September 20, 2018
Love is patient, love is kind. . . . it bears all things . . . endures all things.
I Corinthians 13:4-7
Sometimes a headline can say it all: Storm passes, but suffering persists. (The Washington Post, September 19, 2018)
Most in our region were spared the effects of Hurricane Florence, a reality over which we had no control, but nonetheless allows us to carry on with our lives largely uninterrupted. Meanwhile, though the storm has passed through the Carolinas and Virginia, great suffering remains.
Those well acquainted with the large scale humanitarian crisis tell us that in the midst of the storm and the days that follow, a great spirit of solidarity and compassion carries people through and, for a time, we are all at our very best as a species. But that spirit, like the storm, also passes, leaving behind a mood of desolation and all the emotions that come with sustained trauma.
That is when long-term relationships, sustained commitment, and a willingness to care after the cameras are gone make their transformational difference. It’s when the church can be the church, not only for its members, but for all in her community. Through Episcopal Relief and Development, as well as our personal relationships, we are part of the long-term healing process, not only in the Carolinas and Virginia, but around the world. If ever you doubt that such sustained caring matters, simply ask those who would otherwise feel most alone.
There are many ways, for all of us, that storms pass and suffering remains. We all carry the scars of past storms; the healing process takes time. Chances are that few people know what suffering you carry in your heart, and you and I never really know what another person is still living with as a result of past storms.
Thus a good posture every day, with whomever we encounter, is one of kindness. When we take the time, before jumping in to whatever business is at hand, to ask, “How are you doing?” with real desire to hear the answer, someone’s heart may open up to us, for just a moment. In that moment, often without awareness, we can be like the Balm of Gilead, and shelter in another’s storm.
September 18, 2018
Jesus said to Simon, ‘Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.’ When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him.
Welcome to the second reflection in this series, The Way of Love: Practices for a Jesus-Focused Life, in which we’re considering seven spiritual practices that can help us all walk with greater intention, following Jesus in His way of love. The seven practices which Presiding Bishop Michael Curry has put before us all are: to turn, to learn, to pray and to worship; to bless, to go, and to rest.
My focus here is the first spiritual practice in the Way of Love: To Turn and follow Jesus. This recording is based on a sermon that I preached in the context of a Confirmation service, in which 12 young people between the ages of 13-18 publicly professed their commitment to follow Jesus, taking on for themselves the promises made on their behalf when they were baptized as infants.
Turning toward Jesus and choosing to following him is what Episcopalians celebrate and sacramentalize in our services of Holy Baptism and Confirmation. Baptism is when we first come to faith and become part of Christian community. If we’re baptized as infants, with parents and loving adults making promises to raise us in such a way that we know following Jesus looks like, in the Episcopal Church, we’re given an opportunity when we’re older to speak for ourselves, after we’ve decided for ourselves to follow Jesus. In Confirmation we also receive the prayers and blessing of the community gathered. Episcopalians believe that these two rituals of Baptism and Confirmation are sacraments. That is, they are outward signs; they outwardly symbolize inward, spiritual truths: Jesus’ unconditional love for us and our decision to accept him as Lord and follow him.
Hear, again, the order of things. Jesus’ love for us, which is the love of God, comes first. Our response comes second. A relationship with God, and for Christians, a relationship with Jesus, doesn’t begin from our side. It begins with God.
It’s a bit like the relationship we had as infants to our parents and other adults. Those who loved us as infants did so for a long time before we even knew what love was, much less love them in return. We had to grow in our awareness of their love, our understanding of love, and in our capacity to love before we could respond. We learned, and continue to learn, in stages. It’s a process of growth.
That’s how it is with God’s love and our love for God in response. God loves us long before we were ever conscious of that love, and loves us steadily as our awareness waxes and wanes. But with awareness, with experiences that reveal God’s love and Jesus’ presence with us, then our response matters. What we choose to do and how we choose to live, determines, in large measure, how the relationship will deepen and grow.
There’s a story in the Bible that describes this relationship dynamic really well. It’s from one of the accounts of Jesus’ ministry, the Gospel of St. Luke. It tells of a time, early in Jesus’ ministry, when he was teaching and healing in the villages around a large lake known as the Sea of Galilee, which lies to the north of Jerusalem in Israel/Palestine. People responded to him -- the text tells us, people were hungry for the word of God that he spoke. It got to the point that wherever Jesus went large crowds would gather.
One day, Jesus asked two fisherman for their help. Might they let him use one of their boats, so he could go out on the water and speak to the crowd gathered on the shore from there? A fisherman named Simon agreed, even though he had just returned from a long night of fishing having caught nothing. Simon rowed him out, and from the boat Jesus spoke to the crowd.
