But Ruth said, ‘Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you! Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die—there will I be buried. May the Lord do thus and so to me, and more as well, if even death parts me from you!
Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.
When the day drew near for Jesus to be taken up, he set his face toward Jerusalem.
There’s a saying that’s made the social media rounds in recent years, widely and mistakenly attributed to Mark Twain:
The two most important days in your life are the day you were born,
and the day you discover why you were born.
Its origin is most likely a sermon. It sounds like something someone like me would say in a sermon. In fact, with credit to whomever said it first, I’m saying it now, with a slight, but significant variation:
The most important days in your life are the day you were born,
and the days (for there are more than one) when you discover why you were born.
Let’s start with the first important day:
The fact that you and I are here at all is a miracle. “It is strange that we are here,” wrote the Celtic poet John O’Donohue, who himself left this earth far too soon, “The mystery of existence never leaves us alone. Behind our image, below our words, above our thoughts, a world lives within us. . . Fashioned from the earth, we are souls in clay form. Yet in our mediocrity and distraction, we can forget that we are privileged to live in a wondrous universe.” (John O’Donohue, Anam Cara: Spiritual Wisdom from the Celtic World (London: Bantam Press, 1999), pp.13-27.)
While we were born on a particular day, nearly everything about us on that day was as yet unrealized possibility. Every day since has provided opportunities for us to step toward or away from whatever possibilities God placed within our DNA.
The next most important days are those when we move in a decisive way toward our destiny–physically, emotionally, spiritually, communally. “The human journey is a continuous act of transfiguration.” O’Donohue wrote, “Once the soul awakens, the search begins and we can never go back.” There is within the human soul not only the desire to live, but a quest to answer the most elusive of questions: why? Among the species, we are God’s meaning-making creatures.
I’ve spent much of my life thinking about questions of meaning and, with varying degrees of success, trying to answer them for myself. What I’ve learned is that this holy grail of our existence, this pearl of great price, isn’t something we discover on a single day. For there are many paths before us, many ways to live purposeful lives, some that we discover in early childhood or that others see in us when we are young; others that we realize gradually over time; and still others that are thrust upon us by circumstances we could have never anticipated and do not choose. Think of our spiritual ancestor Ruth in this light–how in response to devastating loss she claimed a new future alongside her beloved Naomi.
The search for meaning and purpose can’t be separated from the mystery of our existence, and our continued existence, against the odds. We feel the connection most acutely whenever we survive a trauma or catastrophe that others do not. For we realize anew that our life is a gift and that it comes with responsibility to live it well, if nothing else to honor those who lives were cut short.
It’s misleading, though, to suggest that we discover our purpose in life in the way we might happen upon a coin on the sidewalk. More often than we not, we must work hard to create meaning with whatever raw materials we’re given. It’s possible, of course, to drift, sometimes for years, in mind-numbing distraction or frenetic activity. Tragically, it’s possible to have the sense of meaning for our lives beaten out of us by external cruelty or inner despair. Nonetheless, whenever by the grace of God we wake up, claim our dignity and a destiny that has been revealed to us; whenever we stand up and realize that we have good, meaningful work to do and to do now–no matter what it is and how we came to it, no matter our age, station in life, public recognition or lack of it, no matter our success or failure in accomplishing that work–whenever we set ourselves toward our Jerusalem, even if it means sacrificing ourselves so that others might live, then we are most alive. The glory of God, wrote one of the earliest Christian theologians, is a human being fully alive.
Think of those days, when you knew what you needed to do, and why. Think of the people you most admire. Aren’t they the ones who know the precious gift of being alive and dedicate themselves in pursuit of a dream?
There is considerable debate among Christians as to when Jesus knew why he was born–how and when it became clear to the fully human Jesus of Nazareth that his destiny was to be the incarnation of God’s love for the world. The biblical account is predictably ambiguous. Some versions of his life are emphatic that he always knew, from the womb. Most suggest, however, that it was a series of revelations over time: at his baptism when the Holy Spirit spoke to him; in the desert of his temptation; when he read in his hometown synagogue from the scrolls of Isaiah, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, for God has appointed me to preach good news to the poor,” in his encounter with the Syrophoneician woman who dared him to expand his horizons beyond his own people, and on the mountain of his transfiguration, when he realized that his destiny was to die young. There were a series of moments, not just one, of discovery and clarifying purpose. And because he realized that his destiny was to die, he needed not only a reason to live, but a purpose worthy enough to give his life.
