The list of alarming actions and statements from President Trump’s first week in office takes our collective breath away. New York Times columnist David Brooks describes the week as being all about threat perception: building a wall against a Mexican/Central American threat; restoring torture chambers to fight the terrorist threat; erecting immigration barriers against a Muslim threat. That is precisely the kind of fear that has defined some of the most shameful chapters in our nation’s history. It legitimizes intolerance and the dehumanization of others that leads to violence. Leading from such a posture of fear endangers all of us, and it is antithetical to Jesus’ gospel of love.
All Christian Americans should be offended that President Trump has decided that some of the most vulnerable refugees on the planet are not welcome here because they are of the Muslim faith, but that Christians from the seven troubled countries that the President has named are to receive favored treatment. Such favoritism is an insult to Christians. I stand proudly with other Christians and interfaith leaders to protest this order, express solidarity with one another, and together call our nation to the highest of our common spiritual and civic values.
Scripture could not be clearer: we are called to welcome the stranger. Jesus himself was a refugee when his parents fled their homeland to save his life from a brutal ruler. He taught without compromise that what we do to the least of our brothers and sisters, we do to him. The hero of of Jesus’ most famous parable on the love of neighbor belonged to a despised people.
At times such as these we often ask ourselves what we as individuals can do to make a difference. In this case, the answer is: much. A tremendous nationwide mobilization to protest the president’s action is now underway, and the Episcopal Church is playing its part. I commend to you a new advocacy initiative from the Episcopal Public Policy Network (EPPN), which is part of our church’s Office of Government Relations. If you join me in the 2×4 Fight for Refugees Campaign, you will commit to calling your national, state, and local elected officials four times during the next two months on behalf of refugees. You can learn more about the campaign and find a helpful script online. And, if you are of a mind, you can join the network to receive updates and alerts.
The opposite of love is not hate, but fear. Jesus’ gospel is of only love, and Scripture assures us that perfect love casts out fear. We need not respond in hate to anyone, for Jesus meets us in the places where we are afraid with his love, courage and strength. May we draw upon that love now and stand firm in the days ahead.
When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.
Good morning Church of the Atonement and all our guests. Good morning, again, confirmands, as you prepare to take an important step in your life. Look around–you are surrounded by the love and abiding faith of this community.
It’s an honor for me to worship God with you. I cannot tell you how proud I am to serve as your bishop, and to have as a colleague and friend your rector, the Rev. Jocelyn Irving. I am in awe of you, Jocelyn, and I want your people to know that. Your faith, your love for Jesus, the clarity of your vision, your unfailing devotion to your family, and to your commitment to your own self care are examples to us all.
I am also impressed with the work you all have done since my last official visit, which was when you were just beginning the strategic planning process that is now in full implementation. We are proud as a diocese to support a part of that plan with one of our first congregational growth grants. The clarity of your proposal to provide employment opportunities to the young people of Southeast Washington, and your own engagement and commitment to the project, makes it a model that we now hold up to other congregations seeking diocesan support. You are a witnesses to the power of Christ to transform lives, and I give thanks to God for you.
Yesterday we gathered as a diocese at our annual convention. Your clergy and lay delegates were there–thank you for that. I spoke of our collective strategic efforts to invest in the vibrancy of our congregations, for we need to be not only faithful but fruitful in our efforts, and to be witnesses for Christ and his love at a time such as this.
We didn’t choose this time, but it’s ours, and on our own watch troubling things are happening. As you said, Rev. Jocelyn, in your opening remarks, we need to be where Jesus needs us.
On our watch, our nation has elected a president who seems determined to lead through fear and threat perception, which only encourages and legitimizes the worst in human behavior. It’s dangerous for everyone, and it is in direct opposition to Jesus’ gospel of love.
The list of alarming actions and statements from the president’s first week in office take our collective breath away, but nothing is more insulting to me as a Christian than for President Trump to declare that the some of the most vulnerable refugees on the planet here are not welcome because they are of the Muslim faith, and that instead, Christians are to receive favored status. That should offend all Christian Americans, for it flies in the face of everything Jesus has taught us. As your bishop, I will to stand with other Christians and interfaith leaders on Tuesday to say that such a policy is morally bankrupt. As people of faith and compassion we are called to welcome the stranger, for we were once strangers in the land of Egypt. We are called to welcome the refugee, for Jesus himself was a refugee, when his parents fled their homeland to save their young son’s life.
Jesus needs us to be stand firm and to say that we will not ruled by fear.
I’ve heard it said that the opposite of love is not hate, but fear. Jesus’ gospel is rooted in love, and Scripture assures us that perfect love casts out fear. We need not respond in hate to anyone, for Jesus meets us in the places where we are afraid with his love, and courage, and strength. We need to call on that love, courage, and strength for the days ahead.
So dwell with me now in these extraordinary words of Jesus from the fifth chapter of the Gospel of Matthew.
In the way that Matthew organizes his telling of Jesus’ ministry, the lists of blessings known as the Beatitudes is Jesus’ opening statement of an inaugural address that we now call the Sermon on the Mount. In the chapters leading up to this sermon, Jesus was baptized by John and he heard the voice of God speak to him: “you are my beloved; with you I am well pleased.” He then felt God’s spirit lead him into the desert for 40 days of prayer, temptation, and the testing of his call. He left the desert, strengthened by the Holy Spirit, and called his first disciples. Then he traveled around the region of Galilee with them, doing such wondrous things that people began to seriously take notice. There was something extraordinary about him, something so clear, so loving and strong, that it was as if holiness itself were walking among them.
