Called to change

This is my sermon from the Third Sunday after the Epiphany in Year B, January 24, 2021. It is the Sunday following the Inauguration of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris. The lectionary is found here.

After John the Baptist is arrested, so after he has proclaimed Jesus’ coming and baptized him in the Jordan, and after Jesus has spent 40 days in the desert tempted by Satan, then Jesus begins his public ministry with these words:

“The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

Personally, I prefer this slightly different translation:

“This is the time of fulfillment. The reign of God is at hand! Change your hearts and minds, and believe this Good News!”[1]

In any case, it is only after his cousin and friend, the infant who leaped in his mother, Elizabeth’s womb, when Mary announced her own pregnancy, only after John is arrested, and then he himself spends time with the devil, that Jesus makes this proclamation.  Then he follows up by going around the countryside and inviting others to join his cause – to believe that now is the time that God has promised would come, the extraordinary good news that God’s vision of peace, justice, mercy, and hope would be the norm.

As I sat glued to my screen on Wednesday, a day that for so many in this country and the world, signified a new day, a new hope, I thought about Simon and Andrew, James and John, and the choice they made to believe that there was a way to be a part of something bigger than themselves, larger and farther reaching than their familiar way of life, something that could hold and fulfill the promises God made to all people.  As I listened to the speeches and heard the vision, however imperfect, of a more compassionate way of living together rooted in a deep faith, I heard a call to act together for the fulfillment of the dreams of God for all people.  I imagined this is the same call Simon and Andrew, James and John heard when they walked away from their nets and their boats, from the family and their security to follow Jesus on what had to sound as unlikely or impossible as the call to unity we heard on Wednesday. 

Covid is still very much a part of our lives, emboldened white supremacy makes me wonder if we will ever be able to unravel racial injustice from the fabric of our society, and I know the pain of relationships forever changed because of the harsh and often traumatic discourse of the past many years.  Still, on Wednesday, listening to a vision that is rooted in deep faith, I thought about Jesus’ call to change our hearts and minds, and believe that there is good news.

I thought, too, about the reality that becoming the people God created us to be – people who actively participate in changing the world from the nightmare it is for so many to the dream God has for it – is not all hearts and roses.  It takes effort and requires sacrifice. 

We tend to read today’s Gospel as a story of Jesus inviting all people to be a part of God’s dream,  which is, of course, true.  God wants all of us to know we are loved, to have what we need to thrive, and to grow into the best us God created us to be. God wants all of us to take part in making the world the place God envisions.  We feel good when assume that Simon and Andrew, James and John, were poor, that they had only Jesus to give them a leg up.  Of course they would want to follow Jesus because that was the way for them to have a better life, to have the basic necessities assured. 

What we don’t pay attention to is what is written about who these men actually were, or at least James and John.  James and John were the sons of Zebedee, Zebedee who was left in the boat with the hired men.  Zebedee had employees, meaning he had higher status and more resources than many.  Zebedee, and by extension his sons, were not impoverished.  They were at a minimum what we would consider working class, though, given the economy of the Galilee at the time, they likely had enough wealth to be higher placed than that.

So what does that little detail tell us about the Good News today?  What does it mean that Jesus called the bosses’ kids to follow him, to be a part of re-shaping the society in the way we know he did?  What are we supposed to make of the news that James and John left their more comfortable lives to follow an itinerant preacher whose sole purpose was to see God’s vision enacted for all people, including the poor and the outcast, aware that this would mean angering the authorities and those in power?  How can we do our part today, in 2021, to believe in the Good News in ways that are transformative, that change us even as we do our part to change the world?

These are quasi-rhetorical questions because there are not hard and fast answers, at least not in terms of the specifics.  We make promises in our baptismal covenant that we will be a part of realizing God’s dream “with God’s help.”  We each have gifts: those talents and resources and passions that enable us to be a part of overcoming the ugliness and inequities we encounter every day. Those gifts are not the same, they are not one-size-fits-all.  Each of us gets to choose how we will live our faith in ways that make a positive difference in the world.    Each of us gets to choose how to use our talents and resources and passions to lift up the well-being of all people while moving deeper into the heart of God.

