In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light.
The eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
Good morning, Christ Church, Georgetown. It’s an honor to be with you on this beautiful June morning and on such a wonderful occasion in the life of this congregation and the lives of those of you who are to be Confirmed or Received into The Episcopal Church. A special welcome to family and friends here to support you, and to all guests. We are so glad that you are here.
I bring you greetings from the 85 congregations that, along with Christ Church, constitute the Episcopal Diocese of Washington. Together we are the collective witness of The Episcopal Church across the District of Columbia and four counties of Maryland, and we reflect the diversity of this region. Nearly every Sunday I pray with a different congregation. In recent weeks, I’ve worshiped in Dupont Circle and Southeast DC. Later today I’ll be at St. Mary’s in Foggy Bottom, the first Black congregation in our diocese. Next week I’ll be in Hyattsville, Maryland at one of our largest congregations, St. Matthew/San Mateo, whose members are predominantly immigrants from Spanish speaking countries, and later in the month at Christ Church in Clinton, Maryland, a small community in southern Prince George’s County.
My responsibility and privilege as your bishop is to steward our collective witness, do whatever I can to strengthen our congregations, support our leaders, and seek meaningful collaboration among us, as we all strive to know, love and follow Jesus and His way of love in this world. I’m very happy to be here today.
Let me take this opportunity to acknowledge with gratitude the leadership of Christ Church, the elected members of your vestry, and the many who serve in ministry here; including the dedicated team of Christ Church’s staff, clergy and lay who give of themselves so generously, and especially your good rector, Fr. Tim Cole. Please join me in an expression of gratitude for him and all who serve.
I’d like to begin my reflection with a biblical text from the same letter the Apostle Paul wrote to the Christians in Corinth, Greece that we just read. It’s believed that Paul wrote this letter no more than twenty years after Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, so it is one of our oldest Christian texts. What I want to share with you is part of a section in the letter in which Paul is acknowledging the real hardships of his ministry, his failures and that of others. But then he pivots to a statement of hope, why it is that, despite all that, he does not lose heart:
For it is the God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.
2 Corinthians 4:6
Notice where the initiative comes from in what Paul is describing: It is the God who said, Let light shine out of darkness (harkening back to the magnificent story of Creation that we just heard); God who has shone in our hearts, to give knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.
If there is one thing I hope you remember from my words today it is this: that any spiritual experience you and I are blessed with in our lives comes at God’s initiative, when God comes to us as light shining in darkness or in any of the countless ways we might experience God. We don’t make them happen; they aren’t a reward for good spiritual behavior or correct belief. On the contrary, Paul says: we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it’s clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.
One of the dynamics Paul is describing for us is the power of a spiritual experience–however it comes to us–followed by an inevitable sense of let down, because the feelings associated with it typically don’t last. In that way, it’s similar to other experiences when we are at the top of our game or on top of the world–until we’re not. In the emptiness that follows, we’re tempted to dismiss the power and goodness and joy and love that we felt before, as if it had never happened or wasn’t real.
What Paul is saying to us is that those moments when we feel most alive, and connected, and inspired and loved–they are real, but the feelings associated with them come and go. We are like clay jars, he says, ordinary containers that are blessed from time to time to hold extraordinary grace. What we learn, over a lifetime, is that what defines the depth and breadth of our faith, as well as our capacity to love and pursue anything of significance in this life, is how we persevere when we don’t feel anything at all, when all we have is the memory of what we once felt.
The church musician Mark Miller wrote a song about what I’m describing here, based on a poem that was found scratched on the wall of a World War II concentration camp, with the refrain:
I believe in the sun. I believe in the sun, even when, even when it’s not shining.
I believe in love. I believe in love, even when, even when I don’t feel it.
I believe in God, even when, even when God is silent.1
Such statements of belief in emptiness are built on other moments when, in fact, the sun was shining, when love was deeply felt, and when God did speak in ways that prompted belief–not merely as affirmation of an idea, but as something, and someone, real, that can be trusted, even in absence.
So let’s think about those moments, shall we?
Looking back on your life thus far, call to mind if you can, an experience that you would define, on your own terms, as holy, or sacred, something that drew you out of yourself and put you in touch–if only for a moment–with the mystery of life and love and power that lies beyond you, an beyond this world, but somehow came to you in that moment. Perhaps you have had many such moments. If so, which ones stand out in your memory?
When I asked this question to those preparing for Confirmation during the years when I was a parish priest, two categories of responses came up over and over again. First, there were experiences of holiness in nature, be it while trekking through the wilderness, walking the beach, or contemplating the stars on a clear night. For those who gave voice to such experiences, they were describing more than a fun hike or a pretty sky. Something touched them in the moments they gave voice to; something came to them that spoke to them of the mystery that we name as God.
The other common response was of sacred moments mediated through the influence or presence of other people. One young man spoke of his grandparents and how he felt in their presence–loved unconditionally, and prized by them. “Once I watched them walking together, holding hands on the beach,” he said, “and I felt such love for them–a love that felt bigger than I’ve ever felt before. It felt holy.” It was human love, but more than that–a greater love experienced through other people.
