Bishop Mariann preached this homily for the Bishops Against Gun Violence Service of Lament, Hope and Resolve.
When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying: ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. ‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.‘Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
“Cyhneil Smith was determined to make it.”
That’s the leading sentence of Cyhneil’s obituary. She was found dead from multiple gunshot wounds in her car on October 16th.
The obituary goes on:
She was a young, petite woman with a feisty attitude and an ever-present smile who had overcome much in her short life. Her first child was stillborn. Her sister was fatally shot two years ago. Still, she pushed forward, had a son, and graduated from a vocational school, aiming to be a hotel concierge. The school’s founder said, “We felt like we could save her from the madness out here,” speaking of the hardships in parts of the District of Columbia. Cyhneil would sometimes bring her one-year old son with her to school when she couldn’t find a babysitter and would sit quietly in the corner studying, feeding him snacks. “It’s not even my future,” she would say as to why she was there. “It’s his future.”
She was 23 years old.
Within a few days of Cyhneil’s death, six other people were shot and killed in Washington, DC: Eugene Miller, age 41; Marcus Nelson, age 59; Simmeon Williams, age 39; Darnell Mack; age 25; Noelle Wilson, age 31.
Noelle’s family issued a public statement: “We have suffered a tremendous loss and are truly heartbroken. Noelle was a daughter, granddaughter, sister, niece, aunt, and friend to many who will undoubtedly miss her every single day.”
Reading obituaries of those lost to gun violence, you feel the grief rise like a wave off the page or screen, When anniversaries of gun deaths come around, you feel the grief rise again, as powerfully as before.
On an anniversary of the Pulse Nightclub shooting in Orlando four years ago, in which 49 people died and 53 were wounded, the wife of Deonka Drayton said this:
“Every night our son, when we’re going to bed, we walk up the stairs, he’ll turn to her picture and say, ‘Night, night, mommy.’ I don’t know how to get him to understand that she’s never coming back, and I miss her so much. That feeling is constant. Like, I need her to call me. I need to see her. I will always love her. . . There will never be an end.”
Today, October 27th, is the anniversary of the Tree of Life Synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh. A heavily armed gunman spewing hateful words towards Jews and the immigrants they advocated for shot and killed 11 worshippers, aged 54 to 97 as they gathered on a Saturday morning.
For years, Tree of Life member Arlene Wolk was part of a core group that gathered each morning at the synagogue for prayers followed by breakfast. Several of that group were among those killed. Two years later, Ms. Wolk still carries that grief. “Those people were my family.” She lives just a few blocks from the synagogue. She wasn’t there that morning, but soon enough heard the helicopters overhead. “At first, I went every day to the site,” she said. “Then I avoided it, because I couldn’t be near it. And now sometimes I walk up there. I just look at it and I remember the people. And some days I can’t go.”
Lastly, in my inbox this week was this email, written by the still heartbroken parents of Tom Marmet:
October 25th marks two years since Tom was murdered while driving home from his job as a social worker. The past twenty-four months have been a trauma-induced roller coaster, filled with profound sadness and challenging times.
For those of you gathered among us who bring your personal loss because of a gun into this community of prayer, know that your loved ones are the reason the rest of us are here, too. We want to remember them. We see your grief and stand with you. And we pledge this day, once again, to work for that day when, at last, we will speak of this season of gun violence in the past tense.
We gather in lament because we need to acknowledge our grief before God and one another. And we gather to drink from the wells of blessing in order to sustain our hope. “Blessed are those who mourn,” Jesus said, “For they will be comforted. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for one day you will be filled. Blessed are you.” Jesus’ blessing isn’t a bandage to hide a gaping wound. It is grace that gives hope for a better day and resolve to transform hope into reality.
I am persuaded that one day we’ll look back on this season of reckless gun policy and gun violence in all its forms the way we look back now on the era of lynching. One day we will shake our heads as we remember the time when some thought the current level of death wrought by guns was the unfortunate but necessary price for the right to own a gun, that there was nothing to be done to hold gun manufacturers accountable for the weapons they produce; no way to stop police shootings, and we’ll say, “How on earth did we allow it to go on for so long?”
