Bishop Mariann preaching on The Gospel of Your Life at Washington National Cathedral on Sunday, August 29
When the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.) So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” He said to them, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written,‘This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines. You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.”Then he called the crowd again and said to them, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.” For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”
Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
The title of this sermon is “Discovering the Gospel of Your Life.”
Throughout I will be posing a number of open-ended questions, each of which are invitations into an intentional exploration of your life and your faith that you can always do on your own, or you can take part in one of two offerings this fall through the Diocese of Washington’s School for Christian Faith and Leadership. One of the offerings is a six-session series called Discover, designed for a small group or entire congregation to take together; the other, called Explore, is a self-guided, online course. Information about both is on the School for Christian Faith and Leadership website.
I make this invitation well aware that — amid all that your life demands of you, how busy you are, the challenges you face, and the enormity of suffering we see all around us (and this was a particularly difficult week) — personal faith exploration can seem like a luxury that you simply don’t have time for. If that’s true for you, I understand. Yet questions of faith and self-awareness, while not always urgent, keep coming back to us. They are the questions, as the poet David Whyte suggests,“that have no right to go away, for they have to do with the person we are about to become; they are conversations that will happen with or without our conscious participation.”1 They are the questions that determine what kind of person we will wake up to be tomorrow.
Let me clarify what I mean by “Discovering the Gospel of Your Life,” word by word, starting with the first.
When we discover something, it’s helpful to remember that nothing has changed in the material world. What changes is our awareness of something whose existence had been there all along. In most cases, what we discover others have long known about — a common observation among the people whose ancestors were in the Americas centuries, if not millennia, before Europeans discovered what was for them a New World. In our personal lives, what we discover about ourselves is generally not news to those around us, which is why increasing our self-awareness always involves allowing others to tell us what they see in us that we cannot.
One of my favorite examples of this is an exchange between two characters of a movie that came out about twenty years ago entitled The Legend of Bagger Vance. Matt Damon plays Rannulph Junnah, a professional golfer in the early 20th-century, who is attempting a comeback after his life hit rock bottom as a result of what he experienced in the trenches of World War I. Will Smith portrays Bagger Vance, a mysterious man who befriends Junnah when he was all but lost to alcohol and despair and slowly helps him heal, while serving as Junnah’s golf caddie and coach. In one scene, Junnah is playing in an important golf tournament, and he is way off his game. He turns to Bagger Vance and says, “This is getting embarrassing.” “Oh no sir,” Bagger Vance replies, “It has been embarrassing for some time now.”
It’s good for us to have truth-tellers like this, especially when the truth is hard to hear.
While what we discover about ourselves is sometimes embarrassing or even shameful, at other times the discovery is unexpectedly affirming of the good in us that we can’t see or tend to minimize. When others name our goodness, it can feel like a revelation to us, a new discovery. Conversely, one of the easiest ways for us to bless those around us is to take the time to point out their goodness. For they may not see it, or allow themselves to accept and live more deeply from that part of who they are.
So first question: what do you suppose that others see in you that you don’t? And what might change for you as a result of your knowing what others know about you?
There is a lot of energy being expended in our country now — and in our churches — to better understand aspects of our history, specifically the roots of the persistent, pervasive racial inequities in our society; and there is an equal amount of energy being expended actively trying not to know these things, or teach them to our children. There are implications in what we, as individuals and a society, choose to know or not know about who we are. But the process of discovery only affects our awareness of what’s true about us. The truth exists, whether we choose to know it or not.
Now let’s skip over to consider the last two words of this sermon’s title: your life.
The parts of your life that I’d like to focus on are these: first, the arc of your life story and where you see yourself on that arc; second, the recurring patterns and stories through which you interpret your life; and lastly, the aspects of your life that you cherish most — what you love about being you.
Starting with the arc: Picture in your mind’s eye the image that shows up when you’re on an airplane, telling you where you are in relation to your final destination. Imagine that arc represents your life. Where are you on that arc in any given part of your life? Are you at the beginning, in the middle, or near the end? Having some sense of that puts a lot of other things in perspective.
