Signs of Hope for the New Year

Arise, shine, for your light has come.
Isaiah 60:1

“In the fall of 2019,” writes science journalist Ed Yong, “exactly zero scientists were studying COVID-19, because no one knew the disease existed.” Yet by March of 2020, thousands of scientists around the world dropped what they were doing to study this new disease. “Never have so many researchers trained their minds on a single problem in so brief a time. Science will never be the same.”1

We’re seeing the first fruits of their extraordinary effort now. The promise of light at the end of this long tunnel is something to hold onto in the coming months. The light is real, but darkness is still with us. 

And it has always been so. 

Light exists not to eliminate darkness, but to help us find our way through it. In the Christian calendar, we’re on the threshold of Epiphany, a season in which we remember the moments of revelation that guide us in life. Think of the wise men following a star on their journey to find the Christ child. Light shining in darkness enables us to take our next faithful step. 

Never have I heard so many people, myself included, look forward to the end of a year.  Yet even as we celebrate its passing we know that 2020’s impact will linger. It’s like a tornado passing through our town, suggests religious leader Cary Nieuwhof. Once it’s gone, there will be a lot to clean up and repair.2 Surely more than science will never be the same.

We can’t fully absorb collective trauma and grief while we’re going through it. The rising death toll alone is numbing. “It’s as if ten airplanes are falling from the sky every day,” a colleague said. Add to that the devastating economic impact for so many, the disrupted education for rising generations, and millions relying on food pantries to feed their families, and the scale of suffering is overwhelming. We just want it to be over.  

Yet now is not the time to look away from what the pandemic has revealed. The great sin would be not to seek the hard-won wisdom born of pain. “I will not go until you bless me,” the biblical patriarch Jacob famously said to the angel who wrestled with him all night long. Never dare we say that the suffering was worth the wisdom gained, but, like Jacob, we can’t afford to let go too soon. For we need wisdom and clarity to focus on what matters most. 2021 is a pivotal year.   

For Christians, hope is more than a response to positive signs on the horizon. It is a spiritual practice. “For Christians,” the UN peace negotiator Hiskias Assifa once said, “hopelessness is not an option.” Neither is wishful thinking, but the unwavering determination to seek the good wherever possible. We are called to hope.   

As the new year beckons, I find hope in the countless men and women whose acts of love are holding up the world. I find hope in those who never seem too busy to offer help. I find hope in the brilliance of the human mind that can solve complex problems. I find hope in the resilience of the human spirit that rises, time and again, from the ashes of grief. 

My prayer for 2021 is that we continue to look for the light, and then to take steps from wherever we stand to address the most important things. As I pray for our political leaders, I can’t stop thinking of something a marriage therapist once told me. He said that when couples first face the chasm between them, it feels hopeless. But as they each take steps from their side to address it, not only does their perception of one another change, but so does their experience of the chasm between them. It’s still there, but their ability to navigate it improves. May it be so for our leaders, and all of us. 

Before making your New Year’s resolutions, you might write down all that gives you hope. If your list, like mine, is filled with people, that’s a hopeful sign in itself. What if it were said of us in 2021 that never had so many resolved to work together and create a better world from the pain we endured?

1 “The COVID-19 Manhattan Project,” by Ed Yong in The Atlantic, January/February 2021, p.48
2 Carey Nieuwhof, 5 Reasons You Should Lower Your Expectations in 2021, November 19, 2020

Tears of Love – Christmas Eve Sermon 2020

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light. . .
Isaiah 9:2

Hello and blessed Christmas to you this night.

I’m both sad and happy to celebrate with you this way–sad that we can’t be physically together, either here or in your own churches, and happy that while we’re all in our particular spaces, we are gathered in this common space. We are united in our humanity, our hope for a better day, our love for those who have a particular claim on our hearts, and our prayers, tonight, for peace and goodwill in all the earth.  

Many of our loved ones aren’t with us, some we won’t see again on this side of heaven. Others are physically distant, which hurts all the more at Christmas. Still others may be physically close but emotionally distant, which is a sorrow all its own. Some of you, I know, are alone tonight, although we’re here to assure you that you’re not alone. Tonight is the celebration of Emmanuel–God-with-us. And we are with one another through a great mystery, and I’m not talking about technology, as wonderful as it is. We are bound together by the love of God revealed to us in Jesus’ birth. 

