For Love’s Sake

 

Will you pray with me?

Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work, or watch, or weep this night, and give your angels charge over those who sleep. Tend the sick, Lord Christ, give rest to the weary, bless the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, shield the joyous, all for your love’s sake.
Amen.

Merry Christmas.

Our spiritual ancestors who lived, as we do, in the Northern Hemisphere determined that we would celebrate Jesus’ birth in December. Surely among their reasons was the symbolic power of light shining in the darkest season. “For the light shines in darkness,” as it is written, “and darkness has not overcome it.” Our ancestors told stories about his birth, and eventually wrote them down, in order to help all who would come after them better understand who Jesus was and why he came: He was, and is still, God-with-us. He came, and comes to us still, for love’s sake. “Love came down at Christmas,” as the carol goes. “Love incarnate. Love divine. For love’s sake.”

Christmas, to quote my colleague Bishop Rob Wright, is “the celebration of God’s genius, love wrapped in flesh to accomplish a dream.” In Him, Scripture teaches, the fullness of God was pleased to dwell. He came, full of grace and truth. In Him, we have received grace upon grace, not for any merit of our own, only for love’s sake.

And while the Word made flesh is God’s genius, Christmas itself–all this, and all we wrap around it according to family and cultural traditions–is an entirely human creation. Surely you’ve wondered, as I have, why we do what we do at Christmas?

On this holy night, I’d like to offer the most hopeful, inspired answers I have found, out of the conviction that our lives find their meaning in the biggest stories we can imagine. “If the biggest story we can imagine,” writes Rachel Held Evans, “is about God’s loving and redemptive work in the world, then our lives will be shaped by that epic. If the biggest story is something else, like nationalism, or ‘follow your bliss’ or ‘he who dies with most toys wins,’ then our lives will be shaped by those narratives instead.” (Rachel Held Evans, Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again  Thomas Nelson. Kindle Edition),  p.218)

But it’s Christmas Eve, friends, and we’re here in this beautiful Cathedral–why not strive to place ourselves in the most wondrous story of all?   

So here we go:

“Celebrating Christmas”–now I am quoting the great African American theologian and mystic Howard Thurman–“affirms our solidarity with the whole human race in its long struggle to become more humane and to reveal the divinity in which all humanity shares.”

He goes on: “When we build our creche, decorate the evergreen, hold our romantic tryst under the mistletoe, prepare the festive meal, share our gifts as a celebration of the primacy and the universality of love, take time to remember in many ways those who have touched us in the midst of the traffic of the commonplace, and sing the ancient carols to honor the birth of Jesus–when we do these things we become witnesses and instruments of God’s love and care.

You and I are witnesses and instruments of God’s love and care. When we do what we can; when we, like Jesus, show love for love’s sake, in some small way we are putting human flesh on God’s love–sometimes in full awareness of what we’re doing; more often with no awareness at all. “To the strong and the weak,” Thurman says, “to the happy and the sorrowful . . . to the believer and unbeliever, to the Christian and non-Christian there is the ever present hope that tidings of great joy will find their way into the heart.” (Howard Thurman, The Mood of Christmas and Other Celebrations  (Harper and Row, 2011 edition) xii.)

)Before you leave tonight, name for yourself some way in which you are or have been an instrument’s of hope’s fulfillment for someone else. Allow yourself to feel God’s gratitude, that you show up, for love’s sake.

I also believe that when we celebrate Christmas, we open ourselves to the possibility that God has something to say to us here and now, that God has a gift to offer us, in the specificity of our existence. As I prepared for this moment, I wondered what that gift might be for each one of you gathered here and listening via technology. I have no idea what that gift might be, to be honest, but I believe that it’s here for you, and all you need do is receive it, whatever it is.

In my experience, the gift of God’s love at Christmas comes in and through ordinary things, as small as a gesture, a word, a grace given, a quiet miracle we could easily miss if we aren’t paying attention. That’s the other message our ancestors wanted us to take from the stories of Jesus’ birth: our God works quietly, in and through human beings, in those amazing moments when an ordinary life shines with extraordinary brightness, when our hearts are warmed by gentle gifts of forgiveness and peace.

