More than Welcome: Progress on the Journeys of Faith

Now on that same day two of Jesus’ disciples were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem…
Luke 24:13

A common refrain in Episcopal churches these days, beautifully expressed at St. Mark’s, is this: “Wherever you are on your journey of faith, you are welcome here.” I love the warmth of welcome; the sense of inclusion and respect. It’s equally important, however, for us to be mindful of the spiritual guideposts of the journeys we’re on, and to remember that the point of a journey is to make progress. One of the fundamental assertions of the Christian faith is that our lives are not aimless, without purpose or direction. The gift of Christian faith, teachings and community of Christians is that they help us make sense of the journeys we’re on, so that we might walk with greater courage. We can draw closer to the One who is both beckoning us, and, as in the story of the Road to Emmaus, walking beside us. As Christians, we actually know something about the journey of faith and can help one another, not merely with welcome, but actual progression on the path.

So today I’d like to briefly describe a few of the classic, archetypal spiritual journeys described for us in the Bible–and by archetypal I mean that the stories are as much about us, the ones reading and listening, as the characters in the text. See if you recognize the terrain of one or more of these journeys from your own life. If so, God may well speak to you through the insights and metaphors of these ancient texts, with a word of encouragement or guidance. Or you may hear something that might be helpful for another person that, if the opportunity presents itself, you might share.


The first journey I’ll describe is distinctive in the way we respond to the invitation to take it, for we do so almost entirely on intuition. We hear a call that others do not hear, that speaks to our souls, This is sometimes described as God’s still, small voice. In the book of Genesis, the first book in the Bible, God calls Abram by name and tells him to leave his homeland. Others didn’t hear what Abram heard. And with no reported debate or protest, Abram gathers up his family and goes, leaving all that is familiar. It doesn’t make sense to us, as readers of the story, why Abram does it, anymore than we can understand why Jesus’ disciples, centuries later, would do essentially the same thing, pick up and leave everything to follow Jesus simply because he asks them to. It never makes sense to others; indeed, it often doesn’t make to ourselves what our spiritual intuition tells us to do.

On the spiritual journey guided by the inner voice of God speaking to us at the level of our deepest selves, the destination is important, but equally important is the transformation that occurs within us while we’re on the road. Abram was a different person because of the journey he took, as were the disciples, as are we when we venture out in ways that we have a hard time explaining to others, because we’re listening to a voice that no one else hears.

There can be a lot of pressure on us not to listen to that voice speaking; we can ignore it and often do. It’s also true that we need to test such inner directives, for not all the voices we hear inside our heads are of God. For those of us on the intuitive end of the spectrum of personality types, it’s especially important to have trusted persons to talk to about what we’re hearing. For our intuitions are often sound, but not always, and when they’re not, following them can be disastrous. Part of our task as Christian community is to help one another in the discerning of this kind of call and to honor it in ourselves and others. But when we hear and follow an inner call, there is nothing quite like it to give us a sense of Christ with us. I could tell you of several such experiences in my life–and suspect many here could as well. These are among the most significant spiritual events of our lives, often invisible to others, that set us on a particular path.


In the book of Exodus, Moses leads the people of Israel on another kind of journey entirely, out of oppression toward the promise of freedom. This is the journey of liberation, with possibilities and dangers all its own. There’s the threat of Pharaoh’s army wanting to drag them back into slavery and all the costly consequences of demanding freedom from those who benefit from their being enslaved. Later, there’s the threat of their own response to the stunning realization that freedom is also a difficult path. Whenever we find ourselves on freedom’s journey, it’s painful to recognize how other human beings benefit from our being kept down, or, if we’re on the other side of that relationship, how we benefit from unjust relationships. It’s also humbling to realize how strong the temptation is sometimes to willingly put the yoke back on. A part of us would prefer the simplicity and clarity of someone telling us what to do, rather than continue on the costly road of making decisions and taking responsibility for ourselves. For those who have walked the road from oppression to freedom and sensed God’s presence with them, this is the cornerstone of their faith, and one that makes solidarity with others seeking freedom all the more urgent. For God is a God of freedom. In Christ we are set free.

For those of you in the incredibly important, transformative teenage/young adult years, there’s a pull toward liberation of a different sort as you are increasingly called by life and by God toward horizons that are yours–not your parents or guardian adults. These horizons demand new levels of personal responsibility and maturity, which comes to you in stages, not all of them clean or easy to attain. With each passing year you become freer, as you claim increasing authority for your lives. But with that freedom comes responsibility. Likewise for parents, it’s not always easy to walk the path of appropriately letting go, while at the same time being both supportive and clear in the gradual transfer of life responsibility. As a parent of young men in their late 20s, I often find myself wistful for the days when my maternal instincts could be trusted. I need to hold them in check now and wait to see what my adult children need and request, rather than what I so want to give.


The people of Israel find themselves on the road again several hundred years after their road to freedom, this time out of their land of promise into the shame of banishment. This is the journey of exile, on which all that they have defined themselves by is taken from them. They’re gathered up by force and marched out on their own trail of tears from Jerusalem to Babylon. One of their poets writes of that terrible time, “By the waters of Babylon, we sat down and wept when we remembered Zion. How can we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?”