Someday nearly everyone in our society will consider astonishingly low levels of gun violence, levels unimaginable to us now, as the norm. And some who are now the most resistant to changes in gun laws and policies, will talk on that day as if the new normal had been their idea all along. But it won’t be because of them that the laws and norms of this country will change. It will be because of you–you who have borne the greatest burden of grief, you who feel called to bend this particular arc toward justice.
On behalf of all those who will live because of your efforts, thank you. Surely God thanks you.
Tom Marmet’s parents write this:
While we are broken, we have made it this far, and had our spirits lifted, because of the love and support from each of you. Together, we hope to continue on the journey of healing for ourselves and for our community. We aim to be stronger and as full of life as Tom was through all his days. We will work to find hope and to build a world free from the gun violence that takes far too many lives, and robbed us of our beloved Tom.
This is a non-partisan prayer service, but I would be disingenuous if I didn’t acknowledge how one-sided the opposition to gun violence prevention has become in our country. We cannot spare the Republican Party the long-term consequences of being on the wrong side of this and other moral issues of our time. Even a firm conservative majority on the Supreme Court cannot spare them the judgment of history.
The resolve we need to bring about the day we long for will surely carry us far beyond next week’s election. But you don’t need me to tell you how high the stakes are in this election for gun violence measures, at every level of government.
We have reason to be hopeful. Remember that two years ago, a concerted effort to elect officials committed to common-sense gun legislation transformed places like the Virginia state legislature. That effort helped to elect gun sensible leaders to the US House of Representatives. The changes in laws on state and local levels as a result are significant. There is a national effort to do the same in other state legislatures, and in the US Senate and yes, in the Oval Office.
We have reason to be hopeful. And so we vote, not for ourselves alone, but for Cyhneil’s little boy, and for those who deserve a violent-free future. For we are blessed with grief, blessed with a hunger and thirst for righteousness, and blessed with the resolve to work for peace.
There’s a peace march song from the 1980s that Holly Near wrote at the height of the Central American wars. I loved it then, and these days I can’t get it out of my head, so let me close with the refrain, slightly modified for this occasion:
We will have peace (an end to gun violence)
We will because we must
We must because we cherish life
And believe it or not, as daring as it may seem
It is not an empty dream
It is not an empty dream to live in a world free of gun violence. It is a God-given dream, embedded in our hearts, seared by grief, fueled by hope, filling us with resolve to live and work and vote and organize until that dream is a reality–if not for Cyhneil and Tom and Carmen and Meaghan and Marcus and Deonka and Breonna and Ahmaud and Walter and all we’ve lost, then for others, for the children who will go on to live long, healthy, wondrous lives, because we dared to dream, to show up, to vote and to work to bring an end to gun violence.
May it be so.
Bishop Mariann preached this sermon at St. Thomas’, DC and the Washington National Cathedral fall Confirmation services.
Once when Jesus was praying alone, with only the disciples near him, he asked them, ‘Who do the crowds say that I am?’ They answered, ‘John the Baptist; but others, Elijah; and still others, that one of the ancient prophets has arisen.’ He said to them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Peter answered, ‘The Messiah of God.’ He sternly ordered and commanded them not to tell anyone, saying, ‘The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.’ Then he said to them all, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.
Sometimes when people tell me about their lives, they’ll speak of when they came to faith. That’s the phrase they use–”when I came to faith.” For most, it doesn’t describe a sudden event, but rather a growing awareness that something about faith for them has shifted from the periphery of their awareness to the center, from something abstract to something real.
“Coming to faith” isn’t having ideas about faith or, if you’re Christian, believing certain things about Jesus. It’s more of a discovery and an awakening, generally in response to something that happens to us or that we experience or even that we watch someone else experience. Whatever that “something” is, it stirs in us a realization that there is more to this life than what we can see, that there is a spiritual realm. More than that, there is a presence in our lives, mysterious, but real, and–this is important–we decide to live according to the insights and impulses given to us by that mysterious, holy presence. We come to faith.
