Last Friday, I had the privilege of accompanying Matthew Corkern and two members of his Vestry Ordination Committee for his interview before the Commission on Ministry. Many of you know Matthew and his seeking to become an Episcopal priest.
Part of that process is to be interviewed for three hours by a committee divided into three subgroups. It is an intimidating experience. Much depends on the content of the report the committee will write concerning its perception of Matthew’s call. That report goes to the bishop, who will decide on the validity of his desire to be ordained. In a sense, Matthew’s whole future depends on the outcome.
Not unnaturally, Matthew was nervous. I remember when I under went through this particular part of the process: the word “fear” would have been an understatement. Many months of heart-searching and questioning have gone into this moment. Now he was expected to reveal the most precious and intimate details of his sense of identity, his religious experience, and his personal knowledge of the love of God to be evaluated by complete strangers.
As I watched Matthew seek the words he needed, I was reminded of today’s gospel. “They will arrest you and persecute you: they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. This will give you an opportunity to testify. So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.” Now, I am sure the Commission on Ministry does not see itself as persecutor! But it is certainly a challenge for those who seek ordination. It feels very much like any moment we are brought before an authority to explain ourselves and are faced with the prospect of throwing ourselves on the mercy of God.
In fact, our lives are full of such moments. Encounters with illness, job loss, addiction, loneliness, broken relationships, discrimination against handicap, race, or gender, poverty, death–any time we hit the brick wall of pain we become engaged in the struggle to be true to ourselves and true to the God that creates us. That struggle is simultaneously the cry of protest and the shout of liberation, the declaration of death and the advent of life.
At such times our thoughts and feelings and, in particular, our speech achieve new significance. It is a time of choice and decision. Suddenly the questions concerning who we are and where we are headed are filled with new urgency.
In Ferrol Sams’s thinly autobiographical novel, Run with the Horsemen, the grandmother of the hero, Porter Osborne Jr., pursues her family with the incantation, “Remember who you are.” Porter, raised in rural poverty in Georgia, pursues a journey from the farm of his childhood to the heady heights of the life of a doctor. The admonition, “Remember who you are,” is the lodestone which holds him steady through the various crises and choices he faces during his life.
Do you know who you are and whose you are?
First and foremost, we are Christian. We are the baptized: baptized into death and brought to life in Christ–which is “religion speak” for saying that Christians hold to the truth that life follows death; that life is about dying so that we can be born and reborn to something new; that no matter how we curse and kick and scream, no matter what we fear or hate, that we are committed to the struggle to become real. We are to become totally and entirely human. We are to know the relief of accepting our human frailty set alongside the God of All who loves each of us to distraction and always will.
God waits for us, and we dream of becoming people who are faithful to that love, a people who live without anxiety and with joy, people whose very words and actions have become praise of God. For somewhere in each and every heart, God has planted the desire for relationship with the God of love. And deep in every heart we know that nothing less will do if we are to be complete.
Crisis has the potential to deepen or damage that faithfulness. If we rely on God, Jesus tells us that bringing our faithfulness to speech at critical moments will be the work of the Holy Spirit. “Make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance,” instructs our Lord, “for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.” For in those moments of our lives when we are graced enough to whisper the words of truth, we become real, human, invincible, and memorable. We spring from human tragedy as eternally alive and true.
Christians so want to count themselves among those who listen to the Lord or, as Malachi writes, be among “those who revere the Lord.” To revere the Lord is to treasure our relationship with God, to trust God’s love for us above all other, and to follow wherever God leads. Most Judeans in the time of Malachi did not see the point of loving God. “It is vain to serve the Lord,” they said, for “what do we profit by keeping his command?” They saw the gift of God’s love as a useless and irrelevant fact–a reality with no power to change their lives or the world they knew. They were like those in Jesus’ time who went to the Temple and saw only its magnificent beauty and its possessions.
Then–and now–it is the faithful few who love God, who gather to speak of that love and to think on God’s name. To these God listens and says, “They shall be mine.” Their names are entered in the book of divine remembrance. For these God says, “The sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings.” The faithful know who they are. The faithful know whose they are. They will be remembered.
Rabbi Israel Spira told the story of a day in his concentration camp in Poland when he, a very tall man, was assigned to saw wood with a very small man to provide the soldiers with a source of entertainment. As he struggled with his work, his feet swelled and began to bleed upon the snow. Suddenly there was the sound of many children. A fellow worker whispered as he passed by, “It is … the little angels from the entire vicinity of Drohobycz, Borislov, Lvov, Stryj, Stanislav, and others who have been brought here to meet their maker.” Dread filled the rabbi’s heart. Tears of agony and helplessness fell from his eyes. It was a children’s Aktion, a massacre of the children.
Suddenly he heard the voice of a woman at his elbow. Eyes blazing, she demanded a knife. Thinking she wished to commit suicide, he begged her to reconsider–it was against their faith and, anyway, what did it matter? They would soon all be dead. A soldier intervened and, seeing a knife outlined in his pocket, she demanded he give it to her. Startled, the German handed it over. Seizing the bundle of rags at her feet she opened them to reveal a newborn child lying on a snow-white pillow.
Leaning down, she circumcised her child with the words, “Blessed art Thou, O Lord our God, King of the Universe, who has sanctified us by thy commandments and hast commanded us to perform the circumcision.” Looking up she added, “God of the Universe, you have given me a healthy child. I am returning to you a wholesome, kosher Jew.”
Straightening, she returned the knife and handed the soldier her baby on his snow-white pillow. Of this the rabbi said, “Amidst a veil of tears, I said to myself, then, that this mother’s circumcision of her son will probably shake the foundations of earth and heaven…. each time I am honored as a godfather, it is my custom to tell this particular story.”
The woman knew who she was and to whom she belonged. Amidst tragedy, the Holy Spirit gave her the words for a defense that has surely lifted her into the book of divine remembrance for whom “the sun of righteousness” arises “with healing in (his) wings.” Her protest and her faithfulness converts our hearts and shakes the foundation of earth and heaven.
Following faithfully is the only preparation we need, and our life depends upon it.