Vocation: I Don’t Think That Word Means What You Think It Means

Today let’s talk about the nature of call.

When people use the word Vocation, you can practically hear the capital “V.”

There is an all-too-persistent notion in the church the vocation is strictly the realm of the ordained clergy.

That is not true! Why do people think that?

For one thing, it’s the legacy of a clericalism that created and reinforced a false specialness in the clergy and placed them above lay people.

I also suspect that for some lay folks, denying they have vocation can be a helpful way to escape discerning it.

When we do think about vocation as applying to all people, another trap we fall into is elevating it into some sweeping destiny that encompasses one’s whole life.

It’s a similar phenomenon to the One True Love™ school of thought in which there is One Perfect Person for you who will Make All Your Dreams Come True and you will live Happily Ever After. (This is a damaging and limiting paradigm for so many reasons, but that’s another sermon.)

So when we elevate vocation into a Sweeping Destiny of answering God’s call in a noble, heroic, world-saving way, a task that will remain constant and unchanging for an entire lifetime, we’re setting ourselves up for a lot of problems.

First of all, it ignores the potential for vocation to change and evolve over time.

What you are called to do at eighteen may not be the same thing you’re called to do at eighty.

In fact, in the vast majority of cases, it probably shouldn’t be or we need to start asking if you have really opened yourself up to growth over the last six decades.

Next, the Sweeping Destiny model of vocation puts a heck of a lot of pressure on the individual to get it right.

You’d better make sure you don’t have a headache or aren’t too caught up in speculating on your favorite TV show’s plot on the day you commit to your Vocation.

What if you get it wrong? What if you choose the wrong path? Will the Earth crash into the sun?

And not only do you have to choose rightly, you have to act perfectly in the execution of the vocation. Because if you fail at doing it, maybe you failed in discerning it, and again, we’re back at the Earth crashing into the sun.

Sometimes we act as though it might.

The consistent problem with this approach to vocation is that it takes us further from freedom and deeper into the prison of our need for security, control, and approval.

The Sweeping Destiny/One True Love approach to vocation can only create people—lay or ordained—ethically trapped on a path that often devolves into a job with tasks.

That does not create transformed people.

In fact, it often creates burned-out, bitter people who are phoning it in at whatever “vocation” seemed so noble and beautiful five or ten or fifty years ago.

(That doesn’t mean that every minute of living out vocation is sunshine and roses or it isn’t real. But when duty devolves into dread, something is wrong.)

So what can we say definitively about vocation? Continue reading

John the Baptist, Total Rockstar

The older I get, the more I admire John the Baptist.

He, like Mary and a few other people in the Bible, are all the more remarkable for the fact that they at times achieved Jesus-like moments of spiritual realization, while being fully human themselves.

And yet their moments of humanity, where they clearly can’t keep up with Jesus, make them all the more endearing.

Stop for a moment and consider this incident with John in our gospel today.

This is the culmination of his ministry—proclaiming to the world that Jesus is the Lamb of God.

He went through all the years in the desert, years one assumes were necessary to understand the message he was to deliver.

Then he baptized Jesus—what a pinnacle of joy! He has prepared the way for the Lord, and now announces him to the world.

But then it’s all over in the space of a few seconds.

“The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, ‘Look, here is the Lamb of God!’ The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus.”

Just like that, end of story.

John is no longer in the picture.

His disciples have just abandoned him to follow Jesus.

John’s ministry is over in the space of ten seconds, in one conversation.

John is no longer important.

He’s no longer necessary.

He has lost his job, his friends, and his purpose.

And it’s only downhill from there. He’ll be in jail before long.

What kind of reward is that for his faithfulness?

But this is what makes John the Baptist so remarkable, and so worthy of our admiration and emulation.

This is what led Jesus to say, “Among those born of women, not one is greater than John.”

John, somehow, by virtue of some divine experience, was able to let everything go so that Jesus’ mission was accomplished.

John let go everything and everyone he loved, giving them all freely to Jesus, leaving him with nothing.

How did he do it? Continue reading

The Great Pattern, Or, There Can Be No Disaster

It’s rather an ignominious start to Jesus’ ministry, but you have to read past the end of our gospel lesson to realize that.

When the curtain closes on our passage from Matthew 3 today, it’s a beautiful happy ending.

John baptizes Jesus “to fulfill all righteousness,” God declares him the beloved with whom God is well pleased, and end scene.

