The Ministry of Deacons

Now the word of the Lord came to me saying, ‘Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.’ Then I said, ‘Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.’ But the Lord said to me, ‘Do not say, “I am only a boy”; for you shall go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you. Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, says the Lord.’

Then the Lord put out his hand and touched my mouth; and the Lord said to me, ‘Now I have put my words in your mouth.
Jeremiah 1:4-9

A dispute also arose among them as to which one of them was to be regarded as the greatest. But he said to them, ‘The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.
Luke 21: 24-27

The first words God has placed on my heart to say to you this morning–to you, Harvey, Cindy, David, Mary, and Julie–are thank you. We are  grateful for your courage, vulnerability, faithfulness, and sacrifice. You have given your all to this process of discernment, study, and formation. Heartfelt thanks as well to your loved ones, mentors, congregations, and leaders of the Commission on Ministry, Standing Committee, and Deacon’s Formation Team for all you poured into these remarkable men and women, and those coming up behind them. The Diocese of Washington has invested mightily in the diaconate, and you have responded in kind with the first fruits of your lives. Thank you.

One of the great privileges of being bishop is to receive quarterly letters from all those in the ordination process, giving me a glimpse into what it’s like on the inside for those dedicating themselves to a season of study, prayer, practical learning, and reflection. The five soon-to-be deacons have given me permission to share portions of their most recent letters. One wrote:

Years ago when I was moved to deepen my relationship to God, it made all the difference that I found myself in the right church in the right season. . . . I want to encourage and support other people of faith (or not-yet faith) whose lives can be blessed as we discover together what it means to live as people of God. I feel prepared to help build a parish environment that nurtures spiritual growth and stirs a compassionate community response to the brokenness that wounds God’s creation. I believe my gifts can contribute to the work of a parish team in forming God’s people for ministry.

The pathway to ordination for me has been long and challenging yet full of growth and discovery in each successive transitional role: nominee/discerner, postulant, candidate and now as ordinand. I have endeavored to live into these roles with diligence and openness and I appreciate the teaching and mentoring which has been offered so generously by those who support this ministry. Now as I face entry into the next role, Deacon, I pray that I will be able to continue to live up to the expectations of the program and serve with a glad heart.

I have four things now to say to you, my dear friends in Christ and now colleagues in ministry. I believe them to be at the heart of your call, and at the heart of what God needs, and what we need, from you as deacons.

The first flows from your life in Christ and with Christ. Each one of you writes and speaks freely of the profound experiences of love and grace that are the foundation of your spiritual lies.  

One of you wrote:

From the beginning of my discernment until today and now looking ahead, I have come to feel the close presence of our Lord God – a closeness that now I believe can never be shaken loose.

Another of your wrote of your love for Christ this way:

The best, and perhaps the most important, result is the enrichment and strengthening of prayer life. Regular worship (both serving and attending), instruction, reading material and examples have made prayer a framework for my life. Love of Jesus Christ is the bedrock of that framework. It’s one I would like to share in ministry.

My first charge to you is to do precisely that: share the love you have received from Christ and have for Christ. More than that: guide us, your fellow Episcopalians, into the kind of love relationship with Jesus that  is the bedrock of your life and faith. Don’t assume we know that love for ourselves, because, sadly, many of us don’t. One of the great tragedies of our church is that those who speak freely and confidently of a life-changing experience of God’s love stand out so dramatically from the rest of us that we assume such an experience is a call to ordination, rather than the bedrock spiritual experience available to all. It’s not that we don’t have faith, for we do, but it’s rather tepid, frankly. We are among what some have called “practical atheists,” believing in God but imagining that everything depends on us and our efforts. Our experiences of the Holy Spirit are anemic–truth be told, we don’t expect to be touched by a love so deep, so wide, so broad that we can rest in it, assured of God’s unfailing, unconditional, compassionate love. Teach us about that love. Show it to us. Help create environments and experiences in which we might open our hearts to receive it.

 My second charge to you flows from your unique vocation as a bridge between local congregations and their surrounding communities, or as we sometimes say, as a bridge between the church and the world. Please, please, please do nothing of service to those outside of the church as a deacon on your own. Always bring one of us with you. Don’t be the servant; teach us as a church to serve. I can’t stress this enough. Your vocation is embedded in our universal call to be Christ’s heart, hands and feet in this world. If you do it for us, you will get very, very tired, and we will take satisfaction in your ministry as if it were, in fact yours, and not ours to share.

