So the Lord said to Moses, “Gather for me seventy of the elders of Israel, whom you know to be the elders of the people and officers over them; bring them to the tent of meeting, and have them take their place there with you. I will come down and talk with you there; and I will take some of the spirit that is on you and put it on them; and they shall bear the burden of the people along with you so that you will not bear it all by yourself. So Moses went out and told the people the words of the Lord; and he gathered seventy elders of the people, and placed them all around the tent. Then the Lord came down in the cloud and spoke to him, and took some of the spirit that was on him and put it on the seventy elders.
Numbers 11:16-17, 24-25a
But each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift. The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ. We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming. But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.
Ephesians 4:7, 11-16
After this the Lord appointed seventy others and set them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go. He said to them, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.
One of the more interesting, challenging, and humbling truths about us as human beings–marvelously contradictory creatures that we are–is that we live more than one reality at a time. Sometimes those realities could not be more different.
We’re capable, for example, of holding both grief and joy in our heart at the same time; both disappointment and hope. It’s possible when everything in life is going really well to fall into a funk or even deep depression. And when facing a terminal diagnosis, we can feel the most alive.
We can be right and wrong at the same time.
We can be kind and caring and then in a heartbeat, hurt someone deeply, and not only hurt distant ones who bear the brunt of sins we’re not aware of, but those close in, those we love, or ought to love, most.
To say all this in religious language, we are both sinners and saints. And while we could all point to examples of those who in our humble opinion, have clearly tipped the scale in one direction or another, the truth is we are all a mixed bag.
Jesus knew this about us, which is why he loved teaching in paradox, helping us to hold more than one truth at once. You remember his story about the sinner rising from prayer redeemed instead of the righteous man praying next to him, and of religious people turning away from a wounded one on the road while a person of a despised race stopped to help. Remember how he told the men who wanted to kill a woman caught in the act of adultery (no small irony there) that whoever was without sin was free to cast the first stone. And how he prayed on the cross that those who put him there be forgiven, “for they don’t know what they are doing.”
How much reality can one heart hold?
This inherent mixed-up complexity of our kind is but one reason why it’s important for us to be gentle with one another, and understanding–not in a Pollyanna or dismissive sort of way, as if what we say or do doesn’t matter, but with mercy nonetheless. We’ll all need mercy when we stand before judgment in the end, and we need it every day between now and then. In the words of criminal justice reformer Bryan Stevenson, “Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.” Thank God for that. We’re all better than our worst, and conversely, not as innocent as we sometimes feel or would like to believe ourselves to be.
I heard the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, say much the same thing in a talk he gave at Wheaton College last April. He was speaking about the novel Lila by Marilynne Robinson, the third in her wonderful trilogy set in the fictional Iowa town of Gilead. Williams described the novel as being about “the insufficiency of goodness”– a haunting phrase if there ever was one. “The good,” he said, “are those who don’t always see what they are implicated in.” “We like to define ourselves as good,” he said, “because then we know where the boundaries are. But we’re all blinded by what we are shaped by. We don’t know what we don’t know and don’t see.” “Lila is a story,” he said, “about how the good are saved, never mind the evil.”
By now, you’ve surely surmised that I’m setting a context in which to reflect on the rich, complex, blessed and broken collective that is every church, that is St. Alban’s Church. There is much goodness, courage and blessing in your history and your life now. And there have been more than a few wounding episodes. You’re just emerging from one of those wounding times now, during which people said and did hurtful things, when those in leadership, including me, made costly mistakes, when there were plenty of sins of commission and omission to go around, and more than a few missteps that were not intentional, but hurtful nonetheless. It wasn’t the first painful chapter in your history and, if you remain human, it won’t be the last.
Yet even when things were really hard, the hardship wasn’t the only truth about St. Alban’s. Even when people said hurtful things, those same people were part of much of the goodness that abounded. Even when leaders made mistakes, those same leaders acted courageously and faithfully. You were living more than one reality. In the darkest hours, it’s always tempting to see pathology under ever rock, just as it’s tempting to see only the good during the better times.
