Bishop Mariann preached this sermon to the congregation of Christ Church, Georgetown.
‘When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family,* you did it to me.” Then he will say to those at his left hand, “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.” Then they also will answer, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?” Then he will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.’
Hello friends of Grace Church. I’m glad to be with you today, first in study, now in worship, later in conversation and finally, meeting with your elected leaders. Thank you, as always, for your warm welcome.
While I would always be glad to worship with Grace, this feels like a particularly important time. You are on the cusp of a profound and bittersweet transition as marked by the leave-taking of the Rev. Sarah Motley, followed by your long-time administrator Ms. Helen Buhr, and then in February with the retirement of your rector, the Rev. John Graham.
Transitions of this magnitude evoke all manner of emotion. They are ripe for the kind of reflection on the past and vision casting for the future that is our defining characteristic as human beings. Of all God’s creatures, we are endowed with an interpretative, meaning-making capacity. It is our unique gift and our work to do. The transitions at Grace Church are not taking place in isolation from other events also requiring your best meaning-making skills, in the arc of your personal lives and wider circles of collective concern. All this to say that there’s a lot you are pondering in your hearts. I’m honored to ponder these things with you.
As we’re entering the week of Thanksgiving, we can surely begin with gratitude. There’s so much to be thankful for in the lives and ministries of your servant leaders and the experiences you’ve shared. Gratitude is an essential task of leave-taking. For as you take time to remember and give thanks for all that Sarah, Helen, and John have meant to you, and what you have meant to them, those memories will lodge themselves in your awareness and will be there for you going forward. In all likelihood, what you will remember are not so much the moments of great drama, but the small expressions of love and kindness that we have a tendency to minimize as not being that important.
I suspect that’s part of what Jesus wants us to hear in the parable of the sheep and goats that is our morning text. There is another message about how we care for the most vulnerable among us that I’ll speak to in a moment, but let’s not skip over his word about the transformative power of kindness. Giving food to the hungry, drink to those who thirst, caring for the sick, welcoming the stranger, visiting those in prison, these acts are simply what it looks like to love. Sometimes such actions require sacrifice on our part, but most times they do not. And even when they do require sacrifice, we bear the weight of it differently when we know what a difference our efforts have made. So be sure that you take the time to remember and give thanks for the acts of love and kindness you have shared with one another and together have given to others. Jesus wants you to know that in doing so, you were also loving Him.
Now let me shift our attention to the more challenging theme of judgment at the center of Jesus’ story. He speaks of that day when he will come as our judge and separate us according to our deeds.
The story is the last of three epic parables placed before us in worship this month, all of them taken from a collection of Jesus teachings as recorded in the Gospel of Matthew. Recently, I heard someone refer to this body of teaching as Jesus’ Farewell Parables, as a parallel to what is known in the Gospel of John as Jesus’ Farewell Discourse.
Stay with me as I lay this out.
In the Gospel of John, when Jesus gathers his closest disciples for their last supper together, Jesus speaks to them at length (3 chapters’ worth) about what is to come after he’s gone. He begins with an image of heaven that we often read at funerals:
‘Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling-places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going.’ Thomas said to him, ‘Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?’ Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him. (John 14:1-7)
Jesus goes on, verse after consoling verse, assuring his disciples of his presence with them, the gift of the Holy Spirit that will soon come to them, and the importance of abiding in him.
‘I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine-grower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. (John 15:1-7)
“Abide” is an old English word we don’t use much anymore (although it’s a favorite of your rector). It carries rich overtones of dwelling, remaining with, staying close. The point of this great farewell is to anchor our faith in Jesus. He wants us to place our whole trust in his love and allow his strength to flow through us. Yes, he warns us that when we stray from the source of our strength, we will falter. As in the judgement parables, Jesus uses fiery imagery here as he does to hint toward the eternal consequences of our choice to abide or not.
In contrast, the Farewell Parables of the Gospel of Matthew focus not on faith, but rather on our behaviour.
In the first, the story of the ten bridesmaids–five foolish and five wise–Jesus speaks of the importance of readiness, being prepared for the important moments in life that require more than a moment’s preparation. The second parable, that we read last week, was about the talents entrusted to us. It explores how we see ourselves as gifted and how we use the gifts entrusted to us. The consequences of a lack of readiness or of squandering our talents are real and Jesus doesn’t pretend otherwise–hence, his warning of condemnation. But I don’t believe that Jesus is trying to scare us with eternal punishment, rather, simply to underscore how important our choices in life are. Like interest in the bank, they compound, building on each other and setting the direction of our lives.