In that context, as Jesus sees the crowds following him, he climbs a hill. While the crowd gathered around, he motions for his disciples to sit down. Then he begins to speak–his first public address. It lasts for three chapters, as Matthew records it. I commend the Sermon on the Mount to you in its entirely, as an antidote to all that we’re hearing from our president right now. We’ll read portions of it for the next three weeks in church, but it is so rich in teaching that we’ll only get through one chapter. So read it on your own, and you receive in the essence of Jesus’ ethical teachings, how he wanted his disciples to live in this world.
And if it doesn’t make you personally uncomfortable in some places, you’re not paying attention. Jesus challenges all of us to be the best we can possibly be, to offer the highest of human potential. It’s so challenging, in fact, that we quickly realize how incapable we are of living as he calls us to on our own. We need the grace of God working through us to be able to forgive as he calls to forgive; to love our enemies the way he challenges us to do; to turn the other cheek or offer our coat when someone asks for our shirt. We have to rely on his grace and his forgiveness when we fail, and then get back up and start again.
For all it’s challenge to us, Jesus begins this sermon with words of blessing. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, those that mourn, the merciful. . .” Ponder with me the power of blessing: what it feels like to receive and to offer blessing. There are few powers given us with more healing, life affirming potential than the power to bless. For to speak a word of blessing is to call upon all that is good to surround the one we bless. In blessing, to quote a great Irish poet, John O’Donohue, “we draw a circle of light around a person to protect, heal and strengthen.”
Listen to O’Donohue’s words on blessing: “To be in the world is to be distant from the homeland of wholeness. We are confined by limitation and difficulties. But when we bless someone, we are enabled somehow to go beyond our present frontiers and reach into the source.” That is to say, a blessing invokes our future wholeness and brings it back to us.
You know how in storytelling, we use the word “foreshadow” to describe something that represents or symbolizes a part of the story yet to come? How usually in the first chapter of a story, something happens to “foreshadow” what’s to come, usually something difficult? What O’Donohue says is that a blessing fore-brightens the way. Not foreshadows, forebrightens. When you offer blessing, you’re doing what Jesus did, surrounding someone with a circle of light, and healing, and protection.
Now about the list of people of that Jesus called blessed in Matthew 5. This list of blessings is often read at funerals. In fact, I just preached on these words at a funeral last week for an extraordinary woman of God, a lay leader at our Cathedral, who died suddenly. It’s often read at weddings. It was the text my husband and I chose for our wedding over 30 years ago. And we read this list of blessings every year in church on the Feast of All Saints, when we remember those who have gone before us who inspired by their examples of faith and love.
And one way to read this list is as if it were describing different groups of people, as if Jesus were here blessing us and saying “blessed are the poor in spirit” meaning these people to my right, and “blessed are those who mourn,” over there, and the “blessed are the meek,” in the back corner, and “blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness” down in front. Each blessing is distinct and we can determine which one fits us best. That’s one way to read the text.
But another way is to read the list of blessings as all the qualities of being that Jesus calls us to cultivate within ourselves. We have the potential for each one, and as we nurture and cultivate these qualities and attributes–recognizing our own poverty of spirit, striving to be merciful, seeking peace, and so on–not only are we blessed in the ways Jesus promised, we become a blessing to others wherever we go.
And how do we cultivate these qualities of blessing? I suspect that you already know. Let me give you three examples to illustrate the same point:
When I was 22 years old, I took a job as a caseworker in a social service agency run by the Methodist Church in Tucson, Arizona. I met with people seeking financial assistance and emergency housing. This was in the early 1980s, and not only were Central Americans streaming across the Mexican border fleeing the brutal civil wars in their countries, people from the northeast and midwestern states were also arriving in droves. Many had lost their jobs because industries in the Rust Belt were leaving their communities for cheaper labor abroad. In response, thousands packed up their cars and drove to warmer climates. It harkened back to the Dustbowl era, when farmers who had lost their land to the banks headed west. People would arrive in Tucson with no money, no family, and they had no place to live except in their cars, some of which had broken down.
Some of the people seeking our help had brought a lot of their suffering on themselves. They had made mistakes; their family relationships weren’t great; there was a fair amount of drug and alcohol abuse. And I confess to you that sometimes I would sit across my desk, and in my 22-year-old arrogance I would feel morally superior. I sat in judgement and wondered to myself who of the many who came to us were worthy of the money we had to give. (I’m not proud of this, mind you.)
But remember, I was 22 years old, and in those years, I also made some pretty big mistakes. More than once, I put myself in a vulnerable place and was spared the worst consequences of my actions only because I had a safety net to catch me, something that the people who came to us for help didn’t have. I didn’t know the term white privilege then but that’s what it was, although there were plenty of white people on the other side of my desk.
Suffice it to say, there were days when I came to work knowing my poverty of spirit, knowing my need for mercy. And on those days, I had greater capacity to be merciful, to look into another’s eyes as one person poor in spirit to another. That’s when my entire countenance changed. Just as Jesus said that we grow in forgiveness by being forgiven ourselves, we grow in our capacity to be a blessing when we are in touch with our own need for blessing and mercy. During that time, I was also in the presence of people who embodied a hunger and thirst for righteousness, who were committed peacemakers, who were willing to be persecuted for righteousness’ sake, and I wanted to be among them. Their example of blessedness inspired me.
That’s how we cultivate qualities of blessing, when we know our need for blessing ourselves and receive blessing, and when we are inspired by another’s power to bless, so that in a state of humility we can offer what we have received.
Yesterday at Diocesan Convention, we were debating a resolution that called us to reaffirm, in light of President Trump’s election, our church’s commitment to social justice. The resolution called us to stand with those who are particularly vulnerable in our communities now, and it named particular groups of people, including Muslims. Someone questioned whether we should be that specific–shouldn’t we stand for social justice in general and not start calling out particular groups?
