Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
We gather for worship in the midst of a national crisis, one that has been brewing for some time and reached a tipping point this week. This week, when the number of those who have died from COVID-19 in less than 3 months surpassed 100,000, a disproportionate percentage of which are people of color whom our healthcare system has failed all their lives. This week, when over 40 million Americans filed for unemployment insurance, and those deemed essential workers are, again, disproportionately people of color on the lowest end of the pay scale with insufficient protection to keep them and their families safe.
This week, when we have witnessed the latest killing of an African American man by a whilte police officer in Minneapolis. George Floyd’s death is not an isolated incident, but the latest example of police and vigilante brutality, and disregard for the lives of black and brown people in this country. His death has triggered one of the largest sustained expressions of both peaceful and violent protest that we have seen in decades. The protests are about his death and so much more.
We, the leaders of Washington National Cathedral and the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, add our voices to the collective outrage, grief, and frustration. We add our resolve to those determined that this moment cannot and will not pass without movement toward real and lasting change.
We are followers of Jesus and His Way of Love. We pray daily for the power of the Holy Spirit, whose coming to us we commemorate this day. And we renew our commitment, and that of the institutions we lead, to keep our eyes and energies fixed on addressing the root causes of systemic racism and white supremacy in all its forms, laid bare before us by COVID-19 and the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and so many more.
This is a crucible moment, when the soul of our nation is a stake. If our leaders cannot meet the challenge of this time then we, as faith leaders, must be among those stepping in the void–and we will–but our nation must come together and elect the leaders we deserve. We need and must insist upon moral character, a commitment to justice, and effective governance from our elected leaders.
Today we gather to pray our prayers of grief and repentance, our prayers for strength and resolve, and to hear the Spirit-inspired call of our Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry, to choose love.
Scripture is clear that God is not moved by the beauty of prayers that are not accompanied by the power of our deeds–to choose love, and to work for justice.
May God grant us strength and courage for the living of this hour.
When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, ‘Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my lambs.’
Before I begin, let me say how much I’ve missed being with you in person, and how grateful and proud I am for the ways you have carried out your ministry, so beautifully expressed in the montage of photographs of your online offerings. I know there have been stumbles and steep learning curves, but what comes through in your online ministry is your love for Christ and the people you serve.
With this reflection, I’d like to create space to consider the COVID-19 pandemic as a marking event in our vocation as ordained persons.
We’ve all lived long enough to have experienced marking events before–the ones that we speak of as turning points whenever we tell the story of our lives. But we also know that our perspective on those events changes and evolves. Some marking events that we initially experienced as the worst thing that could have happened, turn out to have been the forerunner of great blessing, or vice-versa. Something that felt dramatically impactful as it happened might fade in significance over time, while other events that barely registered for us as they occurred loom large later on.
We’re gathered today in the suspended season between Jesus’ Ascension and the coming of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost, during which the disciples were told to wait until they were given power from on high. A part of us is waiting, too, for all manner of things, and in particular, for when the time we’re in now is behind us. Like the first disciples, we’re being prepared for what lies ahead.
Consider these three scenarios:
When the pandemic is over, surely some parts of our lives and vocations will resume as before. We should be glad for that. Not everything needs to change as a result of an interruption. Thus as we wait, part of our work now is to cherish the memory of what we love, and live our lives in such ways that those good things can resume when this marking event has passed. In part, that’s the sentiment behind the mantra about our churches not being closed even though our buildings are. We’ve adapted to this new reality, preserving in new forms what is precious to us, so that we can come back to what we love someday.
On the other end of the continuum are the dramatic changes that have and will occur as a result of this marking event. Some were completely unexpected, for which we had absolutely no warning. But others, if we’re honest, we saw coming. For the pandemic has simply accelerated a trend. Our lives were moving in a certain direction already–now they’re moving faster.
Let me give you an example of a different version of trend acceleration: A man in the parish I served in Minneapolis stunned everyone around him, including me, when he made a series of dramatic life changes right after his father died. As his pastor, I was worried that he was changing too much too fast, and that he would come to regret some of the decisions he was making in the throes of grief. I realized later, however, that his father’s death was the marking event that gave him permission, or released him from a sense of obligation, freeing him to give up parts of his life that he had been longing to shed for some time, and to move toward a different horizon that had beckoned all his adult life.
I wonder how many of the changes we’re seeing and experiencing in our congregations fall into this category of “trend accelerator.” The changes were already coming–but now they are coming faster, as we are free to let some things go and move toward horizons that Jesus has set before us.
Finally, let me mention with appropriate awe a response to this marking event that we know theologically as sanctification, the process by which the Holy Spirit works through the circumstances of our lives to make us more Christ-like. Through sanctification we become more loving, more forgiving, and live with greater clarity of our vocation to serve Him and His Kingdom in this time and place. This is spiritual transformation at the deepest level of our being, about which we’re wise not to speak too quickly.
