Sermon for Epiphany 3 2018

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

In both the Epistle and the Gospel appointed for this morning we encounter a rather upsetting theme. St. Paul instructs the Christians in Corinth “from now on, let those who have wives live as though they had none.” Then in the Gospel we heard that John and James left their father Zebedee in the boat (in the middle of a work day!) to follow Jesus. Are we then to understand that family obligations get in the way of following God’s call, and they are to be abandoned?

Well, it should be no surprise, that it’s rather more complicated than that. Let’s begin with the Epistle. The three short verses we heard were lifted from a whole chapter devoted to the discussion of marriage. Looking at the context, St. Paul’s admonition takes on some nuance.

Paul was ambivalent about marriage. He recognized the need for the institution and affirmed it’s life-long, indissoluble nature. Even so, Paul strongly recommends that those who can manage it should never marry and instead opt for a life of single celibacy. This is because he believed that singleness was a happier estate and freed one to focus on spiritual matters. He saw that marriage could lead to a great deal of stress and anxiety which could ultimately distract the believer from his or her own spiritual life and commitment to the church.

As a side note, I think we tend to reject Paul’s advice here a little too quickly. While there is certainly a generational shift happening now, it is still popular in many parts of our society to see singleness at a certain age as an aberration. Too often is the single man or woman seen as being odd or assumed to be hiding something, because marriage (some subconsciously believe or even explicitly say) “is just something normal people do.” What if we assumed, instead, that God might be calling that person to a life of single celibacy because He meant for them to lead that kind of life. Assuming that somebody who’s single must be lonely, is pitiable, and should really get out there and find somebody doesn’t recognize that God can call His children to different estates than we, due to some cultural influence, perceive as “normal”.

Anyway, Paul’s view of marriage is complicated, and his command to “let those who have wives live as though they had none” should be seen in the context of his broader view. His primary concern is the anxiety created by marriage, and it seems to me that in his command to act as though one had no spouse, he does does not mean abandonment of the spouse but abandonment of anxiety. He means that we ought not let the difficulty of being married distract us from giving our best for God. Indeed, a marriage defined by peace in the home can be of great benefit to one’s spiritual life. It’s when the relationship is defined by the stress and anxiety it creates that there is a problem.

But then what about the Gospel? Here we see the brothers John and James literally leaving their old man to follow Jesus. One wonders how Zebedee felt about this turn of events. In this instance, I think the truth is harder than the one we’re given in the epistle, but it’s no less true. These young men and so many of us must at some point cut ties and move on in order to follow our Lord’s call.

Perhaps this is less shocking today as we live in a more migratory society than we ever have, but it’s still a challenge for many. There is sometimes thrust upon our children inappropriate expectations of how their lives will develop which have more to do with parents’ desires for stability than God’s call to an individual. It is hard for me to talk about this, because it’s not my experience. I think my parents would have been disappointed if I chose to stay close to home when there was another course I felt obliged to take. But for so many, there is a desire (I’d go so far as to say a “God-given” desire) to take on some new adventure, to let one’s life follow a sense of call, a vocation, wherever it takes that person, which meets with less than rousing support at home.

But what if when the boys left the boat, their father Zebedee didn’t feel betrayed or abandoned? Perhaps he looked on their departure with pride and hope. They had found their Lord, and though it would take them far away from the fish in Galilee, far away from their home, I bet Zebedee knew in his heart that they had bigger fish to fry, as it were, and that they’d find and found a new home, the Church, which would have room for billions of children in the years to come.

I think that this is an important thing for all of us to realize. We cannot stand in the way of God’s call (if it truly is God’s call) to any other, no matter how dear they are to us. We cannot burden another with an obligation to ourselves which they never chose for themselves. This is not to say that children have no obligations to parents; they most certainly do. It is, however, to say that we are all obliged to wait upon God’s call, to follow His Will and to allow it to be followed, even if that becomes uncomfortable. We can do this when we are able to truly believe that God will see us through the pain of loss and that He can and will do more marvelous things in our lives and in the lives of those whom we love than we could imagine, if we only let Him.

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sermon for Epiphany 2 2018

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

For you yourself created my inmost parts; *
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
My body was not hidden from you, *
while I was being made in secret
and woven in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes beheld my limbs, yet unfinished in the womb;
all of them were written in your book; *
they were fashioned day by day,
when as yet there was none of them.