In light of that ultimate realization, Jesus set his face toward Jerusalem. In other words, he walked from the region surrounding the Sea of Galilee in northern Palestine where he grew up and had created quite a movement for himself, to Jerusalem in the south, where all prophets of ancient Israel went to die. And as you heard in the gospel text, walking with that kind of intention leaves little room for distraction or half-hearted commitment. You were with him, or you weren’t, but he was going.
I wonder, toward what destiny have you set your face?
Toward what collective destiny have we set ours?
Today we commemorate the birth of this Cathedral: On September 29th, 1907, the foundation stone was laid. It lies deep within this building, anchored on eleven feet of solid concrete, buried under half a million tons of Indiana limestone. In the heart of the foundation stone lies a smaller stone that came from Bethlehem, and on that stone are the foundational words of the Christian faith: The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.
1907 was a heady time for our nation and the Episcopal Church, and the event itself must have been glorious, with President Theodore Roosevelt, the Bishop of London, 62 bishops representing 4 continents of the Anglican Communion joining Bishop Satterlee, the first bishop of the brand new Diocese of Washington, to mark the day. One account of that day helps us picture the excitement of “a new diocese, a new century, the emergence of the United States as a world power, the optimism born of prosperity and innovation, the belief that Episcopalians were destined to be the nation’s spiritual leaders–all this and more convinced Bishop Satterlee and his financial backers to launch an audacious plan to build the huge, Gothic cathedral from which they could keep watch over the capitol.” (Robert Harrison: John Walker: A Man for the 21st Century (Cincinnati: Forward Movement Press, 2004), p. 61.)
The Cathedral, we might say, was officially born that day, but it, too, was mostly unrealized potential. Its construction faced setbacks almost as soon as the cornerstone was laid. Within a year, Bishop Satterlee was dead. Within a decade, World War I began, followed by the Great Depression and a second World War. Successive deans, bishops, lay leaders, visionaries, philanthropists would take their turn in trying to get this Cathedral finished and at the same time address the question of why? What is this Cathedral’s purpose, its reason for being?
Today we also remember a man who not only answered, but embodied the Cathedral’s purpose with compelling vision, deep faith, a joyful spirit, and prophetic truth: Bishop John T. Walker, who died 30 years ago on Cathedral Day.
Bishop Walker stands out in the long line of admirable leaders for many reasons, not the least of which was his determination to have the Cathedral finished on his watch, debt free, with a clear and compelling vision, also fully funded.
Called to this place in the mid-1960s as Canon Missioner, John Walker quickly became a spiritual and political leader in Washington. A former teacher and the father of young children, he took a special interest in the Cathedral schools while also advocating for the public school system in Washington. An African American whose life bridged the worst of Jim Crow and the struggles of the Civil Rights Movement, the first to desegregate nearly every institution he attended or served, he knew the pernicious evil of racism and yet refused to be defined by it. His children describe their home as a refuge for many, of people coming for dinner and staying for a year. He had the ability to treat everyone he encountered–from custodians to presidents–with the same warmth and respect. He was, in the eyes of some, a moderate, yet he never shied away from the pressing issues of his day. As a result, John Walker was beloved as few leaders are, so much so that he was elected bishop of this diocese twice, first as suffragan bishop and then as the first African American to serve as the diocesan bishop of Washington.
As bishop, Walker realized that tending to both the Cathedral’s existence and destiny fell to him. His predecessor had worked mightily to finish building Cathedral, but in 1978, construction was suspended for lack of funds. In a move that still takes my breath away to think about, Walker named himself both bishop of the diocese and dean of this Cathedral. He then set about not only to raise money to finish the Cathedral but to ensure that its purpose was never in question. This was to be a house of prayer for all people, a church for national purposes, a sanctuary of grandeur and artistic genius with a gospel commitment to the common good, respectful civic discourse, intellectual rigor, social justice, and genuine hospitality. He poured himself into the hard, necessary work of raising money for the Cathedral’s completion while embodying its mission every day of life. He inspired many people to join him in that endeavor. He inspired a generation of young people, now leaders in their own right, to live purposeful, faithful lives. Then, on the day to mark the beginning of a full year’s celebration of the Cathedral’s completion, Cathedral Day, 1989, Bishop Walker died.
