St. John’s, Olney | Visitation Sermon | January 21, 2023

by | Jan 21, 2023

Now when Jesus* heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the lake, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: ‘Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles–the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light,and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.’ From that time Jesus began to proclaim, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’ As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew, his brother, casting a net into the lake–for they were fishermen. And he said to them, ‘Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.’ They left their nets and followed him. As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him. Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.
Matthew 12:4-23

Good morning! I’m so glad to worship with you at St. John’s, Olney today. If we’ve not met before, I am Mariann Budde and I serve as bishop of this diocese, a geographic area that includes four Maryland counties and the District of Columbia. I’ve been in this position for eleven years, and my work is primarily one of support, encouragement, and resourcing of the eighty-six Episcopal congregations and 10 schools of the diocese. Most Sundays you will find me preaching and presiding at one of our congregations.

This is my fourth Sunday visitation to St. John’s. My second visit stands out in my memory, because it was Fr. Henry’s second Sunday as your rector, back in 2016. My last visit was in late 2019, just four months before the pandemic came and changed our lives. It’s always a poignant experience for me to read my notes from those days, knowing what I know now about what was awaiting us all.

I am a great admirer of Father Henry, Mother Shivaun, Deacon Nancy, and the ministry of this congregation. You are one of the strongest Episcopal congregations in Northern Montgomery County. I give thanks to God for you, for Fr. Henry’s intentional, thoughtful leadership, for Mother Shivaun’s creativity, particularly in spiritual growth and discipleship, and for Deacon Nancy’s passion for service.

Last fall, prompted by a conversation with a group of young adults in another congregation that wanted to ask me far deeper questions of faith than I had anticipated, I sent out a notice in my bi-weekly writings to the diocese, inviting anyone else to ask me their questions of faith. There was a slow response at first, but as the days went on, more questions came. I remain profoundly moved by the honesty and vulnerability of those who have written to me. And I’ve used their questions as the springboard for all my writings and sermons since then.

Here is the question for today:

I often wonder if I truly hear God’s voice when I ask for His guidance or if it’s my own imagination telling me which way to go. I pray that God will help me to hear His voice and to understand His word but I’m afraid that I get distracted and sometimes I’m overwhelmed and may not hear Him. How do I know that I’m going in the direction God is showing me?

Today is the third Sunday in the Christian season of Epiphany–a word that means “revelation,” To have an epiphany is like the proverbial lightbulb going off in your head. I hear in the question I’ve just read a longing for such an epiphany, for a moment of clarity with which to set one’s life course, or to take the next step.

An epiphany is anything that comes to us from the outside that resonates deeply with us on the inside. For there is a part of us that is always listening for that connection, what the great Black theologian Howard Thurman called “the sound of the genuine.”

In one of the last speeches of his life, a commencement address at Spelman College in 1980, Thurman told the graduates:

There is something in every one of you that waits, listens for the sound of the genuine in yourself, and if you cannot hear it, you will never find whatever it is for which you are searching. And if you hear it and then do not follow it, it would be better for you never to have been born . . .

You are the only you that has ever lived; your idiom is the only idiom of its kind in all of existence and if you cannot hear the sound of the genuine in you, you will, all of your life, spend your days on the ends of strings that somebody else pulls.1

A quick story about listening for the sound of the genuine. When my mother was still living alone in her New Jersey home, she had become increasingly susceptible to telemarketers and scammers that prey upon vulnerable adults. One day she received a call from a woman claiming to be her granddaughter. Her car had broken down in Pennsylvania and she needed money. Could my mother please give her her credit card information so that the car could be repaired?

As it turns out, my mother has one adult granddaughter, the daughter of my older sister, who would have been in her 30s at the time. My mother struggled to understand how her granddaughter could be in such trouble–and what was she doing in Pennsylvania?–and how best to help her. But then it dawned on her: if her granddaughter, Jennifer, was in need of money, she should call her mother! “Call your mother,” she told the woman. “Oh, I can’t do that,” the woman replied. Then my mother knew that the woman on the line wasn’t Jennifer. It wasn’t the sound of the genuine she was hearing. And she hung up.

