A shoot shall come out from the stock of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord. He shall not judge by what his eyes see,or decide by what his ears hear; but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked. Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist, and faithfulness the belt around his loins. The wolf shall live with the lamb,the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.
May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.
In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’ This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said,‘The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:“Prepare the way of the Lord,make his paths straight.” ’Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our ancestor”; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.‘I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing-fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing-floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.’
Good morning, All Souls. I’m very glad to be in worship with you after so long. Thanks to Rev. Julianne for her warm welcome. I believe that congratulations and blessings are on her 13th anniversary of her ordination as a priest. Thank you, Rev. Julianne, for coming to serve as interim rector in this tender and important time in All Soul’s life. Special thanks as well to All Souls vestry, and notably your wardens Kevin Legrand and Daniel Callis, for your leadership and love. I’m especially honored to preside today as Ms. Gretchen McKnew stands to confirm her faith, allowing us all to reaffirm our faith in Jesus and rededicate our lives to His way of love.
Inspired by the rather dramatic juxtapositions of themes in the Scripture passages we’ve heard this morning, both wonderfully reassuring and deeply challenging, I’d like to speak to you about the distinction between what we might call the comfort zone of faith and the challenge zone.
The comfort zone of faith assures us of God’s unconditional love; of Jesus’ promise to be with us, always, no matter what; of Jesus and his complete forgiveness of our sins and desire to help us grow in the fullness of who God created us to be.
The comfort zone of faith is the Holy Spirit working in us and through us, accomplishing more, as the Apostle Paul writes, than we can ask or imagine.
There is nothing we need to do in the comfort zone of faith, nothing we must prove. All that’s necessary is for us is to be open and receive grace upon grace; to hear Jesus’ words: “Come unto me, all that are heavy laden and I will give you rest;” to take in the words of God spoken in the psalms, “Be still, and know that I am God.”
Whenever I’m blessed with a comfort zone experience of faith, I feel loved, and seen, and held by grace. This is, as we heard in the passage of Romans, “the God of hope filling us with joy and peace in believing so that we may abound in hope by the Holy Spirit.”
In contrast, when we’re In a challenge zone of faith, the feeling is anything but comfortable, because that’s when, by definition, we’re stretched beyond our comfort. These are the times when God calls us by name to do something specific that we don’t want to do; or when we sense that God is asking us to show up, or keep going when we’re tired, for someone else’ sake.
These are the times when we can no longer hide or make excuses for our failings, but need to face them, ask for forgiveness, and start again.
We’re often thrust into a challenge zone of faith whenever something big happens that we weren’t expecting, and as a result, we lose our bearings for a time.
A challenge zone is when life asks for more than we can handle on our own and we have no choice but to ask for help.
What is so important for us to remember is that God is with us in both zones, in comfort and in challenge. God is with us, and for us, and on our side.
And we need both zones: we need to know God’s love for us, to feel Jesus’ presence as our friend, to experience the Holy Spirit moving as wind at our backs. The moments of comfort, of affirmation, of feeling loved and guided and sustained are among the best experiences of our lives. These are the experiences that fill us with hope, possibility, and joy.
And we also need, hard as they are, the challenge zones. They are our teachers. Some of our most painful experiences in life, if we let them, create in us a capacity for greater love. I’m not one to go so far as to say that God orchestrates the challenges we face, but I know from experience that God uses our challenges, as my spiritual director sometimes reminds me, “to stretch our hearts.”
Alone as we might feel, God is with us when we feel ourselves pushed into a challenge zone, or when we embrace a season of challenge ourselves, even though it’s hard.
God is with us when our hearts are broken, when we’re scared, disappointed, or challenged. God is with us when we’ve done something we regret and need to seek forgiveness and make amends; when someone does something to hurt us and we struggle to forgive. God is with us when we need to do something really hard and don’t want to, when we need to face the things we’d rather avoid. God is with us when we’re grieving, when we’re angry.
God is with us, and will see us through.
About a month ago, inspired by a conversation I had with a group of young adults from another congregation, I invited people from across the diocese to send me their questions of faith. The questions I’ve received cover a wide range of topics, all of them, as you might imagine, from the challenge zone of faith–questions about how to reconcile human suffering with faith in a loving God; how to forgive oneself or others for harms done; how to pray in such a way that feels like a real connection rather than a recitation of words.
I can’t promise definitive or satisfactory answers to any of them but I am honored to ponder them and offer what imperfect insights I can. They encapsulate those most important moments in our life of faith, when we are challenged, tested, and when we can learn first hand what it means to trust in God when, as the African American theologian Howard Thurman would say, “when our backs are against the wall.”
Today I’d like to share with you a question I received a few years ago at this time of year from my goddaughter, a sweet young woman in her mid 20s who was–and still is–struggling with alcohol and drug addiction, coupled with significant mental illness that requires constant vigilance.
We hadn’t spoken for a long time and I was happy to hear from her. “I’ve been praying all morning,” she said, “and reading in the ‘Big Book’ (the writings of Bill W. that underscore the principles of Alcoholics Anonymous known as the 12 steps.) I don’t think I’ve ever prayed as much as I’ve prayed today.” She went on. “God is a complete mystery to me, and I don’t really understand religious people who say that they know exactly what God is like. But then I thought of you.”
We talked a bit longer. I had the sense that there was something more she wanted to tell me, and eventually it came out. When I asked her if we might be able to see each other over the upcoming Christmas holidays, she said: “I think so, but all I know is that I am alive today.”
There was a pause. “I am practicing sobriety,” she said. “I have been sober for 9 days.” Another pause. “Before that, I was sober for over a year, but then I relapsed.” “It’s really hard,” she said. “It’s so hard. But I don’t want to die of alcoholism.”
Lord help me help her, I prayed.
“I don’t want you to die, either,” I said slowly. “God doesn’t want you to die. I am praying hard for you and am here for you, and I am so grateful that you are in my life.”
“We are all living one day at a time,” I told her. “God is a mystery to me, too, and beyond my understanding. But I believe that the mystery we call God wants to be in relationship with you, and will make Himself known to you in ways that you can lean on.”
My goddaughter’s name is Hope and she is still struggling to hold onto hope. Each day she begins again, as we all do. When she remembers, she tries to pray because her life depends on it. It depends on her ability to trust in what in AA they call her “higher power,” and that we, as Christians, call God.
I pray that Hope might know the love of God, a love that comforts and encourages her, assures her of Jesus’ presence, and helps her trust that nothing can separate her from the love of God. I long for things to be easier for her, that she might know goodness and joy and ease. I want those things for all my loved ones, for all of you, and for all God’s children.
But Hope is in a challenge zone now, big time. It isn’t easy, and there’s no turning back. And so I pray that my sweet goddaughter survives the gauntlet of challenge that is bigger than she is, and will one day know the grace, resilience, and blessing that awaits her on the other side.
And when she falters, stumbles, falls back, as she has done several times since that phone call, I pray for those who love her to surround her with as much comfort as they can give, because she needs that, too. We all do.
Perhaps some of you, or someone you love, are in a challenge zone now. Please be tender with yourselves and with them. I daresay that All Souls as a congregation is a challenge zone of faith, all of which to say is that things are hard now, you don’t know how things will turn out. I pray that God will give you hope in the midst of all that is being asked of you.
Sometimes I think we try to will ourselves into being hopeful people, to supply that hope for ourselves. But that’s not how it works with God. The kind of hope that sustains and gets us through comes from God.
When we don’t feel it, there’s nothing wrong with us.
Sometimes other people carry hope for us when we can’t. We don’t need to pretend, but rather ask for what we need to get us through.
Christmas, of all celebrations of the Christian year, is meant to help us lean heavily on the comforting side of faith, assuring us of God’s love coming to us as we are and the world as it is.
Yet it stands to reason that in the very season of “comfort and joy,” we are also most in touch where we need God the most, the God of hope who can fill us with all joy and peace in believing, through the power of the Holy Spirit. It isn’t our doing; this is the gift that comes from God.
