Sermon for the Tenth Sunday after Pentecost Proper 13 August 02, 2015 Preacher: The Rev. Bret B. Hays
One of the first requests I got for a sermon topic was one of the most difficult for me to address: myself. Not just because of my natural self-consciousness, but also because most of the stories I could tell you are… less than edifying. But then another parishioner suggested I tell the tale of how I came to discern a call to the priesthood, and today’s readings talk about calling, and bread, and growth, and longing invite the story. This is just my story, not a sacred story, and so I don’t envision it as normative for this or any group; the personal is not a principle. But at least it’s a long story, so, get comfortable.
Early in their marriage, my mother was OK with the fact that my father wasn’t active in the church, but then I came along and spoiled everything. Mom insisted that I was going to be brought up in church — her church, the Episcopal Church — and that Dad was going to be a part of that. He must have made his peace with that, since he began discerning a vocation to the priesthood around the time I was in middle school. He started seminary when I started high school, and was ordained when I was a senior. So I grew up in the church, more or less normally, serving as an acolyte, and a lector, and a chalicist, but with the unwelcome addition that for all of high school, people kept asking me, “You’re going to be exactly like your father when you grow up, right?!” Just what everyone wants to hear at that age.
But overall church was the best part of my life. The rest was an academic pressure-cooker, like in that movie “Race to Nowhere,” for my parents had believed the fearmongering that anything less than academic perfection in high school would condemn a student to wage-slavery, at best. Visibly I was a privileged suburban kid being groomed for an easy life. Inwardly I despaired of an existence devoid of joy; youth group was the only thing that kept me going. In a sense I owe my life to the church. The fleeting moments of joy I found in youth group were the manna I gathered to keep me going; it took effort, and it didn’t feel like it would be enough. But it was. God sustained me without me really knowing it, let alone why, let alone how. But that doesn’t mean I wanted to be a priest. I wanted to get in on the action at a sweet internet startup company like Geocities, Kozmo, or Pets.com.
Anyway, I got into a good college, not because I deserved it, but because the head of my school liked me for some reason and pulled some strings with a buddy of his on the admissions committee. I entered as a computer science major, and reveled in the breadth of activities that were not school. I also found the Episcopal Church on campus. Or rather, it found me. Involuntarily. I’d sat through quite a lot of church already at that point, I’d studied every angle of the white geometry of the nave and I’d heard everything the electronic organ could do — although I never found the “demo” button — and I was kind of looking forward to having my options open on Sunday mornings. But Dad had gotten in touch with the rector, who reached out to me, and so I went, out of a sense of obligation more than anything. And it was a beautiful building, with gothic arches and gorgeous glass and a majestic reredos and high altar and a fine pipe organ and an incredibly welcoming congregation. Perhaps you can imagine it. But for me it was brand new, like walking into a film set or a fairy tale. And wouldn’t you know it, they needed and acolytes, and lectors, and chalicists, and even, God help them, Vestry members.
And they had a great little campus ministry, which was led by a man a couple of years older than me, whose father was also a priest, but they came out of the Anglo-Catholic tradition. He introduced me to a downtown parishes where this tradition was still practiced in the fullness of its ritual. The building wasn’t much different from the campus church, but what went on inside couldn’t have been more different. Instead of a personable rector “working the room” with charisma and affirmation, here the focus was — well, at first I didn’t really understand what going on. There was a lot of singing, some of which covered the words, and there was a lot of motion obscured by smoke. Ironically, the obscurity revealed to me that whatever was happening was profound, and beautiful, and absolutely not about me, or any of us. With a few more visits, and a little explanation, I wasn’t just hooked; I was in love. I had used the word “worship” to describe what I was doing in church, but for the first time, I felt like I was really doing it, was taking my place with every Christian soul on Earth as well as in heaven. Ironically, all the formality made me feel free to pray from my heart, secure in the structure; even when I sat toward the back of that long nave I felt closer to God than I ever had. I also began to realize just how diverse the Episcopal Church really is, a thought that still excites me today. God fed me abundantly, but not to make me sluggish or dependent, but to strengthen me to be able to accept a new idea I hadn’t been ready to accept before. But I didn’t know that at the time.
Most Episcopal priests, if they’re honest with you, will admit they only became a priest after they failed at something else. For me it was computer science. I wasn’t very good at it, wasn’t enjoying it, and heard horror stories from students further along in the major. So I arranged to transfer from the Engineering school to the School of Arts and Sciences. Even though church had become such an important part of my life, and even though my academic future had just become completely open, I still didn’t consider the priesthood. But one night in my sophomore year when I should have been reading for class, I felt drawn to open my Bible, the one I’d asked Dad to give me for a birthday present and sits in my office today, to Paul’s hymn to love in 1 Corinthians 13, and as I read it, a feeling of weight fell upon me, a sense of greater and greater responsibility as I read the eloquent words describing just how, and how much, God loves us, and the notion of being a priest became real to me in a way it never had before, and the feeling was so strange and so clear that I thought I had to check it out with a few mature Christians I knew and trusted, and the consensus was, “what took you so long?” That’s why I chose that passage to be one of the readings at my celebration of new ministry. So I entered the discernment process, and we all know how that ended, and that’s another story for another day.
God feeds us in extraordinary ways. The bread God gives us comes in many forms, and on many different schedules, none of our own devising. Sometimes God gives us a belly full as a one-shot deal, in order to open our minds to possibilities we never could have imagined; sometimes God gives us just what we need to keep us going; sometimes God leaves a trail of breadcrumbs for us, so that our most primal feeling of need will bring us to our highest calling. God feeds us, not to make us dependent on God in one additional way, but always to accomplish good things in us. God feeds us in order that we might “to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ.” God feeds us in order that “lead a life worthy of the calling to which [we] 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.”
It’s a good thing God just fed me and didn’t tell me the part about humility, gentleness, and patience, or else I might have just gone hungry. But of course there was nothing to fear; God brought me to a far better place than I ever would have chosen or found. So it’s a good thing that God feeds us all with the same bread, even though God calls us to a diversity of vocations, all distinctive but all leading to the same goal: “to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God.” All our divergent individual paths have been charted by God, and even though God does not share the chart with us, God has revealed the destination: unity in God, the one Spirit “who is above all and through all and in all.” And so the Church resembles her maker, the God who created us in diversity, with diverse stories and callings, the God who binds us into one body, sustained in substance and spirit, building itself up in love.