Episcopal Diocese of Washington

Engaging a changing world with
an enduring faith in Jesus Christ

Bishop's Writings

In-Between Time

May 30, 2019

Jesus said to them, “Stay here in the city until you have been clothed from power from on high.”
Luke 24:49

One of my favorite poems is called “Imperatives,” by Kathleen Norris. Norris read the gospels in search of Jesus’ imperatives, or commands, sprinkled throughout his teachings. These are the things that Jesus told us to do, such as: Look at the birds; consider the lilies; stretch out your hand; enter by the narrow gate; do not be anxious; rise; love; forgive.

To that list of imperatives, the Feast of the Ascension adds another: stay here until you have been clothed with power from on high. That is, stay where you are until you receive the clarity, direction, and power that you need to move forward. You don’t have that clarity, direction and power yet. Until you do, stay put.

The context for this command is the luminous time shortly after the resurrection when Jesus had a way of appearing or showing up with and among his disciples. They were in an upper room, or on the road to Emmaus, or on the shores of Lake Galilee, and suddenly there he was. He was present, assuring them, against all evidence to the contrary, that God was in charge and all was well.

But then the time came for this phase of their relationship to end and for another to begin. “You will receive power from the Holy Spirit, and you will be my witnesses to the end of the earth,” he told them. “But stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”

At its simplest level, the command is to wait. But it’s not like waiting for a movie to begin. This is waiting for the things beyond our reach, those things that exceed our capacity to make happen and are far from inevitable. It is waiting for what we cannot as yet see. To make it even harder, we’re waiting for this new thing while at the same time something familiar and even precious to us is ending. There we are—in the in-between time. It can be unsettling, as we feel the past slipping away while the future remains unclear.

The waiting can take many forms. Maybe we’re wrestling with an urgent question that’s really bothering us inside or causing conflict with others, but it isn’t one that we can easily resolve. Answers to urgent questions rarely come easily or quickly, no matter how hard we seek them. Thus we have no choice but to live with difficult questions for however long it takes for clarity to emerge.

We may find ourselves waiting because there is a task before us that requires skills or capacities we don’t have. Harder still, the work may require a real inner change in us, a change in attitude more costly than we’re prepared to make. Working for this kind of change involves a lot of internal waiting, as we bump up against the limits of our current repertoire of skills and attitudes and fail in our efforts to try harder with what no longer works.

Perhaps we’re waiting because we can’t see. Or because someone else holds part of our destiny in their hands. Not being able to see what’s up ahead is unnerving, particularly when other people keep asking us about our future plans. This is helpful to keep in mind when making conversation with high school or college graduates. Some may not know what’s ahead for them, and we don’t make it easier for them when we bring up the subject.  

How, then, to live gracefully in a time of waiting?

The great temptation of a waiting time is to assume that we must either move full steam ahead, even when we’re not ready and don’t know where we’re going, or give up entirely, to become passive and do nothing. The dangers of either extreme are clear enough. I have learned the hard way to be suspicious of urgency, when I feel or others say that a decision must be made now. While there are times when we must take action, often, in anxiety, we rush ahead too soon. And if we can’t act, we’re tempted to throw up our hands and give up completely, a position that strips from us all moral agency and courage.

As an antidote to the temptations of a waiting time, former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams suggests that we cultivate what he calls, “passionate patience.” Such patience allows us to live grounded in where we are right now, and ready to move toward the future when it beckons. “Poised readiness,” is another way to describe this approach to life. Animals in the wild give us the most compelling image of being completely still, yet poised to move when the time is right.  

There’s something wonderfully freeing about practicing passionate patience or poised readiness. In talking with a group of confirmands from St. Columba’s Church, I realized that poised readiness describes what it feels like for me to follow Jesus each day as my Savior and Lord.