I”d like to close with the final words that the political commentator and former speechwriter for President George W. Bush, Michael Gerson, preached from the pulpit of Washington National Cathedral a few years ago. You may have read that Gerson died of complications from cancer recently, at the far too young age of 58. He also struggled with clinical depression, about which he spoke openly in his sermon. This is what he said:
Many, understandably, pray for a strength they do not possess. But God’s promise is somewhat different: That even when strength fails, there is perseverance. And even when perseverance fails, there is hope. And even when hope fails, there is love. And love never fails.1
May I pray for you?
Gracious and merciful God, I thank you for these your beloved children, for those for whom this a time of comfort and joy, happiness and peace. I pray that you will shield their joy and amplify it in this holy season.
For those for whom this is a time of challenge and struggle, Lord I pray as the Apostle Paul prayed, that your spirit of hope may fill them and sustain them through this difficult time. Lift them up, Lord. Hold them close. Help them know that they are not alone.
And for those of us for whom life is a mixture of both comfort and challenge, help us to receive the bits of goodness that are all around us, and face our difficulties and challenges with grace. Open our eyes to see your hand at work within and around us. And to trust that your love never fails.
May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully giving thanks to the Father, who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light. He has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers-all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.
When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. [[ Then Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.’And they cast lots to divide his clothing. And the people stood by, watching; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, ‘He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!’ The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, and saying, ‘If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!’ There was also an inscription over him, ‘This is the King of the Jews.’ One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, ‘Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!’ But the other rebuked him, saying, ‘Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.’ Then he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ He replied, ‘Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.’
In my regular communication with people across the diocese, I have invited those who wish to send me their questions of faith. I can’t promise to provide definitive answers to the questions I’ve received, but I will do my best to address them in my sermons and other writings.
I have been moved both by the range of topics in the questions I’ve received and the courageous vulnerability of those who have responded. As a person said in church last Sunday, “These are the questions I have been embarrassed to ask.”
Here is a sample of the questions I’ve received thus far:
– I have been a Christian for over six decades, but still find it hard that God would want Jesus to suffer on the cross. I understand that God is perfect and requires sacrifice from us all, but I often think that Jesus came more as a Saviour who lived an exemplary life to show us the way back to God. However, his life threatened others and they felt they needed to get rid of him. I don’t understand why God would require his sacrifice and shedding of blood in order to redeem us.
– I lost my 42 year old son 2 years ago to an overdose called fentanyl poisoning after he battled his addiction for 25 years. What I don’t understand is why God answers other mothers’ prayers but mine didn’t matter. You hear other mothers in the same situation I was in tell of how their faith and God ended their child’s addiction. So if someone could explain to me why God didn’t feel like my prayers were enough it would help this shattered faith I now have. I still pray every day, go to church on Sundays, hold a prayer group phone meeting every Saturday morning, sit on the vestry but I feel like I am just going through the motions. Where was God when I needed him; where is God when I need Him now?
– How do you pray? More precisely, how does one pray? This is the hardest part of practicing my faith because I don’t know what to do and I feel silly thinking I’m doing it wrong. Am I supposed to sit quietly? Do I use prayers? When I use the prayer book, it feels like I’m reading rather than engaged in conversation with God. More importantly to that point, when people say they hear God in their prayers, is that meant figuratively or literally? I’ve never heard a voice praying; it’s literally me in my head and then I start feeling embarrassed, self-conscious, and silly. Am I doing it wrong?
– You spoke today about how Jesus can help us forgive those who have hurt us. But what if you can’t forgive yourself for something you have done?
Rest assured that these are questions that I struggle with myself, as have Christians across the centuries. We do well to be humble as we approach them, speaking not with definitive authority, but also trusting in the hard won bits of insight that can help us find meaning and peace in living with such questions.
So on this Sunday, with you as my reflection companions, I’d like to briefly address the issue of suffering; the questions concerning prayer, and in particular the prayers we say, or struggle to say, when there is no one else around; and finally the matter of forgiveness–both of ourselves and others. It’s a lot for one sermon, I know, but stay with me.
We just heard a gospel passage in which Jesus prays to God from the cross, asking that those who put him there be forgiven. Hold that image of Jesus in your mind as we begin, with Jesus’ suffering and our own.
You don’t need me to tell you that suffering is the universal condition of humankind. While life experiences vary dramatically, no one escapes suffering. In the words of the theologian Howard Thurman, ”Suffering makes demands alike upon the wise and the foolish, the literate and the illiterate, the saint and the sinner.”1 He also forces us to consider how impersonal and arbitrary suffering can be:
It seems to be utterly unmindful of consequences and blind to both good and evil. Nevertheless, there is something utterly personal and private about it . . An earthquake may destroy a city. Yet to every human being who suffers loss of family, loss of limb or of life, it is a moment of naked intimacy with pain, terror, and disaster.2
Human beings, it’s been said, are the only species to willingly inflict suffering on our own kind, and we do so with both sadistic cruelty and chilling indifference, as well as in complete ignorance. Thurman observes that a precondition of such willingness is to view another person, or group of persons, as somehow less than human, and therefore outside the bounds of the Golden Rule and simple norms of compassion, those to be treated as we ourselves wish to be.
Every known religion does its best to answer the question, why? Why do the innocent suffer? When suffering comes close, we can’t help but ask, why did this happen to me? How can human beings be so cruel? And why doesn’t God do anything to stop the suffering we see in the world and that touches us so profoundly?
The classic biblical answer to the question of suffering is human sinfulness—all the ways we, as a species, have turned from God from the beginning of our existence. There is indeed lots of hard evidence to support the view that we, as a species, can make quite a mess of things and that much suffering could be alleviated if we acted more lovingly toward one another. But human sinfulness doesn’t take all suffering into account. It’s of no help whatsoever when considering the suffering of the innocent or of the tragedies that befall entire cities or nations.
The most honest answer I can give to this greatest of mysteries is that I do not know. Suffering defies explanation. I’ve often thought in those times when my own faith in a loving, all-powerful God is shaken that if the persistence of suffering were enough to dissuade humankind from faith in a loving God, the religious enterprise would have ended long before now. And for some people, for all the reasons we can well understand, faith does die in the face of suffering and never fully recovers. But for others it doesn’t. For others, and I daresay for all of us this morning, there is something that keeps us coming back to God. Astonishingly, for some blessed few, in suffering their faith in a loving God grows stronger.
Suffering is at the center of the Christian faith. Many of us wear crosses as jewelry, and the cross was, as you know, a most cruel form of state-sponsored execution in the Roman Empire of that era. Our gospel text today describes Jesus’ crucifixion with heartbreaking detail–not dwelling on his personal suffering, which was immense, but rather on his response to that suffering, which, as you heard, was to ask God to forgive his tormentors and to provide consolation to the two criminal crucified alongside him.
Over time there has been much thought given as to why Jesus had to suffer as he did. An explanation which found its way into Christian orthodoxy rather early on, which the person who raised the question with me expressed, is that Jesus had to die, as a necessary sacrifice for our sins.
I confess that I have never found that answer compelling, and if that were the only explanation available to us, that God needed Jesus to suffer for us, indeed needed an innocent sacrifice, I’m not sure that I could believe in such a God. Let me hasten to say that I don’t feel it necessary to argue with those who do hold this view, and there are many, if it is an interpretation that gives meaning for them, and Lord knows I need Jesus to save me from my sins. I just can’t believe that the God of love needed an innocent sacrifice.
What I can tell you is that from the beginning of the Christian movement there have been other ways to find meaning in the cross apart from the one that took prominence. The most powerful minority position for me invites us to see Jesus’ suffering as an expression of God’s solidarity with human suffering and desire to endure it alongside us, and with us, and yes, on our behalf in ways that defy human understanding. In this view, Jesus died because of human sin and in response to our sin–our need for God’s grace and love.
No matter how we view Jesus’ death on the cross, and his subsequent resurrection, the fact remains that suffering is still with us. Now everything about the way Jesus lived and taught suggests that God does not take pleasure in our suffering and works actively in and through human beings to alleviate it. But not all suffering is alleviated. Not the suffering of the woman who lost her adult son. Not the suffering of the parents of a young college student whom I baptized as a child who was found dead in her dorm room of the same fentanyl overdose. Or of all manner of suffering that we see, experience, and grieve over.
