A sermon, based on Mark 7.1-8, 14-15, 21-23, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 14th Sunday after Pentecost, September 2, 2018
Tomorrow is Labor Day. Since 1882, our annual national recognition of workers and their contributions to our wellbeing.
I think of Jesus, not as prophet, teacher, miracle worker, or even Messiah, but as carpenter, worker; as universal an identification with humankind as any.
I think about our various vocations. For those of us who are retired, I offer this life’s rubric, which, now, for many years, I have valued and believed: As long as there is breath and strength, there is life and labor. Therefore, I invite all of us to contemplate our callings.
Writer-theologian Frederick Buechner defines calling as “(that) place where (our) gladness meets the world’s need.”(1) What is your, my gladness, our passion? What is the world’s need we “answer” through our callings?
Today, I share with you a bit of my story as a priest; beginning many years ago when I heard God’s call through a dream.
I entered college as a political science major. The ideal of law and justice stirred my soul; it was as a fire in my belly. And through the lens of that passion, I began to see more clearly the world’s injustices. And my vision widened to behold and to understand the expansive and endless breadth of human suffering, historically and contemporarily. And, around my sophomore year, I began to struggle with this question: Where is the omnipotent, compassionate God in whom I had been taught to believe? And unable to answer my question and having formed my question into a repeated prayer, hearing no answer, I adopted the mantra: If God is God (that is, almighty, thus able to stop injustice), God must not good, and if God is good (that is, benevolent, thus wanting to stop injustice), God must not be God.(2)
In my despair, Bill Huntley, the college chaplain, befriended me. He was the first adult who, without judgment, without explicit or implicit messages about what I must, ought, should do, encouraged me to be me. To follow my thoughts to their logical, sometimes illogical conclusions. To wrestle to find words to express thought and feeling. To make wildly arrogant pronouncements about how things should be. To cry openly without shame. Even to curse aloud without guilt. To pray fervently in my own language, not relying on words from a book.
One day, Bill asked: “Ever considered ordained ministry?” “Yes,” I replied, “but not really.” “Think about it,” he said. I did. For two years. Leading to my senior year’s crisis of vocational paralysis; unsure whether to submit applications for law school or seminary. After weeks of worried vacillation, I decided not to decide. I would complete all of them! Whatever school, law or seminary, gave me the most scholarship money, that would become my calling!
That very night, the dream, which, in proverbial language, is as fresh to me as if it had occurred last night or early this morning: I, in an out-of-body experience, stood on a hilltop behind and looking at myself standing at the edge of a precipice gazing into a cloudy horizon, from which came a voice, “You shall go to seminary.”
Immediately, I awoke and I was at peace. A peace I hadn’t been able to give, couldn’t give myself. I reflected on Bible stories of God who speaks through dreams,(3) whose shekinah, presence appears as cloud.(4) That counterbalanced my skepticism that I had heard only the voice of my unconscious self. Believing it to be the vox Deus, the voice of God, I tossed the law school applications. The rest is history.
In the course of that history, I’ve continued to discover reasons I became a priest. I’m inspired by the reality, even the idea of God. I’m inspired by the connection between creation – the cosmos, nature, the plant-and-animal world, humankind – and transcendent and immanent (beyond-and-in-time-and-space) mystery, which we call “God,” who is knowable through our experience. I am moved by people’s pains and their joys. I love to talk and to listen. Thus priest, pastor, preacher is not merely what I do, it is who I am!
Tomorrow is Labor Day. I invite us to reflect on our callings. Who we are. What we do. And why…
Jesus and the Pharisees argue about washing hands. They aren’t debating table etiquette or good hygiene, but faithful observance of the law, signifying obedience to God. Jesus’ problem is whenever the outward deed becomes more important than the inward devotion it is meant to symbolize. His problem is whenever the practice of the law obscures the intent of the law: Love for God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength(5) and love for our neighbors as ourselves.(6)
Tomorrow is Labor Day. As we love God and love all who share this Earth with us, as we become and do, more and more, the labor of love, then we will know, more and more, who we are, what we do, and why.
(1) Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking: A Seeker’s ABC, San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1993.
(2) “If God is God, God is not good, and if God is good, God is not God” is the refrain of the character Nickles, the portrayer of Satan, in the story within the story in J.B.: A Play in Verse (1958) by Archibald MacLeish (1892-1982), one of the most seminal books of my life and for my thinking.
(3) For example, Genesis 20.3-7; 28.10-15; 1 Samuel 3; Matthew 1.20; 2.12; Acts 9.10
(4) For example, Exodus 13.21; 33.7-11
(5) Deuteronomy 6.5
(6) Leviticus 19.18