This gift from God, by design, is a fleeting experience. It gives us a moment, not a lifetime, of clarity; a moment, not a lifetime, of joy or the capacity to bring joy to another. And as with any other post-Christmas let down, we can be disappointed by the fact that whatever God offers this Christmas doesn’t last long enough to really change things. Surely we all wonder why the light doesn’t stick around and overcome darkness once and for all.

Yet the purpose of God’s gift at Christmas seems not to change the world from the outside, as much as we long for that. Christ comes to change us, slowly, over time, so that we might live according to the glimpses of love we have known.The gift is no less real for its fleeting beauty, although we do have the perfect of alibi of deniability if we don’t want to acknowledge the gift for what it is.  

Years ago at Christmastime, I visited a beloved mentor who was slowly losing her cognitive abilities to Alzheimer’s disease. In the twenty minutes or so that we spoke, I understood almost nothing of what she said. I wasn’t even sure if she knew who I was. Then, as I began to take my leave, her eyes, for a moment, regained their familiar sparkle. She looked deeply into mine and told me that she loved me. She then charged me to live my life in a very specific way that, in light of past conversations, only she and I would understand. Then, just as quickly, her confusion and senseless ramblings returned. I left wondering what on earth had just happened. Did she actually say what I heard? It was amazing—a moment of true light and authentic love. Then it was gone, and I had a choice: would I live as if that Christ moment between us had happened or not?

Which brings me to my final word to you this night, friends, and you already know what it is: should we place our lives in this wondrous story there are social implications. How could there not be? The story begins with an emperor who could move people around at will. A young couple forced to obey the emperor’s edict, set out on a long journey in the last month of the woman’s pregnancy. She was denied a place in human community n her hour of greatest need and needed to lay her child in an animal trough. Shortly after the child’s birth, the holy family would be forced to flee again, seeking refuge from violence in another country.

Those who passed on to us their wonder at Christ’s birth wanted us to know that Jesus is no stranger to struggle and sorrow. They wanted us to know, as they did, both the gift and responsibility of tending to light shining in darkness. For we are the ones now–and I’m speaking in particular to those of us who are Christ followers–we are the ones to keep the light of faith shining, the gift of hope alive, the message of love credible, and that is no small task.

Some years are easier than others. In the hardest years, the task becomes all the more important. Let me leave you with the words of Alfred Delp, a Jesuit priest who gave his life in the German resistance of World War II, “Light your candles quietly, such candles as you possess, wherever you are.”  That we do matters more than we will ever know.

God’s loving and redemptive work in the world rests with us, as we take our place in the most wonderful, mysterious, important story we can imagine. I invite you to welcome Christ tonight, God-with-you. Then join me tonight in promising for the first or thousandth time to live as if this story, this amazing story, is our story; so that together we might leave this place as witnesses and instruments of God’s love, for love’s sake.
 

The Promise of Joy

The Promise of Joy

The angels said to the shepherds, “Do not be afraid, for I am bringing good news of good news of great joy…”
Luke 2:10

In December 1979, the Iranian Foreign Ministry invited three American religious leaders, among them William Sloane Coffin of Riverside Church in New York City, to celebrate Christmas with the 53 hostages being held captive in the American Embassy of Tehran. The hostage crisis had begun on November 4th of that year, and no one had any idea how long it would last. For the hostages and their families, each day was an eternity and Christmas Day was fast approaching.

The religious leaders were only allowed to meet with the hostages in groups of three or four. The first four that William Sloane Coffin met with were Marines. Coffin hugged them and they hugged back, which he took as a good sign. The men took turns picking carols to sing. Coffin opened a Bible to the Gospel of Luke and passed the book around, and each read portions of the Christmas story.