But in his suffering, Jesus embodies a kind of love that runs deep and wide, meeting us where we are. However we experience that love, it strengthens us to carry on amid our pain, or to let go, if that’s what we need to do, and simply allow the pain and grief to wash over us. Not once does Jesus make light of our suffering. Jesus doesn’t treat it like a problem to be solved. He comes to us with compassion, grace, even joy when we least expect it. Through the workings of grace and the kindness of others, Jesus does all that he can to alleviate our pain. But when it persists, he is there with a love that won’t let us go, and asks us, as best we can, to choose the path of love and compassion, for ourselves and for others. It is never the easy path, but those who walk it often speak of the redemptive power of their suffering, or their sense of solidarity with Jesus and his suffering.
The question about prayer is related here. Because at heart I suspect that it’s a question less about techniques for prayer and more about seeking a connection, a relationship with the mystery of God revealed to us in Jesus. When I find myself needing to begin again in prayer, as I often do, the ones that I turn to for guidance often ask me how, where and when I feel most connected to God, and how I might make more space for it. That’s my starting point.
Regarding actual prayer practices, I do my best to sit quietly for a few minutes most days, either in a chair with a lit candle or in my car before turning on the radio. Typically nothing earth shattering happens, but I’m always glad when I make the effort. Every once in a while, I experience something that I can only describe as God’s voice. The way I distinguish what I hear from my own voice is that what comes to me is almost always a surprise. It can feel like a gift; although just as often, it feels more like a push in one direction or another.
Whenever I fall into the trap of thinking that I’m a bad person or a bad Christian for not sitting quietly to pray, or conversely, or that I’m a great Christian for doing so, then I know I’m going astray. For the point is openness and connection. And, truth be told, I’m the kind of person for whom prayer is something that happens best when I’m in motion. I need to move–to walk, ride my bike, clean the house. As I do, my mind settles, and I can attain an inner stillness that allows me to feel God’s presence in and through all that is happening around me.
All the great spiritual practitioners assure us that there isn’t a right and a wrong way to pray, and while, like many, a part of me struggles to believe that it’s true, I take comfort in their reassurance. There are practices of prayer that have been passed down to us from our ancestors, including what we are doing right now, which is to gather once a week in a place set apart to open ourselves to God, hear words from sacred texts, listen to one person offer a spiritual reflection, pray the ancient prayers of the church, and participate in a symbolic reenactment of Jesus’ last supper with his friends. It may indeed feel as if we’re going through the motions sometimes. But going through the motions is its own form of prayer, and gives us words and images to help us to pray when we need them most.
Let’s go back to Jesus for a moment, for his words are instructive. We heard two such words today, but there were others, according to the biblical texts. The first word was a cry of anguish–do you remember?
Eli, Eli lama sabachthani.
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
In his darkest hour, Jesus cries out to God using the words of his sacred prayer book, the Psalms. We can find comfort that even Jesus feels abandoned by God in his suffering as we do. Yet in abandonment he continues to pray, asking, as we heard, forgiveness for his tormentors, offering consolation to those suffering at his side. In one text he asks one of his disciples to take his mother, Mary, as his own. Finally, he releases his spirit to God.
This is, as the author of the Letter to Colossians whom we heard a moment ago, Jesus as one in whom the fullness of God was pleased to dwell. He is one we can look to for the fullest expression of what God looks like in human form. His presence, in those moments when we experience it, is one of deep, unwavering love. As our Presiding Bishop likes to remind us, “If it’s not about love; it’s not about God.” Jesus is also our model, inspiration and the one who makes possible in us what we cannot do ourselves.
In closing then, let me say one final word about forgiveness–a topic I will return to in greater depth another time. Forgiveness is, for most of us, a lifelong journey, as we find the grace to forgive others for the wrongs they have done to us, to forgive ourselves for the things we regret, and may I suggest, even to forgive God for the world as it is, and our lives as they are, rather than how we long for, or sense they should be.
Sometimes forgiveness comes easily to us, costing almost nothing. Other times, it is something we struggle with and frankly, resist doing because it feels wrong, impossible, or even a betrayal of something deep within us.
What I leave you with is the image with which I began, that Jesus on the cross forgiving those who put him there and surrendering himself to the God who did not prevent this horrendous event from happening. This is the most important window into the heart of God that we have.
In the coming weeks, as we prepare once again to celebrate Jesus’ birth, his coming into the world in complete vulnerability as a sign of God’s continued presence among us, remember, too, the man he would grow up to become. Remember his love, mercy, and compassion; his capacity for forgiveness, or you, for those you love and for those you struggle most to love and to forgive. He is our best image of the invisible God, the one in whom the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.
Jesus came into this world to show us God’s love embodied in human form, and to show us how to live. I believe this, in the sense that I put my whole trust in his grace and love. And I pray, from the bottom of my heart, the same for you.
1Howard Thurman, Disciplines of the Spirit (Richmond, ID: Friends United Press, 1963), 63.
For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind. But be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating; for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy, and its people as a delight. I will rejoice in Jerusalem, and delight in my people; no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it, or the cry of distress. No more shall there be in it an infant that lives but a few days, or an old person who does not live out a lifetime; for one who dies at a hundred years will be considered a youth, and one who falls short of a hundred will be considered accursed. They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit. They shall not build and another inhabit; they shall not plant and another eat; for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be, and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands. They shall not labor in vain, or bear children for calamity; for they shall be offspring blessed by the Lord— and their descendants as well. Before they call I will answer, while they are yet speaking I will hear. The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox; but the serpent—its food shall be dust! They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain, says the Lord.
Now we command you, beloved, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, to keep away from believers who are living in idleness and not according to the tradition that they received from us. For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us; we were not idle when we were with you, and we did not eat anyone’s bread without paying for it; but with toil and labor we worked night and day, so that we might not burden any of you. This was not because we do not have that right, but in order to give you an example to imitate. For even when we were with you, we gave you this command: Anyone unwilling to work should not eat. For we hear that some of you are living in idleness, mere busybodies, not doing any work. Now such persons we command and exhort in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living. Brothers and sisters, do not be weary in doing what is right.
2 Thessalonians 3:6-13
When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, he said, “As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.” They asked him, “Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?” And he said, “Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and, ‘The time is near!’ Do not go after them.“When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately. “Then he said to them, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven. “But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. This will give you an opportunity to testify. So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict. You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all because of my name. But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.
Luke 21: 5-19
I recently spent a few hours on a Sunday afternoon with 8 young adults–men and women in their late 20s and early 30s–from a congregation in Washington, DC. They wanted to talk with me about spiritual practices, and in particular, what our presiding bishop, Michael Curry, has commended to all of us in the Episcopal Church: The Way of Love: 7 Practices for a Jesus-Centered Life.
We spent most of our time discussing the first of those practices, to turn, which, as a flower turns toward the sun, is the daily invitation given to us to turn our focus toward Jesus and his teachings, to consciously open ourselves to him and allow him to guide us through life. Turning also has the connotation of turning around, or turning from those things that are not loving toward ourselves and others, and thus not of God. The word itself acknowledges the fact that all of us fall short, make mistakes, do things that we regret, and participate in evil in ways that we may not be aware of or believe are wrong. Each day brings a new opportunity to turn away from those things that make us lesser versions of ourselves, hold our lives before the life and love of Jesus, and turn toward him, trusting that he is always turning toward us.
I told the group that one of the ways I try to remember to turn toward Jesus each day is to quietly offer myself before him when I rise in the morning, and to think of him before I check my phone. I remember most days, and when I don’t, I stop whenever I realize that I’ve forgotten, and turn my gaze and my thoughts toward him. Likewise when I’m driving, before turning on the radio, I take a breath and turn my thoughts toward him. Obviously, these aren’t huge gestures, but I pray that the daily practice of them helps prepare me for those other times when Jesus may invite me to turn in a bigger way, or–as the gospel texts soberly reminds us–when life itself turns and I’m faced with real suffering and hardship, so that I have more inside me to draw upon, and that I’ve become practiced in turning towards him for those times when I really need his strength to persevere and endure.