Reading the accounts of that day, you feel grief rising from the pages, the stunned sense of loss, the free flowing tears, the immediate resolve to carry his light forward. Noted laywoman of the Church, Pamela Chinnis, wrote: “John Walker’s legacy to us–whether we be women, blacks, young persons, or builders of the Cathedral–is the conviction that what may seem impossible can be possible if we, like him, are faithful witnesses of the God of justice and compassion.” (This is a summary of Walker’s life, as presented by Robert Harrison. He quotes Chinnis in the book’s introduction, p. xxxi.)
Many in leadership at the Cathedral now, including our dean and the chair of the Cathedral Chapter grew up under the spiritual guidance and inspiration of Bishop Walker. Others with us in the Cathedral today were blessed to work alongside him, and took up his mantle when he died. Whenever I walk through the Cathedral, I feel John’s spirit, cheering us on.
Dean Randy Hollerith recently wrote:
As we plot a course for the Cathedral over the next five years, we choose to embrace its creative tensions rather than run from them. We cherish its multiple identities. In a world that seems in constant turmoil, our faith compels us to answer the prophet Isaiah’s call to be repairers of the breach. This Cathedral has been blessed with a distinctive position at the intersection of civic and sacred life, and we aim to be a witness for Jesus Christ and to serve as an agent of reconciliation and moral leadership. We make no claims of having all of the answers; rather we seek to serve using the unique gifts God has given us. We recognize that the stones that make up this Cathedral–with their rich history and visibility within our nation’s capital–need to be living stones, providing a distinctive voice within the civic and religious life of our city and our country. (Randy Hollerith, “A Bold Vision,” in Washington National Cathedral’s strategic plan)
In closing, let me say again to all gathered:
The most important days of your life are the days you were born and the days you discover why you were born and, then, like Jesus, set your face toward your destiny. Borrowing from the late poet Mary Oliver, I ask you, “What are you going to do now with your one wild and precious life?”
To the Cathedral’s leadership, I say this:
The most important days of this Cathedral’s life includes the day the foundation stone was laid, September 29, 1907, and all the other days when people like us discovered and dedicated their lives to its purpose. May God grant us wisdom and courage for the living of this day.
The Rev. Dr. Harrison Owen, associate rector at St. Margaret’s Church, leads an adult education class – picture from Washington Diocese magazine, March 1966
The program year has begun in churches throughout the Diocese! In today’s world, lifelong learning opportunities to explore our Christian vocations are offered for all ages, but that wasn’t always the case. Back in 1966, the March edition of the “Diocesan Newswire” column in Washington Diocese magazine, reported on a new phenomenon:
Groups of churchmen and women are gathering informally in increasing numbers to give hard thought to ….. perplexing problems. Some come under the label of “adult education classes” like the one meeting Sunday morning at 9:45 a.m. with Harrison Owen, the young associate rector at St. Margaret’s Church. There was literally “no room” for them in the church. They gather in the Sirloin and Saddle room of the Hot Shoppes just opposite on Connecticut Ave. N.W., and drink coffee as he propounds profound and broadly liberal truths of the life, death and resurrection of daily life. More come each week. He does not view God as a “pale reflection of humanity with a long white beard” but views Him as a God of love whose outreach embraces all humanity and who meets us supremely in the life of Jesus Christ. Lively discussion follows.
Recently, I spoke with the Rev. Dr. Owen about the origin of these new “adult education classes.” When asked to name the class he would teach, Dr. Owen came up with “Faith to Live By.” At first, he had no idea what the content would be. Eventually the focus developed into the dilemmas that people face every day, with one aspect of the discussion centering on the tensions of the Ten Commandments. All these years later, Dr. Owen recounts the success of his adult education experiment with humble amazement, still awed by the fun and excitement.
If you need resources to assist your leaders in educating any age, I encourage you to check into Department of Lifelong Learning at Virginia Theological Seminary. The staff host webinars, provide consultations, crowd-source ideas, and more. Then you, too, could take over the dining room of the closest restaurant!
Mrs. Susan Stonesifer
Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, ‘’Sir, we wish to see Jesus.’’
Dear Friends of the Diocese of Washington,
I am thrilled to call our diocese together for a weekend of spiritual rededication and renewal January 24-26, 2020, culminating in a public revival with Presiding Bishop Michael Curry on Sunday, January 26, at 2:00 p.m. at the Entertainment and Sports Arena in Washington, DC.
