I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name. I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.
Jesus said to his disciples, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine grower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.” “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.
Good morning, St. John’s. What an honor to be among you as you begin a season to celebrate 150 years of ministry. I’ve had the pleasure of knowing and working alongside many of you during my 12 years as bishop, and it’s wonderful to be with you today. For those I haven’t met or greeted personally this morning, let me say how glad I am that you are here with us in worship, and a part of this vibrant community of faith and service. St. John’s is a congregation with both breadth and depth, with a commitment to living the gospel imperatives and known throughout the community for your sacrificial service and generosity in your community, in welcoming and supporting refugee families, addressing food insecurity, gun violence prevention, and in your efforts to seek lasting peace and justice in Israel/Palestine. My husband Paul and I are among those who have had the privilege to travel with Sari and a group from St. John’s to Sari’s homeland, and it was a life changing experience.
Sari Ateek was new to his post when I first came, and his friendship and collegiality means the world to me. I know him, as you do, to be a thoughtful, spiritually wise and open-hearted man, gifted as a leader with passion, intelligence, and artistic creativity. He is a good listener, willing to learn from his mistakes, try new things, while always remaining true to the core principles that guide him as a disciple of Jesus. I wonder if you might join me in acknowledging him and his leadership with gratitude.
You are blessed with a gifted leadership team, your clergy Sarah Reynolds and Anne Derse, and lay leaders: Chris Martin, Dawn Molloy, Beth Campbell, Sharon Lopilato, Shannon McNeil, Cesar Osegueda and Shilisa Pineda. I’m thrilled that Jason West, a good friend, is serving you now as interim director of music ministries. You are blessed with strong lay leaders on your vestry led by Kevin Kehus and Janet Hall, and for quite some time a 150th Anniversary Celebration Team has been laboring on your behalf led by Rob Hartman. I am in awe of all that they have prepared for you and the wider community of Bethesda in the coming year.
I bring you greetings and the assurance of prayers from your friends across the diocese, and specifically from the congregation of St. George’s, in the Glenn Dale neighborhood of Prince George’s County, also celebrating their 150th anniversary as a congregation. I was with them just yesterday. I’ll be with two other congregations this month also celebrating milestone anniversaries. For many of us, it seems, this is a time of celebration. It is also a time when we feel called to acknowledge of our history as a church in both its strengths and weaknesses, its embeddedness in the sins and virtues of our nation from its colonial roots forward, and I pray, a collective rededication to know and follow Jesus and walk in His Way of Love wherever He leads.
I have two things on my heart to share with you this morning.
The first is a memory from my first days as a seminary student back in the early 1980s. I was 24 years old, and I entered seminary with almost no knowledge of the Bible, even though I had come to faith as a teenager in a church that labeled itself as “Bible believing.” I then found my way to The Episcopal Church where I was very active. In college I worshiped and worked alongside Roman Catholics in various social justice movements, and then I spent two years in Tucson, Arizona, as part of a young adult service corps in the United Methodist Church, serving economic migrants from the Rust Belt and Central Americans fleeing civil wars in their countries.
I was a Christian. I loved and wanted to follow Jesus. It wasn’t that I didn’t read the Bible at all. I must have dipped into it from time to time, and I certainly heard it read every week in church. But I was conflicted. You see, when I left the Bible believing church of my teenage years, I was also rejecting what’s known as “biblical inerrancy,” the notion that every word in the Bible is true in the objective factual sense, and without contradiction. Moreover, that every word of the Bible was dictated directly from God, and thus to be believed without question. Even as a teenager, I knew that I couldn’t believe that. It made absolutely no sense to me, and it didn’t take much to point out the fault lines in that kind of reasoning.
In The Episcopal Church and Roman Catholic churches, I found breathing space and more intellectual room to make my way, but I still didn’t know what to do with the Bible. I didn’t even want to spend that much time reading it. So I read a lot of other books instead, books about faith and spirituality and justice. I was inspired by people who were, for all accounts, passionate about their faith, and sometimes I would hear church biblical readings like the ones that Sari selected for today that inspired and moved me. Nonetheless, I wasn’t all that interested in the rest of the book.
So there I was, in my first year in seminary, about to study both the Old Testament as Christians call it, or the Jewish biblical texts, and the New Testament, or Christian biblical texts–each set for an entire year. Truth be told, I was ready, not only to read the Bible, but to study it in its entirety, in its historical context, and put a kind of scaffolding together in my head so that individual passages or even entire books could be understood as part of the whole.
To my astonishment what I discovered was both messy, complicated, and contradictory, AND beautiful, poetic, courageous and inspiring. There were whole centuries, it seemed, when the so-called people of God got things wrong, and when the followers of Jesus, in their words, advocated behaviors that were antithetical to what the man said, AND there were accounts of such breath-taking acts of faith, sacrificial love, forgiveness, acknowledgment of mistakes, repentance and new understandings. All of it, right there–the beauty alongside the pain; the love amidst hate and warfare; the powerful teachings of forgiveness and mercy, and ample evidence as to how even the most devout of followers are in need of them. Miraculously, courageously, the people who eventually put these ancient texts into the order we have today seemed to have no need to hide any of it, but to lay it all out for us to read. And did I mention that it was messy?