As our session was drawing to a close, I asked the group if they had any questions for me. Normally when I open things up for questions with a group, people want to know about things we’re doing in the diocese or for assistance with something they are struggling with in the church. This time was different. The first person to raise her hand asked me how I knew that God truly loved me. The look in her eyes suggested that she wasn’t so much asking about me, but for herself, how I might help her believe that God loved her. The second person to ask a question wanted to know how I had forgiven someone who had hurt me deeply; again, I felt as if the one asking needed guidance on how he might forgive.
Such deep and important questions. I did my best to answer honestly, first by acknowledging that even for someone ordained in the church, knowing for certain that God loves us isn’t just an intellectual matter, but one of the heart and experience. There are days, I told the group, when I struggle as much as anyone with a sense of distance or unknowing–certainly feelings of unworthiness–in relation to the love of God.
If those were my only experiences, it would be impossible to believe that God loves me, or anyone else. But they aren’t. I have had other, deeply personal, transformative moments when I’ve experienced what I can only describe as love. While they are fleeting, they help keep me going, and allow me to hold onto what I choose to believe–that is, what I choose to trust– even when I don’t feel it. Sometimes the choice to believe in God, and in God’s love, is all I have.
Regarding forgiveness, I began by stating the obvious: that forgiveness of the deeper wounds is hard and that it takes time. In order to forgive, we need to have sufficient capacity inside ourselves; we need to be able to define ourselves as something more than the wound we have suffered. The deeper the wound, the longer the healing process takes. Forgiveness also requires a certain amount of distance from the wounding person or situation, so that we are no longer in danger of being wounded again, or in truly dire situations, when we know that God has a hold on us, even as we are in the midst of pain. Forgiveness is an expression of love–first, for ourselves, as we hold ourselves tenderly in that wounded place, and, when we are able, love for the one who has hurt us. Forgiveness, as Mahatma Gandhi famously said, “is the attribute of the strong.” Think of Jesus on the cross, forgiving those who put him there. In his suffering, he was the stronger one. We can’t fake that kind of love and capacity to forgive. Often I fail at forgiveness. When it comes to me, I recognize it as the gift that it is.
Inspired by the questions these young adults asked, I asked in my most recent bi-weekly message to the diocese, if others had questions of faith they would like to ask me. I’ve been deeply moved by what has come back to me.
Before I delve into some of those questions, I invite you to consider your own. You received, along with your bulletin, a half-sheet of paper on which I invite you now or sometime this morning to write your question, or questions, about faith. If you’re willing, we can talk about them in our time together after worship, or I can take them home and respond another way. I can’t promise satisfactory answers to your questions–I don’t have answers for many of my own–but I promise to ponder them, in a spirit of mutual wondering. Questions are fertile ground for faith.
In the questions that have come to me thus far, the range of topics is broad. Some have centered on the Bible–how to read and understand it, what authority it has over us. One person asked if we begin to question literal truth in some places (as opposed to its literary, symbolic, and moral truth), where do we stop?
Others questions have been more personal: “How can I know God’s will for my life?” and “Would you like to know the exact day you will die?”
Several questions were about the very existence of God, and the nature of God, which is where I’d like to spend the rest of my time this morning. “Are there days when you wake up in the morning,” one person asked, with the thought “All this stuff about God can’t possibly be real. Have I been deluding myself all these years?” Another asked, “How can we truly know that God is good?” Still another asked, “Does God intervene? How do we pray for God’s protection over our drive from our home to our work while children are starving? Yet we ask God to watch over us. Is He watching over them? Or are we watched over at all?”
In answer to the first question–if I ever question the existence of God–the answer is yes. For me, doubt is not the opposite of faith, but essential to my life of faith. I’ve had my share of doubts and struggles, in part because of all that I see in this world, as do you, I cannot reconcile with the reality of a loving, all-powerful, all-knowing God.
Among Christians, in the Bible, and from the traditions we’ve inherited from our spiritual ancestors, there are “answers” to the hardest questions that human beings have asked for millenia, but to be honest, I’ve never found the answers I’ve heard or read compelling or satisfying.
There’s a book in the Bible, the Book of Job, written centuries before the birth of Jesus, which tells the story of a man from whom everything of meaning and importance to him had been taken–deliberately so, it seems, by Satan and with God’s consent, in order to test his faith. If you only read the first and last chapters of the book (which it seems many do) you’re left with the impression that despite everything that happened to him, including the death of his children, losing all his property and immense physical suffering, Job never lost faith in God and of God’s goodness. But the middle 37 chapters tell another story entirely. In them, Job pours out his grief and outrage, and he rejects every explanation that his well-meaning friends offer to explain why these things had happened to him, which sound a lot like the platitudes we can fall back on in such times–such as, there must be a reason for this; surely your sins have brought this upon you; just trust in God’s plan.
What turns things around for Job isn’t any of the answers given him. No, what happens is that Job has an experience of God speaking to him at last. The long stretch of God’s silence is at last broken. To my reading, it’s not that great of an experience, actually. God isn’t particularly consoling to Job, and God explains nothing, as if the mystery of human suffering must simply be accepted. But for Job, the experience of God coming to him was enough. It didn’t take away his suffering, or answer his questions. But it was enough for him to believe in God and keep living.
Such moments when they come (and they come on their own timetable) are what keep me going. Yes, I study the Scriptures. I show up in church, I say my daily prayers, and do my imperfect best to follow in the way of Jesus. But my faith in the reality of God, and of a God that is good, is sustained in moments of encounter, either in my own heart, and equally compelling when I see the impact of a God-shaped, Jesus-centered life in another person.
I’m reminded of a song which put to a melody a haunting poem that is said to have been discovered on the wall of a World War II concentration camp:
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.
I believe in God even when,
even when God is silent.1
Such belief would be impossible without some previous sense of God’s presence and love. Often it’s the memory of God, the desire for a connection with God, or someone’s faith in God that keeps us going when our faith wanes. Once, when my heart was deeply broken as a young person, a wise spiritual mentor in my life said to me, “God is still with you, even though it doesn’t seem so now.”
The question, “Does God intervene when we pray for specific things?” goes to the heart of prayer. How can we give thanks to God for sparing us from suffering when others are not spared? What are we actually praying for when we ask God to open doors for us or those we love, heal our infirmities, make wars to cease–not to mention helping us navigate through the smaller yet real complexities of our lives?
What I believe is this: God does intervene through us; God moves through the lives of human beings, and that as we draw closer to God and strive to follow the example of Jesus, we have greater capacity to be agents of positive change in places where God’s love is needed. I’m not rejecting the possibility of other forms of divine intervention, because there is so much about God that I don’t understand. And I pray for all manner of things that I need help with, that I long for God to do or to make possible. I bring all my desires before God, because that’s what our faith encourages us to do. In the end, however, I recognize that in prayer–even in the prayers that are of raw desire or desperate help–what changes most through my prayers is me.
When we pray for others who are suffering, we put ourselves in God’s hands to move toward some form of response, and in some way we take on the suffering of others as our own, which we see in Jesus on the cross.
“Christ has no physical body here on earth but ours,” Teresa of Avila reminds us, “No hands and feet but ours. Ours are the eyes with which he sees, ours are the feet on which he moves; ours are the lips with which he speaks to this world with kindness.”
In closing, let me simply emphasize the importance of your questions, and to encourage you to hold them in your heart and share them with one another. Offer them to God–even to the God you’re not always sure that you believe in–and wait to see what happens. Strive to be a community that honors the deeper questions in life and create space wherever you can to explore them together.
One of my gifts to you, that I’ll leave with members of the vestry, is a collection of faith sharing cards, that are simply questions to prompt meaningful conversations among you and a way to go deeper on the path of faith. As we go deeper, what matters isn’t so much the actual answers that come to us, but the relationship itself–with God, through the presence of Jesus and in the power of God’s mysterious spirit that lives and moves through us all.