Sunlight, water, voices from heaven, the devoted John and the interested crowd—it’s a perfect set-up.

This is the debut of the Lamb of God on the world stage.

What’s he going to do next?

What intriguing sermon or salvific healing or jaw-dropping miracle will he do to kick off his earthly work?

Well, if you take a look at Matthew 4, you’re probably going to be disappointed.

The last sentence of Matthew 3, which we read this morning, is, “when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.'”

And the first sentence of Matthew 4, which we did not read this morning, says, “Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted for forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished.”

Ouch.

That’s the climax of the start of Jesus’ earthly ministry? Continue reading

The Church as the Infant Body of Christ: We’re Just Getting Started

I think we can all agree that the Church has been pretty ineffective in general at both sharing and living the gospel, and 2016 was probably one of our worst years on record.

If the measure of the Church is its ability to bind up the brokenhearted and seek justice in the earth, our record looks extra lame this year.

From the paranoid, truth-free politics of the U.S. election to our paralyzed gawking at slaughter and starvation in Syria, 2016 was pretty much a bust.

And when I say “the Church,” I mean that on all possible levels.

I mean the three specific congregations I have served this year, my diocese, the Episcopal Church USA, the Anglican Communion, worldwide Christianity and the Church Universal.

Actually, I basically mean everyone making some kind of effort to do right in the world, whether he or she takes on the label of “Christian” or not.

After all, Jesus said, “whoever is not against us is for us” (Mark 9:40).

So we’re basically crap at our job.

Suffering is at an all time high.

There is an edge of despair in our society right now that seems to render “peace on Earth, goodwill toward all people,” a cruel mockery.

Add the veneer of “ho, ho, ho,” and “deck the halls” and it becomes almost grotesque.

What do we do? Continue reading

Joseph: An Unstable Righteousness

The time is coming very shortly, just a few days away, in fact, when our total attention will be focused on the Blessed Virgin Mary giving birth to Jesus, the Messiah.

That attention is wholly appropriate to Christmas Eve and is the triumphant endpoint of our entire Advent preparation.

But there is one person who seems to fade into the background on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, and that’s Joseph, Jesus’ earthly father.

In fact, fading into the background seems entirely in his nature. He seems like a behind-the-scenes type of guy.

We all know them—these people who are the salt-of-the-earth, hard-working, faithful souls whose quiet devotion to the simple, humble things that have to be done keeps the church and the family going.

That’s Joseph.

But today in our gospel story he is dragged out into the limelight, and if we spend a little time with Joseph, we see that he is a man of profound spiritual depth, someone from whom we can learn a lot.

We read today that Joseph was a righteous man.

When he finds out that Mary is pregnant and he knows the child is not his because they are engaged but not married yet, he would have been well within his rights to call her out publicly.

After the child was born, she could have been executed by stoning. Continue reading

An End to Performance Anxiety

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the performance principle, and about how it honestly has dominated my entire life.

The influence of my upbringing and my society has encouraged me to base most of my self-worth on what I do, how I perform, what I achieve.

I know I’m not alone in that!

I sense that God is changing that in me in a “three steps forward, two steps back” sort of way, and I have to tell you, slow as it is, that change is actually incredibly liberating and peace-giving.

I told one of my spiritual direction partners that I’m realizing over and over how much of what I do and what’s going on around me doesn’t matter in any final sense, and far from being nihilistic, that’s a joyful realization.

In conjunction with that strand of spiritual call, I’ve also done a lot of thinking about something that may sound a bit odd.

I’m starting to wonder if part of discipleship is just learning how to put up with the fact that we’re kind of jerks sometimes, and there’s probably a piece of that that we can’t ever grow out of or get rid of.

Does that make sense?

The honest spiritual desire to grow in faith, to practice spiritual discipline and see it effect real change in us, can lead us right back to the worthiness and holiness trap.

It’s the performance principle that used to be focused on the outer world—job, salary, possessions, looks, Facebook likes—translated into spiritual athleticism.

Suddenly we have a false and hollow goal that one day—one magical day!—we’ll have Arrived. We will have “achieved” Being a Good Christian.

Well, what if we never will? Continue reading

Thrown Into the Air

There’s a lot going on in our gospel text today.

We have Jesus talking about vipers, trees and axes, wheat and chaff, water and fire.

What’s he trying to communicate to us?

Jesus sounds angry in this lesson, especially with the Pharisees and Sadducees, and maybe he is angry.