I told them that each day when I rise, as soon as I remember, I pause to acknowledge Jesus as being in charge of my life. While the day almost always has a long list of responsibilities and tasks waiting for me, a part of me is waiting for guidance from Him. When the word from Jesus is “stay here,” I go about about my life, internally waiting for the power and the clarity he promised would come to guide my next steps. It helps me resist the tendency to push too hard or move too fast, and to trust that Jesus is Lord, not in the abstract, but in a way my life depends daily.

May it be so for you in your in-between times.

Starting with the Compassion of Jesus: Abortion and Women's Reproductive Health

May 23, 2019

Now there was a woman who had been suffering from haemorrhages for twelve years; and though she had spent all she had on physicians, no one could cure her. She came up behind Jesus and touched the fringe of his clothes, and immediately her haemorrhage stopped... Jesus said to her, ‘Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace.’
Luke 8:41-48

With the news of legislation passed in several states greatly restricting a woman’s access to abortion with the expressed intention of setting the stage for the Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade, I commend to you a Summary of the Episcopal Church statements on Abortion and Women's Reproductive Health.

It begins in the context of pastoral care:   

Clergy throughout The Episcopal Church counsel women, men, and families who must make decisions relating to pregnancy and childbirth, adoption, family planning, and who face infertility. Our ordained and lay leaders walk alongside Episcopalians and others who struggle with this intimate and challenging aspect of human life. Over the past several decades, the General Convention has addressed the topic of abortion from a position informed by this ministry and personal lived experience of clergy and laity within their own families. As a result, the General Convention of The Episcopal Church recognizes the moral, legal, personal, and societal complexity of the issue. The diversity of views within the Church represents our common struggle to understand and discern this issue.

My colleague, Bishop Jennifer Reddall of Arizona, wrote a thoughtful piece on this issue, Call the Midwife Meets 2019. With gratitude, and her permission, I share it with you here: 

Call the Midwife has been one of my favorite TV shows since its premiere. It is set in 1960s London, and the main characters are midwives and nuns living in Nonnatus House, an Anglican convent dedicated to women's health. The personal and professional dramas are often reflected upon in prayer and meals around the community table. Any TV show that includes women's voices singing Vespers is a show I am inclined to love.

The narrative arc of the current season has been threaded with storylines about abortion, along with the issues that accompany abortion: maternal health, poverty, social stigma of unmarried mothers, mental illness, inaccessibility of birth control, and domestic violence. Abortion in the show's context is illegal--but not inaccessible--and extremely risky.

I've been intrigued by the intersection between this fictionalized, historic narrative, and the present-day national conversation around the recent, highly restrictive laws controlling access to abortion services, and women's health more generally.

In Call the Midwife, characters are consistently presented with situations that do not fit into their ideal moral view. Mothers face hard choices; the midwives are caught between caring for their patients and fulfilling their legal obligations. The midwives--both lay and religious--are not of one mind about whether abortion should be permissible. But to a person, they always respond to their patients with compassion and empathy--and they allow themselves to be changed by the stories they encounter.

Jesus taught using stories. When we hear about characters who struggle with issues we struggle with, it can open our minds and hearts to the Love of God, and reminds us how Jesus interacts with the people around him. The Gospel consistently recounts that Jesus 'had compassion' on people and crowds, and his compassion leads him to action to relieve their suffering and hunger. I see the face of Jesus in the characters in Call the Midwife: they love, they weep, they care, they heal, they pray, and they stand by their patients through joy and grief.

I wish I heard more compassion and more love towards women in our national and legal debates--and not just when they have an unwanted or unviable pregnancy. The lifetime of stories I have heard and shared with the women I know have moved my own thoughts and opinions about abortion into a place that is roughly equivalent to what The Episcopal Church has stated in our General Convention resolutions.

One in four women in the United States has had an abortion by the age of 45--which means that every one of us knows many people who have those stories; but our culture doesn't make them easy to share. Maybe it's easier to turn to fictionalized stories like Call the Midwife to inspire our compassion.

