In September 2011, I was a freshman living on Old Campus, as many of you are or were at one point. One Saturday, a knock came on my door. It was Abby Bok and Dacie Thompson, two ECY upperclassmen whom some of you may know. As I soon discovered, they were bringing me three things: an invitation to ECY, a small pamphlet with dates, times, and so forth, and, most importantly, a Snickers bar.
Now, at this point, I had not had much contact with ECY. I was a cradle Episcopalian, and so sure, I had turned in the card to the chaplain’s office identifying me as an Episcopalian. ECY had sent me a packet at the beginning of the year with, among other things, an ECY hat. I was now receiving periodic emails giving me information about ECY’s weekly services. But until then I hadn’t yet made the time to come to ECY and see what it was about. Whether it was the personal contact, my desire to find a home church at Yale, or the Snickers bar, I couldn’t say, but I ended up going to ECY the next Sunday, and I’m so glad I did. That Sunday, ECY happened to be doing a choral Evensong in place of the regular service, and were performing Charles Villiers Stanford’s Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis. It immediately brought me back to my home church, where as a chorister I had actually sung the soprano solo in the Magnificat. Yet even more importantly, throughout the service I felt the presence of God and a connection to this place, and to ECY. From then on, I have attended ECY services, bible studies, evening prayer, outreach programs, anything ECY has put on, as much as I could.
At ECY, I discovered a place where every Sunday we reach God’s presence through worship and music. As many of you know, music has been an important part of my time here at Yale, and I’ve really appreciated being part of a community that has shared my appreciation of music, and where I can find not just an aesthetic or intellectual interest in music, but a deep spiritual connection to it as well. Yet at ECY I also discovered a place where we can have fascinating, insightful, and wide ranging discussions at Bible Study, where we strive to give back to the community, and most of all where there’s a community of friends in Christ.
Throughout my four years at Yale, a lot has changed. I’ve changed majors, taken different classes, and (I hope) grown as a scholar, a musician, and as a person. ECY has had changes, too, from its membership, to its choir and choirmaster, to, yes, its chaplain, but through it all, it has remained a supportive and close knit community, a community I have often relied on to get me through Yale. Even if I only got one Snickers bar out of it, ECY has been a constant presence through my college years, and for that I’ll always be thankful.
My sister, Allison Schaefer, is a sophomore at Brown University. Right now she’s taking a writing course in creative non-fiction, and she wrote her final paper on her faith journey in college. I’m going to begin with a passage that she wrote just last week:
It’s 5:27 pm. There are only two other people at the service—neither of them students. Today is the last day of “Spring Weekend,” Brown’s annual three-day concert extravaganza which features rappers and rockers, dazed and confused students, and dangerous levels of intoxication, amidst a general splattering of chaos. The silence of the small chapel is interrupted by music blaring out of a fraternity window across the street. The two other attendees, older gentlemen, exchange irritated glances.
Spring weekend is not over, I think. People are still partying—still having fun. Why am I spending my Sunday evening at Church when I could be out with my friends? There are four of us in the chapel, while thousands of students are tanning, dancing, and singing out on the green. Why am I here?
Father Blake glides in, wearing his long, black cassock. As he begins the service, I open to page 62 in the prayer book.
It only takes a few seconds for these thoughts to leave my head. The gentle rhythm of the opening prayer spoken in unison, the aroma of fresh candles burning before me, the rainbow pallet of colors shining through the stained glass window all cause me to understand why I came to Church at 5:30 on that day.
These words could not be more timely. Just yesterday, many of us in this room were similarly enjoying the debaucherous excess of Spring Fling just outside these doors. Luckily, we didn’t have to choose, as Allie did, between evening prayer and bacchanalian frenzy.
What struck me most about Allie’s words was not this timely coincidence, however, or the way she’s grown into such an eloquent and expressive writer. It was the eerily parallel experiences we’ve had with faith in college. We grew up in Wilton, CT and regularly attended services at St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church with our parents, who are seated here today. Faith, to us, was not an ecstatic emotional experience, but a weekly routine. Allie put it much better than I possibly could, so I’ll quote her again:
Going to Church had been like visiting a distant relative. I went when protocol required it. I was polite, gracious, and attentive. I went through the motions, but didn’t understand the movement. I recited the words, but didn’t know whom I was talking to.
Like Allie, when I came to college as a freshman, going to Church was a comfortable routine that, for reasons I couldn’t articulate, felt good to do. I lived in Farnam Hall, just across Old Campus, and when I heard the organ music start playing at 5 pm every Sunday, I would wrap up whatever I had been working on and amble across the green to Dwight Chapel.
Attending services at ECY was comforting, and it added structure to my week—dedicated time for solemnity and reflection. But at the same time, I struggled with my identity as a Christian. At such a highly intellectual, secular place like Yale, many people don’t openly discuss their faith. Atheists and agnostics enjoy a sort of intellectual satisfaction—or perhaps intellectual conceit—that people of faith don’t, and I’ll admit I was embarrassed to discuss my faith with people who I worried would consider me unintellectual. Even to myself, I was unsettled by my inability to rationalize my Christian beliefs. God, in fact, is easy to rationalize—someone had to invent the laws of physics. Christ is more difficult—how can I accommodate the Immaculate Conception or the Resurrection with my understanding of the universe as an orderly place, governed by strict rules without exception. And I’m not a deist, satisfied with an understanding of God as a disinterested, divine clockmaker. I’m a Christian, and I want to be a Christian. Like Allie, I could go through the motions, but I could not understand the movement. And I found this immensely frustrating.