For Christians, coming to faith is when that holy mystery is connected to the man Jesus of Nazareth, who walked this earth over 2000 years ago, and through his followers who later wrote them down, left us a body of transformative teachings and accounts of his life. But the connection is more than knowledge about the historical figure of Jesus, for in coming to faith, we also feel his spiritual presence with us now, a presence that, he says at the end of one account of his life, will be with us until the end of the age. When we come to faith, we receive his presence, rooted in a humble acknowledgement of our need for the forgiveness, mercy, love and inspiration he offers. We accept the invitation to follow him in his way of sacrificial love.
But how does it happen? How does a person move from knowing certain things about Jesus to coming to faith in Jesus, faith in the living Christ, placing one’s trust and giving one’s heart to Him?
First, let’s remember that your head and heart are connected: You can’t know him without knowing about him, but the difference is like the difference between reading about love and falling in love; between studying the proper technique for rock climbing versus knowing what it feels like to lean back in mid-air, entrusting your life to the rope around your waist and the person on the ground holding the other end.
Nonetheless, faith in Jesus begins, for most of us, by learning about him. Let me acknowledge that learning about him is no easy task, particularly now, when there are so many distortions and misperceptions about him all around us. In fact, the caricatures of Jesus in our culture are the greatest obstacles to faith in him. I can’t tell you how many people tell me that they find Jesus to be the most objectionable part of the Christian faith, but when I ask them to describe the Jesus they object to, he isn’t the Jesus I know.
So learning about him takes effort on our part. We need to spend some time reading, learning, listening to those who know something about him and who know him. Pay attention, however, to the character of the people who purport to know Jesus. If they are not themselves loving, generous, forgiving, joyful people–find another teacher.
This is what I know about Jesus, and what I want you to know.
Jesus was born in the tiny sliver of land now known as Palestine over 2000 years ago during the reign of Herod the Great, a puppet ruler placed there by the Roman Empire. Jesus grew up in a town called Nazareth. The Black theologian Howard Thurman–in a book I hope you all someday read, Jesus and the Disinherited, describes Jesus with three salient data points: First, Jesus was born a Jew. Second, he was born poor, placing him squarely among the majority of human beings on the planet both then and now. Third, he was part of a minority group in the midst of a larger, dominant controlling group–the Romans who occupied Palestine at the time. These realities didn’t define Jesus entirely, any more than our realities completely define us, but this is the world in which he lived and moved and had his being.1
Jesus emerged as a public figure in his early 30s, rising up out of the movement begun by a man who called John the Baptizer. Jesus had a ministry of healing and teaching that lasted about three years, focused primarily in a rural area around a large lake, sometimes called the Sea of Galilee. He then made a fateful decision to bring his message to Jerusalem, which was the center of religious and political power. There he openly challenged the religious leaders of his people, which did not sit well with them. He also aroused suspicions of the Roman authorities, and some sort of collusion of the religious and secular authorities led to his crucifixion, a form of execution reserved for people resisting Roman rule and escaped slaves.
It’s impossible to understand Jesus without placing him in the tradition of the spiritual prophets of ancient Judaism. These were people who had a strong sense of that spiritual realm I mentioned earlier, one that informs and gives meaning to human existence. Jesus was exceptionally connected to and empowered by this spiritual realm, and he used his connection to heal people and teach them how to live. He lived to help people know God as he knew God. And as one of his disciples said after he died, every day that he lived Jesus went around doing good.
The world religions scholar Huston Smith describes Jesus this way:
Jesus was an extraordinarily vivid teacher. . . His teaching style was invitational. Instead of telling people what to do or believe, he invited them to see things differently, confident that if they did so, their behavior would change.”2
Jesus’ core message is simple, summarized in a few, often-repeated phrases: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” “Love your enemies.” “Blessed are the poor.” “Forgive not seven times, but seventy times seven.” “Come unto me all you that labor and are heavy laden and I will give you rest.” “You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free.”
