Then Esther spoke to Hathach and gave him a message for Mordecai, saying, ‘All the king’s servants and the people of the king’s provinces know that if any man or woman goes to the king inside the inner court without being called, there is but one law—all alike are to be put to death. Only if the king holds out the golden sceptre to someone, may that person live. I myself have not been called to come in to the king for thirty days.’ When they told Mordecai what Esther had said, Mordecai told them to reply to Esther, ‘Do not think that in the king’s palace you will escape any more than all the other Jews. For if you keep silence at such a time as this, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another quarter, but you and your father’s family will perish. Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.’ Then Esther said in reply to Mordecai, ‘Go, gather all the Jews to be found in Susa, and hold a fast on my behalf, and neither eat nor drink for three days, night or day. I and my maids will also fast as you do. After that I will go to the king, though it is against the law; and if I perish, I perish.’ Mordecai then went away and did everything as Esther had ordered him.
Once when Jesus was praying alone, with only the disciples near him, he asked them, ‘Who do the crowds say that I am?’ They answered, ‘John the Baptist; but others, Elijah; and still others, that one of the ancient prophets has arisen.’ He said to them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Peter answered, ‘The Messiah of God.’ He sternly ordered and commanded them not to tell anyone, saying, ‘The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.’Then he said to them all, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it. What does it profit them if they gain the whole world, but lose or forfeit themselves?
Luke 9: 18-25
Let me begin by thanking those who are about to stand for confirmation, reception into the Episcopal Church, or to reaffirm your faith. The rest of us are here because of you, and I, for one, couldn’t be happier. I’m also honored to welcome and introduce my friend and colleague, Bishop Bud Shand.
It is our privilege to pray a word of blessing as one of you comes forward. While the words themselves are the same, the blessing is utterly unique, whatever it is that God wants you to receive. You may not hear or feel anything when we pray, but the blessing is there for you and will reveal itself in time.
I chose the Scripture passages for today to highlight two particular dimensions of a life of faith. The first text comes from the Book of Esther, one of the oldest books in the Bible. It tells of a moment in a young woman’s life when she had to be brave, to do something that she didn’t think she could do. Because of her position in the King’s court–how she got there is a story unto itself–she had the opportunity to speak to him and ask him to stop an evil plot to kill all the Jews in the land. Esther didn’t think she could do it. But then her uncle spoke to her with some of the most powerful words in all the Bible: Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for a time such as this.
So, too, for us, there will be times when we need courage, because it’s our turn to step up to the plate, whether we feel ready or not, and do whatever it is that we alone must do. God created us for such moments and is there with us in them. There is strength and courage beyond on our own for us to call upon. More on that shortly.
The second passage from the Gospel of Luke–one of the four biblical narratives of Jesus’ life–tells of the time when Jesus asked his followers what other people were saying about him. They told him that people were saying all kinds of things (some things haven’t changed). Then Jesus asked, “And what about you—who do you say that I am?”
That’s a question for anyone who, for whatever reason, feels drawn to Jesus’ life and teaching and wants to be part of a community that bears his name. Simon Peter’s answer: You are the Messiah of God has a particular meaning of salvation for him and his people. What it means for you or me to claim Jesus as Savior, or as Lord, or as God revealed to us in human form, or however else we might conceptualize him, is our own question to answer. How we strive to follow him and his teachings is what constitutes a lifelong journey of faith. It never grows stale, unless we allow it to. More on that in a moment as well.
The heart of what we are doing today is outlined in your bulletin in the section that reads “the Baptismal Covenant.” In the time I have left, I’d like to turn to it and reflect on its meaning with you. Remember that the word “covenant” simply means contract, or agreement. In Confirmation and Reception, we return to the promises made at our Baptism, which for most of us happened when we were infants or children when others made those promises on our behalf. Or maybe we made them ourselves, and we want to recommit to them again, which is something good for all who consider ourselves followers of Jesus to do.
Here’s the main takeaway of all that I’m about to say: While all of the questions in the Baptismal Covenant ask if you believe certain things, and as a result you are willing to commit to doing certain things, equally, if not more important, they also describe some of the ways that God shows up for you, how Jesus wants you to draw you closer, so that you might know him and experience his love. They describe how the Spirit of God, working in and through you, enables you, like Esther, to be brave when it matters most, because in that moment God invites you to tap into a greater courage that you can’t muster on your own.
In other words, this enterprise we call the Christian faith isn’t all up to us. One of the easiest ways to grow discouraged or stale in our faith is to assume that it is all up to us. And it’s not.
The first three questions all start with the words Do you believe? Do you believe in God, believe in Jesus, believe in the Holy Spirit? The answer we are given to recite comes from what’s known as the Apostle’s Creed, believed to be the earliest written summary of the Christian faith.
The word “believe” in this context doesn’t mean that we have no doubts or questions, that it doesn’t mean having what some call blind faith, taking something as true just because someone told you it was true or that it was written down somewhere. It’s more of a heart question–where do you and I place our trust?
So the first question is asking if you’ve had sufficient experiences in life to put your trust in this mystery we call God–the source of all life, or in the words of the Creed, the Creator of heaven and earth. Has the power, the mystery, and the wonder of life sufficiently touched you that you have some sense that there is a source of life, a source of goodness, a source of energy and strength that is beyond you, beyond us all, a source that we call God the Father, or in less parental, masculine imagery, God, the Creator. If not, where can you experience that? If so, where can you experience more of it, and so live with a greater sense of God’s presence in your life.
The second question is another version of what Jesus asked “who do you say that I am?” For many, this is a more challenging question than the first, because there are so many caricatures of Jesus, and so many people who claim him as their own and yet live in ways that any atheist can see are antithetical to Jesus’ teachings. To be sure that’s true of every Jesus follower to some degree, because we all fall short of his example. But some of the distortions are so offensive that it can be challenging to separate them from the essence of the man and his spiritual presence in the world now–which is one of compassion and sacrificial love, forgiveness and grace.
Have you sufficeintly experienced Jesus as a companion, friend, source of forgiveness and mercy, and as one whose teachings about love, forgiveness and justice inspires you, such that you want to put your trust in him? Have you heard him call your name? Not everyone in the world does, and there is no sin in that. But if you haven’t and you’d like to, where might that happen? If you have, how and when did it happen? How have you been inspired by the example of other Jesus followers and are drawn to the light that they see?
I was speaking to a colleague not long ago who told me of the time he decided to walk the entire 530 miles of the Camino de Santiago de Compostela by himself. The Camino is an ancient Christian pilgrimage route across northern Spain that draws people from all over the world, all faith persuasions, and some with no faith at all. Most are seeking something on the journey–healing, clarity of life purpose, a sense of adventure.