The rector of Our Saviour Episcopal Church in Silver Spring came to the microphone. He reminded the convention that his church was the one that had been vandalized with the words, Trump Nation Whites Only, spray-painted on their sign and memorial garden wall. Our Saviour is a multi-cultural church, serving immigrants from around the world, including Spanish speakers. Among the many who came to express their solidarity with the people of Our Saviour, he said, were members of an Islamic Temple in Silver Spring. “The Imam and many of the temple’s leaders stood alongside us and came to worship with us the following Sunday. They continued to check on us to see if we were okay. And on Christmas Eve day,” he said, “our Muslim community arrived with over 500 Christmas cards, personally signed, and I gave one to each family in our congregation. I am proud and eager to stand in solidarity with our Muslim neighbors now in their hour of need, because they stood so faithfully and lovingly with us.”
One final example to drive the point home:
In a short film that you can watch on YouTube, the scene opens with a young man, presumably of Middle Eastern descent, sitting alone in the waiting room of a doctor’s office. Then a family enters the room–mother, father, and young girl. When the girl sits next to the young man, her mother quickly takes her by the hand and moves her as far away from him as she can. They all sit in silence, and the parents are clearly uncomfortable and hostile in their eye exchange with the young man. The doctor’s office opens and a nurse beckons them in, all of them together. The parents eye the young man uneasily as the the little girl runs to receive her doctor’s embrace. The young man stand off in a corner while the parents sit down in front of the doctor’s desk. “Is something wrong doctor?” the father asks. He looks at the young man and back at the doctor, as if to say, “what is he doing here?” The doctor replies, “Oh no, there is nothing wrong.” He goes and puts his arm around the young man and says. “I wanted you to meet Jafar.” He looks back at the young girl. “He is Anna’s bone marrow donor.” The girl beams, and her parents first look at each other then down at the ground in shame then meet the gentle gaze of the now smiling young man.
To be a blessing, we all need to remember our need of blessing, so that we can receive it and then share what we have received. We’re the ones called to do this now. This is our watch.
I am confident that we are up to this good and important work. And I know that we’ll fail sometimes, but that will just serve to remind us how much we need blessing ourselves. Then we’ll pick ourselves up and begin again, in faithfulness to the one who loves us all, died for our sins, and promised us a place in that land of light and joy and wholeness. Our blessings now, received and given, forebrighten the way.
Jesus said, “I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last. . .” John 15:16
I would like to speak to you about faithful and fruitful ministry, in a time such as this, according to the measure of Christ’s gift.
At last year’s convention, I suggested that the first era of our ministry together had come to an end and a new one was beginning. It felt like a turning point, a decisive moment. One year later, I feel even greater holy urgency about this second era. The stakes for us as Episcopalians are high, in part because of the internal challenges many of our congregations face, and in part because of what’s happening in our country right now. At the end of my address, I’ll suggest some of the ways I believe that we are called to engage in the public arena–and how I will engage–and also the role of this cathedral in national life, in the life of this diocese and the Episcopal Church at large.
But I begin by holding up a mirror to ourselves:
Last year, I asked that we inaugurate this second era by systematically and comprehensively taking stock of key areas of congregational vitality, and that we do this work in collaboration with one another, rather than individually; that we take time to assess the changes around and within our faith communities together, not alone; that together we come to know our neighbors. I also asked that we begin making a shift in budgeting practices, both on the parish and diocesan level, to better equip ourselves for the strategic work ahead.
At last year’s convention you agreed, and so we began.
The first step in this second phase of our time together, arguably the least exciting but with real mission potential going forward, was the re-working of our regional structure of governance. With your blessing, we moved to a geographically-based structure of 8 regions, and name them by geography rather than by number. The goal was to create a structure that people both inside and outside the diocese could understand (after 4 years, I couldn’t remember which regions some of you belonged to) and that could serve as a foundation for collaborative ministry.
After last year’s convention ratified this new structure, we set out to organize ourselves so that we could live into it. We did so in small steps, because clergy are busy people and lay leaders have day jobs.
The regional clergy met several times to gauge their own energy for collaboration, which varies, and to explore the possibilities their respective regions presented them. In some cases vestries met as well.The next stage of this work, starting this spring, will be to convene lay leaders–vestries and wardens–who on my parish visits consistently express the most interest in collaboration. We’ve also established ways for wardens across the diocese to be in touch with each other, and we held our first regional assemblies in the new structure. I’ve also told the rising deacons of our diocese, the first group of which will be ordained in September, that the support and encouragement of collaborative mission efforts will be the focus of their ministries.
There are hopeful first fruits to these efforts:
Central Montgomery County is creating a collaborative youth group and jointly hiring a youth ministry coordinator. Northern Montgomery County is doing something similar with shared youth events. Southern Montgomery County is experimenting in collaborative efforts around community engagement and response, and intentionally sharing major education events.
Among the DC congregations, collaborative efforts and conversations have been more localized, defined mostly by neighborhood. There are also collaborations across regional lines, which is to be expected, given proximity and affinity: For example the congregations along the Potomac River have a lot in common and are exploring strategic initiatives together.
In Northern Prince George’s County, there are pockets of possibility, with some real challenges as well: St. Philip’s, Laurel, for example, sits on the very edge of our diocese and has as much in common with its neighboring Diocese of Maryland parishes as with our own. So, too, with Epiphany Church in Forestville, which is in that corridor of Prince George’s County that has been greatly affected by populations moving out of the District of Columbia. The multi-cultural congregations of both Northern Prince George’s and Central Montgomery have real affinities and their clergy meet regularly.
The Southern Maryland clergy and I have decided to host a Southern Maryland summit in April to gather leaders, pray together, and consider what a thriving Southern Maryland Episcopal presence might look like. I’d love for this to be a model for other regions, or perhaps we can have day-long vestry retreats so that neighboring congregations can explore opportunities and address challenges together.