Finally, we consider the parable of humankind being separated at the end of the age according to our kindness and compassion to those whom Jesus calls “the least of those in my family.” This is the culminating vision, in Matthew’s view, of what it means to follow Jesus. It’s all about how we care for one another, and in particular, those who need care most. This is what it looks like to draw close to him. This is where we will find him. Again, I am persuaded that Jesus used the fiery language of judgment not to frighten us, but to underscore the eternal consequences of the choices we make and live our best lives now.
When I take stock of the life I’m living, invariably what I see first are all the ways I fall short. This week, as I imagined what God’s final judgment would look like for me, what came to me–and it felt like a gift–was an invitation to look at my life through the lens of gratitude.
Some of you may remember the film Schindler’s List from the late 1990s. It’s based on the true story of a German businessman who rose to prominence in the late 1930s. Schindler was no paragon of virtue. He joined the Nazi party and made his wealth making weapons for the Nazi war effort. But in order to keep his factories going in Poland, he advocated on behalf of the Jews who worked for him. As the war went on and he realized that the Nazis intended to exterminate all Jews, he did all that he could to spare his workers from the death camps. He is credited with saving 1200 people, spending nearly all his money to keep them alive.
In his farewell scene, as he says goodbye to his workers before fleeing certain arrest, one of them gives him a ring with an inscription from the Talmud: “Whoever saves one life saves the world entire.” Schindler collapses in guilt, thinking of all those he didn’t save, all the money he had squandered in his life. “I could have saved more,” he wept. “I could have saved so many more.” The workers hold him in a collective embrace, saying over and over, “Think of what you have done. Think of those you have saved.”
I leave you with that gentle invitation: hear in Jesus’ words an invitation to see your life, and that of Grace Church, through the lens of gratitude–all those you have cared for, the gestures, small and large, that have saved lives, healed souls, shielded joy.
When we place our focus on gratitude, our hearts open wider. Contrast that with guilt, which contracts our hearts and keeps us self-centered. With gratitude, our desire to love and our capacity to give increase, as does our acceptance of our failings and those of others.
On this side of heaven, we can leave judgement to God and instead focus our energies on growing deeper in our relationship with Christ and love for one another.
Thus I end where I began, with a word of gratitude–to Sarah, to Helen, to John, and to all at Grace. May your days of leave-taking allow you to remember and savor all the good you have known. I know that it’s a challenging time and there is so much that cries out for our attention. But remember that God is still God. That Christ abides with us always. That we are still here, and our acts of love and kindness matter more than we know. And what we do for one another, we do for God.
When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.
In my experience, Christians tend to gravitate toward one of two poles, and I don’t mean liberal or conservative, evangelical or progressive, Democrat or Republican. Rather, some of us are what a friend once described as “John 3.16 Christians,” while others see ourselves more as “Matthew 25 Christians.”
John 3.16, perhaps the most quoted passage in the New Testament, is a succinct declarative statement:
For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son that all who believe in him should not perish but have eternal life.
Jesus is speaking these words to Nicomedus, the Pharisee who came to Jesus by night. Jesus tells Nicodemus that no one can see the Kingdom of God without being born “from above,” or “of water and Spirit.” The focus of their exchange is the importance of believing in Jesus. Those who believe in Him will enjoy eternal life. In subsequent verses Jesus states that those who do not believe are condemned.
In contrast, Matthew 25:31-46 is a parable of final judgment in which belief doesn’t factor at all. The Son of Man will come, Jesus says, and separate people as a shepherd separates sheep from goats. Those he will welcome into the Kingdom of God lived lives of compassion and mercy.
For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” . . . “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”
As in John 3.16, there is condemnation in Matthew 25 for those who do not offer compassion to others. They will be turned away at the end of the age and sent to eternal punishment.
Most Episcopalians, though certainly not all, gravitate toward the Matthew 25 end of the Christian spectrum. In general, we’re more comfortable focusing on actions rather than on belief. There’s much to be commended about our focus on deeds and our willingness to be held accountable to such high standards of compassion. Yet there can be a hollowness to faith that isn’t grounded in a living relationship with Christ, and a tendency for harsh judgments of those who don’t see faith in Christ as we do. There’s a similar harshness in judgment among some Christians whose focus is on correct belief. Indeed, no one is harder on one type of Christians than other Christians on the opposite side of the John 3.16–Matthew 25 continuum.
This week I’ve been thinking about my own judgment day, what awaits on the other side of this life. This is I know: if my eternal salvation, whatever that means, depends upon either the purity of my belief or the depth of my compassion, I am lost.
