On behalf of the entire Episcopal Diocese of Washington, I offer deep condolences to all members of Tree of Life/Or L’Simcha Synagogue in Pittsburgh and the first responders caught up in the horrific crime that shattered the lives of so many. Our hearts break for those killed and wounded, and for all experiencing the trauma of anti-Semitic violence.
We pray for all our Jewish friends and neighbors. Please know that we weep with you, and we stand by you in a common mission to rid the world of such hateful crimes.
May God’s tender mercy be with the suffering. And may God strengthen our resolve to be “repairers of the breach, and restorers of streets to live in.” (Isaiah 58:12)
In Christ Jesus the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling-place for God.
It’s long been a dream of mine to better align the structures of our diocese with the ministry of our congregations. All church structures are meant to serve the mission of Christ, but they can easily become ends in themselves, mistaken as the ministry rather than in service to it.
This week, in the region of South D.C., we took a small but significant step in the work of adapting our diocesan structures to serve the mission of our congregations. In the annual regional meeting typically dedicated to issues of diocesan governance, we turned our focus toward the congregations and convened three groups. It felt as if I were seeing a glimpse of what our diocese is at its best and could be more of in the future.
Over lunch, we invited elders from the South D.C. congregations to reflect on the spiritual terrain of their lives. The Rev. Susan Walker, one of our EDOW deacons, facilitated the conversation and those present talked openly and courageously about the challenges they face. With the blessing of long life also comes the reality of loss and the need to let go. With the gift of more free time can come the feeling of being invisible. Susan encouraged all to trust God’s presence and to listen for God’s invitation to experience a different kind of fruitfulness in life.
Later that evening, vestry members of all nine South D.C. congregations gathered for prayer and song, and an honest conversation of the varied demands on vestry members and the spiritual terrain of leadership. We reflected on what it means to be entrusted with leadership, and how to grow in our capacity to discern God’s will for our faith communities. It was also a wonderful time of sharing experiences, resources, ideas.
Meanwhile a small gathering of young professionals met to reflect on The Way of Love and how to live and grow as followers of Jesus in Washington, D.C. From their conversation, and others with young adults throughout the diocese, plans are emerging for a diocesan wide young adult retreat in 2019.
How did this change in regional meetings come about?
First, Diocesan Convention last year voted to allow a change in governance, so that we might disseminate electronically all the vital information diocesan delegates and clergy need prior to Diocesan Convention in January. Diocesan wide elections will also take place using an online portal. That freed us to shift the focus of mandatory regional gatherings toward the congregations.
Then members of the Diocesan staff and I met with regional clergy this fall, and we asked them to help us set the agenda for this first round of regional gatherings. With their guidance, we’ve planned four regional gatherings for the fall and we’ll hold the remaining four in the spring.
These efforts are but a few of the ways we are learning how to be the church in our time, how to prayerfully seek God’s preferred future for the Episcopal Church within the geographic bounds entrusted to us. My heartfelt thanks to all who are actively engaged in this work.
The poet Antonio Machado once wrote that pilgrims make the road by walking it. In that same spirit, I pray that we together we will create the structures we need by faithful efforts, one small step at a time.
Jesus said, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. . .
If I were to ask you to name Americans who have had the greatest positive impact on our country in the last 100 years, near the top of our collective list would surely be Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Dr. King and the social movement he led forever changed the laws of our land, securing basic civil rights and legal protection for African Americans. He worked to dismantle segregation and other oppressive policies. He challenged the racist assumptions of the dominant culture. Moreover, he believed in nonviolence as a the only viable method of social change. Only love, he said, can transform an enemy into a friend. He believed, at a time when few others did, that people of different races could be friends.
Tourists from other countries have little doubt of Dr. King’s importance when they visit Washington, D.C. We have streets, schools and libraries named after him. There is a stunning monument to his legacy and the power of his words. We have a national holiday in his honor.
Thus it’s easy to forget–or, for those of you born after he died, never to know–that at the height of his influence King was a controversial, even despised figure. In the year before his assassination, he was strongly criticized not only by his political adversaries, but also his allies. Many who supported his cause disagreed with his tactics. Some people thought he was pressing too hard for social change; others thought he wasn’t pressing hard enough. His life had been threatened several times. Public opinion had turned against him. Younger African Americans activists dismissed him as politically naive.
In the last week of his life, he preached two sermons. The first one he preached here, at the invitation of Dean Francis Sayre, on Palm Sunday 1968. Many Cathedral supporters were not happy. Among the things King said that day was that it was possible to remain asleep during a great revolution. There weren’t portable phones, video games, and the constant distractions of social media back then, but there were plenty of other ways to remain oblivious to the winds of social change and the needs of one’s fellow human beings.
King then left Washington and went to Memphis, against the advice of nearly everyone in his family and close circle of leadership. He was tried, fighting a cold, and depressed. Resistance to his message was growing. Death threats were increasing. They didn’t understand why he felt he needed to go to Memphis.
