“In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’”
Jadon and I met on Thursday morning, when we found ourselves sitting next to each other at a diocesan clergy gathering for quiet prayer. It was his first official day as your rector, and the gathering was a good way, he said, to mark the beginning of this new path of life and ministry among us.
I’d like to speak to you this morning about the Christian life, drawing upon one of the most straightforward and enduring ways of understanding this life, and indeed, all human life: that of a path we’ve chosen, or has somehow chosen us, a particular path to which we have been called.
When I was a parish priest and had the privilege of meeting with parents presenting their infants or young children for baptism, I would give them a short essay from the writer Anne Lamott entitled, “Why I Make Sam Go To Church.” In it she writes:
Sam is the only kid he knows who goes to church. He rarely wants to. This is not exactly true: the truth is he never wants to go. What young boy would rather be in church on the weekends than hanging out with a friend? It does not help him to be reminded that once he’s there he enjoys himself. It does not help that he genuinely cares for the people there and they for him. All that matters to him is that he alone among his colleagues is forced to spend Sunday morning in church.
You might think, noting the bitterness, the resignation, that he was being made to sit through a six-hour Latin mass. Or you might wonder why I make this strapping, exuberant boy come with me most weekends, and if you were to ask, this is what I would say. I make him because I can. I outweigh him by nearly seventy-five pounds.
But that is only part of it. The main reason is that I want to give him what I have found in the world, which is to say a path and a little light to see by.
I want to give him what I have found in the world, which is to say a path and a little light to see by.
One of the most startling and hopeful revelations of my life took place in my mid- 20s, which was the first time I had taken time to reflect back, in context of a therapeutic relationship, on the whole of my life. (It seemed like a long life at the time.) Doing so, I realized that my life wasn’t simply a series of random, chaotic events. There was more to my story than that. That I had a story was what amazed me. I sensed a kind of coherence and forward movement. Certain events had meaning in retrospect far beyond what I had experienced at the time. I felt the power of God’s grace, and of Jesus’ guiding presence. I knew as I had never known before that I was, in fact, on a path. It was the path of my life, for which I had some responsibility, but on which I was also being led, somehow guided in ways that I couldn’t fully understand but that I sensed God was now asking me to trust.
I invite you now to think about the path of your life, where you’ve been, how it is that you are here this morning, and what you might say if someone were to ask how you got from where you once were to where you are now. Did you consciously choose your path, or does it feel for you, as it often does for me, more like a revelation?
If we drop ourselves into virtually any book in the Bible, we encounter people on a journey of life and faith, or we read passages written by people, like me in my 20s, looking back with deeper understanding of the path they and their people have walked.
The first biblical passage I felt moved to memorize when I was in seminary was from, of all places, the book of Deuteronomy. It describes a liturgical celebration, an ancient version of Thanksgiving, during which the people of Israel recited the story of their path, their journey, as they made their offering of thanks. The first line sets the stage: “When the priest takes the basket from your hand and sets it down before the altar of the Lord your God, you shall make this response before the Lord your God.”
And here’s the story:
A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous. When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labour on us, we cried to the Lord, the God of our ancestors; the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. The Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O Lord, have given me.
In five verses we have the entire arc of a journey, the path of our spiritual ancestors, starting with Abraham, that wandering Aramean, who who heard a call and started walking, and as he walked and wandered, a path was revealed to him and later to his progeny.
On Christmas Eve, we’ll gather in church to remember the story of Jesus’ birth, a story of weary travelers on a journey–Jesus’ parents seeking refuge. And Jesus spent most of his ministry walking and inviting people to join him, so much so that after he died, his first followers were known as People of the Way, his way, following his path.
So what kind of path are we on, you and me? Does it feel like a path, or more like wandering with no clear sense of direction? Is there clarity in some ways but not others?
To be honest, I’ve always longed and prayed for more clarity on the path than I’m given, and I confess my envy of those who receive such clarity. I’m amazed by those who knew from an early age what they would dedicate their lives to, what path was theirs to walk. Like the musicians who by age 5 or 6 knew that they had a gift and would later know without question which particular instrument was their destiny. I was also completely intimidated by the freshmen in my college dorm who knew from the first day what their majors would be. That wasn’t me.