I have a candle next to me to honor you and all those we hold in our hearts, and to remind us, as Scripture teaches, that the light of Christ shines in the darkness and the darkness did not and cannot overcome it. 

The Country Music singer Alan Jackson wrote a Christmas song that tells the story of Jesus’ birth pretty much according to the biblical accounts. It begins with those who made their way to the Christ child following a star. Then it tells of the animals in the manger, imagining them being still, as animals often are when they sense that something important is happening. 

The heart of the song, though, is its refrain, which hones in on the angels present that night. But there’s no mention of them telling the shepherds not to be afraid, or of the heavenly chorus praising God. 

In this song, the angels cry. That’s the entire refrain: And the angels cried. As soon as I heard it, I knew that it was true.   

We’ve cried so many tears this year. Tears of grief and rage. Tears of disappointment, frustration, and fear. Tears of loneliness and longing. Tears in awe of those who are sacrificing so much for our sake. Tears of gratitude for hope on the horizon. And as an elder friend used to say whenever we met and she would cry, “Tears of joy, Mariann. Tears of joy.” They weren’t really tears of joy, but I loved the fact that she remembered joy as she cried. 

Of course the angels cried. And if you’ve ever held a newborn in your arms, you know why. They cried for love. They cried knowing that it was for love God had sent His Son. They cried because they knew the child’s destiny was to grow into a man who would love as God loves and suffer as only love can suffer. They cried knowing that they could do nothing to protect this beautiful child from the cost of a love that would lead from the manger to the cross. The angels cried.   

There are particular moments when we’re given eyes to see as God sees and hearts to love as God loves. One such moment is at the birth of a child. We look into the eyes of a miracle. We hold the miracle in our arms, and in that moment, our love is pure and complete. And like the angels, we cry. 

Another such moment is at the end of life. God bless the intensive care doctors, nurses and chaplains who are now sometimes the only ones present when a person dies of COVID-19. A chaplain in California describes how he holds a phone or an iPad up so that loved ones can say goodbye. “It’s so clear every time that the one dying is so loved.”  “But the amount of crying I’ve done this year,” he said,“….”it’s hard.”1 In death we’re given eyes to see as God sees and hearts to love as God loves. And like the angels, we cry.

The former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams once said that if you want to know what God is really like, in other words, how the creative power at the heart of our universe really works, look no further than the manger and the cross. “God acts by giving away all strength and success as we understand them. The universe lives by a love that refuses to bully us or force us, the love of the manger and the cross.”2

There is something worrying about this, Williams concedes. We’d like our God to be more powerful than a baby or a man sentenced to die. We Christians are forever trying, with the best of intentions, to make God bigger, espousing certainties easily disputed in  face of the facts. The truth is we don’t know what to do with a God who gives all power away; with healing that comes through suffering; with love that meets us in our vulnerabilities and stays there with us, rather than providing the escape from it that we so desperately want. 

But that’s how it is with God. 

If you want to find God in your life, look no further than the manger and the cross, which is to say, where life is beginning and ending in you. Look in the places where you know the least and fear the most. Look in the eyes of those you love more than love itself, and in the eyes of those whom you struggle to love. Look in the mirror; listen to the sound of your own voice; consider the beating of your own heart. Then cast your gaze across the globe and ponder the same love manifest in places we hear of marked by great sorrow and suffering. And like the angels, don’t be afraid to let your heart break. Let your tears flow at the sorrow and the joy of it all, the wonder of life and the mystery of love. For Christ comes to your place of tears.  

There’s another song in my head tonight. It’s not a Christmas song, but it is about tears. The acapella group Sweet Honey in the Rock sings about a black woman who washes floors to send her kids to college, who always makes sure that there’s food on the table, and who stays up late listening to her children’s hurt and rage. Everyone turns to her. 

The father, the children, the brothers turn to her. And everybody White turns to her. 

But where does she turn? Sweet Honey sings: 

There oughta be a woman can break down, sit down, break down, sit down.3

Hold that image of a strong black woman breaking down, crying her eyes out, alone. Then when the tears are done, watch her as she takes a breath, get up and carries on. 

