Bishop Mariann preached this sermon at St. Stephen and the Incarnation, DC, on November 8, 2020.
Jesus said, “Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. But at midnight there was a shout, ‘Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ But the wise replied, ‘No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.’ And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I do not know you.’ Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”
I’m grateful for the opportunity to worship with you. St. Stephen’s. I’ve spent considerable time with your leaders in recent months and many of you joined the vestry conversations as you discern your forward as a faith community. It’s a gift to place that discerning work–which is not always easy–in the context of prayer and our common desire to draw closer to Christ and embody his love for the world. Thanks to Father Sam and all SSI leaders for all that you’re doing to guide the people of your community through this strange and stressful time. You are in my daily prayers; you are close to my heart.
St. Stephen’s and the Incarnation is as close to a mission congregation as we have in the diocese of Washington, for a number of reasons, most notably the financial partnership between the Diocese and the congregation, and the fact that for many years the congregation has chosen not to have a rector as priest. I know that the vestry’s decision this year to begin the journey to that normative leadership structure has been a controversial one for a variety of legitimate reasons, and true to SSI, there are strong opinions on how best to proceed, or not proceed with that decision, particularly in light of how the pandemic has placed so many challenges on all of us. I understand that. My hope is that, in time, there will be sufficient consensus among the leadership–and the congregation as a whole–to walk together toward a common future.
I mention all of this because it occurred to me as I was reflecting on where we are as a nation in the waiting period for the outcome of our national election, that there are parallels between what we’re experiencing as a society and how we relate to one another in faith communities and in our households and families.
I was tasked with preaching from Washington National Cathedral the day after the election. The theme for the service had already been set. It was to be a Service for Healing, Unity and Hope–all good post-election day things to talk about. But what on earth did those words–Healing, Unity and Hope–mean given what we’ve learned and are learning about ourselves and our leaders this week?
This I know, from personal experience, about the healing process: if your body sustains a deep wound, and a scab or thin layer of skin forms on the surface, it can look as if healing is taking place. But if the connective tissue underneath the skin doesn’t come together in its own process, that part of the wound can get infected and grow worse. Though the deeper wound is hidden for a time underneath the scab or skin, it’s not healing at all. So as we pray for healing in our nation, we do well to remember that there is little to be gained and, in fact, much harm to be done if we tend too quickly to the surface of things while ignoring the wounds underneath. The same is true for you as a congregation.
This is what I know about unity: that it often comes at the expense of those whose inclusion is too costly for the dominant group. This is as true on the playground and in family relationships as it is in the wider society. Then that exclusion is often forgotten by those who have settled for what the prophet Isaiah called “peace when there is no peace.”
We don’t have to look far for examples from our history. After the Civil War and the political whiplash of a white supremacist becoming president after the assassination of presdient Lincoln followed by a president committed to Reconstruction of the South and real liberties for those formerly enslaved, followed by a series of leaders in the South committed to dismantling all the gains blacks had made and Northerners more than happy to look the other way, there was a constant drumbeat for national unity between North and South. Monuments all over the country were erected, stained glass windows in Washington National Cathedral installed, all in the service of unity between whites. We know who was excluded from that unity, from the ideals of democracy and liberty and justice for all. Some of the most shameful events of our history–many of which were suppressed from our collective memory–come from that time, and from the impulse for unity along racial lines. So as we pray for unity, may we remember that the kind of unity worthy of the Kingdom of God and represented in the mosaic of this nation is not one that will come by exclusion, but with the hard work of reconciling.
Reconciliation and inclusion doesn’t mean that everybody gets what they want. In fact the kind of reconciliation and inclusion that Jesus points us toward is rooted in sacrificial love and a genuine desire for what is best, even if it’s not what any one of us personally desire. The older we are, the more this is true–our task as elders is to make space, make a place for those coming up behind us, listening hard to their concerns, their needs. Unity is rooted in love.
Finally, this I know about hope. It isn’t something we need to manufacture. It is God’s gift. Hope ofen rises from despair. It can stir our hearts even when we have reason to give up. I wish I could tell you how this happens; I only know that it does. Hope resists platitudes or wishful thinking. It allows for grief and all its manifestations. It never chastises us for being exhausted and worried. It doesn’t ask us to pretend that everything is going to be okay when we don’t know if that’s true, at least in the short term.
But what hope does is help us rise again, not from our strength, but from the strength that comes to us from the deepest wells of the human spirit, where God’s divine spirit meets us.
Now there is a cost to this hope, and we do have to choose it, because it refuses to deny the reality of suffering. You may have heard a refrain from St. Paul on the importance of suffering. He writes that we need to embrace suffering, for suffering is what produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope–and this hope does not disappoint because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us. (Romans. 5:1-5) The source of our hope is the amazing love of God.
So how are we to live? Jesus told a parable about wise and foolish bridesmaids, the difference between wisdom and foolishness being preparation, foresight, living now with a vision for what may be needed later on. Attentiveness. Mindfulness–how we could use that now.
In one of the chapters of PB’s new book, Love is the Way: Holding onto Hope in Troubling Times, wonderfully entitled, “What Dolly Parton and Desmond Tutu Have in Common,” Curry also reminds us of the power of dreams, and how living by our our dreams requires strength perseverance whenever we bump up against the crucible steel hardships of life. As an example of what that strength and perseverance looks like, he cites what was known in the Civil Rights Movement as the “Ten Commandments of Nonviolence.” They were part of the training Dr. King and others required of all those taking part in “the movement”–the nonviolent movement for the freedom they all longed for.
- Meditate daily on the teachings and life of Jesus.
- Remember always that the non-violent movement seeks justice and reconciliation–not victory.
- Walk and talk in the manner of love, for God is love.
- Pray daily to be used by God in order that all might be free.
- Sacrifice personal wishes in order that all might be free.
- Observe with both friend and foe the ordinary rules of courtesy.
- Seek to perform regular service for others and for the world.
- Refrain from the violence of fist, tongue, or heart.
- Strive to be in good spiritual and bodily health.1
What would the world look like if even a percentage of Christians committed to these things now? What would Washington, DC look like? What would the Diocese of Washington look like? What would St. Stephen’s and the Incarnation look like? What would my family and yours look like?
When we do these things–always imperfectly, for we are not perfect–we become more like Jesus. We sound more like Jesus. And some of his light shines through us. No matter what happens, what lies in store, surely that would be a wonderful thing–our offering of love and justice for those around us.
1 Michael Curry, Love is the Way: Holding onto Hope in Troubling Times (New York: Avery Books, 2020), pp. 92-94.