In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. And one called to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.”The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke. And I said: “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. The seraph touched my mouth with it and said: “Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.” Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I; send me!”
I would remind you, brothers and sisters, of the good news that I proclaimed to you, which you in turn received, in which also you stand, through which also you are being saved, if you hold firmly to the message that I proclaimed to you–unless you have come to believe in vain. For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me has not been in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them–though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me. Whether then it was I or they, so we proclaim and so you have come to believe.
1 Corinthians 15:1-11
Once while Jesus was standing beside the lake of Gennesaret, and the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God, he saw two boats there at the shore of the lake; the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets. He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little way from the shore. Then he sat down and taught the crowds from the boat. When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.” Simon answered, “Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.” When they had done this, they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break. So they signaled their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both boats, so that they began to sink. But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” For he and all who were with him were amazed at the catch of fish that they had taken; and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. Then Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.” When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him.
I’d like to speak about something familiar to all of us: the experience of coming to terms with our frailties and failures. It’s a theme that runs through our Scripture texts for today, but I could just as well tell you about my past week. On Wednesday night as I stumbled my way through a highly choreographed Anglo-Catholic worship service, I remembered something I heard the Franciscan priest Richard Rohr say. “To keep me from becoming too impressed with myself,” he told a journalist during an interview about his latest book, “I ask God to send me one humiliation a day. It’s a prayer that God is quick to answer.”
The stories from Scripture are particularly helpful for those of us who imagine we can somehow earn our way into God’s favor (or anyone else’s, for that matter). Each describes a situation in which a person feels summoned to do something brave. But in the presence of holiness, each feels exposed, seen for who they truly are, which surely disqualifies them for the task at hand.
“Woe is me, I am lost.” The prophetic Isaiah laments as he was summoned before God. “For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips.” “I am the least of the apostles,” writes Paul about his call to follow Jesus, “unfit to be an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.” “Go away from me, Lord,” says Simon Peter in the boat with Jesus, “for I am a sinful man.”
In each instance, God in essence replies, “I know who you are. I know everything about you. And I am asking you to step up anyway.” God could very well have added, “Spoiler alert: you won’t always get this right, what I’m asking of you. In fact, you may well fail. But perfection, and success, isn’t what I’m asking for; only faithfulness.”
Of all the biblical characters, Simon Peter is truly the patron saint of imperfection. From that first encounter in the boat, Peter gives his whole heart to Jesus. Still he never seems to get things right, and some of his failures are truly spectacular. Still, Jesus turns to Simon Peter more than any other disciple, as if to say to all of us, “Look. Following me isn’t a call to perfection, only faithfulness.”
What makes Simon Peter’s example so compelling is his perseverance. Every time he falls, he gets back up. He acknowledges his mistakes and accepts Jesus’ forgiveness, even after the most horrible failing of all, when he denies knowing Jesus on the night of Jesus’ arrest. How could he ever forgive himself for that? But after the resurrection, Jesus seeks him out, so that Simon Peter knows that he is forgiven and still called to be a witness to Jesus’ way of love.
Like the Apostle Paul after him, the one who had to forever live with the memory of persecuting followers of Jesus until he himself became one, Simon Peter comes to know and accept himself, in the words of Adam Hamilton, as a faithful and flawed disciple.1–Faithful, flawed, forgiven and called. “By the grace of God I am who I am,” St. Paul wrote to the Christians in Corinth, and surely Simon Peter could have said the same. “And God’s grace toward me has not been in vain.”
I’ve been working on a writing project about courage, and how we learn to be brave. Among the people I’ve been blessed to learn more about is the Rev. Dr. Pauli Murray, who lived one of the most extraordinary lives of the 20th century. She was the first Black woman in nearly every educational and professional setting of her life, including becoming the first Black woman to be ordained in the Episcopal Church. In honor of Black History month and in this theme of faithful imperfection, I’d like to tell you a bit of her story.
Pauli Murray was born in 1910, in Baltimore, to mixed-race parents. As a child, Murray experienced the dramatic constriction of Black life in this country with the rise of Jim Crow segregation, stripping away of civil rights, and vigilante violence against Black leaders and businesses. When her mother died and her father was institutionalized, Murray went to live with her maternal grandparents and a devoted aunt in North Carolina. Her Aunt Pauline was a teacher, and she encouraged Murray to pursue education.
Murray was proud of her family heritage, but the legacy of mental illness and poverty loomed large. Despite the formidable barriers of race, gender and poverty, Murray rose to the top of whatever class she was in. She was always poor, working for almost no pay as a writer, union organizer, and later as an underpaid attorney. She never stayed long in any position. Her romantic life was one tortuous relationship after another as she struggled privately with gender identity, until she met the love of her life in her late 40s. Murray’s passion was writing, and her legal arguments, crafted in near manic states of intense work and physical deprivation, are now part of the canon of civil rights law, though she was never adequately compensated or recognized for her efforts.
Pauli Murray entered Howard Law School in 1941. Fully prepared to take her place among the aspiring lawyers at Howard, Pauli was stunned by overwhelming prejudice against her because she was a woman. She had grown up surrounded by strong women, had attended a women’s college, been befriended by Eleanor Roosevelt, and worked in organizations where women held positions of leadership. While in her private life gender identity was a source of near-constant turmoil, this was the first time she experienced the full-on effects of gender discrimination becasue she was a woman.2 All of her energies to this point had been focused on the struggle against prejudicial laws based on race. Now, in a nearly all-male Black institution, she encountered what she described as the twin evils of discriminatory violence that she aptly called “Jane Crow.”
Marginalization at Howard galvanized Murray into action. Murray countered gender discrimination the same way she had racial discrimination: by proving her abilities. She quickly rose to the top of her class. It became her life-long quest to treat both race and gender equity as non-negotiable in civil rights law and societal practice.”3
While still in law school Murray first conceived of the legal arguments that would later prove decisive in the Supreme Court’s 1954 decision on racial equity in Brown v. Board of Education and its 1971 ruling on behalf of gender equality in Reed v. Reed.4 It was an audacious vision, a direct attack on both racial and gender discrimination based on the 13th and 14th Ammendments to the Constitution that had abolished slavery and granted full citizenship to all persons born in the United States. No one at the time took her argument seriously, but it would one day garner the attention of Howard Thurman, and later still Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Murray’s accomplishments are all the more noteworthy given her on-gong struggles with depression and grinding poverty. Her personal experience was often one of failure, yet much like Simon Peter, she persisted. Every time she fell, she got back up. In later years, she took great satisfaction when her ideals were vindicated by victories, saying, “I have lived to see my lost causes found.”
