In Honor of Patrick

For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.         
John 3:14-21


The 19th century American philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson would ask friends that he hadn’t seen for a long time “What has become clear to you since we last met?” 

That’s the question I want to ask you, friends of St. Patrick, although I’d rephrase it slightly: “What has become clear to you since we were supposed to meet this time last year?” I was scheduled to join you in celebrating the Feast of St. Patrick’s a year ago, right as the shelter-in-place mandates were taking effect, and for most of us, the pandemic became real. At the time, of course, we couldn’t imagine not gathering in person for worship for more than a few weeks at the most. I daresay there was a lot that we couldn’t imagine at the time that, in fact, came to pass.

What has become clear to you in the past year? What has become clear to us? 

Depending on where we’re situated, the pandemic and its reverberations have affected us differently, and so we don’t have one narrative, but many. In the news and on social media, this has been a week of looking back over the year. The statistics suggest widespread impact. Personal stories allow us to tell or hear what it’s like to lose a beloved parent, child, sibling, or spouse; to share or feel the fear of losing one’s job, or health care; to acknowledge the fatigue that paradoxically feels harder to deal with as the promise of relief is in sight, and also the hope that rises in us on a warm spring day, or when a loved one is vaccinated, or when we begin, at long last, to plan for a reunion with those we love. 

What has become clear to you? 

I spent time speaking with your good rector in preparation for today, and visiting your website, which is your front door now, the place of first encounter for those outside your community, and a place of meeting for you. I want you to know how grateful I am for all that you have done and are doing to remain strong and connected and focused on your call to follow Jesus, support one another in your walk with Him, draw others to him, and embody his love for the world. You have demonstrated a tremendous resilience and capacity to adapt in order to sustain your life and mission in this incredibly challenging time. I’m proud to be your bishop.

I’ve also spent time this week reading up on your patron saint, Patrick. I’ve always loved Patrick–we named our younger son after him–but I realized as this day approached that my knowledge of him was rather superficial, and I wanted to know more. I have a theory about congregations named for particular saints–based on my experience serving a congregation named for St. John the Baptist, and now as bishop of congregations named for all manner of saints–Margaret, Dunstan, Monica and James, Stephen, and so on. That is–over time, perhaps because of occasions like this when we take the occasion to celebrate and remember that person–a congregation takes on the charism and personality of its namesake. And I wondered how that might be true for you.

Kurt was kind enough to lend me a few books (and, I kid you not, recommended a VeggieTales video), and I found another. There’s a lot of lore and exaggeration in the tales about Patrick, as is common for the saints. At the core, however, is a story of young British boy taken from a privileged life, sold into slavery, who in the loneliness and hardship of his suffering had spiritual experiences that assured him of God’s love and the abiding presence of Christ with him, alongside him. After escaping from his captives and returning to Britain, Patrick hears a call to return to Ireland, which he did and he served there for the rest of his life.  

Some historians question whether Patrick actually wrote the poem attributed to him, but no one doubts that it expresses his spirituality, rooted in personal experience of Christ with him, and of God revealed in the grandeur of nature: 

I arise today
Through the strength of heaven;
Light of the sun, Splendor of fire,
Speed of lightning, Swiftness of the wind,
Depth of the sea, Stability of the earth,
Firmness of the rock.
 
I arise today through God’s strength to pilot me
God’s eye to look before me
God’s wisdom to guide me
God’s way to lie before me
God’s shield to protect me
From all who shall wish me ill
Afar and a-near
Alone and in a multitude
Against every cruel, merciless power
That may oppose my body and soul
Christ with me, Christ before me
Christ behind me, Christ in me
Christ beneath me, Christ above me
Christ on my right, Christ on my left
Christ when I lie down, Christ when I sit down
Christ when I arise, Christ to shield me
Christ in the heart of everyone who thinks of me
Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me
I arise today1

Patrick’s spiritual foundation is yours as well. It is there for you as your rock through everything that happens. Nothing can separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus, the one who came because God so loved the world that he gave himself. God doesn’t take–God gives. Love is God’s way. You’re not spared hardship and suffering any more than Patrick was spared. But you are never alone.