I don’t mean to speak all this in the third person, as if I weren’t there and a part of it all–I was. I’ve spent many a hour in prayer wondering what I could have done differently, but what I know is this: it wasn’t all one reality over or against another. There was a lot going on, some of it very good, some really hard.
What I love about you, St. Alban’s, and what will hold you in good stead going forward, is that you have the collective capacity and spiritual maturity to hold it all. I love that we began in a posture of collective repentance, so that we might collectively feel the release of that, receive the mercy of God, and the mercy we extend to one another. It doesn’t erase the past, but it allows God to continue to redeem it. When you tell the story of this time, and your place in it, it will be a story of redemption and growth and humble recognition that even in a really strong community, hurtful things can happen. Even when we are good, there can be an insufficiency to our goodness. You’ll tell your story with grace and the kind of quiet confidence that comes to those who have lived through a storm and come out on the other side. The poet David Whyte has said that long-lasting friendship is a path of mutual forgiveness. Surely the same is true for Christians in community.
In the midst of all of this, who should arrive into the Diocese of Washington without a job?
It astonishes me still how Geoffrey Hoare came to us, and came to St. Alban’s through circumstances that were not without complication. The story of Geoffrey, Sage, Allyson and Ruthie’s arrival in Washington could have had any number of beginnings and the Holy Spirit could have led them in any number of directions. But here they are. Here Geoffrey is–a man with his own story to tell, with particular gifts that seemed uncannily well-suited for St Alban’s at this moment.
One of things we know about you, Geoffrey, is that you are eminently capable of holding more than one reality in your life and leadership. You do not suffer fools gladly, yet you are one of the most gracious people I know. You are completely at ease with academics, politicians, and the most erudite of theologians, and you hold in equally high esteem and enjoy the company of manual workers, particularly those whose shift begins in earnest when the rest of us leave the room. You don’t panic when we show our worst, and you delight in us when we shine. You have a passionate vision and commitment to what the Kingdom of God realized on earth could look like, yet you accept realities as they are presented to you, and you encourage us all to start where we are and work with what we’re given.
So here you all are, officially poised now at the threshold of possibilities. There are multiple reasons why you, Geoffrey, are a good match for St. Alban’s. There are also reasons why St. Alban’s is a good fit for you. There is no insufficiency of goodness here. You have more than enough upon which to build a solid foundation–grace upon grace, mercy upon mercy. I’m grateful beyond words for a new spirit of collegiality and friendship between St. Alban’s and the Cathedral, for it is impossible to imagine a spiritually vibrant life on the Close without it. I’m also grateful for the growing spirit of friendship and common purpose with Episcopal congregations up and down Wisconsin Avenue and in this part of of the city, all of whom are just big enough to imagine they could, or must, do everything themselves, as if they were completely separate entities. It’s a bane of our existence as the Episcopal Church, that collaboration is believed to be a sign of weakness rather than an investment in strategic strength. You are helping to change that narrative. Thank you.
I have to say, Geoffrey, that your choice of Scripture passages for this afternoon wasn’t exactly subtle. Each one brings home the point that we are all in this together. There is only one savior in the Body of Christ, and it isn’t any of us. There are no superstars; everyone has an offering to make, none more important than another. Spiritual leadership isn’t a matter of pulling magic out of a hat, but one of gathering up the fragments, as Jesus said, so that nothing is lost, then offering those fragments, all our loose ends, the total catastrophe that we are, and offering it all to Jesus as the raw materials with which he can work miracles.
So let’s celebrate this moment of joy, shall we, and give thanks for it, as we approach Jesus’ table of grace and mercy together. Then we all need to go home and a get a good night’s sleep. For tomorrow beckons, and with it another day to live as the wonderfully complex, broken and blessed, redeemed, forgiven sinners that we are, called to follow Jesus in his way of Love.