About a year ago, Washington National Cathedral hosted a film screening of the recent documentary of Murray’s life (which I highly recommend if you haven’t seen it). Afterwards there was a discussion with the producer and director, and someone raised the issue of Murray’s difficult temperament and mental instability, for which she was often hospitalized. The director was quiet for a moment and then said, “Well, it’s often the broken people of the world who change things for the better.”
His words went straight to my heart.
I hope that dwelling in the stories of our imperfect spiritual ancestors and the life of Pauli Murray has provided space for the Spirit to speak to you about your life–the goodness of it amid all that you would change if you could, and how the grace of God may be revealed most powerfully at times through your pain, brokenness and disappointment. Or perhaps it’s in the dance between the seemingly opposing realities of strength and weakness where grace shines through.
Either way, by the grace of God you are what you are, and God’s grace has not been in vain. So when God, or life itself, summons you to courage, why not step and say yes, imperfections and all, knowing full well that you won’t get everything right. For you are faithful, flawed, forgiven and called by the One whose love is unfailing. Amazingly enough, sometimes it’s through your failings–and mine–that love can shine.
1Adam Hamilton, Simon Peter: Flawed but Faithful Disciple (Abingdon Press: Nashville, 2018)
2Pauli Murray, Song in a Weary Throat, Memoir of an American Pilgrimage (Liveright: reprint edition, 2018)
3Rosalind Rosenberg, Jane Crow: The Life of Pauli Murray (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017) Kindle Edition
“Another decision we have to make is how we will travel through the wilderness”
For all the people wept when they heard the words of the law.
Nehemiah 8:1-3,5-6, 810.
For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ… If one member suffers, all suffer together.
1 Corinthians 12:12-31a
The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on Jesus… Then he began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’
In the name of God, Amen.
On the day that I am here because of a painful parting and resulting confusion and grief at the center of your congregation, the appointed Scripture texts remind us why people of faith gather in community at all. Each in their distinct contexts describe the powerful faith experiences that can occur in a communal setting and, in the case of St. Paul’s image of a body made up of dependent parts, why we need each other. We’re connected to each other, he writes, whether we realize it or not. When one suffers, we all suffer.
While this is only the third Sunday in the liturgical season of Epiphany, a time when the Scripture readings in church invite us to consider the ways Jesus makes himself known to us as light for the world, it seems that the next liturgical season, that of Lent, has come early for St. Paul’s, Rock Creek.
Lent, you may recall, is patterned on Jesus’ forty days of trial and testing in the wilderness and the forty years the people of Israel wandered in the wilderness before entering their promised land. To be sure, due to the pandemic, the entire world has been in a prolonged season of trial and testing. Now, as a congregation, you have been thrust into your own particular wilderness time, for some of you with seemingly little or no warning. For others, however, it’s been a wilderness at St. Paul’s for quite a while.
One of the defining characteristics of a wilderness experience is not knowing how or when it will end. Forty in Scripture is a symbolic number, signifying a long, uncertain time. While there will be guideposts and processes to guide you, the journey ahead is full of unknowns, including how long it will last. On the other hand, thankfully, wilderness experiences, however long, are not meant to last forever, even though it may seem that way while we’re in one. We’re actually heading somewhere else.
When we find ourselves in a wilderness that we did not choose to enter, the first thing we have to decide is if we can accept that we’re there. Acceptance is not easy, and it doesn’t happen all at once, or at the same time for everyone. That’s okay. You may never agree as to how and why St. Paul’s landed in this wilderness, and that’s understandable. But you are here now, and if it’s any comfort, so am I. I’m here with you.
Another decision we have to make is how we will travel through the wilderness. One way is to get through it as fast as we can, which is what we all would prefer. Choosing to move quickly has the advantage of being here for as short a time as possible, presuming everything goes well. With a bit of luck, we make it through the wilderness and arrive safely on the other side, not much changed by the experience. What’s difficult about this approach is the emotional impact that can occur when things don’t go according to plan. Then this get-through-it-as-fast-as possible mindset can lead to added frustration, anger, and despair.
Another way to travel through a wilderness is to turn around and leave the way we came in. This is only an option in the wilderness experiences that we enter by choice, when it’s still possible to change our minds. I think about this a lot in terms of lifestyle choices. We can enter the wilderness of making uncomfortable changes in advance of a crisis–adjusting our health practices, or investing in our relationships, or facing an inevitable change sooner rather than later so as to have more options. But in those instances, having entered the wilderness by choice, we can also choose to turn around. Perhaps we underestimated the cost, and the changes were way harder than we realized. Maybe we got scared. Making the choice to enter the wilderness before it is thrust upon us is a good idea, but it’s really hard to do. If we don’t, however, invariably the wilderness will come to us–in the form of a medical crisis, or a permanently ruptured relationship, or a forced change.
Of course this is easier to see in other people’s lives than it is in our own. For over five years my sister and I begged our mother to make changes in her life as she aged. She would dabble in the possibility of selling her nearly 200-year old house on 7 acres of land, find a less remote place to live, and tend more carefully to her health. But she couldn’t bring herself to follow through on any of those changes. Then she got really sick and almost died, and my sister and I had to move in and make all those changes for her, which she hated and I don’t blame her.
Sometimes we can choose to enter a wilderness; sometimes it comes to us. I daresay one of the dynamics at St. Paul’s, and in The Episcopal Church writ large, is coming to terms now with issues we ought to have dealt years ago, but didn’t. Now we have to face them because we have no choice.
A third way to travel through the wilderness is to make our peace with where we are. We don’t often begin the wilderness journey with this attitude; it comes to us when we realize that we’ve gone too far to turn back, the horizon is still beyond our sight, and we are going to be where we are for a while. It’s a sober realization, but it allows us to relax into the experience, and learn from it what we need to learn. This is when the wilderness can change us, so that when we leave, we are different people. Sometimes it feels as if we’ll never leave, but we learn to make our peace with that prospect, too. A yoga teacher once described this to me as “finding peace in a difficult position.”
