Year B, Epiphany 5 February 4, 2018 The Reverend Dr. Brent Was
“…for that is what I came out to do.”
What did you want to be when you grew up? That’s a real question. Anyone want to share? Or what you want to be when you grow up? (A question not limited to our youth; some of us take our time growing up). ____ Did anyone end up being what you said you wanted to be when you grew up? So everyone else changed along the way. Well, either your mind changed, or you changed, or maybe the world around you changed, or at least your knowledge of it did.
I had no idea what I wanted to be. A firefighter of course, when I was five. Following my grandfather into medicine interested me until I started on real math. A monk. I have no idea why or how a 12 year-old Congregationalist kid would have thought of that, I didn’t have a clue about what it meant, but that lingered for quite a while; I got close. The military was always there, every male in my family served in uniform, but I saw it as a starting place as it was for them, I never saw myself as a lifer. Politics intrigued me, but I am too earnest for that game, too idealistic to compromise in the ways needed to govern, and so many politicians I met were a bit too smooth for my comfort, their suits just a bit to shiny. So I followed the wind, or let it carry me here and there. Some of it was consciously letting providence (God) have their way. Some of it was following a path of least resistance (sometimes the good kind, sometimes not). Some of it was fear of making a commitment and striving for it (fear of striving and failing, and the fear of the effort real commitment would take). But wherever I was led I jumped into with utter devotion until I learned better than I did when I began and followed the next call. Not much of a career strategy, but it did lead me here to be with you, and that is a very good thing indeed.
Why did you want to be whatever it was you wanted to be? Was it that you knew what you were good at, did that steer you? (I am very good at school, so teaching or scholarship; or I’m good with children, so parenthood is my vocation). Or was it what you wanted to be doing, how you wanted your life to be? (I want summers off; I want the life that money can bring; or I don’t care so long as no one is telling me what to do; or I want to take a shower after work, not before; or I want to work with monkeys, or words, or people who need me). Or for many, it was one of the things off a pretty short list, because the prospects (or the prospects you were told about as possibilities) seemed limited. Great is the privilege of limitless options! (And, too often the cost as well, but that is a different sermon).
It is great when those things line up… what you are good at, what you want to do or how you want to live, and if it is (or seems) possible. But there is another thing to consider: what were you, are you supposed to do. What did/does God want of you? This is the notion of vocation. The life’s work that God has for you. What are you supposed to be doing with your life, not according to conventional wisdom, or Fortune’s top 20 careers for the new millennium, or what your mother thinks (though those and other sources might contain clues), but what does God want you to do and be?
A theology professor of mine had a daughter who was a brilliant mathematician, she was shining as an undergraduate at Yale. But that wasn’t what she felt called to. Rather she felt called to follow path of a more applied mathematics: the oboe. (She shined at that, too). Her mother was proud, and concerned. Not the suitability of music as a vocation, she was an accomplished musician herself, but the prospects of a Yale math honor grad are a bit more secure if not certain than even an MFA from the finest conservatory. Two paths diverging in the woods. But call is call, no?
We have an interesting little story in Mark’s gospel selection this morning. This is right on the heels of last week’s story, Jesus casting out a demon, and being seen as one “teaching with authority,” the subject of Ed Lawry’s excellent sermon last week. Today, Jesus heals the apostle Simon’s mother-in-law who was sick with a fever. As news of Jesus’ healing powers spread, the sick and the possessed were brought to Him, in droves. “And the whole city was gathered around the door.” He healed the sick and exercised the demons.
The next morning, he awoke before dawn and snuck off to a deserted place to pray. Well that wouldn’t do. Simon and his friend “hunted for him.” The image I have is children searching for their mom who just wants a minute to drink a cup of tea in peace, just one minute to herself. “Everyone is searching for you,” they say. And what does Jesus say? Let’s get out of here. “Let’s go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there, also; for that is what I came here to do.”
But what about all those sick people? The city gathered at the door: the diseased, stricken, crippled, possessed? All those in need of healing, what about them? Could anything be more important than them? Jesus?
At the time of writing this, I had not heard the state of the union address as I was on retreat. (Yes, I wrote much of this on retreat, which was actually a great thing to do, it helped focus my prayer considerably). I almost wrote a litany of the awful things that President Trump said to see how close I would be to what he actually did say. But though I was writing, I did not break radio silence and check in with the world, which was fitting, being with Trappists. Thomas Merton, in his depressingly relevant 1968 book Faith and Violence, said that he didn’t read newspapers. He found the papers to contain superfluous, un-thought-out, inaccurate or at least fluid information in an overwhelming volume. Too much and not helpful, that was his take on the “news.” He said that enduring, important news, news worth consuming could wait for the book; so he did. Very little information is so important, or even relevant to what we can do anything about that we can’t wait for the book. I wonder what Fr. Merton would say about Facebook?
Like I said on Epiphany 3 and 4, this world, this beautiful and horrific, resilient and fragile, holy and profane world matters. It matters to God and it matters to our neighbor, which about covers it, so it has to matter to us. Which means that how we are and what we do in this world, matters. How we consume resources, how we treat neighbor and neighborhood, how and to what we dedicate the greatest gift we have, our self, matters. That which you dedicate your concern and effort and time, your life’s energy, from which you derive satisfaction, a living perhaps, often an identity, all of that matters. Which also means things like the contents of our President’s speech and what it implies for our neighbors around this country and the world, matters. And since it matters, it must necessarily lead to action to support that which is right and combat the evil, resist all those things that will usher in the horror show that looms on the horizon. We must do God’s work, which means doing good and resisting evil. That is what making real the Kingdom of God means. Our parish mission statement, which comes right out of the catechism is clear: our mission is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ as we pray and worship, proclaim the Gospel, and promote justice, peace and love. That is our mission, which is the collective form of vocation; it is our purpose, it is why we are gathered, it is what we are supposed to do.