Years ago, after dropping one of our sons off at college in Chicago, I gave the slightly older son of a co-worker a ride from Madison, Wisconsin back to Minneapolis. It’s a four-hour drive, so we had time to talk, and I asked him about his life. He had graduated from college a few years earlier, and admittedly, he was struggling, as is common in young adulthood, with loneliness and vocational drift. At one point he said, a bit tongue-in-cheek, “I think I’m having my quarter-life crisis.” He expected me, as someone nearly twice his age, to smile at this, and I did, but I could tell that his struggle was real. I was also struck by his awareness of where he was in life–at the end of the first quarter. As in a football game, there is a lot of life ahead at the end of the first quarter, and he knew that. He also knew that the clock was ticking and that he wasn’t an under-grad any longer, with professors and parents telling him what to do next. It was time to make some important decisions, and they were his to make.
No matter where we think we are on our life’s arc — and of course we don’t really know — we don’t have time to waste, do we? I’m reminded of a story Anne Lamott tells of going shopping for clothes with her friend Pam, who was undergoing cancer treatment at the time. When Anne asked Pam if the dress she’s tried on made her hips look too big, Pam slowly replied from her wheelchair, “Annie, I don’t think you have that kind of time.”2 No matter where we are on our life’s arc, some things are worth pursuing and some are not.
The second aspect of your life that I invite you to consider are the recurring patterns that you have come to recognize as part of your life story. Think, for example, of when in casual conversation you hear yourself say, “Well, that’s the story of my life” to describe certain things that always seem to happen to you. In my case, for example, why it is that whenever I choose a check-out line in a grocery store, I always seem to wind up in the slowest one? Or when I have a biking accident, as I did last week, why is it always my fault and when I’m within walking distance to my destination? I need to discover the answer to that question before I get back on my bike!
Incidentally, our younger son, Patrick, like his mom, was accident-prone as a kid, to put it mildly. But some of his accidents truly defied explanation. They were so bizarre that by the time he reached high school, his friends began to refer to them as PRIs, or Patrick Related Incidents, which to this day is what everyone in his life calls the mishaps that seem to find him.
So what are the patterns of your life? Are you the person who never wins at anything, or do you always win? Do you make friends easily, or does it take a long time? Would you say that you are a glass half-empty kind of person, or a glass half-full? And what would others say?
While some of these patterns are relatively harmless and tend to be exaggerated, others are quite powerful and have real implications for how we experience and interpret our lives. Once a pattern is ingrained and the story is set in our minds, it takes considerable effort to change it, even if the data supporting it is suspect, or when what was once true about us isn’t anymore. The desire to make a change in a life pattern is often a sign that change is coming, perhaps because we’re tired of a given storyline that doesn’t fit us anymore. Or it could be that the Spirit of God is beginning something new.
The third aspect of your life that I invite you to consider is what you love best about being you — what you love to do, the things that cause you to lose track of time, the people who make your hearts sing, the places that speak to you of home, or adventure, or joy. Another way to identify this part of your life is the deep sense of purpose you feel when you’re doing what truly matters to you, the fulfillment and satisfaction of knowing that the gifts God has given you are being put to their use — even when, or perhaps especially when, the effort involved requires real sacrifice on your part. (This morning’s Washington Post tells the story of Nicole Gee, age 23, one of the 13 Marines killed at the Kabul airport this week. A few days before she died, she had posted a photo of herself on Instagram holding an infant of an Afghan refugee family. Her caption read, “I love my job.”) Your dreams show up here, what you hope for, what you really want for yourself and for others, so much so that you’d give up a lot of other things for that one pearl of great price.
That goodness in you, the part of you that you love, brings me now to the central word of this sermon title — gospel. Derived from the Old English, god-spell, it’s root meaning is “good story,” translated from the Latin, evangelium and the Greek euangelion, also the root of our words evangelist and evangelical. Christians are those who come to believe that Jesus of Nazareth was born into this world “as good news of great joy for all people.”
The Bible contains four gospels of Jesus’ life, but what about the gospel of yours?
Part of your gospel is revealed in your innate goodness, your good story, the good news you bring to others simply being you. One of the first Christian theologians famously said that the glory of God is a human being fully alive.” “I have come that you might have life,” Jesus said, “and life in abundance.”
But another part of your life’s gospel may be, paradoxically, where you have experienced, or are experiencing now, your vulnerability, or life in its harshest terms. The good news isn’t in the sin or sorrow or pain, but in the good that can be wrenched out of it, or the ways that grace and goodness shows up for you when you least deserve it, or as you are walking through a long, lonesome valley. Even a fleeting moment of grace can carry you a long way, giving you just enough to keep going.