In both the passage from Nehemiah and the Gospel of Luke, it strikes me that the people gathered are hearing sacred words read to them that they’ve heard many times before. But they are hearing them now with new ears, as if for the first time, because of their circumstances. In the case of the people of Israel, the words of Torah had been lost to them through the trauma of exile and return, the loss of their mother tongue, and the lack of consistent spiritual leadership. Now as Ezra stood before them, reading the old familiar words, the people wept. They wept for joy and for grief, for all that they had lost and all that lay before them. In the midst of their tears, Ezra said to them. “The joy of the Lord,” he said, “will be your strength.”
Similarly, the people gathered in the synagogue the morning Jesus got up to read had heard the words of Isaiah before, but they heard them differently because he was reading them. More than that, he embodied them in a way they had never experienced before. The words were fulfilled in their hearing, and even before Jesus said it, they knew it was true. Now, as you will hear next week if you come to church, the people didn’t like what Jesus had to say after that and they kicked him out. It turns out that we’re all slow learners when it comes to following Jesus. There’s room for humility all around.
In the weeks ahead, should you remain faithful in worship at St. Paul’s, you will hear words you’ve heard before, because there will be a new person speaking them. You will hear yourself recite familiar words in a new way because of where you are now as a church. And it won’t be just the words in church, but everywhere. You do well to pay attention to the familiar things now, because in the wilderness they are all new.
After all, what does one do in a wilderness time? What is the work?
The first task is to pay attention, not necessarily to do anything differently right away, but to listen and observe the world, and ourselves in it, from this new vantage point.
About 12 years ago, my husband gave me a book of poetry by Mary Oliver for Christmas, and I didn’t have the heart to tell him that I already owned a copy. Then it occurred to me that I hadn’t looked at the book since I bought it several years before, and that maybe it had something new to say to me. I had been through a lot in the year before that Christmas, including a really big disappointment in my vocation. (This is when I came in second in the bishop’s election in Minnesota, where I had served as a rector for 15 years.)
I opened the book of poetry to read it from this new vantage point in my life. The first line of the first poem took my breath away: “My work is loving the world.” She goes on: “Are my boots old? Is my coat torn? Am I no longer young and still not half-perfect? Let me keep my mind on what matters, which is my work, which is mostly standing still and learning to be astonished.”1 There’s something about the wilderness that stops normal life in its tracks, and that’s a good thing. It enables us to see the world around us, and to hear familiar words, as if for the first time.
Another wilderness task is to take stock of our lives, and in this instance, your life as a community of faith. Taking stock is an excellent way to keep our focus where we can actually do something productive, rather than wallowing in self-pity or blaming others for our lot. The Benedictine author Joan Chittister puts it this way: “Courage, character, self-reliance, and faith are forged in the fire of affliction. We wish it were otherwise. But if you want to be holy, stay where you are in the human community and learn from it. Learn patience. Learn wisdom. Learn unselfishness. Learn love.”2 As we learn these things, we can face almost anything. And that, by the way, is the hallmark of coming out of a wilderness: you are stronger, more resilient for having lived through it, so that you can face the future without fear.
One last wilderness task that I’ll mention for today: tend to the most important things. There’s little time for trivia in the wilderness–this is a time to remember why you are here. I realize that the range of emotion and interpretation of what has happened is broad among you, and it would be tempting to walk away from your community. I pray that you won’t, and that you retreat to corner tables of observation and critique. I pray that you tend to the priceless, and at times costly gift of Christian community and what, at its best, it offers you and through you can offer others: a path to walk and a light to go by; a different reference point from what the world teaches about success and failure and self-worth; and most especially, the invitation to draw closer to Jesus as your Savior and friend.
In closing, let me assure you that there is no one right way to experience the wilderness. As you face what lies ahead, it’s good to remember that there is always more than one right answer, always more than one possibility before you, and always a chance to start again. That’s especially comforting when things don’t go as we hoped or planned. There’s always a Plan B.
The author Anne Lamott once offered these words as her Plan B at a time when she was at a loss for what to do next. They strike me as a good Plan A in a wilderness time:
Remember God is in charge.
Do your inner work.
Be of service.
Gracious God, I hold before you the people of St. Paul’s, Rock Creek and ask that you would make yourself known to each one in a powerful way. Guide them through this wilderness time; assure them of your presence with them through Jesus, and give them a glimpse of the preferred future you have in mind for them. Help them to breathe, remember that you are in charge, do their inner work, breathe again, and give thanks. In Jesus’ name, Amen.
1“Messengers,” by Mary Oliver, in Thirst (Boston: Beacon Press, 2006), 1.
2Joan Chittister, The Rule of Benedict: Insights for the Ages (Crossroad Publishing Company, 2004), 33.
3Anne Lamott, Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith (San Francisco: Riverhead Books, 2005), p. 314.
To Know and Follow Jesus: Lessons from King’s Life
Then the Lord said, ‘I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey, to the country of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. The cry of the Israelites has now come to me; I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them. So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.’ But Moses said to God, ‘Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?’ He said, ‘I will be with you; and this shall be the sign for you that it is I who sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God on this mountain.’
‘But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you. ‘If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.
I’m honored to be here, to pray with those who are to be confirmed, received, and are reaffirming their faith, and to worship God with all the congregation of St. John’s, Beltsville. Before I say more, let me express my gratitude to your good rector, the Rev. Joseph Constant, for his ministry, and the good clergy, staff, and lay leaders who serve alongside him. I also want to thank those who serve in diocesan leadership from St. John’s. As a congregation, you are a blessing to us all.
I’d like to speak directly to those who will soon stand before God to make a public affirmation of faith. Today is meant to be an occasion of blessing for you, as you publicly state your commitment to live as a follower of Jesus. This isn’t an endpoint for you in faith, as if you were graduating from Sunday School, or having learned all you need to know about following Jesus through a six-week course. This is one moment–an important one–in a lifelong journey of faith. Like any journey it will have twists and turns, unexpected circumstances and new opportunities, and most significantly, the ongoing invitation to grow in your knowledge of God, grow your sense of God’s love for you and your love for God, and deeper appreciation of how God is guiding you toward the fulfillment of your life’s purpose.
