And now the Lord says, who formed me in the womb to be his servant, to bring Jacob back to him, and that Israel might be gathered to him, for I am honored in the sight of the Lord, and my God has become my strength– he says,”It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”Thus says the Lord, the Redeemer of Israel and his Holy One, to one deeply despised, abhorred by the nations, the slave of rulers, “Kings shall see and stand up, princes, and they shall prostrate themselves, because of the Lord, who is faithful, the Holy One of Israel, who has chosen you.”
Among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will be my servant also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor. “Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say– `Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.”
On the occasions in which a vow of any kind is made, there’s almost always an acknowledgement that the living of that vow will be harder than the making of it, and that we won’t be faithful to our vows if we rely only on our own good intentions and will power. That’s especially true in our faith tradition: recall how in Baptism and Confirmation services those making their promises do so with the important caveat, “I will, with God’s help.” In ordination services, after those being ordained make their vows, there is an explicit word from the presider: “May the God who has given you the will do these things, give you the grace and power to perform them.”
In the living of our vows, then, there is a necessary rhythm of rededication, not because we didn’t mean what we said the first time, but that in the living of our vows, we gain a clearer understanding of what the vows entail. We need to be reminded of what we said, and why, and to pray once again for the grace and power we need to fulfill them.
I’d like to reflect with you on the experience of living our vows–what it’s been like for you and me to journey on the path, or paths, to which we have been called by God, in all their twists and turns. In particular, I wonder if you might recall those times–perhaps you are in such a time now–when you seriously questioned whether you could stay on a given path, in part because it was nothing like what you had hoped for or expected, or because others upon whom your vocation seemed to depend had failed you, or perhaps more devastating, because you yourself had failed.
In the biblical narrative from Genesis to Revelation there are key moments upon which the arc of salvation history rests. There is the Exodus, God’s liberation of the People of Israel from bondage in Egypt, and the covenant God made with them in the wilderness. Then follow all the stories of the people’s failure to live according to their side of the covenant, all the times they repent, receive forgiveness and restoration, only to sin again, repent again, be restored again. More than once in the narrative, we get the message that God is disappointed with the Israelites, and, by extension, with us.
But what about the people? They were disappointed, too. This relationship with God wasn’t what they had imagined. God didn’t conform to their image or expectations. Nor were they people they had imagined themselves to be, and wanted to be. Only through a long process of inner transformation, could they hope to become the people God was calling them to be.
The story continues across biblical time, and we learn vicariously through the Israelites and later through Jesus’ disciples, that disappointment and failure are as much a part of salvation history as God’s saving acts and the people’s heartfelt, albeit naive promises.
For me, one of the more poignant eras in the biblical story is the time of Exile and what followers afterwards. Exile, as you recall, is when the people of Israel were removed from their sacred land, carried off into Babylon and forced to live there for several generations. The experience was devastating–a shattering of what the people thought was true about themselves and about their God. Their covenant with God was irreparably broken, or so they thought.
Yet in exile the people learned that God had not abandoned them in their sin and failings. Moreover, through the prophet Jeremiah, they realized that they were to seek the welfare of the city where God had sent them into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare would they find their welfare. In other words, for a season, they needed to make a home in exile. That was where God called them to be. (Jeremiah 29:7)
That’s a word for us to hang onto when we feel in exile ourselves. God is with us. As Jesus followers, we can hold to his words: “I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:20). What’s more: for reasons beyond our understanding, we may need to be right where we are.
Eventually, miracle of miracles, the Isrealites who had been in exile are permitted to go back home and rebuild the Temple that had been destroyed by occupying armies. Through the prophet we’ve come to know as Second Isaiah, they are given a new, even loftier sense of their vocation as God’s people: It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth. (Isaiah 49) Imagine how those words would feel to those formerly shattered and beaten down.
So they go back, and they rebuild their temple and everything seems great–for about a minute. After their initial joy comes inevitable letdown. The second Temple in no way matches their idealized memories of the first, life is still really hard, and they aren’t able to live the vows they made to God any better than their forebears could before they were sent away.
That longing that all human beings feel for God to save us persists, and the Isrealites’ hope that God will indeed transform this world once and for all becomes the wellspring of messianic hope. For those of us who follow Jesus, we find that fulfillment in Him.
