What Wondrous Love is This (Homily, Renewal of Vows)

Then Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few;  therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”  
Matthew 9: 35-38

In the faith formation curriculum for teenagers called Journey to Adulthood that some of our congregations use, there’s an initial rite of passage ceremony commonly referred to as the “Rite-13 Liturgy.” Its official name is “A Celebration of Manhood and Womanhood,” which helps explain why youth leaders are eager to call it something else. But it’s a beautiful, poignant service, patterned after the Jewish rituals of bar and bat mitzvahs, and it is to take place sometime in the year of a young person’s 13th birthday. Hence the name: Rite-13.

 As part of the liturgy, those crossing the threshold of adolescence stand before the congregation and recite the 139th psalm, having spent considerable time reflecting on it as a group beforehand. Their parents have also been invited to ponder the dramatic physical, emotional, relational and spiritual changes they are about to experience in their children in light of this psalm.

I offer it here for all of us, because it seems to me that before we move toward the renewal of vows we have made, it’s good to remember who God has been for us and remains still:

Lord you have searched me out and known me.
you know my sitting down and my rising up.

You trace my journeys and my resting-places
and are acquainted with all my ways.

Indeed, there is not a word on my lips
but you, O Lord, know it altogether.

You press upon me behind and before
and lay your hand upon me.

Such knowledge is too wonderful to me;
it is so high that I cannot attain to it.

Where can I go then from your Spirit?
Where can I flee from your presence?

If I climb up to heaven, you are there.
If I make the grave my bed, you are there also.

If I take the wings of the morning
And dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,

Even there you hand will lead me
And your right hand hold me fast.

If I say, ‘Surely the darkness will cover me,
and the light around me turn to night.

Darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day.
Darkness and light to you are both alike.
(Psalm 139:1-11)

This foundational truth of God’s unfailing, unconditional, unflappable love is where we must always begin consideration of our vows, and those made on our behalf, for they are our response to a God who loves us first, foremost, and the very end. Sometimes we forget that love, or can’t feel it, or rightfully wonder how it can possibly be true given what we know about ourselves, the suffering we have endured, not to mention what we see all around us. We’d be made of stone not to have doubts sometimes; not to forget and for a time lose our way. Even, perhaps especially, those of us called to proclaim the love of God for others need to be reminded of God’s love for us.

We are the ones who have found ourselves on or were somehow drawn to the Christian path, because we experienced this love of God through the particularity of Jesus–his life and teachings, and a sense of his abiding presence with us. We know that his is a love we cannot earn. And there is a dimension of his love that goes beyond presence–it actually saves us. His love saves us from ourselves, heals us from wounds we’ve sustained and inflicted. He is with us through whatever valleys of the shadow of death that are ours to walk.

And so we sing:

What wondrous love is this, O my soul?
What wondrous love is this, that caused the Lord of Bliss
To lay aside his crown for my soul, for my soul.

And yet, it isn’t just receiving love and being saved that defines a Christian life. There’s a vocation as well, born of response.

When Jesus walked the earth, he gathered people around him and invited some to follow him. Follow me, he would say, to the most unlikely people. And from the texts we get the impression that his words are part invitation, part imperative (does it seem to you that any of them had a choice once they heard the call?), and part miracle story. Jesus needed disciples so he made disciples, and it seemed like anyone would do, anyone who heard the call and said yes. And so the movement began.

And as our Presiding Bishop says so well, Jesus came from God to show us how to live, a better way than the violent ways of this world. He came to show us what the wondrous love of God looks like, what we can count on for ourselves and others, even when we push back to the very edge of hatred. He never once wavered in his love, as the events we commemorate this week make clear. And when we did the worst thing we could possibly do in response to such love, God raised Jesus to break the bond of evil and death. It’s done. God did it, for you, for me, for all of us.   

So–at some point each one of us made promises in light of this wondrous love. For most, the initial promises were made on our behalf, at our baptisms. But we wouldn’t be here today if at some point we hadn’t taken those promises on for ourselves. We promised to put our whole trust, our whole selves into the hand of this God of love, to follow Jesus and his teachings, and to live our lives inspired, sustained and guided by His spirit at work in and through us.

Baptism is foundational. At some point, we made those promises for ourselves. From there we’ve gone on to make other promises, other vows–some in relationship, others in vocation, for those of us in leadership in the church, in ordained life.

Not one of these vows can we make just once and be done with. As they say in AA, we live vows like these one day at a time. We often falter in our fulfillment of them. Oh, how we fall down. And then by the grace of God, we get back up. We renew our promises, humbled by the cost, and also of the mercy that awaits us whenever we “repent and return to the Lord.”

For that reason alone, it’s good for us to be here, good to renew the vows we’ve made, as a reminder of their daily imprint and importance, to recall the touchstone moments that brought us to make our vows in the first place, and to say them again.  

But I invite you to go one step further and consider this:

What do you know now about what it means to follow Jesus that you didn’t know before?
What do you know about being a Christian, a follower of Jesus, that you didn’t know when you first said yes?

There’s a poignant story in the Gospel of John in which Jesus has just finished speaking hard words, difficult to understand (as if often the case in John). And many who called themselves his followers decided to get off at the next exit ramp. They had had enough. Jesus doesn’t seem surprised, but he turns to the 12, his closest disciples, and asks:

“What about you? Do you also wish to go away?” It was a fair question. They knew a lot more now about the cost. Others were leaving. What did they want to do?

