Dear Friends in the Episcopal Diocese of Washington,
Your diocesan leadership is closely monitoring developments involving the coronavirus Covid-19 and the latest guidance from health experts on how to prevent the spread of this virus.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention expects Covid-19 to spread through communities in the US. While they indicate that the risk is still moderate, it is important for all of us to take precautionary measures and to prepare for the possibility of a large-scale outbreak in our communities.
Episcopal Relief and Development reminds us that during any medical emergency our role as churches, dioceses and compassionate Christians is to:
- Combat fear with knowledge in order to encourage preparedness and decrease stigma
- Maintain operational continuity and continue worship life in the case of potential quarantine and disruption
- Show God’s compassion and care to those in our communities who are affected
Health experts agree that common sense preventative practices are the most effective disease control. These include:
- Frequent, effective hand-washing
- Staying home when sick
- Covering your mouth when sneezing or coughing (using a tissue or elbow instead of hands)
As we are in close contact during our worship and in community, it is especially important that we practice and promote personal hygiene.
We also recommend the following congregational practices:
- Clergy and lay leaders stay home when ill
- Attendees who are coughing or sneezing receive communion in one kind only and refrain from shaking hands or bodily contact during worship
- Eucharistic ministers use an alcohol-based rub before the distribution of the sacrament, whether in the context of the liturgy or in visiting someone at home or in the hospital
- Sanitizing packets are distributed and/or dispensers are readily available upon entry to the church, and parishioners are encouraged parishioners to use these to cleanse their hands before and during the service
- Parishes involved in ministries serving food give particular attention to best practices regarding food safety
- Environmental cleaning occurs routinely in the sanctuary, kitchen hall and other spaces where people gather
- Special attention is paid to the care of vulnerable populations, the elderly, children, the infirm and others at special risks
Note that intinction is not a recommended communion practice, given the risk of spreading the virus from the hands. Receiving only the Bread is an acceptable communion practice.
While we do not want to create any undue alarm, these protective steps limit the risks of contagion through our services should any of our parishioners have been exposed to the virus. Caring for each other and our communities requires that we exercise more than ordinary caution.
In the event of a local outbreak of the virus, now is a good time to prepare for home-based worship resources, including live-stream services, telephone ministry, and pastoral care to the wider community. If you’d like technological assistance in the preparation process, please contact Peter Turner.
Now is also a good time to reach out to ministry partners in your community so that, if needed, your congregation can assist in pastoring those in need.
Thank you for your on-going prayers for all those around the globe who are ill or have died from this disease, and for those whose lives have been severely disrupted.
Episcopal Relief and Development offer this prayer for our collective use:
Prayer for People Who are Critically Ill or Facing Great Uncertainty:
God of the present moment,
God who in Jesus stills the storm
and soothes the frantic heart;
bring hope and courage to all
who wait or work in uncertainty.
Bring hope that you will make them the equal
of whatever lies ahead.
Bring them courage to endure what cannot be avoided,
for your will is health and wholeness;
you are God, and we need you.
-Adapted from New Zealand Prayer Book, p. 765
Finally, here are program inserts and information sheets to post on on bulletin boards:
If the situation worsens in our regions, we’ll communicate further. Please do not hesitate to reach out with any questions or concerns.
May we be instruments of healing and grace.
Bishop Mariann’s reflection may be found in Living Well Through Lent 2020, a collection of daily meditations published by Living Compass. Free copies are available at the diocesan office.
After Jesus was baptized, he was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.
The wilderness is a place of trial and vulnerability. It wasn’t an easy place for Jesus; and it isn’t an easy place for us, whenever we find ourselves in a wilderness of our own.
Sometimes we go to the wilderness of our own accord, because we know that it’s time to make a change. So we call the doctor and schedule a physical, reach out to a relative we haven’t spoken to in years, or pray for the grace to forgive ourselves for something we’ve done.
Other times the wilderness comes to us, without warning. The telephone rings and suddenly life as we’ve known it is over. I don’t believe that God causes those unwelcome wildernesses to appear, but I know that God is there to see us through.
Through is an important concept when it comes to the wilderness, for it is not our final destination. We travel through the wilderness on our way to somewhere else. But before we leave, the wilderness has a pearl of great price to impart.
The first wilderness temptation is to try and get out as quickly as we can. It’s an understandable response, given our discomfort, but it guarantees that we will learn nothing from our experience. We leave the wilderness unscathed and revert to old patterns of life.
