The following sermon, on Ephesians 6:10-20 & John 6:56-69 , was preached on 23 August 2009 (Year B, 12 Pentecost, Proper 16, RCL) at St. Paul’s Parish, K St. Washington, D.C. by N.J.A. Humphrey.
Those of you who have been around here for a while know that one of my big themes is mutual commitment to each other in Christ. My sermon of two weeks ago was all about the reasons for staying connected to this particular community of faith when things get tough. But this raised the question in several peoples’ minds of whether I believed there was anything that ever legitimized or justified changing our commitments. So this morning I would like to reflect a bit on how we know it’s time to go. When should we end our current commitments and move on to something new?
I believe that the basic level of commitment to which we are called in the Church can be encapsulated in one word: Perseverance. As Paul writes to the Ephesians in this morning’s epistle, “keep alert and always persevere.” Paul exhorts us to “stand firm.” Paul doesn’t tell us to lie down and let the world, the flesh, and the devil walk all over us. No, as our opening hymn exhorts us, we are to “stand up, stand up for Jesus.” The question here is: Where? Where shall we stand?
While I generally believe that we are to stand where we’re already standing—that we are to “grow where we are planted”—at the same time, I have to recognize that God sometimes does indeed call us elsewhere. Were I growing where I was originally planted, after all, I’d still be a fundamentalist. I believe God called me from the fundamentalist upbringing that steeped me in the words of Scripture to the riches of the catholic tradition within Anglicanism, where Word and Sacrament go hand-in-hand.
Given that God can and does call us, throughout our lives, to new and different commitments, I have developed three basic principles of discernment:
1. Until further notice, you are called by God to be where you are. Restlessness and discontent are not signs of a genuine call from God to be anywhere other than where you already are.
2. A genuine call from God is always confirmed by a call to someplace, not merely from someplace. You will know where you are supposed to be when you find yourself in a place that calls you in its own right, and not merely because it provides relief from the pain of where you had been.
3. A genuine call from God is always tied not just to the “where” but the “what.” It is always concretely grounded in the mission God calls us to undertake, that is, a specific vocation.
As to the first principle, I’m a pretty restless guy by nature. I’m always thinking ahead to the next thing—my next project, my next call, our next move. I tend to be a daydreamer, and that gets me in trouble because I don’t always focus on the work at hand, I often don’t pay enough attention to where I am. From time to time, I find myself engaging in escapism or wallowing in boredom. I am too easily discouraged when things don’t immediately go my way.
Most of the time, however, this is all beneath the surface. To look at me you would think I’m the picture of contentment. And that’s because on an even deeper level, I am—at least I am when I’m practicing the discipline of gratitude for the present moment, in all its ambiguity and challenge, and simultaneously in all its consolations. I make no secret, for instance, that I am itching to do a Ph.D. in theology, which is incompatible with full-time employment. Nevertheless, I still feel called to be here, soaking in the beauty of holiness, belting out the hymns, worshiping Christ in his sacramental presence, offering that presence in Word and Sacrament to his people, and equipping his people to carry his presence into the world. Whatever discomfort or ambivalence or frustration I might feel from time to time is no indication that God is calling me to be anywhere other than where I stand right now.
Enough about me. What about you? When you feel a restlessness that just won’t go away, how can you know whether what you feel is the beginning of a call elsewhere? This is where the second principle comes in, because if your moving on is motivated by discontent with your current situation, or worse, by anger, bitterness—even hatred—and what you’re looking for is not something or someone compelling in its (or his or her) own right, but merely stirs up in you the thought, “thank God this place (or this person) isn’t that one,” then you’re missing the essential other half of the equation. A genuine call from God is always because of what this place is, not because it’s not that place. If you have unresolved issues about where you’ve been, they will sooner or later sneak in where you end up. This is not to say you have to be issue-free when you move on, but your destination should be attractive both in its own right and because it challenges you to forgive and to grow. Or, as Paul puts it, you need to end up where you be will be equipped to “put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace.”