I am in no way comparing myself to that amazing woman; nor am I ashamed to say that I have cried like that this year–tears like a river, alone. But here’s the thing: when there were no more tears to cry and I got up, I was okay. I knew that I wasn’t alone.    Emmanuel, God-with-us, was with me, in the tears and the rising. 

What I’m saying to you is that if you feel a good cry coming on, tonight or any night, it’s more than okay. It makes all the sense in the world. If not, that’s okay, too. Perhaps you’re the one to witness another person’s tears tonight, or to hold a space for joy. Maybe your Christmas task this year is to shield joy. 

But if or when the tears come, let them come. When they subside, and you wonder what to do next, just for a moment, take a breath, and allow yourself to feel God with you and for you. You’ll know what to do next. You’ll rise.

Remember this: the world isn’t saved by any of us trying harder, but neither are we bystanders in this world. You and I are invited into an amazing mystery, first, to experience something of God’s love in a way that actually matters, and then to embody–to incarnate–that love for someone else. “The goodness of a Christian,” writes Rowan Williams, “is never a matter of achieving some standard. It is letting the wonder of God’s love knock sideways your ordinary habits, so that God comes through.” Jesus comes to us when we make a home for him, and through us, his light and love shines on.   

Will you pray with me? 

O God, we are your manger tonight, every single one of us. Help us to grow large enough inside to hold you, to hold everything: the mystery of love, the sorrow of a broken heart, the miracle of our beating hearts. We are still here. We welcome your love knocking sideways all that holds us back, so that your light shines through us, your love flows through us, with tears of sadness, tears of joy, and tears of love. Amen.

1 Jack Jenkins,  For Chaplains, Being Vaccinated First Brings a Mix of Emotions, Region News Service, December 23, 2020.
2 Rowan Williams, Christmas Sermon, 2004.
3 There Oughta be a Woman by Bernice Sanders.

Tears of Love

The angels knew what was to come, the reason God had sent his Son from up above. 
It filled their heart with joy to see, and knowing of his destiny, came tears of love. 
And the creatures gathered round, and didn’t make a sound. 
And the angels cried.

Country musicians Alan Jackson and Allison Kraus sing a Christmas song from the perspective of the angels. But in this song there there’s no mention of Gabriel appearing to Mary or speaking to Joseph in a dream. It doesn’t tell of the angel who announced good news of great joy to shepherding keeping their flock by night, nor of the heavenly chorus praising God and proclaiming peace on earth.  

Instead, the refrain that weaves its way through this song is one of tears: 

And the angels cried. 

As soon as I heard it, I knew it must be true. 

We’ve cried so many tears this year. Tears of grief and rage. Tears of disappointment, frustration, and fear. Tears of loneliness and longing. Tears in awe of those who are sacrificing so much for our sake. Tears of gratitude for hope on the horizon. 

Of course the angels cried, too. 

If you’ve held a newborn in your arms, you know why the angels cried. They cried for love. They cried knowing that it was for love that God sent his Son, and that His destiny was to love as God loves and suffer as only love can suffer. They cried knowing that they could do nothing to protect the child from the cost of a love that would lead from the manger to the cross. 

Former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams once said that if you want to know what God is really like, how the creative power at the heart of our universe really works, look no further than the manger and the cross. “God acts by giving away all that we might expect to find of strength and success as we understand them. The universe lives by a love that refuses to bully us or force us, the love of the cradle and the cross.”1

There is something worrying about this, Williams concedes. Surely we want God to be more powerful than a baby or a man sentenced to death. We don’t know what to make of a God who gives power away instead of wielding it over us, who offers healing through suffering rather than its avoidance; who accepts us as we are and meets us in our place of need, yet does not airlift us to safer ground.  

But that’s how it is with God. If you want to find God in your life, look no further than the cradle and the cross, which is to say, where life is beginning and ending in you. Look in the places where you know the least and fear the most. Look in the eyes of those you love more than love itself, and of those whom you struggle to love. Look in the mirror; listen to the sound of your own voice; consider the beating of your own heart. Then lift your gaze to consider the state of our wondrous and wounded world and all that is at stake. 

