All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them. They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them. Hebrews 11:13-16
The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness; “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight”. John, the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, ‘the one who is more powerful than I is coming after me’; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.’ In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, ‘you are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’ Mark 1:1-11
“I am not a courageous person by nature,” writes the playwright John Patrick Shanley, in a passage that I copied into my journal as soon as I read it. “I have simply discovered that, in key moments in this life, you must find courage in yourself, in order to move forward and live. It is like a muscle and it must be exercised, first a little, and then more and more. All the really exciting things possible during the course of a lifetime require a little more courage than we currently have. A deep breath and a leap.” (Shanley, 1992)
Speaking of things that require a little more courage than I had, last Monday I preached to 400 high school students—rivals, no less, of our Cathedral schools. Knowing that this sermon would follow on its heels, I selected the same gospel text that we just heard, ably read in Spanish. Muy bien, Senor Dean.
I also selected the story of Moses’ first conscious encounter with God, when God spoke to him from a burning bush. For that was when Moses received the call he would spend his entire life attempting to fulfill. As the letter to the Hebrews reminds us was, and remains, the fate of many faithful ones, he died seeing but not entering the Promised Land. He saw it from the top of a mountain, the same mountain, spiritually speaking that Martin Luther King spoke of on the day before his death, just three days after preaching on Palm Sunday in this Cathedral: “God has allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know that I am happy tonight, that we as a people will get to the Promised Land.” (King, 1986)
Do you know when God first spoke to Martin Luther King in a big way? It was later than you might imagine, but when he was still a very young man. It was after he was ordained, after his studies at Crozier Seminary and Boston University, when he was serving as pastor in Montgomery, Alabama and the leader of the now famous Montgomery bus boycott of the late 1950s. We look back on the boycott as one of the early victories of the Civil Rights Movement, and indeed, it was. But at the time, it was an exercise of endurance in the midst of increasingly hostile resistance that lasted over a year—far longer than any of the organizers had anticipated or planned for, including King. King was at the center of everything, dealing with police harassment, bomb threats at his home, logistical problems in getting people back and forth to work and growing fatigue among the boycotters. One particularly lonely night, he sat at his kitchen table, buried his face in his hands, and acknowledged to himself that he was afraid. He had nothing left, and he was afraid that the people would falter if they looked to him for strength. “I can’t face it alone,” he prayed. And as he spoke these words, he later recalled, his fears melted away. He heard an inner voice tell him to do what he thought was right. “Trust your instincts,” he heard God say. King was 26 years old, and it was the first transcendent experience of his life, and it helped him continue to lead his people all the way to the mountaintop that he spoke of on the night before his death. (Branch, 1988)
It dawned on me this week, in one of those obvious but nonetheless jolting revelations, that teenagers are closer in age than I am now to Jesus’ age when he saw the heavens open, the dove descend, and the voice from heaven speak. No doubt they are closer in age than I to Moses when he heard the voice of God speak to him from the burning bush, and to King sitting at his kitchen table. When it comes to dramatic revelation, God seems to have a preferential option for the young.
When did God first speak to you in a definitive way? Do you remember?
I was 17 and faced with a big decision, certainly the most important decision of my life up that point, and looking back 35 years later, still easily among the top 5. It was also one of the loneliest decisions. The people you would think I could have turned to for help were of no help to me, so I had to make the decision alone. Only I realized in making it that I wasn’t alone, which is what makes this a story worth telling. In ways I cannot fully explain, I heard the voice of God speak, telling me that I needed to choose the path I least wanted to take. I had the sense that God knew how scared I was, but the message was clear.
What I needed to do required more courage than I had, but by the grace of God, I did it. I chose the hardest thing as if it were easy, because God asked me to, and that decision forever changed the course of my life. It was the beginning of my life of faith, in the sense of knowing what it feels like on the inside to live by faith. Hebrew Chapter 11 defines faith as, “the assurance of things hoped for and the conviction of things not seen,” which I believe with all my heart, but faith is also grounded in experience that makes the One in whom we place our faith real.
I believe that God speaks to all of us, as he spoke to Moses from the burning bush, to Jesus from the cloud, Martin Luther King at his kitchen table, and to those spiritual giants described in Hebrews 11 as having died in faith without having received the promise to which they dedicated their lives. In my experience, God doesn’t speak that way very often, although most spiritual guides insist that it’s more a matter of how well we’re listening. Be that as it may, even in the Bible there are more passages that describe people waiting to hear the voice of God, or remembering a time that they did, or that their ancestors did, than of people actually hearing God’s voice. The experience of hearing God speak is relatively rare. But when it happens, it gives us more courage than we ourselves have, so that we can take a deep breath and leap.
There are other names for the experience of hearing God speak to us from within. Some call it the wisdom of the deeper self, or human intuition, or collective consciousness. It matters less how we name the experience of internal guidance than that we learn to listen for it and over the course of our lives learn to trust the way that it speaks to us. It’s especially important when we’re young to listen for the voice of God, however we choose to call it, because such big things happen in our youth, and in rapid succession. Moreover, a pattern is established, God’s way of speaking and our way of listening. Over time, our confidence in its guidance grows, so much so that we’d rather wait and not make an important decision without God’s speaking to us, and we’d rather risk being mistaken in what we hear than fail to follow what we believe, in that moment, God is saying.