This particular priest, who is about my age, went after an experience of deep wounding in the church–he was really struggling, not so much with his faith, but how badly he had been hurt. On the path, he met all manner of people who were struggling, too, most of them from the growing ranks of the spiritual-but-not-religious. He had dinner one night around a campfire with a group of young people, and when they learned that he was a priest, they wanted him to talk about Jesus.
“Jesus chose to love without exception,” he told them. “And with his last breath he forgave those who were killing him. I want to learn how to love like that, and that’s why I follow Jesus.” I want to learn to love like that, too. And I believe that Jesus wants us to receive that kind of love and forgiveness, and then to help him pass it on. We can’t share what we’ve never experienced ourselves. Where do we go, what do we do, to experience more of his love?
The third do you believe question points us to what Christians call “the Holy Spirit,” the part of God that moves in and among us, like wind and breath, and makes possible all manner of connection and empowerment. How have you felt that Spirit? Was it like Esther–giving you courage to do what you didn’t think you could? Can you place your trust in the power that lifted you? How can you open yourself to receive more of it?
Experiences of faith are at the heart of our affirmations of faith. If our experiences are tepid or inconsequential, our affirmations will be, too. My prayer for you, for all of us, is that we might be opened to experience God’s love, revealed to some through the presence of Jesus, and this amazing power beyond our control but that sometimes works in and through us in ways beyond what we could ask for or imagine.
The next five questions then, which on the surface read as things we commit to doing, actually describe the means God uses to reach us, and help us grow in faith because of how we have been inspired, strengthened, and transformed. If you want to know where and how to experience more of God, of Jesus and the Spirit, here are a few answers, embedded in these questions to us:
Will you continue in the apostle’s teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread and in the prayers? This is about being part of a Christian community–showing up for worship, for opportunities to learn, for meals shared at one another’s’ tables, and here, at the sacramental table when we remember Jesus’ last meal with his friends. This isn’t a roll call, but a reminder that in community, we can experience God speaking to us, moving us in ways that give us strength and courage and help us to grow in faith. When we show up, things can happen–a word, a song, a smile can be exactly what we need; an opportunity, a chance to love someone else, to learn something new.
Will you persevere in resisting evil and whenever you fall into sin repent and return to the Lord? This is the question that acknowledges our struggles to do what’s right and how often we fail. While it asks what we will do, the context is what God wants to offer us in the moments of our failing, which is forgiveness and mercy, the grace to make amends, and begin again. Speaking for myself, the times when I have felt truly forgiven–either by God or by another person–are among the most humbling and transformative experiences of my life. My faith in God soars as a result. That’s what God wants for you, for all of us, in our moments of regret and guilt–to know mercy and forgiveness, to be shown a path toward a different way to live, and opportunities, in time, for reconciliation with those we’ve hurt. Such experiences also help us become more forgiving when others hurt us.
The last three questions all point us to the ways we experience God, and the presence of Jesus, in relationship to one another. Jesus was really clear about this. The implication of each question is that we are to do these things: to walk our talk–to be a person of integrity; to treat others as we want to be treated; and to respect all people. Again, the context is what God wants us to experience through the love and kindness of other people–that God’s love, Jesus’ forgiveness, the Spirit’s power comes to us through the actions and words of other people, and to be open to that.
Going back to the example of Esther, there will be times when God will call us or somehow place ourselves in really hard situations for the sake of other people. The situations can be large or small, for the benefit of one person or for many. Sometimes, when we stand in the gap of human need and our inadequate response, we experience God’s power working through that situation and offering in ways we could never have imagined. Or in the face of human suffering–others or our own–our hearts break, and in the breaking they grow larger, more compassionate, with greater capacity to love without agenda, to give without expecting anything in return.
What I want you to hear is this incredible invitation, this call from the heart of God, to you, into a relationship of love, into a life of great purpose and joy–and also sacrifice and commitment. Yes, there are promises for you to make and to do your best–which will never be perfect–to honor. But Gods’ love comes first, and the desire to draw you closer, day by day, and enable you to become more like Jesus in your capacity to both give and receive love.
Now there are three questions that only those being confirmed, received or who are reaffirming their faith must answer. They are stark questions of renunciation of all that is evil and of recommitment to follow Jesus. It’s the Prayer Book’s way of asking what kind of person you want to be, and whose lights you choose to follow. If you want to follow Jesus, rest assured that he has already called and chosen you. And that no matter what happens, and how many times you fail in any endeavor to love as he loves, he’ll be there to help you get back up and start again.
A final word about the blessing you are about to receive. It’s already there for you, and in you, and surrounding you. Today is simply an invitation to receive. We’re all here cheering you on and thank you for the opportunity to receive something of that grace and love for ourselves.
I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.” And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.” Then he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.”
When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” Jesus began to weep. So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.” Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.” When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”
I recently spoke with a parishioner from the congregation I served in Minneapolis whose name is Cindy. I’m working on a long-term writing project on the subject of courage, and specifically decisive moments in our lives when we learn to be brave. I called to ask Cindy about such a moment in her life–when she decided to pursue her dream of becoming a nurse.
This was a really big deal. Cindy had never gone to college, and hadn’t done well in high school. As a teenager, her main objective in life was to get out of her abusive family and live on her own. She started out waiting tables and eventually landed an office job where she stayed for 18 years, working up to the position of office manager. She and her husband married and had three children. It was after she left her job as office manager to care for their children full time that she told me of her dream and decision to start walking toward it.
Cindy began by enrolling for a night course at the nearby community college. She arrived late, and the classroom door was locked. When she knocked, the instructor opened it and said, “In this class, we begin on time.” She was never late again.
For six years Cindy took one class per semester until she was accepted into the nursing program. Then she went full-time for two more years, each day getting up hours before her kids in order to study and resuming after they went to bed. Cindy graduated during the economic recession of 2008, when no hospitals were hiring. For several more years she worked nights for a home health care service, until at last she found a position in a trauma unit at a city hospital. A few years later she applied and was hired for her dream job working nights as an obstetrics nurse.
I contacted Cindy to ask her if she remembered what prompted her to take that first step toward her dream. She did and was happy to talk with me about it (and she gave me permission to share her story). In our conversation, she described three influencing factors, all of which have something to do with what we are celebrating in church today, which is why I’m telling you her story.
The first was the example of her grandfather. He was an endocrinologist at the Mayo Clinic, and as a child he was one of the first to receive experimental doses of insulin to treat his diabetes. The treatment saved his life, and he resolved to help save others’ lives. “I was fascinated with medicine because of him and inspired by the amazing things he could do to help people,” she told me. “As a teenager, it never occurred to me that I could pursue such a path. But when I decided to go for it, his memory and example was a big factor.”
The second influence for Cindy was a class she took at our church that one of our more gifted lay leaders offered on discerning life purpose. “I’ll never forget what it felt like,” she said, “when he went to the white board, drew a vertical line, and invited us to see it as representing our entire life span. He told us to put the date of our birth at the bottom; imagine the date of our death and how old we thought we might be when we die.” “Then make note of where you are now on the line,” he said. “What do you want to do with the time you have left?”
