In the Spotlight of Your Attention

In the Spotlight of Your Attention

May I speak to you in the name of God, Creator, Liberator, and Spirit. Amen. Please be seated.

How many people do you think fit in this main section of the Cathedral? 500? 600? Think again, it’s more like 8 or 900. Add the transepts and we’re at well over 1,000 people. That’s a lot of people. Now imagine all of those people are teenagers. Imagine what 1,000+ teens sound like – voices raised in song or laughter. Imagine the energy vibrating around you. We’re going to experience that this summer when the Episcopal Youth Event, or as it’s more commonly called, EYE comes to the Diocese of Washington! EYE is a gathering of over 1,000 high school aged Episcopalians that happens every three years. The event location rotates. This summer, the event will take place here at the University of Maryland in College Park.

Over the past nine months, I’ve been part of the EYE planning team. We have met regularly, both in-person and online, to prepare for those 1,000+ teens. At the conclusion of each of our in-person meetings, we worship together and share Holy Communion.

At our last meeting, the priest leading the worship service did something a little different. When it came time for Communion, rather than recite one of the Euchairstic prayers from the Book of Common Prayer, she did something a little more freeform and participatory. She reminded us that when he shared the Last Supper with his friends, Jesus asked them to remember him whenever they ate or drank together. Then, during the Communion prayer, the priest asked us what it was that we remembered and loved about Jesus.

There was silence for a little bit, but slowly and steadily, folks shared. “He cared about outcasts,” someone called out. “He was merciful,” another person said. “He listened,” another shared. He healed the sick. He forgave. At that point, the floodgates opened and people freely shared their remembrances of Jesus. “He showed us how to live. He taught us about God. He cried at the grave of his friend. People were devoted to him. He loved deeply.

That’s just some of what was shared in that circle. It was one of the most powerful Eucharistic experiences I’ve ever had because it recalled who Jesus was, and is, in a palpable way that made him feel somehow more present with us in that moment. So in the spirit of remembering Jesus and feeling his presence, as you take this next step in your faith journey today, I want to ask you, what do you remember about Jesus? What is something that you hold dear about him?

Perhaps another way to ask this question is, what is one of your favorite stories about Jesus? One of my favorite Jesus stories is the Gospel text we just heard proclaimed about Jesus and his encounter with a Canaanite woman. It’s one of my favorites because it depicts Jesus changing his mind. Just like us, he learns and grows and changes in his understanding of God’s call.

The text presents us with an image of Jesus traveling the countryside, as he so often did. Then suddenly, a Canaanite woman interrupts his progress and begs him to cast a demon out of her daughter. The fact that this woman is from Canaan alerts us that she is a Gentile. A Gentile woman asking something of a Jewish male teacher would have been uncommon in Jesus’ society. And Jesus’ response is less than charitable. He ignores her. He stays silent to her cries. The disciples want her gone and Jesus obliges. He dismisses the Canaanite woman and insults her, calling her a dog. Now when you hear “dog” in this context, don’t think of our modern dogs like bichons or labradoodles named Fluffy. In Jesus’ context, dogs weren’t house pets. They were dirty, street scavengers, hunting for scraps. For Jesus to dismiss this woman and call her a dog, well, it doesn’t seem very Jesus-like.

However, we ought not be surprised at ethnic tension in a text from early Christianity. We also should not be surprised to see problematic gender dynamics emerging from an ancient patriarchal culture. Yet, even given these tensions, Jesus’ response feels askew. He essentially refuses to heal this woman’s daughter because she is not Jewish. Some biblical scholars argue this is because at this point in the gospel, Jesus understood his mission as a ministry only to the Jews to the exclusion of non-Jewish people, hence Jesus’ insulting behavior.
The woman however turns Jesus’ insult into a teaching moment for him. “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” This logic resonated with Jesus. “Great is your faith,” Jesus tells her and he heals her daughter.