Gradually, however, I came to realize that I had been thinking about this in entirely the wrong way. People here are really intelligent—often too smart for our own good—and we’re used to being able to figure things out. Not until I began to shed this intellectual vanity—the assumption that I could somehow figure Christ out—could I ever hope to be satisfied with my Christian identity.
Just as Allie found meaning in the scent of the candles and the light shining through the stained glass, I’ve finally started to feel Christ’s presence in the world in sublime, ineffable ways. When the choir sings the Anthem at the Offertory, when the organ plays the closing voluntary, when the Congregation reads aloud the ancient words of the Nicene Creed—this is when I feel the Holy Spirit. I shut my eyes, empty my mind of thoughts, and feel the presence of God.
I will never be able to rationalize Christ. Nor should I even try. All I can do is take comfort in the knowledge that Christ is peace; Christ is love; Christ is life.
I was a bit of a late bloomer, spiritually. I never really belonged to a congregation as a child. When I arrived at Yale, I, like many freshmen, packed my schedule with meetings and decided that I couldn’t possibly make time for church.
By the summer after my sophomore year, I felt exhausted and aimless. I’d spent hundreds of hours on social justice projects, taken dozens of classes to teach me how to change the world, and yet I still felt stuck. So, early in my junior year, I came alone to a service at the Episcopal Church at Yale.
For me, ECY has been a place both of rest and of action.
As today’s readings remind us, God is a refuge—God makes us lie down in green pastures. Similarly, ECY has been a place of rest for me—a place of quietness, prayer, and reflection, a place to escape the busyness of campus and be still.
At the same time, as today’s readings remind us, God calls us to action. At ECY, I have learned that God calls us to so much more than just “being nice”—we are called, instead, to “lay down our lives for the brethren.” At ECY, we respond as a community to Christ’s call to action. In conversations and prayer, we have asked what it means to follow Christ. Our leaders, Rev. Paul and Rev. Kathryn, have offered us examples of godly lives. Together, we strive to love God and love each other.
When I first came to ECY, I could have never imagined the impact that it would have on my life. I saw it as an experiment, and it became a home. ECY is a place of rest and a place of action—just as our God is a refuge and a shelter, but also a living presence that moves our world to greater justice.
As we leave this place, I know that we will each carry this community with us. Together, we have built a community that strives every day to know and follow God: in rest, in work, and in every moment.
While they were talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost. He said to them, “Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.”And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?” They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate in their presence. Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you–that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.
When I was in 8th grade, I decided that I would grow up to pioneer a field called “theo-biology”. My first and foundational book would be titled, “What is the DNA of God?”
This proclamation usually received a predictable response. “What on earth is theo-biology?” Let me explain. I’d long observed, through lessons about Darwin and Galileo, that science and religion seem to be at odds with one another. Theo-biology, in my mind, was a simple solution to get around the conflict between fact and faith. It was a pairing of two of my favorite things: biology, with its hard evidence and steadfast methods, and a search for the “big questions” of religious faith.
My middle school self was a little ambitious. I thought I’d start by tackling the idea that Jesus entered the world through Immaculate Conception and is truly the Son of God. The fact that some people doubt this miracle was, in my mind, simply a problem of insufficient evidence: In the early days of the Roman Empire, we hadn’t yet invented paternity tests. My faith and enthusiasm were enough to convince me that if Jesus’s DNA were passed though gel electrophoresis and sorted to determine its genetic makeup, the result would not match the genes of Joseph or any other earthly man. What is the DNA of God? We’d clearly see an image of heavenly hereditary material– or maybe the machine would simply go haywire. Either way, such a test would decisively prove the miracle of Christ’s birth.
One of my favorite quotes is related to this questionable line between reason and faith. A climate activist once said this: “People sometimes ask me if I “believe in” climate change. I often reply, do you “believe” in gravity? Climate change is a scientific fact, not a religion. You can disbelieve in gravity, but you’re still going to hit the ground hard if you jump off the roof.”
“Climate change is a scientific fact. It’s not a religion,” she says. But what does that imply about the line between religion and fact? Was my 8th grade self right to try to pair them? Is it relevant, or appropriate, or helpful, to think of these things together?
It is through this lens of evidence and faith—of proof and belief, and the whole mess of applying one to another—that I want to examine today’s Gospel reading. In this passage, Luke puts words to one of the greatest miracles of the Christian faith: “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name. You are witnesses of these things.”
Let’s pause for a moment and let these words sink in. The language is so familiar, such a central part of our Christian faith, that it’s easy to let the words wash over us without pausing to appreciate them. But imagine that you are one of the disciples hearing these words for the first time. You’ve just been told of the ultimate miracle: Christ has done the physically and humanly impossible: He has died, and after three days, He has risen from the dead. And you are called upon to be a witness.
So what does it mean to be a witness? What should we make of our calling to be witnesses to something as huge and significant as Jesus’s return? Words like proof and testimony—legal words, concerned with fact and logic and proof—come immediately to our minds. And this is where the theo-biologist in me kicks in. Taken at its surface, Luke’s passage seems to be an invitation to scrutinize the miracle of Christ’s resurrection through the lens of a scientific mind. How can we be sure that the man who has returned is not a ghost? How can we validate the miracle before our eyes? How can we explain?
Let’s pretend, once again, that you are one of the disciples in the room that day. Jesus walks in—a man whom you know to be dead—and begins to speak. Of course, he anticipates your reaction. “Why are you frightened?” He asks. “And why do doubts arise in your hearts?”