The third inspiration was the obstetrics nurse who was with her when she delivered her third child. “She was so caring and encouraging, and good at her job. I knew that I wanted to be like her someday, to help other people the way she was helping me.”
I tell you Cindy’s story because it so beautifully underscores some of the ways in which God works in and through us, and how we help one another become the people God created us to be. We just heard the story of Lazarus being resuscitated from death–and what Jesus says at the end of the story is one of the most powerful imperatives in all of Scripture: unbind him and let him go.
I think of Cindy–and of all of us really–bound up, held back, restricted in our self awareness or understanding of our life’s potential, and how God wants to set us free. The dream of caring for others as a nurse came to Cindy early in life, but she dismissed it, because nothing in her immediate circumstances allowed her to believe she could realize it. She was bound in a way of seeing herself and her options that were way too small for her.
But through the inspiration of her grandfather, long passed on from this life, the encouragement of a friend from church to think with courage about possibilities once again, and the example of a nurse whose care for her awakened her long-dormant dream, all coming together, Cindy came to believe that she could, in fact, pursue her dream. She was set free.
We are so connected to one another across time and space, and God works in and through those connections in ways beyond our comprehension. Here we are, on this day when our church invites us to remember those whose lives mattered to us, and the mysteries of spirit and truth that are handed down generation to generation. Cindy’s grandfather, my grandparents and yours, and their parents before them. Others who were and are our inspiration–in both our family lineage and in history. We are their heirs.
This day also reminds us what we often lose sight of in the cares and occupations of our lives–that we are mortal. And of all God’s creatures, we are blessed with consciousness of our mortality. We’re all somewhere on that line that represents our life between birth and death, and we know it. Most of the time, we don’t think about death, for good reason. Death is beyond our comprehension. We’re not meant to understand death.
Without an awareness of death, however, as philosophers and poets remind us, life itself loses its meaning. “Meaning lies beyond the bounds of this closed world,” writes Nicolai Berdyaev. “And the discovery of purpose presupposes an ending in this world.” (Nicolai Berdyaev, The Destiny of Man,(London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1931) pp.268-69. Quoted in Almanac for the Soul, Nancy and Marv Hiles, 2008, p.219.) Now there is also an ancient human intuition, that we just heard the author of Revelation give voice to–that death is as much a beginning as an end. Yet if we are to live fully in this life, we must embrace our finitude, and recognize that life is short, as the blessing goes, and we don’t have much time to gladden the hearts of those who travel with us on the way.
Lastly, today reminds us that we are here to encourage one another and do all that we can to help one another grow into the fullness of who God created us to be. Think of Cindy’s experience with an obstetrics nurse with her as she delivered her child, who showered Cindy with such compassion and was so good at her job that she awakened in Cindy a desire to do the same.
Think of the countless people who are living saints for you, those who see the best in you, even the unrealized potential in you and urge you to live the best possible version of yourself. Think of those whose faith sustains you when your faith has wanted, or has seen you through the toughest times.
We will soon make precisely that promise for the children being baptized today, that we will be there for them, and we will do all in our power to help them grow into the full stature of their potential, and their knowledge and love of God. That promise can only be realized when we recognize that such a posture of support and encouragement is how God longs for us to be with everyone–seeing the best in one another, cheering each other on, showing up in times of pain and struggle, celebrating moments of joy. “I sing a song of the saints of God,” begins a beloved All Saints hymn that we’ll sing at the end of the service, “and I mean to be one, too.”
I leave you with these questions to ponder throughout the day and perhaps the coming week:
Who in your past, or in history, is the blessed saint whose courage and faith is God calling to mind for you now, as encouragement and inspiration? Right now I am immersed in the life of Pauli Murray, the first African American woman to be ordained in the Episcopal Church. She was one of the first African American women to graduate from law school, and she was consistently fifteen-to-twenty years ahead of her time regarding matters of race and gender equality. Pauli Murray is teaching me about perseverance, and how nothing worth doing in regards to social change, or anything else, really, can be fully accomplished in one lifetime. She helped pave the way for the likes of Ruth Bader Ginsberg and Eleanor Holmes Norton, and all the black women leaders in our church today.
Who is that person for you?
Second, if you were to draw a vertical line that represented your life, where do you think you are on that line now? Of course we never know what might happen tomorrow, but what is your sense of where you are? And how might remembering that you don’t have all the time in the world bring certain issues to greater clarity for you?
Lastly, who is a living saint for you now, the one who inspires and encourages you to be the best version of yourself? And for whom might you be a living saint, a steady presence of encouragement and love, of faith and never-failing support? Consider these wondrous children, all being brought to God and to us for baptism. What might your role in their lives be, or in the lives of any of the children coming up behind you? Is there anyone nearing death for whom your friendship is a means of grace and courage? Is there someone at work, at school, here in church, or in your community for whom you are an inspiration?
We are so connected to one another across time and space, in family and community, and in ways we can never fully grasp. We don’t have to be perfect to live a full and meaningful life–none of the people we remember today were. But we can resolve to be on the side of goodness and light, in service of all that is of love and joy, and to help unbind others and set them free.
Jesus longs for us all to be unbound and free to live our lives with meaning and joy. Sometimes we’re on the receiving end of all that makes such a life possible; sometimes we help inspire others to take their courageous steps toward their dreams. This day is called the feast of all saints for a reason. All means all, including those who have been saints for us; and the ways we can be, and are, sources of inspiration and encouragement to one another.
One of the scribes came near and heard the Sadducees disputing with one another, and seeing that Jesus answered them well, he asked him, “Which commandment is the first of all?” Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” Then the scribe said to him, “You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that ‘he is one, and besides him there is no other’; and ‘to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength,’ and ‘to love one’s neighbor as oneself,’ —this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” After that no one dared to ask him any question.
The title of this sermon is “If It’s Not About Love, It’s Not About God,” something I’ve heard our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry say many times.
I’d like to begin by telling you a bit about my journey of faith.
I had a disjointed spiritual upbringing due to circumstances in my family, and for many years, when I lived with my father and stepmother, we didn’t attend church or have any explicit spiritual grounding at home. But I had friends at school who were Christian, and when I was in 9th grade, one of my friends invited me to join her family for Easter Sunday services. It was a Baptist Church, with an altar call, and when the minister asked anyone who wanted to invite Jesus into their heart and accept him as their Savior to come forward, I found myself walking to the front and allowing this kind man to pray for me, that I would be saved.
I don’t remember feeling all that much different afterwards, but I knew something had happened. My friend and her family were overjoyed that I had accepted Jesus and was now among the saved, and I was happy to be among people who seemed to care about me. Thus began my conscious life of faith.
