Year C, Epiphany 2
January 20, 2013
The Reverend Dr. Brent Was
How do we say yes to God?
Let’s recap the past two weeks of the Epiphany season. We have been talking about?______ Epiphanies. What is an epiphany?______ The revelation of the will of God. What is the will of God, how do we begin to recognize it? _________ It is the way things are supposed to be, right? We find the will of God by discerning, figuring out as best we can how the world, ourselves, our lives are supposed to be. The Will of God can be revealed in what we gravitate towards, what we flee from and vise versa, for it is the fact of a reaction and less the nature of the reaction that most reveals God’s will. We learn of God’s will through the mouths of others, and if we are really blessed, through the mouth of an angel.
But how do we say yes? Let me tell you a story. Back in the summer of 1998 I drove up to an old farmhouse tucked up in the hills north of Amherst, Massachusetts. I was a year out of the Marines and just starting a high paying job in technical sales. The house I went to had been owned by Mary Daly, about as radical a feminist theologian that has ever had tenure; pretty intense karma in that house. I was there to see my best friend from high school. Her life had taken her to a radical world in the hills of Western Mass. Women’s studies, social work, farming… about as far from my white bread, ex-military, corporate operative world as could be imagined. True, I had always thought that she was awfully cute, and that naturally forgives a lot of differences, but that day, I unwittingly stepped into a world I knew nothing about.
From that first day, sitting on the threadbare couch on the front porch of that kooky seeming house, with those kooky seeming women and their kooky seeming dogs, my world exploded. They used words like oppression. Empire. Feminist. I heard them truly for the first time. I heard the word violence. I was professionally trained as a trainer of violence, but for the first time I began to understand that there were other perspectives on the world, that they way I saw things, the way I had been taught things, the world I thought I believed in and valued maybe wasn’t what it seemed, what I had been taught to look for. I had felt called out of the Marines, but not for any just reason, any Godly reason, I just learned that I was not supposed to be there any more.
My eyes began to open that very first day, but it was two years of hanging out on that porch, partly to look in on this girl I thought was cute, partly to answer some questions that kept coming up, things in the business world that did not add up. And less and less did the world seem to be the world I had been taught about in my family of origin, my education, certainly my military and corporate work. And I was scared to death. What if these things I was learning were true? What if things were not as I had learned them? What if the world was a lot more like these crazy radical socialist feminists, some of them crazy radical socialist lesbian feminists living collectively, what if it was much more like that, what they experienced, what they described and taught me about? And if that were the case, what was I doing? What was I doing wasting my life on making money for myself and making even more money for the owners? What was I doing contributing my life’s energy into the massive medical-industrial complex so mindlessly?
What was I doing? I was busy being scared. If I didn’t do that, be a corporate weenie, what would I do? I couldn’t ski as much any more. I wouldn’t have that gorgeous apartment in Northampton right next to Smith. The bright red Audi? And what would all my Marine friends, and my engineer friends from undergrad, what would they think? What would my parents think? I was terrified that what I was learning was true and I had no idea how to step out of the patterns that had defined my gentle upper middle class straight white male life theretofore. So I did the sensible thing, I ran away from home. I quit the job, bought a bicycle and went to Europe. Two months later was Easter, I was in and Anglican parish in southern England, and found myself the subject of a second call which led me here.
From actively working against the kingdom of God to trying to work for it… We all have to say yes to God in our own way, what I have to share is my imperfect experience. Here is what I have learned.
First, we must realize that whatever you think you know about the world, that is not the only story. I do not care how worldly and learned you might be, nor how sheltered and ignorant of things you are, there are categorically different ways of being in the world that are just as valid as yours, and might be better than yours. The first step towards saying yes to God is a willingness to encounter the other; be it other people, other ideas and ideals, other ways of being, the other worldly. Encountering the other is the first step to following God. . Try on some existential humility, it is the starting point to saying yes to God and if you don’t believe me, read the Gospels.
Second, trust yourself. Trust your senses. Trust your ability to see right and wrong. This cannot be over stated. If with open eyes something seems wrong, or disjointed, discordant, false, whatever, it probably is. When I learned how to direct jets dropping NAPALM, I had this little niggling feeling in the back of my mind that that was not the right thing to do. But in the context I lived in, which at that point was the turret of a tank and I had people whose lives could be (in the short term) saved by that airstrike, it was complicated. But we know when something doesn’t feel right. Listen to it. Like congress arguing if rich means $250k per year or $400k per year. Like the fact that we have people living in the parking lot of our church. Nothing about that is or seems right. It is better than folks having nowhere safe to be, but it is obvious to anyone with open eyes that it is a horrid failure of our society that it has come to this. Or the US or China blocking climate change agreements because it is bad for business, or the NRA and their pro-violence blather. We know right from wrong, listen to that little niggle at the back of your brain. Trust yourself and your sense of what makes sense; trust that you in fact do know what is a right and a good and joyful thing. You do.
Third, to say yes to God, you have to be in community. Human beings did not evolve as or into solitary creatures. Our true nature is communal and we have to live in community as our birthright and as our bounden duty to ourselves, each other and to God. Obviously I could not have seen a different path on my own; very, very few of us can. Surround yourself with people at least as healthy as yourself, and hopefully a bit smarter and a bit more principled than yourself. That helps. And when you are in community, be sure to carve out times of solitude. The silence of solitude, occasional solitude in the midst of community life, this is essential to tuning your ear to God’s frequency, to having the constitution to follow God, to having the presence of mind to know where you are in relation to everything and everyone else, most notably God.
Next, fourth, be afraid. Well, if you really are trying to say yes to God you will naturally be afraid, but for me, if I had known that it was OK to be afraid, that it was natural, that it was a sign that I was on the right track, things would have gone much smoother. Think of Mary, sure she unreservedly said yes to the angel of the Lord, but do you think that made her any less scared? With fear and trembling, right? That is the natural and appropriate response to the will of God. Knowing that makes doing what comes next much, much easier.
And what comes next, what is last of all in this process of saying yes to God? Have faith. When we step off cliffs in the name of God, when we stretch out, make our best effort for something we know is right, what we are supposed to be doing, the results don’t matter. Truly, truly, truly, it is impossible to fail while following the will of God, because it is never the end that matters, it is the work that matters. It is the relationships we nurture, the love we spread, the compassion we offer, the empathy we experience that matters. When our heart breaks in the face of the heartbreaking, we are following the will of God. When our spirit soars, we are following the will of God. When needs are satisfied, wounds are tended, joy is shielded, and friends are made and kept, the will of God is being realized. In all of the stories of the saints of God, even the ones that ended really, really badly, no one ever expresses regret. No one regrets following the will of God, no matter where it leads, if it is real, it is good, and you will know the difference. It probably won’t be easy, God does not promise a rose garden, but have faith that you’ll know God’s will when you see it, and in following the will of God, all will be well, and all will be well and every kind of thing will be well. AMEN