Sermon from Sunday, May 13

    Sixth Sunday of Easter
John 15:9-17

Initiative

(This was the last sermon I preached at St. Alban’s Episcopal Church in Waco, Texas)

Remarkably little happened on Sunday, May 5, 1985 in Los Angeles, California. It was a beautifully ordinary 73 degrees in the afternoon. The Dodgers lost. The Angels won. There were some Cinco de Mayo celebrations taking place throughout the city. And at St. James’ Episcopal Church in South Pasadena, the Rev. Michael DiPietro baptized his grandson in a private ceremony that afternoon. Not many were in attendance for the baptism; a few family members, some close friends. And, of course, me; just a little two month old squirt.

One of my dad’s cousins took an audio recording of the baptism. The whole service took about fifteen minutes – something I’m sure many of you have wished for. Through the crackly sound track you can hear my grandfather’s voice, the weak congregational responses, and of course, me.

May he rest in peace, my grandfather wasn’t the most stirring preacher. He was a trained educator and school administrator, so he was good at talking people to sleep. I listened to the audio of my baptism just a few months ago, and gracefully, his sermon was just a few blessed minutes. But something stuck out in what he said. My grandfather said that what was taking place at my baptism wouldn’t come to immediate fruition. Like a seed that falls dormant, he said, we don’t know when the shoot will grow. It may be soon, or it may take some time. He said that the Spirit would enliven my faith when the Spirit was ready.

As many of you know my spiritual journey, the promises and gifts given to me at baptism took a great deal of time to grow and come to fruition – just about sixteen years. Then something happened. I’m not quite sure exactly what it was, but I started praying. I started reading the Bible. I started going to church. The seed that had been planted at baptism was putting forth its tender shoots.

Yet my grandfather’s words went unheeded. Because of my ill-begotten pride, I believed that this newfound faith was of my own doing; that I had somehow created my Christian life, that I was a self-made worshiper and pray-er. I was smug enough to think that God was lucky to have me worshiping him. Oh, what foolishness dwells in the immature!

Oh, what a thoroughly American mindset I had! I succumbed to the folly and fallacy of the self-made. I was relying on my own creativity and ingenuity. I believed that I could carve out and create myself. That with only a bit more freedom, a bit more capital, a bit more energy, then I would be a self-made man, a self-made Christian. The American Dream, that we can pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps, weaseled its way into my budding spiritual life.

And then I matured. Well, really, God grew me up. God taught me the lesson of John 15. I did not choose Jesus, Jesus chose me. I did not appoint myself to be a Christian, God appointed me to be a follower of the Lord. I began bearing fruit of God’s Kingdom, not the fruit that I would have wished to grow. I would have wanted sweet fruit, fruit that tasted good in the mouth but was sour in the stomach. But Jesus chose to grow fruit that tasted like ash in the mouth but bore fruit for God’s Kingdom.

At that time, God called me to spend every Sunday afternoon in college with the poor, forgotten residents of an east Austin nursing home. Believe me, playing wheelchair volleyball in a nursing that smelled of urine and death was not something I chose to do – God chose me. The seeds that had been planted in my baptism had put forth their tender, immature shoots. And now those shoots turned to branches, and started to produce.

Then God chose me for the priesthood. And God chose me to serve here as your assistant rector. And God has chosen me to serve as the rector of Holy Comforter. It is absolutely fundamental that we remember how this process works: God always takes the initiative. Any action that we take as Christians is only a response to God’s call.

This is a counter-cultural lesson to be learned. Our system demands initiative. We want to quantify our job performance. We want to show how well our portfolio performed last quarter. We want our bosses and co-workers to know just how creative we are, how driven we are, how much we can earn, produce, make. In our system, humility, obedience, and reaction are negative traits. Those who humble themselves, are obedient, and react to situations lose out.

But not so in God’s Kingdom. Jesus chooses us, we do not choose Jesus. This is a basic lesson, especially for those of us, like me, who were baptized as infants.[1] God claimed us and took us as his own long before we even knew we were alive. Everything we do in our Christian lives is simply a response to God’s initial action.

Whether we were baptized as infants or we were just made the leap of calling ourselves a Christian yesterday, God is calling each one of us. Every single one of us in this church is being called by God to do something. Is that idea unsettling? You betcha. But is it true? Absolutely. God might be calling you to do something crazy, like fly off to Malawi or become a monk. But God might also be calling you to do something not so exotic. Maybe God is calling you to just stop, to be quiet, and to listen for God – to pray with a friend, to find a spiritual mentor, to simply be with God.

Now before you get all anxious and start fretting, “I don’t know what God is calling me to do!” I want you to relax. Any call from God probably won’t come to you in a flash or in a dream. A call from God doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ll start hearing voices. A call from God will come in a conversation, it will come in a chance encounter, it will come to you in a book or a phone call or a newspaper article.

The question is then, how will you respond? Will you respond faithfully? Will you let God choose you, or will your pride step in the way as you try to choose God?

Sunday May 5, 1985 seemed to be a typical day. Oh, what a foolish thought! That was the day that God set my entire life in motion. That was day that God called me to follow Jesus, that was the day God appointed me to be a priest, that was the day God sent me off away from this magnificent church.

 

And with that, I bid you all the fondest of farewells. Maggie and I are speechlessly thankful for your love and generosity. I have not called you my congregation or my parish, but I have called you my friends.


[1] Loosely paraphrased from The Most Rev. William Temple

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