I didn’t join my friend’s Baptist church, but I stayed within the world of what we might call biblical fundamentalism through my junior year in high school. I eventually joined a church and even lived with the minister’s family for a time when my own family collapsed. By and large, my experiences with the church and the minister’s family were positive. They were kind, generous, and sincere in their faith. I loved to sing, and I was part of a touring choir that traveled from Colorado to Mexico, singing in churches about the love of Jesus.
But there were several things that troubled and confused me that I didn’t know how to talk about with anyone from my church.
First, although I was now among the saved, I didn’t feel the way others described what being saved was like for them. I struggled with all manner of fear and doubt. And I saw that others in the church did, too, but nobody talked about it. What’s more, living with the minister and his family, I saw all their foibles and sins up close, but nobody talked about that either. All the church focused on, it seemed, was ensuring that other people could be saved like us.
That was the other thing that troubled me–this notion that the human race was divided among the saved and the unsaved, and we just happened to be on the narrow path to heaven. I was surprised to learn that even other Christians were not on the saved path. When the time came for me to leave Colorado and return to live with my mother in New Jersey, the minister of my church warned me not to join my mother’s Episcopal Church for fear that I would “backslide into sin.”
I simply couldn’t believe that anyone who wasn’t on our narrow path of faith was condemned by God forever. Out of love and respect for the people who were so good to me, I kept quiet. But when I returned to my mother and began attending church with her, the Episocpal priest there helped me integrate my nascent spiritual experiences with an understanding of God broad and generous enough to encompass all that was swirling around in my head. He said to me something I’ve never forgotten: “Mariann, if you wouldn’t condemn another human being because of what they did or didn’t believe; rest assured that God wouldn’t either.” Which was his way of saying, “If it’s not about love; it’s not about God.”
Seven years after I started attending my mother’s church, I entered seminary to become an Episcopal priest and here I am, now a bishop. Through it all, I have held that unwavering view that if it isn’t about love, it isn’t about God. It was for love that Jesus came to us. When he told the story of the Prodigal Son and his forgiving father, he was talking about us in relationship to God. When he said there once was a woman who lost a precious coin and spent all night looking for what she had lost, and when she found it called in all her neighbors to celebrate, he was talking about how much God loves us. When he asked God to forgive even those who had sentenced him to death, he knew that God had already forgiven them, because God is love.
Jesus came into the world to put human flesh on this wondrous love of God, and to save people like us from ourselves and all the ways we get caught up in anxiety, judgement, greed, anger, despair. He came to show us what it looks like to walk in love, to live in love, and to experience in ourselves the kind of transformation that only love can bring about. “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that,” Martin Luther King, Jr. reminded us. “Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
There are two main ideas that I want to leave you with today, the first having to do with how we read and understand the Bible. For as you know, the Bible is a collection of all kinds of ancient documents that tell the stories of the Jewish people as they came to experience what they called the One Holy and True God. Then, for Christians, our texts tell the stories of Jesus as they were eventually written down, and include documents from some of the earliest Christian communities, made up of both Jews and those the Jews referred to as Gentiles–that is, everyone who wasn’t Jewish.
In both Jewish and Christian texts, there are certain stories and teachings about God that have what biblical scholars call “hermeneutic priority.” That is to say, they come so close to expressing our clearest–though imperfect–understanding of what God is like that they take priority over texts that are in contradiction to them.
For example, there are many passages in the ancient Jewish texts that describe elaborate rituals of animal sacrifice that were deemed necessary in the ancient world, in order for human beings to make restitution for things they had done wrong in the sight of God. But there are other passages that describe God and what God wants from us in completely different ways. If you were in church last Sunday, you heard Father Tim reflect on precisely such a passage from the prophet Micah:
With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?” He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:8)
That is the text with priority for us. What God wants from us and for us is a relationship–to walk with us. And God wants us to love as God loves: with kindness and justice toward all humankind, for we are equally beloved by God.
The encounter Jesus had with those in religious authority that we just heard and is another example of a text with priority for us. The authorities don’t know what to make of Jesus–he seems so disciplined and yet so free when he speaks of God. So they repeatedly ask him questions to test him. Today’s text tells of someone who asked him of all the commandments given the Torah (the Scriptures of the Jewish people) which was the greatest–which, in other words, had priority. Jesus answered quoting from both the books of Deuteronomy and Leviticus: The Lord our God is One. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength. And you shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all other laws and teachings of the prophets.
If it’s not about love; it’s not about God. Which doesn’t mean that we throw out all the biblical texts that seem to contradict these teachings with priority; only that we know their priority and learn other lessons from them, mostly how our forebears struggled to know and love God, and their neighbors as themselves. Remembering their struggles allows us to have a bit of self compassion when we flounder ourselves.
The other main idea I want to leave you with is that Jesus came, and is in relationship with us now as the Risen Christ, so that we might know ourselves to be loved by God and to grow in our capacity to love others.
Love, as Jesus lives it and as the Scriptural passages with hermeneutic priority describe, is a high bar, and we fail to reach it most of the time. As the Apostle Paul famously wrote in his first letter to the Corinthians: love is patient and kind. It is not envious or arrogant or boastful or rude. It does not insist on its own way. It does not rejoice in the wrong, but rejoices in the right. It bears all things, endures all things, hopes all things. Love never ends. (I Corinthians 13:1-13)
God wants us to love like that. And most of the time we fail.
For the last several weeks, Tim has been exploring with you questions at the heart of what we call the baptismal covenant, which describe the path of what it means to walk in the ways of Jesus. One way to approach these questions, as we’ll be asked to do a bit later in this service, is as commitments we make. Yes, I will do these things, with God’s help. The “with God’s help” clause is an acknowledgment that we cannot do things on our own.
But let me suggest another way to understand the questions. They also describe some of the ways God comes to us and helps us grow in faith and love.
For example, the first question is Will you continue in the apostle’s teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread and the prayers? On one level, this expresses our commitment to show up in Christian community. But it’s also one of the ways (one of the catalysts, to quote another pastor) that God uses to help us grow in faith and love. When we’re here, or together in our homes or other places, God is also here–drawing us in through the words, through the sacraments, helping us to know ourselves as loved and practicing loving others.
The next question is: Will you persevere in resisting evil and whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord? Again, this sounds like something we need to do whenever we fail to love or do what’s right, and it is. But it’s also one of the ways God helps us grow in faith and love. I don’t know about you, but when I have done something I regret and experience God’s forgiveness, or the forgiveness of others, my heart grows in response, my capacity to love and forgive others grows through God’s forgiving me.
Thus we can hear each of the foundational promises as something we strive for, yes, but also as ways that God uses to draw us closer, and helps us, by grace, to grow in faith and love. Tim talked last week about the last question in the baptismal covenant, and how hard it is to strive for justice and peace, and to respect the dignity of every human being, and it is. We regularly fail miserably at this. But whenever we step into the gap between what is needed in our world and what we are capable of offering, God also shows up in the gap with us, often empowering us to accomplish more than we ever do on our own. That’s a growth experience like no other. Moreover, when we engage the suffering of the world and allow our hearts to break, we give more of our hearts to God to work through, as we, like Jesus, take in the pain of others as our own. We can’t help but grow in love as a response.