These are universal human experiences of holiness, mediated through the grandeur of the natural world and the gift of human love. It shouldn’t surprise us, then, that the sacred texts of our faith tradition speak of God as Creator, the source and the ground of all life, revealed to us, in part, through the grandeur and power of Creation. Such an assertion doesn’t negate or refute science or evolutionary theory; it is rather a poetic, inspired expression of the great mystery at the heart of all existence that was created in goodness and love.
Second, in what is the fundamental assertion of the Christian faith, when God wanted to fully reveal divine love to human beings, for good reason God came to us as a human being, and dwelt among us in the person of Jesus. For it is through other human beings that we first experience and learn love, and it is often through human love that we know something of divine love–the source of all love mediated through human love. As we sang in the great hymn attributed to St. Patrick: “Christ in all the hearts that love me.”
I’d like to highlight one other way we can experience God, in addition to experiences of holiness in Creation and through the love of others, and that is, through a sense of call, the feeling that we’re being asked to do something or to go somewhere, to step out into the unknown, or step up to do something brave.
Here I’d like to speak personally. For the defining spiritual moment in my life was such an experience; and it remains my touchstone–my true conversion experience, in that I felt Christ speak to me, and I responded. It happened a long time ago, when I was 17, but I can remember how I felt as if it were yesterday, in part because other experiences in the years since have felt like echoes of what happened to me then.
I was already a practicing Christian at the time. I had been attending a church that put a high premium on conversion experiences and making a conscious commitment to surrender one’s life to Christ, which I had done, although I never felt as if my conversion was as powerful or complete as others in my church. Due to circumstances in my family, I had a difficult decision to make. My father and step-mother were divorcing, and both offered to let me live with them, but for reasons I won’t go into here, neither possibility felt safe. The minister of my church offered to let me live with him and his family, which I did for several months.
The last thing I wanted to do was leave my high school midway through my junior year. I was in love with my boyfriend at the time. Most importantly I had found, and was utterly devoted to, an alternative family among my friends and the adult mentors in my life.
But a voice inside kept telling me that I couldn’t stay; that I had to go. And I knew where. It was time for me to return to my mother, whom I had left when I was 10. That’s a story in itself, but at 17 I had no doubt that this was what I needed to do–even though I didn’t want to, and every authority figure in my life at the time, including the minister of my church, were encouraging me to stay. I knew that I had to leave the people and the life I loved.
Externally, I had never felt so alone. Internally, though, I felt guided and loved by the spiritual presence of God. It felt like light shining in darkness; like the love of Jesus, assuring me that, as He said to His first disciples, that He would be with me, no matter what.
For the first time in my life, though certainly not the last, I learned that believing in Jesus is less a matter of what I think about Him (though I’m a big fan of knowledge) but of stepping out in faith when He summons me to trust Him, even when what He was asking was the very thing I didn’t want to do. It wasn’t an easy journey, and I never expected that it would be, but I am who I am today largely because of the decision to follow what I heard and felt in my heart as a holy call. Whenever that same feeling comes round again, I do my best to pay attention, and follow, even when it’s hard.
So I’ve described for you three broad ways we can experience the power of God, the way divine love is mediated through other people, and an internal sense of summons. I hope that as I’ve spoken, examples from your life have come to you. My prayer is for you to trust those moments as real, as a revelation of God for you, as the Creator of all that is good in this world, of Jesus’ presence and love for you, and of the Spirit’s power to move in and through you in ways large and small.
In closing I’d like to speak briefly about the importance of our response. For while God is the one who initiates, through holy moments and experiences, how we respond to those encounters determines what kind of Christian, or person of faith we will be.
Again, remember that wherever we’re blessed by an experience that we would define as holy, God is the initiator. God’s love for us in Jesus is unconditional–there’s nothing we can do to cause him to love us more or less, and God will never stop reaching out to us in love, because God is love.
But our love for God–well, that’s on us. We have choices to make in response to God. We can choose the path of plausible deniability, that is, to dismiss the authenticity or significance of our spiritual experiences. Or we can choose the path of a deeper relationship with God, through prayer, study of Jesus’ life and teachings, and learning from Christians whose love and faithfulness inspire us. A relationship with God is not that different from any other relationship in the sense that it grows deeper and more meaningful if we tend to it.
In a moment, those of you who are to be confirmed and received will stand before the altar of God to recite the ancient words handed down to us, words of faith and commitment. As you do, remember the most sacred, holy moments of your life as your touchstone.
Then I will invite the rest of you to stand and reaffirm your faith, using an ancient credal statement of belief. Everytime you hear me ask if you believe, think of the word trust. Can you put your trust in God, in Jesus and in the Holy Spirit today? Then when I ask the questions that refer to practices of life, think of them as your response to God, and ways to draw closer from your side, to grow in faith and knowledge about the One who calls you by name, and giving God in Christ more to work with through you, in love for this world. No matter what you do or don’t do, Jesus is with you always, to the end. He invites you, invites all of us, to be with Him. It is up to you, and to me, to respond to love and invitation, not once, but again, and again, and again.