The theme for the weekend and for the revival itself is More Jesus: More Love, a reminder that only as we draw closer to Jesus can we grow in our capacity to love as Jesus loves. Plans are underway now for a series of events to help us individually and as communities of faith to take our next steps toward Christ and follow in his way of love. They include a Friday evening event for young adults to meet with Presiding Bishop Curry on January 24; our annual Diocesan Convention at Washington National Cathedral on Saturday, January 25 with Presiding Bishop Curry preaching; an overnight that evening for diocesan youth; a pilgrimage through Southeast Washington the morning of January 26; and Sunday afternoon’s revival service.
The revival is not for ourselves alone, but for those we will invite to join us for a service of uplifting music, personal testimony, the Presiding Bishop’s word to us, and Holy Eucharist. The Entertainment and Sports Arena seats over 4,000 people, and we will live stream the event around the diocese and throughout the world. It will be fully bi-lingual, multicultural, and focused on reaching rising generations.
The revival weekend will also mark the official launch of our strategic vision for the next five years. Mark your calendars now. Please pray for us all as we prepare ourselves for all the weekend represents. Pray, too, for those you might invite to join you for the revival, so they may experience more of Jesus and the power of his love.
We’re gathering names of those who already know that they’d like to help provide hospitality for the 4,000 gathered on Sunday afternoon. If you are among them, click here.
Learn more about More Jesus, More Love Revival weekend events
Jesus said to the disciples, “There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property. So he summoned him and said to him, ‘What is this that I hear about you? Give me an accounting of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.’ Then the manager said to himself, ‘What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.’ So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ He answered, ‘A hundred jugs of olive oil.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.’ Then he asked another, ‘And how much do you owe?’ He replied, ‘A hundred containers of wheat.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill and make it eighty.’ And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes. “Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”
I’m honored to be here at St. Monica & St. James for the celebration of Holy Baptism, as we welcome Luke and Eleanor into Christian community. I love baptisms, particularly when parents present their children. For there is so much we hope for our children as they grow, so many things we want to give them. And so much that we know we cannot give them, and from which we cannot protect them. What an act of faith it is to bring children into this world.
As a parish priest, I used to give families presenting their children for baptism an essay written by Anne Lamott entitled, “Why I Make Sam Go to Church.” The main reason she insisted on bringing her strapping nine-year old son to church, who more often than not would rather stay home and hang out with his friends, is this:
I want to give him what I have found in the world, which is to say a path and a little light to see by. Most of the people I know who have what I want—which is to say, purpose, heart, balance, gratitude, joy—are people with a deep sense of spirituality. They are people in community, who pray, or practice their faith. . . people banding together to work on themselves and for human rights. They follow a brighter light than the glimmer of their own candles; they are part of something beautiful. . . Our funky little church is filled with people who are working for peace and freedom, who are out there on the streets and inside praying, and they are home writing letters, and they are at the shelters with giant platters of food. . . When I was at the end of my rope, the people at my church tied a knot in it for me and helped me hold on. (Anne Lamott, “Why I Make Sam Go to Church,” in Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith New York: (Random House, 2000).)
When I presented our sons for baptism, what I wanted for them was the assurance that they were unconditionally loved by God, that they would never remember a time when they weren’t welcome at Jesus’ table or in the community that bears his name. I wanted them to have a sense of destiny, to know that they were alive for a reason. I wanted them to experience Jesus as a living presence in their lives, to be inspired by his teachings and guided by his spirit. I wanted them to know, as a prayer for young persons in our prayer book puts it, “that failure isn’t a measure of their worth, but a chance to start again.” And I wanted God to give them, as we will soon ask God to give Luke and Eleanor, “an inquiring and discerning heart, the courage to will and to persevere, a spirit to know and love you, and the gift of joy and wonder in all your works.”
I want all those things for you, too, for all of us.
Later in the service, I will ask Luke and Eleanor’s parents and godparents questions that have been asked for millennia of those seeking baptism, questions about renouncing evil and turning to Jesus and putting their trust in his grace and love. Then I will ask all gathered here who feel so called to stand and recite the ancient affirmation of faith known as the Apostle’s Creed. These are questions of faith–do you believe in God, do you believe in Jesus, do you believe in the Holy Spirit? Now when you hear the word “believe” don’t worry if you aren’t sure what you know for certain. Rather ask yourself if you can place your trust in God, place your trust in Jesus and in the Spirit, or at least some of your trust. Ask yourself if you want to be the kind of person with such trust.
Then come five questions that are, in essence, a description of Christian practice, what it looks like when we strive to live the Christian life. More about these practices in a moment, but again, I’d like to reassure anyone here who feels as if the script–because that is what liturgy provides us–isn’t yours in the sense that you wouldn’t describe your faith in these words or you’re not sure what the words actually mean. That’s how it is for all of us most of the time. The words and ideas are given in liturgy to us to lay alongside our distinct, unique experiences of grace and holiness, of mystery and presence as a way of providing depth, challenge, and a means to interpret our own experiences and to trust them.