The journey of exile takes many forms. We know that untold millions are forced to live as refugees around the world, far from their homes. There are thousands of people in the District of Columbia living in the exile of homelessness, deprived of any sense of belonging. There is the emotional exile that accompanies loss of any kind, particularly the loss of a defining relationship, physical capacity, or place in the world. The sense of displacement is what defines exile, and initially, we experience it as abandonment by God. But what makes the biblical experience of exile so powerful and instructive to us is that the people of Israel came to realize that God had not abandoned them at all. In fact, their awareness of God and reliance upon God was heightened by their unfamiliar and painful circumstances.

The spirituality of exile, while lean, is often so profound that in time we no longer regret the circumstances that took us on the journey we did not choose. The people who come out on the other side of exile are, paradoxically, among the most joyful, free, and powerful I know. They are utterly fearless, having faced and come through their greatest fears. They have an abiding sense of gratitude and awe of God’s love for them. They wouldn’t wish the experience of exile on anyone, but they are grateful for the person they have become as a result. Not all people who experience exile come out on the other side; that’s true for those on the journey to freedom and other journeys as well. But when we have no choice but to walk through the painful valley, isn’t it good to know that God is with us and can see us through to the other side? That’s why our role as stewards and seekers of spiritual strength is so important, why our relationship with God in Christ and the workings of grace in community are of immeasurable worth.


The brief, poignant journey at the heart of today’s gospel is spiritual terrain that we will all travel more than once before we’re done. In secular language, we might call it the “post trauma journey.” The disciples are clearly traumatized by the events culminating in Jesus’ crucifixion, and the reality of resurrection has not yet been revealed to them. They’re walking through the debris of their shattered world, from what they once knew to no destination in particular. No one knows where the village of Emmaus lay, and there’s no reason given for the disciples’ journey, although it’s easy to surmise. They needed to get out of town and breathe different air.

A ‘post’ time follows a traumatic event, but is still influenced by it. It is both difficult and revelatory.  Any undue pressure to return to normal may actually thwart the delicate grace of a ‘post’ time. Researchers tell us that the effects of trauma linger much longer than we previously thought, and grace appears amidst the aftershocks.

But on the Emmaus, post-trauma road, Jesus meets the disciples. The Risen Christ meets the disciples and walks with them as their companion on the road. He comes in the form of a stranger and they do not recognize him. He listens to their story of disappointment and grief. He then speaks to them through the Scriptures and they feel power of his presence through the words. He waits to be invited to join them further. Then at table, he takes bread, blesses, breaks, and gives it to them, and that moment, they recognize him. It doesn’t seem to bother the disciples that he disappears, I suspect because they sensed that it was a mystical encounter all along.

So the Emmaus, post-trauma road, like others of our faith, is not only defined by its circumstances but transformed by holy encounter. That’s the common thread of all these journeys and others like them: God is with us–sometimes out ahead, sometimes walking alongside, sometimes in ways we aren’t even aware, carrying us, making it possible for us to get through the day. On the Christian path, we can know Jesus, as closely and as personally as we’re willing to let him in. But Jesus is not a bully. He doesn’t force his way on any of us; nor does his presence and love require us to pretend to be someone we’re not, or to deny who we are and what we know. Yet what a loss it would be for any of us to imagine that we’re on our own here, when he is so desiring to be a real presence with us–as companion, friend, teacher, healer, and savior.  

The truth is that we’re all moving from where we are now to wherever it is that life is leading us. Each journey has its particular terrain, with lessons to teach, opportunities to consider, and tasks to accomplish. Yet no matter the journey we find ourselves on, whether we’re walking by intuition, or toward freedom, or with a sense of destiny or doing all we can simply to put one foot in front of the other, what we can be assured of is that Christ is with us. He will speak to us, saying different things depending on where we are. He will be reassuring in times of struggle, and more directed when we’re wavering from our true path.

In all likelihood, we won’t recognize him when he speaks at first for he generally speaks through the words and actions of others. Which, by the way, elevates our responsibilities to one another considerably. We may be the one through whom he speaks to another on a given day, something to consider when deciding whether or not to show up somewhere. We can also seek Christ in this place, at this altar, or any altar where bread is blessed, broken, and shared in his name. But the important thing to remember when we meet Christ here is that he will always meets us there on whatever road we’re on, offering the sustenance we need to continue from where we are to where the journey leads.


Now I’d like to say a word to my progressive Christians friends. Sometimes in the name of inclusion, we downplay or discount the priceless gift of Christ’s presence and love. When I was in seminary, which was during the height of the so-called culture wars in our church, I heard people say that the choice we needed to make was between Jesus and “the gay and lesbian agenda,” between the Bible and the culture’s call for acceptance of that which the Church had taught for centuries as unacceptable. But I was among those who said, that is not the choice at all. It’s because of Jesus and how we hear him calling us; it’s because of what we read in Scripture that we affirm the full inclusion of all people, including those who are gay, lesbian and transgender.