We just heard one version of how Jesus called his first disciples to follow him–there are several versions of this same story in the gospels, but what they all have in common is their description of how clear those four fishermen were that they needed to drop everything and follow Jesus. This particular version reminds me of the moment in the musical West Side Story when Tony and Maria first see each other across the crowded high school gymnasium. Immediately they knew that they were meant for each other. Apparently, that’s how some people fall in love, and how some of Jesus’ disciples decided to follow him–seemingly in an instant. They must have heard what they were searching for, and they were ready.

I wish I could assure the person who asked me how she can tell when God is guiding her steps that she’ll just know, the way the disciples of Jesus seemed to know. But for those of us who want to follow God’s will, who try to hear Jesus’ voice, and who long for divine guidance when faced with an important decision, it’s not that simple or straight-forward a process.

There’s no escaping the need for us to cultivate some kind of inner spiritual practice, a practice that helps us to listen for the many ways God might speak to us, and to make peace when we aren’t hearing anything at all. Equally important, we need a way to ponder, sort things through, test our perceptions, and get ready for what may be asked of us.

Sometimes what on the outside looks like an impulsive decision has been taking shape within us for some time.

I suspect that the disciples’ seemingly immediate decision to follow Jesus as they did was preceded by experiences and events not recorded in the Gospels. Surely they had seen Jesus before, in and around the villages around the Sea of Galilee. Perhaps they, too, had been followers of John the Baptist, and like Jesus, was motivated by John’s arrest to do something brave with their lives. We don’t know, but it’s hard to imagine that their decision was made without any previous knowledge of Jesus.

But then again, it was Jesus after all, in the flesh. And perhaps there are times for us as well when we are that clear in an instant. Looking back, however, we might recognize how we had been preparing for that moment without awareness. Part of that preparation is how we learn to listen for the sound of the genuine.

One might simply call this spiritual practice “prayer,” but if so, the kind of prayer I’m speaking of has a specific purpose. It is discerning prayer, the process we go through to help us decide what to do in response to an event or circumstance or invitation.

The Christian writer Urban Holmes defines discernment as “the ability to intuit God’s will by casting a particular question the Christian faces in a given situation before the judgment of the deeper self. The result of discernment will be a willingness to risk decisions and take actions whose surety is enigmatic at best.”2 When we come to a decision through discernment, we have a greater capacity to act in the face of uncertainty, and a willingness to risk failure in the service of what matters most.

So how do we go about this discerning type of prayer? What is it that we do, exactly, when we’re pondering?

Actually, we can do many things. For some, the work is quiet and still, a daily practice of sitting and paying attention to all that comes into consciousness. For others, to ponder requires movement–a walk or a run, anything that engages both body and mind. Former president Obama was known for working things out while shooting basketball. Apparently, when Franklin Delano Roosevelt had a momentous decision before him, he would pretend to get sick and stay in bed for days. I am one of those who “putters” as I ponder. It doesn’t really matter what I do, but I need to be active and quiet at the same time, to allow my brain to sort things out and be open to the voice of God.

Talking through things is also helpful in the discerning process, particularly with someone you know and trust has your best interests at heart. As a young adult, I spent years in a therapeutic relationship trying to work through one central issue in my life. Looking back, I marvel at my therapist’s patience as I talked, pondered, and resisted, then got angry, and resisted some more. Then I would gain clarity, only to lose it again. So it went, back and forth until finally, my inner world settled enough inside for me to hear. What I heard was silence. God, as far as I could tell, wasn’t saying anything. I took that to mean–stay where you are. Make peace with who you are and where you are. Doing anything else would have been very costly, not only to me but to others, and I needed a clear word if I was to make that kind of change. No word came. So I stayed.

But all the help that others can be, there is something solitary about this listening and pondering process, as we claim for ourselves the path we will take.