I think we’ve got two out of three pretty well in hand. We can always do more, better, faster, stronger, but we pray and worship well here together. Our Saturday/Sunday Feast of our Lord cycle is as strong as any parish I have ever seen. If I weren’t the priest I’d come here to worship. And promoting justice, peace and love, reaching out into the world, that is part and parcel of our identity as a parish, and it is what most anyone who is not churchy knows about this place: that we care for the homeless, we put our money (and ourselves and this building) where our mouths are, like we are supposed to do. I am proud of you all for taking risks in that way. Not Prideful proud (well not much) but “a warm-hearted admiration for” proud. But what about proclaiming that Gospel?
Did anyone read my letter in the annual report? That is not a test! In all my years sitting in a pew I don’t think I ever read reports like that, so don’t feel anything, I am just curious. I wish I had read this passage from St. Mark’s gospel before writing it. In part, my annual report is about my vocation, and what I discerned over the course of my sabbatical. The words I used were that I am feeling more and more called to build up the good than combat the bad. I think I am supposed to build up the Church, this church, you, preparing you all to discern and do rather than all the work out there that I have been doing, activism, direct service in the community, crying “Semper Fidelis” as I go over the top in a frontal assault on the Zeitgeist.
Jesus was healing people. He was doing it, right? Healing in the name of the God of Hosts, embodying God’s soothing balm, making real the Most High in the lives of the lowly, making them whole again. But that was not what He came here to do. He came to proclaim the Gospel, so He left the sick and moved on to the next town. That is a theme in Mark’s Gospel. He came to proclaim the Gospel. “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” Those are Jesus’ first words in the first Gospel written
Yes, yes, yes, our actions are an embodied proclamation of the Gospel. Yes. And. And we need explicit faith in that work, Gospel intention in that civic action, holy flesh on the equally holy bones of our ministry in the world, because it takes a lot more than just our wills to make the Kingdom of God real. In this world it does. None of us are that strong on our own to persist and persevere in the way we need to persist and persevere, to endure the hardships that real change will bring. We need more. We need God. Like Pope Francis teaches: First you pray for the poor, then you feed them. That is how prayer works.
I re-read C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity on retreat. Good stuff in that one, dated in places, but strong. In it he wrote of people’s desire for the church to “take the lead” in society, be more active. But, he observes, what “take the lead” mostly means is that people want church people, read: leaders; read: clergy, to take the lead and advocate policy and lead action. He writes, “That is silly. The clergy are those particular people within the whole Church who have been specially trained and set aside to look after what concerns us as creatures who are going to live forever…” That’s it, isn’t it. Our great hope. Everlasting life, cosmically everlasting, not biologically, that’s unnatural. That’s our starting point here at church. The rest of it, the work, the actual application of Christian principles to the world, that is on you, the people. Christian values find their way most definitively into the world in you, Christian people being in the world. You want the values of Jesus Christ applied to business, law, teaching, raising a family, whatever your context is, then be a Christian business person, a Christian lawyer, a Christian teacher or parent or a Christian whatever it is that you are. You are the church in the world, you are the hands of feet of Jesus Christ, not only shaping the future, but being the right now.
So if it has seemed that I am here at church a lot more, I am. And it pains me! (Not being here, but not being out there). I love the excitement, the engagement with power, the edge that comes with working with people on the fringes. And there is the less edifying pride of the attention, being in a lot of people’s contact lists, being in the know. But that is not where I am being called right now. I am being called here. This is what I am supposed to be doing. My vocation is becoming more clear. And the vocation of this place, of you, or at least a path to discerning those vocations is becoming more clear, too. That path is the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
The Gospel of Jesus Christ has the power to change everything. EVERYTHING. Everything in your heart. Everything in your life. Everything in this sometimes seemingly God-forsaken world. The power of light and life is made flesh in Jesus. When we say the Word is made Flesh, we’re talking about the manifestation of the underlying consciousness of the universe, the Reason that undergirds existence, and has since the beginning. That idea goes back to Justin Martyr in the 2nd century. This is as Good as it gets, this Word, this News. There is nothing, nothing subtle about the Gospel of Jesus Christ, but how it alights in our hearts (if it does), that can be subtle. Sometimes it changes everything, your whole life caught like a fish in the net of the Word and reeled in. Usually, though, the changes it affects are less dramatic than Saul being knocked off a donkey and becoming Paul, apostle of Christ, but are more like (pause) “What am I doing? I don’t need to have another drink,”; or “Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy, Lord have mercy… OK, that’s better than flipping off that jerk who just cut me off.” (and it is). That’s how the subtle work of the Gospel in our hearts happens most frequently. “I’ll give a little more to x this year, I’ll feel it, but I can afford it.” (X could be Resurrection, or it could be some other entity shining light into the world). “No, immigrants should have rights, too,” you reply after Uncle Pete passes judgement with the spaghetti, or when you sit at your kitchen table and vote, or make a sign and march, go to a meeting and organize or run for some office yourself. That’s Jesus happening. That’s proclamation of the Gospel and its fruit. That’s your job. This is mine, laying a Gospel foundation so that you can have the strength to do the work God has given you to do. Thanks for bearing with me as I figure out how to do what I am supposed to do as your priest.
These might be baby steps to the Kingdom, but they are steps. And they are in the right direction. It might take a long time, but that’s ok, becasue after all, we are going to live forever. AMEN