Most of the time Jesus told stories: of buried treasure, lost coins, and sowers in the field; of a good Samaritan, a man who had two sons. More than anything Jesus wanted people to believe two important facts of life: God’s overwhelming love for us and of our need to accept that love and let it flow through us.
Jesus lived in such a way that people believed him when he spoke of God’s love, for he himself loved freely. His heart went out to all people, no matter if they were rich or poor, young or old, saint or sinner. He knew that everyone has a need to belong, and he encouraged those who had the means to invite the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind to their tables. He loved children and he hated injustice for what it did to the most vulnerable people. He also hated hypocrisy, for what it did to the human soul.3
This is who Jesus was when he lived on this earth. Those of you confirming your faith today, or being received into the church, or reaffirming your faith, I want you to know these things about him and more, because I want you to understand why our ancestors began to speak of him as one in whom the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, how they came to the extraordinary conclusion that in Jesus we see not only what it means to be fully human, but what God looks like in human form.
In the words of St. Paul: “Though he was in the form of God, he did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death–even death on the cross.” (Phillipians 2:6-8)
From the Gospel of John: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people…He was in the world, and the world came into being through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own people, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:1-14)
Bedrock to the Christian faith is the mystery of Jesus’ resurrection–what happened after he died. Incredibly, death did not sever the link between him and his disciples. They experienced him as alive with them–not in the same way as before, but real nonetheless. He came to them, offering forgiveness, encouragement, a strong sense of his presence. Then he told them that another dimension of God would be given to them, which he sometimes called the Advocate, and other times the Holy Spirit. Through the Spirit, he told them, he himself would live on in them and through them.
This was the watershed event–or series of events over time–that launched what our Presiding Bishop calls the Jesus Movement. It begins with the bold assertion that death did not have the final word for Jesus and does not for us–nor does failure or disappointment, or tragedy, because God’s mercy and love as revealed to us in Jesus knows no bounds. So when we mess up–when we fail or when terrible things happen to us beyond our control–there is always the chance of a new start.
The other foundational premise of the Jesus Movement is that his Spirit is available to us; it is, in fact, with us, as close to us as our own breath. And as John wrote so long ago, “those who receive him, who believe in his name” are given the grace and great responsibility to live and love as his body in the world. It’s an awesome thing–and we often fail. But our failure, it seems, is part of the grace and the mystery, so that when others experience something of God’s love, mercy and forgiveness, goodness and justice through us, it’s very clear to all involved, most notably to us, as Paul writes, “this awesome power belongs to God and does not come from us.”
These are essential teachings that all Christians need to know. But if that’s all I and other Church leaders did, teach you about Jesus and pass beliefs about him down from one generation to the next, it wouldn’t be enough. As important as these teachings are, it wouldn’t be worth your time and effort to come belong to a church if learning about him were all we were here to do, if in the process of learning about Jesus we didn’t come to believe in him in a way that makes a difference in how we live, if we didn’t come to faith in our hearts, and, as the Presiding Bishop says, “follow Jesus for real.”
Coming to faith in Jesus is a mysterious process. It waxes and wanes. There are mountain top moments and long stretches in the valley. For some, coming to faith happens dramatically and quickly; for others–and I count myself among them–coming to faith in Jesus happens more slowly. Either way, eventually we all wind up on the same path of seeking to align our lives to his, to grow closer to him, to keep moving toward him.
One Christian writer, Kathleen Norris, described coming to faith in Jesus as “catching glimpses of him.”4 I resonate with that. Sometimes I catch glimpses of him through art, music, beauty. Sometimes in the written word. Mostly in the lives of other people. I don’t always recognize him. But other times, deep inside, I can hear him, I feel his presence and love.
I trust that everyone listening to my voice or reading these words has your own stories to tell, of knowing about Jesus, or of knowing him, or of wanting to know him, which is just as compelling. I trust that you know that days like today are but one moment on a journey of moving toward Christ as He moves toward you. You are part of a community of people, all with stories and struggles and questions to share.
Let me suggest three concrete ways to be open to the presence of Jesus in your life–and this is the same for all of us, whether we’ve been on the path for days or decades.