Similarly now I find myself in conversation with leaders of the Episcopal schools in our diocese, many of whom feel we must choose between our Christian identity and our welcome of children of other faiths, between teaching the Christian faith and learning from the faith traditions of others. Again, I say that is a false choice, for it is because of our Christian faith that we welcome children of all faiths; that in faithfulness to Christian teachings we strive to learn from the insights of other faiths. That’s what Christians are called to do.



In closing, there’s is a final journey I’ll mention, as reflected in the disciples’ decision, after their encounter with the Risen Christ, to return from Emmaus to Jerusalem. They had a spiritual encounter and they wanted to share it with their friends. Don’t be afraid, when you’ve been touched by the mystery of God, the presence of Christ, the power of the Holy Spirit, to speak of it–humbly, graciously, and with respect for others. As our presiding bishop would say to us if he were here: Don’t be ashamed of Jesus. Never hesitate to ask for what you need as you make your way through the terrain of the particular spiritual journey that is your life. People of St. Mark’s, as you extend your arms of welcome, as is your vocation and charism, do not forget the other gifts this community has to offer: hard won spiritual wisdom, ancient and contemporary insights; your unique witness to the living presence of Christ, with food for the journey and light to guide the way.        

Alpha at the Cathedral

By Lu Stanton León

This spring the Diocese of Washington and Washington National Cathedral sponsored a pilot Alpha course, a small-group program that allows both church-goers and seekers to meet, share a meal, and explore those key spiritual questions that may be weighing on their hearts: Who is Jesus? Why did he die for us? How do I pray?

The Alpha course, a revised version of a program created by the Church of England several decades ago consists of eight sessions, each of which includes 30 minutes for a free, catered dinner, 30 minutes for a talk and then an hour for small group discussions.

The course at the Cathedral met on Thursday nights from March 2 through April 27, not including Maundy Thursday, and reached its 130-person capacity shortly after it was announced. Dean Randy Hollerith says it will be offered again.

“Alpha is designed as a discipleship class,” Hollerith says. “It was created for the unchurched and is a very evangelical interpretation of the Christian faith. We had to adapt it knowing that the people taking it here are not unchurched and are not big “E” evangelicals. We wanted people, through this experience of Alpha, to become more faithful and become more comfortable talking about their faith.”

“I love it,” says Christine Bingaman, a member of the Cathedral committee responsible for the logistics of the program. “The thing that is unique about this model is that no matter where you are on your faith journey, you connect right in. You are not being measured or judged. It is you and your relationship with God. It is a wonderful opportunity to explore yourself at a deeper level and to open yourself up to God.

“It draws us closer as a community. I think that, for us, we’ll come out stronger individuals, connected to God and connected to one another. It’s been just a joy.”

The Alpha course originated in the late 1970s at Holy Trinity, Brompton, a Church of England parish in London. It has been offered in more than 169 countries and its materials have been translated into 112 languages. Alpha is offered by Roman Catholic churches, Orthodox churches and churches from all of the mainline Protestant denominations. In all, more than 29 million people have tried the course, according to the program’s website.

Alpha’s popularity soared during the 1990s, and Alpha USA was founded during that time. Hollerith says he was a little hesitant about offering the course at the Cathedral because he knew that, in the past, it had been criticized as being anti-gay and inattentive to women’s issues.

“In the past, Alpha was perceived as offering a biblical worldview that was hostile to the full inclusion of LGBT persons in the church,” says Bishop Mariann Edgar Budde, who taught several of the classes at the Cathedral. “That, to be sure, is not part of the Alpha presentations we are offering.”

Hollerith, who also taught  several classes, said he and Budde had “vetted” the program and become comfortable with it. “We’d love to see it be an ongoing thing throughout the year. I don’t know if we can swing it financially to do it all year, but we’d like to be able to offer it again.”

The Rev. Jamie Haith, who worked for years with Alpha at Holy Trinity, Brompton, and is now head of Holy Trinity Church, a nondenominational church in McLean, Virginia, also taught several classes. In addition to Haith’s assistance, volunteers from Holy Trinity helped run the program and pay for the meals.

“They see it as part of their mission to share Alpha with other churches of all denominations,” Hollerith says.

The volunteers from Holy Trinity were “wonderful,” Bingaman says. “Perry Auditorium is where we met for dinner. These folks just appeared and transformed the venue. They have been very helpful in sharing what their experience has been as to what works and what doesn’t work so well.”

Hollerith describes the Cathedral and diocesan sponsorship of the Alpha program as “a synergy, or you could call it a grace.”

“The Cathedral loved the DOCC (Disciples of Christ in Community) experience when Sam Lloyd was dean,” Hollerith says. “Those small groups and lectures were wonderful for the Cathedral. I’m a community builder, and I knew I’d want to do something to enhance the community. At the same time, Mariann was interested in using Alpha here in the diocese.”

They decided to use the Cathedral for a test case. About 70 percent of attendees are members of the Cathedral.

Budde says that while she served as interim dean, “members of the Cathedral worshipping community expressed a real longing for such an offering again, for the purpose of building community and also having a safe place of welcome for those exploring the faith.”

