A young woman from another country who worked, as many immigrant women do, caring for the children of our professional class, one day heard the children in her charge yelling and carrying on in another room. She spoke English well enough, but she hadn’t yet mastered idiomatic expressions. So as she entered the room intending to restore order, when what she meant to say was “What on earth are you doing?” she said instead, “What are you doing on earth?”
Of the two questions — What on earth are you doing? and What are you doing on earth? — the latter is by far the more interesting. And it’s consistent with the kind of judgment that Jesus and all the great spiritual teachers before and after him would have us ponder from time to time. What are you doing on earth?
At a fragile time in my early adulthood, when I wasn’t at all sure what I was doing on earth, a person I admired and who seemed to know exactly what she was doing, looked into my eyes and said, “You are a unique expression of God’s creative genius.” She told me to repeat that mantra every morning as I looked in the mirror.
Now, from this esteemed pulpit and on behalf of Christ, I say the same to you: “You are a unique expression of God’s creative genius.” In the words of the poet David Whyte, “You are not an accident amidst other accidents. You were invited here from another and greater night than the one from which you have just emerged.”
Your life is your life. Your gifts are your gifts. Your struggles are your struggles. “We should not feel embarrassed by our difficulties,” says the Swiss philosopher Alain de Botton, “only by our failure to grow anything beautiful from them.”
Your graces and sins are yours; your history and heritage are yours. Your unique and as yet unrealized potential is yours, along with all that in this moment may be paving the way for you or blocking that way. You may wish for another path, another set of gifts and challenges, even, as I have on more than one occasion, for another life. But this is it. This is your life. And with your unique place on earth at this moment in time comes great blessing and great responsibility — not to be perfect, not to be someone else, but to live well the one life you have been given. “Tell me,” the poet Mary Oliver asks us all, “what you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
For three weeks in September, I sat in a tiny classroom across a rough-hewn wooden table from an instructor whose sole responsibility for 7 hours a day, 5 days a week, was to teach me Spanish. One of my instructors, Maria, was a woman of deep faith. When she discovered that I, too, was a Christian, she suggested that we begin each day’s lesson with prayer and Bible reading, and I gladly agreed. Maria loved the gospels, and she liked it when I pointed out to her aspects of the stories that had never occurred to her before. While the idea of me being a priest was foreign to her Central American Roman Catholic sensibilities (and it took a long time to muster up the courage to tell her you-know-what), by the end of our week, she trusted me with her struggles as well as her joy.
“There’s a passage I don’t understand,” she said. “It’s the one in which Jesus says that those who have nothing will lose all that they have, while those who have much will be given more.” “It isn’t fair,” she said, “and it doesn’t sound like Jesus.” I agreed. It wasn’t lost on either one of us that such words could be used to defend the appalling disparity between rich and poor in Guatemala, where we were, or anywhere else in the world; in essence, blaming those who have nothing for their lot. I loved the fact that Maria knew Jesus well enough to know that any passage that could be used to undermine his central message of compassion and decisive preference for the poor needed to be struggled with. Or as the main character of a novel I read this summer put it, “I’m pretty sure that if Christ's message could be distilled down to one line, that line would have to do with kindness and inclusiveness, not rules and divisiveness.”
But Jesus is, in fact, saying some very un-Jesus like things in the parable of the talents. It’s simply impossible to imagine him taking from the poor and giving to the rich, or even banishing an admittedly foolish but very scared person into the recesses of outer darkness. We know that’s not what Jesus was about. He lived and died so that those excluded from the rigid purity codes of his day could know themselves to be beloved children of God. He cared deeply about human suffering. He hated what grinding poverty and illness did to people. His ministry was, and is, one of compassion, forgiveness, and mercy.
And yet, looking at the entirety of his life and ministry and specifically, at the parables like this one, it’s also apparent that Jesus believed in God’s judgment. Judgment isn’t his predominant message or even necessarily a secondary one, but it’s there. As much as he wanted us to know God’s unconditional love and acceptance, he had some challenging things to say about accountability and consequence. He also had a fondness for hyperbole in order to paint vivid pictures on the canvass of our imaginations to make a point, and in the parable of the talents, his point is unmistakable. More on that in a moment, but first let me widen the lens to consider Jesus’ broader message of judgment.