First, whenever life gets hard, really hard, and you don’t know if you can face what it is that life is asking of you, or to let go of, or to change, lean into the pain. Don’t run away. Lean into it, and open yourself to the grace of Christ in that place. I promise you that he will meet you there. You can trust that the rope will hold, the ground beneath you is firm, and that you are not alone.
Second, whenever you are at a crossroads, when you have a decision to make and you aren’t sure what to do, pay attention to what inspires you, makes your heart beat faster, and gives you joy. Follow your inspiration, and live by it, and I promise you that Jesus will meet you there. That doesn’t mean that you’ll succeed in living your inspiration: you will often fail, but so what? Whether we succeed or fail matters far less than the choice to live according to what inspires us. Failure is never the final word.
Third, please, please, please don’t imagine that this is a solo effort. Jesus calls us into community for good reason. It’s in community that we learn, where we’re challenged to go deeper, and where we can hold one another up, because we’re not all strong in faith at the same time, and at the same time we’re not all faltering. So stay connected however you can–especially now. Here we continue to learn about him; together we strive to know him and live by his teachings. And it’s in community that we experience the mystery that Scripture calls being part of the Body of Christ, for we are His hands, feet, and heart in this world.
1 Howard Thurman, Jesus and the Disinherited (Boston: Beacon Press, 1976) pp.6-8.
2 Huston Smith, The Soul of Christianity (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 2005) p. 51.
3 This is a summary of Smith’s description as found in The World’s Religions, Chapter VII “Christianity” (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1998), p. 317-328); also Marcus Borg, Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time: The Historical Jesus and the Heart of the Christian Faith (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1994).
4 Kathleen Norris, Amazing Grace (New York: Riverhead Books, 1998) pp.161-2.
Jesus told the disciples a parable about their need to pray always and not lose heart.
If we were to list the personal attributes necessary to make it through this prolonged and anxious season, perseverance would surely be among them.
Yet perseverance is a hidden virtue. Rarely do we see what it costs others to pick themselves up after a disappointment, nor do they see what it costs us. We don’t know what it takes for others to keep going in the face of physical or spiritual fatigue, nor do they know what it takes for us. In persevering, to paraphrase W. H. Auden, we all do what is hard as if it were easy.
Intellectually, we know that there are bound to be long stretches of costly work with little to show for it, and times of exhaustion, when more is being asked of us than we can healthfully sustain. Yet as this season takes up seemingly permanent residence in our lives, the toll on us still comes as a surprise. We didn’t know it would be this hard for this long.
On some days, perseverance may be our only offering.
Prayer is a vital part of the persevering life, which is why Jesus encouraged his disciples to pray always and not lose heart. Jesus knew that life is hard and that we’re bound to get discouraged. Yet he assures us that as we persevere in prayer and everything else worth doing, in time we will find that our heart-strength returns, stronger for the testing.
Hard as it is, there is growth that comes with testing, and an increased capacity to meet the challenges we face. As a character in one of my favorite novels says about perseverance in relationships: “It’s the only purpose grand enough for a human life. Not just to love–but to persist in love.”1
I often turn to history for inspiration. Today I remember the example of the American pastor and theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, perhaps best known for composing the Serenity Prayer: Lord grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; the courage to change the things I can; and the wisdom to know the difference.
Rienhold Niebuhr knew a lot about perseverance. He began pastoral ministry in the 1920s, in a working class congregation of Detroit. He and other clergy of his generation fought on the side of unions in labor struggles for a living wage. He lived through the Great Depression. He later found his public voice speaking out against U.S. complacency in the face of Hitler’s rise to power. After the war, Niehbuhr joined the faculty of Union Theological Seminary in New York City and rose to national prominence in the 1950s. Niehbuhr taught, wrote books, and mentored rising generations until the mid-1906s, when a series of strokes weakened him. He lived long enough to see his influence wane, as his view of God and humanity passed from favor.