We have everything we need to be willing to let go of those things that prevent us from accepting Jesus’ call to us.  We have everything we need to walk away from our nets and our boats, to turn toward Jesus and follow we he leads.  We have faith – though perhaps it is not always as constant as we would like – that God not only can, but God will be with us in and through all of it. 

I leave you now with these beautiful words of wisdom from Amanda Gorman, National Youth Poet Laureate, the beginning and the end of her poem, “The Hill We Climb” (which I commend to you in its entirety):

When day comes we ask ourselves,
where can we find light in this never-ending shade?
The loss we carry,
a sea we must wade.
We've braved the belly of the beast,
We've learned that quiet isn't always peace,
and the norms and notions
of what just is
isn't always just-ice.
And yet the dawn is ours
before we knew it.
Somehow we do it.
When day comes we step out of the shade,
aflame and unafraid,
the new dawn blooms as we free it.
For there is always light,
if only we're brave enough to see it.
If only we're brave enough to be it.

[1] Mark 1:15, The Inclusive Bible: The First Egalitarian Translation, Roman and Littlefield Publishers, 2007.

Copyright 2021 The Rev. Paula J. Toland

Called for this time

This is my sermon from the Second Sunday after the Epiphany in Year B, January 17, 2021. You will find the lectionary here.

This past week I was at a preaching conference. The conference was for experienced preachers and focused on preaching during the pandemic and the resurgence of white supremacy resulting in the violence we have witnessed time and time again.  I signed up for this conference because it has been increasing difficult to find a fresh message each week, one with both relevance and the hope of the Good News we have in Jesus.  As is the case with so many of you, I am tired.  Covid, racial injustice, and violence have worn me down, have disrupted my sense of how to navigate my life in ways big and small.  I went to this conference because I needed to be fed, to be renewed and refreshed.  I went because I needed to be reminded somehow of how to do what it is that I am to do, here, each and every week, with and for you.

One of the plenary speakers said something that our Bishop has been saying for over a year, quoting the Book of Esther: “We are ‘called for a time such as this’”.  Though it isn’t always to clear to me why – or perhaps “Why me?” – I believe that.  I know it to be true.  Another speaker quoted Martin Luther King, Jr. (who may have been quoting someone else): “You can no more preach what you don’t know than you can come back from somewhere you’ve never been.” It occurred to me after reading the story from the Hebrew Scriptures that we heard this morning, the wonderful and familiar story of young Samuel’s call, that it might help to go back to the beginning, or, at least, the beginning of this part of my life.

Until I was 12, I went to both the Roman Catholic Church and the Episcopal Church.  At that time, my mother was Roman Catholic and my father Episcopal so I went to Mass and Catechism classes at St. Bernard’s Church, and the “service” and Sunday School at All Saints’.  I remember clearly Good Friday when I was seven years old, just before my First Communion.  I was sitting with my Catechism class mates in front of the tabernacle in St. Bernard’s, sitting vigil.  I remember the soft blue and cream of the walls and ceiling, the blonde wood of the side altar and the pews, and the shiny gold of the monstrance that held the host, the Body of Christ, set into an alcove with vividly colored scenes of the Virgin Mary and Jesus.  I remember being transfixed by the experience of all it, even though I had no idea what it meant.  I knew I was there for a reason and that reason was not that the nuns told me I had to be if I wanted to receive First Communion.

At some point, Monsignor O’Brien started praying out loud.  I have a somewhat hazy memory of seeing him off to my left, seated in the chancel, though not at his usual place behind the altar.  I glanced at him when I heard him begin to pray and he was kneeling, closer to us than he had been and focused on the tabernacle.  I have no idea what he was saying because he was praying in Latin.  I remember his somewhat ruddy complexion, his piercing blue eyes, and his thick, wavy white hair.  I remember knowing – in that way you do when you know something from the top of your head to the tips of your toes, with every fiber of your being – that God wanted me to do what he was doing, even though, as I said, I didn’t know exactly what he was doing and I knew that I was not a boy and girls didn’t do what he was doing. Monsignor O’Brien was my accidental Eli, the priest who helped me to hear God’s voice.