As human beings, we have many ways of dealing with doubts. We gather evidence about our surroundings with 5 go-to methods: sight, smell, taste, sound, and touch. Sure enough, the disciples try sight first. “Peace be with you!” Jesus announces. They look… and they assume they are seeing a ghost. Well, that’s predictable. Vision, as we all know, can very deceptive. Have you ever seen a mirage on a hot street or looked at the way a straw bends in water? We’re skeptical of vision. We can be face-to-face with a miracle, but dismiss it as an illusion.
So mere sight will not be enough to validate this miracle. What, then, should be our next attempt at “witnessing” the return of Christ? Jesus gives it to us in his own words. “Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.”
Ah. Touch. All of a sudden, Luke takes us from a lofty world of huge miracles and deceptive vision, and he grounds us in the language of physicality. “Touch me and see.” The visceral. The mundane. The human. As I read Luke this week, this concept of “touch” stood out to me. I spent some time sitting with it, inhabiting it, thinking about what this word means.
Our sense of touch is our route to intimacy and connection. Have you ever spent a good amount of time looking at your hands? If not, I’d like to invite you to do so now. Marvel at how gentle and soft they can be, while holding the key to everything you know about texture and sensation. Trace the mountains and valleys of your knuckles, the veins of your palms, and notice their similarity to the veins of a leaf. As humans, we use our hands to explore, to trace, to feel, to know the world outside of us. To touch is to be profoundly human, profoundly connected to the physical world.
And yet, there’s also something about touch that inevitably brings us the world of the Other, the world of the Divine. In this way, it is the opposite of vision. When we see, we feel obligated to explain. “That man who my eyes say stands before me is not really Christ, He is an illusion.” “That strip of DNA is a machine error, it can’t possibly belong to God.” But when we touch, it is difficult to deny that we are entering into some sort of deeper, undeniable Truth. We use the word “touch” to describe a story that moves us deeply, or a song that reaches in and tugs on certain wells of emotion. Every child learns touch to enter into wells of belonging, tenderness, warmth, and love. Touch is also the sense through which we experience pain and move through it. Think of a moment in which you felt lost, broken, empty. Think of how sometimes, the only consolation is to be embraced and held.
At the highest moments of human intensity, words become silent. Then, the language of touch gets a chance to speak.
What exactly is the language of Christ’s touch trying to say? The theo-biologist in me wants to conclude that this Gospel is a victory for the pairing of religion and scientific fact. In the face of a miracle too huge and mysterious to comprehend, the disciples reach out to confirm their world through physical evidence. Luke provides undeniable visceral proof that Jesus has returned and taken a human form. But I’m not only a theo-biologist. I’m also a person who has hands and “feels” the world and was just “touched” by the music of the choir and the words of our prayers. Because of this, I have to believe that Christ’s touch offers a little bit more.
Of the senses, Touch makes us most simply and surely human. We see here that Jesus uses it to reinforce his humanity—to “stand among” the disciples in unity and equality. And yet of the senses, Touch also leaves the most room for mystery and the divine. What does it mean that Christ shares this capacity? It is affirmation of his miraculous duality. He can arise from the dead, and He has hands and feet like we do. Christ is human, and Christ is divine.
But I think there’s one more thing to be drawn from the language of Christ’s touch. It shows us that, at His core, Jesus is the essence of relationship. His touch affirms his basic desire to form connection—with the disciples, with strangers, with every one of us. In the weeks following the Resurrection, Jesus appears on Earth many times. Each time, he must choose a way to reveal himself. Does he return with the sole objective of making people “believe” in his miracle, offering concrete proof? No. He chooses to come through touch. Of all the ways He could have appeared, He chose the universal symbol of comfort and closeness. ‘Look,’ he tells us. ‘I am here. I am among you and within you. I am in every foot and hand. I can eat and drink and be in your midst.’ And because of this, he invites us into an eternal relationship with Him, with God, and with each other.
So what does it mean to be witnesses of God? Should we take up our DNA kits, as my 8th grade self wanted to do, and go about using the evidence of Christ to “prove” our miracles? Or will we accept Christ’s touch as the invitation to intimacy that He intended it to be?
Being witness gives us a clear calling to walk through our days with openness and intention. It means attuning our hearts to Christ’s essence moving between us and within us. In our dorm rooms and dining halls and families, His touch is present. As we look at our palms and embrace our friends and reach out to those in need, He inhabits every thread of connection. To be a witness is to reach out with our hands and step into the comfort of God’s eternal intimacy– that our faith may be bold, our love deep, and our hearts generous, as we go forth to build the relationships that Christ’s touch has shown.
When I was a little girl, I wanted to be a cat when I grew up. I knew a few cats, and they seemed to have a pretty good time of it, so I figured that was the right path for me. I spent time practicing being a cat, which (if you’re curious) mainly consisted of choreographing solo dances to most of the songs from the Broadway musical of the same name as my chosen profession.
Then I got a little older, and I realized that maybe being a cat wasn’t a viable career choice. So I decided that I wanted to be a zookeeper instead. I went to zookeeper camp, where I realized that cleaning up monkey droppings wasn’t quite the glamorous life I was looking for. So I decided to become a fantasy writer. That lasted until I realized that I liked reading books more than trying to write them, so I decided to become an editor. And then I decided I wanted to be a professor, like my dad. And then I wanted to open a bakery. And then I wanted to start my own theater company.