As the gospels portray him, Jesus wasn’t one to get angry very often. In general, he was, and is, a compassionate, forgiving presence, with, as we might say, a long fuse. But there was something that consistently infuriated Jesus. He hated the self-righteousness and hypocrisy of the religious elite of his day, those who, in the name of God, at best ignored and at worst exacerbated the already-desperate plight of the poor. His judgment for their self-imposed blindness and hardness of heart was uncompromising, and in this way, Jesus stands firmly in the social prophetic tradition of ancient Judaism.
To whatever degree we have blinded ourselves or closed our hearts to the suffering of others, we will feel the sting of his judgment, and thank God for that. For that judgment is simply an expression of God’s unconditional love, God’s desire for all children to have a place at the table and to have enough, for all to know their unique expression of God’s creative genius, and God’s agony, and yes, even his anger at what we, his beloved ones, are capable of doing to one another mindlessly, unconsciously, hard-heartedly. Surely we want our God to feel that pain, born of deep love, and we want Jesus to call us to heroic levels of compassion. Yes, it hurts when we realize how easily we can close our eyes and harden our hearts, but it’s good that God loves enough to call us back and hold us accountable for what, in fact, we have the capacity to change.
But there was another dimension of God’s judgment that Jesus dares to pronounce that comes at us from the opposite direction — not against what we’re capable of doing to one another, but what we all-too-often do to ourselves. This is God’s judgment against our tendency to take the easy path, make excuses, accept what others or the culture might be saying about our insignificance, and thus deny our stature and dignity and vocation as ones created in the image of God.
Jesus wants us to know the value of our lives, despite how small we can sometimes feel. He wants us to know that we are endowed with extraordinary gifts to be cultivated and spent for the sake of life. Toward that end, he told stories like the one about the talents given to servants in varying amounts. You see, it matters far less to him how much we have than what we do with what we have. “Think about your life,” Jesus is saying to all of us. “Hold it as the absolute miracle it is. You are important. You are not an accident among other accidents, and it matters that you use what you have and who you are for good. Because if you throw your life away, no one else can save it for you.”
I am here because at moments when I thought I didn’t matter much at all, or when what I had seemed like nothing compared to what others had, Jesus lifted me and said, “You are my beloved child.” I am here because whenever I felt as if I didn’t belong, that I didn’t fit, that who I was wasn’t enough, Jesus said to me, “You have a place in my world.” I am here because when I was tempted to quit, when the work was too hard, the hours too long, the effort too great, or when I was disappointed, hurt, and I had failed in something that was important to me, or others had failed me, Jesus lifted me and reminded me to lean on him, to trust him and to carry on, and to allow my failings and struggles to create something beautiful. I am here because at a time when I had pretty much concluded my life in Christ would be a solitary one, I stumbled into an ecumenical class on the Urban Church taught at Luther Place at 14th and N, and a redheaded, bearded seminarian from Catholic University introduced himself to me and we became friends. Later that semester when I called this quiet, kind friend to ask if I could introduce him to another friend from New York City who was considering the Roman Catholic priesthood, he said, yes, of course, but over dinner told both of us, that he while he was going to finish his degree, he wasn’t going to pursue ordination. Too bad for the Catholic Church, I thought to myself. That’s really too bad….
Jesus lifted me, and he’s lifted you, and we help lift one another. I am also here because of so many people, and you know who you are, who believed in me when I couldn’t believe in myself, who encouraged, consoled, and sometimes scolded me to get up, stop complaining, stop comparing, and go about living the one wild and precious life that was mine to live. Thank you. May we all do and be that for one another, speaking truth in love, so that we don’t bury the gifts God has given us, but instead claim them, along with everything else that’s true about us, and offer them up, as our Baptist friends would say, and thereby help Jesus heal the world.