When Jesus finished, he turned to Simon and said. Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch. Simon, remember, had been out all night. He was exhausted. He was also a professional fisherman, and here was this itinerant preacher telling him how to do his job.
I don’t know if it was what Jesus had been teaching from the boat, or if Simon knew of Jesus from before, or he was simply being compliant. But something inside Simon prompted him to respond. He did mildly protest, pointing out that they had been fishing without success all night. But then he said, If you say so, I’ll let down the nets.
Was it an “if you say so,” out of trust? Of resignation? How many times have I said, “If you say so,” meaning, “You clearly don’t know what you’re talking about, but nonetheless, I’ll do what you say.”
However he said it, Simon did what Jesus asked. And within minutes, there were more fish to catch than his nets could hold.
Then Simon was completely overwhelmed. His first response was one of shame. It wasn’t shame because he had doubted Jesus’ fishing sensibilities. He knew then in a way he hadn’t realized before that he was the presence of someone holy, and he didn’t feel worthy to be there, even in his own boat. Simon was certain that if Jesus knew what kind of man he 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 for help because he wanted Simon’s boat. He wanted Simon. “Follow me,” he said, “From now on, you and I will be fishing for people.”
What this story suggests is that before Jesus asks us to acknowledge, much less follow him, he’s going to show up in our lives and make his presence known. Of course, it’s different for us than it was for those who knew him when he walked the earth. Now, Jesus comes to us in spirit. Jesus comes through other people, through our thoughts, dreams, events in our lives, even through what we read, listen to, and watch. (C.S. Lewis, who came to faith late in his life, once said that if people don’t want to become Christian, they better be careful of their reading.) The point is, with us, Jesus gets our attention, not only through our physical eyes, but with our inner eye. We hear him not just with our ears, but with our hearts.
The relationship begins with Jesus coming to us, however that happens. Only then is the invitation extended for us to turn toward the one who has first turned toward us.
I can tell you the first time I consciously turned toward Jesus. It’s easy to remember, because for many years growing up, I lived in a religious and spiritual vacuum. I had gone to church as a young child with my mother, but when I moved to live with my father and stepmother, they didn’t attend church, and neither did I. In those years, everything I thought I knew about God, I either picked up from television, this really scary movie called The Exorcist, or what little I remembered from attending Sunday School when I was younger.
Then, when I was around 15, I became friends with a girl who was a Christian. She didn’t talk about Jesus often, but when she did, it was as if she knew him. I got the sense that whoever Jesus was for her, he was kind. That got my attention. One Sunday, she invited me to go church with her. The minister spoke about Jesus’ love, using the image of a door. There’s a door to our heart, he said, and Jesus waits outside for us to invite him in.
I wasn’t sure what he meant, but I knew that in my heart I was lonely and often scared. At the end of of his speech, the minister invited those who were ready to invite Jesus into their hearts to come forward and he would pray with them. I made my way to the front. He put his hands on my head--not unlike how I as a bishop place my hands on the heads of those standing for Confirmation--and he prayed. I don’t remember what he said, or feeling all that different when I returned to my seat. But something changed for me that day.
In truth, life remained pretty rocky in those years. I was dealing with a lot in my family and in school. I had a lot to learn about myself, much less Jesus. I was confused because everyone in my friend’s church was happy that I had accepted Jesus, but I wasn’t particularly happy, and I was pretty sure that I hadn’t experienced what they assumed I had. I wondered if I should go forward to receive the minister’s prayer again, but no one thought that was a good idea. As time went on, I bounced around a bit to other churches, and even received Jesus again in another church. For a time, I lived with the minister of that church and his family.
I learned a lot from them, my first church family, and my identity as a Christian slowly took hold. But inside I struggled with some of the church’s teachings. I couldn’t reconcile Jesus’ love with the church's more rigid beliefs; for example, that only a narrow few--those who believed exactly the way we did--would be saved. I longed for a place to talk about my struggles, but there wasn’t space for that. I wanted to talk about the gap between what we prayed on Sunday mornings and how we actually lived our lives. But here wasn’t room for that either. There was no place for ambiguity or doubt, and I felt a lot of both. I doubted myself a lot, and I doubted God. But then something would happen that got my attention, and I would turn, and there Jesus would be. Right around that time, I had to make one of the scariest decisions of my life, and I had to make it alone. But I didn’t feel alone. I felt Jesus with me.
By the time I was 18, I was back living with my mother and attending the Episcopal Church I went to as a young child and where she was now an active lay leader. I thank God for that church, and for the minister, who took me under his wing and helped me work through all of my questions. I told him I didn’t believe that only a very narrow group of Christians would be saved, whatever being saved meant. He said, “Mariann, a good rule of thumb when thinking about God is to assume if you wouldn’t do something because it isn’t loving or kind, then God--who the source of all love--wouldn’t do it either.” That was so helpful to me, and it remains helpful still. It reminds me of something Presiding Bishop Curry likes to say: “If it’s not about love; it’s not about God.”