Like the angels, don’t be afraid to let your heart break and to cry at the sorrow and joy of it all, the wonder of life and the mystery of love. For Christ dwells in your place of tears.    

And when the tears subside and you wonder what to do next, remember that the world is not saved by your trying harder, but neither are you a bystander in God’s design. You and I are invited to be part of the story, first to experience Christ’s love for ourselves and then passing it along. “The goodness of the Christian,” Rowan Williams writes, “is never a matter of achieving a standard, scoring high marks on a test. It is letting the wonder of God’s love knock sideways your ordinary habits, so that God comes through–the God who achieves his purpose by reckless gift, by the cradle and the cross.”  

Pray with me now, asking for God’s love to knock sideways all that holds us back; letting the miracle come to us, and flow through us, with tears of love.  

And the angels cried.

1Rowan Williams, Christmas Sermon, 2004 


Hate Has No Home Here

Following a violent rally in Washington, D.C., the Very Rev. Randolph MarshallHollerith, dean of Washington National Cathedral, and the Right Rev. Mariann Edgar Budde, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, issued the following statement: 


The racist and religious overtones surrounding the effort to discredit the presidential election were on ugly display in downtown Washington on Saturday night, just blocks from the White House. 


After a pro-Trump rally that aimed to overturn the will of the people in the presidential election, demonstrators and members of the Proud Boys ripped down Black Lives Matter banners outside two historically Black congregations, Asbury United Methodist Church and Metropolitan AME Church. In a chilling scene, one was set on fire as crowds chanted profanities


We reject the version of Christianity that seeks to provide a mantle of spiritual authority to the poison of White nationalism. Religious leaders who bless these rallies, or lend their voice to the effort to subvert democracy, make a mockery of our faith. What we are witnessing is nothing less than idolatry–the worship of someone other than God as though he were God. 


The blatant racism of this lost cause is alarming. The senior pastor of Asbury United Methodist Church was right to call the burning of her church’s banner a new version of cross burnings. White hoods have given way to black-and-gold militarism. Such hatred grieves the very heart of God, and we cannot turn a blind eye to such displays of white supremacy.


We believe that Black Lives Matter because Black lives matter to God. The Proud Boys and their hatred are not welcome here. 


For us at Washington National Cathedral and throughout the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, this is the season of Advent, in which we wait in expectation for the birth of Jesus, the Prince of Peace. This we know: God’s Kingdom is built with open hearts, not clenched fists. Its streets are paved with the living stones of love and justice. Racism and hatred have no place in God’s Kingdom, and we will grant them no home in our city. 


The Right Rev. Mariann Edgar Budde

Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington


The Very Rev. Randolph Marshall Hollerith

Dean of Washington National Cathedral

To Testify to the Light

Bishop Mariann preached this to the Christ Church, Georgetown congregation.

The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the broken hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners…
Isaiah 61:1-4

Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances…The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this. 
1 Thessalonians 5:16-24

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light…He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.  
John 1:6-8

Good morning, Christ Church! What a blessing to worship God with you in this holy season. I’m grateful to your good rector Tim Cole, the clergy and lay staff of Christ Church, the wardens and vestry for their leadership. It’s been a year of many challenges, and I pray God’s continued strength and encouragement as we make our way. I’m honored to preside at Confirmation and Reception during this visitation and I pray God’s blessing on those being confirmed and received. 

In honor of the confirmands and those being received, I’d like to explore with you one particular aspect of the Christian life, how we are to live as followers of Jesus. As was said of John the Baptist in this morning’s text, so, too, for us: we are to “testify to the light,” light in the symbolic sense of all that is good and just and true, all that speaks of hope and love, all that gives us reason to believe in a God who loves us even when we are not spared sorrow and suffering. 

Sometimes testifying to the light is easy because there is such palpable joy within and around us. Other times it’s challenging because life is hard and we can’t pretend otherwise. Our hearts are broken, our bodies are exhausted, or something has happened that we can’t smooth over with platitudes or positive thinking. 

The attorneys and judges in our company would remind us that we’re not to lie when we testify, never pretend or gloss over the truth. That’s not what testifying to the light looks like. It’s more an openness to receive light when it comes to us in the midst of challenge, and even to search for bits of goodness to sustain us through the harder times. 

