Year C, Epiphany 5
February 10, 2019
The Reverend Dr. Brent Was
“But by the grace of God I am what I am, and God’s grace towards me has not been in vain.”
I’ve been preaching a lot recently on what we are supposed to be doing right now. In the face of the unconscionable poverty on the streets of our fair city and the accelerating decline of our society (and climate) through vast disparity of wealth and a noxious spirit amongst our political leadership, doing business as usual is a sinful denial of reality. If you have something that the world needs in order to evolve, change, heal, thrive, it is our Christian obligation to contribute that gift, to contribute to the effort to increase the common good, to make real the Commonwealth of God. (And a reminder: everyone has something to offer). (Another reminder: we all need to be doing more than we have been doing). (Oh, and another reminder: we need to be doing it in love, passing on the life and light of God that is transmitted to us in the Mysteries of the Church, in love or we are just clanging gongs and banging cymbals).
I stand by that. We do need to be doing more, be more generous of spirit and materiel, both individually and collectively. But as I went back and looked over some things I have been saying, and praying on this week’s lectionary, the stories of the calls of Isaiah, Paul and Peter, these are some biggies in our tradition, I realized that I have fallen into one of the traps of liberalism: that it is all on us. The trap of thinking that we need to do and be what we are supposed to be. It’s up to us, our effort to fulfill our obligations. You. Me. I sometimes forget to have enough faith in the Thou. In God.
Liberalism is, to quote Wikipedia, the source of all that is good and true, “a political and moral philosophy based on the principals of liberty and equality.” Yes. One person, one vote. Life, liberty and he pursuit of happiness. In the end it is up to the individual to choose to do right or wrong. That is true, and that is the basis of liberalism – personal choice. And that is a great gift.
But it is a treacherous one, too. This is what East of Eden was about, the notion of choice. Steinbeck unfolded that idea with a close study of the Hebrew word timshelin the Cain and Able story. It means “thou mayest.” That is human power. We may choose to be good, like Adam Trask in that book, or we may choose to be wicked, like Adam’s estranged wife, Kate, or brother Cal. We do have the power to choose. The apple in Genesis, the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil… stat story describes the peril of having choice. But choice is slippery. And that fruit is the basis of liberalism, that you have rights, that you are distinct and separate from everyone else, that you get to choose in all things (or as many as are reasonably wise). Can you sense problems with that? Our ancestors did. Our liberalism, the foundation of western society is based on a concept that our tradition has significant, like chapter 2 in the Bible significant, warnings about.
A choice ison us: the choice to do good, do evil, or too often our most popular choice, to do nothing (a different shade of evil); that is on us. But you know what, in the end, not a whole lot else is. That is what the stories of Isaiah, Paul and Peter can teach us. Yes, all three of them chose to do answer God’s call. But who gave the call? God. Who empowered and sustained them as they fulfilled the call? God. Who gave the skills, the constitution, the courage, the temperament and intelligence and piety and spirit to offer undying prophecy and to spread the Good News around the world and be the Rock on which Christ’s church was built? God. Isaiah with his unclean lips? The untimely born persecutor Paul? Simon Peter, the not so successful fisherman? Were they supermen who changed the world by their brilliance alone? No. God was there.
All my talk about vocation, exhorting you to figure out what you are called to be doing in this very moment, I have fallen back on my liberal roots. I have preached too much that it is up to you to figure it out, that it is up to us to follow through. It is on us and us alone, thank you very much. These readings reminded me this week that thanks be to God it is not all on us, not only would that be darn near impossible, but it is antithetical to the Christian message.
For example, when we make our vows in the Baptismal Covenant, we are asked some questions. One of them is “Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?” And we answer? “I will, with God’s help.” That is what this sermon is about. It is not all on us. We can’t do all that we need to do alone. We need God’s help. And the Good News brought by Jesus Christ is that God’s help is present, and by grace alone, is offered to us constantly, relentlessly and, eternally.
The stories of Isaiah, Paul and Peter, like that of Mary the God-Bearer, are stories of people who heard the call of God, choseto obey it, and then relied on the grace of God to do the work they had been given to do. That is what we are supposed to do. More importantly, that is something we can do. God is with you and is reliable.
That’s hard remember immersed in a culture where everything in our lives is associated with our own effort. If you are fabulously successful, it must be because you are fabulously smart or talented (or ruthless). Our President’s business success had nothing to do with the fact that his father was a wealthy developer who gave millions to his son’s start up. (So the story goes). Or that George W. Bush’s presidency was due to his intellect and wisdom and not on the fact that his father had been president. No! It was their diligence, their effort. Like the folks at Egan, or on our back porch, our liberal society says that they are in their situation for the exact same reason Mr. Trump is where he is: their personal effort or lack thereof; the choices that they make; it is all on them, not in any way related to the generational poverty and addiction and trauma that define the early lives of so many shattered adults. That is the classically liberal Horatio Alger fantasy of this nation. You get the credit for what you do and the blame for what you don’t and the buck stops there. (The thing is, that is just not true. Who you are, what you do and, what you have, has so much more to do with who you are born to than anything you have done yourself). Yes there are exceptions, heroic exceptions, some in this room right now, but that is society’s formula, that’s the liberal bedrock poking through; blame and credit lay on the individual because in the end you are on your own, its up to you. That is not the Christian formula.