I leave you then with this invitation. In the coming week–between now and next Sunday–when you rise each morning, after you simply acknowledge in whatever ways you do that another day has begun, that you’re still here and been given the gift of life, simply ask for one thing: Help me, Lord, today, to grow in love. Or, you might, as I have done for the last week or so, be more specific and ask God to help you love someone that you are struggling to love. Then, as the day goes on, pay attention to what happens inside you. After the week has gone, ask yourself, what, if anything, you noticed. What, if anything, changed inside you?
This isn’t a self-improvement project; this is opening ourselves to the workings of grace. That grace is here for you, and for me, to receive and then to share. We’re meant to get better at love, yes with practice, but mostly through the experience of being loved ourselves to such a degree that we can’t help but share that love with others.
If it’s not about love; it’s not about God. With God, it’s all about love.
Bishop Mariann gave this homily at the 2021 fall Clergy Conference.
They came to Jericho. As he and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside. When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, ‘Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!’ Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, ‘Son of David, have mercy on me!’ Jesus stood still and said, ‘Call him here.’ And they called the blind man, saying to him, ‘Take heart; get up, he is calling you.’ So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus. Then Jesus said to him, ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ The blind man said to him, ‘My teacher, let me see again.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Go; your faith has made you well.’ Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.
As our time together draws to a close, we thank Dr. Margaret Benefiel for her wisdom, whole-hearted presence, and confidence in us that we would bring our full selves to the work of discernment. But the choice to do so was yours. Thank you for the ways you have been present to one another and to God.
At our first session, Margaret asked us to offer one word to describe what we hoped to receive from our time together. Do you remember your word? I wonder if you have received what you asked for, in full or in part? Are there other gifts you didn’t think to ask for that you have also received?
Among all the things we can say about our Lord and Savior, surely this is true: when Jesus of Nazareth walked this earth, he was a one-person itinerant clearness committee. Sometimes you’ll see a bumper sticker or billboard that says “Jesus is the Answer.” It would be more accurate to say that Jesus is the Question. In fact, that’s the title of a book by Martin Copenhaver with the subtitle, The 307 Questions Jesus Asked and the 3 He Answered. Equally as striking as all the questions Jesus asked, Copenhaver points out, is the fact that he rarely directly answered the 183 questions he was asked. Most of the time he responded either with a story to make people think for themselves, or with a question in return.
Imagine sitting in a small group circle reflecting on the questions that Jesus asked. That’s what Copenhaver invited the members of the UCC congregation he served to do. He compiled a list of 150 of Jesus’ questions. Each group began by taking turns reading all 150 questions around the circle–without commentary, without context, without citation.
Of the experience, he writes:
Some of the questions were as familiar as our own names, and other questions felt like we were hearing them for the first time… the experience of hearing one question after another–a shower of questions, a tide of questions, helped us hear them anew in a new way that was powerful. It was as if spending time with the questions, so central to Jesus’ ministry, was a way to spend time with Jesus, and we wanted to linger there for a time.1
Sometimes our lives depend on finding the right question. Certainly that’s true in the life of faith. Whatever else it might mean to follow Jesus, we are to live with Jesus’ questions as our own, and allow them to guide our lives.
So hear again some of the questions that Jesus asked. As you listen, consider the questions you find yourself drawn to, or the one you want to run away from. Which one do you want to take with you as we take our leave this morning?
What are you looking for?
Who do people say that I am? But who do you say that I am?
Why do you see the splinter that is in your sibling’s eye but don’t notice the log in your own eye?
Do you want to get well?
What is your name?
Do you see this person?
What do you think? Which one of these was a neighbor to the mane who encountered thieves?
Can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?
Which one is greater, the one who is seated at the table, or the one who serves at the table?
How much bread do you have?
Where is your faith?
Why are you afraid?
Does this offend you?
Do you also wish to go away?
What do you want?
What do you want me to do for you?
What do you want me to do for you? Jesus’ question to Bartimaeus takes center stage in this Sunday’s worship. It was the same question we heard Jesus ask his disciples James and John asked last week. What do you want me to do for you?
Bartimaeus knew what he wanted. Do you know what you want? Imagine Jesus asking you that question. And allow me to channel my colleague Robert Phillips here and suggest that after you give Jesus your first answer, imagine him asking you in return, Is there more? For as Robert reminds us, there is always more. What else do you want? And what else? Allow your desires to go from surface to depth, or to touch upon every part of your life.
In 2007-09, when Michele Morgan and I were both in the Diocese of Minnesota, we served on a group that was called the Bishop’s Commission on Mission Strategy. It was one of the most challenging and important growth experiences of my life. One of the first things we did was collect and face all the hard data that told a story of the precipitous decline in many of our congregations, the lack of focus and coherent vision as to what it meant to be the Episcopal Church, and no unifying sense of identity as a diocese. It was a hard and scary process. I vividly remember one afternoon when we were all gathered at some church, and during a break Michele and I went for a walk in the parking lot. I confided in her what I had been thinking for several weeks: ““I’m not sure that it matters to God if the Episcopal Church survives.” The mission of Jesus and the work of the Holy Spirit was not in question in my mind, only the relevance of our church in that work.
This was right around the time when Barbara Brown Taylor–one of the most influential Episcopal priests in the country, wrote her book Leaving Church. Like what’s happening in light of the pandemic, it was as if Taylor gave a whole generation of clergy permission to leave their congregations for the sake of their souls. It felt as if everyone wanted to leave.
But Michele said something in the parking lot that day that I’ve carried with me ever since: “It matters to me. This is the church that welcomed me.” Suddenly I thought of all the other people I loved who were part of our church, both in the congregation I served and beyond, and I knew that I wasn’t going to leave, and I wasn’t going to give up. In fact, I would dedicate my vocational life to the spiritual renewal and structural transformation of our church.
That’s also when I said to God that if I were ever called to be bishop, I would give my whole heart to the work. I’m not one of those people who resisted the call to ministry–I always ran toward it. I wanted to be a priest. That day, I realized that I wanted to be a bishop.
In the ten years I have been with you, I have come to love you, and I love the people in our congregations. I hold you in my heart. If we’re going down as a denomination, like a captain on a sinking ship, I’m going down with it. But I’m betting we won’t go down, because of the power of the Holy Spirit, the love of Jesus, and all of you.
It is a privilege to serve Christ alongside you.
— 1 Martin Copenhaver, Jesus is the Question, Kindle Version, 2014, p. 119.