I mentioned – didn’t I?- that this happened in the Roman Catholic Church, not exactly a place where women are allowed to answer a call from God in the same way that men do.  What I didn’t mention, perhaps because it’s a reminder of just how not young I am, this happened a good seven years before the first women were ordained in the Episcopal Church, and more years than that before the ordination of women was not an unwelcome exception to the rule.  At the time that God first called me to be more fully who I am, it was not even possible for me to answer.  And, had I been able to answer, I had absolutely no idea what the invitation was about.

Calls from God are not all the same, though we all are called to something.  Some hear God’s voice distinctly, as Samuel did, while others just feel different in a moment or over time.  Some are called as children, like Samuel.  Some are called when they doubt, such as Nathaneal was in today’s Gospel. What I knew when I was a child and know even more so now, is that a call from God is both about the one being called and not at all about that one.  God calls us to be a part of something bigger than we are, to use the gifts that we have been given to make a positive difference in this world, wherever we find ourselves, in whatever time it is.

Calls from God are about God and how God works in and through us, with a persistence and with a vision of the world that we cannot know in advance.  Sure, we can have some idea of what it means to live faithfully, perhaps even some of the responsibilities and tasks of the call, but we can not know exactly how it will unfold, any more than I could have predicted a global pandemic in 2020 and living my faith here in Millburn with all of you, any more than Samuel could have known that he would become a king maker, eventually anointing Saul and then David; David from whose lineage Jesus would be born.

What we can know – what I hope all of us do know- is that God calls each of us to a life of faith, a life that will continue to unfold. When God calls, it is never to just what we know or think we know.  It is always to more, sometimes in ways that are clear and make sense to us, sometimes in ways that leave us wondering what on earth God was thinking. God promises to be with us always and will remind us of why we are called as we are, bringing us to places and to be with people who remind us, too. God calls us to live our best selves in ways that are always meaningful and sometimes confusing or challenging.  God calls us in ways that will transform us, with the promise that one day the whole world will be united in God’s perfect love.

Copyright 2021 The Rev. Paula J. Toland

Who shall we be?

This is my sermon from the First Sunday after the Epiphany, January 10, 2021. The lectionary is found here. On Epiphany, the Wednesday before this Sunday, an angry, violent mob stormed the US Capitol.

Wednesday afternoon was one of those times that felt surreal.  One minute I was musing about John the Baptist’s fashion and cuisine choices:  Why are we told in today’s Gospel that he was clothed in camel’s hair with a leather belt and ate locusts and wild honey?  What did that matter to the story of Jesus’ baptism?  The next I was standing in my kitchen saying to Kathleen, “What? The Capitol was stormed?  The US Capitol? In Washington, D.C.?  It was stormed?”  I’d been in the office all day and hadn’t listened to NPR or checked in on Facebook or opened one of the newspaper apps on my phone.  After a quick run to the Post Office to mail the Children’s Chapel packets I’d been working on just a few minutes before I’d realized I was curious about John’s attire and appetite, I opened my computer to watch and read the news.  And there I stayed, stuck in one of those it’s-a-train-wreck-why-can’t-I-avert-my-eyes kind of moments, but for (literally) hours, with all of the fears and concerns, all of the anger and frustrations, all of the sadness and grief that I have been carrying for several years, even before that fateful day in November 2016 – all of it right there, inhabiting what felt like every fiber of my being and spilling out onto my lap in wave after wave. 

It was too much and though I knew to pray – I knew I needed to pray- I had absolutely no idea what to pray, what words to use because I lacked the capacity to form clear thoughts.  So, being the good Episcopalian that I am, I turned to the Book of Common Prayer, and let some of the familiar words hold me up, surround me with reminders of what I believe and in whom I believe.  I remembered the sermon I preached on November 13, 2016, the Sunday after Election Day.  I remembered talking about how the words we use matter.   We use language to communicate.  Words are part of how we relate to one another, they are part of being in relationship.  Words mean what they mean to us as we utter them and to others as they hear them.  What we say, when we say it, where we say it, all of these things lend meaning to the words we choose. The things we say have an impact on people and, whether we intend them to land as they do or not, we have to accept and acknowledge that they do.