One of you first introduced me to the work and writings of Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative and tireless advocate for criminal justice reform and abolishment of the death penalty. One of Stevenson’s key insights is that in order to solve the world’s greatest problems we must get close to them, and close to the people most adversely affected by them. If we want to address criminal justice reform, we need to take Jesus’ words in Matthew 25 seriously and visit those in prison, get to know them. If we want to address climate change, best spend time where people lives are on the line because of changing climate and erratic weather patterns. If we want to address racial injustice, we need to forge real relationships across race and class. Help us do that as a church, for we are really good at charity–giving at arm’s length, on our terms—and less adept at the kind of relationships that heal and transform and fuel the hard slog toward justice. Don’t do this work for us. Help us to do this work.

My third charge is related to the second: as you begin imagining how your ministry will unfold in a given context, with a particular congregation, identify the other Episcopal churches and faith partners in proximity and explore collaborative possibilities. I am persuaded that the future vitality of this diocese depends upon all of us establishing new bonds among us, new pathways and partnerships. The work is too big; frankly, we simply don’t have scale on our own and never will. And if we don’t learn to work together, only a few of our congregations are going to make it to the promised and preferred future God has for us as a robust, strong, compelling 21st witness to the good news of Jesus Christ. The future of the Jesus Movement is not in question; the future of our part in it, as the Episcopal Church, still hangs in the balance. Please help us.

My final word to you, dear friends and colleagues in Christ is this: trust your call. Trust that God has called you, knowing full well your strengths and vulnerabilities, your gifts and your struggles. Whenever you fall prey to that voice inside, or voices on the outside, that would have you question God’s call, think back on this moment, this place, my word to you now. You are not called to be someone you are not; you are not expected to be perfect; God has called you.

One of your wrote to me this week:

I  have been reading and re-reading the ordination vows…at times, the words feel overwhelming. Being a “wholesome example to all people” is a tall order! I don’t feel up to such a standard…but then I remember, “I am only a boy” from Jeremiah and I calm down. In the past, I used to question who did I think I was thinking I was called. I tell myself now – who do I think I am not to respond to this persistent call that will not go away? I am looking forward to living out my call in the future and I pray that I will keep listening for guidance and confidence. I will keep listening for God.

Can I? Will I? These words seem to me to symbolize where I was when the process of Deacons School began…“I do.” “I will.” Simple words – but they signify a powerful commitment. It’s one I’m eager, and prepared, to make on September 30, God willing and the people consenting.

When I first put my name in to be considered as bishop for this diocese, the thought ran through me head: who did I think I was? It was such a leap from the congregation I served in Minneapolis to here.

But as I read the profile of what was by all accounts a Very Important Diocese, I kept coming back to a humble statement almost buried somewhere in the middle. “Half of our congregations are in decline, and we need a bishop focused on congregational growth and renewal.” And among the qualities this diocese was looking for in its bishop was someone willing to grow into the job, to grow in the work alongside the people here.  

And I thought to myself: I can do that. I can grow with them. We could learn together how to be church together.

As you begin your work, hear the call to grow with us and learn with us. Help us fall in love with Jesus, and know–deep in our bones–his love for us. Help us to be open to kind of transformation of life such love makes possible. Take our hands and show us how to be proximate to pain and suffering, seeking the presence of Christ there and serving as his heart, hands, and feet. Help us renew bonds of collaboration and affection between our congregations.

Dare to believe that God has called you, as you are, not in spite of your imperfections, but because of them. It’s not about you. It’s about Jesus. You are never alone.  Thank you for saying yes.

Dr. Brené Brown to Speak at Washington National Cathedral

Dr. Brené Brown to Speak at Washington National Cathedral

Dr. Brené Brown

Stop walking through the world looking for evidence that you don’t belong because you will always find it. You don’t negotiate belonging externally; you carry it in your heart. No one belongs here more than you.
Brené Brown

Dr. Brené Brown begins her newest book, Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone, with characteristic vulnerability:

“When I start writing, I inevitably feel myself swallowed by fear.”

The antidote to her fear, she tells us, is to seek inspiration from those with tenacious courage. Among those she turns to: J.K.Rowling, author of the Harry Potter series, author and activist bell hooksOprah Winfrey, and–at the top of the list–Maya Angelou.

