worth of sermons exploring the many ways Christians understand and interpret the meaning of the cross. No matter how we talk about it, though, the cross, and the reality of sacrifice, will remain central. If you’re going to be a Christian, there’s no getting around the cross. A theologian by the name of Peter Schmiechen has written a book with no less than ten distinct views of what Christians call “atonement theory.” In it, he argues, “If one cannot find a way to confess the saving power of the cross, then Jesus becomes irrelevant and the church has no good news.” [Schmiechen, Peter, Saving Power: Theories of Atonement and Forms of the Church (Grand Rapids: W.B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2005), 1] I believe that we are right to question one extreme view of Christ’s sacrifice that is all too easily distorted in ways that defy logic and contradict fundamental truths the Church proclaims about God’s nature and love. But that doesn’t mean that his death wasn’t about sacrifice, and even sacrifice for us.
Let me start again, from a different angle. I once attended a conference with a group of spiritual leaders brought together by Trinity Institute of New York City. One of the other participants was a monk who served as a spiritual director and retreat leader of groups throughout the country. [Sadly, I have forgotten his name. He was a brother and priest of the Society of St. John the Evangelist, a monastic order of the Episcopal Church based in Cambridge, Ma. I attended this conference in 2001 and my notes do not include his name.] He was about as spiritual-looking as a person could be, complete with black cassock and a large Celtic cross that he wore every day of our conference. Yet he had an utterly unpretentious air about him. He was always the first in line for food; quick with a joke to tell over dinner (some not fit for repeating in a sermon), and the only one of the group who excused himself to watch television in the evening.
One morning he spoke to us about a pivotal experience in his life and faith. He was one of those young men destined for priesthood from an early age, he said, a real goody two shoes. He became a good monk and a good priest, highly sought after for his insights and dedication, a rising star in the religious world. Yet there was another side of his life, hidden from view, one of chaos, depression and alcohol. It didn't catch up with him until he was in his forties. In truth, it never really caught up with him, in that he could have kept going for years. His shadow self was not overtly destructive to others and he was able to keep it at bay. And despite his inner deception, he was very good at helping other people. But the duplicity exhausted him, and one day he decided to stop hiding.
It was the scariest thing he had ever done, he said, to be completely honest for the first time in his life. That's when he learned something about God he had never known before. "I realized," he told us, "that God was there for me, too; that grace was for me, too. I had always assumed that grace was for everyone but me. I never knew that God cared so much for me; that no matter how well I served others in God’s name, God was not willing to allow me to suffer in silence and shame.
"Do you know that for yourself?" he asked us. "Do you know that God is there for you, too, inviting you to face the very things you would rather hide behind your good works and attractive appearance?" Let me ask you that same question, friends of Grace: “Do you know that God is here for you?”
He told us about how his view of God and Jesus had changed as a result of this experience. "My original understanding of the Biblical story," he said, "went something like this: We were created by God to tend the garden and to keep God company. But we made a terrible mistake, doing the one thing God told us not to do, and God became angry. So we had to leave the garden, and life became very hard. God tried to tell us how to live, but we wouldn't listen. God sent people to show us the way, but we wouldn't accept them. Finally, because God was righteous and required justice, and yet realizing how hopeless we were, God sent a perfect One to die on our behalf, a pure sacrifice, to make things right."
"This was my primary story of faith," he said, "and I daresay for many others of my generation. It's what we tried to accept or eventually rejected because it made no sense. One problem with this story is that that we are completely passive in it. There’s nothing for us to do after accepting what God has done. It doesn't teach us how to live, or explain why we're even worth redeeming in the first place."
"But there is another story of faith, from the exact same Bible, which has become my story now. It begins in a different place and goes something like this: God created the world and it was good. God created us and we were good. We were created to keep God company, to share in the work of creation with God, and to be a blessing to all the world. But things often go wrong and get in the way of our blessedness. We make mistakes, sometimes terrible ones; the world is a harsh place; and those we depend upon can let us down. Evil runs rampant sometimes. But even in our imperfection, God calls us by name, again and again, to remind us of our blessing and our work.
“Sometimes God will take us out of our places of comfort, just as he did with Abraham, and lead us to a new place, for a new purpose. We are hardly perfect as instruments of God's design, but God remains steadfast. The entire biblical story is, from beginning to end, one of God's steadfast love. Jesus is the culmination of God's love story, the ultimate expression of what it means to be fully alive and reconciled to God. His death is a symbol of the lengths God will go to set us free and make us whole.
“And the reason why God does all these things for us? Because we are God's beloved and God's partners in redeeming the world. It is astonishing to realize how much God needs us to do our part, large or small, in the work of reconciliation, healing, truth-telling and peace-making. So it matters that we are as self aware, honest, and healthy as we can be. God needs us for great and important work.”
Do we believe this, that God loves us and needs us to be as healthy and fully alive as we can be? Friends of Grace Church: "Do you believe that God needs you to be strong and whole for the great work you have been given to do?" May I be so bold as to invite you to dare to believe what we say about God’s love is true, and true for you?
If so, then you and I need to be on our way to our Jerusalem, the place God is calling us. We have a crossing over to accomplish, and a truth to acknowledge. Perhaps we have a relationship to reconcile, a secret to disclose, a new possibility to consider. We all have work to do. Jesus makes it quite clear that there is pain involved in this process, as there is with any birth and transformation. But he goes with us, showing us the breadth of God's love and lengths that God is willing to go for our sake. His life and death is a parable of how redemption works—that out of pain there is joy; out of fear arises courage; and out of death, we emerge with a transformed life.
May I pray with you? Gracious God, I thank you for each person here, and for the countless ways you are at work within and among us all. Thank you for your love. I ask that you please guide us in the path of love and life transformation, that we may know ourselves as your beloved and as ones called to share your love. Be especially close, Lord, in those times when we must face the hardest truths. Teach us to lean on you and your grace. In Jesus’ name. Amen.