But King knew why he needed to go. You see, the sanitation workers in Memphis–the people who pick up other people’s garbage and haul it to wherever garbage goes–were on strike for better pay and working conditions. Being a garbage collector is pretty tough job now; it was really tough 60 years ago. Most sanitation workers then, as now, were African American or immigrants. Working conditions were truly miserable and dangerous, and the pay was terrible.
This isn’t your fight now, Martin. You have other things to work on, his advisors told him.
You’re sick, Martin, his family and friends told him. Stay home and rest.
But he went anyway. Why?
On the night before his death, he preached one last time. And he told Jesus’ story of the Good Samaritan to explain why he was there.
Three people encountered a near fatally wounded man on the side of the road. Two of them, religious leaders with important work to do, crossed to the other side of the road kept going. The third man–who belonged to a despised race–stopped to help him.
The first two men, King said, were afraid. They asked the question, “If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?” The third man had compassion. He asked a different question: “If I don’t stop to help this man, what will happen to him?
King didn’t ask himself, “If I go to Memphis, what will happen to me?” Rather he asked, “If I don’t go Memphis to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to them?”
Your chaplains invited me to speak to you today on the theme of friendship, which, I’m honored to do.
You will surely make, or have established already, friendships on the Cathedral Close that will endure a lifetime. Some of your friendships will be a surprise to you because you didn’t start out as friends. It’s also quite likely that you will cross paths with someone later in life that you were not friends with while in school together but who will become your close friend then.
How do these friendships begin, and how are they sustained? Friendships are often based on common interests and experiences. We enjoy one another’s company. We feel affirmed and validated in one another’s presence. Much of friendship is transactional: we receive from our friends; we give to them in return. There is nothing wrong with the give and take of friendship.
But there is another question at the heart of it all: what kind of friend are you? What kind of friend am I?
In the Book of Proverbs, found in the Jewish Bible, there is a sober warning: “There are friends who are such when it suits them, but they will not stand by you in time of trouble.” “Faithful friends,” the text continues, in contrast, “are a sturdy shelter. Whoever finds one has found a treasure. Faithful friends are beyond price.”
A faithful friend is kind. A faithful friend shows up, not simply when it’s convenient, but when it’s not, for the sake of a friend. A faithful friend is someone with the capacity to care, even when there’s nothing to be gained by caring. A faithful friend may begin by asking him or herself, “If I offer to help another, what will happen to me?” But a faithful friend goes on to ask, “If I don’t offer help, what will happen to my friend, my classmate?
In your years on the Cathedral Close, I urge you to take good care of one another. Be faithful friends. Be kind whenever possible, and, you know, it’s always possible. Show up for each other not only when it’s easy, but when you’re needed. May you be the kind of person about whom others can say, “there goes my true and sturdy friend.”
Jacob said, “I will not let you go, until you bless me.”
Last Saturday, I was privileged to speak at the Bishop Walker School’s dedication of their new facility. If you haven’t seen the new building, it is a testimony to what God has done through the collective investment of the diocese and the faithful, persistent work of so many. The Bishop Walker School is now part of the Town Hall Education Arts Campus (THEARC), one of eleven non-profit agencies on campus, all dedicated to providing excellence in education, healthcare, and the arts in southeast Washington, D.C.
The fifth spiritual practice in our Episcopal rule of life, The Way of Love is to bless, a powerful gift that we as Christians can offer one other and our world. The Celtic poet John O’Donohue defines blessing as “a circle of light drawn around a person to protect, bless and strengthen.” “It would be infinitely lonely to live in a world without blessing,” he writes. “The word itself evokes a sense of warmth; it suggests that no life is alone and unreachable.”
The Bishop Walker School was built on dreams and blessings.
Kindness lies at the heart of blessing. “When someone is kind to you,” O’Donohue continues, “you feel understood and seen. There is no judgement or harsh perception directed towards you. Kindness has gracious eyes.”
Kindness is also a core value of the Bishop Walker School, embedded in the school prayer, which the boys recite daily:
Grant, O Lord,
that in all the joys of life,
we may never forget to be kind.
Help us to be unselfish in friendship,
thoughtful of those less happy than ourselves,
and eager to bear the burdens of others.
Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen
Every person who has played a part in the establishment of the Bishop Walker School and who remains committed to its mission has been swept up in a God-sized dream: to provide the blessing of a tuition-free Episcopal school education for African American boys living in underserved communities. The Bishop Walker’s School’s mission is clear: “to foster a love of learning, intellectual curiosity, spiritual foundation, and moral character that each boy will need as a student, as a citizen, and as a child of God.”
To offer such a blessing to an individual child is a transformative experience. There’s nothing quite like being the one to say a kind word, offer encouragement or instruction at the precise time it can be received; to be the one to open a door that would otherwise be shut, cultivate and nurture giftedness, expand a child’s horizons of possibilities; to be, as St. Francis prayed, an instrument of God’s love.
To contribute to the creation and support of an institution such as the Bishop Walker School moves our blessing into the realm of social transformation. For our individual blessing now extends beyond personal limits into the arena of sustained, collective engagement and leveraged impact.