One of the more helpful practices of pondering that I have been taught is described in a small book entitled, Sleeping With Bread.3 The book’s title comes from a story told about children left orphaned and starving during the Second World War. When at last they were given food in refugee camps, they couldn’t trust that there would be more later on, so they ate themselves sick at every meal. Their caregivers’ solution was to give the children a loaf of bread as they went to bed. They could sleep, then, with confidence that there would be food for them in the morning. Inspired by the children holding their loaves of bread, the authors describe a simple practice of holding onto what gives us life, especially in times of uncertainty and transition.

The practice is this: at the end of each day take a few moments to reflect, asking two questions: For what moment today am I most grateful? For what moment am I least grateful? There are many ways to ask the same questions: When did I feel the most alive today? When did I feel life draining out of me? When did I give and receive the most love? When did I give and receive the least? This practice, exercised over time, heightens our awareness of moments we might have otherwise passed by as insignificant, moments that can ultimately give direction for our lives. It helps to write our reflections down, a few sentences each day, so that we might watch for patterns as they emerge over time.

When at a particular crossroad, or when striving to discern a particular path; when the ground beneath us shifts or we’re feeling stuck, a simple practice of reflection of what gives us life and takes life from us can guide us. The spiritual assumption behind this practice is that God’s desire for us is greater life, not less. And should we discern that a costly, difficult road is ours to take, we do so equipped with a greater reservoir of what sustains us in lean times.

I don’t want to leave you with the impression that I believe it’s possible through these practices to receive complete clarity about how we are to make our way in this life. I don’t believe that, and I have never myself attained it. But I tell you, a little bit of clarity goes a long way. A little bit goes a long way in helping us sift through the endless demands and focus on what matters most; a little bit goes a long way in helping us say no to the many worthwhile tasks in order to say yes to the few tasks we are called to; a little bit of clarity helps us to let go of what is no longer compatible with our lives and reach for what our heart desires, because at last we know something about it. And if by grace, we are invited, as Jesus’ disciples were, to do something truly brave, we will have the capacity and spiritual strength to say yes. It may seem to the world as if we’re acting impulsively, and perhaps sometimes we are. But generally speaking, we’ve been getting ready for that moment for a long time.

Years ago I met an Episcopal priest who served as the director of a camp and retreat center. At the time we met, he was leaving his position as camp director to work in a residential program for troubled teenagers. What he said to me about that move I’ve never forgotten. He said, “I have been preparing all my life for this job.”

I had the sense that he was telling a lot about himself in one sentence–about his own childhood, perhaps, and his own acquaintance with trouble; about times of vocational uncertainty, no doubt a failure here and there. He was telling me about his passion and repertoire of gifts, and that he felt himself to be moving to a place of great potential to exercise those gifts. This was clearly not a set up on any ladder of vocational advancement. But it was, for him, what his entire life had been preparing him to do. And he was ready.

He was about twenty years ahead of me in life and ministry, and I remember envying him for his clarity and freedom to embrace a new life so completely. I also had the sense that the clarity he had attained requires time and work, a lot of listening and interpreting of life as we make our way.

Let me leave you then with a word of encouragement, should there be any area of your life in need of that kind of discerning, listening, and waiting for the sound of the genuine. Trust your unique ways of listening, of pondering–whatever helps you make the connections between what you’re hearing from the outside with what resonates deeply with you on the inside. If it’s a really big decision that you’re wrestling with, take the time to seek out the wisdom of people in your life whom you trust to want what’s best for you. Should you be that person for another, know that you are walking with him or her on holy ground. Know that I, as your bishop, am praying for you as you listen for Jesus’ voice, the sound of the genuine in your heart, that you be given sufficient clarity to respond. And I pray you as a community, under the good leadership of your clergy and vestry, as collectively you do the same.


1Howard Thurman, Commencement Address at Spelman College, May 4, 1980.
2Source unknown. This quote comes from a colleague, Andrew Waldo, who quotes Urban Holmes in a talk he gives on discernment at CREDO conferences.
3Dennis, Sheila and Matthew Linn, Sleeping with Bread: Holding What Gives You Life (Mahwah, NY: Paulist Press, 1995).