But I pray that our congregations will always be places where people can find the compassionate face of Jesus, no matter what story they have to tell. And those other issues--maternal health, poverty, social stigma of unmarried mothers, mental illness, inaccessibility of birth control, and domestic violence--these are where we, regardless of our beliefs about the legality and accessibility of abortion services, must find ways to draw closer to the love of God and concretely demonstrate our love of God's beloved children.

Why Christian; Why the Episcopal Church, continued

May 16, 2019

Always be ready to make your defense . . . for the hope that is within you.  
1 Peter 3:15

Last week I invited readers of my weekly reflections to send me their response to the questions, Why Christian? Why the Episcopal Church? The responses I’ve received thus far (more are welcome) are indeed testimony Rachel Held Evans’ assertion: “There remains no greater apologetic for the Christian life than a life caught up in the story of Jesus.”

Here are but a few excerpts (with personal details omitted);

-- My husband retired from the ministry and we moved to Southern Maryland after 40 years serving in an evangelical denomination. Toward the end of our ministry I was feeling some internal struggles and not really understanding what I was feeling. It was when I visited a small Episcopal church in St Mary’s City, with my son, ( a millennial, and now an Episcopalian priest,) that I felt a sense of awakening and renewal... I felt like I had come home.

-- The Way of the Cross -- the story of Jesus’ suffering, dying and rising -- tells me that we are never alone, never abandoned, even when it feels that way, in the hardest moments of loss and pain, of sinfulness and brokenness. . .  Resurrection tells me that love ultimately triumphs, and has taught me to live in hope, even when hope might seem absurd as it often does.

-- I am an Episcopalian Christian because this church’s emphasis on the sacraments and its observations of different seasons encourages me to live and honor the life of the body and nourishes my spirit at the same time, AND connects me to a much bigger community -- those gathered for worship and also the whole body of people who are at prayer at any one time, on this side of the grave and beyond.

-- One can never underestimate the formative impact of having been raised in a particular faith tradition. Christianity feels woven into the very fabric of my identity as a person. I had a very powerful, intimate, and personal experience with Christ as my savior in college (I literally fell in love with Jesus), and have “known” ever since that I belong to him. Jesus is my prophet. His outlook on life, and his vision for the world’s restoration -- and how we can get there -- resonates with me above any other approach or theory.  

-- I am a Christian because I cannot shake it off -- and I have tried. I grew up in a Southern Baptist Church, wondering whether my name, George, had one, two, or even three syllables. Because I was a child, all of my early religious instruction was from women. Allow me to pause for a moment to lift Ruth, June, Buddy, and many other women for taking time from their busy lives to make sure that a few little boys and girls like me knew that Jesus loved us.

-- I am a Christian because I so deeply believe that our human hearts are broken, that our human institutions and governments are hopelessly flawed, that God loves to perform miracles, and that those miracles are accomplished one human heart at a time.

-- I was drawn to the Episcopal Church because there I felt a seriousness of purpose -- I believed that people would fall down and worship Jesus if he appeared.

-- I am a Christian because it was the faith of my parents and grandparents. I am still a Christian because my heart and mind have led me into the deeper mysteries of our faith. The mysteries of prayer, of community, of Resurrection, of Incarnation, of saints, of Word, of sacrament of Spirit, these nourish my soul. This is the living water, of which Jesus spoke to the women at the well. I am a Christian because I thirst.

-- One of my early childhood memories is standing in the front of our “United Protestant” church with the children's choir. The sunlight was streaming in through high clerestory windows, the dust mites were catching the light like little stars, and we were singing “Jesus Loves Me.” I was maybe 4 or 5 years old, and realized in that moment that Jesus loved ME. It was a lovely thought, caught up in the beauty of the star dust, and I have been a believer ever since. Looking back, I consider that to be one of God's miracles, because my family of origin was not a loving environment.

-- I am a Christian because Jesus Christ changed my life and continues to change my life. It took my breath away the first time someone said “if you had been the only person that ever lived, Jesus still would have come and died and rose again, just for you. He loves you that much.” I believe that and I repeat it as often as possible.