What matters most, I think, is to ask yourself if you feel called, drawn to the Christian life and community of Jesus followers. Is Jesus inviting you to take place here, and allowing yourself to be touched, and dare I say transformed, by what happens through the practices, rituals and experiences that you yourself would name as holy, or of grace, and of God?
When I try to articulate why I am a Christian, of course I must point to the cultural and family heritage that made Christianity the most likely religion for me. But culture and family influences wouldn’t have been enough to keep me in the circle, as it were, and certainly not drawn me into leadership within it. So what was it?
The inspiration of other Christians has been a big factor for me. To paraphrase the infamous words from the movie When Harry Met Sally, “I wanted what other Christians were having.” Faith, as it is often said, is not so much taught but caught.
For me it also comes down, I think, to the interplay between spiritual practice and life experience. So let’s consider now the importance of spiritual practices.
At their best, spiritual practices serve to open us to the mystery we call God, and help us to grow up. In the words of Christian writer Brian McLaren:
Spiritual practices are those actions within our power that help us narrow the gap between the character we want to have and the character we are actually developing. They are about surviving our twenties or forties or eighties and not becoming a jerk in the process. About not letting what happens to us deform or destroy us. About realizing that what we earn or accumulate means nothing compared to what we become and who we are. Spiritual practices are about life, about training ourselves to become the kind of people who have eyes and actually see, and who have ears and actually hear, and so experience not just survival but life that is real, worth living, and good. (Brian McLaren, Finding Our Way Again: The Return of the Ancient Practices (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2008), p.14.)
McLaren goes on to say that our character–the kind of people we are–determines how much of God we can experience, and even which version of God we experience. There’s a lot at stake for us, for it’s through spiritual practices that we learn to know and love God.
The five practices outlined for us in the baptism service are these:
Will you continue in the apostles teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread and in the prayers? This is about the daily practice of saying our prayers, and actually reading our bibles, and on a weekly basis taking part in common worship, opening ourselves to Christ’s presence through the spoken word, community gathered, and sacraments of bread and wine.
Will you persevere in resisting evil and whenever you fall into sin repent and return to the Lord? Notice that the question isn’t “should you fall into sin” but “whenever you fall into sin.” In other words, when you fail, when you make mistakes, when you do what know is wrong or fail to do what you know is right, will you say you’re sorry, make amends, and turn back to God and to your better self?
Will you proclaim by word and example the good news of God in Christ? This is basically a “walking your talk” question. Will you strive to live in such a way that others will know what being a follower of Jesus looks like? The last two questions spell out more specifically what followers of Jesus do:
Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?
Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being? That’s what the Christian life looks like in action.
It’s a lot to take in, and we’re making big promises not only for ourselves but for those whose understanding of what it means to follow Jesus depends on us–the children we raise, but also your next-door neighbors and co-workers, the people you meet everyday.
And I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know when I say that we all fail to live up fully into these promises most of the time. Failure is part of the deal–not, remember, as a sign of our worth, but as a chance for a new start. We practice the things we’re not good at.
God knows that we will fail to live up to them as we make our lofty promises, and that’s all right, provided we know that about ourselves and we’re intentional about allowing ourselves to accept forgiveness, and the grace of God known to us in Jesus. Because here’s the most humbling truth of all: we don’t become more like Jesus through our own strength and will power, but through the grace of God working in us, accomplishing far more than we could ask for or imagine.
For me, it isn’t so much the practices themselves that keep me on the Christian path, but what happens to me as a result of those practices; how I come to experience the grace of God and the presence of Jesus through them. Now I have to tell you that large, dramatic moments are rare in my life. What has been the most transformative are small insights that over time help me find my way in a confusing world.
So let me share the foundational practice of my Christian life. It is simply spending time on a regular basis sitting myself down in a chair, setting a timer for 20 minutes, or 10 if I’m running late, or driving in my car if I’m really late, and pondering my life in the light of God’s love. Then, if I’m not driving, I read a bit from the Bible, and in particular, from the accounts of Jesus’ life and teaching. While I can certainly make a strong case for an in depth study of the Bible, what has been most impactful in my life is when a certain story or passage from the Bible not only captures my imagination, but seems to take up residence inside me for an extended period of time, becoming a lens through which I experience God’s presence in my life. Again–nothing dramatic here, but simply a small shift in perspective.