Niebuhr’s daughter, Elisabeth Sifton, wrote of her father and his associates: “They had both high spirits and serious, dedicated hearts. They worked so hard. They were so very loving. And their labors were informed, in the end, by the humble recognition that it is not within our human powers to understand the final tally.”
“Like them,” Sifton goes on, “we must persevere under all trials. We shall never have enough courage to change what must be changed. The grace to accept with serenity that which cannot be changed will not come easily to us. And the wisdom to discern one from the other takes more than our lifetime to acquire.”
Sifton quotes her father again, words well worth committing to memory:
Nothing worth doing can be achieved in a lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope. Nothing that is true or beautiful makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; there we must be saved by faith. Nothing that we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we are saved by love.2
Pray always, Jesus said. Don’t lose heart. Dare to believe that in the long stretches of fatigue and uncertainty that God is with you. Do the work that is yours to do. Then leave the rest in God’s hands. Above all, persevere in hope; persevere in faith; and persevere in love.
1 Sue Monk Kidd, The Secret Life of Bees (New York: Penguin Books, 2002).
2 Elisabeth Sifton. The Serenity Prayer: Faith and Politics in Times of Peace and War (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2004).
Bishop Mariann preached this sermon to Our Saviour, Brookland on October 18, 2020.
To the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: Grace to you and peace. We always give thanks to God for all of you and mention you in our prayers, constantly remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labour of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ. For we know, brothers and sisters beloved by God, that he has chosen you, because our message of the gospel came to you not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction; just as you know what kind of people we proved to be among you for your sake. And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for in spite of persecution you received the word with joy inspired by the Holy Spirit, so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia. For the word of the Lord has sounded forth from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but in every place where your faith in God has become known, so that we have no need to speak about it. For the people of those regions report about us what kind of welcome we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead–Jesus, who rescues us from the wrath that is coming.
1 Thessalonians 1:1-10
Hear again the first two sentences from St. Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians. Biblical scholars have reason to believe that this is the earliest of Paul’s letters, and thus the earliest Christian document of the New Testament. These words take us back to the first Christian communities established in the Gentile world.
To the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: Grace to you and peace. We always give thanks to God for all of you and mention you in our prayers, constantly remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labour of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.
Paul wants the people of Thessalonica to know that even from a distance he remembers them, in his mind’s eye he sees them, and he specifically thanks God for three things about them: their work of faith, their labor of love, and their steadfastness in hope.
Why would Paul begin his letter with those words? One reason would be that things were going really well in Thessalonica. But we know that’s not true: life was hard for the community–there was struggle, persecution, and uncertainty about the future. So it’s more likely that Paul writes these words because he had a sense that the people needed encouragement. And one of the first things we lose when we get discouraged is the value of what we’re doing. We stop believing that our efforts are making a difference. Paul is saying to them–your efforts matter. Your works of faith, your labors of love, your steadfastness in hope, even when you don’t feel particularly hopeful, matter.
Years ago when I was studying for the priesthood at Virginia Theological Seminary, I came to Washington National Cathedral to hear Archbishop Desmond Tutu preach.
This was during the height of the anti-aparthied movement. Our own bishop at the time, Bishop John Walker, was regularly getting arrested in front of the South African embassy on Massachusetts Avenue. There was a lot of controversy and conflict about the church’s public witness on behalf of the people of South Africa. In his sermon, Archbishop Tutu lavishly praised and thanked all of who in that packed Cathedral for what we were doing to help end the evil system of apartheid in his country. Truth be told, I wasn’t doing very much. I wasn’t that involved in the struggle. But when he thanked us, I felt part of the struggle. More importantly, I wanted to be the kind of person, the kind of Christian that would be worthy of Archbishop Tutu’s thanks and praise.
That’s how I hear St. Paul’s words to the Thessalonians. He knew that they were tired, that some were losing their faith and their hope. They were asking the question we often ask when we feel tired and discouraged: How long, O Lord?