Our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, whom some of the young people being confirmed today had the opportunity to meet a few years ago, likes to tell about the time when he, as a teenager, was having a bit of conflict with his father, who happened to be an Episcopal priest. The Presiding Bishop admits he was a rebel in those years, and also lazy. And in a moment of frustration, his father said to him “You know, son, God didn’t put you on his earth merely to breathe in oxygen and breathe out carbon dioxide.” His father reminded him that he had a God-given reason for being alive and he needed to figure out what that purpose was. Our Presiding Bishop never forgot father’s words, and it helped him take his life more seriously, as the gift that it is, and the responsibility he had for living it well, as God would have him live.
Today we are all holding you and your precious, singular lives before God. When you come forward and I pray for you, I will ask that God’s Holy Spirit may be revealed to you in personal and powerful ways over the course of your life, so that you know without a shadow of a doubt that you are precious in God’s sight and here on this earth for holy purposes.
Yesterday when we met, I encouraged each of you to stay close to Jesus, and in particular, to make a regular practice of reading and meditating on his life and teachings that are recorded in the New Testament. In the Bible, there are four accounts of Jesus’ life, each with a distinct perspective on this man whose entire life–his birth, his teachings, the way he interacted with others, and his death and rising from the dead–that gives us a window into the heart of God. As the Apostle Paul says in one of the letters of the New Testament, “In Jesus the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.” It’s important for you to know his story, not just as a body of information, but as a means to be in relationship with him. As you read and meditate and question and discuss his teachings, Jesus will speak to you. You will hear him, not always, but at significant times in your life, speaking to you through the words of Scripture, as if they were written for you.
I’d also like to underscore something we talked about yesterday, and that is the gift of Christian community. While there are always challenges in any community, and no church is perfect, one of the great benefits of being part of a congregation like St. John’s is that you get to spend time with some truly remarkable people, whose life and faith are inspiring. And you have the opportunity to learn about other Christians who through their example show us what it looks like to live and love like Jesus.
Today we remember one such person, arguably the most influential Christian leader in the history of the United States: the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Tomorrow is a federal holiday to honor King, the closest Monday to the day of his birth, which was January 15, 1929. Had he lived, he would have celebrated his 93rd birthday yesterday. As it was, he was assassinated on April 4, 1968 when he was 39 years old.
I don’t know how much you know about Dr. King’s life. He is now recognized as the spiritual leader of what we call the Civil Rights Movement, a sustained effort to overturn laws and customs in this country that deprived African Americans of basic civil rights and gestures of human decency. In many parts of the United States, it was illegal for African Americans to sit in the front seats of buses or trains; it was illegal to drink from the same water fountains as white people. It was perfectly legal in Washington, DC to deny persons of color the right to purchase a home in certain neighborhoods, including the neighborhood I live in now and I daresay some of the neighborhoods you live in. All that changed in the 1950s and 60s, thanks to the leadership of people like Dr. King and thousands of people who insisted on change. King was one who insisted, in the name of Jesus, that those protests be non-violent and dignified.
Looking back, this country honors King as a hero. But during his lifetime a lot of people hated him and what he stood for. He had to endure all manner of threats against his life and his family. It must have been so disorienting, for he was also a celebrity. Where he spoke, thousands of people would show up to hear him. He inspired a generation to believe that people of different races could live together in peace and goodwill. Yet in the eyes of some, he was the most dangerous man in America.
Today I’d like to tell you two stories from King’s life that give you a sense of his spiritual connection to God, and how he drew his inspiration and strength from Jesus’ life and teachings.
This first comes from a time when Dr. King, as a very young pastor, was chosen to be the leader of what was called the Montgomery Improvement Association. This was the group that organized a bus boycott in the city of Montgomery, Alabama to protest laws that made it illegal for Black people to sit with whites, and relegated them always to seats in the back. That boycott lasted over a year, which meant that African Americans had to find other means of transportation to work (very few owned cars). A lot of people did a lot of walking.
On January 27, 1956, near midnight, King was sitting at his kitchen table alone. He couldn’t sleep because of his worry and fear. He knew that as a leader he was in way over his head. Everyone was exhausted, and the boycott strategy didn’t seem to be working. He had good reason to be afraid, because he had received numerous abusive calls and death threats targeting him and his family. The latest call had come earlier that evening, with a sinister voice assuring him they would be sorry if he and his family didn’t leave Montgomery within a week.
With his head in his hands, Martin Luther King, Jr. bowed over the kitchen table and prayed. Later he would say that his prayer started like this: “Lord, I am afraid. I am taking a stand for what I believe is right. The people are looking to me for leadership, and if I stand before them without strength and courage, they will falter. I am at the end of my powers. I have nothing left. I have come to the point where I can’t face it alone.”
In that moment, he would later say, he experienced the presence of the Divine as never before. It was as if he could hear a voice saying: “Stand firm, Martin. I am with you and will never leave you. Trust your instincts and carry on.” He rose from the kitchen table a different man, with a new sense of confidence, ready to face whatever came.1
I want each of you to know that when your life is really hard and you don’t know where to turn or what to do next, you can pray the way Martin Luther King, Jr. prayed. Tell God everything that’s on your heart. Then wait and listen for what comes to you. It may be that God will say something similar to what God said to Martin Luther King, Jr.: Stand firm. Trust your instincts. It may be some other word: Ask for help. Call someone you trust. Or perhaps It’s time to let go. But whatever you hear–and it may not be hearing, exactly, but a sensation of God’s presence–you will know that you are not alone. God is with you and for you. Moments like these are the foundation of a life of faith, upon which everything we say and do in church is built. Without that foundation, nothing else makes sense.
The second story comes from the end of King’s life, the night before he was assassinated. He had come to Memphis, Tennessee to lend his support to the sanitation workers of the city. These were people who collected garbage from homes and businesses, and they were on strike for better wages and safer working conditions. All the front line sanitation workers in Memphis were Black. They were paid what could only be described as starvation wages, and the trucks they drove were so unsafe that workers routinely lost limbs, and two men had recently died. Yet the city leaders refused to make any concessions. Like the Montgomery bus boycott years before, the sanitation workers strike went on far longer than anyone anticipated. The mood in the city had turned violent. The white leadership made it clear that King was not welcome.
No one in KIng’s family or inner leadership circle thought it was a good idea for him to keep going back to Memphis, but he went anyway, three times within the course of a month. He had a lot of reasons for going to Memphis, but in the last speech of his life, he spoke of the most important, which had to do with Jesus and his teachings.