The second wilderness temptation, however, is to stay too long. In particular, after an experience of grief or trauma, the wilderness can become a familiar place, where little is required of us. Yet invariably, there comes a moment of choice, when we must decide to leave the wilderness, even when we don’t feel ready for life on the other side.
Wilderness is the place of transformation. We need to stay long enough to allow it to change us, or to accept the change that is thrust upon us. However we get there, we go to the wilderness to learn what we must learn and accept what we must accept. Then it’s time to move on.
In the book I’m reading this Lent, Henri Nouwen makes the pointed observation that “to follow Jesus” means that we do the walking.
We are the ones doing the talking, living life, getting involved. . . followers of Jesus are people who live real human lives. The work of life does not come easier to them because they are disciples. . . Following Jesus means walking in his path, taking steps behind the One who shows us the way in our dark, broken, painful world.
Jesus learned a lot about himself in the wilderness, and we learn a lot about him. What we learn is that Jesus will always put God’s will first. He will never use his power to overwhelm or bully us. Ours is a Savior who knows our vulnerabilities because he took them on himself. He knows our wilderness, has been there himself. And he offers the strength that comes through vulnerability, power as we make our way through the wilderness to transformation that’s promised us on the other side.
Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone. As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”
Good morning, everyone. If I’ve not yet had the chance to greet you personally, my name is Mariann Budde and I have the honor of serving as your bishop. My job is to offer spiritual leadership and oversight to congregations and clergy within a given geographic area known as a diocese. St. Mark’s belongs to the Diocese of Washington, which includes all the Episcopal churches in the District of Columbia, and 4 Maryland counties. You are one of 88 churches in our diocese, and among the healthiest. You’re blessed with a gifted and passionate rector. Your lay leaders are also gifted people who give tremendously of themselves in service to Christ, this congregation, and beyond. I’m proud to be your bishop, always looking for ways to support and amplify what God is doing with and through you, and I’m grateful beyond words for the ways St. Mark’s shows up in collaboration with others in the diocese and the world in the conspiracy of goodness. Thank you. I’ve been looking forward to today, especially as we celebrate baptism, confirmation and reception. If you are a guest or visitor today, welcome. You have come to a very special place.
Taking inspiration from the gospel text, I’d like to reflect with you about climbing mountains. But first let me thank the preachers and education leaders of St. Mark’s. If you’ve been in church for the last several weeks, you know that sermons here have focused on the care of creation, one of the more urgent issues of our time. Some of you have taken time to read a book on creation care from the perspective of the Christian tradition that traces its inspiration back to St. Francis. In Franciscan spirituality, care of creation is not just a good idea for human survival; it is an act of faithful response to God. For the natural world is, according to St. Francis, the first Incarnation, or embodiment, of God. In other words, for Christians, before God came to us, as we celebrate at Christmas, in the person of Jesus, God revealed, and continues to reveal, God’s very essence in and through the natural world.
I read the book you’ve been reading, and two rather observations the author makes haunt and convict me personally. The first is simply the devastating reality that given current consumption and pollution trends, those who come after us–our children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren will have less soil, clean air, water than we do. If everyone in the world consumed as much as Americans do, we would need four additional planets full of resources to supply us. (Care for Creation: A Franciscan Spirituality of the Earth, Delia, Ilia Franciscan Media. Kindle Edition.) One of my goals as your bishop is to deepen the capacity in and among our congregations to address urgent social issues like creation care in ways that can have significant impact. I’m grateful for St. Mark’s for helping to lead the way.
Back to climbing mountains: All one has to do is look at a mountain to experience its symbolic, spiritual power. Even more spiritually compelling, I suggest to you, is the act of climbing a mountain.
Climbing a mountain isn’t a casual endeavor; it takes effort and endurance. You don’t always make it to the top. Think of all those who have perished climbing mountains. Thus there’s a great sense of accomplishment in reaching the summit. From there, weather permitting, we can see far and wide. When we make our way down, we take with us whatever perspective we gained from the heights.
We speak of mountaintop experiences that have nothing to do with climbing an actual mountain. “I’ve been to the mountaintop,” Martin Luther King famously said the night before he died, “and I’ve looked over, and I’ve seen the Promised Land.” He was alluding to another mountain referred to in Scripture–the one the prophet Moses climbed before he died, from which he could see the land he would never enter, but where the people of Israel would find their freedom. King identified with Moses: “I may not get there with you,” King said to his African American congregation wanting their own freedom, “but I promised you, we as a people will get to the Promised Land.”