1I Believe by Mark Miller | Virtual Choir
Now Jacob looked up and saw Esau coming, and four hundred men with him. So he divided the children among Leah and Rachel and the two maids. He put the maids with their children in front, then Leah with her children, and Rachel and Joseph last of all. He himself went on ahead of them, bowing himself to the ground seven times, until he came near his brother. But Esau ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept. When Esau looked up and saw the women and children, he said, “Who are these with you?” Jacob said, “The children whom God has graciously given your servant.” Then the maids drew near, they and their children, and bowed down; Leah likewise and her children drew near and bowed down; and finally Joseph and Rachel drew near, and they bowed down. Esau said, “What do you mean by all this company that I met?” Jacob answered, “To find favor with my lord.” But Esau said, “I have enough, my brother; keep what you have for yourself.” Jacob said, “No, please; if I find favor with you, then accept my present from my hand; for truly to see your face is like seeing the face of God–since you have received me with such favor. Please accept my gift that is brought to you, because God has dealt graciously with me, and because I have everything I want.” So he urged him, and he took it. Then Esau said, “Let us journey on our way, and I will go alongside you.”
For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned…
Romans 12:3, 9-18
Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him.
Good morning, St. Barnabas. I thank God for the gift of worshiping with you in this beautiful sanctuary and with those joining us via Zoom. Special thanks to your rector, the Rev. Franklin-Vaughn for her warm welcome, and for her good ministry among you.
I’m honored to offer this sermon, the third in a preaching series here at St. Barnabas, across the diocese, and in churches around the country, based on the classical biblical text from the prophet Micah:
God has told you, o mortal, what is good, and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:8)
In this series, we’re asking ourselves, as followers of Jesus, how we can be just, kind and humble in all of our interactions. We are asking this with particular intention in these last weeks before the midterm elections. For October is arguably the month when, as a nation, we are our most polarized. It is certainly a time when we are exposed to near round the clock news coverage of tightly contested elections, with billions of dollars worth in political advertising designed to inflame our differences, exploit our worst fears, discredit those with whom we disagree, and simplify the complex problems we face that require a unified nation to address.
The idea behind the Micah 6:8 pledge is for Christians to do whatever we can to narrow the gap between us and to tone down the rhetoric of both personal and public discourse.
Imagine how the world would be different if Christians across this country committed ourselves to be just, kind and humble in all our relationships? What would happen if all Christians added our voices and our resources to efforts that make for a better world, a more just world, and did so with kindness and humility, especially with those who do not share our point of view?
I’ve given you all who are present in church the Micah 6:8 pledge (and will leave extras for others who would like to have one). Will you read it with me?
I pledge to strive to follow Micah 6:8 in all aspects of my life:
- To act justly and pursue justice by standing with and speaking out for those who are vulnerable, mistreated, in need or exploited;
- To practice kindness and mercy in every interaction, even with those with whom I disagree;
- To act with humility, surrendering my will to God’s will, acknowledging that I may not always be right and should listen more and speak less.
- Today’s theme is the third of Micah’s exhortations–to act with humility, to walk humbly with God and one another.
I’d like to begin by making the distinction between humility and humiliation.
Here’s an example of humiliation taken from a recent article in The Washington Post about an exchange between two political party volunteers at the Frederick County Fair.
Perhaps it was the aroma of smoked turkey legs and warm cinnamon rolls, or the pleasant coolness that stole across the fairgrounds as the sun began to set behind the Magic Maze. Whatever the reason, a woman, (whom I will call Susan), was in a fine enough mood on a September evening to make a friendly overture to a man she considers her enemy.
“You want to come to the Republican side?” she called out cheerfully to a 70-year-old Democratic activist (whom I will call Joe) clad in blue, who strode by the Republican party’s headquarters at the Great Frederick Fair.
“Only when I’m crazy,” he replied without stopping.
Susan’s face darkened.
The Republicans of Frederick County do not like it when people call them nuts. And it has not escaped their attention that people aren’t hesitant these days to do so.1
What strikes you about this interaction between two political activists making their case at a county fair?
What could have been a reasonably friendly exchange, or even a robust debate about the issues at stake in the upcoming election, was immediately shut down by a comment seemingly meant to humiliate. Now perhaps there’s a backstory. Perhaps Joe has been humiliated by someone on the opposing side of the partisan divide; maybe he was in a hurry and stressed and said the first thing that came to his mind; or perhaps he genuinely believes that everyone who votes Republican this November is insane.
Whatever his motivation, his rebuke to someone who reached out to him in a moment of light-hearted banter was insultingly dismissed. Notice that he didn’t stop to engage. He made his flip response and kept on walking. It reminds me of what I’m tempted to do when I’m in my car, typically late for wherever it is I’m going, and I am slowed down by another’s person’s driving. I don’t always respond to that person as a person. I just honk my horn, yell out my window, or say unkind things under my breath, without taking into account the full humanity and dignity of the other person. I simply make my judgment and move one. And even if no one else hears what I say, my unkind response coarsens me inside, and I get better at being mean, feeling perfectly justified in doing so.
Let me ask, have you been on the other side of such blatant unkindness, in word or deed, the intent of which was to shame you for what you did, or the positions you hold, or worst of all, simply for who you are? If so, what did that do to you?
To humiliate someone, according to one dictionary, is “to make (someone) feel ashamed and foolish by injuring their dignity and self-respect, especially publicly,” or “to cause someone to a painful loss of pride, self-respect, or dignity.”2
Humility, in contrast, is defined as “freedom from pride or arrogance” or “having a modest or low view of one’s own importance.”3 Humility is sometimes considered a weakness, for it seems to downplay our gifts and give permission for others to trample upon us. But, in fact, genuine humility is testimony to strength of character and wisdom. For when we are humble, we have both a reasonable assessment of ourselves–neither grandiose nor self-deprecating–and less need to bring others down in order to feel good about ourselves. When we’re practicing humility in our relationships, as Micah’s says, we are walking with another. We are walking humbly with God, with other people.
Now some people are born genuinely humble, with an innate appreciation of their place in the human family and are genuinely curious about and kind to other people. For most of us, however, humility is something we learn through the harder lessons in life–when we are humbled by our failings or vulnerabilities. We can also be humbled by undeserved grace, forgiveness, and the loving kindness of another.
The first story we heard from Scripture this morning, and that you have printed in your bulletin, is a classic one of genuine humility.
The scene we have before us is the reunion and reconciliation between two estranged brothers–Jacob and Esau. You may remember their story, as told in the book of Genesis. From birth (they were twins), they had been fierce competitors for their father Isaac’s affection, and due to his conniving and their mother’s favoritism, Jacob always managed to come out ahead. More than once Jacob stole precious things that belonged to Esau–and I’m not talking about possessions, but his birthright and their father’s blessing that rightfully belonged to Esau. The tension between them got so bad that their mother advised Jacob to move to another country to escape his brother’s wrath, which he did.
Fast forward many years when life eventually catches up with Jacob in that new country, and he is compelled to flee again, with all his household and possessions in tow. With some fear and trepidation, he turns his face toward home, knowing that his brother’s wrath awaits him there.
Along the way, Jacob has the most transformative spiritual experience of his life. Again, we may remember this story, which tells of Jacob sleeping alone by a riverbank, a stranger accosts him, and the two men wrestle all night. At early dawn, the man suggests that they stop fighting, but Jacob, in his pain and exhaustion, says, “I will not let you go until you bless me.” For Jacob realizes that this is not just a man, but an angel sent from God. And Jacob receives the angel’s blessing–his own blessing, not the one he stole from his brother. He is also wounded by this encounter, and will forever walk with a limp.
Truly humbled by this experience, Jacob realizes that he must make peace with his brother Esau. Still fearing Esau’s anger, he decides, in a lavish gesture of restitution, to give Esau nearly all of his household wealth and place himself under his authority.
But in the intervening years Esau’s heart has softened. When he sees Jacob coming from a distance, he runs to him, throws his arms around him and welcomes him home (in language reminiscent of Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son). When Jacob makes his offering, Esau protests that he wants nothing from Jacob, that having him back is gift enough. But Jacob, as you heard, insists. “No, please; if I find favor with you, then accept my present from my hand; for truly to see your face is like seeing the face of God.” Then Esau said, “Let us journey on our way, and I will go alongside you.” Both men had been humbled by life, and in humility, reached out to the other with openness. One was in need of forgiveness that the other was able to offer, and they could walk humbly with one another.
