First Reading: Ephesians 4:1-6
Psalm: Psalm 122
Gospel: John 17:6a,15-23
In the summer of 2001 I accepted the call to become the rector of a parish which had recently undergone a somewhat catastrophic split over the issues of the day. My predecessor, the majority of the vestry, and about 150 members of the parish had left to form a new parish no longer in the Episcopal Church.
When you’re the rector of such a parish you hold your breath every third year as General Convention comes around. It’s not a matter of agreeing or disagreeing with what General Convention’s going to do. It’s a matter of dreading yet more infighting as parishioners takes stands on this side or that of whatever the issue of the day is – sort of like iron filings in a box with very strong magnets at either end. Everybody gravitates to one side or the other, there’s nobody left in the center, and the folk at either end quit talking to each other.
So I wondered, what to do? How are we going to hold this thing together?
As you all know, the opening words of the baptismal rite are taken directly from Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians. The Celebrant says, “There is one Body and one Spirit. The people respond, “There is one hope in God’s call to us.” “One Lord, one Faith, one Baptism.” “One God and Father of all.” (BCP, p. 299)
There is one . . . one . . . one . . . one . . . one . . .one . . . one . . . one. Seven “one’s”! Count them!
Rather difficult to not get the message, huh!
In Paul’s letter what precedes these verses is: “I therefore . . . beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the UNITY OF THE SPIRIT IN THE BOND OF PEACE.” (Ephesians 4:1-3)
I’m loathe to take liberties with worship. To my mind, one of the great beauties of belonging to a liturgical tradition is the manner in which our worship becomes part of the very fiber of our minds and souls through our repeating the same words again and again and through our knowing that worship in one Episcopal parish will look pretty much like worship in another. But in this instance I decided to innovate. Beginning some time in 2002 we inserted Ephesians 4:1-6 between the blessing and the dismissal at the end of the service. Every Sunday the entire congregation would rise and to together recite: “I . . . beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called . . . bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the UNITY OF THE SPIRIT IN THE BOND OF PEACE. There is one body and one Spirit . . . .”
2003 rolled around. Gene Robinson received consent to be ordained bishop. To my recollection in a parish of well over a thousand members in a very conservative city we lost perhaps two families.
According to the Gospel of John, the night before he was crucified our Lord prayed: “As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may my followers also be in us . . . so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, SO THAT THE WORLD MAY KNOW THAT YOU HAVE SENT ME AND HAVE LOVED THEM EVEN AS YOU HAVE LOVED ME.” (John 17:21)
In 1950 my grandfather was a Presbyterian pastor in Abilene, Texas. Do you know how many psychiatrists there were in Abilene at that time? Two! Think about that! Two psychiatrists for a population of well over 100,000 people!
Do you really think they were less inclined to be mentally ill than we are today?
You’ve probably all heard Frederick Buechner’s famous description of vocation: “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” What you may not have heard is what precedes it. Let me read that to you. It’s from his little book, Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC, (1973, p. 95)
It comes from the Latin vocare, to call, and means the work a [person] is called to by God.
There are all different kinds of voices calling you to all different kinds of work, and the problem is to find out which is the voice of God rather than of Society, say, or the Superego, or Self-Interest.
By and large a good rule for finding out is this. The kind of work God usually calls you to is the kind of work (a) that you need most to do and (b) that the world most needs to have done. If you really get a kick out of your work, you’ve presumably met requirements (a), but if your work is writing TV deodorant commercials, the chances are you’ve missed requirement (b). On the other hand, if your work is being a doctor in a leper colony, you have probably met requirement (b), but if most of the time you’re bored and depressed by it, the chances are you have not only bypassed (a) but probably aren’t helping your patients much either.
NEITHER THE HAIR SHIRT NOR THE SOFT BERTH WILL DO. The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.
All of you here tonight pondering the possibility of coming to Seminary of the Southwest are here because you’ve heard a call, you’re seeking your true vocation. Our mission at Southwest is to form mature Christian leaders, lay and ordained. Notice that “lay and ordained.” 60 years ago there were only two psychiatrists in Abilene because if you had troubles you went to the preacher.
I loved my grandfather dearly. He was a wonderful man and a wonderful pastor. He would have been a lousy shrink.
We in the church can draw the boundaries of our collective vocation ever more narrowly, leaving the very important work of psychological and physical healing and seeking justice to more “secular” professions, or we can acknowledge that God is his infinite mercy does not restrict himself to sharing grace only with those who have mastered ecclesiastical formulas or have made the conscious effort to belong to that peculiar group of people we call “church”.
At that same parish I referenced earlier there were each month something like 55 Twelve Step Meetings. There was real crossover between the two communities, but there were those in the church who had no contact with the 12 Steppers, and there were 12 Steppers who’d be at the church six days a week – every day but Sunday.
What I learned was, that’s okay. God goes where the need is. There is nowhere God isn’t. God is seeking to heal, to love, to usher in his reign of love everywhere.
This is no way compromises my confidence that Jesus is Lord, my conviction that the tomb was empty and the resurrected life is ours to have, or that Christ is present with us at His Table.
It does however weaken my conviction that entrance to the Kingdom will be determined by passing a theology exam.
And so at Southwest we form priests because the church – and the world – desperately needs good priests. But we also train counselors and psychotherapists and chaplains and spiritual directors, and we welcome enthusiastically those who have not yet really determined just what they think of God, but they need a safe place in which to seek entrance to God’s Kingdom.
They need a safe place . . . .
Safety is marked first and foremost by friendship.
All of you are here this evening seeking to discern whether Southwest is the community in which you will seek to be formed as Christian leaders. As surely as we were all created in the image of God, so in God’s mind there is an image of the true you and an image of the true me. In God’s mind there is the true self God calls us each to be.
Self and vocation may not be exactly the same, but it’s sure difficult to separate them from each other – rather like trying to separate heat from fire or wet from water. And self and vocation go hand in hand in knowing God. As St. Augustine put it, “Grant, Lord, that I may know myself that I may know You.”
As surely as we each have a vocation wherein our deep gladness meets the world’s deep hunger, so we each have a deeper vocation as well. Sisters and brothers, every one of us sitting here this evening – every single one of us, no exceptions! -has a vocation to friendship, first with God, then with each other.
That same evening Jesus prayed that his followers might be One, he said to them “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. . . . You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit . . . I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.” (John 15:12-17)
I spend a lot of time pondering just what a Christian leader is. It’s not always the person in charge, believe me. What I’ve come to think is that a Christian leader is that person who truly knows God and so who truly knows her self. Likewise a Christian leader is that person who truly knows his self and so truly knows God. And in this truly biblical knowledge the Christian leader knows his or her vocation. And so the Christian leader knows the joy of her deep gladness meeting the world’s deep hunger.
But more than that the Christian leader understands the primacy of friendship with God and so of friendship with one another.
And so, from her heart the Christian leader can say “there is one body and one Spirit . . . one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.”