There were a few biblical fundamentalists in my class, and one, in particular, argued with our professors nearly every day for this first semester. (I couldn’t stand her at the time, and she is now one of my closest friends and a leader in this diocese.) In fact, I watched as all my classmates had their assumptions about the Bible shaken and eventually transformed.
For me, it was sheer liberation. I was so relieved to discover that the Bible was a complicated and contradictory as I was, filled with the highest of human aspirations and examples of the worst of human behavior, and everything in between, and through it all, God’s WORD, God’s truth, God’s beauty, God’s reconciling, merciful, righteous, love shone through; that following Jesus was as much a struggle and a journey of trust and learning and making mistakes and learning again and growth for his first followers and it was for me and those around me.
I thought–okay, I can do this, and I can honestly say when I stand at my ordination and process that both the Old and New Testament contain all that’s necessary for salvation, because they tell the story of a people as broken and beautiful as we are through which God chooses to work and accomplish amazing things, in worlds as troubled and full of sin as ours, yet also through which the grace and love and mercy can shine.
I share this with you, in part, because I want to encourage you to read your bibles thoughtfully, prayerfully, and in full expectation that God will speak to you through its words. In addition, I know that a big part of your year of celebration is to acknowledge St. John’s past, some of which, as with all the congregations of our diocese, breaks your heart. But we’re all learning that there’s nothing to be gained by covering over the sins of our ancestors, any more than denying our own complicity with the evils of our day. With sin acknowledged comes the need for restitution, and God willing, the possibility of healing and new life.
This is the story of the human race, and of people of faith across time and culture. Through it all, God did not give up on our forebears and God does not give up on us. Jesus’ living, loving, liberating spirit is with us as it was with them.
Acknowledging and even embracing the messiness of our biblical heritage frees us to acknowledge and embrace the messiness of our own lives, and of our church, and of this world, and still have hope and confidence in the love of God revealed in Jesus. It emboldens us to live as honest, humble and courageous Christians, accepting our vulnerabilities and our sin as part of who we are. God is at work in us, and through grace we can grow and change, learn from past mistakes and sins and strive to do better, inspired by the power and grace of Jesus. We are called to live our lives as best and as faithfully as we can where we are now in the great arc of humanity and the smaller arcs of the communities to which we belong.
Which brings me to the second thing on my heart to share with you on this day–a series of questions for you to keep on the back burner in the months ahead, on the assumption that this commemorative, celebratory year might also be a season of spiritual renewal and rededication.
Speaking first to you as individuals:
- Where are you now, in the overall arc of your life, or in a particular part of your life?
- How far back and far ahead can you see?
- What are you dealing with from your past, and what lies before you?
- What is your life asking of you now?
- Speaking spiritually, what do you need in order to live into the person God is calling you to become?
- Specifically, what rhythms or practices do you need in your life to better seek God’s presence and wisdom, be open to experience the mercy and love of Jesus, and follow the guidance of the Holy Spirit?
Answers to these questions don’t fall from the sky. They can’t be answered when we’re on the run, or in a time of intense crisis or activity because whatever we’re dealing with then requires our full focus. (Like the time my colicky son’s pediatrician looked at me and said, “You need more sleep.”) These are the kinds of questions that require a bit of time and space, when you can breathe a bit slower and take stock, and when you can consciously invite Jesus into that space with you, or better yet, to acknowledge His presence already with you, open yourself to experience His love, and seek His guidance. If we’re honest, busyness can also be addictive and a means of avoidance, and yet, in the words of the poet David Whyte, “these are the questions that patiently wait for you, and have no right to go away.”1
Then, to those of you God has called to leadership in this community, I ask the communal version of the same:
- Where is St. John’s now in the overall arc of its life as a community of faith, or on a particular arc of its life?
- How far can you see, looking back, and looking ahead?
- What of the past are you dealing with, and what lies before you, as a community of faith?
- Spiritually speaking, what does the community need to live into Gods’ dream for you?
And perhaps most important:
- What rhythms and practices does the community need as you seek God’s presence and wisdom, experience more deeply the mercy and love of Jesus, and follow the guidance of the Holy Spirit?
When I asked Sari to choose Scripture passages for today, the ones we heard read and are printed in your bulletin are what he chose. I am persuaded that some of the answers to the questions patiently waiting for you are found in these texts.
In both the letter to the Ephesians and the Gospel of John we hear a call to a robust, personal and transformative relationship with Christ.
I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.
Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit.
As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.
For all that you strive to do and accomplish as followers of Jesus in this place, please take the time to receive from the living Christ, and to draw your strength from him. Tend to your souls. Find those moments throughout the day when you can consciously stop, breath, and pray. Teach your children how to pray, as well as to serve.
Remember that it is God’s Spirit at work in and among you, accomplishing within and among you far more than you could ask for or imagine. Dare to believe that Jesus is always there for you, and will be with you always as He promised. And that what God longs for you, individually and as a community, far surpasses what God asks from you.
Know that I, too, am here for you, and am praying for you, in gratitude, admiration, and love that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.
1“Sometimes,” by David Whyte in Everything Is Waiting for You and River Flow: New and Selected Poems @ David Whyte and Many Rivers Press.