Paul couldn’t spare them the hard things they were dealing with, anymore than we can spare those we love from what they’re going through or others can spare us. But what he said was this: I thank God for you, for your works of faith, your labors of love, and steadfastness of hope. They may not not feel like much to you right now, but they matter more than you know. You may feel like you’re at the end of your rope, but God will tie a knot at the end of it and won’t let you go. Keep on keeping on.
This is a word to all of us about the invisible virtue of perseverance. We rarely see what it costs someone to persevere in a given endeavor, what it takes, internally, to pick oneself up, time and again, after failures, disappointments, or simply fatigue. In the words of W.H. Auden, those who persevere “do what is hard as if it were easy.” But when we’re in that place, needing to persevere, needing to keep going, that’s when we often lose confidence in ourselves and our abilities, because it feels as if we’re stuck. At least that is how it can feel for me.
But in those moments, the fact that we’re holding on at all, that we allow ourselves to feel what we feel and yet keep going, is perhaps the most noble thing about us as human beings. Yes, we stumble, we fall, we fail–but we also manage to get back up.
It’s not on our power alone. There is a greater power, a greater source from which we draw our faith, hope, and love. In those moments when we feel our most discouraged, not only is that when we need to turn to that source, turn to God, turn to Jesus, and ask for help. That’s also when God leans most toward us, comes to us in our struggle, in our bodies, enabling us to start again.
A line from the Psalms that comes to mind here: weeping may endure a night, but joy comes in the morning. (30:5). It doesn’t mean that we weep every night or that every morning we wake with joy, but rather that there is a natural rhythm, and a God-given grace that gets us through the hardest times and allows us to experience joy again. Jesus knew that in his own life. He would sometimes say, “This is the hour when darkness reigns,” and by that he meant, I think, that in that moment there was nothing to be done but to let the trial and suffering take its course, but there is also a sense in his words, and certainly in the arc of his life, death, and resurrection, that the hour of darkness is never the end.
My hope this morning is, should you feel tired or discouraged or as though your efforts of faith and love and hope aren’t doing very much, that you hear St. Paul’s words as if written for you. I have no doubt that even in the long stretches when nothing seems to be happening or you feel that you aren’t accomplishing much, there is someone in the world, someone in your life that is thanking God for your works of faith, your labors of love, and your steadfastness in hope. I know that God sees you, and that God is working through you in ways that you may never know. Your acts of daily faithfulness are part of a larger arc of human resilience through which the grace of God is at work.
I’ll close with a story that speaks of the importance of perseverance and offers an image of what we can do each day, and especially the days we feel discouraged:
A five-year-old girl named Rachel lived with her parents in a small apartment in New York City in the 1940s. Her grandfather would often come to visit bearing gifts for her. One day he brought her a small paper cup.
She looked inside hoping to find something sweet to eat, but all the cup contained was dirt. Her grandfather smiled at her disappointed face, brought her into the kitchen, and put the paper cup on the window ledge. “If you promise to put a little bit of water in the cup every day, something special may happen.” It made no sense to her–remember she was only five–but she promised her grandfather that she would put a bit of water in the cup every day.
At first it was easy to remember this daily chore, and she was curious to see what would happen. But as days went by and nothing changed, it was harder for Rachel to remember. When her grandfather returned a week later, she asked if it was time to stop. He said no. The second week was even harder and she felt angry and frustrated. When her grandfather came to visit, she wanted to give the cup back. But he refused to take it. “Every day, Rachel, a bit of water.” By the third week, she began to forget about her cup until she was in bed at night. Out of respect for her grandfather, she would get up and put water in the cup.
One morning, there were two little green leaves sprouting up from the dirt that had not been there the day before. Having never seen plants grow before, she was astonished. Day by day the plants grew a bit bigger. She couldn’t wait to show her grandfather, whom she thought would be as astonished as she was. But of course he wasn’t. He explained to her that life is everywhere, blessings are everywhere hidden in the most ordinary and unlikely places. “And all it needs is water, Grandpa?” Rachel asked. “No,” he said, “All it needs is your faithfulness.”1
Rachel is now a well-known doctor and author. This is her first memory, her first lesson in the power of faithfulness. It was her grandfather’s way of teaching her perseverance. I leave it with you, and hold it in my own heart, as a way to remember that some days our works of faith, labors of love, and steadfastness of hope come down to getting up and putting a bit of water in our cup, that is, tending to the work before us, and waiting for a power, a mystery, a life force greater than ourselves to work through us.