As with the two reconciled brothers, when we walk with humility, there is space for others to walk alongside us, no matter who they are. In humility, as the Apostle Paul writes beautifully in the passage we heard this morning, we are more ready to listen than to speak; more ready to ask questions than to argue our point. When we are humbled, we are more likely to extend compassion and empathy to others. “Those who practice humility are more likely to consider others’ beliefs and opinions,” writes social researcher Tiara Blain. “Humility offers the opportunity to become less self-involved and more attuned with the feelings of others.”4
But to be clear, being humble does not mean that we abandon what we believe to be true, avoid challenging conversations, or abdicate our place in the arenas in which important issues and contentious issues are decided. As the passage from Micah and other mandates from Scriptures make clear, that we show up where we are needed, where justice and fairness are lacking, where people are being hurt or abused, is part of what it means to be a follower of Jesus.
This week I received an invitation for the Diocese to co-sponsor an event at Georgetown University at which our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry is a keynote speaker. The event is called: How White Christian Nationalism Threatens Our Democracy. To be honest, I would have said no were not our Presiding Bishop part of the event, because it’s such a painful and yes–divisive–topic. Some are likely to say, as they have told me in the past, that engaging in such events is counter to building up an inclusive community in our churches where all are welcome, and that as a church leader I should stay away from politics.
But Michael Curry’s courage inspires me to step into a very painful space, and learn all that I can. I believe that the danger of White Christian Nationalism is real, and that some so-called Christian views in this country are not, in fact, consistent with Jesus’ teachings and witness. Those who hold those views are, at the moment, very loud–so loud, in fact, that it can seem to outsiders as if theirs was the prominent Christian view. If other Christians don’t speak up, it is, and that is worrisome.
So the diocese is co-sponsoring the event, which you can participate in, either in person or online for free. (Here is the registration link).
What Micah’s words on kindness and humility say to us is that how we show up matters, too–how we engage, how we speak to one another, how we listen and acknowledge that we don’t have all the answers and we have things to learn from those who see the world differently. For as the Christian author Andy Stanley writes in his book, Not In It to Win It, it’s “in the messy middle where problems are solved, rather than capitulating to divisive broad-brush political talking points.” That’s true in our families; in our churches, in our neighborhoods, and in our country.
We can’t control or predict the reactions of other people when we move toward them in a spirit of openness. The woman from the Frederick County Fair took a risk of kindness with someone from the other political party and was rebuked. That can happen to us too; we can be attacked with the meanspiritedness that sadly passes for public discourse. But Jesus would say to us, take the risk anyway. Treat all people with love and kindness. Be willing to listen and learn, but speak the truth as you see it and stand up for what you believe.
So I leave you with a few questions to ponder in the quiet of your heart or in conversation with one another: Rest assured that every question I am asking you, I am asking myself:
- Where in your life, and in mine, is God calling us to act and speak with greater humility?
- To dig a bit further, where in your life have you experienced humiliation, and how have those experiences shaped your sense of yourself and your worldview? Might Jesus be inviting you now to release the shame and perhaps anger caused by those experiences, in recognition of your worth and dignity as a child of God?
- Finally, consider, when you have experienced being humbled, in the best sense of that word, by your own vulnerabilities or failures, and the loving-kindness of another?
I’d love to pray for us:
Lord, you know us through and through, and how much we all stand in the need of your grace and love. We know the pain of humiliation. We have also humiliated others. Please forgive us. Help us to learn true humility, to see our place amidst and alongside other equally wounded, equally beloved human beings, so that we might bring our full selves into the spaces where we are most needed and be part of the solutions we need to make this world a better place for all. In Jesus name, Amen.
1“Trump, election denial, QAnon and Dan Cox: In Maryland, the GOP marginalizes itself”, The Washington Post, October 7, 2022
4“Why is it important to stay humble?”, Very Well Mind, April 13, 2022
As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.
As they were leaving Jericho, a large crowd followed him. There were two blind men sitting by the roadside. When they heard that Jesus was passing by, they shouted, ‘Lord, have mercy on us, Son of David!’ The crowd sternly ordered them to be quiet; but they shouted even more loudly, ‘Have mercy on us, Lord, Son of David!’ Jesus stood still and called them, saying, ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ They said to him, ‘Lord, let our eyes be opened.’ Moved with compassion, Jesus touched their eyes. Immediately they regained their sight and followed him.
You have told us what is good, O Lord, and what you require of us–to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with you, our God. Help us with your grace and courage to be just, kind, and humble. Amen.
Good morning. It is always a joy for me to be with you in worship, Cathedral community and along with Dean Hollerith, to welcome our guests. I pray that you feel God’s love and kindness for you in this place.
From the poem, “Compassion” by Miller Williams:
Have compassion for everyone you meet
even if they don’t want it. What seems conceit,
bad manners, or cynicism is always a sign
of things no ears have heard, no eyes have seen.
You do not know what wars are going on
down where the spirit meets the bone.1
And from Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s last book before her death, entitled Fascism: A Warning:
The wise response to intolerance is not more intolerance or self-righteousness. It is a coming together across the ideological spectrum of people who want to make their countries better. We should remember that the heroes we cherish–Lincoln, King, Gandhi, Mandela–spoke to the best within us. The crops we’ll harvest depend on the seeds we sow.2
The crops we’ll harvest depend on the seeds we sow.
This is the second sermon in a series that takes its inspiration from one of the most compelling passages in all the Bible, written 800 years before the birth of Jesus by the prophet Micah:
What does the Lord require of you
but to do justice,
and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?
We at Washington National Cathedral and in the Episcopal Diocese of Washington are part of a larger effort among Christians across the country dedicating ourselves to Micah’s call to be just, kind, and humble. And we’re doing so with particular intention in these last weeks before the midterm elections because October is arguably the month when, as a nation, we are our most polarized. We are bombarded with billions of dollars worth in political advertising intended to inflame our differences, exploit our worst fears, dehumanize those with whom we disagree, make false promises, and simplify the complex problems we face that require a unified nation to address.
The idea behind the Micah 6:8 pledge is for Christians to do whatever we can to narrow the gap between us and to tone down the rhetoric of public discourse. Imagine what would happen if all Christians committed ourselves to be just, kind and humble in all our relationships? If we all committed to show up in the places where people are treated unfairly, adding our voices and our resources to the efforts that make for a better world, and doing so with kindness and humility, especially with those who do not share our point of view?
In fairness, political advertising, social media, and the more divisive forces that can dominate public discourse advertising don’t create polarization–they amplify what already exists. The seeds of societal polarization lie within every human community, and–let’s be honest–within each of us. For years the seeds may lie fallow, and we may not realize that they’re there. But when they are watered with fear and resentment, they grow and threaten to choke everything around them.
I doubt that I’m the only person in this Cathedral concerned about how those seeds have been methodically cultivated in our country. What we all have trouble recognizing, myself included, is how we contribute to the social conditions we lament through our actions and speech, or what we choose not to do or say.
Hence, the need to look to ourselves and our own behavior, which the Micah 6:8 pledge invites us to do, and commit ourselves, daily, to our highest ideals as human beings. For those of us who are followers of Jesus, this isn’t optional. It is what is required to follow in His way of love.
In the words of Franciscan priest Richard Rohr, “True spiritual action (as opposed to reaction) demands our own ongoing and radical transformation. It often requires us to change sides so we can be where pain is. It even requires a new identity, as Jesus exemplified in his great self-emptying. It feels like weakness, but it finally changes things in very creative, patient, and humble ways.”3
I’ve given you all in the Cathedral a small card with the Micah 6:8 pledge, and it is also printed on the back of your bulletin. Will you read it with me?
I pledge to strive to follow Micah 6:8 in all aspects of my life:
- To act justly and pursue justice by standing with and speaking out for those who are vulnerable, mistreated, in need or exploited
- To practice kindness and mercy in every interaction, even with those with whom I disagree;
- To act with humility, surrendering my will to God’s will, acknowledging that I may not always be right and should listen more and speak less.
Today our focus is on Micah’s exhortation to kindness, and our pledge to practice kindness and mercy in every interaction, even with those with whom we disagree.
In the spirit of a Twelve-Step moral inventory, I invite us all, myself included, to take stock–not only of our actions, but our speech. How does kindness inform what we do and how we do it? How do we talk to one another? Even more telling, how do we talk about one another? When we aren’t kind when speaking to or about another, what rationale do we give? We’ve all been influenced, consciously or not, by the increasing coarseness, intolerance, and cruelty that is now normative in human discourse, especially across lines of difference.