In fact, I can’t remember a time in my life when there wasn’t something I wanted to be when I grew up. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t have some vision of the future. And I think that’s a pretty common thing; I’d be willing to bet that, if you were to ask anyone else in this room what they wanted to be when they grew up when they were a little kid, they’d have an answer. My brother wanted to be a frog. One of my cousins wanted to be a retired banker, which I still think is a pretty good answer.
There’s something so human about that insistence on looking towards the future, on figuring out what and who we want to be when we get older. And for those of us who are still students, figuring that out is almost a full time job. It often feels like everything I do is about finding the answer to that ever-present question: What do I want my life to be? It’s as if I’m living life looking firmly at the future, working backwards from the life I want to live through all the steps I’ll need to take to get there. If I can only figure out how the things I do now will impact my future self, I’ll be able to build that perfect life, that life that I will love.
Jesus tells us in today’s Gospel reading that “[t]hose who live their life will lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” Those who love their life will lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. As we all spend so much of our time struggling to build the lives that we want for ourselves, what are we to do with a statement like that?
Jesus reminds us here that the time we have on this earth are short. Our lives may seem long as we’re living them, but from the perspective of eternal life they’re peanuts to space. And our sight into in the future is even shorter. In reminding us that all the time and energy we use trying to be the architects of our own futures is, ultimately, wasted, Jesus calls us to live lives that aren’t oriented towards the future.
Thankfully, he doesn’t end there. He continues, saying: “Whosoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there my servant will be also.” More than calling us to follow Him, as He so often does, Jesus asks us to be present with him. But what does that mean for us? It must have been pretty straightforward for Andrew and Philip, who could see Jesus in front of them. Be where Jesus is? Done. But it’s not quite so clear-cut for us. We don’t have a physical being to follow, as the disciples did.
I’m reminded of the parable of the sheep and the goats: Jesus tells of a time when the people will be separated as a shepherd separates sheep and goats, those who helped the Lord in His time of need on his right and those who didn’t on his left. Those on His right don’t remember having helped Him, so He tells them: “whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” (Matthew 25:40). Jesus’ point, for once, seems pretty clear: Jesus is present in those around us who need us. What we do for them, we do for Him, too.
By that logic, to be present with Jesus is to be present with other people. And not just any people: the least of these brothers and sisters. The hungry, the imprisoned, the afraid. These brothers and sisters in need. These brothers and sisters who probably don’t live in the beautiful futures we imagine for ourselves.
Because the funny thing about our imagined future lives is that we are necessarily alone in them. They may include imagined versions of our loved ones, to be sure, but other people can’t really live in our imaginations. Our imagined lives are necessarily about us. Other people live in the present. Other people need help kindness and love in the present.
So when Jesus says that those who love their lives will lose them, I take that as a call to stop putting so much of my energy into imagining my perfect future. A life full of richly imagined futures is of no use to anyone. It’s the things done in the present that are of use to those in need.
The Buddhist monk Tich Nhat Hanh wrote in The Miracle of Mindfulness that “[m]any people are alive but don’t touch the miracle of being alive.” I think that miracle is right now. It’s all of us exactly as we are now. It’s each bit of kindness and tenderness and love that exists in this present moment. It’s what we do for each other. For as we do to the least of each other, so we do to God.
May God’s Word be spoken. May God’s Word be heard. May that point us to the Living Word who is Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
A few nights ago my husband, Reade, and I sat on the couch relishing some quiet after our children were in bed. We marveled together at the blessings in our lives – jobs we love, a wonderful house, healthy children and each other. And yet we both know life has not, nor will it always be as easy and joyful as it is right now.
That is a lesson I learned early. I was diagnosed with bone cancer when
I was thirteen. It took almost a year for the full magnitude of what was happening to sink in. Until then I managed to cope pretty well. But just as I was finishing my treatments and things were looking good from a physical standpoint, the emotional and spiritual challenges really began. That was when the fear came. The kind of fear that can be overwhelming and seem to run your life.
It was as though someone had taken the rug out from under me. Up until then I had the blissful ignorance of youth. I had not had to confront my own mortality. Then I did. And I thought if this terrible thing called cancer could happen to me, what was going to protect me from all the other terrible things in the world. What I wanted, what I desperately craved was some sense of control, some sort of guarantee that I was going to be okay. That I was going to have a long and healthy life.
But no one could give me that guarantee, that sense of control, and so it was tempting to give into the fear, to let it run my life.
Now today is the first Sunday in Lent, and our Gospel lesson is about Jesus being tempted in the wilderness by Satan. Now you may be wondering what my story of fear has to do with Lent and temptation. Normally our conversations about temptation and Lent focus on the more superficial sorts of temptations like coffee or chocolate. Yet I think Lent is a good time to think about some of the other temptations we face in our lives. And I would be willing to bet I am not the only one who has ever been tempted by fear.
Now you may be thinking, what can be so tempting about fear and anxiety? Who LIKES being afraid? It is not a delicious indulgence like coffee or chocolate. And yet, I do think fear and anxiety can be tempting. They are tempting because they give us the illusion of control. In the face of a life threatening diagnosis, in the face of the loss of a job or a broken relationship, in the face of our news headlines about the shooting deaths of young people or the most recent horrific act of Islamic State, in the face of all those terrible realities of our broken and sinful world, we feel powerless, and so it is tempting to give in to the fear. It is tempting because being anxious and fearful lets us feel busy. Worrying at least feels like we are DOING something.