As she travels around the diocese, she recognizes that other congregations could benefit from similar spiritual offerings. For that reason, the diocese sought and recently received a Roanridge Grant from the Episcopal Church to help sponsor Alpha in rural parishes.  With that grant, the diocese will be able to assist parishes in Southern Maryland not only to host Alpha but also to offer a weekend retreat that supplements the 8 weekly sessions.

“Vital, growing congregations have several things in common, and one is a regular opportunity for people to gather to explore foundational questions and experiences of faith,” Budde says. “Alpha has broad appeal across a wide spectrum of Christian denominations, and it is easily adaptable by congregations that use it.

The bishop sees Alpha as “an entry point into the faith or an opportunity to go deeper in a faith that Christians often take for granted or don’t make the effort to explore in depth. Alpha speaks of a deeply personal faith, a way of knowing God, experiencing the love of Jesus and the Holy Spirit’s power working in and among us. It also has all the components of Christian hospitality and community that make church real for people.” 

Not All Become Elders: The Spiritual Terrain of Aging

Not All Become Elders: The Spiritual Terrain of Aging


I begin with a word of thanks to the leaders at Seabury Services for organizing this annual event and a hearty welcome to our friends of the United Church of Christ with whom we are blessed to share this celebration. Thanks, as well, to congregational leaders who have nominated this year’s honorees, and, finally, let me congratulate the honorees themselves. We are grateful beyond measure for your faithfulness in ministry.  

I appreciate the opportunity to reflect with you on matters of real importance–of increasing importance for me, personally, and as your bishop, as I take stock of the spiritual concerns in our common life.

Let me begin with a text, taken from Psalm 90:

Lord you have been our refuge from one generation to another.
Before the mountains were brought forth, or the land and the earth were born,
from age to age, you are God.
You turn us back to dust and say, “Go back, O child of earth.
For a thousand years in your sight are like yesterday when it is past
and a like watch in the night.
The span of our life is seventy years, perhaps in strength even eighty.
Yet the sum of them is but labor and sorrow,
for they pass away quickly and we are gone.
So teach us to number our days,
that we may set our hearts to wisdom.
How do we go about setting our hearts to wisdom?

Two vignettes to set the stage:

The first is from a conversation I heard recently between a radio journalist I admire, Krista Tippett, and Richard Rohr, a 73 year-old Franciscan priest, also worthy of great admiration. Rohr is the author of many books including one entitled, Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life.

Krista Tippett began an exchange by saying:

There is a true progression of life that comes with age, which is about an accumulation of experience, but this is not necessarily chronological. Everybody doesn’t become an elder. Some people just get old. It’s also possible to be old and childish. And there’s an important swath of the young among us who are, even at a young age, seeking a fuller and farther vision of who they want to be that is distinct from what they want to do.

Richard Rohr agreed. “Some of the young people today feel like old souls,” he said. “And some of my generation feel like old fools.”

We all get older; not all become elders. Nor are all the young immature; many have a wisdom beyond their years. There’s also a certain youthfulness that can come with age, which is what we mean when we say someone is “young at heart.” It’s not the same as being immature, which is what happens when we try to avoid the realities of aging. Rather it is the freedom that comes through an acceptance aging and the surprising discovery of a second youth.

Now, the second vignette which brought home to me something many of you already already know:

At my first diocesan convention as your bishop, we invited Dr. Lisa Kimball from Virginia Theological Seminary to address us, her expertise being the spirituality of teenagers and young adults. But she also challenged us to consider the other end of the spectrum.  She told us that the fastest growing demographic in our country consists of people over the age of 70. “The spiritual terrain of those years,” she said, “is under-explored and under-valued. This requires our immediate attention as a Church.” I’ve never forgotten that.

So what is the spiritual terrain of eldership?

I’d like to suggest a few markers, at the risk, as they say, of bringing coals to Newcastle. I count on you to tell me if I’m at least in the right ball park as I speak of these things. I do so with some urgency, not merely for those of you already in your 70s and beyond, but for those of us who are right behind you, and for all people, really, no matter our age, as we seek to set our hearts to wisdom and find ways to live with meaning and joy.

Richard Rohr, again, has this to say: “There are at least two major tasks to human life. The first task is to build a strong ‘container’ or identity; the second task is to find the contents that the container is meant to hold.”

The first task we often take for granted as the purpose of life; it is the work of identify formation, job seeking, establishing relationships, determining where to live and what you’re going to wear. These are all the external parameters of our existence. The second task is less about surviving successfully in this world, and more, as Rohr likes to say, about  “the task within the task,” or getting clarity about “what we are really doing when we’re are doing what we are doing.”

What we’re really doing when we’re doing what we’re doing.

The New York Times journalist David Brooks, in his book The Road to Character describes this same task a bit differently. This is his preamble:

About once a month I run across a person who radiates an inner light. These people can be in any walk of life. They seem deeply good. They listen well. They make you feel funny and valued. You often catch them looking after other people and as they do so their laugh is musical and their manner is infused with gratitude. They are not thinking about what wonderful work they are doing. They are not thinking about themselves at all.

When I meet such a person it brightens my whole day. But I confess I often have a sadder thought: It occurs to me that I’ve achieved a decent level of career success, but I have not achieved that. I have not achieved that generosity of spirit, or that depth of character.

