On a cold, windy day last week, Gay and I drove to the supermarket to shop. Upon arrival at the parking lot, we discovered that lots of other people had the same idea and we had to park about as far away from the store’s entrance as one can park.
When we returned to our, we loaded our purchases into the trunk and I started looking around for the nearest shopping cart return rack. It was halfway back to the store and I shivered when I thought about having to stay out in the cold wind any longer.
Just then, I heard a voice behind me say, “Here, I’ll take that.” I turned and saw a man who had just alighted from his pickup and was walking toward me. As I looked at him, he smiled and said, “I saw you looking for a place to put that cart and I’m headed that way. Let me return it for you.”
I barely managed to say, “Thank you” before he was briskly pushing the cart toward the store entrance. From inside the car, I watched him return the cart to the rack and continue on toward the entrance in pursuit of whatever mission was on his mind.
The memory of that simple, thoughtful, neighborly gesture has remained with me for more than a week. The subtle significance of that brief encounter between strangers continues to gladden my heart. In that moment, the Kingdom of God came near to both of us. Something changed in my universe and, perhaps, in his. I have no idea who he is or what motivated his good deed. I’d like to think it had something to do with his faith, but there is no way to know that. What I do know is that it had something to do with my faith. It is my faith that prompts me to see God’s hand at work in that moment in the lives of two of God’s children – one of us in need and the other with a meaningful response to that need. That empty cart was full of grace. It was an epiphany from a shopping cart.
We often focus on big goals in mission and ministry: feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, rebuilding storm-ravaged communities, teaching at-risk children to read. But let us not neglect to do good in those smaller, simpler ways, such as offering to return someone’s shopping cart, share a heavy load, sending a smile to someone who has a frown, speaking a word of encouragement to someone who seems worried, letting someone know you are thinking about them. There must be thousands of opportunities to do those good works that God “has prepared for us to walk in” every day. May God open our eyes to see them and move our hands and feet to respond. For in the intersection of another’s need and our response, no matter how simple, the universe is changed. And because God is at the center of those intersections, the change is for the better.
People often ask, "how can I recognize God's call to me?" It is a question of vocation. The word vocation is derived from the Latin root voca, as in "voice." It means "to call." There are so many voices crying out for our attention and our loyalty, it is difficult to discern the voice of God, and, therefore, to know what God is calling me to do. The question about recognizing God's call may have to do with one's overall life mission or with what God wants of one in a specific situation.
Perhaps we can learn some things about recognition of God's call from Mark's account of the beginning of Jesus' Gallilean ministry. His baptism by John had been in Judea, a mostly Jewish region. After John imprisioned, Jesus went north to an area around the Sea of Galilee, which was inhabited by many gentiles as well as Jews. When he arrived there, his first order of business was to call disciples (e.g., Mark 1:14-20).
There are several characteristics of vocation in that event, which is similar to other Biblical accounts where God's call comes to people and their communities.
God's call is timely. Jesus begins his proclamation by saying, "The time is fulfilled." The kind of time he has in mind is kairos, not chronos. Chronolical time can be measured. Kairos, God's time, the right time, cannot be measured so precisely. It is the time when fruit is ripe or when a baby is ready to be born. While God's call may come to us in many ways, it always comes at the right time. Jesus was speaking of the time when the old age of rebellion against God would cease and a new age would begin. He came at right time in history. His call comes to you and me at the right time in our personal histories and in the history of our faith community.
God's call involves change. Jesus called people to "repent." To repent means to change. Change usually involves turning away from the comfortable and familiar and toward something different. Jesus went to a region that was different. Remember that Galilee was place where there are many gentiles, people of a different race and faith. It still is! God's call can be a turning point in life of a person or a community of persons. What needs to be changed? If you hear a call to remain exactly as you are, it is probably not God calling.