Whenever I come across passages of Scripture that divide people into two groups, I see myself in both. A part of me believes in Jesus with all my heart. Another part echoes the cry of a desperate parent who came to Jesus seeking healing for his child: “Help my unbelief!” I can identify times when I have offered food to the hungry, clothes for the naked, and when I cared for the sick and those in prison. But I know all too well I am also that person who has turned away in indifference and fatigue.
Thus I am both a John 3.16 and a Matthew 25 Christian, trusting in Jesus more than I trust in myself. For that reason, I cannot judge others for their faith or lack of it; for their compassion or lack of it. In truth, as a sinner, sometimes I do judge, but then I am reminded of Jesus’ words: “Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye but do not notice the log in your own eye?” (Matt. 7:3)
But what I can do is urge you, as I urge myself, to draw closer to Christ. Draw closer to Him in faith, on the edges of your day, in prayer and reflection on Scripture. Draw closer to Him by loving other people, and in particular, those in need of mercy and kindness. Some may be in prison, or hospital, or in a refugee camp. They may be your next door neighbor, or a member of your family.
As Christians we need not feel compelled to choose between belief and mercy, but rather see them as part of the same call–to know Jesus and his love for us, and then to share that love as best we can. Thankfully, we can leave matters of final judgement in God’s hands.
Bishop Mariann was invited to preach at Howard University on November 29, 2020.
In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, ‘Greetings, favoured one! The Lord is with you.’ But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.’ Mary said to the angel, ‘How can this be, since I am a virgin?’ The angel said to her, ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.’ Then Mary said, ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’ Then the angel departed from her.
To all gathered for worship at Howard University’s virtual Rankin Chapel service this day: Grace to you and peace from God our Creator and from the Lord Jesus Christ.
I am Mariann Budde, Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, DC, which encompasses all of the District of Columbia and four Maryland counties. The Episcopal churches of our diocese have roots that go back to the colonial era and slavery. If the walls of our churches could talk, they would tell stories about tobacco farming and industrialization; of bondage in the name of the Church and resistance to that bondage; of Civil War, of emancipation and the establishment of black churches and schools and support of HBCUs; of the growth of Washington, DC as a city where Blacks and Whites came in search of opportunity; of the resegregation of the Federal workforce, Jim Crow, two World Wars, and the long struggle for Civil Rights; of the immigration of peoples from all over the world, notably, West Africa, the Caribbean nations, and Central and South America.
Some of our most inspired clergy and lay leaders have been and are Howard alumni and faculty. Howard University figures heavily in the story of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, for which I give thanks to God.
I give thanks to God today for Dean Richardson for the spiritual sustenance you offer daily for so many. (Thank you, sir, for inviting me to speak.) Thanks to the Rev. Duffie and all chaplains, administrators, and student ministers, with an affectionate shout-out to the Rev. Yolanda Rolle, Episcopal chaplain at Howard. Thanks to your esteemed President, Dr. Wayne Frederick, the Board of Trustees, the faculty and staff for their visionary leadership and faithful service; for Howard alumni throughout our land. Special thanks to all Howard undergraduate and graduate students, for persevering in your education through this long season of disruption. We miss you here in Washington and look forward to the day when we can welcome all of you back.
There’s a lot of Howard pride in our congregations these days. Dr. Frederick said it well: “the Vice President-elect has swung her Howard hammer and shattered the proverbial glass ceiling into pieces that will not be put back together.” Amen and amen. Vice President-elect Harris speaks of her time at Howard as one of the most important experiences of her life: “Howard is a place,” she said, “where you didn’t have to be confined to the box of another person’s choosing and where students were not just told we had the capacity to be great; we were challenged to live up to that potential.” She first ran for elected office at Howard, as the freshman class representative of the Liberal Arts Student Council. Howard is where her political career began.
Every Alpha Kappa Alpha sister I know is bursting with pride, as are all in the Divine Nine, for good reason. In this election, you encouraged record levels of citizen engagement and voter turnout across the nation. You recognized and acted upon in this decisive moment in decisive ways.
The title of this sermon is: Decisive Moments in Life and Faith: How We Learn to Be Brave. Some people, I suppose, are born brave. Most of us must learn to be brave. We all want to be brave when it counts, to be the one who steps up, leans in, does the right thing when it matters most. We want to bring our best when we’re called upon, to speak with clarity and conviction in a pivotal situation. But how do we become that person, so that when the moments come, we are ready?