A few years ago I realized that I wanted to be a bit more like those people. I realized that if I wanted to do that I was going to have to work harder to save my own soul.

In the second task of life, we’re talking about soul-saving work, the terrain of deep meaning, of eldership– how we become not only wise, but caring, generous, self-giving and–did you hear it?–joyful.

Let me list a few milestones of this particular terrain.  

The first is a shift from what we might call the work of attainment and accomplishment to that of letting go. Of course the process of letting go begins early in life, for with every milestone of accomplishment we must let something else go. I remember coming across an essay our elder son wrote when he was in 7th grade. As he entered adolescence, he had begged us for a room of his own, because his younger brother was driving him crazy. So we worked to configure our small house to give him his own room on the first floor, away from the rest of us on the second floor. And he was elated. But what he wrote about was how, at first, he missed the companionship of his brother and being part of the family as we all settled in for the night. He quickly got over it and came to relish the privacy and distance. But even at that age, he recognized that getting what he wanted also meant that he had to let something go.

And as you know, the process of letting go continues and never gets easier. I, for one, think it gets harder. Rohr calls these “the necessary losses” of life.  

The poet Mary Oliver describes the loss this way:

To live in this world
You must be able
To do three things:
To love what is mortal
To hold it
Against your bones knowing
Your own life depends on it;
And, when the times comes, to let it go.
To let it go.
(“In Blackwater Woods” by Mary Oliver, from American Primitive. © Back Bay Books, 1983. )

 We don’t walk far into the terrain of eldership without learning a lot about letting go.

A second milestone of the spiritual terrain of eldership, related to the first, is the wisdom gained through suffering. Not suffering for its own sake or actively pursued, but suffering as it comes to us and in the recognition and acceptance of suffering as an inevitable dimension of life. Simply put, the longer we live, the more we will suffer. We needn’t be embittered by suffering; nor need we passively accept it. But there’s something that happens to us when we accept suffering, allowing it to expand our hearts, that enables us to live without being broken by the suffering we experience. This is a spiritual task of enormous significance.

Hear this:

In a game of cards or tennis there may come a moment when you see cannot possibly win. The same can happen with your hope of a happy marriage or a brilliant career. Can you go on playing still, with no expectation of a win? Yes. This is the way you should have played from the start. Not for the victory, though you should strive for that, but for the game itself. . . John Donne and George Herbert were ambitious men. Both hoped to serve the state in some high capacity. Both were disappointed. Both became clergymen. A cynic might conclude that they had settled for second best. But can a second best turn out better than the first? Can defeat be met in such a way that it yields a greater prize than victory? Most of us are destined for failure, which is a form of suffering. How to use our suffering, how to turn the lead of our defeat into the gold of something else, is the object of religious alchemy. Not the only one; but the one most of us are interested in.

Can you feel the significance of this? Turning the lead of defeat into the gold of something else–these are the hard-won gifts of wisdom that come from a life courageously lived.

Just a few more milestones:

Delighting in the strength, beauty and accomplishments of youth. Celebrating in others what we can no longer do or have, which requires us to accept the realities of physical limitations and that some paths in life do eventually close to us.

As I was leaving Minnesota, I went to say goodbye to a friend dying of cancer He held my hand, his eyes sparkling with tears, his face beaming: “You are embarking on such an adventure,” he said. “I am so happy and excited for you!” This was his deathbed blessing for me.

Which points to another milestone of spiritual eldership: the active contemplation of what lies beyond the great mystery of death, a discipline of great courage about which an entire sermon could be preached.

And the last milestone I’ll mention today that runs through all I have spoken of for us: daily disciples of service to others, doing what we can, offering what we have. We do this through mentoring and coaching; through gestures of support, increasingly behind the scenes; through generosity and acts of kindness. Through it all, our presence is more important than what we do, as we gracefully cheer others on.

Teach us Lord, to number our days, that we might set our hearts to wisdom.

I put all this before us, friends, to say, as is often said, “aging is not for the faint hearted.” The spiritual tasks of aging are even more daunting than the physical changes that occur. But the fruits of a life well lived are of tremendous value for everyone in our fabric of relationships.

I believe that as a church we could do much better to explore this terrain with one another, that collectively we have been, as Dr. Kimball said, sorely neglectful of how we might have honest, courageous conversation about this great adventure called aging. We can do better in our support one another through it. So I gently put before us a collaborative challenge, that we might create circles of meaningful conversation for some of the most courageous work that we are called in this life to undertake.

For as we age, we are called to embody our mortal bodies as fully as we can, accepting the necessary losses, inevitable suffering, and regular experiences of defeat of life, allowing God’s grace and power to transform them into pearls of wisdom to be cherished and shared. Each experience of letting go and passing on prepares us for the day when we will let everything go, when at last, God calls us home.

I look forward to working in partnership with Seabury, the clergy of our diocese, and all of you in this great work of cultivating the terrain of spiritual eldership. We are here today not merely to honor those who provide good voluntary services, but to honor the most courageous, spiritually fearless among us, from whom we have so much to learn as we walk as companions on this path.