I’m not suggesting that we don’t call out egregious behavior, only that we guard against becoming the mirror image of that which we rightfully critique, or worse, imagine that the righteousness of our position justifies or rationalizes similar behavior on our part.
You may remember the story that Jesus told about a man who began his prayer by thanking God that he was not like other people, listing all the miserable sinners not at all like him. God was not impressed.
-The wise response to intolerance is not more intolerance or self-righteousness.
-The crops we’ll harvest depend on the seeds we sow.
The British comedian Tony Hendra once tried to describe to his spiritual mentor, a gentle Benedictine monk named Father Joe, the function of satire–humor told at the expense of another person.
Father Joe seemed confused. “Satire always divides people up into two groups?”
“Yes,” Tony replied.
“Is that a good thing?”
“It’s the way the world works, Father Joe. People think in teams. We’re good; you’re evil; we’re right; you’re wrong. we’re smart; you’re dumb. Most humor works that way, even the most basic jokes. The English tell Irish jokes. Americans tell Polish jokes, because the Poles have been stereotyped as stupid.”
“Oh tell me a Polish joke,” Father Joe said.
“Okay. What has an IQ of two hundred and twelve?”
“Well, I don’t know, dear.”
Father Joe gazed up expectantly. “Is there a joke coming?”
“That’s it. The entire city of Warsaw has a combined IQ of two hundred twelve.”
“Oh,” Father Joe protested, “but the Poles are a rather sensitive people. Tragic and poetic and long-suffering. Look at Chopin. Or the Holy Father.”
“Okay, Chopin and John Paul the Second are not Polish jokes. But the dynamic holds for jokes about politicians, opposing political parties, or blondes, or the French.”
Father Joe looked puzzled. “To say that people are stupid when they’re not–isn’t that cruel?“ He was silent for a moment. “You see, dear, I think there are two types of people in the world. Those who divide the world into two types of people…and those who don’t.”4
What type of person do you and I want to be?
If we are Jesus followers, what type of person does he call us to be?
“The godly,” writes the Benedictine nun, Joan Chittister, “are those who never talk destructively about another person–in anger, in spite, in vengefulness–and who can be counted on to bring an open heart to a closed and clawing world.” She goes on: “The holy ones are those who live well with those around them. They are just, they are upright, they are kind. The ecology of humankind is safe with them.”5
Is the ecology of humankind safe with us? If we’re honest–or speaking for myself, if I’m honest–not always. I can do better. Perhaps you can, too.
Now there is a temptation–an understandable one in polarized, divisive climates–to take the opposite approach and remain silent, on the assumption that saying or doing nothing is a form of kindness. In families and communities, the list can get quite long of all the things that we don’t talk about.
But is avoidance kind? And kind to whom?
Sociologist and author Brené Brown argues in her book, Dare to Lead, that clarity is kindness. Not speaking; not engaging is a deliberate effort not to be clear. And to be unclear–or to pretend that you aren’t clear when you are–while it may avoid tension, is in the end, Brown maintains, unkind.
I remember in 2003, when The Episcopal Church took its most public position to date on inclusion by officially the election of Gene Robinson, an openly gay and partnered man, as bishop. The convention that made that momentous decision–and it was a big deal–took place in Minneapolis, where I was serving as a priest. One of my mentors at the time was a Lutheran pastor of a large church whose ministries I admired and sought to emulate. Shortly after the convention, he said to me, not realizing my position, or the make-up of the congregation I served, “I’m sympathetic to the cause. I really am. But The Episcopal Church is making a big mistake. We (meaning his church) are going to lay low on this issue. It’s far too divisive to take a stand on.”
To myself, I wondered what he would say to the gay and lesbian members of his church. But all I said was, “Someday, you may thank us.”
I believe that it is possible to be kind and also clear about what we believe and stand for in a contentious, even polarized climate. But it requires great care and intentionality. Here we can take inspiration from Presiding Bishop Michael Curry. Bishop Curry is never hesitant to speak the truth as he sees it. Yet he is among the most universally beloved religious leaders in the world, because he treats those who don’t share his view with kindness and humility, and he never stops searching for common ground across differences.
Bishop Curry calls his approach to engaging the work of justice as standing and kneeling at the same time. He stands in his convictions, speaking as clearly as he can what he believes and why. And he kneels before those who disagree with him, honoring them as beloved children of God, respecting their point of view, and being willing to truly listen in a spirit of humility.
“If we all do that and engage each other,” he says, “kneeling in real humility before each other and before God, and yet being honest and up front and clear about what we stand for, the fact that we have knelt before each other creates the space where we can stand together with our differences.”
If we don’t show up and don’t speak up in a contentious, polarized time, as tempting as that is, it is an abdication of moral ground. Yet how we act; how we speak, matters. It matters that we show up where Jesus calls us, standing firm in what we believe to be right and true and just, and yet stay in loving relationship with those who differ, refusing to meet intolerance with more intolerance, but with love.
In closing, let me say one more word about kindness, drawing inspiration from the story we just heard of Jesus’ interactions with the two blind men who yelled at him, asking for mercy, and with the crowd who tried to silence them. Last week, Bishop Robinson said from this pulpit that doing the work of justice invariably leads us to kindness, which for many is true. I believe the reverse is also true, that when we choose the path of proximate kindness, that is, daring to show up where people are hurting, where people are bearing the brunt of social inequity and injustice, when we get close and offer our kindness there, we will be moved to act with justice.
And when we show up, all of us together, our differences matter less. They just do.
We saw an example of this last Wednesday, October 5th, when the President of the United States, Joseph Biden, and the Governor of Florida, Ron DeSantis, held a joint press conference in Fort Myers Beach, Florida. Both men praised the other, and the branches of government they represent, for their collaborative efforts to address the devastation Hurricane Ian caused in Florida.
Two men on opposite ends of the chasm that divides us went out of their way to be kind to one another, and more importantly, to the people with whom they spoke who had lost so much. We need more of this, because the challenges before us as a nation, just like the Hurricane recovery effort, requires all of us.
Human beings have an innate capacity to care for one another, and not merely those of our own tribe. Alongside these seeds of human polarization are also seeds of empathy. And when we water and cultivate those seeds, a different kind of world is possible.
And it is possible. Think of it: No one is dividing the people in need of emergency shelter in Florida or elsewhere according to political parties, or only restoring electricity to people who agree with them on certain issues. Those of us writing checks to support relief efforts in Florida or elsewhere aren’t insisting that our money only goes to those who share our worldview.
Think of what we are capable of when we decide to show up–all of us–where love is needed. And keep the Micah pledge before you.
May Jesus help us all to be just, kind and humble. Amen.
1Miller Williams, “Compassion” in The Ways We Touch, (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1997) 55.
2Madeleine Albirght, Fascism: A Warning, (HarperCollins, Kindle ed.), xx
3Richard Rohr, “Jesus is Our Reference Point”
4Tony Hendra, Father Joe: The Man Who Saved My Soul, (New York: Random House, 2004.)
5Joan Chittister, O.S.B, The Rule of Benedict: Insights for the Ages, (New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1992), 24.
And what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?
When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’ And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’
Luke 4: 16-21
What does the Lord require of us
but to do justice,
and walk humbly with our God?
This is the first in a series of Sunday messages focused on this simple and profound word, spoken through the prophet Micah 800 years before Jesus’ birth. Micah lived during a time of great societal inequity and political corruption. The religious leaders of that time, who also held great power, were preoccupied with what we might call personal sins and the elaborate sacrificial rites established to cleanse people of those sins, with seemingly little concern for the people themselves, the vast majority of whom lived in abject poverty. Nor did those religious leaders seem to have any sense that God would have something to say in response to the injustice throughout the land, preoccupied as they were with other things.
In the biblical narrative, prophets are those people who speak for God when those with ordained or institutional religious authority no longer do. The prophet Micah, like his contemporary, Isaiah, spoke with a clear message that God did care, that God cared a lot more about the just ordering of the society than of individual purification rituals. God cared about the impoverished, the oppressed, and the brokenhearted.