-- For me the question why Christian is really, why Jesus? My answer starts with, because Jesus saved me, though I don't mean that in an atoning sacrifice for sin kind of way. What I mean is that Jesus, and my faith in him, saved me from being the worst version of myself, what I could have been -- bitter, cynical, judgmental. I still have those darker parts of myself to pay attention to, but because of Jesus I am a kinder, more compassionate person. . . Jesus’ way of death and resurrection, new life out of great pain, wholeness out of sharp brokenness has been the defining pattern of my life, and his journey has given mine language, and a framework, and a hope I wouldn’t otherwise have. In the worst times of my life, Jesus has been that voice in my ear reminding me that eventually, even when I can’t see it, the Good Friday I find myself in will give way to Easter, and there will be a way forward. When I am unable to trust that bigger picture, Jesus reminds me that all I have to do is trust in him, and keep going. For that, for him, for his presence in my life, I am profoundly grateful.

-- I am a new Christian, baptized in 2017. I had long been a spiritual seeker, but I never seriously considered mainline Christianity because I thought it was homophobic. (I'm straight but a strong believer in equality.) But after Trump's victory in 2016, I was so demoralized that I asked a friend if I could go to church with her. I was impressed because the day after Election Day, her church had held an emergency Eucharist. I don't think I knew what Eucharist meant, but I appreciated the recognition that people needed something.

-- For me, Christianity is experiencing everything being made new. . .

These are the stories we need to share with one another, and with others who might wonder why we follow Jesus and what difference it makes. As summer approaches, consider gathering with those you see in church every week or work alongside in service to others, and ask the question, “Why are you Christian?”

At the end of my sermon for the Confirmation service at Washington National Cathedral, I told part of my faith story that you can read here.  

Finding Our Home in God

May 12, 2019

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want . . .
Psalm 23

My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. 
John 10:27

 When I was in my early 20s, navigating the complicated and confusing terrain of young adult relationships, my priest at the time offered a word of counsel that I have never forgotten: seek out relationships, she suggested, with people who bring out the best in you. Pay attention to those relationships that you can feel at home in, free to be your true self and inspired to become your best.

Around that same time, I came across a similar definition of vocation as work that makes us more of who we are, the things we can do and offer that not only make a positive contribution, but help us realize something important in ourselves. The poet David Whyte speaks of setting out boldly in our work, making a pilgrimage of our labors, understanding that the consummation of work lies not only in what we have done, but who we have become while accomplishing the task. (David Whyte, Crossing the Unknown Sea: Work as a Pilgrimage of Identity (New York: Riverhead Books, 2001), 15.)

Finally, in this same theme, consider the following passage from Marcus Borg’s book The Heart of Christianity about finding a faith community that resonates with your soul: “In my judgment,” he writes, “the single most important spiritual practice is to be part of a congregation that nourishes you even as it stretches you…If you are not involved in any church or are part of one that leaves you hungry and unsatisfied, find one that nurtures and deepens your Christian journey. Find one that makes your heart glad.” (Marcus Borg, The Heart of Christianity: How We Can Be Passionate Believers Today (HarperSanFrancisco, 1989), 194-5.)

What I’m trying to describe through these three examples is the experience of finding oneself at home—in relationships, through our work, and in community—free to be who we are, and also called forth to become our best selves through our engagements and endeavors. It isn’t always smooth sailing in those places where we are at home; challenge, struggle, and doubt are part of the experience as well. And I’m certainly not suggesting that we are never called outside our comfort zones, for, of course, we are. But it’s one thing to face challenges and reach beyond our comfort in the context of a fundamental at-homeness in the world, as opposed to when we feel perennially like a fish out of water. Indeed, we’re less likely to reach out beyond ourselves if we’ve never found comfort in our own skin.

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.

The 23rd psalm is quite possibly the most-well known and memorized text in all Bible, It speaks of our true home in God, the one who cares for us and looks out for us as the most devoted shepherd would care for his sheep.