Do you have that kind of good news story to tell, I wonder? These are our resurrection stories — not of dramatic rescue, but of new life rising from the ashes of what was lost. Sometimes we don’t even have that story to tell, but somehow it can be enough to allow ourselves to feel what we feel, with no need to pretend that it doesn’t hurt, and to experience something of love in the midst of the pain.
Nothing I have said thus far has been explicitly Christian. Intentionally so, because what I am attempting to describe is universal. What makes your life story, or mine, explicitly or intentionally Christian is when we find ourselves drawn to the story of Jesus, through which we come to interpret and go deeper into the meaning of our own. For a Christian, Jesus’ life becomes, in the words of a Christmas carol, our life’s pattern. His teachings inform our worldview. Jesus Related Incidents become our own. Admittedly, this takes time, and effort. This isn’t drifting or dabbling on the spiritual path; we’ve made a choice. But there’s mystery involved, because more often than not, it feels for most Christians as if He has chosen us. The invitation to follow comes from him, or as often, from the compelling example of another person who is a Jesus follower who inspires us and we seek to emulate.
I’m reminded here of something the late Archbishop of El Salvador, Oscar Romero, is reported to have said to the priests under his charge: Your life may be the only gospel that the people will ever know. I’m fairly certain that what he meant, if, in fact, it was Romero who said it, is that when working among subsistence farmers, the priests in El Salvador needed not merely to preach the message of Jesus, but to embody it for those who might never be in a position to read about Jesus for themselves. St. Paul writes a similar exhortation in his letter to the Philippians: “Live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.” (Philippians 1:27) Live, in other words, in such a way that people know who Jesus is by your example. This is the vocation of all who call ourselves Christian.
What I know about living the gospel, however, is that it is as much a revelation to me as it is to those around me. I don’t mean this abstractly, but in the most concrete terms. From time to time, a gospel story or teaching moves from something I’ve read and know in my mind to something else entirely. It takes up residence inside me and becomes, for a time, the lens through which I see and understand my life and through which I experience God. It becomes the gospel of my life.
I could give you any number of examples — the stories of Jesus that have most shaped my life, but to demonstrate how the process of seeing our lives through his teaching works, let me simply point you back to the gospel text we just heard and that’s printed in your bulletin.
In the text, Jesus is having an argument with a group of people referred to as the Pharisees, who were among the most disciplined, rigorously observant Jews of Jesus’ day. The Pharisees are often Jesus’ sparring partners. He admired them for their diligence in religious practice, for Jesus himself was an observant Jew. But he differed with them, sharply at times, whenever he felt that their outward expressions of faith did not reflect an inner humility before God and compassion for their fellow human beings. Like the Jewish prophets before him, Jesus hated religious elitism and the hypocrisy of religious leaders who kept up the appearances of piety while failing to love God and neighbor, which is at the heart of the Torah. His invitation here is to a life of integrity — of an inner life consistent with outward appearances. In the gospels there are numerous examples of Jesus related incidents demonstrating and teaching us the importance of “walking our talk.”
Discovering the gospel of your life is thus an invitation to go deeper into the mystery of your life’s story — its arc, patterns, and essential goodness — in conversation with Jesus’ story. Over time, the conversation frees you to become more fully you. For the change isn’t an external rearranging of your life’s circumstances, at least not a first. Consistent with how Jesus lived and taught, it is an internal experience of being given new eyes and ears with which to see and hear what’s all around you that’s been there all along.
So I end with where I began, inviting you to consider a few questions on your own or in conversation with others: Where are you in the arc of your life? What time is it, and what don’t you have time for anymore? What patterns and themes do you notice and are there any you are ready to change? What do you love most about who you are and when has love shown up for you when you needed it most?
And should you sense that Jesus is inviting you, for the first or the hundredth time, into a deeper conversation with him through the stories of his life and teachings, I hope that you accept it, so that his arc, his life patterns, his good news might inform and deepen your own. Then, through your life, others will see and know the love and mercy of God that has been with us all along.
May it be so. God bless you as you discover and wholeheartedly live the gospel of your life.
1 David Whyte, What Questions Should We Be Asking Ourselves.
2 Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life (Anchor Books, 1995).