Yet worrying merely serves to occupy our minds. It does not ultimately give us anything other than an increase in our blood pressure and stress hormones. Most of the things we are tempted to worry about are the big things – our health, our future, the safety of our loved ones, and the possibility of our own death. While we can have some influence in these matters, ultimately we do not get to decide how long we have in this world. Time is a precious gift. None of us will live forever. That is the reminder we received as our foreheads were marked with ashes on Wednesday. “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.” You, me, and everyone else on this planet. That is the truth of the human experience.
So, what if we took Lent as an opportunity to live in a new way. What if we gave up fear and anxiety for Lent?
Ha, you may be thinking, well that is a lot easier said than done. It is. I agree. I am the mother of young children, one of whom is about to be mobile. And his older sister will be going to kindergarten this fall. We live in CT. For all of us who have seen the faces of the parents of children who died at Sandy Hook, even sending a child to school is not without
its worries. I don’t think my life as a parent will ever be free from fear and anxiety. And there is truth in that for all of us, parents or not, no matter what age we are. Fear and anxiety are what come with loving deeply. When we care about someone, it scares us to imagine life without that person.
So when I suggest that we give up fear and anxiety, I am not suggesting that it is a simple matter of setting our minds and never looking back. As though we could just decide to stop being fearful or anxious. And yet I do think we have some choice about how much control fear and anxiety have in our lives. I think we can “give up” letting them be dominant forces in our lives. In fact, I think as Christians, we are called to focus on joy
and hope, rather than fear and anxiety. We are called to be messengers of peace, called to be light bearers in the world. Just as Christ did in the wilderness, we are called to resist the temptations of Satan. Those include the temptations of fear and anxiety.
Fear and anxiety can be terribly strong forces in our lives, IF, and only
if, we let them. As we are human beings who love deeply, we will never
be free from fear and anxiety. We can, however, be free from their stranglehold grip in our lives. We can refuse to give in to all the fearful “what ifs?” our imaginations can conjure up. We can choose abundance and life over scarcity and loss. We can trust that the love of God is stronger than death, stronger than anything. We can believe that the hope of Easter is always real, that God is at work, here and now, bringing about new life.
That is our choice. Will we be on the lookout for those stories that feed into our fears and anxiety or will be on the lookout for those things that fill us with hope? Will we give thanks for the innumerable blessings in our lives? For the privilege of being gathered in this place for worship, the privilege of being fed and supported by this community? Will we let ourselves be filled by hope – rejoicing in the creativity and ingenuity of others? If any of us
are need a little extra hope this Lent, may I suggest seeking out the small children in our lives or the Brendons [dogs] of our lives? There is nothing quite like the laughter and smiles of children or the love of a dog to restore the soul, to remind us that even when it seems that we are surrounded by tragedy and loss, there are always signs of hope, symbols of new life, if only we will look for them.
There’s something compelling about Ash Wednesday, something that draws us here to Dwight Hall; more than just habit or duty; more than just the beginning of Lent. What we say and do on this particular Wednesday has a special power.
Today we say – and then confirm with a touch – “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” There it is. So much else that we say in this place we may hope is true, or fear is true, or believe, or doubt. But this we know: We are mortal. We were born. We will die.
From dust, to dust. As if hearing the words were not enough, they are literally rubbed into our faces. Ashes mark us – and our fate becomes strangely visible.
Then Jesus goes one step further. He reminds us that dust is the destination, not just of our bodies, but of most of what we consider to be worth living for, as well. Moth and rust and thieves can – and will – reduce to dust virtually every goal, every dream, every value, every treasure we hold dear. And we know that to be true, too. These words of simple, absolute truth give us a perspective the world tries both to hide and to deny – and one we usually do our best to ignore.
Dust and ashes. These are what we see if we look ahead far enough and honestly enough. These are the final return on virtually every investment we make. Today we say this out loud, and we know its truth and its power.
And it sounds like bad news – unmitigated bad news – even though we’ve known it all along.
We all know the personal crisis that comes with that first mature realization of the absolute certainty of our own death. We know how jarring it is, and today reminds us of this grim reality.
From dust… to dust.
To find the Good News here, we need to begin with the past, and with a conviction we Christians hold as firmly as we know the certainty of our own death – that we are created by God – that we did not just happen, that we did not emerge willy-nilly by some cosmic fluke. The dust of our beginnings – that dust from which we came – is not just a matter of chance; it has profound meaning. Our lives are gifts from God. Nothing less. Our dust was molded by the very hands of God, and his Spirit breathed life into it. Our dust is holy, our ashes are blessed and cherished by God.
In this way, what appears as a threat – “you are dust” – becomes, if we pay attention, a promise. The grace and love present at our creation will see us through our physical disintegration and beyond. God is with us from our very beginning, and before, and will be with us to our very end, and beyond.
Notice something else. These ashes on our forehead are not just tossed there, or scattered at random. They are placed in the form of a cross – so today we mortals are connected with both Good Friday and Easter morning. Today we remember the promise that, as we have risen from dust to this mortal life, so, with Christ, we will rise from the dust of death to eternal life. Yes, to dust we shall return, but with Christ.
Dust and ashes are Good News: They point us toward the power and love of God – both at the beginning and at the end. And they remind us that, because of this Good News, we are called – as we live between dust and dust – to repent and to return. To return to our risen Lord. That’s what “repent” means: to turn, to change the direction in which we are looking and moving, to look and to move in a new direction.