I first met Gary Hall as part of the interview process that brought him to us. We had lunch one day at the beginning of the two days he and Kathy first spent here, in a whirlwind of interviews. What I remember from that conversation is this: Gary was not looking for a new position. He had a fulfilling ministry at Christ Church where he planned to stay until retirement. But when he was invited the second time to consider at least reading the materials that the Cathedral Search Committee had sent him, he did so, and then said to himself what, in fact, only a few people in this country could say: “I think I could do this job.” And he was right. He had the background and the set of skills. He had, as our musician friends would say, “the chops.” He knew he could do the job, and so the only interesting question was one of call: Was God asking him to do this?
Part of the answer would come in conversation with the members of the Cathedral’s Search Committee, and in fact, they would be the ones, on behalf of us all, to first issue the call. But how would God speak to Gary on the inside? And how would he know?
I don’t know how God speaks to you, Gary. But I had the sense when I met you that you have spent your life listening to God speak, from the inside. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s because your first inkling of call was to the theatre, which is a leap of faith if there ever was one. Or that you attended seminary during the crucible years when our Church was as divided on the ordination of women as it would later become on matters of equality for gays and lesbians, and you chose to delay your ordination until the women in your class could be ordained. Maybe it’s because you’ve had both great success and deep disappointment in your years of ministry; or that you’ve paid close attention to the rapidly changing social context of our country; or that you seem to have had the rather unique experience of leading several significant, established institutions through the turbulent waters in which they did not know how to swim.
I watched you engage us, and I listened to the questions you asked, the observations and connections you made; the risks that you took to speak your mind. What I saw and what I heard was a man waiting for God’s call, and who knew, from the inside, what it feels like to receive it.
The same is true for the members of the Search Committee— you, too, brought your considerable gifts, analytic skill, and networking capacity to bear on the task of calling a new dean, but through it all, on behalf of us all and the emerging mission of this Cathedral, you listened for God. You listened for the ways that God speaks; you paid attention for the ways that God is at work in and among us. And when you unanimously recommended that Gary Hall become the National Cathedral’s new dean, you spoke of God’s guidance with conviction.
I am glad and I’m grateful to Gary and Kathy; I’m grateful to the Cathedral leadership, and I’m grateful to God. For we are in a time, my friends, when we all need more courage than we have, and that is true for us individually, as a nation, and as the people of God in the Episcopal Church. As Episcopalian Christians, our fallback position when things get stressful is to rely on our own strengths and convictions. We imagine that everything is up to us, and to us alone. “Functional atheism,” is how one scholar describes our tendency to forget or minimize God, which we may bristle at, but there is enough truth here to give us pause. (Palmer, 2000) We pray beautiful prayers to God in worship, but it is rare for us in conversation or leadership circles to speak in sentences with God as the subject followed by a verb. We speak instead of ourselves—what we think, what we want, what we must decide or do.
We also tend to live within the confines of our tastes, preferences and worldview, and we have more disdain than we dare admit for those who do not share our sensibilities. As Episcopalians we are, in general, more quick to state what we don’t believe than what we do, the kind of Christians we’re not rather than the kind of Christians we are, or more to the point, who Christ is to us.
Well, to put it bluntly, we can’t do that anymore. We simply can’t. It’s time now for us to find our way back to our baptismal waters, to those crucible moments, when we first learned what it feels like to hear God speak to us, what it feels like to live by faith, and to die in faith—faith in God and in the One we call Lord and Savior.
On our own, we cannot accomplish what is being asked of us. It will require more courage than we have, as well as more wisdom and more strength, and more clarity than we have. This is an humbling time and an exciting one. On our watch so much is changing and we don’t know what the future holds, because we are not in charge. God is in charge.
If it were up to us alone, what is being asked of us would be impossible. But it isn’t up to us alone. We are living by faith now—faith in God, faith in Jesus, faith in the Spirit that blows through and among us all.
Gary, the One who has called you is faithful. The One who began a good work among and through us and in this place will see it through to completion. We may not get to the Promised Land, but I pray to God that we will see it.
We may not be courageous people by nature, but we can do courageous things through God who strengthens us. All the really exciting things require more courage than we currently have. So take a deep breath Gary; take a deep breath Cathedral Community; take a deep breath Diocese of Washington; take a deep breath Episcopal Church, leap into the water and rise again. Listen for what God is saying now.
Branch, T. (1988). Parting the Waters: American in the King Years, 1954-63. NY, NY: Simon & Schuster.
King, M. L. (1986). A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr. San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco.
Palmer, P. (2000). Let Your Life Speak. San Francisco, California: Jossey-Bassy Press.
Shanley, J. P. (1992). 13 By Shanley. NY, NY: Applause Books.