I’m also in awe of those for whom that kind of clarity emerges at a later time in life, with equal strength. A friend of mine, in her late 30s, decided almost overnight that she was destined to become a dentist. That involved taking undergraduate prerequisite courses, then applying to dental school–which is highly competitive. Then she had to figure out how to pay for it, so she joined the Army Reserves. Then she went to dental school. All this while raising two young boys. It took her about six years. But she is practicing dentistry today.
And just this week I heard a story on the radio show, This American Life, about a woman whose boyfriend had broken up with her and moved to London. She woke up one morning absolutely convinced that what she needed to do was buy a one-way ticket to London, present herself at his doorstep, and ask him to marry her. It didn’t turn out well. But when she told her story, from the perspective of being married to someone else and a mother of young children, she had no regrets. For she did what she felt she had to do.
That kind of clarity takes my breath away. And it is certainly one way of experiencing our lives as on a path, those times when we know that we simply must act. Maybe you’ve had such moments.
But there is another way of walking the path with which I am more familiar that it is far less clear, but no less compelling. It’s when we’re given small bits of clarity, not the whole vision. Something happens to set certain events in motion and we consent to it and take a step forward, with a sense that it’s important to keep going even though we’re not sure of the destination.
Quakers speak of this as the Way opening before us. It’s very important to pay attention on the way, noting the signs as we go, constantly reassessing, perhaps wandering more than we’d like, but walking by the lights we’re given. The writer E.L. Doctorow, likens the task of writing a novel to this kind of journey: “It’s like driving a car at night,” he wrote. “You never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” He also said that writing is an exploration. “You start from nothing and learn as you go.”
Following our path is often like that: step by step, walking by faith and not by sight. And if that is the kind of path you’re on now, the Advent season is a particularly helpful time for you to be in church. For in Advent, our biblical companions are among those who did not fully understand the path to which they had been called but said yes anyway.
Consider John the Baptist whose fire and brimstone sermon we’ve just heard. As uncompromisingly clear as he was about his message of repentance and his call to prepare for the one coming after him, he readily acknowledged that he did not know who that person was. Imagine staking your life on someone who is, as yet, unknown to you. As a sneak preview for next Sunday, John again will be center stage, this time speaking from prison as he is about to be executed. From his prison cell, he instructs his disciples to go to Jesus, who was now preaching and teaching throughout Galilee, and ask “Are you the One who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” He went to his death not knowing for certain if Jesus was the one he had been preparing for, but he was faithful to his path until death.
On the last Sunday of Advent, Joseph takes center stage, a man whose journey we often overlook at Christmas. Remember that Mary came to him while they were betrothed with the unwelcome news that she was pregnant. Being a decent man, Joseph planned to end their engagement quietly. But then God spoke to him in a dream, telling him to take Mary as his wife. And he agrees, on the basis of a dream. And in those early days and years of his parenthood, when terrifying events threatened the child Jesus, God continues to speak to Joseph in his dreams, guiding him as to where to go next.
Clarity often comes to us like that in bits and pieces. But here is the good news: a little bit of clarity is enough to take the next step. We don’t need the entire path illumined. Light for the next step is sufficient.
Moreover, we are not called to walk this path alone. Listen to Anne Lamott again describing her church:
Most of the people I know who have what I want—which is to say, purpose, heart, balance, gratitude, joy—are people with a deep sense of spirituality. They are people in community, who pray and practice their faith . . They follow a brighter light than the glimmer of their own candle; they are part of something beautiful. Our funky little church is filled with people who are working for peace and freedom, who are out there on the streets and inside praying, and they are home writing letters, and they are at the shelters with giant platters of food…When I was at the end of my rope, the people at my church tied a knot in it for me and helped me hold on.
People of All Souls’ Church, you are not alone. You are here together, walking by the light given to each one of you. That’s what you will soon promise to the ones being baptized and received, that you will do all in your power to support them in their lives of faith. Because that’s what churches do. That’s what churches are for. And together you are at a wondrous moment, beginning a new phase of life with Jadon as your rector. And you’re not alone in that either–you are part of a wider wider community in our diocese, others who, like you, feel called to walk in the way Jesus, as part of the Episcopal branch of his movement.
So, friends, if ever you’re given great clarity on the path, give thanks and walk with confidence.
And when you’re given just a bit of clarity, a bit of light to see by, give thanks, and walk in faith that more will be given in time.
Remember that a little bit of clarity is all you need to take the next step.
Pray for that clarity, and it will come. Then step out.