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Precious, Honored, and Loved
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First Sunday after the Epiphany
May I have the grace to speak to you in the name of the Holy One, who is Love, and who calls us Beloved. Amen.
When Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, "You are my Child, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased."
~ Luke 3:21-22
Always God’s voice is enfolded within the voice that speaks every hello or goodbye, every ave atque vale. For the Holy One watches over all our goings out and all our comings in, as Psalm 121 puts it. And so at the beginning of every new step, or last step, of a journey, however big or small, however happy or sad the circumstances surrounding that step of the journey may seem, the divine voice always is sounding.
Sometimes the divine voice is so quiet you can’t quite hear it. At other times it is so loud and clear – as today’s psalm says “The God of glory thunders” – like a Cecil B. Demille spectacular - you cannot miss it. The Holy One – blessed be God’s Name forever – is always saying, and hoping you will hear: “You are my Beloved.” My agapetos. You! Yes, you: I love you with no-holds barred agape. I love you with only your good in mind, no strings attached. Why? Because as the Prophet Isaiah says in today’s reading, speaking God’s Word on God’s behalf, simply because of this:
you are precious in my sight,
and honored, and I love you.
~ Isaiah 43:4
The Divine Love is pure gift. As we will sing later today, “Love divine, all loves excelling.” What you do with the gift of Divine Love will be up to you. God says: I have no specific expectations. I only have love for you. As the Holy One once said to Jesus, so God says to us: the journey I call you to set out on today has my blessing, my beloved.
Sometimes – often actually – the voice of God sounds in the voice of another human being, a fellow follower of Christ along the Way. Who knows but that you might hear the voice of God calling out to you today or this week through the voice of another, one already known to you, or someone entirely new. Maybe in a phone call.
The phone rang at lunch time. I had, not long before, finished my PhD, and was trying to discern if I was called to journey on by serving God through academic life, or to serve again in parish life. I was the interim rector in a parish just outside Philadelphia, in Doylestown, an old whistle stop town, the county seat of Bucks County. It was about this time, just after Christmas 2005. It was a weekday, and as was my wont, I had gone next door to the Rectory for lunch. And suddenly the phone rang.
Now you should know this: the phone NEVER rang in the Rectory. So I picked it up with some trepidation, wondering whether perhaps someone had died. And the cheerful, warm voice on the other end of the line said, “Hello. You don’t know me, but my name is Pam Foster, and I’m the Vicar at Trinity Church in Copley Square in Boston. And we have a job opening here that you might be interested in. A mutual friend, Roger Ferlo, has recommended you. Is this a convenient time? Would you be interested in having a conversation about perhaps coming to serve here at Trinity?”
And so it began. So simply. So seemingly out of the blue, as it often does when the Holy One enters our lives and calls us to “come to the Jordan” to see what might happen there if we are willing to be baptized into some new and different way of living, and serving, and responding to God’s love.
As part of this, out of love for us, God always invites/calls/cajoles us into leaving behind old ways of living and serving, and to risk trying out something new – and this means leaving behind familiar places and beloved people, and seeing what God has on offer in a new place, a new circle of community, a new challenge with all its unknowns and all its risks, and all its wonderful possibilities.
I would be taking a risk. The Vicar was clear about that. That time back in 2005 was an interim period in Trinity’s life, between two rectors, and she made it clear my time here might be limited just to the interim. Because the new Rector would have a chance to form her or his own staff, so I might only be at Trinity a short time – a year or two.
But isn’t it always that way with the call of God? Isn’t there always a risk? Jesus being willing to be baptized by John couldn’t know what would follow after that. He could only know that day, with its water, and the heavens being torn open, and the voice of God declaring him “beloved,” agapetos. Only that was known. Nothing more.
And that’s always the challenge, isn’t it? To trust God for what is given today, and then trusting that the divine love – Holy Love – will be there for the next step, and the next, and the next…no matter where the road leads.
Sometimes that road will lead to glorious moments – light on a mountaintop that transfigures everything; a banquet on a hillside where a little becomes more than enough; the surprise and utter joy of a new circle of friends who will become companions on the Way, and who will take up the torch when it must be passed, even after a harrowing Thursday night, a dark (but Good) Friday, and the surprise of new life on a Sunday morning. All that Jesus himself could trust – all that any of us can trust – is that the love of God – Holy and no-strings-attached – will be ever present, present and leading forward, because one is God’s precious, honored, and beloved one.
Of course, trusting God with setting out on a new road to an unfamiliar, presently unknown destination seems built into the very DNA of God’s people. Abram leaving Haran for Canaan. Moses and his people leaving Egypt for an unknown Promised Land. The exiles of Israel having to leave cosmopolitan Babylon to rebuild the ruined city of Jerusalem. Jesus’ parents fleeing Bethlehem for Egypt to escape Herod’s fearful, murderous wrath. Jesus himself, leaving home in Nazareth, to make his long ministry pilgrimage to Jerusalem, the “big city” to the south.
You and I, all of us, share in this tradition of trusting pilgrimage. In our peripatetic time, you have had a number – and perhaps a countless number – of leave-takings, leaving one place for another, with the invitation to trust God each time, to trust that the Holy One was watching over your going out, and would be watching over your coming in to the new place to which you were called. God’s voice keeps calling, from one place to another, and Love keeps incarnating itself in each of those situations, in times of joy and energizing new opportunities to serve, but also in the tougher times: the maelstroms of church conflicts, times of pandemic and tumults in our nation and the wider world.
