Archives for January 2014

Intensifying the Law, 6 Epiphany (A) – 2014

February 16, 2014

Ecclesiasticus 15:15-20 or Deuteronomy 30:15-20; Psalm 119:1-8; 1 Corinthians 3:1-9; Matthew 5:21-37

In the moral life, we can think of commandments in at least a couple of ways. One way to think of a commandment is as a rule by which we can evaluate the rightness or wrongness of a given action. We might think of a commandment like, “thou shalt not bear false witness” as a rule against the deliberate telling of untruths. The moral task then will be to decide whether telling our spouses that “we love” their new neon green and brown plaid blazer breaks the rule against lying or not.

A second way to think of a commandment sees it as a guide and exhortation in the formation of our moral character. Taken this way, the command against bearing false witness is not just about following the rule, but it is also about the formation of an honest character. The rule is followed not just for the sake of following it, but because by repeated attempts to follow the rule in our ever-changing circumstances, we become people who are disposed to act honestly.

Jesus thinks of commandments in the second way. Our gospel lesson for today comes from a section of the Sermon on that Mount that traditionally has been called “Antitheses,” because Jesus’ teaching is presented in the following pattern: First, Jesus says, “you have heard that it was said ”; then Jesus follows with his own magisterial statement, “but I say to you”. The problem with calling these teachings “Antitheses” is that it suggests that Jesus is contradicting the earlier statement. But this is not so. Rather, what Jesus is doing is intensifying the particular law’s claims and thereby clarifying its true meaning.

In the so-called “Antitheses,” Jesus is showing what he meant earlier in the Sermon on the Mount when he said he came “not to abolish the law, but to fulfill it,” and to teach a greater righteousness: “If your righteousness does not surpass that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never get into the kingdom of heaven.” The commandments are not just rules to be followed, they are given so that by following them we might become formed in a greater righteousness.

Jesus says:

“You have heard that it was said to those in ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment.”

Jesus isn’t contradicting the commandment against murder, he is intensifying it. He knows that even if we keep the commandment not to kill, we can still hate and despise others. We can follow the rule and still kill relationships, still treat people as if they were dead to us. Jesus shows us that the fulfillment of the commandment not to kill is the formation of our hearts and minds so that we look at others not with anger, but rather with love. The greater righteousness is to love others as we would have them love us, even when they are our enemies. The commandment is given not just so that we won’t kill each other, but so that we will be the type of people who will seek out someone who has wronged us and work to be reconciled with them.

Jesus says:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”

Again, Jesus isn’t contradicting the commandment against committing adultery, he is intensifying it. He knows that even if we keep the commandment not to commit adultery, we can still demean and belittle others. The lustful glance, the undressing with the eye, treats others as objects and takes what doesn’t belong to us, even if it keeps its distance. Jesus shows us that the fulfillment of the commandment not to commit adultery is a faithful heart that cherishes our spouses and respects our neighbors.

Jesus says:

“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.’ But I say to you, do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let your word be ‘Yes, yes’ or ‘No, no.’”

Jesus isn’t contradicting the commandment against swearing falsely, he is intensifying it. Jesus knows that even if we can keep from swearing falsely, we can still manipulate others with our words and lead them astray with our tongues. We can make frivolous oaths in the name of heaven and belittle God’s holy name. Jesus shows us that the fulfillment of the law is not just to refrain from swearing falsely, but that our words ought to be so reliable and honest that no oaths need to be taken. The greater righteousness is to let your “yes” be “yes” and your “no” be “no.” The commandment is given so that we would become honest people.

L. Gregory Jones, in an essay entitled “The Grace of Daily Obligation: Shaping Christian Life,” reflects on how we become grace-filled people through the daily and disciplined practice of Christian obligations. He writes:

“Isn’t it interesting that when we are talking about a ballet dancer, or, if you prefer, a Michael Jordan on the basketball court … we describe them as being graceful – full of grace. Yet anybody who has ever undertaken the craft of ballet or piano or basketball knows how much work day by day by day goes into the cultivation of that gracefulness. In this sense, gracefulness is not simply a process of sitting back and waiting. Rather, through the activity of daily habits people are prepared to move gracefully, in a way that transcends the day-to-day preparation. It becomes so natural that the graceful performer doesn’t have to think it through. … The gracefulness develops over time so that eventually the steps come together in a powerfully new way, a performance. That happens only through daily obligation.”