What Brené Brown seeks, she also gives. She is one many of us turn to when in need of inspiration and courage. Her TED Talk, The Power of Vulnerability, is among the top five most watched, with over 31,000, 000 views. The titles of her books alone are enough to invoke our innate strength and resilience: The Gifts of Imperfection, Daring Greatly, Rising Strong.  

On Sunday October 1, we’re blessed to have Dr. Brown as preacher and forum speaker at Washington National Cathedral. Thanks to the streaming and online services of the Cathedral, those who can’t be present in person can watch either on Sunday morning or anytime at your convenience.

Brown defines true belonging as:

The spiritual practice of believing in and belonging to yourself so deeply that you can share your most authentic self with the world and find sacredness in both being a part of something and standing alone in the wilderness. True belonging doesn’t require you to change who you are; it requires you to be who you are.

While her writing is profoundly personal, the social implications are high. As she told Joshua Johnson on WETA’s radio show The 1A, “It turns out you can’t write a book on connection and belonging without being really honest about how difficult it is today, given the level of vitriol and mean spiritedness.”

Brown is unflinching in her sober assessment of the spiritual crisis of disconnectedness of our time. “The world feels high lonesome and broken to me right now,” she writes. “We’ve sorted ourselves into factions based on our politics and ideology. We’ve turned away from each other and toward blame and rage.”

Yet Braving the Wilderness is full of great stories, humor, and specific ways we can find our true belonging and the courage to stand alone. Her sermon and forum presentation are sure to be full of the same.

We’ll also have the opportunity to learn how faith informs her life and work. Brené Brown is a Christian and active member of Christ Episcopal Cathedral in Houston. She and her family have been deeply involved in rescue and relief efforts after Hurricane Harvey.

Join us in person or online as we welcome Brené Brown and draw inspiration from joyful presence and hard won wisdom. “The price of true belonging is high,” she warns us in advance, “but the reward is great.”

Practice the Forgiveness You Need

Peter came and said to Jesus, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but I tell you, seventy-seven times. For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, ‘Pay what you owe.’ Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt. When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ and in anger his lord handed him over to be tormented until he would pay his entire debt. So my heavenly father will also do to everyone of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”
Matthew 18:21-25

A dentist has a sign on his office wall that reads: Floss Only the Teeth That You Want to Keep. It’s one of the better signs I’ve heard of, although my favorite remains one I saw in a neighborhood coffee shop: All Unattended Children Will Receive a Cup of Espresso and a Free Puppy.

Floss Only the Teeth That You Want to Keep. What would be an equivalent sign for a doctor’s office be, do you suppose? Exercise Only the Muscles That You Want to Last. Or Care Only for the Body Parts That Are Important to You.  

What might our equivalent sign be hanging on the wall of a church? One might be Practice Only the Forgiveness You Need. Peter came and said to Jesus, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?”  

I never used to think of forgiveness as something to practice, like scales on the piano. Practice implies monotonous repetition, until something foreign becomes second nature. Practice assumes that we start off not being very good at whatever we’re practicing. With practice, however, lies the hope of improvement.  

A few years ago, I found myself stuck on an airplane that wasn’t going anywhere. It was a connecting flight for most of us on it, and for most, it was the last stretch of a long journey home. But due to the perfect storm of technical, staff, and weather-related difficulties, we sat on the tarmac for what felt like forever—5 hours in 90 degree heat.

To my right was a woman who had perfected the art of complaining. There was plenty to complain about, but listening to her litany of grievances against everyone in the airline industry was more than I could bear. I pretended to sleep. To my left, across the aisle, was a man who was as good-natured as anyone I have ever met, managing not to be the least bit irritating with his cheerfulness. He engaged in pleasant conversation with everyone around him, except me (because he thought I was asleep). He wanted to get home as much as anyone, but he never complained, whereas the woman beside me complained about every perceived offense against her, both large and small.

In retrospect, I think of my two travel companions as practiced in two distinct ways of living. Perhaps not consciously, each had habitual responses to their surroundings, one in striving to see the good in things, the other in always looking for, and generally finding, the worst.

The Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh describes this as cultivating seeds within us.