Yet as Jesus followers we continue to live through the same rhythm of hope and disappointment, longing and and fulfillment for a time, only to find ourselves in the same death-to-life rhythm that He honored and made holy by His example.
Now I’m going out on a limb here, in faith that I’m not the only one who can identify with stories marked by moments of hope and resolve followed by the messiness of life and disappointment with others, the institutions in which we serve, and ourselves. What I dare to believe, and have witnessed partially in my own life and more gloriously in the lives of others, is that the times of disorientation, disappointment, and even death are as much a part of the path to which we have been called as the more joyful moments when we clearly and confidently said Yes. I will, with God’s help.
Today is the anniversary of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination, fifty-five years ago in Memphis. In the last years of his life, King was prone to seasons of internal despondency and despair even as he worked hard to be a beacon of hope to others. As he faced the most intransigent forms of racism and economic injustice, increasing infighting and strategic divisions among Black leaders, his own physical frailties and failings, and the impossibility of organizing a massive movement of poor people from all races to descend upon Washington, DC. King said to a reporter who questioned his organization’s capacity to organize a non-violent Poor People’s Campaign. “This is my best offering and last hope for this country.” When those of inner circle questioned the wisdom of going back to Memphis to support the striking sanitation workers, he replied, “Our movement lives or dies in Memphis.”1
The next day it was King who died.
Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. (John 12:24)
The living of our vows is messy.
The late Madeleine Albright, the first woman Secretary of State in the United States, a devout Christian, and an active member of this diocese, once described her experience of vocation this way: “My life has felt like a jigsaw puzzle, only I was working with several pieces from several puzzles simultaneously and there was no finished picture to tell me how it should all end up.” Her memoirs are so inspiring to read, precisely because in them she doesn’t make light of her struggles; she acknowledges both her strengths and vulnerabilities, and she readily admits her mistakes. “Lives are necessarily untidy and uneven,” she writes. “It is important, however, to have some guiding star.”2
We are here today to remember our guiding star, and to hear God’s reassurance that when it feels as if we have lost our way, and even when we have, the star is still shining. Seafarers tell us that there is a lot of changing course when navigating by the stars, and that when the sky goes dark, as it does with regularity, there is no choice but to keep going in the dark. In darkness, we learn to rely on our instincts and lean on previously known vantage points, until the skies clear and we can see once again.
There’s another line from the Gospel text worthy of our meditation today. It is John’s version of the prayer Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane. In the other three gospel accounts, Jesus in the garden says, “Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me. But your will, not mine, be done.” Here is Jesus in solidarity with us in all those times when we pray for the same–to be spared. But in John’s version, set in another place, Jesus prays thus: “Now my heart is troubled. And what should I say, ‘Father, spare me from this hour?” No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.”
Perhaps it isn’t possible for you to be spared the living of this hour. Perhaps it is for a purpose beyond your understanding that you have come to it. Can you trust that even when your guiding star is hidden under clouds, and you stumble, and what you imagined doesn’t come to pass in the way that you hope, that it is for this you have come?
One final vignette:
Our younger son, Patrick, was a theater major in college, a decision that raised a few eyebrows of well-meaning adults in his life. Once when we were at dinner with a couple that were his parents’ age, and one of them asked him if he had a Plan B. He was quiet for a moment and then said, “I don’t really think of my life that way. I will walk this path wherever it leads. If I need to make a change, that will be my new Plan A.”
That’s a nineteen-year-old’s way of saying that God can make a way out of no way; that we all must navigate by the stars in our sky, which is the life of faith.
While the journey of a vowed life is not predictable, it can be trusted, no matter what, because of the One who has beckoned us onto the path. So that at our life’s end, no matter what happens, we will be able to answer the question the poet Raymond Carter asked in his poem, “Late Fragment.”
And did you get what
you wanted from this life, even so?
(Or: Did you get what you wanted from this vocation, even so?)
I did, the poet responds.
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth.3
Stay strong, friends. You are beloved. You are on your path. And it is for whatever that it is that is before you that you have come to this hour.
1See Michael K. Honey, Going Down the Jericho Road: The Memphis Strike and Martin Luther King’s Last Campaign (New York: W.W. Norton Company, 2007)
2Madeleine Albright, Madam Secretary: A Memoir ((New York: HarperCollins, 2003), 6;10, Kindle
3“Late Fragment” by Raymond Carver from A New Path to the Waterfall, Atlantic Monthly Press, 1989.