This encounter in the gospel is a turning point for Jesus. Before meeting the Canaanite woman, it is fair to say that Jesus understood his ministry to be limited to his fellow Jews. After this encounter, Jesus’ understanding of God’s mission expanded to include all people. In Jesus’ encounter with the Canaanite woman, we see him move from insulting to embracing, from refusing to consenting, and from withholding to healing.

This episode reveals that even our Lord could learn, change and grow. That is something that I love and remember about him. The God who ordered the cosmos was also capable of change. I love that. It gives me great hope because it allows me permission to also change and grow in my understanding of God, in fact it even encourages it. I love that about Jesus.

What do you love about Jesus? What stories do you treasure and why? What do you remember about him? At the Last Supper Jesus asked his followers to remember him. We do that in a very ritualistic way every time we come together for Communion. And it is important to do so. Because the act of remembering is more than just recalling a fact or distant memory. In Hebrew the word “remember” means to bring to mind, or (and I love this phrase) to hold in the spotlight of your attention. To remember means to hold in the spotlight of your attention.

Jesus didn’t ask his followers to remember him simply out of some sense of nostalgia. He didn’t ask them, or us, to remember him for funsies. He asks us to remember him, so that in remembering – in holding him in the spotlight of our attention – we find strength in and through him to live our lives in a similar way to how he lived his. Those things which we remember about Jesus – his love, compassion, his ability to grow, to show mercy and promote healing, to proclaim the Good News – these are all things that WE strive to live out today in our lives as his followers. It is the work that God calls us to. It is the work that you are signing onto and committing to anew today. And it is work that Jesus will equip you and empower you to do.

In just a few minutes, you will come up here. You will stand before your bishops, your family and friends, and before God, you will claim and affirm your faith. When you do that, I invite you to do it, holding Jesus in the spotlight of your attention. Those things that you remember about him – those things that you love – may he instill them in you, and grow them in you, so that you may be more like him. Growing into the fullness of his grace this day and always. Amen.

The Rev. Amanda A. Akes-Cardwell, Missioner for Faith Formation of Development

Sermon delivered at the Diocesan Service of Confirmation at Washington National Cathedral on Saturday, May 20, 2023.
Watch a recording of the service (sermon begins at 30:05 in the video)

Getting to Know Jesus | NEW Confirmation Module

Getting to Know Jesus | NEW Confirmation Module

Who was Jesus? And who is he to us today? Why did, why does, his life matter? In her 2023 convention address, Bishop Mariann shared that she wants all people seeking the rites of confirmation, reception, or reaffirmation in The Episcopal Church to know Jesus. Specifically, she noted that she would like people to “know His story as it’s told in Scripture, beginning with His birth; a few highlights from His teaching and healing ministry; an understanding of why He was controversial among the religious and political leaders of His day and what led to His crucifixion; and finally, what happened on the day of Resurrection and when He appeared to His disciples.”

To assist those wanting to learn more about Jesus and be able to share his story with others, the diocese has crafted a new module as a part of the online CREATE course through the School for Christian Faith and Leadership. The course, called Getting to Know Jesus, connects learners with visual aids, scripture prompts, reflection questions, and tools to help learners tell Jesus’ story in creative ways. While geared towards youth, the course is also appropriate for adult learners. Consider engaging this course as part of your confirmation process or as a Lenten or Holy Week offering to get to know Jesus better.

Bishop Mariann has said, “Knowing things about Jesus isn’t the same as having a relationship with the living Christ, but we can’t follow Him if we don’t know about Him and His teachings.” The more we get to know Jesus, the more we wonder and engage our curiosity about him, the more we will be able to grow in Christ and follow his way of love.

The spring Diocesan confirmation service is scheduled for Saturday, May 20, 2023 at Washington National Cathedral.

For more information about the service, contact Annemarie Quigley, the Bishop’s Executive Assistant.

For more information about “Getting to Know Jesus”, visit the course website or contact the Rev. Amanda Akes-Cardwell, Missioner for Faith Formation and Development.