Patrick was also known for his kindness. He was truly kind–a gentle soul, well aware of his own shortcomings and sin. As a result he was slow to judge others, preferring instead to love them. He met people where they were, and worked with them to accomplish God’s purposes as best he could. One of the reasons people were drawn to him was how he made them feel in his presence.

You, too, are a community that values kindness. I feel it every time I am with you. There is a gentle and generous spirit here. It permeates both the congregation and school. I’m always happy to hear when a family chooses to send their children to St. Patrick’s school, because I know they will receive not only a superb education, but that they will learn, by example, the transforming power of kindness. 

Lest we imagine kindness cannot reside alongside challenge, one final charism of Patrick’s that I’ll mention, is a fierce passion for justice. Of all Patrick’s writings, only two letters survive. One is his Confession of Faith, in which he tells something of his life story, acknowledges his shortcomings, and gives testimony to his faith. The second is a letter he wrote to a British warlord, Coroticus, and his soldiers, after they had attacked a gathering of Christians in Ireland, killed many, and carried the rest into slavery. 

Patrick minced no words in his condemnation: “I don’t like to use forceful words and harsh language,” he wrote, “but I will do because the anger of God and the truth of Christ force me to.” He proceeds to condemn the soldiers’ action and make a comprehensive case for the abolishment of slavery. Moreover, Patrick wanted his letter broadly read throughout Britain. He wanted those enslaved to be returned, the dead to be mourned, the soldiers to repent of what they had done, and all in British elite society to be ashamed of the wealth they enjoyed through the exploitation of others.2

It’s not clear what impact Patrick’s letter had, but it gives us a window into his heart. He wasn’t afraid to speak and work for justice.  I see that same passion in this congregation. You are clear in your commitments to serve those who bear the brunt of our society’s inequities and you are among those whom Jesus blesses for your hunger and thirst for righteousness. 

There is more to say about Patrick and about you, as a congregation. But I will close by saying again how grateful I am for you and your witness.

One thing that has become clear to me since last we met is that by the grace and love of God, the abiding presence of Jesus, and the power of the Holy Spirit you have not only made it through a very difficult year, you have been, and remain true to your mission as Jesus followers. You have cared for one another and those around you with kindness. You have not wavered in your commitment to justice. 