Then Coffin spoke to them of the first Christmas. “It was cold,” he said, “dark, dank, and lonely. Joseph must have been tired, Mary exhausted. We read, ‘There was no room for them in the inn,’ but of course there was. There was room in the inn, but no one would move over for a poor, pregnant woman. So they ended up in a stable and he who was to be the bread of life for all humankind was laid in the feedbox of animals.” “It was a terrible Christmas,” Coffin said again. “But do you see what I’m getting at? God’s love can change no place into some place, just as the love of God changes a person who feels like a nobody into a somebody.” As he said goodbye, he said, “I know this is not a happy Christmas for you. But it might well be the most meaningful.” (William Sloane Coffin, “Report From Tehran,” in The Collected Sermons of William Sloane Coffin: The Riverside Years, Volume 1 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 275)

As Christmas draws near, we all do well to remember the difference between happiness and meaning, and between happiness and one of the fruits of meaning, which is joy. It’s difficult, if not impossible, to imagine anyone enduring great hardship to be happy at Christmas. But it is not outside the realm of possibility to be graced by moments of deep meaning and joy, even as  hearts are breaking.

For joy does not depend on external circumstances or good fortune, nor is it like happiness, something to be pursued. Joy comes to us, often in unlikely times and places. One would hope for joy on the perfect Christmas morning. Yet it can also come in the loneliness of imperfection, when nothing turned out the way we hoped it would, after an argument, an accident, or even in a jail cell.

Joy is God’s gift,  and with it a deep sense of being at home in an all too imperfect world. Last week, I met with people who work every day in one of the harshest places imaginable. There was certainly a no-nonsense air about them, their eyes conveyed both sadness and fatigue. They were also among the most joyful people I have met in a long time, and it was clear that there was no place they would rather be.
 


Yesterday, I shared lunch with survivors of an apartment fire in Southeast Washington, D.C. They had lost everything, and were now living apart from one another across the city. Thanks to the hospitality of four of our D.C. South congregations, they were reunited for the first time. Despite all they had endured, and are enduring still, many of their faces reflected a quiet joy. So, too, did those working to offer a bit of kindness to strangers. What better way to celebrate the gift of Christmas?

The Scriptures speak of being filled with joy, or of joy breaking forth, descending upon those who live in darkness or fear. “Do not be afraid,” the angels to frightened shepherds in a field, “for I bring you good news of great joy.” That is the hope, and promise, of Christmas.

To be sure, I wish happiness for those I love this Christmas. As your bishop, I wish happiness for you. But this may or not be a happy Christmas for any of us, depending on circumstances beyond our control, and so my deeper prayer is for all to experience something of joy this Christmas, and for us to share in God’s work of bringing joy to others.

I daresay that most people reading these words are hard at work now, striving to make Christmas an occasion of both happiness and joy for others. Thank you, for all you are and do. May you, especially, receive the gift of joy God has for you. Remember that joy can come in the happiest of times or in the loneliest hour.  Joy comes in happiness or sorrow, calm or chaos—it doesn’t matter. For it is God’s doing, God coming to us as we are, in the world as it is, with an assurance of deep meaning and the promise of joy.

 

 

The Surprising Gift

“Behold, at that time I will deal with all your oppressors. And I will save the lame and gather the outcast, and I will change their shame into praise and renown in all the earth. At that time I will bring you home, at the time when I gather you together; yea, I will make you renowned and praised among all the peoples of the earth, when I restore your fortunes before your eyes,” says the Lord.
Zephaniah 3: 19-20

John the Baptist said to the multitudes that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits that befit repentance, and do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” And the multitudes asked him, “What then shall we do?” And he answered them, “He who has two coats, let him share with him who has none; and he who has food, let him do likewise.” Tax collectors also came to him to be baptized and said to him, “Teacher, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Collect no more than is appointed you.” Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Rob no one by violence or by false accusation, and be content with your wages.” As the people were in expectation, and all questioned in their hearts concerning John, whether perhaps he were the Christ, John answered them all, “I baptize you with water; but he who is mightier than I is coming, the thong of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie: he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire…”
Luke 3:7-16

In December 1979, the Iranian Foreign Ministry invited three American religious leaders—Thomas Gumbleton, a Roman Catholic bishop from Detroit; William Howard, President of the National Council of Churches; and William Sloane Coffin, from Riverside Church in New Your City—to celebrate Christmas with the 53 hostages being held captive in the American Embassy of Tehran. The hostage crisis had begun on November 4th of that year, and no one had any idea how long it would last. For the hostages and their families, each day was an eternity and Christmas Day was fast approaching.