So, long into the night on Wednesday and then again for a good deal of Thursday, I listened, hoping to find words somewhere, from someone, that would help me make sense of what I was seeing and hearing.  I listened to reporters and journalists.  I listened to government officials and law enforcement experts.  I watched videos of the President and of the President-elect. I watched videos of prayer services and Episcopal bishops.  It actually wasn’t until Friday that I heard something that helped.  On Friday, I heard Presiding Bishop Curry say: “In the moment of a national crisis, a moment of great danger, … a people must decide, ‘Who shall we be?’” 

In that moment, I felt something shift, not to a place of finding sense in what had happened on Wednesday or what has been happening for years in this country, but a modicum of sense nonetheless.  I was drawn back to today’s Gospel, that familiar story of Jesus’ baptism with that seemingly superfluous line about John in camel hair, eating honey.  I was drawn back to words that have always made my heart sing, to words that touch the deepest longings within me: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”  I knew that there was nothing I wouldn’t do to have “the heavens torn apart” and to hear God speaking those words specifically to me because they answer the question “Who shall I be?” and not just in times of crisis or danger, but all of the time.  And suddenly the inclusion of John’s clothing and food choices made sense. 

“Who shall we be?” is the question people have been wrestling with for all time.  From Adam and Eve and their choice to be people with the knowledge of good and evil to Abraham willing to sacrifice Isaac to Esther entering into a marriage and alliance to save her people, we are on a quest to answer that question.  The prophet, Elijah, whom we are told in 2 Kings is either a “hairy man” or wearing camel’s hair, depending upon the translation, points people to a new way of life that is grounded in the one God.  Elijah prophesies the coming of the Lord, the hope for an end to war and conflict, famine and need.  The Lord, whom we Christians know as the Messiah, the Christ, will come to save us from ourselves, to forgive us from our sins, and to bring us to new life, to a new way of being in the world and with God.

Bishop Curry’s reminder that the storming of the Capitol is yet another opportunity for us to ask ourselves “Who shall we be?” as a people, as a nation, as beloved children of God is both a comforting reminder and a challenge. We, unlike Elijah, know that the Messiah has come and has shown us what it is that we need to do to be the people God created us to be, to be a part of realizing God’s dream here on earth.  You know that is a sermon I can preach. It is a sermon I do preach… a lot.  And as our nation struggles to face the racial and other social justice issues that are part of the fabric of its founding and institutions, it is a sermon we need to hear.  All of us must do our part to ensure that all of God’s children are treated with respect, their innate dignity affirmed, their basic rights affirmed and upheld.  There is no way to be a follower of Jesus, the Messiah, and not commit to that way of life. 

Today, however, in this week of such immense fear and anxiety, we need to hear the fullness of the message.  We need to hear God saying to us, “YOU are my Beloved; with YOU I am well pleased.”  Whatever our part in creating and nurturing the circumstances that culminated in the storming of the Capitol, whatever our politics or voting choices, we need to know that the way of the Lord prophesied by Elijah and the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ as proclaimed by John the Baptist is a way of life that is for us, each and every one of us.  This is our comfort and our joy.  This is our solace and our hope. This is our challenge and our motivation. This is who we were created to be and who we get to choose to be, with every decision we make and every word we speak. 

The Word of God broke into the world in the birth of a vulnerable infant in Nazareth.  The Word of God lived among us, teaching us how to be our best selves, how to show our love for God in our relationships with God’s people.  The Word of God died at our hands because God’s love defies even the most horrific aspects of our human nature.  The Word of God lives among us still, working in and through us, giving us all that we need to live the Way of Love.  And that is the Word that matters above all else.            

Copyright 2021 The Rev. Paula J. Toland