God's call is imperative. Jesus' words, "Repent, believe, follow" are not mere suggestions. The time for action is now and this is what needs to be done. I'm reminded of the story of a golfer whose ball landed atop an anthill. In his attempt to avoid being stung by ants, his stance was clumsy and with every swing he would miss the ball and hit the anthill, scattering hundreds of the tiny creatures. Eventually, one of the ants said to the others, "If we are going to survive, we'd better get on the ball." When God calls and we hear, it is time for us to get on the ball!
God's call is specific. Throughout the gospels, Jesus is very clear about what he wants of his hearers: hear, repent, believe, follow, preach, teach, baptize, pray, go. The response may involve a person's entire life or a brief period. Following Hurricane Ike, we set up several ways for The Episcopal Church to respond to need. Our banners and signs had the Episcopal shield tilted at a jaunty angle and proclaiming, "The Episcopal Church - Here to Help!" The Diocese of Texas and Episcopal Relief and Development sent staff to the island where they set up headquarters and worked with hundreds of people from across the country who came to help for the next couple of years. Then, the time came when these specific measures were no longer needed. But for a brief period, people set about doing some very specific things to help people in need.
God's call includes reassurance. God does not call people to do something which they can do on their own, always provides the means whereby the call can be fulfilled. "I will make you fishers of people." Prophets, priests, apostles, martyrs.
God's call is consistent. We believe in Christian counsel. That means we explore our vocations together so that we can be sure that the voice we hear is God's. God is not likely to call one of us or all of us to do something which is contradictory with God's purposes and ways as revealed in scripture, tradition, reason, and experience. We allow ourselves to be held accountable by our Christian sisters and brothers as we discern God's will.
God's call is persistent. In Mark's account, Jesus says, "The time is fulfilled." Matthew's account (Matthew 4:18-24) suggests that when Jesus went to Galilee, he fulfilled the place. We are reminded of the prophecy of Isaiah (Isaiah 9:1-7) Hundreds of years had passed. God's Messiah had finally arrived to bring light to those who sat in darkness, people who lived in and around "The Decapolis." The Decapolis was a region of ten gentile cities to the east of the Sea of Galilee. The Jews referred to them as "The Gates of Hell." When Jesus said that the gates of Hell would not prevail against the Church, he may have been alluding to the Decapolis. We are told that in less than 100 years after the Resurrection, those ten cities were Christian cities. Persistence paid off!
Keep listening. And, when the call comes, recognize it, receive it as gift, and let God's grace motivate you to drop everything and go!
We’re hosting the monthly gathering of Episcopal clergy tomorrow at The Church of the Good Shepherd. We meet at lunchtime and our meal is handled in different ways: sometimes we bring a brown bag, sometimes something is ordered from a sandwich or pizza shop that delivers, and sometimes the host church prepares the food.
I was about to order a sandwich platter when I realized that today is a holiday and I wanted to spend some time in the kitchen. I might as well prepare something for the gathering with colleagues. But what? We’re kind of a cozy group so some kind of cozy, comfort food might be in order, especially something that would be good for a cold winter day.
The first thing that came to my mind was Jerry's Tortellini Soup. There’s a story behind that.
About this time in 1987, I came down with a horrible case of the flu. Gay confined me to the house and that is where I stayed for a week. Toward the end of that week, when my fever had broken, I was improving but was weak, bored, and had absolutely no appetite.
Our friend, Jerry Jones (the REAL Jerry Jones, not the owner of that Dallas football team) called to say he’d be dropping by with a pot of soup. I was grateful but unsure what kind of soup would restore my faith in my poor, dead taste buds.
Jerry arrived and delivered the soup to the kitchen stove. On his way out of the house, he said in his finest United States Marine tone of voice, “This is tortellini soup. Heat it up, eat it, and you’ll be on your feet in no time. I left the recipe.” With that, he was out the door and headed off on the next mission of mercy. Semper Fi!