In my first year as bishop I set a goal that I haven’t been able to realize, and it has come back to me as important to implement in 2017. I’d like to establish a work rhythm in which some diocesan staff, including me, are present across the diocese in more predictable ways. This will take a bit of time and planning, which we’ll do this spring. We may experiment a bit, but we’ll strive to begin our new rhythm in the fall and evaluate our efforts after a year. And heads up: in this second era, I plan to convene clergy and lay leaders more regularly—to pray, reflect on common mission, support and hold one another accountable in ministry.
You see, together, we need to become the mission experts of our neighborhoods, towns, and regions of our diocese. Jesus is not waiting for us to engage in his mission of love and reconciliation–he’s out there, way ahead of us all. And other churches are doing this important mission work, some with great fruitfulness. The question is how and in what ways the Episcopal Church will be part of Christ’s mission, and what gifts and strengths will we bring. How can we be faithful and fruitful?
The second part of this multi-year process of taking stock has been to engage in one/one conversation with leaders in every congregation in the diocese, looking at each congregation’s life through the lens of its financial and material realities.
This is a sizeable task: to date, we have completed 32 visits and our goal is to be finished by June. These conversations have been incredibly helpful in understanding the joys and challenges you and your fellow leaders face every day, your concerns and hopes, your efforts to be both faithful and fruitful.
In those meetings, we look at data and trends over the past decade–in membership, financial giving, attendance, and other vital signs of congregational life. We talk about giving patterns and the financial distribution of pledges. We talk about the buildings and property.
To be clear: these data points are not the mission of the church. They don’t tell the whole story of any congregation’s life. But they do provide a window to assess each congregation’s capacity to participate in God’s mission, just as your vital statistics tell your doctor–and you, for that matter–about your capacity to fully engage your life. They are indicators of fruitfulness.
We now have a good sampling across the diversity of the diocese to begin drawing conclusions. While each congregation’s story is distinct, there are a few broad trends worth noting:
In general, our congregations fall into a fairly predictable spectrum of health:
We’ve also discovered that many congregations confront three areas of vulnerability:
Across the diocese, our church buildings loom large. For many caring for the building intended to house ministry has become the primary ministry. It’s challenging, daunting work, and very expensive. Most of our church buildings are old; many are historic and with maintenance needs well beyond current capacity to fund.
Some churches have growing numbers of young people, but most do not. All say that they want to attract young people and are sad if they can’t. But that desire doesn’t often translate into mission priority for the young. In fact, the opposite is often the case, with the preferences of older generations dominating church life and resource allocation. In the places where young adults are present, the pledge base remains predominantly older.
Dependence on a Few
In many of our congregations, a small percentage of people are disproportionately supporting the budget. God bless the large givers; God bless you, if you are among them. But it’s a vulnerable place for congregations to be. Nor do many of our stewardship efforts take into account generational and multi-cultural differences in both motivation and giving practices.
Now hear me, Diocese of Washington: Despite these challenges I do not believe that aging membership, struggle for adequate resources, and building issues that overwhelm other ministries is God’s preferred future for us. I see a better day, one that is both faithful and fruitful, with congregations marked by joy, passion for Jesus and his gospel, a commitment to serve our communities, and as beacons of justice. I hope for such a day.
But hope is not a strategy.
And so, with prayer and our best efforts, we must to work strategically toward that God-inspired future, the seeds of which are all around us, some already bearing good fruit.
At the heart of our diocesan strategy will be Christian discipleship, all the ways we draw closer to Christ and allow his spirit to fill and guide our lives. We’ve taken concrete steps in that direction and will continue. This year, for example, we co-sponsored a workshop with our several of our largest congregations focusing on discipleship within the more complex structures of larger congregations
We continue to offer the RenewalWorks process which focuses on spiritual growth and development in congregations. This year’s diocesan Leadership Learning Day on February 11 will feature discipleship offerings; and this spring we are sponsoring a pilot Alpha program at the cathedral and for other interested congregations. Alpha is a robust, small-group curriculum that takes both established church-goers and people curious about Christianity through a series of dinner conversations about what it looks and feels like to be in relationship with God in Christ. It allows us all to ask all the questions on our hearts in a safe, supportive environment.
If you’d like to know more about any or all of these initiatives, Canon Joey Rick would be thrilled to speak with you.
We also began in earnest this year two experiments in the discipleship of resourcing–for stewardship is a manifestation of discipleship. We have, and will continue to offer for our congregations resources from two stewardship initiatives from the wider church:
Project Resource, which applies best philanthropic practices to church giving and
Stewardship 365 which addresses multi-cultural practices.
We’ll take this work deeper in 2017.
The Transformational Resources Commission
Today I call for the establishment of a diocesan commission to address the need for truly transformational resources for our congregations, and to help us implement the kind of strategic initiatives that will move our congregations forward. For now, I’m calling it the Transformational Resources Commission.
Part of the commission’s work will be to gather excellent resources for all our congregations–both material and leadership–and to set up a process for some to participate in a pilot for strategic financial planning. Because money always follows vision for ministry and passion for mission, these congregations will also be engaged in the deepest, most important questions of what it means to be disciples of Jesus and servants of God’s ministry in the world.
After the pilot, and the conclusion of all our congregational visits, we will then take the next step and gather congregational leaders by regional or other groupings to assess what we have learned. By then, I pray we will be ready to undertake a diocesan wide strategic plan for a thriving Episcopal Church throughout the Diocese of Washington, perhaps sometime in 2018 or early 2019.
If this is a ministry you are interested in, or know others with gifts to share, look for an application form that we will be sending to all congregations and other institutions of the diocese.