But I think it’s an anger that comes from passion and urgency.

It’s like when you scold your three-year-old after she almost runs out in the street—it’s an anger born of fear and love.

You so want this person to be safe, there is no other way to communicate the intensity of your desire but through seemingly harsh words.

That’s how Jesus feels about us.

Jesus does not want us stuck in the same old patterns that keep us small and selfish and fearful.

He does not want us to live lives dominated by suspicion and cynicism and a vague, aching sense deep inside of us that there must be more to life than what we’re experiencing.

Jesus wants us to undergo radical change, stomach-churning transformation, having the rug pulled out from under us in the most disorienting way, because that is what it takes to grow up into the full stature of Christ.

All of Jesus’ images in our gospel today are about profound disruption, and I’m not sure that’s a message we’re all too keen on hearing right now. Continue reading

A Magnificat Advent Calendar

The Advent calendar is a cherished winter tradition. We open a paper door on each day of the calendar from Advent until Christmas and read a saying or Bible verse to reflect upon spiritually. If the person who bought us the calendar really splashed out, we might get some chocolate out of each day’s slot as well! (I’ll give you three guesses as to which daily gift I gave more heed to when I was little, the Bible verse or the chocolate.)

I’d like to offer a different type of calendar as we enter the season. The Magnificat, or Song of Mary, is the cornerstone text of Advent. This is Mary’s response in Luke 1 after the angel Gabriel announces to her that she will bear a child and name him Jesus, and Mary goes to share the news with her cousin Elizabeth.

The Magnificat as it occurs in the Book of Common Prayer in the canticles for Morning and Evening Prayer contains twenty verses, including the Gloria Patri. If you were to pray about one of these verses every day except Sunday, they would cover from November 28 (the First Monday of Advent) through December 20, with December 21-24 open to reflect upon the entire text. I am curious as to what our Christmas worship would be like if we each committed to this simple spiritual discipline.

To help you out, I’ve created this “Magnificat Month” Advent calendar below. Continue reading

Christ Belatedly Crowned King in 1925, Sources Say

I have been misinformed.

That’s nothing new, I get confused and mixed-up and proceed on the basis of faulty assumptions all the time, but it doesn’t often happen to me liturgically.

Most of the time I know what’s going on in terms of worship and liturgy, it is what I get paid for, after all, but I had the wrong end of the stick on this one.

Today we celebrate the Feast of Christ the King, the last Sunday of the church year.

I have always thought of Christ the King Sunday as an archaic feast.

It seems ancient, or at least medieval–old, anyway–to take an entire Sunday to talk about Christ as our Almighty King.

It would make sense that it comes from a time when most people who were Christians were in fact functioning in a system of government in which they were subjects of an actual, earthly king of some sort.

It makes sense that people who lived under a monarchy might need a reminder that there is a higher, more powerful king who trumps their current earthly king or queen, particularly if that earthly king or queen was oppressive or stupid or both.

But lo and behold, the Feast of Christ the King was not celebrated in the year 325 or 825 or 1125 or 1525.

The first time the church celebrated the Feast of Christ the King was 1925.

There’s still a lot of colonialism going on in 1925, but many, many Christians are living in democracies or locally governed tribal societies or even underground in communist regimes—fewer and fewer people had a king anymore.

So why celebrate Christ the King?

It turns out that the feast of Christ the King was declared by Pope Pius XI in 1925 as an anti-nationalist, anti-secularist statement.

Now, consider what was happening in Europe in 1925.

Fascism and totalitarianism were on the rise. Continue reading

Election: I Will Not Be Moving On, and Here’s Why

I was listening to a book by Jim Finley, the great Roman Catholic contemplative teacher, and he said something extraordinary.

He said, and I paraphrase here, “Great pain is always pointing to great unacknowledged truth.”

I can’t think of a more apt description of how our nation has been feeling this week.

This is not a pulpit sermon. I will not be preaching this to my congregation during Sunday morning worship.

It is instead a very personal reflection on what I have been experiencing in the aftermath of the election of Donald Trump as our president, and how I see the scriptures relating to that.

Jesus is right with us in the beginning of our gospel lesson today.

“When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, Jesus said, ‘As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.’”

This week many things were thrown down in our lives, first and foremost our image of what we thought America was, how far we thought America had come.

I think many of us really believed that with our first black president and the advent of marriage equality, our nation had really turned a corner.

We were living in a fool’s paradise. Continue reading