In many Christian traditions, including mine, today is the first Sunday in the four-week season of Advent. Advent is a time of anticipation and preparation for Christmas, when we celebrate the coming of God, in human form, into our world. Jesus is, as they say, the reason for the season. But today, consider with me the importance of one young woman’s decisive moment, which made God’s miracle possible.
The angel Gabriel, a messenger from God, comes to a young girl whose name is Mary, He tells her that she has found favor with God. She is to bear and give birth to the Christ child. At great risk and under the shadow of scandal, Mary chooses to be brave. She says yes–not right away, mind you. She asked good questions first. She pondered in her heart, as was her custom. She surely struggled in ways we will never know. But when the angel assured her, with words we all long to hear, that nothing is impossible God, she said yes. It was a decisive moment and she knew it.
While we may not have an angel come knocking on our door anytime soon, let me suggest that decisive moments like Mary’s are part of our story, too. While our decisive moments may seem to catch us by surprise, when we take the long view of our lives we can see how we were being prepared for them. Moreover, how we live after the moment passes, as it must, is as important as the moment itself. The most decisive moments are those that change the trajectory of our lives, by all the other decisions we make in light of them.
I’d like to explore three different ways decisive moments come to us. There are more than three, to be sure, and these aren’t the ones that make headlines, like winning an election. But these are the moments that teach us how to be brave, perhaps in preparation for other more public moments when we will be needed and will need to be ready.
The three decisive moments I place before you today are: Deciding to Go; Deciding to Stay; Deciding to Start.
First: Deciding to Go. Of the three, it is the most outwardly visible. There’s no mistaking a decision to go, as we physically move from one place to another. Internally, it can feel as if we’re being summoned, even if we don’t fully understand why. As we pay attention and respond to this feeling guiding us toward a new horizon, we learn that there is more at stake in our decision than what we can see when we make it.
My first conscious experience of the summons to go happened when I was 17. I had been living, uneasily and unhappily, with my father, step-mother and younger half-brother. After years of being afraid of my parents, I learned to stop thinking about them. Instead, I focused my attention on the people of the church I had joined on my own, and on my high school friends. They became my family.
The day came, however, when my actual family fell apart. My father took me aside to tell me that he was leaving my step-mother and that he wanted me to go with him. I didn’t know then what clinical depression was, or alcoholism, but I saw their manifestations, and there was no way I was going to live with my father alone. For reasons I won’t go into, staying with my stepmother and younger brother wasn’t an option, either.
Inside myself, I knew that I had to go, and I knew where–across the country to live with my mother, whom I had left when I was a child. I knew that my mother loved me and I loved her, but you must understand that going was the last thing my 17-year old self wanted to do. Everything I loved about my life then was where I was, at school and church, with my friends and a boy who finally seemed to notice me. Many of the adults in my life were more than willing to help me stay so that I could finish high school. The minister of my church and his wife even invited me to live with them, which I did for a few months. There were all sorts of external validation to stay, but it didn’t matter. The summons to go was that strong, inside myself, for reasons I couldn’t articulate or understand.
I’m 60 years old now, and I’ve experienced that same strong inner call to go many times. When it happens, I’ve learned to listen, in large part because I remember what it felt like when my life was in the balance as a teenager and I decided to trust the voice inside. It was then I realized that a relationship with God isn’t defined by correct beliefs but rather a willingness to trust my life into God’s hands. That decision prepared me for other decisions equally hard in their time, when I felt that same feeling, that internal summons, the call and claim upon my life.
I don’t know what that internal sense of summons has felt or feels like for you, but I suspect that you do or that you will. When you hear it, pay attention: it may well be the voice of God, or an angel sent from God. There will always be other voices clamoring for your attention, wanting you to go this way or that. There will be times when you tell yourself the things you want to hear. The call from God feels different–it’s not that your feelings aren’t important to God. They are. But in the summons that precedes a truly decisive moment, how you feel isn’t the most important data point, but rather what you hear and sense God is asking of you. Listen, dare to be brave, and go.
Now consider with me another kind of decisive moment, when we decide to stay where we are. Because there is such drama and energy in going, it’s easy to underestimate the importance of staying. But there is more than one way that we’re called to be brave, and the most courageous decisions are often ones that no one sees.
My first great struggle with a call to stay came in the early years of marriage, parenting, and ordained ministry. Until then my life had been largely defined by going–moving from one place to the next, stepping out of one world and into another, facing the unknown. Yet there I was, in my early thirties, married, with a three-year-old and a newborn, working a full-time job that I was supposed to love. There was a lot to love, which made it hard to talk about how trapped I felt.