Like Moses; like Jesus, we climb mountains–both physical and symbolic–for all sorts of reasons. I’d like to briefly describe three types of mountain climbing experiences, and as I do, listen for the one that most resonates with what’s happening in your life right now. I pray that God might speak to you there, giving you insight or courage as you make your way.
One reason we climb a mountain is, as George Mallory famously said about Mount Everest, “because it’s there.” This is the mountain of adventure, the kind of opportunity that doesn’t come around every day, and when it does, something in us immediately knows that we want to take it. We want to climb the mountain and we’ll do whatever it takes to make the journey. I remember when I arrived as a student at Virginia Seminary over 35 years ago, prepared for a 3-year commitment in that residential academic setting, which to my 24-year old self felt like an eternity. Then I learned about a woman two years ahead of me who had taken a year off in the middle of her studies to live and work at an Episcopal school for abandoned boys in Central America. As soon as I learned that was a possibility, I knew that’s what I wanted to do. And 2 years later I did, bringing my brand new husband along with me.
The thing about mountains of adventure is that they are often far more challenging than we realize. In fact, if we knew in advance how hard they would be, we might never climb them. That was certainly true about our experience in Central America. I don’t regret that we went, but it was not an easy year. I remember one day fighting back tears of frustration and asking God if it was always going to be this hard. The answer came back immediately (which rarely happens to me in prayer) “Yes.” That got my attention. Then I heard: “But I will be with you.” That was enough for me to keep going.
It’s good that we don’t know when we begin what our adventures will cost us. Otherwise we might miss the personal growth and transformation that can occur when we step out in faith on journeys that take us beyond our capacity. That’s how we learn to rely on God, and grow into the kind of people capable of finishing what we started or accepting failure with grace.
Remember that a lot of people who try to climb mountains never make it to the top, but they’d rather fail than never make the effort. Because mountains of adventure clarify our vocation–why we’re alive and why our lives matter.
If you’re around my age it probably won’t surprise you to know that as I prepared this sermon, one of the songs running through my head was “Climb Every Mountain” from the Sound of Music:
Climb every mountain, ford every stream,
follow every byway, till find your dream.
A dream that will take all the love you can give,
every day of your life, for as long as you live.
The second kind of mountain climbing experience is similar to the first, with one important difference: you would give anything not to make the journey, but you have no choice. The mountain is before you, and there is no turning back. Think of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane and how he prayed, “Father if it be possible, let this cup pass from me. But your will, not mine be done.”
A few years ago I went with a friend to her doctor’s office for what would be the first of many treatments for cancer. The diagnosis had taken all of us by surprise, because she was a healthy person, and it was a surreal experience to listen as the nurse oncologist described what lay ahead. The nurse was attempting to be both positive and honest: the prognosis was good, but my friend was in for a rough year, maybe more. The good news is that she made it through and is fine now, but the year of treatment was terrible. I remember as she went through it thinking back to what the nurse had said: this was her mountain, and she just had to climb it. It was our job, as friends and family, to be her sherpas, and help get her to the top and back down.
Back to the song from the Sound of Music: The first time we hear the song in the musical, Maria is a nun who has fallen in love with an distinguished Austrian general, a widow with a houseful of children. The song points her to a new life, outside the convent, married to her love and raising his children as her own. But at the film’s end, the song is reprised as Maria and her new family are climbing a mountain in the Alps. Why? They are fleeing the Nazis with nothing but what they can carry with them.
Climb every mountain. Ford every stream. It doesn’t sound as romantic when it’s a matter of life and death. Yet life is often a struggle, and we simply need to keep climbing. There’s a saying in Haiti, a country whose people are no stranger to hardship: “Beyond the mountain lies another mountain.” It’s a hard sentiment, but mountain climbing is hard, and when life puts mountains before you, there’s nothing to be gained by pretending that it’s easy. I happen to be in a stage in my life and ministry where there’s a lot of work to be done, mountain upon mountain. That metaphor gives me perspective; it reminds me to pace myself, eat well, and ask for help. Another mountain song has been in my head this week by the musical group Nickel Creek. The refrain is in the form of a prayer:
You don’t have to move that mountain, but help me, Lord, to climb it.
You don’t have to move that stumbling block; just show me the way around it.
The third and last mountain climbing experience I’ll mention today is the kind that Jesus took when he climbed Mount Tabor with his friends in search for clarity and direction. Jesus often climbed mountains to pray, and we can understand why. From the top you see in a way that only height and distance provide. We don’t need to climb an actual mountain for that kind of perspective–a retreat of any kind can provide needed distance. It can happen in smaller doses in a practice of silent prayer, or by taking a walk. Like your good rector, I love riding a bicycle for the gift of perspective it can bring. Especially on long rides, when exertion has worked out all that’s front and center in my brain and in the emptiness that comes afterwards, God sometimes speaks to me with a bit of clarity that either keeps me on a course I’m on, or helps me change direction.