The psalmist presents us this morning with a very comforting thought. God knew us from the beginning; He saw us at the moment of conception, when we were but a cute little zygote. He was present and active as every little bit of us formed in our mother’s womb- as the cells divided and opened up to form a blastocyst all the way to when we started forming little hearts and lungs and brains and arms and legs and hands and feet.

Maybe this isn’t as exciting to some as it is to me, but I for one cannot imagine anything more comforting. Even before mom and dad knew I existed, God was already at work. Long before the obstetrician smacked us and we drew our first breath, the Great Physician gave us the breath of His Holy Spirit. The only words I know to respond to this beautiful truth are, once again, the words of the psalmist:

Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; *
it is so high that I cannot attain to it.

We see this truth wonderfully displayed in God’s actions in the life of young Samuel. We learn in this morning’s Old Testament lesson that the Word of the Lord was rare in the days of Eli. What’s more, the shadow of corruption had come upon the worship of God in His Temple. Today’s lesson simply says that the sons of Eli were blaspheming God and their father permitted such abuse to continue. Earlier in First Samuel, it is explained that Eli’s sons, priests of the Temple, were stealing the burnt offerings to eat themselves and (believe it or not) were demanding better cuts of meat from those who came to make sacrifices to God, not because God demanded it, but because they wanted USDA prime filet for themselves rather than grade b chuck.

God required an advocate in Israel, a prophet who would denounce blasphemy and demand the reëstablishment of proper, orderly sacrifice; and God chose a child for this great task. As Samuel grew he would lead battles against the Philistines, call Israel to repentance, and anoint the first kings despite the fact that it meant his sons would not inherit the position of being judges of Israel from him.

God knew this would be Samuel’s lot in life when he formed him in his mother’s womb. This is not to suggest that Samuel had no part in determining his own course, as a strict Calvinist might have it. Rather, it means that God had a plan for him from the beginning; God did not determine Samuel’s path, but He knew that the young man would choose to follow the course intended for him.

There is much that we can glean from this, but I shall limit myself to one point- namely that there is a course set for each of us from the beginning and that it is our responsibility to determine where that path is leading us and how we might be faithful in following it. Now this does not mean that each of us can know precisely what he is meant to do in all aspects of his life from day one. I doubt if young Samuel knew precisely what God was calling him to do that night in the Temple. It does, however, mean that we can discern God’s will in our lives for at least the near future, knowing that the long term is also part of God’s plan and will be revealed in due course if we’re paying attention.

This may seem obvious enough, but I think we forget how the suppositions of the world can militate against this fundamental truth. There are assumptions about what sorts of life-choices are practical and appropriate considering an individual’s status in mind, body, or estate.

Please forgive my self-indulgence, but the best example that comes readily to mind for me is my own vocation. I remember vividly when I entered the ordination process. After my first semester in college, I returned home for my Christmas break, and the sense which had been nagging at me for a few years that I had a vocation to the priesthood finally pulled me in to my priest’s office and then (in very short order, thanks to the good rector’s appreciation of my as-yet nascent sense of a call) to the bishop’s office.

In that first meeting with the bishop, I kept encountering this idea that this was not something which an eighteen-year-old was supposed to be considering. In fairness to my bishop at the time, who ultimately supported my process, I’m sure I projected some of my own callow insecurity onto the situation, and, indeed, for nearly a half-century, the prevailing assumption in the church (not just in the bishop’s mind) was that one should have a career before considering “entering the church” (as the old ecclesial idiom so infelicitously put it).

It took some growth and discernment on my own part set this old assumption aside. In short (though I probably didn’t think precisely in these terms at the time) it took the realization that God had a plan for me from the very beginning and I had an obligation to see the thing accomplished, cultural expectations and my own insecurity not withstanding.

So, enough autobiography! The point is that each of us has a vocation, whether that be Holy Orders or being the best parent one can be or being the best friend one can be or being the best ditch-digger one can be. There is nothing for the Christian which is merely avocational; if we discern through prayer and contemplation the will of God, we’ll find that somehow each of the decisions we make in life is about vocation, about being the man or woman God means for us to be.

The good news is that God will make His gracious Will known, just as powerfully as he had done for Samuel, because cell by cell, limb by limb, synapse by synapse he made us just as He intended for just the purpose He intended. In some moments we can take this wonderful Truth and determine what’s next for us. In other moments, all we can do is stand back in awe and repeat the psalmists words again:

Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; *
it is so high that I cannot attain to it.

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.