Before thousands of people who had gathered to hear, King reflected upon one of Jesus’ most famous parables. This is what he said:
One day a man came to Jesus and he wanted to raise some questions about some vital matters in life. At points he wanted to trick Jesus, and show him that he knew a little more than Jesus knew and throw him off base. Instead of answering the man directly, Jesus told a story about a certain man traveling on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho fell among thieves who beat him, took his money, and left him for dead. Two religious leaders came down that road at different times, saw the wounded man, but passed by on the other side—they didn’t stop to help. Finally, a man of another race came by. He got down off his beast, administered first aid, and helped the man in need. Jesus ended up saying this was the good man, this was the great man, because he had the capacity to be concerned about his brother.
Now, you know, we use our imagination a great deal to try to determine why the two religious leaders didn’t stop to help the man. At times we say they were on their way to a church meeting, and they had to get on to Jerusalem so they wouldn’t be late for their meeting. At other times we would speculate that there was a religious law that one who was engaged in religious ceremonies was not to touch a human body twenty-four hours before the ceremony.
But I’m going to tell you what my imagination tells me. It’s possible that these men were afraid. You see, the Jericho Road is a dangerous road. It’s a winding, meandering road, conducive for ambushing. And you know, it’s possible that the priest and Levite looked over that man on the ground and wondered if the robbers were around. Or it’s possible that they felt that the man on the ground was merely faking. And so the first question the priest asked, the first question the Levite asked was, “If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?”
But then the Good Samaritan came by, and he reversed the question: “If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?” That’s the question before you tonight. The question is not, “If I stop to help this man in need, what will happen to me?” The question is, “If I don’t stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to them?”2
King took his cues from Jesus and his teachings, choosing to do what he thought was loving and just. What happened to King will happen to us when we, too, take Jesus’ stories to heart and try to apply them in our lives. We become more like him, with love like his, compassion like his.
It is an easy life, being a follower of Jesus? No, but it’s a life worth living, a life with purpose, and a sense of his presence with us, and the guiding light of his teachings. It’s a life to which you are now saying yes, and we reaffirm our commitment to follow him alongside you. Stay close to Jesus, and remember we are right here by your side.
1As told in Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-63 (Simone & Schuster, 1988).
2Martin Luther King, Jr., “I See the Promised Land,” in A Testament of Hope, 284-285.
And Mary gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn. . .
I speak to you of what is still possible because of the One who became flesh and dwelled among us. Amen.
When Mary first learned that she, an unmarried girl, would conceive and bear the child whose birth we celebrate, she asked How can this be? The angel Gabriel explained to her what would happen, and how–a human impossibility. Then he said, For nothing will be impossible with God. It would have been impossible, if Mary had refused to do her part, but she didn’t. “Let it be with me,” she said, “according to your word.”
May we give thanks for all the Marys and Josephs of our day who say yes to God’s impossible possibilities. As Auden imagines what the same angel said to Joseph as he grappled with the prospect of raising the child Mary was carrying, “they do what is hard as if it were easy.”
For nothing is impossible with God. This rather audacious theme runs throughout the Bible, amid a vast collection of stories that tell of both our human foibles and more endearing qualities, wondrous events and great calamity, natural disasters and horrific evil inflicted on human beings by other human beings–stories that we recognize as an earlier version of the world we live in today. Yet like a solid bass line holding a complex musical piece together, there is this steady underlying message: For nothing will be impossible with God.
It’s often explicitly spoken, as it was to Mary, by an angel, or a prophet, or from God directly, when God calls upon ordinary people to do extraordinary things.
We first hear of God’s impossible possibilities in one of the earliest biblical stories about an old married couple, Abraham and Sarah, whom God told when they were 100 and 90 years old respectively, that they, like Mary thousands of years later, would have a baby–their first–who was to be the beginning of something new. Their response was to burst out laughing. Abraham fell on his face, he laughed so hard. Sarah chuckled to herself as she imagined, at her age with an even older husband, once again knowing pleasure. Like Mary in the far off biblical future, they didn’t refuse to go along; they, too, said yes to God’s impossible possibility. And when their child was born, they called him Isaac, a name which means “laughter.” After years of disappointment and grief, Sarah said, “God has brought laughter to me.” For Sarah, laughter was still possible, and the gift of a child. (Genesis 21:6)
For nothing will be impossible with God. Moses, you may recall, was summoned by God to go before Pharaoh, the ruler of Egypt, and demand freedom for the enslaved Hebrew people. He was terrified at the prospect, for good reason. You see, Moses stuttered. He had trouble getting words out of his mouth–how on earth would he convince the most powerful man in Egypt to change his mind? God, in essence, said to Moses, “Never mind your inadequacies. I’m about to do something big, and you have a part to play.” LIke Abraham and Sarah before him, and Mary and Joseph after him, Moses said yes to God’s impossible possibility. (Exodus 6:28)
For nothing will be impossible with God.
What might this mean for you and for me on this Christmas Eve?
Let’s start with what it doesn’t mean.
A young boy, coming out of his classroom after finishing a test was heard praying, “Oh God, please make Paris the capital of Turkey.” Some things are impossible for God.
Here’s a more heart-breaking example, one that comes to mind every year at Christmas, from a novel I read years ago entitled The Book of Ruth by Jane Hamilton. It tells the story of a girl who had more than her share of troubles. Truly, through no fault of her own, her life was filled with chaos and confusion. In an early chapter, when Ruth was quite young, one of her relatives takes her to church during the weeks leading up to Christmas. There Ruth hears, for the first time, about a baby about to be born who would bring peace and goodwill to the world. She is so relieved that help was coming at last, that somehow this baby would make things right in all the places where everything was so terribly wrong. As Christmas approaches, she gets more and more excited at the prospect of Jesus’ miraculous arrival and all that would happen as a result. But when she and her family go to church on Christmas Eve, she watches as children she knows from school re-enact the manger scene. Jesus is just the neighbor’s new baby wrapped in a towel.
Her story has stayed with me because I had a similar experience as a child as I struggled to make sense of all the promises associated with Jesus alongside the reality of my world. Truth be told, I still struggle, if nothing is, indeed, impossible with God, and our God is a God of love, why is life still so hard for so many.
We’re all acutely aware of human suffering across time and space. We’re all living through our own times of trial, suffering, and disappointment–some harsher than others. How does hope endure, and faith in God’s power in the face that all that would indicate otherwise?
For nothing will be impossible with God.
