The Gospel of Our Lives -- Homily for the Renewal of Vows
March 31, 2021
Therefore, since it is by God 's mercy that we are engaged in this ministry, we do not lose heart. For we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake. For it is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness’, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies. For while we live, we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh.
2 Corinthians 4:1; 5-7
Thank you for taking part in this sacred tradition for the clergy of our church, as we gather to renew our ordination vows before God and one another. It’s an opportunity to take stock of where we are now in our vocation, even as we recall when we first professed our vow--for some, not so long ago; for others of us, many years ago.
The passage of time is one measure of the distance between who we are now and who we were then, but only one. There is so much we couldn’t possibly know as we began this journey--about ourselves, the church, the particular time in which we live, and about God. I wonder what you have learned about God that you didn’t know when you started your ordained life.
In the third chapter of John’s Gospel, we read of Nicodemus, a leader of the Pharisees, who comes to Jesus by night. After the conversation in which Jesus talks about being born anew (which goes right over Nicodemus’ head), it’s as if Jesus turns away from Nicodemus and speaks to the audience for whom John is writing, which includes us.
Jesus says,“We speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen,” which has always struck me as one of the best definitions of evangelism. For we can only speak with credibility of what we know and have seen, which is to say, of our experience.
So what do you know and what have you seen that has persuaded you to keep following Jesus and serving as an ordained leader in His Church? You could have quit at any point along the way. What keeps you on this path, choosing every day to live your unique vocation?
The title of this sermon is “The Gospel of Our Lives,” based on something I once heard and thought was attributed to Archbishop Óscar Romero of El Salvador. Archbishop Romero, as you may know, was assassinated 41 years ago while he was presiding at a worship service. This was during his country’s civil war, and Romero was killed by paramilitary leaders affiliated with the government. They killed him because he defended the subsistence farmers, university students, and church leaders who were organizing for human rights and he urged soldiers to lay down their arms.
Once, when speaking to the priests under his charge, Romero is reported to have said, “Your life may be the only gospel that the people will ever know.” I haven’t been able to locate the source of that quote, but it is consistent with everything Romero stood for and taught.
I’m fairly certain that what he (or whoever said it) meant is that because they worked among the poor, his priests needed not merely to preach but to live the gospel for those who might never be in a position to read about Jesus for themselves. St. Paul writes a similar exhortation in his letter to the Philippians: “Live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.” (Philippians 1:27) We are to live in such a way that people know who Jesus is. Surely that is the charge for all Christians everywhere.
What I know about living the gospel, however, is that it is often as much a revelation to me as it is to those around me. I don’t mean this in a general sense, in the ways I strive to model my life on Jesus’ teachings, but in the most concrete terms. From time to time, a gospel story or teaching moves from something I’ve read or heard and know in my mind and becomes something else entirely. It’s as if it takes up residence inside me and becomes, for a time, the lens through which I see and understand my life and through which I experience God. It becomes the gospel of my life.
For all the diversity of vocations among us--diversity of background, history, experience of how our vocational paths have unfolded and continue to unfold; for all the differences in our experience of this season of pandemic, which, in talking with you, I know are considerable--surely we have this experience in common. I daresay that all know what it’s like to be spoken to by God through the words of a particular biblical text, and not only for that day or for the next sermon we’re scheduled to preach, but for our lives.
For some, such an encounter with God through the text results in a dramatic conversion: Think of St. Augustine in the garden, struggling with the contradictions and excesses of his life when he hears the voice of a child telling him “to pick up and read.” He opened the epistles to Paul’s letter to the Roman, and based on a particular text, he felt compelled in that moment to surrender his life to Christ. Or of John Wesley, whose conversion experience came when he heard someone read Martin Luther’s preface to the same letter to the Romans, and as he famously said, “My heart was strangely warmed.”