In telling you this part of my spiritual story, I hope it’s clear how the decision to turn, follow Jesus and walk in his way of love isn’t a decision we make once. It’s a journey through life that changes and grows as we change and grow. Looking back on that first time I came forward in a church, I see now it was a turning point for me. For I knew then that Jesus was real. The longer I’ve lived, the more I learn about him, and the more experience I have in turning to follow him, the more I know that his way with us, and his way in the world, is the way of love. In my imperfect way, I want to follow him as best I can.
One of the many reason I’m grateful to be part of the Episcopal Church is that every Sunday we’re invited to come forward and invite Jesus into our hearts. Every week, he comes to us in the symbolic last supper with us, his friends. Every week, we can turn toward him and allow his spirit to fill us.
Some people have told me they can’t remember when they first decided to follow Jesus. As far as they can tell, they always have. I think that’s amazing. But for others, as for me, there was a first time that we remember turning and choosing to follow. Some people make that decision after spending a lifetime in church but then realizing that they never really knew him, and thus never really turned their lives toward him. But something happened, and they experienced him, or met him again, or as one book title suggests, they met him again for the first time.
Regardless of how we begin or begin again, before long, we’re all in the same place. Because it’s not, as I’ve said, a turning we make once. Turning to follow Jesus is a daily commitment, and frankly, some days we’re better at it than others. We aren’t always good at this, which is one reason the Way of Love requires practice.
So let’s consider what a daily practice of turning to Jesus might look like.
When we wake up in the morning, what are some of the first things we do? Well, there are physical needs to tend to, so we generally make our way to the bathroom, and then get dressed. We may go immediately then to the kitchen for food or coffee. If there are others to care for in the morning, we must do that. Most of us have morning chores. Some of us like to exercise in the morning.
Let me ask this: How long are you awake before you check your phone? Might I suggest sometime after you wake up and before you check your phone that you turn toward Jesus?
Turning toward Jesus involves finding a bit of time at the beginning of the day to consciously turn your mind, your inward eye, toward him. It’s not that hard. It might involve saying a prayer, a brief mantra, as you get up. When you stretch, or look in the mirror, or take a shower, it can be as simple as remembering that he is there.
I try to do this everyday. I don’t always remember, but whenever I do, I take a breath, thank him for the day, offer whatever I’m feeling or thinking, and ask for his guidance and strength. That way, as I go about my day, if, through an event or in conversation with someone, something gets my attention -- even if it feels like an interruption -- I have a better chance of noticing his presence. At the end of the day, it’s helpful for me to look and remember what happened and to ask, “Where was he present? Where did I feel his presence, or miss him in the moment because I wasn’t paying attention?”
There’s another dimension of turning toward Jesus that I’d like to mention as I draw this message to a close. It’s when we can turn to him for forgiveness, in those times when we’ve done or said something we regret, and when we feel as if our lives are out of control in ways we cannot fix, and we need his help.
In church, we often talk about Jesus forgiving our sins. What that means, at least in part, is that when we know we’ve said or done something wrong, or we’ve made a mistake with serious consequences and we don’t know how to set things right, we can turn to Jesus. When we ask, he will forgive us, no matter what. More than that, he will help us make amends and start anew walking with us every step of the way. To ask for forgiveness doesn’t allow us to forget, or pretend that what was hurtful or wrong never happened. The gift of it is finding a way out of the pain, a way to make amends and find release us from the burden of what we’ve done.
When life gets rough and it’s not our fault, and we need help -- Jesus is there. I mentioned earlier the time as a teenager when I was alone, scared, and needed help. And he was there. No doubt some of you listening are going through hard times now, or there’s someone close to you. Jesus is there for you, for them, for all of us. He doesn’t miraculously make what’s hard go away. What he gives is inner strength and courage. He moves through other people who show up and help us. As is often said, he can make a way out of no way. It’s not an experience that can be easily explained. But I’m here to tell you that it’s real and can be trusted. I’ve been in that spot more times than I can count. And one thing I know -- we are not alone. We can turn to Jesus.
Turning is but one of seven practices in the Jesus-focused life. It’s the starting point, when we first make the decision to turn toward the one who has come to us. We turn to him in need of forgiveness and strength. It’s a choice we make everyday, to turn toward him and then to follow where he leads. But remember, as you turn, that he turns to you, first, and to me, in love.
God bless you. Thank you for listening. I’ll hope you come back next week, when we’ll consider another practice in a Jesus-focused life.