Jesus came not to abolish the law, but to fulfill it. Jesus came to call and form disciples in a community devoted to the higher righteousness. We follow the commandments not simply because they are rules; we follow the commandments so that we might become the type of people Christ wants us to be, people formed and fashioned for life in the kingdom of God.

At the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus gives us a description of the character of disciples fit for the Kingdom:

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

We become these types of people not by forsaking the law; rather, we become these types of people by following the law with true intention. God gave the commandments not so that we would become moral rule keepers; rather, God gave us the commandments as guides and exhortations for the formation of our character, so that we might become people who are pure in heart, so that we might love the Lord our God with all our heart and soul and mind, and that we might love our neighbor as ourselves.

Jesus said:

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. … For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

 

— The Rev. Dr. Joseph S. Pagano is the associate rector of St. Anne’s Parish in Annapolis, Md., and co-author of “A Man, A Woman, A Word of Love” (Wipf & Stock, 2012).

A loving Law, 5 Epiphany (A) – 2014

February 9, 2014

Isaiah 58:1-9a, (9b-12); Psalm 112:1-9, (10); 1 Corinthians 2:1-12, (13-16); Matthew 5:13-20

One of the hardest problems we face in hearing or reading the Bible, is that of time. We don’t have time machines, and even if we did, we’d journey back in time with the ideas formed in us by our nationality, the communities in which we grew up, our family traditions, and the things we take for granted. If we tried to get back to the people for whom Matthew is writing his account of the life and teachings of Jesus, we’d land in a strange land, among unfamiliar people. No doubt they’d think us pretty odd, too.

The gospel today underscores the great gulf that is fixed between our time and the first century of the Christian era. The verse where the passage ends only makes matters harder for us to understand. St. Matthew is writing primarily for Jewish Christians, who had been raised to attempt to keep the laws and rules of Judaism. Some of them had probably been Pharisees before their conversion. The word “Pharisee,” like the word “righteousness,” is loaded with not always very complimentary meanings for us. We think of proud, intolerant people, filled with self-admiration for themselves and full of harsh criticism for people they believed to be sinners.

The Pharisees, or Pious Ones, began their history as a reforming group, intent on bringing the Jewish people back to faith in their God. They believed that the best way to do that was to stress the Law of God, as given by Moses and elaborated on in the religious books developed over the centuries. In Jesus’ time, some of these Pharisees opposed the teachings of Jesus because they thought he was undermining God’s Law. They saw him as a threat to religious purity. Not all of them opposed Jesus. Two are named as his supporters.

As the church grew, opened itself to non-Jews and developed its own teachings, a great debate arose about the place of Old Testament Law in the life of Christians. St. Matthew, a Jew himself, seeks to assure Jewish converts that Jesus hadn’t come to abolish God’s law. He records Jesus as saying that the whole law would remain in force forever. And yet in the gospel we just heard, he says that in keeping this law, we have to do much better than the Pharisees.

Is Jesus saying that we must keep the Jewish Law, all that stuff about what we can eat, or what we can do on the Sabbath? Are we to be like some people, perhaps we know a few, who think they are better, more moral, more upright, than the rest of us and are harsh in their judgment of others, intolerant of anyone who is different?

This rather difficult passage comes in the middle of what we call the Sermon on the Mount. Just as Moses gave the Law to Israel on the Holy Mountain, so now Jesus gives the law to his disciples and those who would follow him. He begins with a description of those who are happy or blessed. He will go on to expand, or “fulfill” the meaning of the Law. In the verses that come after this gospel, Jesus will warn against an anger that leads to violence. “You shall not kill,” begins with our dealing with what happens when we give way to anger, disgust, when we take offense. Jesus will teach us that we are to seek reconciliation with people with whom we quarrel, that we are not to “come to the altar” if we haven’t done all in our power to love our neighbor; for loving those close to us, those in the communities around us, is one of the commandments of the Law Jesus identified as the foundation of “all the Law and the Prophets.”

So what can we take home with us from the gospel today? Keeping the law of God is not a matter of feeling and acting as if we are superior to those who, in our judgment, fail to live up to our standards. We love God in loving others. St. Paul often reminds us that the Law shows up our own inadequacies. We are in no state to judge others. But having received God’s love in Jesus, despite ourselves, we are empowered to help those who stumble. It’s not that we are to abandon all hope of perfection, of holiness. Rather it’s a matter of understanding that the road to holiness is the path of love, compassion, of caring and sympathy, of helping each other along that journey, stopping to assist those who have become tired, have fallen on the way, or who have given up in despair.