In sanctification, the Holy Spirit is at work in us in ways that defy our understanding, yet also require our full participation. A door is opening and we’re invited to walk through it, but we must choose to walk through it. If you’re like me, you’ll stumble as you walk, and fall more than once. But as the Buddha once said to a disciple who worried about the number of times he fell on the path to enlightenment, “you needn’t worry, as long as you fall in the right direction.”
The deeper transformation to which you and I are called through this marking event isn’t entirely in our hands, but is ours to accept in a posture of surrender and courage. While this is a deeply personal process, the systemic impact of our saying to it yes is incalculable, precisely because of our vocation as ones called to serve and lead in Jesus’ name.
God didn’t cause this pandemic for our transformation. But we know that our God never wastes anything, and is able to work through everything for good. We’re blessed to be among those called to step into that stream of transforming grace, experience it for ourselves, and then listen for the ways we are specifically called to live, serve, and lead in and through this marking time.
As you ponder the COVID-19 crisis as a marking event in your vocation, I wonder how you might respond to these three questions:
In your life and ministry, how are you preserving or adapting what is good so that it might return in its fullness when the pandemic is over?
What changes in your life and ministry are happening faster as a result of the pandemic?
How are you experiencing the Holy Spirit’s sanctifying power at work in you during this marking time? How are you being transformed?
Perhaps examples come to mind for all three questions; perhaps one, in particular, is alive for you now. Whatever your musings, offer them in prayer, and in gratitude for the gift of your vocation, even as you acknowledge to Jesus how much your vocation is asking of you now. I wonder if you might allow yourself to hear Jesus’ gratitude for your faithfulness. Remember that the same Jesus who asked Peter three times if he loved him, also assured Peter of his love. Allow yourselves to feel Jesus’ love for you, and assurance that He receives your imperfect, stumbling, efforts to love and serve him in response.
When the apostles had come together, they asked Jesus, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.
As stay-at-home orders remain in place while plans are being made for the gradual easing of restrictions, we find ourselves living in an in-between time.
Pandemic or not, in-between time takes many forms, whenever we’re wrestling with something that isn’t easily resolved. Answers to urgent questions rarely come easily or quickly, no matter how hard we seek them. So we must live with them for however long it takes for clarity to emerge.
Or we may find ourselves waiting because there is a task before us that requires skills or capacities we don’t yet have. “Leadership would be a safe undertaking,” Ronald Heiftz, observes, “if your organizations and communities only faced problems for which they already knew the solutions… But there are a whole host of problems beyond their capacity to solve. Thus they are not amenable to authoritative expertise or standard operating procedures. We call these adaptive challenges because they require experiments, new discoveries, and adjustments in numerous places.” (1)
In the Christian calendar, today is the Feast of the Ascension, which always falls on the fortieth day after Easter Sunday. The Ascension marks the end of a poignant period during which Jesus presented himself alive to his disciples, after his suffering and death. But as mysteriously as the appearances began, they end with Jesus ascending into heaven as his perplexed disciples watch. As he departs, Jesus says. “Wait until you are given the power you need. Don’t do anything now; just wait.” We know that their waiting would be rewarded with the coming of the Holy Spirit of Pentecost. But they didn’t know that, any more than we know what’s on the other side of our waiting.
Waiting is hard. It’s like living in suspended space–what William Bridges describes as “the neutral zone.” How we wait is key, for “it is in that interim spaciousness that all possibilities, creativity, and innovative ideas can come to life.” (2) Yet as the weeks drag on, fatigue takes its toll, and we’re prone to all manner of temptations. Or, speaking for myself, I should say that I am. Perhaps you are, too?
One temptation of an in-between time is to settle into a pattern of complaint. I don’t mean to minimize grief or gloss over the reality of exhaustion. But the problem with complaining is that it’s so easy. To be negative requires absolutely no energy or creativity, while to remain hopeful, committed and engaged takes sustained effort. But ask yourself this: with whom would you rather spend time with when things are hard–with those who complain and blame, or with those who roll up their sleeves and offer to help? What helps in an in-between is the practice of hopefulness and resisting the temptation to whine.
Another temptation of an in-between time is to assume that there are only two choices before us: either to move full steam ahead, even when we’re not ready and don’t know where we’re going, or to do nothing at all. The dangers of either extreme are clear enough. Most decisions made in the heat of urgency we come to regret. Yet passivity is simply the other side of compulsion, when we give up in the face of challenge.
In contrast, consider the posture of poised readiness. Animals in the wild give us the compelling image of being completely still, yet poised to move when the time is right. Or athletes preparing for a competition that is months away. They can’t rush ahead in their training without risk of injury, but if they do nothing, they won’t be prepared when the time comes. They train methodically and slowly, building up their capacity over time in order to compete at full strength when the time comes. In a similar way, the question for us in the time of waiting is, “What can we do now, to use the time well? What skills can we hone; what knowledge can we master; what relationships can we forge to ready ourselves when the time comes to act?”
A third temptation in an in-between time is to imagine that our real lives will begin when the waiting is over. But what if where we are right now, waiting in between what is ending and what is yet to be, is our life? If so, then there’s no reason not to persevere in prayer, love, and kindness, no matter how inadequate we feel.