We also need staff help to get this endeavor off the ground and I will be hiring someone for that work–not in a permanent position, for that would be premature, but as a contract employee to help establish and organize the commission for its work and lead the pilot initiative. Once the commission is named and has met, we will begin interview process for this position.
One of my long-term goals as your bishop is this: by the time I hand the crozier to the 10th bishop of Washington, all income from the Soper Fund will be available for strategic congregational growth initiatives, including congregational growth grants and partnering with congregations to offer 2-3 first year positions for those we sponsor for ordination.
I believe moving to this approach in the use of Soper Fund income is vital for two key reasons. First, in principle, it’s not wise for any organization to rely as heavily as we do on endowment income to pay operating costs. I am determined to having a diocesan budget that each congregation feels called and inspired to support. And, friends, there needs to be some consequence for lack of support, a cost that is more than you sending me or Paul Cooney an apologetic email. I don’t mean this is a shaming way, but in the same way that our congregations can’t do all they feel called to do if members don’t support them. Reliance on endowment clouds that accountability and allows us all to expect things from the diocese without sufficiently supporting it. That accountability goes both ways: Diocesan Council and I need to demonstrate to you each year that your diocesan investments are fruitful, just as vestries must for their congregations.
Second, and of overriding strategic importance, I believe that if we are to be successful in devising strategies for adaptive change to the 21st century world, we must explore new approaches and make investments in congregational vitality. Dedicating all or most Soper income to these purposes would assure that the diocese is able to make investments in our collective future.
I’m grateful that we’ve made good first strides toward this goal, thanks to so many of you; and we have the first fruits to show for it, which you will you will hear more about in the budget presentation.
Now I would like to address our role in public life as followers of Jesus and as the Episcopal Diocese of Washington.
While I mean no disrespect to those who voted for him, it should come as no surprise that I am alarmed by the behavior and actions of our new president. On election night, President Trump pledged to be a president for all Americans; since then he has done little to unify the nation. He seems to thrive on divisiveness and incivility and then feigns surprise when others feel emboldened to act in hateful ways in his name, such as those who vandalized one of our multi-cultural congregations with the words, “Trump Nation, Whites Only”, or those who say to immigrants, or citizens, with dark skin, “You are not welcome here.”
President Trump often speaks of terrible people wanting to do horrible things, and then sets himself up as the protector of all that is decent and good in America. Conservative columnist David Brooks sums up the president’s first week in office as being all about threat perception: building a wall against a Mexican/Central American threat; building barriers against a Muslim threat; restoring torture chambers to fight the terrorist threat. That is precisely the kind of fear that defined some of the most shameful chapters in our nation’s history. It is antithetical to Jesus’ gospel of love; it encourages dehumanization that leads to justified violence, celebrates intolerance, and I refuse to participate in it.
While I disagree strongly with President Trump and those who support him on many issues, and I wince when I hear fellow Christians speak of him as God’s chosen leader, I will resist the temptation to deepen the divide from my side. Instead, I will offer hospitality and accept it, when offered to me. I will listen, seeking understanding. I will pursue relationships with people who see the world differently. I will engage with an undefended heart, looking for common ground wherever possible.
I also cringe when I hear fellow Episcopalians make sweeping, negative assumptions about all evangelical Christians, judging them all by their worst leaders. I confess that this is personal: evangelical Christians first introduced me to Jesus in a way that forever changed my life. I left evangelical Christianity for many reasons, chief among them, my love of the sacraments, real differences in biblical interpretation, and a commitment to the work of justice. I also could never get my head around the notion, even as a teenager, that there was only one way to salvation, the narrow way the particular church I attended espoused. But while it breaks my heart that so many Christians have cast their lot with President Trump, I will always seek to build bridges between Christians whenever possible. I will also speak the truth God gives me–however imperfectly I hear it–as clearly and courageously as I can. And I know that there there may come a day for for non-violent civil disobedience.
For there are people in our congregations and communities who are at risk, as are urgent efforts to reduce carbon emissions that contribute to climate change that will affect the wellbeing of all who come after us–our children, and grandchildren, and their children after them. Fortunately, thanks to the hard work of many and the history of activism in this diocese, we are well positioned to continue our justice work, and we will.
With the support of Canon Paula Clark, we have in place a Racial and Social Justice Working Group, made up of well-organized and passionate leaders, and they will continue to lead us in our collective efforts. This is a place of growing collaboration with the cathedral, which has also named racial justice as one of its top programmatic priorities, under the leadership of the Dean Randy Hollerith and the Rev. Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas. We’re also in the early stages of collaboration with the Presiding Bishop’s office, as it seeks to implement the racial justice imperative of last summer’s General Convention.
Our Latino missioners, led by the Rev. Sarabeth Goodwin, will guide our efforts to support our Latino congregations and the immigrants they serve. Several congregations are exploring what it means to once again provide sanctuary for those who fear deportation, and to support for those who face growing intimidation. I need you to know that I support this efforts.
We are also blessed by the leadership of those in our diocese who are committed to interfaith partnerships. This is an excruciating time for Muslim Americans and for Muslims fleeing terrorism and war in their home countries. We need to stand by our friends and neighbors and advocate for refugees, and we will.
We also have people with high environmental consciousness throughout the diocese. One of our most passionate environmentalists is Dr. Carol Janus, who will be collecting recyclables at each table after lunch. Speak to her if you’d like to know more about how to reduce carbon footprint of your church building and save money in the process.
Many of you have been in touch with me, Dean Hollerith, and the Rev. Luis León regarding the roles that the cathedral and St. John’s, Lafayette Square played in the inauguration ceremonies of President Trump.