For all the drama these two men describe, the change that comes through an encounter with God by way of Scripture isn’t necessarily an external rearranging of life’s circumstances, at least not a first. Consistent with how Jesus lived and taught, it is more often an internal experience of being given new eyes and ears with which to see and hear what’s all around you. When the word comes, as it often does, by surprise, it feels like a gift from another source. The memory of it becomes a marking event that we return to again and again that helps guide our steps through life, and remember who Jesus is to and for us.
I was reminded of this experience while preparing to preach a few weeks’ back for my visitation at Christ Church Kengsington. The gospel text for that Sunday (and incidentally, for today and tomorrow in the Daily Office readings for Holy Week), is a story that once marked me forever.
When my husband Paul and I were first married, nearly 35 years ago, we made plans to work for a year in Central America at a home for abandoned children. This was in the mid-1980s, not long after Romero had been killed, toward the end of the Central American wars. Central America, as our families reminded us time and again, was not a safe place to live. But we were young, and we wanted to serve in a part of the world where being a Christian required courage.
As our departure drew near, I began to feel afraid, really scared. With each day, the fear inside me grew. What on earth had I been thinking? What would happen to us in a war-torn land?
Early one morning, as Paul lay with a fever due to an adverse reaction to one of the many shots we needed to take before leaving, I sat alone trying to pray. I opened my Bible. That summer I’d been reading a chapter a day from the Gospel of John, and I came that morning to John chapter 12, which included the passage in which Jesus prayed a prayer that still takes my breath away whenever I read it: He said: “Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say--‘Father, save me from this hour? No it is for this reason I have come to this hour.” Or as it’s stated in another translation, “It is for this reason that I have come.”
It’s hard to describe what happened, except to say it was as if Jesus was there beside me, inviting me to walk alongside him toward the cross. I knew as surely as I knew my name that I couldn’t ask God to spare me from the source of my fear, because, in fact, I had chosen the very path that was now causing me to be afraid. It was too late to turn back. What’s more, I didn’t want to turn back. I didn't want God to rescue me. What I wanted, and needed, was for God to give me strength to keep going in spite of my fear of the potential dangers ahead.
The prayer that Jesus prayed and helped me to pray all those years wasn’t one that asked God to change my circumstances. It was a prayer asking God to help me make it through what lay ahead that I could not change. I felt a bit like the grain of wheat Jesus talks about that needs to be buried in the earth so that it can be transformed. A part of me needed to pass through something, in order to make it over or through whatever I needed to face.
To this day, I come back to the memory of that morning, and I pray that prayer whenever I am in a similar situation that’s hard and that I cannot prevent, avoid, or change. Everytime I pray some variation of that prayer, I feel Jesus inviting me to grow in relationship with God.
And so by grace, I have learned how to ride out a storm, to carry on when I’m weary; to forgive those who hurt me, and to love when it costs--not perfectly and not all the time but enough so that I can speak of it. I can testify to the costly grace I have known.
In preparation for this service, I invited you to harken back to your ordination service and re-read the passages selected for the service, on the chance that one of them is a similar marking story for you. But if not, pick another to hold in your heart and share with colleagues. Remember how God spoke to you and speaks to you still, which as you go about ministry, is perhaps the most important thing to talk about with others. As Evelyn Underhill famously wrote to the archbishop of her day, “God is the interesting thing about religion, and people are hungry for God.”
Let me close with a word about the past year. I daresay that there have been times when we’ve all felt at our wit’s end, when we’ve lost heart, felt a failure. There have surely other times when we’ve felt the opposite--strong, clear, confident--and everything in between. I chose the passage from 2nd Corinthians to remind us all that no matter our condition, no matter where we are on the spectrum of “success,” “fruitfulness,” or “failure,” we are earthen vessels, so that it may be clear to everyone that the power we proclaim belongs to God, and does not come from us. But I pray you remember that that same power is there for you. You can trust it. You can abide in Jesus’ love. You can turn to Scripture to feed your souls, and allow Jesus to meet you there, so that you might live the gospel--the good news--that is uniquely yours.