Blessed are those who trust in the Lord, whose trust is the Lord. They shall be like a tree planted by water, sending out its roots by the stream. It shall not fear when heat comes, and its leaves shall stay green; in the year of drought it is not anxious, and it does not cease to bear fruit. Jeremiah 17:7-8
Jesus said, ‘Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.‘The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light; but if your eye is unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!‘No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.
Good afternoon. I am honored to be in your company today.
Services like this one are an important reminder that the leadership roles we assume in the organizations we care about are part of our vocation, our life’s work. Though they are often voluntary, when we take on the tasks of leadership, we give something precious of ourselves. We share our talent and skill. We give financially from the wealth entrusted to us. We give our time, perhaps the most precious gift of all. In giving, we also receive, from others engaged in the work alongside us; from the work itself; and from the grace of God that finds expression in human creativity. In the work of our varied vocations, we are co-creators with God.
A religious leader that I admire, Andy Stanley, once took it upon himself to identify the means through which God seeks relationship with us. Think of that for a moment–God seeking a deeper relationship with us, using whatever means possible to draw us in. “Faith catalysts” are what Stanley called these means God uses to help us grow in faith. After interviewing hundreds of people over several years, he identified five such catalysts. One of the five he called “personal ministry,” when we choose to personally engage in acts of service, and in particular, the acts that stretch us beyond what we think we can do or offer. An example of this is when we say yes to something not fully understanding what’s being asked of us, only to discover later on how big a commitment is required. Or perhaps we sense from the beginning that whatever we said yes to is far more than we can possibly accomplish on our own. In either case, we are particularly open to God, precisely because of the vulnerability we feel.
For it is in that gap between what’s being asked of us and who we are and what we have to give that we can experience God in a powerful way. God shows up in our times of doubt or even despair, when we know that we’re in over our heads. God shows up in the collective striving of the group when we cross a threshold. God shows up in those graced moments when we feel–actually feel–the Holy Spirit working in and through us, as St. Paul writes, accomplishing far more than we can ask for or imagine.
These are “loaves and fishes” moments, when what we have to offer pales in relationship to what’s needed, but like the disciples giving Jesus a few loaves of bread and some fish with which to feed a multitude of hungry people, we make our gift anyway, and through the grace of God our insufficient offering is part of a miracle through which others are blessed. Our faith in God can’t help but grow as a result, for we know, even if others want to give us all the credit, that it was God who filled the gap between our offering and what was needed, and accomplished what only God can do.
When we give of ourselves in service, what we give becomes an expression of sacrificial love–the love God offers all of us, revealed most dramatically and completely in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. When we participate in that kind of love, no matter the cost to us, something in us shifts. In a mysterious process of spiritual alchemy, we become more of who we are at our best, more of the person God created us to be; indeed, a bit more like ones created in the image of God.
Preparing for today, thinking of the Cathedral Chapter, and the new leaders we are here to install, and the two soon-to-be named honorary canons of this Cathedral, my mind went in two distinct directions. A good rule of preaching, by the way, is to pick one stream of thought and keep things simple. I’m breaking that rule, trusting that you are all smart people and can all stay with me for both.
The first stream of thought has to do with the act of giving itself.
Virginia and John are seasoned givers. They have been giving all their lives, sacrificially giving of their time, talent, and wealth. More than that, they are quick to invite others to join them in this over-the-top giving for the good of something big–like the mission and vision of this Cathedral–something worthy of the best we can give, and not just what we have left over.
It can be uncomfortable to be in the presence of ones so adept at giving that it looks easy for them, as if they had all the energy, creativity, wealth and time in the world to give, unlike the rest of us who much more rarely feel as if we have enough. But John and Ginny know, from experience, that when we give beyond what feels comfortable, we become like those trees planted that Jeremiah wrote of long ago–stronger inside, less anxious. As hard as it is at first, when we give beyond ourselves in a big way, we feel freer, for we are both grounded in our values and inspired by our highest aspirations.
I can’t explain how it works; I just know that it’s true. Yes, there is a cost, a real, sacrificial cost. Ginny and John know that; returning chapter members know that, as do those joining you in the important ministry. But that’s precisely the point. Some things are so important in life that they deserve the gifts that cost us something, because where our treasure is, as Jesus said so well, our hearts are there also. What he doesn’t say, that we learn on our own, is that our hearts grow bigger with each gift.
The poet David Whyte tells of time when he mentioned to his good friend, the late John O’Donohue (one of the finest poets and priests of contemporary Ireland) that he was thinking about giving his father some money. David rarely speaks or writes about his father, unlike his late mother, about whom he speaks and writes all the time. We can surmise, then, that it wasn’t the easiest of relationships. But he was clearly worried about his father, living alone in England after his mother’s death. David himself had long since relocated to the Pacific Northwest.
“How much are you thinking of giving him?” John asked. David told him. “Very good!” John replied, “Now go beyond yourself. Double it.” “Okay,” David said after a pause. “All right, I will.” “Very good!” said John. “Now go beyond yourself again, and double that.” Taken aback, David said, “Well, with friends like you a man could go broke.” To which John replied, “You won’t regret it.”
Sometime after that conversation John died a sudden and early death. It’s been years now, but David Whyte still talks about John as if he were still here. This particular conversation stayed with him. He did what John suggested. He went beyond what he thought he could do, and gave enough money to change his father’s life forever and for the better. And John was right. He never regretted it.
Ginny and John know something about that kind of “go beyond yourself” giving. When they invite us to join them, it may well feel impossible to us. “Good!” they would tell us. “That’s how it’s supposed to feel. Go beyond yourself anyway. You won’t regret it.”
The second thought I offer this afternoon in honor of John and Virginia and the new Chapter members, and as a reminder to all of us, is the spiritual courage required to go first, to be the one to take the first step in response to a call, a vision, or a dream. When we go first, we don’t know if others will join us. Nor do we know, in taking the first step, exactly where we’re going. We walk in the beginning more by faith than by sight. The poet Antonio Machado reminds us that often in life there is no road. “Pilgrim,” he says, “You make the road by walking.”
How many times in the life of this cathedral has John Shenefield or Virginia Mars gone first–making the first gift, being the first to chair an important initiative, to go on the road, to be the first to say out loud, “We need to consider this, or do that.” Then after taking the first step, they went ahead and took another, and another after that, and so they forged a road for all of us by walking it first.
The combination of courage and tenacity is a wonder to behold, especially in the beginning stages of anything important, because there is absolutely no guarantee that things will turn as they hope. Failure is always a possibility, but John and Virginia know that it is better to fail at something important than to succeed in mediocrity. Today we honor their willingness to go first, and then to persevere, making it possible for others to join in and bask in the glory of reaching the destination and accomplishing the task, when at first, and for a very long time, Virginia, John, and a few other stalwart leaders forged the path on their own.