Which brings us to the third principle: It’s not just about the “where” but the “what.” What is God really calling you to do? And can you do it here? Or would it better be done over there? In the final analysis, as Frederick Buechner has written, “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” In other words, it’s all about engaging in God’s mission in the world, rooted in a particular community of faith that challenges you to grow—even when you don’t want to grow—and confronts you with the ambiguities and complexities of living as a disciple of Christ in a broken world and a wounded Church. And I can’t emphasize enough that last bit: the Church is wounded, everywhere.
It doesn’t matter what sign is on the door: the Body of Christ is broken and fragmented. The Good News is that the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church is made visibly one in any particular place, when its broken and wounded members together receive that Body which was wounded and broken for us, so that, when we eat his flesh and drink his blood, we abide in him, and he in us. In other words, the unity of the Church is not to be found in what we think or what we do, but what Christ does to us when we open ourselves to the Spirit’s activity in our lives within a community gathered to hear the Word and celebrate the Sacraments. The One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church isn’t out there; it’s right here, in me, and in you, and you—and yes, even you! (Well, maybe not you.) The Church may be found wherever two or three gather together in Christ’s name intending to do what Christ commands.
And in that gathering together in Christ’s name as an apostolic community, we are called to ask: Where is Jesus? Where are the words of eternal life? If you find them here and continue to be challenged and nurtured by them here, why would you seek them elsewhere? St. Paul’s is not the only place where the words of eternal life may be found, of course. But the question is whether you are called here, now, to proclaim that gospel of peace from this particular place. And if you aren’t—if for some reason God truly is calling you elsewhere to engage God’s mission in some other messed up joint of a parish in some other multidysfunctional part of the Body of Christ—Go in peace! We’ll still be here if you need us. But don’t let me keep anyone here from following God’s call somewhere else if that is where you need to be in order to love one another—all others, even the people you currently hate—as Christ loves you. If being somewhere else will help you do that better than being here will, what are you waiting for? Get out of here! Go! Because it’s not about you, it’s not about me, it’s not about this beautiful building or this heavenly choir. It’s about God’s love for the world. And if this church isn’t setting you on fire to love the world as Christ loves it, then you shouldn’t be here.
But wait. Don’t rush for the exits all at once. Sit back down for a moment. Before you leave, ask yourself: If I’m not growing and loving as God intends here, is the problem with this place, or is it with me? Most likely, it’s six of one and half-dozen of the other. For if no church is perfect, oftentimes, the call comes down to discerning what kinds of problems God is calling you to live with, and God-willing, in time, what problems God is calling you to do something constructive about.
At one point in my life, I was planning on testing a vocation as a Benedictine monk in a Roman Catholic monastery. But as I was driving along one day, it was as if God said to me: “Nathan”—I wasn’t ordained yet, so God didn’t address me as Fr. Humphrey—“Nathan, pick your poison. You can either be in a church that struggles with the place of women and clerical celibacy and a culture of secrecy where all the pathologies and conflicts are boiling just below the surface, or you can be in a church that struggles with the place of women and human sexuality and a culture of ambiguity where all its pathologies and conflicts are hanging out there for all to see and ridicule. Which would you prefer?” And I said, “The first one, please. I’d be far more comfortable there.” But God said, “Too bad for you. You get the messier one.” “Why me, Lord?” “Because that’s where you’ll grow. That’s where you need to be, and that’s where you will be able to engage most deeply with those things that you’d rather not face. And, by the way, you’ll meet a lot of people struggling with these things, too, and your job is to journey with them in discernment. If you go where you’d prefer to go, you won’t need to do any of that, and you won’t get to, either.”
So here I am, folks. Lucky you! No, lucky me.
So what about you? Are you ready to pick your poison? Well, before you do, I recommend you take the antidote. I’ll give you a hint of what the antidote to ecclesiastical poison is; it’s the only thing that will keep the institutional church from killing you. Jesus said, “the one who eats this bread will live for ever.”
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