Experiencing Jesus Podcast
Join Bishop Mariann on an 8-week journey through the Way of Love series as she reflects on each of this rule of life's seven facets: Turn, Bless, Pray, Worship, Rest, Learn, and Go. We hope in listening, you will experience Jesus in a new and refreshing way.
September 16, 2018
So the Lord said to Moses, “Gather for me seventy of the elders of Israel, whom you know to be the elders of the people and officers over them; bring them to the tent of meeting, and have them take their place there with you. I will come down and talk with you there; and I will take some of the spirit that is on you and put it on them; and they shall bear the burden of the people along with you so that you will not bear it all by yourself. So Moses went out and told the people the words of the Lord; and he gathered seventy elders of the people, and placed them all around the tent. Then the Lord came down in the cloud and spoke to him, and took some of the spirit that was on him and put it on the seventy elders.
Numbers 11:16-17, 24-25a
But each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift. The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ. We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming. But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.
Ephesians 4:7, 11-16
After this the Lord appointed seventy others and set them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go. He said to them, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.
One of the more interesting, challenging, and humbling truths about us as human beings--marvelously contradictory creatures that we are--is that we live more than one reality at a time. Sometimes those realities could not be more different.
We’re capable, for example, of holding both grief and joy in our heart at the same time; both disappointment and hope. It’s possible when everything in life is going really well to fall into a funk or even deep depression. And when facing a terminal diagnosis, we can feel the most alive.
We can be right and wrong at the same time.
We can be kind and caring and then in a heartbeat, hurt someone deeply, and not only hurt distant ones who bear the brunt of sins we’re not aware of, but those close in, those we love, or ought to love, most.
To say all this in religious language, we are both sinners and saints. And while we could all point to examples of those who in our humble opinion, have clearly tipped the scale in one direction or another, the truth is we are all a mixed bag.
Jesus knew this about us, which is why he loved teaching in paradox, helping us to hold more than one truth at once. You remember his story about the sinner rising from prayer redeemed instead of the righteous man praying next to him, and of religious people turning away from a wounded one on the road while a person of a despised race stopped to help. Remember how he told the men who wanted to kill a woman caught in the act of adultery (no small irony there) that whoever was without sin was free to cast the first stone. And how he prayed on the cross that those who put him there be forgiven, “for they don’t know what they are doing.”
How much reality can one heart hold?
This inherent mixed-up complexity of our kind is but one reason why it’s important for us to be gentle with one another, and understanding--not in a Pollyanna or dismissive sort of way, as if what we say or do doesn’t matter, but with mercy nonetheless. We’ll all need mercy when we stand before judgment in the end, and we need it every day between now and then. In the words of criminal justice reformer Bryan Stevenson, “Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.” Thank God for that. We’re all better than our worst, and conversely, not as innocent as we sometimes feel or would like to believe ourselves to be.
I heard the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, say much the same thing in a talk he gave at Wheaton College last April. He was speaking about the novel Lila by Marilynne Robinson, the third in her wonderful trilogy set in the fictional Iowa town of Gilead. Williams described the novel as being about “the insufficiency of goodness”-- a haunting phrase if there ever was one. “The good,” he said, “are those who don’t always see what they are implicated in.” “We like to define ourselves as good,” he said, “because then we know where the boundaries are. But we’re all blinded by what we are shaped by. We don’t know what we don’t know and don’t see.” “Lila is a story,” he said, “about how the good are saved, never mind the evil.”
By now, you’ve surely surmised that I’m setting a context in which to reflect on the rich, complex, blessed and broken collective that is every church, that is St. Alban’s Church. There is much goodness, courage and blessing in your history and your life now. And there have been more than a few wounding episodes. You’re just emerging from one of those wounding times now, during which people said and did hurtful things, when those in leadership, including me, made costly mistakes, when there were plenty of sins of commission and omission to go around, and more than a few missteps that were not intentional, but hurtful nonetheless. It wasn’t the first painful chapter in your history and, if you remain human, it won’t be the last.
Yet even when things were really hard, the hardship wasn’t the only truth about St. Alban’s. Even when people said hurtful things, those same people were part of much of the goodness that abounded. Even when leaders made mistakes, those same leaders acted courageously and faithfully. You were living more than one reality. In the darkest hours, it’s always tempting to see pathology under ever rock, just as it’s tempting to see only the good during the better times.
I don’t mean to speak all this in the third person, as if I weren’t there and a part of it all--I was. I’ve spent many a hour in prayer wondering what I could have done differently, but what I know is this: it wasn’t all one reality over or against another. There was a lot going on, some of it very good, some really hard.