Looking back from the perspective of the destination or accomplishment, there is an air of inevitability about it all, as if the outcome was assured from the beginning. Those who went first will tell us otherwise, that nothing we celebrate now was inevitable when they started. What brings a dream or vision of what could be to its fulfillment are the steps taken toward it–the first, courageous step and all the other steps that follow. For a long time, it’s a lonely walk. For a long time, it doesn’t seem as if anything has or will ever change. But when it does change, when momentum kicks in and more people join the effort, all can bask in the collective joy of accomplishment. In retrospect, we all speak about the thing that we accomplished as if it were our idea in the first place, as if we had all gone first. People like John and Virginia are kind to smile and allow us all to share in the dream they held on our behalf for so long.
This is such an important moment in the life of our nation, in the world, and in the life of this Cathedral. We are all here for a reason. It matters that we show up. It matters that we say yes to causes of great importance. Thus far, I’ve been speaking of John and Virginia in the past tense, but they are very much here, still giving, still willing to go first if needed. The best way to honor them is, as Jesus often said, to go and do likewise, giving of ourselves in ways that both cost us and give back far more than we could ever hope to receive, and in forging our way toward the dreams God has placed in our hearts.
Bishop Mariann preaching on The Gospel of Your Life at Washington National Cathedral on Sunday, August 29
When the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.) So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” He said to them, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written,‘This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines. You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.”Then he called the crowd again and said to them, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.” For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”
Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
The title of this sermon is “Discovering the Gospel of Your Life.”
Throughout I will be posing a number of open-ended questions, each of which are invitations into an intentional exploration of your life and your faith that you can always do on your own, or you can take part in one of two offerings this fall through the Diocese of Washington’s School for Christian Faith and Leadership. One of the offerings is a six-session series called Discover, designed for a small group or entire congregation to take together; the other, called Explore, is a self-guided, online course. Information about both is on the School for Christian Faith and Leadership website.
I make this invitation well aware that — amid all that your life demands of you, how busy you are, the challenges you face, and the enormity of suffering we see all around us (and this was a particularly difficult week) — personal faith exploration can seem like a luxury that you simply don’t have time for. If that’s true for you, I understand. Yet questions of faith and self-awareness, while not always urgent, keep coming back to us. They are the questions, as the poet David Whyte suggests,“that have no right to go away, for they have to do with the person we are about to become; they are conversations that will happen with or without our conscious participation.”1 They are the questions that determine what kind of person we will wake up to be tomorrow.
Let me clarify what I mean by “Discovering the Gospel of Your Life,” word by word, starting with the first.
When we discover something, it’s helpful to remember that nothing has changed in the material world. What changes is our awareness of something whose existence had been there all along. In most cases, what we discover others have long known about — a common observation among the people whose ancestors were in the Americas centuries, if not millennia, before Europeans discovered what was for them a New World. In our personal lives, what we discover about ourselves is generally not news to those around us, which is why increasing our self-awareness always involves allowing others to tell us what they see in us that we cannot.
One of my favorite examples of this is an exchange between two characters of a movie that came out about twenty years ago entitled The Legend of Bagger Vance. Matt Damon plays Rannulph Junnah, a professional golfer in the early 20th-century, who is attempting a comeback after his life hit rock bottom as a result of what he experienced in the trenches of World War I. Will Smith portrays Bagger Vance, a mysterious man who befriends Junnah when he was all but lost to alcohol and despair and slowly helps him heal, while serving as Junnah’s golf caddie and coach. In one scene, Junnah is playing in an important golf tournament, and he is way off his game. He turns to Bagger Vance and says, “This is getting embarrassing.” “Oh no sir,” Bagger Vance replies, “It has been embarrassing for some time now.”
It’s good for us to have truth-tellers like this, especially when the truth is hard to hear.
While what we discover about ourselves is sometimes embarrassing or even shameful, at other times the discovery is unexpectedly affirming of the good in us that we can’t see or tend to minimize. When others name our goodness, it can feel like a revelation to us, a new discovery. Conversely, one of the easiest ways for us to bless those around us is to take the time to point out their goodness. For they may not see it, or allow themselves to accept and live more deeply from that part of who they are.
So first question: what do you suppose that others see in you that you don’t? And what might change for you as a result of your knowing what others know about you?
There is a lot of energy being expended in our country now — and in our churches — to better understand aspects of our history, specifically the roots of the persistent, pervasive racial inequities in our society; and there is an equal amount of energy being expended actively trying not to know these things, or teach them to our children. There are implications in what we, as individuals and a society, choose to know or not know about who we are. But the process of discovery only affects our awareness of what’s true about us. The truth exists, whether we choose to know it or not.
Now let’s skip over to consider the last two words of this sermon’s title: your life.
The parts of your life that I’d like to focus on are these: first, the arc of your life story and where you see yourself on that arc; second, the recurring patterns and stories through which you interpret your life; and lastly, the aspects of your life that you cherish most — what you love about being you.
Starting with the arc: Picture in your mind’s eye the image that shows up when you’re on an airplane, telling you where you are in relation to your final destination. Imagine that arc represents your life. Where are you on that arc in any given part of your life? Are you at the beginning, in the middle, or near the end? Having some sense of that puts a lot of other things in perspective.
Years ago, after dropping one of our sons off at college in Chicago, I gave the slightly older son of a co-worker a ride from Madison, Wisconsin back to Minneapolis. It’s a four-hour drive, so we had time to talk, and I asked him about his life. He had graduated from college a few years earlier, and admittedly, he was struggling, as is common in young adulthood, with loneliness and vocational drift. At one point he said, a bit tongue-in-cheek, “I think I’m having my quarter-life crisis.” He expected me, as someone nearly twice his age, to smile at this, and I did, but I could tell that his struggle was real. I was also struck by his awareness of where he was in life–at the end of the first quarter. As in a football game, there is a lot of life ahead at the end of the first quarter, and he knew that. He also knew that the clock was ticking and that he wasn’t an under-grad any longer, with professors and parents telling him what to do next. It was time to make some important decisions, and they were his to make.
No matter where we think we are on our life’s arc — and of course we don’t really know — we don’t have time to waste, do we? I’m reminded of a story Anne Lamott tells of going shopping for clothes with her friend Pam, who was undergoing cancer treatment at the time. When Anne asked Pam if the dress she’s tried on made her hips look too big, Pam slowly replied from her wheelchair, “Annie, I don’t think you have that kind of time.”2 No matter where we are on our life’s arc, some things are worth pursuing and some are not.
The second aspect of your life that I invite you to consider are the recurring patterns that you have come to recognize as part of your life story. Think, for example, of when in casual conversation you hear yourself say, “Well, that’s the story of my life” to describe certain things that always seem to happen to you. In my case, for example, why it is that whenever I choose a check-out line in a grocery store, I always seem to wind up in the slowest one? Or when I have a biking accident, as I did last week, why is it always my fault and when I’m within walking distance to my destination? I need to discover the answer to that question before I get back on my bike!