The words are never spoken in a vacuum, as if God were interested in impressing us with feats of cosmic magic or accolades from those who cannot see clearly the world as it is. No, they always occur within the context of human/divine relationship and in response to a particular circumstance when something brave is waiting to be done.
The Apostle Paul, writing 50 years or so after Jesus’ birth, put it this way in his letter to the Ephesians: “Glory to God whose power working in us can do infinitely more than we can ask for or imagine.” And in his letter to the Christians in Philippi, which he wrote while in prison, he said, “I am confident of this, that the One who began a good work in you will see it through to completion.”
For nothing is impossible with God. In the very specific situations in your life and mine when God wants us to believe tonight, and to trust two things: first, that we are not alone, that God is with us, no matter who or where we are, no matter what we’ve done or failed to do.
Second, something you and I hold dear which may feel impossible for us is still possible. Not everything, mind you, but something–something real. “Christmas,” writes the Benedictine nun Joan Chittister, “is about finding life where we did not expect it to be.”1 “The world is the manger,” Frederick Buencher put it, “The miracle shows up here.”2 When God shows up, good things are still possible, even when–or especially when–they seem impossible to us.
No, Paris will never be the capital of Turkey. And you already know what Ruth and I had to learn at an early age–that the baby Jesus doesn’t swoop in and make our lives perfect. Tonight isn’t about wishful thinking, or magic, or perfection. It’s about a love that won’t let us go and assurance that something specific that you hope for is still possible.
Whatever that is for you may seem impossible for very good reason–and surely some of what we hope for will not come to pass. But listen tonight, should you hear those words or feel them resonating within your beating heart, ponder them, like Mary, and dare to believe that particular context of your life nothing will be impossible with God.
I realize that there are enormous issues that require us all to be brave and to learn from Jesus how to love as God loves. We all need to hold hands and take an enormous evolutionary leap if our species is to survive, for the best of who we can be to take the reins from our worst instincts. It isn’t a sure bet that this will happen. But Jesus’ birth is stunning, audacious affirmation that God has not given up on us. How, then, dare we? This is the night to cast our lot with hope.
I would be remiss if I left you tonight without reciting a few lines from the poem that helped bring this sermon into being. It was written by David Whyte during the depths of the pandemic we are still enduring, and is entitled Still Possible:
It’s still possible to be kind to yourself . . .
it’s not too late now, to bow to what beckons . . .
It’s still possible to leave every fearful former self
In the wake of newly heard words
Issuing from an astonished mouth.
Yes, It’s still possible to be a soul
on its way to a beautiful, beckoning,
and bountiful somewhere
Looking for the gift you will bring back . .
This time with the cleaner earned simplicity of knowing
What it has taken you so long to learn: to ask for forgiveness
By being forgiveness, to live more generously,
And then to dance more bravely,
To speak more suddenly, and with a free heart.
It’s still possible in the end
to realize why you are here
and why you have endured,
and why you have suffered
so much, so that in the end,
you could witness love, miraculously
arriving from nowhere, crossing
bravely as it does out of darkness
From that great and spacious stillness inside you.3
We witness love tonight, for Jesus comes to us, with a love that shows us what is still possible, for us and for our world. But remember that we are never passive bystander’s in love’s fulfillment. The One for whom the impossible is still possible asks us to do our part, as Mary and Joseph did theirs.
Say yes tonight to whatever it is that by the power of God working in you, and through the love of God revealed in Jesus, is still possible. Be among those who choose to do what is hard as if it were easy, knowing that you are part of the miracle of impossible possibilities.
3 Still Possible, by David Whyte (Langley, WA: Many Rivers Press, 2021), 95-98.
Behold, at that time I will deal with all your oppressors. And I will save the lame and gather the outcast, and I will change their shame into praise and renown in all the earth. At that time I will bring you home, at the time when I gather you together; yea, I will make you renowned and praised among all the peoples of the earth, when I restore your fortunes before your eyes,” says the Lord.
Zephaniah 3: 19-20
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
John the Baptist said to the multitudes that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits that befit repentance, and do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” And the multitudes asked him, “What then shall we do?” And he answered them, “He who has two coats, let him share with him who has none; and he who has food, let him do likewise.” Tax collectors also came to him to be baptized and said to him, “Teacher, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Collect no more than is appointed you.” Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Rob no one by violence or by false accusation, and be content with your wages.” As the people were full of expectation, and all questioned in their hearts concerning John, whether perhaps he were the Christ, John answered them all, “I baptize you with water; but he who is mightier than I is coming, the thong of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie: he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire…”
I’d like to speak to you about a word that is often associated with this season, and that word is joy, as in Joy to the World, the Lord has come. And, as an angel said to the shepherds on the night Jesus was born: Behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy for all people. And as we just heard what St. Paul wrote from a prison cell to the Christians of the Greek city of Phillipe, Rejoice in the Lord always. Again, I say rejoice.
Given all that life asks of us and the many challenges we’ve had to face of late, I’d like to explore with you the difference between happiness and joy. They have a lot in common, but they are not the same. Let me illustrate that point with a story.
In late December 1979, the Iranian Foreign Ministry invited three American religious leaders to celebrate Christmas with the 53 hostages being held captive in the American Embassy of Tehran. The hostage crisis had begun on November 4th of that year, and no one had any idea how long it would last. For the hostages and their families, each day was an eternity, and Christmas Day was fast approaching.
The religious leaders were only allowed to meet with the hostages in groups of three or four. The first four that they met with were Marines. The minister who later told this story, William Sloane Coffin, went up and hugged them each one, and they hugged back, which he took as a good sign. He invited the men to take turns picking carols to sing. He opened a Bible to the Gospel of Luke and passed the book around, so that each could read a portion of the Christmas story.
Then Coffin spoke to them of the first Christmas. “It was cold,” he said, “dark, dank, and lonely. Joseph must have been tired, Mary exhausted. We read, ‘There was no room for them in the inn,’ but of course there was. There was room in the inn, but no one would move over for a poor pregnant woman. So Mary and Joseph ended up in a stable and he who was to be the bread of life for all humankind was laid in the feedbox of animals.”
“It was a terrible Christmas,” Coffin said again. “But do you see what I’m getting at? God’s love can change no place into some place, just as the love of God changes a person who feels like a nobody into a somebody.” As he said goodbye, he said, “I know this is not a happy Christmas for you. But it might well be the most meaningful.”