Most of those who contacted me have expressed anger, dismay, and disappointment for our hospitality and efforts at civil engagement. We were perceived by many as actively endorsing President Trump and allowing a preacher who has a history of anti-Muslim, anti-gay, and anti-Catholic rhetoric to speak from one of our pulpits.
I’ve attempted to be as clear as possible about why the dean and I made the decisions we made, and the Rev. León–who needs no one to speak for him–has done the same. But I also know that those explanations have left some in the diocese and the wider church unsatisfied. It’s always painful when my decisions hurt or disappoint those I love and respect. And I understand that for many, the difficulties of the last week may have raised important questions about the relationship of our diocese, its parishes, and its cathedral to the political life of the nation’s capital.
It’s my hope, my prayer, and expectation that we can use this difficult moment as an opportunity to reflect together on the profound challenges we face, both in ministering to the people in our nation’s capital and its surrounding suburbs and in testifying to the truth of the gospel in this exceedingly contentious political time.
While each one of our congregations has the task of participating in civic life, the identity and purpose of this cathedral brings the issue to the fore whenever our nation is divided or in turmoil. And the relationship between the cathedral and the diocese hasn’t always been smooth. While I served as interim dean, we worked to bridge the distance between the cathedral and the people of this diocese and the wider Episcopal Church. We’ve made real progress. We called the Rev. Dr. Rose Duncan–born and raised in the diocese, called to ministry from St. George’s parish in DC and serving among us for her entire life–as Canon for Worship. We called the brilliant Rev. Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas as Canon Theologian. We called the Rev. Andy Barnett to show us what breadth of musical possibilities there are in worship. And we called the Very Rev. Randy Hollerith as dean, a man for whom close connections to the diocese is a high priority.
Both Dean Hollerith and I feel that one way to address the questions raised in the last two weeks is by examining the cathedral’s role in its entirety.
For that reason, he and I will appoint a task force to conduct listening sessions over the next year, to consider the role of the cathedral in the life of our diocese, the wider church, and the nation. We will ask the task force to ponder what it means to have a national cathedral in a country without an established religion and how we as communities of faith can engage in public prayer, public theology, and gospel-based advocacy without becoming captive to any partisan faction or secular ideology. What does it mean, in 2017, for the cathedral to remain true to its founding charter as a house of prayer for all people and a church set aside for national purposes? I will also ask the group to offer guidance, in the form of a report, to inform the ways that not only the cathedral, but this diocese, your bishop, and all our congregations can faithfully participate in the life of the nation and its capital. Dean Hollerith is fully supportive of this initiative, as is the chair of the cathedral chapter, John Donoghue. Both see the work as an important part of the cathedral’s strategic visioning process.
This will be a joint task force–from the diocese and the cathedral–and I will also consult with Presiding Bishop Michael Curry and President of the House of Deputies Gay Jennings for their suggestions. For those wishing to participate in this process, we’ll have a process in place for applications as soon as we get organized.
I’ve spoken to you of many things of great importance. There is a lot for us to hold now, in this second season of our time together. But I am in this work for the long haul. Nothing worth doing happens quickly. Faithful and fruitful ministry takes time.
When I think of my life as your bishop, what often comes to mind is the image that you sometimes see on airplanes that tells you where you are in relation to your destination.
God willing and the people of this diocese consenting, I hope to serve as your bishop for a total of 20 years, which means that we are one quarter of the way there. My daily prayer is that when the day comes for me pass the crozier on, we will be able to say that we were both faithful and fruitful in our efforts, to the glory of God and in faithfulness to Jesus and his mission of love and justice. Thank you for the privilege of serving Christ, and all of you, as bishop.
After he was in prison for some time, Paul was permitted to state his case before King Agrippa. Paul said to the king, ‘Indeed, I myself was convinced that I ought to do many things against the name of Jesus of Nazareth. And that is what I did in Jerusalem; with authority received from the chief priests, I not only locked up many of the saints in prison, but I also cast my vote against them when they were being condemned to death. By punishing them often in all the synagogues I tried to force them to blaspheme; and since I was so furiously enraged at them, I pursued them even to foreign cities. ‘With this in mind, I was travelling to Damascus with the authority and commission of the chief priests, when at midday along the road, your Excellency, I saw a light from heaven, brighter than the sun, shining around me and my companions. When we had all fallen to the ground, I heard a voice saying to me in the Hebrew language, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? It hurts you to kick against the goads.” I asked, “Who are you, Lord?” The Lord answered, “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting. But get up and stand on your feet; for I have appeared to you for this purpose, to appoint you to serve and testify to the things in which you have seen me and to those in which I will appear to you.I will rescue you from your people and from the Gentiles—to whom I am sending you to open their eyes so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.” ‘After that, King Agrippa, I was not disobedient to the heavenly vision, but declared first to those in Damascus, then in Jerusalem and throughout the countryside of Judea, and also to the Gentiles, that they should repent and turn to God and do deeds consistent with repentance. For this reason the Jews seized me in the temple and tried to kill me.
For I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel that was proclaimed by me is not of human origin; for I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.
You have heard, no doubt, of my earlier life in Judaism. I was violently persecuting the church of God and was trying to destroy it. I advanced in Judaism beyond many among my people of the same age, for I was far more zealous for the traditions of my ancestors. But when God, who had set me apart before I was born and called me through his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, so that I might proclaim him among the Gentiles, I did not confer with any human being, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were already apostles before me, but I went away at once into Arabia, and afterwards I returned to Damascus. Then after three years I did go up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas and stayed with him for fifteen days; but I did not see any other apostle except James the Lord’s brother. In what I am writing to you, before God, I do not lie! Then I went into the regions of Syria and Cilicia, and I was still unknown by sight to the churches of Judea that are in Christ; they only heard it said, ‘The one who formerly was persecuting us is now proclaiming the faith he once tried to destroy.’ And they glorified God because of me.