Incidentally, our younger son, Patrick, like his mom, was accident-prone as a kid, to put it mildly. But some of his accidents truly defied explanation. They were so bizarre that by the time he reached high school, his friends began to refer to them as PRIs, or Patrick Related Incidents, which to this day is what everyone in his life calls the mishaps that seem to find him.
So what are the patterns of your life? Are you the person who never wins at anything, or do you always win? Do you make friends easily, or does it take a long time? Would you say that you are a glass half-empty kind of person, or a glass half-full? And what would others say?
While some of these patterns are relatively harmless and tend to be exaggerated, others are quite powerful and have real implications for how we experience and interpret our lives. Once a pattern is ingrained and the story is set in our minds, it takes considerable effort to change it, even if the data supporting it is suspect, or when what was once true about us isn’t anymore. The desire to make a change in a life pattern is often a sign that change is coming, perhaps because we’re tired of a given storyline that doesn’t fit us anymore. Or it could be that the Spirit of God is beginning something new.
The third aspect of your life that I invite you to consider is what you love best about being you — what you love to do, the things that cause you to lose track of time, the people who make your hearts sing, the places that speak to you of home, or adventure, or joy. Another way to identify this part of your life is the deep sense of purpose you feel when you’re doing what truly matters to you, the fulfillment and satisfaction of knowing that the gifts God has given you are being put to their use — even when, or perhaps especially when, the effort involved requires real sacrifice on your part. (This morning’s Washington Post tells the story of Nicole Gee, age 23, one of the 13 Marines killed at the Kabul airport this week. A few days before she died, she had posted a photo of herself on Instagram holding an infant of an Afghan refugee family. Her caption read, “I love my job.”) Your dreams show up here, what you hope for, what you really want for yourself and for others, so much so that you’d give up a lot of other things for that one pearl of great price.
That goodness in you, the part of you that you love, brings me now to the central word of this sermon title — gospel. Derived from the Old English, god-spell, it’s root meaning is “good story,” translated from the Latin, evangelium and the Greek euangelion, also the root of our words evangelist and evangelical. Christians are those who come to believe that Jesus of Nazareth was born into this world “as good news of great joy for all people.”
The Bible contains four gospels of Jesus’ life, but what about the gospel of yours?
Part of your gospel is revealed in your innate goodness, your good story, the good news you bring to others simply being you. One of the first Christian theologians famously said that the glory of God is a human being fully alive.” “I have come that you might have life,” Jesus said, “and life in abundance.”
But another part of your life’s gospel may be, paradoxically, where you have experienced, or are experiencing now, your vulnerability, or life in its harshest terms. The good news isn’t in the sin or sorrow or pain, but in the good that can be wrenched out of it, or the ways that grace and goodness shows up for you when you least deserve it, or as you are walking through a long, lonesome valley. Even a fleeting moment of grace can carry you a long way, giving you just enough to keep going.
Do you have that kind of good news story to tell, I wonder? These are our resurrection stories — not of dramatic rescue, but of new life rising from the ashes of what was lost. Sometimes we don’t even have that story to tell, but somehow it can be enough to allow ourselves to feel what we feel, with no need to pretend that it doesn’t hurt, and to experience something of love in the midst of the pain.
Nothing I have said thus far has been explicitly Christian. Intentionally so, because what I am attempting to describe is universal. What makes your life story, or mine, explicitly or intentionally Christian is when we find ourselves drawn to the story of Jesus, through which we come to interpret and go deeper into the meaning of our own. For a Christian, Jesus’ life becomes, in the words of a Christmas carol, our life’s pattern. His teachings inform our worldview. Jesus Related Incidents become our own. Admittedly, this takes time, and effort. This isn’t drifting or dabbling on the spiritual path; we’ve made a choice. But there’s mystery involved, because more often than not, it feels for most Christians as if He has chosen us. The invitation to follow comes from him, or as often, from the compelling example of another person who is a Jesus follower who inspires us and we seek to emulate.
I’m reminded here of something the late Archbishop of El Salvador, Oscar Romero, is reported to have said to the priests under his charge: Your life may be the only gospel that the people will ever know. I’m fairly certain that what he meant, if, in fact, it was Romero who said it, is that when working among subsistence farmers, the priests in El Salvador needed not merely to preach the message of Jesus, but to embody it for those who might never be in a position to read about Jesus for themselves. St. Paul writes a similar exhortation in his letter to the Philippians: “Live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.” (Philippians 1:27) Live, in other words, in such a way that people know who Jesus is by your example. This is the vocation of all who call ourselves Christian.
What I know about living the gospel, however, is that it is as much a revelation to me as it is to those around me. I don’t mean this abstractly, but in the most concrete terms. From time to time, a gospel story or teaching moves from something I’ve read and know in my mind to something else entirely. It takes up residence inside me and becomes, for a time, the lens through which I see and understand my life and through which I experience God. It becomes the gospel of my life.
I could give you any number of examples — the stories of Jesus that have most shaped my life, but to demonstrate how the process of seeing our lives through his teaching works, let me simply point you back to the gospel text we just heard and that’s printed in your bulletin.
In the text, Jesus is having an argument with a group of people referred to as the Pharisees, who were among the most disciplined, rigorously observant Jews of Jesus’ day. The Pharisees are often Jesus’ sparring partners. He admired them for their diligence in religious practice, for Jesus himself was an observant Jew. But he differed with them, sharply at times, whenever he felt that their outward expressions of faith did not reflect an inner humility before God and compassion for their fellow human beings. Like the Jewish prophets before him, Jesus hated religious elitism and the hypocrisy of religious leaders who kept up the appearances of piety while failing to love God and neighbor, which is at the heart of the Torah. His invitation here is to a life of integrity — of an inner life consistent with outward appearances. In the gospels there are numerous examples of Jesus related incidents demonstrating and teaching us the importance of “walking our talk.”
Discovering the gospel of your life is thus an invitation to go deeper into the mystery of your life’s story — its arc, patterns, and essential goodness — in conversation with Jesus’ story. Over time, the conversation frees you to become more fully you. For the change isn’t an external rearranging of your life’s circumstances, at least not a first. Consistent with how Jesus lived and taught, it is an internal experience of being given new eyes and ears with which to see and hear what’s all around you that’s been there all along.
So I end with where I began, inviting you to consider a few questions on your own or in conversation with others: Where are you in the arc of your life? What time is it, and what don’t you have time for anymore? What patterns and themes do you notice and are there any you are ready to change? What do you love most about who you are and when has love shown up for you when you needed it most?
And should you sense that Jesus is inviting you, for the first or the hundredth time, into a deeper conversation with him through the stories of his life and teachings, I hope that you accept it, so that his arc, his life patterns, his good news might inform and deepen your own. Then, through your life, others will see and know the love and mercy of God that has been with us all along.
May it be so. God bless you as you discover and wholeheartedly live the gospel of your life.