Our mind is like a garden that contains all kinds of seeds: seeds of understanding, forgiveness, and mindfulness, and also seeds of anger, fear, and resentment. When the seeds of anger and resentment are watered in us several times a day, they grow stronger. Then we are unable to be happy, unable to accept and forgive ourselves; we suffer and we make those around us suffer. Yet when we know how to cultivate the seeds of love, forgiveness, and understanding, those seeds become stronger, and we nourish peace and acceptance within and around us. (Thich Nhat Hanh, Creating True Peace: Ending Violence in Yourself, Your Family, Your Community, and the World  (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2003), 2.)

Which seeds we cultivate is our daily choice and practice.

Jesus speaks today of practicing forgiveness, which should come as no surprise. Forgiveness was his primary message. He taught forgiveness in parables, most notably that of the Prodigal Son and the one we heard today of the ungrateful servant.

When Peter asked him how many times he was expected to forgive, Jesus’ reply was, in essence, if you’re keeping track, you’ve missed the point. He himself forgave others, lavishly and often. Remember how he once stopped a crowd about to stone a woman caught in the act of adultery by saying, “Let the one who is without sin cast the first stone.” Or when at dinner with a Pharisee who mocked a prostitute who had come to anoint Jesus’ head with oil, Jesus said, “They who are forgiven much, love much; they who are forgiven little, love little.”

Most dramatically, from the cross Jesus prayed for those who put him here, “Forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing.”

“Love one another as I have loved you,” Jesus said to his disciples the night before he died. He could just as easily have said, “Forgive one another as I have forgiven you.” It is one of the hardest things Jesus asks of us, and perhaps the most important.

Forgiveness is a mystery.

When I was a parish priest I used to ask couples in conversation prior to their marriage what they thought they would need to keep their relationship healthy over a lifetime. Rarely did  they say forgiveness, which was understandable if they hadn’t yet hurt each other very deeply. Yet without forgiveness, no relationship can survive what we do to one another. Psychologists point out that one of the characteristics that distinguishes us from other species is that we knowingly–and often without legitimate reason–cause one another to suffer. Even more peculiar, we do these hurtful things not only to our enemies, but to the people closest to us.” (Beverly Flanigan, Forgiving the Unforgivable: Uncovering the Bitter Legacy of Intimate Wounds)

But how do we forgive, exactly? What does it feel like? What if we can’t forgive, or be forgiven? What happens then?

I am certainly no expert at forgiveness. I struggle with it as much as anyone, not merely how to go about it, but also understanding what forgiveness means. So in preparation for today, I picked out nearly a dozen books from my shelves this week, each one having something to say on the topic.

Most begin by clarifying what forgiveness is not. Forgiveness is not, according to C.S. Lewis, the same as excusing. “There is all the difference in the world,” he writes, “between asking for forgiveness, which acknowledges responsibility, and asking to be excused, which absolves one from blame. What we call ‘asking for forgiveness’ often really consists of asking God or another person to accept our excuses.”

Lewis also has some helpful counsel in the practice of forgiveness, suggesting that we start with the smaller grievances and work our way up from there. “When striving to forgive,” he wrote, in the midst of World War II, “it’s best not to begin with the Gestapo.” (C.S. Lewis, “On Forgiveness” in A Year with C.S. Lewis: Daily Readings From His Classic Works (HarperSanFrancisco, 2003), 263. ) When we strive to forgive, we best not start with the most horrific grievances, particularly if the wounds are still fresh.

Nor is forgiveness the same as forgetting, acting as if the offense never occurred or has no lasting consequence. We know it doesn’t work that way. If we have been badly hurt by someone, the scars remain even if we forgive. And if we have hurt someone, we may be forgiven, but still the effects of what we have done linger on. Forgiving, whatever it means, is not some kind of erasure, nor would we want it to be. Think of all the hard won learning we would lose if we forgot what we needed to forgive.

Forgiveness, in general, doesn’t come easily. It happens slowly, over time, and it can never be forced. “True forgiveness,” writes the Buddhist Jack Kornfield, “does not paper over what has happened in a superficial way. It is not a misguided effort to suppress or ignore our pain. It cannot be hurried.” (Jack Kornfield, The Art of Forgiveness, Lovingkindness, and Peace (New York: Bantam Books, 2001), 28.)