What I love about you, St. Alban’s, and what will hold you in good stead going forward, is that you have the collective capacity and spiritual maturity to hold it all. I love that we began in a posture of collective repentance, so that we might collectively feel the release of that, receive the mercy of God, and the mercy we extend to one another. It doesn’t erase the past, but it allows God to continue to redeem it. When you tell the story of this time, and your place in it, it will be a story of redemption and growth and humble recognition that even in a really strong community, hurtful things can happen. Even when we are good, there can be an insufficiency to our goodness. You’ll tell your story with grace and the kind of quiet confidence that comes to those who have lived through a storm and come out on the other side. The poet David Whyte has said that long-lasting friendship is a path of mutual forgiveness. Surely the same is true for Christians in community.
In the midst of all of this, who should arrive into the Diocese of Washington without a job?
It astonishes me still how Geoffrey Hoare came to us, and came to St. Alban’s through circumstances that were not without complication. The story of Geoffrey, Sage, Allyson and Ruthie’s arrival in Washington could have had any number of beginnings and the Holy Spirit could have led them in any number of directions. But here they are. Here Geoffrey is--a man with his own story to tell, with particular gifts that seemed uncannily well-suited for St Alban’s at this moment.
One of things we know about you, Geoffrey, is that you are eminently capable of holding more than one reality in your life and leadership. You do not suffer fools gladly, yet you are one of the most gracious people I know. You are completely at ease with academics, politicians, and the most erudite of theologians, and you hold in equally high esteem and enjoy the company of manual workers, particularly those whose shift begins in earnest when the rest of us leave the room. You don’t panic when we show our worst, and you delight in us when we shine. You have a passionate vision and commitment to what the Kingdom of God realized on earth could look like, yet you accept realities as they are presented to you, and you encourage us all to start where we are and work with what we’re given.
So here you all are, officially poised now at the threshold of possibilities. There are multiple reasons why you, Geoffrey, are a good match for St. Alban’s. There are also reasons why St. Alban’s is a good fit for you. There is no insufficiency of goodness here. You have more than enough upon which to build a solid foundation--grace upon grace, mercy upon mercy. I’m grateful beyond words for a new spirit of collegiality and friendship between St. Alban’s and the Cathedral, for it is impossible to imagine a spiritually vibrant life on the Close without it. I’m also grateful for the growing spirit of friendship and common purpose with Episcopal congregations up and down Wisconsin Avenue and in this part of of the city, all of whom are just big enough to imagine they could, or must, do everything themselves, as if they were completely separate entities. It’s a bane of our existence as the Episcopal Church, that collaboration is believed to be a sign of weakness rather than an investment in strategic strength. You are helping to change that narrative. Thank you.
I have to say, Geoffrey, that your choice of Scripture passages for this afternoon wasn’t exactly subtle. Each one brings home the point that we are all in this together. There is only one savior in the Body of Christ, and it isn’t any of us. There are no superstars; everyone has an offering to make, none more important than another. Spiritual leadership isn’t a matter of pulling magic out of a hat, but one of gathering up the fragments, as Jesus said, so that nothing is lost, then offering those fragments, all our loose ends, the total catastrophe that we are, and offering it all to Jesus as the raw materials with which he can work miracles.
So let’s celebrate this moment of joy, shall we, and give thanks for it, as we approach Jesus’ table of grace and mercy together. Then we all need to go home and a get a good night’s sleep. For tomorrow beckons, and with it another day to live as the wonderfully complex, broken and blessed, redeemed, forgiven sinners that we are, called to follow Jesus in his way of Love.
September 13, 2018
Remember I am with you always, even to the end of the age.
Every morning at 8:00 a.m., program officers from Episcopal Relief and Development’s disaster preparedness team convene a video conference call with diocesan leaders whose jurisdictions lie in the path of Hurricane Florence. On today’s call, we were reminded that while the storm has been downgraded to a Category 2 hurricane, with the slowing of wind speed comes greater potential for storm surge and inland rain damage. “Houston wasn’t touched by the winds of Hurricane Harvey last year,” Lura Steele of ERD said, “but by storm surge and sustained rainfall.”
According to CNN, Florence is expected is to hover over the Carolinas for days, with hurricane force winds and relentless rain at least through Saturday. As the storm moves inland, meteorologists warn that Georgia, Virginia, and Maryland will also be in peril.
Many in the Diocese of Washington have close family and friendship ties to communities poised to bear the brunt of Florence’s imminent arrival. I am heartened by the calm determination of our Episcopal Church counterparts as they’ve gone about their preparations, helping people evacuate, caring for their congregations and positioning themselves to be of service to their communities. An EDOW priest with family and former congregants in South Carolina said at a meeting last night, “Countless people’s lives will be forever changed by this storm. Some may die. Others will lose houses, businesses, mobile homes, jobs. By Sunday, it’s going to happen.”