I followed Jerry’s instructions, heated up the soup, sat down at the table, and put a spoonful in my mouth. Instantly, my dead taste buds were restored to life! It was the first time in a week I had tasted anything. The flavor was amazing and I don’t think I’ve ever had any kind of “comfort food” that can equal that bowl of soup. It was an epiphany for me.
I cherish that recipe. The soup and the act of kindness that brought it to me did indeed have me on my feet in no time. And the flavor of both has remained with me all these years. I love Jerry’s Tortellini Soup! Whenever I prepare this soup, the memory his gift is rekindled in me. I always hope that anyone who tastes it will detect the subtle flavor of the primary ingredients in Jerry's unwritten recipe – generosity, friendship, compassion, kindness, and love. Those are the ingredients that make Jerry’s Tortellini Soup such a healing concoction.
I love to share it with others and always do so in the spirit of Jerry, one of the world’s finest examples of a faithful friend and brother in Christ. Semper Fi, Jerry!
P.S. I have developed a vegetarian version of this soup, which will be available tomorrow. The meat is omitted, but not the primary ingredients!
In case you find yourself drifting into a sentimental state of contentment by hearing another reading of Dr. King's great "I Have a Dream" speech, try reading or listening to his last Sunday sermon, delivered in an Episcopal Cathedral four days before his assassination.
It expresses the depth and breadth of Dr. King's message, including but moving beyond racism, and prophetically calling America and the world to accountability. Let us take this sermon to heart, examine our conscience, and ask ourselves, "where do we go from here?"
Stone carving of Dr. King in the Pulpit of Washington National Cathedral
When Jesus began his public ministry, the first thing he did was to form a community. Those disciples, walking with Jesus for two or three years, were formed and shaped to continue his mission after his death and resurrection. The calling of the disciples marks the beginning of that community of followers of Jesus we refer to as “The Church.” The Church was formed by Jesus Christ and continues to be empowered today as the delivery system for his message. The Church doesn’t have a message; the Message has a Church!
The experience of those first disciples set the pattern for those who would come after them. They did not volunteer for the mission. They were called. There is an important difference. The Church is made up of disciples, not volunteers.
Take Nathaniel, for example. (Jn. 1:43-51) He was approached by Philip, who had already met Jesus and answered his call. Philip said to Nathaniel, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” Nathaniel’s response is priceless. “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip was not at all discouraged by Nathaniel’s skepticism. “Come and see,” he said.
Nathaniel went and Nathaniel saw. His encounter with Jesus was profound. Jesus knew his name and seemed to understand him in a way that surprised Nathaniel. Nathaniel blurted out, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” Whatever epiphany occurred in that initial encounter convinced Nathaniel that Jesus was for real and his own inner response compelled him to go with Jesus.
Those who have experienced a similar encounter with Jesus know that we did not initiate that relationship. We did not volunteer to love him and serve him. We found ourselves in a place where the invitation was so generous and personal and the presence so powerful that we could not resist. We knew in an instant that we would follow him anywhere and learn from him how to live life to the fullest. He would be the one to open heaven!
On occasion, we’ve had an opportunity to introduce others to him or to invite them to “Come and see.” More often than not, those invitations have been met with a certain amount of skepticism or resistance. But those who have accepted the invitation and met the Savior in Word and Sacrament, in an authentic community of his followers, in the signs and wonders his Church has been able to perform in his Name, often find themselves in the same place as Nathaniel.
In this season of Epiphany, as we read of those early encounters with Jesus, we have opportunities to reacquaint ourselves with the Lover of our Souls. As he calls us by name and invites us again to follow him, we are strangely compelled to go with him beyond the limits we have imposed upon ourselves. We find ourselves wanting to intro-duce others to him. They will come with us because they see in us an unmistakably authentic devotion. Does it make sense? Not always. As Blaise Paschal said, “The heart has reasons which reason cannot know.” But we all know what it is to love someone and believe in someone so intensely that we will do whatever is necessary to sustain and enrich that relationship.