There’s a story about Martin Luther King, Jr. that encapsulates what I’m trying to describe here. It comes from the early days of his public ministry, when as a young pastor in Montgomery, Alabama, he had been catapulted into the role of spiritual leader and logistical organizer for a city-wide boycott of the public transportation system. In Southern states at the time, Black Americans were only allowed to sit in the back few seats of buses and always had to give up their seat on demand for White people. For over a year, Black men, women and children chose to walk or carpool to work and school to protest the discrimination against them and bring about a change in the law. In the beginning there was a lot of excitement and energy and resolve among the boycotters, but as time went on the excitement wore off. People were getting tired and discouraged. Some of the White citizens took it upon themselves to harass and even attack the boycotters. Dr. King and his family started receiving threatening phone calls. One night their house was bombed. There wasn’t any social media in those days, but there was a lot of meanness in the air, inciting all manner of violence. 

One night, Dr. King couldn’t sleep. He sat for hours at his kitchen table, worrying about his children’s safety and about the people risking their jobs and even their lives in an effort that didn’t seem to be making an impact. As he tells the story of that night, King prayed aloud, telling God that he was at the end of his rope. The way ahead was dark and he couldn’t see. A lot of people were depending on him to lead and he didn’t know what to do. As he sat alone, slowly a warm feeling came over him. He sensed God’s presence and heard God’s speak to him. “Trust your instincts, Martin,” he heard God say. “Do what you know is right.” 

Dr. King rose from his kitchen table trusting that the little light he had was enough to take the next step, and then the next, and the next. After 381 days, the boycott succeeded in bringing an end to racial segregation on buses, one of the first important milestones in the long struggle for Civil Rights. King’s life was a testimony to the light in the midst of a lot of darkness in our country.

Let’s go a bit deeper now to consider the nature of darkness and light. It’s important to remember that there isn’t anything wrong with darkness in itself. Our lives begin and are nurtured in darkness. We need darkness as we need light. In the words of the psalmist, “Darkness is not dark to you, O God. The night is as bright as the day. Darkness and light to you are both alike.” But the defining characteristic of darkness is that when we’re in it, we can’t see. Light is what illuminates darkness. For the first Christians light became a powerful metaphor for Jesus himself, the one who comes as light into the world, a light that shines in darkness. Whatever light we’re given helps us find our way. 

Sometimes darkness seems to come over us like a cloud blocking the sun. It isn’t necessarily a bad thing–it can come in the form of a decision we need to make, or a horizon that we feel drawn to, or a feeling that somehow we’ve lost our way. So we stumble along in the darkness as best we can, unable to see. To testify to the light in times of darkness is not about manufacturing light, but looking for whatever flickers that we come our way. The novelist E. L. Doctorow famously said of the process of writing a novel, “It’s like driving in the car with your headlights on. You can’t see very far ahead of you, but you can make the entire journey that way.” 

There are times, however, when we enter the darkness by choice, in search of light, which is an act of love. We make the choice to enter darkness every time we show up for a friend or loved one in pain; when we are present and accounted for in challenging circumstances or among the people who unnerve us or even wish us harm; when we speak out for truth when it would easier to remain quiet; when we dare to offer whatever bits of hope we can muster in situations of seemingly endless suffering. Our presence can feel like the most inadequate of gifts in those times, but it may be the very lifeline that another needs. 

In my experience, it’s impossible to testify to the light by myself. I am not capable, on my own, of keeping my spirits up and my eyes focused on the light all the time. Sometimes I falter and lose hope; sometimes I am tempted to give in to despair; more important, sometimes the most honest prayer I can muster is the acknowledgement that I cannot see and I need help. LIke Dr. King at his kitchen table, it doesn’t do me any good in those times to pretend that I see it when I don’t. But as I acknowledge my blindness or lack of hope and offer all that’s in me to God, I am open to receive light from another source–be it in the kind gesture of another, a word of encouragement, an invitation to go through a door that I didn’t even know was there. Testifying to the light is a communal practice. I, for one, draw strength and courage from the example of others.