Peter, speaking up for the group, answers, “Lord, to whom would we go? We believe that you have the words to eternal life.” (John 6: 64-68)

What does it mean to renew your vows to follow him, knowing what you know now?

For those of you who made vows to serve Christ as deacons and priests, what do you know about your vocation now? Will you say yes, with all that knowledge in your heart? I can tell you that 5 ½ years into this ministry as bishop, I know more now than I did at the beginning about what the work requires. And I will reaffirm my vow with that knowledge in my heart.

Another way to ask this question is to consider what the call is now, in this season of your life. That’s a big question, one that isn’t answered without considerable prayer, reflection, and perhaps the wise counsel of others.

But whatever bits of clarity you come to regarding this particular season will make it easier–even in the midst of all that conspires to keep us busy, to make the kind of decisions that give coherence to a life, and sanity. It also helps us accept the particularity of the crosses we must bear.

Rather than ask ourselves what we need to get done this week, month or year, why not ask, “What is God, at work in me through the wondrous love of Jesus, calling me to become? What does God need from me now?”

The answer to that question will be as distinctive as each person here is distinct, and exquisitely tailored to each one’s particular life circumstance. For some of us it will be a call to step up in new ways. For others it will be a call to let go. For some it will be a call to keep going on a particular path; for others it will involve a change of course.

For all of us in leadership, I am certain, that the call involves learning new ways of being the church in our time, new ways of leading because the enormous adaptive challenges our communities are facing now. “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few.” One of the reasons why there are so few laborers isn’t because we all aren’t working hard. We need to learn new skills. And there most certainly will be ways we are called to be a witness to the wondrous love of God at a time when there is so much suffering and hardship.

What does God need from us now? It is the particularity of your vocation and mine now that I ask you to consider, so that with whatever bits of clarity God gives you, you can be about the work that is most needed from us now.  

Let me close with a word of gratitude. It is a privilege to serve among you and alongside you. I give thanks to God for you and all that you are and do in faithfulness to Jesus. I’m grateful for your kindness, affection, and prayers. I’m grateful when you’re angry with me and tell me so. Because that tells me you respect and trust me enough with your honest reaction to my work. I know that as your leader I will make mistakes. They may not be the mistakes you think I’m making, but I will make them. And I know that when a leader makes mistakes, they are costly to others. I count on you to be real with me, and also, at times, I will ask you to forgive me. And I will do the same with you.

And I invite you as you continue through this week to take the words of the 139th psalm to heart this week, as your prayer. Sing to yourself, in the car or the shower: What wondrous love is this, O my soul?

God will ask great and sacrificial things from you, without question. That’s what’s happens to those who say yes. But remember that what God asks from you pales in comparison to what God wants for you, as the one who is searched out and known, loved and called.

Easter Message: A Love that Refuses to Die

Easter Message: A Love that Refuses to Die

Sitting in church at a funeral for my friend’s mom, I heard as if for the first time a familiar Scripture passage, more typically read at weddings:  

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.
(I Corinthians 13)

As we enter Holy Week, I invite you to carry this simple prayer phrase wherever you are, whatever you do. God’s love never ends.

Please do not casually absent yourself from attending worship services this week, either in person or online. Spend a few minutes each day in quiet prayer. In whatever way your life allows, take time to be present with Jesus.

Come to the table of his last meal and experience him gently washing your feet. Then hear his commandment: “Love one another as I have loved you.”  Accompany him into the Garden of Gethsemane. Listen as he prays–first that the cup of suffering might pass him by and then that God’s will, not his, be done.  Stand by as one friend betrays and another denies him. Witness his execution and hear his prayer from the cross: “Father forgive them.” And remember, through it all: God’s love never ends.

Of the events of this week, former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams writes:

When Pilate and the High Priest – acting on behalf of all of us, it seems – push God in Jesus to the edge, God in Jesus gently but firmly pushes back, doing exactly what he always did: loving, forgiving, healing . . . You can do what you like, but God is God. And if he wants to love and forgive then he’s going to love and forgive whether you like it or not, because he is free. (The Sin and the Sacrifice: The Meaning of the Cross and Resurrection).

God’s love never ends: that’s the message of Easter morning. God raises Jesus from death as an eternal sign and promise that nothing we do can keep God from loving us. And that God can do what we cannot: bring life out of death. Weeping may spend the night, but in God, joy will come.

How to respond to such love? First and foremost, by receiving it — by daring to believe it’s real and allowing it to wash over and through you. Never be afraid to ask God to meet you in your place of need or ashamed to acknowledge before God the burdens you carry.

And then by sharing it. The only thing God wants from us, in response to love, is to share love. “I give you a new commandment,” Jesus says to us, “that you love one another as I have loved you.”

You don’t need me to tell you how urgently love is needed in our time, in our world, in realms large and small. Nor how high the cost of that love can be or how imperfect our attempts to spread it. But what better way to live?

“If we imitate the non-violent, non-retaliatory response of Jesus,” Rowan Williams writes, “we ourselves become a sign of the same divine love. We in our lives, in our willingness to be reconciled, show the world what kind of God we believe in: a God who is free from the vicious circle of violence and retaliation.”

I pray that you may know God’s love as perfectly revealed in Jesus for yourself this week. And that together we may live in ways that show the world the kind of God we believe in and a love that refuses to die.