Forgiveness is not, therefore, for the faint-hearted. It requires courage, clarity, and sufficient internal strength to rebalance the scales of power within one’s soul. Forgiveness doesn’t require that we stay in relationship with those who have done us harm, but it does involve letting go of anger and resentment. Forgiveness is not the same as reconciliation, which involves both parties in a mutual process of setting a relationship right after damage has been done to it. You can’t be reconciled with someone until both sides are willing; you can, however, forgive on your own. It isn’t easy. It takes practice.

So what is forgiveness? As the word itself implies, forgiveness feels more like a gift we receive, than something we do. Indeed, the harder we try to forgive, the more resentment we may feel. For what forgiveness requires is not effort, but openness. It feels like letting go, relinquishing control, and allowing the grace of God in. In 12-step groups, if a wounded person speaks of resentment and an inability to forgive another, the advice typically offered is, “Pray for the S.O.B. that hurt you.”

What happens in prayer is that we are reminded of the full humanity of the other person, and not just the part of him or her that hurt us. It takes a lot to do this, and sometimes we’re not ready to make the effort. As Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “Staying angry with you is how I protect myself from you. Refusing to forgive you is not only how I punish you; it is also how I keep you from getting close enough to hurt me again, and nine times out of ten it works.” But there’s a cost to our refusal to forgive. “There is a serious side effect,” Taylor warns. “It’s called bitterness and it can do terrible things to the human body and soul.” (Barbara Brown Taylor, “Arthritis of the Spirit,” in Gospel Medicine (Cambridge: Cowley Publications, 1995), 9.)

Forgiveness releases the burden of pain and resentment that we carry. It accepts the past for what it is and people for who they are. In Archbishop Rowan Williams’ words, “Real forgiveness is something that changes things, and so gives hope. The occasions when we feel genuinely forgiven are the moments when we feel, not that someone doesn’t care what we do, but that someone does care because he or she loves us and that love is strong enough to cope with and survive the hurt we have done.” (Williams, Rowan, “The Forgiveness of Sins,” in Ray of Darkness: Sermons and Reflections (Cambridge: Cowley Publications, 1995), 50.)

Forgiveness brings, in time, serenity and acceptance, a renewed sense of humility and personal responsibility. And as Jesus said so pointedly in the parable of the ungrateful servant, our capacity to forgive is linked to the experience of receiving forgiveness ourselves.

For all his teachings on forgiveness, that’s the only thing Jesus says about how to go about it. It starts within you, he says, and the gift of forgiveness you are given every day by the God who loves you. When you know what it’s like to be forgiven, your heart will break open and expand, and you will receive the capacity to forgive another.

When we lose touch with our need for forgiveness, we’re in real trouble. Rowan Williams writes, “The man who forgets how much and in what way he has been loved and forgiven, how much hurt he has inflicted, but instead nurses his own unforgiven injuries, that one is in mortal danger.” (Ibid., 53. ) To be blunt, forgiveness is not an option for Christians; it’s a core value of our faith. But our capacity to practice forgiveness depends on our willingness to receive it ourselves, and before that, to acknowledge that we need it. Practice Only the Forgiveness You Need.

Now I heard as well as you the harsh, punitive language in the parable of the unforgiving servant—lots of reference to torture, and that finger-pointing warning at the end, “So my heavenly father will also do to everyone of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.” I’d like to say something about this. Jesus was notorious for exaggerating in his stories in order to get his point across. So focus less on the exaggeration and more on the point, which in this case is a tale of a person who had been forgiven a lifetime of debt and yet was unwilling to forgive another who owed him less than a day’s wages.

When Jesus instructs us to pray, “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us,” he isn’t setting up a contractual arrangement between us and God, but merely describing how forgiveness works. “It’s a mystery of mutuality,” write the authors of a book with a marvelous title, The Spirituality of Imperfection. “We are forgiven only if we are open to forgiving, but we are able to forgive only in being forgiven.” (The Spirituality of Imperfection, 222.)

If forgiveness of any kind, in any way, is a struggle for you, then you’re in the right place. We’re all struggling here. Just because it’s the core value of our faith doesn’t mean that it’s easy for us. But this is a place we come to practice letting go, and being open to the gift of forgiveness.

One thing about Christian community: it affords lots of opportunity to practice forgiveness, as does every other relationship of our lives. That’s a good thing: practicing forgiveness is what makes us Christians. How often shall we forgive? Will seven times take care of it? “Not seven times,” Jesus said, “but seventy-seven times.” Forgiveness, you see, is a way of life; it is a seed God has planted within us that we cultivate through practice.