More to come. For now, thank you for allowing me to reflect on these things with you and for allowing your lives to be an occasion of joyful celebration.

In the name of God. Amen.

People of the Resurrection

Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “they have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” The Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the cloth that had been placed on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings, but rolled up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. Then the disciples returned to their homes. But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord and I do not know where they have laid him.” When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know who it was. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will gladly take him.” Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, “Do not hold onto me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord,” and she told them that he had said these things to her.

John 20:1-18

I greet you in the name of God who shows no partiality, but loves all humankind with an everlasting love. And in the name of Jesus, who came as God among us, showing us a way of love and forgiveness; who was tortured and then executed without once wavering from that way; and whom God raised from the dead. From the earliest days of the Christian witness, this was and remains the most important thing to know about Jesus and to pass on: that he died on a cross; that God raised him from the dead; and that through his death and resurrection, we can experience a love so deep, so broad, and so high–a love that forgives, heals and sets us free.

And if, by chance, you’re not sure if what Christians celebrate on Easter is true, or if it is true, if it matters; or if something’s happened in your life or in our world that’s caused you to doubt what you once believed; or if you’re not even in the zone but just trying to make it through the day and somehow you wound up here, trust me, you’re in good company.

For no matter how well we all clean up, or in my case, how fine the vestments I’m given to wear, even the most seasoned Christians have times when the faith we thought we had wavers, when events conspire to shake our resolve and cause us to wonder if what we’ve staked our lives on is, in fact, true. That should be of some comfort to you, given that we’re talking about the greatest mystery of the Christian faith, and that so much of what we see and experience in this world is at odds with what we profess here. I wouldn’t trust anyone who doesn’t wrestle with these things. And sometimes we’re all at as much of a loss as Mary and the other disciples were on that first Easter morning. Take note of that: their first experience of resurrection is not presented in ways that convey spiritual confidence. On the contrary, it’s a scene of mass confusion.

What brings me back, and I daresay others, and keeps us going, and in the end allows us to affirm our belief in the resurrection of Jesus as it’s told in Scripture, and that it matters, are our own experiences of resurrection–the ways we ourselves have died and been given life on the other side of death through a power not our own. It didn’t just happen to Jesus; it happens to us. And as we’re able to interpret our experiences of moving through to life through the lens of Christian witness about Jesus’ and his resurrection, it feels real to us and for us in ways that give us confidence to place our trust in Him. And when that confidence is shaken, we keep on the path, trusting that what matters isn’t the strength of our faith but the power of God revealed in Jesus.  

So what I’d like to do is walk through the story of that first Easter morning and lay alongside it what it can feel like for us to move from death to life. My hope is that doing so can help answer in the affirmative two very important questions: Is the story of Jesus’ resurrection true? And if so, does it matter? And not only for us, but for the good of humankind.   

The first thing to say about the Easter experience is that we are not talking about resuscitation, about coming back from the brink and carrying on as before. Resurrection is something else entirely, and the context for it isn’t a near miss, when we’re spared the worst that can happen. The prerequisite for resurrection is, in fact, the worst that can happen: devastating loss and death.

Christians around the world have just spent the last week reminding ourselves of each painstaking detail of Jesus’ violent death. We remembered how the Roman authorities and Jewish religious leaders colluded to rid themselves of this nuisance of a man; that his most ardent disciple denied three times that he even knew him; that another disciple betrayed him. Everyone close to him deserted him in the end, except for a few women who watched him die close up. All were devastated, and for some their grief was compounded by guilt for what they had done or failed to do for their friend.

Likewise for us, the starting point is deep grief in the face of tremendous loss. Fill in the blank of what that loss has been for you; I could certainly tell you of mine. If we laid our losses alongside each other, what our experiences would have in common is their finality. A dream, a relationship, a beloved dies. Sometimes we know ourselves to be responsible for we’ve lost; other times we suffer at the hands of another, or worse, we’re caught in cruel indifference of collective evil, either as its victims or perpetrators, and there’s seemingly no way out and no going back. And so we grieve, going through all that grief requires. You know: it’s exhausting, and it takes a long time to work though. We can get stuck in grief, of course, but equally dangerous is trying to rush through it, as if death were something we could bounce back from. There’s no bouncing back; we are forever changed.

The text tells us that on the first day after the sabbath, Mary rose and went to Jesus’ tomb, most likely to care for his body, for that was a burial ritual reserved for the women of that time. We recognize what’s happening here: she’s going through the motions. Grief puts us on autopilot, as we do what must be done.

But in resurrection something begins to shift, ever so slowly, and it catches our attention. The first thing Mary notices when she arrived at Jesus’ tomb was that the stone covering the entrance to it had been removed. That may sound like a small detail, but it’s a big deal. It was a big deal for her, because it was sizeable stone. It’s a big deal for us, because that stone represents all that keeps us tethered to our loss. And when it’s gone, and we feel a lightness that we weren’t expecting. A weight has been lifted; a way seems to be opening through what we thought was solid rock.