Fall Diocesan Confirmation Service

Fall Diocesan Confirmation Service

The Diocesan Confirmation Service is a liturgical event for individuals to be confirmed or received into The Episcopal Church, or to reaffirm one’s baptismal vows. It is held twice a year in the spring and fall at Washington National Cathedral. Individuals seeking to be confirmed, received, or reaffirmed should be in conversation with their parish priest.

Fall Diocesan Confirmation Service: November 4, 2023

Saying the Words is Just the Beginning: Confirmation Service Sermon

Saying the Words is Just the Beginning: Confirmation Service Sermon

En el nombre del Dios, del Hijo y del Espíritu Santo. In the name of God, the Creator, the Christ and the Holy Spirit. My name is Anne-Marie Jeffery and it is my pleasure to serve this diocese as your Canon for Congregational Vitality. I will be speaking a little in Spanish, but most of the sermon will be in English.

Me llamo Anne-Marie Jeffery y sirvo a la diócesis como Canoniga para la Vitalidad Congregacional. Hoy es un día muy importante. Hoy ustedes declararán su amor a Dios. Hoy declararán su compromiso de seguir a Jesús – no de forma privada, sino en voz alta, frente a Dios y a todos nosotros.

Hace mucha diferencia cuando decimos algo en voz alta. Yo creo que esto nos cambia. Cuando te das cuenta de que amas a alguien, y llega el momento en que estás listo para decir “te amo” a la otra persona, algo ha cambiado en tu relación con esa persona, esa relación se ha hecho más profunda y fuerte. Y cuando tú dices “te amo”, tú cambias, así como también cambia la persona que recibe tus palabras.

Today is a very important day. Today you will declare your love for God. Today you will declare your commitment to following Jesus – not privately, but out loud in front of God and in front of all of us.

It makes a difference when you say something out loud. I believe it changes us. You know when you find that you love someone, and you get to the point where you are ready to say “I love you” to the other person.

When that happens, something has changed about the relationship. It has most likely gotten deeper and stronger. And then when you say “‘I love you” to the person, you are changed as is the person receiving the words.

You might be looking through the service bulletin for the place where you say “I love you” to God and you won’t find those exact words but the words we do say are those of love because in promising to follow Jesus, we are declaring our love for God.

Hoy preguntará si reafirmas tu renuncia al mal, y tu respuesta será: Así lo haré. Después te preguntará si quieres renovar tu compromiso con Jesucristo. Y tu respuesta será “Así lo haré, y con la gracia de Dios lo seguiré como mi Salvador y Señor”. Estas palabras son palabras de amor.

Today you will be asked if you reaffirm your renunciation of evil, your response will be – “I do.” You will then be asked to renew your commitment to Jesus Christ? Your response will be – “I do, and with God’s grace I will follow him as my Savior and Lord.” These sound like words of love to me.

You might say, Well, God knows I love God. So why do I need to say it? We say it because when we say these words out loud, I believe we are changed no matter if we have come for confirmation, reception or affirmation. To have witnesses to our words makes this action even more powerful, because those who are here today will support us and be reminded of their own love of God – their own commitment to Christ.

If you know anything about relationships, saying the words is just the beginning. This is where our gospel can give us some direction. Our love of God requires attention, faithfulness and especially persistence. This is not an easy road, this commitment that is so wonderfully described in our baptismal promises – to be faithful in worship and in the prayers, to return to God when we have strayed away, to proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ, to serve Christ in all persons, to strive for justice and peace and respect the dignity of every human being. All this requires persistence and the woman in our gospel is all about persistence.

Amar a Dios requiere atención, fidelidad y persistencia, que es lo que el Evangelio presenta esta mañana. Hay una mujer que necesita justicia y su única opción es este juez que no tiene temor de Dios ni respeta a las personas. No hay nada que lo mueva a ayudarla, excepto las acciones de esta mujer, así que ella no lo dejará tranquilo. Debido a su persistencia, el juez provee justicia, porque él no quiere ser molestado más por ella. Nosotros también debemos ser persistentes en nuestro seguimiento a Dios.