I leave with the gentle invitation to rise each day and pray with Patrick. Remind yourself, as he did, that Christ is with you in everyone and everything, that you are loved as you are, and that you are called to kindness, justice, and joy. 

~~~
I Arise Today
2 Phillip Freeman, St. Patrick of Ireland: A Biography (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004).

Homily in Honor of the Rt. Rev. Barbara C. Harris

Thank you, all, for allowing me to be part of this service–to the Rev. Dr. Gayle Fisher-Stewart for organizing us, and to all who have offered your reflections. You all knew Bishop Barbara Harris far longer than I did. Your presence here is a living tribute to her life and legacy. In speaking I feel a bit like one of the laborers in Jesus’ parables who was invited to work for the last hour of the day and yet given the same wage as those who had toiled since dawn. 

Meeting Bishop Harris for the first time was also an experience of being afforded a blessing I had not earned. I will never forget the afternoon when she and the Rev. Nan Peete came to my house and we shared a meal. It was then that Bishop Harris decided, on the spot, to love me, and I couldn’t believe my good fortune. 

Her way with me was, of course, her way with everyone. She felt called to love everyone. Among the more extraordinary passages of her memoir, Hallelujah Anyhow, is a portion of a sermon she preached about her experiences in Greenville, Mississippi in 1965. She describes a man that she likens to Judas Iscariot. Apparently this man would attend all the mass meetings and church services of the movement and then go down to the police department and tell the authorities everything he heard. About this man she writes: 

Whatever might have moved him to betray his own oppressed people lay between him and God. But as surely as Judas Iscariot was loved by Jesus, so this man was within the circle of our Lord’s embrace as well.

Sadly, I never spoke to him. I never got to know him nor find out anything about his life. Had I been more sensitive, more perceptive, more like the Christ I ciam to follow, one day I might have engaged him in conversation. Instead I glared at him like some loathsome leper and I let the opportunity for some Christ-like encounter or some reconciling engagement slip by. . . I was more ready to judge than to understand; more ready to condemn than to forgive; more ready to be right than to be loving.1

No lest I, as a white person, imagine that in her kindness toward me and her desire to love as Jesus loves, Bishop Harris would let me off the hook, she was equally clear in her critique of those who mindlessly benefit from institutionalized racism. Writing of her high school years in an all-girls, and nearly all white, academically advanced school, she says this: 

The few blacks girls at the school learned to stick together and support one another, so I suppose good did come out of all the disappointments and rejection. I’m wary of saying, “It came out all right,” because that school treated us very poorly and it hurt. Just because we preserve through raciism and grow stronger in the face of discrimination doesn’t mean it was right in any way. . . The damnable thing about institutionalized racism is that well-meaning white folk don’t have to do anything overt to insure its perpetuation. If they just get up every morning and put one foot in front of the other, they will continue to benefit from their unearned white privilege at the expense and denial of people of color. . . to eradicate institutional white racism demands that people take intentional steps to identify how it permeates our society, recognize their complicity in it and do what they can to dismantle it. It is a continuous and arduous task. . .

She concluded this section on a word of hope and challenge: 

There is a remnant of God that lives and looks and speaks to the future in the minds of those who understand struggle; in the hearts of those who have dedicated their lives; in the hopes of the people for whom it is waged; in the fears of those against whom it is directed; and in the strength of those who will carry it out. 

Being in Bishop Harris’ presence, and reading her words now, inspires me to be about  that continuous, arduous task. 

This biblical passage that comes to my mind when thinking of Bishop Harris is a line from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. In describing himself and his unlikely calling to be an apostle of Jesus, Paul confidently declares, “By the Grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me has not been in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them–though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.” (I Corinthians 15:10) 

I was always struck by how comfortable Bishop Harris was in being herself–in the way she carried herself, the way she dressed. You could always find her at House of Bishops gatherings outside the meeting room, usually smoking a cigarette with a colleague with whom she disagreed on nearly everything, grateful for the companionship across vast differences. 

Bishop Harris died right as the pandemic was closing everything down. Bishop Gates and I were in conversation, knowing that there needed to be a service for her in Boston and at Washington National Cathedral. In the end, there was neither. There may be someday, but there’s also something powerful about what’s happening this week. For all around the country, as we begin to truly take stock of all that we have lost this past year, there are services like this commemorating Bishop Harris. We’re all here drawing upon her spirit and her faith to see us through. 

She has moved on to better things now–going from strength to strength in the mystery of what one day awaits us all. And she is here cheering us on, reminding us now what she said so many times as she lived: the power behind us is greater than the task ahead of us. 

Thank you, Barbara. May it be so.

~~~
1 Barbara C. Harris, Hallelujah Anyhow! (Church Publishing, 2018), p.57.

When Those in Authority Are Wrong

For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. 
John 3:14-15

The Benedictine nun and spiritual writer Joan Chittister is someone I often turn to when seeking wisdom and inspiration. I’ve been part of a number of soul-searching conversations lately across profound differences of life experience, and I find myself thinking of a pivotal moment in Chittister’s young life that she often refers to in her writings. 

Chittister was raised by an Irish-Catholic mother and Presbyterian step-father. They married in the 1940s, long before, Chittister writes, “ecumenism was even a word, let alone a virtue.” One day, when Joan was in second grade, she rushed home from school in order to speak with her mother before her step-father returned from work. The nun who taught her class had said that only Catholics go to heaven. When Joan shared this astonishing news, her mother quietly asked, “What do you think about that Joan?” Joan took a deep breath. “I think Sister is wrong.” “And why do you think Sister would say something that’s wrong?” her mother gently probed. Joan replied, “Because Sister doesn’t know Daddy.” Joan’s mother smiled. “That’s right, darling. Sister doesn’t know Daddy.”1

Chittister learned at a young age that those who speak with spiritual authority can be wrong. She discovered a locus of truth within her at odds with what her teacher told her. She was blessed with a mother who encouraged her to claim her truth, while at the same time not rejecting everything her teacher said. Neither Joan nor her mother thought that Sister was wrong about everything. She simply didn’t have all the evidence Joan had about her step-father, and therefore, about God.

At the time, neither Joan nor her mother had the power to openly challenge her teacher. Joan lived with the tension inside her until she was in a position to speak openly about what she knew was true. She later felt called to pursue her own vocation as a nun and teacher, and to be a critic of certain teachings of Roman Catholicism from within the Church in order to change it.  