The religious leaders were only allowed to meet with the hostages in groups of three or four.  The first four that William Sloane Coffin met with were Marines. Coffin hugged them and they hugged back, which he took as a good sign. The men took turns picking carols to sing. Coffin opened a Bible to the Gospel of Luke and passed the book around, and each read portions of the Christmas story.

Then Coffin spoke to them of the first Christmas. “It was cold,” he said, “dark, dank, and lonely. Joseph must have been tired, Mary exhausted. We read, ‘There was no room for them in the inn,’ but of course there was. There was room in the inn, but no one would move over for a poor, pregnant woman. So they ended up in a stable and he who was to be the bread of life for all humankind was laid in the feedbox of animals.” “It was a terrible Christmas,” Coffin said again. “But do you see what I’m getting at? God’s love can change no place into some place, just as the love of God changes a person who feels like a nobody into a somebody.” As he said goodbye, he said, “I know this is not a happy Christmas for you. But it might well be the most meaningful.” (William Sloane Coffin, “Report From Tehran,” in The Collected Sermons of William Sloane Coffin: The Riverside Years, Volume 1 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 275)

This is a good time of year to ponder the distinction between happiness and meaning, or even more pointedly, between happiness and one of the fruits of meaning, which is joy. Happiness and joy have a lot in common. Both are emotional states of well being. But when I think about what makes me or another person happy as compared to what brings joy, while there may be common ground, there are important distinctions. It would be near impossible to think of the hostages in Iran, or anywhere else in the world, being happy at Christmas. But it isn’t out of the question to think of them being graced by moments of deep meaning and joy, even as their hearts were breaking. Prior to his trip, William Sloane Coffin met with family members of several hostages. One little girl asked him to deliver a kiss to her father. The kiss, Coffin said, was enough to melt him on the spot. When he met the girl’s father and said, “I’m going to give you a big kiss from your daughter.” Coffin said it was as if the Christmas tree outside the White House turned on in that man’s head. “Never,” he said, “had I seen such illumination.” (Ibid., 277.)

Happiness is something we strive for; in the words of our nation’s founding fathers, it can be pursued. The pursuit of happiness is the fulfillment of desire. It is also subjective, for each person has a different definition of happiness and therefore a unique path of pursuit.

The pursuit of happiness is a good thing. Thomas Jefferson rightly identified it as one of the unalienable rights of humankind. Yet there is a limitation to happiness, dependent as it is upon external circumstances and subjective experience. One of the most liberating insights of my life, that I must relearn over and over again, is that it is impossible to make other people happy. We can strive to bring happiness to others, based on what we know about them, but we can’t control their response. It’s also sobering to realize how our definitions of happiness are influenced—some would say controlled—by what we see around us. “Be content with what you have,” John the Baptist told those who had the power to take what they wanted from other people. We can never be happy in a perpetual state of want.  

Joy, on the other hand, goes deeper in us than happiness can reach, into the realm of meaning. Joy doesn’t depend on external circumstances or good fortune, nor is it something that we can pursue. Joy comes to us, often in unlikely times and places. “Happiness,” writes the spiritual author Frederick Buechner, “turns up more or less where you’d expect it to–a good marriage, a rewarding job, a pleasant vacation. Joy, on the other hand, is as notoriously unpredictable as the One who bequeaths it.” (Frederick Buechner, A Seeker’s ABCs , 57-8.)

One would expect joy at a wedding; but it can be equally palpable at a funeral. One would hope for joy on the perfect Christmas morning. Yet it can also come to us in the loneliness of imperfection, when nothing turned out the way we hoped it would, after an argument, and even in a jail cell. Joy is a gift that God gives, and with it a deep sense of being at home in an all too imperfect world.