Remember: we don’t have to start with our equivalent of the Gestapo; we can start small. As we get better at it, we lose count and we stop keeping score.

Without question, forgiveness makes us much better travel companions on a delayed airplane. It also makes us much better fellow travelers in life. Which person on the plane do you want to be? Then, go, and practice the forgiveness you need.

Religious Leaders File Supreme Court Brief against Trump Travel Ban

Six Episcopal bishops and a wide-ranging group of other Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and Sikh leaders filed an amicus brief this week in the Supreme Court case challenging President Trump’s Executive Order No. 13780, known as the travel ban. The executive order, which the faith leaders claim discriminates against Muslims on the basis of religion, is being challenged in court by the state of Hawaii and the International Assistance Refugee Project.

In the brief, the faith leaders argue that religious tolerance is “critical to the safety and well-being of our local and national community,” and that because the travel ban “selectively burdens Muslim-majority countries while exempting comparable Christian-majority countries,” the executive order “is anathema to this core tenet that all members of our coalition share.” The brief concludes that the order violates the Establishment Clause in the First Amendment, which prohibits the establishment of religion by Congress.

“The Episcopal Diocese of Washington and I believe our nation’s security is imperiled, not secured, by policies that discriminate solely on the basis of religion,” said the Rt. Rev. Mariann Edgar Budde, bishop of the Diocese of Washington and one of the signatories of the brief. “I’m proud to join this interfaith effort to urge the Supreme Court to overturn the travel ban, so that visitors to the U.S. and refugees, once fully vetted, may enter the country without discrimination on the basis of religion.”

The interfaith coalition includes the Rt. Rev. Marc Handley Andrus, bishop of California; the Rt. Rev. Mariann Edgar Budde, bishop of Washington; the Rt. Rev. Andrew Dietsche, bishop of New York; the Rt. Rev. Mary D. Glasspool, assistant bishop of New York; the Rt. Rev. Lawrence C. Provenzano, bishop of Long Island; and the Rt. Rev. Allen K. Shin, bishop suffragan of New York, as well as the National Council of Churches; United Methodist Church Women; Jewish congregations in New York, Washington, and Maryland; the Sikh Coalition; seven U.S. Franciscan provinces; United Church of Christ clergy; Union Theological Seminary; and the Muslim Public Affairs Council, among others.

What is Church?

Bishop Mariann resumes her reflections on the core beliefs and practices of the Christian faith, following the outline of both the Alpha Course and Forward Movement’s Curriculum, Transforming Questions.

“For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”
Matthew 18: 20

If you and I were to ask the people we know or might encounter in a nearby coffee shop what comes to mind when we say the word “church,” what do suppose we might hear?

A building for religious people.
An event that occurs on Sundays.
An institution with a lot of rituals and rules.
A place where people like me are–or are not–welcome.
The place to go when you’re in need of help.

Those who feel no need for church themselves often strongly believe that churches are supposed to help people. They believe that churches are supposed to give generously to those in need, forgive rather than judge, and accept everyone. Even if they’ve never opened a Bible, people seem to know that Jesus is all about forgiveness and love. When they see those of us who claim to be Jesus’ followers acting in ways that are decidedly unloving, they often respond with disillusionment and sometimes anger.

Which is how Jesus himself responded to the religious leaders of his day who refused to show mercy. So the stakes for those of us who are Jesus’ followers are high.

If we were to ask ourselves what comes to mind when we hear the word “church,” what would we say? What is the church for us?

Churches–individual church communities–mean a lot to me. I’ve spent a lot of time in churches, and I have experienced in them the extremes of human behavior. In churches we find expression of our most selfish instincts and inspiration for our highest ideals not to mention, all that is mediocre and merely boring.

Still I believe, as Bill Hybels has famously said, that the local church is the hope of the world. Here’s why:

In the New Testament, the Greek word translated into English as “church” is “ecclesia.” Ecclesia doesn’t necessarily carry religious overtones. It refers to a gathering of people for a particular purpose. The earliest Christians weren’t defined by where they gathered, but rather who they were when they gathered and why.  

The church, then and now, isn’t a building or a religious ceremony. It’s a gathering of people for a particular purpose. That purpose is to find meaning for our lives, a way to live in this world, and be in relationship with the mystery we call God on the particular spiritual path established by Jesus of Nazareth.  