Good morning. I am Mariann Budde, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, and it’s a privilege to worship God with you, the members of St. Paul’s, K Street and all guests and visitors today. I hold your rector, Richard Wall, the associate clergy and lay leaders of St. Paul’s in high esteem, and I give thanks to God for your collective witness and ministry.
Each week I worship in one of the 88 congregations in the Diocese of Washington, which allows me to experience the depth and breadth of the Episcopal Church throughout Washington, D.C. and four Maryland counties, and across that diversity to discern common themes–where we are strong, as Episcopalians, where we struggle, and where each congregation’s distinct call to follow Christ might fit into a larger witness.
And in each place I seek to bring a word of encouragement, to do what I can to support you and your leaders, and to commend each person–each one of you here today–in your personal life of faith.
There are many claims on all of our lives, many demands on our time and energy. I urge you to take a bit of time each day to pray, reflect on Scripture or other sources of inspiration, and to seek Jesus’ guidance for your life. God’s love for us is strong and true, and God’s grace is real. But we need to do our part.
Spiritual practices are those things we do that help us become the kind of people who can hear God’s voice, feel the presence of Christ, and be open to the Holy Spirit’s guidance. Our practices are what we can do to help narrow the gap between the person that we are and the person God calls us to become. Or, in the words of Brian McLaren, “spiritual practices are about surviving our twenties, 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.” And like most things that take time to cultivate, the fruits of our practices may not be evident to us until we need them most. And if we haven’t cultivated them in small ways over time, it’s hard to play catch up.
We’ve come to the end of what was one of the more challenging and fascinating weeks to be a resident of Washington, D.C. and her surrounding communities. There’s a lot of energy swirling around and, indeed, within us. You may be aware of the controversy surrounding decisions the Cathedral dean and I made regarding participation in inaugural events and the prayer service at the Cathedral yesterday, and also around the decision of one of your sister congregations, St. John’s, Lafayette Square to host a private prayer service for the president, vice president, and their families. There was strong criticism when the identity of the preacher for that service became public, because his is the kind of Christian witness the vast majority of Episcopalians, including me and all the people at St. John’s, do not espouse.
I don’t want to say more about these things here, although I am certainly open to further conversation. I simply want to express my gratitude to you, because in midst of all that I needed to deal with and think about in the past week, you gave another task. As your preacher on the Feast Day of the Conversion of St. Paul, I needed to spend time thinking about your patron saint, and in particular, his conversion that changed the course of his life and arguably, the world.
I confess I’ve had a hard time focusing on much of anything this week, but knowing I would be here today, I picked up a book I’ve wanted to read for a long time: St. Paul: The Apostle We Love to Hate, by the brilliant world religions scholar Karen Armstrong. It was exactly what I needed to read, and I cannot commend it to you highly enough. You will never think of your patron saint in the same way again, and his life story, as told by her, will be a source of great inspiration.
Armstrong reminds us that Paul enters the Christian story about two years after Jesus’s death. Paul himself would proudly insist on his impeccable Jewish ancestry, his education–which locates him among the highest social strata of his time– and that he had been a particularly zealous Pharisee.
Though Paul played a passive role in the stoning of Stephen, he then went on the offensive against certain followers of Jesus. In his zeal, he entered house after house, seizing men and women and sending them to prison. He did not shrink from brute force. Some of his victims may have been condemned to thirty-nine lashes in the synagogue; others may have been beaten up or even killed.
In his own mind, Paul was been doing his best to hasten the coming of the Messiah. But then, as Armstrong writes, “in an overwhelming moment of truth, he realized that Jesus’s followers were right. . . As if this were not enough, his violence had broken the fundamental principles of the Torah: love of God and love of neighbor. In his excessive ardor for the law’s integrity, he had forgotten God’s stern command: ‘Thou shalt not kill.’ Paul would spend the rest of his life working out the implications of an insight that was at once devastating—because it snatched Paul away from everything that had previously given meaning to his life—but also profoundly liberating.”
On the road to Damascus, Paul had a vision. It was as if scales had been removed from his eyes and he had an entirely new insight into the nature of God. “For Paul the Pharisee,” Armstrong writes, “God was utterly pure and free of all contamination. . . But when Paul saw that God had embraced Jesus’ filthy, degraded body and raised it to the highest place in Heaven, he realized that in fact God had an entirely different set of values.”
Think for a moment of the magnitude of that experience. Paul had to lay aside what he had previously believed to be sacred truth in light of a spiritual encounter that revealed to him a deeper truth. Jesus himself appeared to Paul, asking that haunting question, “Why do you persecute me?” Can you think of such a time in your life–when in light of a new experience or insight, you had to lay aside what you once believed with all your heart? It is very hard to do.
I’m reminded of a story Anthony de Mello tells of a monk who died and was buried by his fellow monks, in the tradition of their monastery, in a crypt on the back wall of their chapel. After the funeral service, they heard noises from the other side of the wall. They re-opened the crypt, and the monk who died rose from the coffin and told them of his experience beyond the grave, which contradicted everything their tradition taught about life after death. So, they put him back in the wall.
Paul, in contrast, chose to follow the revelation given to him, at great personal cost. That’s a part of his story too easy for us to overlook–how much encountering Christ cost him.
We don’t know much about the first years after Paul’s encounter with Christ. He tells us that he left Damascus and went to Arabia for three years. No doubt he spent a lot of time thinking and praying and talking with people. He tells us that he worked, of all things, as a tentmaker, which Armstrong suggests, was a complete reversal of lifestyle for Paul.