Dare to believe that–that God is with you, and in the anxiety of feeling yourself in suspense and incomplete, God working through you. As you rise each day, remember that someone, somewhere is thanking God for your works of faith, your labor of love, and your steadfast hope. Tend to your cup and leave the rest in God’s hands.
1 Rachel Naomi Remen, My Grandfather’s Blessings: Stories of Strength, Refuge, and Belonging (New York: Riverhead Books, 2000).
I have served as Latino Missioner of the diocese for six years. It has been a soul-satisfying journey to see our Spanish-speaking, multicultural congregations moving into maturity under the leadership of dedicated and gifted clergy.
Five of our Latino congregations–Iglesia de la Ascension, Iglesia Nuestro Salvador, Misa Alegria de San Esteban, St Matthews/San Mateo and Iglesia San Albano–are all now at least 10 years old, with some moving toward twenty years of ministry. In 2017 a new Spanish-speaking, multicultural congregation emerged at St. Mary Magdalene in Aspen Hill, a multicultural suburban neighborhood with a majority Latino population. With a generous welcome, Misa Magdalena is off to a healthy start.
Although 99% of our members have been newcomers to the Episcopal Church, they have found a spiritual home, eagerly embracing not only our liturgy but our theology of inclusion and justice and love. We are experiencing a growth spurt in leadership development and discipleship. Latino members of our congregations are sitting on vestries and serving as Diocesan Convention delegates.
Our Saviour’s interim Senior Warden is Fernando Hermoza. The incoming Senior Warden as well as the majority of the Vestry at St. Matthew/San Mateo, one of the largest churches in the Diocese, will be Latino. Karina Rodriguez in her early 20s is the youngest member of the St. Alban’s vestry; she not only represents the Latino community but also young adults as well.
Formation has been a key in developing our leaders and building their confidence to lead.
There are currently three Latino postulants in the diaconal ordination process. The Rev. Yoimel Gonzalez is the Dean for the Latino Deacons’ School. In conjunction with our Deacons’ School, led by Archdeacon Sue Rautenkranz, the Latino Deacons’ School is a model for other dioceses looking to open their diaconal process to Spanish-speaking Latinos.
The Episcopal Diocese of Washington is on the forefront of a formation and discipleship program–an Episcopal-Lutheran collaboration called Academia Ecumenica de Liderazgo (Ecumenical Leadership Academy.) Each learning group is led by trained lay facilitators. Our friend and diocesan staff member, Mildred Reyes, is one of these trainers prepared by the Episcopal Church. We have used this curriculum for two seasons. EDOW now has 16 facilitators ready to lead this program in their congregations.
Mildred, a person of many gifts and a product of St. Matthew/San Mateo, is a perfect example of the fruits of our Latino congregations. In addition to all she does on the bishop’s staff, she also sits on the Council of Advice to the Rev. Anthony Guillen, Missioner of Latino/Hispanic Ministries of the Episcopal Church and is well known in the wider church.
Our Latino communities have been strongly impacted by COVID-19 and the many economic repercussions of the pandemic. Knowing the need, our Latino congregations quickly got to work feeding the hungry–with some now distributing up to 650 boxes of food per week–and finding a special blessing in widening the circle of care and concern to the surrounding community. We are experiencing the fruits of going into the world to love and serve the community outside the church walls.
My time as missioner will soon come to an end. I will retire in early February. My ministry has been richly blessed by having been called to Latino Ministry. The love of God, understanding of community and the common good of the people I have served have inspired me, given me courage and made me a better Christian. I have learned daily from these friends about faith and love. They have covered my life–and my family’s–with color, fiesta and joy. What a rich vineyard it is. We are all seeing the beauty of these good fruits. I have no doubt that the best harvest is yet to come.
The Rev. Sarabeth Goodwin