Now you’d think we’d feel exhilarated by this, and maybe we are, but we’re also completely disoriented. Rarely do we feel ready for this when it happens. We may not even want our burdens to be removed as yet, if at all.

I’m reminded here of a little story told in the novel Captain Corelli’s Mandolin about an old man who had been half-deaf since childhood, the “stone” in his life being a small pea that had lodged itself into his ear when he was a boy. When the village doctor realized what had impaired the man’s hearing all these years and managed to extract the wax-and-dirt encrusted pea, the man was at first elated, then completely disoriented, and finally fatigued by the noise all around him, most notably, his wife’s voice that he had never fully heard before. Soon he returned to the village doctor, pleading that he put the pea back.

There’s part of us that would prefer to our stone back, whatever it is, because grief has its comforts. It’s quiet; little is expected from us. With the stone gone, we’re not sure what to do. Mary doesn’t know. She runs and gets Peter and John. They don’t know, so they run around too, and actually look into the empty tomb; one “believes” as a result, whatever that means, and then both inexplicably exit the scene. They go home.

Our heroine stands on the side of this confusion and weeps. There she sees Jesus, not recognizing him until he calls her by name. And then she does what any of us would have done, what we all want to do: she tries to hold onto him as tight as she can. But he says to her, and this is the biggest step of all: you have to let me go.

There is no better way to describe what resurrection requires of us: letting go. I mean really letting go. If your fist is clenched in anger, you have to let it go. If you’re hanging onto something or someone as if your life depended on it, you have to let go now because your new life depends on it. Picture yourself on the edge of a cliff, leaning backwards away from the rock while every instinct in your body tells you to hang on. Or sky-diving the moment before jumping out of a plane. In twelve-step spirituality this moment is known as “admitting powerlessness,” a letting go experience if there ever was one. But as hard as it is, there’s a relief that comes with it. Finally, whatever is going to happen next is out of our hands.

Then comes the most amazing thing: as we’re suspended in mid-air, we feel the presence of God with us, sometimes in the form of Jesus himself. And he’s calling us, as Jesus called Mary, by name. It’s an experience of profound acceptance and unconditional love. We’re incredibly vulnerable, and yet we feel loved, and buoyed by a strength not our own. This is especially powerful when we feel personally responsible for the suffering we’ve endured or caused or others; when the burden of guilt is as strong as whatever it is that we’ve lost.

The classic resurrection story of forgiveness comes a bit further in the text. It’s just as mysterious and confusing as the story of Mary and Jesus the gardener. This story is of Jesus the short-order cook. According to this account, after Jesus’ death some of disciples from Galilee decide to return and resume their former lives as fishermen, and honestly, it’s as if the empty tomb experience never happened. One morning they’re out on the water and they see someone beckoning them to shore. It all feels eerily familiar to them. They have the sense that it’s Jesus, but no one dares say anything. One jumps and swims ashore while others bring in the boat. Jesus is there building a fire, cooking breakfast. “Come and eat,” he says. And they do, not quite sure what to make of it all. After breakfast Jesus takes Simon Peter aside, the one, remember, who denied him three times. He doesn’t berate Peter, tell him how disappointed he is in him. He doesn’t say, “I told you so.” He simply asks: “Do you love me?” Three times he asks, and by the third time Peter is reduced to a puddle of tears because he knows exactly what Jesus is doing. Jesus is healing him of that most shameful memory, replacing it with an affirmation of love. Resurrection is like that: your sin is taken away; the slate is clean. And what’s more, from rising from that very painful experience, you’re given a job:

“Feed my sheep,” Jesus tells Peter. “Share with others what you have received.”   

So, question number one: is the story true? Absolutely. I say that to you not merely because it says so in a book called the Bible, but because it’s written on my heart. It’s happened to me, more than once; I’m confident that it’s happened to you. Maybe in relatively small ways, but real, nonetheless, if we dare to claim it as true. I’ve also seen it in other people whose suffering by rights should have broken them completely but didn’t. If you pay attention to the people you admire going through this, and to your own life you begin to see the pattern, the form of it, the process of moving from death to life. Now this is not a journey any of us relishes; we’d all avoid it if we could. We’re talking about death first. But when death comes, resurrection follows, which is really good news. And if you’ve gone through it a few times while you’re still walking the earth, it makes the final resurrection that awaits us at the end less frightening. For we know the pattern, and the One who is calling us home.

And does the resurrection matter? Yes, it does. It matters for us. And I’m not talking about believing certain things about Jesus so you that can get into heaven. You don’t have to worry about that. I’m talking about the quality of your life right now.

And does it matter to the world around us that we are resurrection people? Yes, it does and here’s why. People of the resurrection are among the most joyful, passionate, generous, forgiving, life-affirming human beings on the planet. Think of them. Think of the people you’ve known or have admired from afar. Think of those who respond to hatred with forgiveness; who never seem to lose hope; who believe that all people matter to God. Think of the people who are more than willing to make a nuisance of themselves, as Jesus did, in oppressive societies, and like him, to challenge those who misuse their power; of the ones who are willing to walk into the most hopeless situations and say, “You know, we can change this.” They know that with God all things are possible. Think of the people who willingly go back into valley of death so that someone else might know life.  