I conclude with two stories: one about searching for light in the darkest of places, and one of light that was closer than anyone realized. 

Hiskias Assifa was born and raised in Ethiopia. He now lives in Kenya, where he works as a peace negotiator for the United Nations. He also teaches courses on peacemaking at Brandeis University in Boston and Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, where a friend of mine studied with him. 

Hiskias Assifa spent years negotiating peace between the Hutu and Tutsi tribes of Rwanda. In late 1993, he and his team thought they had succeeded, after tribal leaders agreed to a policy of power-sharing throughout the country. Assifa left Rwanda satisfied with his work and grateful for the progress made for peace. In April of 1994, however, the government of Rwanda called on everyone in the Hutu majority to kill everyone in the Tutsi minority. Over the next 3 months, 800,000 Tutsis were murdered. Every person that Assifa had worked with to broker peace was now dead. 

The following year, he told the story of his presumed success and sober failure to the students of his peacemaking class at EMU, among them my friend. He also told them of his plans to return to Rwanda. “How can you go back?” his students asked. “What can you possibly do for peace in the face of such violence?” He replied, “I am a Christian. For Christians, hopelessness is not an option.”1 

Hiskias Assifa had no light of his own to bring to the devastation in the aftermath of genocide. But he went to one of the darkest places on the planet in search of light, in search of any possibility with which to begin again. He himself was not the light, but he returned to testify to the possibility of light in humanity’s darkest hour. 

Finally, a story of light that is as close as the person next to us. Among you stands one whom you do not know, John said of the one who was to come after him. He’s around here somewhere; he may even be standing next to you, but you can’t see him yet. The seeds of the future are planted in the soil of today, someone once said to me, and it’s our job to look for and protect those seeds as they grow unnoticed in our midst. 

There once was a monastery that had fallen on hard times. The monks were all getting older and there were no new monk prospects anywhere. Their way of life seemed to be dying. The abbot of the monastery, a kind and thoughtful man, decided to travel to a nearby town to seek the counsel of the town rabbi, a wise person and old friend of the abbot. But when he told the rabbi his plight, the rabbi commiserated, saying that the same thing was happening in the synagogue: the old ones were dying off and the young were no longer drawn to the religious life. 

As the two old men concluded their visit, sharing prayers and tears, the abbot asked one more time, “Is there no word of guidance you can give me?” “No, I am sorry,” responded the rabbi, “I have nothing. But I will tell you this: The Messiah is one of you.” 

The Messiah is one of us? How could that be, the abbot wondered as he returned to the monastery, as did all the other monks when he told them what the rabbi had said. For the next few days and weeks, the monks wondered–which one of us is the Messiah? Surely not Brother Aelred, he’s such a grump. But then again, he is almost always right in what he has to say. Or could the Messiah be Brother Joseph? Surely not. Brother Joseph is so insecure and nervous. But then again, his heart is as good as gold. May Brother Joseph is the Messiah. So it went. A monk or two even wondered if he himself was the Messiah. Definitely not, they concluded. But then again, with God, anything is possible. Could I possibly be the chosen one of God?

As time went on, the monks began to treat one another with extraordinary respect, on the off chance that one of them might be the Messiah. And on the off, off chance that they themselves might be the Messiah, they began to treat themselves with extraordinary respect. And the spirit of such respect came to pervade every aspect of the monastery’s life. Visitors to the monastery noticed that spirit and commented upon it. They were inexplicably drawn to it, as to a light shining in darkness. In time, some of the visitors inquired about life inside the monastery and what it would take for them to be part of it. Now the monastery is thriving once again, a beacon of light and love for all those who come through its gates.2

To testify to the light. To wait and watch for it in times of darkness. To seek it out and follow it, wherever the bits of light may lead. To be willing to go to the darkest places in search of light. And to be open to the light shining within us and others that we do not yet see. That is the Christian way of life, in which hopelessness is not an option, not because of us, but because of the light that shines in, through, and among us that the darkness cannot overcome.  

1 I heard the story of Hiskias Assifa from the Rev. Sarah Shofstal who studied with Assifa at Eastern Mennonite University.
2 I first read the story of the monastery in M. Scott Peck’s book, The Different Drum: Community and Peacemaking (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1987), 13-15.