He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name's sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.

In the Gospel of John, Jesus often speaks of himself in the imagery of a shepherd, as we heard read today: “My sheep hear my voice”, he says. “I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. In another place he says even more plainly, “I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me.” (John 10:1-18)

This is a classic expression of the kind of intimacy we can experience in relationship with Christ. At its essence, the Christian isn’t about following a set of religious rules or ascribing to set beliefs, but rather about finding oneself at home in God and God at home in us.

What is that experience like? The hunger for it is universal enough, but where do we go to know God in a way that moves us beyond rules to follow, and beliefs to accept?

We may not have to work as hard at experiencing God in this way as we think. In the introduction to her book, Altar in the World, the Episcopal priest Barbara Brown Taylor sets up the now-familiar distinction in our culture between religion and spirituality.

“If I had a dollar for every time I heard someone say, ‘I’m spiritual but not religious,’”, she writes, “I may not be any wiser about what that means, but I would be rich.” “I think I know what they mean by religious,” she writes, “the creeds, confessions, rituals, and religious wars, large or small, that are part of any so-called organized faith system. It’s the spiritual part that’s harder to grasp.” She then goes on to describe what she thinks people mean when they speak of spirituality: that longing for more—more meaning, more feeling, more connection, more life. Even religious people, she says, those of us who tend to show up and be part of a church community, are filled with this longing. We all have this sense, deep down, that there’s more to life than what we experience. “Where is the hidden secret?” we wonder. “Who has the key to the treasure box of more?”

The last place we think to look for the treasure of more life is right where we are, in our own skin, in our own lives and everyday routines. Yet this great gift of the spiritual life—being at home in ourselves, in our work, in the world, and in God—begins right where we’re standing. “All we lack,” Taylor suggests, “is the willingness to imagine that we already have everything we need. The only thing missing is our consent to be where we are.” (Barbara Brown Taylor, Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith (New York: HarperCollins, 2009), xiii-xv.)Once we consent, we can begin to practice; practice, as each chapter in Taylor’s book, “waking up to the presence of God,” practice “paying attention,” practice “walking the earth,” practice “feeling pain,” practice “living with purpose.”

Years ago, when as a teenager I was first introduced to the concept of having a relationship with God through Jesus Christ, the minister of the church I had stumbled into asked me if I was ready to invite Jesus into my heart. I didn’t know what he meant, but my heart was a lonely place at the time and so I said yes. The earth didn’t move under my feet, and the pain inside me didn’t disappear, but something in me shifted with that ‘yes,’ through that small step of consciously opening myself to the presence and love of God. Looking back, I would say that Christ was already inside me, but because the presence of Christ never forces itself upon us, my consent was an important part of the spiritual equation for me, as is for all of us. That consent takes us deeper into God’s presence, both in and around us, and gives us a place to call home in God, no matter where we wind up, no matter how many times we fail, or make mistakes, or hurt another, or are hurt ourselves.

It’s Mother’s Day. Because I’m lucky enough to still have a mom, and be a mom, and as of four weeks ago to be a grandmother, I’ve both given and received flowers today, which is a nice thing. But the mother on my mind is a woman I knew when she was a teenager, as a member of the parish I served in Toledo, Ohio nearly 30 years ago. Her mother had died when she was 12. Her father did his best to raise her well despite their great loss, and he succeeded. I met her when she was 15, and she was, like her dad, a joyful, thoughtful, compassionate person. I asked her once about her mother. She told me some things about her, and that she missed her every day. She told me that her mother’s death had taught her, at a tender age, that life is precious.

The daughter grew up, went to college, then to graduate school, and eventually she married a man who took a teaching position at University of Wisconsin in Eau Claire. Her father moved to Eau Claire to be close to them, and by that time I had moved on to serve a congregation in Minneapolis. I would hear from them from time to time, and on their occasional cultural outings to the Twin Cities, they stopped by our house. Once I was with them when the young woman was pregnant with their first child. A few months later, she and her husband became parents of a sweet baby boy.   

