No Way But Forward

by | Mar 21, 2021

Bishop Mariann preached this sermon to the congregation of Christ Church, Kensington on March 21, 2021.

The days are surely coming says the Lord when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors, when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt–a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity and remember their sin no more.
Jeremiah 31:31-34

Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit…Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say–‘Father, save me from this hour? No, it is for this reason that I have come. Father, glorify thy name.
John 12: 20-33  

Good morning, dear friends of Christ Church. I am blessed to be your friend in Christ, as well as your bishop. In the nine years I have served as bishop, you have been such steady and thoughtful spiritual companions, through your probing questions, commitment to Christian discipleship, devotion to one another, and desire to be a credible witness to the transforming love of God. I have great admiration and affection for your rector, Emily Guthrie, and I was grateful to be invited, along with my husband and mother, to join your vestry as they studied the history of race and faith in our country through the curriculum known as Sacred Ground. While it’s been a challenging, humbling, heartbreaking year in many ways,  you have been church–Jesus’ hands, feet, and heart in this world–through it all. Thank you.   

I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge the juxtaposition of grief and hope that we’ve witnessed in the past week. The litany of pain includes the horrific shootings in Atlanta and the increasing number of unaccompanied minors at our southern border, as well the less publicized suffering all around us and the struggles in our own lives. At the same time, hope, like the coming of spring, is all around us, as we begin to imagine and plan for our emergence from pandemic isolation. “I’ll go anywhere,” a friend said to me yesterday, “as long as it is forward.”  

I speak to you now about a kind of moving forward that is both hard and hopeful, challenging and life-affirming.   

Once when I was traveling by airplane, the pilot spoke to us from the cockpit. “Folks,” he said, “I’m sorry to say that there’s a lot of turbulence up ahead and the ride is going to be rough. So we’re not going to serve you beverages or food, and you’ll need to stay in your seats for the entire flight. I wish there was a way around, but we have no choice to go through it.”

As much as I dread flights like that, they symbolize a kind of forward movement that we’d rather not take but know we must because there is no other option. There’s no going back. There is only moving forward. 

Another story to underscore the same reality: When our younger son was around 8, he fell off a ledge that he shouldn’t have been on in the first place and broke his arm, badly. It was one of those breaks that involved protruding bones, and as soon as we got to the hospital, he was rushed to the surgical floor. Up until that point he had been in shock, but as he lay on the stretcher waiting for what was coming next, he started to panic. By sheer grace, the anesthesiologist who came to his side happened to be a member of the church I served and he knew our son. He quietly explained to this frightened little boy what was going to happen next. I watched in awe as our son took a deep breath and said, “Okay, let’s go. Right now!” There was no escape; there was only going forward. 

We’re coming to the end of Lent, and the drama of Jesus’ life story is building. Those of us who have re-lived this story with him year after year know exactly how it will end. Nothing from this moment forward will be easy. And in a passage that always takes my breath away, we hear Jesus pray, “Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say, ‘Father spare me from this hour?’ No, it is for this hour that I have come. Father, Glorify thy name.” 

Jesus is resolved. This is his path and there’s no point in him asking God to spare him from the cost of going forward, anymore a woman in childbirth can pray to be spared the pain of giving birth. There is no turning back. There is only going forward. 

When my husband and I were first married, we made plans to study Spanish and work for a year in Central America at a home for abandoned children.This was in the mid-1980s, toward the end of the Central American wars. Central America, as our families reminded us time and again, was not a safe place to live. But we were young, and we wanted to serve in a part of the world where being a Christian required courage. 

As our departure drew near, I began to feel afraid. With each day, the fear inside me grew. What on earth had I been thinking? What would happen to us in a war-torn land? 

Early one morning, as Paul lay with a fever due to an adverse reaction to one of the many shots we needed to take before leaving, I sat by myself trying to pray. I opened my Bible. That summer I’d  been reading a chapter from the Gospel of John each day, and I had come to John chapter 12. I read the words we just heard read, and in particular, the prayer that Jesus prayed: “Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say–‘Father, save me from this hour? No. . .” 

I don’t know how many of you have had this experience, but it was one of those moments when a passage of Scripture seemed to rise from the page and lodge itself into my heart. For that’s when I knew I couldn’t ask God to spare me from the source of my fear, because, in fact, I had chosen the very path that was now causing me to be afraid. It was too late to turn back; what’s more, I didn’t want to turn back. I didn’t want God to rescue me. What I wanted, and needed, was for God to give me strength to keep going in spite of my fear of the potential dangers ahead.  

The prayer that Jesus prayed and that he helped me to pray all those years ago and countless times since isn’t one that asks God to change our circumstances. It’s a prayer asking God to help us make it through what we know will not change. It’s about helping us become large enough inside to hold what’s being asked of us. As we pray it, it can feel as if we’re the grain of wheat Jesus talks about that needs to be buried in the earth so that it can be transformed. A part of us needs to pass through something, in order to make it over or through whatever it is we must face. 

The amazing thing is that in the praying of that prayer we are given what we need to move forward. We are changed into the kind of people who can ride out a storm, who can carry on when we’re weary; who can love when it costs. Through that prayer and our willingness to grow, be changed, and even to die a little inside so that something new can be born, we become more like Jesus in his sacrificial love for the world.

You know as well as I that this is a hard road to walk. It is, in fact, the way of the cross.  When we accept the cross that is ours to bear, when we offer ourselves and allow Jesus to change us into his likeness, then we align ourselves with his mission. We don’t need the world to change for us anymore. We don’t need other people to make us happy. We don’t need to have our way. Through him who strengthens us, we can live with love and peace in the world as it is, in our lives as they are, and help bring his love and peace to others. 

If you go back to the first Scripture reading for this morning from the prophet Jeremiah, you’ll read how Jeremiah speaks of the kind of transformation that occurs when we come to know God. That kind of knowledge isn’t only intellectual, although our minds are fully engaged. It’s a kind of heart knowledge. “I will put my law within them,” God says through the prophet, “and write it on their hearts.” The word we translate as law isn’t a set of instructions, but a way of being in the world, as companions–friends of God. 

I begin every Lent with hopes of centering myself in a few spiritual practices and abstaining from some of the things I enjoy perhaps a bit too much. I confess that few of those external disciples took hold for long, for reasons and excuses I won’t bore you with now. But one insight came to me at the beginning of Lent that has stayed with me, and in a quiet way has changed my relationship to myself and to God. 

I’m the kind of person that wakes up every morning with a to-do list in my head, and my inner critic wants me to feel inadequate from the moment my feet hit the floor. But this Lent, instead of listening to that voice, I ground myself in a brief prayer, reminding myself that Jesus is my friend and I am his. We will face whatever lies ahead together. 

In closing, I invite you to do the same. Hold in your heart whatever lies before you. Try to distinguish between the false standards that burden you and the real cross that you’re asked to carry. Where are you on the spectrum of acceptance as you look forward toward the things you cannot change? Some things can’t be avoided. When facing them, whatever they are, the most courageous prayer is for strength and courage to see you through. It was Jesus’ prayer. It can be yours and mine as well. 

Will you pray with me?

Lord, we can’t help but pray to be spared from the suffering and hardship of life, and we pray fervently for those we love and those hear about in suffering, that they may be spared. In any and all situations where suffering can be avoided, where we and others can be spared, please guide us to safety. But when the path forward is up the mountain, not around it; help us to climb it. When the path forward is the way of the cross, give us strength to carry on. When the path forward is like that of a seed dying in the ground so that new life may emerge, give us the assurance of your presence and love as we face the hardest things. Help us know that you are with us and for us, now and always.