My internal struggle was a call to accept the parameters and limitations of my life and go deep. This has become a recurring theme, whenever I wrestle with the call to stay. Slowly I’ve learned that faithfulness isn’t always about taking big leaps, but walking with small steps. I’ve come to realize that those who make a real difference in their communities and the world are the ones who stay in one place long enough to bring about lasting change.
There’s a story in the Bible about a time in Jesus’ ministry when he had become controversial enough that crowds no longer followed him and the ranks of critics had grown. Many who had been part of his movement decided to leave. In a private conversation with his closest followers, he asked if they also wanted to go away. Peter spoke for the group, “Lord where would we go? We believe that you have the words of eternal life.” (John 6:66-71) They had come too far to turn back or go somewhere else. They were staying with him.
Deciding to stay, however, doesn’t always feel like a choice. It can come in the wake of disappointment, when doors close instead of open, or others are chosen for a position or opportunity instead of us. In those situations, deciding to stay can feel like failure. But sometimes failure and disappointment are necessary, or, in the mystery of grace, they nurture the soil in which seeds of new possibilities are planted. The gift of the decisive moment to stay can be an opportunity to tend to our character and skills, to savor grace in small packages, to learn how to reckon with the struggle instead of run from it, and to persevere.
Again, these are the times when God speaks from within, giving you courage to make the difficult choice, or the freeing choice, from that sense of call. The Benedictine nun Joan Chittister puts it this way: “It may be the neighborhood you live in rather than the neighborhood you want where you truly belong. It may be the job that you have rather than the position you’re pining for that is your liberation.”1 Or as I once heard Pastor Mark Batterson of the National Community Church, say, “If it isn’t Jesus calling you out on the water, best to stay in the boat.” Sometimes staying where we are is the brave choice.
Deciding to go. Deciding to stay. And lastly, deciding to start.
You know as well as I that the Civil Rights Movement didn’t begin with Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream Speech” in 1963, or with the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955 for that matter. It goes way back. Similarly, Kamala Harris’ journey to the Vice Presidency had its beginnings in her freshman year at Howard, over 30 years ago. The journey toward justice is long. The journey toward our destiny is long. It begins when we decide to start, and then keep on deciding each step along the way.
I often return to the moment in Jesus’ life when, as the Gospel of Luke tells his story, “he set his face toward Jerusalem.” (Luke 9: 51). It was a decisive moment for him. He began the long walk from his hometown of Nazareth and towns and villages around the Sea of Galilee toward the seat of religious and political power. He knew that he needed to be there, and so he set his face and began the journey, step by step. Along the way, his life didn’t look that different from before, as he continued to teach, to heal, to mentor his closest disciples. But his destination was always before him and it informed every step he took.
In my experience, the first step of deciding to start has often come out of deep disappointment. In the regrouping and reimagining of my life, a new vision emerges– one requiring patience and preparation and training. The question that surfaces: am I willing to begin the journey toward a future that as yet remains elusive, and is not a sure bet?
Again, that sense of call, of summons, the guidance from within, is what propels us forward when we decide to start. It’s harder to sustain the feeling of call over time, and often our conviction wavers along the way. That’s when we need the hidden virtue of perseverance to help us keep going, as we fall down, get back up; as we get thrown off course, redirect and start again. If that’s where you find yourself now, hear my words and don’t give up. Trust the initial impulse that got you going in the first place. It’s still true, even if you don’t feel it.
Deciding to go. Deciding to stay. Deciding to start and then to keep going. These are the decisive moments that teach us how to listen to God’s voice speaking to us from within, teaching us to trust our inner compass; preparing us for other moments when we may be called upon to step out and speak up.
Rarely, if ever, do we walk onto the public stage or have a transformative in some realm of life with no preparation. God prepares us through a lifetime of smaller yet equally decisive moments when we listen to the summons to go; when we dare to listen and stay; when we realize the journey is long, as so we start, or we start again. Through them, God invites us into a relationship of intimacy and trust.
In your decisive moments large and small, public and private, I hope these words have been an encouragement to you to trust God’s wisdom, strength, power and grace to guide you. Angels will come to you, inviting you, like Mary, to say yes. Yes, I will go. Yes, I will stay. Yes, I will start the long journey toward a future on the distant horizon.
May God bless you in every moment. In decisive moments, may God give you the grace and courage to say yes.