Today’s call to repent isn’t based on fear – on what will happen to us if we don’t; and it doesn’t rely on guilt or duty – on what we think we ought to do. Instead, this call centers on divine love – on the love that is the heart of our creation – on the love that is seen most fully on the cross. It centers on the love that transforms ashes into a symbol of hope.
At the same time, such turning – such repentance – is not something we can think ourselves into; it depends on concrete action. That’s why we follow the ancient disciplines of prayer, fasting and giving, because they keep us continually moving in the right direction – towards God.
So, remember that you are dust – and rejoice. For God is with us – in the beginning, at the end, and even now as we live in between. And repent, and return to the Lord, and rejoice. For the one who created us, who loves us, and who travels every step of our journey with us, is calling us home.
For though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though I myself am not under the law) so that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law) so that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, so that I might by any means save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings.
– 1 Corinthians 9: 20-23
In this land of rugged individuality, one of the worst insults you can make about someone is to say that he is a “phony,” “two faced,” that she is “all things to all people,” someone who, like the proverbial politician, “tells people just what they want to hear.” People like this remind us of the snake oil salesman, sizing up their mark, and convincing them that whatever they’re selling will cure exactly what ails them.
So what are we to make of Paul’s famous assertion to the Christian community of Corinth: “I have become all things to all people?” Does he mean to say that he just tells people what they want to hear? That to an orthodox Jew, he too piously observes the 612 purity laws from Leviticus? That to the reform Jew, unhappy with the rigid and doctrinaire temple religion, he’s a revolutionary reformer? While to a Gentile, he thinks most Jewish practice is irrelevant? Doesn’t he stand for anything?
Well, to understand this, first let’s look at the context – Corinth was a wildly diverse cosmopolitan place, a cultural melting pot for the Ancient Near East. Here lived observant Jews, reform Jews, Gentiles, slaves and free, male and female, a rainbow people from literally “…every tribe, language, people and nation.”
Most, of course, lived in teeming poverty, while the tiny elite hoarded all the wealth. So if Paul wanted to win people to Christ, he needed to understand allof these cultures, and to speak each of their languages. He needed to find a way into each and every very different heart.
Because what he had to share was absolutely foreign and revolutionary and scary for all of them, regardless of their culture – the Good News that none of these divisions matter in the eyes of God; that God loved every single person in this melting pot equally, and that God called them to love each other, not compete for cultural or religious or racial superiority, or for the scraps from rich people’s tables.
That’s why Paul saw a great freedom in becoming “all things to all people.” As a Christian, he saw every person in a new and different way. “I am free with respect to all,” he said, “I have made myself a slave to all.” Confronted with the tremendous diversity of the Body of Christ, Paul saw that God had no favorites. Yes, the Jews were God’s “chosen people,” but so were the Gentiles, so were men and women, so was every one.
Because the fact is that what joins all of us is our common identity as “beloved children of God,” and what joins us as Christians, is that we’re committed to “loving our neighbors as ourselves.” The more different we perceived someone, the more we were called to love them. “What is it worth,” Jesus asked, “if you love only those who love you?”
Which is why in today’s gospel, Jesus makes a bee line directly from the synagogue gates to the gates of the city, where the most untouchables lived – the sick, the disabled, those possessed by demons – and doing so was a scandal to the priests whose company he had just left.
And speaking of priests, just after I was ordained over a dozen years ago, I arrived in a parish that had just chosen a wonderful, energetic, wise and very smart Rector, Thomas, 29 years old… and gay. On my first day, barely hours into my priesthood, Thomas called me into his office and said,” Paul, when I arrived, a dozen families left in protest over my sexual orientation. Your first assignment is to bring them all back.” I found myself tearing up, confronted by this extraordinary priest – someone who, knowing he is hated simply for who he is, responds with phenomenal generosity of spirit. “Paul,” he went on, “we all have need of one another – no matter what we believe about each other. Go gather my lost sheep. They’ll listen to you in a way they can’t right now to me.”
It was a slow and painful process, listening to so much I found so painful to hear, so impossible to respond to. But I sat in each of their homes visit after visit, prayed with them, and tried to find the words that would penetrate each of their hearts. After a year, eight families had returned, each in their own way, some only when I celebrated the Eucharist, but in the end, fully embracing Thomas when they finally let themselves get to know him. The next year one other family came back – nine out of town lost sheep. The tenth moved away… probably because I just kept on visiting them. This was an experience that shaped my priesthood forever.
I’m thrilled to announce that at Easter Vigil this year, Bishop Laura will be joining us, and we will confirm at least one of our ECY members, and we hope more, and maybe even some folks from nearby parishes. And at every confirmation, we all join in and repeat our own baptismal promises. Together we’ll affirm this revolutionary faith, and together we’ll assert that God’s impartiality trumps all of our prejudices. We’ll promise to “seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbors as ourselves; to strive for justice and peace among all people, respecting the dignity of every human being; knowing that none of this is even remotely possible without “God’s help.”
St. Francis once famously said, “Preach the gospel at all times, and only when necessary, use words.” We don’t bring people to Jesus by giving them some slick sell job, nor by telling people just what they want to hear. No, we win them to Christ by looking so deeply into their hearts, we see their common humanity, their common share of God’s abundant love. And we love that bit of the divine within them in a way that afflicts them with the contagious joy Christ plants in our own hearts.
That’s precisely why God calls us to be “all things to all people,” to see beyond the differences of language and culture and race and economic status – and yes, even prejudice – and to love every person we encounter – every person – as equally beloved of God. This is how we discover the wideness in God’s mercy, by trying our best to first see God’s love in ourselves, so that we may then see, in every person, near and far, the beloved child of God that lives within them.
Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’ As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the lake—for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, ‘Follow me and I will make you fish for people.’ And immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.
Mark 1: 14 -20
Last Sunday, a parish family arrived at church completely frazzled with their two year old. It seems that just as they were headed out, their driveway filled with police cars. “Who called 911?” an officer shouted. The look on the little girl’s face said it all. As the parents apologized, the officer smiled, “It’s OK, even if we knew who called, we still would have come. That’s the way 911 works – you call, we come.”
When Jesus called the four fishermen in today’s gospel story, they responded the same way. They didn’t say, “Not right now, we’re busy,” they just followed him.
Don’t we all wonder if we would have answered the same way? We think of the first disciples as superheroes – when Jesus calls, they drop everything and follow. But in truth, these four guys were just ordinary fishermen. This story isn’t about superheroes – it’s about God’s amazing power to create miracles within very ordinary people. It’s about God inspiring us to be better than we think we are, to do better than we think we can.
Like our last two Presidential elections. Having an African-American man elected, just 60 years after it was illegal for his father to eat at the same lunch counter as his white neighbors, just 50 years after it was illegal for his white mother and his black father to be married – counts in my book as a miracle. In our next Presidential election, it’s likely at least one of the candidates will be a woman – unthinkable a few decades ago.
Just like those fishermen, it would be a real mistake to see these trailblazers as superheroes. I remember Obama’s inaugural address, listing the tremendous challenges we faced – a kind of 911 call. But he reminded us that solving these problems was less about him and more about us.
“For as much as government can do…” he said, “it is ultimately the faith and determination of the American people upon which this nation relies. It is the kindness to take in a stranger when the levees break, the selflessness of workers who would rather cut their hours than to see a friend lose their job, which sees us through the darkest hours. It is the firefighter’s courage to storm a stairway filled with smoke, and a parent’s willingness to nurture a child, that finally decides our fate.”
The miracles we’re invited to create every day, require us to say “Yes” to doing our part, to cooperating with God, the same way these simple fishermen did.
From the time each of them was a small child, God stayed close, encouraging them to listen for God’s call.
Going to school in the synagogue, learning prayers and bible verses – God was sowing seeds in their hearts, teaching them to see God in other people, and to respond to God in them. As they grew, they must have said “Yes” in hundreds of ways – whenever they were kind, or forgave someone, or shared some of what they had with those who needed it more than them. God grew generous hearts inside them, helping them learn the most important lesson in the world – that we’re happiest, that we’re the best we can be, when we’re helping other people be the best they can be.
So by the time Jesus came by that morning and said “Follow me, and I’ll make you fish for people,” maybe they were so hungry for the kind of happiness only God provides, they couldn’t resist.
It’s no different with us. Most of the time, we’re pretty clueless about the fact that God is so near. So clueless, we forget to keep taking in God’s love; we forget to listen for God’s call. But no matter how clueless we are, God stays very close, keeps loving us into being better people than we believe we can be, keeps helping us say “Yes” over and over again.
Kind of like the mother rabbit in Margaret Wise Brown’s book, The Runaway Bunny. Her little bunny was feeling so grown up, he thought he didn’t need his mother anymore. One day he said, “I’m running away.” She replied, “If you run away, I’ll run after you. For you are my little bunny.” The bunny laughed. “If you run after me, I’ll become a fish in a trout stream, and I’ll swim away from you.” “If you become a fish in a trout stream,” replied his mother, “I’ll become a fisherman and I’ll fish for you.”
Well, they go on like this for the whole book. At the end, the little bunny figures out the perfect escape. “I’ll join a circus,” he says, “and fly away on a flying trapeze.” “If you fly away on a flying trapeze,” mother rabbit replies, “I’ll be a tightrope walker, and I’ll walk across the air to you.” “Ahhh”, says the little bunny victoriously, “If you become a tightrope walker, and walk across the air, I’ll become a little boy and run into the house.” And mother rabbit smiles, “If you become a little boy and run into the house, I’ll become your mother and catch you in my arms and hug you.”
That’s what saying “Yes” to Jesus’ call is all about. In the midst of our cluelessness about the availability of God’s abundant love, even as we persist in acting like “runaway bunnies,” Jesus is always one step ahead of us.
“If you become a little boy and run into the house,” said the mother bunny, “I’ll become your mother and catch you in my arms and hug you.” “Shucks,” says the little bunny, “I might as well just stay where I am and be your little bunny.” And so he did. “Have a carrot,” said his mother.
Nathanael asked him, “Where did you get to know me?” Jesus answered, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.”
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
You can imagine Nathanael as a pretty snarky guy given how he jokes about Nazareth. You can imagine him following Phillip, not really sure what to expect, and going up to Jesus and thinking, as Jesus welcomes him, “who the heck does this guy think he is?” You can imagine the sarcasm, perhaps, in his voice, “How do you know me?”
Jesus’ response would have been spectacular enough had this omniscient fellow said, “I saw you under the fig tree earlier,” or “I saw you under the fig tree before you came here.” Instead what we get is, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.” “I saw you” before you were even called. Or as the Psalmist today says, “Lord, you have searched me out and known me; you know my sitting down and my rising up; you discern my thoughts from afar.”
Jesus takes Nathanael’s words and refashions them. Nathanael’s knowledge is an acquaintance’s knowledge of a stranger. But for Jesus, knowing Nathanael has less to do with being omniscient and far more to do with the fact that God knows us—and calls us—before we know God.