The Scriptures often speak of being filled with joy, or of joy breaking forth, descending upon those who live in darkness or fear. Not only does joy come to the unexpecting, but also to the undeserving. The book of the prophet Zephaniah, from which we read this morning, is a good example, for it contains in its succinct three chapters some of the most compelling prophetic judgement against God’s people, a catalogue of reasons why God is fully justified in ridding himself of the burden of them once and for all. Yet in these final six verses of Zephaniah, God does one of those great cosmic turn-arounds. Instead of punishment, God offers a promise of healing and reconciliation. “The Lord is not interested in your shame or sorrow,” the prophet tells the people of Israel. “God will lift you up even from the despair of your own creation. God will take you from your desolate places and bring you home.” This is about joy, in part because the promises are beyond anyone’s capacity to pursue or accomplish.  Moreover, they are promises not yet fulfilled; they are more of a hope than reality. Yet what happens when we hold onto words like these is that the seeds of joy take root in us long before there is anything to be happy about. Happiness needs immediate gratification, while the promise of joy is often joy enough.

We also hear from John the Baptist this morning, as we do every year in Advent. I don’t know how you picture John as you consider his words today, but he doesn’t strike me as a particularly happy guy. He is on a mission, with  a fierce truth to proclaim and a people to prepare for the coming Messiah. I have a hard time imagining anyone being happy with what John said to them when they asked what they should do. But I can see how what he said could serve as a precursor to joy, not the kind of joy that lives alongside happiness, but the kind that comes with having your soul purged of what it doesn’t need and made right with God.  

To allow space for God in your heart, he said, make peace with what is yours, and share with those who have less than you do. Strive for the kind of freedom that comes for needing less. When the One who is coming after me arrives, all that you imagine you need to be happy will be revealed for the superficial things that they are and burned away like chaff from wheat.

I doubt that John was thinking about joy when he said these things—his interest was righteousness. But long after John died, and after Jesus died, for that matter, when those trying to explain the mystery of God’s presence in Christ looked back, they saw in John the kind of truth-telling and fearless living that leads to deep meaning and joy.

John would have harsh words for us if he saw that in our pursuit of happiness we had lost sight of what matters most. He would remind us that sometimes we have to go through pain to get to joy. I wouldn’t dare argue with John. But what I take from his harsh tone in the midst of this Advent season, which begins in judgment and ends in joy, is a reminder that joy can be experienced while facing difficult truths or living through tough times. Happiness is a fickle friend, the one who shows up, as Buechner said, where you’d expect. But joy can show up anywhere, and in fact, it will show up where we least expect it. John thought God was coming to whip us all into shape, and he was wrong. Jesus came, as he said once, “so that my joy may be in you and your joy may be complete.”

Like all of you, I wish happiness for those I love. But this may or not be a happy Christmas, depending on circumstances beyond our control. Whether it will be a joyful Christmas depends not on our pursuit, but rather upon our openness to receive. For what God gives can come in the loneliest hour and the darkest night. “Weeping may spend the night,” the psalmist wrote, “but joy comes in the morning.” Joy comes in happiness or sorrow, calm or chaos—it doesn’t matter. For it is God’s doing, God coming to us as we are, in the world as it is, with an assurance of deep meaning and the promise of joy.

May I pray for you?

Gracious and loving God, I hold before you these, your beloved ones in this place. No matter the circumstances of their lives, Lord, I pray that they may know your joy, your love and your peace in this holy season. Help us all to trust you, and to receive the gifts you long to give. And God, we know that there more people and places in need of your joy than we can imagine, much less respond to ourselves, but we ask that through us, in ways large and small, others may know something of your joy. Help us to heed the words of John, and to share what we have and live with integrity and generosity of spirit. All this we pray in the name of Jesus who came to show us your way of love. Amen.

 

#AdventAtTheBorder

#AdventAtTheBorder


I was a stranger and you welcomed me.

