Sunday, January 18, 2009

2 Epiphany

Jan. 18, 2009

1 Samuel 3.1-20; John 1.43-51

In my life, I know for certain that I have been called twice. Not yet three or four times, like the prophet Samuel. But twice. And, like Samuel, I was just a boy the first time I was called.

The first time was in late May, 1983. I was thirteen years old. I was Lutheran. And I was walking in, of all places, a cemetery. Some of you have heard this story before, but it’s one that is so much a part of who I am and where I’ve come from that I will probably tell the story again and again until my dying day. That day I didn’t hear a voice, like Samuel. No one called my name. And I don’t think I ever audibly said, “Here I am!” But the fact was, that day, I knew God wanted me to be a priest. Of course I didn’t know what kind of priest. The only priests I knew of at that age were Roman Catholic priest, so naturally, I thought I was called to be a Roman Catholic priest.

Now, let me say this to you before we go any further: I give my poor parents a lot of credit. They indulged me through many things in my life. But I think this one was one of the hardest for them. Good Lutherans that they are, it must’ve been hard to have their youngest son announce one day that he wanted to be a Roman Catholic priest. But they were troopers. They helped as much as they could.

And as time went on, I realized that maybe this wasn’t quite what I was supposed to do. The priesthood felt right. I knew in my core—in my bones—that I was meant to be a priest. But Roman Catholicism didn’t quite gel with me. I tried to do what I could to be a good Roman Catholic. I loved the Eucharist. I loved the Mass. I loved Our Lady and the saints. But there were other things I just couldn’t “get.” Confession and the Pope and the fact that women couldn’t be ordained priests and a wide variety of other issues eventually became wedges that I simply could not maneuver around and before I knew it, I was in my late teens and I no longer wanted to be a Catholic priest anymore. The calling, I realize now, was still there. But I didn’t know, at that time, that being Catholic wasn’t the exclusive territory of Rome. Only later, when I discovered the Episcopal Church (here at St. Stephen’s) and even later something called Anglo Catholicism did I find myself finally comfortable with Catholicism once again.

Which leads me to the second time I was called. This month it will be ten years since I was called a second time to become a priest. In late January, 1999, after years of fighting it, and denying it and pretending it wasn’t so, I finally gave into that nagging, persistent, sometimes frustrating call to be a priest. I remember it as though it were yesterday. It came upon me suddenly and with the force of a hurricane. Or a blizzard.

I was, at the time, finishing graduate school and was looking ahead to my life beyond school. I had applied for a couple of teaching positions. My third book of poems, which was actually my Master’s thesis, was about to be published. The future was looking particularly bright. I was legitimately excited about it. I had sent out my Vita to several universities, and two expressed great interest in me.

And then it happened. Again, no one called my name. No grand and glorious Voice called me from heaven. It simply was there as a possibility before me and, like that! my whole life changed. But unlike 1983, I really did say, at least deeply in my heart, “Here I am.”

Often in our lives, we have those moments. They’re brackets in our lives. Or joints. Our life was going along one way and then BAM! something happens and our lives are following a completely direction than we intended. That’s what happened to me in 1983 and that’s what happened again in 1999.

There were moments in the years that followed in which I found myself questioning my decision. I will admit, there were moments when I was envious of those who followed the path I was planning before that second calling when I completed graduate school. While they gained tenure, published, cultivated their writing careers, kept up on with the latest trends in that insular world of poetry, I sort started all over again. I was paid very little as I worked in one thankless minor church job after another. I had one set back after another. I was diagnosed with cancer. I went to seminary. I studied theology at three different schools. There were feasts, there were fast, there were famines.

But at no point, even in those moments when I reached what I felt were spiritual and personal “rock bottom” moments, did I ever doubt that calling in my life. I was truly able to say to God in those dark, cold moments, “Here I am. Do with me what you must. I am trusting you to get me through.” I preserved. I kept on keeping on, as the old saying went. And I kept on looking.

In today’s Gospel, we find Philip saying to Nathaniel, “Come and see.” And we find Jesus telling Nathaniel,” “You will see greater things than these.” For all those low points in my life, there were just as many and more high points. There were miracles, the recovery from illness, the saints—true, living saints—that I have met and walked beside,

I too have seen great things. And although I have not seen heaven literally opened or angels literally “ascending and descending,” I have seen the veil between this world and heaven lifted at times. And I have seen angels ascending and descending in the guise of fellow travelers along the way. Like Nathaniel, who would have a series of low points in his own life (legend says he would die a particularly horrible martyrs death of being flayed alive, forced to walk, skinless in the desert, before being headed), through it all, he kept looking. And in looking, he saw. This is what it means to be a disciple. Despite the setbacks, the illnesses, despite the people who are out to trip you up, there are also the rewards—the high points that are better than any other high points.

Now, I am telling you the story of my priesthood, here. But for all of us, it’s the same when we talk about being Christians. Being a Christian means being a disciple of Christ. And being a disciple is a difficult thing at times. No one, when we became Christians, promised us sparkling, light-filled moments and rose gardens every step of the way. Actually, when we became Christians, we became Christians—all of us—in the shadow of the Cross. We became Christians marked with the Cross. And as a result, we have faced our lives as disciples of Christ squarely and honestly. This is no cult we belong to, that promises us that if we do this and that we will be freed from pain and suffering. As disciples, we know that, Yes, bad things are going to happen to us. There will be illness, there will be setbacks, there will be many, many people out there who want to trip us up and who want us to fail.

Being a disciples means being able, in those dark moments, to look and to see. When surrounded by darkness, we can see light. When stuck in the mire and muck of this life, we can still look up and see those angels descending and ascending on the Son of Man, the One we have chosen to follow.

As I look back over these past ten years, I realize they have been the most productive and fruitful ten years of my life. More than anything, as I look back over these last years, I find God weaving in and out of my life. As I look back, I find God, speaking to me, much as God spoke to Samuel in today’s Old Testament reading. God, whether I was listening or not, was calling me again and again by name.

God is calling each of us by our name. God is calling to us again and again. Our answer is a simple one. It simply involves, getting up, looking and seeing, and saying to God,

“Here I am.”

Here I am.

And when do that, we will find that, like Samuel, God is with us. And God will not allow one of our words to fall to the ground.

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