What we see then in today’s moments of calling is deeply distressing. Calls interrupt our daily lives dramatically and happen in incredibly unexpected ways. For Samuel, this takes place late at night as he verges on sleep, on the borderline of a world beyond our consciousness, before he is brought back into reality by God’s call. For Nathanael, this takes place as he flippantly jokes about Jesus knowing him, and as he receives a sublime response in return. Nathanael hears a voice—and witnesses a presence—that draws him near, and that captivates him.
The call from God is a call to enter more deeply into God’s presence—and as some have put it, to know God is to realize, more and more, that you are known by God. For both the Psalmist and for Paul in Corinthians, we are known by God, not in abstract, otherworldly ideals or terms, but in the context of our fleshly lives, frail that they are, on this earth. The Psalmist affirms God’s good work shown forth in Creation, even in a fallen world: not only does God “discern [our] thoughts from afar,” but God also “created [our] inmost parts” and “knit [us] together in [our] mother[s’] womb[s]”—and we are “marvelously made.” Even in our frailty ad vulnerability, God knows us.
Paul’s words—sharp rebuke that they are—also make this clear. “The body is meant for the Lord, and the Lord for the body,” and “your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God.” And at the altar in the Eucharist, as a Rite I prayer states, we ask God to “accept this our sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving, whereby we offer and present unto thee, O Lord, our selves, our souls and bodies.”
When God calls Samuel, Samuel perceives something to which he longs to respond with his entire body. He comes to Eli and talks to him, and later speaks with God. When Jesus sees Nathanael under the fig tree, he doesn’t just imagine Nathanael’s thoughts about Nazareth; he sees Nathanael himself, all of him, throughout eternity. And Nathanael in turn responds by dedicating himself to Christ entirely, even, as Tradition has it, to the point of death after being flayed alive and crucified upside down.
In other words, these calls, however perceived, draw us out of ourselves, out of the normalcy and regularity of our daily lives, and create in us a yearning for God that we strive to satisfy through the very means that God has given us in this world around us, throughout our entire lives. These moments we find written before us may not happen frequently or even at all—and yet we need not identify those moments explicitly with God for them to be divine. The moment may take place as it did with Samuel or with Nathanael. On the other hand, it may take place when injustice around us arouses righteous anger. Or it may take place when we witness beauty in the world around us. All of these experiences beg for us to respond—to be changed in such a way that we are transformed by God’s grace in order to show forth Love, whether in the midst of its abundance, or… in the midst of its absence.
Throughout millennia, Christian mysticism has tried to express these moments in poetry and prose. St. John of the Cross, a 16th-century Spanish mystic, echoes this back-and-forth, between God and humanity, in the Spiritual Canticles, where he describes the bride’s quest for the bridegroom as an allegory of humanity’s quest for God. In her agonizing opening lines, the bride cries out:
Where have You hidden Yourself,
And abandoned me in my groaning, O my Beloved?
You have fled like the hart,
Having wounded me.
I ran after You, crying; but You… were gone.
The bridegroom has wounded the bride with a perpetual, incessant, terrifying and terrible longing. A longing for something outside herself that nothing else can satisfy. And the bridegroom responds a bit later…hauntingly:
Return, My Dove!
The wounded hart
Looms on the hill
In the air of your flight… and is refreshed.
The hart who wounded us is God in Christ, whom humanity itself wounded on the cross. And both wounds, for John of the Cross and for Paul as well—the wound that we bear and the wounds that Christ bears for eternity, the very wounds into which he invites Thomas to thrust his hand to prove his resurrection later on in John’s gospel—both are wounds of love, wounds that invite us nonetheless into union with God, a union characterized by God’s call and our response.
And we enter into that union, as this week’s Collect suggests, by worshiping and obeying God, and making him known—in other words, by modeling our own lives after Christ, who while himself being God humbled himself to share our humanity, who out of love entered into the depths of alienation, sin, and despair, even unto death. It means putting our entire selves in the service of God and the Incarnate Word in other human beings and throughout Creation, even in the face of hatred. It is to bear the wounds of love—to realize that God has wounded us for a longing outside ourselves and to allow ourselves to love others though the call may be difficult.
This is not to say that we should be masochists about this. But it is to say that God asks us as a Church, as Michael Ramsey puts it, to seek to alleviate the sufferings of humanity, to heal them and to remove them, since they are hateful to God. Yet, when they are overwhelming and there is no escape from them, to transfigure them and use them as the raw material of love, and the place where the power of God is known.
In this journey, then, let us, in John of the Cross’ words, “go seeking [our] beloved / Over mountains, along rivers— / [we] will gather no flowers / Nor fear any beasts; / [and we] shall pass fortresses and frontiers alike.” To respond to God’s call—to reply, “Speak, for your servant is listening”—is to invite the Love that moves the Sun and other stars to move in our own lives, not that we may escape the world, but that thereby we may, by God’s grace, transform it.
The call to worship, to prayer, and to Eucharist is a call to offer up ourselves, our souls and bodies, to God’s mission of restoration and reconciliation in the world. It is a call shaped by the wounds of love that we forever share with God, who calls us throughout our lives and has known us before time itself. It is a call, as Rowan Williams paraphrases of Gregory of Nyssa, that draws us to an end without end. It is a call, as Jesus tells Nathanael, to “see greater things than these.”
“My soul is occupied,
And all my substance in His service;
Now I guard no flock,
Nor have I… any other employment:
My sole occupation… is love.”
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