So it is that the blessing of the Bishop Walker School extends far beyond the care and education of individual boys. It also blesses adults–parents, teachers, administrators, artists–who feel called to dedicate their lives to a cause greater than themselves. It provides those with financial means the opportunity to give generously to a truly inspiring organization that can also handle the responsibility of stewarding those gifts well. It symbolizes our church’s commitment to participate in the creative, redemptive power of God at work in the world, and it embodies God’s dream where all children can grow into their God-given potential.
“There’s always a certain innocence at the beginning of a great adventure,” O’Donohue reminds us, “with all the excitement and promise of something new.” Many at the dedication on Saturday have been with the Bishop Walker School from the beginning, and they will tell us that pursuing a God-sized dream requires God-sized faith and perseverance in the hardest of times. Had they known at the beginning what the dream would require of them, they may not have pursued it. But that’s true for all of us, in all endeavors worth doing. And the chance to be part of such a dream’s realization is among life’s greatest blessings.
I hope everyone in the Diocese of Washington knows that you have been instrumental in the creation and establishment of the Bishop Walker School. For without the Diocese of Washington’s collective commitment to this dream, the Bishop Walker School would not exist and could not continue. Every day, you bless each individual at the Bishop Walker School, and you bless their families. You bless the adults who have been given the chance to offer their gift in such an inspiring context. You bless the neighborhood of Anacostia.
God only knows how far the blessings you provide will extend, as these boys grow into men, and the school’s capacity grows.
Thank you. May blessings return to you one hundred fold.
Jesus said, “Everything that the Father gives me will come to me, and anyone who comes to me I will never drive away…”
On October 12, twenty years ago, Matthew Shepard, a 21 year old student at the University of Wyoming, was beaten, tied to a fence and left to die. This brutal hate crime seared the nation’s collective conscience and changed the terms of debate regarding laws that failed to protect the lives and basic civil rights of LGBTQ persons. Judy and Dennis Shepherd have since dedicated their lives to ensure that others are spared the same horrific fate at the hands of those consumed by hatred.
At their request, Matthew’s remains will be interred at Washington National Cathedral on Friday, October 26th, following a public service of thanksgiving and celebration of Matthew’s life. I’m honored to join the Rt. Rev. V. Gene Robinson in presiding, and all are welcome to attend.
Matthew’s mother told Dean Hollerith, “We’ve given much thought to Matt’s final resting place. We found Washington National Cathedral is an ideal choice, as Matt loved the Episcopal Church and felt welcomed by his church in Wyoming. . .It’s reassuring to know he now will rest in a sacred spot where folks can come to reflect on creating a safer, kinder world.”
In his public statement, Dean Hollerith said, “Matthew Shepard’s death is an enduring tragedy affecting all people and should serve as an ongoing call to the nation to reject anti-LGBTQ bigotry and instead embrace each of our neighbors for who they are. In the years since Matthew’s death, the Shepard family has shown extraordinary courage and grace in keeping his spirit and memory alive, and the Cathedral is honored and humbled to serve as his final resting place.”
Our sons were in elementary school when Matthew was murdered. We were blessed to be part of an Episcopal church with many gay and lesbian members, some of whom were Matthew’s age and others were raising children of their own. I’ll never forget the look of fear in their eyes as we tried to absorb the horror of this crime. Twenty years ago, our church was in the minority of Episcopal churches that fully included LGBTQ persons. The Church’s official positions discriminated against them, as did many of our civic laws. I’m grateful for what has changed.
Five years ago, Washington National Cathedral hosted the premiere screening of a highly awarded documentary film about Matthew’s life, Matt Shepard Is A Friend of Mine. The decision to inter Matthew’s physical remains there reflects the gratitude the Shepard family has for the love and welcome Matthew experienced in the Episcopal Church, and our commitment to pursue justice for LGBTQ persons.
The Episcopal Church, our diocese, and Washington National Cathedral have a long history of seeking to right the wrongs done purportedly in God’s name against LGBTQ persons. I am grateful the Episcopal Church now unequivocally affirms that LGBTQ people are beloved children of God, that they are loved by God not in spite of their identities, but as the people God created them to be. I’m also grateful that we now welcome the full participation of LGBTQ people in the Church’s life, including in the sacraments of marriage and ordination.
Not everything has changed in the last 20 years. It’s quite likely that certain religious groups will protest outside the Cathedral service, and violence is a real threat against LGBTQ persons and other minorities. Thus I am also grateful that Matthew’s remains will be safe from the threat of desecration. In welcoming his physical remains, we renew our commitment to join Dennis and Judy Shepard in their efforts to make the world a kind and safe place for all.
To hear the Shepards speak of their son, take a few minutes to watch Matthew Shepard’s Story or the movie trailer for Matt Shepard Is a Friend of Mine. You’ll be glad that you did. Then join us, in person or livestream, at Washington National Cathedral on Friday, October 26th, when we celebrate and give thanks for Matthew Shepard’s life.