When I consider the distinction between happiness and joy, I’m struck by what Coffin said to the Marines about meaning. Happiness and joy are both emotional states of well being. The difference, I think, is found in what brings meaning to life, and in particular, meaning in the hardest of situations. It’s impossible to imagine the hostages in Iran, or anywhere else in the world, being happy at Christmas. But it isn’t out of the question to think of them being graced by moments of profound meaning and joy, even as their hearts were breaking.
Prior to his trip, William Sloane Coffin met with family members of several hostages. A young girl asked him to deliver a kiss to her father. The kiss, Coffin said, was enough to melt him on the spot. When he met the girl’s father and said, “I’m going to give you a big kiss from your daughter.” Coffin said it was as if the Christmas tree outside the White House turned on in that man’s head. “Never,” he said, “had I seen such illumination.”
Happiness is something we strive for; the pursuit of happiness is the fulfillment of desire. It is also subjective, for each person has a different definition of happiness and therefore a unique path of pursuit. Thomas Jefferson rightly identified the pursuit of happiness as one of the unalienable rights of humankind. Yet there is a limitation to happiness, dependent as it is upon external circumstances and subjective experience.
Joy, on the other hand, goes deeper in us than happiness can reach, into the realm of meaning. Joy doesn’t depend on external circumstances or good fortune, nor is it something that we can pursue. Joy comes to us, often in unlikely times and places. “Happiness,” writes the spiritual author Frederick Buechner, “turns up more or less where you’d expect it to–a good marriage, a rewarding job, a pleasant vacation. Joy, on the other hand, is as notoriously unpredictable as the One who bequeaths it.” One would expect joy at a wedding; but it can be equally palpable at a funeral. One would hope for joy on the perfect Christmas morning, yet it can also come to us in the loneliness of imperfection, when nothing turns out the way we hoped it would. Joy is a gift that comes to us, and with it a deep sense of being at home in an all too imperfect world.
The Scriptures often speak of being filled with joy, or of joy breaking forth, descending upon those who live in darkness or fear. Not only does joy come to the unexpecting, but also to the undeserving. The book of the prophet Zephaniah, from which we read this morning, is a good example, for it contains in its succinct three chapters some of the most compelling prophetic judgment against God’s people, a catalog of reasons why God is fully justified in ridding himself of the burden of them once and for all. Yet in these final six verses of Zephaniah, God does one of those great cosmic turn-arounds. Instead of punishment, God offers a promise of healing and reconciliation. “The Lord is not interested in your shame or sorrow,” the prophet tells the people of Israel. “God will lift you up even from the despair of your own creation. God will take you from your desolate places and bring you home.”
This is about joy, in part because the promises are beyond anyone’s capacity to pursue or accomplish. Moreover, they are promises not yet fulfilled; they are more of a hope than reality. Yet what happens when we hold onto words like these is that the seeds of joy take root in us long before there is anything to be happy about. Happiness needs immediate gratification, while the promise of joy is often joy enough.
We hear from John the Baptist this morning, as we do every Advent, and truth be told, I wish we didn’t. I don’t know how you picture John, but he doesn’t strike me as a particularly happy or joyful person. He is on a mission, and for John, life is too short to enjoy. He has a fierce truth to proclaim and a people to prepare for the coming Messiah. I have a hard time imagining anyone being happy with what John said to them when they asked him what they should do. But I can see how what he said could serve as a precursor to joy–not the kind of joy that lives alongside happiness, but the kind that comes with having your soul purged of what it doesn’t need.
To allow space for God in your heart, he said, make peace with what is yours, and share with those who have less than you do. Strive for the kind of freedom that comes from needing less. When the One who is coming after me arrives, all that you imagine you need to be happy will be revealed for the superficial things that they are and burned away like chaff from wheat.
I doubt that John was thinking about joy when he said these things—his interest was righteousness. But long after John died, and after Jesus died for that matter, when those trying to explain the mystery of God’s presence in Christ looked back, they saw in John the kind of truth-telling and fearless living that leads to deep meaning and joy.
John would have harsh words for us if he saw that in our pursuit of happiness we had lost sight of what matters most. He would remind us that sometimes we have to go through pain to get to joy. I wouldn’t dare argue with John. But what I take from his harsh tone in the midst of this Advent season, which always begins in judgment and ends in joy, is a reminder that joy can be experienced while facing difficult truths or living through tough times. Happiness is a fickle friend, the one who shows up, as Buechner said, where you’d expect. But joy can show up anywhere, and in fact, it will show up where we least expect it. John thought God was coming to whip us all into shape, and in that he was wrong. Jesus came, as he said once, “so that my joy may be in you and your joy may be complete.”
Like all of you, I wish happiness for those I love. But this may or not be a happy Christmas, depending on circumstances beyond our control. Whether it will be a joyful Christmas depends not on our pursuit, but rather upon our openness to receive. For what God gives can come in the loneliest hour and the darkest night. “Weeping may spend the night,” the psalmist wrote, “but joy comes in the morning.” Joy comes in happiness or sorrow, calm or chaos—it doesn’t matter. For it is God’s doing, God coming to us as we are, in the world as it is, with an assurance of deep meaning and the promise of joy.
Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from
I John 4:7
People were bringing little children to Jesus in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.
Mark 10: 13-13
Good morning, St. Nicholas! Thank you for inviting me to celebrate your patron feast day. I am blessed to be among you.
As you well know, your church was named for the saint most closely associated with Christmas. Nicholas was revered for his compassion, habit of gift-giving, and love for children. After he died, an enormous body of legend grew up around his acts of generosity. Ancient stories of how he would secretly visit childrens’ homes and leave gifts is at the heart of our practice of gift-giving at Christmas.
In Nicholas’ honor I’d like to speak to you today about one of the most powerful and life-affirming gifts we can both give and receive.
The word to describe this gift has religious overtones and thus is often associated with professional religious people like your rector Beth and me. That’s unfortunate, because we can all give this gift anytime we want. It doesn’t have to cost a penny, although sometimes we gladly give sacrificially as an expression of our gift.
The gift is that of blessing–to give our blessing to another.
The mother of a friend of mine died recently. My friend told me that the last words her mother spoke to her were words of blessing: “She thanked me for all I had done for her. She told me that she was proud of me and the life I had created for myself.” “Keep going,” she told me. “It was all right to let me go.”