The story of St. Peter’s call is. It is a story of someone living out their faith, having faith in, believing in, trusting God.
It starts with Jesus. Simon Peter listens to Him. First point. Listen! Listen for the word of God. Sometimes we hear it in church. Sometimes from the mouths of babes. Sometimes in great literature or art or music. Moat often, though, we hear it in the language of our hearts, in the love we give and receive. In kindnesses exchanged. In compassion and empathy for those others in our lives. Listen! The Truth is very near to you.
The second point is that feeling reluctant is natural. When Jesus finished teaching, he told them take the boat out and drop the net. “We worked all night long and caught nothing,” Peter said. There was reluctance. Who is this guy, a carpenter’s son, telling us how to fish? The second lesson is that reluctance is natural. If you knew all the time that what you were doing was the will of God, then it is not an act of faith. And we can’t know it that certainy. God usually isn’t as clear and verbalized as “the fish are there.” No, we must exercise out gifts of discernment. And that is tricky business, and hard to do well. So doubt, wrestling, discerning, in technical church speak, is hard work, but we must listen and discern what God is saying. I feel reluctant about actually discerning what God really wants me to do all the time because when God asks it is always a big ask. It is a natural reaction to adversity. So don’t feel unfaithful if you have to wrestle with it. It is all there, what we need to be and do, by the grace of God, we just need to listen closely enough and say yes. Reluctance is natural.
Point three is simple: Peter obeyed. He did what Jesus told him to do. I can imagine him looking at the boat and his friends, shaking his head, then ‘Hail Mary full of grace’” and he was off. That’s the big choice. The thou mayestmoment. Thou mayest choose to obey, or not. (The scriptural take home is obey). Point three.
The next thing that happens is a humility moment, a recognition of sinfulness. “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.” In God’s divine light we see how unworthy we are. Humility is a product of awe. Yes, yes, beloved children of God each of us, but think of the image of God and the Seraphs singing for all eternity “Holy, holy, holy!” We should bow down before the Lord. Choosing to do God’s will, we will always see how far we are from where God wants us to be, how far we are from where we have already arrived, in Christ.
Recognizing our own brokenness and sinfulness is a humbling occasion. It is incredibly difficult to honestly make a searching moral inventory of ourselves. Most of us have parts of ourselves that we wish we didn’t. Habits, foibles, prejudices that are sinful, that we know we should do something about. Too often we let those parts of ourselves tell the holy parts of ourselves that we’re not worthy or able to be good, to do God’s will in the world. We are too sinful. Point four has two parts: recognize your sinfulness and brokenness and know that God still chooses you. In short, know grace. By grace God empowers the faithful to be holy servants. We’re all sinners and we are all called. No matter how bad you have been, how many bad choices you have made, how sinfully you conduct yourself in the world, God still loves you and expects the world of you. Remembering that, knowing that we are accepted and useful to God and others, steels our spines in ways that individual effort never could. Grace happens and it is powerful.
An lastly, let go, let God. Like literally. Peter and his companions dropped everything right there on the beach and followed Jesus. By faith, with trust, they laid aside everything they had, everything they were. Their families, livelihoods, their identities they were no long fishermen. No longer would they catch fish, they would now be catching people in their headlong plunge into the pit. They were now missionaries and ministers.
This is the key to all of it, laying it aside. It is the most important thing to do if you are to actually follow God’s will. To free yourself of the encumbrances of your life and to concretize your faith in action. This is the scary part. But really, and I have personal experience of this, you don’t miss much if you are on the path you are supposed to be on. I walked away from a lot when I followed God’s call and I haven’t regretted it for one second. That is not bragging – it was easier than I thought it would be once I walked away. If you leave it all aside in doing what you know you are supposed to do, what God wants you to do, no, you might not have everything you want or even need in the future, but following God’s will, by God’s grace, you won’t care. The great saints even revel in the austerity that always comes in following God. That not caring is the very power of God infused into the human soul. That is what powers the saints. That is what propelled Jesus up Golgotha. That is the force that saves.
So that’s the story of Peter hearing and answering God’s call. This story can be seen as a corrective to the liberal idea that all things are dependent on us and our effort and skill and the rest of it. Besides the choosing to obey, each of the things Peter demonstrates are in fact God carrying him, how God is there to carry you. This is the natural process of following God’s will. God’s Word surrounds you: listen! You will feel reluctant, don’t worry. You do need to choose to obey, that’s on you. But don’t shirk from seeing yourself for who you really are. God loves you no matter what. And lay it all aside, it will set you free to love and serve the Lord, and you won’t ever look back, really. Few regret doing the right thing.
The Gospel is a transforming power on this earth. It is a divine activity of bringing people into God’s grace. Expressed in the words of scripture and the Sacraments of the Church and the works of God’s people, it is who we are as the people of God. It is not up to you to do it all, it is up to God. And if we surrender, and follow God’s will, oh the places we’ll go! AMEN