Some of the most tragic stories that emerge from wars involve prisoners or refugees, walking along roads, herded by brutal guards. The heroes of these stories are those who in the midst of their own miseries, despite the dangers, share their meager rations, water supplies, even clothing, to help those who have fallen by the side of the road, who might well be shot by the guards because they can’t keep up.

On the journey of faith, we are not appointed by God to shoot those who stumble, who fail to obey orders. We are called to go out of our way to care. The whole point of God’s Law is to urge us to put God and others first and to die to our own self-love and desire for self-preservation.

Of course the strength to live for God and for others doesn’t come from attempts to keep God’s commandments. That strength comes from God, in Jesus, by the Spirit. We meet here today to receive that strength, that grace, not as the righteous company of God-supporters, but as those to whom mercy is continually given. When we leave this place to “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord,” we go as forgiven, empowered people, strengthened to keep God’s Law by loving all who we shall meet.

 

— Fr. Tony Clavier is a retired priest and a missioner in the Diocese of Springfield.

Waiting, watching and discovering the glory of God, Presentation (A,B,C), 4 Epiphany (C) – 2014

February 2, 2014

[NOTE: Because the Feast of the Presentation falls on a Sunday this year, its lectionary readings take precedence over the usual readings for the Fourth Sunday After the Epiphany in Year A.]

Malachi 3:1-4; Psalm 84 or Psalm 24:7-10; Hebrews 2:14-18; Luke 2:22-40

Today we celebrate one of the principal feasts of the church – and, no, we are not talking about the Super Bowl!

The strange thing is that many will never have heard of it. The Feast of the Presentation occurs each year on February 2nd – exactly 40 days after Christmas. Most years the feast slips by us on a weekday, with perhaps a celebration scattered here and there.

This year, however, February 2nd falls on a Sunday, and this great feast takes precedence over what would otherwise be the Fourth Sunday After the Epiphany.

The full name of today’s feast is the Presentation of Our Lord Jesus Christ in the Temple. It’s a celebration of one of Jesus’ major life events; that’s what makes it a principal feast.

You may also have heard of it as “Candlemas” or “the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary.”

“Candlemas” because this is the feast when candles are traditionally blessed.

In some places, today marks the end of the Christmas season, which is not observed as 12 days of Christmas, but 40 days of the Incarnation.

And “Purification of Mary” because the law of Moses required that she – like the infant Jesus – participate in a rite of purification 40 days after childbirth.

That’s the why of the event: Joseph and Mary took the baby Jesus to the Temple in Jerusalem, bringing along with them a pair of turtledoves to offer as a sacrifice.

But what happens at the Temple is nothing short of miraculous.

Two prophets encounter Jesus and understand there is something special about him.

First, there’s Simeon.

Simeon, we are told, was righteous and devout. And he had been told by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Messiah.

You can imagine his plight. The older he got, the more he likely asked, “Is this the one?” of every person he encountered. “Is today the day?” And the answer must have been “No, not today”  a thousand times over.

But on this day, he takes the infant Jesus into his arms and sings:

“Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace
according to thy word.
For mine eyes have seen thy salvation,
which thou hast prepared
before the face of all people;
to be a light to lighten the Gentiles
and to be the glory of thy people Israel.”

It is, of course, a text well known to Anglicans as one of the usual two canticles at Evensong.

And it is also a prophecy. Simeon says, basically: Today I have seen my salvation, my Lord, my Savior. And this God has made this revelation for the glory of his people.

We are told that Mary and Joseph were amazed. Jesus was not yet 6 weeks old. They had survived encounters with angels, shepherds praising God, wise ones from the east bearing gifts, and dreams that caused them to escape into Egypt.

And yet they must’ve wondered. Could they have said to themselves, “Do they really mean our child?” or even “Do these people really mean any child can be the savior of humankind?”

And then there’s another prophet, Anna.

We are told she had lived 84 years – no easy feat in first-century Palestine, especially for a woman! She prayed and fasted in the Temple night and day.

But on this day, she noticed that something was different. She finds Mary and Joseph and the baby and begins to tell about him. “Praise be to God,” she may have said, “for this truly is the redeemer of the world.”

So we have a story about waiting, a story about watching, and a story about discovery.

Waiting for the day to come, for the savior to appear, for all things to be put right.