“Unlike many of Jesus’s disciples, Paul had been born into the social elite and was able to devote his life to study, a luxury that was possible only for the leisured classes. . . But by deliberately abandoning this lifestyle and living in solidarity with common laborers, Paul was practicing a daily kenosis or “self-emptying,” similar to Jesus’s when he ‘emptied himself to assume the condition of a slave.’ Indeed, Paul said that by taking up this menial occupation, he had in fact enslaved himself. It was a hard life. Paul said that he and his fellow workers were often ‘overworked and sleepless,’ and went ‘hungry, thirsty, and in rags, wearing ourselves out by earning a living by our own hands;’ and ‘treated as the scum of the earth, as the dregs of humanity.’”
Armstrong points out few of the apostles supported themselves in this way, and some of Paul’s opponents believed that by identifying with the lower echelons of society, he brought the gospel into disrepute.
“But after Damascus, Paul wanted to transcend such distinctions.”
Armstrong goes on to tell the rest of Paul’s life story, which does not get any easier. It’s astonishing to realize, given all that he accomplished, how nearly his entire ministry was defined by struggle, conflict with other Jesus followers, hardship, and persecution. In fact, according to Armstrong, the most devastating breaks in relationship for Paul came within the Christian fellowship itself.
Last night I read the seven “undisputed” letters of St. Paul, those for which there is no controversy of authorship, in chronological order. It took me about an hour. And I was reminded of when I first started seriously reading the Bible, in seminary, nearly 30 years ago. St. Paul was, as Armstrong’s title states, the Christian writer we all loved to hate. We didn’t like his views on women in leadership, human sexuality, and slavery. I will leave the debate about those texts and their authorship alone for now, although Armstrong covers them in depth.
What I want to do in the time I have left is read to you some of Paul’s most inspiring and uplifting words, words that he wrote, astonishingly, when he was living in extreme hardship. They are some of the words that touch my heart and inspire my faith, and I pray will do the same for you:
From his letter to the churches in Galatia:
There is no longer Jew or Greek there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.
Galatians 3: 28-29
For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.
From his first letter to the churches in Corinth:
Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many. . . If the foot were to say, ‘Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body’, that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear were to say, ‘Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body’, that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? . . If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honoured, all rejoice together with it.
I Corinthians 12
If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast,* but do not have love, I gain nothing. Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. . . For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.
I Corinthians 13
From his letter to the Philippians:
I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now. I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.
From his second letter to the Corinthians:
Therefore, since it is by God’s mercy that we are engaged in this ministry, we do not lose heart…For we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake. For it is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness’, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.
2 Corinthians 4:4-9
From his letter to the church in Rome:
Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honour. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. If your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
May God bless you, members of St. Paul’s, K Street, as you strive to be faithful to Christ’s call under the mantle of your patron saint. I urge you to spend some time getting to know him better. Allow his inspiration and his example to inspire you and give you hope. If we all lived our lives with a fraction of the passion and faith with which he lived his, the world would be a better place. For as Paul himself would remind us, God’s Spirit working in us can do infinitely more than we can ask for or imagine.
Each of us was given grace according the measure of Christ’s gift. Ephesians 4:7
It had been my intention to write this week about the major themes I will address in greater detail at next weekend at the yearly gathering of clergy and lay delegates from the 88 congregations of the Diocese of Washington. These are the issues I care most about and for which I feel most accountable before God and those I serve as bishop.
But I would be remiss not to address again the concerns raised by many faithful Episcopalians regarding the participation of Washington National Cathedral’s choir in the presidential inauguration and the inaugural prayer service the following day. While some have written to support the decisions Dean Randy Hollerith and I have made on these matters, most who have contacted me are dismayed, disappointed, and angry.
Many have made the distinction between hosting the inaugural prayer service and the choir’s participation at the inauguration itself, supporting one and objecting to the other. Others didn’t object to the prayer service until they heard that there would not be a sermon, which left them feeling as if the church had surrendered its responsibility to preach truth to power.
I feel the weight of the emotions expressed by those who disagree with my decisions and want to explain certain misperceptions. For example, it has always been the president’s prerogative to choose a preacher for the inaugural prayer service, or, in this case, not to have one. And the readings and prayers offered will themselves carry prophetic weight.
Yet I don’t expect to change anyone’s mind by what I have to say here. In truth, I’m grateful for the sense of outrage at some of the President-elect’s words and actions, because I share it. And I’m grateful for the protests that are unfolding in our nation because I believe that protest is, at times, a civic responsibility and one critical component of faithful Christian discipleship.
But I do not believe that on the weekend of Mr. Trump’s inauguration, protest is the only way to express civic responsibility informed by Christian faith. Some of us may need to be in the streets. But others of us need to show up at the inauguration and the events that follow, secular though some may be, as people of faith and witnesses to the highest aspirations of our nation. I would argue that we especially need to be present among fellow citizens whose views of the world, and of this inauguration, differ from ours.
While some faithful Christians are called to protest, others are called to extend hospitality, and to accept the hospitality of others, truly listening to those for whom this weekend is a celebration. While there are times for prophetic witness, there are also times for prayers of uplift and encouragement, meditations on shared history, and music that stirs the soul. For those of us leading the prayer service at Washington National Cathedral, this weekend is that sort of time. The fact that others feel called to march at that same hour speaks to the many ways Christians can feel called to act, in faith, for the common good.
I live and lead from the core conviction that God loves diversity, as evidenced in creation and our glorious diversity as a species. I believe that there is more than one way to be a faithful Christian, and that in most situations, there is more than one right answer. Precisely for times such as this, we are called to be a church with breadth in our witness and capacity for real relationships across profound differences. Fostering such relationships requires a far more radical kind of hospitality than we currently know how to offer. It also requires a willingness to put ourselves in places that make us uncomfortable. So that is what some of us will do.