The woman in our gospel needs justice and her only option is this judge who does not fear God or respect people. There is nothing that will move him to help her except her own action and so she will not leave him alone. Because of her persistence, he gives her justice because he does not want to be worn out by her asking.

We have to be careful here. God is not like this unjust judge. We don’t have to wear God out to be in relationship with God. God is not a disinterested distant judge. God longs for us and God will grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night. We are the ones who need to be persistent to perceive and to receive the gifts that God is giving us.

Many of us have been persistent in prayer, in worship, in proclaiming the Good News, in seeking Christ in all people and in fighting for justice and we have not received the answer or results we have wanted. We wonder if God is showing up for us. We do not understand.

La escritora Debi Thomas dijo una vez sobre la persistencia en la oración que cuando ella ora como esta mujer viuda, con persistencia y de todo corazón, algo sucede en ella y su corazón se hace más fuerte.

One of my favorite writers, Debi Thomas addresses this work of persistence when it comes to prayer. She writes, “What happens when we pray like the widow? What is prayer for? I can only speak from experience, but I know that when I persist in prayer – really persist, with a full heart, over a long period of time – something happens to me. My sense of who I am, to whom I belong, what really matters in this life, and why – these things mature and solidify. My heart grows stronger. It becomes less fragile and flighty. Once in a long while, it even soars. And sometimes – here’s the biggest surprise – these good and substantive things happen even when I don’t receive the answer I’m praying for.1

This persistence is needed not just in prayer, but in all of our life with God. I was confirmed when I was quite young – 11 years old. At the time, I was very serious about my commitment to God and the promises I was making. When I got into my 20s, I found myself in and out of church and not sure about my relationship with God. It was during a period of not going to church that I came to realize that I would never find what I was seeking in a relationship with God unless I showed up. I had to persist in coming to worship, praying, studying scripture and living my life as one who follows Jesus. Over time, what I sought came to be and I remember in my late 20s coming before the bishop in a service very similar to this one for affirmation of my vows. I suspect that many of you already have your own story of persistence with God even if you are at the beginning of the journey.

I ask you, as you make your declaration of love for God this day, as you reaffirm your commitment to following Jesus Christ, will you persist in your following of Jesus like the widow persisted with the judge?

Will you worship persistently like the widow, even when life gets in the way? Will you proclaim the good news like the widow when you are afraid to say the words? Will you seek and serve Christ in the most challenging of people? Will you continue to fight for justice when the way gets hard?

When we persist over time, our relationship with God deepens and what starts with saying words of love out loud sinks deep into our hearts and changes us, making us stronger and closer to the people Jesus needs us to be in this broken world.

Los invito a todos ustedes aquí hoy, no solo a quienes han venido para ser confirmados, recibidos o afirmados, a decir las palabras de amor a Dios en voz alta juntos. Recuerden la persistencia que se necesita para seguir a Cristo. Sepan que Dios nos busca en nuestro peregrinar, y nuestros corazones serán fortalecidos y elevados por aquel que nos ama más de lo que podemos entender.

I invite all of us here, not just those coming for confirmation, reception and affirmation, to say the words of love to God out loud together. Remember the persistence needed to follow Christ. Know that God longs for us and in this journey we will find our hearts strengthened and lifted up by the one who loves us more than we will ever understand.
1The Bothersome Widow from Journey With Jesus webzine

Diocesan Confirmation Service

Diocesan Confirmation Service

The Diocesan Confirmation Service is a liturgical event for individuals to be confirmed or received into The Episcopal Church, or to reaffirm one’s baptismal vows. It is held twice a year in the spring and fall at Washington National Cathedral. Individuals seeking to be confirmed, received, or reaffirmed should be in conversation with their parish priest