Watching to see that the day has come, that this child is destined for the falling and rising of many.

And the discovery that God has revealed all this to us: this light that lightens all the world, this child who redeems all people, this savior who is Christ the Lord.

Like the prophet Simeon, we yearn for the coming of the Messiah, for all in this world to be put right: for the hungry to be fed, for prisoners to be set free, for the sick to be healed.

Like the prophet Anna, we hope that our prayer and sacrifice and faithfulness will be fulfilled: that equality will come for all God’s people, that peace will prevail over the whole earth, that justice will conquer all oppression.

And so, we believe.

We believe because we are tired of waiting.

We believe because we are weary of watching.

And we believe because we have discovered the truth.

The hard truth of Christmas, of Candlemas, of the Purification, of the Presentation: the hard truth of the Incarnation is, in the words of Howard Thurman, simply this:

“After the prophets have spoken,
When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among people,
To make music in the heart.”

Let us work, pray and give to make it so.

 

— The Rev. Barrie Bates currently serves as interim rector of St. John’s Church, Montclair, N.J. He welcomes comments and chat to revdocbates@gmail.com and invites you to follow his blog of inspirational quotes, recommended reading and occasional spiritual musings.

Fly fishing for Christ, 3 Epiphany (A) – 2014

January 26, 2014

Isaiah 9:1-4; Psalm 27:1, 5-13; 1 Corinthians 1:10-18; Matthew 4:12-23

Sometimes landlubbers venture onto water in a boat with a “do-everything” professional guide. Country folk might view this as people “calling themselves ‘fishing.’” This kind of fishing includes little, if any, challenge. It is possible for a guide not only to provide the boat, rods and reels; but also to furnish bait and hooks, set lines at a proper depth, locate the fish (from experience or using sonar), and alert the customers when there is a hit. The “fisherman” simply reels in the catch. Then the guide also takes the fish off the hook, throws them into a cooler, and, once back on land, cleans the catch and places them in plastic bags for the trip back home.

Such a heavily facilitated form of sport is a far cry from the beautiful and artistic class of fishing portrayed in Norman Maclean’s novel “A River Runs Through It.” This story, rooted in the life of a fly-fishing family in rural Montana, portrays an activity that gives substance to nearly every scene in the book.

It begins with these words:

“In our family there was no clear distinction between religion and fly fishing. We lived at the junction of great trout rivers in Western Montana and our father was a Presbyterian minister and fly fisherman who tied his own flies and taught others. He told us about Christ’s disciples being fishermen, and we were left to assume, as my brother and I did, that all first-class fishermen on the Sea of Galilee were fly fishermen, and that John, the favorite, was a dry fly fisherman.”

The author of this novel was, of course, not the first person to bid others join him in an activity that served as an extended metaphor for life, nor the first to compare fishing with religion. In today’s gospel reading, we encounter Jesus saying to the Galileans, Andrew and Peter and James and John, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.”

“Follow me,” Jesus demanded. “Follow me in helping people become God’s disciples.”

This simple, yet profound, command began a remarkable transformation in the Western World. Like cells dividing, Jesus, the human form of God, became the four fishermen and then the 12 apostles. The 12 became 500, the 500 became thousands, and thousands became millions.

Serving as a Jesus-kind of fisherman is evangelism: sharing the Good News by helping others find and live by the power of God’s love. It is helping them learn further to share with more people what they have found in our joyous and meaningful faith. This is easy to say; but how do we do it? How do we fish well for people?

Following the example of fly fishing might well provide a useful analogy for the ministry to which Jesus calls us, as he called the first disciples.

It is a necessarily hard task, but quite realistic and honest. Throughout his novel, Maclean reveals the intricacies of fly fishing as a way of helping the reader better understand the call to bring others to experience the joy and wonders of creation.

Maclean’s fly fishermen didn’t use boats or guides or sonar, but learned for themselves a lot about each particular species of fish they wished to catch. They had to think like the fish and know its habits, learn what it likes to eat, discover the depth of water in which it feeds, and figure out what it prefers at particular places and certain times of the day and seasons of the year.

The successful fly fisherman purchases the right rod, does everything imaginable to tie the exactly correct fly for each specific situation, practices casting, perfects timing and works hard to attract, hook and finally land the much-desired fish.