In-between time can be awkward, stressful, and is rarely a time that we choose. But if it’s the time that we’re in, then it’s the only time we have. No doubt we have something to learn in this in-between time. What might that be, so that we might be ready for whatever it is that lies beyond it?
(1) Ronald Heiftz and Marty Linsky, Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive through the Dangers of Leading (Cambridge: Harvard Business School Press, 2002)
(2) William Bridges, Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes (William Bridges & Associates, Revised Edition, 2019)
For it is the God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.
2 Corinthians 4:6-7
How does your hope in Jesus help you in the middle of the COVID-19 crisis?
It isn’t my hope in Jesus that’s helping me now; it’s Jesus himself.
This prolonged crisis is teaching me that hope isn’t an act of will. Rather it comes to me through small gifts of grace that I am, on occasion, blessed to receive. The gifts themselves vary–a bit of insight, the kindness of a friend, a word from Scripture, sufficient clarity to make a decision, a good cry, the inspiring example of another–but what they have in common is that they come to me, seemingly of their own accord.
The experience of grace, when it comes, is an affirmation of all that I dare to believe about Jesus’ abiding presence and I am filled with hope. But I must admit, when the moment passes, I’m often humbled by a feeling of emptiness in its wake. Then I must decide how to live in the absence of the hope I once felt.
The poet Christian Wiman likens the experience of grace to that of artistic inspiration: “The memory of that momentary blaze and the art that issues from it can be a reproach to the fireless life in which you find yourself most of the time.” (1) I think that’s what St. Paul was trying to describe with his analogy of our lives as clay jars. From time to time, we’re blessed to hold and even share something of God’s extraordinary power, but take one look at us and it’s painfully obvious that the power belongs to God and doesn’t come from us. This classic spiritual insight sums up my experience of hope in Jesus. I depend on it daily, but I cannot invoke it on command. What I can do, and try to do each day, is live in the light of the grace and love I have known, placing my hope in Jesus, no matter what I may or may not feel.
How does hope in Jesus help me now, in the middle of the COVID-19 crisis?
The hope that Jesus gives me now is surprisingly less focused on the future than I am. I spend most of my time looking toward the horizon, trying to discern how best to live and to lead toward what lies ahead. But when Jesus comes to me now with those bits of grace that give me hope, what I experience is a lightness of spirit and gentle redirection of energy toward what’s right before me. I can’t help but worry about and long for what tomorrow may bring, but Jesus invites me to take in the graces of the moment, do what today requires, and place my hope in Him. It feels a bit like manna in the wilderness: sufficient for the day.
This, as you might surmise, is not how I normally live my life. But maybe that’s a good thing.
So in these COVID-19 days, I’m learning to gratefully receive His hope when it comes to me, and live by its light even in the emptiness that follows, taking comfort in the fact that I am a clay jar and He is the Savior of the World. He is the source of my hope.
(1) Christian Wiman, My Bright Abyss: Mediations of a Modern Believer (New York: Ferrar, Straus, & Giroux, 2013), p.4.
I am thrilled to announce that the Rev. Jenifer Gamber has accepted the call to serve as Special Missioner for the School of Christian Faith and Leadership to assist us in the implementation of the School and of the Strategic Plan. This is a one-year appointment, beginning in July 2020, funded by the Corten Trust, a bequest the Diocese of Washington received in 2018 restricted for educational purposes.
Jenifer brings with her a commitment to ministry and growing faith in all people, knowledge of the practices and ethos of the Episcopal Church, and connections with people and resources across the Episcopal Church. She was instrumental, along with the Race and Social Justice Committee, in gathering a team in the Diocese this past year to equip leaders to offer the Sacred Ground Dialogue series in our congregations. She serves as co-convener with the Rev. Richard Weinberg of a committee studying liturgy in response to the General Convention resolution regarding liturgical revision. At the church-wide level, Jenifer serves on the Working Group for the Way of Love out of the Presiding Bishop’s Office and on the faculty for Forma’s Certificate in Youth and Children Formation program as theologian.
A 2018 graduate of Virginia Theological Seminary, Jenifer was ordained into the priesthood in June 2019 and has served since July 2018 at St. Patrick’s Episcopal Church and Day School and departs as the Associate Rector and Day School Chaplain. She is the author of A Teen’s Guide to the Episcopal Church (2006), Your Faith Your Life: An Invitation to the Episcopal Church (2009), Call on Me: A Prayer Book for Young People (2012) and most recently Common Prayer for Children and Families (2020).
While Jenifer officially joins the staff in July, organizational and planning work for the School has begun, drawing upon the many resources within our diocese and beyond. Jenifer shares:
“I am excited to join the gifted staff at the Diocese of Washington as together we continue to take bold steps toward Becoming Good Soil so that God’s seeds of love might flourish in our time and place. It is my hope that The School for Christian Faith and Leadership grows to become the first place our congregations and people turn to find trusted resources that equip leaders for faithful ministry and form disciples for the sake of being Jesus’ love in our world.”
Please join me in welcoming Jenifer in her new role. You will be hearing more from us about the School for Christian Faith and Leadership soon.