The Episcopal Church will be there, and is there now. “We’re as ready as we can be,” several on the phone said this morning. “Right now it feels a bit like being assaulted by a turtle.”
While we wait, pray, and do all we can for those in immediate danger, please take time today and tomorrow to finalize your own preparedness (here’s a helpful checklist). While most of our diocese is not in the direct path of the storm, for many the possibility of flood damage and power outages is high. Should the rains place lives and property in danger, please heed all warnings and directions of emergency responders and civil authorities.
Thanks to our partners at ERD, we have registered all parochial clergy and senior wardens in a Diocesan Alert System. We will check-in twice a day as the hurricane system passes through our area and provide updates through the messaging system should there be any specific alerts.
I can’t speak highly enough of the spiritual and material support provided through Episcopal Relief and Development. As grace would have it, we had arranged for a member of ERD’s team to meet with EDOW staff earlier this week to learn more about disaster preparedness and the Episcopal Asset Map. Thus we were blessed with on the ground training and resource sharing in real time as Hurricane Florence approached. As you are able, I encourage you to donate to Episcopal Relief and Development’s Hurricane Relief Fund. Your donation provides our partners on the ground with critical supplies, such as food and water, for communities devastated by hurricanes and other storms.
As today’s call was ending, Canon Mark Stevenson of the Presiding Bishop’s staff assured us of the prayers and support, not only of the Presiding Bishop, but of our entire church and beyond. “Remember that you are not alone,” he said. “We are here and will see you through this time.”
Those are Jesus’ words to us as well, and to all those in harm’s way: “I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” I pray that each one of you feels his presence with you and your loved ones as the storm approaches, and I know that whenever the call comes, you will be Jesus’ hands, feet, and heart for others.
Will you pray this prayer with me now?
Lord God, you have brought us in safety to this new day: Preserve us with your mighty power, that we may not fall into sin, nor be overcome by adversity; and in all that we do, direct us to the fulfilling of your purpose; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
September 09, 2018
“Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.”
Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.
Jesus said ‘I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine-grower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches.
Good morning! What a gift to be at Holy Trinity for worship and afterwards to dedicate the new building space you’ve worked so hard to complete. Congratulations--what an accomplishment. Special thanks to the Rev. Leslie St. Louis and your lay leaders for welcoming me so kindly.
The title of my sermon is The Way of Love: Practices for a Jesus-Focused Life. It’s the first in an eight week sermon series that I will preach across the Diocese of Washington. If this one peaks your interest, you can follow along with via social media or on the diocesan website.
Along with your bulletin, you received a sheet of paper. On the back is a space for you to jot down notes from the sermon if you like. Inside, it offers a simple format of daily prayer about which I’ll speak more in a moment.
So how many of you have heard Presiding Bishop Michael Curry preach? Perhaps at a simple wedding earlier in the summer? Are you as inspired by him as I am? I’ve known Bishop Curry for many years, and we are so blessed to have him as our spiritual leader. No matter the setting--be it a small congregation, a huge public gathering, or the Royal Wedding--he consistently and compellingly speaks God’s unconditional, life-transforming love for every human being, a love revealed to us in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.
The Presiding Bishop will tell us anytime he gets the chance that Jesus came into the world to show us how to live. Jesus came, he says, that we might know God’s love so deeply and personally for ourselves that we can’t help but be changed into more loving people. Jesus came to embody God’s love, to help transform this world from the nightmare it often is into the dream God has for us all. And while Scripture teaches that God shows no partiality, we who call ourselves Christians have a particular mandate to walk in Jesus’ ways and be instruments of his love for others.
Last December, Presiding Bishop Michael Curry invited a dozen lay and clergy leaders of the Episcopal Church to spend two days with him. He asked us to help him work through an issue that was troubling him. For all that we love about the Episcopal Church, and all that is good, it is, nonetheless, stuck in trends of decline and all the pressures of a declining institution. That’s not true of every Episcopal Church, but the overall trends are humbling. We’re a disproportionately aging denomination and getting smaller every year. Around the country--even after a really big service at Washington National Cathedral--the majority of people under the age of 50 have no idea who we are.
The Presiding Bishop wants to change the direction of those trends, as do I. What are we missing? we wondered together. What could we do, not only to ensure the survival of our churches, but so that they might thrive as vibrant spiritual communities in our land?
Part of the problem many people have about us is that we are so hesitant to talk about our faith, others don’t know we’re here. Moreover, we seem inordinately attached to our preferences in worship. We think of ourselves as warm and welcoming, and inclusive, but is that how others experience us?
To turn things around, maybe what we all need to do is try harder to make our presence known, try harder to be more welcoming.