1 Joan Chittister, O.S.B. The Rule of Benedict: Insights for the Ages (New York: Crossroad Publishing Co, 1992), p.3
Bishop Mariann preached this sermon to St. Margaret’s Church on November 15, 2020.
When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’ And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’ All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, ‘Is not this Joseph’s son?’
Hello St. Margaret’s, and friends of St. Margaret’s. Hello to all guests in worship for this special today. Hello Richard and Alban, members of the vestry, and your good wardens, Michael and Jenny. Hello all past and present leaders of St. Margaret’s. If we’ve not met before, I am Mariann Budde, and I’m honored to serve as bishop of the Diocese of Washington and be part of this celebration of a new season of ministry at St. Margaret’s and the official installation of Richard as your rector.
In my nine years as bishop, St. Margaret’s has been close to my heart, and so have you, Richard, from your years at Washington National Cathedral, through the ordination process, and then, as grace would have it, as part of a diocesan/parish partnership that brought you back from Atlanta, where I worried you’d stay forever. You came back for what we thought would be a two-year assistant’s position and part-time communications work for the diocese.
Little did we know–perhaps the Spirit knew–what would unfold from there, all the events, discerning moments that have brought us to this moment. Praise God for all of it, and for all of you.
Typically when we celebrate a new season of ministry and the installation of a rector, the relationship between the two is just beginning. It’s a time of anticipation and unknowing, with all the unrealized hopes and projections that we bring to new beginnings. That’s not the case today. If you’ve been a part of St. Margaret’s for a while, you’ve heard Richard preach. You know something of his passion and the themes he returns to, because they are central to his understanding of what it means to follow Jesus. Richard, in turn, you know this congregation well. Long ago, you fell in love with them, and you’ve gladly cast your lot with them. God willing, you have many years of relationship building ahead of you. Nonetheless, the relationship we celebrate has already been tried and tested and found true. Praise God for that.
Relationship building, grafting a new leader into the organic life of the community is the first task in a new season of ministry, and you are well on your way in this important work. I can’t emphasize enough how important this is. If the relationship between clergy and congregational leaders is faltering, it adversely affects everything that we hope to do. If the relationship is strong, almost anything is possible.
You’ve also made great strides in the second task of a new season in ministry, and that is gentle, courageous evaluation of everything you do as a church. The great question underneath that evaluative effort is why? Why do we do what we do? And the answer begins with the simple clause: So that. . . fill in the blank.
Here are a few biblical examples:
Jesus taught: “Let your light shine before others” Why? “so that others may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:16)
St. Paul writes in his letter to the Romans: “Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewing of your minds” Why? “so that you may discern what is the will of God–what is good and acceptable and perfect.” (Romans 12:2)
You can use the words so that to clarify purpose and fruitfulness for just about anything, and you have put them to good use in your time together thus far. You’ve evaluated worship and music, your ministries among those who experience homelessness. That work continues in earnest, and it’s so important.
The third task of a new season in ministry is weathering a storm together, I would say that you can check that off the list. We all can. Storms take many forms, some of our own doing and others when life comes at us with disruptive force, such as what we’re all still weathering in the pandemic and its many repercussions.
What I know about weathering a storm is this: how we go through it will matter more in the end than the storm itself. The stories we will tell of this prolonged season of societal disorientation won’t simply be that we got through it, but how we did. How can we live now so that our future selves and those who come after us will look back with gratitude?
The fourth task in the first season of a new ministry is to clarify mission and purpose. Rachelle Sams preached a few weeks back about core identity, asking you to consider what your central truth is, the one from which all else flows.
The Holy Spirit is leading you as a community to greater clarity of your core mission and purpose. As we listened to the opening song this morning, Richard mentioned that this particular piece serves as a theme, or purpose song, for St. Margaret’s. It certainly seems that way to me: For Everyone Born, A Place at the Table:
For everyone born, a place at the table,
for everyone born, clean water and bread,
a shelter, a space, a safe place for growing,
for everyone born, a star overhead,
and God will delight when we are creators
of justice and joy, compassion and peace:
yes, God will delight when we are creators
of justice, justice and joy.
St. Margaret’s, God has instilled in you a fierce commitment to ensure that everyone has a place at the table, that all feel welcome and included. The one you have called to serve as your rector shares that same passion.
That’s in part what makes this extended time of physical distance and virtual worship all the more poignant for you, for you can’t gather together around Jesus’ sacramental table now. You can’t easily invite one another to share your tables at home, and in your homes, there are people missing from the table whose presence you grieve. You can’t invite your neighbors experiencing homelessness into safe warm indoor spaces. I grieve that for you, for all of us. And yet I know God is with us in our loss and disorientation, God is, as God always does, making a new way for us through this wilderness.
