A Sermon for the Second Sunday after the Epiphany

St. Catherine’s Episcopal Church
Chelsea, Alabama
Sunday, January 15, 2017

The Second Sunday after the Epiphany + Year A
First Lesson: Isaiah 49:1-7
Psalm 40:1-12
Second Lesson: I Corinthians 1:1-9
Gospel: John 1:29-42 

+ Now, O Lord, take my lips and speak through them; take our minds and think through them; take our hearts and set them on fire for your Gospel; in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sarah and I in front of the Camp McDowell sign.Back in November, during our visit with the search committee here in Chelsea, I was invited to go downtown to Carpenter House for a visit with Bishop Kee. It’s customary in the Episcopal Church for anyone who’s going through a rector search process to meet with the Bishop of the diocese before he or she is called to serve at a parish. So, Bill Wheeler and I headed downtown for some time with the Bishop. We went into his office, and one of the very first things that the Bishop told me in our conversation was that the Diocese of Alabama is a “relational diocese.” What I’m sure he was trying to convey was that, probably more than anything, the people who make up this diocese value relationships. There is a culture of hospitality here and an expectation that, whoever you are or wherever you come from, you will be welcome in this diocese, and from what I’ve seen, that is certainly the case here at St. Catherine’s.

“We are a relational diocese.” These were some of the first words out of Bishop Kee’s mouth. So, I know that they’re important to him. When he said that, my first thought was, “Yeah, Bishop, I know that. This is the diocese that brought me into the Episcopal Church. This is the diocese that continues to support campus ministry and ministry to young adults- ministries that have been monumental in my life in more ways than I can count. This is the diocese where I first began my journey toward the priesthood.” So, I knew what he meant when he described our diocese as being relational, but I was thankful for the Bishop’s words. I was thankful that he took time to express his excitement and enthusiasm for our diocese. I was thankful for his reminder that the people here value not just friendship but companionship, something that can only be found when we live and grow together in community.

The first time that I really discovered this about our diocese was when I was invited to attend my first Vocaré weekend at Camp McDowell. It was during my senior year at Auburn, and being brand new to the Episcopal Church at the time, I had no idea what Vocaré was or what I could expect when I arrived. All I was told when I was invited was that it’s a great opportunity for college students and young adults to explore how God might be calling them in their lives, and after talking with some friends who had already been to Vocaré, I decided that it might be a good way to continue growing in my relationship with God and to meet new people from other parts of the diocese.

So, in February of 2005, I made the journey from Auburn to Camp McDowell, and I spent three days listening to fellow pilgrims share their stories about how God was at work in their lives. During our time at camp, we were invited and encouraged to explore our own sense of vocation and to ask ourselves important questions about who we are and how we’re being called to use the gifts that God has given us in our own ministries. We spent time sitting by crackling fires in the dining hall, playing games, and singing camp songs. We shared meals and intimate conversations with one another, and we were comforted and surrounded by members of the staff who were there to care for us and to lift us up in their prayers during our journey. It’s important to point out that we did all of this together in community. Sure, there was time for quiet reflection and personal prayer, but we did all of it in community, as companions along the way.

My experience as a pilgrim at Vocaré was powerful and life-changing, one that would eventually lead me to return as a member of the staff so that I could give back that which I had received, and looking back on it, I think that Vocaré probably also played a major role in my discernment to the priesthood, even if I didn’t realize it at the time. The Holy Spirit was already at work in my life, moving in ways that I couldn’t have possibly imagined or expected.

There’s a verse from the Book of Isaiah that is used each year at Vocaré, a verse that serves as a reminder of how precious we are in God’s sight and how intimate of a relationship that God desires to have with us. As I was reading the lessons appointed for today, that verse came to mind, a verse loaded with meaning for anyone who has experienced a weekend at Vocaré.

Isaiah writes:

But now thus says the Lord,
    he who created you, O Jacob,
    he who formed you, O Israel:
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
    I have called you by name, you are mine.

This verse strikes me as very personal. If you ever have any doubt that God is present with us, even in difficult times- if it ever seems like God is out of reach or that God isn’t listening- go to Isaiah, and he’ll remind you of God’s immanence. “I have called you by name. You are mine.”

It’s comforting to know that nothing can ever change that. Nothing can ever change the fact that God longs to be in a relationship with us and that part of that relationship involves us discerning God’s call and deciding whether or not to accept that call.

In our lesson today from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, Paul shares a similar sentiment with the Church in Corinth when he writes, “God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.”

My brothers and sisters, we are called. All of us, by virtue of our baptisms in Christ, are called to work together in the building up of God’s Kingdom. We’re called to work together as companions along the way, like the disciples Simon Peter and his brother Andrew, who were called by Jesus to join him in his earthly pilgrimage.

Together, as a parish and as part of the wider Church, we are called to consider how we might use the gifts that God has given us to serve the least among us in our community and in the world. That’s the thing that we have to remember about God’s calling. It’s never really about us. It’s always about the other. A calling is not something that we keep to ourselves but something that continually pushes us to move from beyond the walls of the church.

If you accept God’s call, it will most certainly change you and cause you to go beyond the limits of what feels comfortable and familiar.

One of my favorite quotes about vocation comes from Frederick Buechner, who writes, “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” If you want to know whether or not something is a calling from God, all you have to do is ask yourself these two questions: “Does it fill me with joy?” and “Does it call me to go beyond myself?” If the answer is “no,” then it isn’t a calling from God.

As we continue in our journey together as companions along the way, let us open ourselves to the possibility that God may be calling us as a community to use our gifts and resources in new and exciting ways. Let us remember that the Holy Spirit is constantly moving in our lives, inspiring us to be faithful in our service and strengthening us for the work that we’ve been called to do. Amen.

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