And so it has been for me. My coming to Trinity wasn’t the first time I had had to trust – to leave familiar ground and walk a new and unfamiliar road. From home in Baltimore to seminary at Yale. Back to the Baltimore area, serving as a parish priest for seven years, first as a curate and then as a rector. Then for eleven delicious years at Goucher College, where I served as both Chaplain to the College and Lecturer in several departments: Philosophy and Religion, Peace Studies, and my favorite: Continuing Studies. I felt so at home at Goucher that I often thought: “This may be my calling for the rest of my ordained life.”
But God clearly thought otherwise. Though it isn’t a bad thing to feel comfortable and at home because a specific yoke of ministry is (as Jesus puts it) “easy and light,” too much comfort can become like batting stuffed in one’s ears, closing out God’s voice. Thankfully, though, God is persistent, and has a way of pushing through the batting to get one’s attention. So I left Goucher to finish my PhD at Union Seminary in NYC, and then to serve as the Interim Rector in three different parishes in NJ, NY, and PA.
At each inflection point of my journey, I have had to leave a place and people I had come to love for a new place, and new people to love. All the while, trying to do my best to listen, listen, listen, and discern amongst many voices – voices inner and outer – which ones were of God, and which voices were chaff.
When back in 2005 I read the job description you all had written for the position of Associate for Adult Christian Formation at Trinity, I felt as if someone had been walking around inside my dreams, writing down exactly what I wanted to do, combining the best of what I loved about parish life with the best of what I had come to love in my teaching at Goucher. And so I came to make my home among you here at Trinity, feeling beloved in the invitation, and here I have been for the past nearly seventeen years, and still I feel beloved. Thank you!
We have been through a lot together. I am anything but a mathematician, but I calculate that I have had the joy of worshipping God with you for about 850 Sundays. Through the Inquirers’ Classes, I have been on pilgrimage with hundreds of you, helping you prepare for baptism, confirmation or being received into the Episcopal Church. We have given thanks to God together in times of joy, and I’ve had the privilege of listening to you in times of confusion and trouble, and praying with you in days when you endured sickness, or the death of someone you loved. You’ve trusted your souls to me as I’ve prepared you for marriage, and you have trusted me to hold your infants in my arms as we’ve baptized them and set them off on their lifelong journey of faith. You have been infinitely patient with my longwinded sermons, and you’ve honored me by allowing me the joy of being your teacher and fellow traveler into the depths and mysteries of learning how to follow Jesus as fellow disciples along the Way of Love.
You have told me your secrets and sins, the hurts you have caused others and that others have caused you, and invited me to speak God’s words of forgiveness and healing to you. In what is perhaps my deepest joy, you have allowed me to stand at that altar, inviting you to “Lift up your hearts,” as together we have followed Jesus’ command to remember with deepest thanks the love he showed us in the Last Supper, the love that he continues to show us and invites us to share with our fellow creatures day in and day out.
But God’s surprises never stop. And the surprises have never stopped while here with you. I thought I had been called here simply to be your teacher and pastor, and I hope that I have fulfilled that original call in ways that have benefited your souls and glorified God.
But I have been startled to find that sometimes the Spirit doesn’t ask you to move on to a new place, but instead to take up new tasks, new roles in the place that has become a long-time home. So to my surprise, you together with the Holy Spirit have had other ministries in mind for me, ones that called for gifts I did not think I had.
When I was asked to become your Vicar and take up administrative, organizational, and leadership roles that were beyond my imagining, I felt like a cosmic joke was being played on me – I whose office has always looked (as our Verger Bob Yearwood likes to say) as if a dumpster had been upended on the floor. And then when, to everyone’s dismay, Sam Lloyd became ill and needed to step down from being Rector, the last thing I had ever imagined happened: you invited me to become your Interim Rector.
In my prayers during those days, I slowly realized that I had been asked to step away from my more comfortable, accustomed role as teacher to become, in effect, ballast in Trinity’s ship, to help the parish steer as steady a course as possible during an unexpected stormy time. Ballast.
But even ballast can be a holy thing. On pilgrimage with some of you in the Holy Land in 2015, I was reminded that for the better part of his life Jesus was what the Scripture calls a tekton, better translated as stonemason rather than carpenter. So Jesus was well versed in handling stones. And he handed off the leadership of his ship of faith to one he nicknamed Rock. So all in all, there could have been no greater honor than, for a time, to be ballast in your ship of faith here in Copley Square. Thank you, my beloved ones. Thank you.
On my final day at Goucher, in the last Continuing Studies class I taught at the college, the class presented me with a kind of group poem they had written based on my initials, WWR, and entitled We Will Remember. There are so many things we will remember, you and I, from these past nearly seventeen years. But of all the things you might remember, as we prepare ourselves to commune with Jesus and one another in the Eucharist, dearly beloved, I dare to ask – as Jesus asked his disciples at that Last Supper they shared – that you remember one thing.
Remember, and hear always, what the voice of God is saying. Hear exactly what is incised in the green marble behind the altar – God is love (I John 4:8). And remember that you are God’s beloved, each of you individually, and you together as God’s beloved community here in Copley Square. For if you do remember this, then you will have found the true ballast, and be steadied, and grounded in that place from which cannot be blown off course: the love of God.
And listen also for the call of God in that love, always calling you forward, into new and sometimes surprising ways to embody the Divine Love in your own lives. And if you wonder how to do that, then remember these words of St. John of the Cross: “Where there is no love, put love, and you will draw love out.”
And so, as God once said to the people of Israel through the Prophet Isaiah, so I, as I prepare to leave you, say to you:
You are precious in my sight,
and honored, and I love you…
~ Isaiah 43:4