The history of Christianity is full of examples of those in authority speaking on behalf of God in ways later recognized to be false or incompatible with Jesus’ teachings. Only when individuals and groups within the Church dared to challenge that authority did the Church’s teachings change. Such change never comes easily. Those who suffer most are the ones whose life experience lies beyond the conventional wisdom that will one day be rejected. 

I first hit that place of tension when I was 17. Because of a change in my family situation, I needed to leave the church community in which I had first come to know and accept Christ. Its leaders taught that only those who believed in Jesus in the precise way that we did were destined for salvation. They warned that for me to worship in the Episcopal Church that my mother attended, as I was about to do, was to put my soul in danger. That never made sense to me, but I wasn’t in a position to openly challenge what I was taught. Like Joan Chittister, I was blessed to have someone–in my case, an Episcopal priest–who helped me find a path of integrity. He said, “Mariann, if you wouldn’t condemn others for not walking the same path you do, rest assured that God wouldn’t, either.” I hear echoes of his words in our Presiding Bishop’s statement that if any teaching isn’t about love, it’s not about God. 

We’re living in a time when more and more people are simply unwilling to sacrifice themselves on the altar of church teachings that deny their full humanity. 

Some are rejecting the faith entirely that is rejecting them. Others remain and choose to speak their truth, while staying in relationship with an imperfect, evolving tradition of faith, allowing for genuine exchange and mutual transformation. It is a costly, often sacrificial path, for the sake of love, so that others coming up behind them might be spared the suffering they have endured. 

As a teenager, I was relieved to leave the rigid views of the church that raised me without having to take a public stand within it. Yet the Episcopal Church I joined is also far from perfect, and we need the prophetic challenge of those who dare to be themselves and claim their rightful place as beloved children of God. 

I give thanks for those of you who are willing to speak your truth so that this imperfect church of ours might move closer toward God’s dream for all humankind. We are a better church because of you. 

~~~

 1Joan Chittister, In Search of Belief (Liguori, Missouri: Liguori/Triumph Press, 1999), 12.

Meet New Diocesan Staff Members Amanda Anderson and Hazel Monae

Meet New Diocesan Staff Members Amanda Anderson and Hazel Monae

With thanksgiving and joy, we welcome two people to diocesan staff this month. Amanda Anderson will serve as Executive Assistant to the Bishops and Hazel Monae comes on board as our Missioner for Equity and Justice. After extensive search processes for both positions, with many strong candidates, we are excited that Hazel and Amanda will bring with their faith, professionalism, and creativity to the diocese as we continue walking the way of love.

Amanda Anderson, Executive Assistant to the Bishops

Amanda joins us with a wealth of executive assistant experience and administrative skills,  most recently having served as the Executive Assistant to the Mayor of Capitol Heights, Maryland. Amanda will manage the continued smooth functioning of the bishops’ office.

What drew Amanda to us was her desire to more deeply engage her faith with her work. “Throughout my career, I have maintained high performance standards within a diverse range of administration functions. I have proven myself to be solution-oriented, trustworthy, and a person full of initiative.” She is actively engaged in the work of her faith community having served in numerous leadership positions. 

Hazel Monae, Missioner for Equity and Justice

Hazel comes to us from Episcopal City Mission where she serves as Senior Manager of Engagement and Leadership Development. She has over 10 years of program development and facilitative leadership experience in the fields of racial equity, education, and community organizing. Hazel’s portfolio as Missioner for Equity and Justice will focus on our strategic plan priority to bravely uncover, understand, reckon with and act to dismantle racism within ourselves, our faith communities, the diocese and our localities. Hazel’s first official day on staff is March 8th. 

“I believe that we all must take an ethical approach to developing and engaging our church and society–moving us closer to God’s liberating dream for all people,” Hazel shared in her cover letter. “I am energized by your commitment to address racial injustice and to respond from within the values, ideals and framework of the Episcopal Church.” 

“This is an important season in the life of the diocese as we’ve entered the second year of strategic plan implementation,” says Bishop Mariann. Amanda and Hazel are welcome additions to your faithful, skilled, and passionate diocesan staff. I am honored to serve God and this diocese alongside them.”