Jesus, as we just heard, was not only inspired by the prophets that went before him–he saw himself in their words, as the one to bring good news to the poor, liberty to the oppressed, sight to the blind, as one who did justice, loved kindness, walked humbly and intimately with His God.
He invites those called to follow him to do the same.
“Being a Christian,” writes our Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry, “is not essentially about joining a church or being a nice person, but about following in the footsteps of Jesus, taking his teachings seriously, letting his Spirit take the lead in our lives, and in so doing helping to change the world from our nightmare into God’s dream.”1
I don’t think that it’s an exaggeration to say that our decision to follow Jesus, and like him, to take our inspiration from prophets like Micah and Isaiah, is a matter of considerable urgency. Our communities, our country, and indeed, the world needs us to be brave in our witness to love as Jesus loves us all.
To underscore how much we are needed now, I’d like to read a few passages from a novel by Fredrik Backman entitled Us Against You. It’s the second in a series of books Backman has written about a small town–not in the United States but in northern Sweden–named Beartown.
All is not well in Beartown as Us Against You opens, and things are about to get worse. This is how the story begins:
Have you ever seen a town fall? Ours did. We’ll end up saying that violence came to our town this summer, but that will be a lie; the violence was already here. Because sometimes hating one another is so easy….2
As is usually the case when something goes terribly wrong, the fall doesn’t happen all at once and there are many contributing factors. As events start to spiral out of control, lines harden across the divides that separate people from one another. But the lines were already there:
At the beginning of chapter three, Backman writes:
The worst thing we know about other people is that we’re dependent upon them. That their actions affect our lives. Not just the people we choose, the people like us, but all the rest of them: the idiots. You who stand in front of us in every line, who can’t drive properly, who like bad television shows and talk too loud in restaurants and whose kids infect our kids with the winter vomiting bug at preschool. You who park badly and steal our jobs and vote for the wrong party. You influence our lives every second. Dear God, how we hate you for that.3
A young boy whose family is at the center of the escalating tragedy comes to a sobering realization. About him the author writes:
He’s twelve years old, and this summer he learns that people will always choose a simple lie over a complicated truth, because the lie has one unbeatable advantage: the truth always has to stick to what actually happened, whereas the lie just has to be easy to believe.4
Does this sound familiar to you?
These are the seeds of societal polarization. They lay underneath every human community, and–let’s be honest–within each of us. For years, generations even, they may lie fallow. But when we begin to water them with our fears and resentment, those seeds grow and threaten to choke everything around them.
There is a particularly insidious dimension to this kind of societal fall, which shows up in Beartown as it does everywhere else, and that is how certain leaders cultivate and exploit the seeds of polarization for their own gain.
The former U. S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Madeleine Albright, describes how this happens in the last book she wrote before her death, entitled Fascism: A Warning:
Unlike a monarchy or a military dictatorship imposed on society from above, Facism draws energy from men and women who are upset because of a lost war, a lost job, a memory of humiliation, or a sense that their country is in deep decline. The more painful the grounds for resentment, the easier it is for a Fascist leader to gain followers by dangling the prospect of renewal or by vowing to take back what is stolen.5
Most of what these leaders promise are simply lies. “But the first rule of deception,” Albright reminds us, “is that if something is repeated often enough, almost any statement, story or smear can start to sound plausible.”6
Does this sound familiar to you?
Like the fictitious Beartown, there are reasons to be concerned about the social climate in our country, and indeed, around the world. We are highly polarized. We tend to live and interact with people who think only like us, and as a result, we tend to view those who differ from us in the worst possible light. There is rising societal anger expressed in all sorts of ways. There is a widespread lack of trust in institutions, and leaders who are adept at exploiting our differences for political gain. Given deliberate misinformation campaigns, we can’t agree on what is fact or falsehood.
I can’t say for certain that the United States, like the town of Beartown, is at risk of falling. But we have turned against one another in ways that do not bode well. That’s why I was grateful to accept the invitation on behalf of the Diocese of Washington to join an effort led and organized by the largest United Methodist Church in the country–the BE just, kind and humble campaign. The idea is for Christians to do whatever we can to narrow the gap between us by taking the prophet Micah’s words to heart. Imagine what would happen if all Christians, no matter our differences, decided to commit ourselves to be just, kind and humble in both our private and public lives.
For as Albright writes:
The wise response to intolerance is not more intolerance or self-righteousness. It is a coming together across the ideological spectrum of people who want to make their countries better. We should remember that the heroes we cherish–Lincoln, King, Gandhi, Mandela–spoke to the best within us. The crops we’ll harvest depend on the seeds we sow.7 (italics mine)
The Micah 6:8 pledge is on the back of the small card that was included in your bulletin. Please turn and read it with me:
I pledge to strive to follow Micah 6:8 in all aspects of my life:
- To act justly and pursue justice by standing with and speaking out for those who are vulnerable, mistreated, in need or exploited
- To practice kindness and mercy in every interaction, even with those with whom I disagree;
- To act with humility, surrendering my will to God’s will, acknowledging that I may not always be right and should listen more and speak less.
And I will seek to inspire others to do the same.
In the time we have left, I’d like to focus our attention on the first of the three commitments of the Micah 6:8 pledge.
To act justly and to pursue justice by standing with and speaking out for those being unfairly treated in our society.
For there is a temptation, and an understandable one given how intense emotions can be, to remain silent, so as not to offend, or to imagine that what we can do is insignificant, given the magnitude of what we’re up against, and therefore we don’t do anything.
Yet I am convinced that if we ask and pay attention, Jesus will tell us where our voice is needed. Jesus will show us where we are needed. He will. And usually he calls us to those places where our hearts are broken by what we see. That we show up where he calls us to go is non-negotiable. What Micah’s words ask us to consider is how we do. With what energy do we enter that space, particularly if it is a challenging, conflicted or even polarized one–be it in our families, communities, or in the larger public arena where decisions that affect many are made?
Here, again, we can take inspiration from the example of our Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry. Bishop Curry is never hesitant to show up where people are suffering, to speak the truth as he sees it, and yet he is among the most universally beloved religious leaders in our society, even among those who vehemently disagree with what he stands for. Why? Because he treats those who don’t share his view with kindness and humility, and never stops searching for common ground across differences.
Bishop Curry calls his approach to engaging the work of justice as standing and kneeling at the same time. He stands in his convictions, speaking as clearly as he can what he believes and why. And he kneels before those who disagree with him, particularly when they respond in anger, honoring them as beloved children of God and respecting their point of view as best he can. “And that if we all do that and engage each other,” he says, “kneeling in real humility before each other and before God, and yet being honest and up front and clear about what we stand for or what we believe and hold, the fact that we have knelt before each other creates the space where we can stand together with our differences.”8
Back to the novel Us Against You. While it doesn’t turn out well for everyone at the end, and one innocent young man dies, the town does recover and comes back to itself. And it does so for three reasons:
- A few very brave people dare to stand up for what is right and just and true, without running away, or cutting themselves off from those who are fighting against that truth.
- Those same people reach out across the divide to forgive those who hurt them.
- The one who died as a result of the polarization and violence was universally mourned, and in grief, the town found its way back to love.
I invite you to join me and others in this quiet yet powerful call to be just, kind and humble. To show up where Jesus asks you to, standing firm in what you believe to be right and true and just, and yet stay in loving relationship with those who differ, refusing to meet intolerance with more intolerance, but with love. And, yes, to allow grief to soften your heart.
Speaking of grief, think of the people in Florida right now. No one is asking another person who they voted for or the political party they belong to before offering a helping hand in the communal crisis of Hurricane Ian. All across the country people are mobilizing to help. Red and Blue are irrelevant. President Biden and Governor DeSantis are speaking to one another across the political divide that separates them. Grief has the power to unite us when nothing else will.
Being a Christian is not essentially about joining a church or being a nice person, but about following in the footsteps of Jesus, taking his teachings seriously, letting his Spirit take the lead in our lives, and in so doing helping to change the world from our nightmare into God’s dream.
May Jesus help us all to be just, kind and humble.
2Fredrik Backman, Us Against You (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2018 –English Translation) 1.
5Madeleine Albirght, Facism: A Warning (HarperCollins, Kindle ed.), 9.