What I’ve seen in you, St. Margaret’s, and in you, Richard, is a determination, born of God, to keep going forward in life and faith. You keep going, adjusting and adapting. I know it’s not always easy, and only you and God know the cost in your personal lives.
I hold each of you to the light and mercy of God. I see your desire to do right by your neighbors experiencing homelessness and to transform the ministry of Charlie’s Place to meet those neighbors in a spirit of mutuality. I see your desire to strengthen the infrastructure of this community; to utilize its resources well; to show up where love is needed.
Here is my prayer for you: that each of you might know the same love and mercy you work so hard to ensure that others have. On the eve of the election, Richard began his sermon with a word of care, encouraging you to have a plan of self-care during what was sure to be, and was, a difficult week. I hope you will do that every week! Flip the order of the great commandment, that you strive to love yourself as much as you strive to love others. Take the time to be in real conversations with each other, and to pray for and with one another. For your call isn’t just to be the Adams Morgan congregation committed to lives of justice, but also creators of joy.
Friends of St. Margaret’s and my friend, Richard: You are well on your way in this first season of ministry, poised to look toward the horizon to what lies ahead. Thank you for saying yes to one another and to the ministry you share.
My one word to you is this: find ways in the coming year and beyond to create as many informal opportunities for personal connection among you as possible and to make spiritual growth a priority for everyone. This needn’t be a heavy lift, but it is an intentional one, and one that paradoxically is often lost in the many tasks of ministry. This is a priority throughout the diocese–identified as a felt need in all our congregations–and we are at work creating resources and collaborative opportunities. Be part of that effort.
I am persuaded that the future of St. Margaret’s, and all our congregations, depends on that kind of spiritual renewal and deeper experience of God’s love in Christ. Without it, we are running on our own energies, and our energies aren’t enough. Without it, we create a church in our image, according to our preferences, rather than open ourselves to the call of Christ to join in his redeeming work. But know that you needn’t do this alone. I am right here; your diocesan community is right here, as we do this holy work together. Amen.
Bishop Mariann preached this sermon at the deacons ordination at Washington National Cathedral on November 14, 2020.
Now the word of the Lord came to me saying, ‘Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.’ Then I said, ‘Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.’ But the Lord said to me,‘Do not say, “I am only a boy”; for you shall go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you. Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, says the Lord.’ Then the Lord put out his hand and touched my mouth; and the Lord said to me, ‘Now I have put my words in your mouth. See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.’
On behalf of the courageous and faithful nine presented for ordination as deacons today, I would like to acknowledge and thank all those who have been their guides, mentors and exhorters, encouragers and burden-bearers on their journey to this moment. They wouldn’t be here without you and they know it. You have been there for them in ways that take my breath away.
And on behalf of the extended community surrounding these nine–and I include myself in your company–we thank you, the courageous and faithful nine: Antonio, Ethan, Michael, Adrienne, Linda, Sally, Ebele, Mary and Sarah. We saw how hard you worked and persevered in the hardest times; we loved seeing how enthusiastically you embraced the learning process. We prayed as you reached beyond yourselves. We appreciated the efforts you made to hold this vocation in conversation with the rest of your life and with those you love. We’re in awe of those you have served already. If your journey ended today, your example would be an inspiration, and yet we know today also marks the beginning of a new season of ministry, and we thank God for that.
The nine of us and I (along with Archdeacon Sue and Canon Roberts) spent two hours together yesterday, taking in the magnitude of this moment and the context in which it’s happening. You looked back on where you’ve been and cast your imaginative gaze toward the people you will become in the days and years ahead. You named for yourselves some of what you bring to this call–the particular attributes, qualities, skills that are your gifts.
I loved hearing the clarity with which you spoke of your strength and vulnerability, and how, in the economy of grace, both are needed. Drawing inspiration from the prophet Jeremiah, together we pondered the fact that God, who has known you from the womb and knows everything you, has called you to this ministry. You named something that will hold you in good stead going forward, that you bring who you are wherever you go. You bring all your strengths and all your vulnerabilities. Like Jeremiah, you may feel at times as if you are not enough, “that you are only . . . .(fill in the blank),” but the fact remains that God called Jeremiah to his ministry and has called you to yours.
Years ago, I was at a conference with about 40 other people, lay and ordained. We had all been chosen as potential faculty for a national wellness program for clergy. This conference was intended for our benefit, but was also part of the evaluation process. We would find out at the end if we would receive an invitation to be part of the faculty.