But we as we prayed and talked together, another possibility surfaced. “I wonder,” the Presiding Bishop said at one point, “how many of our people have experienced God’s unconditional love for them. Have you considered that reason most Episcopalians are hesitant to speak of Jesus is because they don’t really know him as real for them?” He paused. “How can we share what we don’t have?”
The room went silent. I found myself thinking back to something I had just read in a book by Pastor Adam Hamilton. It was a passage on the power of the Holy Spirit:
When we speak about the Holy Spirit, or the Spirit of God, we are speaking of God’s active work in our lives; of God’s way of leading us, guiding us, forming and shaping us; of God’s power and presence to comfort and encourage us and to make us the people God wants us to be. The Spirit is the voice of God whispering, wooing and beckoning us. And in listening to this voice and being shaped by this power, we find that we become most fully and authentically human. . . .
But he goes on:
I think that many Christians live Spirit-deficient lives, a bit like someone who is sleep deprived, nutrient deprived, of oxygen deprived. Many Christians haven’t been taught about the Spirit, nor encouraged to seek the Spirit’s work in their lives. As a result, our spiritual lives are a bit anemic as we try living the Christian life by our own power and wisdom. (Adam Hamilton, Creed: What Christians Believe and Why (Abingdon Press, 2016).)
As I heard the Presiding Bishop speak and simultaneously recalled Adam Hamilton’s words, it was as if God were holding a mirror to my face. Right there, I had to acknowledge to myself and before God that on most days I try to live and lead from my own power. Even as one ordained for nearly 30 years, my daily default position is to assume that everything depends on me. But never does Jesus say that. Instead he says, as you just heard “I am the vine. I am the source of your strength and capacity to love. You are a branch, sharing what you receive from me.”
That was when the Presiding Bishop decided that he wanted to spend his remaining years as our spiritual leader helping us experience the love of God made known to us in Jesus, and to follow Jesus in that way of love. And I decided that I wanted to do the same as your bishop. From that desire, on the part of many, The Way of Love; Practices for a Jesus-Focus life was born.
Adhering to daily practices of any kind is known as following a rule of life. A spiritual rule of life is simply a conscious effort on our part to be open, each day, to the love of God in Jesus, to receive that love for ourselves, and then offer love to others as we hear God’s call. If we adhere to them over time, they shape our character and determine the course of our lives.
The writer Brian McLaren puts it this way:
Spiritual practices are those actions within our power that help us narrow the gap between the person we are and the person we hope to become. They help us become good and deep company for ourselves and others. They’re about surviving our twenties or forties or eighties and not becoming a jerk in the process. About not letting what happens to us deform or destroy us. About realizing that what we earn or accumulate means nothing compared to what we become and who we are. Spiritual practices are about life, about training ourselves to become the kinds of people who have eyes and actually see, and who have ears and actually hear, and so experience not just survival but life that is real, worth living, and good. (Brian McLaren, Finding Our Way Again: The Return of the Ancient Practices (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2008).)
He goes on to say that our character--the kind of people we are--determines how much of God we can experience, and maybe even which version of God we experience. Which is say that there’s a lot at stake here, for us.
There are seven practices outlined in the Way of Love. In upcoming weeks, I’ll preach on each one in depth. Today, I invite you to hear and consider them all together, and to contemplate what it might be like for you to take on one or more of these practices every day.
As you listen, let me underscore the obvious: these practices, in general, do not require dramatic gestures on your part or mine. On occasion, they might, but mostly they are small steps we take every day whose impact will be felt over time. Nor is this a program designed to fix the challenges we face as a church. Truth be told, there’s no guarantee that even if every Episcopalian under the sun decided to follow the Ways of Love that our church’s decline would turn around.
On the other hand, if we never engage in these practices, or others like them, we may not have a church worth saving. For the church isn’t a building, an institution, a small community desperate to survive. It is, as the Presiding Bishop says, a movement, a gathering of people who have heard the call to follow Jesus in his ways of love for the world--person by person, community by community.
So here they are:
The first practice is to turn. That’s it: to turn our gaze, to turn our mind, our thoughts, our attention to Jesus. Simple as it sounds, it is the foundational practice, referring back to the first conscious decision we made, or perhaps have yet to make, to be a follower of Jesus. Do you remember the moment when made that decision? Perhaps you did so unconsciously or slowly, perhaps in a dramatic moment of conversion. Was there a time when you decided to turn back to him, and to the faith, after a time apart?
To turn also describes the daily decision to focus our attention on Jesus, asking for his guidance and grace. Now, when I wake up the morning I try to remember to acknowledge Jesus. I thank him for the gift of another day and ask for his strength and guidance. There are days, I confess, when I’m up for hours before I remember, but when I do, I simply take a deep breath and turn my inner gaze toward Jesus.
