Sunday, January 15, 2012

2 Epiphany

January 15, 2012

1 Samuel 3.1-20; John 1.43-51

+ I can be, shall we say, a bit of a jerk sometimes—especially to my fellow clergy. They need to have someone be jerks to them occasionally.

This past weekend I met with my good friend, the Reverend Ann Anderson. Ann, as some of you may know, is an Episcopal priest at Gethsemane Cathedral here in Fargo. Although I wasn’t feeling well this week because of duodenal ulcer that has been wreaking a bit of havoc with me, I went out with Ann because occasionally we just need to talk and vent a bit. At some point in the conversation we had on Friday night, I announced, quite loudly, trying to prove a point I was making and trying to predict the future about a certain issue:

“I am the prophet in your midst…”

To which Ann looked at me very incredulously and just dramatically rolled her eyes and then said something I can't repeat in church. As she should have.

Trust me, I am no prophet. I was never called to be a prophet, nor would I want to be.

But…I will say this: I have been called. No, not three times, like the prophet Samuel. But just once. And when it happened, I was just a boy, just like Samuel. 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. 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.

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. Sometimes, more often than not, it’s a relationship with someone that does it to most of us. For me, it was the priesthood. There were moments in the years that followed in which I found myself questioning my calling.

A few years later I received another just as valid, just as legitimate calling—to be a poet. And for many years I felt conflicted. Should I be a poet and a teacher of poetry? Or should I be a priest? I hadn’t yet realized that it was essentially a dual-vocation.

But there were moments when, after deciding on setting my nose to the grindstone to be a priest, when I was envious of fellow poets and poetry teachers. While they gained tenure, published, won awards, cultivated their writing careers, kept up on with the latest trends in that insular world of poetry, I was in ensconced in the equally insular world of the priesthood.

As I pursued my goal of the priesthood, I was paid very little as I worked in one thankless minor church job after another. I had one set back after another. I went to seminary. I studied theology at three different schools. And ten years ago next month, I was diagnosed with cancer. There were feasts, there were fasts, 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 still continue to meet—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 many times—oftentimes here at this altar at the Eucharist. 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—a follower of Jesus.

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 follower of Jesus—being a minister 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. When we were baptized, we were marked with the Cross. That was a quaint, sweet little sentiment. It meant we were baptized into following Jesus wherever he left in his life and ours—the good times and the bad. And as a result, we have faced our lives as followers of Jesus 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 followers of Jesus, we know that, Yes, bad things are going to happen to us. There will be illness, there will be setbacks, there will be broken relationships and conflicts with others, there will be loss and there will be death. And we know that there will be many, many people out there who want to trip us up and who want us to fail. Following Jesus 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 many, many years, I realize they have been the most productive and fruitful 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 reading from the Hebrew scriptures.

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—in that glorious moment—we will know: God will not allow one of our words to fall useless to the ground.

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