So there was a bit of performance anxiety in all of us, certainly in me.
Three things happened to me at the conference that I’d like to share with you:
First, we were divided into small groups so that we might have in-depth conversations about our lives and to engage in greater depth the material present in plenary sessions. During one of our sessions I said something that offended another member of our group. I didn’t realize it right away, but it soon became apparent that this person was wounded and angry. I apologized, but the person I offended did not accept my apology. The others in our group were witness to this breach and tried to be helpful, but to no avail. The person I offended did not want to reconcile with me. She was quite clear that our relationship wasn’t important to her and she refused to acknowledge my presence.
I came to dread our small group time, which we had daily, as I kept trying in vain to seek reconciliation with someone who wanted nothing to do with me. Finally, one of the others in our group took me aside and said, “Mariann, you can let this go. There is nothing more that you can do right now. Focus on what you are here to learn and let the other person do the same.”
It was and remains one of the most freeing insights of my life, and I share it with you. Sometimes, after you’ve done everything you can think of to say or do in a painful situation to make it better without success, you can let it go and move on. Life is too short, and sometimes we hold ourselves back in guilt for what we cannot fix when the more faithful thing to do is surrender it to God and move on. Maybe not forever–life has a way of bringing people back into our lives. As it turned out, both of us were selected for the faculty. We never served on the same team, but we kept bumping into each other. After about three years, the dynamic between us softened. We never became friends, but the residue from that encounter eventually dissipated.
The second thing that happened at the conference was in my relationship with God. The conference structure included a long block of time for each of us to reflect and discern the next steps in life and vocation, after we had spent considerable time looking back on what beckoned us into ministry in the first place. I had been ordained for about ten years and had traveled some distance from my original sense of call, and I wasn’t at peace with that distance.
I came into ordained ministry convinced that my call was to a life of service on the margins of church and society. I had worked among homeless people and immigrants from Central America along the Arizona border. I had lived in Honduras at an Episcopal home for abandoned boys and had every intention of either going back or working in a similar setting here. Yet ten years after my ordination, I was the rector of a parish in the Midwest, married and the mother of two sons. We owned a house and two cars. I had a closet full of clothes. I wasn’t on the margins at all, but right in the center of this society.
What’s more, I wanted to be there. I was reasonably effective in my work, and I wanted our boys to have a stable, grounded childhood. Yet sitting in prayer with all that, looking back on who I was when I first answered the call and where I was then, I felt ashamed. If Jesus had said to me what he told the rich young man who asked what he needed to do to inherit eternal life, “Go, sell all you have and give it to the poor; then come and follow me.” I wasn’t sure that I could do it. I wanted to be the kind of person who could say without reservation “Lord, I’ll do anything you ask,” but inside I wondered.
As I sat in what became a moment of confession, what I experienced was God’s acceptance and love for me. I didn’t feel judged. I felt seen and understood. What’s more, I felt a new sense of call emerging, rooted in my particular strengths, vulnerabilities and place in life. Incredibly, I realized that God had taken into account all of who I was, everything, and was saying, “This is where I need you. Will you go?” And I said yes.
I am persuaded that God has called each one of you, as you are, for who you are, not to be someone you are not. Moreover, God will call upon your strengths, shine forth through your vulnerabilities, and teach you through your failures what you need to know.
The third thing that happened to me had to do with that emerging sense of call in my life. For I left the conference with the mistaken assumption that the new call would be realized within the next few years. I could not have been more wrong about the timing, as my life took one unexpected turn after another, some painful and very disappointing. I couldn’t even bring myself to look at the piece of paper where I had written the new vision down. Twenty years later what I wrote down at the conference began to make sense.
I share my experiences simply to underscore some of things that we talked about yesterday: That each of you has certain strengths and gifts that are important to name and that you will bring into diaconal ministry. That God knows everything about you. That you don’t have all the time in the world, so don’t try to do everything. Focus on your strengths and passions. Learn everything you can about what you are called to do and where you are called to do. Let go of the things that you cannot change, struggles that don’t belong to you. Finally, never forget what your journey to this day has taught you, that God’s time is not ours, and what we experience as setbacks or disappointments or failures may become part of wider tapestry in the making.
In the end, it’s not about us at all, but God. Our vocations are rooted in Jesus, who walked this earth as One who served, and who calls us all, and you, in the particular vocation of deacon, to serve in His Name, sustained by His grace and mercy. Thank you for saying yes.