We can take our place among these, through the power of Jesus’ resurrection living in us. We can do it. WE are who we are, still in need of healing and forgiveness ourselves. We’re not yet all we were created to be. You’ve got your wounds and anxieties and I’ve got mine, and Lord knows we still live in a Good Friday world. But what is stopping us from being people of the resurrection, allowing the grace and mercy, forgiveness and justice of God to flow through us? What is stopping us? The stone is gone; there’s nothing we have to hang onto, God loves us. What else do we need?  

So I’m going to give you an example of a person of the resurrection who took my breath away then wrap up with you a final image to take home.

A few nights ago, I heard an interview with Anba Angaelos, the General Bishop of the Coptic Orthodox Church of the United Kingdom. You know what happened in two Coptic churches in Egypt just last Sunday–terrible bombings in the middle of Palm Sunday services. And the bishop is being interviewed about it all.

The journalist asking questions wants to direct the bishop to speak politically and he will have none of it. He only wants to talk about the people suffering such tremendous loss. And he expressed his gratitude for the global outpouring of prayers and support for his people.

But he was also clear about what is at stake, that the goal of the Islamic State, or ISIS, was not merely to terrorize but to eradicate Christianity in Egypt. And at the end of the interview the journalist asked, “Is there anything else you’d like to say, bishop?” Bishop Angaelos said, “Yes, there is. I urge the world to pay attention to the resilience, courage, and forgiving spirit of the Coptic community in Egypt.”

“Do you forgive people who committed this crime?” the interviewer asked. Without hesitation the bishop replied, “Absolutely, I feel no need to forgive the act, which was vicious and evil. But we are all human beings living under the brokenness of sin, with the possibility of repentance. I am happy to continue forgiving, loving and hoping, because I am convinced that that is the only way to break the sinister spiral of violence that has swept across the Middle East.”  

I don’t know if I could forgive like that, but I know a person of the resurrection when I hear one. Might we dare say something of the same, based on the bits of resurrection we have known, that we are happy to continue forgiving, loving, and hoping in order to break the spiral of violence and death all around us? Wouldn’t you like to live like that?  The good news is that we can.

So here’s the image to take home with you. Not long ago I was venting about my struggles with all that we’re considering here with the person I speak with for spiritual counsel. And he reminded me of something that I’ll share with you. He spoke of St. Teresa of Avila, a nun who lived in 15th century, who was instructed by her religious superiors to write a book about prayer based on her mystical experiences. She didn’t want to do it, but she was obedient and she set about the task.

The first image she received from God was that of a diamond inside her, a symbol of God’s overwhelming love for her. And my spiritual counselor said to me, “You know what makes a diamond shine so brilliantly, don’t you? The flaws and imperfections in the stone that reflect the brilliance of the light.” That’s how it is with us. All those things that you think are the worst parts of you? Those may be what God will use to bring light and healing and hope to another.

Does resurrection matter? Yes, it does. And if you want to be a person of the resurrection, what you need to remember is this: You can let go. God loves you with an everlasting love. And your imperfections may be the best part of you.

Statement in Support of Coptic Christians

In response to the attacks on Coptic churches in the Egyptian cities of Tantra and Alexandria on Palm Sunday, the following joint statement in support of the Coptic Christian community  was issued by Bishop Mariann and other faith leaders from across the Washington metro area. The statement was also included in letters sent to the area’s coptic churches.

In light of the tragedy that occurred on Palm Sunday in Egypt, we write to express our deepest sympathy for all those whose lives were lost or forever changed due to the Palm Sunday attacks in Egypt. And we lament that the Egyptian Coptic churches were the target of such violence. An attack on one community of faith is an attack on all, and we offer our prayers for God’s mercy and justice.

The disturbing news of another attack on Christians, this time Coptic worshippers in Egypt, calls us together so that we might, through the faith traditions represented in this statement, denounce violence but particularly violence perpetrated in the name of religion.

In this week, called holy by Christians around the  world, we join in solidarity in decrying this violent attack.

In the Christian Scriptures there is the image of Simon of Cyrene, whose faith tradition we do not know, but who stepped forward to help Jesus carrying his cross. In that sense we step forward to stand with our Coptic Christian brothers and sisters and with Christians around the world, so that they do not have to carry their cross alone.

In the Islamic tradition, churches are explicitly named in the Qur’an (22:40) as places where the name of God is extolled and are deserving of protection and anyone who attacked a Christian church would be violating Islamic principles.

With sentiments of solidarity,

Cardinal Donald Wuerl
Catholic Archbishop of Washington

The Rt. Rev. Mariann Edgar Budde
Bishop, Episcopal Diocese of Washington

Mr. Rizwan Jaka
Chair, Board & Interfaith/Government/ Media Committee Co-Chair, All Dulles Area Muslim Society (ADAMS)

Rev. Dr. G. Wilson Gunn, Jr.
General Presbyter, National Capital Presbytery

Rabbi Gerry Serotta
Executive Director, Interfaith Conference of Metropolitan Washington

Imam Mohamed Magid
Executive Religious Director, All Dulles Area Muslim Society (ADAMS)