About a year after that, I received an email from the young woman’s father. I need to warn you that the story is about to take a very sad turn. For he wrote with tragic news: the baby had taken a fall, sustained severe injuries, and was flown to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, where he died. I called later that evening and he told me that his daughter had been carrying her child down the stairs when she missed a step and fell with her baby in her arms.

You and I know that such tragedies occur every day. We all carry intimate knowledge of deep loss and routinely hear of such sorrow to the point we are desensitized to it until it touches us personally. I think it’s a miracle that we, as a species, have survived, given the pain we must endure. When I thought of this young woman who knew the loss of her own mother, now required to bear loss again as a mother, it was more than my heart could imagine at the time, and could imagine still.

My prayer in those years was simply for God to be with her, to walk with her through the valley of the shadow of death, to make a home in her grief and sustain her through the long process of mourning that lay before her, until she comes at last to a place of peace. I’m pleased to report to you that now, over 10 years later, that she and her husband are, indeed, in a better place. One way they channeled their grief was to establish a foundation in honor of their son. They eventually had another child. There was no shortcut through the valley of the shadow of death for them, but the grace of God, and the love of her family and friends, and the resilience of the human spirit, they made it through.  

Life is precious, she told me years ago, and it is. It is precious, and vulnerable, and we hold it in our hands.

If you have the opportunity to shower someone you love with affection today, do it. If you have the capacity to forgive someone who has hurt you and be reconciled today, do it. If you have the chance to walk in a park filled with spring flowers, do it. If you have the strength to reach out and make the world a better place, to be a voice for justice and a force for good, do it. And if you ever hear the voice of Jesus speak to you, with an invitation to trust in his love, to find your home in his heart and trust that he dwells in yours, say yes. Say yes, and know yourself as you are: a beloved, cherished child of God.

The One Who Calls You is Real (Cathedral Confirmation Service)

May 11, 2019

The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour . . .
Isaiah 61:1-4

Good morning all, and may it be a particularly good morning for those of you here to be Confirmed, Received into the Episcopal Church, or to make a public reaffirmation of faith. Speaking on behalf of my bishop colleagues, I want you to know what a privilege it is for us to pray for each one of you by name, asking that the Holy Spirit strengthen and sustain you all the days of your life, and to release in you the particular and priceless gifts that God has given you, so that you may know the joy of living from that giftedness and fulfill your unique destiny. I also would like to publicly thank your family, friends, spiritual leaders and faith communities. There’s a part in the service coming up when they will promise to do all in their power to support you in your life in Christ, and they are here today because they mean it when they say that they will. They love you and are your reminder that we’re not meant to walk the road of faith or of life alone.

I’d like to start with a story found in the accounts of Jesus’ life known as the gospels. It’s one of many of a particular genre found in the Bible known as “call” stories. We just heard an example of a call story from the prophet Isaiah: The spirit of the Lord is upon me because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners. The word “anoint” refers to an oil that is used to ceremonially set someone apart for a particular task. In all the call stories of the Bible, someone, like Isaiah, hears or experiences something, a word or a sensation that propels them to do something or go somewhere or dedicate their life to a particular work.

One of my favorite invitation call stories takes place early in Jesus’s public ministry. Jesus was teaching and healing throughout the small villages in northern Israel near a lake known as the Sea of Galilee. The people living in this area responded to Jesus with great enthusiasm, such that crowds began to follow him wherever he went.