That blessing will stay with my friend for the rest of her life. But we don’t have to wait until we’re at the final goodbye to bless one another. Much of the kindness we naturally offer is simply blessing by another name. To recognize such gestures as a spiritual practice encourages us to be mindful that we are instruments of God’s love when we bless one another.
I’d like to describe three ways that the practice of blessing can draw us closer to God and help us grow in our capacity to love.
The first is perhaps the most obvious: we bless others whenever we choose to offer concrete expressions of kindness to someone who is in need or pain. It matters here that we act and not merely speak our blessing. One of the hallmarks of this form of blessing is kindness. In the words of the Irish poet John O’Donohue, “When someone is kind to you, you feel understood and seen. There is no judgment or harsh perception directed towards you. Kindness has gracious eyes.”
In late August, I had a bicycle accident right in front of my house. I was going up the steep hill of our street, a road so familiar to me that I was looking down at my wheels as I rode instead of up to see what was ahead. Thus I didn’t see that our neighbor’s van was parked in front of their house and I hit it and fell. It was such a foolish mistake, and as it turned out, I broke my wrist rather badly. A man driving by saw me fall. He stopped his car, and helped me get up. He asked me where I was going, and when I told him I was right in front of my own house, he walked me to the house and made sure that I got in all right. Then he apologized and said that he had young children in the car and needed to get back to them. I felt the blessing of his presence and sincere willingness to help. I never learned his name and I can’t tell you what he looked like, but I will never forget his kindness.
In a world where we hear story upon story of mean-spiritedness and cruelty, gestures of kindness like that are life balm to the soul. Once you’ve experienced kindness from another, you instinctively want to pass it along. Later that night I sat in a very crowded, depressing hospital emergency waiting room, by myself, because of COVID restrictions. There we all were–this community of wounded and sick people. One woman really needed to tell someone her story, and even though I was exhausted and in pain, I listened, in part because I wanted her to experience the kindness of a stranger the way I had earlier in the day.
Another example of concrete expressions of blessing: the other day I visited the Bishop Walker School, a tuition-free Episcopal school sponsored by our diocese whose mission is to provide a high quality education to African American boys in the most underserved areas of Washington, DC. The Bishop Walker School started out, over a decade ago, in one of our churches in Southeast DC, and then–after years of fundraising and growth–moved into this amazing new facility housed within a large complex of arts, educational, and social service organizations in that part of the city.
Although I’ve been to the school many times, the new head of school wanted to give me a full tour. So we walked through hallways filled with inspirational passages and photographs of Black leaders, artists, and academics. We peered into classrooms where students were hard at work. Our last stop was the school library–one of the most inviting, beautiful spaces you can imagine. The library is run by a team of volunteers who each dedicate one to two days per week. All the books are donated by churches and schools within the diocese. Other volunteers come to read with the boys and help them with their schoolwork. The three women who greeted me that day showed me a small reading corner off to the side and said “Our entire library was once smaller than that space, and now we have thousands of books, all here to inspire our boys.”
Endeavors like the Bishop Walker School are only possible when individual people decide to strategically and collectively invest in blessing. For blessings to last generations, they must be embedded in institutions whose mission is to bless. We can’t possibly accomplish sustained large-scale blessing on our own, but we can whenever we collectively invest our energies and resources.
That is what you are doing today here at St. Nicholas, this church named for a man who loved children and sought out those in need of blessing. Later in the service we will ask God’s blessing upon your financial support of this faith community, so that together you may be a blessing to one another and your neighbors. I hope that you know how important and life-transforming your presence and collective blessing is; how together you are making possible what none of us can accomplish on our own.
A second way we can practice blessing is simply to take particular care with our words, refraining from easy critique and going out of our way to express encouragement and kindness.
Blessing is a wonderfully uplifting practice and a reminder of the importance of our words. It’s so easy to be critical; it takes effort to bless. “The godly are those who never talk destructively about another person,” writes the Benedictine nun Joan Chittister. “They can be counted on to bring an open heart to a closed and clawing world. . . 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.”
So here’s something to consider, a small practice of blessing for this time of year. If you are one who sends Christmas cards or other forms of greeting to friends and family, why not this year, in each card, take time to express what it is that you love or admire about each person you write? In addition to whatever wish the card expresses for their Christmas or the year ahead, or the news you share about your own family, why not include a word about how much they mean to you, or what you especially admire about them? You might think about what they most need to hear right now–a word of encouragement, affirmation, assurance of love. You will bless them by those words, and inspire them to live the blessing that they are with greater courage and confidence. And when cards begin to arrive at your door, take a moment to pray a blessing over each one, thanking God for them and surrounding them in your heart with kindness.
The third practice of blessing is the most difficult, given its context. This is when we learn how to accept the blessing that comes to us in situations we would have given anything to avoid. I have never believed that God brings hardship and suffering upon us, but I know from experience and observation of others that we can, nonetheless, feel blessed in difficult times. To name those blessings for ourselves has the power to transform our experience of suffering.
Blessings born of hardship are all around us, such as when in the midst of natural disaster, a community pulls together and people care for one another in transformative ways, forever changing the quality of life going forward for the better. Blessings in hardship also take the form of deep, inner transformation. We need never feel grateful for the heartbreaking events that provided soil for the blessing to take root in order to give thanks for its flowering in our lives.
One way to appreciate the power of blessing is to imagine a day or a life without it. It’s heartbreaking to contemplate being deprived or depriving oneself of the creative, transformative power to bless and receive blessing. Think of the Christmas character who is the antithesis of St. Nicholas–Ebenezer Scrooge of Charles’ Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Scrooge was a man who could neither give nor receive blessing. Though he had riches to spare he was one to be most pitied, even by those who suffered want or by his mindless cruelty. But with the visitation of three ghosts while he slept, Scrooge was given a chance to redeem his life through the reclaiming of blessing. The story ends joyously as Scrooge lavishly extends blessing and is embraced in the warmth of the family and friends he once shunned. Through blessing, Scrooge is born again.
To be people of blessing–even the desire to be such people–puts us in greater alignment with the God of hope whose word to us every year at Christmas is one of possibility. Goodness and joy; peace and love; a world where all have enough and no one goes without are still possible, for all of us, for all God’s children everywhere. Each one of us can do our part to make it so–one gesture, one word of blessing at a time.