So it is with the followers of Jesus.
Since the Third Century C.E., the Feast of the Epiphany has been observed on January 6. From the Greek epiphaneia, meaning “manifestation” or “appearance,” the feast commemorates the appearance of God to humanity in the form of God’s Son, Jesus Christ. The account of the visit of the wise men or magi who followed the star seeking the promised Messiah has traditionally been associated with this day. It also marks the disclosure of Christ to the gentile world – that world outside the Hebrew nation.
Actually, two groups paid a visit to Bethlehem at the Savior’s birth. One group was close by, the shepherds, just down the hill from the manger. The other group, the wise men, came a long way. They followed a star from faraway Persia in a journey to the newborn King. Both the shepherds and the wise men were on a journey of faith.
The shepherds made the short trip. It was easier for them. They were prepared for the news of the Savior’s birth because they were part of the people to whom the promise of a Messiah had been given. They were expecting the promise to be kept. It wasn’t hard to convince them and they had only a few short steps to take in their journey. The shepherds didn’t care about all the theological implications that were involved. They were not concerned about the problem of relating ancient truth to modern knowledge or the historical accuracy of the scriptures.
The wise men, on the other hand, will walk out on you if you skip over those intellectual problems of faith, because they expect all journeys to be long and it doesn’t seem right to them to take short cuts. The wise men and women of faith have always been the ones who take the long way, those who come the farthest distance, and have had the more torturous trek. For them, believing isn’t easy. It takes awhile. It is a long, hard journey.
You’ll find both groups in church and synagogue, just as surely as you would have found them at the manger so long ago. It’s a fact of human intellectual and psychological make up and neither group is preferred over the other.
What is critical for each of us to remember, whether the journey of faith has been short or long, is that it isn’t how long it takes or how complicated the task of believing, but the fact that we’ve taken the journey.
You remember the popular and legendary children’s story The Wizard of Oz. Dorothy is swept up by a cyclone in Kansas and deposited in Oz. There, she is joined by those three remarkable characters in the search for the Wizard of Oz, who will answer all of their questions.
The Scarecrow wants a brain. The Tin Woodsman yearns for a heart. The Cowardly Lion wants courage.
Their journey is perilous, through many obstacles, just like the wise men, but they finally come thru it all. The way they come through is really the point of the story. For, whenever they are confronted with some sort of physical danger, it is always the Cowardly Lion who manages to fight their way out. When the danger is more cerebral, it is the brainless Scarecrow who manages to get them out of it. And, as for the Tin Woodsman, who is journeying in search of a heart, he lends a hand whenever he can and he has so much pity and sympathy for other people that they have to gather around him all of the time with an oil can so that his tears don’t rust his joints. When they finally reach the Wizard, he points out that each of them already has what they traveled so far to find.
This is where the story of The Wizard of Oz becomes more than a story and teaches us. Things like courage and love and wisdom come to us when we take the first step on the journey toward finding them. It is the same way with faith. Faith is not something simply handed down to us prepackaged for us to accept on the authority of some institution or even some book. Faith begins when we begin the journey! Like those characters in their journey to see the Wizard of Oz or like those in their journey to the Christ of Bethlehem.
It is easy for people who come to faith easily and quickly to assume an attitude of righteous superiority over those who have a more difficult time of it. If you are one of those, let me remind you that nowhere in the scriptures do we find the Shepherds saying to the Wise Men, “What took you guys so long?”
At the same time, it is common to find those who have had a hard intellectual struggle in faith’s journey assuming an attitude of intellectual superiority over those who have not. To you, I say, scripture does say that the Savior reveals some things to the humble and meek that he conceals from the wise. True wisdom is achieved when the intellect and the heart become friends.
All of us are sojourners, looking for a new way to believe that will guide us in a new way to live. And, as we will see in the weeks following the Feast of the Epiphany, the manger is not the end of the journey nor the end of the epiphanies.