One day, Jesus asks a fisherman named Simon Peter if he could use his boat as a speaking platform from the water, in order that he might speak to those gathered on the shore, creating a natural amphitheatre, if you can picture it, with Jesus in the boat and the crowd on land. Though Simon Peter had just returned from a long and unsuccessful night of fishing and was no doubt exhausted, he agrees to row Jesus out onto the water. It doesn’t say how long Jesus stood out there teaching the crowds, but when he finished, Jesus turns to Simon and says, “Go out into the deep now water and let down your nets for a catch.” That’s when, as readers of the story, we realize that Jesus’ primary objective probably wasn’t to teach the crowd but to spend time alone with Simon Peter. Simon Peter gently reminds Jesus that he and his partners had been out all night and caught nothing and there was no use in lowering the nets again. Nonetheless, Simon agrees: “If you say so,” he said, “I’ll let down the nets.”

Now we all know that there a number of ways that a person can say, “If you say so.” Tone of voice and body language factor hugely. The Methodist Pastor Adam Hamilton has written a book about Simon Peter; in it, he describes this scene as one of “reluctant obedience,” something to which we can all relate. We’ve all been asked to do things that we don’t want to do, especially when we’re tired, or when what we’re being asked makes no sense to us”

I can also imagine Simon Peter saying “if you say so,” with the kind of exasperation my sons would use with me when they were teenagers in order to convey, “You obviously don’t know what you’re talking about, but to humor you and even prove you wrong, I’ll do what you say.” At other times, I hear Simon Peter speaking with a tone of weary hopefulness. It was a disaster in the economy of ancient Galilee for a fisherman to come home from a night of fishing with nothing. It meant that people in his family would go hungry. So perhaps he was willing to cast his net one more time on the chance that a few fish might show up to redeem his failed efforts.

With whatever meaning Simon Peter says what he says, what matters to the story is that Simon does what Jesus asks him to do. Suddenly there are more fish to catch than his nets can hold -- we’re talking hundreds of fish. Simon Peter’s response isn’t what you’d expect: there in the boat he falls to knee, overwhelmed with shame, and says “Go away from me, Lord for I am a sinful man.” He’s not ashamed of the fact that he doubted Jesus’ fishing sensibilities. No, in that moment Simon sees Jesus with new eyes. He realizes that he is in the presence of someone very special, and he doesn’t feel worthy. Surely if Jesus knew what kind of man Simon Peter was, Jesus wouldn’t want anything to do with him.

But you see, Jesus did know him. He knew all about him. He didn’t ask Simon Peter for help because he wanted Simon Peter’s boat. He wanted Simon. “Follow me,” he says. “From now on, you and I will be fishing for people.” Simon decides right then to follow Jesus and his life was forever changed (Luke 5:1–11).

The reason I’m telling you this story today is because it describes two experiences that are central to the Christian life, both wrapped up in this notion of call. The first is Jesus’ genuine affection for Simon Peter. Reading the gospels, you get the sense that Jesus not only loved Simon Peter; he really liked him. He liked being in his company. And he saw in Simon things that Simon didn’t see in himself.

Now in a church service like this, it’s easy to get the impression that we need to put on a bit of show for God -- we dress up, say prayers that someone else has written, make promises that others have made for thousands of years. It feels rather prescribed and formal, and it is. Not that there’s anything wrong with it. It’s good for us to come into a building set apart for sacred purpose and place ourselves in the path of prayer and practices that can help us put our lives in perspective. It’s good for us to feel Jesus’ presence because of the fact we’ve showed up and are somewhat paying attention, and to add our voices to the overall chorus of Christians across time and space.

But that’s not the whole of a relationship with God, and with Jesus -- not by a long shot. Here in this place, I want you to think about and get ready for those moments when you, like Simon Peter, get the sense that Jesus has shown up in your life, rather than you showing up in church for him. The experience of him showing up is always one of love, and not only does he love you -- I mean really love you -- he also likes you. He sees everything about you, all that you would work hard to hide from everyone else. He knows all the ways you struggle. He’d like to free you from some of the burdens you’re carrying that you don’t need to, and give you strength for the burdens that you must, hard as they might be. But the experience of Jesus showing up, however it comes, is  always astonishingly affirming. Jesus shows up and invites you into relationship with Him because he thinks you are amazing. You may find yourself thinking, like Simon Peter, well, that’s because Jesus doesn’t really know me, but in fact, he does know you. He knows you better than you know yourself.