Like fish, people exist in many varieties. So, to become successful fishers of people, we can do well by copying good fly fishing. First we develop a desire to find what we seek because we want to share the love we have come to know in the Lord. We recognize and take into account individual differences, preferences, perspectives and cultures. We also remember that those of varying ages and generations were formed in distinctive historical eras and consequently often respond differently and have separate characteristic needs. Those we seek must be approached with the kind of respect and care that honors both their dignity and their particularities.

Following the example of conscientious anglers, we share with others the value we have found in following Christ, become conscious of where the needs of others lie, use appropriate methods, take care about proper timing and seek repeatedly to learn how other people think and communicate.

As the fly fisherman cannot force a trout to be caught, we also try to draw others into the Christian circle, not by coercion, but by loving attraction. We constantly study and practice and experiment, as we strive to present the gospel so it can become clear, understandable and meaningful to them. We find the best method to feed them spiritually so they can grow within the faith. In their own ways, they can continue the process Jesus began with Peter and Andrew and James and John as the newest in the spiritual chain of cell division, reaching out to others and expanding the great body of Christian disciples.

Maybe for us, the best example of fly fishing comes from the “catch and release method,” following the principle that a fish is more valuable in the water than on the angler’s dinner table. Let us imagine ourselves as Christians engaging others in the faith, keeping them alive, caring for them and teaching them to know the Divine One who loves us all. Then, imagine respecting them, regardless of how they choose to respond to our help in bringing them to a deeper knowledge of God, regardless of how they live out the faith we share.

Is this an appropriate way to engage today’s gospel? Does it seem like what Jesus means for us to do? Is it what he intended for Peter and Andrew and James and John?

Certainly, he did not want his disciples to use anyone we “catch,” but to embrace and serve them. The church’s task – as fishers of people – is to find the best ways to invite others to Christ, offering them what we have and letting them prosper if they choose to remain in our environment. We can follow Jesus’ call by meeting them where they are and fostering ministries and activities that are suitable for their needs. Eventually, we can offer them the opportunity to serve God and others as they deem best.

We Episcopalians do this because we understand that Jesus calls us into the most precious ministry there is: fulfilling the mission of the church, which we say is “to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.”

As fly-fishermen for Christ, we can gain strength in this task by remembering first the needs of others and praying ever and again the words of today’s Collect:

“Give us grace, O Lord, to answer readily the call of our Savior Jesus Christ and proclaim to all people the Good News of his salvation, that we and the whole world may perceive the glory of his marvelous works; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.”

 

— The Rev. Ken Kesselus, author of “John E. Hines: Granite on Fire” (Episcopal Theological Seminary of the Southwest, 1995), is retired from full-time, active ministry and lives with his wife in his native home, Bastrop, Texas.

A call to relationship, 2 Epiphany (A) – 2014

January 19, 2014

Isaiah 49:1-7; Psalm 40:1-12; 1 Corinthians 1:1-9; John 1:29-42

This doesn’t happen very often with our new lectionary, but today there’s one theme that can be found in all four of our readings from scripture. It’s the notion of being called.

The readings from Isaiah and from Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians both begin with words about being called, about being set apart by God. This fits right in with today’s section of John’s gospel, in which we hear his account of what is usually called “The Call of the First Disciples.” John the Baptist points to Jesus and says of him, “Behold the Lamb of God.” Two of the Baptist’s disciples hear this, decide to check out this Jesus guy, and end up abandoning John and going off with Jesus instead. It’s this call, the call of these first two disciples, that is the one we need to pay special attention to if we want to understand what it’s usually like to be called by God.

After all, this business of being called is a tricky and an important thing. It’s easy to get confused about it, especially the way we use it these days. We tend to equate being called in terms of the language and context in 1 Corinthians and Isaiah. That is, with being told by God to do some specific thing, usually a pretty major thing. We talk of being called to be ordained, or being called to a special – usually a full-time and professional – form of service, almost always in the church.

And that’s about all we do with being called, and it’s really handy. You see, by looking at things this way, most of us can listen to the story of the call of these disciples and neatly separate what happened to them from what’s going on with us. “After all, they were called – we’re just ordinary folks.” So we’re safe from all that call business. It’s about someone else.

An interesting perspective on this can be gained by serving on one of the diocesan Commissions on Ministry. One of the things a Commission on Ministry does is interview people who want to be ordained; and those folks really struggle with this idea of call.

A few of the people interviewed will have had powerful experiences of the presence of God, and they think that this means they have to do something new and different – for Episcopalians, alas, that usually means to run off and get ordained.