For example, for years I’ve lived my life through the lens of a particular biblical story about two sisters, Martha and Mary. Perhaps you’ve heard of them: Martha, Mary and their brother Lazarus were among Jesus’ closest friends, and their home in Bethany was a place of refuge and rest for him. On one occasion when Jesus had come to visit, Martha busied herself in the kitchen preparing a meal for him and others guests. In a bold move for a woman of that culture, Mary chose not to join Martha in the kitchen, but instead she sat down on the floor and listened to Jesus speak. Martha was not pleased about this, and she became angry enough that she complained to Jesus: “Lord, tell Mary to help me.” Jesus replied, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and anxious about many things. Only one thing is needed right now. Mary has chosen the better part, and it will not be taken from her.”
I don’t know what it’s like for you, but rarely, if ever, does my life afford me the luxury of focusing on only one thing. Our culture requires us to be adept at multitasking, to hold many things in our hearts and minds at the same time, and to juggle multiple commitments. The better we get at this, the more we’re asked to do or we take on ourselves, because we like being among those who get things done. I used to have tacked up on my bulletin board a saying from one of those daily calendars: Any mother can perform the work of six air traffic controllers with ease. Dare I say that most mothers identify with Martha, not Mary, and for good reason.
I love Martha. But the more I live with Martha and Mary as my inner sisters, I realize that Mary wasn’t a slacker. She was simply able, in that moment, to focus on the most important thing while Martha was worried and anxious about many things. So as I juggle and multi-task and harness myself to the good work that needs to be done, I think of Mary and her single-minded focus. She helps me focus on what I’m doing in the moment, and to ask myself, “What is the most important thing, right now? What is the most important thing today? This week? This season? Simply asking the question is grounding and it allows me to consider questions of priority and relationship and rest in ways that I might otherwise miss.
I have a similar response to Jesus’ words at the end of his rather irreligious story of a shrewd and unethical manager that you heard this morning: Whoever is faithful in a very little is also faithful in much. It doesn’t matter if what I’m doing today is a small task. What matters is my faithfulness in this moment, to this work, to these relationships, to the beckoning of God. As I am faithful to what is before me now, I ask God to help me become large enough inside to hold whatever may be asked of me tomorrow, and to meet it with the same faithfulness.
The Benedictine monk Joan Chittister also has words of wisdom about this daily faithfulness: “Life is short,” she reminds us.
To get the most out of it, we must attend to its spiritual dimension, without which life is only half lived. We risk going through life only half conscious, asleep or intent on being someplace else other than where we are. . . It may be the neighborhood we live in rather than the neighborhood we want that will really make human beings out of us. It may be the job we have rather than the position we want that will liberate us. For God is calling us to more than the material level of life. (Joan Chittister, The Rule of Benedict: Insight for the Ages (New York: Crossroad Publishing, 1992).)
And as Jesus said in another zinger of a one-liner today: we cannot serve God and money. Jesus doesn’t seem to care about how much money we have or don’t have. What he cares about is how what we earn, spend, and give away serves that which matters most. “Where your treasure is,” he said in another place, “there your heart will be also.”
So where is Jesus asking you to be faithful now? What is the one most important thing?
If you ask yourself that question at the beginning of each day, or as you consider the arch of your week or the coming year, I promise that you will live your life differently, attentive to the voice of God guiding you through the cares and occupations of your life. Spoiler alert: you’ll still be busy, with many commitments and responsibilities to juggle. You’ll still have more to do than can be done on most days. But certain things will rise to your conscious mind as priorities that may surprise you, things that you otherwise wouldn’t make time for, but now, having asked yourself the question, will become the most important thing, that to which you must be faithful today. And when you go to sleep at night, you will enjoy the rest that comes not from having successfully completed your “to do” list, but rather from living a life in alignment with your true north. As you are faithful in that one thing, whatever it is, Jesus will help you sort through everything else, let go of unnecessary burdens and be faithful to the next most important thing, large or small, in its time.
The Christian life is a life of practice, which implies that we’re not always good at it, that we will often fail to reach the highest aspirations set before us, or that we set within ourselves. But what all the practice allows us to experience is a God of love, and a way of love and of life that is worthy of us as the children of God that we are, and worthy of the children of God that Luke and Eleanor are. May we be the kind of community to show them what it looks like to know, love and follow Jesus. They will know we are Christians by our love.