The second dimension of a call experience is the call itself -- what you are being called to do. There can be an astonishing degree of specificity to a call experience, something as simple as a feeling that compels you to reach out to someone you haven’t spoken with for a long time, or to step up and volunteer where help is needed. It can be a call to go somewhere that you don’t want to go and do something you don’t want to do. Or conversely, it could be the answer to your heart’s desire, an invitation to lean into the things you are really good at and love to do.

In most of the call stories in the Bible, the persons being called feel particularly unsuited for the task. So their first response is some form of protest: I can’t do this, I’m too young, I’m too old, I freeze up when speaking in front of other people, I’m not worthy, this is too hard, find someone else, and so forth. So if you find yourself resisting whatever you're feeling called to, that’s not only normal, it’s expected. Very few people say yes right away even if what we’re being invited into is something we have wanted to do.   

I hope by now it’s clear that this experience call, though I’m talking about it in church, is anything but churchy, if you know what I mean. It has far more to do with our lives outside of sacred space, and how Jesus shows up alongside us as one who loves and delights in us, and in some way needs us to show up somewhere with him, and to claim the unique callings of our lives. By the way, he knows in advance that we’re going to mess things up from time to time, and as painful as that is when we do, it doesn’t seem to be a deal breaker for Jesus. I, for one, am grateful for that every day.

I’d like to close with a story from my life to illustrate a different manifestation of call, and I share it because it was one of those experiences that persuaded me, at a relatively young age, that Jesus was for real and I could trust his love and his call.

I was 17 and my family life was falling apart. A part of me knew that this was coming but I had pretty much given up on my family and found my solace and support among a tight-knit community of friends. When the final crash came, I had to make a really big decision. My father wanted me to live with him, but he was drinking a lot and I wasn’t about to go with him. My stepmother was furious with me for all sorts of reasons -- some legitimate -- and there was no way I could stay under her roof. The minister of the church I was attending invited me to live with his family, a lovely offer that I accepted for a time. But there was no way for me to stay with them permanently, and after a few weeks I certain that I didn’t want to, but that’s another story.

I realized that I needed to return to live with my mother, whom I had left at age 11 (devastating her, by the way) to live with my dad and stepmom. Going back would mean asking her forgiveness and leaving my beloved community of friends.

There was little external pressure for me to return to my mother. In fact, everyone in my world was working hard to ensure that I could stay, including those in the church who invoked God’s will to convince me that it would be best for me to stay with them. But I had this sense -- this internal feeling -- that I was to return to my mother’s home and live my life there. It was the loneliest decision I had made in my life up to that point. But here’s the thing: I felt Jesus with me. I felt his love for me. And I felt called, summoned to do this thing that I did not want to, which was to leave my life as I had known it and begin a new life. And he was with me.

I don’t know what call experiences have defined your lives thus far and will come to you in the future. I only know that they will. They come not only to Christians, of course, for this is God’s way with all human beings, no matter our faith or lack of it. But for those of us who feel called to follow Jesus, he comes to us and makes his presence known.  Obviously, we won’t experience him as Simon and others did when Jesus walked the earth. Jesus comes to us now in spirit. He comes in and through other people. He speaks through our thoughts and dreams, through the events in our lives, through what we read, listen to, or watch. When we see Jesus now, we see him with our inner eye. When we hear him, we hear him in our heart. He comes in love and delights in us. He calls us to particular work, particular paths, a destiny that is uniquely ours.

My prayer today is that you will feel Jesus with you, and sense his delight in you. And that God will give you courage and strength to continue on whatever path is yours, open to respond to whatever call has or will come to you. Sometimes it may seem as if the call you’re hearing is insignificant, or the wrong one, and I urge you not to heed that critical voice. Trust the one who calls you and follow where he leads.

View the recording of Bishop Mariann’s sermon

 

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