But the vast majority of people interviewed have come to where they are through pretty ambiguous, complicated and circuitous paths – paths that have led them to suspect that it might be a good idea to get ordained. At the same time, they aren’t sure if they are “called,” whatever that might mean. So they all just dread talking to the commission because they know they’re going to be asked about it, and they all think they ought to have a better answer than they do.

But the fact is, this whole way of looking at, and at looking for a call from God as a call to a specific job or a task really misses the main point. Sure, there may well be such a thing as a special call to a specific ministry or type of service, although that is both rare and very easily misunderstood. But that’s not usually what the Bible is talking about when it talks about being called; it’s not what’s really going on in the gospel we just heard; and it’s not what is usually going on with us as God calls us.

Being ordained, or being a missionary or a monk or something like that, is quite secondary to the real, the central call we all have from God. Those two followers of John the Baptist who Jesus asked to “come and see” were called exactly as we are called. They were called to be disciples – just as we are called to be disciples. They were called to be disciples in their place and in their time, for the sake of their generation.

One of the things this means is that we don’t have to imitate Andrew’s, or John’s, or Peter’s actions in order to see, with some clarity, how their call is like the call of Christ to each of us, and to all of us.

The first thing to notice is that Jesus does not first, or primarily, call them to do a particular task or to fill a particular role. Indeed, he didn’t ask them to do anything. Our call as Christians is not initially for us – as it was not, initially, for his first disciples – a call to tasks.

It is, instead, an invitation to relationship. Jesus does not say, “Do this”; he says, “Come and see.” Only later does he give specific content and direction to where that might lead. There’s a big difference between a call to a task and an invitation to relationship.

To respond to a call for relationship, for intimacy, is a very different thing from signing up to do a piece of work – in the same way that falling in love is very different from getting hired. To set out to do a job requires some clarity about what is involved, it’s negotiable, it has its limits, you know what it looks like when the job is over, and so on. To be called into relationship – to be called in love – this is an invitation to enter a mystery; it’s to move out, blindly, into uncharted waters.

When Jesus says, “Follow me,” he is calling us first to himself – to a personal intimacy and a shared life. That’s what matters, that’s what is primary. Everything else is left behind; everything else becomes secondary.

Now, if we look at Jesus’ call from the perspective of what’s left behind, it’s a call to repent. But if we see that same call from the perspective of what comes next, then it’s a call to seek him first, to know him better and to move toward making that relationship the central focus of our lives.

When we are called, and we are called, each and every one of us – just look again at our Baptismal Covenant – this is primarily a call to be held by Jesus for a while, and not to go anywhere, not to do anything. It’s a call to find out where Jesus lives, and to spend some time living there. By and by, this will lead us somewhere. But we won’t know where for a while, maybe not for a long while.

This is why a sense of call – something that wanders through our lives from time to time – can often be both frightening and frustrating. We might know something, perhaps something very important, is going on; something that has to do with all of our life and much more. Then, grabbing on to the wrong notion of a call from God, we start looking for what we are called to do. After all, we live in a society that insists that for something to be important it has to produce.

Instead of that, we are, especially at the beginning, simply asked to get to know God and Jesus a little better. It’s a call to listen, and to wait. It’s a time to imitate the psalmist, a time to “listen to what the Lord God is saying.” We need that first. We need that most.

This is what happened to those first disciples – they stayed close to Jesus for a while. They learned what they could and came to know him a little. Then, admittedly long before they thought they were ready, Jesus gave them things to do. For some, these tasks were dramatic, for others they were quiet and invisible. The call to Jesus will always, in one form or another, find expression in ministry. But the call comes first. There can be no real, abiding and sustaining ministry without relationship with Christ, without obedience to him as he calls us to himself.

We are called to be disciples. Each of us. That call comes with our baptism, and that call to relationship and ministry will haunt us, and track us down; it will trouble our sleep and whisper in our ears at the worst possible times. It will grow stronger and weaker and stronger again. It may seem to go away, but it always comes back. Because finally, it’s our Lord calling us to himself. It’s his call to life, to joy and to true peace. It’s a call to all of us.

 

— The Rev. James Liggett has recently retired as rector of St. Nicholas’ Episcopal Church in Midland, Texas. He is a native of Kansas and a graduate of the University of Houston and the Episcopal Divinity School. He has served parishes in Kansas, Texas and Oklahoma.