There is no church without Jesus, a man who lived 2000 years ago in a region known as Israel/Palestine, who had a 3-year ministry of teaching and healing, who called others to follow him and his ways. Though he died young, Jesus was so compelling that people in his presence found themselves thinking that if God were to come to earth in human form, this is what God as Human would look like. For they experienced in Jesus the love, forgiveness, justice, and compassion of God.

Nor is there a church without the mystery of the Risen Christ. This same Jesus was crucified on a cross–a horrific execution intended to demoralize and disperse his community of followers. But the exact opposite happened. After his death, Jesus’ followers became emboldened to carry out his message. For they experienced him as alive, risen from the dead, and with them still. His spirit remained with them, filling them with his love. They felt forgiven, released from guilt and fear, and empowered to carry on in his name. They themselves became compelling and others were drawn to join them as church.

Thus, along with the teachings of Jesus and the mystery of the Risen Christ, the church is also a movement: “a gloriously messy movement with a laser-focused message and a global mission. It was led by men and women who were fueled not by what they believed but by what they had seen.” (Andy Stanley, Deep and Wide: Creating Churches Unchurched People Love to Attend) Resurrection is a powerful thing, and when we’ve experienced it for ourselves, we become compelling, too.

We are church when we gather in community to open ourselves to Jesus’ presence, experience his love and forgiveness then go out, as best we can, to love as we have been loved, and to join in his love for others.

We don’t always get this right. In fact, we of the church often get this wrong–terribly wrong. There is a lot about our lives that is broken and adrift. So we come together again, gather at his table in need of grace, in search of hope and the kind of love that can turn our lives around. We gather to be reminded that God is as close to us as our breath, to remember that Jesus loves us unconditionally, forgives us when we fail, and offers us a way of living joyfully in this world.  

And when we invite others to join us, it’s not about us and how nice and welcoming we are. It’s about Jesus and his compelling presence–his love and mercy, his forgiveness, his commitment to justice, his strength and goodness that we have experienced and are glad to share.

When we are his witnesses, when we share his good news, as we allow ourselves to be changed into his likeness, we become compelling. Whenever any of us is in the presence of true Jesus followers, we know it, not because of what they say, but how we they feel in their presence. We feel love and acceptance. We feel inspired and challenged to be our best selves.

So when we say the word “church” here are some of the associations I pray we and others might have.


  • On the night before Jesus died, he said to his followers, ‘I now no longer call you servants, because servants don’t know what the master is doing. I call you friends. You are my friends.” Jesus longs for us to know and trust him as we would the closest of friends. And as church, we are called to be friends to one another. When we gather as church and invite others to join us, there is the possibility of deep, sustaining friendship, as we share our lives of faith together.  


  • As we share life’s passages together, the bonds of friendship over time can become so close that church can feel like family. Family bonds can be complex. They are no perfect families, and there are no perfect churches. But family, at its best, is where we are loved, unconditionally, and where we learn to love. It’s where we learn to forgive, as we stick with each other through good times and bad. It’s where we are most challenged to grow. Church can be that family for us.


  • Home is the place of abiding welcome, of nurture and hospitality. It’s where we know we belong.

The Body of Christ

  • St. Paul, in his writings, likens Christian community to a body, with each member having an important part to play and all contributing to a larger whole. His point is that we all need each other, no matter what part we are. But there is another way to think of church as the body of Christ in relationship to the world around us. St. Teresa of Avila, a leader of nuns in the Middle Ages who wonderfully challenged the women of her community with these words, that speak also to us:

Christ has no body on earth but ours.
No hands and feet here, on earth, but ours.
Ours are the eyes through which he looks on this world with kindness.

Ours are the hands with which he works;
Ours the feet on which he moves.
Ours are the voices through which he speaks to this world with kindness.

With our touch, our smile, our listening ear
Embodied in us, Jesus is living here.
Let us go then, filled with the Spirit Into this word, with kindness.

What’s so important about church?

We are church when we gather together, seeking meaning for our lives and a way to live in this world; when the purpose of our gathering is to seek a relationship with God through the loving, merciful presence of Jesus. As church we share our lives with one another; we practice what it means to love, and we grow in faith together. We welcome others to join us as followers of Jesus. Then we go out and live as best we can as Christ’s body in the world.