The second practice is to learn, to commit each day to some form of learning, reading the Bible, or listening to devotional material focused on Jesus’ teachings. Sometimes the learning process involves a deep dive, through a class or study; other times, it’s a small, daily encounter with sources of wisdom and inspiration. I can’t stress enough how important it is to continue learning in faith. Otherwise we get stuck with an understanding of God that’s too small. There’s a lot of bad teaching in the name of Christianity--causing intelligent people rightfully to turn away from so-called Christian teachings that aren’t Christian at all. So choose your resources wisely. There are many fine tools to help us go deeper in our knowledge of God. What matters most here isn’t the quantity of our learning, but the steady commitment to take in a bit of insight each day.
The third practice is tied in the first and second and yet also stands alone, to pray, again, to spend time each day--it needn’t be long--in intentional prayer. Of course we can pray at all times and places. Yet I have learned that making the effort to sit down in the same place every day for a few minutes has a quiet, powerful impact on my life. It’s a time to sort through and settle my thoughts, as murky water settles in stillness, to allow clarity to emerge. It’s a time to speak my heart, sometimes with sighs instead of words, before God. And it’s a time to listen, saying to God, as the prophet Samuel learned to do as a small boy, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” We may not hear anything in the silence. But we might. And we’ll never will hear anything from God if we don’t take time to listen.
In terms of time, we can commit ourselves to turn, learn and pray each day in as little as 10-15 minutes a day. That’s where I start whenever I have strayed from daily practice and need to begin again. We can always spend longer, but the benefit comes with the habit of setting aside time over time. Best to start small.
The fourth practice moves us from the personal to the collective, to worship in Christian community. You see, following Jesus is not a solo effort. We need one another. Rarely do we grow in the ways of love on our own. As one writer put it, the church at its best is “like a school that trains people in the way of love, an unusual school that lasts a lifetime and from we which we never really graduate. . . Christian faith is really one long apprenticeship in the way of love.” (Norman Wirzba, Way of Love: Recovering the Heart of Christianity (New York: HarperCollins, 2016))
The fifth practice takes us out into our lives and the world. It is to bless. This is perhaps the most lovely and understated of practices: to speak words of kindness and affirmation. The Irish poet John O’Donohue writes of blessing, “The world can be harsh and negative, but if we remain generous and patient, kindness inevitably reveals itself. Something deep in the human soul seems to depend on the presence of kindness; something instinctive in us expects it and once we sense it, we are able to trust and open ourselves.” (John O'Donohue, To Bless the Space Between Us: A Book of Blessings (New York: Doubleday, 2008)) Think of the countless opportunities you have each day to speak kindness into another person’s life, to speak a word of hope in times of uncertainty, to provide wind for another’s sails.
The sixth practice is the most challenging: to go, in the sense of crossing borders of familiarity to better understand the experience of another; to see the world through others’ eyes, to show up in places where love is most needed. The great criminal justice reformer of our time, Bryan Stevenson, speaks of “being proximate,” getting close to those who bear the brunt of our society’s ills and coming to know them as friends and neighbor.
The final practice may well be the most countercultural of all and the one we struggle with most: to rest. God rested, as the Creation story of Genesis tells us, after God created the world and humankind. We are mortal. Our bodies and souls are restored in rest. The world does not rest on our shoulders alone. We can, for a time each day, each week, lay our burdens down. This is a time for renewal, for the things that make for joy. Sabbath isn’t something we earn; it is our birthright as children of God.
In the offering plates, I’ve place small cards with each practice listed. Please take one when the plate comes to you and spend some time this week reflecting on each of the seven practices. Which ones come easily to you? With which do you struggle? Is there one that speaks, as something your live needs right now?
Consider taking on, as an experiment, a small daily ritual that includes the first three practices. Turn, Learn and Pray. If it’s helpful, you can use the “Way of Love” sheet, where there are brief Bible passages. If you don’t already, set aside 10, maybe 15 minutes each day to sit quietly, turn your internal gaze toward Jesus, reflect on the Scripture passage for the day and pray.
I’d love to hear from you if you do, to learn what your experience is like.
So often we think of the Christian faith as an obligation, or as a set of beliefs that we must hold. There are obligations and beliefs, but if we get stuck there, we can lose sight of, or never experience at all, what is most important. At its heart, Christianity offers an invitation to experience a loving, personal relationship with God. It’s a relationship we can trust, where we can find refuge and solid ground upon which to stand.
The Way of Love is the journey of a lifetime. It’s a way of knowing God, receiving and sharing Jesus’ love, and being a blessing to the world. I can’t think of a better way to live or people with whom I’d rather walk this way than with you and all our brothers and sisters in the Diocese of Washington.
God bless and keep you always. May you always know that you are walking in the light and love of God.