You know, it’s always easier to live a safe life than a wild and precious one. It’s always easier to complain than it is to offer help. It’s always easier to be negative and cynical, which takes no energy whatsoever, than it is to be hopeful in the face of hard times. And it’s always easier to bury our treasure than it is to risk it for the sake of good. No wonder Jesus comes across as a bit harsh with the third and frightened servant. So much was at stake, and he decided to play things safe. Woe to us when we do the same.
My friends of the Episcopal Diocese of this Washington, you have called me to serve as your bishop at a decisive moment of opportunity and challenge for us all. The opportunity is all around us. We of the Episcopal Church have been entrusted with a particular expression of Christ’s gospel that is priceless. Think of what it means to you to have a spiritual home with such an appreciation of mystery and all that is beyond our knowing and curiosity about the world as we can know it through the rigorous inquiry of science. Think of what it means to you to have a spiritual home that lives the Via Media, the middle way among all expressions of Christianity, affirming the wholeness of faith that can only be fully experienced in the creative tension of polarities — heart and mind, Catholic and Protestant, word and sacrament, mysticism and service, contemplation and social engagement. Think of what it means to you to be part of a Church that does not ask its members to agree on matters of politics or theology or biblical interpretation, but rather to allow the grace of God to unite us at the altar of Christ in full appreciation of our differences and the God-given right of everyone to be welcome at God’s table.
Think of what it means to you to be part of Church willing to debate the most contentious, difficult issues in public, and to take risks well before others are ready to go there. I remember as a child asking our priest if I could be an acolyte, and he gently said no, that was a ministry for boys only. This would have been in the early 1960s, when women as yet did not serve on vestries or have a seat at Diocesan Conventions.
I’m here today because of the women and men willing to push ahead, to believe that what we now take for granted — what was unthinkable 50 years ago — was, in fact, born of God. And so, back in 2003, when a Lutheran pastor whom I deeply admired wondered aloud why the Episcopal Church insisted on taking so controversial a position on the full inclusion of gays and lesbians at the very time we needed to grow our congregations, I said to him, “You don’t understand. The full inclusion of gays and lesbians wasn’t something we thought up on our own. God led us to this place. And someday you will thank us, because we’re making it easier for you to do the same.”
This is our treasure. Yes, we also have our challenges, real challenges, real struggles that we must we face together. But they are our challenges. We needn’t be embarrassed by our difficulties, only by our failure to grow something beautiful from them.
You have called me as your bishop at the time when the first priority for the Episcopal Church is the spiritual renewal and revitalization of our congregations and core ministries, not as a retreat from social and prophetic witness, but in order to be more faithful to that witness, with greater capacity not only to speak but to act in God’s name. This is a time when the cultural and societal context in which our churches find themselves is constantly changing, and we must learn how to sing our Lord’s song in a new land. It’s a time when we aren’t sure yet what we need to let go and what to keep, what is essential to our identity and what is secondary. It’s a time of deep spiritual longing yet superficial spiritual grounding, and that’s as true within our congregations as outside them.
God is calling all of us first to take our own life in Christ seriously, to tend to that life, to re-learn or learn for the first time the core spiritual practices that define a Christian. God is calling us to strengthen the ministries of our congregations — this Cathedral in all its power and potential, and every other congregation in our diocese — not for the sake of the buildings alone, for all we might love them, but what our churches are for, what this Cathedral is for, as the spiritual base camps where we gather for inspiration and renewal and strength, and from which we go out to help Christ heal and reconcile the world.
Thank you for allowing me to join you in the ministry to which God has called you in this Cathedral and in this Diocese. The One who calls us is faithful. The One who has begun this great work in us and among us and through us will see it through to completion and will see us through as well.
This is our life. This is our Church. We are a unique expression of God’s creative genius. Never doubt the importance of what you are doing, and what we are doing on earth.
Rev. Dr. Mariann Edgar Budde is bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington.
Read more from area faith leaders at On Faith/Local.