Matthew 25:35

Last week, the Rev. Ledlie Laughlin, rector of St. Columba’s, invited me to join him and a group of clergy from around the country, including the Rev. Jim Quigley from St. Alban’s, on a 48-hour pilgrimage to the U.S./Mexico border. By the time this message reaches you, we will be on our way to El Paso, Texas.

I travel with a heavy heart, knowing that our southern border is the site of large-scale human suffering and the focal point of our most divisive political discourse. Yet I am so grateful for the opportunity to meet and pray with leaders of Borderland Ministries, an agency of the Episcopal Diocese of the Rio Grande, and to cross the border to Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. There, we will visit and pray with those fleeing violence and poverty in Central America in asylum-seeking shelter areas. Three Anglican bishops of Mexico will join us.

This is what Ledlie wrote to the people of St. Columba’s:

We organized this brief 48-hour pilgrimage not to engage in political action, protests, or service projects. We are going to meet with those seeking asylum, with fellow Christians and people of faith responding to this crisis; to learn from them, to pray, and to discern steps we can take in support. We are going because we care; we are going to bear witness to God’s call to seek the face of Christ in all persons, with reconciling love for our neighbor.

The Episcopal Church’s witness along the U.S./Mexico border is inspiring, and the context for that witness is sobering. Equally inspiring is the Episcopal Church’s decades long commitment to advocate for both border safety and a just, merciful immigration policy. EDOW congregations have also responded with sacrificial love to the global migrant crisis and the urgent need for immigration policy reform. I am honored to travel with Ledlie and Jim as your bishop.

I will post photos and reflections on my Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts (search for the hashtag #AdventAtTheBorder), sharing what we experience and learn. I ask your prayers for those who, like Joseph and Mary, have fled their homeland seeking safety for themselves and their newborn son, and that we, as a people, might respond with the compassion of Jesus.

Appointment of The Rt. Rev. Chilton Knudsen as Assisting Bishop

Dear Friends of the Diocese of Washington

I am thrilled to announce that the Rt. Rev. Chilton Knudsen will join the Diocese of Washington as Assisting Bishop, effective February 20, 2019. Bishop Knudsen served as Bishop of Maine for a decade (1997-2008) and has since served as a missionary in Haiti and as an assistant bishop in four dioceses. She will complete her ministry in the Diocese of Maryland at the end of 2018.

Bishop Knudsen is a good friend to many in the Diocese of Washington, and she is known for her pastoral warmth, skill in conflict resolution, congregational development, and issues related to addiction and recovery. A person of great spiritual maturity and love for the gospel, she is excited to serve Christ among us. We will be richly blessed by her ministry.

As Assisting Bishop, a half-time position, Bishop Knudsen will help with parish visitations (two per month), ordinations, confirmations, and other events where a bishop is needed. She will also work alongside Archdeacon L. Sue von Rautenkranz in the Deacon’s School. Already known and admired among EDOW congregations in southern Maryland, Bishop Knudsen will devote much of her energies among the clergy and lay leaders there, and, in particular, support the strategic planning process in their context. She feels a special call to congregations on the geographic borders of a diocese and thus will also develop pastoral relationships in our northernmost regions.

Bishop Knudsen and I have been in conversation about this possibility for half a year. In consulting members of the Diocesan Council, the Standing Committee and other diocesan leaders, I have received enthusiastic and unanimous encouragement to invite Bishop Knudsen to serve here. I look forward to her collegial support and sharing the ministry of this wonderful diocese with her.

You should know that Bishop Knudsen’s ministry is her gift to us. She will receive only modest reimbursement for her work-related expenses and travel to gatherings of the House of Bishops and the consecration of bishops she has mentored. As Assisting Bishop, she will work on a 12-month, renewable letter of agreement.

Please join me in praying for Bishop Knudsen and all in the Diocese of Maryland as they mark the end of her ministry there. We can look forward to welcoming her among us in February.

 

Faithfully in Christ,

 

The Rt. Rev. Mariann E. Budde

Bishop of Washington