What happened to Jesus on the mountain of his transfiguration was what he himself needed to stay on course. He saw the writing on the wall, and he knew that if he kept going, his life was not going to end well. But what God gave him on the mountain was a vision of why his life mattered, the cosmic implications of the gift of his impending sacrifice. This story is also meant to assure anyone who feels drawn to him that Jesus is, in fact, one we can trust and follow even especially when life is hard, that there is a meaning and purpose to our struggles that we may never fully understand, and that as he promised, he will be with us to the end of the age.
To bring this sermon to a close, let me simply ask again: what mountain lies before you, or are you climbing now? Is it a mountain of adventure you must or want to climb–a vocation? Is it a mountain that you’d rather go around, but can’t? Is it a mountain that you need to climb, or are climbing now, in search of clarity and direction? Whatever your path, whatever your climb–I pray you might know, deep in your bones, that Jesus is right there with you, as a friend, and guide, and source of abiding strength. You can lean on him, ask for his help and presence. You can lean on this community of fellow Jesus followers.
We aren’t meant to climb our mountains alone.
Jesus said, ‘Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me.’
Sometimes I buy a book based on the title alone. Sitting in the office of the priest I see for spiritual counsel, this title caught my eye: Following Jesus: Finding Our Way Home in an Age of Anxiety by the late Henri Nouwen. In an instant I knew that this was to be my reading companion in Lent. If you’re still looking for Lenten inspiration, I invite you to join me.
Published in 2019, Following Jesus is based on six talks that Nouwen gave for a church in Boston in Lent 1985. It was a particularly unsettled season in his life. Two years earlier, he had returned from a failed missionary effort in Peru that had left him isolated and restless. He then accepted a prestigious teaching position at Harvard Divinity School, but the competitive academic atmosphere only added to his feelings of loneliness and uncertainty.
Thus his topic–how to follow Jesus in an anxious time–wasn’t theoretical for Nouwen. Reading his words, you can feel his soul-searching energy. Shortly after giving these talks Nouwen would leave his position at Harvard and move to Toronto to become a residential chaplain in a L’Arche community for people with intellectual disabilities. “By articulating his vision for what it meant to be a follower of Jesus for these talks,” writes the editor, “Nouwen clarified his own vocational path.”
The book begins with Nouwen inviting each of us to look at ourselves and ask the question, “Am I following Jesus?” He continues:
Often we are more wanderers than followers. We are people who run around a lot, do many things, meet many people, read many books. We are very involved. . . Yet if we are asked what we are so busy with we don’t really know.
The result of all our activity is fatigue. “People who wander from one thing to the other feel that they are lived more than they live. It’s very tiring; exhausting, actually.”
As a result, some of us simply give up. We watch television, sleep a lot, find our escape in one distraction or another, but nothing excites us anymore. We have moved, Nouwen observes, from wandering to just sitting: “Both types of people, the running-around ones and the just-sitting-there ones, are not moving anywhere. There is something of the wanderer and something of the person who just sits there in all of us.”
Yet there is good news:
It is into this deeply tired world of ours that God sends Jesus to speak the voice of love God. God sends Jesus to speak the voice of love. Jesus says, ‘Follow me. Don’t keep running around. Follow me. Don’t just sit there. Follow me.’
I am convicted by Nouwen’s distinction between wandering and following. While following Jesus doesn’t mean living an easy life, it doesn’t cause the same kind of fatigue I feel when I’m running from place to place, event to event, trying to prove my worthiness. In following Jesus, I’m freed from the burden of needing to please everyone, or to be all things to all people. I need only listen to one voice.
Nouwen ends his introductory chapter with the story from Scripture of the prophet Elijah hearing God speak–not in thunder, nor earthquake, nor in fire, but in the sound of sheer silence and a still small voice. “The voice is very sensitive,” he writes. “It can be very quiet. But the voice of love is already within you. . . Get quiet and spend time trying to hear it. . . it says, ‘I love you,’ and calls you by name. It says, ‘Come, follow me.’”
In our anxious wandering and tired stuckness, Jesus speaks. Join me in taking time this Lent to listen. His word will most certainly challenge us to love in ways far beyond our capacity, and yet we will be sustained by the very grace we are called to share.